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.

I don’t mean to be neglecting the blog today

But I’m neglecting the blog today. I’m finally at #scio14, and it’s busy busy busy. So far today I’ve been in sessions on reaching diverse audiences and on doing better at serving differently abled communities, because I’d like to do both, and this afternoon there’s stuff on media and networks and who knows what that will keep me engaged.

It’s actually refreshing to be here–it really is a diverse group, and there are lots of younger people (I feel like the crotchety old fogie…oh, wait, I always feel like that). My goal this weekend is to dispel a little bit of my disillusionment with online communities and get inspired again, and this is a good place to do that. So I’m just making little notes on ideas that can give me fresh eyes and change up what I do…and I hope, do it better.

You’ll forgive a little mild distractedness for that, right?

Glad you couldn’t make it

I just got back from our Cafe Scientifique meeting, and it was a fabulous success: attendance was over 60 (which is why I’m glad you couldn’t make it — it was standing room only as it was) and we had a good representative sampling of the Morris community.


I don’t know what the secret of drawing everyone in was. We did make much flashier signs this month, but also the topic might have been it: Carrie Eberle from the USDA lab in town gave a talk on foraging crops for bees that hit the sweet spot in appealing to farmers, gardeners, science people, and everyone who likes honey. And it was a very good talk.

I’m back from the Creation Science Fair!

And I don’t have a lot to say. If you were looking for horrifying tales of creationist stupidity and extravagant inanity, it wasn’t here — it was a fairly typical range of posters, of the same sort you’d see at a public school science fair. Some were descriptive, some were about experiments; some were mundane, some were a bit out there; some you could tell Mom & Dad did most of the work, some were clearly driven by the passion of the students; some were rather poor, some were really good examples of kid science. The only difference between this and a secular science fair was the requirement to include a Bible verse on the poster.

There were about 2 dozen exhibits in a hallway on a Christian bible college, so it was on the small side. It was fairly busy, though, with lots of adults having conversations with the kids.


I actually came out of it fairly optimistic. The organizers might want to skew the kids towards their bizarre mythology, but in practice, the kids were having none of it; they were playing with pulleys or breeding rabbits or testing water quality or talking about bees, and it was all about the evidence. Whether they like it or not, these kids are being given the tools to kick their tired Christian ideology to the curb. Give ’em time. Let them keep thinking. Creationism is unsupportable by the honest application of the tools they are learning.

Also, surprisingly, the Bible verses on each poster were extremely encouraging. Nobody was testing biblical nonsense at all — there were no hypotheses, even, derived from the Bible. The overwhelming impression was that the kids had an idea they wanted to test first, and then, after the fact, slapped on a verse that somehow related to the experiment that they’d done. They were either non sequiturs or amusingly inappropriate. Take, for instance, this one:


That’s right: this student just compared the absorbency of diapers to Jesus. I hope they think this through and that the true meaning of the Bible becomes apparent to them.

This was another one I appreciated. The Bible says “fear and dread” of people will be upon all the birds and beasts, so this kid’s idea was to test whether that hypothesis was true by seeing if he could tame birds.


The result: yes, he could. Therefore, the Bible is false. Oh, wait, he didn’t actually say that.

Anyway, good work, kids. Keep ignoring the Bible or debunking it!

The cuddliest artificial genetic mutant ever

The food science blog Biofortified is running a kickstarter to encuten genetically modified organisms with Frank N. Foode™ plushies. Give to help promote informed food choices and get soft fuzzy rewards!

One of the secondary inducements are mini-maize seeds, that allow you to grow tiny corn plants in your home. I am surrounded by kilometers of vast corn fields — corn and soybeans, corn and soybeans, corn and soybeans, everywhere. Not tempting at all. But maybe some of you more urban readers need a tiny reminder of where your High Fructose Corn Syrup and ethanol and popcorn and an awful lot of the carbohydrates in your diet come from.

They aren’t making the mini-maize seeds part of the rewards any more: you can get them for free!

FtBCon 2: Aron Ra, John Wilkins, and me

Important tidbits: John Wilkins, unemployed philosopher, would love to come to the States and talk, so if you have money to fly in an Australian, and you enjoy what he had to say, you know who to talk to.

Also important: The audio book of The Happy Atheist is in the works, and rather than boring ol’ me doing the reading, it shall be spoken in the deep and imposing voice of Aron Ra. Look for it!

Speaking at the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota

I do sometimes get out and spend some time with the little branch campuses of my university. On 5 February, at 3:30 in 335 Borlaug Hall, I’ll be talking about…

How can you change the culture if you won’t join the conversation? Science and social media

The values of scientists often poorly align with some of the values of the wider culture, and even within science, we often see generational clashes, where established scientists conflict with a younger cohort. The battleground where ideas are fighting it out right now is on the internet. I’ll be discussing both intra-scientific concerns, such as the struggle against sexism, and the external concerns we ought to be having over the public perception of science and the concerted efforts to provide a welcoming environment for creationists, climate change denialists, and fear of GMOs in the public and in the halls of power.

It’s all about putting science in a wider social context, and how the tools we use to do that are social media. I won’t be telling everyone that they must use them, but that they shouldn’t fear them and that they need to have some respect for even seemingly trivial media, like Twitter. The conversation changes how we think and what we are aware of, and is far more influential than we realize.

