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Here are a few holiday snaps from the last two days in Dobrzyn. It’s gotten a bit chilly and they’ve turned on the central heating.
First, as befits her status, we have the Furry Princess of Poland, who is now deigning to give me substantial Quality Cat Time on the couch:
Hili’s World #1:
Hili’s World #2:
Walkies by the Vistula:
Malgorzata is taking seriously her promise to have a cherry pie for me (or some kind of pastry) every day. I photographed the process, starting with the filling of the crust (below we have a traditional crust instead of the more laborious walnut crust):
It’s far easier to grate dough on top of the pie than to make fancy latticework, and it looks (and tastes) just as good:
Gratings spread over the top:
Baking (I’ve given Malgorzata’s recipe here):
And the completed product (I had a piece just ten minutes ago):
Dinner two nights ago: a dish of kasha (buckwheat groats) larded with both sausage and pork shoulder, cooked with mushroom sauce, and served with cucumbers in yogurt. This is traditional Polish fare:
And indeed, there was a watch (the pikers in my department didn’t give me anything, not even a goodbye email or fete). The watch had been ordered in advance via Amazon in advance, and a professional in Dobrzyn assigned to insert a picture of Her Highness. What a lovely gift!
We also had a special lunch: open-faced “sandwiches” (a Jewish recipe) made from a savory puff pastry covered with grapes, fresh figs, Camembert cheese, and cashews, baked until the pastry is done and the cheese melted. One can also use Roquefort cheese and pecans:
And dinner: chicken baked with soy sauce and sesame seeds, served with an olive salad and boiled potatoes, all washed down with Zubr beer.
For dessert we had a choice of cherry pie or a cheesecake purchased by Gosha, the upstairs tenant. I opted for cheesecake, and it was delicious. As always here, I am eating well but not gaining weight:
National Geographic reports the discovery that the hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), the most endangered of all marine turtles, is biofluorescent: it absorbs blue light from the ocean and, after that light is transformed into different light by photosensitive molecules, it’s reflected back as a panoply of different colors. This differs from bioluminescence, which is the emission of nonreflected endogenous light produced wholly by chemical reactions. Bioluminescence is found in many organisms, including fish, jellyfish, and marine microorganisms, while biofluorescence has been seen only in fish, corals, and now this turtle. Here’s what the fluorescent hawksbill looks like, filmed by the discoverer, marine biologist David Gruber. The colors are the reflection of the camera’s blue light, which matches wavelengths found in the ocean.
We have no idea why the turtle does this, or even whether it’s an adaptation. Perhaps it’s only a byproduct of some other aspect of the turtle’s metabolism or morphology. Gruber and Alexander Gaos (a researcher on turtles not involved in the discovery) speculate that the fluorescence helps camouflage the turtle at night, but of course we don’t know for sure:
“[Biofluorescence is] usually used for finding and attracting prey or defense or some kind of communication,” says Gaos. In this instance, it could be a kind of camouflage for the sea turtle. (See pictures of insects that are masters of camouflage.)
The hawksbill’s shell is very good at concealing the animal in a rocky reef habitat during the day, Gaos explains. “When we go out to catch them, sometimes they’re really hard to spot.”
The same could be true for a habitat rife with biofluorescing animals—like a coral reef.
In fact, Gruber pointed out that some of the red on the hawksbill he saw could have been because of algae on the shell that was fluorescing. The green is definitely from the turtle though, he says.
The problem I see with the “camouflage” explanation is twofold. First, as far as I know nothing preys on adult hawksbills except humans. Perhaps the camouflage is there to protect babies against predators, but that wasn’t suggested. Further, the prey of hawksbills isn’t likely to avoid them when they’re camouflaged, because their prey is largely sessile or nonvisual (the main diet of this turtle is sponges, supplemented with jellyfish). There’s not much need, then, to hide yourself from such prey. I could swell the suggestions by speculating that it’s a mate-recognition adaption, enabling males and females to find each other in the dark, but that too is pure speculation.
I am continually told that I should not engage in philosophy without professional credentials in that area, even though I am now co-author with a Credentialed Philosopher™, Maarten Boudry, on a peer-reviewed philosophy paper. But this credential mongering loses force when I see real professors of philosophy engaged in lucubrations that are so transparently dreadful that even a biologist can recognize them as tripe. Even worse—these lucubrations often appear in places like the New York Times.
I refer in particular to “The Stone” column, which for reasons unaccountable continues to publish the philosophical musings of Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and a frequent subject of criticism on this site. Besides teaching introductory philosophy at Notre Dome, Gutting is even rumored to get paid for his NYt contributions. It is a crime against philosophy then, that he has earned not only column space but money for his latest “advance” in the philosophy of religion, “Pascal’s Wager 2.0.”
I needn’t refresh readers here on Pascal’s Wager or the many reasons why it’s bogus (go here for a comprehensive introduction). Among its problems are the diverse array of gods on which one must wager, forcing you to choose one (if you guess wrong, you could fry); the notion that any reasonably smart god could see that your belief is based purely on expediency and self-interest; and the indubitable fact that it’s nearly impossible to force yourself to believe in something you find improbable.
Gutting apparently realizes all this, and proffers his own version of Pascal’s Wager. But in the end it’s no better than the original version. Pascal’s Wager 2.0 differs by taking God out of the picture completely, asking nonbelievers simply to accept something Bigger than Themselves instead of just being atheists who rejects anything supernatural.
The trouble with the piece involves what Gutting considers “Bigger than Oneself”. Throughout the essay, it wavers between simply accepting a philosophical or ethical worldview, which many atheists have done anyway, to belief in an unspecified Beneficent Power (clearly supernatural), to accepting religion itself. Gutting can’t even keep his argument straight. In the end, though, Gutting seems to settle on Pascal’s Wager as asking atheists to accept the possibility of the supernatural, even though he touts no heavenly reward for such belief. Instead, the reward is simply more satisfaction with one’s life on Earth.
But before we get to Gutting’s New
Clothes Wager, I present the only good bit of the article: the author’s tacit admission that doubt about religious truths is growing:
I don’t claim that my version of the wager argument is a faithful explication of what Pascal had in mind. It is, rather, an adaptation of the argument to our intellectual context, where doubt rather than belief is becoming the default position on religion. But I do think that this version avoids the standard objections to the usual interpretations of the wager argument.
Yes, it avoid the standard objections to the usual interpretations of Pascal’s Wager, many of which turn on the assumption of an afterlife. But it replaces them with other objections: namely, that Gutting can’t decide what we’re supposed to wager on.
First, he says that we doubters should embrace a “doubt of desire rather than a doubt of indifference.” In other words, he challenges atheists to believe something that we want to believe, which in Gutting’s case is a Beneficent Power:
I propose to reformulate Pascal’s wager as urging those who doubt God’s existence to embrace a doubt of desire rather than a doubt of indifference. This means, first, that they should hope — and therefore desire — that they might find a higher meaning and value to their existence by making contact with a beneficent power beyond the natural world. There’s no need to further specify the nature of this power in terms, say, of the teachings of a particular religion.
Well, this may not be the teachings of a particular religion, but it’s certain belief in something supernatural, and that’s clear. This Power is not only a “power”, but a “good power”, and is “beyond the natural world.” In other words, it’s supernatural. That makes it religious. And the benefit is more happiness in this world (granted, a goal to be desired):
The argument begins by noting that we could be much happier by making appropriate contact with such a power.
But wait—maybe the power isn’t supernatural or religious after all!:
Unlike the traditional versions, this wager does not require believing that there is a God. So the standard drawbacks of self-deception or insincerity don’t arise. The wager calls for some manner of spiritual commitment, but there is no demand for belief, either immediately or eventually.
Well, if it doesn’t require believing in a God, what is this Beneficent Supernatural Power? It sounds suspiciously like a God to me. But Gutting says that other stuff can also be Beneficent Powers. It is here that he goes off the rails by touting philosophy, meditation, and ethics as manifestations of that supernatural Power. Note the waffling here (my emphasis below), in which “religion” suddenly expands to encompass philosophy, ethics, and meditation. These, despite Gutting’s claim, are not “things beyond the natural world”, though some are not “knowable” (I presume he means “derivable”) via science:
The wager calls for some manner of spiritual commitment, but there is no demand for belief, either immediately or eventually. The commitment is, rather, to what I have called religious agnosticism: serious involvement with religious teachings and practices, in hope for a truth that I do not have and may never attain. Further, religious agnosticism does not mean that I renounce all claims to other knowledge. I may well have strong commitments to scientific, philosophical and ethical truths that place significant constraints on the religious approaches I find appropriate. Religious agnosticism demands only that I reject atheism, which excludes the hope for something beyond the natural world knowable by science. [JAC: atheism doesn’t totally exclude the acceptance of something beyond the natural world knowable by science; it claims merely that we lack evidence for that.]
. . . But we can decide for ourselves how much worldly satisfaction is worth giving up for the sake of possible greater spiritual happiness. And, it may well turn out that religious activities such as meditation and charitable works have their own significant measure of worldly satisfaction. Given all this, what basis is there for refusing the wager?
In what world must we suddenly construe meditation, charitable works, ethics, and philosophy as “religious activities”, or accept some Power to practice them? I accept Gutting’s proposition that one may find greater happiness by establishing a connection with something greater than oneself, even if that thing be the physical universe in all its splendor. Indeed, that is Sam Harris’s message in his book Waking Up. But that is not the same thing as establishing a connection with a supernatural Beneficent Power.
