That’s some ego the guy has

I was going to point and laugh at Donald Trump for hanging a fake Time magazine cover in his golf clubs, but then I realized — we all fake this stuff to inflate our egos. Right? Perfectly normal. Entirely natural.

I mean, I’ve got photos of my 3 kids hanging on my wall at home. Two of them are totally fake (I won’t reveal which). I’ve been inflating the number of children I have just to make myself seem more virile. But then, you all claim to have more kids than you really do, I’m sure. It’s ordinary human behavior.

I’m supposedly able to drive, but — true confession — I actually don’t have a driver’s license. I posted a photo of Tom Selleck that I downloaded off the internet onto my library card. We all do it. My wife has a photo of Jennifer Aniston taped to her credit card, it fools all the police who’ve stopped her for her autograph.

My degree? It came out of a Cracker Jack box (not the regular size, though, you have to invest in the super-duper economy sized box, obviously), but it’s good enough. Impressed everyone who gave me this job, after all.

Having pathologically engorged narcissistic tendencies is simply part of the human condition, as I’m sure you all agree. It’s normal. You can’t condemn Trump for lying, you know, or being an egomaniacal buffoon, especially since Obama faked being president for a whole eight years, and nobody complained about that.


How YOU Can Help Scientists Combat Global Warming

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Sorta transcript:

This past weekend, the nice folks at the California Academy of Sciences invited me to join their “Snapshot Cal Coast” initiative, in which they ask the people of California to get out to the beach and take ALL THE PHOTOS! It just so happens that the opening “BioBlitz” was at my favorite beach in beautiful Half Moon Bay, so I had to go…even though it meant waking up at 4am and driving an hour through the fog just to get there at a historic low tide, when we could comb through tidal pools to check out marine life.

We used the iNaturalist app, which is basically Instagram for people who love science. It’s free and super easy — if you see a plant or animal you think is cool or weird or pretty or interesting, you take a photo of it and upload it. It’ll automatically tag the location, and you can type in what species or class or kingdom you think it might be. Then you post it, and other people can view it and help you finalize your identification.

I got to speak with one Cal Academy scientist, Dr. Rebecca Johnson, about why the data we were collecting on iNaturalist was so important:

“We use the iNaturalist platform. There’s a community, a social network, and once the community agrees on an identification, those data are sent to “GBIF,” or the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, which is where biodiversity data from natural history museums is shared.

“And so, for scientists and folks interested in conservation who want to know where things have been seen, where species have been found, species and current data, historic or recent, that’s a place to start. Anybody can use those data, because all these data are open and freely available.

So that’s one more passive way they can be used. But we’re really interested in our work and how species’ range have changed along the California coast. So we do a lot of work here, and we’ve seen some things move north with warming waters, especially last year when we had a warm water blob off our coast. Combined with El Niño we saw species bring things more southerly here. But to really understand how things are changing we need people everywhere, at least all along the California coast, if not the whole west coast. It’s only by working together that we can do that. So our questions are about what’s changing and what species’ ranges are changing, and also just to collect and gather baseline data so when things change that we don’t know, that aren’t changing yet, we can see that.”

I had a blast creeping around the tidepools, and you will, too! If you live near the California coast, check out the Cal Academy website for info on events happening near you. Or if you’re more of a loner or not nearby any events, just head outside with your phone and the app and start documenting! It’s a lot of fun, and you end up with a catalogue of all the cool stuff you saw. And as a bonus, you’re helping scientists!

If you’re heading to the tide pools, I recommend donning some waterproof boots (or at least packing a spare pair of socks and shoes) and maybe even getting a waterproof case for your phone, which you can find for surprisingly cheap online! I somehow managed to get through the day without dropping my phone in a tide pool, but I plan to do a lot more of these and I’m pretty realistic about my own clumsiness.

Thanks once again to Cal Academy for inviting me along to an event that combines all my favorite things: the great outdoors, science, and fellow nerds!


Those under-appreciated carbohydrates

This is a promotional video for the University of Utrecht, but it doesn’t lie (although I’m beginning to detest the phrase “dark matter of the ______”). Glycans are essential components of the cell.

In our cell biology course — and probably in most cell bio courses — we start with an overview of those key macromolecules, carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids, and then spend almost all of the semester focused on proteins and nucleic acids. I think in part it’s because we have a straightforward connection between them, and so much of the discipline of molecular biology is about just those two. It’s also the case that there is no such thing as a gene coding for a lipid or a glycan, which immediately removes them from consideration or interest to many biologists. Instead, glycans and lipids are produced indirectly by the cellular and extracellular environment, which makes them an order of magnitude more difficult to understand.

But that should make them even cooler!

It doesn’t make them “dark matter of the cell”, though.


Our code has been cracked

Uh-oh. They’re on to us, comrades.



Welcoming the deep rifts!

Clementine Ford has published a book, Fight Like A Girl, and has written a number of columns like this one, It’s time we demanded more from boys, for all our sakes, to promote her next one, Boys Will Be Boys, that universal phrase used to excuse vile behavior. In that essay, she writes about some high school football players who anally raped an intellectually disabled 17-year-old African American boy with a coathanger and made him sing a song about lynching black people, and who then got off with probation.

For orchestrating this crime, Howard was sentenced to three years’ probation and 300 hours of community service. In his sentencing remarks, district judge Randy J. Stoker stated the attack was not, in his opinion, racially or sexually motivated.

This is a real problem Ford is describing. The judge let them off, and citizens of the town excused their behavior. How can you excuse anal rape? That’s just what boys do.

They’re 15-, 16-, 17-year-old boys who are doing what boys do … I would guarantee that those boys had no criminal intent to do anything or any harm to anyone. Boys are boys and sometimes they get carried away.

I was once a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old boy. I was never even tempted to sexually assault other boys, black, handicapped, or not. I think I rather resent this idea that because of my sex, I am predisposed to viciously and violently carry out sexual attacks on others, and I think I’m going to have to side with Clementine Ford on the fact that this attitude does a disservice to boys.

