Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Let's Vote on the Sex of the Cat

I think I've used that analogy before, but I'm not positive and don't want to type "murphspot cat sex" into a search engine. It's meant as an analogy for the objectivity of reality. Let's say you and six of your closest friends are sitting around in a room. There is no form of entertainment in the room, and so you're profoundly bored. A cat wanders into the room, and one of your friends (let's call him James) asks you whether it's a male or female cat. Is the proper response:

1) Vote on the sex of the cat. Take a poll of those people who are sitting around you and ask them not "Is the cat male or female" but "What do you believe about the cat's sex?" Simple majority wins.

2) Check.

The proper response, which is to say the response that acknowledges the objectivity of reality, is "Check". If you and your friends all want the cat to be male, that doesn't stop it from being female (if it happens to be female) nor did it influence the cat to become male because you all wanted it to be. It simply is either male or female, and the correct answer is the one with the most independent evidence to back it up. It doesn't matter how you check (presumably, you'd just look at the genitalia, but if that makes you feel funny, I'm sure there are other ways of determining a cat's sex, though unfortunately I don't know them as I have no concept of cat physiology), only that you check and that you be able to back up your answer with evidence that isn't dependent upon what you want the answer to be.

Unless you're in Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma House of Representatives Education committee has approved House Bill 2211, a "Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act". There are some bits of it that are simply redundant, like Section 5, which states that students are allowed to organize prayer groups and "see you at the pole" gatherings before, during and after school to the same extent that other groups are allowed to form non-religious clubs that have nothing do do with curriculum, which I'm pretty sure they're already allowed to do. I know, for example, and this is only anecdotal, that there were "See You at the Pole" gatherings at my high school, though I never attended. And really, so long as everyone's allowed to go to everything, I could not be more supportive (though I'm somewhat curious about the "during" school thing, because I don't know that any extracurricular clubs had meetings during school). This is how the whole "prayer in school" issue is solved. You don't have the teachers leading prayer in their capacity as employees of the state, and kids are allowed to pray/worship however they want, as long as it's not disruptive to other students learning. Which is fine, because you're not allowed to disrupt other students if you're doing it for non-religious reasons either (standing up and singing "Paradise City" during a test, while amusing and actually happened once in high school, isn't something they encourage, and so I have no problem with asking Little Bobby to sit down and stop reciting the Namokar Mantra.) I'm somewhat skeptical of a "moment of silence" before the day starts, because it's my understanding you could just pray for the few minutes before the day starts on your own without the school telling you to, but I'm not going to get into that here. So yes. That part of the bill, from my view, is redundant and pointless, but then this is a legislature, and so that sort of goes without saying.

The part that's got everyone all hot and bothered is this.

Section 4. Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions. Homework and classroom assignments shall be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school district. Students shall not be penalized or rewarded on account of the religious content of their work.

The problem, as a others have pointed out, is that the way that section is phrased, it becomes impossible to penalize a student who gives an incorrect answer in, say, a science class as long as the student claims that it's based on their religious beliefs. As the second linked article points out, it becomes illegal for a school to take off points if, in a science class, a student claims the earth is 6000 years old, despite the fact that the scientific evidence points to the Earth being roughly 4.5 billion years old. It's an attempt to change reality by governmental fiat, and subverts everything that science is supposed to be about.

A significant theme in the Creationist movement recently has been appealing to "fairness", which is fine and good, except that facts are not determined by what we wish them to be. The exclusion of religious interpretations of creation from science classes isn't a form of religious persecution, it's the exclusion of theories which have no scientific evidence to support them and are not falsifiable. Attempting to paint them as persecution is not only intellectually dishonest, but is actually an insult to those people around the world who actually are persecuted for their beliefs, or their non-belief.

So yes. Unnecessary-to-actively anti-education bill has passed in the Oklahoma State House of Representatives. Hopefully, the State Senate will recognize it for what it is and discard it. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Oh, one last thing. The bill was formally authored by State Rep. Sally Kern, who has come into some trouble in the past few days for some virulently anti-gay comments that were recorded and posted on YouTube. I'll have my opinion up on that sometime tomorrow.


