Thursday, January 01, 2009

Alleged Psychic Sylvia Browne's 2008 Predictions: Success Rate

Before I start here, I would just like to offer the humblest of apologies for not posting on my blog for approximately four months. I won't make excuses, I'll just say that school and other activities kept me extremely busy.

As I hope any frequent reader of my blog has guessed by now, I am a critic of alleged psychic Sylvia Browne. Starting at the beginning of 2008, I began documenting the predictions she would make on the now-canceled daytime-talk show Montel, hosted by Montel Williams. On the December 31, 2007 broadcast of Montel, Browne made several verifiable predictions dealing with politics, pop culture medicine and natural disasters. I made a list of these predictions here, and offered a mid-year update on them here. Now that 2008 has given way to 2009, I can accurately assess the success rate for the predictions Browne gave for 2008.

On the December 31, 2007 episode of Montel, Browne made 14 predictions that were specific enough to be falsifiable. I will present these predictions in a simple list format, and refer to a correct prediction as a “hit” and an incorrect prediction as a “miss.” I will also offer links to any sources that support or refute the claims made in the predictions and provide my own commentary. Any text which appears in quotes is the exact phrasing used by Browne.

As with all of my posts dealing with Sylvia Browne, I admit freely that I do not think she is psychic in any way, shape or form. Browne's despicable business practices are my definition of evil, and I'm attempting to do what little I can to offer a critical assessment of her. I write these posts in an effort to make Browne's numerous failings as an alleged psychic clear to anyone who may be interested.

1. Britney Spears’ younger sister Jaime Lynn Spears will have her baby.
Spears the younger gave birth to a healthy, although 10-days-premature, baby girl on June 19, 2008. Complications during the delivery apparently forced doctors to perform an emergency Cesarean on the 17-year old. Browne had what amounts to a 50/50 chance of getting this prediction correct. Spears would have either had the baby, or somehow terminated the pregnancy. Given entertainment news media's obsession with the entire Spears family, an abortion of any kind was pretty much out of the question for young Jaime Lynn. Was Browne correct? Yes. Is it impressive? Hardly.
Prediction #1: Hit

2. Browne described Britney Spears as having a “bi-polar condition,” and that she will get help for it in 2008.
A December 9 post on the Times of the Internet explaining Spears' reluctance to embark on a 2009 concert tour was the only blog post or news story I could find that asserts Spears was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, the post does not offer any source to support its claim. Other stories discussing Spears' mental health offered only speculation and no concrete evidence to support the claim that she was officially diagnosed as being bipolar in 2008. Even if Spears actually is bipolar, no news stories reported the singer getting help for the condition.
Prediction #2: Miss

Actor Owen Wilson will have “another dip” in his depression.
After Wilson's alleged late-2007 suicide attempt, a 2008 depression-related incident seemed like a logical assertion. However, Wilson had no publicized bouts with depression in 2008. In fact, a February 28 post on the entertainment news blog Defamer
reported on Wilson returning to work on Marley and Me, a film currently in theaters, and possible reuniting with actress Kate Hudson, his former girlfriend.
Prediction #3: Miss

4. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie will adopt another child.
A November 12 story from the news section of the website Celebrity Archives reported that Pitt and Jolie are planning to adopt another child, but will wait until their twins, born in July of 2008, are six months old.
Prediction #4: Miss

5. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie will not stay together.

Since this prediction was given as part of a list of predictions for the year 2008, I think it is safe to assume Browne meant to say that the couple will break up in 2008. As of the writing of this post, Pitt and Jolie are still together.
Prediction #5: Miss

6. United State troops stationed in Iraq will start coming home "in increments" due to the withdrawal of other collation forces.
No major United States troops withdrawals from Iraq took place in 2008. An August 21 article from the website for National Public Radio reported that a deal agreed upon by Iraq and the United States has set a preliminary timetable for a withdrawal of American forces from Iraqi cities by June of 2009.
Prediction #6: Miss

President Bush’s approval rating will continue to drop.
According to a December 31 article from the Los Angeles Times, President Bush will end his presidency with some of the lowest marks of approval of any recent president. From the article:

"According to a Pew survey released this month, just 11% of Americans rate Bush as an 'above-average president,' compared with 59% for Ronald Reagan and 44% for Bill Clinton as they left office."

