Fair and Balanced

It was bound to happen. A colleague recently described South Carolina as “low hanging fruit” for the ID movement. Nevertheless, the creationists have been relatively quiet in this state, and have instead been acting up in places that you wouldn’t normally associate with the Religious Right – Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, etc. Well, that’s changing.

South Carolina received an “A” for its treatment of evolution in the Fordham Foundation’s recent report, and this has angered state Senator Mike Fair (R-Greenville), who is presumably afraid that this could ruin SC’s reputation as a backwards state. This isn’t the first time. Back in 2003, Fair reacted to the Fordham Foundation’s report by authoring a bill that would put warning labels in text books containing the following bizarre and plainly untrue statement: “The cause or causes of life are not scientifically verifiable. Therefore, empirical science cannot provide data about the beginning of life.” The bill, thankfully, went nowhere. Last June, he filed a bill that would require teaching “alternatives” to evolution, which he specifically said would require teaching ID. I believe that one has yet to be taken up by the legislature, but the Kitzmiller decision pretty well preempted it. More recently, he’s tried to amend an education bill to establish a “science committee” to explore whether “alternatives” to evolution should be taught in schools. The efforts of a few local scientists who spoke out against it helped get the amendment removed.

But now he’s at it again.

Fair is a member of the Educational Oversight Committee (EOC). The EOC is tasked with the job of approving the curriculum standards submitted by the Board of Education before they go into effect. Recently, the committee approved to accept all of the standards as written except for four biology indicators dealing with evolution. At Fair’s behest, the EOC voted 8-7 to remove these indicators for “further study”. According to an excellent article in the Charleston Post and Courier (not currently available online), these are the indicators under attack:

  • Explain how genetic processes result in the continuity of life forms over time.
  • Explain how genetic variability and environmental factors lead to biological evolution.
  • Exemplify scientific evidence in the fields of anatomy, embryology, biochemistry and paleontology that underlies the theory of biological evolution.
  • Use a phylogenetic tree to identify the evolutionary relationships among different groups of organisms.

Fair wants to change these around to include language that students should “critically analyze” evolution, whatever that means. He’s made it clear that he wants to encourage teachers to discuss “alternatives” to evolution, which of course means Intelligent Design, but at the same time he’s claiming that the changes he wants have nothing to do with ID. It’s the same dishonest shell game that the Discovery Institute, the leading group pushing ID, has become notorious for.

And here’s something else right out of the Discovery Institute playbook: taking a cue from Kansas, Fair decided to convene a “balanced panel”, consisting of four members, two of them to be chosen by Mike Fair, who will testify in front of the Academic Standards and Assessments Subcommittee (led by Fair), which will then make a recommendation to the whole EOC. In the true tradition of creationist language-abuse, “balanced” in this case means giving a position accepted by almost no credible biologist 50% of the representation. As we reported previously, Fair refused to even name his panelists on the rationale that he wanted to “minimize scrutiny of their views and credentials prior to their appearance”. Because naturally, the only way to assure the public that his experts are actually objective experts, and not just ringers who can be counted on to agree with the changes he already knows he wants, is to keep their views and credentials under wraps. Heaven forbid anyone critically analyze his choices.

But nonetheless, it was reported the next day that Fair’s two panelists will be Richard von Sternberg and Rebecca Keller, and that Fair will be paying for their expenses out of his own campaign funds. Anyone familiar with these pages will have heard of Sternberg, who has become the Discovery Institute’s poster child for fake martyrdom. Keller should also be familiar to those who keep tabs on cre/ID, especially those from New Mexico who have had to put up with her shenanigans in that state. Fair, staying true to his open government policy, refused to explain why he picked two people from out of state who just so happen to have well-documented sympathies for ID. He was quoted as saying that, “Intelligent design is not part of this argument. I have not asked either one of (the out-of-state advisers) what their views on intelligent design are.” But Keller was quoted in an article in the Charlotte Observer as saying that she had been tagged for the job by the Discovery Institute. Hmm, curious. While we have no way of knowing for sure just what happened (in spite of Fair’s helpful efforts to be an open book), the most likely explanation is that Fair went straight to the Discovery Institute and asked them to recommend two people to serve as panelists. (Update: According to an article in this morning’s State, Casey Luskin of the DI admits that Fair contacted them directly.) Yet he insists that he had no foreknowledge of their views, and that the changes he wants have nothing to do with ID.

The two panelists representing the good guys are Mary Lang Edwards, who is a biologist from Erskine College, and Karen Stratton, a science coordinator for the Lexington school district. By all accounts, both are highly qualified and understand the issues at hand, and therefore can be counted on to make good presentations. Still, it’s strange that no one was chosen from one of SC’s three major research institutions, as there is certainly no shortage of scientists around here willing to speak out against this abuse. Even stranger is that Fair went out of state to find his ID-friendly panelists, given that South Carolinians really don’t like being told what to do by people “from away”. Hopefully, the public will come to realize that Fair was forced to do so because of the extreme paucity of scientists who agree with him. The panel convenes today (Monday the 23rd), and we’ll keep you posted on what transpires.

In case it’s not clear by now, Senator Fair is a real piece of work. He seems to have a flair for pointless theatrics. During an earlier meeting of the EOC, according to those in attendance, Fair referred to university scientists who objected to his plans as “on the dole”, a rather offensive and, needless to say, inaccurate epithet. (I’m sure Fair accepts no salary for his position as state Senator – he wouldn’t want to be thought of “on the dole” himself, seeing as how being a blowhard is such demanding work.) But that’s mild compared to some of his other antics. He recently sponsored a bill that would have the state DMV provide “Choose Death” license plates, so that people who were pro-choice could express their views along with those who buy the “Choose Life” license plates currently being offered. And then there was the time he actually subpoenaed a plastic penis used in sex-ed classes, and then proceeded to prominently display his star witness during an Education Committee meeting. But my personal favorite is the bill he introduced to jail men found in public with “discernibly turgid penises”. That has got to qualify for an award of some kind. And if you’ve guessed by now that Fair hates gays, congratulations, you are of extremely low intelligence or higher. So let’s see: dishonesty, buffoonery, and an unhealthy obsession with other people’s sex lives. He’s a natural ally of the Discovery Institute alright.