The Crank Family Robinson

Arthur Robinson is one of those classic American loons — someone with enough real knowledge to be dangerous, who then fritters away his expertise in grandiose plans that somehow never quite pan out, like his plan to build a universal medical diagnosis machine.

Here at what Robinson calls the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, the family has been assembling an archive of human urine. Eventually they hope to gather 50,000 samples, drawn from 5,000 volunteers across a five-year span. The pee is kept in cryogenic vials and stored in dozens of military-grade, minus-80 freezers on the property. Robinson and his kids have already started placing tiny urine samples, each not much bigger than a raindrop, into the family spectrometer, so they can record its chemical fingerprint — the set of peaks and valleys corresponding to its thousands of component parts. Once their catalog of prints has gotten big enough, they’ll start sifting through for hidden patterns in the data, anything that might provide a hint about our health. According to Robinson, these records could contain the telltale marks of, say, early-stage breast cancer or an approaching heart attack, or they might allow him to track the effects of treating those conditions in real time. Once the details have been worked out, he said, this cheap and noninvasive test — a tiny dab of urine fed into the hippopotamus [their personal hulking spectrometer] — could spit out a dossier of diagnostic information.

That’s bad science. Collecting vast amounts of noisy data with no specific hypothesis and then sifting through it looking for patterns is a recipe for apophenia. Another sign that this is a waste of time is that he’s been puttering away at his urine project for over 40 years, with no results. The breakthrough is always one step ahead of him.

I shouldn’t say no results — he has accomplished something. By following the PR moves of his mentor, Linus Pauling, while also preachifying radical Libertarian nonsense about climate change, he has cultivated a little cloud of exceedingly rich conservatives who throw lots of money at him in hopes of wish fulfillment. The Heartland Institute, that hive of lies and corruption, loves him, and filthy rich hedge fund managers (it’s always hedge fund managers — that occupation seems to breed foulness and evil) have been promoting him in the halls of power.

One could view his setup with idle curiosity: the science maverick on his ranch, with a seven-figure budget for his indie urinalysis. But the movement in which Robinson belongs (as a member, if not a shepherd) has nudged a few steps closer, in recent months, to the center of our national politics. Alternative theories of climate change — that is to say, those at odds with mainstream science — are now ascendant at the highest level of government, along with deep suspicion of environmental regulations. And other alt-science points of view — on vaccination, nuclear power, intelligent design — have been showing signs of purchase in the Trump administration. Even Robinson himself may soon be making tracks for Pennsylvania Avenue. Chief among his financial backers are the Mercers — hedge-fund billionaire Robert and his daughter Rebekah — who are better known these days for their avid right-wing activism and sponsorship of Steve Bannon. In March, reports emerged that Rebekah Mercer had made the case for Robinson to be the nation’s new national science adviser. “It would be an honor to do it,” he told me.

He’s probably best known to conservatives for his petition to deny climate change and reject the Kyoto protocols, which got 31,000 signatures, mostly from people totally unqualified to assess the evidence. I guess that was another of his successes, since the US failed to ratify it.

“I think [the petition] was tremendously important,” another signer, the Princeton physicist and noted climate-change contrarian William Happer, told me recently. “It showed there are lots of highly credentialed scientists who really know a lot about the details of the science and don’t agree with the alarmists.” (In the past few months, Happer, like Robinson, has been short-listed for the job of science adviser to President Trump.)

(The article is from 2017. Neither got the job. Happer did bag the job of director of the National Security Council office for emerging technologies, which is a bogus appointment. Trump has appointed a weatherman, Kelvin Droegemeier as his science advisor, who has turned out to be a weasely coward.)

He has also garnered conservative approval for his stance on nuclear power. Personally, I have mixed feelings about that — I’m not dead set against nuclear power, but I have reservations. Robinson, though, goes a bit further. He thinks nuclear radiation is beneficial, so we ought to be getting zapped more.

If we could use it to enhance our own drinking water here in Oregon, where background radiation is low, it would hormetically enhance our resistance to degenerative diseases. Alas, this would be against the law.

Alas!

He also thinks we could dispose of nuclear waste by incorporating it into building materials for homes, so we could all bathe in its sweet glow all the time. He’s an anti-vaxxer who thinks AIDS was simply a physiological reaction to gayness.

And this is what the wealthy Trumpkins think is a fabulous scientist.

Now that is a play

North Bergen High School put on Alien as their school play. I am kind of blown away — amazing sets, all from recycled materials, cool costumes, scary story. The kids must have lusted to get a part. Click on the tweet to see more, people were posting video clips.

