Have you noticed that we’re always getting offended?

It’s an extraordinarily common accusation: those #FtBullies are getting offended, they’re reacting to something offensive, they’re so delicate and sensitive and ready to take offense based on moral outrage.

And now I’m accused of proliferating the stupid because I’m offended.

Maybe someone can help me understand the logic in this: P.Z. Myers disagrees with the message conveyed by a stupid meme on Reddit, and instead of ignoring or down-voting the post — or whatever it is people do on Reddit — he brings attention to it and even publishes the offending picture.

If you are offended by something posted on the Internet, why not just move on? Rather, Myers has effectively ensured that this piece of Internet trash will be further proliferated and cached online for years to come from his own site. That’s what I call a good feminist hard at work.

I’m really not used to that peculiar mindset. Why do you assume I’m offended? Why don’t you recognize that I’m pointing out that something is wrong?

I’m waiting for a student to come in and complain that I took points off for an incorrect answer on an exam. “Why were you offended at my answer, Dr Myers? Wouldn’t it have been better to avoid bringing attention to it, so that maybe I’d forget my incorrect answer in a few years?”

Gosh, I hope the author’s brain doesn’t explode when he realizes that by posting about my terrible perpetuation of the ‘offensive’ photo, he’s propagating it as well, and further, he’s promoting my dreadful gaffe! Quick, everyone, go silent and never publicly disagree with anyone ever!

“Pat” is short for “Patronizing”

Pat Robertson is asked why poor people in Africa have more miracles than we do (assumption not supported with evidence), and he gives his condescending answer: Americans know too much science, while people overseas are “simple, humble” and God loves ’em more.

Well, gosh. All we have to do is shut down higher education, then, and we’ll have all the blessings of, say, Somalia.

Hugo, Cesar, so what…it’s one of them Hispanic fellas

OK, you’re not despairing for humanity enough. You need to see this: Google celebrated Cesar Chavez’s birthday yesterday, on 31 March. Wingnuts saw this, and went apeshit on twitter: how dare they honor a foreign communist dictator!

As if that weren’t enough, a subset of them are praising Bing for paying respect to the religious holiday by showing pictures of Easter eggs. All hail the divine ruler of the universe, the Easter Bunny.

Religious people are among the dumbest people on the planet, I’m afraid.

No fools here

I am officially declaring this an April Fools-Free Zone. No foolin’.

My grumpiness might contribute to that, too. I ended up with an utterly miserable redeye flight from Seattle to Minneapolis — I landed at 5am. I’m still traveling to get home (I’m on a stimulant break right this instant), and as soon as I get there, I’m going in to work. Expect surly snarliness, world, until my labs are all over, I’m truly home, and I’m crashed into unconsciousness on my bed.

We’ve got a ways to go

I hear that the big American Atheists conference in Austin had an attendance of about 900, which is a good number, and of course, let’s not judge the quality of an event by the number of attendees. By all accounts, it was an excellent conference (I keep seeing these gushing comments on twitter about AC Grayling’s talk, making me very envious.)

But…perspective. I’m at a middling-to-good-sized SF convention, which is one of the larger regional events.

Attendance, I’m told, was about 3000 people. Costs for the two events were roughly comparable to attendees. There’s absolutely no comparison with the big national events like Comic-con and Dragon*Con.

I’m sorry, but I think secularism, humanism, and atheism are of greater relevance to people than comic-books. What can we do to grow our audience?

How I spent the last few days

I am sad to say I missed the American Atheists 2013 National Convention — it sounds like it was a blast, but I was booked up with a series of talks out in lovely warm sunny Seattle. Here’s what I’ve been up to.

On Wednesday, I talked to Seattle Atheists on “Moving Atheism Beyond Science”. I argued that modern atheism is built on the twin pillars of anti-religion and science, and not that there’s anything wrong with either of those, but that we have to have a wider foundation. In particular, I defied the recent trend to broaden science to encompass morality — I see that more as a conservative effort to refuse to step out of our comfort zone of science to consider philosophy and ethics — and most of the talk was a review of the ways science has failed to support a moral standard. Science has a definite place of importance, but let’s stop using it as our sole hammer.

Then I attended Norwescon, a science-fiction convention. People give me weird looks when I say I’m going to a con as a scientist/educator — but really, this is another example of stepping out of our comfort zones and reaching out to a different population of people…and SF people are a very receptive audience for science talks. So here are the sessions I was up-front and talking (there were others where I just sat back with the audience, of course).

