It’s been a bad month for the creationists

I almost pity them. First there’s the discovery of gravitational waves that confirm a set of models for the origin of the universe — I can tell they’re trying to spin that one (it confirms the universe had a beginning, just like the Bible says!), but it’s obvious which perspective, scientific or religious, has the greater explanatory power.

Then there’s Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos, in which every episode so far has taken a vigorous poke at creationist nonsense. I think they cry every Sunday after church, because they know that later that evening they will be attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture. It’s been great.

And now, look, the Cassini spacecraft has found an ocean beneath the ice of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus.

For years, the motto among astrobiologists — people who look for life in distant worlds, and try to understand what life is, exactly — has been “follow the water.” You have to start the search somewhere, and scientists have started with liquid water because it’s the essential agent for all biochemistry on Earth.

Now they’ve followed the water to a small, icy moon orbiting Saturn. Scientists reported Thursday that Enceladus, a shiny world about 300 miles in diameter, has a subsurface “regional sea” with a rocky bottom.

This cryptic body of water is centered around the south pole and is upwards of five miles deep. It has a volume similar to that of Lake Superior, according to the research, which was published in the journal Science.


There is hope yet for Space Squid! Or maybe space progenotes. Isn’t it wonderful that we keep finding gloriously natural discoveries in the universe?

The tears will flow again in a few weeks, when Neil Shubin’s new series, Your Inner Fish, premieres on PBS. I’m really looking forward to this one.

It is a good time to be passionate about science.

Tonight! In Morris!

In addition to be buried deep in grading, tonight I’m hosting our monthly Cafe Scientifique.

The next Café Scientifique will take place on Tuesday, March 25, at 6 p.m., at the Common Cup Coffeehouse (501 Atlantic Avenue, Morris, MN 56267). Brad Heins, assistant professor of organic dairy management at the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC), will lead the discussion, “Organic Food: Fact or Fiction?” All are welcome to attend. Audience participation is encouraged.

Oh, yeah, I’m also about to step into non-stop class/meetings/lab, not to emerge until 6pm, and then racing off to the coffeehouse, so you may not hear much from me today. It was extremely annoying that FtB was moribund all morning, my normal blogging time.

Guess who’s speaking at the NSTA National Conference


The featured speaker at this year’s National Science Teacher Association conference in Boston is…Mayim Bialik.

The lucky ones among you are saying right now, “who?”. Others may know her from her television work, but maybe don’t know the full story behind her ‘science’ activism.

She’s an actor who plays Sheldon’s girlfriend on Big Bang Theory. Right there, as far as I’m concerned, we have a major strike against her: I detest that show. It’s the equivalent of a minstrel show for scientists, where scientists are portrayed as gross caricatures of the real thing — socially inept, egotistical jerks who think rattling off an equation is a sign of intelligence. I think it’s literally an anti-science communication show. Who in their right mind would want to be anything like Sheldon, the narcissistic nerd? Who would want to work with people like that? The message it’s sending instead is that if you are a superficial asshole, you should become a scientist, where you will be loved for personality traits that would get you shunned in civilized company. (We also see the same phenomenon in atheism, where so many people think it’s a great excuse to be the insensitive Vulcan.)

But OK, that’s a matter of taste, I will admit, and maybe not enough of a reason to be appalled to think she is going to be speaking to science teachers (although it’s enough for me). And she does have a Ph.D. in neuroscience, you have to respect that.


Mayim Bialik does not vaccinate her kids. She’s the spokesperson for the Holistic Moms Network. I know what you’re thinking: “holistic” doesn’t sound so bad. But take it away, Orac!

