You are not entitled to your opinion

I once had an indignant student tell me that what I was teaching in class about evolution was “just my opinion” and that they had a different opinion, and therefore they were justified in rejecting a major chunk of the class subject matter. I think I just gave them the standard line — you are allowed to believe what you want, but in this class, you have to demonstrate an understanding of the science, even if you disagree with it — but over the years, I’ve evolved towards a somewhat harder stance. You don’t get to declare whatever you dislike to be an opinion. You don’t get to regard your opinions as somehow sacrosanct. I am going to give you the information that shows your opinion is wrong, and the purpose of my teaching is to get you to change your opinions to something more productive and correct, and more in line with reality. Those kinds of opinions should not survive an encounter with the facts.

So I’m already in agreement with this philosophical position that “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion”. There are different kinds of opinions, and this is a very useful explanation.

Plato distinguished between opinion or common belief (doxa) and certain knowledge, and that’s still a workable distinction today: unlike “1+1=2” or “there are no square circles,” an opinion has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it. But “opinion” ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.

You can’t really argue about the first kind of opinion. I’d be silly to insist that you’re wrong to think strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate. The problem is that sometimes we implicitly seem to take opinions of the second and even the third sort to be unarguable in the way questions of taste are. Perhaps that’s one reason (no doubt there are others) why enthusiastic amateurs think they’re entitled to disagree with climate scientists and immunologists and have their views “respected.”

I have to agree. The statements “I like chocolate ice cream” and “I think the earth is 6000 years old” are both opinions all right, in a shallow and colloquial sense, but they are qualitatively different. That I respect your right to have your own taste in ice cream should not imply that I also grant you the privilege to ignore our shared reality. The author, Patrick Stokes, explains all this with examples from anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers, but it’s true for lots of phenomena.

It’s the core of the Answers in Genesis claim that they are using the same facts, but different views (they prefer to use the word “worldviews” over “opinions”, but it’s the same thing). They think they’re entitled to their own opinions and interpretations of reality, and that they can look at a Cretaceous fossil and declare that, in their opinion, that dinosaur died in the Great Flood in 2304BC…they certainly have the right to say that, but they go further and demand that you respect that opinion as equally valid to that of a scientist.

We also see it in politics. Look at this claim by Scottie Nell Hughes:

“On one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go ‘No it’s true,’” Hughes said. “And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people who say ‘facts are facts,’— they’re not really facts.”

“Everybody has a way—It’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts,” she added.

I’m pretty sure Hughes would argue that the facts show that she is a mammalian humanoid, with records to show that she was born to fully human parents, but it is my opinion that she, and all the other Trump surrogates, are actually alien reptoids who hatched from eggs incubated in a dungheap. And apparently, she’d agree that her facts are useless and my interpretation is perfectly valid.

Unless, of course, we can agree that some opinions are falsifiable.

The Atheist War on Krampus


Tonight is Krampusnacht. I just can’t muster any enthusiasm for fighting it, though; there aren’t any shared social customs that we atheists in America enjoy, and I don’t see anyone trying to force me to celebrate it in a religiously specific way.

I guess I’ll just half-heartedly say it’s a silly tradition, but you should feel free to celebrate it however you want and in any ethically reasonable way for any random reason. Hmm. That seems to be my stance on Christmas, too.

The Morris NorthStar owes me $15

I put up a sign saying that I didn’t want their racist rag delivered to my door any more, and that I’d bill them $5 for each copy they trashed my office with. This morning: three copies delivered. Ka-ching!

Except…I don’t seriously believe they’ll pay up. Just like I don’t think their declaration on the cover, First Copy: FREE. All subsequent copies are $5 is realistic or valid. Therefore I’ll consider their trash to be fair game for trashing. Since they don’t take my demand seriously, I won’t take theirs seriously, and obviously they don’t even take it seriously. It’s SATIRE, don’t you know.