But having that attitude is apparently beneficial to a lot of Australians, because they’re very upset that Ford is going to be a speaker at the Atheist Foundation of Australia‘s Global Atheist Convention in 2018. I’m glad she’s speaking there — atheists need that kind of wake-up call — but wow, you should see all the hatred for Ford sweeping out of Facebook and YouTube right now. How dare she confront male privilege and chastise not just bad actors, but also all the people who make excuses for them, people like…the people hating on Ford.

So, the anti-feminists have launched a campaign to boycott a bookstore stocking her book (they seem not to have decided to campaign against either atheism or Amazon, though), and are trying to fill the AFA’s facebook page with threats of violence.

Just on 10% of all comments (that have been also deleted) have included threats of physical violence by men against not just Clementine Ford but other women here. These have included suggestions of being raped and having throats slit, a women told to ‘sit on a knife’, called whores and sluts, retards and so on.

Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. But hey, as one person made note. The women here deserved the threats because they were feminists.

Wait, aren’t these the same people who usually howl about free speech and hate deplatforming and other such sins? Never mind…it’s OK, because they’re feminists.

The title of the 2018 Global Atheist Convention is “Reason to Hope”. I don’t see much reason to hope in the misogyny sector of atheism, but elsewhere I do — in particular, that the anti-feminists have become so cartoonishly villainous and stupid that maybe more people will understand why they are pariahs. The anti-feminist atheists were furious in their attacks on Atheism+, as they are now on Clementine Ford, but I think what they’ve accomplished is to drive much of mainstream atheism away and create little ghettos of hatred for themselves. Congratulations to them on successfully establishing Atheism!

new humanist blog

Could empathy do us more harm than good?

Today, it is taken as given that empathy is a driving force for good. But is reason a more useful and compassionate approach?

Anita Sarkeesian responds to the garbage humans

She has a fine statement on their fundamental dishonesty.

Now, he and his followers are acting as if me publicly calling him a “garbage human” is the equivalent to what he has done to me. In truth, he and his followers cannot begin to imagine what it is to have to constantly beg for and fight for your basic humanity in a culture that fundamentally refuses to acknowledge it. He cannot imagine what it is to spend years and years being the target of floods of harassment and hate, and then to still go out there and keep fighting. The companion of his who made that apology video I referenced earlier also tweeted that women are “powerful” enough to “deal with things like workplace harassment to rape.” As if power is in accepting a culture in which women are second-class citizens, in which misogyny and workplace harassment and rape are the norm. Fuck that. I’ll never settle for that. You’re damn right I’m powerful. After everything I’ve been put through by Carl and other men just like him, I’m still powerful enough to go out there and try to change it.

Just the fact that they’re trying to conceal their history and pretend to moral equivalence tells you that they’re a gang of smug goons.


It’s the Skepchick Sundaylies! Help Finding a Therapist and the Intentionality Fallacy

Sunday Funny: The Hard Limit of Outrage (via Wondermark)

Teen Skepchick

Guest Post – Trying to Get Therapy: Asking Questions Beyond “How Long Have You Been Practicing?”
Finding a therapist that is a good match for you can be hard. This guest post by Chihaya can help.

School of Doubt

The Intentionality Fallacy
Jay explains how the intentionality fallacy crops up in all areas of academia.

Featured image credit: JD Hancock via Flickr


Global Quickies: Vaccines in Europe, Evolution in Turkey, and Nazi-era Convictions Quashed

“The European Court of Justice has ruled that courts may consider vaccines to be the cause of an illness, even in the absence of scientific evidence confirming a link.”

“Germany’s parliament has voted to quash the convictions of 50,000 gay men sentenced for homosexuality under a Nazi-era law that remained in force after the second world war.”

“Turkey will stop teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in high schools. Secular Turks are alarmed that their country is taking an increasingly Islamist direction under President Erdogan’s authoritarian leadership.”

“Iran is refusing to implement UNESCO’s education agenda. The country’s religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, views it as a Western conspiracy. In doing so he’s discriminating against women and minorities like the Baha’i.”

“It is the second time that the former Chilean president Sebastián Piñera must apologize publicly for launching a macho joke.”

“Israeli airline employees cannot ask women to change seats to spare a man from having to sit next to them, a Jerusalem court ruled on Wednesday, handing down a groundbreaking decision in a case brought by a woman in her 80s.”

The death of a six-year-old boy with leukemia due to complications caused by measles has further inflamed a hot debate about vaccinations in Italy. The boy reportedly contracted the disease from older siblings that the family had decided not to vaccinate, even though the younger child’s immune system was compromised.”

“Tanzania’s President John Magufuli has been condemned for comments that girls who give birth should not be allowed to return to school.”

Featured image by torbakhopper


What the Media Gets Wrong About Children Dying of Gunshots

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Sorta transcript:

A truly heartbreaking study has just been published in the journal “Pediatrics” showing that the third leading cause of death for children in the US is gunshots. If you’ve spent any time in the US looking at the news, you’ll know that guns are a very serious problem here, with mass shootings so regular that there have been a few times this year when I’ve seen one reported and mistakenly assumed that it was one that had happened earlier in the day. In 2015 there were 372 mass shootings in the US, so yep — more than one per day on average.

Another fun fact: more Americans have died in the US from guns in the past 50 years than all American who have died in every war the US has ever fought for its entire history. See? Fun!

So this new statistic, that gunshots are the third leading cause of death in children, isn’t exactly surprising. But I want to talk about it because while it is terrible, the news outlets reporting on it are misleading in a way I find important to note.

For instance, over on Newsweek an article declares the study findings in the headline and then opens by pointing out the tragic deaths of four children who were accidentally shot with guns in June alone, and we’ve still got a week and a half of June left. All four kids are under the age of 9.

