Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 49
February 12, 2016
Cause & Effect is the biweekly newsletter of the Center for Inquiry community, covering the wide range of work that you help make possible.
The Main Events
Meet the New Boss: Getting to Know Robyn Blumner
Robyn Blumner has been on the job as the Center for Inquiry’s new CEO for just a couple of weeks, but in that time, the CFI staff—both in Amherst at the Transnational headquarters and in the Washington, DC, executive office—has been getting a chance to get to know her and the staff of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science (RDFRS), which is merging with the Center for Inquiry. There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes planning going on to begin to tie together the operations of CFI and RDFRS, and former CFI CEO Ron Lindsay, who will remain as president through June, has been partnering with Robyn to ensure a smooth transition.
Just as Robyn is being introduced to those who work and volunteer with CFI, our supporters and the wider freethought community have gotten a couple of excellent opportunities to learn more about CFI’s new leader. This week, Robyn was the guest on the Friendly Atheist Podcast, where she and host Hemant Mehta discussed the importance of the merger and its potential impact on secular and skeptic causes, as well as her own background as an activist and journalist, as well as some insights into the heart and mind of Richard Dawkins. Then, Robyn was joined by Ron Lindsay for a joint interview on Point of Inquiry, CFI’s own flagship podcast. Host Josh Zepps gave listeners an opportunity to get a sense of Robyn’s experience and how it has shaped her worldview, as well as reflections from Ron on the Center for Inquiry he’s helped to build, and where the two of them see it going in the future.
A Tough Call on the Florida Lawsuit
The last issue of Cause & Effect featured a bewildering development in CFI’s lawsuit in Florida, where since 2007 the Center for Inquiry has been working through the court system in an effort to end the state’s use of taxpayer dollars to fund explicitly sectarian substance abuse services. As a reminder, the two programs in question, Lamb of God and Prisoners of Christ, make no bones about their specifically religious approach to rehabilitation, boasting of how they base their programs on the Bible and the need for those struggling with addiction to embrace Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, the judge in the case ruled that it was perfectly fine for the state to fund these self-described ministries, bafflingly asserting that they were not “significantly sectarian” or promoting Christianity, despite the ministries’ own declarations to the contrary.
CFI had intended to appeal this logic and constitution-defying decision, but this week CFI president Ron Lindsay announced that in fact there would be no appeal. As he described it in a letter to CFI’s supporters, the decision was an extremely difficult one, but there was an undeniably impenetrable obstacle to victory, which had everything to do with politics. Ron wrote:
Given the change in the composition of the intermediate appellate court that would have jurisdiction over our appeal—seven of the twelve judges have now been appointed by ultraconservative Florida governor Rick Scott—we believe a dispassionate analysis indicates that not only might we lose the appeal, but that the appellate court might reverse the favorable ruling we obtained in 2010.
The favorable ruling Ron refers to was valuable indeed, wherein the court ruled that taxpayers can challenge state grants to faith-based social services, not just schools. To preserve this important win, CFI decided (with a heavy heart) to forego an appeal. As noted in a more detailed explanation, CFI is committed to “being wise and selective in the cases we bring,” and to continue its focus on cases where “there is an important legal principle at stake, there is a reasonable chance of prevailing, and there is no significant likelihood that the case will create bad precedent.”
Skeptical Inquirer on the Science of Race
The biological study of race among humans is as scientifically murky as it is politically charged. A wide range of opinions have been posited about the very concept of race, from dismissing it as a social construct, to believing that evolved behavior can be attributed to it—a position which is not widely accepted, yet perennially emerges to spark heated debate. Kenneth Krause surveys this minefield in the March/April 2016 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, presenting various arguments and explanations, including the relatively new concept of “ecotypes,” first advanced by Massimo Pigliucci and Jonathan Kaplan, in which a “mishmash” of genes is selected when advantageous to particular environments.
Also in this issue, Stuart Vyse takes a critical look at gun ownership and the difference between feeling and being safe; Daniel Vogel explores how even skeptics’ minds are vulnerable to bias and distorted perceptions; Massimo Polidoro reflects on the modern fascination with Mary Magdalene; and lots more. Look for Skeptical Inquirer on newsstands and on multiple digital platforms. Click here to start your subscription.
News from HQ and the CFI Community
The CFI Community Celebrates Darwin Day
Today, February 12, is Darwin Day, when we celebrate the incomparable insight and impact of Charles Darwin, on this, the 207th anniversary of his birth. Darwin Day has always been one of the biggest days of the year for CFI everywhere, and 2016 is no different.
CFI–Austin is going all out, and tomorrow (Saturday the 13th) they’ll have a big celebration with activities for young children, including book readings, dinosaur crafts, coloring, and face painting; for older children and teens with a fossil dig, scavenger hunt, and a look at some microorganisms; and adults will hear presentations on evolutionary science and philosophy and test their wits in a trivia contest. There’s even a workshop for teachers for professional development credit. And a whole lot more! Check out this link for full details.
CFI–Northeast Ohio will be celebrating Darwin Day on Wednesday, February 17, with an event that will feature a presentation by “Paleomammalogist” Darin Croft, associate professor of biology at Case Western Reserve University, whose particular expertise is the evolution of South American mammals. And as per a noble tradition, the party will include a Darwin’s Birthday cake.
