The Crucible

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We lived in a small Texas town, and were a family of limited means. I recall we obtained our first TV set in 1953, and there was at the time a running drama in the news.

From Executive Sessions of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, Volume 1, Eighty-Third Congress, First Session, 1953:

Elected as a Wisconsin Republican in 1946, Senator McCarthy had burst into national headlines in February 1950, when he delivered a Lincoln Day address in Wheeling, West Virginia, that blamed failures in American foreign policy on Communist infiltration of the United States government. He held in his hand, the senator asserted, a list of known Communists still working in the Department of State. When a special subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee investigated these charges and rejected them as ‘‘a fraud and a hoax,’’ the issue might have died, but the outbreak of the Korean War, along with the conviction of Alger Hiss and arrest of Julius Rosenberg in 1950, lent new credibility to McCarthy’s charges. He continued to make accusations that such prominent officials as General George C. Marshall had been part of an immense Communist conspiracy. In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s election as president carried Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and seniority elevated McCarthy to chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Committee organization:

COMMITTEE ON GOVERNMENT OPERATIONS
83RD CONGRESS, FIRST SESSION
JOSEPH R. MCCARTHY, Wisconsin, Chairman
KARL E. MUNDT, South Dakota
MARGARET CHASE SMITH, Maine
HENRY C. DWORSHAK, Idaho
EVERETT MCKINLEY DIRKSEN, Illinois
JOHN MARSHALL BUTLER, Maryland
CHARLES E. POTTER, Michigan
JOHN L. MCCLELLAN, Arkansas
HUBERT H. HUMPHREY, Minnesota
HENRY M. JACKSON, Washington
JOHN F. KENNEDY, Massachusetts
STUART SYMINGTON, Missouri
ALTON A. LENNON, North Carolina
FRANCIS D. FLANAGAN, Chief Counsel
WALTER L. REYNOLDS, Chief Clerk

PERMANENT SUBCOMMITTEE ON INVESTIGATIONS
JOSEPH R. MCCARTHY, Wisconsin, Chairman
KARL E. MUNDT, South Dakota
EVERETT MCKINLEY DIRKSEN, Illinois
CHARLES E. POTTER, Michigan
JOHN L. MCCLELLAN, Arkansas 1
HENRY M. JACKSON, Washington 1
STUART SYMINGTON, Missouri 1

A recurring dialogue (page 234):

The CHAIRMAN. I think Mr. Cohn had something in mind. But first let me ask you this. It has been suggested that certain questions be asked each witness who appears here, those who work in government. May I say that I know nothing whatsoever about you, to this question is no reflection on you at all. It is just a usual custom. I did not even know your name before yesterday, and all I know about you is just from examining you today, so therefore do
not misunderstand these questions as reflecting upon you.

Question Number one is: Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?

Mrs. KERR. No, sir.

The CHAIRMAN. Number two, have you ever belonged to any organization that has been named by the attorney general as subversive?

Mrs. KERR. No, sir.

Page 282:

The CHAIRMAN. Mr. Toumanoff, there is one other question that it has been suggested that I ask all the witnesses who appear in government. And you understand this is no reflection upon you.

The mere fact that we ask this question is no reflection on you. I do not know you, never met you before today so that I know very little about you. For that reason, I emphasize that the mere asking of this question does not indicate that we feel the answer should be ‘‘yes’’ or anything of the kind. But the question is: Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?

Mr. TOUMANOFF. No, sir.

The CHAIRMAN. Question number two. Are you now a member or have you ever belonged to any organization which the attorney general has put on the subversive list?

Mr. TOUMANOFF. I haven’t seen the very latest list, sir, but to my knowledge I have not.

The CHAIRMAN. Could you give us the names of the organizations to which you have belonged? First, the ones to which you belong at this time. That you should have no trouble in remembering.

Mr. TOUMANOFF. I don’t belong to any at this time, as far as I know. And the organizations that I have belonged to were—there was a psychology club at Harvard University. There was an honorary psychology club called, I think, Psi Chi, at the University of Chicago.

Page 315:

The CHAIRMAN. Just one question, and we ask this of all witnesses who have appeared before us, and I hope you understand the mere asking of the question does not indicate that we have any opinion on the matter at all; it does not indicate that we know anything of any adverse nature about you or otherwise. I want to ask you now, are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?

Mr. HUNT. I never have been a member of the Communist party, and I am not now a member.

The CHAIRMAN. And, number two: Do you now or have you ever belonged to any organization that is listed by the attorney general as subversive?

Mr. HUNT. To my knowledge, I have never been.

Page 613:

The CHAIRMAN. I think we will adjourn now. Just before you leave, Mr. Vedeler. We will want you to check your files back there, and we will want you to check your records, and be prepared, when one of the members of the staff will call you. We want you to be prepared to give us a complete history of any connection you had with either the Jeri Stary case or the Hitchmenova case.

One other question: Have you ever been a member of the Communist party?

Mr. VEDELER. No, sir.

The CHAIRMAN. Have you ever been a member of any organization that has been listed as subversive or Communist-front by the attorney general?

Mr. VEDELER. Not so far as I know, sir.

The movie script was written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and the film was directed by George Clooney. Production took place ten years ago for release in 2005 by Warner Brothers. The title is the signature closing line by Edward R. Murrow for his program, See It Now: Good Night and Good Luck.

This movie has top notch production credentials. Late in the game this production was, it still used film. The credits show Technicolor, but the sets were color neutral, and post production rendered everything in monochrome. Photographic rendition is high key, meaning saturated blacks and complete detail in the highlights.

As war came to Europe in 1939-1940 American journalists brought the story to their audiences across the Atlantic. William Shirer stayed with the story on the continent for eight years until the Nazis expelled him, and Edward R. Murrow conveyed the word to America by radio under the heading “This is London.” Subsequently Murrow returned to America and by the early 1950s was doing news and commentary on television. The movie opens with a speech Murrow gave “to the Radio and Television News Directors Association in 1958.” Old friends in the news broadcasting business were there, and Murrow reminded them of their responsibility to bring out unpleasant facts.

The main plot line begins in 1953.

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Clooney has reproduced life in the 1950s with stunning fidelity. The sixty years past have not entirely erased my memories of those times, and I can readily buy Clooney’s rendition. People arrive at the CBS building and take an elevator up to the news section. The women are wearing hats, and as I watch this I try to recall the last time I saw women wear hats to work. Men are wearing hats, as well. I do recall when men quit wearing hats. That was in 1961 when President John Kennedy started appearing in public hatless, sending hat makers into bankruptcy across the country, except in certain regions of Texas. And everybody smoked. After sixty years it’s startling to watch people light up in the office, at the dining table and even in the television studio control room. Murrow’s signature was his cigarette, which he held aloft while speaking into the camera.

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The opening news item involves Milo Radulovich, an Air Force reservist in Michigan who has been forced to resign because his father subscribed to a Serbian newspaper and because Lieutenant Radulovich refuses to denounce his father. Radulovich, himself, appears in the movie from news footage regarding the story. Radulovich died in 2007, but was involved as a consultant on the movie. The movie shows news producers watching Radulovich’s interview on film in a projection room.

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For readers out there who have not read any of the history of the 1950s, Joseph McCarthy was at the time making a name for himself by conducting what amounted to a witch hunt. He chaired the Senate committee investigating (among other things) communist infiltration of government affairs. As the temperature increased he exhibited a decreasing regard for the truth and for the rights of people being questioned by his committee, many being accused of complicity in communist subversion.

Senator McCarthy

Senator McCarthy

Murrow and the CBS producers challenged McCarthy, indirectly at first, but then openly after McCarthy accused Murrow of being a communist. The film grippingly captures the chill that settled withing the CBS news center. This was a time when careers were being destroyed by the merest hint of Communist association. One staffer under the remotest of suspicion committed suicide. Scenes in the movie could have just as well come out of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible or Shakespeare’s Richard III.

The task for Murrow and his CBS producers devolved into merely showing the facts on television for all to see. Much of what was shown involved the antics of the Senator. Particularly galling was the case of Annie Lee Moss.

