Quickies: Cult of personality, romanticizing the Victorians, and women in tech

new humanist blog

Book review: Death on Earth

Jules Howard's new book makes multiple perspectives on death chime in life-affirming harmony.

Quickies: Thing in the Addams Family, Tim Kaine’s Feminism, and Autism in Girls

Featured Image: The Addams Family


Totally open thread

I’m at the airport, about to clamber onto a plane that will drop me off on the other side of the planet, and I’m not sure when I will emerge again in a conscious and coherent state, so I leave this thread to you all. I also know that the cowardly trolls always take advantage of my absences to crap on the site, so just be aware: I will prune threads ruthlessly as soon as I get a moment and am back on the Internet. Rather than engaging with the idiots, just leave a note that comment #X must die. Keyword: rochambeau.

See you on the other hemisphere!




Nonstop teaching all day today. Gotta pack for China. Gotta MC Cafe Scientifique tonight. Gotta drive to the twin cities late tonight. Gotta fly to Beijing early in the morning.

You don’t expect me to do any of that blogging thing today, do you?

school of doubt

Precarious Academic Employment and Material Goods Do Not Mix

This week is Fair Employment Week in Canada. It’s an annual event put on by the Canadian Association of University Teachers and their provincial counterparts to raise awareness of the precarious work conditions of adjunct employees. The week is usually marked by sad stories of the economic difficulties faced by temporary, part-time postsecondary faculty. I thought that I, a sessional instructor at a Canadian university, would take part in the tradition this year. Admittedly, the story I have to share is not all that horrible. It’s not like my loved ones lost their health insurance or anything like that. But it does involve the loss of my most prized possession: my book collection.

I say it’s my story, but in fact, many (probably most) other junior academics have had similar experiences. This past August, just when I had given up hope of finding a placement in academia for the fall, I managed to score a one-semester teaching gig out of province. It was great news. But it meant finding an apartment with a four-month lease, fast. Moving furniture would have been expensive and impractical, so it also had to be a furnished apartment. And, because the job was only part-time, it also had to be a small apartment. I quickly realized that I would not be able to take my books. I had painstakingly built up a book collection over the past decade, looking through second-hand stores and campus book fairs, receiving thoughtful gifts from family and colleagues, and indulging in the occasional splurge for a new book. Every time I looked at my collection sitting in its shelves, I was filled with a warm feeling thinking about all of the good reading that I would do over the next few years. However, I probably owned close to a hundred books and there was no way that I could take them on a plane or a train. Even if I rented a truck, the books would not fit in the new apartment, and at any rate, I would have to move them again in four months. (Move to where? I don’t know yet. Wherever I get the next academic contract—if I get one at all). I had room for a dozen books in my suitcases, so I kept my Penguin Classics. As for the rest, I managed to sell about half of them for a fraction of their worth and donated the remainder.

There may be some people who are reading this and thinking: “What about Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, the Life of the Mind, right? You shouldn’t care about material possessions anyway.” Yeah, that’s what I tell myself too. But, as is acknowledged by all religious and political factions (to say nothing of Madonna), we live in a materialist world, and it is hard to not feel attached to at least some possessions. I have forced myself to get over it, and even though my new neighborhood has charming little second-hand bookstores, I am determined not to buy a new book until I have somewhere permanent to put them.

Of course, there is the option of digital books. Pooh-poohing digital books is the fashion that does not die, but needing to get rid of my book collection has led me to see the advantage of shelf-less volumes. Still, precarious employment means less disposable income, and paying for a brand new book every time I finish a novel just does not strike me as a prudent move—and, obviously, the used-book option is a meatspace exclusive, at least for now. Increasingly, we will see that libraries have digital books to loan to readers, and that is great. But there is still the matter of the expensive devices necessary to read them. Pulling out my laptop every time I wait for the bus is just not practical, and my old cell phone does not have the battery life to last for long reading sessions (I could get a new phone, but what if the next contract takes me outside of the country? In that case, committing to a new phone would lead to another hassle). As for an e-reader or a tablet, that would be another hard-to-justify expense while I am still in career purgatory.

The solution should be obvious, and I am embarrassed that I did not give it enough credit before my move: good, old-fashioned library book borrowing. As a citizen, I can take books out of the public libraries, and as a university employee, I have access to what is arguably the best library in the province. I have used libraries for my research all along, of course, but I haven’t taken out a book just for pleasure since before grad school. And while I flattered myself that I had an exotic fiction collection, the university library has most of the things that I sold or donated. So I am over myself now.