One interpretation of Gutting’s garbled message is that he thinks that even if we nonbelievers establish connection with nonreligious stuff like philosophy and ethics, we will be rewarded by the Big Power for making that connection, and that’s why we should believe in the Big Power. Alternatively, he may feel that we can’t achieve spiritual satisfaction without believing in the supernatural. But these interpretations are belied by Gutting’s own words (my emphasis below):
I don’t claim that my version of the wager argument is a faithful explication of what Pascal had in mind. It is, rather, an adaptation of the argument to our intellectual context, where doubt rather than belief is becoming the default position on religion. But I do think that this version avoids the standard objections to the usual interpretations of the wager argument. It does not require belief and isn’t an attempt to trick God into sending us to heaven. It merely calls us to follow a path that has some chance of leading us to an immensely important truth.
We can argue (but I won’t here) whether particular philosophical and ethical paths, or charitable work, constitute “truths”. It may be true in the scientific sense that such connections make us happier, and that charity will make its recipients happier, But the nature of Gutting’s “immensely important truth” remains elusive. Nevertheless, in the paragraph above Gutting clearly says that his argument does’t require “belief”. This is in strong contrast to his earlier claim that to get these spiritual benefits we must make contact with a supernatural beneficent power. In other words, we must make a James-ian leap of faith. But it takes no leap of faith to, say, try meditating or working in a soup kitchen as a way of establishing a greater connection with something.
In the end, Gutting founders on his own belief in God, unable to fully replace it with the kind of secular humanism that he also construes as “religious.” His equivocation leads him to produce a muddled and confusing essay. And he got PAID for something that would probably get the grade of C in an introductory philosophy course.
I’ll close with something that Maarten Boudry, my Belgian philosopher co-author on our paper, said about Gutting’s essay:
I wonder if Gary Gutting, rather than signing a contract with the NYT, would accept the remote possibility of receiving a handsome monetary reward, to paid by an invisible Editor whom he has never met and never heard of, and who may or may not exist.
Vatican officials initially would not confirm that the meeting occurred, finally doing so on Wednesday afternoon, while refusing to discuss any details.
. . . On Tuesday night, her lawyer, Mathew D. Staver, said that Ms. Davis and her husband, Joe, were sneaked into the Vatican Embassy by car on Thursday afternoon. Francis gave her rosaries and told her to “stay strong,” the lawyer said. The couple met for about 15 minutes with the pope, who was accompanied by security guards, aides and photographers.
“I put my hand out and he reached and he grabbed it, and I hugged him and he hugged me,” Ms. Davis said Wednesday in an interview with ABC News. ‘Thank you for your courage.’”
The Vatican confirmed the meeting only after it was reported by Robert Moynihan on the website Inside the Vatican, which reported as well that the Pontiff gave Davis and her husband a rosary:
“The Pope spoke in English,” she told me. “There was no interpreter. ‘Thank you for your courage,’ Pope Francis said to me. I said, ‘Thank you, Holy Father.’ I had asked a monsignor earlier what was the proper way to greet the Pope, and whether it would be appropriate for me to embrace him, and I had been told it would be okay to hug him. So I hugged him, and he hugged me back. It was an extraordinary moment. ‘Stay strong,’ he said to me. Then he gave me a rosary as a gift, and he gave one also to my husband, Joe. I broke into tears. I was deeply moved.
As I reported a few days ago, Francis, meeting with reporters aboard his plane “Shepherd One,” affirmed that people with religious objections to the duties required by their jobs should have the “right” to conscientiously refuse those duties, and of course the Pope was obliquely referring to Kim Davis and the fracas aroused by her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gays. Their meeting, which must have been requested by the Pope (I doubt Davis would have thought to ask for it, though perhaps her prominent supporters did), can only convey the Pope’s support for Davis’s actions, which in turn means the Vatican’s continuing disapproval of rights for gays, as well as their approval for those who refuse to grant such rights on religious grounds. What else could the Pope’s words “Stay strong” and “Thank you for your courage” mean?
And that’s precisely how Davis took it. As NPR reports:
“Just knowing the pope is on track with what we’re doing, and agreeing, you know, kind of validates everything,” Davis tells ABC News Wednesday morning, speaking about her meeting with Pope Francis and the stand she has taken against same-sex marriage.
She adds, “I’ve weighed the cost, and I’m prepared to do whatever it takes.”
I have yet to see a mainstream American venue, like the New York Times or the New Yorker, point out in an editorial the disparity between Francis’s words and his actions (or rather, his inaction in changing repressive Catholic dogma). Those who claim that Francis really is a liberal pope, committed to changing Church dogma, but moving very slowly because that’s the only way to do it, must explain this secret meeting with Davis as well as his encouragement of her actions. If he really wanted the Church to eventually deep-six its position on gays, the worst way to do it is to provide succor for those who want to deny gays their legal rights.
The Pope is not liberal: he still opposes women’s equality, abortion, and rights for gays. He won’t even mention population growth as a factor causing degradation of the environment. At best his values are those of a Reagan-era Republican. So let us not call the man “liberal”, for while he gives lip service to Enlightenment values, he secretly meets and encourages bigots like Kim Davis.
Bill Nye talks about the realities of reproduction, and the right wing completely loses its shit.
It is not Nye at his most eloquent, but…he’s actually right about everything important. Read this title for an example of the inanity of far right responses, titled WATCH: Bill Nye, Science Guy Makes An Idiot Of Himself On Reproduction. Nye is clearer and more correct than whoever wrote that, making it particularly amusing. It makes a lot of claims.
Not that this writer had all that great an affinity for Bill Nye anyway, but the video below has to be the most smug, snide, atheistic diatribe displaying outright willful ignorance and leftist talking points to grace youtube at least since Hillary Clinton talked about this subject.
No, no…that’s my schtick. How can you watch that video and come away thinking Nye’s attitude is offensive? Probably the same way one can watch it and thing he got everything wrong.
Over at National Review, a trio of physicians pick apart the arguments using actual peer reviewed medical journal articles, but we can sum up what they have to say pretty easily.
When a single sperm fertilizes a human egg, the resulting zygote – the one cell being – has its own unique DNA.
Life begins for any one human being at that moment of conception when this fertilization occurs.
Errm, if you look at the National Review article (which I’ll return to shortly), it’s by two authors, a lawyer and a bioethicist at a Catholic university; there are several other articles by a Fellow of the Discovery Institute. This isn’t exactly a stellar, well-qualified lineup.
Their first point is a non sequitur. Fertilization produces a new unique genetic combination, but so what? This is the case in every organism — we don’t swoon in awe at the fact that fertilization in zebrafish produces a new combination of DNA. We don’t declare meiosis a privileged, protected state because it produces gametes with a unique set of genes. We don’t look at the immune system and decide that antibody producing cells are human beings because they reorganize their genomes into a unique arrangement during maturation.
Their second point is a standard elision: the process that will eventually produce a human being begins at fertilization, just like the process that will produce a chair begins when a tree is chopped down. We can apply the same adjective to both the tree and the chair — “wood” — but it doesn’t make them synonymous.
This is the pure science of when human life begins. It is true that not every time an egg is fertilized it implants, and babies are lost due to natural causes every day. This is called an act of God, or if one is not religious, Mother Nature. Mr. Nye’s statements on that topic calling for the prosecution of women whose fertilized eggs do not implant in the uterine wall are patently stupid on their face.
It’s a distortion and over-simplification of the “pure science”. When Nye talks about prosecuting women whose eggs fail to implant, he’s pointing out the fucking absurdity of such an argument, but if you’re going to call them patently stupid, say it to lawmakers in Indiana and Georgia and many other places that want to criminalize contraception. How can you not know that one of the grounds for hating some forms of contraception is the idea that they prevent implantation?
“You wouldn’t know how big a human egg is if it weren’t for microscopes.” Uh, Bill…the human ovum is the only sort of cell in a woman’s body that can be seen with the naked eye.
It is true we would not know the gory details of the beauty of human reproduction without medical doctors putting cameras in some pretty private parts of women, but that does not cancel out the actual science itself that tells us a human being is created at fertilization.
That was written by a guy who’s never had to find an ovum. They weren’t even discovered in mammals until the 1830s. Identifying one relatively large cell in a tissue populated with trillions of cells isn’t easy, and while mature follicles are even larger and easier to spot, it’s still non-trivial to identify them without some magnification. I’ve got slides of ovaries in my lab, all nicely stained to make it even easier, but still…a dot that’s only 100-150µm in diameter (a tenth of a millimeter) isn’t something you’ll be able to spot without a microscope.
Bill Nye might be a science guy (engineer, actually), but he’s no more an expert on human reproduction than Todd Akin is. What Nye is is a leftist tool who is spouting the feminist line that simplifies down to stupidity the excuses the left offers for why abortion should be tolerated in polite society, and why abstinence is undesirable as a way to prevent pregnancy when it is really 100% reliable as a way to do so. Without medical intervention, so far as we know, only one child was ever conceived without his mother knowing man. That has to say something for God.
At least we get an admission that Akin isn’t an expert on human reproduction! But the rest is an evasion. Why shouldn’t abortion be tolerated? He doesn’t say. And the reliability of not having sex to avoid pregnancy is not under debate; it’s that human beings are not reliably abstinent. We should endorse methods that allow people to be sexual beings without requiring them to be saddled with an unwanted pregnancy.
But let’s go to that National Review article with the over-hyped authorities. It’s not very good or convincing. The heart of their claim is that scientific publications acknowledge and justify that zygotes are human at fertilization.
All the texts used in contemporary human embryology and teratology, developmental biology, and anatomy concur in the judgment that it is at fertilization, not — as Nye ignorantly claims — at implantation, that the life of a new individual of the species Homo sapiens begins. Here are three of many, many examples:
“Human life begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an embryo).” (Keith L. Moore, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 2003. pp. 16, 2.)