I did glance inside as I was hauling them off to recycling, and I see they’re still maintaining high journalistic standards. Their recent thrill was a visit by Little Ben Shapiro, which they described in an article titled Ben Shapiro Visits UMM, Discusses Trannies and Freedom. Charming. We learn exactly what Shapiro thinks of the topic.

Transgenderism is a tragic, horrible mental illness that people suffer from. It should be treated with nothing but sympathy. The idea that you can magically change a man into a woman or a woman into a man is anti-biology and anti-fact and foolish.

What I consider anti-biology is this prejudice that every human being must conform to one of only two types with regards to phenomena as complex and psychologically and socially fraught as sexual behavior and gender roles. But what do I know? I’m just a biologist, while Shapiro is a professional right-wing bozo and utterer of simplistic bigotry.

The article unfortunately says next to nothing about free speech, except to say that Shapiro is annoyed by the exercise of it: he doesn’t like being labeled a “racist, sexist, bigot, homophobe”. The whole thing is almost entirely about those awful “trannies”.

But he doesn’t want to be called a bigot or homophobe. Go figure.

I look forward to disposing all of the future copies of this vile thing that cross my path. Don’t worry. I’ll do it satirically.

It’s that time of year again

Time for the critiquing of American Atheists’ Christmas billboards! I will say this: this year, they’re emphasizing a more cheerful message with a little bit of humor, but still, they desperately need a pro to design these things.

Here’s the first one, and I think, the worst one.


Uh, no. Way too busy. Just the text on the right would be OK, but the four small text messages on the left? No one is going to be able to read those as they’re zipping by in a car, and all they’ll see is the shocked, pop-eyed black woman (we’re treading awfully close to racist tropes here) staring at her smug daughter, which is not a particularly good or informative look. Also, it looks more like a banner ad on a website, rather than a roadside sign. Scrap it.

The second one, I like. Clear, simple, a snarky reference to our recent presidential campaign, and nicely promoting a strong anti-church message (if you don’t like anti-clericism, you aren’t going to like anything from American Atheists). I’d have gone for a sans serif font, though, and not used all caps. Otherwise, I think this is one of the best billboards American Atheists have produced yet (which is not saying a lot).


Of course, one lesson they’ve learned, unfortunately, is that the quality of the content doesn’t matter, because no matter what it is, sanctimonious Christians will tear it down. This one lasted less than 2 hours before it was removed.

Related comment from that link: shut the fuck up about “heart of the Bible belt”. It does not justify anything, and the “Bible belt” is a meaningless, empty geographical distinction. I’ve visited communities in Washington state and Florida, Texas and Minnesota, central Pennsylvania and Oregon, that all declare themselves part of the “Bible belt”. The entire goddamn country is apparently this vaguely defined “Bible belt”, and it extends up into central Canada.

I suppose if Mexicans were this insecure about their religion and needed to say they believed in their version of god because of where they were born, the Bible belt would also extend south and be more of a Bible cup.

Exuberance! Shenanigans!

Oh, those wacky Trump supporters…they are so filled with joy, they planned a big victory parade in North Carolina!

The Loyal White Knights had previously announced they would hold a “Trump victory parade” in Pelham on Saturday morning. Hundreds of protestors and reporters arrived in the small town in Caswell County for the event, though the KKK never showed.

Oh, no, they didn’t show? Were they overwhelmed with a surfeit of exhilaration? Did they party just a little too hard? I supposed you could say that.

The founder of the local Ku Klux Klan was unable to participate in the group’s festivities Saturday because he was in jail in connection with the stabbing and beating of another man at a KKK meeting the night before.

The Caswell County Sheriff’s Office reported Saturday night that two men were arrested that morning after allegedly assaulting a man who was in town for a Loyal White Knights meeting.

What a shame. I hope this doesn’t quench the Klan’s joie de vivre, and that they have many more exultant, triumphant meetings in the future.

Tardigrade sex

You may have suffered many restless nights wondering how tardigrades had sex. It’s one of those burning questions that I’m sure has left many of us curious and concerned. Wonder no more! We have tardigrade porn!

