I have not been happy with the DNC, and haven’t been for years. It’s been a captive of the neo-liberal wing of the party, and is too corporatist and too conservative to win elections any more. And now there’s argument over who should run the show, either Tom Perez, the choice of the Obama/Clinton faction, or Keith Ellison, favored by the more progressive Sanders wing. They had a debate this week, but I did not pay attention — I know who I’d like to see in charge.
Ellison is black and Muslim, and as Mano points out, he’s been getting some rather bigoted push-back. Personally, I don’t care that he’s Muslim — if he weren’t, they’d be promoting a Christian, and I really don’t see a difference between the two. What matters to me is who is backing the candidates, and I’m a bit tired of billionaires dictating policy. So I’m with Mano, I’d rather see that connection broken with Ellison.
So when we say, correctly, that the Republican party is beholden to the wealthy, we should remember that the current ruling segment of the Democratic party is equally beholden. They just have different billionaires to please.
This is why the control of the Democratic party has to be wrested away from the Obama-Clinton neoliberal faction that has run the party into the ground by making it Republican-lite, and put in the hands of the Sanders faction.
I am supporting Congressman Ellison. If the DNC doesn’t elect him, I’m not so sure the party is serious about changing. Because the party structure itself has to regain its integrity. That is what’s so biting about what happened in 2016. Not just that Senator Sanders was not treated fairly, but that the structure that is the Democratic Party lost integrity.
We have to acknowledge that. Berniecrats deserve an apology. The sins must be confessed and whoever is the next leader must say very clearly that what happened to Senator Sanders in the primary will never happen to anybody again, whether they’re running for Dog Catcher or President of the United States. That the DNC, by its own bylaws, will be neutral in a primary. That no bodies, no fingers, no thumbs will be placed on the scale. There needs to be a healing within the Democratic Party.
We have to go and get the people who were not necessarily diehard Democrats but who started to believe because of the candidacy of Senator Sanders. But in order to get them, the Party must show it learned its lesson. And that the leadership will change and that every person who works for the DNC understands very clearly what their role is. The D should matter. It shouldn’t just be some letter or symbol that automatically gets you elected.
We lost our way in 2016 and we lost the election because of it. Let’s face it: we’ve been losing statewide and legislative elections since 2009. It’s not just about the President but the State Senators and State Reps and Governors and Secretaries of State and auditors and Attorneys General. And we have to stop talking about off-year elections. There’s no such thing. Every single year there is an important election and we need people to come out and vote, and to run and to care. And we need elected officials to do what is necessary to change the lives of the people who elected them. They need to stop whispering sweet nothings into voters’ ears every time it’s time to run, but then are nowhere to be found when it’s time to put up.
The pattern established with Bill Clinton has to be broken. It’s not working, especially not when people are finding little to distinguish between generic Democrats and generic Republicans (the current crop of R’s are anything but generic, though — they are exceptionally Republican).
Time for another reflection on my mundane week of teaching. I know this is unexciting, but I’m trying to be self-aware about what I’m doing in the class.
I’ve already summarized some of what I did this week: we explored the meaning of “epigenetics”, and I made a big push to get them to think critically about the papers we’re reading. They’re supposed to be developing a topic they’ll explore independently, so I’ve had them doing library work to find a line of research they find interesting, and master the skill of extracting the key questions the work is trying to address. I’ve got a small stack of short papers that I’m going to read this weekend and we’ll see how well they can do that.
We also discussed symbiotic interactions in development, and next week the topic is other environmental effects. They are getting much, much better at opening up and talking at the miserable hour of 8am.
The other regular highlight of my week is FlyDay, when I have to scrub dead maggots and pupae out of fly bottles. I had to postpone FlyDay this week! Yesterday I was scheduled to meet with students and parents visiting the university to confirm their plans to attend, and I was all spiffed up in a nice suit, which isn’t the best thing to wear when one is flicking bits of chitin and gooey medium around. I went in early this morning to scrub bottles and get them cooking in the autoclave.
By the way, at that student meeting I was the official biology representative, and although biology is currently the largest major on campus, almost no one stopped by to talk to me. It might have been my terrifying glare, or my sciencey reek, but no: it was because there was a separate table for the pre-professional programs (pre-med, pre-vet, pre-dental, etc.). This is a minor peeve of mine: this is not 19th century England. You do not graduate from your public school education and go straight into medical school — no, here in 21st century America you get a broad-based undergraduate education first, and then you apply to med school. You should be thinking about your liberal arts education first, and in a couple of years we’ll start coaching you on how to get into those professional programs.
Oh, well. They ignore me now, but I know that I’ll get my claws on most of them soon — they’ll want all those bio classes to prep them for the MCATs.
