Skepticism is so easily displaced by fantasy

We’ve seen it so many times before, you think we’d learn. The glib, charismatic con man, short on evidence but long on vision. The desirable dream: cure my fatal disease, show me proof of an afterlife, teach me how to unleash my psychic powers. We’re supposed to be good at recognizing those, and rejecting them. But it turns out that the con man just needs to tailor his fantasy to fit, and he can reach even the hard core skeptics. In this case, it’s the vision of shiny spaceship and a voyage to Mars.

mars

[Read more…]

The theme for the day seems to be…

What is this, Gender Pronoun Day?

Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto, is railing against “political correctness”, generally a good sign that we’re dealing with a right-wing wackaloon, depending on what has gotten them wound up. In this case, it’s safe to say he’s an outraged wingnut, because this is what has got him upset:

Gender identity is defined by the Ontario Human Rights Commission as “each person’s internal and individual experience of gender. It is their sense of being a woman, a man, both, neither, or anywhere along the gender spectrum.” The commission defines gender expression as “how a person publicly presents their gender,” which can include behaviour and outward appearance such as dress, hair, make-up, body language and voice, as well as a person’s name and the pronouns they use.

Yes? Seems like plain old ordinary common sense to me — gender is complicated and messy, and a matter of personal experience as well as biology. All I should care about is how a person presents themselves, and I should respect that.

But no, not to Jordan Peterson! This is unadulterated crazy talk.

Peterson is critical of these terms and their definitions as outlined by the commission, and compares the changes Bill C-16 would bring about to the policing of expression in “totalitarian and authoritarian political states.”

I think he’s got it backwards. Demanding that individuals conform to one of only two gender roles is the totalitarian/authoritarian position.

He also argues against the existence of non-binary gender identities, or those that are not exclusively masculine or feminine, saying “I don’t think there’s any evidence for it.”

By the way, he’s a professor of clinical psychology.

You could try typing evidence of non-binary gender identities into Google Scholar and see what comes up. Do you think it might be a blank page? It isn’t.

Peterson said that if a student asked him to be referred to by a non-binary pronoun, he would not recognize their request: “I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I use to address them. I won’t do it.”

Amazing. Why? So it would be OK for me to address Jordan Peterson as “she” or “her”? He seems to be saying the subject of a reference is not to be allowed any say in how they are addressed. I also wonder if he’s one of those professors who insist that students address them as “Professor” or “Doctor”.

It’s common courtesy to ask how someone wishes to be addressed, and especially in a formal relationship, to respect that. There’s nothing wrong with a professor insisting that they be addressed by title, or by first name — and students should respect that convention. Would it be OK if, against his wishes, I addressed Jordie-boy as “Maximum Sphincter Peterson” in the classroom?

Peterson told the National Post that he decided to make the video and go public with his views after receiving a memo from university HR outlining new mandatory anti-racist and anti-bias training. “That disturbs me because if someone asked me to take anti-bias training, I think I am agreeing that I am sufficiently racist or biased to need training,” he said in an interview.

Yes, Maximum Sphincter Peterson. You are sufficiently biased to need training. We all are. I have a terrible habit of calling an awful person a “sphincter”, and I could probably do with a little conversation about how it makes others feel.

In which we get distracted from real problems by personal outrage over pronouns

Alice Dreger has concerns about the future of tenure at our universities. So do I. She describes three things that she worries are threatening the institution. Two of them are valid. The third is off-the-wall looney tunes.

Her first concern is right-wing manipulation of the funding of universities. This is a major problem, if we let it happen…and it is happening in states like Wisconsin.

Fed up with the left-leaning nature of universities, political right wingers, including the Koch brothers, have made reshaping academia a priority. In Wisconsin, Walker has made it easier for programmes and departments to lose funding at the whim of those in political power. Likewise, the Republican-controlled Board of Governors at the University of North Carolina recently closed the law school’s highly-regarded Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.

Her second concern…let me come back to that one. It’s ridiculous. But her third concern is real.

The third part of the triumvirate? The corporatisation of universities. I experienced this personally when Northwestern University’s medical school dean censored an article I had edited and published because he was afraid it might violate a ‘branding agreement’ with the corporation who oversaw the running of the university hospital. (The article recounted an academic anthropologist’s story of consensual oral sex with a nurse after he was paralysed in 1978.) Our dean even set up a new ‘editorial committee’ comprised of overseers from his office and the PR department to ensure we didn’t publish anything else off-brand.

Ugh, yes. I’d throw into this the problem of the commodification of education, where we try to ‘sell’ the virtues of getting a degree as consisting primarily of getting a higher paying job.