Just one look at its advisory board should tell you all you need to know. For instance, there’s Dr. Lauren Feder, who bills herself as specializing in “primary care medicine, pediatrics and homeopathy” and has been a frequent contributor to that bastion of quackery and antivaccine looniness, Mothering Magazine, where she recommended homeopathic remedies to treat whooping cough. It doesn’t get much quackier than that. But Feder is just the beginning. Also on the Holistic Moms advisory board is the grand dame of the antivaccine movement herself, the woman who arguably more than anyone else is responsible for starting the most recent iteration of the antivaccine movement in the U.S. Yes, I’m talking about Barbara Loe Fisher, the founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), a bastion of antivaccine propaganda since the 1980s. She’s not the only antivaccine activist on the advisory board, though. There’s also Peggy O’Mara, publisher of Mothering Magazine and Sherri Tenpenny, who is described right on the Holistic Moms website as, “one of America’s most knowledgeable and outspoken physicians, warning against the negative impact of vaccines on health.” Then there’s Dr. Lawrence Rosen, “integrative” pediatrician who appeared at the NVIC “vaccine safety conference” back in 2009 with Barbara Loe Fisher and Andrew Wakefield. In fact, Barbara Loe Fisher, Sherri Tenpenny, and Lauren Feder are featured very prominently on the Holistic Moms Network page on vaccination.

But that’s not all. If there’s one more thing that should tell you all you need to know about the Holistic Moms Network approach to science-based medicine, then take a look at its sponsors: Boiron (manufacturer of the homeopathic remedy for flu known as Oscillococcinum), the Center for Homeopathic Education (and I bet it is homeopathic too), the National Center for Homeopathy, and a whole bunch of other purveyors of woo and quackery.

And he has a lot more to say, as usual.

So why is this woo-peddling, vaccination-denying sitcom star being featured as a speaker at NSTA? I don’t know. Because she has a Ph.D. and pretends to be socially inept on TV? That doesn’t seem to be a good reason. Will Jenny McCarthy be invited to deliver a keynote next year? How about Ken Ham — he’s very into ‘science’ education, you know. Gosh, if we’re going to open the door to quacks, the pool of potential speakers just expanded immensely! Joseph Mercola? Andrew Weil? Deepak Chopra!

Tsk, NSTA. Do you vet your speakers at all?

Still picking nits over Giordano Bruno

The NCSE, which does good work otherwise, is a bit too apologetic to religion for my taste. They’re bumbling all over themselves to criticize Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos because it highlighted the conflict between religion and science, which is always a no-no for the NCSE. Now it’s Josh Rosenau’s turn to complain bitterly about the historical inaccuracy of even mentioning the unpleasant fact that the church has burned people alive.

Against that outpouring of objections from historians of science and others who want to see the rebooted Cosmos live up to the highest ideals of scientific and historical accuracy…

Hang on there, that’s a bit slimy. Who is saying it was inaccurate? Rosenau cites a bunch of people claiming that Bruno wasn’t a scientist and didn’t die for heliocentrism; but the episode nowhere claimed that he was a scientist. It actually said he was a mystic. You can’t complain that the show was wrong, only that it put the Catholic church in a very bad light…which is actually what has all the complainers wound up. How dare you point out the pernicious influence of religious dogma on civilization? That has nothing to do with science!

…PZ Myers insists that we are all Missing the Point of Giordano Bruno. In PZ Myers’s reading, the point of having a science show talk about Bruno and his cosmology (which he arrived at through a mystical vision and which he set at odds with Copernicans because they did not use heliocentrism as a religious argument) was not to tell a story about the history of science and its relationship to society or religion, but to simply alert the world to the fact: “Bruno was tortured to an agonizing death for his beliefs. Full stop.” And more generally: “The Church maintained an Inquisition to torture people who didn’t follow Catholic dogma in thought.”

Rosenau’s argument is that the Bruno story was misleading and inaccurate. Is there anything inaccurate in those quotes? Here’s a fuller summary of what I was saying.

I don’t think it odd at all that the series brought Giordano Bruno to the fore. This is not at all a show for scientists, but to bring a little bit of the awe and wonder of science to everyone. I think it was a good idea to use a non-scientist as an example of how dogma oppresses and harms everyone. Bruno was an idealist, a mystic, an annoying weirdo, a heretic, and for that, the Catholic Church set him on fire.

