May 11, 2009

Disparaging Religion in Public Schools (or: Dr. James Corbett Speaks Out)

Posted in Atheism, Creationism, Law tagged , at 1:11 pm by Andrew

Most of you are probably aware that the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California (which is a federal trial court) recently ruled that comments made by Capistrano Valley High School history teacher Dr. James Corbett to his students violated the establishment clause by constituting undue hostility to religion in public school.

I hadn’t previously commented on the case previously because Ed Brayton beat me to the punch. Essentially, I think it is as troubling (on Constitutional and practical grounds) if a teacher routinely disparages religious beliefs in front of his students as if he routinely proselytizes them. As Ed put it, “It is one thing to tell a student that they are teaching something because it is the position best supported by the evidence; it is quite another to tell them that their religion makes them incapable of seeing the truth and that their religion is a fraud believed in by fools.”

But now that Dr. Corbett has spoken out about the verdict, I think the case is more borderline than the public record shows. As it turns out, all of the comments at issue in the lawsuit made by Dr. Corbett were explicitly made as part of a “Socratic Dialogue” moment at the start of class that was specifically identified by letter sent to all of Dr. Corbett’s students. That letter said:

“Most days we will spend a few minutes (sometimes more) at the beginning of class discussing current events from either The Orange County Register or the L.A. Times. I may also use material from a variety of news Web sites. Discussion will be quite provocative, and focus on the ‘lessons’ of history. My goal is to have you go home with something that will provoke discussion with your parents. Students may offer any perspective without concern that anything they say will impact either my attitude toward them or their grades. I encourage a full range of views.”

I included my home phone number and e-mail address in that letter and encouraged parents to contact me if they had any concerns.

In my mind, that letter sets out the legitimate secular purpose required by the first prong of the Lemon test — provoking discussion on controversial issues. Had that been accorded proper weight by the District Court, it would have shifted the burden to the plaintiffs to demonstrate that the asserted purpose was a mere “sham”; i.e., that Corbett used the fig leaf of “Socratic Dialogue” as cover to diatribe about religion.

In other words: the plaintiffs could still have prevailed in their lawsuit under this application of the Lemon test; they would have just had to introduce evidence that Corbett was haranguing his students and calling them idiots for believing in religion as opposed to expressing his opinion on a controversial (and non-graded) topic. That, it seems to me, strikes the proper balance between freedom of speech and the free exercise clause in public schools.

More on the ICR’s Blatant Misuse of Saturn Ring Research

Posted in Atheism, Creationism tagged , , , , at 12:03 pm by Andrew

In the comment section of my previous post on the ICR’s laughable new article, “Planetary Quandaries Solved: Saturn is Young,” astrophysicist and grad student Stuart Robbins noted that the ICR had actually “relied” upon Robbins’ own research into Saturn’s ring system.

Robbins has a complete post up dismantling the ICR’s “argument” and taking them to task for misusing his (and others’) research. You should go read that now. Robbins’ conclusion won’t surprise you:

That’s really the point of this article. So, no, the planetary quandary has not been “solved” to say that Saturn is young. Rather, the ring system can still easily be old based on the latest (and if I do say so myself, the greatest) simulations, and even though some features of Enceladus appear young and active, there are other parts of the moon that tell the tale of being ancient.

Commenter Ben then argues that folks like the ICR aren’t really lying, and so people like me shouldn’t call them liars:

It’s an extreme form of religiously motivated confirmation bias and probably nothing like a willful intent to deceive. I imagine that’s exactly what I’d get out of that Henry Morris book you linked to. You call people like that liars and obviously you’ve just contributed *further* to their delusion-scape because they know full well they weren’t lying and now they think they know one more thing about you. You call honest people liars when disagreed with. … Even if they are lying, you’ve played right into their hands, because they can just lie again. My message is: Stop calling them liars and just stick with showing why they are mistaken. I wish all the sciences blogs would figure that out.

On the one hand, I think this is good advice for dealing with non-scientists who happen to be creationists — and I try to approach individuals like this without second-guessing their motives. You can see my exchanges with individual people like this all over this site.

However, I think the rules are different when someone holds themselves out as a professional, and in this case, the ICR’s Brian Thomas identifies himself (in his byline!) as an “M.S.” with the notation that he is the Science Writer for the ICR. I think it’s reasonable to hold someone who is representing himself to the world as an expert to the standards one would expect from such experts.

Such standards include, at minimum, that if one reads someone else’s research and draws conclusions not present in the original article, you should (1) contact the original author to get his views; (2) represent that author’s views of your conclusions fairly in making your own argument; and (3) submit your argument to a scientific journal for review by other professional academic peers within the respective scientific community. When you bypass all of that — particularly in support of a conclusion that would be Nobel Prize-worthy, if you truly had conclusive evidence that the Universe was 6,000 years old! — you’re quotemining plain and simple.

The ICR’s Head Science Guy didn’t follow those basic rules of professional competency and courtesy with respect to Mr. Robbins’ research. I think it’s fair to call that “misuse” at best and yes, even “lying.”