But a larger part of her essay is dedicated to the second problem, and this is where it goes off the rails. You can guess where it’s going: there is a bizarre moral panic going on in which common ideas that support diversity are treated as horrifying instruments of oppression.

Meanwhile, on the left, identity-politics activists are using devices like ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ to shut down speech they believe to be offensive and dangerous. In my campus visits around the US – aimed at emboldening the students, faculty, and administrators to push for academic freedom – I’ve been told time and time again about staff being reported by left-leaning students for teaching ‘uncomfortable’ ideas that have been taught for generations.

She will not anywhere explain how students complaining threatens the institution of tenure, and will not bring up any specific examples of professors losing their job for teaching uncomfortable ideas. But she has thoroughly bought into the bogus idea that “‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’” have the purpose of shutting down speech. She’s got it exactly backwards.

I treat my classroom as a safe space to discuss relevant ideas. I have fervently anti-abortion students who take my developmental biology course, while I am loudly pro-abortion; but, in the appropriate parts of the course, I want them to be able to ask questions and state their ideas without getting shouted down. I’ve often had creationists in my evolution-heavy courses, and when they’ve been bold enough to speak up, I encourage their participation — they aren’t going to be punished for arguing respectfully, and I am going to deal more harshly with a pro-evolution student who gets abusive.

That’s what a safe space is: a place where you can talk about your ideas and concerns without the reflexive abuse and silencing that can so easily go on when an authoritarian says you’re wrong, or when there’s a majority that takes courage from their numbers to bash a minority. It encourages speech that might otherwise be suppressed.

The same with trigger or content warnings. It’s a way to prepare students for controversial or stressful material, not to help students avoid it. I guess, if Dreger had her way, I should just surprise students by projecting a wall-sized grisly photo of a deformed fetus on the screen, rather than first explaining that we’re going to discuss birth defects, and that we’re going to see some examples of the consequences of holoprosencephaly.

Ah, but she has anecdotes about the horrible consequences of these left-wing abominations.

For example, one faculty member at a prestigious liberal arts college told me about a colleague who was reported for teaching the ancient Greek tale Leda and the Swan. The alleged discriminatory offence? Not first warning students that the story includes a symbolic rape. Others at public universities described being reported for stumbling over students’ preferred pronouns. Some historic women’s colleges have given up trying to produce The Vagina Monologues because of complaints that the 1996 play doesn’t reflect the breadth of transgender experiences. (It doesn’t; it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.)

Wait. Her other two threats are about billionaires using their money to leverage bias into the university, and institutional activities that skew our perspectives away from the pursuit of knowledge, and the problem here is that students sometimes complain? Jebus. She’s saying she’s an advocate for free speech, and she has problems with students speaking freely? That makes no sense.

Look, students complain, and they have a right to complain; and they’re young and being exposed to a lot of new stuff, so sometimes their complaints are not exactly well-founded. I’ve had a student complain that, in a science course about the origin of life and evolution, I did not say anything about the Biblical account. He can do that. I will listen. I might even do something about it (although, in this case, he’d have liked it even less if I did discuss the place of the Bible in a science course).

So a student complained that they weren’t warned that “Leda and the Swan” includes rape. Was the professor fired? Was his tenure threatened? Because that’s what Dreger is writing about, yet she’s not making that connection. Was the complaint relayed to his colleague so that they could respond to it? Because that’s what I’d want to happen.

As for stumbling over students preferred pronouns…it’s happened to me, just this week. I erred in referring to a student, and they quietly reminded me of their preference. I felt bad, and I should feel bad about my mistake — it’s a small, easy adjustment for me that helps create an atmosphere of respect for the students in the classroom. So yes, please do complain and remind me when I screw up. And if I persist, that’s a sign that either I don’t care enough about the student to make this simple accommodation, or that I’m a willful jerk who is bravely defying a younger, less powerful person, and then, sure enough, I ought to be reported to the department chair, or even higher.

And when I say I feel bad about it, it’s about concern for the student, not because I feel that my job is seriously threatened. That would be an indirect consequence. My job is all about teaching people, and I can’t do that if I lack empathy for them.

As for The Vagina Monologues…this is not a classic play, part of the Western canon, to which all students must be exposed. There was a time when people would protest and be horrified when it was performed, and now, seriously, we’ve got people who think it is a crime when it is not performed? Come on. It was ground-breaking in its day, aspects of it are empowering to women even now, but there was a period when almost every university was putting on a performance every year, and honestly, it got a bit old. I doubt that a deep need to perform it again is being suppressed by angry transgender activists; more likely, the people who would perform it are looking for fresher, newer material that would also include other perspectives.

That play is not dogma. Why complain that it isn’t? Are any professors being threatened with loss of tenure for not sponsoring The Vagina Monologues?

