Response from a “Zionist run internet blog”…

First of all, before I get into the meat of things, I’d like to thank the people who helped promote via social media, my last post which criticised The Mind Unleashed. Rousing Departures is actually a small personal blog that usually attracts very minimal traffic – my traffic stats graph currently has a couple of large columns for the last few days, while the columns for the rest of the month are barely visible, having been squished down to scale.

Indeed, a week ago as of writing, I managed to get nine page views for the day – the past couple of days have seen page views in the thousands. And the Facebook page for Rousing Departures? That currently has less than fifty likes, compared to The Mind Unleashed’s three and a half million… (Keep this in mind, when you consider some of the responses I’ve received, that follow).

I’m currently in the process of trying to organise a collaborative blog with a few other writers, which would have been a far better venue for this discussion, but there have been setbacks. My apologies on that count. Still, this isn’t about blog-promotion – this is about bigotry and bogus medical advice, so I’d better get on with it.

Those of us who have been criticising The Mind Unleashed (TMU) over the past few days, appear on some level to be striking a chord; RationalWiki now has a section on TMU, and importantly, TMU has itself responded…

***

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A decade and more of people coming and going in orbit…

StartrailsI first felt the tidal forces wrought by being flung out of social orbit two or three years ago, when silently, both other persons and myself, went our own ways. Their trajectory sent them in professional directions I can’t say I’d endorse 100%, while I may or may not have been relegated to the status of ‘crazy guy they knew on the Internet’.

For my own part in this, I was getting tired. Tired of passive-aggression, of in-jokes (some poorly veiled), and tired of a few people being too egocentric to realise that no, they weren’t dealing with someone who was gullible, they were dealing with someone who was being charitable; someone who was humouring them, not the other way around.

If I regret anything from this particular period, it’s my lame participation in what passed for some of the humour – which often involved my riffing off of someone else’s bad joke.

All the same, while we were friends, I did get something out of some of them, during what was a difficult time for me, mentally. I don’t know if this admission would injure their egos, or comfort them, and I can’t say I’m particularly worried either way.

If there’s anything I’d be concerned about with them, if I hadn’t put them behind me, it’d be the prejudicial assumptions and leading questions; annoying for me, worse for them if it insinuates its way into their journalism.

The greatest imposture in all of this though, comes from my own faculties – particularly my relative inability to forget things, even small things I don’t much care about. Inevitably something comes along to remind me… like goings on over the past few weeks.

At the very least I wouldn’t be recalling all of these details if I hadn’t been reminded.

***

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…The Expert of Everything

Years of preparation have gone into breeding The Perfect Expert of Everything. Unfettered and unimpaired by having had to have read anything, but adept at entering into every domain and every conversation, the Expert of Everything threatens to make everyone else redundant, in their relentless quest to have things their own way.

Why do readings at University, when they’d only be re-inventing the wheel – they already know what it’s about, which is why they dominate discussion in tutorials.

This time has been better spent, by The Expert, honing their skills, lawyering Dungeons and Dragons games to their own advantage, and chairing debates on who would win out of Superman and The Hulk.

These skills, they then bring to every meeting, of every kind, for these skills are infinitely transferable. The Expert, can be identified through their use of earthy, common phrases, used to keep ‘in-touch’ with the laity.

***

‘Political correctness’: This phrase lets you know just what a dissident, and critical thinker you’re dealing with.

‘It stands to reason’, or ‘it just stands to reason’: The Expert, is reasonable in all things, including their most hastily adopted assumptions.

‘I’d argue that…’: The Expert doesn’t need to read, to keep up with the discussion (see ‘re-inventing the wheel’).

‘Aha!’: The Expert has encountered something like this before, and it was silly.

‘Haha!’: You have reminded The Expert of one of their past intellectual conquests, friend!

‘Hmmm…’: The Expert could say something, but doesn’t want to embarrass you.

‘Yes, but…’: This is how The Expert lets you know, mid-sentence, the you’re argument is going to go awry. The Expert already knows what you are thinking, and doesn’t want you to embarrass yourself.

‘X is often misunderstood’: Misunderstood by laypersons like you, not by The Expert, who doesn’t even need to read about these things (again, see ‘re-inventing the wheel’).

