A hangout about science communication

I’m getting together with some nerds, Jackson Wheat, Phrenomythic, and ScientistMel, to talk about the challenges of communicating science on YouTube, a medium which seems to favor posturing twits, Nazis, and Nazi twits more than it does people with actual content. It’ll be a public conversation at 5pm Central time today, right here:

If you have your own questions and comments, leave them here, or tune in and leave them in the chat. Another thing: there are successful science youtubers out there. I have a long list, but if there are others you want to call attention to, let me know!

I thought The Onion was a satire site

But this is just a little too on-the-nose.

Warning that users who call for the suspension of bigoted accounts might just be afraid of a real debate, Facebook representatives told reporters Tuesday that classifying hate speech can be difficult because some posts actually make very interesting points. “At Facebook, we are committed to combating violence and hate speech on our platform, but can you really call these posts hate speech when a lot of them are based on science and logic?” said Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook, claiming that unless you’re a sheep who just swallows everything the mainstream media sells you, a number of these posts had a lot to consider, and even if you don’t completely agree with the attacks on race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, it should not be a crime to make people think. “If you’re as open-minded as you claim, you will see that while some of these posts cross the line, many of them are really nuanced and make good points. Of course, everyone should feel safe on Facebook, but it’s hard to determine what’s threatening because the more you watch these videos, the more you realize that Islam might be incompatible with west. Maybe people are just scared of hearing the truth.” Bickert added that if people were such big fans of policing speech, she had some eye-opening videos on globalism she could share on Facebook.

Maybe Sam Harris is moonlighting as a writer for them now.

The meritocratic lie

That admissions scandal ripped off the bandage and exposed the suppurating ulcer of the “elite” university system, and gives me a handle to vent decades of frustration. I’ve known about this for a long time, but if you try to tell people that Harvard and Stanford are profiting off a facade rather than their actual, material quality, they don’t believe you — the names of those universities have become short cuts to an illusion of earned intelligence. Read this, Higher Education and the Illusion of Meritocracy, though.

The recently revealed admissions scandal seems to have it all: Three Stooges levels of ineptitude, crude Photoshops, six-figure payoffs, corrupt coaches, and a cadre of low-level celebrities for good measure. But those who see this scandal as anything other than a moment of levity are missing the forest for the trees. The U.S. Department of Justice filings confirm what we already knew — or should have known: Elite-college admissions exists chiefly to replicate class privilege.

This became depressingly clear to me during my three years as an assistant dean of admissions at an elite college. I saw how the system is rife with inequities and loopholes; how unscrupulous wealthy people are willing to pay admissions fixers to exploit those loopholes; and how grifters adjacent to the process cash in on whatever influence they wield. As I wrote in The Chronicle Review a little more than a year ago, “Admissions at elite institutions can make a fool and a liar out of anyone.”

It’s not just the abberrant criminality of this event, though, because the whole system is rigged.

Meritocratic admissions at elite institutions is the real scam. The idea of a phony soccer player is goofy for its novelty; Division III athletes being tipped into admitted classes through a warped quota system that benefits wealthy white men is a grim reality. The construction of a fabricated profile with illegitimate test scores and extracurriculars is tragicomic; a prep-school applicant carefully curated by elite counselors, tutors, essay writers, and independent admissions advisers is routine.

In short, the real corruption of elite-college admissions is more mundane than this scandal suggests, though far more deleterious to America’s meritocratic ideals. To view this scandal as the problem is to unintentionally reinforce the actual problem: In a truly meritocratic society, higher education should correct inequity; instead, elite higher education exacerbates inequity.

Worse — even if you get in (which is unlikely if you’re not a member of a privileged class), you’re screwed and are just perpetuating a criminally capitalistic system.

Jack outlines how top colleges and universities are and have long been havens of the wealthy. In 2017, a team led by the Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that students coming from families in the top 1 percent—those who make more than $630,000 a year—are 77 times more likely to be admitted to and attend an Ivy League school than students coming from families who make less than $30,000 a year. Furthermore, the study found that 38 elite colleges have more students who come from families in the top 1 percent than students who come from the bottom 60 percent (families making less than $65,000 a year). In other research, Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, have documented how just 14 percent of undergraduates at the most competitive schools—places like Stanford, Princeton, and Columbia—come from families who make up the bottom half of U.S. income distribution.

