The cosmic Neil deGrasse Tyson tour

Now that Cosmos is over, the big man is going to travel about the country, bringing enlightenment.

Best-Selling Author and Host of COSMOS to Appear in LA, D.C., Chicago and More

Tickets On Sale June 13

Chicago – June 9, 2014 – Innovation Arts & Entertainment is proud to announce that Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Best Selling Author, and the Director of the Hayden Planetarium, will be appearing on a six-city U.S. speaking tour. The tour will be produced by Innovation Arts and Entertainment. Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has guided the Ship of the Imagination to transport viewers to the nucleus of an atom, and the farthest reaches of the universe as he explores humanity’s quest for understanding. The tour begins January 26, 2015 in Madison, WI, with dates also confirmed at Los Angeles’ Pantages Theatre and Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre, among others.

Tickets are on sale Friday, June 13 and available at

Each family-friendly event features an engaging multi-media presentation bringing the expanses of modern science direct to audience members, and engages them in a Q&A that rivals the presentation itself. In the past, he’s been asked a myriad of questions about everything from television appearances and space elevators to parenting advice. He often takes questions from children since he is fascinated with young ones who are interested in science.

The New York City native is host of StarTalk Radio and FOX’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (season finale airs June 8); he is a New York Times bestselling author of 10 books and is also a frequent guest on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. President Bush appointed Tyson in 2001 and 2004 to serve on commissions studying the future of the U.S. aerospace industry and the implementation of the U.S. space exploration policy, respectively. Tyson is also the recipient of 18 honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest award given by NASA to non-government citizens.

For more information and tickets, visit

A confirmed list of tour dates follows:

Madison, WI
Monday, January 26
Overture Center

Chicago, IL
Tuesday, January 27
Auditorium Theatre

Denver, CO
Friday, January 30
Temple Hoyne Buell

Los Angeles, CA
Monday, February 09
Pantages Theatre

San Francisco, CA
Tuesday, February 10
Orpheum Theatre

Washington D.C.
Thursday, February 26
DAR Constitution Hall

More dates and cities will be announced in the coming weeks.

I notice that there is an omission: where’s Morris, Minnesota? I’m sure that was an accident. Or perhaps it will be added to the list in the later announcement.

Media fails to pass the Turing test

I don’t get it — there are news reports everywhere credulously claiming that the Turing Test has been successfully passed, and they are all saying exactly the same thing: that over 30% of the judges couldn’t tell that a program called Eugene Goostman wasn’t a 13 year old boy from Odessa with limited language skills. We’re not hearing much about the judges, though: the most common thing to report is that one of them was actor Robert Llewellyn, who played robot Kryten in the sci-fi comedy TV series Red Dwarf.

Instead of parroting press releases, it seems to me that the actual result should be reported as a minority of poorly qualified judges in a single media-driven event were trivially fooled by a clumsy chatbot with a background story to excuse its bad grammar and flighty behavior into thinking they were talking to a real person. It’s not so much a validation of the capabilities of an AI as it is an indictment of the superficiality of this test, as implemented.

Or, if an editor really wanted a short, punchy, sensationalist title, they have permission to steal mine.

We don’t yet have transcripts of the conversation, but the text of a 2012 test of the same program are available. They are painfully unimpressive.

Get ‘em young

I got to meet someone in Seattle who is working on an evolution book for four year olds — this is a great idea, because I remember shopping for kids’ books and their usual idea for introducing zoology was something about Noah’s Ark. But the real story is so much more interesting!

Rough sketches of the book, Grandmother Fish, are available online; those aren’t the final drawings, and the work will be done by KE Lewis, once funding is obtained. You can see the challenges of getting a sophisticated scientific concept across to very young children, but I think the current story does the job very well.


There will be a kickstarter later this week to get the project off the ground.

