Mazur, then Dawkins, with much driving between

I’m back! I had a long, busy day at a teaching conference, and got persuaded about a few things — I’m designing a new course for freshmen biology majors for the fall term (“Fundamentals of Genetics, Evolution, and Development”, or FunGenEvoDevo for short), and I’ve been following the pedagogical ideas of Eric Mazur for a while, and this was my chance to go hear him. He said what I wanted to hear about getting basic concepts across to students, which is going to help a great deal in my summer project.

I got back too late to catch Dawkins on the O’Lielly show, though. My wife saw it, said it was good but short and without much of substance. Fortunately, One Good Move was quick on the draw. O’Reilly started right off with idiocy. He doesn’t know how tides work, so he’s got to believe in God. There was the usual weird right-wing history lesson — Hitler was an atheist, the Founding Fathers wanted a god-worshipping nation; of course, O’Reilly’s explanation for why they wanted a Christian nation was that it would pacify the people. Is it good framing to argue for religion because it is the opiate of the masses?

I thought Dawkins was calm, relaxed, and treated the bozo lightly and with good humor. O’Reilly threw out that softball inanity right at the beginning, and you can almost see Dawkins crack up at the clown.

Tomorrow is my day at home before I make my Boston blitz — I might be able to squeeze in a few posts here, along with getting a pile of other work done.


  1. Beth says

    I followed the link to Mazur’s page and noticed that he is looking at getting more female students in the physics class room and keeping them in physics. He mentions an increase in female students in biology and chemistry, something that I have seen in my classes. I’m curious, whats the gender breakdown for your classes? Have you noticed a change since you started teaching?

  2. says

    That’s too bad, I wanted to see some blood! Although that’s about the best you could hope for from O’Reilly, at least his idiocy should be manifest to any intelligent viewers (all four of them among his regulars).

    I’ve always wondered how you manage to post so much, and that 8-or-so-series of posts about it wasn’t very illuminating. I’m guessing you have an army of squid slaves who do the lesser posts, leaving the big stuff for you.

  3. Christian Burnham says

    What? P.Z. hasn’t worked out how to blog and drive at the same time? I’m a little disappointed.

  4. says

    O’Reilly says that “It’s true for me” when discussing Christianity. Fascinating! The old windbag is every bit as much a relativist as any of his so-called “secular progressives.” Yet we can be pretty certain that he is not on the verge of telling everyone to “find your own truth.” After all, O’Reilly knows that Islam is false, even though millions of people seem to find it true for themselves.

    O’Reilly started off with a “privileged planet” approach by marveling at how we “lucked out.” Did you like that bit where O’Reilly spluttered and said that of course we understand the “physiology” of the tides and such “if you will”? Sorry, bozo. I won’t. If you don’t know the language, don’t make it up as you go along. It makes you look like an idiot to the informed segment of your audience. (Luckily for him, that’s a small group, except perhaps on Dawkins night.)

    And why did O’Reilly feel compelled to spell out the letters of “bane” (in describing the impact of atheism on humanity)? How many homonyms for “bane” does he know? How many of those could have possibly fit into the context of his remarks? Does he usually spell out four-letter words for the benefit of his audience?

    O’Reilly was atypically subdued, perhaps because he’s intimidated by someone who is a genuine intellectual and appears too cool to fold under his bullying. We got to see the bland and boring Bill.

  5. says

    Yeah, I think Dawkins was amused, but I thought the segment as a whole was basically worthless. O’Lielly dominated the conversation (if you can call it that) and Dawkins had no time to either advance his own argument or rebut the idiot’s statement.

    I think O’Lielly set him up for a great sound bite when he kept talking about the Founding Fathers viewed religion as having a pacifying influence on the population. Dawkins could have easily shot back about how they must have been Marxists before there was even a Marx or something like that.

    On the whole, I don’t think this interview made one lick of difference to anyone’s beliefs and I hope Fox News paid him a handsome stipend are at least had a nice buffet in the green room.

  6. DrBadger says

    That was a pretty useless interview, but at least it wasn’t damaging (as I was expecting). Dawkins was his usual cool, quiet, intelligent self. It did two things: One is that O’Reilly sounded pretty stupid (how do the tides work??? Is that the best he could get?) The second is that it made an atheist look like a nice person. It probably won’t change the opinion of any of his viewers, but it won’t make them think any less of atheists.

  7. says

    I’ve got about 60-70% women in my classes. I think we’ve got about a 60-40 split overall in the university here.