Now, you only really have to have the ability to understand the English language and own a television set to "predict" that president Bush was not going to get any more popular in 2008. In all fairness, though, Browne did call this one correctly; as I'm sure most of the United States would have if asked.
Prediction #7: Hit

Senator Barack Obama will become the Democratic "front-runner" in the race to be the next president of the United States.
A cursory glance at any newspaper within the last few months will show that Browne was indeed correct on this one. Notice, however, that she did not go so far as to say that Obama will be the next president of the United States. Since this prediction was made way back in December of 2007, she could not confidently make such a claim. Rather, she saved the "prediction" that Obama will win the presidency for October 3, 2008; a month before the presidential elections. Browne offered this nugget of augury in a video posted on Youtube in which even she did not seem confident in her own powers. Quoted from the video:

"It's getting very close and I...I don't know, I really thought at one time that it might be Barack, but I'm leaning a little toward John McCain now. But that sounds like I'm doing a double thing but I'm still going to stick with Barack Obama. Because I think people need a new regime, I really do."

A month before the elections and she can't be anymore sure than this? Remember, everyone, this is a woman who charges $850 for an over-the-phone "reading."
Prediction #8: Hit

Browne predicts "diabetic breakthroughs."
In addition to a University of Manchester team discovering a new technique for turning stem cells into insulin-producing pancreatic tissue, a September 18 article from reported on a University of North Carolina team that successfully turn human skin cells into insulin producing cells. Insulin is the hormone that people diagnosed with diabetes lack. I can assure you that "diabetic breakthroughs" is all Browne said regarding this specific prediction. Given such a broad claim, medical science was bound to produce something that could be counted as a "breakthrough" regarding diabetes in 2008. One has to wonder why Browne could not offer any more details.
Prediction #9: Hit

10. Browne predicts the use of "sound waves with cancer."

Again, the quoted statement was all Browne had to offer regarding the treatment of cancer with sound waves. Because of her trademark vagueness, a December 22 ScienceDaily article about a pocket-sized ultrasound device could possibly apply. This device, invented by a graduate student at Cornell University, could help treat brain cancer by using intense sound waves to push medication through the brain after surgery. This "prediction" was slightly more specific than "diabetic breakthroughs" but still did not offer much useful information.
Prediction #10: Hit

Browne predicts "whooping cough, mumps and measles will be on the rise" in 2008.
This prediction was the most difficult to investigate since news stories often only focus on outbreaks of such diseases in specific parts of the country, as opposed to rises nationwide. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that cases of measles from January to July of 2008 were the highest they've been since 1996. An article in The New York Times attributed this rise in part to the unwillingness of many parents to vaccinate their children for fear of links to autism. Also, the Anchorage Daily News reported December 19 on a rise in reported cases of whooping cough in Alaska's capital city of Juneau, while offered a November 21 report on the rise of whooping cough cases in the Midwest. Despite the ambiguity of Browne's "prediction," I will count this one as a hit for her. Though one must ask the question: if Browne really did see these outbreaks coming, why did she not seek out any medical professionals who could have taken the proper steps to lessen the impacts of the outbreaks?
Prediction #11: Hit

Browne predicted more tsunamis.
No newsworthy tsunamis occurred in 2008.
Prediction #12: Miss

13. Browne predicted "a big earthquake in Japan."
A 7.2 magnitude earthquake did strike Japan’s Iwate prefecture on June 14, 2008 killing nine people and injuring at least 200. One would think Browne would have been obligated to alert Japanese authorities to this danger, or at least offer a more specific location. If Browne did either of these things, she did not publicize them.
Prediction #13: Hit

14. predicted "
volcanoes erupting from all parts of the country that have been dead for years."
The only reported volcanic eruptions in the United States occurred in Alaska in midsummer 2008. A total of three Alaskan volcanoes erupted over the summer. Hardly "from all parts of the country" as Browne predicted.
Prediction #14: Miss

So, how well did Browne do predicting the major events of 2008? With regards to this list, she predicted seven events correctly and seven events incorrectly. Exactly half. I won't go on to mention the major events that Browne failed to predict, the economic collapse for one, since expecting her to predict events like that would be unfair. With that logic, for example, I could complain that she failed to predict me doing all the various things I did in 2008. It does make one wonder, though, how big does an event have to be for it to show up on Browne's radar?