Okay, so my little story may not be a headline-grabbing tragedy. Neither Parliament nor Congress is going to vote in the Matt’s Lost Books Act of 2016. Many university workers have it a lot worse than I or even other adjuncts do—just look at the striking Harvard dining hall workers. Nevertheless, the experience has left me with two thoughts relevant to Fair Employment Week. Firstly, and obviously, it’s hard to participate in the economy with no money. Local universities are supposed to be Institutions that Advance the Local Economy with well-paying jobs. Well, I have put in some money for rent and groceries since I have moved to my new town, and not much else. I would love to buy books, but cannot, and that problem is passed down to local small business owners and their employees, as well as to publishers and their authors. Secondly, university libraries are an enormously helpful and important resource, and one worth preserving. Just last week, the University of Ottawa announced that it is cutting subscriptions to 4584 journals. From the sound of it, they are discontinuing access to both digital and physical copies. Without being too alarmist, if libraries get rid of books, and employers get rid of jobs that pay enough to buy books, then we are back in the pre-twentieth-century situation where only a select few have access to new, high-quality tomes. And, although I had to sell my copy of The Great Transformation and The Marx-Engels Reader, I’m pretty sure that would be a bad thing. A little more income equality for academic workers would go a long way for education, in more ways than one.

new humanist blog

How can we make sense of death?

Q&A with Andrew Stark, author of a new book on the stories we tell ourselves to comprehend mortality.
new humanist blog

The last city of the Soviets

After the catastrophe of Chernobyl, Soviet architects built a new ideal city on humanist principles, the Ukrainian town of Slavutych.

Things you ought not to read while trapped in an interminable faculty meeting

I’ve just gotten out of a 2½ hour faculty meeting. During one of the breaks, I read this page on McSweeney’s, and when I got to #5 and #6, I almost lost it. Then #8, and I felt a funny noise trying to rise up the back of my throat. I seized up at #9, beginning to wonder if they had a spy camera on the wall behind me.

But then I read this article and realized they must have the spy cams installed at the University of Chicago, not here. Whew. We’re only sorta exactly like that.


Jack Chick is dead


There will be no rejoicing at his death, because his poison and lies and ignorance live on. I just really can’t care much — it doesn’t help that I just got home after a 13 hour day — and I think he’s just been a malignant goofball with a team of believers doing the work for him, and the absence of one foolish man won’t make a lick of difference.

He has ceased to exist and won’t even know that he’s not going to meet a faceless glowing giant on a throne, or a horned Jewish caricature with a pitchfork. He’s just dead meat.


Further travels, to Cincinnati & beyond!

I’m planning to attend the 2017 Midwest Zebrafish Meeting in mid-June, which is, unfortunately, being held in Cincinnati. It’s only unfortunate because I’ll be tempted to make a side-trip to…Ken Ham’s goddamn Ark Park. There’s an excellent overview by Dan Phelps of what I can expect to see. I’ll also leave $40 poorer.


Just looking at that makes my brain poorer.


Quickies: Sexist Locker Room Talk, Non-Fiction Comics, and Paying for Childcare

Featured Image


Why ‘Nasty Woman’ was a Sexist Comment

surlyamynastywomanFeatured Image from SurlyAmy. You can get it on a shirt (or other product) here. See her awesome new Red Bubble shop for other designs!


A few days ago, we got a question about the third presidential debate sent to us through the contact form. With permission from the author, I am providing the question and answer I gave below, slightly edited for grammar and my answer is slightly edited to elaborate and include some links.

Feel free to chime in with your view in the comments!

My husband and I have had a lot of debates about the presidential debates. He himself is not sexist, our relationship is 50/50 and he never does sexist things himself, but as a white male, he doesn’t see the privilege he lives under. In fact, he feels like he has to walk on eggshells while minorities are granted more “freedom of speech.” Specifically, the “nasty woman” comment was difficult to explain why it was wrong and sexist. He said if Trump had said “nasty person” would it have been ok? Why is stating the fact that she is a woman sexist? I had a hard time explaining what that meant to me as a woman, a woman who has been talked down to in such a way.

