Whoa. You like us!

Well, that was a little bit overwhelming. I put out our new instructions for how to apply for a blog here, and we got a flood of responses. Now a few things I have to mention:

There was a glitch in our setup, and so some people got emailed back some initial evaluations, and some of them were critical. That was bad. Those were supposed to be private. I think we have the problem nailed down, but one thing I have to say: if somebody said something negative about your blog, that was one person. We’re going to have a back channel discussion about them, and we have different views. No one has been rejected already. I actually like essentially all of the applications so far.

That said, the turnout was a lot higher than I expected, partly due to initial enthusiasm. I was actually expecting a handful of applications to trickle in over the next month, or maybe even none. We’re going to have to think about how to manage so many — we may simply have to turn down some. We may have a staged rollout, with a couple of people added at a time over a longer period. We may just have to tell some of you to hang in there and wait for the next quarterly review.

We are going to wait until mid-March to announce new blogs — this is one of those things we don’t want to rush. Patience, everyone!

How to join freethoughtblogs


We’ve been shaking things up a bit behind the scenes here at FtB. One of our enduring annoyances has been recruiting new bloggers — the way we set it up here (again, behind the scenes) was to appoint a committee and tell them to do all the work. Then, every once in a while, someone would write to me or someone else and ask how to be considered for FtB, and I’d blithely pass their name along to the committee.

That didn’t work. We don’t have a staff. No one signed up here to do administrative work, we were here to write, so passing a name to the committee was more like casting it away into the eternal void.

So we’re trying something different. No committee. Instead, we have an email link, and you’ll write to us with your qualifications. It then gets passed into a private application channel, and we all have an opportunity to look you over and vote yay or nay.

So if you want to blog here, here’s what you do: send an email to ftbapplications@googlegroups.com, in which you give us this information:


Contact email

Do you want your email public?

Twitter account, if any

Link for donations, if any

Links to your current blog, any biographical material, or best examples of your writing in comments or forums or other media

Why do you want to write for us?

It’s that easy. This is a private communication to the bloggers here; none of this information will be made public without your permission. So if you’re interested in trolling us, it won’t be very rewarding, since your application will vanish into our application channel, never to emerge into the public, and we’ll snigger at it before deleting it.

Serious applications will be examined for their suitability. Our requirements are simple: we want godless Social Justice Warriors. If that’s you, why aren’t you writing for us already? (Oh, because applicants vanished into the darkness of the eternal void of the committee).

We really want to encourage diversity, too, and we also want to see some sort of track record of your writing. Anything will do; if you don’t have a blog of your own, give us links to your substantive comments, or your participation in an online forum, anything to show that you’re actually able to write coherently, and that your views align with our intent. If you don’t have a history of regular blog-like writing, that’s OK — we’re creating a guest blog, and will give you keys to that so you can try it for a few months and see if you take to it.

Group blogs are fine. You can be pseudonymous, too, we’ll just need to have a way to contact you.

What are the rewards, you ask?

  • You get space for a blog of your very own!

  • You get to join a group of supportive people!

  • You get paid! OK, not much. We take the profits from each months advertising and divide it among all bloggers by their proportion of traffic. So you get a free cup of coffee every month!

  • Fame and glory!

  • You’ll be able to shape the future membership of FtB! Review the next set of applicants, if you want!

  • Trolls galore! We’ve got a crop of dedicated assholes who will plague you until you block them. We’ll show you how!

If this sounds fun, send us an application. We’re also planning on quarterly review of new applications, so we’re going to possibly invite new bloggers to join us in mid-March. If anyone applies. If anyone makes the cut. Remember, godless SJWs only, please.

If you think later that you’d like to join, these instructions will be available at the “About FtB” link in the top left corner of this window, at some time in the next few days.

The structuralist heresy

Larry Moran has heard the words of Michael Denton, and has come away with a creationist interpretation of structuralism. I have to explain to Larry that Denton, as you might expect of a creationist, is distorting the whole idea. Here’s the Denton/Intelligent Design creationism version of structuralist theory.

As Denton says, the basic idea is that the form (structure) of modern organisms is a property of the laws of physics and chemistry and not something that evolution discovered. He would argue that if you replay the tape of life you will always get species that look pretty much like the species we see today because the basic forms (Baupläne) are the inevitable consequences of the underlying physics.

