Climate change deniers often fancy themselves “skeptics.” For those of us active in movement skepticism, it’s flattering to see others try to ride our coat tails, but it’s also frustrating. Skeptics are known for debunking bogus claims (from ghosts to psychics to the Loch Ness Monster), for operating at the intersection of science and consumer protection, for standing up for the role of evidence and the rational in public discourse. Skepticism means something specific, and deniers just do not do the things that a skeptic does.

That’s what makes it so gratifying that dozens of the leaders of the skeptical movement joined together to state clearly: “Deniers are not skeptics.” Deniers are not Skeptics

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As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, NCSE can’t try to change the outcome of elections, which means we keep mum about candidates who attack climate science and evolution from the hustings. But that doesn’t mean we don’t keep watch: candidates become policymakers, and it’s valuable to know what our future leaders are saying.

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Alabama state coat of arms, 1876

In 1995, the governor of Alabama, Fob James, spoke before the state board of education, which was then considering a proposal to insert a disclaimer about evolution in all biology textbooks used in the state. In The Creationists (2006), Ronald L. Numbers primly writes, “The Republican governor, Fob James, who presided over the board, strongly backed the disclaimer, saying that he personally believed the biblical account of the origin of life to be true.” Randy Moore, Mark Decker, and Sehoya H. Cotner’s Chronology of the Evolution–Creationism Controversy (2009) is a little more vivid, writing, “During an appearance before the Alabama State Board of Education, Forrest Hood ‘Fob’ James ... ridicules evolution by slowly crossing the stage, beginning in a crouch and then ending erect.” By these accounts, it seems that historians have taken the speech in stride.

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The issue of whether Sherlock Holmes is science literate led to some fascinating discussion in the comments section, though not, I fear, to a consensus. But let’s turn to a matter closer to my own heart and examine what we can learn about someone’s science literacy based on whether they reject evolution.

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A creationist group is organizing an event at a major university (unnamed, since I certainly don’t want to promote the event), and some scientists there wanted advice on how to respond. One approach we discussed was using humor to push back. I love the idea, but it's not as simple as you'd think. How can satire and humor work? And how can they backfire? Read on.

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When someone says, “the science isn’t settled yet—it’s too soon to make a decision,” why are we suspicious?

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Josh, Steve, and I just returned from spending 8 days with a group of 21 NCSE members on NCSE’s Grand Canyon raft trip. Steve regaled us with the actual geological history of Grand Canyon, and Josh supplemented with a tongue-in-cheek presentation of the creationist view – with me helping a bit around the edges. Josh also kept up the natural history side of things as he introduced us to a variety of invertebrate and vertebrate varmints along the trail.

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Rodin, The Thinker. Photograph: Frank Kovalchek, via Wikimedia Commons.

I’m still happily kibitzing on a dispute between two philosophers, Mary Midgley and Nicholas Everitt. (Look, I don’t give you a hard time about your idea of fun, do I?) You’ll recall that in 2007, Midgley published a pamphlet entitled “Intelligent Design Theory and other ideological problems” (PDF), which Everitt is now criticizing in a forthcoming review (PDF; subscription required) in the Journal of Philosophy of Education. Of the criticisms of Everitt’s I’ve addressed so far (part 1, part 2), the most important is that Midgley wrongly denies that young-earth creationism was “once the mainstream Christian position, endorsed by both intellectuals and the layperson in the pew” (p. 5). But a position held by Christians in the pulpit and in the pew is not necessarily a Christian position as such, and the fact that Christians have not generally regarded young-earth creationism as definitive of or central to their faith seems to show at least that Everitt fails to establish his case. Now to the consequences for the classroom.

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Rodin, The Thinker. Photograph: Frank Kovalchek, via Wikimedia Commons.

Popcorn in hand, I’m kibitzing on a dispute between two philosophers, Mary Midgley and Nicholas Everitt. In 2007, Midgley published a pamphlet entitled “Intelligent Design Theory and other ideological problems” (PDF), which Everitt is now criticizing in a forthcoming review (PDF; subscription required) in the Journal of Philosophy of Education. In part 1, I managed to address just two of Everitt’s criticisms. The first was about the definition of “creationism”; although Everitt prefers a definition on which all Christians are creationists, I noted that there’s ample precedent for a more restrictive definition such as Midgley presupposes. The second, more important, criticism was about the connection between creationism (in the more restrictive sense) and Christianity. Everitt claimed that young-earth creationism is the “traditional position of Christianity,” as opposed to Midgley’s claim that it is a latter-day aberration, but his claim seems to me either to involve a fallacy or to be unsupported. Now read on…

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Rodin, The Thinker. Photograph: Frank Kovalchek, via Wikimedia Commons.

Back in 2007, the philosopher Mary Midgley published a pamphlet entitled Intelligent Design Theory and other ideological problems (PDF) with the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain. Prompted by controversies over the teaching of evolution in both the United States and Britain, she sought, as she explains, to address problems “about the current promotion of Intelligent Design Theory,” to consider them in a broader historical context, and to offer a few suggestions “about the best way for schools to handle problems such as those presented by Intelligent Design Theory” (p. 2). Now, in a forthcoming review (PDF; subscription required) of Midgley’s pamphlet in the Journal of Philosophy of Education, the philosopher Nicholas Everitt writes that although “I expected to find myself in substantial agreement with what Midgley says … having examined [the pamphlet], I find that I disagree with much that it claims” (p. 1). What could be more blogworthy than a philosophical kerfuffle over creationism?

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