How can I adequately explain why that was a sexist remark to someone who’s never known bias like that? How can I help me open-minded husband see that it really is a problem and why?

I’m not a woman and I don’t face sexism and misogyny like women do, but I can give you my take as a person who is eyeballs deep in gender studies and feminist theory.

It seems to me that the issue isn’t as much with “nasty woman” itself, but with the intended effect of “nasty woman” as well as how it fits into broader patterns of sexism. When Trump made that comment, Clinton wasn’t actually doing anything nasty. She was a politician engaged in politics, she made a sarcastic comment about Trump not paying taxes:

CLINTON: Well, Chris, I am on record as saying that we need to put more money into the Social Security Trust Fund. That’s part of my commitment to raise taxes on the wealthy. My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald’s, assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it. But what we want to do is to replenish the Social Security Trust Fund…

TRUMP: Such a nasty woman.

It was a zinger, meant to highlight hypocrisy. If you compare Clinton’s remark to the things Trump was saying at the debate and has been saying for months, Clinton’s comment is really mild in comparison, not to mention it highlights an actual problem with Trump rather than an imagined one like Hillary’s failure to single-handedly changing the tax code. Why did Trump call her a “nasty woman”? Well, it plays on the gender normative trope that any time a woman isn’t being “sugar and spice and everything nice,” she’s a bad person who lacks character. It’s a double-standard. Men are allowed to be nasty—in fact, as we see with Trump, men are given the benefit of the doubt and their nastiness gets chalked up to being “boys just being boys” while women are expected to maintain their composure at all times and even the slightest hint of going off the normative gendered script is met with disdain and scorn.

Of course Trump says all kinds of awful things to all kinds of people, but the thing about sexism is that it’s not so much about the individual instances as it is about the patterns, such as how powerful men insult powerful women in an effort to play up our society’s sexist discomfort with powerful women (h/t Courtney for the link). I’m guessing the reason that “nasty woman” bothered you is because you instantly recognized it for what it was: an insult that was meant to have the particular effect of disparaging a woman’s character when she was doing something men do without comment all the time. Even if he had said “nasty person,” it still would have been sexist because the issue isn’t whether he called her a woman or a person, but his insulting of her character is typical misogyny that women, both in and out of positions of power, are subjected to all the time.

I would encourage your husband to stop thinking of such things in isolation and start trying to recognize patterns. It is, of course, more difficult when one isn’t subjected to these things constantly, but if he’s open-minded and believes you when you say it’s sexist and it bothers you, he should try to see why it’s part of a larger ongoing pattern and not fall into the trap of thinking it’s just women being oversensitive to one specific comment (which would be a sexist response).

school of doubt

Don’t Promote “Just Vote”

(Note: To be clear, by “just vote” I am not referring to any organization bearing that name or motto, I am referring only to the phrase in common parlance.)

Continuing with my “don’t” theme, it is once again that time where I start hearing the same piece of rhetoric repeated endlessly through US media: “Just vote.”

“Democracy depends on people fulfilling their civic duty to vote, it doesn’t matter who you vote for, just vote… I’m not telling you to vote for anyone, I’m just telling you to vote.”

So here I am with my wet blanket, arguing a point no one really cares about, yet it’s important enough to say anyway. That advice is bad, because it’s not enough.

For a democracy to work well, it is woefully inadequate if everyone just votes. To govern ourselves effectively, we need to actually be informed voters. Obviously, I’m a teacher promoting education, but it really is one of the essential things to have a successful democratic system.

There’s a lesson to be learned from the recent “Brexit” fiasco, it became very clear after that vote that many voters did not realize what they were actually voting for. There was so much misinformation on both sides that many people voted with a complete misunderstanding of the actual matter at hand.

Granted, doing the research isn’t easy, especially when the supposedly reputable fact checkers fail with their own fact checking. (Such as how PolitiFact claimed Jon Stewart was wrong about Fox news when they checked polls about a different subject than he actually talked about.)

Then there’s the deeper matters about understanding how the issues actually work in the real world. It’s one thing to know a candidates stance on minimum wage, but entirely another to look at the evidence about its effects on businesses, individuals, and the economy. Teachers have a responsibility to help students find the right questions to ask and the accurate ways to get answers, and luckily there are issues that can overlap with almost every subject. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of “just vote” is louder and catchier than “do your homework first.”


