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

A new journal

It’s true that science publishing has some serious problems — can you access the latest results from federally funded research? Do you think Science and Nature are really the best science journals in the world? — so it’s good that some people are taking the lead in changing their approaches and developing alternative publishing models.

Leading academic journals are distorting the scientific process and represent a "tyranny" that must be broken, according to a Nobel prize winner who has declared a boycott on the publications.

Randy Schekman, a US biologist who won the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine this year and receives his prize in Stockholm on Tuesday, said his lab would no longer send research papers to the top-tier journals, Nature, Cell and Science.

Schekman said pressure to publish in "luxury" journals encouraged researchers to cut corners and pursue trendy fields of science instead of doing more important work. The problem was exacerbated, he said, by editors who were not active scientists but professionals who favoured studies that were likely to make a splash.

Easy for Schekman to do. He’s got a Nobel, I don’t think he has to worry about getting and maintaining a position, or even getting published where ever he wants anymore. Cutting out the “luxury” (I think they prefer to be called “prestige”) journals doesn’t discomfit him in the slightest.

Schekman is scathing in his assessment of the popular big name journals. But at least he’s also trying to do something to correct the situation: he is promoting a new open-access journal, eLife, of which he is the editor.

I took a look. It was a bit off-putting at first: Schekman’s face is plastered in the middle of the page, and there’s a link up top to “Follow Randy’s Nobel Journey”, and I thought…uh-oh, are we going to replace “luxury” journals with vanity journals? But then I browsed the several hundred currently published articles, and they’re not bad, at least if you’re interested in cell and molecular biology (oh, hey, I am!).

Looks like I’m adding another journal to the list I regularly check.

Women and science on youtube

Emily Graslie asks where the women promoting science on youtube are, and then answers her own question: they’re out there, but youtube is not exactly an inviting environment, especially for women, because of (and she does not phrase it this rudely, but I will) all of the assholes infesting the place.

I’m not a woman (no, really, I grew the beard specifically to prevent confusion), but I’ve felt the same way — I tried to do a few things on youtube, clumsily and awkwardly, but the hostility and idiocy of the youtube commentariat were discouraging further efforts. Open comments meant that most of what I was seeing were knee-jerk twits who didn’t pay any attention to what I said, who flooded the thread with sexist and irrelevant stupidity; use the filtering tools to ban the more egregious offenders, and new idiots join in to scream about how you’re violating free speech, and besides, the same morons just come crawling back under new pseudonyms; shut off all comments as an intolerable waste of time and effort, and then the email comes pouring in accusing me of censorship.

I won’t claim that I was any good at the video medium — I didn’t even have an opportunity to try to get better, because it was all shrieking fanboys of certain popular misogynist babblers doing their best to drive me out. I can see how new talent, real talent, might want to run away from the climate there.

But some women have persevered! Graslie lists a number of good science youtubers, so I’ll steal her list here.

Science (biology):
Claire, Brilliant Botany:…
Sally Le Page, Shed Science:
Julia Wilde, That's So Science:…
Dr. Bondar:
Lindsay Doe, Sexplanations
Laci Green, Sex+:
Annie Gaus, Pick your Poison:…
Vanessa Hill, BrainCraft:
The Penguin Prof:…
Amoeba Sisters:…

Science (misc.):
Maddie Moate, Earth Unplugged:
Elise Andrew, I F*cking Love Science :
Rebecca Watson:…
Alex Dainis, Bite Sci-zed:
Amy Shira Teitel:
Joanne Manaster:…
Jessica King, FieldNotes:…
Meg Rosenburg, Tales from the History of Science:
Ella, Sci-Files:
Dr. Kiki, This Week in Science:…
Boonsri, Elemental:…
Eff Yeah Fluid Dynamics:…
Allison Jack, Agricultural Science:…
Katie McGill, The Physics Factor:

Amanda Aizuss, iTalkApple:
Emily Eifler, BlinkPopShift:…

Jerri Ellsworth:…
Limor "Ladyada" Fried:

Saramoira Shields, Mathematigal:…
Rebecca Thomas, Dead Bunny Guides:

The Field Museum Women in Science group:…

Now I have more to watch. Maybe I’ll get inspired and try again someday.

You know I’m a sucker for heresy

So you won’t be surprised that I really like that Erin Podolak has asked, Can We Stop Talking About Carl Sagan?

It feels like I’m committing an act of science communication sacrilege here, but I have a confession to make: Carl Sagan means absolutely nothing to me. No more than any other dude from my parents 1970′s yearbooks that could rock the turtle neck/blazer combo with the best of them. There, my secret is out.