On February 25, CFI–Pittsburgh gets into the swing of things with a Darwin Day event at First Unitarian Church Shadyside, with geologist Charles E. Jones, who will have a special presentation on the prehistoric creatures that once roamed the Pittsburgh area.
Some Darwin Day events have already taken place, such as “A Day of Science,” put on by CFI–Tampa Bay and the Tampa Bay Coalition of Reason. It featured presentations from Dr. Frans DeWaal, author of The Bonobo and the Atheist, and biologist Dr. Deby Cassill. CFI–Fort Lauderdale’s event with Palm Beach State College in Boca Raton took place late last month. Earlier this week, CFI–Los Angeles welcomed paleontologist Donald Prothero (in the image at left) for a talk about how amazing new discoveries of “transitional fossils” document the evolution of one group of animals from another.
CFI–Michigan is in the midst of hosting several days of events. Earlier in the week they heard from art historian Kirsten Strom on how animals exhibit evolved senses of “aesthetics” and intellect, and “evolutionary improv” comedy from the Rapid Delivery Improv group. Tonight they’ll hear from Dr. Laura Stroik on bizarre animal adaptations at Grand Valley State University’s Grand Rapids campus, and tomorrow two campuses of GVSU will host a series of “Fall in Love with STEM” events for middle and high school students.
However, even if you can’t make it to a Darwin Day event you can still do something important to mark the occasion. Answer the call of our action alert from CFI’s Office of Public Policy and urge your congressional representatives to give their support to a Darwin Day Resolution.
Reason Rally 2016 Is Coming!
The 2016 Reason Rally, taking place June 4, 2016, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, will bring together atheists, humanists, and other members of the reality-based community for a joyous and inclusive celebration of reason, science, and critical thinking. The rally will feature an array of brilliant speakers and performers, with an incredible lineup confirmed this week, including Cassini scientist Caroline Porco, comedian Margaret Cho, human rights defender Maryam Namazie, Star Trek’s John de Lancie, and many more.
Reason Rally 2016 will be free to attend, with events beyond the June 4 main rally on the Mall, with a variety of activities taking place over several days from Thursday, June 2, through Sunday, June 5. Keep your eye on ReasonRally.org for all the details!
Highlights from CFI on the Web
● The Center for Inquiry is cited in the Sunday New York Times, as freethought luminary Susan Jacoby takes stock of the secular movement’s political power, or lack thereof. She discusses the importance of reclaiming the language of “religious freedom,” and the utility of forming alliances with religious groups for common causes—which is where CFI comes in.
● Political scientist Juhem Navarro-Rivera, an expert on “nones” in the political landscape, builds on Jacoby’s piece. While praising the work of CFI’s Office of Public Policy, he notes that if the secular movement wants influence, it can’t just sit around and “wait for miracles to happen.”
● Point of Inquiry welcomes classicist Tim Whitmarsh to discuss the overlooked history of atheism and religious doubt in ancient Greece.
● CFI’s director of public policy, Michael De Dora, and its legal director, Nick Little, coauthor a piece on the wide range of challenges to fundamental human rights that CFI tackles—particularly those that do not always rise to the top of a social news feed but must nonetheless be confronted.
● CFI–UK’s Stephen Law takes a deep look at the concept of “scientism” in a two-part essay at the Free Thinking blog, where he calls such a charge “a form of rubbishing,” a way to dismiss an argument without actually confronting it. Here’s Part 1 and Part 2.
● Stephen also posts a video interview in which he discusses whether there is any truth to the notion that atheism is a “faith position.”
● Penny Higgins tries to sort out some of the confusion over taxonomy, a subjective means of classifying species, and its relationship to phylogeny, the actual evolutionary relationship between species.
● Who needs vaccines when whooping cough can be cured by Rev. Downs’ Vegetable Balsamic Elixir? Joe Nickell shows off another item from his vast collection of quack cures.
● Massimo Polidoro wonders at the Ouija-like fad of the “Charlie Charlie Challenge,” in which a precariously balanced pencil can somehow serve as a medium to the spirit world.
● Ben Radford compares facts to myths on the subject of feral children in the popular imagination, concluding that any kid left in a Tarzan-like situation would not fare as well as the fellow swinging from the vines.
● Stuart Vyse considers strategies for spurring immediate action on climate change, although it can appear that its effects are all to be felt in the distance “someday.”
And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.
Upcoming CFI Events
For upcoming Darwin Day events, see “News from HQ and the CFI Community” above.
● Genetic researcher Anna Battenhouse talks to CFI–Austin about mutations and how they contribute to the forming of cancers.
● Jeff Ingersoll, Chair of the Robert Green Ingersoll Memorial Committee, visits both CFI–Los Angeles and CFI–Orange County to discuss the influence of Robert Ingersoll both in his own time and today.
● David Gorski discusses the infiltration of quackery into academic medicine with CFI–Michigan in Farmington Hills.
● Biologist Mike Henshaw talks to CFI–Michigan in Grand Rapids about how “kin selection” could be a new paradigm in the study of evolution.
Everything we do at CFI is made possible by you and your support. Let’s keep working together for science, reason, and secular values. Donate today!
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Cause & Effect: The Center for Inquiry Newsletter is edited by Paul Fidalgo, Center for Inquiry communications director.
The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. CFI’s web address is www.centerforinquiry.net.