Carl Zimmer gets a lot of email

And a lot of it is students asking him to do their homework for them. I get this too, and I sympathize — but Zimmer goes straight to the teachers to ask them what they’re doing.

It’s great that you are looking for new ways for your students to do research and learn about science. But having them send emails to scientists and writers has failure stitched into its very concept. Writers are perpetually scrambling to meet deadlines and pitch new stories. Scientists have full plates as well, between their research, their eternal quest for the next grant, and their teaching. To answer a single email from a student–either in the form of a long list of questions or just an open-ended plea for help–takes a lot of time. We may respond to the first few emails we get, but as they keep pouring in, we tend to burn out. And the more popular this becomes as a pedagogical tool, the more emails students will be sending to scientists and writers. And that makes people burn out even faster. It doesn’t seem fair to the students for their grade to depend on whether they get a reply from their email. Even the most polite email may land in the inbox of someone who decided long ago never to respond to such requests.

And, frankly, we can’t help but wonder what good this exercise does. When we were young, it certainly was a thrill to get an email or a letter from someone we admired. A message like that can steer young people into a career and change their life. But the exchanges we get today are nothing of the sort. They are just requests for information. They’re sometimes courteous and they’re sometimes unintentionally rude. But it feels about as educational for the students as copying a Wikipedia page.

I sometimes get a ittle flood of emails all at once, and it’s clearly from a class that’s gotten an assignment like that. More often, though, it’s single students, acting on their own initiative, thinking they’ve got an angle to getting a difficult concept explained with little effort on their part.

But I also see it from the other side.

I see a lot of students who freak out when I give them an exam question that isn’t neatly summarized for them in a text book — who come to college not having the slightest clue how to synthesize information. They’re often really good at regurgitation and the kind of mechanical skills that get emphasized on standardized tests, but coming up with something new? That’s too hard.

I often get these complaints (and they also show up in my student evaluations):

“But the answer wasn’t in the textbook!”

“You didn’t tell us we’d have to know that!”

“I looked all over my lecture notes, and you didn’t talk about that!”

That’s right, I didn’t, and it wasn’t in there. Sometimes it was somewhere in the assigned readings, but I didn’t mention it; sometimes you have to integrate a couple of lines of evidence to come up with the answer; sometimes the answer isn’t known by anyone, and you have to come up with the best answer you can.

I second Zimmer’s concern. Teachers, your students don’t need to learn how to transcribe information, they need to master the skill of expressing new ideas. Encourage them to interpret science creatively and go out on a limb now and then — that’ll serve them better when they get deeper into science.

By the way, teachers, could you please also kill the 5-paragraph essay? I hate those things.

Tornado chasers be nuts

And maybe, Oklahomans be nuts, too. How do you live in that state? This video convinces me I’d be safer living atop a volcano in an earthquake zone near the sea, where the tsunamis could reach me. Why am I living in the midwest, anyway?

Hint for the videographer: The footage of what’s going on outside the car is dramatic and terrifying, but the camera turned inside is boring and annoying. In particular, the guy yelling non-stop from the passenger seat made me want to club him and make him stop distracting the guy who was actually driving.

Why does everything have to suck in exactly the same way?

Here we go again. Read this letter from a former member of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

It began with issue #200 of the Bulletin—all right, #199 if we want to get technical. It began with the Resnick and Malzberg Dialogues, a long-time feature of the publication. It began when two men sat down to have a dialogue about editors and writers of the female gender. How fantastic, I thought, because I, being a writer and an editor and female, had a keen interest in such things. I love reading anthologies such as Women of Wonder (and its sequel) and seeing how women impacted and contributed to this forward-looking and -thinking genre I love. I hoped they might include the women who inspired me and introduce me to many I hadn’t yet discovered.

That’s not what I found. I found a dialogue that seemed more focused on how these “lady editors” and “lady writers” looked in bathing suits, and that they were “beauty pageant beautiful” or a “knock out.” I am certain no condescension was intended with the use of “lady,” but as the dialogues went on, I felt the word carried a certain tone—perhaps that was a fiction of my own making. As I listened to these two men talk about lady editors and writers they had known, I grew uneasy. Something wasn’t right.

That sounds so familiar. But wait, there’s more!

The editorial staff (headed by a woman) vowed to improve, to seek more membership input. Issue #201 was little better—it included an article, written by another man, that told women to emulate Barbie, to “maintain our quiet dignity as a woman should.” I could not believe those words—yet there they were, in black and white. I asked my friends again—was I mistaken? Was I simply taking these words out of context? They were surprised, appalled, outraged. First at the idea that someone felt such a thing, and next at the idea that SFWA published it in the magazine which is part of our public presence.