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Mrs. Moss had worked in a government cafeteria and ultimately secured a position as a communications clerk in the Pentagon. A routine Army security screening resulted in the recommendation she be discharged. She appealed the decision and was reinstated in 1951. The film features news footage of her grilling before the committee:

Senator McCarthy: Now, is that testimony true?

Mrs. Moss: No sir, it is not. Not at any time have I been a member of a Communist Party, and I have never seen a Communist card.

Senator McCarthy: You have never seen a Communist card?

Mrs. Moss: No sir, I haven’t…

Senator McCarthy: Have you ever attended any Communist meetings?

Mrs. Moss: No sir, I’ve never attended any Communist meetings.

Senator McCarthy: Have you ever subscribed to the Daily Worker?

Mrs. Moss: No sir, I didn’t subscribe to the Daily Worker, and I wouldn’t pay for it.

Senator McCarthy: Uh… Now, Mrs. Markward, who was working for the FBI who joined the Communist Party under orders from the FBI has testified that while she never met you personally at a Communist meeting that your name was on the list of Communists who were paying dues.

Uh… Can you shed any light upon that?

Mrs. Moss: No, sir. I don’t even know what the dues are or where they were paid.

Senator McCarthy: So you have never paid any money to the Communist Party. Is that correct?

Mrs. Moss: That’s right.

Senator McCarthy: You’ve never paid any dues, payment…

From Volume 5, pages xiv – xv:

The subcommittee had gotten the name of Annie Lee Moss from an FBI informant, Mary Stalcup Markward, who told them that she had seen ‘‘a woman by the name of Annie Lee Moss on the list of card-carrying, dues-paying members.’’ However, Markward could not recall having met Moss personally. Moss, an African American, had worked in a government cafeteria before getting a job as an Army Signal Corps communications clerk at the Pentagon in 1950. She had been cleared by loyalty boards of the General Accounting Office in October 1949 and by the army in January 1951. In September 1951, the FBI raised questions about Moss, and offered Markward’s testimony as evidence, but the army did not reopen the case. Senator McCarthy described Moss herself as ‘‘not of any great importance,’’ but he demanded to know: ‘‘Who in the military, knowing that this lady was a Communist, promoted her from a waitress to a code clerk?’’ Due to ill health, Moss did not attend an executive session and made her first appearance before the subcommittee at a televised public hearing on March 11, 1954.8

The army described Annie Lee Moss’ position as a relay machine operator who received and transmitted ‘‘unintelligible code messages.’’ When the charges against her became public, the army first transferred her to a supply room and then suspended her entirely. At the public hearing, Moss denied having been a member of the Communist party, having paid any dues, or having attended any party meetings. She testified that her late husband had received copies of the Daily Worker, although she was uncertain whether they had been addressed to him or to her. Moss had paid dues to a cafeteria-workers’ union in 1943, but could not say whether the union had any Communist party connections. Appearing frail and perplexed at the hearing, she seemed an unlikely espionage agent even to Senator McCarthy, who left midway through her testimony. The hearing was replayed on Edward R. Murrow’s popular See It
Now television program and proved a public relations blow to the chairman. The army eventually reinstated Annie Lee Moss, placing her in its finance and accounts office. In 1958 the Subversive Activities Control Board confirmed Markward’s assertion that Moss’ name had appeared on the Communist party rolls in the mid-1940s. But the board conducted no further investigation of Moss, and the following year it concluded that ‘‘Markward’s testimony should be assayed with caution.’’ 9

This is from another part of the transcript. The movie may have played some of the clips out of sequence. It is obvious that multiple cameras were in action during the proceedings, and the view jumps from one speaker to another with some loss of continuity. In reconstructing the transcript I often had to rely on recognizing the voices of various speakers, and mistakes are bound to exist.

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Most telling are those actions of Senator McCarthy. He appears to realize his cow has dried up, and he excuses himself. In his absence Counselor Roy Cohn continues in his place, and Cohn’s actions incite the outrage of Senator John McClellan. McClellan was a conservative politician from Arkansas, and nobody could accuse him of being “soft on Communism.” His cutting response eviscerated the corpse of McCarthy’s witch hunt and laid bare the rot that had set in.

Senator McCarthy: Mrs. Moss, let me say for the record, for your information … for the information of your counsel that you are not here because you are considered important in the Communist apparatus. We have the testimony that you are, and have been, a Communist. We are rather curious, however, to know how you suddenly were shifted from a worker in a cafeteria to the code room. I am today much more interested in the handling of your case by your superiors than in your own personal activities. However, counsel will question you about your own activities also.

Counsel for Mrs. Moss: Mr. Chairman!

Senator McCarthy: We will not hear from counsel. You have been told what the rule is. If you have anything to say, say it through your client.

Roy Cohn: Chairman.

Senator McCarthy: Did you begin work at the General Accounting Office in… ?

Mrs. Moss: Yes, sir.

Senator McCarthy: And, prior to that time, had you been a cafeteria worker?

Mrs. Moss: Yes, I had.

Senator McCarthy: I see. While in the Pentagon, since have you had any connections with coded messages? Have you ever handled coded messages?

Mrs. Moss: No more than to transmit ’em.

Senator McCarthy: Pardon me?

Mrs. Moss: No more than to transmit the message.

Senator McCarthy: Than to transmit them? Did you transmit codes?

Mrs. Moss: To receive or transmit messages was all I had to do. And I’ve never been into a courtroom in my life. [The voice in video says “code room,” not “courtroom.”]

Senator McCarthy: Do you know the type of classification… Do you know if they were secret, top secret, confidential?

Mrs. Moss: No, sir.

Senator McCarthy: You wouldn’t know the degree of classification?

Mrs. Moss: No, sir.

Senator McCarthy: I see. I’m afraid I’m going to have to excuse myself, I’ve got a rather important appointment to work on right now, and I wonder if, Senator Mundt, you would takeover as Chairman?

Roy Cohn: Chairman. Uh…

(likely) Senator Mundt: Cohn.

Roy Cohn: I have no further questions of this witness at this time. We have the testimony of Mrs. Markward, the undercover agent for the FBI stating that Annie Lee Moss was a member, a dues-paying member of the Communist Party the Northeast Club of the Communist Party. We have corroboration of that testimony by another witness who was called before the Committee and gave a sworn statement to the effect that she also knew Mrs. Moss as a member of the Northeast Club of the Communist Party.

Senator John McClellan: She’s already lost her job. She’s been suspended because of this action. I’m not defending her. If she’s a Communist, I want her exposed. But to make these statements as we’ve got corroborating evidence that she is a Communist, under these circumstances. I think she’s entitled to have it produced here in her presence and let the public know about it and let her know about it. I don’t like to try people by hearsay evidence. I’d like to get the witnesses here and try them by testimony under oath.

Senator Mundt: The Chair will rule that the comment of Mr. Cohn be stricken from the record.

Senator John McClellan: I didn’t ask that, Mr. Chairman!

Senator Mundt: …whether we should try to produce a witness in public because the FBI may have her undercover and we don’t want to…

Senator McClellan: You can’t strike these statements made by counsel here as to evidence that we’re having and withholding. You cannot strike that from the press nor from the public mind once it’s planted there. That’s the evil of it!

Senator Mundt: Well, I’d look at it…

Senator McClellan: I don’t think it’s fair to a witness to a citizen of this country to bring them up here and cross-examine them then when they get through, say “The FBI has got something on you that condemns you.”

Senator Mundt: The Chair agrees…

Senator McClellan: It is not sworn testimony it’s convicting people by rumor and hearsay and innuendo.

The outrage of Senator John McClellan

The outrage of Senator John McClellan

The scenes from the hearings are archival footage and feature people who were or who were about to be making history. Please note sitting at the table the future Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

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Following the debacle of these Senate hearings the United States Senate censured Joseph McCarthy. He was sidelined and spent the remainder of his tenure with no power and no useful duties. He died three years after his interview with Mrs. Moss.

Mrs. Moss retired as a clerk in the employment of the Army in 1975 and died in 1996 at the age of 90.

Edward R. Murrow eventually parted with CBS in 1961 following the acrimony that developed with CBS chief executive William Paley. He died in 1965 from lung cancer, not unexpectedly.

Modern readers may be surprised at the lingering popularity of the late Senator McCarthy. A less likable public figure would be hard to find.