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Pareidolia Mondays: Ghost in My Window

A slight change of pace for this week's Pareidolia Monday: a story from a Norwich, Norfolk, United Kingdom news service (The Evening News) reporting on a picture snapped of an alleged ghost in the window of a Norwich church. Why does this count as pareidolia, you may ask? Because while it might not be a religious figure this time, the woman who took the picture still claims to see a human figure in the window of the old church.

Posted on Sept. 8, the story tells of a woman named Janice Mark who was taking photographs of the historic Norwich region, where the St Peter Hungate Church is located. Once she got the pictures home and downloaded them to her computer, she noticed what looked remarkably like a human figure in the church's window. See the above link for the photo.

The article goes on to quote Mark, who works for the company that owns The Evening News, extensively. Mark creates and entire picture of a "medieval preacher" from the glare produced on the window (more on that later):

“'If you zoom into the top window of the church, you can see an image of a white figure with a long bushy beard. If you look closely, you might be able to see his eyes, nose, mouth and ears.
You may just about be able to make out that the figure is wearing something on his head, which also goes down his back,' Mark said”

Rory Quinn, the chairman of the organization that maintains Norwich's historic churches, said he had never heard stories of any ghosts haunting this particular church, but that did not stop him from offering a suggestion as to who the ghostly figure might be:

“It could be the spirit of Mordecai Hewett, who gave his name to the Hewett School in Norwich. It's the 50th anniversary of the Hewett School next week so it could be something to do with that. There's a memorial to Mordecai in the church,' Quinn said”

Now, this is where the article takes a refreshing twist. Most of the time in paredolia stories like this, a believing witness and token skeptic are called in to offer two sides to the story. Granted, the skeptic is usually shoved in at the end of the piece and given one, two paragraphs tops. But, the people at The Evening News were able to find believer and skeptic in the same person: paranormal investigator and author Dominic Zenden.

Zenden, a self-proclaimed spiritual medium who has been practicing his "art" for 25 years, offered a surprisingly sensible explanation for the figure in the window:

“'It is the light relaxing back from the angle of the window to the camera. This is a very common misconception when it comes to photographs of ghosts.'”

Yes, of course. The classic case of a purveyor of the paranormal debunking some ghost sighting to provide an air of authenticity to his or her own business. You'll often see self-proclaimed mediums (media?) and psychics showing faux-skepticism toward paranormal claims that are obviously illegitimate. That way, they can rail against the dangers of "fake" psychics while drawing more business toward themselves. The Queen of Darkness herself, Sylvia Browne, has adopted this ploy several times.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Washington-Based "Channeler" Sues Former Student

I have Dr. PZ Myers' blog Pharyngula to thank for bringing this story to my attention. The story was originally posted on the website of The Seattle Times.

The Times reported last Wednesday that alleged channeler J.Z. Knight, (full name: Judy Zebra Knight) has brought a lawsuit against a former student of hers who allegedly started teaching Knight's spiritually-themed material without Knight's permission. Knight is the founder of Ramtha's School of Enlightenment located in the small town of Yelm, Washington, approximately 63 miles southwest of Seattle. The case was heard in Thurston County Superior Court in Olympia, WA.

Knight testified last Tuesday that the lawsuit against her student, Whitewind Weaver, was nothing Knight wanted to do. But, as Knight claims, she was so disturbed that Weaver had "moved next door, taken my school's teachings, changed them around a little and then started teaching them," that Knight authorized the lawsuit. The "next door" of which Knight speaks is the town of Lacey, WA, 14 miles northwest of Yelm where Weaver owns and operates Art of Life Coaching Inc.

