Your contribution to science: Link to this post

November 28, 2006


A psychology grad student is doing a paper on the speed with which a meme will spread through Bloggerland.  Scott Eric Kaufman is testing a hypothesis that posts and ideas are skyhooked by high-traffic sites (this is a low-traffic site, Millard Fillmore being dead all these years and all; I got the post from Pharyngula, who gets as many hits in a day as I would get in a year at this rate — the hypothesis might be right.

Your role?  You need to link to the original post at Acephalous from your blog, and then ask others to do the same.  Here is the link at Acephalous:

Well, Acephalous is a much better writer than I, so here’s how he explains it:

  1. Write a post linking to this one in which you explain the experiment.  (All blogs count, be they TypePad, Blogger, MySpace, Facebook, &c.)
  2. Ask your readers to do the same.  Beg them.  Relate sob stories about poor graduate students in desperate circumstances.  Imply I’m one of them.  (Do whatever you have to.  If that fails, try whatever it takes.)
  3. Ping Techorati.

It’s all in the name of research.  Honest.

Think of all the poor graduate students in desperate circumstances.  Oh!  The humanity!

The rise of David Barton and bogus history

November 28, 2006

Some people were relieved when voodoo history maven Davin Barton’s term as vice chair of the Texas Republican Party expired.

Dallas Morning News editorial writer and occasional columnist William McKenzie warns that we have not seen the last of Barton’s involvement in politics — and textbooks are in Barton’s gunsights.

McKenzie wrote about Barton in the November 28 paper:

Pay attention to his work, because, as Newsweek reported after the election, the religious right is at a crossroads. With big-name leaders declining, lesser-knowns like Mr. Barton will fill the gap. And they will come with their own approach.

The most interesting thing I learned from him was that the next wave will revolve around networks of activists, not the big names who lobby Washington. Look for e-mail blasts that start with a small group upset about a comment or decision about abortion, homosexuality or textbooks. In the decentralized technological world, a David Barton doesn’t need the podium of a Jerry Falwell or a Ralph Reed to trigger a prairie fire.

In other words, watch him.

. . . and a little more rope for creationists

November 27, 2006

A fellow named Daniel J. Lewis asked for a debate with P. Z. Myers on . . . well, it’s difficult to say, really. Lewis is a creationist, affiliated with the group “Answers in Genesis” — Ken Ham’s group that has a museum in Kentucky ready to open, touting the hypothesis that Hanna-Barbera was not far off of reality with “The Flintstones” humans and dinosaurs coexisted (go to the link, click on exhibit #19). Anyway, PZ asked the regulars to lie low for a while at let Lewis expound. Not likely to happen on a blog that has tens of thousands of readers daily, right?

The premise that Lewis wants to start from is problematical, so I invited him to come by here someday and have a more leisurely chat, where there are far fewer people waiting to pounce on every error. If Lewis ever drops by, this is the thread. This is what Lewis said at Pharyngula:

Then if the blog administrator allows it, I’m available to publicly discuss creation vs. evolution if we can do so on level, intelligent grounds without childish attacks. You can start with your belief system (naturalism), and I can start with mine (the Bible).

I find that a problem because it assumes that science requires a specific belief system contrary to Christianity, and it assumes the Bible establishes a complete philosophical foundation for Christians, which seems awfully narrow to me. Plus, I don’t trust a creationist to define what “naturalism” means as a philosophy, or that science must be bound by that definition. So, in the discussion thread, I said:

Nothing in the Bible contradicts anything Darwin proposed, unless and except we insist on a Darbyist interpretation of scripture only. Is there any tenet of Christianity, especially one based in the Bible, which suggests God couldn’t have created an evolutionary system to make life diverse? Is there any tenet which requires any opposition to evolution or any other finding of science?

When you’re done here, Mr. Lewis, if you’re ever done, c’mon over to my blog and start in again.

Meanwhile, there is some rational discussion on the issue over at a fellow Texan’s blog, A Nerd’s Country Journal (tip of the old scrub brush to Carnival of the Godless #54). That’s a neat summary of my view, consistent with the error debunking goal of this blog: Creationism is bad religion not keeping with the tenets of Christianity, in addition to being really, really bad science.

Finding serious, academic, history blogging

November 26, 2006

A few people have begun to understand that the internet probably can be a tool for historians, both for research and publication, and for teaching.

This column by Ralph Luker is ancient internet history — the original column ran in August 2005, more than a year ago. It names names and lists urls for serious history blogs, however. If you’re serious about history or teaching it, you’ll find something useful in it.

