Google is not a synonym for knowledge

So you want to be a science communicator. You need to read this article on becoming a science writer. Here’s a short list of tips:

  • Obtain the highest education possible and dismiss the notion to not pursue formal schooling and, instead, “learn on the job.” The latter is damaging advice, usually given by people without specialized education, or by those who benefit from your unpreparedness. If you actually get the job, you will always “learn the praxis” while on it. But you will never compensate, “on the job,” for the formal education you missed. Science, math and technology are not taught in the streets.
  • Read by far more topics than you can write about; develop a sense for science.
  • Travel internationally to scientific meetings and try to understand the cultural contexts in which science is done elsewhere; this could be difficult since we all see the planet through parochial preconceptions. However, modern science is done collaboratively and international partnerships are ubiquitous. Writing from home will keep your mind at home.
  • Write about science itself, rather than people in science. Do not celebritize individuals, but grant credit to all who deserve it.
  • Do not become enticed by the ivory-tower institutions as the sole source of science stories to report; that will turn you into a snob writer.
  • And remember that a good science tale should be good by itself, no matter its origin, but only a good story teller would make it shine.

I had some reservations about that first point — the amateur or citizen scientist can be a good contributor. But the good ones have a lot of discipline and drive and focus, and get a specialized education unconventionally, so it’s actually an important point.

What is a total disaster, though, are all the people who think they can master a subject via a combination of Google and Wikipedia. You absolutely can not. You can get quick bits of information, but you don’t acquire this abstract thing called knowledge: you need the depth you get from reading books and soaking in the details of the literature, so that you can make connections and grasp the broader context.

The rest is good advice. I’m putting this on my list of things to hand out to the students in my fall term writing course.

More for me, none for thee

Republican families also feel the sting of our economy.

The wife of Maine Gov. Paul LePage has taken on a summer waitressing job near their Boothbay home. And she’s saving up for a Toyota RAV4.

Good for her. It’ll also give her more independence, and especially when her husband loses his job in the next election, I hope, that’ll give them some income to fall back on.

But of course it’s being politicized by Governor LePage.

Ann LePage had kept quiet about the gig, but her husband told a crowd at a recent town hall that his wife took a job to “supplement” his lowest-in-the-nation $70,000 salary. This year, the Republican governor unsuccessfully proposed to more than double his successor’s salary to $150,000.

Hang on, there. His wife quietly took on a hard, low-paying job to be able to afford some luxuries, and the governor is braying about it to justify getting a raise?

Look, he’s getting paid more than I do. You want to justify getting paid more? Do it by citing the work you do and how you deserve it for that, not by whining about how poor you are, when you aren’t. This is especially ironic coming from a governor who just had a tantrum over foodstamps, trying to end them because people who are really poor use them to occasionally buy a Twinkie. I guess he doesn’t see how similar that situation is to a well-off middle class family wanting more money so they can buy a shiny SUV.

Maybe when LePage shows a little empathy for the people he’s supposed to govern, it would be time to consider rewarding him for a job well done. I can’t see giving a raise to one of the worst governors in the country.

Super-puberty is one of the worst things I can imagine


There’s a case for a queer Superboy, but I have a real problem imagining one. He’s an alien. If he has sex in the missionary position with a human female, he’s queer already. Every kind of sexual behavior he can carry out on Earth, as the lone representative of his species, is going to be odd compared to what would be his behavior on Krypton, and his fellow Kryptonians, if they existed, would consider it bestiality.

But OK, I’ll play along. I can imagine Superboy reaching a very different sort of puberty. Not a queer puberty, though — more of a conventional reproductive puberty with straight desires…for a Kryptonian.

[Read more…]

I’m so sorry, United Kingdom


Or should I say, I’m so sorry, England and Wales? Because it looks like you’re going to have to drop that “United” stuff soon. You might also want to reconsider that “Great” prefixing “Britain”. Brexit won their referendum. The UK is going to begin the process of breaking from the EU. Stock markets are reacting with shock. The people who despise Nigel Farage are also shocked. Other countries in Europe are dismayed.