Here’s the issue: the study was about “children” as defined legally — under the age of 18. And it’s not just about accidental deaths — it includes murders and suicides. When you break down the actual categories, you see that the deaths of the children mentioned in the article actually account for less than 6% of cases.

Newsweek doesn’t link to the study although the entire thing is available in full on the Pediatrics website where you can see that the researchers broke the victims down into two age groups: 0-12 and 13-17. Though the older group should be significantly smaller considering it encompasses only 5 years of age as opposed to 13 years of age in the younger group, older kids accounted for 82% of all victims.

I’m not just nitpicking, here. The problem with portraying all these gun deaths as accidentally happening to small children means that people will get the wrong idea of how we might go about combatting it. If the majority of these deaths really were accidental deaths of small children playing with guns, the solution is simply investing in gun safety education for kids and for adults, making sure guns are locked up and emptied of ammo or only able to be used by the owner. I say “simply” but obviously in the US nothing involving gun control is simple thanks to the lobbyists at the NRA, but still, it’s a fairly straightforward plan.

But because the actual data shows the vast majority are teenagers who are being murdered or killing themselves, the solution becomes a multi-pronged one. We need to do the above (because there are still young kids accidentally killing themselves and others) and also we need to keep kids out of gangs, and we need to keep gangs out of neighborhoods. We need to fix underlying factors like poverty. And we need better access to psychological counseling for youth, especially those that are most at-risk and have access to guns.

And the thing is, the researchers say all that really clearly in their study, but it’s being overlooked because people care more about toddlers accidentally shooting themselves than poor 15-year old kids dying in gang shootouts. The latter is the greater problem, but it also requires the most complicated solution — and unfortunately, humans tend to prefer dramatic events with simple fixes.


Monsanto Doesn’t Cause Cancer!

Sorta transcript:

People hate Monsanto, mostly because they’re a huge corporation that has a lot of power over our food supply, and that scares people. It especially scares people because Monsanto deals with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which the average person doesn’t necessarily understand.

I happen to be in favor of genetic modification as it’s just a faster and more precise method of doing what humans have always done, which is breed plants and animals to be tastier and easier to eat. But even I hate Monsanto, because they’re a giant corporation that I think cares more about money than safety and education of the population, and their lobbyists will make sure they always get their way. While in general I think GMOs are safe, I don’t think it’s safe for an industry to have so much control over our politicians — especially when the industry is led by a corporation that was previously best known for creating and manufacturing a horrific chemical weapon that destroyed entire ecosystems and disabled a million people.

Despite that, I often defend Monsanto against people who launch spurious attacks about “frankenfoods,” aka GMOs. And now I have to do it again, because hundreds of people are suing Monsanto over claims that their pesticide, RoundUp (aka glysophate, which is no longer under patent), caused cancer. These lawsuits are based on the findings of a World Health Organization group called the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), who performed a meta-analysis and determined that RoundUp was a probable carcinogen in 2015.

The problem that was recently revealed by Reuters is that one of the scientists on that panel, Aaron Blair, actually withheld a large, well-done study that showed it was highly improbable that RoundUp was carcinogenic. The weirdest part? Blair was a lead author on the study he withheld, so it’s not like he didn’t know about it or thought it was poorly done. Blair admitted that if the study had been included in IARC’s analysis, they wouldn’t have branded RoundUp as a carcinogen.

IARC says that the study couldn’t be included because it hadn’t completed publication at the time of their recommendation, but that’s ridiculous — the study was done and only had to undergo peer review. Their panel is exactly the kind of peers who would be reviewing it, so all they had to do was take into consideration that it wasn’t peer-reviewed yet so they would have to go through the data with a more critical eye. If they had done that, they could have made a more accurate recommendation and saved a hell of a lot of trouble for the court systems now dealing with spurious lawsuits.

They’d also probably save a lot of pain for the people bringing these lawsuits. Cancer is complicated, and scary as hell, and so it doesn’t help to confuse people by giving them a convenient “bad guy” to blame. They may feel better in the immediate present, but at the end of the day they won’t know the cause of their cancer and they’ll have been dragged through a strenuous court process while fighting serious health problems.

Amazingly, the IARC says they have no plans to reconsider their designation. Meanwhile, glysophate is the most common herbicide in the world. The EU is deciding at the end of this year whether to continue to allow it. Let’s hope they don’t abide by the official designation offered by the normally trustworthy World Health Organization.

new humanist blog

Echoes of history at Europe's borders

Almost a century after a mass “exchange” of Muslim and Christian minorities, the Aegean coast sees a new wave of refugees.
school of doubt

The Intentionality Fallacy

If you lookup “intentionality fallacy” you’d probably find a lot of references to literature and other arts, since that is its usual context. We need to start talking about it in other things too. For example, everything.

In brief, the intentionality fallacy happens when you are trying to understand, interpret, or critique a work of art and you depend almost entirely (or totally exclusively) on “what the artist’s intention was.” I thought this book was a commentary on X, but the author said it was actually about Y so that’s the only correct way to look at it.

At first, it might not sound like a fallacy. Surely, we should consider a work’s intended meaning when we analyze it? Unfortunately, like all informal fallacies, the logic doesn’t hold up if you apply it to the majority of things, art or otherwise.

Think about those news bloopers that pop up on YouTube from time to time where a news reporter or meteorologist is drawing on a map and their drawing looks a whole lot like a penis. They were not intending to draw that, but it really looks like it to a lot of people. All of those people aren’t wrong in recognizing the same pattern, the fact that so many see the same thing indicates that there is something to see. In this case, it is pareidolia, but the fact that many people can clearly see something that was not intended to be drawn can’t be discounted. We can’t just say, “no, that’s not what your eyes are telling you because that’s not what the drawer intended to do.”

Recently, I’ve been seeing this fallacy a lot among teachers (I’m probably suffering from a version of the Frequency Illusion bias) and it seems insidious. I’ve been working with a rookie teacher a lot recently who often justifies some really bad choices with “Well, I was intending for this to…” As if a noble intention eliminates the fact that the students received no valuable development from a lesson or absolves one from criticism.