‘It seems like…’: The Expert is charitably allowing you to join the dots.

‘I can’t imagine…’: Logically impossible, despite what you may think you can reasonably imagine.

‘Hah hah haaa! [wink]’ (that’s three ‘haa’s with a key change in the middle, and a wink at the end): The Expert knows that you think they are charming, but are too modest to let you know.

Never under any circumstances, allow the commonality of this language lead you to believe that The Expert has nothing new to teach you, nor assume that any of their wisdom is borrowed…

***

Other, less definitive signs that you have an Expert of Everything in front of you are; possible beard ownership; likely penis ownership (even if diminutive), and an almost universal penchant for exaggerated or grandiose hand gestures.

(In rare cases, ‘tosser’s wrist’ – a symptom of compulsive twenty-sided dice rolling, often resembling a masturbatory gesture – may present itself to the observer).

***

The ecology of The Expert of Everything is that they often gravitate towards rationalist social groups; atheists, ‘Skeptics’, humanists, and so on. Intellectual and organisational resources are monopolised as competing minds are made redundant by The Expert’s sheer charisma, wit and genius.

While this may give mere mortal members a reprieve, such monocultures are inherently unstable.

The Expert may through a sheer act of will and self-approval, achieve ‘Mission Accomplished’ status for their social group, rendering the group purposeless. The Expert may see beyond the horizons of the group, and bring new purposes beyond the ken of ordinary members, thus unavoidably excluding them (this process may involve peanuts, imported Cherry Coke, and ‘character sheets’.)

Most likely though, is that the normal means of operation will atrophy while the group is dependent on The Expert, for everything. At some point when The Expert is needed elsewhere (which they always are), their dedication to a group will have to wane, leaving an unprepared people to fend for themselves.

You would be selfish and keep The Expert all to yourself?

***

If you don’t want to destabilise you Expert-friendly group, or you wish to attract an Expert of Everything to your existing, expertise-devoid, group, there are realities to observe.

By all means question The Expert (they’ll tell you all about that), but don’t undermine them, or waste their time with contrarian clap-trap. They have finite time on this Earth, and they are used of their opponents being self-evidently wrong, as this is always the case.

Make sure peanuts and beer are at hand, and if not that, then cheesy-puffy-things, and cola. The mind of an Expert of Everything doesn’t run on nothing – that would defy the Laws of Thermodynamics (which they’ll tell you about)!

Remember to disregard all evolutionary psychology as just-so-stories, unless they allow The Expert to justify their sexual proclivities, or their need for cheesy-puffy-things, or to explain the inherent attractiveness of their non-deodorized body. These things are self-evident, and hence need no empirical substantiation, ergo evolutionary psychology is true in these respects, Q.E.D.

In all other respects, if in doubt, don’t ask – you’ll be told. Unless you’re told to ask, in which case I’m wrong – I’m not an Expert of Everything.

~ Bruce

See also: Neckbeard.

The Dinner Party Shaman

If you’re developed-world, middle-class enough, perhaps even cashed-up-bogan enough, you should know what I’m talking about.

You’ve gone to a dinner party or a barbeque or some similar gathering, and you’re trying to relax with a beer when someone starts talking about their health issues. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but inevitably like ants at a picnic, this draws the attention of The Dinner Party Shaman.

They’ve traveled all the way from Nimbin, or some other realm of haute-hippie-culture, with the kids Starshine and Moonbeam, begrudgingly in tow, sullenly carrying the funky lettuce salad and the chimichurri-marinated guinea pig kebabs.

Spiralling into your lives like a tie-dyed dervish on acid cast in a David Lynch film, descending amidst an invisible cloud of jasmine and patchouli, The Dinner Party Shaman has arrived to regale you with just how roolly (née really) deep and culchooural (née cultural) they are. To show you how culchooural they are by taking control of the concerns of you suburban philistines.

You just wanted to relax, kick back, and maybe show a little empathy for your ailing or aging friend or family member. A chin wag over a drink about how you’re both getting on.

‘You need a coffee enema!’

‘I have this dong quai tincture that’ll really strengthen your yang!’

‘There’s this aromatherapeutic poultice I could apply…’

‘Hear, let me activate your chakra…’

‘Relax! Touch is a normal part of human communication. You need to lower your barriers and let me touch you where I want to touch you!’