Online Gender Workshop 2*

You’ll note that we now have a separate thread for each exercise set. I won’t go back (if it’s even possible) to pull out exercises 5-8 and your responses from the first thread, but starting now we’ll be able to have people continue one discussion (on say, the video exercises, where it looks like Sundays wasn’t a great day for a lot of people) while the next begins.

Today’s exercise may be technically difficult for some of you, so I expect fewer people to complete it, but I hope everyone that joined us last week engages in the discussion. On the plus side, it requires a bit less time commitment than the video exercises, which may allow some people to catch up.

Exercise 9: Think of a gender neutral object. No. Not that one. Because gender, right? Exactly. That other one. Now you’ve got it. Ready? Sketch it. Sketch it without any context whatsoever to keep ideas about gender in relation to the object free from distractions caused by gender in relation to the context in which the object is drawn.

When finished drawing, upload that sketch somewhere (I recognize this won’t be possible for everyone).

Exercise 10: 3rd Report. Narrate a bit about choosing an object (whether or not you were able to post your sketch). Was it easy? Hard? Did the first thing that came to mind remain your choice? Now talk about the actual process of drawing. Did you stop, erase, and/or redraw at any point because of concerns that the sketch might not communicate gender neutrality?

In this report, provide a link to your sketch if you were able to upload an image.

Exercise 11: Discussion. Look at a number of the uploaded images. If there are any choices (or implementations of choice, through the image in the sketch) with which you disagree, say so. Provide an argument for gendering the object someone else considered gender neutral. If there are none with which you disagree, find someone’s comment that does disagree with one or more choices. Read that person’s argument and respond. Are you persuaded? Why or why not? You are welcome to defend your own choice in discussion, but if you do, you must do it using new arguments than the ones you made in exercise 10 when you initially discussed your choice and process.


Previous workshop thread. Next Workshop Thread.

*must. not. type. “:Electric Boogaloo.”

Damn you, Ed Brayton!

Albert Einstein was not your prophet

This photo has been making the rounds for a while — it’s garbage, Snopes suggests that there is no corroboration for the quote, and the commenters agreeing with the sentiment are idiots. Who are using technology to talk about it.


I look at that bottom photo and see five women interacting intensely with a larger circle of human beings than just that one little clump right there — and they could very well be talking to people world-wide. I see technology as an enabler and enhancer of communication.

I look at the top photo and see an authoritarian jerk behind it, who thinks putting their words into the mouth of a famous scientist lends their opinion greater authority. It doesn’t. It’s also kind of unfair to poor old Albert.

We’re gonna need a bigger asylum

All this talk of Elliot Rodger being mentally ill is driven by the same circular reasoning: only a mentally ill person would commit mass murder, Rodger committed mass murder, therefore he was mentally ill. It’s what I said yesterday, that people think “violations of conventional mores, or doing acts that harm people, are prima facie proof of mental illness” — which, if true, would mean that atheists must all be mentally ill because they defy traditional expectations of behavior in society. You’d think we atheists would know better than to set ourselves up like that.

But here’s an even more vivid example. Rodger was a member of a group called PUAhate, a label which some people have used to argue that he must have been an anti-pickup-artist kind of guy. That’s completely wrong, of course — these were people who hated pickup-artists because their techniques don’t work, that they fail to provide easy push-button techniques to manipulate women.

Erin Gloria Ryan spent a day monitoring a chat room containing Rodger’s peers, fellow members of PUAHate. Trigger warnings galore: these people spent the day praising Rodger, wishing they could go out in a blaze of glory just like him, hating women for existing, calling them subhumans, and urging each other to go out and kill, or at least, go out and rape.

They’re wrong, they’re awful, they’re terrible people. I’m sure I couldn’t have a pleasant conversation with any of them for any length of time without storming off with a snarl on my face, and my regard for humanity suffering a precipitous decline.

But are we seriously going to diagnose them as mentally ill because they’re terrible people? Shall we slap them into straitjackets and shoot ‘em up with Prozac?