It is also a huge problem with assessment (yes I’ve made this basic point before). As an ESL teacher, I spend a lot of time looking at ESL tests. One of the biggest ones in the world is IELTS. It is intended to measure how closely to a native speaker a non-native English speaker’s ability is. However, native English speakers often struggle with it and score poorly on it. The design of it, intended for maximum fairness and accuracy, involves a listening portion which requires listening, reading, and writing simultaneously. Any problem in a student’s ability to read or write will automatically lower their listening score, as will any of a multitude of other factors that affect their ability to do this form of multitasking. The intention of IELTS doesn’t match the realities of the test. It also, despite claiming otherwise, often requires a level of background knowledge on certain (random) things and a test-taker’s score could be sabotaged by complete chance.

This problem is not unique to IELTS, and indeed may be true for most standardized tests (and most regular tests too). However, I don’t see nearly enough dialogue about the gap between intention and reality in these areas. It doesn’t mean we should disregard all intentions and always look only at the final product (that’s leaning towards the outcome bias), but we need to pay closer attention, especially in education, to seeing if effects really match intentions.

new humanist blog

Book review: Attrib. and Other Stories

Eley Williams' debut collection of short stories is joyfully experimental.
new humanist blog

The real consequences of misogyny on-screen

Sexual violence against women has become a staple of mainstream entertainment. It’s a worrying trend.
new humanist blog

‘‘Saying something is a miracle is a failure of imagination’’

Q&A with philosopher and scientist Daniel Dennett.
school of doubt

Why Schools Should Teach Critical Thinking (Final)

This is part five (the end) of a rebuttal to this article. Part one can be found here.

There are just two more points I need to address in Hendrick’s article before I am done with my rebuttal. I know, all two of you readers have been waiting with bated breath to see what I’d write next.

In my first post in this series, I mentioned that the very existence of the skeptical movement disproves Hendrick’s arguments that skills cannot transfer and that critical thinking (and dispositions in general) cannot be taught. I’ll elaborate with an anecdote.

The first time I was ever introduced to critical thinking in any real way, it was in a subject-specific situation — exactly what Hendrick thinks is the best way. I did learn to think critically about that subject very well, but just that subject. Years passed and I continued to believe a whole lot of nonsense because the only kind of critical thinking I knew how to do only came up when I was thinking about that subject. As Hendrick rightly argues, cognitive skills do not easily transfer.

Then, I downloaded a skeptical podcast, never having heard of the skeptic movement before. The podcast talked about a variety of different claims, involving: physics, history, biology, religion, chemistry, marketing, conspiracies, medicine, environmentalism, paranormality, and the supernatural. Each episode dealt with a really different subject, but the one common thread running throughout was that the host was applying critical thinking to all of them. The same critical thinking.

No matter what the claim was, or the specific subject, it could be analyzed using the same set of skills. There were underlying principles at play, such as “before investigating how something happened, first establish that it happened,” and “look for the original source of the information to see if it is reliable” and “consider multiple explanations before jumping to conclusions.” These, and many more, are general critical thinking skills that can be applied to any subject.

As I learned more about the skeptical movement, I discovered a diverse multitude of people who were applying (or trying to apply, because we can never escape our cognitive biases) these general critical thinking skills to a huge variety of situations and subjects. I saw that people without a background in astronomy could debunk UFO claims, non-biologists could dismantle intelligent design, and people who’d never cracked open a philosophy textbook could pick apart dogmatic arguments. They could do this because they had a set of generalized critical thinking skills. The same logical fallacy could exist in any domain, and one doesn’t need to be an expert in that domain to recognize it, one could be an expert in critical thinking instead.

Hendrick asserts that critical thinking is not a skill, by quoting Daniel Willingham:

critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.

If they are right, the skeptical movement really couldn’t exist. First, because its aims (at promoting “critical thinking”) would be self-contradictory. Second, because all the skeptics who do apply critical thinking to a wide variety of topics could not exist.

If this assertion is correct, and “critical thinking” is not a skill and cannot be taught:


The one thing that Hendrick gets right is that transfer is hard. Pretty much all educational research supports this. I was going to cite a bunch of articles here, but I realized that I may as well just point to the entire body of educational studies. This is a much bigger problem than the topic at hand, and it would probably need a serious reworking of the entire educational system to address (but that’s out of the question, because we clearly don’t want evidence-based policies).

The real problem that Hendrick failed to address is that teaching critical thinking is really, really hard. Instead of giving up after repeatedly telling students to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives”  and concluding that teaching general critical thinking skills is impossible (as Willingham says), perhaps we should try looking at the ones who actually succeed at it and look for ways to overcome the problem of cognitive biases.

sam harris

The Unraveling

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with David Frum about political partisanship, recent security leaks, Trump’s foreign policy, the Russia investigation, Kathy Griffin’s joke, and other topics.

David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic. In 2001–02, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

Twitter: @davidfrum

school of doubt

The Arts Will Save Us–If We Let Them

Those of you in academic and artistic circles have no doubt heard by this point that Donald Trump’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year involves the closure of both the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, along with several other cultural institutions. There are lots of reasons why this is a Bad Thing, not least of which is the fact that I am currently employed on a NEH grant project, and the agency’s closure will almost certainly materially affect not only my livelihood, but that of many, many other researchers and graduate students across a number of fields.

But I want to focus today on another angle of this issue that has not (to my knowledge) been a significant part of the conversation on funding for the arts and humanities. Bear with me, because it might at first seem like a bit of a leap. Ready? OK.

The robots are coming for our jobs. Perhaps you remember seeing this video by CGP Grey when it came out a couple of years ago:

The big question Grey raises toward the end of the video is: what are we humans to do when (and it is a matter of when) the automation of many kinds of jobs leads to mass unemployment in both the skilled and unskilled parts of the labour force. Sure, there will always be room for at least some humans to find gainful employment in a primarily automated economy, but it seems clear that there probably won’t be room for everyone to have a day job that pays the bills.