Roughly a third of the audience, seeing spirichoooal (née spiritual) brownie points up for grabs, will nod in the affirmative, listening attentively and urging The Shaman onward with their exposition of supposedly sage advice.

The poor suffering sod you sat down with will listen patiently for the first few moments, nodding, nodding, subtly making anyone with actual empathy aware of their distress, while waiting for the first polite juncture to point out that they’re seeing a doctor, and that they’re really doing as best they can under the circumstances. All they want to do is relax.

But relaxation is not the prescription, especially if you’ve seen a doctor. The Dinner Party Shaman won’t have any of that!

‘Oh no, you don’t want to do that! Doctors will fill you up with poisons!’

‘That’s not nachooral [née natural]!’

‘Come here and let me…’

No ailment is so serious, no suffering so much, no agony so pervasive that they can’t trivialise it by showing everyone their super-psychic, hero-holistic, magical-imaginary, wonder powers. Be the problem big or small, The Shaman has what The Shaman thinks you need!

Irritable bowel syndrome? They know all there is to know about that! Just bend over!

Cancer? Why that’s just another word for opportunity! An opportunity to show everyone just how earnest they are!

When your friend who’s been a bit under the weather, after wearing of having their rest and personal space violated, points out that they’re confident in their doctor’s experience and education, that’s when the show really begins. You see, you mustn’t imply that The Shaman doesn’t have what you need. That would be disrespectful!

‘I studied aromatherapy for eight weeks at the WEA!’

‘I have a stall each year at the Body, Mind and Soul Fair where people come from miles around!’

‘Are you saying that my qualifications aren’t equal to a doctor’s, if not better? Reductionist! I treat the whole person!’

The uncritical parsing of anecdote and bare assertion is all the study that’s required of such deep, deep people. Gifted intuition does the rest.

By this point in the proceedings, you and your busted up friend have really gone and done it. You’ve offended The Shaman. How rude. You’re ruining the dinner party, with your scepticism, incredulity, self-respect and personal space.

Where do you get off thinking you can behave like that? Who died and made you Shaman?

It’s a bit like Benjamin Franklin was supposed to have said…

‘There are no greater liars in the world than quacks — except for their patients.’

Except again perhaps for shamans and their acolytes, and maybe the wording’s a little too harsh; not so much ‘liars’ as self-obsessed, bullshit artists.

There are no greater self-obsessed, bullshit artists in the world than first-world, middle-class, Dinner Party Shamans – except for their acolytes.

With your slight and that of your friend, the party takes a turn for the serious.

You’re in league with oppressive forces; Big Pharma; The Man; Western Imperialism; The Spanish Inquisition (who nobody expects); The Third Expeditionary Invasion Force of The Illuminati-Reptile-People.

Your facts you are told, conflict with and discriminate against their equally true ‘facts’. Something that they, Shamans and Acolytes, have suffered against since the first witch was burnt at the first stake; facts contra alternative facts.

The child who’s died of whooping-cough because their community is sufficiently anti-vaccination to have lost herd immunity, is both dead and living happily in an incense imbued laa-laa-land. Why can’t you see this.

Both can be true. Accept this and you’ll be well on the way to seeing how you’re wrong and they’re right!

You just need to be open-minded, and then you’ll learn. The acolytes are of many persuasions, the better to foster erudition.

The resident visual arts academic will school you on how scientists get more funding than basket weavers as part of a plot to destroy beauty in the world.

Elders in the group through the bare authority of their age, can tell you how modern medicine deliberately obscures the fact that before street lights, there was no such thing as hay fever. Such deliberate obfuscations as how the supposedly much, much older diagnosis of hay fever by Hippocrates around the start of the 4th Century B.C.E., is really a history fabricated into the textbooks by the corporations that fluoridate your water.

Learn how public schooling secretly plots against free-spirited students who would otherwise learn the evils of aspartame, vaccination and shadow government mind-control, by learning in the ideal Steiner school, or in home schooling.

Convincing? No? Then you must be a shallow, close-minded monster. No wonder you’ve upset The Dinner Party Shaman. You boor!

