Introduction and Disclosures
If you look at the pages on this site, you will get acquainted with a variety of my experiences in education, work, and avocations. Something I have no prior experience in, though, is being a candidate for a public office. I am running for a seat on the Eaton Rapids Public Schools school board because this is a service role in which I believe I can give something back to this community.
There are four candidates running for three member seats in this election; one of us will be disappointed on November 4th. I do not plan to say anything negative about any of my fellow candidates on the ballot, though I may offer opinions that differ on topics and positions taken by other candidates. One practical reason for keeping my focus on ideas and not on personalities is that if I do obtain a seat on the school board, two of the other candidates on the ballot will be colleagues who I will need to work with there. Starting a position with one or more newly-made enemies does not appeal to me.
In looking through the descriptions of current and past school board members, an extremely common theme is that members tend to be people who grew up in this community and have have children who have graduated from the schools here. Neither of those are attributes that you would get with me.
I grew up in Florida, and experienced K12 education in the form of a public elementary school, a private Assembly of God affiliated middle school, and a private Catholic high school. I attended college at the University of Florida (UF). My wife, Diane, and I met at UF, got married, and then moved to Texas where she had a job opportunity, and I took the opportunity to earn a masters in computer science at the University of Texas at Arlington. After my graduation, we both worked for General Dynamics in Fort Worth. Then we moved to Richland, Washington, where I had a job with Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories. A couple of years later, both of us entered graduate school again in a doctoral program at Texas A&M University (TAMU), studying marine mammal biology. Our adviser there, Prof. William E. Evans, recruited us on the strength of our resumes in technical skills. Evans was the head of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration under President Ronald Reagan before taking up his position at TAMU. Evans facilitated an introduction to Dr. Sam Ridgway at the US Navy Marine Mammal Program, and we both moved to San Diego, California to work with him there, and eventually to do the research that would allow us to graduate. Marine mammal biology is not a large field, and after graduating with my doctoral degree, I ended up getting a position with a non-profit, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE, ncse.ngo), located in Oakland, California. We moved to Concord to be close enough to commute. After a few eventful years there, an acquaintance from Texas who now held a professorship at Michigan State University, Rob Pennock, offered me a post-doctoral position funded by a Templeton Foundation grant. So we moved to Williamston, Michigan, and I had an interesting and productive time doing research on the evolution of intelligence using the Avida artificial life research software. Diane took a job teaching physics at Lansing Community College. The end of my grant happened in 2009, in the fallout of the Great Recession, and there simply were no good opportunities on offer here in Michigan. I got a job offer with the Florida Wildlife Research Institute, and we ended up back in Florida again. Not all career choices go smoothly, though, and politics at a higher level meant that my job wasn’t looking good for the long term. Networking got me a job offer with my current employer in Richardson, Texas, and some inadvertently opportune negotiating got me the concession that I could work remotely. A bit after that, Rob Pennock called and described a staff position at MSU that Diane was able to accept, and because I was not tied to either Florida or Texas, we chose to return to Michigan in 2015. We lived in the St. Johns area for a year while searching for a new home, and in August, 2016, we found it here in Eaton Rapids Township. Since then, the educational software Diane has been writing at MSU (Avida-ED) won an international award, and both my day job and an affiliation with MSU’s BEACON Lab have gone well. We like the community here and are working on settling in here for a longer time than we have managed elsewhere before. Counting up the times we’ve had to physically shift all our belongings since leaving Florida that first time, I come up with fourteen moves. We would like not having any more moves.
Why am I interested in public education if I do not have children? Well, for one thing, I am shortly going to be relying on the society and civilization that our recent and future public school graduates are going to be the backbone of. As we withdraw from the world and stop applying a “brain-drain” to other countries, we must rely more and more upon our homegrown talent to deliver the innovations that we are going to need to advance our economy and safeguard our country. We will almost certainly fall short if we treat public education and the general success of our students there as something less than a critical and strategic national resource.