Free “classics” books for school libraries, from NEH

November 26, 2006

The National Endowment for the Humanities is prepared to give away collections of classic books to school libraries.

Here is the NEH press release, unedited by me:

National Endowment for the Humanities Offers Free Classic Books to Libraries Through the We The People Bookshelf Program

WASHINGTON (Sept. 18, 2006)–The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) today announced the fourth annual We the People Bookshelf, a program that offers sets of classic books to 2,000 community and school libraries throughout the United States. Recipients of the NEH awards program will receive a collection of 15 classics which were selected to illustrate this year’s theme, “The Pursuit of Happiness.”

The We the People Bookshelf is part of NEH’s We the People program designed to strengthen the teaching, study, and understanding of American history and culture. Again this year, NEH has partnered with the American Library Association (ALA) to distribute a set of books, posters, and educational CDs to 2,000 selected libraries that offer the best programs for young readers using the awarded materials.

“These classic books are rich in stories about individuals who embrace the ‘unalienable’ right of free people–the pursuit of happiness, a phrase written indelibly in the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson,” said NEH Chairman Bruce Cole. “Young readers will find in these books the spirit of hope that has contributed to the growth and strength of our great nation and its citizens for more than two hundred years.”

The We the People Bookshelf on “The Pursuit of Happiness” features the following books for 2007:

  • Grades K-3: Aesop’s Fables by Aesop; Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost; Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton (also in Spanish).
  • Grades 4-6: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt; The Great Migration by Jacob Lawrence; These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder; and Journal of Wong Ming-Chung (donated by Scholastic, Inc.) by Laurence Yep.
  • Grades 7-8: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle; Esperanza Rising (donated by Scholastic, Inc.) by Pam Munoz Ryan, (also in Spanish); and Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham.
  • Grades 9-12: Kindred by Octavia Butler; O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (also in Spanish); The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman; and Common Sense by Thomas Paine.

As a bonus, each library receiving a We the People Bookshelf set will receive a music CD, Happy Land: Musical Tributes to Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Libraries wishing to participate in the We the People Bookshelf program can find more information and application instructions online at Applications can be submitted from Sept. 19, 2006, through Jan. 31, 2007.

Media Contact: Michele Soulé at 202-606-8454

National Humanities Medal to Bernard Lewis . . .

November 26, 2006

Generally there is just too much going on to follow all of it in the news, let alone understand it. complains that historian Bernard Lewis’ being honored with the National Humanities Medal is a problem, labeling him a denier of the Armenian genocide. He was found to be so by a French court (does that increase his appeal to Bush?).

Lewis’ work is influential — here is a 2004 Washington Monthly piece by Newsweek correspondent Michael Hirsch, pointing out that Lewis is the guy who probably first coined the phrase “clash of civilizations” with regard to international relations with modern Islamic nations. Is he just one more Princeton University faculty member, like Ben Bernanke, who happens to have the ear of the President?

Teachers of history certainly should be familiar with the controversy over the Armenian genocide, its relation to post-World War I history, its salience in European politics today, and its effects on U.S. history (and especially U.S. literature — think William Saroyan, George Deukmejian, etc.). I admit I know very little about Lewis. I don’t know enough about him to make a judgment on whether the charges of the Armenian partisans are fair.

In my previous post I noted the rise of a superstar natural history prof, in England. Here in the U.S. the National Humanities Medal was awarded to nine people and one institution — one of the people is a Nobel Prize winner — and the news sank like a small, round stone in a small pond, without making much of a ripple.

If we can’t name some of the stars among historians and others in the humanities, are we doing our jobs? Are our newspapers and broadcasters doing their jobs if we don’t get this news?

Did President Bush honor a denier of the Armenian genocide? Our future relations with Islamic nations and peoples may depend on the answer. I don’t know. Do you?

Here is Lewis’ biography from the awards press release:

Bernard Lewis is considered by many to be the greatest living historian of the Muslim world. He has pursued his primary interest, the history of the Ottoman Empire, producing groundbreaking works including The Emergence of Modern Turkey, The Political Language of Islam, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, The Jews of Islam, and Islam and the West. His most recent publication is From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East. Other titles by Lewis: The Crisis of Islam: Holy War & Unholy Terror; What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East; Western Impact and the Middle Eastern Response; A Middle East Mosaic: Fragments of Life, Letters and History; The Multiple Identities of the Middle East; and The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. Born in London, England, in 1916, Lewis became attracted to languages and history at an early age. Lewis’s interest in history was stirred thanks to his bar mitzvah ceremony, during which he received as a gift a book on Jewish history. He graduated in 1936 from the then School of Oriental Studies (SOAS, now School of Oriental and African Studies) at the University of London with a B.A. in history with special reference to the Near and Middle East, and obtaining his Ph.D. three years later, also from SOAS, specializing in the history of Islam. During the Second World War, Lewis served in the British Army in the Royal Armoured Corps and Intelligence Corps in 1940-41, and was then attached to a department of the Foreign Office. After the war he returned to SOAS, and in 1949 he was appointed to the new chair in Near and Middle Eastern history at the age of 33. In 1974 Lewis accepted a joint position at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, marking the beginning of the most prolific period in his research career. In addition, it was in the United States that Lewis became a public intellectual. After his retirement from Princeton in 1986 as the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Lewis held many visiting appointments. Lewis has been a naturalized citizen of the United States since 1982.