“Fertilization is the process by which male and female haploid gametes (sperm and egg) unite to produce a genetically distinct individual.” (Signorelli et al., Kinases, phosphatases and proteases during sperm capacitation, CELL TISSUE RES. 349(3):765, March 20, 2012.)
“Although life is a continuous process, fertilization (which, incidentally, is not a ‘moment’) is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte” (Emphasis added; Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Mueller, Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000, p. 8).
To which I can only say: NONSENSE. “Human” in these cases is a general descriptor for the origin of the cells; it’s a statement about the type. You might as well say that that one quote about a “male and female haploid gametes (sperm and egg)” clearly states that sperm and egg are human, therefore science says we ought to criminalize menstruation and masturbation.
One other point I have to make about their sources: the Moore and O’Rahilly texts are specifically medical embryology textbooks — they are not good sources for information about general developmental biology, and are a bit blinkered in their perspective, and tend to focus on superficial aspects of descriptive morphology. That’s fine for medical and nursing students, I suppose, but if you want to actually understand the mechanics of development, they’re useless. They’re doubly useless if you read them with an agenda that refuses to be budged by the facts.
I can troll the scientific literature, too. Here are some titles.
Pass F, Janis R, Marcus DM. (1971) Antigens of human wart tissue. J Invest Dermatol. 56(4):305-10.
Warts are human! Ban squaric acid, laser surgery, and topical liquid nitrogen treatments! (Warts actually are human: they are made of skin cells stimulated into benign overgrowth by incorporation of genetic material from a virus. They also therefore have a unique genetic combination.)
Kim HB, Lee SH, Um JH, Oh WK, Kim DW, Kang CD, Kim SH. (2015) Sensitization of multidrug-resistant human cancer cells to Hsp90 inhibitors by down-regulation of SIRT1. Oncotarget. 2015 Sep 25. [Epub ahead of print]
Cancer cells are human! They are also genetically distinct from their host, with a unique molecular signature. All the arguments used by these people denying Nye’s statements can also be applied to cancer.
Finch CE, Austad SN. (2015) Commentary: is Alzheimer’s disease uniquely human? Neurobiol Aging. 36(2):553-5.
Uh-oh. Scientists refer to diseases as “human”, too? Do we need to get informed consent and a signature from neurofibrillary plaques in the brain before we can try to treat it?
My point is not that warts, cancer, or diseases need to be regarded as persons. It’s that “human” is a very broad term that is applied to a lot of kinds of cells, and it takes a particularly naive person to browse through the literature and go “A-ha! My biases are confirmed by this quote!” We clearly have an understanding of the distinction between the general term “human” and “person deserving full civil rights and the protection of society”. If we didn’t, everyone would have to go around the house collecting shed skin flakes to give them a properly reverent burial.
And please, can this fascination with genetically unique combinations just curl up and die? It’s irrelevant and meaningless. A human being is not a cell or a listing of the nucleotide sequences of their genome. We
leftist tools have a deeper appreciation of the breadth and depth of experience and information that makes us fully human than “right-wing ignoramuses”, it seems.
Wait, what about the idiot from the Discovery Institute? What does he have to say? He’s ignorable. Well, so are the other babblers at the National Review, so I’ll just mention one thing. Wesley Smith says:
A sperm is a cell, it is alive but it isn’t a living organism. Ditto an egg.
Wha…? How does he define “organism”? That statement is so stupid it hurt to read it. I would like to see his definition, because it will require some twisty ad hoc bullshit to avoid being used to claim a zygote isn’t an “organism”.
Speaking of ignorable, one thing these critics ignore is women. Everything spins around how they can redefine terms, and how they can distort the scientific literature as an authority to back them up, but the primary argument for abortion is that women — human beings that we can not dispute are fully functional, aware members of society — must have autonomy and the right to control their bodies, and that society is better for everyone when women are respected as something more than baby-makers. They don’t even try to touch that point.
Today we feature the bird photos of reader Damon Williford from Texas.
Black-bellied whistling-duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis):
Buff-bellied hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis):
Buff-breasted sandpiper (Calidris subruficollis):
Dickcissel (Spiza americana):
Golden-fronted woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons):
Green jay (Cyanocorax yncas):
Hooded oriole (Icterus cucullatus):
Did you watch the big hearing in Congress the other day? Congressional Republicans, having failed completely with their plan of holding their breath until the Democrats and Obama agreed to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, had to settle for the consolation prize. They hauled up Cecile Richards, PP’s president, so they could browbeat her for five hours. If you watch any five minute segment of it you will have seen the whole thing. The Republicans asked one stupid, mendacious question after another, and then cut Richards off the second she tried to answer. I’m sure the crazies loved it, but I don’t think the Republicans made any inroads toward getting the all-important sane vote.
An especially interesting moment came when Jason Chaffetz, a congressman from Utah, presented what he thought was a damning piece of evidence against Richards. It was a graph showing two lines. One showed the number of “Cancer Screenings and Preventative Services” offered by PP. This line was pointing down with a high slope. The second line showed the number of abortions over the same time period. This line was pointing up with a high slope. The lines crossed somewhere in the middle. The point was to challenge PP’s claim that abortions make up a tiny percentage of the services they provide. “I got these numbers from your own corporate reports,” Chaffetz intoned.
Now, as Richards had the satisfaction of pointing out, this was a big lie by Chaffetz. The graph came from a pro-life website, and not from his own meticulous reading of corporate reports. The way we know it came from that website is that Chaffetz’s chart had the source clearly printed at the bottom.
More than that, though, the chart is a real masterpiece of dishonesty. It takes people with no conscience at all to produce a graph as dishonest as this one. Kevin Drum has the full details. The graph, you see, had no y-axis. Without that, what you have is not any honest presentation of data, but rather just two lines with made-up slopes.
The actual numbers speak for themselves. According to what is on the chart, the number of abortions went from roughly 289,000 to 327,000, between 2006 and 2013. During that same time period, cancer screenings and whatnot went from a little over two million down to roughly 935,000. Of course, cancer screenings hardly cover the totality of PP’s non-abortion services. When you factor in STD testing and contraceptive services, the number goes from slightly over nine million in 2006, to 8,892,000 in 2013.
Yet somehow, these lines managed to cross on Chaffetz’s graph.
To anyone capable of looking at and understanding numbers, this is a complete vindication of PP’s claim that abortion is a tiny percentage of the services they provide. Chaffetz’s graph proves the exact opposite of what he said it proved. But the pathological liars of the far right do not care about such things.
I am posting my first Hili Dialogue as Professor Ceiling Cat, Emeritus. All I can say is that I feel the same as yesterday, except that I have a warm feeling from all the kind readers who wrote in to congratulate me and say “thanks.” And now business will resume as usual. One note: posting may be virtually nonexistent tomorrow as I am giving the biology convocation lecture at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun. It will be Everything About Evolution (why it’s important, the evidence, misconceptions about it, why people resist it, and its importance, both practically and for one’s worldview)—all crammed into half an hour! But I’ve managed to do it. Now if I can also manage to tolerate a coat and tie (required for such a formal occasion), I’ll survive; and I’m promised a tour of the beautiful city of Torun and a big traditional Polish lunch afterwards. I will of course take photos. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, it’s overcast today, and Andrzej is messing with a famished Hili. Their dialogue even has a title:
Hili: So this is where you keep the cans!
A: Shall I open some beans for you?
Hili: No stupid jokes, please.
SPIŻARNIAHili: To tu są wszystkie puszki!
Ja: Otworzyć ci fasolę?
Hili: Bez głupich żartów, proszę.
Before people who like this site worry that I’m retiring from writing here, let me clarify. That is not what I mean by “retiring.” Posting here will continue as usual, though there will be only two posts today. As of 4:30 p.m. Chicago time, I’m retiring in the conventional sense—from my job at the University of Chicago. As I sleep tonight in Poland, seven hours ahead of Chicago, I will be transformed from Professor to Professor Emeritus (or, on this site, to Professor Ceiling Cat, Emeritus).
This has been in the offing for two years, but I don’t often post here about personal issues, and wanted to delay this news until retirement was a fait accompli. And, as today’s Hili dialogue suggests, not that much will change for me, save that I will no longer do research with my own hands or teach students (emeritus faculty aren’t allowed to teach at Chicago). I get to keep my office, and will still work hard, but the nature of that work will change a bit.
Several years ago, I began to realize that my job as a scientist and academic was not as challenging as it had been for the previous 35 years. I had mastered the requisites of such a job: doing research, writing papers, mentoring and teaching students, getting grants, and so on. The one challenge left was discovering new things about evolution, which was the really exciting thing about science. I’ve always said that there is nothing comparable to being the first person to see something that nobody’s seen before. Artists must derive some of the same satisfaction when creating new fictional worlds, or finding new ways to see the existing world, but it is only those who do science—and I mean “science” in the broad sense—who are privileged to find and verify new truths about our cosmos.
But finding truly new things—things that surprise and delight other scientists—is very rare, for science, like Steve Gould’s fossil record, is largely tedium punctuated by sudden change. And so, as I began to look for more sustaining challenges; I slowly ratcheted down my research, deciding that I’d retire after my one remaining student graduated. That decision was made two years ago, but the mechanics of retirement—and, in truth, my own ambivalence—have led to a slight delay. Today, though, is the day.
What am I going to do now? Well, I’m not going to take up golf, which I always found a bit silly. I won’t do any more “bench work”—research with my own hands—but I’m not going to abandon science. I will still write about it, both on this website and in venues like magazines and their e-sites, and I’m planning a popular book on speciation. Writing, for me, is the New Big Challenge, and one that can never be mastered. My aspiration is to write about science in beautiful and engaging words, and to find my own voice so that I’m not simply aping the popular science writers I admire so much. That is a challenge that will last a lifetime, for there is never an end to improving one’s writing.