It’s the Skepchick Sundaylies! Nasty Women, Science of the Sideshow, 5 Year Old vs. Ouija Board, and more!

Sunday Funny: Patriotism vs. Nationalism: An Important Distinction (via SMBC)

Mad Art Lab

Such a Nasty Woman
Beth and Amy made art after Trump made his “nasty woman” comment.

Gone, Fission: How Lise Meitner was Written Out of the Nuclear Age
You need to forget everything you know about atoms to fully appreciate the astounding scientific career of Lise Meitner.

The Science Behind the Sideshow
If you’re in Chicago in December or January, you might want to catch FreakShow & Tell.

Grounded Parents

5 Year Old vs Ouija Board, Halloween Time Lessons
This kid is on the Ouija Board con.

This Unbelievably Simple Parenting Hack May Change Your Life
Steph and her family have stumbled upon an effective way to encourage good behavior.

How I Became a Reasonable Mom
Jenny shares her journey to becoming a “reasonable mom.”

Featured image credit: ryan via Flickr

new humanist blog

Bendy solar cells, turning CO2 to stone, and antibiotic resistance

Chemistry, Biology, Physics: Three scientists talk through big recent developments in their fields.
new humanist blog

What's the point of satire? New Humanist presents Martin Rowson and Laurie Taylor

Join us on 29 November to launch our Winter 2016 edition
school of doubt

Bloom’s taxonomy, presidential politics and education, evolving science ed, and more: Required Readings, 10.13.16

After a lengthy hiatus thanks to a cross-country move, a new job, and the resulting temporary dearth of spare brain cells, Required Readings has returned!

Let’s start out nice and gentle with some pretty (yet educational) pictures: Visually striking depictions of Bloom’s taxonomy of classifying levels of expertise for instruction purposes.

Well shut my mouth and call me biscuit! A Liberty University student group called Liberty United Against Trump issued a public statement rebuking the candidate as well as the school’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., for his defense of Trump following the release of a 2005 video in which the latter essentially admitted to sexual assault. “Any faculty or staff member at Liberty would be terminated for such comments, and yet when Donald Trump makes them, President Falwell rushes eagerly to his defense – taking the name “Liberty University” with him.” Considering that my first experiences with Liberty grads involved folks who thought that interracial marriage and receiving government benefits were both sins, I’m honestly kind of stunned by this turn of events.

In related matters, here’s a look at the relationship between holding a college degree and presidential voting in 2016. And a high school librarian in Texas has been suspended over cutouts of the two main presidential candidates that were displayed with signs mentioning deportation and deplorables.

At the university level, is entrepreneurialism at odds with deep thinking?

The further evolution of science education

What happened to ITT Tech’s 40K students when it closed.

How Texas policies are keeping eligible children out of special education programs

Share your Required Readings with SoD via our contact form.

sam harris

Trump in Exile

It is a cliché, of course, to claim that a presidential election is the most important in living memory. But we arrived at that point in the 2016 campaign many months ago, when both sides declared their opponent unqualified for office. Unfortunately, this time the cliché is true, and one side is actually right. A choice this stark proves that there is something wrong with our political system.

Hillary Clinton is a terribly flawed candidate for the presidency, and this has allowed millions of otherwise sane Americans to imagine that she is less fit for office than Donald Trump is. Much depends on a majority of the electorate seeing through this moral and political illusion in the weeks ahead.

To consider only one point of comparison: We have now witnessed Donald Trump bragging about his sexual predations in terms that not even Satan himself could spin to his advantage. He has admitted to repeatedly groping women, kissing them on the mouth without their consent, and invading the dressing rooms of teenage pageant contestants to see them naked. Every day, more women come forward confirming the truth of these confessions. Trump has even said that he would have sex with his own daughter, were she the offspring of another man. He talks about his libido as only a malignant narcissist can: as though it were a wonder of nature, a riddle no mortal can solve, and a blessing to humanity.

Such disclosures should have ended Trump’s presidential campaign. But as luck would have it, Hillary Clinton is married to a man who can probably match Trump indiscretion for indiscretion. Indeed, Donald Trump and Bill Clinton are both trailing serious accusations of rape. Whether or not the worst of these charges are true, these are not normal men. Each has lived for decades as a roving id flanked by a security detail. Each is the very avatar of entitlement. However, only one of these cads radiates contempt for nearly every other member of our species. Only one has made humiliating people—and women in particular—a central part of his brand. Only one has become a troubled adolescent’s fantasy of what a man should be, exposing a ruinous insecurity and moral emptiness every time he opens his mouth. Most important, only one of these men is running for president today. And, personal ethics aside, only one is dangerously unfit for the job.

