My glamorous New Year’s Eve

Well, it’s time for my usual wild night of partying…oh, wait. I never do that.

My wife is out at a neighbor’s party, while I’m sitting at home, nursing a painful tendinitis flare-up, and drinking…tea. Sorry, image. I’ll probably just read for a while, and if I’m feeling rambunctious, I might have a wee glass of wine before bed. Or maybe not.

I really can’t get overly excited about rolling over a calendar.

So, what are you fashionable and exciting people doing tonight?

Wait, that’s not a super-villain!

Here’s an interesting scenario: how an ‘evil’ super-genius could take over the world. Basically, it involves building a new nation-state which openly and thoroughly embraces science and technology, not just electronics, but also biotechnology. It’s a little bit pat — apparently, there are no trade-offs and compromises in building a super-scientific nation, and none of the technologies ever create any new problems of their own — but what struck me most is that there’s nothing villainous in the story at all. It pisses off conservative nations (like the US), and makes everyone panic over the imminent obsolescence of their technologies, but no, the ‘super-villain’ isn’t trying to harm anyone, but just trying to advance humanity.

Also, there’s a Mary Sue element to it all. The guy just moves to a poverty-stricken African nation, and purely by the power of his amazing intelligence, instantly raise a science city…infrastructure isn’t an issue, the collaborative nature of science doesn’t come into play, he just takes over this large population to do the manual labor for his genius.

Sorry, the world doesn’t work that way. It is an interesting twist on the comic book super villain, but it’s been done before — isn’t this just Dr Doom?

Keith Kloor responds

And it’s even worse than I expected. I had presentiments of failure: last night he tweeted this at me.


Talk about completely missing the point…he had previously written a post quoting Saul Bellow saying science was unsatisfying; I was baffled about why he thought Bellow was a particularly insightful contributor on this topic, especially since his comment was so banal and ignorant. I was NOT suggesting that he needed to get a better-ranked author to convince me; I’ve got nothing against Bellow’s literary contributions. But that seems to be the only thing he took away from my post.

So now he’s put up a short post (promising more later) which consists of little more than a quotation from Margaret Atwood.

I think that the religious strand is probably part of human hard-wiring…by religious strand, I don’t mean any particular religion, I mean the part of human beings that feels that the seen world is not the only world, that the world you see is not the only world that there is and that it can become awestruck. If that is the case, religion was selected for in the Pleistocene by many, many millennia of human evolution.

Like the Bellow quote, I really have nothing against the source; in fact, I’ve enjoyed the writings of both Atwood and Bellow. My complaint is with the abysmal vacuity of the content, and the fact that Kloor seems to be playing a game of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. It doesn’t advance the argument to quote someone else saying something wrong. (Although he probably feels it gives him cover.)

I will congratulate him on dodging my accommodationist bingo card — there were so many possibilities to fit into a mere 25 boxes, and “religion is hardwired” didn’t make the cut, because I really didn’t think he’d be so stupid as to trot that one out.

“Awe” is probably hardwired as an emotional response. The effort to try to comprehend the world around us is probably hardwired into our brains. Religion isn’t. Religion is a parasitic phenomenon that short-circuits honest sensations, the desire to understand and our humility before the complexity of the universe, and plugs in a false belief that we do understand everything to resolve the two. That’s my objection: not that there are sincere and interesting questions about our place in the cosmos, but that religion lies and claims to have all the answers. Yet when we actually look at what religion focuses on, it’s all petty trivial dogma and weird justifications for tribal cosmetics.

What the New Atheists actually argue is that we aren’t giving up wonder, but that we focus on real paths to knowing and understanding, rather than the delusions of prophecy and pettifogging scriptural interpretation and blithe acceptance of the inanity of “god did it.”

And then this final gambit is ludicrous.

You’d that think the atheists who are evolutionary biologists would be able to process this with their super-rational minds. And that they (Myers, Coyne et al) would be smart enough to recognize that one-size-fits all denunciation is likely counterproductive to their goal.

There must be a name for this logical fallacy: “You accept [broad scientific discipline], therefore you ought to accept [my quirky and unfounded personal interpretation of it]!”

I have little hope that his continuation of this discussion will be any better.

Sweet jebus, he’s continuing — and just when I can’t imagine him getting any dumber, he says this:

I don’t understand why he’s making such a big issue of me quoting writers like Saul Bellow and Margaret Atwood.

Aargh! No! I haven’t made a big issue of it — I was baffled by why he was making those quotes the centerpiece of his argument, and why he was making such a big issue of the quotes. But that’s all he sees.

I’m done with him. He’s too stupid to argue with further.

So long, and thanks for all the Archaea

Biologist Carl Woese has died of pancreatic cancer at age 84:

Carl and his colleagues wrote two papers published in 1977 that overturned a universally held assumption about the basic structure of the tree of life. They reported that the microbes now known as Archaea were as distinct from bacteria as plants and animals are. Prior to this finding, scientists had grouped Archaea together with bacteria, and asserted that the tree of life had two main branches – the bacteria (which they called prokarya), and everything else (the eukarya). The new discovery added Archaea as a third main branch of the evolutionary family tree.