And I do plan to travel more, visiting those places I’ve longed to see but haven’t had time: Antarctica, Australia, Southeast Asia, Bali, the wildlife refuges of Africa, Patagonia, and so on.
But let me look back now, for I feel the urge to close my academic career by summarizing it.
When I was applying for jobs, my advisor, Dick Lewontin, used to write in his recommendation letters something like this: “If Jerry has one fault, he’s too self-deprecating and tends to sell himself short.” He was right, for I never wanted to succumb to the arrogance of those who internalize the admiration they receive. But today I’ll try to be honest without being too self-deprecating.
So what have I accomplished? First, it’s been a good career. Scientifically, I’ve accomplished far more than I ever imagined. In truth, had I known as a graduate student the hurdles I’d have to surmount to become a professor at a great university and accomplish a goodly amount of widely cited research, I probably would have given up. But I didn’t look at the whole track: I took things one hurdle at a time. Now I’m at the end of the race, and though can’t say I’ve won, I’m happy with my finish.
What am I proudest of? My research, of course, for the desire to find out things was what made me a scientist. The pivotal moment was when, as an undergraduate in genetics class, we were given two tubes of fruit flies, one with white eyes, the other with the normal reddish-brown eyes. We were assigned the job of finding out what mutation caused the eyes to lose pigment. When I crossed the flies from the two tubes, the offspring had normal-colored eyes, but when those “F1 progeny” were crossed among themselves, one got four colors in the offspring: normal, white, and two new colors: dark brown and bright orange. How could that be? I remember puzzling this out, and then the solution came to me in a flash while sitting on the bleachers in swimming class. The white-eyed flies must have two mutant genes, one that blocked the production of red pigment (producing brown eyes), and one blocking the brown pigment (orange eyes). When both mutations were present, no pigment was produced, ergo white eyes. I went back to the lab, tested that theory, and found not only that I was right, but that the two genes resided on the same chromosome (the second), though they were far apart. I gave them cumbersome names, but they were in fact the classic mutations cinnabar and brown.
The excitement of that moment, and the clean results I got when testing my hypothesis, is what made me an evolutionary geneticist. Since then, I’ve always tried to do experiments in which the result are clean: experiments in which there are two possible outcomes that are easily distinguishable. While the study of evolution is often messy, evolutionary genetics is neater, and both my students and I have concentrated on studies in which the results unequivocally favor one hypothesis rather than another. It all goes back to that moment in gym class.
I am proud of my work on speciation, and I will try not to be overly modest when claiming that I think I helped revive the study of how species form, at least in a genetic sense—a research area that had lain moribund for many years. There is now a cottage industry of work on speciation, much of it inspired by the work my students and I did at The University of Maryland (my first job) and then at The University of Chicago. The specific things we found, and what they meant, will of course be immersed in and then covered by the stream of science, and our names will be forgotten. But that is the fate of most of us, and it is enough for me to have shunted the evolutionary-biology stream towards one of its more important questions: why is nature divided up into lumps (species) instead of forming a complete organic continuum? And how do those lumps form? I was privileged to have made a few discoveries that helped answer these questions, and to have inspired others to make even more discoveries.
What I’m proudest of, I suppose, is the book I wrote with my ex-student Allen Orr, Speciation, published in 2004. It took each of us six years to write, was widely acclaimed and, more important, was influential. I still see that book as my true legacy, for it not only summed up where the field had gone, but also highlighted its important but unsolved questions, serving as a guide for future research.
I’m also very proud of my graduate students, which are one’s human legacy: the academic sons and daughters whose work will change the course of science long after I’m gone. I have had a very small output of students: only four, with one of them opting for a career in science writing. The other three are well-known academics, and I’m immensely proud that they’re all seen as “stars.” I can’t really claim credit for their accomplishments, as they were all self-starters, nor can I say that I had an eye for talent. All I can say is that I sat in the lab with them, engaged in nonstop conversation about science as we “pushed flies” together (counted and manipulated flies under the microscope with ermine-fur paintbrushes); and I think that conversation helped motivate and guide them.
And I’m proud that up to the very end I did my own research with my own hands. I don’t fault those senior scientists who tell others what to do and sit in their offices writing up the results of that guided research, but being a lab manager was never my forte. In fact, given that I loved to work at the bench, I didn’t have time to manage others, and this also constrained me to have only one student at a time. (I’ve also had only one postdoc, and I am proud of her accomplishments as a molecular evolutionary geneticist.)
On a more mundane level, I’m proud of having never gone without grant support for my entire career, something that’s a rarity in these days of tight funding. I had the same grant, renewed every three years, for over three decades: “The genetics of speciation.” I am immensely grateful to the National Institutes of Health for providing the largesse for all my research.
What could I have done better? To a determinist like me, regrets are unproductive (though perhaps useful to others), as I couldn’t have done other than what I did. But I wish I had been a better teacher, especially of undergraduates. Given that my true love was research, and that one is evaluated at a place like the University of Chicago largely on research rather than teaching, I probably put too little effort into teaching. I wish I had had interacted more with my undergraduate students, for at the University of Chicago they are a bright and curious bunch. My teaching ratings always came in about average, and I always wished they were higher. On the other hand, a lot of my research was done in collaboration with undergraduates who asked to work in my lab after taking my evolution course, and several of these have gone on to careers in either science or medicine.
The University of Chicago is a diverse and stimulating place: we have great professors and courses in every area of the liberal arts and sciences. I wish I had interacted more with my diverse colleagues over my career. The University is a bit Balkanized, though, so such opportunities are rare, and there’s precious little time. But I love the humanities, and wish I had sat in on courses in English, philosophy, history, and the sciences of physical anthropology, paleontology, and so on. Perhaps I’ll have more time to do that now. But at least I fulfilled the two vows I made as an aspiring academic: I would never leave college, and I would always have a job in which I could wear jeans to work.
Academics who retire are often asked what advice they have for younger folks. (I have in fact been asked that question repeatedly throughout my career.) And of course we all tend to advise people to do exactly what we did! For that is really all we can say: do the things that, we think, helped make us personally successful. And here I’ll mention two things, both of which characterized my own career. Perhaps these can influence the neuronal wiring of younger researchers and affect their own lives.
First, there is no substitute for hard work. Brains are not enough, and, in truth, I’ve never seen myself as particularly smart. But I have worked very hard—often seven days a week—and it is to that hard work that I attribute what success I’ve had. Good ideas are few—I’ve had about three in my life—but everyone has the capacity (though not perhaps the inclination) to work hard. To all grad students, then: if you’re not in the lab on weekends, you’re not doing it right. That is not to say that you shouldn’t have a life outside the lab, for of course that’s vital, but if you’re passionate about your work, you’ll want to do it outside conventional work hours. Science is not a nine-to-five job.
The second bit of advice was imparted by my mentor Dick Lewontin at his “pre-retirement” party at Harvard, when he stood up in front of the coelacanth—the “living fossil” fish preserved in a tank of formalin, which Dick pointed out as an appropriate backdrop. He ended his brief remarks by emphasizing the one thing he wanted the younger generation to absorb. It was this: if you’re a professor, DO NOT slap your name as an author on the papers of your students—at least not unless you did substantial work on the project. Such gratuitous co-authorship inflates your curriculum vitae in a less-than-honest way, and also diminishes the accomplishments of your students.
It is a truth universally acknowledged in academics (and named the “Matthew Effect” after the appropriate Biblical verse) that the “senior author” of a research paper—the head of the lab where the work was done—gets the lion’s share of credit for that work. The unfortunate result is that the graduate students and postdocs are left picking up the crumbs, seen as mere functionaries. That is not the way it should be. Senior authors have already attained their status and security, while junior authors are merely aspiring to such a position. To me, the only justification for putting your name on a student’s paper is that you either did a large portion of the work with your own hands or contributed substantially to the analysis. Simply handing a student an idea, providing the funding or materials for the research, or helping the student/postdoc write the paper isn’t sufficient to warrant authorship. Those are our duties as professors, while our privilege is to do the science and find out new things.
One anecdote about this. My first well-known paper showed that, as revealed by gel electrophoresis, some genes had many more alleles (gene forms) than previously thought—up to twenty or thirty forms segregating in a population. I wrote up a paper for the journal Genetics, and at the top put the names of two authors: myself and Dick Lewontin. At the end of the day, I timidly placed the paper on his desk for his comments and emendations.
The next morning I found the paper on my desk, covered with red scrawls (Dick’s handwriting was atrocious), but with Lewontin’s name crossed out. He told me, “Don’t ever do that again.” Lewontin was part of a lineage of academics who abjured credit-mongering. His own advisor, Theodosius Dobzhansky, often published research that derived from his own ideas, for which he did much of the physical labor of reading chromosome slides, and for which he wrote the entire paper—and yet his name wasn’t under the title. Often his technicians were the sole authors: Boris Spassky and Olga Pavlovsky. And Dobzhansky came from the very first modern genetics lab—that of Thomas Hunt Morgan—whose members (save, perhaps, H. J. Muller) didn’t care very much about who got the credit. I am proud to be part of that lineage and of trying to sustain its traditions.
I’m often told that without putting your name on every paper coming from your lab, you won’t advance professionally. That is not true. For 30 years I submitted grant proposals to the National Institutes of Health listing all the papers published during my previous funding period. Many of these papers did not have my name on them. And the NIH didn’t care a bit: they cared about how much good research had been done on their dime, not whether my name was on the papers; and they continued to fund me.