But somehow, being a weirdo means, in Rosenau’s eyes, that Bruno must be set apart from the real scientists. The church was only burning heretics, it would be a whole different matter if they were burning scientists.

To PZ’s eyes, nothing about that segment rested on whether Bruno was the brave vox clamantis in deserto, calmly championing heliocentrism and an infinite universe. The fact that Bruno wasn’t killed for those beliefs (not, of course, that he should have been killed for any of his beliefs, nor for stating them publicly!), that he didn’t arrive at his conclusions for scientific or empirical reasons, and didn’t try to test those ideas scientifically, are all, in PZ’s telling, irrelevant.

Exactly! Completely irrelevant!

Why is this so hard to understand? How could science function in a world where theological arbiters of the permissible truth can silence anyone who disagrees with them? I should think living in a culture of fear where you could be murdered for saying something the pope didn’t like was a rather effective way of suppressing scientific progress. Kill a few idealists for saying something against church dogma, and suddenly, those scientific investigations begin to look rather dangerous.

How long would a Darwin have lasted if he’d been born 200 years earlier?

But also, I’m getting a little annoyed with these people claiming that Bruno wasn’t killed for that one specific belief about the movement of the earth. He was! We have the list of eight charges for which Bruno was condemned. Note especially number 5.

1 – The statement of “two real and eternal principles of existence: the soul of the world and the original matter from which beings are derived”.

2 – The doctrine of the infinite universe and infinite worlds in conflict with the idea of Creation: “He who denies the infinite effect denies the infinite power”.

3 – The idea that every reality resides in the eternal and infinite soul of the world, including the body: “There is no reality that is not accompanied by a spirit and an intelligence”.

4 – The argument according to which “there is no transformation in the substance”, since the substance is eternal and generates nothing, but transforms.

5 – The idea of terrestrial movement, which according to Bruno, did not oppose the Holy Scriptures, which were popularised for the faithful and did not apply to scientists.

6 – The designation of stars as “messengers and interpreters of the ways of God”.

7 – The allocation of a “both sensory and intellectual” soul to earth.

8 – The opposition to the doctrine of St Thomas on the soul, the spiritual reality held captive in the body and not considered as the form of the human body.

It’s mostly a lot of New Agey sounding bollocks, with a fascination with contradicting bizarre Catholic doctrine with new, equally bizarre nonsense. So? That the earth rotates around the sun was one of his beliefs, and he didn’t come up with it any more than Josh Rosenau or I came up with the idea of evolution—but you still don’t get to murder people for their harmless beliefs, whether they’re original or scientifically tested or not.

Here’s another example that would have really driven the apologists for religion nuts: Michael Servetus. He was also set on fire in the 16th century for ideas that the Catholic Church detested, specifically for denying the trinity (stop right there and think about it: one of the most ridiculous, unsupportable (by evidence or the Bible, even) beliefs of modern Christianity, and they’ve been killing people and committing genocide for disagreeing with it). But Servetus was an early scientist — he was the first to figure out that the heart was a double-circuit pump, identifying the pulmonary circulation.

But most people didn’t know about it, because after they set him on fire, they set his books on fire too. No one knew about this discovery until William Harvey rediscovered it a hundred years later…and the last few hidden copies of Servetus’s books (I think only 3 survived the flames) were revealed.

So he was executed for his theology. But to pretend that this had no consequences for the advancement of science is ludicrous.

Watch the show yourself and judge what point the segment is making. But if PZ is right and the point was to talk about the horrors of the Roman Inquisition, why not expound upon the Albigensian Crusade or the Hussite Crusade or Joan of Arc or Girolamo Savonarola or William Tyndale, who also were put to death for their theological heterodoxies? Why spin a misleading [assertion not in evidence–pzm] tale about Bruno, implying that he inspired and laid the groundwork for a modern cosmology in which the universe is infinite, our sun is just another star, and our planets orbit our sun as other planets orbit other suns?

