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Cosmos, Joke Sites, and the Things that Make Us Vulnerable to…Crap

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So, here’s the thing.

I actually tried to check out that story before I posted it yesterday–the one on Creationists in Oklahoma responding to the airing of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos.

I checked it out on Snopes.com, which had nothing on it.  And I found the same story a couple of other places. 

In the end, though, I bought it for the reason most of us buy hoaxes–because it sounded completely plausible to me, and because I’d been expecting something like it since the show first began to air.

On the other hand, I really should have known better.

Unlike a lot of the other people on the net who have the vapors over Creationism, I’ve read a lot of actual Creationist material. 

And what should have made it screamingly obvious that this story was false was—the spelling.

So let me backtrack a bit here and see if I can work this out.

1) The most important factor in my falling for it was the fact that I was expecting something like it, and the something like it had not been showing up.

Let me start by saying that I like the new Cosmos series quite a bit, even though it’s pitched to a child’s intellectual and instructional level, which sometimes makes me a little nuts.

But the series is both clear and engaging, and its quirks–some of the emphases (see Giordano Bruno, who gets LONG stretches in episode 2) are a little off-kilter.  But by and large, a good introduction to the history of science, at least so far.

It is also uncompromisingly secular, and uncompromisingly critical of the role of religion in retarding the progress of science over the centuries.

It is not, however, inaccurate about the role of religion in the progress of science–it acknowledges the places where the Church actually aided the progress of science and it manages to at least mention the fact that Galileo’s problems were largely the result of his political activities rather than his science.

In spite of all that, I have been suspecting, for some time, that there would be complaints.

This isn’t a New Atheist diatribe, but it is, as I said, steadfastly secular.  It doesn’t pull its punches on things like evolution and the age of the universe.  It doesn’t say that everybody’s “way of knowing” is just as good as anybody else’s.  In fact, it’s quite clear on the idea that some “ways of knowing” are a LOT better than others.

So I was, as I said, expecting some blowback, and when I saw this thing, my brain went:  ah, finally.

But I still should have known better, because there’s a big giveaway here that anybody who has ever read Creationist literature should pick up right away.

Which gets me to

2) I know people who really are like this.  I have them in my family.  They roam the landscape like addled lemmings just asking to be an example of evolution in action.


What these people are not is part of the organized Creationist movement.

Anybody who has spent any time reading Creationist literature, or who has gone to Ken Ham’s Creationist Museum, or has even looked into the writing of people in the Christian school and homeschool movements will notice one thing right away.

These people spell better than the rest of us, and their grammar tends to also be much more strictly correct.

That’s because the curricula for Christian schools and homeschools put a lot of emphasis on basics like grammar, punctuation and spelling. 

Even when the ideas are migraine-inducing, the presentation tends to be very good indeed. 

If Creationists actually spoke and wrote as the people in that article did, they’d have no credibility beyond their very small circle. 

Instead, these people do have credibility with a lot of their fellow citizens who don’t actually know much about science, but see there is a controversy and try to be fair to both sides. 

In fact, to the extent that Creationism has had any success at all in this country, it is due not to true Bible believing Christians who want their point of view represented in public schools, but on the non believers around them who read their material, see that it’s well put together, and decide that the fair thing to do is to represent all sides instead of just one.

And yes, of course, I know that this is not the kind of case where the “fairness” approach makes any sense, but we are never going to get out from under the fact that the fairness approach is deeply and probably ineradicably American. 

And in spite of cases like this, where it shouldn’t really apply, that’s not a bad trait for a people to have.

3) My falling for this reminds me of something I’ve brought up on this blog before–the tendency of major news outlets and university administrations to fall for fake “hate crimes.”

If you take some time and look around on the web, you’ll find that there have been a remarkable number of these things over time, starting with the Brawley case and coming right on down to just about now, with students caught red-handed spraying racist grafitti on their own dorm room doors and sending themselves racist or rapist e mails.

The one that’s stuck with me over the years had to do with a university professor in, I think, Wisconsin, who faked a redneck pick-up truck stalking incident in the days after he’d published an anti-religious letter to the editor in the local paper.

I don’t know what these poeple think is going on, but my first advice to any of them would be to note that the police are a lot smarter than hoaxers ever think they are.

But the bottom line is that we all think we know how the world works, and we’re all subject to confirmation bias in all its myriad forms. 

That’s why we all find ourselves believing things we want to be true.

4) I was asked, in e mail, whether, when I said I wanted local communities to make their own decisions about the curriula in their local schools, I’d include local communities like the one invented in this article.

And my answer, as always, is yes.

