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Category: Science & Skepticism (page 1 of 3)

Enlightened Ancestor: Dr. Benjamin West

I can thank my migraines for Dr. Benjamin West.

When I am anxious or don’t feel well, I often do genealogy research to take my mind off things. I have always enjoyed learning about family history, but really got bitten hard by the bug the first time I had cancer, in 1994. I was at home recuperating, on painkillers and other drugs that made concentrating difficult, and I found message boards on AOL that were all about genealogy. And my ancestors were there! I connected with some very distant cousins and compared notes. I started learning more and more about my origins.

It occurs to me that we are all the products of our parents, who are the products of their parents, who were the products of theirs, and so on. Our parents don’t just pass genetics on to us. Even when we disagree about things like politics or religion or how to raise our children, the values of our parents are distilled into us, just like the values of their parents were distilled into them. We find that professions tend to run in families – a  certain branch of the family may tend to be lawyers, writers, preachers, doctors, architects, artists, military, etc.

An obituary notice in a newspaper from 1822 led me to him. He was named as the father of one of my 5th great-grandmothers, a woman whose origins were completely unknown to me before that moment.  The man was phenomenal, and I don’t understand why every generation after him hasn’t continued to hold him up as the pinnacle of the Enlightenment. This guy’s brain was so huge and active I don’t know how it managed to stay confined in his skull.

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Benjamin West, from the Brown University Portrait Collection

Benjamin West was born in Bristol, Massachusetts in March 1730. I think of him as the Stephen Hawking of his day. His accomplishments in math and science are truly remarkable because he was an autodidact – his formal schooling lasted a whopping three months of his childhood. He was poor and had to borrow every book he read until about 1758, when he managed to find some backers to open a dry goods store. A couple of years later, he opened the first bookstore ever to grace the commercial avenues of Providence, Rhode Island. He managed to pay for the books he so desperately wanted by selling them to other people.

He married Elizabeth Smith, daughter of Benjamin Smith, in 1753 when he was 23.  They were married for 53 years and had eight children, only three of whom survived Benjamin. The 1822 death notice for his daughter, Mary Smith West (wife of Oliver Pearce), in a Providence newspaper, alerted me to him. The death notice that mentioned her father was “Dr. Benjamin West of Providence.” Mary West Pearce died in Fayetteville, NC. Her daughter, Eliza West Pearce, married Dr. Benjamin Robinson, that guy from Vermont who tested out that newfangled smallpox vaccine on his little brother and his brother’s friends and basically got run out of Bennington for his efforts. The science is strong in my family!

Benjamin West was a brilliant mathematician and astronomer. His buddies were the founders of Rhode Island College, which later became Brown University. He loved mathematics and astronomy, and conferred with some truly fantastic minds of his day. He published annual almanacs for Halifax, Nova Scotia and Providence, Rhode Island for nearly 40 years. He didn’t have the formal schooling necessary for good academic chops, though, and before he opened that dry goods and book store, he failed at operating a school. He tutored students privately for all of his adult life.

Astronomical Genius

In 1766, something would happen that ultimately would reverse his fortunes and open some gilded doors for him. A comet appeared in the constellation of Taurus on the evening of April 9. Being a good astronomer, Benjamin took careful measurements. The next day wrote a letter to an astronomer named John Winthrop who was at Cambridge College (now known as Harvard University). He had never met or corresponded with Winthrop, but was so excited about his observation he simply had to share it.

Providence, April 10, 1766

Dear Sir:

For the improvement of science, I now acquaint you, that the last evening, I saw in the West, a comet, which I judged to be about the middle of the sign of Taurus; with about 7 degrees North latitude. It set half after 8 o’clock by my watch; and its amplitude was about 29 or 30 degrees. Nothing, Sir, could have induced me to this freedom of writing to you, but the love I have for the sciences; and I flatter myself that you will, on that account, the more readily overlook it.

I am, Sir, yours,

Benjamin West

He and Winthrop became great friends and continued to write each other. For the rest of their lives they would share observations about the night sky.

1769 Transit of the Planets

Johannes Kepler and Edmund Halley figured out how to apply the theory of parallax to determine the distances between astronomical bodies.  With both Mercury and Venus predicted to pass between the Earth and the Sun in 1769, astronomers worldwide were anxious to test the theory. Since this was the first really good opportunity to view the transits of both inner planets since Kepler’s original accurate prediction in 1627 of the 1631 transit, everyone in the field of astronomy was excited. Captain Cook would famously observe the 1769 transit of Venus from Tahiti while on his ill-fated circumnavigation and while bringing European diseases and disharmony to the South Pacific. At the time of the last transit of Venus in 1761, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who had just finished their survey of the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, had traveled to the Cape of Good Hope to observe it. All of these men used astronomy as an important part of their lives – navigating the oceans and surveying the land required precise measurements, and measurements started with the stars.

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Telescope used by Benjamin West, at Providence, Rhode Island, to observe the 1769 transit of Venus. Ladd Observatory, Brown University

There was no telescope in Providence in 1769. Benjamin West, Stephen Hopkins (the signer of the Declaration and great-grandson of the Mayflower passenger) and the four famous Brown brothers – they were among the founders of Rhode Island College, later known as Brown University – were determined to see the phenomenon, though, so they managed to import a telescope from England at the incredible expense of 500 pounds.  They set up on the outskirts of Providence. Transit Street in Providence is named after the spot where they viewed the transit on June 3, 1769. There are photos of the telescope on the Brown University website – the school still has it.

benjamin-wests-diagram-of-the-1769-transit-of-venus

Benjamin West’s diagram of the transit of Venus, 1769, from the Ladd Observatory, Brown University

As was his habit, Benjamin West made careful measurements of the transit. He published a tract (and dedicated it to his friend Stephen Hopkins) about the event. A copy of the tract made its way to John Winthrop at Harvard, and on July 18, 1770, Benjamin West – the man with only three months of formal education – was awarded an honorary Master of Arts from Harvard. Here’s the text of the notification letter from John Winthrop:

Cambridge, July 19, 1770

Sir —

I have the pleasure to acquaint you that the government of this college were pleased, yesterday, to confer upon you the Honorary degree of Master of Arts; upon which I sincerely congratulate you. I acknowledge the receipt of your favour, and shall be glad to compare any observations of the satellites.

Yours, &c.

John Winthrop

 

American Academy of Arts and Sciences: the American Philosophical Society

That same year, Benjamin West was unanimously elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia – the American colonial version of Great Britain’s Royal Society. He would meet and befriend another author and publisher of almanacs there: a fellow named Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin West was still primarily a merchant at this time, and the Revolution was on its way. When full-blown war finally arrived, commerce dried up. He went to work manufacturing clothing for the American troops. He continued his studies and his correspondence with the other great minds, though.

Mathematics was Benjamin’s first love. In 1773 he wrote to a friend in Boston of a theorem he had developed to extract “the roots of odd powers” that was probably his greatest contribution to the field of mathematics. That’s right – he discovered a math formula that I can’t even begin to hope to understand, but other really smart people who could math really well understood it and lauded him for it. When he finally explained his theorem to other math geniuses in 1781, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences not only published it in one of their earliest journals but unanimously elected him to membership and awarded him a diploma. It was his second honorary academic degree, and he still supported by only three months of formal education. The theorem caught the attention of the European mathematical geniuses, who, giddy with discovery, also published it. Benjamin West, already pretty cool, became seriously hot stuff.

He didn’t stop at math and astronomical observations, though. One of the biographies I found explained a physics problem he cogitated upon for more than two years in conjunction with John Winthrop and a Mr. Oliver. It had to do with the properties of air in a copper tube that was then put into an otherwise airless container. The qualities of invisible gases – basically, the scientific understanding of the very concept of the physical nature and properties of “air” – was in its infancy. Our ancestor speculated about the attractive and repulsive nature of the tiny particles that made up the matter of air – what we now call its molecules – and how they would behave under different conditions. Gravity, matter, magnetism, and ultimately the behavior of the tails of comets played into his understanding of the question. This is stuff my brain simply isn’t big enough to handle.