I’m not saying I don’t like Sagan – I’m saying Sagan has zero influence on me or what I do. To me, Sagan is a stereotypical old white guy scientist who made some show that a lot of people really liked more than 30 years ago. That show – Cosmos: A Personal Voyage -was on air nearly a decade before I was even born. The reason I bring up my own age is because I’m as old, if not older, than the prime audience for science communication. I think anyone can learn to appreciate science at any age in life, but we stand the best chance at convincing people that science is something they can understand (and even do themselves) early in life when their beliefs are not so entrenched.

So then why, WHY as science communicators do we keep going around and around among ourselves about how Sagan – who is so far outside my life experience, let alone that of people younger than me – was the greatest science communicator of all time? We keep talking about who will (or won’t) be the next Carl Sagan but I promise you, no high school kid gives a f*&^ about Carl Sagan let alone whether or not science communicators think he was great. We spend so much time and energy talking about a guy that isn’t  relevant anymore. The topics of space, the natural world, and how to communicate wonder are totally relevant to the public and to the science writing community. But, this one guy? Nope.

Oh, good. Now I can confess that I too was not a Sagan fan boy. I liked him all right, I appreciated what he was doing for astronomy, and I’m not going to argue with you if he inspired you. He did great work! But his voice didn’t resonate with me.

To me, he was completely overshadowed by that other white guy with a documentary popularizing science at the same time, Jacob Bronowski. There was no comparison. I watched Cosmos and learned stuff, but the man who inspired me and made me think was Bronowski. You do appreciate that different people will respond to different messages, right?

My other big inspirations in the 70s, when I was getting fired up to go study science, were Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, Stephen Jay Gould, EO Wilson (that those last two were feuding was so discouraging to me), and Jacques Cousteau. A bit later I was avidly reading Peter Kropotkin and Aldo Leopold. When I was acquiring a focus on developmental biology, it was D’Arcy Thompson, John Tyler Bonner, and Gould (again!) — and when I really was deeply into the field, the brains that blew me away with their work were those of Christiane Nusslein-Volhard, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, and Susan Oyama. Notice — they were biologists or biology-centered. It was nothing personal against Sagan, he just wasn’t writing about things that interested me as much.

Another important point, though, is “this one guy? Nope.” I worry that one of the problems we see in getting people focused on a movement is idolatry and hero worship — if you’ve got only one name in your roster of science heroes, you’ve got a serious deficiency: get out more. Read more. I don’t care how great Sagan might have been, Sagan is not enough. And if you want an example of a related problem, notice this complaint on Podolak’s blog: No more reading your blog for me, what a shame. Really, dude? If someone doesn’t share your same idols in all things, you won’t read them any more?

Then, of course, the other reality is that these people are all human beings, not saints. Feynman was a pickup artist of the worst sort; Einstein was a jerk to his wife; James Watson is a racist bigot. When we set up individuals as idols who must be respected, we’re simply setting ourselves up for disappointment. Appreciate the work they do with an appropriate perspective on their strengths and limitations.

So can we stop talking about Carl Sagan now? Yes, if you’d like; no, if you’d rather.

How about if we talk about Jacques Monod instead, or Rita Levi-Montalcini? It takes more than one voice to make a chorus.

If you can’t get rid of garbage, worship it

Every time you use a plastic bag at the grocery store or buy another bottle of water you are contributing to the deluge of one-use, throw-away plastic products that pile up in our landfills or float out to sea. One group in Baton Rouge is trying to raise consciousness with Sacred Waste, a performance art piece that illustrates the problem.

This performance art show is a unique blend of art and science – it conveys some of its information in some unusual and compelling ways: the costumes, the set, and all the props are made of discarded plastic – each costume is made of 100-300 plastic bags, one costume is made of about 300 plastic bottle caps, there’s a dragon made of about 3000 bags, and a tree made of plastic – yet we’re reminded that all the plastic on stage during the show only represents the amount of plastic Americans discard about every 100 milliseconds. One scene in the show personifies the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in a whirling dance…one scene involves a shaman ecstatically scrawling the structures of polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene on a plastic screen…one scene depicts the flow of plastic through a bird’s body. Each scene in the show explores a different aspect of our relationship with plastic and mixes science with mysticism, animal instincts with consumerism, creation myths with post-apocalyptic evolution and the “new nature”. If we taught more science this way (just a little more of it, certainly not all of it) – we might change a lot of people’s attitude toward science, in the way that this whole show hopefully also changes its audience’s attitudes toward plastic.

They have a kickstarter to play at the New Orleans Fringe Festival. They aren’t asking much, but a little donation would be very encouraging.

Oh, and try to stop buying stuff in disposable plastic packaging, too.