Hal said...

Actually, that's not how I read it at all. I see it as a "you can't be punished for being X and writing about it" kind of thing.

Creationism in science class? As I read it, not covered, as it's not covered by "ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance."

Of course, something like that could end up in court, but I'd see the courts agreeing with me.

So . . . I don't get the problem.

-Murphy said...

That falls under the other major point I was pushing at in the post, that it's redundant and unnecessary. You can already write essays about how your faith in X means Y as long as it's actually germane to the topic.

Specifically, I probably should have included the part where it says

A school district shall treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the district treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject and may not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject.

which does more to imply that answers on tests that are contradicted by science are totally cool.

My problem is that at worst, it's actively anti-intellectual (as the bill in Texas that this was modeled on is having trouble with lately) and at best, it's redundant and unnecessary.

Hal said...

Again, I'm not getting your interpretation. There are loads of times in science courses where exposition on Creationism vs. Evolution just isn't germane to the exam.

As for irrelevant . . . well, I guess some people thought the law needed clarification? I can imagine a student being given a poor grade for writing a religious essay in english class as an event with a non-zero rate of occurrence. Perhaps that has happened enough in their neck of the woods that it's necessary?

-Murphy said...

There are loads of times in science courses where exposition on Creationism vs. Evolution just isn't germane to the exam.

Of course. My point is that it opens up a problem in the event that it is germane to the exam.

As for irrelevant . . . well, I guess some people thought the law needed clarification?

Possible. Though because it's based on a Texas law that was then used as a back-door way to get Creationism into science classes, I'm skeptical.

I can imagine a student being given a poor grade for writing a religious essay in english class as an event with a non-zero rate of occurrence. Perhaps that has happened enough in their neck of the woods that it's necessary?

That sounds like a First Amendment case to me.

Hal said...

Court precedent. Students have NO first amendment rights at school. At least, only what the school wants to give them.

Could you give more information about that Texas law? I'm curious how it became a backdoor for Creationism.

-Murphy said...

I think that's just incorrect. Tinker v. Des Moines established that students have at least some freedom of speech within schools (as well as clarifying that speech is not always spoken, which is I think the context it was presented in in my Government class in HS), though subsequent cases have put limitations on that, those are in the realm of indecency, school papers and support of illicit drug use, not religion and certainly not an over-arching "students have no First Amendment rights".

Do you have a cite for the precedent that does say that?

It's off topic, but I disagree with restricting speech which does promote illicit drug use, as well as some issues with "indecency" being decided by the government. There's the case of the kid who had her "Be Happy, Not Gay" shirt defaced by a school counselor, but she's suing the district with the help of the ACLU alleging free-speech restriction. If there were no first amendment rights in schools, it would seem like they wouldn't be pursuing this. Hopefully, the courts will find in favor of the girl and her right to wear whatever the hell she wants.

In a recent episode of the Skeptics' Guide, a professor of evolutionary biology and member of Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education expressed that the people bringing up the bill could provide no prior cases of religious discrimination in schools that would be protected by this bill.

Just about everything I can find suggests that this is a bill that's addressing something that's not a problem (I can't find cases of students in English class being marked down for talking about religion in their essay and suing someone about it, which you'd think would have happened if they're enacting laws to take care of the problem), is already more or less solved if it is (free-expression is restricted, but not totally and only in certain areas, none of which cover "writing about religion on an English exam), and so all the bill does is open a loophole by which a student could claim religious exemption from having to learn how science works by submitting "a religious viewpoint expressed... on an otherwise permissible subject."

Is it a stretch? Maybe. Not much of one, if you ask me, and even if it is, it seems to me to be that the legislation at best redundant and therefore already obsolete and at worst actively harmful, which makes it a bad bill.

Also, in that podcast, is the important distinction that it is not the plan of the school to force students to accept evolution, but rather to at least understand the theory, even if they choose to reject it.

As for the Texas bill, PZ Meyer has something up about it, though he's a bit alarmist about it, but he does make the important distinction that secular does not equal "anti-religious" and it's irresponsible of the bill to set it up that way.