Benjamin West’s mind was at the peak of its illuminating brilliance as the world around him heaved. His most important discoveries and writings happened as the American Revolution was about to explode.  By the end of the Revolution, he had returned to academic pursuits. He tutored students in math and astronomy. He still wasn’t rich; despite his prominence in academics he never became particularly wealthy. The well-endowed founders of what would become Brown University had not forgotten their friend, though. In 1786, he was elected to a full professorship there.

For some reason, he did not begin teaching at Brown for a couple of years. Probably because of his honors and his friendship with Ben Franklin and the rest of the gang at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Benjamin West was invited to teach at the illustrious Protestant Episcopal Academy there. The name of that school is familiar to members of my father’s family.  Although Benjamin West was the direct ancestor of my Arkansas-born mother, my dad, an Irish-Italian kid who grew up in the Philly suburb of Gladwyne, went to school at Philadelphia’s Episcopal Academy while his dad coached its sports teams. (Insert refrain from “Circle of Life” here.)

Brown University awarded Dr. West his first non-honorary degree, his Doctor of Laws, in 1792. He taught mathematics and astronomy there from 1788 until 1799. Then he opened a school of navigation and taught astronomy to seafaring men. Like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, this man loved to teach other people the wonders of the universe.

I’m proud of him for another reason, too: Benjamin West was a member of an active abolitionist group in Providence.

I’ve found several contemporary biographical accounts for Benjamin West. They are typical of their time: purple prose and flowery metaphors abound. They all reach one conclusion: Benjamin West was a genius. He was a determinedly self-educated man who contributed considerably to the arts of science and mathematics during his lifetime. He was truly a product of the Age of Enlightenment: a self-educated, self-made man whose gifts and prominence considerably exceeded his bank account.

This discovery of my ancestor Benjamin West is exactly why genealogy research is so rewarding. And given the anxiety-provoking events of November 8, I expect to be doing a lot more of it – in between my stepped-up schedule of political activities, that is.

______

Bibliography:

American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Book of Members  (2016 edition), p. 252. Entry for Benjamin West, elected 1781, Fellow. Residence and Affiliation at election: Providence, RI. Career description: Astronomer, Educator, Businessperson, Book of Members; American Academy of Arts & Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Leonard Bliss, The History of Rehoboth, Bristol County, Massachusetts:  Comprising a History of the Present Towns of Rehoboth, Seekonk, and Pawtucket, From Their Settlement to the Present Time (Boston:  Otis, Broaders, and Company, 1836). Google Books

Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment, Entry for Benjamin West (1730-1813), pp. 1096-1097. https://books.google.com/books?id=qZ2yBwAAQBAJ&lpg=PA1096&dq

Louise Hall, “Family Records: Newby Bible”, New England Historical and Genealogical Register 122 (Apr 1968):  125-128, 125.

Martha Mitchell, “Benjamin West”, Encyclopedia Brunoniana (1993). https://www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/Databases/Encyclopedia/search.php?serial=W0170

John Chauncey Pease, John Milton Niles, A Gazetteer of the States of Connecticut and Rhode-Island:   (Hartford:  William S. Marsh, 1819), 331-333. Biographical entry for Dr. Benjamin West.  Google Books.

Unattributed, “Biography of Benjamin West, L.L.D.  A.A.S.:  Professor of Mathematicks, Astronomy and Natural Philosophy, in Rhode Island College – and Fellow of the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, &c.”, The Rhode Island Literary Repository Vol I, No. 7 (October 1814):  137-160 (337-360), http://books.google.com/books?id=HLQRAAAAYAAJ.  Google Books.

Benjamin West Papers; Rhode Island Historical Society Library, 121 Hope Street
Providence, RI 02906. http://www.rihs.org/mssinv/Mss794.htm.

Drug Testing: the Wrong Results

Slowly She Dissolves, by Melinda Green Harvey

Slowly She Dissolves, by Melinda Green Harvey

When I was a law student, I took a class on environmental law. One of the subjects I was interested in was contamination by secondary exposure. Direct exposure is obvious and often quantifiable. Indirect or secondary exposure – in the form of things like acid rain or second-hand smoke – was more complex and harder to quantify and prove. I was also fascinated by the possibility of false positive and false negative results from the testing methods available at the time. These tests were being used to fight coal-fired power plants and to hold cigarette manufacturers liable for the lung cancer of non-smokers. They were also being used to ferret out pot smokers and recreational users of certain prescription medications.

It was 1988. The Reagans were in the White House. Nancy’s “Just Say No” campaign was wildly popular among people who had no clue about how teenagers test boundaries. That year saw a wave of employers demanding that their employees take drug tests either before beginning employment, after an accident, or randomly. Aside from the 4th Amendment issues (which only applied to the government employers), dissenters raised objections to false positive test results that could damage not only someone’s career but their reputations and future employability. Being a child of the 70’s and 80’s, I was at least passingly familiar with the concept of the “contact high.” Could a person’s off-duty social associations cause him to lose his job? I decided to investigate the matter.

I researched the science, not just the law. I learned that something as ordinary as a poppy seed bagel or over-the-counter antihistamines could skew test results. There was no way to differentiate between someone who had ingested the substance illicitly or simply gone to a concert and been assigned a seat near people who were smoking weed. The science could test for the presence of the chemicals, but could not say how they had gotten into the person’s body or whether the person was feeling the effects of the substance at the time of testing.

Five years later I had a very active family law practice. I handled quite a few employment law cases, too. Drug testing came up over and over again. Knowing what I did, I discouraged clients from attacking each other for drug use unless it was seriously interfering with parenting responsibilities – and not just because of the false positives and false negatives. Usually if one parent partakes, the other parent will have been exposed, if they didn’t themselves indulge. The employment cases were the worst, though.

All it took was an accident that was someone else’s fault to trigger a drug test under most employers’ policies. I remember a truck driver who hired me who said yes, for the first time in 20 years he had smoked a joint at his college reunion a few days before the accident. He wasn’t high when it happened, but lost a $70,000/year job when a woman driving another vehicle ran a stop sign. He swerved to miss her and ended up in a ditch. He was fired because of the drug test, not because of the accident.

I remember the 60+ year old woman who was told she had failed a pre-employment drug test. This woman had been out of work for more than a year because the plant where she had worked closed. She had had to give up her home of 40 years and move in with her daughter. She was looking forward to independence again. Our investigation revealed that the test samples had probably been switched accidently, either at the lab or by whoever had collected the samples. A long-haired hippie-type person had the job she had applied for, and in a fit of profiling she just knew he was actually the one with the drugs in his system. Her preacher, though, in whom she had confided the devastating test results, had condemned her and was counseling her to get help for her non-existent addiction. She was humiliated and literally sick over it.

By 2000, there were lots of products on the market specifically marketed to people who needed to beat a drug test. Substance abuse was an issue in at least half of the custody cases I tried, and maybe more. Every single client – and every single opposing party – knew about these products. They weren’t 100% reliable, but I didn’t have any clients who submitted to a drug test without using the products if there was time for them to do so. Those who I knew used drugs were made aware that in-court testing was a possibility. While I couldn’t tell them to destroy the evidence, I could tell them to be ready to be tested. With a few exceptions, they were all smart enough to take steps.

drug testing - hair follicle collectionThen there was the grandmother who was suing for custody of her badly neglected grandchildren. She didn’t use drugs. She was asking for custody because her daughter and son in law did, and because of their drug use they didn’t take care of their children adequately. She had asked for drug testing knowing that she would pass easily and that the parents would fail any drug test they were ordered to take. The judge ordered everyone to be tested. The grandmother had gone to a James Taylor concert at Alltell Arena and breathed in that second-hand marijuana smoke. Her grandchildren ended up in foster care.

Then came hair follicle testing. Follicle testing was more foolproof and harder to beat, the testing centers and manufacturers claimed. It wasn’t long before the shampoos and rinses were marketed in the same places as those flushing solutions. “You cannot beat a hair test,” one site still boasts. It’s wrong. Even if the test shows positive, it doesn’t explain how the substance got there.