Widespread unemployment of this kind is both an economic and a social problem. Perhaps the most straightforward solution to the economic end of the problem is the institution of a Universal Basic Income for all those who have been more or less unwillingly ejected from the labour force, and the Province of Ontario is already experimenting with this very solution. But prolonged unemployment has all sorts of negative effects on health and wellbeing even when people’s basic material needs are being met.

This is why we need the arts.

While Grey is right that we can’t base an actual economy on poems and paintings, the fact remains that participating in arts and culture does give people something to do with all of that time they no longer spend working.

At its edges, Star Trek provides an excellent example of what a society with a near-fully automated economy might look like. With basic material needs taken care of, most average citizens of the Federation choose to pursue their interests and passions rather than labour or employment in the traditional sense. While there are still “professional” artists in the sense that a gifted few achieve widespread notoriety through their unusual talent, amateur artistic and cultural production is everywhere, and ranges from Capt. Picard’s noodling on his flute to more ambitious performances of Shakespeare plays on the Holodeck.

During my own extended period of un(der)employment following my PhD, I have been involved in quite a lot of amateur artistic endeavours. I sing in a choir. I perform stand-up comedy. I write. I occasionally tinker with the couple of video games I’m trying to develop.

All of these things could easily expand to fill 100% of my free time, and they probably would if I didn’t also have to keep working on my research in the hope of landing gainful academic employment somewhere. And to be honest, I would probably continue doing research even in a society freed from the economic necessity of labour, because I enjoy doing it. But it would be nice to have the choice, and it would probably be to everyone’s benefit if scholarship were no longer driven by the publish-or-perish model that arises out of the material necessity of employment and career advancement.

A time in which most people are freed from the necessity of labour could easily become a time of unprecedented amateur participation in arts and culture, but only if we as a society choose to support arts and culture. These things are valuable, and may become even more so quite a lot sooner than we think.


Featured image

sam harris

Meme #9

sam harris

The Road to Tyranny

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Timothy Snyder about his book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He received his doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1997, where he was a British Marshall Scholar. Before joining the faculty at Yale in 2001, he held fellowships in Paris, Vienna, and Warsaw, and an Academy Scholarship at Harvard. He has spent some ten years in Europe, and speaks five and reads ten European languages. He has also written for The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, The Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, and The New Republic as well as for The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, and other newspapers. He is a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He is the author of several award-winning books including The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. His latest book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction.

sam harris

Persuasion and Control

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Zeynep Tufekci about “surveillance capitalism,” the Trump campaign’s use of Facebook, AI-enabled marketing, the health of the press, Wikileaks, ransomware attacks, and other topics.

Zeynep Tufekci is a contributing opinion writer at the New York Times, associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science, and a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She is the author of Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.

sam harris

The Moral Complexity of Genetics

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Siddhartha Mukherjee about the human desire to understand and manipulate heredity, the genius of Gregor Mendel, the ethics of altering our genes, the future of genetic medicine, patent issues in genetic research, controversies about race and intelligence, and other topics.

Siddhartha Mukherjee is a cancer physician and researcher. He is an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and a staff cancer physician at the CU/NYU Presbyterian Hospital. A former Rhodes scholar, he graduated from Stanford University, University of Oxford (where he received a PhD studying cancer-causing viruses) and from Harvard Medical School. His laboratory focuses on discovering new cancer drugs using innovative biological methods. He has published articles and commentary in such journals as Nature, New England Journal of Medicine, Neuron and the Journal of Clinical Investigation and in publications such as the New York Times, The New Yorker, and the New Republic. His work was nominated for Best American Science Writing, 2000. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. His most recent book is The Gene: An Intimate History.

school of doubt

Why Schools Should Teach Critical Thinking (Part 4)

This is part four of a rebuttal to this article. Part one can be found here.

I’d like to move on now to my next point (don’t worry, I’m nearly finished with this series), that Hendrick appears to misunderstand what schools’ purpose is. He says:

Since the early 1980s, however, schools have become ever more captivated by the idea that students must learn a set of generalized thinking skills to flourish in the contemporary world — and especially in the contemporary job market. Variously called “21st-century learning skills” or “critical thinking,” the aim is to equip students with a set of general problem-solving approaches that can be applied to any given domain; these are lauded by business leaders as an essential set of dispositions for the 21st century. Naturally, we want children and graduates to have a set of all-purpose cognitive tools with which to navigate their way through the world. It’s a shame, then, that we’ve failed to apply any critical thinking to the question of whether any such thing can be taught.

To address his final point briefly: we have applied critical thinking to this question and produced a great deal of research on the very subject. As this is the topic of my next post, I won’t delve into it further here.

Now, if I take his criticism as valid, we shouldn’t have schools at all. In the history of education, schools have been a lot of different things and held a multitude of various purposes. What we have currently (in much of the world, at least) is a system of public education based on giving children the general set of skills that we think they will probably need to have in their lives and would benefit society by most people having. However, unlike “real life” our schools are divided into isolated subjects which are mostly taught in abstracted ways (there are few jobs that require one to write a “standard five paragraph essay” or solve a page of math problems by writing out long division). The goal is that these skills will be able to transfer to real-life situations outside of school.

They mostly don’t. Hendrick is right that there is a transfer problem (which I will discuss later as well) but wrong in assuming that “critical thinking” is a subject-specific topic. Yet, if we were to follow his suggestion and teach critical thinking exclusively as a subject-specific skill, we are virtually guaranteeing that it wouldn’t be able to transfer to other domains. By extension, Hendrick’s argument that we shouldn’t teach such generalized thinking skills implies that all the efforts of mainstream schooling are wasted and it would be more prudent to purely educate people in the specific subject they will work in (much like in the past).