I should mention that I am teaching another course beyond ecological development — I’m teaching a lab course on transmission genetics. They’ve been doing crosses with flies all semester long, and we’re getting to an interesting point.
The first half semester we’re doing a mapping cross, using recombination to estimate the distances between a couple of genes on the X chromosome. We’re using flies that are mutant for eye color (white, w), wing length (miniature, m), and bristle morphology (forked, f), and I’ve also got a few groups mapping body color (yellow, y), wing veins (crossveinless, cv) and forked, f; the latter are doing a pilot test to see if I want to add that cross to our regular repertoire.
The way this works is that they are given wild type and triple mutant flies. I first have them raise a new generation of the purebred stock, simply to get a little practice in sexing flies and basic skills in growing them. So they first do these crosses:
♀w– m– f–/w– m– f– x ♂w– m– f–/Y
which produces bottles full of homozygous white-eyed, miniature-winged, forked-bristled flies, and
♀w+ m+ f+/w+ m+ f+ x ♂w+ m+ f+/Y
which produces bottles full of homozygous wild type flies.
Then I have them do a reciprocal cross of flies from the two bottles. These are X-linked traits, so it matters which strain is the mother and which the father, and I want them to see that. That is, they cross wild type females to triple mutant males, like so:
♀w+ m+ f+/w+ m+ f+ x ♂w– m– f–/Y,
which produces progeny that are all wild type, both male and female (they all inherit the dominant wild type allele at all loci from their mothers). After they’ve scored the flies from this cross, we dispose of them all and don’t think any further about them.
They also cross mutant females to wild type males, like this:
♀w– m– f–/w– m– f– x ♂w+ m+ f+/Y.
That has the useful result that all the sons inherit w– m– f– from their mother and a Y chromosome from their father, so they all express the mutant phenotype. The daughters, however, are all heterozygous, inheriting the mutant alleles from their mother and a wild type chromosome from their father, so their genotype is:
♀w– m– f–/w+ m+ f+
Now the fun begins. Meiotic recombination in those flies will rearrange the +’s and -‘s in those chromosomes with a frequency dependent on their distance from one another — you’ll get less recombination between genes that are close to one another.
This week, they completed the reciprocal cross and got their heterozygous females and mutant males. Yay! That worked. They are now setting up a test cross to assess recombination frequencies.
I just want to say that I think I planned everything perfectly. That test cross will be ready to score next week, which is the week before spring break, which means we’ll have the data for all the calculations before they leave, and when they get back, I’ll be able to lead them through all the theory. It also means I’ll be able to purge a lot of fly bottles and get them scrubbed up over the break (you can tell already that I have glamorous plans for my short vacation). Trust me, though, this is good — there have been semesters where, due to student error, the flies haven’t been ready, and then my spring break is spent maintaining 120 bottles of student flies.
It also means we can launch into the next experiment as soon as they get back: we’re going to do a complementation cross between two eye color mutants, brown eye (bw) and scarlet eye (st). If I’ve got this one all timed out correctly, we’ll be getting F2 results of crosses between heterozygotes for both loci a week before the end of classes.
Now you know. I choreograph fly sex for my convenience.
Next up, I have to choreograph my schedule. It turns out I have been summoned to Howard Hughes headquarters on 8 March and 18 April, which punch big holes in my planned lessons, and which I hadn’t accounted for in my syllabi. I’m going to have to juggle lectures and exams and rearrange the order of various things in a big way this coming week.
“In July last year Makonda had already announced a crackdown against gays, followed by arrests in clubs. Now Deputy Health Minister Hamisi Kigwangalla has spoken of a more drastic move. He wants to publish a list of gay people. This coincides with the suspension by the health ministry of AIDS-related services at around 40 privately-run health centers after they were accused of providing services to homosexuals.”
SAUDI ARABIA (From CriticalDragon)
“Saudi Arabia hosted its first comic convention over the weekend, marking a turning point in acceptance of Western entertainment and comic books, as well as showing evolving social norms. […]At the comic con, women kept on their traditional abayas, even if they were wearing costumes. There was a private women’s-only tent where they could show their costumes to other women.”
The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.
Those are lies. What we want, at real universities, is for our students to question everything intelligently. I just gave my class an assignment to critically analyze a paper — to read it specifically with a mind to finding flaws and developing arguments and tests to evaluate its validity. That’s standard practice.
DeVos attended Calvin College. I’d really like to know what classes she took that failed to give her an education.
There is a lot that is wrong in the world today, and this is far from the worst problem. But it has been bugging me for several months now: my old university sells homeopathic medicine in its drugstore.