It made me think of the rumor I had heard back in the 1980’s when cocaine use was rampant in the United States. It was said that traces of cocaine could be found on nearly every American $100 in circulation. Partiers would roll the bill into a straw and snort the powder through it. This level of contamination is still the case, and the bills don’t even have to be used directly with the cocaine. They can get contaminated inside currency-counting machines at the bank. Imagine handling one of those bank-contaminated bills that you just withdrew to pay your lawyer, them smoothing a stray strand of hair. Then imagine that you are sent directly for a drug test, and despite the fact that you have never in your life even seen cocaine, much less used it, your drug test comes back positive for the drug. It doesn’t have to be in your system to count. It just has to be in your hair. And once again, you are placed in the position of having to explain how it got there, and proving the negative of the drug use that you are now presumed to engage in.

With the announcement from the American Chemical Society last week that steps taken to remove secondary contamination from hair being drug tested actually washes cocaine into the hair shaft, the most reliable of these unreliable tests just became even less reliable.

Science gives us a lot, but it is not a panacea and never will be. It answers some questions, but answering those tends to lead to more that need to be asked. Whether in the courtroom or just in everyday life, we need to remember to ask those questions that logically come next. Science can then begin investigating them and working to find the answers.

Drug testing is too fallible to be reliable. A positive drug test tells us virtually nothing. It doesn’t prove frequent use or addiction. It doesn’t prove use at all – and it never has.

Why I Don’t Want My Country Back

I keep hearing people say, “I want my country back.” I don’t understand why they want to regress rather than progress.

We have within our voting booths, email accounts, and voices the ability to make this country truly great. We should use them to make great things happen.

But, to go back?

I would not want to take my country back to a time when a state religion was mandated. The autodidacts of the Enlightenment gave us a gift when, first in the Virginia Declaration and then in the First Amendment, they mandated that states have to stay out of the religion business. By necessity this meant that religion also has to stay out of state business. The last “established church” (in Connecticut) was done away with in 1813 .

conn church

Congregationalist Church in Enfield, Conn. Remember Jonathan Edwards and his bombastic sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God“?

There are political leaders today who claim they want to take the country back to a time when religion invaded every nook and cranny of political life. They’re asking for witch trials, criminal prosecutions for wearing lace, fines for not going to church, taxes that support one church but not anther.

Whose religion will the state support in that scenario? And whose interpretation of that religion? Will we end up in a bloody civil war over predestination and evangelism? Will atheists be burned at the stake? We have a lot of work to do in this area so that the American public understands what the founding fathers did: a secular state is the only one that can possibly serve all of its citizens. I sure wouldn’t go back to a time when states were able to mandate religion, before the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1864 that finally required all of the states to abide by the Bill of Rights. I don’t want that country back.

Other important Amendments to the Constitution were also passed in those heady days immediately following the Civil War, like the one that abolished slavery and the other one that extended the right to vote to every citizen regardless of race. I wouldn’t want to take my country back to a time when an entire demographic was enslaved and marginalized, disenfranchised and dispossessed of even basic human dignity.

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Credit: Bob Daugherty/Associated Press, 1964

We’ve already lost some of the protections minorities had against the privileged majority with the loss of the Voting Rights Act. The ballot box is still under siege from people who would make it harder for the poor, the young, and the elderly to vote. We have to get more people to the polls on every election day, and we have to pass laws reforming campaign finance so that elections are actually decided on the merits of the candidate’s platform and not on the size of their sponsor’s bank accounts. Who wants to live in a country where elections go to the highest bidder? Not me.

As a woman, I wouldn’t want to take my country back to an era when I would not have  had a voice in politics. That means I wouldn’t go back to a time before the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919.

suffragettes

Suffrage parade, New York City, May 6, 1912

I wouldn’t ever want to go back to a time when a woman’s “place” was barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. Shackling women to their homes and children, shaming them for working and for success in other endeavors, removing from them their rights to own property or even have guardianship of their own children does an extreme disservice to half the population. That means I wouldn’t take my country back to the time before World War II, when so many women joined the iconic Rosie the Riveter in the workforce.

apron and satan

Discouraging girls from achieving their dream occupation shortchanges not just them, but our entire society. We can all benefit from the power of a brain enthusiastically focused on doing something worthwhile. If we tell boys they can be firemen or doctors  but tell girls they’ll be someone’s wife, we effectively tell our daughters that they will identify themselves by someone else’s name and someone else’s achievements. We send our girls the message that they aren’t good enough tall by themselves.  If that’s what we would return to, I don’t want that country back.

MRS degree

We hear people say they want to return to the values of the 1950’s, when June Cleaver vacuumed her comfortable home in heels and pearls, when Wally and the Beav could roam the neighborhood without supervision, where Ward wore a suit and held the same white collar job for years without stress. I have news for those people: The Cleavers were fiction. They didn’t exist except on television. Neither did that perfectly well-adjusted, large, blended Brady family in the 1970’s. When we say we want our country back, we say we long for only the good parts of a fictional, idealized era where no bad happened. It doesn’t exist and it never did.

Now is better, but it still isn’t good enough. There aren’t enough women yet in positions of power.  Women are capable business and community leaders. There still aren’t enough female CEOs of major corporations, there aren’t enough women in politics, there aren’t enough women of high rank in the military, there aren’t enough women in STEM fields, and women still don’t have the earning power of men.

We made progress in this country when becoming pregnant didn’t automatically trigger wedding bells at the business end of the proverbial shotgun.  We made progress when not just women but men were given the option of leaving bad marriages without suffering social opprobrium. We still need to improve our laws so that single parents have more support from society, so that they can earn a living wage and still have time to spend with their children. Child care needs to be more affordable and widely available so that single parents as well as married women who want financial independence aren’t prevented from reaching for it because they can’t afford to. Truly, as a society, we can’t afford for them not to.

I wouldn’t go back to a time when Jim Crow was not only the unwritten law of the land, but enshrined in statutes. This means I wouldn’t go back to a time before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, or even before Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.

Let’s not take our country back to a time when a family was prevented from moving next door to us simply because of the color of their skin, or when our a playmates were prevented from going to the same school as we did – again, because of the color of their skin. This means I wouldn’t want take the country back to a time before 1968 when the Fair Housing Act became law. My hometown’s schools were integrated in 1968 – the year I started first grade – and I’m glad it didn’t take still longer.

No, I would not want to take this country back to a time when people I knew and enjoyed as friends were treated like second-class citizens, not considered good enough to drink from the same water fountain as I could or to use the same public restroom as I did. We got rid of those statutes and are still fighting an uphill battle for racial equality and equal opportunity. We still have to deal with privilege and marginalization. It’s better, but it still isn’t good.

We haven’t made enough progress in this department: we are incarcerating practically the entire demographic of black males, forever foreclosing their capacity to contribute to society or even to their families in any meaningful way. Young black men get profiled and executed in the streets. The sentences imposed for minor crimes are not only excessive,m they are applied disproportionately along racial lines. Our prisons are focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation and successful reentry to society. They days of lynchings aren’t really over – they just look different. We have a lot more work to do.

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Image from a 1920 lynching in Texas, via Wikimedia Commons

Our society made progress in my lifetime when women were finally granted the right to defend our bodies against unwanted intruders, be they marital rapists or unwanted pregnancies. We haven’t made nearly enough progress in this area, even though we thought we had won it 40 years ago; a woman’s right to decide how and when her body will be used is under a concerted and coordinated attack from those who would reduce women to incubators.  That means I don’t want to take the country back to a pre-1973 world, where Roe v. Wade didn’t protect my body from involuntary servitude to an organism that might kill me. I was eleven years old when that case was decided. No, I wouldn’t go back, even though summers seemed to last forever back then.

I would never, ever want to go back to a time where education of the young was the province of churches, or that religion was allowed in the classroom. We made excellent progress in this regard – again, within my lifetime – and it is under constant threat from teachers who tell children they aren’t Christian enough (this is a state mandating religion again) or who deny evolution and other proven scientific theories (because their preachers tell them to).

