Tom Wolfe’s magic combo move

Here’s a formula for seeming wise: take two complex, deep topics that are individually the domain of specialists, and that may be unfathomable to the general public. Combine them in some arcane way; you can trust that the set of experts who understand both topics will be minuscule, so you’ll be able to get away with a lot of nonsense, because experts in A will be impressed with your knowledge of B while thinking you don’t know squat about A, while experts in B will be vice versa. The classic example of this strategem is Velikovsky, who blended expertise in Middle Eastern mythology with astrophysics. Astrophysicists thought his flying, colliding planets that ignored conservation of energy were ludicrous nonsense, while gosh, there sure are a lot of provocative ancient texts talking about astrophysics, while classical scholars were shocked at all the liberties he was taking with history, but gee whiz, that physics stuff is impressively daunting. Meanwhile, the people who nothing about either were applauding him as a genius.

We have another example, and unfortunately, it’s the brilliant writer Tom Wolfe. He has taken his dilettante’s understanding of two subjects to attempt to fuse them: in this case, linguistics and evolution. One would think those two would complement each other nicely, but not when the author’s preconceptions are simply stuck in human exceptionalism, and his arguments are all about ‘proving’ his assumptions correct, no matter how false they are. And, most unfortunately, it leads him to conclude not that his understanding of linguistics is deficient, but that evolution must be false.

There’s absolutely nothing like it [speech], and I think it’s time for people who are interested in evolution to say that the theory of evolution applies only, only to animals.

He’s also not worried that creationists will love this, because, he says, there’s there’s not a shred of whatever that depends at all on faith, on belief in an extraterrestrial power. Ah. So intelligent design creationism it is, then.

You might want to take a look at this wonderfully entertaining review of the book. It’s an ahistorical mess — Wolfe claims that Darwin was obsessed with proving that human speech was derived from animal sounds, for instance, and that the whole idea of examining the evolution of speech was discarded after Darwin, until Chomsky. He not only gets the history of evolution wrong, he mangles the history of linguistics.

Speech, Mr. Wolfe says triumphantly, gave our species “the power to conquer the entire planet,” “the power to ask questions about his own life,” the power to control other human minds—“a power the Theory of Evolution cannot even begin to account for . . . or abide.” “Speech! To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo’s David.”

And here my pen dropped onto the bonded-vinyl flooring. I stared at the page with a slack, dopey expression. I scratched my fuzzy head. I just did not understand. Even if speech were entirely due to culture, why is this some sort of victory over evolution? Why the boosterish chest-thumping? No biologists think that the great creations of our species— Mozart’s symphonies, Katsura Villa, the Mahabharata, integral calculus—were due to natural selection. None believe that today’s languages evolved from some unknown ape tongue. Meanwhile, everyone who accepts evolution at all—including, I had thought, Mr. Wolfe—knows that the larynx evolved over time, as did the pharyngeal cavity, motor cortex and the rest of the mechanism of speech. Geneticists have turned up a library of genes involved in language. Zoologists have found that animal sounds are more complex than previously believed (most are “non-Markovian,” in the jargon). To all of these people, the arrival of language is not a matter of abrupt on-and-off, like a light switch, but more a subtle accumulation, like a dimmer switch. Co-evolution, as Darwin hand-waved at the beginning. But even if there were an exact line to draw, as Mr. Wolfe contends, why would shifting it here or there reflect better on our species? Why does it matter whether Mr. Wolfe used a product of nurture or nature for his razzle-dazzle prose? Either way, it’s all his.​

It’s all very sad. Wolfe will use his considerable talents at writing to successfully peddle nonsense to the public, doing harm to public education, giving me yet another line of babble to refute which will be smugly thrown at me for the next several years, and the only gain will be that Mr Wolfe will be able to buy a few more white suits while his bullshit rises on the NY Times bestseller lists.

Man, maybe I ought to do some retirement planning. What two subjects do I know very little about (that part’s easy, most of the subjects), but can profitably merge to sound innovative and insightful? Everyone goes for the obvious one, quantum physics, so I think that’s played out. Hmm. Photonics and immunology? Gravity and time travel? Indian cooking and renewable energy? I’m sure all I have to do is find the right catchy combo, and then I’ll be on all the talk shows.

On the fritz

My lovely little PowerMac Pro is having conniptions — I suspect a bad connection to the display, because intermittently the screen will decide that white will be displayed as purple, and everything else as shades of green and yellow. It turns out that that color scheme is really hard to read, and writing is even harder. I’ve checked the obvious — like that it is one of the display options I can configure, and it isn’t — and will test it later today with an external display to see if it’s the logic board or the display board.

Writing today will depend on how long it can stay in a normal, healthy, readable mode — I don’t feel like blogging by doing the equivalent of fingerpainting in Fruit Loops tinted vomit.