McCarthy served a total tour of duty in the Marines lasting thirty months, or 2½ years, from August of 1942 to February of 1945, and he held the rank of captain by the time he was discharged in April of 1945. He flew twelve combat missions as a gunner-observer, earning the nickname of “Tail-Gunner Joe” in the course of one of these missions.

He later claimed 32 missions in order to qualify for a Distinguished Flying Cross, which he received in 1952. McCarthy publicized a letter of commendation which he claimed had been signed by his commanding officer and countersigned by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, then Chief of Naval Operations. However, it was revealed that McCarthy had written this letter himself, in his capacity as intelligence officer. A “war wound” that McCarthy made the subject of varying stories involving airplane crashes or anti-aircraft fire was in fact received aboard ship during a ceremony for sailors crossing the equator for the first time.

[Some links deleted]

Real hero of World War 2 and American President Dwight D. Eisenhower had no taste for McCarthy’s methods and aimed to keep some distance:

Nothing would probably please him more than to get the publicity that would be generated by a public repudiation by the President.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, on declining to publicly confront McCarthy’s strategies, as quoted in The Party of Fear (1988), by David Harry Bennett, p. 304

A bit of historical reality may be due. There was an active Communist Party in the United States at the time, but at no time did it ever threaten the national security. Remember, that to impose Communism on the population the Party would first have to get some people elected, and at this they were notably unsuccessful. This is not to say Communists in this country were harmless.

Communism had appeal to segments of society since its formulation in 1848 by philosopher Karl Marx. When Communists took power following the overthrow of the Russian Empire, the new Soviet Union represented the goal of Communist sympathizers the world over and quite regularly attracted the loyalty of Communists in other countries. This was the case in the United States.

Prior to the entry of the United States into World War 2, Communists in the U.S. opposed American involvement, because the Soviet Union was initially allied with Nazi Germany. During the war American Communists aided the Soviet Union in ways that violated U.S. law.

David Greenglass was a Communist sympathizer who joined the Army and worked on the project to develop the atomic bomb. As a machinist he obtained a copy of the design of the mold for the explosive lens that was employed by the plutonium bomb. He made one or more drawings of this design and passed them on to Soviet agents.

At his trial for espionage Greenglass implicated his sister, Ethel Rosenberg and her husband Julius as his contacts, and the two Rosenbergs were tried for espionage and in 1953 were executed. This was during the time of the McCarthy hearings.

Klaus Fuchs, not an American citizen, also worked on the atomic bomb program and delivered classified bomb information to the Soviets. He escaped to the Soviet Union to avoid prosecution.

Morton Sobell served 17 years and 9 months of a 30 year sentence in a case related to the Rosenbergs’ spying. After decades of denial, he subsequently implicated the Rosenbergs.

Alger Hiss worked in sensitive positions in the United States government, including the State Department. He was implicated in espionage by acknowledged Communist Whittaker Chambers, but was not prosecuted, since the statute of limitations had expired for his charges.

More recent espionage on behalf of the former Soviet Union involved greed and other motivations and not Communist allegiance.

During the McCarthy hearings people were advised that Communist Party membership was not crime, and they were then ordered to state their political sympathies and any membership in the Party. Many refused to answer these questions, since Communist association had become tantamount to social and economic ostracism. Careers were destroyed, particularly in the entertainment industries, when Communist association was revealed or when individuals refused to answer the critical questions. In particular, prior to World War 2 there was virtually no stigma associated with Communist Party membership, but people who subsequently renounced their Communist ties suffered eventual retribution.

Government abuse of civil liberties so marked those times that they are sometimes called the “McCarthy Era.” Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee wrote Inherit the Wind, a play highlighting government over reach. The plot parallels, but does not reproduce, the 1925 trial of John Scopes for teaching evolution in public schools. A follow-on movie starred Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.

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Bad Joke of the Week

Not yet

Not yet

A successful businessman flew to Vegas for the weekend to gamble. He lost the shirt off his back, and had nothing left but a quarter and the second half of his round trip ticket. All he needed to do was somehow get to the airport, and then he’d be home-free.

So he went out to the front of the casino where there was a cab waiting. He got in and explained his situation to the cabbie. He promised to send the driver money from home. He offered him his credit card numbers, his drivers license number, his address, etc… The cabbie said, “If you don’t have fifteen dollars, get the hell out of my cab!”

So the businessman was forced to hitchhike to the airport and was barely in time to catch his flight. One year later the businessman, having worked long and hard to regain his financial success, returned to Vegas and this time he won big. Feeling pretty good about himself, he went out to the front of the casino to get a cab ride back to the airport.

Well who should he see out there, at the end of a long line of cabs, but his old buddy who had refused to give him a ride when he was down on his luck. The businessman thought for a moment about how he could make the guy pay for his lack of charity, and he hit on a plan.

The businessman got in the first cab in the line, “How much for a ride to the airport,” he asked? “Fifteen bucks,” came the reply. “And how much for you to give me a blowjob on the way?” “What?! Get the hell out of my cab.” The businessman got into the back of each cab in the long line and asked the same questions, with the same result. When he got to his old friend at the back of the line, he got in and asked, “How much for a ride to the airport?” The cabbie replied, “Fifteen bucks.” The businessman said, “OK,” and off they went.

Then, as they drove slowly past the long line of cabs, the businessman gave a big smile and thumbs up sign to each of the other drivers.

Fox on the Barbie

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I really need to watch Fox News on a regular basis. At least more often. People may not know this, but Fox News is a wonderful source of useful information. Take scientific misconduct, for example:

Scientific studies conducted in the public interest appear to have veered off course, according to a new report that documents government-sponsored research gems such as having shrimp walk on tiny treadmills to measure the impact of sickness on crustaceans.

While the exercises may be adorable to watch, Sen. Tom Coburn says he’s not so sure it advances the cause of science.

The Oklahoma Republican issued a new report Thursday that concludes the National Science Foundation has misspent $3 billion on “waste, fraud, duplication and mismanagement.” It offers a list of research projects that could have been left as questions for the universe.

This from a 26 May 2011 Fox News report.

That’s right. The National Science Foundation, your government, is spending billions of tax dollars on wasteful scientific research. Reading through the list will certainly bring tears to the eyes of hard-working tax payers. Or at least a gagging sensation to the throat. However, there is one study that has received a lot of Internet bandwidth and also my personal interest. That would include funding for a study which involved placing a shrimp on a treadmill. Conservative Cybercast News Service followed up, and a few months later Fox relayed the cruel facts to viewers:

U.S. Government Has Spent $682,570 to Study ‘Shrimp On A Treadmill’

By Eric Scheiner
December 27, 2011
(CNSNews.com) -Reports of $500,000 of taxpayer funds to study a project that has shrimp running on a treadmill hit the headlines early in 2011. A recent report now shows that $682,570 in grants has been awarded to the research effort.
According to the National Science Foundation (NSF) website, the money has been granted to the “Taking the Pulse of Marine Life in Stressed Seas” research conducted by biology professors Louis and Karen Burnett at the College of Charleston. The research page describes the professor’s “big question” as “How are human-made marine stresses affecting the marine life that we need?”

Pass over, as I have done, the $682,570 mentioned in the headline versus the $500,000 figure in the body of the story, the fact remains: Taxpayers have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to put a shrimp on a treadmill. This cute meme, which has been floating about the net universe, sums it up.

shrimp

Call it scandal if you will, but the fact remains that tax payers are footing the bill while liberal scientists are having fun with shrimp. It would appear that now is the time for some skeptical analysis. I will start with . Earlier this month Professor Scholnick, of Pacific University in Oregon, stepped forward with a few words on the matter:

A video clip of a shrimp running on a treadmill has somehow become the nation’s poster child for wasteful spending and grounds for the Republican-led House of Representatives science committee to recently investigate wasteful spending of NSF-funded research projects across the country.

My name is David, and I am the marine biologist who put a shrimp on a treadmill—a burden I will forever carry. To be clear, the treadmill did not cost millions of taxpayer dollars, the goal of the research was not to exercise shrimp, and the government did not pay me—or anyone else—to work out shrimp on treadmills.