In fact, we as a society don’t do enough to ensure that our population is educated. There is a significant segment of the American population that is anti-intellectual and proud of it. (I’m looking at you, Sarah Palin.) These people not only stymie the efforts of good brains, they threaten our nation’s ability to compete in the world’s markets, our health, and our standard of living. We have a lot more work to do in this area. Until every person in the country has access to affordable higher education, we undermine our growth both intellectually and economically.

And this brings me to pseudoscience. We may not have stereotypical snake oil salesmen on every street corner, but we do have quacks on television and Playboy Playmates (TM), all of whom have large soapboxes from which to sell modern-day snake oil in the form of fad diets, homeopathy, and “nutritional” supplements, and who undermine and misrepresent scientific progress.

Polio has become almost nonexistent in my lifetime. Diphtheria has virtually disappeared during my parents’ lifetimes. Smallpox was eradicated in my lifetime.  I would never want to take my country back to a time before antibiotics, vaccines, and modern surgical techniques. That means I don’t want last year’s country back.

But we need to do more to improve health and welfare. We can’t do it if our teachers won’t teach the theory of evolution and idiots without scientific training claim vaccines cause autism. We also can’t do it if every poorly-tested drug is advertised to the uneducated masses. We need to make more progress in this area.

I’ve now brought us into the present. I definitely don’t want to go back to any of what I’ve described.

Moving forward is the only option I see.

country back

You can get this on a t-shirt. Click the image to order.

Evolution Designs a Better Mouse Trap

A pitcher plant that devours rodents! What’ll them crazy evolution folks think of next?

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. A carnivorous plant in a swamp in Australia eats rats. Rat-creatures are not indigenous to Australia, so finding something that will eat them is a very good thing for Australia, albeit a very bad thing for rats set on world domination.

Nepenthes tenax

2.6 inches across and 6 inches long. I can think of something else that shares those approximate dimensions, but I wouldn’t recommend placing it close to toothy rodents.

 

Cape York is the northeastern-most tip of Australia, a short boat ride from Papua New Guinea where there are many carnivorous plants. Nepenthes tenax is the third variety of Nepenthes, or pitcher plant, to be found in north Queensland. It and N. rowanae are both endemic to Australia, very rare, and found nowhere else. When sea levels were lower, Australia and Papua New Guinea were connected by a land bridge.

cape york

Most carnivorous plants consume insects. Even the giant cobra lilies and arums, which include the largest flowers in the world, attract only bugs and not larger animals such as reptiles or mammals. However, there are a number of pitcher plants in the region that includes Sumatra, Borneo, Papua New Guinea, and Cape York, which grow large enough to trap the occasional small critter like lizards.

N. tenax grows pitchers large enough to trap slightly larger creatures, though. The pitchers grow to about 15 cm wide – about 6 inches across – and apparently earn the name “tenax,” which means “tenacious” in Latin. The Daily Mail, that photo-intensive news source, has some pretty good photos that show the size of this plant.

Charles Clarke, an ecologist with James Cook University discovered the N. tenax in 2012. Because of its rarity, the exact location of the discovery has not been revealed. Hopefully, like the Wollemi Pine discovered there a few years ago, Australia’s ecologists and nurseries can work together to breed the plant in large enough numbers to preserve it and prevent poaching, which could endanger such a rare species. Seeds are already for sale.

Other pitcher plants large enough to consume small mammals, lizards, and birds have been discovered elsewhere. In 2007, one was found in the Philippines that could devour mice. A couple of years later it was officially named in honor of Sir David Attenborough.

nepenthes attenboroughii

That means that now Sir David has ten living species named in his honor, and two more that are extinct.

And here’s one, from the same area but grown in Britain, that consumed a bird:

We wonder when a rabbit-eating plant might be found, because we hear those are a real problem Down Under. Australia evolves things to kill other things, so it’s possible.

Rapert’s Utopian Theocracy Defines Marriage

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette gave significant print space today to state senator Jason Rapert to let him deny that he ever called for Judge Chris Piazza’s impeachment. (It seems the paper printed the story, and then refused to issue a correction despite Rapert’s demands, so they allowed him to submit a “guest column.”)

You may recall that Judge Piazza declared the ban against same sex marriages unconstitutional, which raised Rapert’s Neanderthal hackles. Rapert’s screed focused on the will of the people as opposed to the foundational laws of our country – at least, the will of 753,770 people who voted a decade ago against letting any pair of consenting adults marry.

Oh, and God, God, God. Because God. Or, at least, Senator Rapert’s version of a god.

From Rapert’s essay:

I believe the current culture war on marriage between one man and one woman is a symptom of the degradation of the fundamental principle that is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution–that our government is based upon “We the People.”

We, the people of this country and of each state, do indeed elect those who make our laws. Occasionally, in the case of a referendum (the ban on same sex marriage was a referendum back in 2004), we the people actually vote on whether something should be a law. But we don’t all vote – not even when we’re eligible.

Judge Piazza decided that 750,000 individual citizens of our great state, representing 75 percent of the electorate at the time, were wrong, and their sense of morality and beliefs no longer mean anything in Arkansas. In reality, he rendered a judgment essentially saying that the will of an overwhelming majority of the people in our state means nothing and their votes do not count.

But did the majority of Arkansans, actually reject same sex marriage? Did we, the Arkansas people, actually speak with a strong voice about this matter?

Arkansas has a population of around 3 million people, 3/4 of which are over 18. According to the United States Election Project, 54% of the population eligible to vote in Arkansas made it to the polls in November 2004, when the legislature’s referendum was on the ballot. The total turnout was 1,070,573 – about a third of the actual population of the state. Nearly 2 million Arkansans were eligible to vote.

About 1/4 of the population of the state was sufficiently incensed over the notion that equality might happen that they beat a path to the polls in that election to vote against equal marriage rights for their LGBT neighbors, friends, and family members. Not a majority of the population. Not even a majority of the population over 18 or a majority of eligible voters. Just a majority of people who voted on that issue decided to maintain an unequal status quo.

It gets better:

Judge Piazza and activist judges like him … are saying they no longer respect the values, traditions and mores of the majority of the population in our nation and that they singularly have the right to impose the will of a small vocal group upon the rest of our state and the nation.

More than anything, this quote from his essay underscores Sen. Rapert’s lack of understanding of both the concept of separation of powers and the role of the judicial branch of government. It also tells me that a man charged with the responsibility of making laws does not understand that there is this foundational document called the United States Constitution that gives him – and the judges who overrule him – that authority. The U.S. Constitution and the Arkansas Constitution define the roles of each branch of government and explains how checks and balances work. Where state and federal laws conflict, federal law trumps.

Changing that foundational document takes much more than the proverbial “act of congress,” and ever since Marbury v. Madison was decided in 1803, the judicial branch was confirmed as that branch of government endowed with the responsibility of interpreting how laws should be applied. Therefore, judges like Chris Piazza are doing their jobs – not engaging in activism – when they interpret laws withing a constitutional framework. We don’t have to like their decisions. If we don’t like their decisions enough, we can appeal them to a higher court, until the buck stops with the US Supreme Court. Ultimately, the language of the United States Constitution applies.

Jason Rapert and his ilk don’t like the decision. Rather than wait for the appellate process to weave its constitutional magic, they scream like banshees at the idea that other human beings – human beings who are a tiny bit different from them – will get treated like actual full citizens of this state and country.

Rapert felt the need to make a number of points about how awful it is for the nasty homos to call themselves a family:

As for the context of the debate raging in our nation and now in Arkansas over same-sex marriage, there are a few things that must be said.

First, honoring the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman whether out of a sense of morality or based upon one’s religious faith does not mean that a person hates homosexuals.

With this quote, we see what the problem is. Jason Rapert really wants to live in a Christian theocracy. Of course, not a theocracy defined by, say, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Quakers, or Evangelical Lutherans. Nope – he wants a Southern Baptist or fundamentalist evangelical theocracy. In other words, if someone else’s religious beliefs don’t mesh with Rapert’s, then they obviously shouldn’t have the right to hold those beliefs.