And that means that anything that gets in the way of locating and fostering the best talent in every one of the students coming into the public schools should be efficiently removed. That covers a lot of territory, from impenetrable curriculum materials and textbooks, to the threat of administrative overhead budgets chewing into the teacher payroll and facilities budgets that would prevent reducing the teacher-to-student ratio, to the issues with both in-person and cyber-bullying, and the variety of sources of inequity that make it less likely for students effected by each to find where they can excel.
This brings me to the topic of disclosures. I am, in the legal parlance, already someone who falls into the category of a public figure. You can Google me and see that Google returns several hundreds of thousands of hits on my name, and my name is not that common. Yes, that’s mostly me, or about me. And quite a lot of that proceeds from my time with the National Center for Science Education, or my being a co-founder and blogger at the Panda’s Thumb blog, or being president of the TalkOrigins Archive Foundation. You can find a lot of the things I’ve authored online (including over 6,000 posts made to the Usenet ‘talk.origins’ newsgroup from 1991 to around 2001, plus my personal blog, The Austringer). You can find people who generally agreed with me, and others who quite vehemently disagreed with me. You can find me making mistakes, sometimes quite silly ones, though in general I have tried to simply own up to things where I’ve botched it and post the corrected information in addition to my originally-posted mistake. There is too much of my life exposed out there to even make thinking of any sort of “whitewash” feasible (and if you are diligent, you will also find where I thwarted a “ReputationDefender” attempt of someone else to whitewash their online history). For quite a long time, I’ve had a personal avocation of countering attempts to place deception-based pseudoscience in science classrooms, and I include in that category “scientific creationism” and any of its offshoots and re-labelled argumentative content, including “creation science” and “intelligent design”. My time at NCSE allowed me to go professional in this endeavor, where I was paid a salary to examine arguments and find the misinformation, the tendentious elements, the outright logical fallacies, that permeates the literature there. And I am quite good at that. In 2004 and 2005, NCSE and its staff, including me, served as consultants to the plaintiffs in a Pennsylvania lawsuit over a school board making an “intelligent design policy” that included an oral disclaimer read to students in science classes and a reference to a stash of dozens of copies of an “intelligent design” textbook that were available in the school library. The case was “Tammy J. Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District”, and quite a lot of material about the case is available online, including the transcripts and the decision granting relief for the plaintiffs. I had two main roles as a consultant in that case. First, I provided information and analysis to a lawyer for the plaintiffs on the arguments made by a particular defense expert witness. The plaintiffs’ lawyer was scheduled to depose that expert, and later cross-examine him in court. This was done perhaps too well; the defense withdrew him as a witness the Friday prior to the Monday when we were scheduled to take the deposition. Second, I wrote a program for textual analysis of the “intelligent design” textbook at issue and all six of the drafts of that book, which had made its abrupt appearance in 1983 with the working title of “Creation Biology”, and which showed in its late 1987 draft a complete replacement of “creationism” in the text with “intelligent design”. My program collated every single run of ten words or longer that were in common between the drafts and the final text, and the dozens of pages resulting became an appendix to plaintiffs’ expert Prof. Barbara Forrest’s expert rebuttal report to the court on the provenance of terms used, showing the continuity of the conceptual material from creationism to intelligent design. You can’t just go look that up, because the whole appendix is under seal due to the copyrighted materials contained in it. But there is a description in the court’s decision referring to it as being assiduously and voluminously documented, and I find a certain contentment in that.
To the best of my knowledge, I do not have any associations that I would expect to arise in relation to Eaton Rapids Public Schools that would require me to recuse myself from decisions taken there.
I’m sure that various of the things I’ve described here will be sufficient to have some people avoid checking a box on the ballot next to my name, but I prefer to make these disclosures and be certain that I start public service without having attempted to slide “under the radar”, as it were. If you want a school board comprised entirely of people with a very long history of local connection and without any hint of taking positions that are controversial in any way, I’m certainly not a candidate of the sort you seek. If, though, you would like to elect someone with a broad and diverse set of experiences and competencies, including trades as well as science and technology, and who has been unafraid to take a public stance on contentious issues, then I hope you will consider including me in your ballot picks for Eaton Rapids Public School school board member on the November 3rd, 2020 ballot.