Be…like…Barbie? To an SF audience? I’m surprised I didn’t hear the loud splat of a world-wide Picard facepalm.

So the little ladies complained and complained and complained, and then the men who started this all replied. Quit picking on us men, they said!

Issue #202 brought with it a “rebuttal” from Malzberg and Resnick, in which they used the words “censorship,” and “suppression,” and “ban.” In which they said those who complained about their article were anonymous to them, that the SFWA forum had become “the arena for difference.” Was it members who objected to “apparent sexism,” or was it a larger, darker, more hostile and threatening thing that wanted to suppress their dialogues?

In all the complaints that were voiced, there was never a call for censorship. There was never a call for suppression. There was a call for respect.

Whoa, man, deja vu. Deja vu all over the place. And really, there’s nothing special at all about atheism/skepticism, is there?

Camp Quest Minnesota has grown!


They’ve expanded their range of dates to two weeks, both 14-20 July and 21-27 July. The registration deadline is 14 June, so it’s not too late to sign up to ship your kids out. Register online, now’s your chance to get the little monkeys out of your hair for a week while simultaneously being able to virtuously expand their minds!

While campers partake in traditional camp activities, such as field games, swimming, archery, crafts, and campfires, what sets Camp Quest apart from traditional summer camps is our focus on humanist values and ethics. Our unique programming encourages rational inquiry, free speech, and respect.

What are you going to do otherwise, send them to VBS to have their brains poisoned?

Google+ Hangout, Saturday, 10am Central

Let’s talk. I’ve just gotten home from a couple of conferences, so maybe we could discuss the recent disgruntlement emerging from Women in Secularism 2, or how the humanists at the IHEU seem to be mostly doing it right. We also have Empowering Women Through Secularism coming up in late June in Dublin — anyone else going? What are your expectations? Or if there’s something else you consider important, sure, bring it up. This is to be a casual conversation between pals over my morning tea.

If you’ve already participated in one of these, I’ve already got your name in a circle and you’ll get an invite — if not, email me your Google+ ID so I can add you.

OK, OK, I won’t eat the octopus no more

That guilt-trippin’ radical vegan Jamie Kilstein is deploying the heavy artillery now: he posted about this little kid making an argument from moral clarity.

Dammit, OK already, I’ll give up the octopus and the calamari now. I denied bacon two years ago, is that not enough sacrifice? I’ve got my vegetarian wife leaning on me, my vegetarian daughter giving me haughty looks, and now Jamie Kilstein and strange little Italian Portuguese children are giving me grief.

Speaking of my daughter, the radical vegan godless comp-sci/philosophy person who lives in Madison, she’s also going to the Mad City Vegan Fest next week, and has actually bought tickets to Kilstein’s show there. It’s a conspiracy, I tell you.

My yacht is the very best yacht

A Stanford professor of anthropology, T.M. Luhrmann, has a curious op-ed in the NY Times. She studies evangelical religions, and she takes the time to explain to us atheists and other secular people why people like to go to church. You know all those questions we ask, about whether god exists or what evidence there is for gods? They don’t think about that. We’re missing the point if we think that those are real problems for evangelicals.

These are the questions that university-educated liberals ask about faith. They are deep questions. But they are also abstract and intellectual. They are philosophical questions. In an evangelical church, the questions would probably have circled around how to feel God’s love and how to be more aware of God’s presence. Those are fundamentally practical questions.

Unfortunately, Dr Luhrmann is missing the point herself. We already know that. Seriously, I don’t know any atheist who believes that all we have to do is lay out the logical case for atheism and the believers will abandon the church. We still try to explain the problem with believing in god, though, just like we point out the moral failings of church leaders, the injustices of church policies, and the harm that religion does in the real world because the way you wake someone out of the delusion of faith is to jar them with the contradictions between what the religion claims and how the world actually works, and get them thinking about both the abstract questions and the practical questions.

The “practical questions” she cites are simply not. The answer to the abstract question that all these evangelicals are skirting, the existence of god, is no, gods don’t exist, which makes all their fussing about how to please the gods and appreciate the gods more wildly impractical.

It’s as if I were trying to deal with all the pragmatic minutiae of owning a yacht — leasing a dock, picking the best brand of brass polish, buying a fancy commodore’s hat so that I look good while striding about the deck. Only I don’t own a yacht, and don’t even live anywhere near where I could sail a yacht. So sure, I could doddle about, trying to make a real decision about whether I want this hat or that one, and I might even have fun exploring the choices, but to call it practical when the fundamental core of my hobby, the yacht, is completely absent is, at best, over-generous. When that core belief makes people invest unwisely, or leads them to make unfair or injust choices, it does active harm, all in the name of a feel-good phantasm.