While Trump’s attitude toward women should be disqualifying, it is among his least frightening traits when it comes to assuming the responsibilities of the presidency. His fondness for Vladimir Putin, the whimsy with which he has entertained the first use of nuclear weapons, his disregard for our NATO alliances, his promise to use federal regulators to harass his critics, his belief that climate change is a hoax, his recommendation that we kill the families of terrorists, his suggestion that America might want to default on its debt—any one of these sentiments should have ended Trump’s bid for public office at once. In fact, Donald Trump is so unfit for the presidency that he has done great harm to our society by merely campaigning for it. The harm he could do from the White House can scarcely be imagined.

But hatred for both Clintons is now so blinding as to render Trump’s far more dangerous flaws imperceptible to millions of Americans. This is deeply disconcerting. Ask yourself, How would Trump appear if he were a malicious bully? The answer: Exactly as he does now. The man lies about everything, and yet he can’t even pretend to be a good person for five minutes at a stretch. How would Trump sound if he knew nothing about world affairs? One need only hear him speak to know. The truth is that Trump couldn’t have displayed his flaws more clearly during this campaign had his goal been to humiliate himself. And yet this hasn’t mattered to nearly half the electorate.

As many others have noted, there was a point in the second presidential debate when Trump’s campaign ceased to be a depressing farce and became the terrifying, national disgrace we now see before us. The crucial moment wasn’t when Trump threatened to imprison Clinton if he wins in November—it was the shriek of joy this threat produced in half the audience. That was the sound of our democracy unraveling. And there was Trump, the crazed man-child tearing at the threads.

If there is a silver lining here, it is that many of us now see how vulnerable our political system is to charlatanism, conspiracy theories, and populist unreason on both the Right and the Left. The role that the media has played, rendering us all moths to the Trumpian flame, will be scrutinized for years to come. The truth about us is sobering: We have been playing with our smartphones while hurtling toward the abyss…

Hillary Clinton will almost certainly be the next president of the United States. And, with any luck, she will usher in four years of exquisite boredom. Unfortunately, the toxicity of this campaign seems unlikely to dissipate. There will be a surplus of anger to be discharged—not just among disappointed Trump supporters, but toward them. Those who stood with Trump, as the wrecking ball of his ego swung dangerously through our lives, will likely find that their reputations have been destroyed. I will be surprised if we hear anything from Chris Christie or Rudy Giuliani ever again. Trump himself should be forced into exile the way OJ Simpson was after he was falsely acquitted of two murders. In fact, one might say that a murder has been committed here—of the public good—by a monster of selfishness and self-regard.

After November, let the shunning of Donald Trump be complete.

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 […]
school of doubt

Don’t Teach “Evaluating Sources”

Okay, so that title was a bit of an attention getter. I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t teach students how to evaluate sources at all, just not necessarily when you think you should.

Teachers are faced with the task of figuring out exactly what aspects of their subjects to include in their curricula. We cannot teach everything about our subjects, so we need to be very selective. When we try to do too much, it backfires spectacularly in multiple ways.

In a class which might involve students doing research of some kind, many teachers like to include a lesson or two about evaluating sources. This might not actually be a good idea.

At my current school, another teacher taught students a unit about evaluating sources. I later graded essays written by those students on the topic of “evaluating sources.” What I learned was that students had diligently memorized the content and understood the rules they were presented, but it was such an insufficient amount of knowledge on the topic that they filled in the gaps with a lot of assumptions and it resulted in outlandishly wrong ideas about credibility.

Learning how to evaluate sources might just be one of those things where “something is better than nothing” might not really work. My students thought they were thinking critically, but they were just following along credulously. It was like watching the Dunning-Kruger effect in action. Armed with a few “tips” they approached research from a perspective of assumed ability instead of understood inability. They thought they knew what they were doing, and that made it worse than just not knowing (I taught them before and after they had this unit).

A similar experience happened in my own education. In my high school, we spent a few weeks learning about MLA citation style and which sources were more valid than others. As a result, I spent years with the idea in my head that I knew something about evaluating sources. In retrospect, I knew nothing. The condensed version of evaluation skills left me with a feeling of knowing something I really didn’t, and using that apparent knowledge to justify a whole lot of BS I believed for years.