Simply put, my colleagues and I were studying how recent changes in the oceans could potentially affect the ability of marine organisms to fight infections—an important question, given that the amount of bacteria a shrimp is able remove from its body is directly related to how much bacteria could potentially end up on seafood-filled plates. And since shrimp are active animals in nature, it was logical to study the immune response of shrimp during activity.

Scholnick cites an article in Forbes listing Thirteen Silliest Uses of Taxpayer Money.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this post included a $3 million treadmill. It has been removed for accuracy.

Troubled Asset Relief Program: $700 billion. Projected budget deficit for 2011: $1.4 trillion. Spending $1.5 million of taxpayer money on a laundry-folding robot:  Shameless.

This is so disheartening. Forbes has dropped further mention of the shrimp treadmill. So, unless somebody has the original copy tucked away on a hard drive, I won’t be able to bring that to you. Wait, there’s more from Forbes. Please note the link to their article:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/seaneichenberger/2011/07/06/fifteen-silliest-uses-of-taxpayer-money/

Apparently there were originally fifteen silliest uses of taxpayer money. Forbes is now down to thirteen. Are we eventually going to get down to The Single Silly Use of Taxpayer Money? Knowing my United States government and yours, I tend to think not.

In case you became confused by the separate items above featuring Louis and Karen Burnett at the College of Charleston and David Scholnick at Pacific University of Oregon, the explanation is obvious. Both Scholnick and the Burnetts have been collaborating on the same project.

For the record, knowledge of things that affect the health of marine organisms is ultimately vital to the national economy. There are important American industries that depend on sustaining healthy marine life. It would be possible for large corporations engaged in these industries to conduct the needed research, but there is little economic incentive for them to do so. The knowledge does no good unless it is publicly shared, and no board of directors wants to spend company profits on activity that benefits the competition. It’s in situations like this that a democratic government is beneficial to a strong capitalistic society. People, involuntarily, pool their resources for the good of all.

Scholnick also cites conservative commentator Mike Huckabee’s attack on the shrimp research. Huckabee’s interpretation is worth watching:

Congress spent money to study how shrimp could function on a treadmill. … $503,000 to watch shrimp on a treadmill. You know, I don’t care what shrimps do on a treadmill. I don’t want my shrimp going to the gym. I want them going to the grill. Or the oven. And then to the table. I don’t want ’em getting skinny so they can outrun me. I want ’em to get fat so they can nourish me.

Please do not pause to observe these statements are remarkable. Do pause to note that this man once ran for the office of President of the United States.

As Scholnick points out in his Journal of Higher Education piece Huckabee linked the shrimp study to limitations on military spending. I’m glad he did that. Allow me to recount some personal experiences with spending on our military.

Not counting my brief career in the military, my first employment related to the military was about 33 years ago.

I went to work for a major American corporation with a sizable business in military contracts. My first task involved heading up a software team to develop a system to locate enemy submarines by sonar. I ultimately had about six highly-paid specialists working on the project, and we purchased an expensive computer system and hooked everything up in a lab at the company’s plant. Then we loaded the whole business up and shipped it to St. Croix Island in the Caribbean for testing. A bunch of us went down there and worked at a sonar test range on the west end of the island for a week or so before taking a break for the Thanksgiving holidays. Then we went  back to finish up. The project was highly successful, and we could locate the mock submarine more quickly and with better accuracy than the Navy team that was working on the same problem. Then the project was canceled.

I next worked on something called the Navigational Sonar System, which may or may not have ultimately been successful, but I never found out, because I left that job to take a position with another defense contractor that built guided missiles.

The first program I worked on relating to guided missiles was called IRHVTA, and it used an infra-red imaging system to identify fixed, high-value targets, e.g., power plants and bridges, so the missile could attack them without the aid of a gunner. While this technology was useful in follow-on projects, the concept was never implemented.

bridge

My next project was called Joint Services Seeker. We installed an infra-red imaging system into the nose of a small missile that was controlled through a fiber optic link to attack tanks and helicopters. The same technology was also developed for the Hellfire missile. Neither of these weapons was ever implemented.

I worked on a project called Smart Weapons. The idea here was to send a missile off on its own to locate and attack specific kinds of enemy targets, e.g., tanks and missile launchers. This was never implemented.

Another program developed technology to identify, locate and eavesdrop enemy radio transmissions. This was ultimately dropped, although some of the technology has found use in other military applications.

I did work for a time on software for the highly-successful Javelin missile, and I ultimately watched CNN video from the most recent Iraq war as soldiers used one of these to attack an enemy strong point. Score one for the taxpayers.

More recently I worked on software for the successful JSOW missile, which after a long evolutionary journey, pulled from IRHVTA technology. And I worked on software funded by the Spanish government (American taxpayers, take a short break) and also software for two military GPS programs and flight simulator software for FA-18 fighters.

Each of these programs represented expenditures of millions of dollars, a lot of it dead-end with little or no benefit at the back end. The wastefulness of some of these military programs can be written off as the cost of maintaining American superiority over some real external challenges. A lot cannot be so justified. One program was later determined to be funded without authorization and was canceled.

Being in the forefront of science (and militarily) comes with a cost, and that cost is borne by the taxpayers. People such as Mike Huckabee, with little understanding of science and also with little regard for important findings of science, can  be expected to say silly things about scientific research. It’s our job to observe these orations and to take note of the source.

Political Science

ScienceLiberalConspiracy

Earlier this week I posted comments on an item that’s in the most recent edition of Reports of the National Center for Science Education. It’s Science and Society: Evolution and Student Voting Patterns, and it’s by Sehoya H Cotner, D Christopher Brooks, and Randy Moore:

Sehoya Cotner is an associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She has written several articles and books on evolution, including (with Randy Moore and Mark Decker) Chronology of the Evolution-Creationism Controversy (Santa Barbara [CA]: Greenwood Press, 2010), and (with Randy Moore) Understanding Galápagos: What You’ll See and What it Means (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013).
Randy Moore is a professor in the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. His recent books include (with Mark Decker), More than Darwin (Santa Barbara [CA]: Greenwood Press, 2008), and (with Sehoya Cotner) Arguing for Evolution (Santa Barbara [CA]: Greenwood Press, 2011).
D Christopher Brooks is a Senior Research Fellow with EDUCAUSE. He is co-author of a several articles on teaching and learning and is co-editor of Active Learning Spaces: New Directions for Teaching and Learning. He has also recently served as a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Skipping over the central points the authors address in this article, I want to focus on a side issue. While American presidents have for past decades been devout Christians, their acceptance of science that conflicts with the Bible is varied. What is most significant has been how their views have tracked with their political conservatism. Here’s the table of quotes from the article:

Figure 2 . Presidential words on science, religion, and the teaching of evolution

“Of course, like every other man of intelligence and education I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised.”
—Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), letter to Winterton C Curtis, August 29, 1922
“There is no need to teach that stars can fall out of the sky and land on a flat Earth in order to
defend our religious faith.”
—Jimmy Carter (born 1924), quoted in “Carter slams Georgia’s ‘evolution’ proposal,” CNN, 2004 Jan 30
“But if it was going to be taught in the schools, then I think that also the biblical theory of creation, which is not a theory but the biblical story of creation, should also be taught.”
—Ronald Reagan (1911–2004), quoted in “Republican candidate picks fight with Darwin,” Science 1980;209:1214
“Well, the jury is still out on evolution, you know,” and “I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught.”
George W Bush (born 1946), quoted in The New York Times, 2000 Oct 29 and 2005 Aug 3
“I also believe our schools are there to teach worldly knowledge and science. I believe in evolution, and I believe there’s a difference between science and faith.”
Barack Obama (born 1961), quoted in the York (PA) Daily Record 2008 Mar 30

Before going on, let’s pause to reflect on President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was a Democratic president, but this was back during the time the Democratic Party harbored a strong conservative faction. So, was Wilson actually a conservative president who aligned with modern science when it was becoming unfashionable to do so? Some Skeptical Analysis is in order. I will pick from the historical record, as recorded by Wikipedia:

  • Richard Hofstadter has written “Woodrow Wilson: The Conservative as Liberal” in The American Political Tradition (1948).
  • He organized the Liberal Debating Society and later coached the Whig–Clio Debate Panel.
  • Wilson appointed three Associate Justices to the Supreme Court, including “Louis Dembitz Brandeis in 1916. A liberal, and the first Jew appointed to the Court, he served 22 years and wrote landmark opinions on free speech and right to privacy.”
  • Ronald Pestritto has written Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield (2005).