So to the professors: try to not grab credit that you really don’t deserve. It is your job to help students write papers and find good ideas; it is your job to guide their research and suggest how to analyze that research. But that does not justify your taking credit for their work. To the students: do not assume automatically that your professor’s name should go on your paper. Perhaps that’s the lab “tradition”, and you must hew to it lest you offend your boss. But even if you must succumb to this form of coercion, try not to do it yourself when you become the boss.
And with that advice I will end this post. I have had a good run, I regret nothing, at least scientifically, and I’ve been given the greatest privilege a scientist can have: to be the first to discover some previously unknown things about our universe.
As always, Hili is here to announce big changes in my life. This will be the first of only two posts today.
Hili: So you are really going to retire?
Jerry: Yes, I am.
Hili: And what are you going to do then?
Jerry: More or less the same thing.
Hili: Czy to prawda, że dziś przechodzisz na emeryturę?
Jerry: Tak, to prawda.
Hili: I co będziesz robił?
Jerry: Właściwie to samo.
When I wrote my post on Sept. 24 dissecting Ben Carson’s ignorance of cosmology and evolution, I realized at the end that the people who would read here it already agreed with me, and that I had spent over two hours basically entertaining myself. Still, at least the problems with his creationist views of the cosmos and evolution were on the record somewhere.
Well, Lawrence Krauss has put them on the record in a much bigger venue, the New Yorker. If you want to see a small but loud fish blasted to bits in a barrel, read Krauss’s piece “Ben Carson’s scientific ignorance.” Krauss concentrates more on Carson’s physics arguments—including his mushbrained claims about entropy—than on evolution, but that’s okay, as I’ve done the evolution work.
Here’s one excerpt from Krauss’s takedown:
Last week, when he was confronted, during a speech at Cedarville University, about his failure to understand basic and fundamental scientific concepts, Carson responded, “I’m not going to denigrate you because of your faith, and you shouldn’t denigrate me for mine.” What Carson doesn’t seem to recognize is that there is a fundamental difference between facts and faith. An inability to separate religious beliefs from an assessment of physical reality runs counter to the very basis of our society—the separation of church and state.
Carson continues to insist, as do many religionists, that science, like religion, is simply a form of faith. I’ve picked the meat off that canard before, both in Slate and in Faith versus Fact, and we needn’t belabor it here. What’s funny about that argument is that it boils down to this claim by believers: “See! Science is just as bad as religion!” If they truly were equivalent, theology would have made as much progress in understanding God as science has in understanding the universe. But the score is zero for the former and a gazillion for the latter.
Krauss is probably preaching to the choir as much as I did, for in the end there are few creationists who read The New Yorker, and virtually no supporters of Carson, but it’s still good to get the scientific objections on the record. Krauss concludes, as do most rationalists, that having a man like Carson in the White House is unthinkable:
While many may debate whether his lack of public-service experience disqualifies him from serious consideration in this race, Carson’s ideas about religion, science, and public office, as revealed in the past week, suggest that there are far deeper reasons to be concerned about his candidacy for the highest office in the land.
But of course that goes for nearly every Republican candidate, for as far as I know there is no GOP candidate who openly endorses the truth of evolution.
Before I became a writer, I got my degree in Anthropology, the study of humans, their culture, their biology, their history and their evolution (I suppose I should say “our,” but you get the idea). One of the most important aspects of studying Cultural Anthropology is understanding the concept of cultural relativism, “the principle that an individual human’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual’s own culture.”I have no doubt these other cultures would be as shocked with our religious rituals as we are with theirs. Ahhhh, but the Christian rituals are correct rituals while theirs are incorrect ones, right? Right? Nothing so destroys the so-called virtue of religious faith but seeing a different group of people who hail the virtue of a different faith. For then their own religious rituals are seen for what they truly are, as cultural, based on nothing more than ancient superstitious beliefs. It takes a brilliant mind to defend one's own religious rituals of life stemming from ancient superstitious people, but then faith makes otherwise brilliant people look, well, dumb, as we all know too well.
That essentially means put yourself in their shoes. In anthropology, we don’t demonize or criticize other culture’s practices, but instead try to understand why they do what they do within the context of their culture. No matter how strange, weird or plain horrific these cultural practices may seem to us within the context of our culture.
Keeping cultural relativism in mind, here are 19 cultural practices from around the world that you won’t believe exist (within the confines of your culture), along with some context to help you understand why they do what they do. LINK.
Offensive or not, Islam and political Islam must be open to all forms of criticism and ridicule, particularly in this day and age. Not a second passes without some atrocity being committed by this movement. It hangs people from cranes and lamp posts, it stones people to death—in the twenty-first century—with the law even specifying the size of the stone to be used; it murders girls in cold blood at their school gates. It must be criticized and ridiculed because that is very often all that a resisting population has to oppose it. That is how, throughout history, reaction has been pushed back and citizens protected. And so it must again.This is the sort of view that has apparently led to Namazie being no-platformed by the student body at the University of Warwick. But we must be free to put such views.
|The Dead Line the Street at Mina|
Supermax prisons isolate inmates from social contact. Often prisoners are in their cells, sometimes smaller than 8 by 12 feet, 23 hours a day, released only for a shower or exercise in a small fenced-in outdoor space. Isolation changes the way the brain works, often making individuals more impulsive, less able to control themselves. The mental pain of solitary confinement is crippling: Brain studies reveal durable impairments and abnormalities in individuals denied social interaction. Plainly put, prisoners often lose their minds. LINK.This still depicts tortures beyond what human beings could endure, especially if consciously suffering them forever. So we still have a barbaric God that no one should trust in, much less worship. The punishment would still not fit the crimes committed in this life.
The tobacco industry knew that cigarettes were both addictive and carcinogenic. They sold them anyway, and hired professional obfuscators and lobbyists to bury the truth.
Now we know that the oil industry is the same way. Exxon knew how much carbon was buried in oil reserves. They knew how much carbon dioxide was in the atmosphere. They were able to calculate in 1979 what burning all that oil would do to the carbon dioxide concentration.
They knew. They didn’t care what its effects were. They only cared about their bottom line.
You know, the future is going to look back on rabid capitalism as one of the damning pathologies of our history.
The Intelligent Design Creationists are always getting annoyed at the third word in that label — they’re not creationists, they insist, but something completely different. They’re scientists, they think. They’re just scientists who favor a different explanation for the diversity of life on Earth than those horrible Darwinist notions. But of course, everything about them just affirms that they’re simply jumped-up creationists with airs, from their founding by an evangelical Christian, Phillip Johnson, to their crop of fellows like Paul Nelson and William Dembski, who happily profess their science-denying faith to audiences of fellow evangelicals, to their stance on every single damn discovery that comes out of paleontology and molecular biology. The real misnomer is that they work at a think-tank called the Discovery Institute, when their response to every scientific discovery that confirms evolution is a spasm of jerking knees and a chorus of “uh-uh” and “no way”.
It makes no sense. They completely lack an intellectual framework for dealing with new findings in science, so instead of explaining how Intelligent Design “Science” better explains an observed phenomenon, they instead dredge up some entirely unqualified spokesperson to mumble half-baked, pseudo-scientific excuses for why those Darwinists have it all wrong.
Case in point: Homo naledi, the newly discovered South African species. If they actually were Intelligent Design “Scientists”, they’d respond with the same puzzled happiness that real scientists do: we’re not sure where to place this species in our family tree, but it’s very exciting, and fits with our growing knowledge about the diversity of early hominins — there were lots of different species of human ancestral species and dead-end branch species living at the same time on Earth right up to less than 100,000 years ago. This fact of the fossil data has been known since I was a wee young lad growing up reading about Louis and Mary Leakey in National Geographic. That multiple hominin species coexisted and overlapped in time is part of the body of data that we have, and it fits just fine with evolutionary theory. The history of a lineage is a braided stream, with populations branching off and diverging, sometimes dying off, other times merging with other branches. And we explain this pattern with theories about common descent, genetic drift, and selection.
You would think Intelligent Design Creationists, if they were as science-minded as they claim, would have no problem with species diversity. All these species existed at the same time, sure, but rather than blind biology producing different outcomes by chance, their unnamed mysterious Designer was working hard, plucking out aspects of all these different species and fusing them by conscious design and an unnamed mysterious process into a final elegant result, us, Homo sapiens, the intended species.
But no. Instead, the Discovery Institute puts child-lawyer Casey Luskin on the case, to cast doubt on the whole discovery. It reminds me of the varying interpretations of fossils by open creationists: they’re not part of our ancestry, they say, they’re just apes, animals of various kinds, who didn’t make it on Noah’s Ark, or degenerated in the aftermath of the Fall. Rather than embracing new evidence as part of a pattern of ongoing Intelligent Design, Luskin is instead expressing his denial that humans ever had anything other than modern humans in their ancestry. Which means that every hominin fossil must be regarded as just another ape, another animal.
And he does it so poorly! I’m not going to dissect every point in Luskin’s tediously long article in detail — really, he’s just echoing every question anyone has asked about H. naledi in the last few weeks, in an attempt to construct a litany of doubt — but I have to point out the numerous ways he misrepresents evolutionary biology to pretend that H. naledi is somehow a refutation of Darwin. As I’ve pointed out many times before, Luskin is a scientific illiterate who doesn’t actually understand anything remotely biological, from genetics to embryology to molecular biology to, now, paleontology. Actually, this isn’t the first time Luskin has tripped over himself in a rush to deny — he also didn’t like Tiktaalik. So this is just more of the same.
Luskin has a bad case of missinglinkitis. This is the idea that there is a linear series of steps in a progression leading from ape to human, and all we have to do is find each frame in the movie and we can replay everything in science class. He wants a “link”, a word he uses multiple times, and he wants “transitional fossils”, unaware that every individual is a transition between parent and progeny.