This got me pissed off enough to make a video about it last week, although I don’t think it’s very good — it’s too long, and I could have been a lot more pithy. I should have said “fuck” more.

But then this week I watched The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, and realized that she’s just another symptom of the whole rotten system. She was a Stanford drop-out, which isn’t an indictment of Stanford … it says the system is screwed up when people attend that university, not for the knowledge they can learn there — which is the core function of the university, which they do very well — but for making the connections that will make them rich and be the entry way to the 1%. Holmes dropped out as soon as she realized that she didn’t actually need to learn engineering, or biochemistry, or medicine, or pharmacology, or any of the actual utility of a university education. She comes from a family with connections, she could make more connections with bald-faced lying. The chief lesson she learned from that “elite” university is that the pretense of merit is more valuable than the substance of merit.

She didn’t have to convince anyone in biomedicine. She knew where the power lies: in old white men. In James Mattis and George Schultz, Sam Nunn and Henry Fucking-Burn-In-Hell Kissinger. She got the backing of Rupert Murdoch and Larry Ellison and Bill Clinton. None of these people have any competence in biomedicine (one could even argue that they don’t have much competence in anything, other than leeching off the public, which they are very, very good at). The corruption runs all the way from an overly ambitious and not very knowledgeable 19 year old, to retired heads of state who’ve been coasting on wealth and power to more wealth and power.

You want to know where the rot in the “elite” universities leads? Straight to Elizabeth Holmes, the poster girl for pseudo-meritocracy. It was so predictable that on the day the Wall Street Journal broke the story of the Theranos fraud, Holmes was unavailable because she was off being inducted into the Harvard Medical School Board of Fellows. Of course she was. Rich liars are exactly the kind of people they want at the top of university administration.

Seriously, look at the Theranos board. It’s a web of connections to other wealthy people, nothing more. If you see any of those names on any company anywhere, run. They’re empty figureheads who’ll screw everything up. Holmes belongs in prison, but so do all those untouchable fat cats who manipulate the system.

Is ‘litigiosity’ a word? It ought to be.

Good news for lawyers everywhere! We have managed to completely pay off our lawyer, Marc Randazza! The Carrier lawsuit is over, ending in victory for the side of goodness, he says, as he gazes out over the shambles of his finances. We paid him off, but all of us defendants together are in the hole for <gulp> $20,000, so we’re not closing our fundraiser yet, and I’m still holding out my hat for personal donations. Good lawyers, it turns out, aren’t cheap, and litigious assholes willing to sell their soul to misogynistic, racist haters can mobilize more cash than we can.

And our society does breed for litigious assholes. Case in point: Devin Nunes is suing Twitter, “Devin Nunes’ Mom”, and “Devin Nunes’ Cow” for $250 million dollars. It’s absurd. It’s doomed (although his lawyers will profit). All it accomplishes is to further promote people who are laughing at him. I would never have seen this, for instance, if it weren’t one of many insults featured in his filing:

You may be thinking that the defendants might need some help protecting themselves from this frivolous and excessive nuisance, but really, Twitter’s lawyers are laughing themselves sick right now. If you are inspired to help an underdog, donate to me instead.

Man, I’m thinking that if there were a poll to name the dumbest person on the internet, and the choices were Jim Hoft, Jacob Wohl, Charlie Kirk, Donald Trump, or Devin Nunes, I wouldn’t know who to vote for.

Gaslit by the alt-right

Here we go again. People are arguing that “subscribe to Pewdiepie” and flashing the OK sign are not Nazi signifiers. They’re half right. Pewdiepie is not a Nazi; he’s a Nazi stooge. Likewise, all those photos of idiots giving the OK sign to ‘trigger the libs’ aren’t literal Nazis, they’re just idiot Nazi enablers. Here’s a useful explainer from some asshole on one of the chans:

By the way, if you try to argue that you “simply enjoy Pewdiepie’s content”, which is stupid, repetitive, unoriginal, and obnoxious, I already have grounds to call you a liar.