The anthropologist needs to spend a little time looking at seculars in addition to the religious, though. She really doesn’t understand us at all.

To be clear, I am not arguing that belief is not important to Christians. It is obviously important. But secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first.

And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.

Uh, no. I have no illusion that people talk themselves into god-belief and then go looking for a church that accommodates them — that doesn’t even make sense. Why then would people so often end up in the same church as their parents? Personally, I spent much of my childhood going to church without believing in god at all. It was only when I was told that believing was part of the deal with being a Lutheran (remember the Nicene creed? It’s basically an oath saying you promise to believe in X, Y, and Z as part of the church) that I parted company with them. But I was in the church in the first place because that’s where my family went, that’s where all my neighborhood buddies of similar ethnic persuasion were, it was part of the tradition. I was kept in the church by a net of obligations: Thursday was choir practice, the pastor would make altar boy assignments for which of the two services I’d have to attend, I’d have my assigned bible readings and verses to memorize for Sunday School, there was VBS in June.

I know that you can have a satisfying time going through the motions of church attendance, focusing on just the day-by-day patterns and interactions. So why is Luhrmann lecturing me on the obvious, as if we atheists are completely clueless about the daily rhythms of religion? Does she think we’re stupid or something?

I think she’s just setting up her happy-clappy conclusion by loading up on the straw premises.

If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place.

“If you can sidestep the problem of belief” — right. Tiny little problem, we’ll just pretend it doesn’t exist at all, then we can continue to blithely troop off to church and do whatever without worrying about whether it’s important or not. It doesn’t matter whether my yacht exists at all, as long as I’m happy wearing my hat. That people can be readily sucked into an illusion is nothing controversial psychologically, but we generally think that well-adjusted, productive people are better attuned to reality.

“and the related politics, which can be so distracting” — WTF? Distracting? Look, if all religion were was a hobby, a cheerful little game that brought people together socially, I’d have no objection to it at all. But to pretend that it doesn’t bring along a cargo container worth of bad baggage is ludicrous. Those evangelicals are corrupting science education, because their religious beliefs tell them that evolution is false. It has fanatics throwing women on the pyre of their idolatry of the embryo. It justifies ostracizing, jailing, and even killing people who have different sexual interests. Those are mere “distractions”? They are minor problems Dr Luhrmann will wave away in her efforts to explain how freaking happy religions make people?

I understand that people join a church because it makes them feel good (sometimes, though, the reason they feel good about is the church loads them up with so much false fear and guilt that they feel compelled to alleviate it — it’s an elaborate circular engine of self-serving pain). The shot of joy, that pandering to a smug, small-minded sense of importance, is certainly an important component in the process of maintaining involvement in religion, but that doesn’t make it good or virtuous.

Even if it isn’t a proximate cause of church attendance, ultimately the question of whether god (or the yacht!) exists is essential in determining whether their faith matters in the world. That human beings are really good at closing their eyes and pretending is not an argument for living in a delusion.

Oh. Luhrmann has won a Templeton Foundation grant. All is explained.

This is what hate gets you

Nigeria has just passed a vicious anti-gay bill. It not only forbids gay marriage, it criminalizes organizing or lobbying to allow gay marriage, helping gays marry, having a gay club, and public demonstrations of affection by couples in public.

Lawmakers in Nigeria passed a bill Thursday banning gay marriage and outlawing anyone from forming organizations supporting gay rights, setting prison terms of up to 14 years for offenders.

Nigeria’s Senate previously passed the bill in November 2011 and the measure quietly disappeared for some time before coming up in Thursday’s session of the House. Under previous versions of the proposed law, couples who marry could face up to 14 years each in prison. Witnesses or anyone who helps couples marry could be sentenced to 10 years behind bars.

Other additions to the bill include making it illegal to register gay clubs or organizations, as well as criminalizing the "public show of same-sex amorous relationships directly or indirectly." Those who violate those laws would face 10-year imprisonment as well.

I helped gay couples marry by voting in the last state election; I guess that makes me a criminal by Nigerian law, liable to a ten year prison sentence.

Which brings me to a tiny bit of happy news, at least: as of next Thursday, gay residents of the Twin Cities will be able to purchase marriage licenses. Maybe we should invite unhappy Nigerians to move here? Do it quick before your government decides to criminalize visiting more liberal countries!