Purdue to host intercollegiate Quidditch tournament

Why do all the awesome things happen after graduation?!

Purdue University is hosting an intercollegiate Quidditch tournament from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 24), just days before the world debut of the final Harry Potter film, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”

The Hogwarts-looking Windsor Halls will serve as the backdrop as caped contestants chase gold-clad human snitches and launch balls through custom-made hoops, all while dashing around on broomsticks trying not to be leveled by bludger-bearing beaters.

Several colleges will send players, including Purdue, Ohio State, Loyola University Chicago, Illinois State, Ball State, Bowling Green State University, Carthage College, Miami of Ohio and Transylvania University. Purdue’s invitational tournament is scheduled for the same week as the DVD and Blu-ray release of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” Ultimate Edition, the movie in which Harry and Ron Weasley attend the Quidditch World Cup.

JEALOUS.

Of course, if the Harry Potter universe was real, my complete ineptitude in gym class would probably translate over into not being able to fly at all. Though if Ravenclaw can still have a decent team, maybe not all magical nerds are unathletic.

…*geek*

First they stop worshipping Zeus, now this?!

There’s a new blog for Greek atheists called Atheia – available in Greek and English. Good to know some of my cousins are coming to the dark side.

Oxi theos kala!

…Yes, I know that’s not grammatically correct at all. That’s probably 5% of my Greek vocabulary. The other 95% is terms for food, or words that would help you acquire food. I have my priorities in order!

My More Magazine photoshoot and interview is out!

OMG OMG OMG *flail*

*ahem*

The November issue of More Magazine is just starting to trickle out. I’m not sure if it’s quite on news stands yet, but I’m going to give you a sneak peek because I’m in it! Wooooo! I wasn’t having the greatest day today, and this is just what I needed to lift my spirits.

First, I’m happy with the awesome cover choice, Jane Lynch from Glee:Look, my article even gets a tagline! “Feminists in Fishnets? The tweeters, texters, and bloggers you need to know about.” …Okay, it’s obviously there to get your attention, so I don’t really care that the only fishnets I own are part of a Halloween costume. ON THE COVER!!

Though I’m a little suspicious of that “Best Diet for your DNA” article. Hmmmm, I reserve judgment until reading it.

My article is right after the piece on awesome chocolate desserts, which I approve of. And the spread looks amazing (click image for larger version):I’M IN A FUCKING MAGAZINE! …Whoops, that wasn’t very lady like, let me try that again.

…I’M IN A MOTHERFUCKING MAGAZINE!

I didn’t feel like I was wearing a lot of make up that day, but I was definitely surprised when I saw that photo – in a good way! I feel classy.

It’s a two page spread, but I’m only going to post that image so you have some incentive to go and find it on news stands. The intro paragraph under the right half of the photo makes me feel all tingly inside:

We know. We know. We’ve seen the divide. And we’ve heard it at events we’ve thrown – some of you, standing in the back with your arms crossed, saying, “You call yourselves feminists?! When I was your age, I was marching on D.C….” Well, yeah, but in 2010, the stakes have changed. The standard bearers for a new generation are out there. They just approach activism in a different way. Here are the names you need to know now.

Yay for rebutting the “Feminism: Ur doin’ it wrong” argument! Always a pet peeve of mine. And I may be biased, but I think my description before my interview wins:

“Grad student; liberal, geeky, nerdy, scientific, perverted atheist (all her words)”

Hell yeah. Look, I got the word atheist in there! Wooooo!

So, keep an eye out when you pass news stands! And there should be a supplemental video interview online soon where I ramble about science, skepticism, and feminism – I’ll make sure to keep you all updated.

Friend: That goes in the speaker bio, right? One of More magazine’s top ten new feminists?
Me: Yay, I sound more important now!

Firebrands, Comfrontationalists, Accommodationists, oh my!

These labels have been flung around the atheist blogosphere lately. Jerry Coyne seems to be one of the people most outspoken about “accommodationists,” those that think science and religion can happily get along. Coyne thinks science and religion are inherently incompatible – a view I happen to agree with – and explained it nicely in a piece for USA Today.