These are just vignettes, but they expose a considerable liberal bent. At the same time, Wilson’s remarks regarding evolution are contra to what was at the time a trending conservative opposition to Darwinian evolution.

One of the most liberal Democratic president’s of modern times has been Bill Clinton. There was not a lot about his take on creationism in my searches, but his response to the creationist legislation enacted in Arkansas over 30 years ago provides a hint. In 1981 the Arkansas legislature passed the Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act (Act 590). This law required that teaching creationism be given equal treatment with the teaching of evolution. The case McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education was decided in 1982 against the creationists in federal court. Governor Bill Clinton had been voted out of office, but he regained the governorship in a subsequent election, and he vetoed a substitute bill passed by the legislature that would have re-instated the case for the creationists.

This bothersome trend continues to date. During the nomination process for the presidency two years ago a mass of Republican candidates vied for the top job. When they were polled only Jon Huntsman voiced support for evolution. He was quickly eliminated from the running.

Everybody Talking About Heaven

JesusGetToHeaven

This song has been running through my head:

Heaven, Heaven, everybody talkin’ ’bout Heaven
Ain’t goin’ there Heaven, Heaven
Everybody talkin’ ’bout Heaven, ain’t goin’ there
Well, I’m gonna walk, I gonna talk
All over God’s Heaven, Heaven

So I was wondering about heaven. The song is about not going to heaven. If the singer isn’t going to Heaven, then who is? I tried to find out.

A bit of theatrics here. I didn’t actually go out and conduct this poll. The narrative that follows is pure fiction. However, if I did conduct such a poll, this is quite possibly how it would go.

Me: Are you going to Heaven?

Respondent: I surely hope so.

Me: You hope so? You mean you don’t know whether you’re going to Heaven?

Respondent: The Bible tells me that if I accept Jesus Christ as my savior, then I will go to Heaven.

Me: Do you accept Jesus Christ as your savior?

Respondent: I certainly do.

Me: Then how come you have any doubts about going to Heaven?

Respondent: I’m just being circumspect. Sure, I expect that I will go to Heaven when I die, because I’ve been a good Christian. And I do accept Jesus Christ as my savior.

Me: Then you’re sure you’re going to Heaven.

Respondent: Yes, definitely.

Me: Then there is a Heaven.

Respondent: I beg your pardon?

Me: I mean, you believe Heaven actually exists.

Respondent: Of course.

Me: And you know of people who have actually gone to Heaven?

Respondent: Yes. Yes, I’m sure.

Me: Such as?

Respondent: Well, my father, for one. He was a devout Christian, and I’m sure he went to Heaven when he died.

Me: And this was when?

Respondent: That would be five years ago in May.

Me: And you saw this?

Respondent: Saw what.

Me: Saw your father going to Heaven.

Respondent: Of course not. Don’t be absurd.

Me: I’m not trying to be absurd. I just want to confirm you never actually saw your father going to heaven.

Respondent: I already said that. You don’t see people go to Heaven. They just die, and their soul goes to Heaven.

Me: The people don’t actually go.

Respondent: No. Just their souls go to heaven.

Me: But not their bodies.

Respondent: No. Of course not. I mean, sometimes there’s not even a body. Like, when the body is cremated. Then there’s no body to go to Heaven. You know, you’re getting rather tiresome. Just what is it that you’re getting at?

Me: I’m just trying to figure out if there really is a Heaven and whether people, even just their souls, actually go to Heaven when the people die.

Respondent: Of course they do. It’s in the Bible. Why would anybody ever doubt that?

Me: I’m just concerned that there’s this supposition that people go to Heaven when they die, yet nobody has actually ever observed that someone going to Heaven.

Respondent: Fella, right there’s where you’re wrong, because this has been observed.

Me: ?

Respondent: It’s in the Bible.

Me: ?

Respondent: Look, here’s the passage. [reads from the bible]

Acts 1:9-12New King James Version (NKJV)

Jesus Ascends to Heaven

Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. 10 And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, 11 who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”

Me: I’ve seen that. What we have here is not somebody seeing Jesus going to Heaven. What we have here is somebody saying that they saw Jesus ascend into Heaven. In fact, we don’t even have that. What we have is a book that says there is somebody who says they saw Jesus ascend into Heaven.

Respondent: Of course. What else do you want? This is eyewitness testimony.

Me: I’ve heard that before, as well. You recognize, of course, this is not actually eyewitness testimony. You have picked up a book and read something out of a book. We don’t have anybody standing here saying he saw Jesus ascending into Heaven.

Respondent: That’s true, but the book was nearly two thousand years ago. All witnesses to the actual events are long since dead.

Me: And gone to Heaven.

Respondent: Don’t get smart with me, Fella. We’re talking my religious faith here.

Me: It’s not my primary intent to disparage your faith. I’m just stating some facts and letting the chips fall where they may.

Respondent: So, get to what you’re getting at, and let’s wrap this up sometime soon.

Me: So there are no actual witnesses to this event—Jesus ascending into Heaven?

Respondent: No. I already said that.

Me: So there are no witnesses.

Respondent: We have testimony of the witnesses recorded in this book. And this is a very respected book, not one of those evolutionary textbooks they bandy around in my kid’s school.

Me: But if you had a live witness standing here, that would be even better.

Respondent: Yes, of course. Barring the two of us actually watching somebody ascend into Heaven, a live witness—somebody who would take an oath with his hand on the Bible—that would be better.

Me: OK then. Let’s talk about something else.

Respondent: Sure.

Me: Do you believe people can walk through walls?

Respondent: Excuse me?

Me: I mean just stand facing a wall and then walk right through it.

Respondent: You mean just crash through the wall?

Me: No, I mean walk through and come out on the other side—without breaking the wall studs, cracking the sheet rock, even smudging the paint.

Respondent: That’s absurd.

Me: I have a witness.

Respondent: He’s lying.

Me: He swore on a Bible.

Respondent: Then he’s going to Hell. He’s a liar.

Me: But he’s a witness. He says he really can do that and has.

Respondent: Then get him over here. We need to see this.

Me: He refused to give me a demonstration.

Respondent: Then he’s a liar.

Me: You doubt his word?

Respondent: Yes.

Me: He swore on the Bible.

Respondent: Then he’s going to Hell.

Me: He says he’s telling the truth.

Respondent: Really? Then get him out here and force him to provide a demonstration. Nobody has ever walked through walls, like you said. You shouldn’t believe a cockamamie story like that without proof.

Me: I agree.

Respondent: Are you being cute with me again?

Me: Of course.

That was all fiction, but who could doubt such a conversation could take place? For the record:

  • I have never spoken to a witness who saw Jesus ascend into Heaven.
  • I have spoken to a witness who told me he has walked through walls.
  • More people have been shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson than have ever gone to Heaven.

Platforms Against Science

CreationismCompeting

Frank Harrold and Ray Eve were early technical advisors for The North Texas Skeptics. Frank Harrold served “20 years as a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Arlington.” Ray Eve spent most of his “career at the University of Texas at Arlington in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.” Together they published Cult Archaeology and Creationism: Understanding Pseudoscientific Beliefs about the Past. I own a copy (current on loan), and if you ever read it you will agree that, despite its title, it’s a real page-turner. Harrold and Eve collaborated extensively on studies related to belief in the paranormal, and a critical finding was the correlation between reliance on pseudo science (including creationism) with political conservatism.