Most readers of the Skepchick Network will know what homeopathy is, but I didn’t until a few years ago. Basically, it is a type of “alternative medicine” based on the principle of “like cures like” and involves the intake of ingredients that are so diluted that they are no longer harmful—or useful. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that homeopathy works, but it continues to be a big business, including on my old school’s campus. And I know it is not alone. Another school I have visited recently, a technical college, advertises “auricular acupuncture to reduce cravings associated with addictions and withdrawal from drugs, alcohol, smoking, or food. Other benefits include reduced anxiety, better sleep, immediate calming, and improvements in physical, mental, and emotional outlook.” I have more respect for acupuncture than I do for homeopathy, but the scientific evidence nevertheless says that it does not work, and that all of these advertised claims are bunk.
So why do I care so much? People buy quack medicine all the time; why should a university community be any different? Well, they aren’t, in the grand scheme of things. But universities and colleges are supposed to be places where people can learn about science, places that produce science, and even places where people live a scientific life. I’d start spouting off phrases such as “life of the mind” and “community of thinkers,” if I didn’t think that everyone would cringe. Surely, selling homeopathic medicine and other alternative medicines communicates, however subtly, that these medicines are not only effective, but in fact endorsed by academia? And that their sale is morally unquestioned? That is my real issue with the sale and promotion of alt-med on campus: the implied endorsement from the institution. Notably, the aforementioned acupuncture sessions are promoted by the college itself, and the posters advertising the sessions carry the branding of no fewer than five of the college’s administrative departments. If groups of students want to set up Reiki practice sessions or homeopathy-sampling clubs, they have every right to do so, as far as I am concerned. But official academic institutions, at least ones teaching evidence-based medicine and not its so-called alternatives, should hold themselves to a higher standard.
Even if we acknowledge that campus drugstores selling alternative medicine is a problem, is there anything that we can do about it? The answer to that depends on who runs the drugstore. Some are run by the school itself, but some are operated by private companies that merely rent space from the school or from the student union. Some are a combination of all the above. Now, like it or not, private companies have a right to sell homeopathic junk. Putting pressure on a school, or even a student union, to act on one of its tenants opens up a can of worms. There is a legal document (the lease) involved, and critics might say that it fits the pattern of ~~POLITICAL CORRECTNESS~~ on campus. (Wares are not speech, but I don’t trust critics to catch that nuance). However, it’s a different matter for businesses or programs that are run directly by the school or student union. There, faculty members and/or students have a voice, and can push administrators to change. It is harder for business matters than for academic matters (which are difficult enough to budge), but it can happen.
Now, as I said above, I have no problem with individual community members practicing alternative medicine on campus. And I fully realize that there are bigger problems in the world. Indeed, for all I know, I am overstating this problem. While some of the campuses I have visited over the past year (hardly a scientific survey) have featured alt-med prominently, others have not. Some campus drugstores I checked out had dubious herbal medicines, but nothing as bad as homeopathy. So, I am curious: does your campus sell or otherwise promote alternative medicine? And do you think it is a problem that should (ethically and strategically) be addressed? Please let me know in the comments!
Way back in the dim, distant past, before YouTube and publicly accessible digital media, two of my friends, Don Kane, now at Western Michigan University, and Rolf Karlstrom, now at Amherst, made a video of zebrafish development. This was in 1992. It was on VHS tape. (If you don’t know what that is, ask your grandparents).
Then in 1996, a whole issue of Development was dedicated to zebrafish development and genetics, and they translated that tape into modern technology: a flip book. The top right corner of the issue featured one frame of the video, so you could flip through it and see a nice little timelapse. Like this:
Isn’t that quaint?
Sadly, I have not been able to find a copy of the flip book transported to the convenient medium of youtube (maybe I can find my copy of the file and upload it, but that thing was over 20 freaking years ago, so it may take me a while to excavate it), but at least there’s a version available via facebook, as facebook reminded me today.
I routinely make better videos than that one now, but it’s because I’ve got hi-res digital video cameras and fancy software — just remember that historical flip book was made off of VHS tape and edited by hand frame by frame. It’s really a vast improvement over the prior version, which was chiseled on slabs of sandstone and mounted in a row, so you had to run past them very fast to get the animation effect.
Also, the subject didn’t get much reward or glory, and probably ended up going down a drain in Eugene, Oregon.
No where is this better illustrated than in this chart:
The source is given as the Council for Affordable Health Coverage, a group lobbying for more competition in health insurance as a way to lower costs, despite years of evidence that this approach makes health care more expensive and completely out of reach for millions of Americans–except, of course, for those who died from lack of affordable care.