The opponents of accommodationists have been labeled “confrontationalists.” PZ Myers wrote up an excellent piece on why he’s a confrontationalist after a panel discussion at the Secular Humanism conference. Apparently the whole accommodationist vs. confrontationalist idea was interesting enough for the New York Times to do a piece on it. It’s the whole firebrands vs. diplomats thing all over again – I guess the media love seeing drama within movements. So why am I beating a dead horse?

Because I hate labels, especially crappy labels.

They’re not just crappy because typing accommodationist and confrontationalist over and over makes my hands cramp up – they’re simply horrible at describing what they’re trying to convey. We’re really dealing with two totally different topics: 1) The relationship between science and religion, and 2) Strategies for engaging people.

I would argue the way people think about science and religion falls (mostly) into a binary. There’s the camp that thinks science and religion are compatible, comprised of people like Chris Mooney, Eugenie Scott, Francis Collins, and Chris Stedman. They’re the people you’ll hear talking about “non-overlapping magesteria” and listing successful scientists who are also religious. Then there’s a camp that thinks science and religion are incompatible, comprised of people like Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Hemant Mehta, and myself. We’d argue that religious belief is inherently unscientific, and simultaneously being religious and a scientist involves a bit of compartmentalization in your brain.

Notice how religious belief or lack thereof doesn’t necessarily put you in one category or another. You have atheists who believe science and religion are compatible, and atheists who don’t. And I’m sure there are religious people out there who think religion and science are incompatible – the type of theists who make whole museums devoted to poo-pooing science.

The problem starts when we try to merge this viewpoint with different ways people engage others, like labeling the other side as “confrontationalists.” We try to lump this binary with the idea of firebrands and diplomats. But I’m going to argue that it is not a binary, but rather a spectrum. And it’s not just a spectrum in that some people are more aggressive than others – some people can also span wide parts of the spectrum. To illustrate, here I compare myself with some bloggers I enjoy (mainly chosen since I feel the most familiar with their strategies, and didn’t want to misrepresent others):


Notice how I didn’t simply rank people along the spectrum with a single point. That’s because I think there’s a serious aspect people miss when trying to employ this false dichotomy: those who can engage people differently depending on the situation.

I generally hate labels, so I’m hesitant to add “Situationalists” to the growing list, but it describes some people the best. PZ is pretty much always a firebrand, but bloggers like Hemant and Greta can be more or less aggressive depending on the situation.

It also describes me best. When I was president of my student group at a conservative college in a religious area, I needed to be much more diplomatic. I could have run out guns blazing, but the club would have never gotten off the ground. Because I chose a more diplomatic route, we became as well respected as we’re going to get in our community. That’s what was needed in that situation – becoming established, and letting people know that atheists aren’t all monsters.

But here on my blog, I have a much different approach. I’m more of a firebrand. I’m not representing an organization, so I’m more able to speak my mind and “rally the troops.” Or as Rebecca Watson lovingly called me during our panel podcast last week, I’m “a dick with a purpose.”

I don’t think my range is broad just because I’m young and new to the movement – I can think of other student leaders who rank on either extreme of that spectrum. Lucy Gubbins of the University of Oregon’s Alliance of Happy Atheists is very much a diplomat, and JT Eberhard of the Missouri State University Pastafarians is very much a firebrand.

And I think they both are amazing – being a situationalist is not necessarily better. People should do what they’re good at. If you’re good at playing Bad Cop, there’s a Good Cop out there too. We just have to remember there are people like me who don’t neatly fit on either side.

Then why are we labeling all people who think science and religion are incompatible as confrontationalists? We have people like Hemant who clearly fall into that group, but are about as friendly and diplomatic as you can get. If I had to guess, it’s because most people who think science and religion are compatible also happen to be diplomats. The term “accommodationist” is the mish-mash of those two ideas – you don’t just think science and religion are compatible, but you want to use that idea as a way to reach people in a friendly matter.