What can be said about the sources of pseudoscientific beliefs? Creation science oriented beliefs merit attention because of their connection with Fundamentalist religious tradition in the United States. Kehoe (1985) has discussed the functions of “creation science” within the New Religious-Political Right of contemporary conservative politics. She contends that the acceptance of the inerrancy of the Bible inherent in “creation science” serves as a manifest sign of dedication to the central value of the New Religious-Political Right: acceptance of authority versus “reality testing” and adaptation. In this context, scientific gullibility may be seen as one facet of deference to authority, a kind of generalized willingness to accept as plausible that which appears to be commonly believed by others or what is asserted in folklore to have been proven by unnamed “scientists” or experts. Harrold and Eve (1987) have given support to Kehoe’s assertions about the political and attitudinal underpinnings of the “creation-science” ideology by showing that Creationism beliefs correlated positively with a measure of dogmatism r = .32, .18, .33 for TX, CA, CT) and a measure of political conservativism (anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality, pro-death penalty) which they termed a Moral Majority scale. These findings hold for the USU population, although the correlation was only a moderate one (Creationism-Dogmatism, Pearson’s r = .20; Creationism-Moral Majority, Pearson’s R = relationship with reported number of books read that were not required in an academic course (R = -.24), a finding also reported by Harrold and Eve (1987).

The leading organization in this country working to counter the introduction of anti-science attitudes and teaching in public schools is the National Center for Science Education, headquartered in Berkeley, California. I give them money, and so should you. Their six times a year newsletter Reports of National Center for Science Education provides readers with a quick run-down of the latest events related to pseudo science and public education. There are also essays of interest by qualified researchers and reporters.

The most recent issue features an article by Sehoya H Cotner, D Christopher Brooks, and Randy Moore Evolution and Student Voting Patterns. The authors cite the political correlation previously observed by Harrold and Eve, and they bring these observations into the 21st century:

Democrats, too, have supporters and field candidates, such as Al Gore and Bill Clinton, who believe in a creator but accept evolution. However, Republicans frequently embrace creationism more explicitly than do their counterparts. In the field of candidates leading up to the 2012 elections, only Jon Huntsman (who was eliminated early) was vocally in support of scientific perspectives on evolution (Shear 2011). Perhaps most striking is the willingness of several state Republican parties to make teaching creationism in public schools
a part of their platforms (Figure 1), despite a consistent pattern of state and federal court judgments against this very activity—judgments that are largely based on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”). The recent (June 2014) release of the latest Texas GOP platform highlights the partisan nature of contemporary science—with teaching creationism as part of a bundle that includes “vaccine choice” and climate-change denial.

In particular, the authors published a list of excerpts from state Republican Party platforms that reveals overt support for pseudo science coupled with disdain for critical aspects of science:

Figure 1. State Republican party platforms on evolution and creationism
Alaska: “We support teaching various models and theories for the origins of life and our
universe, including Creation Science or Intelligent Design. If evolution outside a
species (macro-evolution) is taught, evidence disputing the theory should also be
presented.”
Iowa: “We support a balanced presentation of creationism and evolution in public schools. We believe that textbooks and teachers should clarify that Darwinian
evolution is only a theory and not scientific fact.”
Kansas: “Kansas students should be allowed and encouraged to fully discuss and critique all science-based theories for the origin of life in science curricula.”
Minnesota: “Educators who discuss creation science should be protected from disciplinary action and science standards should recognize that there is controversy pertaining to the theory of evolution.”
Missouri: The party supports “Empowering local school districts to determine how best to handle the teaching of creationism and the theory of evolution.”
North Dakota: The party supports “the rights of teachers to teach and discuss the scientific evidence for and against multiple theories of the origin of life, including intelligent design and evolution.”
Oklahoma: “We believe that the scientific evidence supporting Intelligent Design and Biblical creation should be included in Oklahoma public schools curricula. And where any evolution theory is taught both should receive equal funding, class time, and material.”
Texas: “We believe theories of life origins and environmental theories should be taught as challengeable scientific theory subject to change as new data is produced, not scientific law. Teachers and students should be able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these theories openly and without fear of retribution or discrimination of any kind.”

And that brings us to the point of this post. It’s time for some Skeptical Analysis of these odd political positions. Let’s start with Alaska.

The state Republican Party wants to teach “various models and theories for the origins of life and our universe.” I have to say that is really odd.

What do you think these politicians intend by various models and theories? Regarding the origins of life, do they mean students should be exposed to some of the following?

  • Deep sea vent hypothesis
  • Thermosynthesis
  • Clay hypothesis
  • Gold’s “deep-hot biosphere” model

And others.

Actually, the politicians don’t have any of these alternatives in mind. If these were the available options they would not even walk across the street for them. What they have in mind for alternative explanations is spelled out in the wording that immediately follows the suggestion that other theories be considered: “[I]ncluding Creation Science or Intelligent Design.”

First of all I want to reflect my appreciation for the use of capital letters. English standard usage, especially in the United States, requires the names of religious movements be capitalized. The use of capitalization by the Alaska politicians is their honest recognition that these are religious ideas as opposed to scientific.

Next, Creation Science and Intelligent Design are, in fact, armor-plated religious concepts. Creation Science, as traditionally defined by organizations such as the Institute for Creation Research insist on the strict biblical interpretation that the Earth is about 6000 years old, an idea that is refuted by any number of scientific findings.

Additionally, Intelligent Design has been cast as a non-creationism and a non-religious alternative to natural processes. All such attempts to convince the world of this absurdity have ended in failure. Particularly, the religious motivation behind Intelligent Design is continually reinforced by proponents even as they seek to convince us otherwise. The documentary Expelled features actor Ben Stein presenting what are supposed to be the evil consequences of Darwinism. Yet viewers are served a lengthy interview with biologist Richard Dawkins, and they are discussing, what else, the existence of God. When Intelligent Design proponents obtained the opportunity to present their case in federal court in the Kitzmiller case they were totally unable to convince the judge there was no religious intent and further that there was any scientific basis behind Intelligent Design.

Regarding Iowa, the politicians want “balanced presentation.” They want creationism and evolution given equal or at least comparable weight in public schools. They want Darwinian evolution to be presented as a theory and not as a scientific fact.

There are two matters at issue here. First they want a conjecture with no scientific validity to be presented not only as plausible to students but also to be pumped up by the school system to give it credibility it has not earned. This is religious proselytizing at public expense.

The other matter is treating Darwinian evolution as a theory. First, Darwinian evolution is a scientific theory. Calling it a theory is like calling Everest a mountain. You do not diminish an idea by calling it a scientific theory. That’s a promotion. Additionally, there is little reason for not calling Darwinian evolution a fact. First, the fact of evolution is well-established. Evidence accumulates daily that living things on this planet share a common ancestry, and in the more than 150 years since it was put forward no scientific studies have come forward to refute it.

So, what do the politicians of the Iowa Republican Party want? My guess is they want to satisfy a religiously motivated base and also a base that has little appreciation for science.

In Kansas students are “encouraged to fully discuss and critique all science-based theories for the origin of life in science curricula.” A critical flaw in the embedded thinking is that there are science-based theories that are in conflict with Darwinian evolution. If a conscientious teacher in Kansas were to stand at the head of a science class and announce that what follows will be a discussion of science-based theories other than Darwinian evolution a profound silence would settle. Further, if opponents of Darwinism were to propose alternatives with any assumed scientific merit, Creation Science and Intelligent design would stand at the back end of a long line of superior proposals.

Minnesota wants to protect teachers “who discuss creation science.” That, quite obviously, will be a tough row to hoe if any teacher wants to put it into practice. First, an honest discussion of creation science would involve telling students what a stupid idea it is. This has been tried.

SANTA ANA, Calif. — A federal judge ruled that a public high school history teacher violated the First Amendment when he called creationism “superstitious nonsense” during a classroom lecture.

U.S. District Judge James Selna ruled Friday in a lawsuit student Chad Farnan filed in 2007, alleging that teacher James Corbett violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment by making repeated comments in class that were hostile to Christian beliefs.

According to a federal judge it’s not OK for a teacher to tell students that creationism is a bunch of crap. Let me put it another way. It’s not OK for teachers to discuss creationism. It’s not OK unless they are willing to be dishonest with students and give creationism some undeserved lift.

Additionally, in Minnesota the politicians want teachers to “recognize that there is controversy pertaining to the theory of evolution.” They want teachers to tell students that creationists have provoked controversy by continually asserting that they have a better idea. Remember, these are not serious researchers making these assertions. These are people like Jonathan Wells, Michael Behe, Douglas Axe, William Dembski, Paul Nelson, David Berlinski, Stephen C. MeyerCaroline Crocker, Guillermo Gonzalez, Richard von Sternberg and Ben Stein.