I am reminded that our Morris Area High School had a fantastic theater department when my two youngest were attending. They put on two plays a year, not of SF spectacles, but one was always a musical, and these kids would just stun you with their talent and enthusiasm. Connlann and Skatje were both deeply involved in the shows — Connlann was a performer, Skatje was into theater tech — and they were so inspired by the work.

Then the school district, incomprehensibly, killed the program and let the teacher who was so good at these things go. That was so stupid and short-sighted. There is such an ignorant focus on just teaching what will help the kids get a job (and STEM benefits from that, unfortunately — so many young people thinking they should do science, engineering, or medicine for all the wrong reasons) that they kill the dreams…and it’s the dream that carries people forward.

Death

Let’s start the morning with something cheery. Here’s an innocent little ciliate swimming about and then rupturing…organelles and cytoplasm spewing into the medium…and it struggles to hold itself together and the remnant swims away…to no avail. It finally just disintegrates.

Definitely a hard death.

Don’t cry. It doesn’t have a nervous system or consciousness.

SPLC going down in flames

I’ve always thought the Southern Poverty Law Center was one of the good guys, fighting against race hatred and taking on groups like the KKK. And then, suddenly, Morris Dees, one of the founders and leaders of the organization, was booted out. What was going, I wondered. The SPLC’s brief announcements didn’t explain anything. Now we know.

We were working with a group of dedicated and talented people, fighting all kinds of good fights, making life miserable for the bad guys. And yet, all the time, dark shadows hung over everything: the racial and gender disparities, the whispers about sexual harassment, the abuses that stemmed from the top-down management, and the guilt you couldn’t help feeling about the legions of donors who believed that their money was being used, faithfully and well, to do the Lord’s work in the heart of Dixie. We were part of the con, and we knew it.

Wait, are you saying I was conned? By the SPLC? Crap.

the Los Angeles Times and the Alabama Political Reporter reported that Dees’s ouster had come amid a staff revolt over the mistreatment of nonwhite and female staffers, which was sparked by the resignation of the senior attorney Meredith Horton, the highest-ranking African-American woman at the center. A number of staffers subsequently signed onto two letters of protest to the center’s leadership, alleging that multiple reports of sexual harassment by Dees through the years had been ignored or covered up, and sometimes resulted in retaliation against the women making the claims. (Dees denied the allegations, telling a reporter, “I don’t know who you’re talking to or talking about, but that is not right.”)

The staffers wrote that Dees’s firing was welcome but insufficient: their larger concern, they emphasized, was a widespread pattern of racial and gender discrimination by the center’s current leadership, stretching back many years. (The S.P.L.C. has since appointed Tina Tchen, a former chief of staff for Michelle Obama, to conduct a review of its workplace environment.) If Cohen and other senior leaders thought that they could shunt the blame, the riled-up staffers seem determined to prove them wrong. One of my former female colleagues told me that she didn’t want to go into details of her harassment for this story, because she believes the focus should be on the S.P.L.C.’s current leadership. “I just gotta hope your piece helps keep the momentum for change going,” she said. Stephen Bright, a Yale professor and longtime S.P.L.C. critic, told me, “These chickens took a very long flight before they came home to roost.” The question, for current and former staffers alike, is how many chickens will come to justice before this long-overdue reckoning is complete.

They talked the talk, but they didn’t walk the walk. What they were doing was good and necessary, but their aims were not reflected at all in their internal organization. This is a familiar bad look, where teams of old white men run the show and tell the world how much they value diversity. It’s fine to promote diversity, but you also have to be able to step to the side and make room for other voices. I guess Morris Dees wasn’t able to do that.

Conservatives always have pyramids in their heads, I guess

This video is really good. You should watch it. The basic message is that conservatives don’t much like democracy, equality is not a key value for them, that they’re in it to maintain the status quo, and they’ve always been this way. In many ways, Trump is not an anomaly (nor was Nixon, or Reagan, or Bush), but just representative of how the conservative brain thinks. It’s not a radical or surprising idea, simply clearly presented.

Also see the followup on the historical and philosophical foundations of conservatism.

So, it’s “Atheist Day”

I’m sad to say that I don’t care anymore. I got all these messages that 23 March 2019 is Atheist Day, a “global event” with a few scattered local events, some of which look rather interesting, but the whole concept is leaving me cold, and I wasn’t sure why. I tried to figure out what was turning me off to the idea.