I’m afraid I see it in terms of what’s going on in the US today, and that worries me. Gary Younge’s take on the vote is informative. He talks about the incompetence of the Remain campaign, and how it was oblivious to the concerns of the people and set itself aside as the smart people who know better than you do, and never made a good case for remaining in the EU. And then he tears into the Leave campaigners.

It is a banal axiom to insist that “it’s not racist to talk about immigration”. It’s not racist to talk about black people, Jews or Muslims either. The issue is not whether you talk about them but how you talk about them and whether they ever get a chance to talk for themselves. When you dehumanise immigrants, using vile imagery and language, scapegoating them for a nation’s ills and targeting them as job-stealing interlopers, you stoke prejudice and foment hatred.

The chutzpah with which the Tory right – the very people who had pioneered austerity, damaging jobs, services and communities – blamed immigrants for the lack of resources was breathtaking. The mendacity with which a section of the press fanned those flames was nauseating. The pusillanimity of the remain campaign’s failure to counter these claims was indefensible.

Not everyone, or even most, of the people who voted leave were driven by racism. But the leave campaign imbued racists with a confidence they have not enjoyed for many decades and poured arsenic into the water supply of our national conversation.

In this atmosphere of racial animus and class contempt, political dislocation and electoral opportunism, the space for the arguments we need to have about immigration, democracy, and austerity simply did not exist. Our politics failed us. And since it is our politics only we can fix it.

I see this same dynamic playing out here in the US. The almost-successful Sanders campaign tells us there’s a huge part of the electorate that wants change from politics as usual, and yet the Democrats have anointed a moderate conservative, status quo candidate. Will Clinton actually respond to that productively? Will she make changes in party policy that will appeal to that broad swathe of the country that wants a more progressive government? She could end up the David Cameron of America.

Younge’s description above also fits the Trump campaign. The know-nothings are always a force to be reckoned with in this country, and if Brexit could win, could Trump rally the same forces to win here? That’s possible (but unlikely, we say, although everyone was saying Brexit was unlikely, too), but one way it could happen is if the Democrats try to take an uninspiring middle course.

What do I mean, “if”? The Democrats always take the path of trying to avoid offending anyone, and thereby end up pissing everyone off.

The world’s a somewhat scarier place this morning. I hope my country doesn’t end up contributing even more to the fear.

Venom Hunters is a fraud

The Discovery Channel (their reputation is so bad, you’re probably already booing) has a ‘reality’ show called Venom Hunters. It is about teams of courageous reptile experts who make a living — and save lives — by capturing rare and deadly venomous animals in the wild, and milking them of toxins for use in antivenoms. Sounds cool, doesn’t it? It was probably snapped right up by the channel when the premise was presented to them.

Only a few problems with it, though: they’re mostly not experts, that’s not how venom is collected, nobody makes a living off this fictitious profession, it’s unlikely that any of the venom is being used for its stated purpose, and at least some of the animal captures are staged, using captive snakes.

Over on Science Sushi, you can read a very detailed exposé of the phony staff, the bogus stories, and their potentially illegal activities. It’s as phony as that mermaid ‘documentary’.

Man, the Discovery Channel must really hate Christie Wilcox. She’s filleting them.

Statement on Richard Carrier’s voluntary departure from our network

The FtB Ethics Committee has released an official statement on the departure of Richard Carrier from our network.

Freethought Blogs unequivocally condemns any behavior that threatens the safety of atheist community members, including particularly marginalized groups. Freethought Blogs also recognizes the role of sexual harassment as one of numerous barriers for women that limits access to and participation within atheist conferences and spaces.

When the recent allegations against Richard Carrier were made public, Freethought Blogs initiated a process to investigate these claims and formalize its policy concerning the conduct of its members. The FtB Ethics Committee received several reports of Carrier’s behavior and was in the process of reviewing them when Carrier chose to leave the network. A thorough review of the allegations against Carrier cannot be completed by Freethought Blogs without his cooperation.

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