Because if that’s the path we’re going to take…we can probably lock up a few thousand World of Warcraft players, and I suspect we might easily find a million Call of Duty players who will fit this trivial online diagnosis of psychopathy. Then we can visit the Stormfront site, and get all the members there committed. All those contributors to Uncommon Descent, the intelligent design creationist blog…clearly insane. Especially Denyse O’Leary. I once visited a car forum when I was looking for a recommendation, and was appalled at the racism on display — a significant fraction of Honda drivers are clearly nuts. Oh, and Tea Party members! They all need to be rounded up and put in camps, for their own good…they must be so dysfunctional that they can’t possibly cope with the real world.

We also need to do this fast so that we become the majority, otherwise they will decide that commenters on Pharyngula are so far outside societal norms that we must be mentally ill.

Note please that I do not think that what the PUAHate crowd are saying is at all forgivable, conscionable, or defensible — I’m arguing that they are bad kids full of bad ideas. But bad is not a synonym for mentally ill. It requires a different approach to deal with corrupting ideas in a culture vs. dealing with victims of illness, and we do ourselves no favors when we so readily confuse the two categories.

Demons. It’s all demons.

Let us emulate the godly believers. We know what is right, and anything that deviates from it is…mental illness. But we might want to remember that sometimes the shoe is on the other foot.

Some people believe that atheism causes insanity.

But what about the variety of mental illness from which Richard Dawkins suffers? You see, that is the flip-side of the coin which belongs to the man on the corner who believes he is Napoleon. Dawkins may not believe he is a conquering French general, but he believes something just as preposterous. He believes that he himself does not exist. As illogical as that sounds, this is the ground which atheism is forced to defend. The worldview which insists we cannot believe (or know) anything aside from our senses is just as mentally ill as the worldview which insists that we cannot believe our senses.

Or that faith is an essential component of a mentally sound human being.

…the evidence today implies that atheism is a form of mental illness. And this is because science is showing that the human mind is hard-wired for faith: we have, as a species, evolved to believe, which is one crucial reason why believers are happier – religious people have all their faculties intact, they are fully functioning humans.

Therefore, being an atheist – lacking the vital faculty of faith – should be seen as an affliction, and a tragic deficiency: something akin to blindness. Which makes Richard Dawkins the intellectual equivalent of an amputee, furiously waving his stumps in the air, boasting that he has no hands.

Or that the root cause of what we call mental illness is an absence of god.

All Depression is caused primarily by a lack of contentment. For the Christian, depression is a lack of obedience to the command "be content with what you have". It is not accepting your current condition, whether good or bad. It is a lack of faith that God loves you. It is a lack of hope of the glories and riches of heaven awaiting. For the non-Christian, depression is a lack of faith in a creator. It is a rejecting of Jesus for faith in Darwin. Darwin said we have no purpose, design, meaning other than random chance processes. Jesus can cure the depression of the atheist because their life has meaning and eternal purpose.

That source charmingly tells us exactly what mental illness is.

The Bible clearly teaches that people suffer both physically and emotionally as a result of sinful choices. The world labels this suffering as a mental illness, but the Bible labels this suffering as the consequences of a sinful standard of morality. Mental illness is sinful conduct.

A lot of atheists seem to think that same thing: that violations of conventional mores, or doing acts that harm people, are prima facie proof of mental illness. There must be something organically wrong with their brains to cause them to engage in behaviors we don’t like. They pray? They must be crazy, that doesn’t work. At the same time, the other side is saying, “They don’t pray? They must be crazy, god must be served.” If we’re going to define mental illness as something someone judges to be bad behavior, then every single human being on the planet is crazy.