So, can we nix the confrontationalists label? It seems to serve no other purpose than to paint those who think science and religion are incompatible in a negative, hostile light. Hey, maybe the reason why the arguments of accommodationists seem so wishy washy is because they don’t have enough firebrands on their side.

…Or maybe it’s just because they’re wrong. But that’s a whole other post.

Have you had trouble commenting?

A bunch of people have told me they have had trouble commenting here lately. I’m going to attempt to fix the problem this weekend. If you’ve had issues commenting, please email me at blaghagblog(at)gmail(dot)com. To help me out, please include:

  1. What browser you’re using
  2. If you have anything like Adblock enabled
  3. How you’re attempting to login (blogger, twitter, facebook, disqus, etc)
  4. Exactly what sort of problem you’re having. Can you not log in? Are you clicking post and it’s never loading? Can you not edit posts? Does disqus open a portal to the nether-dimension? Let me know.

Sorry for everyone who’s been having issues. I blame Disqus, but I’ll try to fix it.

If you had issues either here or at your own blog but found ways to fix them, please let me know that too!

My landlord is a debate-loving creationist who just realized I'm an evolutionary biologist

Enjoy the schadenfreude, everyone.

My landlord just knocked on the door to discuss various landlord-y things, like how he’ll fix one of my broken chairs and how much Comcast sucks. He asked how grad school was going and what sorts of classes I’m taking, and I mentioned how Gene Regulation was really hard. He’s on a board that heads genetic research for a certain disease, so we were having a pretty in depth discussion about genetics. It was nice until…

Landlord: Well, I’m a creationist. Though most of my colleagues are evolutionists.
Me: …Well, I also have a degree in evolution. Genetics and evolution.
Landlord: *glint in eye*
Me: What have I done?!

He then spent the next fifteen minutes trying to convince me that junk DNA somehow proves evolution is wrong, how evolution can’t predict anything or be useful, how no study has shown evolution to be true. I tried to provide counter arguments as nicely as possibly, while trying not to get evicted from my apartment.

Landlord: Well, I shouldn’t keep you from your paper any longer. But I see I’m going to have a lot of work to do with you. *wink*
Me: I could say the same thing *wink back*
Landlord: Haha, bye!
Me:FFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUU

I should state that my landlord is super nice and helpful (and looks just like the old man from Up!). I just spend so much of my life debating creationists, I like to escape from it at home. As long as “Must debate evolution before rent is accepted” doesn’t become part of my lease, I’m happy.

I just hope he doesn’t Google my name.

Scientific illiteracy

Reading scientific papers helps me understand why so many people hate or distrust scientists.

Let me clarify briefly. This is not meant to be me bitching about my graduate school workload. This is not me thinking my PhD was going to be a cake walk. I was prepared to finish undergrad feeling like a genius and walk into grad school feeling average. I was prepared to learn, and learning requires feeling stupid first.

This is me trying to think what science looks like to an outsider.

The last couple of weeks I’ve been doing pretty much nothing but reading scientific papers – that is, peer reviewed research papers published in academic journals. Some of these have been historical, the oldest being from the 1940s, and some have been from the last couple of years. Some have been good, some have been excellent, but the majority have made me want to stab my eyes out with the nearest pipetman. I’ve been reading primary literature for the last three years, but dealing with so much recently has made me realize one thing:

Most scientists are terrible writers.

And when I say terrible writers, I’m not just talking about English skills – though that certainly is a problem. When I had to read some of my classmates’ papers in undergrad, I was often thankful to find a sentence that wasn’t a fragment or a run-on. I don’t have perfect grammar, especially when informally blogging, but I can usually get general concepts across. And don’t even get me started on the organization of some papers. Your methods are where?

