When people say, “bastion of science and skepticism,” they generally aren’t talking about Texas. Thanks to people like Don McLeroy, Texas is more of a laughingstock than a shining beacon of reason. That may be why people are surprised that Houston Atheists boast the largest atheist community not just in the country, but in the world! Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the very first Answers in Science event, held at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The free event (with suggested donation), hosted by Houston Atheists Humanists of Houston, was initially organized in response to the Texas Homeschooling Convention which is hosted by Answers in Genesis and features Ken Ham. Interestingly, attempts were made to have some of the speakers debate with Ken Ham, though he ultimately chose to ignore those requests.
AiS had a stellar lineup of scientists, activists, and writers. Many of the speakers were local, but there were voices from out-of-state, too! Each one brought a unique perspective to the conversation, providing insight into the importance of science education in the classroom, and talks ranged from 20-45 minutes.
Opening the event was Kathy Miller, President of Texas Freedom Network, an excellent organization dedicated to demonstrating the importance of sound science education in the 21st century. TFN operates on the strange idea that classroom teachers & science experts should determine what is taught in the classroom, not religiously- and politically-motivated ideologues. This was demonstrated in a portion of Miller’s talk where she states, “Flawed curriculum standards and biased textbooks are not the problem. They are symptoms of a system that allows politicians to write curriculum standards instead of teachers and scholars.”
Miller kicks off the conversation by telling the audience, “We have a problem in Texas, which is that the rest of the country thinks we are hostile to science.” Not only does this make it harder for kids trying to get into competitive spots in college, but it hinders job growth by making it more unlikely for companies to bring science-based jobs to the state.
About the SBOE:
- Elected body of 15 members
- There are no requirements to be even remotely knowledgeable about public schools (or even like the idea of public schools) in order to be on the SBOE.
- Partisan elections are held every 4 years
- Unlike local education officials, SBOE members run with an (R) or (D) next to their name on the ballot.
- Districts are twice the size of state senate districts
- Decisions are made by simple majority rule (8-7)
- Create Curriculum Standards
- Approve Instructional Materials to match standards
As many may know, this small group of people have the power to influence not only Texas education standards, but country-wide education standards. “As Texas goes, so goes the nation” has become a popular catchphrase in the textbook discussion, for good reason. Due to the size of the state, textbook publishers often tailor their product to align with Texas education standards. Even the Federal Board of Education has no say-so over Texas’ education standards, since Texas was one of a handful of states not to adopt the Common Core.
Miller wraps up her rousing talk with a brief Q&A with the audience, and you can tell she hit some passionate nerves: many of the questions center around to learn what they can do to effect change. She recommends TFN.org for Texas news and the League of Women Voters for nation-wide issues. Another audience member mentions the August 22nd textbook hearings that are open to the public and asks, “Is there any evidence the board will actually listen?” The audience laughs, and Miller answers that there are swing voters who are receptive, but there is often political influence and intimidation to vote a certain way. If you’d like to be involved in the hearings, check out TFN’s activist site to learn how to get prepared!
Next up is Jonathan Madren, who works for an independent oil & gas producer as petroleum geochemist. He received Bachelors of Science in Chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Masters in Science in Geology from the University of Houston. His talk is entitled, “From There to Here: How We Came to the Conclusion Earth is Over 4 Billion Years Old.”
Madren starts his talk with some historical background on the differing views of the earth:
- Laws of nature we observe now are what have governed the earth for all time (past & future).
- Madren mentions Charles Lyell, an early adopter of Uniformitarianism and friend to Charles Darwin, who believed the earth was immortal
- The earth has been impacted by radical events that have large repercussions.
Madren also explains Kelvin’s Rigid Earth Heat Loss model, which was one of the first models to indicate that the earth had an age that was on the order of millions. This idea was far off from the billions of years old we understand the earth to be now, but still a great leap forward given the time.
He wraps up his talk with a few conclusions regarding the age of the earth:
- Based on the understanding we have today, the Earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old. No serious scientist disagrees with that.
- The road that lead workers to this conclusion was not straight or narrow.
- Many different methods were used to get to this number, they were tested, some were found lacking.
Zack Kopplin, student activist, takes the internet stage next, via teleconference. Zack battled The Louisiana Science Education Act (better known as LSEA) in high school and founded the Second Giant Leap for Humankind, a group that calls for a permanent end to legislation that would promote the denial of science and a broader acceptance of evidence-based science.
First, he explains LSEA a Louisiana bill that allows public school teachers to use supplemental materials in the science classroom (materials that are often critical of established science on such topics as the theory of evolution and global warming). The bill passed unanimously in the LA State Senate and only 3 dissented in the HR so Zack’s battle is an uphill one, but as Zack says, “We don’t fight for change because it’s easy.”
There’s no question that this bill was created with the express purpose of teaching creationism in schools: one of the sponsors of LSEA, Bobby Jindal, came right out & said LSEA was about creationism and that Jindal said he had no problem with teaching creationism in school. Zack says this is unacceptable because, “Creationism doesn’t meet the qualifications for what is science. It doesn’t belong in the classroom.”