They think it’s all a game, but they also know what they’re doing. Amanda Marcotte gets it.

Racism is no longer “ironic” when the racists are murdering people. It’s not just “trolling” when you shoot dozens of people in the head.

The fact that Brenton Tarrant is likely a mass murderer doesn’t mean he’s not a troll, however. He is both. He livestreamed his killing spree and posted an online manifesto that is stuffed full of alt-right memes and inside jokes, making it quite clear that one of his main goals in murdering all those people was, in internet parlance, “the lulz.” Messing with the libs is what trolls like Tarrant live for, and it turns out that nothing messes with people’s heads quite like mass murder.

The fascist strategy works this way: You “shroud your sincere ideas in cartoon characters and memes and then, when called out, you mock your accuser for being a clueless normie who isn’t in on the joke,” as vlogger Natalie Wynn explained in her indispensable video “Decrypting the Alt-Right,” released after the Charlottesville riot in 2017.

Another familiar term for this is gaslighting. They are playing with your head: they endorse atrocities right in front of you, and then deny that that’s what they’re doing. And then they commit atrocities and try the same game of plausible deniability, except it’s no longer plausible. It’s no longer funny in any sense if you’re trying to publicly show sympathy for a movement that murders innocents.

This is why, even though the era of the OK sign as a troll may be over, the larger dynamic behind it is still in effect. Public figures will make gestures of sympathy with white nationalism and then deny that’s what they’re doing. Journalists, unable to read their thoughts and prove they’re lying, are stuck over and over again having to write, “Well, there’s no way to know for certain.”

Perhaps after this debacle folks in mainstream media will be a little less quick to mock leftists for believing that people on the right are using symbols and other coded gestures to signal their sympathy for a toxic and hateful cause.

Also note that HBomberGuy pointed this out over a two years ago. Figure it out, people. It’s past due.

You’re in a group photo where everyone is making the OK gesture? Don’t try to laugh it off. All I’m going to say is “Fuck you.”

“Why I am a creationist”

The things I do to try and comprehend the mental workings of creationists…I wasted 16 minutes on a video of Andrew Snelling explaining why he is a creationist. To make a too-long story short and cut right to the main point, he doesn’t. Not at all. I sat there waiting for him to get to the point and explain how he got to that point, but he doesn’t. Or maybe he does right at the beginning — he was brought up in a very religious family, was thoroughly indoctrinated into Christianity, and then discovered how neat-o rocks are on a family vacation, so he tried to force-fit geology into his young-earth, biblical “literalist” point of view. When he commits to studying geology, starting a geology club in high school, he seems to approach it from a stamp-collecting point of view, completely dismissing the idea of mechanisms behind geology.

When he discovers Whitcomb & Morris’s The Genesis Flood, he thinks all the questions have been resolved and is done. I remember stumbling across that book in high school, reading the first chapter, and shoving it back on the library shelf with contempt. It’s a garbage book. The very first sentence is In harmony with our conviction that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, verbally inspired in the original autographs, we begin our investigation of the geographical extent of the Flood with seven Biblical arguments in favor of its universality. Basically, they’re claiming that they’re going to demonstrate the validity of their premises by reciting a statement of their premises. Even a teenager should be able to see the problem with that approach, and they only fail if they’re blinded by their own priors.

Snelling isn’t capable of thinking that way. He’s just soaking in dogma.

We aren’t giving the internet enough credit, or we’re giving people too much credit?

I found this on the internet (!), and had to share.

Yes, it’s obvious. The United States is an anomalous mess, and when you compare it to other countries, it’s hard to believe people still think we are and have been the greatest country on Earth. The catch is, though, that people aren’t rational. The operative phrase is “our country”, where anyone criticizing any aspect of what is ours are attacking us and insulting our personal shambles, and instead of thinking that we could improve by taking those criticisms to heart, we embrace our flaws as evidence of our greatness.

And it’s killing us.

It’s hard to believe, but a large percentage of the US population would rather sicken and die than challenge the system that fastens insurance company parasites on us from the day we’re born. That would rather fatten CEOs and corporations than see a fair work load for the middle class. That would rather maintain systems of inequity than help our brothers and sisters prosper.