It turns out, that’s not a good way to make a well-informed citizenry for a democracy to work properly. We need people to have generalized skills and diverse knowledge. The more subject-specific we go, the less transferability there is, and the problem of “what to teach” multiplies tremendously. Without the generalized skills (of which, as it turns out, there are plenty, and they can transfer) we have an immeasurable amount of very specific skills we would need to choose from, knowing that each would only apply to a very narrow kind of experiences.

Hendrick’s own examples suffer from this problem. A literature or physics student who only learns how to think critically in their specific subject will still encounter other things in life. Lacking the critical thinking disposition (except in a very narrow field) doesn’t do a whole lot of good when real life turns out to be much more complex and intermeshed than any single subject. As for whether a disposition can be taught, I’ll bring up the research in my next post.

school of doubt

Gender Studies “Hoax” Shockingly Reveals Scammy Vanity Journals Will Publish Nonsense

When Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay published their recent hoax article “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” in the journal Cogent Social Sciences, they clearly thought they had just majorly dunked on those Foucault-fellating nerds over in the Gender Studies department. “Ha-ha,” they no doubt said, in sing-song Nelson style, while pointing at the silly feminists who–fingers cramped and worn from their years of clutching both their pearls and their dog-eared copies of Gender Trouble fast to their keffiyeh-draped breasts–would no doubt now finally be forced to acknowledge the total vacuity and intellectual bankruptcy of their entire discipline. A Second Coming of Sokal, truly.

Michael Shermer was suitably breathless in his praise of the authors, writing as an introduction to their revelation of the hoax in Skeptic magazine:

Every once in awhile [sic] it is necessary and desirable to expose extreme ideologies for what they are by carrying out their arguments and rhetoric to their logical and absurd conclusion [sic], which is why we are proud to publish this expose [sic] of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed article [sic] today. It’s [sic] ramifications are unknown but one hopes it will help reign [sic] in extremism in this and related areas.

Of course, what Boghossian and Lindsay actually proved with their little stunt was something entirely unrelated and unsurprising to anyone working in academia today: scammy, exploitative, pay-to-play academic journals will publish literally anything in return for cold, hard cash.

Yes, as it turns out, you too can undermine an entire academic discipline and expose it as a large-scale fraud for the low, low price of $625. Contact the editors of your local vanity press today!

While Boghossian and Lindsay had indeed tried to publish their “nonsense” article in a real (albeit not especially prestigious) journal, NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, it got (unsurprisingly) rejected. They then responded to an automatically-generated email inviting them to submit to Cogent Social Sciences, which is sort of the academic version of a banker denying you a loan but giving you the business card of his cousin Joey, who operates his lending service out of a van in the parking lot.

The authors in fact dedicate a significant portion of their article in Skeptic to the problem of predatory open-access journals, and how they might have fallen into that trap:

One of the biggest questions facing peer-reviewed publishing is, “Are pay-to-publish, open-access journals the future of academic publishing?” We seem to have answered that question with a large red, “No!” […] There’s nothing necessarily or intrinsically wrong with either open-access or pay-to-publish journals, and they may ultimately prove valuable. However, in the short term, pay-to-publish may be a significant problem because of the inherent tendencies toward conflicts of interest (profits trump academic quality, that is, the profit motive is dangerous because ethics are expensive). […] Some pay-to-publish journals happily exploit career-minded academicians and will publish anything (cf: the famous Seinfeld hoax paper). Is that the case here?

It’s frankly astounding that, having raised the spectre of such a huge confounding factor in their “experiment,” Boghossian and Lindsay go on to essentially reject it out of hand with the flimsiest of arguments: that they were referred to Cogent Social Sciences by a seemingly legitimate outlet (despite the fact that what they actually received was a form letter that the parent corporation no doubt requires them to send with all rejections), and that the journal appears (perhaps mistakenly) on some curated lists of “reliable” open-access journals sponsored by a few organisations.

Note that nowhere in this process did they seem to ask anyone in the actual field in question what might be considered to be mainstream or reliable journals for publication on the topic of Gender Studies. Cogent Social Sciences is decidedly not a Gender Studies journal, but a (very) interdisciplinary one, publishing  on topics ranging “from law to sociology, politics to geography, and sport to communication studies.” This is not to say that there are no broadly interdisciplinary journals with very high editorial and review standards (hi there, Science and Nature!), but specialty journals are much more likely to have editorial boards with the relevant expertise to know what experts in the field would be appropriate to draft as reviewers of a given article.

Not that any actual peer review seems plausible in this case. As noted on the sidebar of article itself, it was submitted on April 17, 2017 and accepted for publication less than a month later, on May 11, and published only six days later, on May 17. That is an astonishing turnaround time. Could the review editor really have researched relevant experts, contacted them as potential referees, sent the article to those who accepted, had them all read it, comment on it, and send in their critiques…all within three weeks during what is normally about the busiest part of the spring academic term? I can’t believe I usually have to wait months to hear back from journals in my own field!

As one might expect, the review editor who shepherded “The Conceptual Penis” through the editorial process at Cogent Social Sciences, Jamie Halsall of the University of Huddersfield, seems to be a very busy man. He served as review editor for 39 articles with the journal in 2016, and 11 so far this year. While it’s true that sometimes universities give limited teaching relief to faculty for service to the profession, something tells me that Halsall is probably working for CSS on top of his other responsibilities as a faculty member. Even with all these responsibilities, he remains quite productive as a scholar, with fourteen publications out in just the last 18 months! I’m sure it’s just a mistake that Yvonne Xian-han Huang is listed as a co-author of his recent (and “peer-reviewed”) article in Cogent Education when she was actually the journal’s review editor. I’m also sure it’s totally normal to publish two articles in a journal while you’re working on the editorial board, which is also something he did while working on Cogent Social Sciences.