Sikivu tells it like it is

She tears into a phenomenon that bothers me, too: white evangelical ministers jumping ship for atheism, being embraced by atheists, and tainting atheism with the Christian culture. In particular, there’s this awful parasite, Ryan Bell, who’s only just trying out atheism for a year, which is simply ridiculous — it’s not a set of superficial practices, it’s a mindset. What’s he going to do at the end of the year, erase his brain?

A thriving brand of secular tourism can now be definitively filed under the category “stuff white people like”:  Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta has sponsored a crowd-funding campaign for a white male former pastor named Ryan Bell who—in a bit of brilliant PR stagecraft—“decided to…give atheism a try” for a year.  As a result of his “experiment” Bell was fired from two Christian schools.  Currently the campaign has far exceeded its $5,000 goal, generating over $16,000 from 700 plus donors in one day.  Bell joins a jam-packed, largely white, mostly Christian cottage industry of religious leaders who are capitalizing off of untapped reserves of atheist dollars, adulation and publicity by jumping onto the “maverick ex-pastor” bandwagon. 

But there’s more to it than that. American culture as a whole tends to be racist, and atheists are following the majority.

In studies conducted by Princeton University researchers, white job seekers with criminal records were slightly more likely to be called back for and/or offered entry-level jobs than African American job seekers with no criminal record. According to lead researcher Devah Pager, “Even whites with criminal records received more favorable treatment (17%) than blacks without criminal records (14%). The rank ordering of (these) groups…is painfully revealing of employer preferences: race continues to play a dominant role in shaping employment opportunities, equal to or greater than the impact of a criminal record.”

That’s the problem: that racism cuts people off at the level of denying them opportunities, so they don’t get a chance to demonstrate competence, providing a self-perpetuating basis for the myth that they’re less qualified. It’ll never end unless everyone consciously opens the doors and encourages more participation; unless we recognize the handicap that assumed white dominance places on all others who have slightly more melanin.

She also points out one egregious example of failure by atheist organizations:

For example, although many atheists profess a commitment to ‘science and reason’ there are still no atheist STEM initiatives that acknowledge the egregious lack of STEM K-12 and college access for students of color. In their zeal to brand predominantly religious communities as backward, unenlightened and unsophisticated in the exceptionalist ways of Western rationality, atheist organizations are MIA when it comes to discussions about STEM college pipelining, STEM literacy and culturally responsive recruitment and retention of STEM scholars and professionals of color in academia.” While white atheists give jobs, “atheist” pulpits and big bucks to American secular tourists numerous black churches support STEM tutoring, mentoring, college access and scholarship programs to confront the gaping educational divide between white and black America.

There are, unfortunately, a substantial number of atheists who declare that anything beyond simply stating there is no god is ‘mission creep’. They can cheer when a prominent scientist like Richard Dawkins endorses atheism, but recognizing that a commitment to science means a heck of a lot more than clapping really hard at a talk is too much for them. They like science, and isn’t atheism supposed to be just about affirming what they already like? Oh, and of course, affirming how stupid people are who don’t like the things we do.

But taking that next step and realizing that a commitment to science means investing and working towards expanding knowledge of science is hard. Exercising political will is hard. Demanding social change is hard. But that’s what atheists need to do if they are to be something more than an empty label.

I’ve been seeing first-hand what it takes to expand an idea, and atheism isn’t doing it. Science is. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to people at HHMI and NIH, and their focus is crystal clear. They prioritize getting science done, and they don’t give a damn whether it is a white hand or a brown one doing it.

The demographic trends are perfectly obvious: America is going to become a majority-minority country in the next few decades (states like California and Texas are already there), which means white people aren’t going to be the dominant default anymore. At the same time, when these grant agencies look at who is doing science, they’re mostly white and minority populations are largely excluded. They can do the math, they’re scientists. It means we can’t afford to discriminate against the largest subpopulation as a pool of potential scientists.

So there are programs in place at all the big science funding agencies to encourage an expansion of that pool, before the trends kill us. Even my little HHMI grant is designed with the goal of giving underserved populations a chance to do science at the undergraduate level.* These represent commitments of money and time to give those who are denied by default assumptions an opportunity to prove themselves. That’s what we need more of, not just lip service.

I know all the major atheist organizations either have a narrower goal, or are making major efforts to grow the atheist community. If your goal is to just grow your membership, it’s always tempting to just focus on the people you’ve already got, and just try to get more. But grabbing a greater share of a shrinking subpopulation is short-term thinking. Long term, you have to invest in recruiting from the faster-growing subset — and the atheist organizations that are still going to be here in the future need to make that commitment now.

*By the way, women are not considered an underserved population in undergraduate education any more. We have no problem getting women involved in entry-level science — the problems come later for women, when it’s time for promotion and moving on to professional status. That’s a ceiling minorities hit as well; these are problems that have to be addressed at multiple levels.

Removing the cloud of discrimination from conversations about science

It’s always nice to hear the grown ups talking. Last night on Virtually Speaking Science, Tom Levenson interviewed Janet Stemwedel and Maryn McKenna on the subject of science writers and sexual harassment/gender discrimination. I listened to it while I was grading papers, and I think it may have contributed half a grade point or so on my evaluations, just by putting me in a more positive mood.

Now you can listen in too — it’s a pleasantly rational discussion of a real problem, and that’s how we take a small step towards correcting it.

Popular Science Internet Radio with Virtually Speaking Science on BlogTalkRadio