And he doesn’t hate homosexuals – he just doesn’t think they are really “people” and that they shouldn’t have the same rights to the pursuit of happiness as “real” people. Of course he doesn’t hate them. How can you hate someone that isn’t really a person? It would be like hating a doll or a tree or a puppy. It’s like accusing an atheist of hating God. It’s not possible to hate something that doesn’t exist.

Rapert’s claim of a “sanctity” of marriage is the big giveaway. Marriage is a contract between two people. It isn’t a sacred state; it’s a legal one. Sure, the couple can have their marriage blessed, and because that blessing is important to many people the state generously allows religious leaders to file their credentials with the state and empowers them to confirm the existence of the marriage in a religious ceremony. The bottom line, though, is that the state has the final say over whether someone is married or not and over who can sign the marriage license. The legal documents have to be in order. The mere act of blessing the couple’s union is not sufficient to marry them. And by virtue of their elected or appointed office, nonreligious people also have the power to marry people.

Furthermore, to dissolve a marriage is akin to dissolving any other legally binding contract. What the state has joined together, the state must split asunder.

barbados-gay-marriage

This is the sanctity Rapert wants to protect. Seriously.

Rapert goes a step further in his “I don’t hate” insistence:

I do not personally hate anyone who has chosen a homosexual lifestyle and I believe they should be able to live their lives in peace like anyone else.

Really? Then why is he so gung-ho to deny them the basic and fundamental right to form a family with the partner of their choice? Why does he want to deny them the rights that heterosexual spouses have when it comes to matters like health care decisions? Why does he want to deprive them of inheritance and property rights like dower and curtesy? Why does he want to deprive them of the parental rights to children they have raised together? Why does he want to deny them the tax status granted to legally married partners? Why does he want to deny them the ability to obtain insurance as a family?  Why does he want to deny them retirement benefits a spouse would normally get automatically? Why does he want to refuse them the privilege of not testifying against each other in court? Clearly, he does not want them to be able to have the same rights, privileges, and protections “like anyone else.”

Oh, there’s a reason for that, according to Senator Brother Rapert. “[M]arriage is integral to the concept of family, and research shows that children are given the best opportunity for well-rounded social development when they are raised in homes with a mother and father.”

Sure, children do better when there are more adults with a hand in child rearing. The gender of the parent-figure doesn’t matter, nor does the gender orientation of that parental figure. The fact that there is a stable home with the same adults in the household matters.

Not just one, but several factors tend to forecast a happy, successful child. Stability of the family is a paramount predictor of a child’s success. Based on all the research gathered to date, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) has concluded that “[l]ike all children, most children with LGBT parents will have both good and bad times. They are not more likely than children of heterosexual parents to develop emotional or behavioral problems.”

Canada agrees. In 2006, the Canadian Psychological Association reiterated its 2003 position on the issue:

CPA continues to assert its 2003 position that the psychological literature into the psychosocial adjustment and functioning of children fails to demonstrate any significant differences between children raised within families with heterosexual parents and those raised within families with gay and lesbian parents. CPA further asserts that children stand to benefit from the well-being that results when their parents’ relationship is recognized and supported by society’s institutions.

Therefore, if this is all about the children, validating the union of same-sex parents will go much farther to stabilize families than telling the kids that they don’t have a “real” family at all.

Senator Rapert calls a marriage between one man and one woman “natural” marriage. Once again, he displays his ignorance on a sleeve.

Marriage is whatever the law deems it to be. Let’s look at how marriage laws used to be:

Biblical-Marriage-Infographic

Click to embiggen and read this wonderful infographic that comes complete with citations.

 

Out of all that, he picks only one style of marriage to be “natural.” Blinders make the world a lot less expansive, don’t they?

Mildred Loving might find his comments ludicrously funny. She would have noted the irony that completely escaped Justice Clarence Thomas in his dissent in the DOMA and Prop 8 cases that were decided a year ago: but for a US Supreme Court finding that equal protection was violated by the anti-miscegenation statutes on the books of many of the states, his own marriage and family would not be recognized as valid.

US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his melanin-challenged wife, Virginia Lamp Thomas

US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his melanin-challenged wife, Virginia Lamp Thomas

Senator Rapert claims he’s not prejudiced.

Fourth, the tactics of intimidation toward those who object to same-sex marriage, including comparisons to racism, are unfair, unwarranted and shameful. When I was invited to join over 100 African American pastors on the steps of the Arkansas Capitol just a few days ago as they took a public stand for marriage between one man and one woman, that argument began to fall completely apart.

He actually wants us to believe that his embarrassingly solitary white face in that crowd of black pastors was because they invited him, not the other way around.

black rapert

Jason Rapert lies, therefore his argument is invalid.

The comparison to racism is unfair? Why? Because giving equal rights to people born with a different skin color is different somehow from giving equal rights to people born with a different gender orientation?

Let’s imagine for a moment that in 1859, there was a vote in some slave state (just for giggles, let’s pick Arkansas) to preserve the status quo and make it illegal for the government to free the slaves. Heck, let’s take it one step further and suggest that in this vote, any black people who weren’t slaves would automatically become slaves unless they left the state before the end of the year. The state was determined to maintain an unequal status quo.

Impossible, you think?

Nope. That totally happened.

Rapert then claims that the bad press he’s gotten is because people don’t like his “stance on marriage and also as the sponsor of the Arkansas Heartbeat Protection Act.” He is absolutely right. His ideas are completely repulsive to those of us who value our individual liberties, autonomy over our own bodies, and the freedom to make very personal choices for ourselves. He claims that these are the acts of “liberal extremists.”

If only “liberal extremists” are in favor of same sex marriage, then we have generations of “liberal extremists” to look forward to. Liberal policies are the hallmark of progress, while conservative policies tend to be just the opposite. Senator Rapert, like many Tea Party Republicans, goes beyond maintaining a status quo, though. His policies are regressive and authoritarian. Passing statutes for no good reason other that wanting to deny equal rights to a segment of society they find distasteful is a reprehensible way to govern. He does not deserve the office he holds, nor do his like-minded comrades in office. Their policies are fascist.

It’s all about Senator Rapert’s religion, when it comes right down to it:

The America I was taught to honor and respect would never force Christians to do anything that violated the tenets of their beliefs. We have freedom of religion in this nation, not freedom from religion altogether.

No one is forcing anyone else to get gay-married. They aren’t forcing them to go gay-grocery shopping or to gay-teach students. No hate-filled Christian has to have gay sex or even decorate with glitter or rainbows. They don’t have to hire gay interior decorators, get their air trimmed by gay stylists, or wear clothes designed by gay designers. They also don’t have to benefit from the use of computers conceived by gay Alan Turing or read books and plays by gay Oscar Wilde or Gore Vidal. They can switch the channel when Ellen comes on. They can boycott Wachowski films like the Matrix trilogy, Cloud Atlas, and V for Vendetta. They don’t have to patronize LGBT businesses and art any more than LGBT people have to patronize those who proudly proclaim their prejudices and hate.

What they cannot do, though, is refuse service to any LGBT person on account of their hate. As it did upon the demise of Jim Crow laws, the Heart of Atlanta case will provide the precedent to prevent discrimination by businesses through the application of the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution.

Oh, and that dig about freedom from religion? Yes, that’s actually a thing. It’s also the law. If we don’t have freedom from religion, we can’t possibly have freedom of religion. Otherwise, courts would be in the business of establishing religion, and telling us which tenets we have to observe and which we don’t. And the First Amendment to the US Constitution says that can’t happen.

But Senator Rapert feels victimized:

It is very interesting that Christians are targeted so heavily with the venom of the homosexual lobby because most all other major faith traditions do not embrace homosexual marriage either, including Islam.

I would suggest to Senator Rapert that perhaps because they invoke their religion as the reason someone else can’t do something, they seek to establish their religion as the law of this country. And like I mentioned above, they don’t want to establish the denominations that are tolerant of other people’s private behaviors. They want to establish an authoritarian, restrictive, invasive religion. That is entirely, absolutely, completely, and decidedly unacceptable. If the Muslims were the ones doing the screaming and quoting the Qur’an as the reason we shouldn’t allow certain people equal rights, Senator Rapert and his troglodyte cronies had better believe that the American people would object to that, too.