Self government does not promise that people will always make the wise choice, or the best choice, or even the choice most in line with reality.

It only says that self government is the great moral obligation we owe to our fellow men and women.

I’ve got to go work out things with student papers.

Written by janeh

April 14th, 2014 at 8:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Cosmos, Joke Sites, and the Things that Make Us Vulnerable to…Crap'

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  1. Take a good look at the picture that was published with the article. Its not one sign, its a set of signs, one letter to a sign. And the picture shows 2 of the holders looking down. Quite obviously, the letters got mixed up when the holders lined up. I’m willing to bet that the mixup was fixed within a minute.

    Could someone explain why evolution has to be taught in High School? Its an interesting set of ideas that are useful to professional biologists. Very few high school students will ever need to use the theory, those who do will learn it in university.

    Belief in Creationism is often compared to belief in the flat earth. The Greeks of Plato’s time knew that the Earth is round. How many of the militant atheists can site the evidence that convinced the Greeks?


    14 Apr 14 at 3:11 pm

  2. Evolution has to be taught in high school because it’s the answer to questions like “how did there get to be so MANY different animals?” and “why do different species who fill the same ecological niches in far-away places have similar characteristics?” Plus lots of other interesting questions.

    Unless you want to just teach with a bare word: “evolution” and leave it there, you DO need to teach the basic concepts. Otherwise you’re giving the student a faith-based answer, which has no more validity than any other faith-based answer. You need to ground it in scientific method (we looked for evidence and found it), and experiment. Without that, a student has NO weapons to logically evaluate the countervailing claim that everything was just created, plump, in seven days about 6000 years ago. And unless you talk about the operation of evolution, they’re sitting in their geology classes wondering what filled those awesome stretches of time, and why there weren’t mammals billions of years ago and why there aren’t dinosaurs today.

    I see value in teaching ecology, biology, physical sciences as early and as often as possible. Getting into simplified versions of advanced concepts of each of them is the temptation and the magnet for the smarter students to keep learning and not tune out.

    Besides, I prefer a much more integrated exploration of science and math, as they all intersect, influence one another and combine back in history. Separating each field out, and setting certain subjects aside for later (much later or never, in the case of people who don’t go to college), makes no sense to me.

    Kids are much more capable of learning concepts than most adults think. And frankly, I think it’s imperative to get some equal time for science in front of kids who’ve been in Sunday School since they were 3, learning hogwash. High school is much too late, in my opinion.


    14 Apr 14 at 4:15 pm

  3. Lymaree, I’m all in favor of teaching evolution–the concept and the supporting evidence. But considering what passes for public education–taught on my dime–I’d be very careful about complaining that the volunteers in Sunday School were teaching “hogwash.” There might be a discussion of kitchenware.


    14 Apr 14 at 5:38 pm

  4. I was taught evolution, or the bare bones of it, in high school – in the religion class. The RC Church at least sees no conflict between evolution and the biblical tale, but then the RC Church are not Bible literalists either.


    14 Apr 14 at 6:40 pm

  5. It has been 60 years since I graduated from high school. Perhaps things have improved since then. If I remember correctly, high school chemistry and physics turned out to have very little to do with the university subjects (even in the first year). I can’t comment on biology because I didn’t take biology in university.

    My fear is that most students will end up saying “Evolution is true because our teacher said it was true.” That is not much better than “Creationism is true because our minister said it was true.”

    Is Geology taught in High School? If so, it might be better to teach evolution in that class rather than biology.


    14 Apr 14 at 8:03 pm

  6. Many years ago when I taught high school biology, it included the basics of the theory of evolution, which caused no controversy at all – lots of the families were church-goers – mostly RC, in that particular school – and few if any were Biblical literalists. I’ve had somewhat less exposure to Sunday School – although over my lifetime I’ve both attended and (very rarely) taught Sunday School, and I don’t recall anything related to evolution coming up at all. Certainly, I’ve heard a very large number of “children’s talks” that don’t mention it, although they do assume the reality of miracles which is another thing some people get hot under the collar about.

    I don’t have any particular objection to the literalists teaching their children whatever they want, as long as the children manage to learn the basics of literacy and numeracy so that if they later need to get outside education, for work or out of curiosity they can.

    Years – OK, to be honest, decades – ago in Canada, I read that one of the more conservative religious groups didn’t want their children educated in government schools, The compromise reached with the provincial government involved was that they’d teach their own children in their own schools up to roughly a Grade 8 level – basic literacy and numeracy, as I said. I thought that seemed fair.


    15 Apr 14 at 5:15 am

  7. robert_piepenbrink

    21 Apr 14 at 6:13 pm

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