Weaver's San Diego-based attorney Robert Kilborne asked Knight on the stand why Knight took such strong legal action against Weaver when Weaver had been so supportive of Knight's teachings and school. According to Kilborne, Weaver advised her students in Oregon to follow her lead in moving to Yelm and becoming a student of Knight's. Weaver has since enrolled in more than $8,000 worth of classes. From the article:

"'If you were aware of all the facts, would you have still done what you did?' Kilborne asked Knight during intense cross-examination. 'Why couldn't you have just called her (Weaver)?'"

Who or what does Knight claim to channel and who is this mysterious Ramtha, you may be asking? Apparently, Ramtha is a 35,000-year-old male spirit warrior entity who first contacted Knight in 1977. Among other things, Ramtha has allegedly revealed to Knight that God is within everyone, and that every human being is divine. Knight has apparently made millions of dollars from lectures, books and classes at the School of Enlightenment.

So it's really no surprise that Knight got upset when Weaver allegedly horned in on her action. From the article:

"Knight was the second witness in her case accusing Weaver of breach of contract in connection with a seminar Weaver taught in August 2006. Knight claims the seminar violated terms of a registration form Weaver signed that says teachings at the Ramtha school are for the students' personal use only and cannot be disseminated or taught for commercial gain. Weaver's attorneys deny the allegations."

The second attorney representing Weaver, David Spellman of Seattle, cross-examined Knight's school administrator, Mike Wright. Spellman attempted to show that the registration form in question was inconsistent from year to year, and that the teachings allegedly used by Weaver could be items of public domain. The article goes on to detail one of the teachings, and a particularly humorous exchange between Spellman and Wright:

"Knight's attorneys claim Weaver copied seven school processes, including Fieldwork, an exercise designed to improve the ability to focus attention and intuition by finding a symbolic card on a fence while blindfolded.

'Is "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" focused attention?' Spellman asked Wright.

"'It could be,' Wright replied.

"'So, then is it Fieldwork?' Spellman said.

"'No, it's "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" ' Wright said."

The article reports that the case was expected to continue through last Thursday. No stories in the Times since then have provided any updates on the ruling.

For anyone reading this who may have felt a tinge of familiarity when they read the names "J.Z. Knight" and "Ramtha," that was most likely because both played heavily in the 2004 quasi-metaphysical docudrama What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?. In fact, the film's producers, writers, directors and a number of its stars are members of Ramtha's School of Enlightenment. A full review of the movie can be found at the bottom of the page which is linked above.

Since the college I attend is in Bellingham, WA, it seems I'm going to have to take a drive and see this School of Enlightenment for myself within the next year.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

LHC Fired Up, World Still Here

Some personal issues with which I've had to deal over the past few days have kept me from posting everyday. But most of them are cleared up now, so it's back to blogging.

As I'm sure most of you have noticed, the world did not end on Wednesday when the $8 billion Large Hadron Collider was turned on for the first time. Since most other science/geek blogs have already written about this fact ad nauseam, most more eloquently then I, I'll keep this post short and touch on two points which deserve more media attention then they are currently receiving.

The first piece comes from the blog of astrophysicist Ethan Siegel, of which I was made aware by the blog Universe Today. Since most news reports talking about the LHC have managed to shoehorn in the fallacy that the collider could create a black hole large enough to destroy the Earth, Dr. Siegel took it upon himself to determine the worst case scenario of the actual particle-smashing that will take place in the months to come. Siegel describes what would happen if every single collision created a tiny black hole:

"Let’s assume that one million of these collisions occur, and all of them make black holes, which can then merge together (again, this is incredibly, unrealistically optimistic, but let’s go for it). For the maximum collision energy at CERN (14 TeV), E = mc2 tells us that the end black hole would have a mass of 2.5 x 10-14 grams. That’s 25 femtograms, which means this black hole would have an event horizon trillions upon trillions of times smaller than the size of a proton."