When you condense down the most important aspects of evaluating sources to fit into a much larger spectrum of knowledge in a curriculum, you lose the levels of nuance, context, and specificity that are absolutely needed to develop a good understanding of how to evaluate sources well, such as: the difference between an authority and a scientific consensus, what red flags to look for if a claim (or website, book, etc.) is actually bunk, when to be skeptical or not, how to hunt for the actual source of a fact, how statistics can be misleading, how to tell if a normally credible source is wrong, what logical fallacies look like in normal writing and how to recognize them, what ideologies usually play a role in which kinds if information, how to determine a conflict of interest, and how to avoid all the dreaded cognitive biases when doing research.

So what to do? If you can afford to dedicate a significant amount of teaching time towards evaluating sources, do a deep dive. If you can’t, don’t just skim over the top thinking that a little knowledge is better than nothing. Instead, focus on fostering a Socratic notion: knowing that you know nothing. Point out ways that students don’t know what they don’t know, and how that applies to evaluating sources. Introduce some ideas that demonstrate their lack of understanding and work on creating a time in the future where their future teacher could do the deep dive that is needed. (In most cases, this isn’t as difficult as you might think.)

By all means, include some things to show students that they shouldn’t just assume sources are true, but if you don’t have the time to explain it fully, don’t just give it a superficial glossing over, you might be doing students a real disservice.

school of doubt

The Atomic Priesthood and Other Opportunities for Cross-Campus Collaboration

Last month, I wrote about how the Sokal hoax was an opportunity for humanists and scientists to cross campus and start working together, and that one of the fruits of this collaboration is the relatively new field of ecocriticism. Peter C. van Wyck’s book Signs of Danger: Waste, Trauma, and Nuclear Threat is an example of combining critical theory with scientific data towards an ecological end.

In this book, van Wyck (a professor at Concordia University) writes about the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The plant’s purpose is to house nuclear waste from retired weapons—which, given how long such waste stays radioactive, is no easy task. WIPP is designed to exist for 10,000 years. Much of Signs of Danger is devoted to outlining the sheer threat that this kind of waste represents.

Some of the most intriguing sections, however, concern the problem of communicating these dangers to future generations. After all, 10,000 years is a long time. The Great Pyramid of Giza is about 4570 years old. The language that you are reading right now (unless you are using Google translate or something) is only about 1560 years old, and that is a very generous estimate. Regardless, we owe it to our descendants to warn them about the radiation we are leaving in the New Mexico desert. Van Wyck describes several attempts to communicate to the people of 12,016 C.E. One is that of Thomas Sebeok, an American semiotician. Sebeok recommends a trans-generational group entrusted with keeping the waste safe, calling them “an atomic priesthood:” “a commission of knowledgeable physicists, experts in radiation sickness, anthropologists, linguists, psychologists, semioticians, and whatever additional expertise may be called for” (qtd. in van Wyck, page 48). The idea is, over time, the “priesthood” may need to resort to a supernatural/religious aura to maintain authority. WIPP has not adopted this strategy, though van Wyck points out that there are echoes of it in the idea of a graduate student fellowship fund that sends visitors to the site every twenty-five years (52). (I would joke that sending graduate students to a nuclear waste dump is certainly one way to deal with the academic job crisis, but of course, WIPP is designed to be safe).

More options come as a result of the Futures Panel of the Department of Energy. This “interdisciplinary working group” was tasked with devising possible futures that could put the WIPP at risk (50). It seems to be thorough: though van Wyck only offers the most absurd examples (one is the extreme feminist social constructionist society of 2091 denouncing the empirical message of the WIPP as male propaganda), the panel presumably suggests less outlandish possibilities (51). In a sense, the panel is an inspiring moment: humanists and scientists working together to preserve the safety of the future. However, the real message of the passage—and I imagine, part of van Wyck’s purpose in bringing up these rather outlandish suggestions—is that good intentions can cause terrible mistakes. We should not be asking how to best hide nuclear waste, but how to arrange our politics so as to stop making it, and other pollutants, in the first place. This project also requires the co-operation of scientists and humanists. The intervention of humanists is needed to bring a sense of past and future to the political discourse and to create a future that does more than replicate the mistakes of the present.