In case you’re confused, here’s the text description of what’s going on in that video.

When put together with gravid females, males seemed to be attracted, moving directly towards the female and joining her for mating. On rare occasions males were not attracted to females, and this presumably occurred when females had started to absorb eggs. For mating, the male curled around the anterior end of the female exuvia, bringing his cloaca close to the mouth opening in the exuvia (Fig. 2). During mating he held the female with his first pair of legs, and the female stimulated the male by moving her stylets and contracting the sucking pharynx. Mating took about 1 h, and semen was ejaculated several times (visible under the light microscope). Exactly the same mating behaviour was observed more than 30 times in more than 30 tardigrade couples, and mating was also documented on video.

Still confused? Perhaps it would help to know that they’re bisexual, and there aren’t any anatomical differences between the sperm-producing male and the egg-producing female. Here’s a close-up of their external reproductive organs.

Cloaca (indicated by arrow) of two individuals of Isohypsibius dastychi. The cuticle opens anteriorly. A, cuticle covering the cloaca is pushed towards posterior end of the animal. B, cuticle in the natural state. Scale bar = 10 μm.

Cloaca (indicated by arrow) of two individuals of Isohypsibius dastychi. The cuticle opens anteriorly. A, cuticle covering the cloaca is pushed towards posterior end of the animal. B, cuticle in the natural state. Scale bar = 10 μm.

Surely everything is clear now! Just in case, here’s a simplified diagram of the Standard Tardigrade Sexual Position.

Mating position of Isohypsibius dastychi. The male (left) held the female (right) in the moulting stage, with eggs (in this case three) clearly visible in her ovary.

Mating position of Isohypsibius dastychi. The male (left) held the female (right) in the moulting stage, with eggs (in this case three) clearly visible in her ovary.

Distressing thought: if you are a tardigrade, it looks like you can get pregnant from oral sex.

Bingemer J, Hohberg K, Schill RO (2016) First detailed observations on tardigrade mating behaviour and some aspects of the life history of Isohypsibius dastychi Pilato, Bertolani & Binda 1982 (Tardigrada, Isohypsibiidae). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 178(4):856-862.

A #NODAPL victory?

The infamous pipeline is going to be rerouted.

The Army will not approve an easement that would allow the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe in North Dakota, the Army’s assistant secretary for civil works announced Sunday.

It must be a good decision, because it’s really pissing off the right people.

North Dakota’s sole member in the House of Representatives, Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican, expressed his disapproval in a scathing statement released Sunday that slammed President Barack Obama as well as the protestors.

“I hoped even a lawless president wouldn’t continue to ignore the rule of law. However, it was becoming increasingly clear he was punting this issue down the road,” Cramer wrote. “Today’s unfortunate decision sends a very chilling signal to others who want to build infrastructure in this country. Roads, bridges, transmission lines, pipelines, wind farms and water lines will be very difficult, if not impossible, to build when criminal behavior is rewarded this way.”

Building infrastructure is great. Building great dangerous leaky pipelines to pump poison over water supplies, and to torment and abuse the people most affected by them, is not. Suppressing the people’s right to protest is also not great.

You don’t get to revise evolutionary theory, until you understand evolutionary theory

There was a conference sponsored by the Royal Society last month, titled New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives. There have been a number of news stories about this event, some good, some bad. Here’s one: can you tell what’s wrong with it?

For example, speaking at the Royal Society was Melinda Zeder, who talked about the way in which modern synthesis fails to provide a reason for mankind’s turning to agriculture 10,00 years ago and its ensuing evolutionary impact. Growing crops may have taken years, so there could not have been a short-term evolutionary benefit to it. As Zeder told Quanta, “You don’t get the immediate gratification of grabbing some food and putting it in your mouth.” It’s also been theorized that a climate shift caused agriculture to bloom, but there’s no evidence of such a shift.

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