Perhaps letting the sickest among us die is the GOP master plan for manipulating the risk pool to bring down costs. Or perhaps the ACA really did fail to cover treatment for a selective amnesia epidemic among GOP politicians and lobbyists. Maybe this chart and the laughably bad policy brief it appears in are really just a cry for help.
That would certainly explain the blatant misrepresentation in this chart, to make the columns look hugely different in size by conveniently omitting y-axis info so no one would notice that the columns don’t start at zero. Here’s what these numbers actually look like:
Not to mention that neither chart shows what the original table title promises, to demonstrate that “Obamacare Costs Families More.” More than what? A year’s supply of Band-aids and aspirin? The chart doesn’t compare years under the ACA to the years before. There’s a reason for that, of course. Out-of-pocket costs were rising at a higher rate before ACA than they are now.
The GOP policy brief cites a Kaiser Family Foundation report, “2016 Employer Health Benefits Survey,” for the statistics in the brief, a report that demonstrates clearly that for every rise in costs cited by the GOP to criticize ACA, the costs were rising at the same rate or even higher and faster before ACA was implemented.
For example, the brief cites a rise in employer-sponsored family coverage premiums of $4,300 between 2010 and 2016. The rise between 2003 and 2009? $4,300. (Note that these numbers are for the premium totals for both employer and employee contributions. Employee annual premium costs rose $1,280 between 2010 and 2016 and $1,103 between 2003 and 2009, a difference that actually reflects employers on average choosing to pay a slightly smaller percentage of employee premiums. Many decisions related to employer-sponsored coverage rest more with employers than with the ACA, which is probably why the data cited from the KFF are oddly centered on employer coverage.)
Despite the extraordinary efforts of the GOP to manipulate and cherry-pick data in an attempt to portray Obamacare as a disaster, they are simultaneously demonstrating that for all the ACA’s flaws (and the ACA is definitely flawed), it is a vast improvement on the previous health insurance system, the system that the GOP and groups like the CAHC are basically pulling out of the trash and attempting to regift to us.
Published by Melanie Mallon
on Fri 24 Feb 01:13:41
Homeopathic remedies harmed hundreds of babies, families say, as FDA investigated for years – “Over a 10-year period, from 2006 to 2016, the FDA collected reports of “adverse events” in more than 370 children who had used Hyland’s homeopathic teething tablets or gel, a similar product that is applied directly to a baby’s gums. Agency records show eight cases in which babies were reported to have died after taking Hyland’s products, though the FDA says the question of whether those products caused the deaths is still under review.”
Margaret Sanger Regularly Published Letters From Women Pleading For Abortions – “Whenever Sanger is mentioned, it is worth remembering that she was a proponent of eugenics (which some debate is decontextualized from the cultural norms of the time) and also that she was firmly against abortion. Her anti-abortion stance is important, because unlike many anti-choice proponents of modern times, Sanger believed that birth control and education was a way to prevent women from terminating unwanted pregnancies, rather than treating contraception as ‘abortion lite.’ “
Counter Lies with Emotions, Not Facts – “In fact, by trying to stem the tide of untruths, we were probably making everything worse. Repeating a falsehood, even as part of a meticulously researched article that debunks it, actually reinforces the falsehood; the human brain seems to experience fact-checking as a statement followed by a bunch of Charlie Brown teacher noises.”
Today’s Feminism: Too Much Marketing, Not Enough Reality – “Akin to the debate over white privilege, the debate over feminism is similarly stuck in a binary construct, largely defined in middle- or upper-middle class white-lady contexts. Variations exist along generational lines: see the Lena Dunham crowd contrasted against the Steinem wing. But the marketing of modern feminism, and the oxygen-sucking place it holds in the public imagination, is largely occupied by white women.”
I told my doctor I didn’t want kids. She sent me to a therapist. – “The gynecologist’s condescending smile faded slightly. She wanted to know why I was in such a rush. Why I had come into her office only a week after reaching the minimum age legally required to ask for sterilization without the intervention of social services. ‘You will still be able to have this procedure at age 30 or 35.’ “
Why can 12-year-olds still get married in the United States? – “Unchained At Last, a nonprofit I founded to help women resist or escape forced marriage in the United States, spent the past year collecting marriage license data from 2000 to 2010, the most recent year for which most states were able to provide information. We learned that in 38 states, more than 167,000 children — almost all of them girls, some as young 12 — were married during that period, mostly to men 18 or older.”
Geneticist George Church is telling news outlets that he’s just two years away from reintroducing the extinct wooly mammoth back to Earth. Gosh, this sounds so familiar but I can’t quite put my finger on why. Could it be because this isn’t the first time we’ve heard this claim?