Empiricism has given us several useful ways of predicting the future. Another notable ecological example is the computer models discussed by Peter Taylor, which, despite their shortcomings, have been useful in identifying environmental threats. But ultimately, Empiricism is a methodology of the present. It proudly eliminates speculation and examines events as they are taking place: “Based on current trends, we can predict that…” This lends Empiricism to a sort of conservatism, a favouring of the material over the potential. Of course, scientists are not Empiricism, and the human element in science is, has been, and will be a key part of preserving humanity from disaster and disease. And it’s not like scientists are ethically unmoored and need a humanist looking over their shoulder before they make any decision. Nevertheless, humanists, through their study of the past, or through their interest for political futures, are obvious allies when it comes to describing the past and shaping the future.

Van Wyck nicely outlines how a humanist/theoretical understanding of ecological science can undermine the presentism inherent in it. One way he brings the future into current constructions of risk is by emphasizing how the “accident,” or more appropriately, the disaster, is always potentially present, even in technologies and ecological systems that are currently functioning safely: “Failure is programmed into the product from the moment of conception; the ship begets the shipwreck, the train, the rail catastrophe” (12). By measuring actually-existing mechanical functions, Empiricism can say—with complete accuracy—that a nuclear reactor only has a small chance of melting down on any given day. But by extending the analysis over a sufficiently long time, we can see that the meltdown becomes truly inevitable. The awareness of such impending risks influences our trauma, which is another idea that disrupts the present. “Trauma is something that effectively happens after it happens,” van Wyck writes. “It is experienced as the effect preceding—indeed eclipsing—the cause” (104). It is a persistent mental state that casts its shadow over our politics and social relations, ensuring that past strife remains vivid, even after the smoke has cleared.

Historical grounding is what the humanities can offer science. When some writers (like Alan Sokal’s opponents, or at least straw men) stress that science is partially a social construction, they leave themselves vulnerable to the objection that such a position undermines the truths obtained by science. Van Wyck circumvents that tired issue with his notions of trauma and risk, demonstrating that science, if it is to successfully exist in the world of politics, must abandon the isolation of today for the potential of the future.

There is no particular reason why I bring this up now. Van Wyck’s book came out in 2004. The WIPP is not set to finish collecting waste until 2045 or so, and of course, its work will continue long after that. History, however, is happening right now, as it always is.

(Image credit: Bethesda Softworks via Fallout Wiki).

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 […]
sam harris

The Frontiers of Political Correctness

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Gad Saad about political correctness, academic taboos, Islam, immigration, Donald Trump, and other topics.

Gad Saad is Professor of Marketing at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and the holder of the Concordia University Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences and Darwinian Consumption. He has held Visiting Associate Professorships at Cornell University, Dartmouth College, and the University of California–Irvine. Saad has pioneered the use of evolutionary psychology in marketing and consumer behavior. His works include The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature; The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption; Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences, along with 75+ scientific papers, many at the intersection of evolutionary psychology and a broad range of disciplines including consumer behavior, marketing, advertising, psychology, medicine, and economics. He received a B.Sc. (1988) and an M.B.A. (1990) both from McGill University, and his M.S. (1993) and Ph.D. (1994) from Cornell University.

YouTube Channel: The Saad Truth
Twitter: @GadSaad

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: anecdote, data, surrogate outcomes, and the FDA

The Duchenne’s treatment 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 panel. There […]
sam harris

TED Talk: Can we build AI without losing control over it?

bad science

The Cancer Drugs Fund is producing dangerous, bad data: randomise everyone, everywhere!

There are recurring howls in my work. One of them is this: in general, if you don’t know which intervention works best, then you should randomise everyone, everywhere. This is for good reason: uncertainty costs lives, through sub-optimal treatment. Wherever randomised trials are the right approach, you should embed them in routine clinical care. This is an argument I’ve made, with colleagues, in […]
sam harris

The End of Faith Sessions 3

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris reads and discusses the third chapter of “The End of Faith.” Topics include: Christianity, Judaism, the Inquisition, witchcraft, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust.

sam harris

Ask Me Anything #5

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris answers questions from listeners about how 9/11 changed his life, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, free will, why he podcasts, Milo and the alt-Right, identity politics, Clinton vs. Trump, vegetarianism, and the Hannibal Buress episode.

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.

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