I’m not even going to respond to the whole God thing Senator Rapert spewed on and on about in his column. The United States of America is not a theocracy, and Senator Rapert and his ilk may not cherry-pick their favorite version of the Bible to oppress people with Iron Age laws. If immigration rates continue the way they have been, pretty soon a majority of Americans will be Papists. Does he want a Catholic nation just because the majority of the population attends mass?

If the basis for a law is Biblical, it should immediately be suspect, and it should bear intense scrutiny. The science and research do not support these laws, no matter what they are.

Arkansas voters and legislators have an unpleasant history of maintaining an unequal status quo. When men make decisions for how a woman may take care of her own body, when straight people make decisions for how gay people may create and care for their families, when white people make decisions about whether black people can take part in the electoral process, there is a very real danger that the dominant and privileged among our population can – and will – oppress those whose voices are not as strong. That’s why the constitutional safeguards of equal protection and due process exist.

Oh, and

P.S. It’s not “activism” for a judge to uphold the constitution.

Teaching Children Critical Thinking

I get asked a lot about how I approached the question of religion when my son was young. Did I insist that he follow my lack of belief?

No, I did not. That he has a vivid imagination but a rational and humanistic lifestance is attributable, I think, to making sure he knew how to think for himself.

One of the things we most urgently need to instill in our children is the to think critically about the world around us. Not just when it comes to religion, but when politics, ethics, and personal conflicts are in issue, having the skill to think rationally about things is crucial to a better life.

carlin question everything

I taught my child to question everything. Lots of times, I taught him to do it by asking him questions. Yes, my son was raised by Socratic Method. We had rules, but we felt it was important for him to understand the reasoning behind the rules.

  1. I never said no to him without giving him a reason. “Because I said so” is not a reason. “Because I don’t feel like it” is.
  2. If he calmly and rationally rebutted me, I listened. If his argument was better than mine, I changed my position. That being said, if he was argumentative or rude, he automatically lost the argument and often got sent to his room to calm down. If only this process were observed in the political arena, we’d be in great shape!
  3. We explored his questions and his interests together. We did science experiments in the kitchen and back yard. And because Dinosaurs Are Awesome, we kept a notebook full of dinosaur information, and added newspaper and magazine clippings to it regularly. I still have that notebook.
  4. Bedtime stories were just as likely to be stories from history and science as they were from Narnia or Hogwarts. We told each other stories we made up, and we made up stories together.
  5. When he was preschool and elementary school age, we bought age-appropriate books of Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Native American, and other mythology, which we read right along with the children’s Bible our son’s grandmother gave him.
  6. He played the video game “Age of Mythology,” which taught him about the capriciousness of deities. Later he graduated to “Age of Empires,” and when he told me William Wallace was his hero, I knew for sure that these games were okay.
  7. We played the “what if” game, to imagine how things might be different if one thing about the world was different, and we explored the best possible uses of a time machine.
  8. Magazines full of popular science were in every bathroom and on every tabletop. Discover. Archaeology. National Geographic. Smithsonian. We read those articles together, too. When he got older, he would pick up the magazines himself and read them.
  9. We watched science, nature and history shows together. Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin was at his pinnacle when Jack was growing up, and there was a lot of really good stuff on that show. We grieved his death. The Walking with Dinosaurs documentary series (not the new movie) was on the Discovery Channel – back when the Discovery Channel still was about science. Connections – that James Burke documentary series that combined science, history and technology in wonderful ways – was a favorite, too.
  10. I spent time in his elementary school classrooms, and talked not just to him but to his classmates about how to tell stories, all about fossils, dinosaurs, how the legal system works, how amber is formed, and more. I even organized a field trip to the local juvenile court where his classmates and my lawyer friends put some naughty dinosaurs on trial. After the trial, we visited a real juvenile detention facility.
  11. I took him to Sunday school. I felt like I needed to, because I wanted him to understand where his religious friends were coming from. He went to Bible School one summer, too. He was in about second grade. We only did this for about a year, because I’m atheist and it was on Sunday mornings, when civilized people lounge around the house in pajamas reading the New York Times and doing crossword puzzles. I wanted him to learn, but not be indoctrinated.

This is when I knew I had succeeded:

When he was about 11, I asked him whether I had to do the Easter Bunny schtick again that year. “What do you mean, ‘schtick’?” he asked.

“Your father never helps me and I have to stay up late and I really don’t want to,” I told him. (Yeah, I was kind of whiny about it, I admit.)

“You! What about the Easter Bunny?”

“Son, do you really think a bunny hops around the house after we go to bed hiding eggs and pooping jellybeans?”

“Well, no … but can I still have the basket? And all the candy?”

“Sure, sweetheart.”

Fast forward to summer. He had lost a tooth and I forgot to put money under his pillow.

“Mom, the tooth fairy forgot last night.”

“I’m sure she was just busy and lagged behind. She’ll get to you tonight if you put it under there again.”

The next morning he reported that the tooth fairy had once again forgotten. “Just go get my purse. Get a dollar out of my wallet.”

“What? You’re the tooth fairy, too? First the Easter Bunny, now the tooth fairy – what’s next? Santa Claus?” I could tell he was annoyed, but I needed to get to work.

“Yes, son. And right after that comes God,” I said.

He looked at me in pure shock and horror for about three solid seconds, and I wondered what I would say next. Then he burst out laughing.

“I knew all along, Mom.”

Eventually, I sent my son to an Episcopal school. I did this because, after working in the juvenile justice system for a decade, I was terrified of gangs in our local public middle schools. There weren’t a lot of private school options, so I chose the least religious of the bunch, where I thought he would get a good education (that included evolution as real science, not as part of some non-existent controversy). He was inoculated against religion before he went, because critical thinking was automatic and habitual with him by the time he was enrolled there in 5th grade.

He had to take religion classes for one semester both in middle school and in high school. That was fine with me, because I doubted he’d read the Bible otherwise. Let’s face it: it’s a lousy, poorly-written book with plot holes big enough to fly 747s through, but knowing enough to be able to talk intelligently about it is pretty important in our culture.

In middle school, he pretty much kept his head down and just did his work. In high school, though, Father John wanted more out of him. The very first day of class, the priest threw out a question:

“Jack, What do you think prayer does?”

There were pockets of laughter around the classroom as Jack hesitated.

“Yeah, Jack! What do you think?” asked one of the students.

“What’s so funny?” asked Father John.

“You asked an atheist what he believes prayer does!” one of Jack’s classmates blurted. Jack was probably grinning, too. I hope he was.

He said, “I don’t think prayer does anything, but I can understand how it might be helpful for some people.”

I’m happy with his response. My son the critical thinker is also much more diplomatic than I am when it comes to this subject.

We need to give kids credit for being able to think for themselves – but we need to teach them to do it, too. It’s part of our jobs as parents, to give them the tools to understand and deal with the world, and to be able to determine for themselves what is credible.

Reason in the Rock’s Indiegogo Fundraiser

For the second year running, I’m organizing a conference on science and secularism. My friend Sky came up with the idea after a group of us from central Arkansas attended Skepticon in the fall of 2011, and we’ve run with the project. Last year was the first ever Reason in the Rock. We expected maybe 75 people for a day of speakers. Instead, over 250 signed up!

We’ve learned from organizers of similar conferences, especially from Skepticon’s, that we can expect to double our attendance for the first few years as word spreads. And like Skepticon, we really want to keep Reason in the Rock free for anyone who can’t afford to attend otherwise.

diplodocus

*Image is considerably smaller than actual creature

This presents a bit of a problem, because renting a venue, hosting speakers from all over the country (not to mention just getting them to Little Rock), and promoting the conference takes money. We depend on donations to make Reason in the Rock a reality.

See the video, which was made mostly in my basement hallway, in front of the collection of books in the Star Wars Expanded Universe – proving my X-treme geekery – and with a diplodocus from the Carnegie Collection of dinosaur figurines serving as the horns of the devil in many segments.

This event is very important. It’s the only one of its kind this year in Arkansas. Conferences like this can change minds, open eyes, and expand horizons. Reason in the Rock did all that last year, and will do it again this year, if it can make its funding goals.