The Naked Historian

November 26, 2006

Superstar historians rare get recognized on the street. The BBC’s use of historians, even natural history professors, however, has made a few stars in Britain. Neil Oliver is one of the latest, dubbed “The Naked Historian” for reasons I haven’t figured yet.

The Sunday Times has a profile on November 26:

Neil Oliver is draped languidly over a sofa in Glasgow’s Millennium Hotel. He is fully clothed and only doing the photographer’s bidding, but it is easy to see why the presenter of the hit series Coast has been dubbed the Naked Historian.

It’s not just a surname he shares with television’s sexiest chef. Both were “discovered” by screen queen Pat Llewellyn, of Optomen Television, and both exude that unquantifiable essence that can be detected only through the lens of a camera.


It’s partly enthusiasm, partly a lack of self-consciousness and partly hair. You could bet your last tub of Brylcreem that a bald Jamie Oliver, Alan Titchmarsh or Gordon Ramsay would be unable to command their multi-million-pound fees. Neil Oliver’s Jacobite locks — stereotypical among his fellow archeologists — give him an instant recognition factor on television.

It’s not all fluff; Oliver gets down to talking history and the importance of studying history:

Oliver, 39, says Scots’ knowledge of their history is generational, with people over 40 being the most well-informed. But most of them were taught in a system that favoured British and world history. The resurgence of Scottish history in schools is a recent phenomenon. So why are young people so ill-informed? It may be they have lost sight of the bigger picture as history is taught in modules without an overview.

Oliver, whose perspective goes back to the Palaeolithic, is concerned about this. “If you have a generation without that broad framework, it fundamentally changes how things are viewed,” he says. “History affects the way you understand the world. People who don’t have that education drummed into them become dislocated.”

Could such a thing happen in America, could historians become media stars? Historians can dream about a future, too.

Trouble in California teacher training system

November 25, 2006

Scandal in education?  Perhaps not so directly — certainly my education-issue alarm bells didn’t go off when I first heard of the controversy about pay and spending in the California State University system (see San Francisco Chronicle story here).

Matthew Davidson, a philosopher at Cal State San Bernardino, makes exactly that claim, however, in a letter to Brian Leiter.  CSU trains about half the teachers in California.  If that system is broken, it will indeed have national ripples.

A different view of Chile and Milton Friedman

November 25, 2006

Especially the last couple of paragraphs may give you a sobering double-take on what has been going on in the U.S. economically and politically — go read this commentary in the on-line Counterpunch. Author Greg Grandin has a different view of Friedman’s role in Chile’s economics than you will read almost anywhere else.

It especially contrasts with the view in Daniel Yergin’s television production, Commanding Heights (go to the site, click on Friedman’s name, go for the video on “Chicago Boys and Pinochet”).

Tip of the old scrub brush to Leiter Reports.

Nominate your favorite history book!

November 24, 2006

Still looking for nominations for your favorite history books of all time. You can leave nominations in the comments to this post, or here.

Please do.

JFK assassination, 43 years on

November 24, 2006

Texas history teachers got either a reprieve or a roadblock, depending on their view, when most schools scheduled vacation during the week of the anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. Generally news outlets highlight the anniversary, and it becomes a good time to discuss the events in history classes.

Classroom discussion openings are available for a broad range of topics in social studies: general government, presidential succession, politics and history of the 1960s, Vietnam, Cuba, the Cold War, U.S. international relations, Lyndon Baines Johnson, racism, civil rights, etc., etc. I have not yet been able to arrange a field trip to the 6th Floor Museum during the week, but I still hope to do that some time.

The assassination and the rumors of conspiracies that have swirled for years offer a good opportunity to discuss the methods and tools of historians, and just how we know what we claim to know about history. It’s a good opportunity to discuss how science can be used to increase our knowledge of history, and it’s a great way to introduce kids to the sort of skepticism that keeps all academic inquiry honest.