So as we can see, Boghossian and Lindsay are totally reasonable in dismissing the journal as the source of the problem, because an automatically generated email and two-minute Google search absolutely assured them of its legitimacy. Besides, it still got through peer review, and peer review is the infallible Gold Standard of All Truth. As they write:

…no one is arguing, nor has any reason to argue, that respectable journals like Nature and countless others have adopted a peer-review process that is fundamentally flawed or in any meaningful way corrupt. Much of the peer-review system remains the gold-standard for the advancement of human knowledge. The problem lies within a nebula of marginal journals, predatory pay-to-publish journals, and, possibly to some degree, open-access journals [But definitely not this one, guys! We totes checked! –ed.]…

Oh, wait. You mean even legitimate, respectable peer-reviewed scientific journals sometimes unwittingly publish frauds, hoaxes, gibberish, and unsubscribe requests [edit: oops, that last one was also a vanity journal, but it’s still a funny article so I’m leaving the link]? And that’s not even counting the well known problems baked into the peer-review system like publication bias and p-hacking?

Well now it just seems like they didn’t manage prove anything at all.

bad science

How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Robin Ince just asked if I know any epidemiologist lightbulb jokes. I wrote this for him. How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb? We’ve found 12,000 switches hidden around the house. Some of them turn this lightbulb on, some of them don’t; some of them only work sometimes; and some of them […]
bad science

“Transparency, Beyond Publication Bias”. A video of my super-speedy talk at IJE.

People often talk about “trials transparency” as if this means “all trials must be published in an academic journal”. In reality, true transparency goes much further than this. We need Clinical Study Reports, and individual patient data, of course. But we also need the consent forms, so we can see what patients were told. We need […]
bad science

You should totally watch this entire day of the IJE conference

Today marks the end of an era. The International Journal of Epidemiology used to be a typical hotchpotch of isolated papers on worthy subjects. Occasionally, some were interesting, or related to your field. Under Shah Ebrahim and George Davey-Smith it became like nothing else: an epidemiology journal you’d happily subscribe to with your own money, and read in […]
bad science

An audio interview with The Conversation, on smashing the walls of the Ivory Tower

The Conversation is a great media outlet, because it’s run by academic nerds, but made for everyone. I had a nice time chatting with them last week: we discussed transparency, data sharing, statins, research integrity, risk communication, culture shift, academic activism, and why we should kick through the walls of the ivory tower. Caution: contains nerds!
bad science

Sarepta, eteplirsen: anecdote, data, surrogate outcomes, and the FDA

The Duchenne’s treatment made by Sarepta (eteplirsen) has been in the news this week, as a troubling example of the FDA lowering its bar for approval of new medicines. The FDA expert advisory panel decided not to approve this treatment, because the evidence for any benefit is weak; but there was extensive lobbying from well-organised patients and, eventually, the FDA overturned the opinion of its own […]
richard dawkins foundation

James Shapiro goes after natural selection again (twice) on HuffPo - Jerry Coyne - Why Evolution Is True

I hate to give attention to my Chicago colleague James Shapiro’s bizarre ideas about evolution, which he publishes weekly on HuffPo rather than in peer-reviewed journals. His Big Idea is that natural selection has not only been overemphasized in evolution, but appears to play very little role at all.  Even though he’s spreading nonsense in a widely-read place, I don’t go after him very often, for he just uses my criticisms as the basis of yet another abstruse and incoherent post. Like the creationists whose ideas he appropriates, he resembles those toy rubber clowns that are impossible to knock down.  But once again, and for the last time, I wade into the fray. . .

In his post of August 12, “Does natural selection really explain what makes evolution succeed?” (the answer, of course, is “no”), Shapiro simply recycles some discredited arguments used by creationists against evolution. The upshot, which we’ve heard for decades, is the discredited idea that natural selection is not a creative process. I quote:

“Darwin modeled natural selection on artificial selection by humans. He ignored the inconvenient fact that human selection for altered traits has never generated a truly new organismal feature (e.g., a limb or an organ) or formed a new species. Selection only modifies existing characters. When humans wish to create new species, they use other means.”

This is the old canard that artificial selection doesn’t create “new features.”  His definition of a “new organismal feature” is, of course, one that hasn’t been generated by artificial selection, so it’s all tautological.  Of course we haven’t seen whole new organs or limbs arise in the short term, for people have been doing serious selection for only a few thousand years, and have not even tried to create new organs or limbs. But we can create a strain of flies with four wings, breeds of dogs that would be regarded as new genera if they were found in the fossil record, and whole new biochemical systems in bacteria.  Both Barry Hall and Rich Lenski, for example, have demonstrated the evolution of brand new biochemical pathways that have evolved to deal with new metabolic challenges. Now that is a “new organismal feature”!

Often new species are created by hybridization, but Shapiro forgets that that hybridization is often followed by either natural or artificial selection for increased interfertility of the new hybrid form, so it truly becomes an interbreeding population that characterizes a species.  And that, of course, gives a crucial role to selection, as it did in the experiments of Loren Rieseberg and his colleagues on hybrid sunflowers.

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richard dawkins foundation

Viewpoints: Why is faith falling in the US? - - - BBC News

A new poll suggests that atheism is on the rise in the US, while those who consider themselves religious has dropped. What's the cause? Two writers debate.

Thousands attended an atheism rally in Washington DC this March

Recently, researchers conducting a WIN-Gallup International poll about religion surveyed people from 57 countries.

The poll suggests that in the US, since 2005:

What's behind the changing numbers? Is the cause churches that chase modern trends at the expense of core beliefs? Or are those who have always been ambivalent about religion now less likely to identify as Christian? We asked two writers for their take.

Rod Dreher: Progressive churches fuel apathy

As a practicing Christian of the Hitchens sort (Peter, the good one), I welcome the news that more Americans are willing to identify as atheists. At least that clarifies matters.

I respect honest atheists more than I do many on my own side, for the same reason Jesus of Nazareth said to the tepid Laodicean church: "because you are lukewarm - neither hot nor cold - I am about to spit you out of my mouth".