Perhaps this will make an interesting plot twist in the next Jurassic Park movie

Jack Horner, the paleontologist who was the model for Dr Alan Grant in the Jurassic Park, has been ‘forced out’ of his position at the Museum of the Rockies, and is now working at the Burke Museum in Seattle. Good for the Burke, was my first thought, but the second was, “Why is the Museum of the Rockies kicking out their most famous scientist?” Then I read the story.

First reasonable reason — he’s 70. That’s a good age to step back from the grind…but ask me again in 10 years.

The second reason Horner gives is politics. The second reason is that museum director Shelley McKamey, the museum director, is married to Pat Leiggi, director of paleontology and exhibits. He says they’ve had it in for him, and criticizes the fact that their marriage creates an automatic alliance that overpowers other obligations. He’s basically objecting to the marital status of other people at the museum, claiming it gives them an unfair advantage. Which answered nothing — why would the fact that a couple of museum directors are married mean he’d be squeezed out?

And then Horner himself explains why they opposed him, and my sympathy evaporates.

The problem started in 2012, Horner said, when he married then 19-year-old undergraduate student Vanessa Weaver. He “adored” Weaver, but the marriage was their way of telling the university — she wasn’t one of his students — to butt out of their relationship after Horner was instructed to officially disclose the nature of their relationship and was told they would be scrutinized.

“And then they could check on it and they could decide on it. They could come say anything they want, so we got married so we could do anything,” Horner said. “And through the whole thing she had a boyfriend. There wasn’t like something nefarious going on. I adore her. She’s adorable, obviously we really like each other.” They’re divorced now, but still friends.

McKamey and Leiggi “went apoplectic” over the marriage, Horner said. “Before that happened they were my best friends. They basically haven’t talked to me since.”


OK, so he was fooling around with a student who was less than a third of his age, and thought he could legitimize it with the university by entering into a sham marriage? I don’t think university’s objection would be to sexual activity out of wedlock — this is the 21st century, and as we all know, universities are bastions of liberalism — but to sexual activity with a student. Trying to get around that problem with what he openly admits was a fake marriage makes the problem worse.

And now he’s divorced? Does that mean he’s going to be looking for another sweet young thing?

Now I’m wondering if the Burke Museum is keeping an eye on him.

I hear that most Canadians are not fans of Ezra Levant


While down here in the navel of the universe, the USA, most of us have never heard of him. He’s one of those right-wing media guys who yells a lot about immigrants and the purity of the Canadian essence (I understand the secret ingredient is maple syrup), and blusters about suing people who disagree with him. And now he’s threatening to sue an acquaintance of mine, the Canadian Cynic.

You cannot possibly imagine how much I despise people who fling lawyers at everyone who notices how big an asshat they are.

Anyway, CC is putting together a legal defense fund. If you also like the underdog in these kinds of fights, or if you’ve actually heard of puling dildork Ezra Levant and wouldn’t mind seeing him publicly embarrassed, go donate.

A match made in…

Milo Yiannopoulos is going to be speaking at Clemson University in South Carolina. I’m so sorry, South Carolina; you get to host a diffident dork who’ll be declaring that feminism is a cancer.

But at least he’ll be speaking in the right place, in Tillman Auditorium, which is named after Ben Tillman. This Ben Tillman.

Ben Tillman’s long and bloody public career began in 1876 at what would ultimately be called the Hamburg Massacre.

The then 29-year-old Tillman led the members of the Sweetwater Sabre Club, a.k.a. the Edgefield Redshits, against a local militia group, all black. Several African-American militia men were killed in a pitched battle with red-shirt-wearing white terrorists. After the militia surrendered, five of them were called out by name and executed. A few weeks later, when vigilantes captured a black state senator named Simon Coker, Tillman was present when two of his men executed the prisoner while he was on his knees praying.

Later, the terrorist leader Tillman explained his intentions on that fateful July 8 day: “It had been the settled purpose of the leading white men of Edgefield to seize the first opportunity that the Negroes might offer them to provoke a riot and teach the negroes a lesson; as it was generally believed that nothing but bloodshed and a good deal of it could answer the purpose of redeeming the state from Negro and carpetbag rule.” In a 1909 speech at a Red Shirt reunion in Anderson, Tillman reiterated this point, noting that he believed in “terrorizing the Negroes at the first opportunity by letting them provoke trouble and then having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable.”

He added, “That we have good government now is due entirely to the fact that Red Shirt men of 1876 did all and dared all that was necessary to rescue South Carolina from the rule of the alien, the traitor, and the semi-barbarous negroes.”

Wait…why does Clemson honor Tillman in the first place? Maybe you deserve Yiannopoulos, after all.

Heresy in the funny pages!

