Saturday, June 30, 2007

Trust? No, Verify!

I have not been much in the mood to write recently, but I came across a few things tonight that I thought I might mention.

The Box Turtle Bulletin is a blog I follow that deals primarily with social and political issues related to homosexuality. There have been some noteworthy developments recently, including increasing support for the end of the DADT (Don't Ask, Don't Tell) policy in the military. Also noteworthy are a pair of conferences in Southern California, one held by Exodus International, a Christian organization dedicated to helping people overcome their homosexuality, and another by, an organization dedicated to helping people recover from the "help" they got from organizations like Exodus International. Three former Exodus leaders issued apologies this week for the harm they felt their efforts had caused.

My purpose is not discuss any of that in any detail. Rather, the path that lead to this post began with a short post on Box Turtle Bulletin titled Focus on the Family Predicts the Future that pointed out a brief article on Citizen Link (by Focus on the Family Action) describing the conferences. The Citizen Link article states that about 100 people attended the conference, even though that conference did not start until tonight and no pre-registration numbers are available. It also characterized the conference as a protest, which is contrary to the stated purpose of the conference. Finally, the Citizen Link article concludes with a quote from Randy Thomas, the executive vice president of Exodus, who says, "We are always in ongoing communication with people who disagree with us, people with similar testimonies... We definitely will be in communication with them." Yet it was the founders that extended an invitation to dinner to the leaders of Exodus, an invitation that apparently went unanswered. (And, I note also that the article provides no link or other identifiable information about that would allow readers to find out more about that organization or its conference.)

Now, it is certainly possible that the attendence figures were an honest mistake, and it is certainly possible that there is, has been, and will continue to be dialogue initiated by Exodus International, even if this one particular dinner invitation is not accepted. There is reason to be concerned about the accuracy of the Citizen Link article, the intentions of its author(s) and the claims of Exodus International, but nothing necessarily beyond honest mistakes, incomplete information and heavy spin. This was just the first step on my path.

After I read the brief article on Citizen Link, I glanced at the sidebar to see what other kind of content they have on their website. In the section "Focus on Social Issues", they have a sub-category called "Origins". I had never really thought of Focus on the Family as being much involved in the whole evolution vs creationism thing, though I have heard some minor rumblings recently. So I decided to check out what they had to say.

The first article in the "Features" section is titled Evolutionist Admits False Assertions Against Critic of Darwin's Theories. This article was from Agape Press, "Reliable News from a Christian Source". Since I had just been looking into a case where a Christian source had been making questionable claims, what would I find here? I had not heard anything about this.

Well, it turns out that the article was nearly two years old, and it describes an article written by Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education. She had written the article for California Wild, a magazine published by the California Academy of Sciences, describing efforts by a certain Larry Caldwell to introduce anti-evolution, pro-creation materials into a California school district. Larry Caldwell, an attorney and activist in that area, said that many of her claims about him were false and quickly filed a libel lawsuit.

Several of Scott's statements did turn out to be incorrect. That is, while Caldwell was involved in the efforts to introduce the materials into the school district and while he had done some of things that Scott had reported, there were other people involved as well and some of what Scott had attributed to Caldwell was in fact done by others. She issued corrections in the next issue of the magazine. While Scott should have been more careful, there is little reason to believe that she was being purposefully misleading. (The charge of libel would have been very difficult to support.) It is unfortunate that the original article is no longer available on the California Academy of Sciences website, because several writers commenting on the case reported that a number of claims Caldwell made against Scott were factually incorrect; that is, that he made false claims about the content of her article. If true, the irony would be substantial.

The article on Agape Press describing these events is pretty heavily spun. But it includes several statements that are quite humorous to those who have paid attention to the efforts of creationists to promote their ideas: "He [Caldwell] feels even pro-evolution scientists must realize that the integrity of their position is at stake when false allegations and misinformation take the place of fair, rational, and well-informed debate." And, "What Caldwell is hoping, he adds, is that the proponents of Darwin's theories will realize the need to stick to the truth." These statements are humorous because they apply so accurately to creationists. Some of the clearest examples of this can be found in the practice of "quote mining", a technique whereby quotes from scientists are taken out of context (often with critical information elided) so that they appear to cast substantial doubt on evolution. This practice is so common that whole collections of them have been cataloged: the Quote Mine Project contains many examples and references to other similar lists.

Quote mining is not restricted to the anti-evolutionists. Another debate in which this tactic has seen substantial use is the debate over whether the United States was founded on Christian principles (or is a Christian nation, or other similar variations). Just tonight, Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist discusses an article written in his local newspaper by a Baptist minister, Vernon Lyons. Lyons' article argues that the United States was and is a Christian nation in some important respects. Hemant is planning to write a rebuttal and asked for suggestions.

Lyons closed his article with a quote from a Supreme Court decision (Church of the Holy Trinity vs. the United States) in 1892:

Our laws and our institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of the Redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise; and in this sense and to this extent our civilization and our institutions are emphatically Christian. This is a religious people. This is historically true. From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation...we find everywhere a clear recognition of the same truth. These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.

I had not heard of that one before. It does sound fairly compelling, doesn't it? But is it accurate? There are a number of so-called quotes on this subject that are floating around that appear to have been simply made up. And there are those ellipses in the middle of a quote — always a danger sign. A quick visit to Google searching for that last phrase, "mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation", gives as the first two hits two articles explaining the background of this quote. While you can get the details there, the most important word in the second part of the quote that is a clue to the original context and intent of the sentence is "unofficial".