Mental illnesses are real. We can identify chemical imbalances in the brain; if you’re depressed, drugs like TCAs, MAOIs, SSRIs, and SNRIs can be effective in making people healthier. Schizophrenia is real and debilitating; there are also antipsychotic drugs that reduce the symptoms. Obsessive-compulsive disorders are real; they can be treated with certain antidepressants, but also behavioral therapy also seems to be effective in reducing the problems. We actually do have fairly concrete indicators of genuine illnesses that affect the functioning of the brain.

However, it is not helpful to categorize bad ideas as similar. Elliot Rodger was a disturbed individual, but it was not because he had a disease — it was because he had been shaped by his narrow little world to regard a host of malignant ideas as perfectly normal. Almost all Europeans and Americans once believed that black people were inferior, and used that belief to justify everything from excluding them from educational opportunities to kidnapping and slavery. Were they all insane? Or did they just have a set of false, untested beliefs that they blithely propagated from generation to generation?

One would think that atheists, at least, would be able to recognize the power of ideas to shape how people think. We live in a world where the majority give credulous credence to religious nonsense, and I think most of us recognize that it’s not a symptom of a brain disease, but of the power of socialization, indoctrination, repetition, and widespread unquestioning acceptance. If you’re willing to see that a religious idea can have such potency that people will kill and die and suffer for it, why are you unwilling to see that there are other ideologies that can misdirect minds in lethal directions? That bad stories can persuade healthy, normal people to do stupid, evil things?

I’d also like to remind my fellow atheists of another way people think.

When a 700 Club viewer asked host Pat Robertson today if she should give up proselytizing to her atheist coworker and “let her perish,” Robertson speculated that the colleague might be possessed by demons or a survivor of rape.

If the way you are using the phrase “mentally ill”, with no evidence of genuine organic illness, can be replaced freely by the word “demon-possessed” without changing the sense, then you are engaging in the same magical thinking, using a phrase with no explanatory power. You’re just using the modern materialistically correct wording to express the same old sentiment, inventing a concrete causal agent with no evidence that it actually exists. That’s something else atheists need to be aware of: the seductive power of teleological or simplistically causal thinking to the human mind.

I always like to know who’s been bought

A correspondent asked me an interesting and difficult question about the sponsorship of science. I’ve been talking a bit lately about the allosaur affair at the Creation “Museum”, which can be summarized this way:

Michael Peroutka, an odious neo-Confederate nut, donates a valuable allosaur fossil to the Creation “Museum”.

Now the tricky part. What’s the difference in principle between that statement and this next one?

David Koch, an odious destroyer of the environment and climate change denialist, donates $35 million for a Smithsonian dinosaur hall redesign.

That’s a good question, and it brought me up short. The problem with these sorts of questions is that it’s really easy to slip into post hoc rationalizations — I like the Smithsonian, I don’t like the Creation “Museum”, so it’s a trap to start justifying why I like one and not the other, rather than thinking about the actual principle of the question. Would I just be arguing that the good institution is justified in doing whatever it can to get funding for its worthy goals, while the bad institution must be condemned for doing whatever it can to get funding for its unworthy goals?

I’m off the hook in one regard: I’m on record complaining about Koch’s contribution to an earlier exhibit, the Hall of Human Origins. His donation was used to describe the role of climate change in human evolution, making the case that it is a good thing, because we wouldn’t be here without the pressures of shifting climate. It was a subtle emphasis, but it’s still an example of the pressure of millions of dollars being used to gently bend the science in a particular direction.

But it’s only a gentle distortion. Otherwise, Koch seems to have had virtually no influence on the scientific opinions of the Smithsonian. Check them out; the Smithsonian explains the history of climate change, it sponsors Bill Nye explaining climate change, Smithsonian scientists are studying climate change, they have articles explaining how climate change is already affecting people’s lives, and they provide lesson plans for educating about climate change. It’s safe to say that we know on what side of this issue the Smithsonian stands, and it’s on the opposite side of Koch.