And when teachers break the law by promoting creationism in class, when they break the law by proselytizing for religion in class, they are supposed to be protected. Sadly, no position taken by the Republican Party of Minnesota will protect a teacher who actually breaks the law by promoting creationism. People will still sue, and the courts will still rightly decide this is against the law, and, as in the case with the Dover Area School District, the tax payers will be left holding the bill for a failed legal challenge.

The Missouri Republican platform contains language that parallels the intent of Minnesota. Politicians want to empower school districts, and they specifically mention creationism and evolution. They want to empower the school districts? Really? Creation and evolution and not mathematics? Not even physics and chemistry? Not even automobile mechanics? My guess would be politicians in The Show Me State have their sights set on evolution and not so much on empowering local school districts. Again, the idea is to provide protection, in spirit if not in fact, for districts that break the law by promoting creationism and other religious views.

North Dakota repeats the mistakes of the foregoing. What ever happened to South Dakota? Some investigation may be in order here.

Oklahoma, from whence Texas supposedly obtains all its drain-down wacko, requests the impossible in scientific evidence supporting Intelligent Design (applaud capitalization) and Biblical creation. First of all the scientific evidence supporting would have to be manufactured on the spot by any teacher discussing it, and Biblical creation is so obviously religious the ACLU, and even the Society for the Inclusion of Sanity, would be waiting in the wings for the first teacher pushing those ideas in class.

And finally my favorite state, Texas. I have to love it, because I was born and raised here, and I went through 20 years of public schools here (I was a slow learner). Once again, a state Republican Party wants to allow open discussion without fear of retribution or discrimination. Of course, that is what science is all about, but it is not likely the politicians will receive what they expect were this to be the actual practice.

In actual practice, if strengths and weaknesses were discussed in class, creationism of all kinds would get a pretty rough ride. See the Santa Ana case above. A teacher who tells students that creationism is a load of crap, which it is, would likely not receive protection from retribution or discrimination of any kind as promised by the state Republican Party platform.

These words in the Texas Republican platform, like those in the other states mentioned, have no effect in practice. Statements of political policy are for the benefit of attracting votes and do not contravene existing law. Existing law is that public funds and offices of power cannot be used to proselytize for religion. The voters may not understand these facts, but what concerns me even more is that politicians, including some who hold public office, may not understand. We may, in fact, be getting the government we paid for.

ValueOfCreationism

Bad Movie of the Week

Not all that bad, really.

CaseOfTheBlackCat-01

 

Erle Stanley Gardner was a real life lawyer who found writing pulp fiction more interesting than practicing law. Also writing under various noms de plume, his early works featured lawyers in the principal roles, and in 1933 he introduced the character of Perry Mason in The Case of the Velvet Claws. Gardner left the full time practice of law at that time, and he came to be the most prolific American novelist of the 20th century.

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat was published in 1935 and released by Warner Brothers as the movie The Case of the Black Cat in 1936. Here’s the cat.

 

CaseOfTheBlackCat-02

 

As you can see, the producers needed to shorten the title by exchanging “caretaker’s” with “black,” but they forgot to also change the color of the cat. That’s way movies are made.

 

CaseOfTheBlackCat-03

 

First we see sweet Wilma Laxter (Jane Bryan) with her lover Douglas Keene (Carlyle Moore Jr.). They have just returned home from a hot date, and they are being confronted by cousin Frank Oafley (Craig Reynolds). Cousin Frank and sweet Wilma both live in the luxurious home of their grandfather Peter Laxter (Harry Davenport), along with cousin Sam Laxter (Bill Elliott). Grandfather Laxter is filthy rich, and his grandchildren stand to inherit a fortune when he kicks off. Cousin Frank is not cool with the idea of having Douglas court Wilma, because he’s sure Douglas is only after the grandfather’s money, just as he and cousin Sam are.

Wilma, however, is simply fond of her grandfather and has no interest in the inheritance. She is also her grandfather’s favorite, as seen when she goes up to his room after her date.

CaseOfTheBlackCat-04

So why does Peter Laxter phone Perry Mason in the middle of the night and have him come to the house immediately and write Wilma out of his will? He says it’s to keep people like Douglas from taking advantage of sweet Wilma.

Immediately Wilma learns she has been cut out of the will she leaves her grandfather’s house and opens a waffle shop with her own savings to make herself independent of her grandfather’s largess. Immediately the newspaper headlines announce her grandfather has been killed in a mysterious fire in his bedroom. Immediately Perry Mason gets involved again.

This was not the first of the Perry Mason movies, but here we meet characters that eventually lived through the remainder of the 20th century. Perry Mason (Ricardo Cortez) is brilliant and also handsome, and he has an attractive secretary, Della Street (Jane Bryan). The sexual tension between the two is a long-running current throughout the Perry Mason series of novels, movies and television shows.

CaseOfTheBlackCat-05

 

District Attorney Hamilton Burger (Guy Usher) is here, as well as Mason’s assistant and private detective Paul Drake (Garry Owen). Police Lieutenant Arthur Tragg featured prominently in the television series that ran from 1957 to 1966, but he does not appear in this story.

Richardo Cortez (real name Jacob Krantz) started in films in 1917 (his scenes deleted) and played various roles, but never again as Perry Mason, until finishing with the TV series Bonanza in 1960. Jayne Bryan had a three-year contract with Warner Brothers and left show business completely after that.

The plot follows the familiar theme of the TV series that my generation best remembers. There is a murder. Perry Mason’s client is accused. The case never goes to trial. Perry Mason discloses the true events during a pre-trial hearing. And typically Perry and Della have a short flirtation to wind things down at the end. And I’m not going to reveal the plot, but you can read the story line on IMDB or Wikipedia.

 

 

Sea Adventure

IMG_8231

This was about 45 years ago. I saw an ad for some books, Harvard Classics. The deal was you sign up for the program, and they will ship you and bill you a book every month. It looked like a good deal. It was the “Deluxe Edition.” It was actually only what I would term the “street edition,” but I liked the books. Not enough to get all 51 volumes. But I have a shelf full. I still have the books, and in all this time I have only read one, maybe two all the way through.

One I did read all the way through was Two Years Before The Mast by Richard Dana. It turns out this is not a book of fiction. About the time Texas was getting its independence from Mexico, and Charles Darwin was sailing around the world on the Beagle, Dana, a Harvard College dropout, signed on to crew a brig, the Pilgrim, to sail around to the California coast. The crew (not the officers) lived up forward on the ship. Up forward of the ship’s masts. These were ships with sails. He was gone from Boston for a little more than two years, hence the title.

Dana kept notes, and he wrote up his adventures when he returned to his Harvard studies. The narrative was instantly popular. His prose is crisp, clear and lively with often powerful phrasing. It was the first and may be the best detailed account of the life of a seaman in the days of tall-masted ships.

When I read this the first time, I had been absent from the sea about eight years, and I strove mightily to identify with the young Dana on such a grueling adventure. I could not. There was no comparison. For one, and in the most crucial way, the modern world has swept away the life that existed for sailors in those days. I went to sea at about the same age as Dana, and it was a great adventure, for me. But aside from being away from my father’s home for the first time and being a member of a ship’s crew at sea, there was no comparison to Dana’s life at sea in the 1830s.

From Google Images

From Google Images

RandolphFlightDeck-small

Aircraft carrier Randolph flight deck

You can see things have changed a bit.

The Pilgrim left Boston in August 1834 amid what is considered decent weather for the North Atlantic. The brig headed immediately for Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America and did not make landfall until it reached the Juan Fernandez Islands off the coast of Chile. By then one sailor had already been killed, having fallen from the rigging into the Pacific.

For the sailors, life at sea was a nearly constant work detail. The crew was divided into two watches, each one taking four hours of duty while the other rested. That was in principle but not in practice. For purposes of economy shipping companies in those days kept a minimal crew, and when it was necessary to unfurl or to take in sails (often) all hands were called out to work. Work aboard the ship included vigorous maintenance (cleaning and repairs), but the principle tasks involved working in the rigging high above the deck. This on a small craft, of which the Pilgrim was one, that pitched and rolled with the slightest sea.