Mike Aus, former pastor and graduate from the Clergy Project, joins us next to talk about how branding affects how people view science and secularism. He says he was once asked, “Why did you leave the comfort of religion to the coldness of Darwinism?” People are often led to believe that evolution leads to social Darwinism and eugenics when that couldn’t be further from the truth.
He reminds us that while it’d be nice if the facts just won, as humans we crave poetry. Facts aren’t always what inspire us. It was refreshing to take a break from the scientific aspects and talk about outreach – Aus states, “We can’t afford to be tone deaf to humanity. Marketing matters.”
Aus wraps up his talk with a bit of humor, “Thanks for letting an English major talk to a science crowd.” As a former English major, I approve!
Next up is Sister Lilandra, podcaster with The n0nes and collaborator at Ace of Clades with Aron Ra. Her talk is titled, “Teaching Evolution or Creationism: Academic Responsibility vs. Personal Freedoms.” Lilandra and Aron are no strangers to challenging people like Ken Ham – Lilandra even jokes about a Ken Ham vs, Aron Ra arm wrestling match (what I wouldn’t pay to see that!).
Lilandra begins with some of the more common anti-science factoids we hear. “Common ancestry yields real-world results. You can’t understand biology without evolution. Some creationists just plain don’t want to.” She also reminds us that unfortunately, no amount of us talking will help some creationists, they’ve already made up their mind. I have a strong feeling Ken Ham falls into this category.She also provides stories from students like Josh Powell, a homeschool student who had to take remedial classes due to being improperly educated at home. Josh’s story is particularly upsetting – he begged his parents to let him go to school and learn, but they declined.
Lilandra also ends her talk on a humorous note (but not-really in a way!) asking the audience: “How much more could Texas accomplish if they caught up to the 21st century?”
Aron Ra joins us next with his talk, “Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism.” The talk runs down the Texas Essential Knowledge Standards (or TEK) and he outlines all the ways students are trained family/churches to disrupt the classroom when evolution is taught. He also talks about how administrators work against teachers who try to give a proper science education. I’ve made no secret of my conservative religious upbringing, and I have witnessed these tactics firsthand. I remember being told to ask the Ken Ham questions (“Were you there?”) when evolution was taught in my public school
Aron Ra is an engaging speaker, making the audience laugh with lines like, “Half this country believes in a fable complete with witches, giants, magic spells, and talking animals” and “Snakes had legs–who knew? They still can’t talk though.”
It seems the audience had a lot of questions for Aron, but unfortunately the Q&A was booted due to time constraints.
Last but not least, the formidable PZ Myers “The Evolution of Creationism. He warns the audience, “This started as a historical talk, and then something happened. The talk evolved.” He also alludes to the beginnings of this conference by saying, “I was hoping Ken Ham would be here because I need to let out some steam.”
PZ gets right into the meat of things and makes no qualms about having little respect for Ken Ham and his ilk. He mentions that while other speakers have shied right away from mocking religion, he will do no such thing. Everybody is subsequently shocked. He further amuses the audience with some examples of Answers in Genesis goofiness, like this comic and the idea that Ken Ham practices “Flintstones science.”
He proceeds to further mock AiG saying that they are selectively looking at what data they want to see. “You can’t simultaneously say that science sucks and then say that what you’re saying is as good as science.” This, to me, is the biggest crux of creationism: They are in a constant hypocritical battle with themselves trying to decide what they want more: to hate science or to be considered Real Scientists (TM).
The most interesting part of PZ’s talk from my perspective was his timeline of the evolution of creationism. This seems to be the main point of his talk (hence the title!), and it outlines how very little creationism has actually evolved. For example, I was unaware that Ellen White, a Seventh Day Adventist and supposed Prophetess considered herself blessed by god and was led by Jesus Christ himself into the past where she witnessed all 6 days of creationism. Though White was later dismissed as a kook even by Christians, in 1961, Whitcomb and Morris re-vamped White’s version of the six-day creation with their book, “The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Records and Its Scientific Implications.” PZ states, “Modern creationism isn’t based on the bible. It is Whitcomb and Morris’ version of the Bible, combined with Ellen White’s version.”
As PZ wraps up his talk, he reminds the audience, “Creationists aren’t idiots, they aren’t stupid. They’re kind of misled and they’re kind of weird.” I would argue that creationists like Ken Ham aren’t stupid at all – they’re just incredibly deceptive and dishonest. Though I don’t necessarily agree that Ham is, “out to make Christians look as foolish and dishonest as possible because he hates Christianity,” I would say that he’s in it for the money. There’s a cash cow in creationism and Ken Ham has a lock on that money. That is why events such as Answers in Science are so important. Speaker after speaker reminded us that without proper science education, we are going to be hurting as a society further down the line. I spoke with Vic Wang, lead organizer for the event, and there’s a good possibility this could become an annual event!
If you’d like to catch any of the talks, Vic noted that they’ll be uploaded the Humanists of Houston and Houston Atheists YouTube channels as they’ve finish editing the videos. Due to timing issues, not all speakers were able to have a Q&A, but Vic will be posting the answers to the questions that were turned in during the talk on the Facebook Event Page.
Title Photo Courtesy of Vic Wang