Yes, let’s! How about, though, if the lackeys for religion count themselves very, very lucky that Tyson only selected one man as an example, rather than exhaustively listing all of religion’s crimes against humanity? He highlighted one example, and moved on, and still the apologists are up in arms over it.

Here’s the thing. Neil deGrasse Tyson is not a militant atheist. He has specifically said that he does not want to make atheism his cause — he has other goals in mind. And yet, even here, people are freaking out because he openly discussed the deleterious effects of dogma on science.

In praise of rudeness

You may have heard that the replicability of much biomedical research has been called into question, in particular by the Ioannidis paper in 2005 that demonstrated that a heck of a lot of junk got into print, largely as a consequence of statistical noise being treated as significant, for a host of reasons. It was a bit of a wake-up call (unfortunately, most people just rolled over an smacked the snooze button), but one person who is on full alert is Dan Graur. Graur is being impolite again, and has a recommendation to improve the problem.

Interestingly, the rate with which junk claims are published in the field of experimental physics is nowhere near the stratospheric rates that are found in biology and medicine. Why the difference? Dr. Ioannidis thinks that there are two reasons for the difference. First, it seems that in the biomedical research community there exists an aversion to publish negative results, especially negative results of failed replications.

Second, it seems that there are sociological differences between the physics community and the biomedical community. In physics, there seems to be a higher “community standard for shaming reputations.” If people step out of line and make unsubstantiated claims, they are shamed in public.

Wait — I have to call a foul on the play. The Ioannidis paper certainly does say the first difference, but the second…nope. The quoted phrase about shaming doesn’t appear anywhere in the source Graur links to — I’d like to see where it came from.

I’m inclined to agree with it, except that I don’t have any evidence of any public shaming going on in the physics community. I’d like to know more about how physicists police their own than is given here.

This is the abstract from Ioannidis — you can easily see that there is a focus on removing bias and better statistics, there isn’t anything about using shame as a tool.

There is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false. The probability that a research claim is true may depend on study power and bias, the number of other studies on the same question, and, importantly, the ratio of true to no relationships among the relationships probed in each scientific field. In this framework, a research finding is less likely to be true when the studies conducted in a field are smaller; when effect sizes are smaller; when there is a greater number and lesser preselection of tested relationships; where there is greater flexibility in designs, definitions, outcomes, and analytical modes; when there is greater financial and other interest and prejudice; and when more teams are involved in a scientific field in chase of statistical significance. Simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias. In this essay, I discuss the implications of these problems for the conduct and interpretation of research.

But don’t let that stop Graur, he’s on a roll!

In biomedicine, the search for truth is no longer a virtue, politeness is. According to an editorial in Nature Methods that singled out our work for criticism, one should avoid “harsh and offensive words” at all costs. “Civility in discourse is essential,” proclaim the editors of Nature Methods. Do not shame reputations! Well… by not shaming reputations, we have built a field of study where bombast thumps substance, and where wasters of public money are rewarded. By paying attention to “manners” we have prostituted science to a degree where “most published research findings are false.”

Rudeness has nothing to do with science. Science is not about abiding by a code of behavior put forward by Miss Manners. In criticizing ENCODE, our style of writing was meant to bring to the attention of the public a problem generated by the ENCODE propaganda barrage.

Face it, ENCODE for creationists was like “water memory” for people believing in homeopathic medicine. ENCODE deserved the same treatment as the “water memory” paper that was published in Nature by Jacques Benveniste. ENCODE needed to be shredded to pieces in a manner similar to the way Great Randy [the Amazing Randi] shredded “water memory.” The Great Randy [the Amazing Randi] was so rude, that his criticism was likened by Benveniste to a “Salem witch hunt.”

In science, sometimes a strong rude voice is needed to fight self-promotion and self-delusion. My favorite example of a rude voice concerns Theodor Roosevelt and his refutation of Abbott Thayer’s theory on all coloration in nature being “concealing” (e.g., the famous flamingoes in the sunset). Thayer’s book was shredded to pieces by Theodor Roosevelt (one year after completing his presidency). I wish my mastery of the English language would allow me to emulate Roosevelt’s viciousness. Alas, English is my third language.