If you’ll recall, waaaaay back in 2011 a scientist at Kyoto University announced that HE was going to bring back the wooly mammoth within five years. Let’s see, quick back-of-the-envelope math here, carry the one…oh my, five years ago was 2016! So it must have already happened, and Church didn’t even realize! Boy is his face going to be red.
The Kyoto researcher is Dr. Akira Iritani, and some quick Googling led me to the horrific discovery that he has failed to produce a wooly mammoth within five years as promised. He was going to use a technique in which a mouse was cloned from 16-year old frozen tissue, and he was weirdly confident that that trick would work on tissue that’s been frozen for 4,000 years and no longer has a living female member of the species to carry an embryo to term, which would then require an elephant to be the surrogate.
That apparently isn’t working, so Church is attempting to get a mammoth by going the other way — not by starting with mammoth genetic material and putting it in an elephant, but by taking elephant genetic material and tweaking it to look like mammoth genetic material. He’s way more confident than Iritani, because he thinks he’s going to have a little baby mammoth in two years. As I stated many years ago when Iritani first hit the news, I simply cannot wait for my utopian future full of baby mammoths wearing jetpacks.
Over on Medium, John Hawks does a great job of explaining several of the ways in which we will not enjoy that future in two years. He points out that Church has edited 45 elephant genes to be more wooly mammothy, which means Church only has another 4,000 to go. Yikes.
Hawks also answered my main question with Church’s two-year plan — if you want an elephant to give birth to a baby mammoth in two years, you’d better be getting that elephant pregnant right the fuck now, because elephants have a 22-month gestational period. Plus you’d better be getting tons of elephants pregnant, like a serious elephant orgy, because the cloning failure rate is ridiculously high and you’re going to have to sort through a lot of half-formed mutant babies before you find your mammoth.
Hawks points out that that’s because Church doesn’t actually plan to get the mammoth to term — he only wants to make an embryo, which will happen faster but won’t actually show all the wooly mammoth traits that he’s editing the genes to produce, so we won’t actually know how much of a success it is.
There are other problems with the story, so check out Hawks’ full breakdown. Apologies to everyone who, like me, was looking forward to a more mammothy 2019, but we’ll probably have more success knitting fuzzy sweaters for elephants.
To end on a positive note, I got curious and wanted to see if I could find photos of elephants wearing sweaters. Delightfully, I found an elephant rescue in India that gets volunteers to knit sweaters for their weakened elephants to be more comfortable in the cold winter. It’s pretty much the greatest thing ever. Sometimes humans are okay.
Published by Rebecca Watson
on Tue 21 Feb 20:35:00
Ladies, are you sick and tired of dealing with your periods? Does being a woman make you too stupid to fix the problem of your uterine lining sloughing out of your body once a month? Well, good news! A male chiropractor has invented the product that will finally free us from the tyranny of tampons: it’s glue, so you can literally glue your stupid vagina shut.
First of all I want to make it very clear that this is not a joke. Dan Dopps, a chiropractor from Witchita Kansas, has a patent and is actively promoting this product on Facebook. The product doesn’t appear to actually exist yet, but since when does that stop any quack from trying to make money?
Second of all, I want to point out that Dopps’ own brother, Brad Dopps, who is also a chiropractor, says that Dan is “insane.” Normally that would mean I wouldn’t talk about any of this, but screw it. I’m sick of talking about politics and Dan is a woman-hating asshole marketing possibly fraudulent and most assuredly dangerous pseudoscientific garbage. So let’s discuss it.
Dopps calls his company “Mensez.” It may be pronounced “Men-seez” but really, is there anything more fitting for an idiotic product marketed to women by a man who has no idea what he’s doing than calling it “Men-sez”?
The product in question is a glue stick. Dopps wants women to smear it on their labia in order to shut the blood and tissue inside. In his imagination, the glue would come un-stuck when exposed to urine, so simply peeing would open up the vagina and allow all the materials to come out. He compares it to waking up with your lips (on your face) stuck shut and needing to wet them with saliva from the inside to unstick them. That’s never happened to me, but okay. So you pee, all the blood and tissue comes out, and then you reapply the glue. Ta-da! Our menstrual woes are over.
You may have already thought of several problems with this. For a start, women don’t pee out of our vaginas. The urine would unglue the labia at the urethra, but then it would need to work its way over to the vagina in order to work. What if a few messy drops of urine on the outside aren’t enough to disengage the glue? Do you pry your vagina open with a butter knife?
There’s also the issue of putting a foreign substance anywhere near your vagina and then sealing it in. The vagina is a remarkable, self-cleaning instrument, but only if you don’t, you know, stick mysterious manmade chemicals into it and then seal it off. That’s a recipe for yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis, which can lead to even more serious problems like infertility.