It has long been recognized that we are missing fossils documenting the supposed transition from the apelike genus Australopithecus to the humanlike Homo. Despite what you may be hearing in the media, Homo naledi does not solve this problem.
Some have envisioned the hallowed intermediate link being a creature with an apelike body and a human-like head.
“Some”? Who? How do you get a modern human head on an “apelike” (I don’t know about Luskin, who may have a human head on a rodent-like body, but I’m an ape, and my body as is is entirely apelike) body with no variations from one pure state to another? This claim makes no sense. Modern humans are the result of 6 million years of diverse populations splitting and mingling — there is no one missing link at any time point. There are thousands. They pass on traits to their descendants, who interbreed with other individuals with different traits, and our entire history is one of mixing genes up.
When a creationist (or a journalist or even a scientist) starts babbling about missing links or lacking transitional fossils, you’re done. They’re ignorant of the science, and can be ignored. Especially when they do things like the following, and mangle the science.
For now, the promoters of Homo naledi are are calling it an “anatomical mosaic.” That terminology raises a red flag. In the parlance of evolutionary biology, it means the fossil is a strange organism that doesn’t fit well into the standard phylogeny.
No it doesn’t! A mosaic is what we expect. Please. No one believes that there was one true population of human ancestors that ascended in a continuous, linear path from Australopithecus to Republican presidential candidate. It’s all fits and starts, one group over here being shaped one way, another group over there changing another way, and occasionally two groups associate and produce offspring that mix and match the traits of both…and some succeed and some die out. No one expects legs to evolve at a continuous low rate, and heads to evolve at precisely the same rate, and that that rate is uniform for all populations everywhere.
It’s a strawman. Creationists expect that we’ll paint a picture of human evolution that’s straight and narrow, like this:
Real scientists tell them over and over that no, the history of human evolution looks more like this:
And then the creationists declare that because the stream of history doesn’t look like the first picture, evolution has been falsified. That’s all Luskin is doing here.
And this is his conclusion.
What will become of “Homo naledi” remains to be seen. So far, though, its pathway reminds me of other hominin fossils whose “transitional” or “ancestral” status ultimately went belly up. A strong dose of healthy skepticism is warranted.
We’re back to the transitional red herring. It may well turn out that H. naledi is not part of our direct lineage — this would particularly be the case if the chronology (we still don’t know how old these fossils are) excludes the possibility. But so what? It still represents a wonderful example of how evolution actually works. That it’s not the cartoon version creationists favor is good news for evolutionary theory. If we did have evidence of the steady, incremental ascent of humanity, it would make me question our understanding of the mechanisms of evolutionary change.
I have to mention two other lesser points from the paper. Luskin really knows nothing.
The technical paper, “Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa,” appeared in a lesser-known journal, eLife. It’s a great find due to the sheer number of bones that were found, but to my mind its publication in eLife is an immediate hint that this fossil isn’t an earthshattering “transitional form,” because if it were, we almost unquestionably would have seen the fossil published in Science or Nature.
No. Wrong. A lot of scientists resent the tyranny of the magical CV-enhancing powers of those two journals, and think they have an inflated and dangerously dominant reputation. eLife is an entirely credible new journal which, to all appearances, has a robust reputation for good, solid peer-review…and is also open source. There are a lot of scientists who are eager to see scientific information disseminated more widely without the limiting restrictions of traditional journal publishing, and Lee Berger, the lead investigator in this work, doesn’t need the résumé reinforcement that publishing in Nature or Science provides.
Luskin also spends a lot of time on the peculiarities of the fossil distribution — it’s all H. naledi bones in this one location, with no other species present, which has led the authors to conclude that it may have been a ritual burial (or at least, body disposal) site. It implies that members of this species were in some way concerned about the treatment of their dead. That, obviously, troubles creationists. It removes the unique nature of one property of modern humans, a property that’s also associated with religious belief. So Luskin dwells on it and makes incoherent excuses.
I don’t buy the idea that this was just a group of hominins fleeing danger who all, children, old people, adults, got trapped in this cave and couldn’t get out. It doesn’t make sense: why wouldn’t other animals — hyenas, gazelles, other primates — ever find themselves similarly trapped? It’s also inconsistent with Luskin’s other arguments, that this assemblage represents several different hominin species (citing the awful Jeffrey Schwartz to make that case), because then that means that there had to have been several of these unique flight-from-danger scenarios that involved only hominins.
But then, consistency and sense have never been phenomena associated with the Discovery Institute. I hear calliope music and glossolalia whenever I read anything from Casey Luskin.
Everybody Is Wrong About God is, frankly, an ambitious project of mine in which I aim to completely pull the rug out from under theism and theology. With them, therefore, atheism has to go too. My goal, then, is nothing less than turning the first page in a new chapter, one that points us toward a new post-theistic phase in human history--one that leaves God behind, for good (and I mean that both ways).I wrote a blurb for it:
Lindsay correctly argues in this book that theism (or “God”) is dead, even though most people don’t realize it yet, echoing the words of Nietzsche’s madman. Lindsay surprisingly goes on to argue that if theism is dead then so is atheism. For without theism we shouldn’t be atheists either, just human beings living in a post-theistic secular society where the relevancy of theism for our lives is beneath serious consideration. Lindsay calls us to completely rethink both theism and atheism, and he informs us what this means and how we should proceed into the future. This is a very thought provoking book, sure to be controversial. I love it!
John Hawks makes a very good case that Homo naledi is a distinct species from H. erectus. He persuaded me, anyway, and it’s well worth reading.
Also entertaining. There is some savage snark in there aimed at Jeffrey Schwartz (oh, man, I’ve long known Schwartz as a hack, not for his anthropology, but for his atrocious abuse of genetics) and Tim White. Data, evidence, and inside baseball!
The third Problem of the Week has now been posted. Enjoy!
I only have time for a quickie this week. Here’s another Troitzky study, simple by his standards but charming nonetheless. It’s white to play and win. This is actually a one-liner in which black’s moves are all essentially forced, so you might want to have a go at solving it before reading on.
We’re going to round up the queen with a knight fork. Play begins 1. Bd8+ Kf5 2. Ne7+
Now 2. … Kf6 walks right into a discovered check, while 2. Ke5 walks right into a knight form on c6. So black must play 2. … Kf4 after which we get 3. Bc7+!. Wait a sec. Can’t black just take the bishop now? That leaves white with just the two knights, which are infamously unable to give mate. Hold that thought. We’ll come back to it momentarily.
If black does not take the bishop then he is stuck with 3. … Ke3:
But now white plays 4. Bb6! Qxb6 5. Nd5+
which picks up the queen. Yay!
But wait. What about that point I raised before, that a king and two knights cannot force mate? Well, that’s true, but that’s not quite the situation we have right now. Black still has a pawn, and that makes all the difference. You see, king and two knights can force stalemate. With black still having a pawn, the following winning plan suggests itself. White will plant one of his knights in front of the pawn. Then his king and other knight will drive the black king into one of the corners. At a strategic moment, the other knight will then race to the other side of the board to give checkmate, avoiding stalemate by allowing the black pawn to move. Of course, he’d better time everything correctly. Otherwise black might end up queening the pawn, and won’t white feel silly then! In this case, though, with the black pawn so far back, the win should be attainable.
It just so happens that Troitzky was something of an authority on the K+2N vs. K+P endgame. My book of Troitzky studies contains his theoretical monograph on the subject, which comes to 60 pages of dense analysis. My understanding is that this analysis is still considered largely correct, which is incredible for someone analyzing these things without a computer.
See you next week!
Atheism is when an individual chooses not to believe in the existence of any deities. It is stating the position that there are no deities, or the absence of belief that there is a higher power governing the life of man.
To be an atheist means to reject the idea that there are gods in the Universe and to be an atheist means to question every religious belief that exists and being taught. Atheists are individuals who believe in the supremacy of human logic and reasoning; an atheist will rely on scientific principles and research and use this to conduct their daily living.
In the United States of America, 83% would identify themselves as Christians and the remaining 13% will identify themselves as having no religion or being an atheist. The remaining 4% are following non-Christian religions such as Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.
Atheists are free thinkers, they have no certain religious beliefs and traditions that they follow. There are no codes and religious conducts, they are not required by any church to stop drinking beer, or doing drugs and they believe in freedom as a way of life.
Atheists cannot be quantified and measured, while there are some who frequently have sex, do drugs and alcohol not everyone is in this percentage. There are many Atheists that do contain good moral value even though they don’t follow a Holy doctrine. There are also Atheists who are scientists, researchers, teachers, physicians, doctors as well as well known celebrities.
Islam is very much against Atheism because it contradicts their traditional beliefs especially the ones that are written in the holy book of Islam the Qu’ran.
Most Atheist no longer believe in traditional marriage, and would not follow certain social conducts being imposed by the church; this is seen as a threat by most religions especially Islam.
However, this is not a belief that all Muslims participate in, there are some Islam believers that are very accepting of other people’s beliefs, it will all boil down to the perception of the individual who is following a certain religion. If they can be open minded and know as well as accept that it is alright for other people in the world to not believe in the same way of life that they believe in then they will be able to come to terms with the lack of beliefs that Atheists possess. This will mean for a peaceful union between them.
Granville Sewell has a new post up at Uncommon Descent. It’s short, but if you don’t want to read it, then rest assured it’s just the same post he always writes. Could the four fundamental forces of physics assemble iPhones or nuclear power plants? Absurd! The post is framed in the context of an imaginary discussion between him and an imaginary friend who defends evolution. He plays the role of the bemused clear thinker, while his friend is, of course, dogmatic and unreasonable.
I wouldn’t bother to address it, except that the title caught my eye. The post is called, “Mathematicians are Trained to Value Simplicity.” Indeed! I like simplicity. So let me attempt a serious response to Sewell’s musings.