We need strong and impolite voices to fight “stem cells created by acid baths,” “cold fusion,” “arsenic-based life,” and other feats of self delusion. People still believe that Svante Pääbo sequenced ancient DNA from an Egyptian mummy in 1985. Why? Because there were no strong and impolite rebuttals. Every criticism was whispered and “soto voce.” Science has become a collection of Yes Men (and Women) afraid of the big shots and their own shadows.

I agree, and I’d like to see more vigorous responses to the boring lot of trivial phenomenology that is cluttering up some of the journals I like to read. We’re getting to a point where the literature is swamped with kipple that could benefit from some housecleaning, and a little less emphasis on publishing for the sake of publishing. But we rely so often on the quantity of articles published as a metric for academic success, rather than the quality.

But I’d also like to see a stronger analysis comparing the literature in physics and biomedicine — is it really that different?

Missing the point of Giordano Bruno

I’m seeing a lot of silly carping about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos — almost all of it is focused on the story of Bruno told in the first episode. The apologists for religion are upset: how dare a science program point out the poisonous influence of religion? Bruno wasn’t really a scientist anyway, so he shouldn’t count! Peter Hess of the NCSE offers up a good example of apologetics.

Unfortunately, the series premiere risks squandering that opportunity through a combination of misleading history and reliance on an antiquated narrative of inevitable conflict between science and religion—and the Catholic Church in particular—that simply is not borne out by the facts. A generation of careful scholarship has given us a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the long, rich, and complex relationship between religion and the sciences. This latest Cosmos reflects none of that historiography, presenting us instead with what is quite literally a cartoon version of the life story of someone who was not a scientist. Missing were the stories of Catholic astronomers such as Copernicus [delayed publication out of fear; only saw his ideas in print on his deathbed; book was prohibited by the Catholic Church in 1616] and Galileo [tried by the Vatican, forced to recant, spent the end of his life under house arrest], Protestants such as Brahe [Brahe was a geocentrist — a geoheliocentrist, actually] and Kepler [Did you know his mother was tried and imprisoned for witchcraft?] and Newton[Also a mystic, Bible-prophecy walloping, fanatical religious person], or Fr. George Lemaître, proposer of the Big Bang.

Whenever I see one of these guys throw out noise like a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the long, rich, and complex relationship between religion and the sciences, I want to ask…what was nuanced and sophisticated about setting a human being on fire? I also think his list of famous scientists overlooks an important trend: between Copernicus and Lemaître, we are seeing the steady triumph of science over religion, that we see the Church forced to reduce the severity of its enforcement of dogma in the face of the overwhelming success of science in accurately describing the world. The Church was dragged kicking and screaming into an era where you don’t get to murder people for disagreeing with your dogma.

It is odd therefore that Cosmos focuses almost exclusively on the marginal case of Giordano Bruno. Of course, I am not defending Bruno’s persecution and death—no decent human being now would ever condone burning a person alive for any reason. Moreover, in 2014 we view legitimate theological dissent very diffferently than did our ancestors.

But the circumstances were quite different 400 years ago. According to the 16th century Italian legal code and the customs of Renaissance politics, Bruno was judged by an ecclesiastical court to be an obdurate heretic for refusing to cease in promulgating his theological ideas. As such he was deserving of capital punishment and was turned over for execution by the civil arm in Rome. In the 21st century we inhabit a very different era, a religiously pluralistic age of largely secular states in which the nature and exercise of authority are vastly different than they were in Post-Reformation Italy.

Is anyone else getting that queasy feeling, like when you read about William Lane Craig justifying the murder of babies by ‘Israeli’ soldiers? Hey, it was OK to set people on fire in 1600! Why are you complaining?

I agree that we live in a very different era in the 21st century. Give the credit to secularism, rationalism, and the Enlightenment, though, because fucking religion fought every progressive change every step of the way, with liberal religion dogging along by discarding parts of the religious nonsense of previous generations.