How is the day commemorated in Dealey Plaza, the site of the attack? Generally there are no formal activities, though often a wreath is placed there or at the JFK memorial a block away. Tourists come. Vendors try to sell them stuff.

One of the oddest sets of vendors for any historical site, I think, is the “newspaper” hawkers who sell tabloids touting favorite conspiracy ideas. The Dallas Morning News featured a page 1 story on this strange business, on the Sunday prior to the anniversary. Vendors dodge cops because they are unlicensed — which also means that technically they cannot sell the papers, but must ask for donations.

Another key milestone is close to passing: Only one member of the Dallas Police Department remains who was on duty that day. Again, The Dallas Morning News carried the story. Sgt. Graham H. Pierce is not yet retired, but with 43 years on the force, he will be retiring soon.

History sources pass continually. Who will capture their stories for posterity? A class might make a year-long project of interviewing such a man, preparing a document to give him at retirement, to reside in local libraries, and to provide the grist for future historians looking into whatever wild conspiracy claims might be made in the next decade, or century.

Quirks of history: Customer service circa 1909

November 24, 2006

Interesting correspondence with a railroad regarding a misapprehended hat, in 1909.

1. Can you imagine any common carrier institution taking such care with a customer today?

2. Can you imagine any such chain of correspondence in e-mail, or by telephone?

3. Can you build a lesson plan for a history class around this correspondence?

Further thoughts: This story puts me in mind of two others that turned out quite differently. The first is the (possibly apocryphal) story of Abraham Lincoln’s borrowing a book to read, and stashing it between the logs of the cabin when he put out the candle. After a nighttime rain in which the water ran down the side of the cabin and soaked the book, Lincoln returned the book to its owner and at great personal expense replaced it, the story goes — meriting the the “Honest Abe” moniker. The book was reputed to have been a biography of George Washington.

The second story is that of American businessman William Boyce, lost in a London fog and late for a business appointment in 1909. Out of the fog came a boy in uniform who offered to guide Boyce to his appointment, and did — and then refused a tip because, as he explained, he was a Scout, and Scouts did not take payment for good deeds. The legend is that Boyce later met with the founder of Scouting in Britain, Lord Baden-Powell, and then carried Scouting to the United States, incorporating the Boy Scouts of America on February 8, 1910. The Scout was never identified, but is instead honored in Scout lore as the “unknown Scout.”

Buffalo tribute to unknown Scout at Gilwell ParkStatue of an American Bison, erected at Scouting’s training center in Gilwell Park, England, in honor of the unknown Scout who helped businessman William D. Boyce find his way, and thereby played a key role in the founding of Boy Scouting in the U.S.

Carnival of Bad History #11

November 24, 2006

Yes, it’s called “Carnival of Bad History,” but it’s really dedicated to smoking out, and smoking, bad history.  It’s rather in the spirit in which this blog got started, to straighten out the bent and crooked stories of history that lead away from the truth (which is almost always much, much more interesting).

So go see the latest, Carnival of Bad History No. 11, over at Philobiblon — a blog by a journalist named Natalie Bennett.

There is an interesting skew to non-U.S. material in this version.  U.S.-ophiles will be left pondering this post on “unknown” Islam in America prior to the current era, however.   World history and world geography teachers will find sources on Stonehenge in this post, lamenting a Goose & Grimm cartoon.

Go check it out.

Texas claim on Thanksgiving

November 22, 2006

Patricia Burroughs has the story — you New Englanders are way, way behind.

Palo Duro Canyon in a winter inversion

Palo Duro Canyon during inversion, Winter 2001, site of the first Thanksgiving celebration in what would become the United States, in 1541. Go here:, and here:

Update, 11/27/2006:  Great post here, “Top 10 Myths About Thanksgiving.”

Voodoo historian: Harun Yahya and anti-evolution in Turkey

November 22, 2006

Voodoo historian and crank scientist “Harun Yahya” (it’s a pseudonym) has done the Rev. D. James Kennedy one better — he’s sending books to school libraries in Turkey claiming that Darwin is responsible for terrorism.

For years U.S. creationists have bragged about their reach into Turkey and Islam. Whether Moslems regard it as a toe-hold for Christianity, or whether American creationists have any compunction about working to stir up religious strife in Moslem nations, sane people who work for peace, justice and knowledge should be concerned.

In a chutzpa-filled claim that would take away the breath of Baron Munchausen, Yahya claims that Darwin is reponsible for fascism, communism and terrorism — never mind that fascists, communists and terrorists generally denounce Darwin and espouse the views of Yahya on evolution.

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