It’s a weird essay. I felt like she had briefly tossed in two real concerns that damage academia so she could have an excuse to rage against a non-existent problem about pronoun usage that she felt deeply, personally irate about, and so she could argue about a couple of buzzwords that have right-wingers, who don’t understand the concepts any more than she does, upset.

So, apparently, to protect my tenured position, I have to do a couple of things:

  • Allow bullying and personal invective in my classroom as part of the learning experience.

  • Make my lectures abruptly shocking, and traumatize students more.

  • Ignore the way they request to be addressed. Perhaps I can just call them by number, and refer to them as “it”? “Number Seventeen will take the exam, and it will like it.”

  • Make sure the The Vagina Monologues gets performed every year, or maybe even every semester, if I really want to get promoted.

I fail to see how any of these things will lead to my personal gain, or enhance learning in my classroom.

The state of the union explained!

If you’ve been wondering how so many people can be voting for that orange bully with hair of crystallized urine, we finally have a surprising answer.

ROMER: David gets to work cooking up questions to give the polling company. The polling company does its job.

WILK: And it was the only question that we ever wrote where we ever got a response from them saying, is this actually what you want us to be polling? And we said, yes. And the question was – we were going to ask people, have you ever been decapitated?

SMITH: (Laughter). But…

WILK: They were sure we had made a mistake, and we had not.

SMITH: As far as David remembers, by the way, 4 percent of Americans answered that they had been decapitated.

ROMER: Seems high.

Have you looked at any of the polls? Seems low.

A big deal on campus

My little university is hosting the Minnesota Out! Campus Conference this year — and it’s looking like a very well organized and busy event.

MOCC 2016 is hosted by the University of Minnesota Morris!

MOCC is a premier opportunity for students, staff, faculty, alumni, and community members from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the surrounding areas to discuss issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex , asexual, and two spirit persons (LGBTQIA2S+) on college and university campuses and in the greater community

You’re invited this November 11-13, 2016 to join the University of Minnesota Morris for MOCC 2016. This year’s theme is “Connecting to Our Roots: Where We’re From and Where We’re Going.”

By inviting leaders from across the state to our community we hope to encourage a conversation on discussing how we can best support LGBTQIA2S+ communities in the face of numerous challenges and limited resources. In places such as Morris, opportunities to host events such as MOCC are few and far between. And, as such, hosting this conference means a great deal to us! We are proud of the work we have accomplished and hope to use this conference as a catalyst to create even greater change at our small campus and the community surrounding it.

I hope there’s good attendance — we need more people to come on out to our little town on the prairie to see that rural America can be open and tolerant and welcoming.

How full of it is Sean Hannity?

I admit, I watched this whole video. But I had an excuse! You see, it’s Sean Hannity explaining to you, the American people how Donald Trump won the big debate the other day, and his reasoning was so full of shit that I was sure it was going to start leaking out of his eyes, and maybe his skin would split open and he’d erupt into a spectacular shit fountain right there on camera. He started off by explaining…

…how out of touch the mainstream media is with you, the American people

I started thinking, wait a minute, this is on Fox News, a major media company, and Hannity has a radio show, so isn’t he a big dopey part of the mainstream media? Is he even aware that he has begun by explaining that he is out of touch?

If you listen to the elites and the punditry class on television and radio, they almost universally, they think, Hillary Clinton won the debate…

Hang on, this is getting ridiculous. Hannity has a net worth of about $80 million; he’s one of those “elites”. All he does is uninformed blather on television and radio, so he is definitely one of the “punditry class”. And he’s telling us how we shouldn’t trust guys like him? So meta. So self-referential. I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for the shitsplosion.

Then he explains how he knows Clinton actually lost the debate: because online polls at places like Breitbart and Drudge say so. You know what I think of online polls: they are totally meaningless, especially when there are special interest groups specifically flooding those polls with fake votes.

And then at the end, he dismisses those other journalists because being a pundit is such a cushy lifestyle.

Now, my overpaid friends in the media, well, they have their chauffeured limousines, they like their fine steakhouses and expensive wine lifestyles.

I guess he’d know. Hannity gets paid $29 million per year, and owns a private jet, which he uses to flit politicians around as a favor. Yet he has the gall to get all folksy with the little people and tell them how awful those other pundit aristocrats are.

If there were a god, that’s the point where a crack should have opened beneath his feet and Hannity should have been dragged screaming into the flaming pit of hell by an army of demons. But there is no god, so he simply smirked, left, took his chauffeured limousines to a fine steakhouse and gurgled down a couple of bottles of overpriced wine.