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richard dawkins foundation

From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader - Robert F. Worth - New York Times

Late one night in early May 2011, a preacher named Jerry DeWitt was lying in bed in DeRidder, La., when his phone rang. He picked it up and heard an anguished, familiar voice. It was Natosha Davis, a friend and parishioner in a church where DeWitt had preached for more than five years. Her brother had been in a bad motorcycle accident, she said, and he might not survive.

DeWitt knew what she wanted: for him to pray for her brother. It was the kind of call he had taken many times during his 25 years in the ministry. But now he found that the words would not come. He comforted her as best he could, but he couldn’t bring himself to invoke God’s help. Sensing her disappointment, he put the phone down and found himself sobbing. He was 41 and had spent almost his entire life in or near DeRidder, a small town in the heart of the Bible Belt. All he had ever wanted was to be a comfort and a support to the people he grew up with, but now a divide stood between him and them. He could no longer hide his disbelief. He walked into the bathroom and stared at himself in the mirror. “I remember thinking, Who on this planet has any idea what I’m going through?” DeWitt told me.

As his wife slept, he fumbled through the darkness for his laptop. After a few quick searches with the terms “pastor” and “atheist,” he discovered that a cottage industry of atheist outreach groups had grown up in the past few years. Within days, he joined an online network called the Clergy Project, created for clerics who no longer believe in God and want to communicate anonymously through a secure Web site.

DeWitt began e-mailing with dozens of fellow apostates every day and eventually joined another new network called Recovering From Religion, intended to help people extricate themselves from evangelical Christianity. Atheists, he discovered, were starting to reach out to one another not just in the urban North but also in states across the South and West, in the kinds of places­ DeWitt had spent much of his career as a traveling preacher. After a few months he took to the road again, this time as the newest of a new breed of celebrity, the atheist convert. They have their own apostles (Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens) and their own language, a glossary borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous, the Bible and gay liberation (you always “come out” of the atheist closet).

DeWitt quickly repurposed his preacherly techniques, sharing his reverse-conversion story and his thoughts on “the five stages of disbelief” to packed crowds at “Freethinker” gatherings across the Bible Belt, in places like Little Rock and Houston. As his profile rose in the movement this spring, his Facebook and Twitter accounts began to fill with earnest requests for guidance from religious doubters in small towns across America. “It’s sort of a brand-new industry,” DeWitt told me. “There isn’t a lot of money in it, but there’s a lot of momentum.”

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richard dawkins foundation

Does this set a record for smug nastiness? - Richard Dawkins -

Tony Nicklinson died today. His appalling suffering is now at an end, no thanks whatsoever to our judges or our parliament. Obviously all decent people will feel glad for him, but I would add sorry that he failed to win a precedent that might benefit others. Indeed, it was precisely the fear of such a precedent that motivated the High Court to hand down its callous judgment. Let’s continue his fight for a more humane approach to the right to die.

In pursuing that fight, we need to take full measure of the opposition, where it is coming from, and in some cases the sheer depth of its unpleasantness. The article posted below was written before Tony Nicklinson’s death but after the High Court turned down his request to be allowed to die. The author, Richard Carvath, describes himself as a British Conservative political activist. I have never met him and have no wish to do so, nor had I previously heard of him. But I think his article could perform a useful service in laying out, clearly and relentlessly, the full extent of the nastiness of which people of his persuasion – we inevitably get to the love of Jesus before we are through – are capable. As often on the Internet today, you have to wonder whether it is satire, but on balance I am persuaded that this one isn’t. This is the real McCoy. Read it and marvel at the depths to which the human mind can sink, when its moral sense is sufficiently disabled by religion.
Richard Dawkins

For the Love of Tony Nicklinson

Richard Carvath

Poor old Tony Nicklinson.  His wife wants to kill him, his family want to kill him, his barrister wants to kill him, the mainstream media want to kill him, the euthanasia lobby want to kill him and a vociferous mob of Twitter followers want to kill him.  It’s enough to depress anyone to the point of despair.  In a recent tweet, Cheryl Baker (yes, she of 1981 Eurovision Bucks Fizz fame) seemed to sum up the general attitude of the misguided ‘Kill Tony’ mob when she wrote: “My heart cries for Tony Nicklinson.  If he was a dog there would be no ethical or moral decision to be made, just whatever is best for him.”  But Tony is not a dog.  Tony is a human being.  Last week, thankfully, Tony failed in his attempt to change the law which serves to protect us all from murder.  The upholding of the law was applauded by champions of justice and pro-life defenders of the disabled – and rightly so.  Tony Nicklinson isn’t terminally ill; he is severely physically disabled but he is not dying; Tony has a life to live.

There are many forms of human suffering and we each suffer something at least once in our lives: severe illness; injustice; betrayal; loneliness; poverty; unemployment; crime; childbirth; bereavement; unfair discrimination etcetera.  Sometimes our suffering is our own fault and sometimes it’s the fault of others.  Suffering is inevitable and what matters is how we respond to suffering.  Do we help ourselves or are we our own worst enemy?  Do we wallow in self-pity or do we resolve to think positively? 

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richard dawkins foundation

Missionaries of Hate - - - Top Documentary Films

Thanks to Mike for the link

Correspondent Mariana van Zeller travels to Uganda, where many question whether the growing influence of American religious groups has led to a movement to make homosexuality a crime punishable by death. As an anti-gay movement spreads across the continent, gay Africans and their families face an increasingly uncertain future of isolation, imprisonment or even execution.

The film makes it much easier to understand why the general Ugandan public is so eager to send their peers to jail. If the most prominent spiritual leader in your community made it his life purpose to convince you that there were people coming to eat your poop and recruit your children, you would be against them too. They are only hearing one side of the story and it is the origin of their information that is truly infuriating.

Although Ugandan leaders are deeply offended by the notion, the facts definitively show that American evangelists have played a central role in defining the nation’s hard line against sexual minorities. The documentary focuses on American evangelist Dr. Scott Lively, who is widely credited with installing the dominant notion that homosexuals are after your children.

Read more and see the full playlist