So, yes, the internet should make us aware of better alternatives. It’s too bad that so many of us would rather watch Fox News and be told how great we are.

True Facts about the bolas spider

This is funny, but I have never seen a bolas spider. Have you?

They’re on the checklist of Minnesota spiders, though, so they exist this far north. I’m going to have to make finding one an objective of my summer research plans. They’re nocturnal, though — I might turn into that weird guy poking around in the neighborhood bushes and trees late at night. I swear, officer, I’m not a peeping tom, I’m just looking for arachnids.

Hmm, the cemetery might be a safe place for nocturnal spider watching.

I wish Michael Behe would get as tired of his nonsense as I am

Michael Behe has this new book out, Darwin Devolves. I haven’t been able to muster enough enthusiasm to even want to try and dissect it — that man has been shitting on science for at least 20 years now, and having picked through his fecal piles before, I know what to expect, and am tired of it. He is tediously predictable.

Fortunately, Gregory Lang and Amber Rice have the willingness to do the dirty work and dive right in and sift through the shit in this excellent review, Evolution unscathed: Darwin Devolves argues on weak reasoning that unguided evolution is a destructive force, incapable of innovation. They discover that Behe cherry-picks his evidence, ignoring, or worse, being completely ignorant of, vast orchards of information that directly refute his premise, which Lang and Rice cite and summarize. It’s an informative review. Go read it, I won’t rehash it. You’ll learn a lot from it.

I will mention the conclusion, which discusses the peculiar tension at the heart of the evolution/creation argument. I did highlight one sentence.

Without a hint of irony, Darwin Devolves cautions us that “[t]he academic ideas of nutty professors don’t always stay confined to ivory towers. They sometimes seep out into the wider world with devastating results (p257).”

Scientists—by nature or by training—are skeptics. Even the most time-honored theories are reevaluated as new data come to light. There is active debate, for example, on the relative importance of changes to regulatory versus coding sequence in evolution (Hoekstra and Coyne 2007; Stern and Orgogozo 2008), the role of neutral processes in evolution (Kern and Hahn 2018; Jensen et al. 2019), and the extent to which evolutionary paths are contingent on chance events (Blount et al. 2018). Vigorous debate is part and parcel of the scientific process, lest our field stagnate. Behe, however, belabors the lack of consensus on relatively minor matters to proclaim that evolutionary biology as a whole is on shaky ground.

By reviewing Behe’s latest book, we run the risk of drawing attention—or worse, giving credibility—to his ideas. Books like Darwin Devolves, however, must be openly challenged and refuted, even if it risks giving publicity to misbegotten views. Science benefits from public support. Largely funded by federal grants, scientists have a moral responsibility (if not a financial obligation) to ensure that the core concepts of our respective fields are communicated effectively and accurately to the public and to our trainees. This is particularly important in evolutionary biology, where—over 150 years after On the Origin of Species—less than 20% of Americans accept that humans evolved by natural and unguided processes (Gallup 2014). It is hard to think of any other discipline where mainstream acceptance of its core paradigm is more at odds with the scientific consensus.

Why evolution by natural selection is difficult for so many to accept is beyond the scope of this review; however, it is not for a lack of evidence: the data (only some of which we present here) are more than sufficient to convince any open-minded skeptic that unguided evolution is capable of generating complex systems. A combination of social and historical factors creates a welcoming environment for an academic voice that questions the scientific consensus. Darwin Devolves was designed to fit this niche.

Creationists like to pretend that there is still a legitimate debate here, and their absurd confidence does seem to be effective in swaying, as they mention, about 80% of the population. In response to their ignorance, responsible scientists are expected to invest a great deal of effort in reacting to stupidity. It is ten thousand times harder to master the science behind evolutionary biology than it is to read a few bible verses and some clueless apologetics and decide that the science is all wrong. Behe, and people like him, are ridiculous crackpots, and we’re saddled with the obligation to refute them.

And yet we do. Or Lang and Rice do. I’m sitting this one out, which makes me immensely grateful that more scientists are joining in the battle.