You may have noticed I referred to Dobbs as a woman-hater, and that may be confusing. After all, he’s trying to solve a problem for women! Well, over on his company’s Facebook page, he has responded to early criticism with the following screed:
“I am a man and you as a woman, should have come up with a better solution then diapers and plugs, but you didn’t. Reason being women are focused on and distracted by your period 25% of the time, making them far less productive then they could be.”
By “diapers” he’s referring to pads, by “plugs” I assume he means tampons, and by “distracted by your period 25% of the time” he means he’s never actually met or talked to a woman.
If he had, he would know several things. First, that pads and panty liners are nothing like diapers, and that now we can get underwear that does that job perfectly anyway. Second, he’d know that menstrual cups exist for women who don’t like using tampons. They keep material inside until you go to the bathroom, without gluing your vagina shut.
Third, he’d know that blood coming out of our bodies is but one relatively minor inconvenience associated with menstruation. I’m loathe to bring this up, but has he heard of period shits? Thanks to a number of factors, pooping becomes a total hassle on your period: the uterus presses against the colon, and hormones can fluctuate in a way that leads to constipation and diarrhea.
Now that he knows about period shits, I assume he’ll start working on a way to glue the anus shut for a few days at least.
In the meanwhile, he’s taken down the company Facebook page, probably due to the flood of mockery that’s being visited upon him. The evil part of me hopes that he doesn’t give up and maybe goes on Shark Tank to get funding, just so I can see him mocked in front of a larger audience. But I know that even the most obviously ridiculous and dangerous quackery will attract a few eager customers, so it’s probably best to just hope that Dopps gives up on Mensez and goes back to his other patents for bottle caps and resealable snack bags.
Published by Rebecca Watson
on Mon 20 Feb 20:22:48
An Education Reform Report produced by the Council for National Policy recommends that the dismantling of the U.S. Department of Education be dissolved, promotion of religious education and homeschooling,promote religious schools and home schooling, and enshrining of “historic Judeo-Christian principles” as a basis for instruction. The group has close ties to chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Call for submissions for science educators: The Seventh Annual Evolution Video Competition wants your entry explaining “a fun fact, key concept, compelling question, or exciting area of evolution research in three minutes or less.”
In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris answers questions from listeners about his conversation with Jordan Peterson, the reaction to Milo Yiannopoulos at U.C. Berkeley, the “Muslim ban,” the echo chamber of social media, Trump’s lies, the value of the humanities, the ethics of ending aging, whether consciousness can be an illusion, evolution and morality, free speech and other topics.
Recently I’ve been familiarizing myself with Richard Paul’s work on critical thinking and reviewing some of the scientific literature on it. After reading the recent Stanford Study I realized I needed to step up my game when it came to teaching critical thinking.
A definition seemed like a good place to start, and there are certainly plenty, but it turns out that there’s also an important distinction to be made right from the get go: critical thinking in the strong sense and critical thinking in the weak sense.
This distinction is a core part of Paul’s work and I would strongly recommend reading what he wrote on it (and on critical thinking in general) to get a better understanding, but here’s a TLDR version.
Critical thinking in a strong or weak sense is primarily a matter of disposition. Both types imply a knowledge of critical thinking skills and the ability to apply them. Weak sense critical thinkers tend to apply their critical thinking skills to their opponents only. These are the people who are quick to point out the logical fallacies or cognitive biases in others without ever looking for them in themselves. These are the people who apply their critical thinking skills selectively, and use them to support, rather than reconsider, their sacred cows. These are the people we inadvertently create when we give our students the tools without explaining why we should use them on ourselves most of all.
Strong sense critical thinkers, on the other hand, are probably what we would call good skeptics. They spend a lot of time and effort hunting for their own sacred cows and can question their own deeply-held beliefs. Paul also described strong sense thinkings as having the ability and willingness to steelman their opponents arguments (though he doesn’t use the term steelmanning). The strong sense also implies a “multilogical” approach where the thinker actively weighs their own point of view against their opponents to find out if their own position is actually weaker.
It seems obvious that teaching students in the strong sense would be better. However, it requires fostering a reflective critical disposition in the students that isn’t easy on any level, because “thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better” (Paul, R.) is really hard. Still, we can try.
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 […]
In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris and Joseph Goldstein answer questions about the practice of mindfulness. They discuss negative emotions, the importance of ethics, the concept of enlightenment, and other topics.
Welcome to a VERY belated edition of Required Readings. Quite honestly, once I hit the winter break (I work for a system where campuses are closed between Christmas and New Year’s, paid even), I mentally and physically crashed. Not to mention that I have been completely speechless at what has been happening over the past few weeks.