Evo-Devo: More than a cool band name. This one was cool and right on my interests. I shared the panel with Annie Morton, a local ecologist, Jim Kling, a science journalist, and Dr Ricky, a scientist and also author of a food blog, Science-Based Cuisine. I started off by giving a definition I’d been asked to give on Twitter: Evodevo: Primacy of regulatory mutations in the evolution of form in multicellular organisms. I know, it’s much narrower than the standard definition which emphasizes comparative molecular genetics, but I was trying to summarize the current focus. And then we went back and forth on the details.

The Anthropogenic Extinction event. Somehow, I ended up on a series of depressing panels. I shared this desk with Annie Morton again, and Kurt Cagle. Short summary: we’re doomed. My final statement was that one basic rule is that you don’t shit in your own nest, and now that we’re a global species, we apparently have forgotten it.

Bullies Still Suck: Why We Don’t Just Get Over It. Oh, jeez. The most depressing panel ever. I was on it with Mickey Schulz (Geek Girls Rule!) and Maida “Mac” Cain. I think I was there to represent targets of online bullying, but here’s the deal: it was attended by a large number of SF con nerds and geeks who could give us all lessons on what real bullying is like. I didn’t have to say much at all: the audience spoke out with testimonials about their lives as four-eyed nerds, gay people, trans women, Asperger kids, “sluts” so-called, and rape victims. I think my main job here should have just been to shut up and listen.

It’s the End of the World As We Know It, with Gregory Gadow, Peter Blanton, Russell Campbell, and Dr Ricky. We were supposed to talk about our favorite doomsday scenarios. I don’t have one. I did say I thought all the emphasis in the popular press on big explosions and cosmic collisions and such was egocentrism, that that’s not how most extinctions occur. I gave the example of the Heath Hen, a chicken-like bird that was common on the eastern seaboard at the time of the European colonization, and that gradually was reduced to a single isolated population on Martha’s Vineyard by habitat destruction and hunting, and when it was down to the last few hundred animals in the 19th century, efforts were made to give it a sheltered sanctuary. The population briefly rose to a few thousand individuals before a fire killed many, then a storm killed more, and then a disease spread from turkey farms to kill even more, reducing them to 7 individuals, mostly male, and the last lonely bird died in 1932. That’s what we should expect. No grand spectacular drama, we’re most likely to flicker out with a dismal whimper.

Blinded by Pseudoscience. I wasn’t suppose to be on this one, but Dr. Ricky asked me to get on the stage with Janet Freeman-Daily, Gregory Gadow, and Ro Yoon. We talked a lot about cancer quackery, especially the Burzynski fraud, and tried to deliver some suggestions about how to detect when you’re being lied to: too good to be true promises, demands for money up front, lack of scientific evidence, etc.

Designer Genes. Gregory Gadow was the moderator, and it was largely a discussion between me and Edward Tenner…and we pretty much agreed on everything. I think the theme was unintended consequences: sure, we can and will be able to do amazing things with somatic and germ line gene therapy, but trying to do this with complex systems is likely to have all kinds of unexpected side effects. Correcting single gene defects is one thing, but ‘improving’ the human race is a far more complex problem that isn’t going to be easily accomplished.

Remedial Exobiology, with Annie Morton and Dame Ruth. This one was very well attended and less depressing! At a science fiction convention, there were a lot of authors in the audience who are very interested in the topic of implementing good biology in their stories (sorry, but I said that there were almost no science fiction stories that addressed biology competently, and we also snickered at James Cameron a bit). I tried to be fair and give shortcuts: I said imagination is good, you don’t have to master all of biology, but instead of just starting with bipedal anthropoids and building a new alien on that body plan, at least browse through the available and highly diverse morphologies present in other lineages on this planet, and build on that. One person in the audience also recommended this book, Eighth Day Genesis: A Worldbuilding Codex for Writers and Creatives, as a tool for inspiring science-based creativity.

And now I’m winding down and getting ready to fly home and resume teaching biology in Minnesota again. I encourage all science educators to stretch out and try talking about their favorite topics in different venues: it’s how we expand the relevance of science!

Y’all going to church today?

I think I’ll skip it, even though I’m staying at my mother’s house, which is right next door to some freaky conservative Protestant shitbox church. They aren’t promising to talk about evolution, which would at least be interesting.


I do like the little addendum someone pasted on to the sign, at least.

It is a little weird to think that all across the country round about now, in every church, some guy is standing up and lying and saying the magic words, “He is risen”, when he’s not. He died, people, and he rotted away, and his myth has been used ever since to oppress and delude and confuse and frighten people.