First thing that turned up was the source: Atheist Republic. I really dislike the organization — it’s very 2005, a group of people who are proud of themselves for the simplest possible conclusion, and who refuse to consider anything deeper. Their main web page makes the hoary old argument that “Atheism Is a Lack of Belief in Deities”, nothing more, and announces that there is “no singular, decisive atheist movement,” all while trying to represent an atheist movement. It’s the denial of any social responsibility, this idea that there is no point to atheism other than slapping each other on the back and telling each other, “you’re right!” when someone says there is no god. Over that.

Also, in past encounters with the group, there’s the casual, unthinking misogyny. But then, I guess that’s just part of the old-fashioned atmosphere. The good old days, you know.

And then Twitter is flooded with the #AtheistBecause hashtag. That was just a reminder of a disappointment. Some of you might recall I had this series on the blog, “Why I am an atheist”, in which I invited the audience to send me their personal story of why they were atheists. It was very popular, and there were quite a few thoughtful, interesting submissions, to the point where I was actually thinking of putting them into a book. I had drafted some release forms and was getting ready to send them out, when there was a peculiar shift. I was still getting submissions, but I was also getting all these frantic emails asking me to delete entries or edit out names — people were noticing that when they googled their names, the first thing that popped up was…their declaration of atheism. This was not good if you were, for instance, applying for jobs (and that also tells you how messed up American attitudes towards atheism are). The day the number of retraction requests exceeded the number of submissions was the day I knew that little project wasn’t going to happen.

I’m still getting retraction requests, by the way. Every few months someone writes to me and pleads to have their name redacted, or the whole dang post deleted. I oblige every time, of course.

Also by the way — the number of women making those deletion requests exceeds the number of men. I can’t imagine why.

I think I’ll spend my Atheist Day working through a couple of papers on spiders — I still have grand plans for my summer research, once this damnable snow goes away. Funny thing, though: spiders are all atheists. I guess I’ve found my people…errm, organisms.

Hell hath no fury like a Canadian Kermit snubbed

I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but Cambridge is one of those prestigious “elite” universities, and sometimes they do exhibit some good sense.

Oh, but Peterson is mad about this. How dare they deny him an appointment! They owe him!

University of Toronto psychology professor Dr Jordan Peterson had planned to be with Cambridge’s Faculty of Divinity for two months in autumn.

But on Wednesday the university took the invitation back after a review.

Dr Peterson said the faculty had “made a serious error of judgement in rescinding their offer to me”.

He has fired back.

This is what we academics call “burning your bridges,” or “guaranteeing that you’ll never get a second invitation,” or “confirming the wisdom of their decision,” or “hah, what college would want you as a visiting professor after that childish outburst,” etc. Poor man. He gets no respect from his peers, so he’ll have to settle for a consoling tongue-bath from his mob of under-educated manbabies.

A free society does not imply that no one has to compromise

New Zealand leads the way.

But what about Free Speech, you say. What about the right to life, liberty, and happiness, I reply, because right now there are assholes everywhere who feed off that hate and fantasize about slaughtering more people. Like this guy.

Isn’t it nice that he’s Unafraid to speak the Truth? Truly, a great Free Speech Warrior. It’s too bad that what he does with that speech is plan and incite the murder of multitudes of human beings.

Human ideals are often contradictory and none are absolute, and I’m afraid that on the hierarchy of needs, the right to live is far above the right to speak, which is in turn far, far above the right to carry around a big fuckin’ murder gun.

It’s a world-wide pandemic of brain-eating parasites

Driftglass gives a pithy summary of the American variant.

…like any other cult, Republicans have conditioned themselves not to respond to external realities any more. Public embarrassment doesn’t work because Republicans have killed the part of their human souls that is capable of being embarrassed. Bringing down a hellfire of facts and figures doesn’t work because they simply will not recognize facts or figures from non-cult members as legitimate. Same for appeals to reason, to history or to basic human decency. Hell, citing their own words back to them from five minutes ago when their cult believed the exact opposite of what they believe now will elicit nothing more than a cow-dumb stare, followed by a smirk because, Bwhahahah!, they just owned you snowflake.

But then I see their analogs everywhere: the doltish Brexiteers, Fraser Anning and his gang of thugs, and I’m willing to bet we can find similar examples in the non-English speaking world. And then there are the anti-vaxxers, who may not be Republican at all, but who see the slow painful deaths of their own children as a triumph. It’s the Zombie Apocalypse, and it has crept up on us unawares. Only we don’t get the easy out of shooting them in the head, because they’re still human.