Let’s start with probably the largest issue of relevant to RR: Betsy DeVos, the nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education. After a rather fraught confirmation hearing, the vote on her confirmation was postponed until Tuesday, January 31. Among the issues of concern are her financial ties to education-related companies and campaign contributions to Senators who will be voting on her nomination.
Last month, I was reading an article written by (or at least attributed to) the Canadian columnist Margaret Wente entitled “The radicals have taken over: Academic extremism comes to Canada.” It’s a fairly standard take down of campus anti-racist, feminist and pro-LGBTQ politics, but I was interested in how it conflated all that with Marxism and how it suggested that this is a new phenomenon. This got me thinking: maybe the reason why we such see such panic over “P.C. culture” (or whatever you want to call it) is because we have lost touch with the history of campus activism. This, in turn, leads to a poor vocabulary when it comes to criticizing contemporary student radicals (something that I myself very rarely feel the urge to do, but many columnists make their living off of it). In the interests of getting both supporters and critics on the same page, and in the spirit of encouraging dialogue, here (in no particular order) are some books (and one movie) that are worth reading (and watching) for their nuanced looks at campus activism.
Hanif Kureishi, The Black Album (1995)
Like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a book that plays a huge role in Kureishi’s novel, this story is about Muslim newcomers to Britain torn between Britain’s secular culture and the desire to retain a unique identity through religion. The protagonist’s fixation with a charismatic but increasingly extreme Muslim leader (who is genuinely helpful to his flock) will probably confound and irritate most secular readers. Despite this—actually, because of this—it is an eye-opening account of “identity politics” in a working-class London college in the eighties. My favourite character is the hard-left, secular professor who is unable to stand up for himself in his career and personal life, and ends up enabling the worst instincts of the charismatic religious leader. The novel takes for granted that Thatcher is bad and that drugs are good (at least in moderation), and is clearly targeted at the Left. But the Left may not always like what it has to say!
Thomas Pynchon, Vineland (1990)
This book wasn’t what I thought it would be about. But though I was disappointed not to find a story about North American Vikings, I was pleasantly surprised to find what feels like the novelization of the movie that would have resulted if Quentin Tarantino directed The Big Lebowski. We begin with the lovable stoner Zoyd Wheeler, trying to do right by his daughter Prairie, who looks at her father with the chagrin that many 80s teenagers must have looked at former hippies. But when anti-drug agents virtually invade the pleasant town of Vineland, California, Zoyd and Prairie are forced to separate and flee. During her flight, Prairie learns about her mother’s history in a drug-fueled hippy takeover of a university, and how it led to the Reaganite conquest of Vineland decades later. The youth of today would do well to learn about Prairie’s family, too, not in the least because it does not hesitate to skewer all sides, does not offer any illusory solutions, and yet does not skimp on compassion. Plus, a Ninja Death Touch plays a key role.
J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (1961)
This book is actually a short story and a novella. The novella addresses what happened in the short story. That story is Franny’s. Franny is a sharp undergrad who, like Holden Caulfield before her, is sick and tired of society’s phonies. She condemns the materialistic status-seekers among her and recognizes that the backlash offered by “bohemians” (“hippy” being a concept still in its infancy in 1961) is just another form of conformity. She has a nervous breakdown during the weekend of a big college game, scares away her boyfriend, and goes back home to recuperate. In the novella that follows we learn that she has turned to religion, clutching an unorthodox Christian book and reciting its mysterious prayer under her breath. Much of the rest of the book is her more world-weary brother Zooey giving some advice. That doesn’t sound very exciting (or feminist!), but Zooey’s point is worth reading. Zooey is sympathetic to Franny’s anti-phony stance, but is concerned that her obsession with the prayer is bordering on a sort of extremism. His advice, put simply, is that nobody is perfect, and using esoteric knowledge against other people is dangerous.
Although the themes are more spiritual than political, Franny believing herself to be alone in seeing the evils of the world does remind me of the myopia of the worst activists (the ones who never fail to get written about in the conservative press). If we translate Zooey’s message to activism, we get a call for a politics that is less ideologically rigid, but more engaged, if patient. Reading Franny and Zooey, I couldn’t avoid thinking that it hasn’t aged a day. Except chain-smoking is way down. Progress!
Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (1988)
The protagonists of this famous novel by Eco (one of 2016’s many celebrity victims—R.I.P.) are publishers who specialize in books about the occult and conspiracy theories. However, just as Cosmo Kramer turned his book on coffee tables into a coffee table itself, so these publishers devise their own conspiracy while producing books about conspiracies. So what’s the connection to the academic left? Well, the publishers are veterans of 70s student activism, and it continues to haunt them in various ways. It’s not hard to see that there is a connection between the wide-eyed conspiracists and the often-overzealous activists who are quick to label acquaintances rightists and fascists. Whether bourgeois occultist, student radical, or anything else, we all face the danger of getting too caught up in our own prejudices.