The event horizon being the point from which nothing, including light, would be able to escape the tremendous gravity of the black hole. So, if the LHC were to create a black hole, it would only suck in particles within a radius trillions upon trillions of times smaller than that of a proton. To put it mildly, that's really small.

Siegel goes on to describe what would happen if one of these microscopic black holes were to start eating it's way into the Earth:

"As it falls into the Earth, it starts running into protons, and let’s assume whenever it runs into one, it gobbles it up. By time it gets to the center of the Earth, it will have eaten about 10-16 grams of matter, which means it can grow by about 0.4% in the 30 minutes or so it takes to get to the center of the Earth. It will then head towards the other side, gobbling up that matter until it stops in the upper mantle, and then heads back towards the center of the Earth. It should do this over and over, each time gobbling up more matter (at a constant rate of about 4 x 10-16 grams per hour), each time getting farther and farther away from the Earth’s surface, never to quite reach it again. "

How dangerous would such a black hole be? According to Siegel, at this rate it would take 3 billion years for this black hole to consume even one gram of matter. I repeat, that's one gram of matter every 3 billion years. Even then, Siegel's calculations are assuming the LHC can create a black hole. A claim he goes on to refute in the last part of his post:

"Even if you managed to make this 25 femtogram black hole, it would decay into normal matter incredibly fast. How fast? According to Hawking radiation, this black hole will be gone in 10-66 seconds, which means, unless there is some incredible new physics (like extra dimensions), we can’t even make a black hole! Why not? Because anything that happens in a time less than the Planck time (10-43 seconds) cannot physically happen with our current understanding of physics."

So, every single news story reporting the possible danger the LHC posed to humanity was completely and utterly out of touch with reality. Physicists working at the LHC released statement after statement telling everyone that the experiment posed no danger. Why did reputable news outlets such as MSNBC even mention the possibility of the world ending? Just to grab the attention of readers? Was reporting on the most important science experiment in recent memory not enough?

Maybe more responsible reporting could have prevented the next item about which I'm going to write: the story of a girl in India who took her own life for fear of the world ending at the hands of the physicists working at the LHC.

I first read about this on Dr. Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog. reported the story Wednesday. The 16-year-old girl named Chayya Lal reportedly drank pesticide last Tuesday and was rushed to the hospital. Once there, doctors were unable to save her.

Lal's parents repeatedly tired to "divert her attention" from the myriad fear-mongering stories about the LHC. From the article:

"Her father, identified on local television as Biharilal, said that his daughter, Chayya, killed herself after watching doomsday predictions made on Indian news programs."

Apparently, many Indian programs have been airing discussions regarding doomsday predictions over the past few days. Chayya's parents were quoted as saying that they tried to convince their daughter there was nothing to worry about, but to know avail.

The MSNBC article said reassurances by physicists as to the safety of the LHC fell on mostly deaf ears in the "deeply religious and superstitious India." East Indian temples saw thousands more devotees than usual last Tuesday due to the Wednesday start-up of the LHC, according to a temple official in Orissa state quoted in the article.

Dr. Plait writes much more passionately about this then I am able to
. While it pains me to see the effects of superstition and irresponsible journalism taken to this extreme, Dr. Plait speaks on the importance of critical thinking and skepticism from his position as a father:

"I’m a parent. I sometimes think the most important thing I can do for my daughter is love her, keep her healthy, protect her. But in all of those, there is an overarching responsibility for me to teach her how to live in the real world. And that means showing her how to think. Not
what to think, but how. Question authority. Be skeptical of claims. Ask for evidence. Apply good logic. Avoid bad logic. Analyze the results. Look for bias. And doubt. Doubt doubt doubt. It’s one of the greatest strengths of the human mind, and perhaps the least used of all"

Dr. Plait speaks of the blame to be placed upon the girl's superstitious culture, the media and science-illiterates who pushed the "LHC=death garbage," but maintains the majority of the blame lies with us:

"Too many people choose not to think. But our technology, our society, our impact is vast, and now, today, in this world, that choice is one we can no longer afford."