But most science writing is simply impenetrable. Everything seems to be lingo and jargon, to the point where they might as well be speaking another language. This problem gets worse with time, since fields are becoming more specialized, not less.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, so many scientific papers are drier than Indiana on a Sunday. You would never guess most papers were authored by the same person who will perk up with excitement when you ask them about their research. Obviously papers are meant to be impartial, but that doesn’t mean they have to be devoid of all liveliness. When a paper does include a rare joke, or even a clever ribbing of another study, readers get excited. We like being reminded that humans wrote these papers, not some computer program (unless simulating papers is what your research is about, then…). I nearly pooped myself when I saw a paper use an exclamation mark once. Needless to say, exclamation marks should not provoke this amount of surprise.

So why is this an issue outside of my own graduate school woes? I hate tooting my own horn, but allow me to prove a point. I have a BS in Genetics and Evolution from a respected university. I have three years of research experience in a laboratory. I have one published paper and at least one more on the way. I won the award for Outstanding Biology Student every year I was at Purdue. It’s safe to say that I am more trained in biology than your average person, yet I still have to spend hours reading a biology paper to grasp even the most basic concepts.

I look back on all the times I asked people if they read the original research before passing judgment on a study. Or all the times I sighed at another bad piece of science reporting. Now I just sympathize. If I’m having such a hard time, how do we expect laypeople to understand science?

I’m but a lowly first year graduate student, so I obviously don’t have all the answers… But I’m also a blogger, so here’s my opinion on two things we can do to improve science communication:

Relax pointless publishing rules. Journals are so focused on word count, formatting, figure size, supplemental material… Are you really communicating in the best way possible when you’re worrying about having to spend hundreds of extra dollars for every page you go over? Or when you sacrifice clarity in a graph because it’s cheaper to get it printed in black in white?

One of my papers recently was rejected, and I cringed at some of the questions reviewers had. We clarified all of those points in the initial draft, but they were eventually cut due to word limit restrictions. This is made all the more ridiculous when you consider that most people access journals electronically now. Is the internet not big enough for that extra pdf page? We obviously want some limits so people don’t get excessively verbose, but this is just silly.

Encourage more scientists to be journalists. And I don’t just mean recruiting science majors after they’ve been taught how to write (though for the love of FSM, someone please do that too). I mean encouraging scientists to blog about what they know, and then utilizing those bloggers who have proved their communication skills. It’s hard enough to understand the primary literature, let alone translate it into something people can understand. We need to exploit that talent we have.

The thing that worries me the most? That this is probably just the first of many disillusionments I’ll have about science over the next couple years.

Upcoming speaking events

You may have noticed that my Speaking page has been growing. I thought I’d point out some of my upcoming speaking events, in case you’re in the area:

11/13/2010 – Seattle, WA
Society for Sensible Explanation – Boobquake and its Aftershocks

2/05/2011 – San Diego, CA
Secular Student Alliance Regional Leadership Conference – Topic TBA

3/24/2011 – Minneapolis, MN
Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists (CASH) at UM – Atheism & Feminism (snazzier name forthcoming)

TBA 2011 (tentative) – Ft. Bragg, NC
Fort Bragg Freedom Festival – Topic TBA

I’ll give more details about times and locations when we’re closer to the event.

A note to people who are interested in having me speak to their group:

– If you’re not near Seattle, I probably can only travel during official UW breaks or on weekends.
- My visit to UM is during my spring break. If you’re near Minneapolis, I’d be happy to speak to your group while I’m out there! Hey, if I’m going back to the Midwest during my vacation, I might as well make it worth it ;)
- If you’re within driving distance of Seattle, I’m much more likely to be able to come. Wink nudge Portland and Vancouver.
- If you’re a student group affiliated with the Secular Student Alliance, they may be able to help you fund some of my trip because I’m on their speakers bureau.
- If you have any questions, email me at blaghagblog(at)gmail(dot)com.

This is where the magic happens

I’m not feeling particularly blogging inspired (thanks, grad school), so here’s some random photos of my new apartment, now that it’s all set up (click images for larger):How about a game of geeky I Spy? What can you spot, other than the inevitable wire-induced fire hazard beneath my desk?