Perhaps you’ve had enough. Perhaps you’re sick of yourself and your friends being poked and prodded by egoists with no respect for other people’s boundaries. Perhaps your sick of the self-deception and banality of this veneer of the considered life. Perhaps you’re sick of the enablers who make it worse and worse every time.

The pretensions of The Dinner Party Shaman and their Dinner Party Acolytes are intrinsically self-absorbed to the point of absolute myopia and screw everyone else. It’s not just their social appendages that they don’t give a hoot about either.

Children avoidably dying of pertussis, or measles, as a result of a reduction in herd immunity and prompted by anti-vaccination disinformation is incredibly tragic. How does it happen? Disinformation. Who spreads it? New Age Shamans. The advocates of alternative(s to) medicine.

But this is just a shallow foray into the consequences of privileged spiritualism. The toll, shockingly, gets much, much worse.

A serious diversion from the sarcastic is in order.

***

Except perhaps for the most oblivious of the most provincial, it’s well-known that many African nations are suffering an AIDS epidemic, particularly in South Africa. What’s not so well-known, is the extent to which this suffering has been avoidable.

Between 2000 and 2005, in South Africa alone, it is estimated that 330,000 people painfully and unnecessarily died because of government obstruction of the availability of antiretroviral drugs even when freely donated, and of Global Fund grants (Chigwedere, et al., 2008). Why?

This tragedy occurs in a context where the South African President of the time, Thabo Mbeki, condemned antiviral medication as toxic and counterproductive, while adopting the position that only medications for opportunistic infections, rather than drugs preventing the advance of the HIV virus, were to be supported by public funding.

How did Thabo Mbeki come to such an appallingly stupid policy position?

I’ll let you glance across Ben Goldacre’s description of how barrister Anthony Brink, after reading alt-med ‘AIDS dissident’ material, was elevated to the status of an ‘AIDS expert’ by Mbeki. Brink would later become an employee of ‘AIDS dissident’ Matthias Rath, of Linus Pauling Institute fame; the same Matthias Rath that declared that the answer to the AIDS epidemic was not antireterovirals, but megadoses of vitamins, while taking his perverse circus of suffering, masquerading as research, on tour through South Africa.

AIDS denialism and the subsequent lethal obstruction of real medicine as policy in South Africa, has clearly and unambiguously been enabled by the developed world luxury known as ‘alternative medicine’, even egged on by parts of the industry. As Goldacre points out, Matthias Rath is still a darling of the alt-med revolution, even with some academics.

Over three-hundred-thousand is a large number of people to die unnecessarily, much, much worse than the number of deaths by pertussis brought about by anti-vaccination disinformation campaigns in the developed world. It’s no act of hyperbole to call this tragedy genocidal in scale.

The developed world exported this tragedy; exported it in the form of luxurious, lavender-scented ignorance.

When Naomi Campbell complained that her testimony concerning a gift of blood diamonds from former Liberian dictator and alleged war criminal, Charles Taylor, was ‘an inconvenience’, people were rightly concerned at her lack of perspective.

Campbell however can call on the defense of having been intimidated, having expressed concern for possible consequences for her family members should she talk.

When The Dinner Party Shaman starts to peddle their blood diamonds casually and without regard for the consequences of their denialist culture, their ginseng tablets, their homeopathic strength ‘cures’ and all the attendant cod-epistemology and conspiracy theory, they don’t have the ‘intimidation’ defense. They aren’t under pressure from the cronies of some warlord somewhere; the greatest threat to their families comes from their own negligence.

What vanity. What empty posturing, calling this self-important, self-absorbed quest for recognition, ‘spiritual’; a quest that through provinciality and in the fashion of the worst solipsism, cuts people off from mere human concerns like the health and well-being of hundreds of thousands of people.

If the word ‘spiritual’ can mean anything, this isn’t it.

Time to return to the party.

***

So there you and your sick chum sit, holding your beers or your Champaign, lectured by The Dinner Party Shaman and told off for your lack of deference by the acolytes, you rude, rude person. Your scepticism and incredulity cast as cynical, reductionist, scientific imperialism, or something approximating such things, you’ve been put in your place.

You’ve ruined the mood. Not the spirichoooal (née spiritual) types, who naturally by virtue of their well-meaning nature, rightly have access to every aspect and orifice of your being.