Personally, I find it incredible that the four fundamental forces of physics, operating from the moment after the Big Bang, could rearrange matter into everything that we see today. That unintelligent causes can ultimately lead to the creation of intelligent creatures, who can then rearrange matter and energy in clever ways, is, I entirely agree, hard to believe. And Darwinian evolution strains credulity as well. I am very sympathetic to the view that natural forces do not construct delicate, biomolecular machines.
As I see it, the idea that naturalism is correct in general, and that Darwinian evolution is correct in particular, has just two things going for it. As it happens, though, they are two big things. The first is that every scrap of evidence discovered by scientists points strongly in that direction. If evolution is false, for example, then it should have been trivially easy to disprove. And yet every scrap of data we have is consistent with what evolution tells us to expect. It certainly did not have to be that way. Science might have discovered that the earth was just ten thousand years old and that there were fundamental discontinuities between organisms that correspond to some plausible notion of “created kind.” Science might have discovered all manner of things that were just fundamentally beyond what natural forces can do. Might have, but didn’t.
Creationists, in their various incarnations, deny this. But their arguments are very poor. If your argument is that “irreducibly complex” systems cannot evolve gradually, or that some back of the envelope probability calculation can prove the intervention of a supernatural designer in natural history, then obviously knowledgeable people are going to laugh at you. If you run around telling people that evolutionary biologists have simply overlooked a conflict between evolution and the second law of thermodynamics, then don’t act surprised if scientists politely suggest you do a little homework.
And if you really spend some time looking at what biologists have discovered–the real thing, not the delusional creationist caricature–then evolution start seeming very plausible after all. For example, those biomolecular systems we were talking about never look quite so impressive after you study them in detail. They are invariably incomprehensible viewed as the products of an engineer’s design, but make perfect sense when viewed as the end result of a long process of evolution. They always show what Stephen Jay Gould referred to as “the senseless signs of history.”
Which brings us to the other thing evolution, and naturalism more generally, have going for them. However superficially implausible they seem, the only alternative on offer is much harder to believe.
Sewell urges us to look for the simple explanation. But there is nothing simple in the idea of an omnipotent magic man who lives in the clouds. Whatever mysteries you think you have found in the naturalistic view of life pale in comparison to what happens when you try to comprehend an entity with the attributes God is said to have.
God is said to be mind without brain. For all the experience we have with actual minds and actual brains, that just looks like a contradiction in terms. God has no physical existence, yet acts of His will can cause whole universes with finely-tuned fundamental constants to appear where there was nothing before. How does He do that? What’s the connection between His will and the creation of matter? God knows what everyone is thinking at every moment of every day. How is that possible? How can he process and store all of that information? He exists “necessarily,” whatever that means, in contrast to the more mundane sort of existence we see all around us each day.
I could go on multiplying the implausibilities, but I think you get the idea. Is this really what Sewell is putting forth as the simple explanation for existence? Is his argument really that iPhones and nuclear power plants become easy to understand if you just help yourself to the existence of an omnipotent being who can poof such things into existence with acts of will? We have very different standards of simplicity, I think.
And that, in the end, is the real difference between evolution and intelligent design. Evolution seems implausible when you first hear it, but comes to seem more and more reasonable the more you study the actual evidence. Intelligent design seems plausible when you first hear it, but comes to seem more and more unreasonable the more you consider the details.
Young hildren are content with magical, supernatural explanations for things. But as we grow up most of us come to realize that invocations of God never really explain much of anything. They just create big mysteries where only small ones existed before.
I’ve made occasional references to the book that I have been editing forever. Well, it has finally entered the home stretch:
The book is a companion volume to the 2013 MOVES Conference in recreational mathematics, organized by the Museum of Mathematics in New York. The publisher is Princeton University Press. It features seventeen papers, mostly based on presentations given at the conference. Be warned: this is not a trade book. Some of the papers are pretty formidable.
“MOVES” is an acronym for “The Mathematics of Various Entertaining Subjects.” Hence the name of the book. We have just made the last round of edits to the manuscript, and the book should be heading to the printer soon. We expect to have finished books in December.
It’s been a fun project, despite various frustrations and delays, and I’m quite proud of the book. The MOVES conference is meant to take place every two years, and the 2015 edition was held in August. Princeton University Press has asked Jen and me to do a second volume in the series, and it seems likely that that will happen. Given some of the mistakes made the first time around, we should know what to avoid this time!
I stared at this for a while, trying to sort out what was what, and my mind began to slip into madness, so I figured it was perfect for Pharyngula.
The entire upcoming season of The Dr. Oz Show — which kicks off Monday, September 14 — will focus on the mind-body connection and feature a partnership with former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, MD.
In the past, Dr. Oz has come under fire for the advice given on his show. Now, the newly focused program will use medical and other experts whose advice is based in research.
Orac is not impressed. Neither am I. It’ll take a sustained improvement in rigor before I’ll believe it.
Unfortunately, his choice of a topic does not fill me with confidence. I can imagine the frantic meetings to try and hammer out a new direction that has just enough credibility to let them claim they’re being scientific, but still plenty of slop to allow them to continue to pitch snake oil.
Green coffee beans don’t have any evidence of medical efficacy, but there’s evidence that if you believe hard enough in green coffee beans they can have a therapeutic effect! Also,
In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris responds to misrepresentations of his views (again).
This panel discussion was held at Harvard’s Kennedy Forum on September 14, 2015.
Neuroscientist; Co-founder and Chief Executive, Project Reason; Author, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, among others
Author, Radical; Founding Chairman, Quilliam
Juliette Kayyem (moderator)
Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Former Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs, US Department of Homeland Security
By Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris
It’s time to confront Islamism head on—without cries of Islamophobia. Holding Islam up to scrutiny, rationally and ethically, must not be confused with anti-Muslim bigotry.
Ours was an inauspicious first meeting. Nawaz a former Muslim extremist turned liberal reformer, had just participated in a public debate about the nature of Islam. Though he had spent five years in an Egyptian prison for attempting to restore a medieval “caliphate,” Nawaz argued in favor of the motion that night, affirming that Islam is, indeed, “a religion of peace.” Harris, a well-known atheist and strident critic of Islam, had been in the audience. At a dinner later that evening, Harris was asked to comment on the event. He addressed his remarks directly to Nawaz:
Harris: Maajid, it seems to me that you have a problem. You need to convince the world—especially the Muslim world—that Islam is a religion of peace that has been hijacked by extremists. But the problem is that Islam isn’t a religion of peace, and the so-called extremists are seeking to implement what is arguably the most honest reading of the faith’s actual doctrine. So the path of reform appears to be one of pretense: You seem obliged to pretend that the doctrine is something other than it is—for instance, you must pretend that jihad is just an inner spiritual struggle, whereas it’s primarily a doctrine of holy war. Here, in this room, can’t you just be honest with us? Is the path forward for Islam a matter of pretending certain things are true long enough and hard enough so as to make them true?
Nawaz: Are you calling me a liar?
Nawaz: Are you calling me a liar?
Read the rest at The Daily Beast…
This video includes snippets showing exactly what it was like to crawl through those narrow tunnels to get at the Homo naledi fossil site.
No, thank you. Can we get one of those big subway tunnel excavators to the cave? It needs widening.
In cases ... where the evidence will not settle the dispute, scientists must employ philosophical arguments. And they do. Therefore, the suggestion that science can simply replace philosophy is wrong for the reason that, as [Thomas] Kuhn observed, scientific debates often embed—or are embedded within—philosophical debates. These philosophical differences often cannot be settled by straightforward empirical means, but must be addressed with philosophical argument. Science cannot replace philosophy because philosophy is an essential part of the scientific enterprise. Kuhn was wrong about many things, but on this point he was absolutely right.I had commented previously on what makes for philosophy right here. And I have no bone to pick with philosophy per se. But this is an interesting question. I think we can agree that mere reasoning is not equivalent to philosophy, so scientific reasoning is not necessarily doing philosophy. We should also agree that we don't need to wait until everyone agrees that a particular dispute has been settled by science, before we can say scientists are no longer doing philosophy when reasoning about the evidence. This was the case in Darwin's day, but the dispute over evolution has been settled in our day. I think the implications about evolution are settled too. What Parsons needs to do is show why anyone should wait until evolution deniers agree that this dispute has been settled, before saying evolutionists are not doing philosophy. So I see no reason to accept that criteria with regard to his specific example.
I can think of a couple of answers. The first is simple jealousy: some atheists haven't achieved the fame or public profile of people like Hitchens, and so attack their character rather than their arguments. It's also a way to get attention for yourself if you feel unappreciated.Earlier I had highlighted jealously as a motive of these haters.
The second is the feeling by the Quiet Atheists that "New Atheists don't represent me," and so they must be called out. But since when have prominent New Atheists ever said they represent all atheists? They are representing their own views, and I doubt that any of them have said that they speak for all nonbelievers. LINK
Kevin Drum of Mother Jones magazine is one of my favorite political bloggers. In this post he provides a perfect summary of conservative rhetoric:
These guys wreck the economy, and then complain that Obama hasn’t fixed it fast enough. They blow a hole in the deficit, and then complain that Obama hasn’t quite filled it yet. They pursue a disastrous war in Iraq, and then complain that Obama ruined it all by not leaving a few more brigades behind. They twiddle their thumbs over Iran, and then complain that Obama’s nuclear deal isn’t quite to their liking.
It’s hard to believe that even their own supporters still listen to a word they say. And yet, somehow, conservative rage toward Obama for wrecking the country continues unabated. Truly, conservatism can never fail, it can only be failed.