To paraphrase a particularly apt Shakespeare line, "The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

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Monday, September 08, 2008

Pareidolia Mondays: Woman With a Sense of Humor Finds Mary on a Grape

I'm sorry for the lateness of this edition of Pareidolia Mondays. There have been a number of recent thunderstorms in my hometown which, for safety's sake, have not allowed me to turn on my computer until recently (I'm also blaming the paltry length of this post on its lateness).

An NBC affiliate in Dallas, TX reported last Wednesday on a woman with a refreshing attitude toward her particular example of pareidolia. Becky Ginn, 24, of Arlington has apparently found an image of the Virgin Mary on a grape. See the above link for the picture.

Ginn posted a photo of her discovery on her LiveJournal account, and was subsequently beseeched by friends to contact the local news media. The Dallas NBC affiliate was proud to report that Ginn contacted them first. From the article:

"'I haven't made a shrine to it, nor prayed to it, nor done much of anything except e-mail the picture to a few friends and roll it around in the bowl in the fridge,' Ginn said."

A bowl in the fridge?! Blasphemy! Ah wait, Ginn provided an explanation for her cavalier attitude toward the grape earlier in the brief article:

"'I thought this stuff just happened to Catholics?' she said. 'Mom and I had a laugh about it at first, seeing as how we're Baptists and all and we generally don't expect to see holy people popping up in our foodstuffs.'"

Now it all makes sense. Of course a Baptist wouldn't know how to treat such a holy sign from God. All kidding aside, this is the kind of attitude I would like to see more often portrayed in pareidolia-related stories. All this article really needs is a proper explanation of the phenomenon, and it would be completely acceptable; to me anyway.

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Allegedly Fossilized Bigfoot Print Found in Tennessee

An NBC affiliate in Nashville posted a story Friday about a Cookville, TN man who claims he found a large, humanoid footprint on his property. What makes this story different from the dozens of others telling tales of people finding large, five-toed tracks? This Cookeville resident claims his footprint is fossilized.

Harold Jackson, a self-proclaimed amateur archaeologist, came across the remarkable discovery while taking a walk near the Caney Fork River on his property in Cookeville, about 70 miles east of Nashville. The article claims he had stepped on the rock near his house "for months" until he finally decided to take it inside and wash it off. From the article:

"'I don't know anything about archaeology or anything, but if you look at it, it's a footprint. No animal footprint looks like that. Now, if it's a Native American, an Indian, then he was a big Indian,' said Jackson. '(The print) is about 11 inches wide and about 15 inches long.'"

Jackson is also quoted as saying the print, "[has] got to be thousands of years old." Why does that not surprise me? Not only does this statement most likely reveal the nature of his spiritual beliefs, I'm going to go out on a limb and say he's of the opinion that God the created the earth 6,000 years ago, it also reveals how truly amateur he is when it comes to archeology. According to the San Diego Natural History Museum's website, fossilization takes at least 10,000 years. Also, how do we know into what material the alleged footprint has been pressed? Did the reporter even ask that very basic question? It could be concrete for all the picture on the news site shows us.

Apparently, "about half-a-dozen scientists" have expressed interest in examining the footprint, although the article only names one: Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum. If that names sounds familiar, it's most likely because he was quoted extensively in my post about the news media's reaction to the Bigfoot press conference a few weeks ago. Laughably, and a bit embarrassing for Dr. Meldrum, the article calls him, "a famous Bigfoot professor at Idaho State University." A Bigfoot professor? That description hardly does Dr. Meldrum justice. According to Idaho State University's website, he's a real, live associate professor in the department of biological sciences. While Dr. Meldrum and I may disagree on the existence of a certain bipedal primate allegedly living in North America, his achievements certainly deserve more respect than to be written off with the moniker "a famous Bigfoot professor."

Even before these scientists can way in, Jackson has apparently already made up his mind about the existence of Bigfoot:

"'It was just hard for me to believe. But listen, after I found this print, there's a Bigfoot out there somewhere. I don't know what kind of Bigfoot it is, but there's a Bigfoot out there somewhere,' said Jackson."

