Victor Stenger has died

I am saddened by the news: Victor Stenger was a hardcore physicist with the sensibilities of a liberal arts professor. His books and essays are excellent — he always presented the physics without compromise, but he also explained how we came to understand what we know. I like my science leavened with that historical perspective, and he always delivered.

God and the Atom, for example, starts with ancient Greek philosophy and works its way forward…and convincingly argues that our earliest views of physical science were godless, and that only later did the mystery religions creep in and taint productive avenues of thinking. His very latest, God and the Multiverse, is sitting on my desk right now. I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

I got to meet Vic many times — somehow, we seemed to end up as the sciencey pair, one physicist and one biologist, at a lot of atheist conferences. He was also a genuinely nice guy, friendly and fun to talk to, and I was always pleased to see we’d both be at an event. I’m missing him already.

Here’s Vic at Skepticon 3. I have to mention that there are plenty of essays and discussions available at the link to his home page up top.

Overcoming the brainwashing, the propaganda, the lies

There’s that bit in Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God in which she tells her mother that she’s an atheist, and her mother replies, “not believing in God is one thing, but an ATHEIST?” — it just tells you how poisoned the word “atheist” had become. It’s gotten better; we’ve been coming out, showing the world we’re just like everyone else, making arguments for a rational, secular morality, and generally working to overcome the prejudice against the label. Imagine an alternative world in which many atheists had followed a different tactic: when ever someone said something disrespectful of atheism, there’d be a mad rush to get their home address and phone number. We’d flood them with threats: if you don’t shut up, we’ll rape your mother and set fire to your house. You’re a whore. I’m going to kill you.

The stigma of atheism would worsen. Now in addition to having a reputation for godlessness (true!), we’d acquire a reputation for truly villainous behavior. People would be even more reluctant to call themselves “atheist”, and only the most vile people would embrace it, worsening the reputation.

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Oh, dear

The context of this graph isn’t entirely clear, but it’s from Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra of UC Davis, and it’s from a poll of 800 first year students, so I presume it’s the results of a survey of their incoming class?


Maybe one of the things we need to do as part of popularizing science to the general public is to emphasize the diversity of life, and talk more about the cool things plants and bacteria and fungi and so forth do. I know I started out as a zoologist, am still mostly focused on animal development, but over the years I’ve become increasingly aware that there are amazing contrasts to be studied. We might wish we could study aliens from Mars, but every time I look at plant development, for instance, I feel like I’m examining extraterrestrials already.

Don’t teach how, only what

It’s the first week of classes. I’ve given the first lecture to my first year introductory biology course and my second year cell biology course, and the theme of both lectures was that science isn’t a body of facts, but a process for learning — and I’m emphasizing to them all that the conclusion is less important than how we come to that conclusion. And what do idiot politicians in Ohio do? They try to pass a law denying school kids knowledge of the process.

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