Gilbert Adair (Writer) and Bernardo Bertolucci (Director), The Dreamers (2003)
This film is set during the 1968 Paris student riots—one of the most significant events in Western student activism. The story is about a young French brother and sister who take an American exchange student, and fellow film buff, under their wing. He stays with them in their apartment when their parents go on a trip. The three spend their days mooching off said parents while watching films, having sex, talking left politics, and not going to school. The American is softer and certainly more inclined to pacifism than the siblings, and ultimately, this is the wedge between the three of them. The siblings join the riots, but the American falls back, wary of the violence. Are the siblings finally taking a step towards maturity and doing something with their lives, or is participating in the most violent aspects of the riots an extension of their decadence?
Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)
Although phrases like “The definitive account of the hippies” are thrown around describing this nonfiction book, it’s specifically about Ken Kesey, a famous novelist in his own right, and (what can only be described as) his followers. Wolfe recounts the adventures of “The Merry Pranksters” as they travel the United States documenting their own antics, which frequently involves the consumption and distribution of LSD. They certainly are hippies but they have no connection to academia, so they might be an odd choice for this list. But I want to include this book because of one scene in particular. Kesey gets invited to speak at an anti-Vietnam War protest on a university campus. But instead of giving a speech, he gives a sort of performance that mocks the sincerity and the (to Kesey’s eyes) ideological rigidity of the protestors. He saps the enthusiasm of the meeting and the subsequent march suffers as a result.
What to make of this? The most obvious interpretation is that Kesey is acting like an irresponsible acidhead. More generously: Kesey in this scene reminds me of left-of-center writers who attack campus activism with dismissive contempt, while still remaining on the left (at least a little bit). If so, the question becomes: does he have a point? Probably not, but it does make me wonder what Jonathan Chait would be like on acid.
Nancy Huston, Nord Perdu suivi de Douze France (1999)
Huston’s Nord Perdu (Lost North) is a delightful exploration of Canadian identity (or the lack thereof), but I actually want to restrict my thoughts to one of the “Douze France” (Twelve thoughts on France, basically). Huston, an anglophone Canadian, writes about joining the student community in France and being surprised that everyone has a political identity to which they firmly, yet casually, adhere. Huston would meet fellow students in a bar who would say something along the lines of (I paraphrase from memory) “Gaston here, he is Marxist-Leninist, and this is Phillipe; he is Trots.” In other words, specific political identity is part of the social culture of the students. But the political identities do not cause social disruption among the students—they take the place soccer team loyalties might in another social circle.
A cynic might say that political identities playing such a casual role drains them of their revolutionary potential. But I think the essay is a reminder that subcultures form their own logic, and what might seem like extremism to an outsider has a more banal meaning to an insider.
Hugh MacLennan, The Watch that Ends the Night (1958)
Okay, admittedly the academic setting, while very present, is not crucial to the story. Nonetheless, it’s a sympathetic examination of how leftist activism intersects with personal drama, love, and career. So many actions committed under the guise of activism (of all stripes, including skepticism) actually have personal motivations. An activist might want more social standing among their colleagues, or might be working out negative feelings over a breakup through a protest. One character in this novel is particularly naive on this point, believing that he can get away with pure activism while ignoring the social consequences his actions have on those close to him. And yet, this character’s courage and determination has a lot to teach the other characters in their heavy personal struggles.
Now, these books mostly concern students protesting war and unjust economic conditions, not the feminist and anti-racist politics that infuriate so many commentators today. Many critics would probably point to the 60s and 70s as a time when protestors were engaged with “real” issues, unlike the “special snowflake” generation. To these hypothetical critics I would say three things. First, get your head out of your asses, you jerkwads. Second, that distinction is lost on many other critics, such as Wente, cited above. Third, what we can learn about the successes and mistakes of previous generations is still applicable today.
Another possible objection: these books are just some I happened across and read, and fairly recently at that. As such, the list is pretty arbitrary. It’s also admittedly dude-centric. What else makes good reading on campus activism? Let me know in the comments!
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 […]
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 […]
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! theconversation.com/speaking-with-bad-pharma-author-ben-goldacre-about-how-bad-research-hurts-us-all-65800
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 […]
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.
the number of people who consider themselves religious has dropped from 73% to 60%
those who declare themselves atheists have risen from 1% to 5%
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".
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.”
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
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?
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.