Someone in the Bible belt is going to open up their Sunday paper to read Peanuts or Blondie or BC or one of those other bland, dull, tired, dead strips, and they’re going to get a shock:

That’s pretty much a standard atheist understanding of how religion works, and one of the characters is able to plainly say that he is an atheist. Progress in the mainstreaming of godlessness!

Callie Wright and Ari Stillman on Atheist Talk radio

If you’re at all interested in the latest kerfuffle in the atheosphere, you might want to tune in to Atheist Talk radio tomorrow morning at 9am Central. Callie Wright and Ari Stillman will be the guests.

Then, next week, they’ll have somebody else to talk about the same thing with a wildly, radically different perspective to share — I’ve heard rumors. Maybe it’ll be Milo Yiannopoulous. Maybe it’ll be Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. Who knows? Or maybe it’ll be somebody who pretty much agrees with them. You’ll have to listen to find out.

This thread is just for Ellen


Look at the previous thread, which is primarily about unconscious bias and subtly pernicious effects of racism. Buried in the middle of it are two paragraphs about the Ellen/Usain Bolt controversy, because my accuser made a big deal about it, and because I swear half my email right now is all about defending Ellen Degeneres.

Then read the comments. Most of them are about Ellen, Ellen, Ellen. She’s not racist, people insist! That photo had no racist implications! I know a black person who was not offended by it!

I even pointed out the weird inappropriateness of this obsession about Ellen in the thread. No one cares. Everyone keeps arguing about Ellen. I’m going to have to call this Ellen’s Rule: any thread about racism will become all about defending white people from accusations of racism.

So here, this is just for you. The only topic allowed in this post is Ellen. Talk all you want about Ellen. Get it out of your system. Please purge yourself completely. I kind of like Ellen myself, but she is not the central figure in American racism at all.

I get email


It’s been a great couple of days for getting angry email from people who deny social realities. Take it away, Robert!

PZ, there is a reason that the social sciences are pseudo science, fake science. I was floored by the fact that you so naively believe the utterly laughable assumptions of proponents of implicit bias. The reason you do this is not because you trust that the science is rigorous, rather because it fits your political predisposition and naturally anything that does that will be supported by you. Ellen chose Usain Bolt because he just happens to be the fastest human that has ever lived. Had that human been a blonde man from Sweden, guess whose back Ellen would have been riding. It wouldn’t have been Bolt’s. I know it’s difficult for knee jerking alarmists and SJWs like you, but please start to consider the fact that not everything that involves white and black equals racism. Certainly your kind can find any wacky social science theory to “prove” anything you want, but that’s precisely why this kind of “science” is often mocked. One example is an SJW or feminist claim that men who are not sexually attracted to overweight women are “fattists,” while at the same time other wacky social theories claim that men who are attracted to overweight women are “fetishists.” Either way, the man is bad. Similarly, SJWs like you like to be able to paint your biases with the brush of fake science theories, such as in the case of Ellen Degeneres. PZ, do us all a favor and stay in a real science lab and stop lifting the banner of pseudo science. I know that your political biases will make that impossible for you to do, that no amount of evidence would be enough to overcome your silly passions, but whatever.

Social scientists study the most complex phenomena we know of. That means there are mistakes and false starts, but they are also trying to drill down into extremely important processes for us human beings. If we’re going to accuse anyone of bias and distortions its the people who deny the existence of implicit bias. The reason I accept it — and really, I’d rather believe that I was a paragon of egalitarianism, but all the evidence says that we all do have bias — is not because of my political prejudices but because good, robust, experimental evidence has shown it.

For example, I recently had training in how to recognize implicit bias, and here are a couple of excerpts from the presentation. This is perfectly adequate scientific evidence that it exists, and that is the reason that you should not deny it.

CV Evaluation & Hiring – Assistant Professor of Psychology

“The Impact of Gender on the Review of the Curricula Vitae of Job Applicants and Tenure Candidates: A National Empirical Study,” (Steinpreis, Anders & Ritzke, Sex Roles, 1999)

• Academic psychologists rated identical CV for “Brian” and “Karen”

• Both male and female reviewers rated male applicants better in all categories and were more likely to hire male applicant

Identical Resumes & Sexual Orientation

“Pride and Prejudice: Employment Discrimination against Openly Gay Men in the United States,” (Tilcsik, American Journal of Sociology, 2011)

• Pairs of matched resumes sent for 5 different occupations in 7 states

• Overall, applicants who listed a gay campus organization had 40% fewer callbacks

• Largest difference in Ohio, Texas & Florida (compared to California, New York, Nevada and Pennsylvania)

Undergraduate Lab Manager Review

“Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students,” (Moss-Racusin, Dovidio, Brescoll, Graham & Handelsman, PNAS, 2012)

• Male & female science professors asked to review apps for lab manager position

• Both male & female professors rated male applicants more competent, more “hireable”, more suitable for mentoring, and offered males higher salaries

Job Callbacks – Identical Resumes

“Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination,” (Bertrand & Mullainathan, American Economic Review, 2004)

• “White” vs. “Black” names, 2 skill levels each

• Overall, whites had 50% more callbacks than blacks

• Highly skilled whites had 30% more callbacks, while highly skilled blacks had a much smaller increase in callbacks

These are relatively easy studies to do, because it’s not hard to keep a lot of the variables constant. Use exactly the same résumés or papers, just change the names or one little detail, and send them out and count the responses. It’s been repeated and confirmed multiple times. It is not a surprise that there exists a bias against blacks, gays, and women, yet it has been tested and demonstrated scientifically.