You’ve ruined the mood. Not the spirichoooal (née spiritual) types, their absorption in the roolly (née really) deep and culchooural (née cultural) too important to be distracted by consideration of human consequences on the mere material, mortal planes.

The Dinner Party Shaman, the person so privileged in their middle-class cocoon as to both be a victim of imperialism while at the same time having their cult’s toxic bilge conveniently exported out-of-sight-out-of-mind to the developing world, is beyond your attacks on their dignity. The acolytes are unimpressed with your reliance on facts, reasoning, and material concern. Bah! Materialism!

So comes the conclusion to the gathering, the obvious obligation; you have to apologise. Otherwise there’ll be no dessert, no second invites for you!

And we all know what’s right and decent at these events, right?

~ Bruce

(Picture Source: Allegory of Vanity, Trophime Bigot).

Respect and how not to swing it

I’ve had quite a lot of email in response to the recent post I wrote about not being attracted to the ‘sceptic movement’. A ‘lot’ by the piddly standards of this piddly little blog, at any rate.

None of it is hate mail mind you, and there’s no hint of yet another groan-inducing flame war brewing in this quarter of the blogosphere. I take it as an in-road to meaningful discussion.

There does however seem to be an over-arching kind of confusion, one that ties into something else I’ve been subjectively observing of late; the creeping erosion of the concept of ‘respect’.

Before you go all Professor Crystal on me, and propound the reality of the changing nature of language; I already accept that as fact. This does not detract from my concern.

It’s not that ‘respect’ is changing, and that as some kind of conservative I’m digging my heels in and huffing, ‘it’s gone too far!’ Change per se, does not bother me. I’m not a conservative. There’s no nostalgia for old values here.

But…

There is a risk I think, in the careless use of the appearance of respect for short-term gain.

The risk not being that the term ‘respect’ is changing from denoting one kind of respect, to some newer, progressive, more articulate re-valuing of respect, so much as a change from denoting an important concept, to denoting little if anything other than cliché.

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Understanding science doesn’t guarantee an understanding of how science is taught…

Way back in 2005, Paul Willis of the ABC’s Catalyst presented a story considering the prospect of Intelligent Design being taught in science classes. The form the story took, as is seemingly the pro forma for Willis’ take on any similar issue, is to simply ask the question ‘is Intelligent Design science?’

It’s a question with an uncontroversial answer; ‘no’.

It’s also a problematic question, although for anyone who isn’t an Edu-wonk (0r a teacher or an education academic), this may not seem obvious. Let me elaborate.

***

Kids don’t rock up to classes in a state of intellectual vacuum. They have prior understandings and interests, some needing to be challenged, others that can facilitate learning. They aren’t empty vessels you just pour knowledge into – whatever they learn, good or bad, children are active in learning and this occurs in conjunction with what they already think and believe.

Any sound pedagogy needs to teach to this reality.

Take ecology for example. You could just teach it from a textbook, reciting it in the general direction of students.

Or you could take the kids out on field trips to their local area and get them monitoring parts of the ecosystem that impact upon their local culture or directly on their person. The livelihood of their families may depend on the local environment, or ecology could just be an obsession. It could equally flow from a love of the work of David Attenborough, as it could from a family eco-tourism business, as it could from a traditional cultural attachment to the land.

If you were teaching ecology at the mouth of the Murray River, you could (and I hope would in such a scenario) grant students access to resources detailing the historical Ngarrindjeri use of fire in shaping the landscape, and the related implications of introduced flora in the area (a trip to Camp Coorong would be good for this). This is of course in addition to matters such as the flow of water from upstream, the water quality in the lakes, subsequent effects upon invertebrates and bird life, and the impact upon traditional and modern uses of these natural resources.

In this scenario, you’d also want to explore what the students’ individual interests are. It may seem like a diversion from science, but really it’s the difference between meaningful learning and students sitting on their hands and absently nodding. It’s not time wasted.

Any good teacher can tell you which is better between culturally relevant field trips, or rote learning from a book, or disengaging abstraction.

Relating back to the question ‘is ID (or creationism in general) science?’, the problem this poses may now be apparent. What if you’re teaching students from a highly religious culture? What if you’re teaching to students who are enthralled with a recent, popular discussion about the latest creationist shenanigans?