Woese was one of those guys who overturned a paradigm  and became a founder of the succeeding paradigm. And he lived long enough to see the “dogma” he helped establish start to be undermined by new information, like recent suggestions that the common ancestor of all eukaryotes was likely Archaean, thus suggesting that having two main branches of life really does work as a model.

If there’s a better definition of success in a scientific career, I don’t know it.

Accommodationists are so easy to outguess

Brace yourselves. Keith Kloor promises to rebut me once he finishes watching some football game today.

Just to make it easier for him, though, I threw together a simple accommodationist bingo card. Let’s see if he can do it while avoiding these extraordinarily cliched words and concepts.


I’m going to predict it will be the same old tired whine, without a single original idea in it.

What were you doing in the 1950s?

Well, actually, I was sucking on a bottle and struggling to get potty trained, but I had enough of a taste of that era to shudder at the thought of revisiting it. The Nuclear Secrecy Blog is my idea of a scary horror story — don’t visit it unless you really want to get drawn into a state of grey paranoia and obedience to the military-industrial complex.


Look at your congresspeople. The cranky old grey-haired ones? They were all brought up on this stuff. They think this is normal and reasonable.

We haven’t escaped this state of mind quite yet.

(via Charlie Stross)

What I did on my Newtonmas vacation

…was, mostly, having houseguests. And falling behind on my writing, but in a good way. One of the perks of living next door to a National Park is that there’s an easy default option for entertaining friends who come to visit. It’s especially good if that National Park has climbable rocks to allow visiting kids to burn off a little energy.

It took some doing to get out of the house, though, because my guests were birders, and we’ve got some here.

Sharing a nectar feeder

A migrant and a resident meet at a bar

Hummingbird on Joshua Tree


Always make sure your houseguests have better camera equipment than you do.

The new definition of “fundamentalist”

Keith Kloor, a journalist and blogger at Discover, really doesn’t like those fundamentalist atheists and he echoes those ridiculous comments by Peter Higgs.

The other big argument waged by a vocal group of prominent scientists involves the assertion that science is incompatible with religion. This insistence by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne is a puzzler. As someone who dislikes dogma of any kind and distrusts vested powers, I’m no fan of institutional religion. I’m also an atheist. But I see no value in making an enemy of virtually the whole world. What’s more, an argument that lumps together the Taliban, the Dali Lama, and Jesus strikes me as rather simplistic. The atheists who frequently disparage religion for all its faults don’t dare acknowledge that it has any redeeming value, or that it provides some meaning for those who can’t (or aren’t yet ready) to derive existential meaning from reason alone.

This sneering and strident approach by the religion haters is not just bad manners, it is puritanical. That’s what scientist Peter Higgs (of Higgs Boson fame) is getting at with his recent sharp criticism of Dawkins.

Jerry Coyne has already replied, but that comment was so appallingly dumb that I have to chime in.

This isn’t a matter of making an enemy of the whole world; it’s an issue of scientific integrity. Are you going to sit back and let people say things that are wrong simply because you’re afraid to annoy them? And yes, you can legitimately lump together the Taliban, the Dali Lama, and Jesus together on certain traits: they’re all three promoting superstition and falsehoods. That doesn’t mean you think the Dali Lama blows up statues, or that Jesus is crusading for Tibetan independence.

I am unimpressed with this constant claim that religion has redeeming value. What is it? That it provides dishonest answers to questions that trouble people? How is that a virtue? Only apologists for religion seem to think it is.

And now Kloor has doubled down with a reply to Coyne.

He quotes Saul Bellow. Seriously, dude: Saul Bellow? Why? He’s a good writer, but does he have some special authority on this matter?

What do you think happens at death?

This I don’t know, but I don’t think everything is resolved with the destruction of the body. What science has to say seems to me insufficient and unsatisfying.

Saul Bellow’s dissatisfaction with an honest truth is not an argument. It’d be like me saying I’m unsatisfied with astronomy because it doesn’t have enough squid in it, or that science education needs more parades and trumpets. Your personal expectation of what reality ought to deliver is not a valid criticism; I’m not going to claim that Islam fails because 72 virgins isn’t enough. (If only they promised 73, I’d convert in a flash.)

To wave away the persistent questions and yearnings that still drive the religious impulse as merely the last bastion of ignorant superstition is, as I wrote here, “inconsistent with the spirit of science.”

The assertion that religion and science are incompatible has become an article of faith for some–a kind of dogma that I recently discussed in this post. Aside from this being a form of fundamentalism, I also said that I saw no constructive use “in making an enemy of virtually the whole world” by broadly denigrating all religious believers.

I’m not waving away the yearnings, they’re real enough, and we all have them. I’m waving away the goddamned answers as inadequate, contradictory, and false.

You do realize, Mr Kloor, that that’s what religion promises? Not more questions (if that were the case, it would be philosophy), but deep cosmic truths, answers hallowed by nothing more than generations of prophets pulling stories out of their asses? It is “inconsistent with the spirit of science” to simply accept those claims unquestioned, to assume that there is some validity to them because you’re afraid that pointing out the flaws might be regarded as “denigrating all religious believers.”

If telling people that they are wrong is denigrating, then my profession of education is dedicated to denigration.

I guess it also makes me a fundamentalist, if your definition of fundamentalis is lacking in reverence for the unsupported authoritarian dogma of religion, and feeling no respect for faith at all.