Let’s call it like it is: people like Robert are science denialists. I might go even further, and say he is an obvious-reality-in-front-of-your-nose denialist, no better than a flat-earther or creationist.

What about Ellen and her photoshopped image riding Usain Bolt? It may surprise Robert, but I agree that she chose to make that image because Bolt really is fast, not because he is black. She quite likely even likes and respects him, and it wasn’t made because she has a bias against him. However, what it does display is a lack of awareness of history and the treatment of black people in America. She may like Usain Bolt, but she sent a message to every black person in American that she’s ignorant of the context, and we’d all like to think better of Ellen Degeneres.

What if the photo had included a leash tied with a hangman’s knot, and Bolt was carrying a watermelon? Would that finally convince you that maybe an image can transmit an ugly message with deep connections to a terrible, evil history?

And no, us SJWs agree that “not everything that involves white and black equals racism”. But we’re also aware of shades of gray, and unlike Robert, don’t think we should totally erase the real problems with a good coat of whitewash.

That “fattist” stuff is just plain weird. I’m going to guess that Robert is an MRA, whining that those dang feminists want to make him have sex with fat girls, who are icky.

I can say with authority — an evo psych kook recently declared me King of the SJWs, and he must be right — that SJWs don’t think anything like that caricature Robert invented.

Here’s the SJW position, as near as I can make it. Everyone is different, and everyone has different sexual preferences. Despite my status as SJW royalty, I don’t get to dictate to you or anyone else what you find attractive. I think you’ll also find that social scientists can confirm for you that human beings do consider physical appearance when making mate choices. Being choosy about who you will have sex with is perfectly normal, and doesn’t make you “bad”. There are about 7 billion people I haven’t had sex with, and have no desire to have sex with, and that’s OK — I’m pretty sure they won’t take this gaudy crown away from me if I fail to have passionate intercourse with everyone on the planet.

Also, relax, Robert: no SJW, fat or thin, is going to force you to have sex with them, or call you mean names if you don’t. This is a non-problem. And because we recognize the diversity of human sexual desire, I can assure you that maybe, somewhere, there is someone who is turned on by ignorance and bigotry, and who weighs just the right amount, and you too can have a mutually fulfilling, voluntary, close personal relationship with them, and we SJWs will all be happy for you.

However, SJWs do object to something here: you don’t get to judge the humanity of someone on the basis of their BMI. You shouldn’t discriminate against people who are over- or under-weight. I’ll also suggest that you’ll have stronger relationships with other human beings if you interact a little more deeply with them — and no, asking them to hop up on the bathroom scale you haul around with you everywhere does not count as a significant interaction.

For someone who so eagerly donned the mantle of the arbiter of good science and who demands “evidence!” before he’ll abandon his bigotry, I notice that he provided none and will no doubt ignore the evidence I provided.

But that’s fair. I’m going to ignore Robert forevermore myself. I know, this is unconscionable, because how can I make that decision when I don’t even know how much Robert weighs?

P.S. Paragraphs, Robert! Look ’em up!

Wil Wheaton disliked it, too


I saw Star Trek Beyond. So did Wil Wheaton. I detested it and was considering walking out halfway through it…and I should have, because it got worse and worse as it progressed, rather than improving. Wheaton also disliked it, and has a long list of reasons why. I agree with every one, but I have to add another one, and it’s also one of the reasons Star Trek Into Darkness was so bad.

This is a story about a far future civilization that spans a large chunk of galaxy, that has ships that travel faster than light, with immensely powerful weapons like phasers and photon torpedos. They are deciding the fate of entire worlds.

And they always end up resolving everything with…fist fights. Men and aliens punching each other. Often these fist fights take place in absurdly improbable architecture, or at ridiculous altitudes or on machines moving at deadly velocities. Galactic conflicts and the survival of interplanetary civilizations are all settled with two guys in a slap fight on the equivalent of a 3-D platform video game. It totally deflates the scope of the story.

Superhero movies have become little more than exercises in urban demolition. Star Trek movies seem to have settled into the rut of having star ship captains hammering out their disagreements with a couple of bare-knuckle brawls.