‘It isn’t science’ isn’t at all informative because if you’re a science teacher, you already know that it’s not science, and it’s not exactly instructive in these types of situations.

What if you tied the study of evolution to the history of evolution as a theory, say against the backdrop of the Huxley-Wilberforce debate (with perhaps a re-enactment in Drama classes as well)? A lot of this isn’t science (it’s history), but it wouldn’t be at all a bad way to teach evolution to kids engrossed with a church-state controversy! ‘It isn’t science’ tells us nothing in this respect and the implication that non-science should be isolated is in fact counter-productive.

On the one hand you have an approach with learning areas compartmentalized, and hence abstracted beyond relevance, while on the other you have students being engaged.

Of relevance to the Bent Spoon Award is both the difference in pedagogical effectiveness between these two types of approaches, and the lack of difference in what science is being taught in either approach. Both being the kind of material detail overlooked in the recent issuing of the Australian Skeptics’ Bent Spoon Award.

***

Making science curriculum relevant and engaging doesn’t just involve linking science to students’ cultural backgrounds as mentioned above, but also to other forms of knowledge.

And NO!

This IS NOT the same thing as saying that these other disciplines are equally valid ways of knowing scientific facts either! It’s not like saying you can test a hypothesis with poetry, rather that it may just be that writing about the poetry of science in English may be the only way to get some students interested, active and participating in science.

Einstein becomes more relevant against a backdrop of the history of science (a humanities subject!) including Newton onward. Fire ecology becomes more relevant against a backdrop of Aboriginal fire stick farming – that’s Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE). Marsupial taxonomy and anatomy gets a lot more interesting and engaging with an Aboriginal backdrop as well!

The Arabic world provides a historical backdrop for an array of science topics, particularly those saved from oblivion during the Dark Ages – but this doesn’t involve reading science fact from the Qur’an.

There’s content in biology – skeptical content – that should be of interest to students obsessed with performance in a local sporting team (that’s Health and Physical Education). Are you catching on?

Unless you are willing in the face of this reality to say that ‘speaking-abstracted-facts-at-students’, or ‘just-read-the-state-approved-textbook’, or ‘follow-the-prac-instructions-and-fill-in-the-answers’ is as engaging as science-in-context, you’ve got problems defending ACARA’s Bent Spoon. If you’re willing to hold adopt this position in the face of this reality, you’ve got a problem calling yourself an advocate of quality science education.

The choice remains between chosing science education advocacy, or choosing to back the Australian Skeptics’ uninformed attack on ACARA.

***

Integrated curriculum is often derided  as a kind of relativistic-bogey-come-ideological-in-road (usually by people with a tragic combination of not-knowing-why-or-what-it-is and Dunning-Kruger effect.) Seriously though, how often does science operate in a vacuum? Anyone working with animals at a reputable University can tell you about their interactions with their ethics panel (philosophy in schools!)

In SOSE (Studies of Society and Environment) you can have students critically question the ethics of the introduction of a controversial drug, while also having them learn the relevant biology. You can have them studying a project-based-learning unit distributed across SOSE, General Science and English classes, adopting the roles of the court system, while engaging in self-directed research into forensics and writing prose to explain the venture to parents and public.

(Anyone have a budding science journalist as a rug-rat?)

This is what integrated curriculum looks like and it works better than learning science abstracted into administratively convenient, compartmentalized learning areas. It also more closely resembles what happens in “The Real Worldtm“*. Remember when people used to demand that from schooling?

In such an arrangement, SOSE and English don’t suffer from shared time with science, they benefit from it. The same is true for science. The sum of integrated learning areas is greater than their parts.

It’s not about relativism. It’s not about pandering to political pressures.  In science education it’s about relevance, engaging students and getting them to learn science by doing science with purpose.

Yet…

Recently, Paul Willis tells us in discussing the supposed “creeping relativism” that gained ACARA the Bent Spoon…

“As for the creeping relativism that students should learn from all sorts of people, including Egyptian, Greek, Chinese, Arabic and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; may I be suggest something heretical here: How about we keep science in the science class and non-science out?”

and…

“If it is science if does get in regardless of who came up with it.”