Not only did Reason in the Rock expand the number of people who knew about the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers – because we organized the conference – it got us important positive news coverage. So often when the Freethinkers get in the news, it’s because we’re objecting to violations of separation of church and state, which, in the minds of those who would have us live in a theocracy or think that injecting religion into politics isn’t harmful, makes us seem like Grinches. We aren’t – we’re a group of fun-loving, politically diverse, intellectually active, friendly, community-minded humanists, agnostics, atheists, ethicists, and other secularists.

In the deeply religious Bible Belt, someone who doesn’t ascribe to religion can feel very alone. The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers is working to build a community dedicated to good science education, rational inquiry, critical thinking, secularism, and fun. This conference is one of many ways we can get the word out that the isolated nonbelievers in Arkansas are definitely not alone.

We have a great lineup this year, and one that will appeal to anyone who loves science, reason, and independent thinking.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, will be here. Dave’s fun to hang out with and fun to hear speak. And yes – those who come to Reason in the Rock will get to hang out with the speakers and talk with them one-on-one. Those who donate $500 to sponsor a speaker will even get to share a meal with one of the stars of the line-up!

Jerry DeWitt, who just published his memoir Hope After Faith about his transition from charismatic Pentecostal preacher to nonbeliever, will be returning. Fun fact: The first time Jerry ever spoke publicly about his atheism was in Little Rock, at a meeting of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. He’s a special guy, and we’re glad to be special to him, too! Jerry’s book will be available for sale, and he’ll happily autograph it for you.

Ben Bell and Kyle Sanders, who started Little Rock’s Skeptics in the Pub, will put on a special Skeptics presentation for us. Kyle put together the Indiegogo campaign for us, and he just generally rocks.

Ever seen Matt Dillahunty on the Atheist Experience? No one pwns theocrats and unthinking believers like he does. Oh, they try to argue with him. They lose. Decisively. Matt’s amazing, and if you’ve never seen him in action you should definitely check out the Atheist Experience’s YouTube Channel.

Bil Cash, the director of Arkansas’ EEOC office, will speak about religious discrimination in the workplace. Since he was one of my very best friends in law school a million years ago, I’m really excited about his participation.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is sending Lecia Brooks, the Director of Outreach, to talk about the state of intolerance in America. There’s some controversy here, because some have said that SPLC is promoting intolerance just by keeping and making public its dossiers on hate groups. Is it wrong to keep tabs on the haters and to describe them that way?

We’ll show an awesome documentary, No Dinosaurs in Heaven, and the filmmaker, Greta Schiller will take questions after it. Me, I’m hoping she can explain how none of the dinos managed to make it onto the ark, and how even the prehistoric swimming creatures drowned in the flood. (I’m kidding, guys. Relax.)

Darrel Ray will be here to talk about Sex and God. Rachel Johnson says she’ll be talking about sex, too, but from a biological perspective. She’s one of the co-hosts of the Pink Atheist Podcast along with LeeWood Thomas, who is one of our members, and Phil Ferguson, who also plans to be here.

No conference on secularism would be complete without the participation of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Dan Barker, co-president of FFRF, will be here. As much as FFRF gets slammed in the press by theocratic fundamentalists, you’d think he sports a tail and horns, but in actuality he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.

These aren’t the only great speakers in our lineup. There are more, and we want to make sure they all come and they all make a bog impression. Please help the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers make this year’s Reason in the Rock a reality.

We’re actually hoping to be over-funded, so we have a head start on next year’s conference. We have big dreams about who we want to invite next year. BIG dreams!

And Arkansas has uphill battles. We have hateful bigots in our state who advocate the murder of gay people, a former governor with  Faux News show who thinks his version of Christianity would make a great theocracy, and a largely uneducated state legislature who not only doesn’t have the first clue about how to pass laws that also pass constitutional muster but also want to impose their dubious morality on everyone in the state…. We need all the help we can get.

Please help.

Please donate!

Dr. Eugenie Scott, Pseudoscience, the NCSE, and Nature

Eugenie Scott: Berkeley Anthropologist and Director of the NCSE

Dr. Eugenie C. Scott: Berkeley Anthropologist and Director of the NCSE

The eminent science journal Nature devoted its May 15, 2013, editorial to applauding the work of the National Center for Science Education and its retiring director, Eugenie Scott.

Critics of mainstream science frequently dispute evolution or climate change. Whatever their target, a common tactic is to challenge how well mainstream scientists accept these ideas.

In this era of U.S. teachers being “pressured to keep evolution out of the classroom or to teach it as a scientifically controversial theory,” the NCSE has taken the lead to insist that science, not religion and not pseudoscience, be taught in our public school classrooms. It is famously successful in stopping Pennsylvania’s intelligent design law in its tracks in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District in 2005. It is working with Zack Kopplin to exterminate the stupidity in Louisiana’s creationism laws, too.

Best of all – and perhaps more encompassing, the NCSE provides resources for everyday science advocates working in the classroom trenches, fighting against not only creationists, but climate change deniers.

Nature’s editorial commended Eugenie Scott’s tireless efforts to make sure that scientists don’t talk over the heads of the general public. “Too often, scientists are ignorant of how students outside their own labs are being educated. In the worst cases, scientists can actually hurt the cause for science education by alienating the people whom they hope to persuade: in their attempts to engage, they may seem condescending or use arcane arguments that fail to connect with teachers, parents, students and other community members.”

The biggest problem I have encountered when talking with creationists is that they don’t understand the science of evolution at all. Often, they simply were not taught it when they were in school. Whether because their teachers shied away from the subject for fear of controversy or, worse, didn’t understand evolutionary theory themselves, for some reason many adults just don’t get it.

NCSE is a fantastic, and necessary, advocate for science, science education, scientists, and science fans. Getting great recognition in such an eminent publication as Nature is no less than what it deserves.

Eugenie Scott is responsible for making NCSE worthy of that recognition. She will be missed.

Crispian Jago and Neil Davies seriously need to make this deck of Skeptic Trumps a reality.

 

Dwindling Helium Supply Can Increase American IQ

Helium Balloon House Flies

Earth is Running Out of Helium.

Bill O'Reilly is one of the Helium Brains this post will discuss later. (context)

Bill O’Reilly is one of the Helium Brains this post will discuss later. (context)

Children across America may be in complete despair soon. Kids born today will never know the pleasures of helium. By the time they reach their 4th birthdays, those children will be wondering what it was that kept those old-timey balloons aloft in the pictures they see of the days of yore. They will never hear the voice of one of their peers altered for a few moments by a breath of helium, and they will never themselves know the joy of talking that way until their mothers, in exasperation, say, “Stop inhaling from balloons before your voice freezes that way! It happened to a kid in Australia, so it could happen to you!”

This situation is so serious that both chambers of Congress have held hearings on the issue. There is actual bipartisan concern about our dwindling helium supply. Senate bill 2374, the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012, has garnered considerable support. Opening the July 20, 2012, House hearing, Rep. Rush Holt (D. – NJ), the Ranking Member on the House Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee, said, “We may be heading for a crisis … if we don’t face up to this issue.”

What the Macy's Parade Will Become

Helium-Free Macy’s Parade Float (source)

He’s right. Without helium, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will be just a bunch of trucks pretending to be floats and marching bands. There will be nothing spectacular to see. Television coverage will cease and people will hit the malls for Black Thursday, which, without the parade, will become the norm.

Helium is so scarce that helium balloons are truly a scourge to necessary medical procedures like MRIs, which require the element to operate. Cornell University Professor and Nobel physics prize winner, Robert Richardson, says that party balloons would sell for $119 each to reflect a more accurate value of this dwindling resource.

As silly as it may seem, terrestrial helium depletion is no joke.

Helium is essential for creating neutron beams. Weather balloons use it to reach the stratosphere. It is used to cool nuclear reactors and to purge rocket fuel in space-bound vehicles. Without it, superconducting magnets won’t work, so devices as common as the local hospital’s MRI to the Large Hadron Collider would be inoperable. Without helium, there will be no semi-conductors or microchips. And it’s absolutely indispensable for cryogenics. For the love of all that is immortal, we must save our helium!