I don’t think it odd at all that the series brought Giordano Bruno to the fore. This is not at all a show for scientists, but to bring a little bit of the awe and wonder of science to everyone. I think it was a good idea to use a non-scientist as an example of how dogma oppresses and harms everyone. Bruno was an idealist, a mystic, an annoying weirdo, a heretic, and for that, the Catholic Church set him on fire.

Do I need to repeat that? Bruno was tortured to an agonizing death for his beliefs. Full stop. Don’t even try to rationalize that.

Furthermore, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s own words, transcribed by Wesley Elsberry, are crystal clear on the point he was making.

Giordano Bruno lived in a time when there was no such thing as the separation of church and state, or the notion that freedom of speech was a sacred right of every individual. Expressing an idea that didn’t conform to traditional belief could land you in deep trouble. Recklessly, Bruno returned to Italy. Maybe he was homesick, but still he must have known that his homeland was one of the most dangerous places in Europe he could possibly go. The Roman Catholic Church maintained a system of courts known as the Inquisition, and its sole purpose was to investigate and torment anyone who dared voice views that differed from theirs. It wasn’t long before Bruno fell into the clutches of the thought police.

The Church maintained an Inquisition to torture people who didn’t follow Catholic dogma in thought. Let’s not hide that fact. Let’s not pretend it was OK because it was 400 years ago. Let’s not say it was irrelevant because many of their victims, like Bruno, were not scientists. I think it’s a rather important point that the progress of science requires that we not set people who disagree with us on fire.

Wesley makes a very good point at the end.

The point “Cosmos” was making was more basic. At the level of telling people about science, we don’t need a lot of historical nuance about the Inquisition: what they did was so far out of bounds of the way discourse needs to be handled that simply noting the historical divergence is sufficient. “Cosmos” did that, plainly told people they were doing that, and, sadly enough, a lot of people of otherwise lofty intellect managed not to take the point.

I will also disagree with Hess. There is a conflict between science and religion. Somehow, these people think that the historical evidence of people leaving behind their antiquated religious ideas and gradually adapting to a more secular view of the world is evidence that religion and science are compatible.

You know, I’d heard this vague euphemism that the church “immobilized his tongue” to prevent Bruno from speaking heresy on the way to the stake, but I didn’t know how. The answer was provided in the comments:

[on the way to the stake, Feb 19, 1600] As the parade moved on, Bruno became animated and excited. He reacted to the mocking crowds, responding to their yells with quotes from his books and the sayings of the ancients. His comforters, the Brotherhood of St. John, tried to quiet the exchange, to protect Bruno from yet further pain and indignity, but he ignored them. And so after a few minutes the procession was halted by the Servants of Justice. A jailer was brought forward and another two held Bruno’s head rigid. A long metal spike was thrust through Bruno’s left cheek, pinning his tongue and emerging through the right cheek. Then another spike was rammed vertically through his lips. Together, the spikes formed a cross. Great sprays of blood erupted onto his gown and splashed the faces of the brotherhood close by. Bruno spoke no more. … as the fire began to grip, the Brothers of Pity of St. John the Beheaded tried one last time to save the man’s soul. Risking the flames, one of them leaned into the fire with a crucifix, but Bruno merely turned his head away. Seconds later, the fire caught his robe and seared his body, and above the hissing and crackling of the flames could be heard the man’s muffled agony.

Yeah, that’s what the apologists want to dismiss as irrelevant.

Cosmos: Thumbs up!

It’s off to a good start, and I quite enjoyed the first episode. It was maybe a bit heavy on the simplifications and the eye-popping graphics, but I’m seeing it as a tool to inspire a younger generation to get excited about science again, so I think that actually is a good thing.

It’s also impressive that a strongly pro-science program (and one that took a few shots at Catholic dogmatism) was on broadcast television, and even on Fox. I was getting exasperated with the too-frequent commercial breaks, but I think that’s the price we pay for getting wider dissemination to the public, rather than to just us privileged few who can afford cable and/or buying the DVDs.