(Paul Willis at Tribal Scientist, 2010)

Willis is being silly when he suggests he’s being heretical. Nobody’s persecuting him. They’re just pointing out that he’s wrong. Boo-bloody-hoo!

At the core of Willis’ misunderstanding is the dual notions that if it’s not science, then somehow it damages the teaching of science, and that curriculum documents produced by the likes of ACARA are only interested in what is taught, not how. This may be true if you measure your success in the quantity of material you direct at passive minds, but that’s not how a successful science class works, and it’s not how curriculum frameworks are geared.

It’s the same mistake made by former Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop, when she went after the “post-modern stew” and “political science” supposedly fouling-up history classes. The end result of her inquiry by her own hand-picked experts (with no education “ideologues” on board), were a series of recommendations much along the lines of what was already taking place in history classrooms.

Julie Bishop saw political-ideological pandering where there was none. An unnecessary process that could have been mitigated by a basic understanding of what she was criticising in the first place.

Of course if integrated curriculum (a particular bugbear of Bishop’s history classes non-controversy) was removed that would be giving in to political pressure. The same would be true of ACARA abandoning pedagogical frameworks just to appease the confected political anxieties of the likes of Willis, and the relevant portion of the Australian Skeptics.

Odd then that Willis makes the accusations that he does.

“That this was apparently done to appease religious and other non-scientific factions makes them the perfect recipients for the Bent Spoon.”

(Paul Willis at Tribal Scientist, 2010)

What’s the point of handing out a Bent Spoon if not political pressure? And what’s a (supposedly) skeptical organisation doing handing out such awards on the basis of what is “apparently done”, especially when there is a super-abundance of other potential recipients who are more than just “apparently” wooish?

***

What people need to get a handle on when dealing with curriculum frameworks**, is that they aren’t just a shopping list of things to pour into kid’s heads. If you read them as if they are, then you’re bound to arrive at error.

In addition to setting the underpinning content, they’re also a framework for how to teach it; to be adapted to particular student needs, in particular schooling contexts, over the entire diversity of students within the jurisdiction the document applies to.

For example, you can’t just look at the mention of an Aboriginal Australian perspective in such a document and rightly conclude that in science classes, Dreaming stories are being mainlined into students’ brains as alternate explanations, equivalent to science.

This is not, nor has it ever been, nor is it proposed to be, nor is anything like that, the purpose of any modern public school science curriculum in Australia. The Rainbow Serpent is not going to be taught as an alternative to geomorphology!

If this is what you’re reading out of the supposedly controversial ACARA (draft!) documentation, then you’re reading it wrong!

Perhaps governments are to be chastised for not producing a public-friendly, jargon-free version of curriculum documentation. But that’s a question of open governance, not a question of some “creeping relativism” conspiracy.

The problem is one of tilting at windmills. Which is of course systemic in the kind of woo skeptic organisations are supposed to be railing against.

The irony is palpable.

***

But back to 2005.

Not entirely satisfied with the coverage of Willis’ ID-in-schools story, having had no pedagogical content at all, I fired off a polite email to the folks at Catalyst asking if there was any content that hit the editing room floor that may be of interest; unused interview material and that kind of thing.

It took a long while for a reply, and the response was disappointing to say the least. It was a formulaic response that informed me that my complaint (I didn’t complain!) had been formally filed for processing (presumably with all the creationist whining the story was bound to generate – which as someone with a science degree steeped in evolution, is a pretty unpleasant insinuation!)

Again. Tilting at windmills. This time pretending that any critical inquiry is somehow able to be automatically categorised with the rabble. Paranoid even.

I responded that I wasn’t complaining, that I didn’t want to take part in any such formal process, and that I was just seeking more information. To this I got no response at all. A “no we don’t”, or we don’t reveal that kind of information would have better than a cold shoulder.

To say that the Catalyst household may have been hounded and rattled by creationist loons to the point of defensive paranoia, does nothing to detract from the fact that this is defensive paranoia. It does nothing to detract from the fact that it’s not my, nor any other viewer’s problem. It was a failure of process for Catalyst (a science program on a public broadcaster) to cater to cataloging vexatious creationist emails at the expense of genuine requests for newsworthy information relating to science! It’s a failure of their raison d’etre!