Helium in mined, just like other natural gas, from pockets in the earth’s crust where it is trapped. Its sale is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which sells it to private refineries for considerably less than its rarity and rapid depletion would indicate is a fair price.

The American Helium Hoard

The Amarillo Helium Stockpile looks like someone's epidermal condition in this photo. (source)

The Amarillo Helium Stockpile looks like someone’s dermal condition in this satellite photo. (source)

There is a place that stockpiles helium. Where else do you think the canisters of the stuff come from? Of course they come from the world’s largest Helium Reserve, outside of Amarillo, Texas, where over 30% of the world’s helium is extracted from natural gas wells. However, as wild and free as the helium is allowed to roam on the reserve, supplies there are expected to be depleted by 2016. By 2042, the earth’s supply of helium may go the way of the dodo. Helium is an endangered species … er … element.

We all know and love helium as the gas that inflates balloons. But scientists and engineers use helium as a coolant and in other complicated ways we mere mortals wouldn’t understand. It seems though, that those party balloons have been wasting this precious resource.

“Helium is non-renewable and irreplaceable. Its properties are unique and unlike hydrocarbon fuels (natural gas or oil), there are no biosynthetic ways to make an alternative to helium. All should make better efforts to recycle it,” says Lee Sobotka, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and physics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. He should know. He’s a scientist.

We can’t make helium? What kind of scientific incompetence is this?

Even though it is the second-most common element in the universe, helium is too light to be retained under the dome of earth’s atmosphere. Terrestrial helium only occurs naturally when the super heavy elements like uranium decay. We all know how slow that process is. We know, for example, that Chernobyl is going to be uninhabitable forever because of the decaying uranium allowed to roam in the wild there. Sure, Chernobyl is putting out a few helium atoms here and there, but that’s over in Russia or somewhere. It’s not here in America, where our reserves are running a bit thin.

What to do?

According to a paper published in the journal Nature, The most expedient way is to remove it from the brains of airheads, where helium collects in the crevices between layers of gray matter. We would provide a link to the exact article, but Nature is behind a horrendously expensive paywall, so we’ll summarize the article for you here.

Helium’s the one up top on the right.

You might remember from science class, when you had to memorize parts of the Periodic Table of Elements, that helium was the second element. It was the one that had only two protons and two electrons circling its nucleus. It’s the lightest element, and scientists have now revealed that, in a revolutionary approach to extracting terrestrial helium, they will begin farming airheads in order to figure out how to retrieve the helium that collects in their brains.

It’s the only way.

Helium Farms: The Permanent Wave of the Future?

Dr. Rutherford Becquerel, a nuclear chemist with the Curie College of Physical Science at Fermi University in Cern, Switzerland, will take a sabbatical to head up the Texas farming operation, which is expected to lure airheads from all over America and possibly even the world.

At a press conference last week, he explained that helium is what makes airheads so ditzy. Extracting the helium from the brains of there airheads will help replace some of the natural helium lost because of wasteful scientists who have performed their experiments so carelessly, and because of wasteful engineers who have used it so recklessly and relentlessly. Not to mention all those balloons at football games and birthday parties.

“When we use what has been made over the approximate 4.5 billion of years the Earth has been around, we will run out,”  Sobotka said, joining Becquerel at the podium last week. “We cannot get too significant quantities of helium from the sun — which can be viewed as a helium factory 93 million miles away — nor will we ever produce helium in anywhere near the quantities we need from Earth-bound factories. Helium could eventually be produced directly in nuclear fusion reactors and is produced indirectly in nuclear fission reactors, but the quantities produced by such sources are dwarfed by our needs.”

The crowd got wild. Wild, I tell you.

“It is not a complicated procedure to remove the helium,” Becquerel assured the gathered journalists. “We either pierce the eardrum, or go through the nostril with a long syringe, and suck the helium out of the brains of the airheads.”

There was a protest by several hundred parents, whose children are blonde and who suspect that their children will be future airheads.

“There is no need to be alarmed or concerned at all,” Becquerel assured the protesters. Pediatric neurophysicist Marie-Pierre Soddy, recently appointed medical director of the project, agreed. “Helium extraction actually allows the brain to grow, to move into areas formerly inhabited by the helium. It actually cures the condition of most airheads,” she said. Her groundbreaking paper on the subject has been published in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and featured in the journal Neurology. Paywalls are firmly in place for both, so once again, readers will just have to have faith in the trustworthiness of this report.

It has been scientifically proven that natural blondes are no more prone to ditzy brains than the rest of the population. The hair-bleaching process, on the other hand, may create an inter-cranial helium buildup of unacceptable proportions. Soddy’s team continues to study this method as a possible way to create more helium to power their helium-powered experiments. The extraction of the helium gas from the brains of these helium-afflicted people will actually make them smarter and more sensible. A fortuitous situation, indeed!

NOAA's Graphic of Our Atmosphere

NOAA’s Graphic of Our Atmosphere

It would cost too much to try to get helium out of the air, and recycling the helium set free by all those balloons is out of the question since they fly too high much too fast to be able to catch them with any degree of reliability. The helium quickly rises to to upper reaches of the stratosphere, punches through the mesosphere, rockets through the thermosphere, and wafts on out into exospheric space from there. It’s too light to hang around with the other elements, and it doesn’t bond to them so nothing holds it in place. (Hydrogen, on the other hand, bonds easily to earth-bound elements.)

Helium from the Exosphere?

The sun emits incredible amounts of helium every day. When consulted about Becquerel’s plan for helium husbandry, Dr. Ian Crawford, of Birkbeck College at the University of London, carefully had no committal comment as to its efficacy. However, he graciously offered what could be the next step to acquiring helium:

Lunar Helium Mine

Lunar Helium Mine

“There are about 22 grams of helium in every cubic metre of lunar soil. Once American IQs have been raised beyond the point of cost-effective helium reclamation, the moon is our next treasure trove for helium.”

In addition to the farm Becquerel and  Soddy will operate in the Texas panhandle, helium farms will be started in Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma. Exploratory missions to Australia and England are in the works. Because of Chernobyl, Russia has the world’s largest reserves of raw, wild, free-range helium, but exploratory missions have had to deal with radiation issues, and have not yet established a way to isolate the helium without taking off their lead-lined suits.

Nobel Prize to be awarded to Soddy and Becquerel

Nobel Prize to be awarded to Soddy and Becquerel

Sobotka believes that Russia will be the world’s major source of helium in 30 years, if any remains on the planet. despite being the second most abundant element in the universe, we humans had squandered our supply in a macabre foreshadowing of what will also become of other non-renewable resources.

Soddy and Becquerel, whom their peers are sure have sewn up the Nobel Prize in medicine, physics and chemistry,  also believe that with the mining of helium from American airheads, our national IQ will increase exponentially and we might even stop voting Republican.

“Miracles happen,” Dr. Soddy said softly, hopefully.

Sanal Edamaruku Proves, Once Again, No Miracle

So, there’s this statue of the Madonna that sits in a small grotto near Ballinspittle, County Cork, Ireland, that allegedly started breathing and gesturing when it was approached by some worshippers back in 1985. “It’s a miracle!” cried devout Irish Catholics, who flocked to observe the moving, floating statue by the thousands. Since then, more than a quarter of a million people have made pilgrimages to the little grotto. “Even skeptics go away converted!” enthused a BBC report, despite the on-camera skepticism of the local Catholic bishop. “Seven out of ten people really see it move!”

As I reported last week, Indian skeptic Sanal Edamaruku is on the lam from the blasphemy charges leveled against him in India for exposing the bloody toes of the Jesus getting washed by physics instead of by miracles. He was in the neighborhood of Europe, so Atheist Ireland invited him to visit Ballinspittle to check out their local miracle. Not having anything more interesting to do, Edamaruku accepted. Geometry and magic laser beams ensued.

I truly hope he continues going around debunking miracle silliness while he’s on vacation from India’s ridiculously medieval laws.

(This post originally appeared on WWJTD.)

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