To any of my regular readers, if I can be hopeful enough to presume that some exist, this story should sound a bit familiar to you. Alleged fossilized footprint found by someone in the southern states? Check. Less-than-subtle religious overtones? Check. Discoverer waiting a while before revealing the find? Check. Yes, this story shares many traits with the alleged "dinosaur over human" footprint about which I wrote at the end of July. The only real difference between the two articles is that a slightly more credible scientist is mentioned in the Bigfoot track piece. There must be a huge fake footprint market in the South. I wonder how one would go about getting into such a racket.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Bible Courses To Be Offered in Texas Public Schools

The Dallas Morning News reported August 29 on a statement released by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott clarifying a Bible study bill approved by the Texas state legislature last year. Abbott's statement said the bill does require some instruction on the Christian Bible and its historical impact as a piece of literature, but that more intensive elective Bible courses will only be offered if the local school boards vote for them. From the News article:

"The legislation 'authorizes but does not require school districts and charter schools to offer elective courses on the Hebrew Scriptures and its impact, or on the New Testament and its impact,' the attorney general said."

The statement, released August 28, has apparently cleared up some confusion regarding among Texas lawmakers, teachers and education advocates.

"Lawmakers and various citizen groups had been waiting for the opinion to clear up confusion over what the 2007 law required. Most legislators, including the Republican chairman of the House Public Education Committee, said the Bible course was optional for school districts, but some of the original sponsors of the bill said it was mandatory."

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a Texas group advocating religious liberties and the separation of church and state, expressed agreement with the bill's clarification. The article quotes her as saying, "Local school boards can now breathe a sigh of relief." She went on to say:

'The State Board of Education threw them under a bus last month by refusing to adopt the clear, specific standards schools need to give the Bible the respect it deserves and help them stay out of court. Now schools won't be required to maneuver through a legal minefield without a map.'"

The article also quotes Jonanthan Saenz of the Texas Free Market Foundation, whose mission statement reads:

"To protect freedoms and strengthen families throughout Texas by impacting our legislature, media, grassroots, and courts with the truth. To do this we are guided by the principles, which limit government and promote Judeo-Christian values."

Saenz expressed support for the bill and Abbott's clarification. The Foundation was apparently in support of a mandatory Bible course. Saenz went on to say:

"'For too long, Texas school districts have been threatened and oppressed by enemies of academic freedom for simply daring to offer instruction on the Bible,' said Jonathan Saenz of the foundation."

However, an article posted on the website of the San Antonio Express-News claims a bit of confusion still exists. From the Express story:

Some legislative leaders insisted that schools 'may' offer the course if enough students request it, but others contended that schools are obligated to offer a class if at least 15 students want it. Lawmakers approved the Bible bill last year."

Whatever the exact truth may be, it appears this bill and the subsequent "clarification" have to the potential to cause quite a stir within the Texas educational community. If the bill does indeed require "some" course material on the Bible as a piece of literature, then the holy books of other religions, such as the Qu'ran, ought to be at least mentioned. Granted, the Bible has had the heaviest influence on American literature and culture of the all the major religions' holy books, but a comparative study could and should be offered. The biggest problem I could see arising is what version of the Bible school boards would decide to teach. The viewpoint of the Texas Education Agency toward evolution also make me wary of how they would handle such curricula.

However, if the bill merely offers the Bible as an elective course, I see absolutely no problem with it. No matter what stance one may have on religious faith, the Christian Bible has had a tremendous impact on American culture. Understanding its history can only help students who chose to take the class. But, the curricula used in such elective courses would need to be carefully monitored so that the religious beliefs of the teachers or school board members aren't injected.

Whatever the case, this is definitely a matter that needs to be handled delicately, so as not to incite costly lawsuits from either the secular or religious ends Texas' belief spectrum. As with all other similar education issues, the minds of the children in Texas schools need to be put first. Is the state up to the challenge? Only time will tell.

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