It’s a tricky thing, this business of funding science. Ideally, it would be done on merit only, by an independent source, like the NSF or NIH (or, as independent as they possibly can be), with no restrictions on how the money is used — a pot of money is made available, disbursed by knowledgable committees of scientists, and there are no hidden catches to restrict how it’s spent. We know that’s an ideal — government funding agencies are subject to fads, too, and politicians are constantly trying to tinker, with earmarks and prohibitions — but it’s as good as we’ve got. If private donors are involved, the same rules apply: they should give because they value the science, which is a search for the truth, and not because they intend to meddle to get the answers they want. In that sense, the Smithsonian did OK…although there are troubling signs that maybe they accepted some recommendations for Koch.

By the same argument, though, there’s nothing wrong with Peroutka handing over a precious fossil to the Creation “Museum”. It’s stupid and a waste of a good specimen, `but otherwise, philanthropists do get to decide what to do with their own money, and Answers in Genesis can accept it in good conscience.

However, there is another issue. The Smithsonian is committed to doing good science, so they continue to loudly and strongly argue for the scientific consensus, that global climate change is a serious problem, and they do so despite the fact that an extremely wealthy donor disagrees completely with them. I imagine that if a donor tried to insist that his money comes with strings attached and must be used to propagandize for counterfactual claims, the institution would have enough integrity to flatly refuse.

I’d expect the same from the Creation “Museum”. They’ve got a neo-Confederate racist sugar daddy: do they have enough integrity to repudiate his views, even at the expense of antagonizing him? The evidence so far says no. There is a difference between accepting a free donation, and being bought. I’d like to see Ken Ham come clean on his views on the Confederacy, the continued legacy of discrimination and racism, and how much of Peroutka’s paid shill he is. If they are in agreement, that’s fine — just own it, and let us know what kind of people run Answers in Genesis.

Not that we don’t already know they are a gang of loons, but there are quite a few other issues where we could possibly agree…or more likely, disagree.

Getting paid to speak is not free speech

I have to completely agree with Adam Weinstein’s defense of protesting commencement speakers. There is altogether too much apathy on campus, and when students stir themselves to complain about what rat-buggering overpaid scumbag is getting a big pot of money to lecture them before they’re allowed to leave the university, I’m happy for them. It’s about time. And that’s true even if the speaker is someone I agree with. It would be true even if it were me — I’m always overjoyed to see protesters at my talks.

…being denied a chance to speak at a graduation ceremony is not an infringement on your free speech. Free speech might entail an invitation to speak to a voluntary audience and then have alternative viewpoints offered by other speakers, and then perhaps engage in a dialogue over those ideas. This is not how commencement speeches work. If a commencement address is free speech, then so is a seven-hour harangue by Fidel Castro to Cuban citizens who are too scared to get up and leave the auditorium to pee.

A commencement address is the opposite of free. It is paid speech. Paid speech that, just like the honorary degree that accompanies it, associates the recipient with the granting institution as if by royal decree. It’s entirely legitimate for faculty and students, who are already associated with the institution by their works and their merits, to dispute whether an honoree is also worthy of that association.

Lest you doubt that all of the power is in the hands of the speakers and not the listeners, consider how much they make to deliver a shitty speech:

Commencement fees range from a couple of thousand dollars to over $100,000. Katie Couric received an astonishing $110,000 to deliver the commencement address at the University of Oklahoma in 2006. Rudy Giuliani, a year earlier, charged $75,000 to speak at High Point University. Giuliani reputedly now gets about $100,000 plus a private jet for a speech. In 2007 Senator John Edwards received $55,000 for a speech at the University of California at Davis. The rates have probably increased significantly with inflation in recent years.

Really, is bringing in Katie Couric to cheerfully chirp a bunch of happy platitudes really worth 5 figures? The article talks quite a bit about Condoleezza Rice who backed down from an opportunity to speak at Rutgers after the students spoke out in horror. Is that wrong? I don’t think so. Instead of being honored, the gang of malicious liars from the Bush years ought to be in jail.