Searching for "embody the teachings of the Redeemer of mankind" yields an article about a number of fake and questionable quotes that were published by David Barton, quotes that he has since admitted were fake or at best questionable. The first half of the quote included in Lyons' article is one of the fake quotes. (Barton is associated with WallBuilders, a Christian organization "dedicated to presenting America's forgotten history..." It's pretty easy to forget something that never happened.) While the inaccuracy of the quotes has now been acknowledged, the damage has been done. They have been repeated far and wide, and continue to be repeated long after they should have been discarded.

Now, many people who repeat these quotes believe they are giving accurate information; they are misinformed and sometimes ignorant of important facts, a condition which is an almost inevitable consequence of being human. No doubt I have written something here that, while I believe it to be true, is not. Even in the normal course of honest discourse, people will make mistakes and for this reason alone it is valuable to double-check important claims. But as you will see if you read through the quote mining examples and the fake quotes, these are cases where the only reasonable explanation is deliberate misrepresentation by somebody.

I am in no way claiming that these kinds of examples invalidate everything that is ever said by Christians. That would be absolutely preposterous. Neither am I claiming that atheists never commit these sorts of unintentional errors or deliberate deceptions. What I do want my Christian readers to understand, and to see through some of the examples listed here and in the referenced articles, is that there is an awful lot of Christian writing, especially on the Internet and most especially that which comes from more fundamentalist sources, that either originates or uncritically repeats blatant falsehoods in support of the beliefs of the authors. (The same might be said about various political writers.) Practice skepticism! Check their sources. Google is your friend.

Friday, June 08, 2007

We Are Children

During the past few days, there has been a confluence of events and of thoughts that have provided me some amount of focus for writing. In my last post, nearly two weeks ago, I described some of the questions that I am trying to answer about where to go with my writing here, and some of the thoughts that contributed to this present smidge of inspiration relate to those questions. But in many ways, the subject is much broader, and the route that I will take to describe it is a bit circuitous.

To start, I should back up to, say, junior high or so. I read a fair amount, and it would have been about that time that I started to pick up science fiction by Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, two of the classic authors of the genre. Naturally I have read far more since then, but I never did get around to reading any novels by Ray Bradbury or Arthur C. Clarke, two of the other most well-known science fiction authors of its early years. (Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke have been called the ABC's of science fiction.) In some ways it was almost embarassing not to have read anything of Bradbury and Clarke other than a few short stories, and that embarassment was most pronounced when, toward the end of April, the local libraries put on a "Big Read", a week focusing on a single book, in this case "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury. The final event of the week was a talk by Bradbury's friend and biographer, whose name now escapes me. I went with a friend of mine, but still had not read that book or any other of Bradbury's novels, and according to a show of hands, I think I was one of only two people there in that apparently despicable condition.

So, I picked up a copy of "Fahrenheit 451" and read that a few weeks ago. More recently, I checked out "The Martian Chronicles" from the library, which I finally started to read earlier this week. The library had several copies, but I picked the one that looked the oldest. It was printed in 1958; the book was first published in 1946. In this particular edition, there is a Prefatory Note by a Clifton Fadiman (I have no idea who he is) who describes Bradbury as a moralist, and says of the book that Bradbury "is telling us ... that human beings are still mental and moral children who cannot be trusted with the terrifying toys they have by some tragic accident invented."

I think I read that on Tuesday. On Wednesday, a woman I with whom I work, whose stepson is deployed in Iraq, found out that four men from his unit were killed last week. The total number of US servicemen killed broke 3500, a number dwarfed by the number of Iraqi civilians killed by us or, sometimes after having been tortured, by other Iraqis. Regardless of your views about how this situation came to be or how it might now be addressed, it must be acknowledged that the situation is tragic, and that the tragedy is the result of human action (not natural disaster). Nor should we forget Darfur, or honor killings, or secret prisons. We are not yet a century past the Nazi Holocaust, the rape of Nanking, and genocide in Rwanda, to name just a few of the most obvious horrors.

This week also brought the G8 summit in Europe, where President Bush, on behalf of the United States, again refused to participate in any meaningful commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Representatives of the US automotive industry met with senators, urging them not to raise fuel efficiency standards which are already the worst in the developed world. Even China has higher standards than we do. Michael Griffin, the head of NASA, made waves last week for statements made in an interview with NPR where he expressed doubt about whether we should bother to do anything about global warming, despite the dire projections of his own researchers. But, he later clarified, understanding Earth's climate is not part of NASA's mission. True — they removed the study of Earth itself from NASA's mission just last year. Meanwhile, Greenland's ice continues to melt, apparently faster even than predicted by the climate models so maligned by climate change skeptics. Somebody forgot to tell the coal industry, which is pushing for government subsidies for coal liquefaction plants, a process that might ease the demand for oil, but only by doubling CO2 emissions.*

I could go on, of course. In fact, I had originally planned to address just one of the many factors that contributes to problems such as these (and to religious questions), but perhaps later. Instead, let me agree with Jeffrey Spender, a character from "The Martian Chronicles":

We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.

We are mental and moral children.

* There is, apparently, more than one way to turn coal to liquid fuel, and not all produce double the carbon emissions. However, the cost of the less damaging processes is prohibitive.