Say what? Look, I’m a developmental biologist; I was baptized in the Stygian stream of structuralism by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, I reacted and diffused with Alan Turing, I danced disco by the light of the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction, and no, that is not the structuralism I have studied. There is a grain of truth to it, in that structuralism does imply that there are physical/chemical constraints on form, but only the extremists would suggest that that means life on Mars would evolve to look like life on earth. That overlooks the fact that structuralists are thoroughly familiar with the diversity of life on this one planet, and since those physical laws can generate both mushrooms and monkeys, it’s clear that there is some room for exploration of form.

[Read more…]

Happy Darwin Day!

Mr Darwin would be 207 years old today.


How are you planning to celebrate? I’m going to spend all day teaching and grading and in meetings, and then late this afternoon I’ll hitch-hike to the nearest ocean, convince a cranky sea captain to let me aboard his brig-sloop, and then spend 5 years sailing around the world. So if you don’t hear anything from me after today, I’m just chasin’ the dream.

Alexandra Elbakyan is my hero

Here’s another way I’m privileged: I have free access to the University of Minnesota library system, with all of its journal subscriptions, so I rarely have to worry about finding something published in the major journals, with a few annoying exceptions. It’s only now, then, that I’ve learned about Sci-Hub, but I’ll be using it more, especially to deal with those exceptions.

Alexandra Elbakyan set up Sci-Hub to make science freely available.

For those of you who aren’t already using it, the site in question is Sci-Hub, and it’s sort of like a Pirate Bay of the science world. It was established in 2011 by neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan, who was frustrated that she couldn’t afford to access the articles needed for her research, and it’s since gone viral, with hundreds of thousands of papers being downloaded daily. But at the end of last year, the site was ordered to be taken down by a New York district court – a ruling that Elbakyan has decided to fight, triggering a debate over who really owns science.

“Payment of $32 is just insane when you need to skim or read tens or hundreds of these papers to do research. I obtained these papers by pirating them,” Elbakyan told Torrent Freak last year. “Everyone should have access to knowledge regardless of their income or affiliation. And that’s absolutely legal.”

She’s being sued by Elsevier! She is fighting the most evil science publisher in the world. This isn’t just heroism, it’s epic heroism.

Poor Cliven

You should read all of the charges in Cliven Bundy’s indictment: assault, extortion, conspiracy, and more, and it’s all based on the 2014 standoff at his ranch. The FBI has been waiting patiently all this time to sweep him up and lock him away with an overwhelming list of crimes.

The other rather amusing thing about it all: Bundy, the guy with the great ranch and who has been grazing herds of cattle on federal land, who owes at least a million dollars to the federal government, has asked the federal government to provide him with a public defender. The freeloading never ends.

Richard Dawkins has had a stroke

Last weekend, Richard Dawkins had a medical emergency.

Richard Dawkins has suffered a minor stroke, said the Sydney Opera House on Friday in a statement.

He is recuperating and is expected to “make a full or near full recovery”.

The well-known atheist was scheduled to deliver talks in Australia and New Zealand, which have been cancelled.

“On Saturday night Richard suffered a minor stroke, however he is expected in time to make a full or near full recovery. He is already at home recuperating,” said the announcement. “This unfortunately means Richard will be unable to make his planned Australian and New Zealand tour.”

“He is very disappointed that he is unable to do so but looks forward to renewing his plans in the not too distant future.”

Despite our differences, we should all hope for his full recovery.

Sorry, physicists, I’m going to have to be a wet blanket here

The Republicans in congress have just approved a rude little bill.

The House of Representatives approved legislation Wednesday that would require the National Science Foundation to provide written justification for how every grant furthers the “national interest.”
The legislation, H.R. 3293, passed largely along party lines in the Republican-controlled House. Its sponsors characterized the measure as designed to “ensure that the National Science Foundation (NSF) is open and accountable to the taxpayers about how their hard-earned dollars are spent.”

Meanwhile, those impractical enthusiastic physicists have been all jubilant over the discovery of gravitational waves, and it’s in the media everywhere I turn. Guess how much confirmation of this phenomenon cost?

The chirp is also sweet vindication for the National Science Foundation, which spent about $1.1 billion over more than 40 years to build a new hotline to nature, facing down criticism that sources of gravitational waves were not plentiful or loud enough to justify the cost.

All right, smart guys. I’m a reasonably intelligent, reasonably well-educated biologist, and I’ve been struggling to grasp the significance of this discovery. I want you to imagine standing in front of Lamar Smith or Dana Rohrabacher and having to explain to them how a squiggle in a billion-dollar instrument furthers the national interest. These are people quite happy to throw a trillion dollars away on the F-35, but want to know exactly how every penny going to basic science will Make America Great Again.

Have fun with that.