The early 19th century had little knowledge of nutrition science, and provisions for the crew consisted mainly of salt beef and bread. In the coldest of weather the captain enjoyed multiple cups of hot coffee while the sailors were forbidden anything hot to drink. A ration of grog (rum diluted with water) was standard at sea in those days, and it provided a momentary flash of simulated warmth, when it could be obtained.

No king, no emperor, no petty dictator in a police state ever enjoys more power over people than the captain of a ship at sea. That principle stands to this day, but two hundred years ago this power was frequently abused. Captain Bligh was no mythical character.

While life aboard ship for Dana and his fellow crew members was hard work and dangerous, work ashore on the California coast was merely less dangerous. The Pilgrim belonged to Bryant, Sturgis & Co. of Boston, and its endeavor was to convey goods for trade to the West Coast and to bring back a load of cattle hides. At the time California was part of Mexico, which had only recently wrested itself from Spanish colonial rule. To the north the coast was colonial Russia.

Dana’s description of the California coast provides a telling account of why California is no longer part of Mexico.

The Mexican revenue laws are very strict, and require the whole cargo to be landed , examined, and taken on board again; but our agent, Mr . R——, had succeeded in compounding with them for the two last vessels, and saving the trouble of taking the cargo ashore. The officers were dressed in the costume which we found prevailed through the country. A broad-brimmed hat, usually of a black or dark-brown color, with a gilt or figured band round the crown, and lined inside with silk; a short jacket of silk or figured calico, (the European skirted body-coat is never worn;) the shirt open in the neck; rich waistcoat, if any; pantaloons wide, straight, and long, usually of velvet , velveteen, or broadcloth; or else short breeches and white stockings. They wear the deer-skin shoe, which is of a dark-brown color, and, (being made by Indians,) usually a good deal ornamented. They have no suspenders , but always wear a sash round the waist, which is generally red, and varying in quality with the means of the wearer. Add to this the never-failing cloak, and you have the dress of the Californian. This last garment, the cloak, is always a mark of the rank and wealth of the owner. The “gente de razón,” or aristocracy, wear cloaks of black or dark blue broadcloth, with as much velvet and trimmings as may be; and from this they go down to the blanket of the Indian; the middle classes wearing something like a large table-cloth, with a hole in the middle for the head to go through. This is often as coarse as a blanket, but being beautifully woven with various colors, is quite showy at a distance. Among the Mexicans there is no working class; (the Indians being slaves and doing all the hard work;) and every rich man looks like a grandee, and every poor scamp like a broken -down gentleman. I have often seen a man with a fine figure, and courteous manners , dressed in broadcloth and velvet, with a noble horse completely covered with trappings; without a real in his pocket, and absolutely suffering for something to eat.

Dana, Richard Henry (2012-05-12). Two Years Before the Mast (p. 54). . Kindle Edition.

As the Spanish had before them, the new nation of Mexico viewed the country as a place to be exploited. Little to no enterprise was employed to develop the region, and with the rule of oligarchy that prevailed, there was little incentive for Mexicans to settle the region. Only foreigners, Americans, Russians, British and such came here to do business. This was Mexico, but there were hardly any Mexicans. When the United States made war on Mexico ten years later no defense against the invaders could be put up. When gold was discovered in 1848 the region, which until then had been scarcely populated, quickly filled up with Americans.

Dana stayed until June 1836 on the California coast, sailing up and down the coast in the hide trade, but mainly working ashore as a common laborer, managing the cargo of hides that was being accumulated to take back to Boston. The Pilgrim was scheduled to stay another two years on the coast, but Dana transferred to another company ship, the Alert, and arrived back in Boston in September after a harrowing winter rounding of Cape Horn.

The trip home highlighted another curse of sea life in those days. As the Alert drew even with Bermuda in the run up to Boston sailors began to manifest symptoms of scurvy. This disease is painful, frightening and ultimately fatal, and its cause is lack of vitamin C in the diet. There was no knowledge of vitamins and such in those days, but it was known that eating fresh produce was the cure. The Alert encountered and hailed an outbound ship and acquired some potatoes and onions, which the crew munched on until the ship arrived in Boston. The results of eating the raw vegetables gave the appearance of a miracle cure. A sailor who, before, could hardly open his mouth to chew, within a few days was back to working aloft.

Dana told his tale deep in a vocabulary that no longer existed when I went aboard the Randolph out of high school. He uses nautical terms of those days without elaboration, forcing me constantly to dive into Google as I read through his yarn. The mizzen mast is the third, behind the main mast. To reef in a sail is to gather it in at strategic points to reduce its area, and to unbend a sail is to untie it so as to take it down. Lines and sail cloth made of hemp needed a coat of (usually pine) tar to keep them from rotting, so sailors had to periodically tar these items, giving sailors the appellation tars and the name Jack Tar for a sailor. Whence the name for Jack Tar Resorts. Dana called all pieces of rigging aboard the ship rope, but by 100 years later the United States Navy applied rope only to wire rope, steel cable and such. Everything else is now line, even though it may be several inches thick. See the photo.

My last view of the Kittyhawk, Bremerton, Washington

My last view of the Kittyhawk, Bremerton, Washington

I could not get through this book without avoiding that the basics of life were very dear in times past. An entire ship was sent by the trading company to the California coast, a trip of several months each way, with a significant possibility the ship and its cargo could be lost at sea, just to deliver what would now be two train car loads of cloth and the like and to bring back a load of cow hides. A crew of three officers plus maybe twelve sailors was employed and paid for the entire journey. The capital investment in the ship and cargo was tied up for years at a time in procuring this one transaction. On top of that, the Mexican authorities and possibly others extracted duties on the cargoes. Eventually people purchasing shoes in Boston picked up the tab for all this expense plus a profit for Bryant, Sturgis & Co.

Richard Dana finished his schooling at Harvard, and he revisited the California Coast in 1859 as a successful lawyer and politician. A few years later, following the Union victory in the Civil War, he had the job of prosecuting Jefferson Davis.

This book is available in various Kindle editions from Amazon. Prices start about one dollar.

Bad Joke of the Week

Not yet

Not yet

This happened on a flight getting ready to depart for Detroit .

Bob was sitting on the plane when a guy took the seat beside him. The guy was an emotional wreck, pale, hands shaking, moaning in fear.

“What’s the matter?” Bob asked.

“I’ve been transferred to Detroit. There are crazy people there. They’ve got lots of shootings, gangs, race riots, drugs, poor public schools, and the highest crime rate in the nation.”

Jack replied, “I’ve lived in Detroit all my life. It’s not as bad as the media says. Find a nice home, go to work, mind your own business, and enroll your kids in a nice private school. It’s as safe a place as anywhere in the world.”

The guy relaxed and stopped shaking and said, “Oh, thank you. I’ve been worried to death. But if you live there and say it’s OK, I’ll take your word for it. What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a tail gunner on a Budweiser truck.”

One More Time

We’re having an echo problem. I will deal with it. In the mean time, here’s another one:

Welcome back to the Skeptical Analysis blog. I took the weekend off, but I’m back now, and I need something to comment on. I’m thinking I will start off with the School Shooting of the Week. Do we have a school shooting for the week?

It turns out this week’s school shooting fails to live up to the promise of past events:

  • The shooter was not successful in killing anybody (three wounded).
  • The shooter did not kill himself. Police killed him when he engaged them in a gun battle.
  • It’s not a white kid this time. The shooter was a grown man, a black guy. And a lawyer.

Also, this does not seem to be a plot hatched by ISIS/ISIL. So, I’m sure everybody out there reading this is getting a better feeling right now. This is not foreign terrorism. It’s just another crazy person with a gun:

The Florida State gunman, who opened fire in a university library shortly after midnight Thursday morning wounding three students, has been identified as Myron May, a former student at Florida State University who went on to become a lawyer.

But despite the appearance of a successful and upscale attorney, who listed himself as the in-house counsel for Taunton Family Children’s Home in Wewahitchka, Florida, on May’s Facebook page he posted a number of ominous Biblical passages, a short rant against “our government” and a bizarre image depicting a Google search for “targeted individuals.”

OK, “Biblical passages.” Not quotes from the Quran. I’m feeling better already.

I’ll get back to you with a follow-up on this running topic next week. Or the next school shooting. Whichever comes first.