Yes, that’s very aggravating. Modern American conservatives, like all fanatics, think of themselves as the most principled, clear-thinking people around. To anyone outside their bubble, though, they just seem delusional. Unfortunately, in politics, boldly stated lies are much easier to sell than complex, nuanced truth.
Last week’s study went over well, so how about another study from Alexis Troitzky? It’s white to play and win in this position:
There is an astonishing amount of strategy wrapped up in this simple position!
Let’s start with some general considerations. White must try to promote his pawn as quickly as possible. Something like 1. Bd5, to slow down black’s pawn, just won’t work after 1. … Bd3. Once white starts pushing his pawn, black will have to do likewise. Both sides will need one move to move their bishops out of the way of their pawns. At first blush, it seems like white will win the race, but keep in mind that black will be able to gain a tempo by giving check with his bishop.
So let’s see what happens. Play begins with the obvious 1. a6 c4 2. a7 c3.
Now what? It seems like white must make a throwaway move with his bishop. Black will reply by giving check and then advancing his pawn. Both sides will promote and a draw will ensue.
But not so fast! White does have a useful move with his bishop. He plays 3. Bh1!
See the point? Now, after white promotes, he will be threatening to give mate on g2. You might recall that white’s maneuver, where a line piece crosses a square so that a similar-moving line piece can then occupy that square is called a Bristol clearance. This is an especially clever version of it, since the second line piece does not yet exist.
Okay, what can black do now? Taking the bishop obviously does not work. White will just promote with check and that will be that. He needs a creative idea, and it starts with giving check. But should he give check at a4 or g6? Only one prolongs the game significantly. Black must play 3. … Ba4+! to which white must reply 4. Kf7!.
The reason black could not play 3. … Bg6+ will become clear after black’s next. The reason white must reply with 4. Kf7 will become clear eight moves from now.
Black now plays 4. … Bc6!
That’s the point. White is forced to take the bishop, after which his little mate threat is neutralized. Had black given check on g6 at move three, he would be playing 4. … Be4 now. But that is no good, since white will have c2 covered after taking with his bishop.
Now it turns out both sides will promote after all. Play continues 5. Bxc6 c2 6. a8Q c1Q.
So is it a draw? Has black survived? Q+B vs. Q is normally a draw, barring some immediate tactical resource. To which white replies, “It depends what you mean by immediate.” White now plays 7. Qa2+!. Again, only this! After 7. Qb8+ or 7. Qh8+ white just runs out of checks pretty quickly. My admiration for Troitzky only increases when I consider that he did not have a computer to work out all the variations.
Play continues 7. … Kg3 8. Qg2+ Kf4
Suffice it to say that 8. … Kh4 9. Qf2+ is no better. Play continues 9. Qf3+ Kg5. Of course, 9. … Ke5 10. Qf6 mate is not good for black. 10. Qg3+
Now what? 10. … Kh6 11. Qg6 mate is not good, and 10. … Kh5 11. Bf3+ Kh6 12. Qg6 mate is no better. That only leaves one possibility: 10. … Kf5 11. Qg6+!
And that’s why white had to put his king on f7 all those moves ago. The square g6 had to be covered so white could give this check.
But now it’s game over. Black can choose between 11. … Ke5 12. Qf6 mate, or 11. … Kf4 12. Qh6+ winning the queen. Or he can resign.
Great stuff! See you next week!
Sam Harris talks to Dave Rubin about free speech, religion, foreign policy, and other topics.
Classes started last week, but that’s not the real start of the semester. No, the real start of the semester is when Problem of the Week returns. Which means the semester starts today!
The theme for the term is “False Proofs.” By this I mean proofs that seem superficially convincing, but lead to an obviously absurd conclusion. Your task as the problem solver is to locate the exact moment when everything goes off the rails. Our problem for this first week is a classic of the genre, in which we, ahem, prove that an elephant weighs the same as a fly. As we go along we shall see that it is possible to construct a triangle with two right angles, that the hypotenuse of a right triangle is always the same length as one of its legs, and multiple proofs that 2=1. Good times!
Feel free to post explanations and comments below. As always, do not worry that my students are going to read the blog and thereby be able to cheat. This is not a formal assignment for them, and they receive no extra credit for participating. It’s a fairly small group of students who participate in this, and they are not the types looking to take the easy way out. There’s a five dollar gift card to Starbucks on the line, for one lucky winner, but as one of my grumpier students pointed out to me today, that’s barely enough for one drink.
I have been terribly remiss in my Sunday Chess Problem responsibilities. So how about a charming little amuse bouche from the greatest of all endgame composers: Alexey Troitzky. The position below was composed in 1898 and calls for white to play and win.
A natural first reaction would be to give check with 1. Rc2 or 1. Qh1 or something like that. You’re welcome to give that a try, but I think you’ll find that white quickly runs out of checks. So we need to find something a bit more subtle.
The only way to win is the shocking 1. Re6+!
For what purpose is white sacrificing the rook? There are actually two points to white’s idea. The first is that, though it may seem hard to believe, the black rook has now been decoyed to a very bad square. The second point is that the f1-a6 diagonal is now open. White makes immediate use of that fact with 1. … Rxe6 2. Qa6+:
The point begins to emerge. If the black king moves to the seventh rank, then his queen will be lost to a skewer. But black isn’t finished yet. Play continues 2. … Kd5 3. Qc4+. Now what does black do? If he plays 3. … Ke5, he loses his queen to a new skewer, this time along the long diagonal. (White would play 4. Qc3+ and grab the black queen as soon the king moves.) So black must try 3. … Kd6 4. Qc5+,
after which it becomes clear that the black rook is on a very bad square indeed. That leaves only 4. … Kd7 5. Qa7+:
after which white grabs the black queen after all. The resulting position of K+Q vs. K+R is a forced win for the queen, though it is not at all easy to execute.
Cute! Troitzky was the master of this sort of thing. Very spare positions where one side is dominated by the other. Alas, this sort of thing is largely played out. Modern endgame studies are much more complex, but often harder to enjoy because of the difficult analysis required.
As for philosophy of religion, I think such classes could be replaced by Epistemology 101, which would help establish that faith is a quite unacceptable excuse for accepting propositions about what the world is like and how it ought to be. LINKHa! Get it? Epistemology 101. Phil combines insight with ridicule brilliantly and forcefully. Now we can expect pushback from philosophers of religion who have a vested interest in their profession, especially self-taught college students and grads whose only proficiency in the believer/nonbeliever debates is in that field, like Jeff Lowder. But I see no way they can reasonably dispute Torres.
Classes started on Monday. I’m actually pretty happy about that. This summer was rather hectic and stressful in many ways. Also productive, but still. It was basically a good counterexample to the clueless types who insist that teachers only work nine months out of the year. For me, the summer tends to be harder work than the regular school year. Teaching isn’t easy, and it’s rather time consuming, but it’s familiar and predictable and routine.
Of course, if all you know about higher education comes from what you hear in the news, you could easily think that modern academic life is an endless tale of woe. Apparently our daily existence involves endlessly walking on eggshells, lest the thought police and the forces of political correctness pounce to end our careers. We are surrounded by delicate, entitled students who believe they should never be expected to address an unpleasant thought. We are expected to provide endless “trigger warnings,” lest we offend the fragile sensibilities of our weak-minded students.
Now, I don’t mean to make light of the issue. Political correctness is a real problem, and it is, indeed, an offshoot of broader trends in higher education. Nowadays kids are too often raised by parents with an excessive concern for their self-esteem, and they tend to view college as purely about gaining a credential. Administrators tend to view students merely as paying customers, and not as people to be educated. Of course, they have been driven to that view by the relentless budget cuts all universities face. The states have mostly abandoned their public universities, for example, to the point that for most of us, money from the state is actually a small percentage of the budget. But we are still expected top operate under often outdated state regulations. The situation is worse in states run by Republicans. For example, in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker decided that it was a terrible burden for the state to have one of the premiere public university systems in the country, and has dutifully done what he can to destroy it.
All of this is true, but it’s easy to exaggerate the problem. Political correctness is something I read about in the news, I have never actually encountered it. And most of the kids I see are not lazy, entitled jerks. Quite the contrary, they are mostly eager to learn and willing to work hard. Nor are they looking for any opportunity to take offense, or eager to run up the food chain to make trouble for you if you in any way inconvenience them. The horror stories you hear just aren’t part of my daily experience, and I don’t think they are part of the daily experience of most of my colleagues.
There are plenty of caveats, of course. I work in the sciences, as opposed to the humanities. If the class is called “Calculus II,” there isn’t much mystery about what you are going to find when you get there. The sorts of issues that tend to make people touchy rarely arise in math classes, and students who take upper-level math and science courses tend to be pretty confident and tough-minded in any event. Alas, it only takes one or two jerks in a class to spoil things for everyone else.
Still, these issues do occasionally come up. I have taught a course on the history of mathematics on several occasions, and issues like the Church’s treatment of Galileo are inevitably discussed. I have never had a problem having a thoughtful conversation with the students about such things. On occasion I teach discrete probability, and when I do I make a point of showing the class the Hardy-Weinberg law. I’ve occasionally found it necessary, in explaining some mathematical idea, to discourse for a bit on the nature of science. When I do so, I make sure to mention evolution in some way. I have never had a student get the vapors over it.
So, yes, political correctness is a problem, as are all of the other issues I’ve mentioned. But the fact remains that being a college professor is still the best job there is. People pay me to do math all day. I have enormous freedom to direct my scholarly interests in whatever direction I choose. Simply put, my job is as close to do whatever you want and we’ll pay you as you ever find in life. What’s not to like? Is there some other line of work I could pursue where there are no annoyances, and where everyone you meet is pleasant?
If there is, maybe I’ll pursue that. But until then I think I will stick with what I’m doing, frustrations and all.