I include the video for completeness’ sake, but there’s no point in actually watching it, since he starts out as an evil slug, there is no justice, and it ends, and he’s still an evil slug, who will make more money in a year than I will in a lifetime.

We are not going to escape to other planets

earth

Why do people take Elon Musk seriously? I know he’s been successful with his car business, and SpaceX is making great progress, but every time he opens his mouth he sounds like a delusional maniac, or worse, he sounds like the Discovery “Five Year Goals” Institute. His latest extremely optimistic plans are rather unbelievable.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has outlined his highly ambitious vision for manned missions to Mars, which he said could begin as soon as 2022 – three years sooner than his previous estimates.

He’s going to solve all the technical difficulties of that mission — and all of the expenses — in six years. I know the US made a commitment to land a man on the moon in a span of a decade (and succeeded!), but that involved a major effort by a nation, fueled by cold war competition. I don’t think Musk has that kind of clout.

Then, this is really unclear. I assume he’s only talking a small crewed mission in six years, not launching a rocket with 100 people aboard to Mars, but I don’t know — his optimism sounds like it’s going to explode out of the top of his head.

In order to achieve this goal, Musk outlined a multi-stage launch and transport system including a re-usable booster like the Falcon 9 which SpaceX has already successfully tested – only much larger. The booster, and “interplanetary module” on top of it, would be nearly as long as two Boeing 747 aircraft. It could initially carry up to 100 passengers, he said.

That can’t work as a Mars vehicle. A 747 holds 400-500 people in cramped quarters for short hops, but doesn’t need to carry elaborate life-support systems, food, water, and air, and all the fuel for a 260 day journey. But the highest capacity destination in Earth orbit, the ISS, has only 6 sleep stations and has held at most 10 people at once. So I’m not sure why he’s planning a large space bus right now. Especially when he freely states that the current cost of a seat on that bus would be about 10 billion dollars.

But at least he’s solved the really important issue of what to name his space ship already.

The first ship to go to Mars, Musk said, would be named Heart of Gold as a tribute to the ship powered by an “infinite improbability drive” from Douglas Adams’ science fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

And it wouldn’t be a Musk event without some mention of the locust mindset. We’re all gonna die if we have to stay on this huge planet we’re adapted to live on, so we’ve got to get a few people to the off-world colonies, which we know are all inhospitable hell-holes. But…but…EXTINCTION EVENT.

He said there were “two fundamental paths” facing humanity today. “One is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event,” he said. “The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization, and a multiplanetary species.”

We know a few things about extinction events, having caused a few for other species. We know, for instance, that a major cause is habitat destruction, elimination of the environment to which the species is well-suited and capable of independent survival. If you want to foster the survival of a species, building a big steel-and-glass enclosure that holds a few representatives that you have to feed and care for artificially is only a stop-gap measure — you want them to thrive, you have to restore their environment fully.

Face reality. If planet Earth goes, so does humanity. It’s the end. Game over. Putting a few of our people in a self-imposed space zoo does not save the species, it only prolongs the agony briefly. If you really care about the problems facing humanity, and are thinking extremely long term, you have to appreciate that a species is part of a larger system that must be maintained.

So please do explore the universe and send rockets and people to other planets — I think that’s cool, and a part of what we overgrown monkeys do. But when you frame it as “saving the species”, I know you’re an ignorant fool and will stop trusting you to be competent at whatever other goals you have.

Tonight at Cafe Scientifique

Some guy is giving a public lecture here in Morris, Minnesota. I was wondering why I was feeling a little frazzled and over-extended this week.

Event Date: Tuesday, September 27, 2016 – 6:00pm
Location: Common Cup Coffeehouse

Anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology.
The next Café Scientifique will take place on Tuesday, September 27, at 6 p.m. at the Common Cup Coffeehouse (501 Atlantic Avenue, Morris, MN 56267). Associate Professor of Biology PZ Myers and Katrine Sjovold ’18, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, will lead the discussion: “Cells in Motion: How Cells Move to Build Embryos, Create Patterns, and Cause Cancer.”

Myers and Sjovold have been studying migrating cells in zebrafish embryos as a model for how cells rearrange themselves in constructing tissues, organs, and organisms. They have focused on melanocytes, the cells that make pigment stripes in the animal, because their behavior is universal and is also important in human diseases, like melanoma.

Café Scientifique is an ongoing series that offers a space where anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology for the price of a cup of coffee. Meetings take place outside of a traditional academic context and are committed to promoting public engagement with science. Interested audiences can look forward to additional discussions typically on the last Tuesday of selected months.

Café Scientifique is supported in part by a grant to the University of Minnesota, Morris from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through the Undergraduate and Graduate Programs. For more information, visit morris.umn.edu/hhmi.