This is a siege mentality which rationalists need to abandon lest they become conspiracy theorists, much worse conspiracy theorists self-alienated from education professionals, even worse again, conspiracy theorists, self-alienated from education professionals yet somehow able in the fits of such marginal paranoia to be mistaken for people possessing an air of authoritative seriousness. This hinders science education, and enabling this wooish, hyper-suspicious hostility towards sound pedagogy is bad for organised skepticism as well for obvious reasons. 

***

So how can this problem be resolved or at least ameliorated?

I’ve already suggested better public-friendly information, so there’s that. But that’s not enough, obviously.

While I think from this exchange amongst others, Paul Willis has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that while he is obviously qualified to cover science as a journalist (something I have no wish to see him stop doing), he’s got bad form when it involves science education. I don’t want to make Willis out as some kind of litmus test, but his record stands out as typical of the essentials of the problem, even if not the worst case. (Paul Kelly at The Australian on history education and integrated curriculum during the reign of Julie Bishop is I think worse, albeit not about science education, and if you want to see something truly pathetic, let this be a starting point for inquiry.)

The problem remains that if the ABC wants to be informative on matters of science education, especially through its flagship science program, some attitudes and abilities, or even faces, need changing in-house. Not a political purging, just a dedication to a basic standard of competence.

The point is that science, science journalism and science education are different fields with different demands upon professionals. Being good at science doesn’t mean you’re good at teaching it, or even understanding how to teach it. Conflating serious discussion in these different fields of expertise for the sake of trends, fashion, administrative convenience or whatever, is to transform the otherwise professional into the over-glorified hobbyist.

Unless Willis and others in the same boat can’t learn to read educational jargon, they’d be better off – and we the general public would be better of – if they stuck to their respective “rocks, fossils and poo.”

Then there’s the skeptic organisations themselves.

It may go some way in fixing the breach of trust if the 2011 Bent Spoon Award were to be given to the Australian Skeptics for excellence in the field of pretending to know stuff. And if the organisation isn’t to be widely written off as quackish, which after this performance isn’t something it could rightly complain about, they could start by involving and empowering people who can at least read a curriculum document, rather than raising the profile of education’s peanut gallery.

Skeptical organisations have quite understandably taken efforts to distance themselves from climate change denialism – and it’s not just an exercise in othering. Denialism is precisely the epistemological approach that differentiates a climate change denialist from a genuine skeptical scientist. This is entirely reasonable, respectable and responsible.

Members of organisations like the Australian Skeptics need to get their heads around the fact that the same bull-headed, uncritical, chauvinistic approach to climate science, is the same attitude being taken by the Australian Skeptics towards sound pedagogy***. Seeing a relativist bogeyman behind every confirmatory, select quote, is in no way meaningfully different from seeing the Green Mafia behind every select quote in the ‘ClimateGate’ non-controversy.

It would seem that the responsible course of action in relation to ACARA for skeptical organisations to take, is much the same as with other woo-in-drag-as-skeptic.

Ultimately, the mistake wasn’t in the uninformed selection of ACARA for the Bent Spoon, it was the enabling of people who for whatever reason couldn’t put in the necessary legwork to make the Bent Spoon of 2010 worth paying attention to, other than as an icon of smug ignorance and inability. If the Australian Skeptics are to be taken seriously, this attitude needs to change.

~ Bruce

(Picture Source: Tilting at Windmills – Gustav Doré, 1863.)

* Although integrated curriculum tends to get phased out before the final two years of highschool where students begin to specialise for University entry . But by then more academic study has become personally relevant to students, so it’s not such an issue in getting them worked up about the content.

** ‘Curriculum framework’ is the technical term (or at least one of them); if you correct me by calling it a syllabus then you’re only highlighting that you don’t understand what the document is.

*** For anyone actually interested in the history and theory of, and empirical research into integrated curriculum, your best starting point is James A. Beane’s ‘Curriculum Integration‘. I say ‘starting point’ because there’s an awful lot of research on the issue, enough for there to be several different takes on the theory; far too much to summarize in this post. Given that criticisms of integrated democratic curriculum (and similar pedagogies) rarely manage to even define what integrated curriculum is, much less address the research behind it, I have for the purposes of this post assumed that the research isn’t in contention. Perhaps the critics could put down the lance and pick up a paper if they want to be serious about it?