    One relevant thing Mazur mentioned: his whole point was that old-school lectures are great at teaching plug-and-chug equation solving, but poor at teaching concepts. His old evaluations of student understanding showed a better male understanding before entering the classroom, and the disparity between men and women persisted to the end of the class. With his peer instruction techniques that emphasize conceptual learning, the gender difference disappeared completely by the end of the term.

  8. bw says


    Why so much ad hominem in your argumentation? Dawkins argues more clearly in my opinion because he doesn’t resort to ad hominem attacks.

    O’Reilly may be wrong. But calling him and others a bunch of names puts you more in his league.

  9. Cat of Many Faces says

    Seriously, you’re trying to say we should be nice to people like bill oraly?

    I like to think that derision has a place in society, and bill is a good example of why.

    heh, besides, he’s a total arse.

  10. says

    bw:Why so much ad hominem in your argumentation?

    Check out what ad hominem means. An ad hominem argument is one that seeks to invalidate an individual’s views by heaping contempt on the individual. For example, “O’Reilly’s position is invalid because he’s a jerk.” If you noticed some disdain for O’Reilly around here, you’d be correct, but you’ve got it backwards. O’Reilly is disdained because of his lame arguments, not vice versa. When you’ve heard enough nonsense from someone, it becomes entirely reasonable to say, “O’Reilly said that? There’s probably something wrong with it.”

    You may have noticed that I myself called O’Reilly a “bozo”. That is because his arguments are clownish. It’s really quite sad.

  11. says

    It’s nice to see a physics prof doing research into learning. When I was the publisher for research sponsored by the Department of Education, I often wondered about the rigor of the experiments, the controls — but out of my control. My experience is that hard sciences figure out simple ways to test things that make black-and-white distinctions much more than most social science research.

    But I also worry if what we see in education research, even with tighter controls, isn’t just Hawthorne effect (you remember — from the Hawthorne plant at Western Electric, where they found that any change in the work environment could make for better productivity if they discussed it that way with the workers first: ‘We discovered people are happier working in the dark so we’re going to turn out all the lights . . .’) Mazur’s probably overcome the problem, but one thing I notice when educators get to researching is that they hone the lessons and the hypothesis on results much more than they would otherwise. Of course they get an effect — the teaching and the material taught are a lot better than when the researchers started.

  12. Koray says

    Bah. O’Reilly almost played into Dawkins’ hand, but Dawkins couldn’t capitalize.

    When O’Reilly admitted that he couldn’t prove that Jesus is god and his choice was a personal one, Dawkins had to ask why any secular person had to live with the consequences.

    When O’Reilly expressed the desire to understand the nature, Dawkins had to invite him to study the basics first before attempting to tackle the ultimate problem.

    These are very standard, basic rebuttals to me. I am disappointed to not have heard them.

  13. says

    Boy Bill O’Reilly was kind of like the tomcat after it’s neutered, wasn’t he? I must say, I expected something better from the bully blowhard than “The tides come in, the tides go out.” He set himself up for Dawkins’ dig: “Well, in science we know a lot about the tides.” Yeah, Junior! Beware the tides of arch(y comebacks)! ;-)

    I should not have worried. Oh me of little faith.

    Segment was too short, though – just Bill’s “It’s good enough for me/Hitler-Stalin-Mao-Pol, who’s next, golly-goll” rendition.

  14. Brian says

    O’Reilly used the same “tide” and “sun goes up” argument in his book “Who’s Looking Out for You?,” but I never realized how stupid it really sounds when spoken out loud. However, he left out a key part of his reasoning from the book. Try to understand this, “The sun goes up, the sun goes down. The tide rolls in, the tide rolls out. Seasons change, people die, babies are born. Sure, destructive storms and fires descend, but new growth begins almost immediately. Nature is perfect, so man could not possibly have anything to do with it” (111). Furthermore, after he talks about how the big bang started 15 billion years ago and that the universe was the size of an acorn (though that isn’t entirely correct since theorists don’t believe that the beginning of the universe had any boundaries), he states that it erupted into a cosmic explosion and asks, “What human could have made that happen?” He then goes on to say that you cannot make anything out of nothing, forgetting quantum fluctuations.

    Also, O’Reilly said in an interview on NPR with Terry Gross that he didn’t believe in the big bang and that he wanted creationism taught he school. He also used the line that he has all the framer’s letters, even though in the above book he recycled the made-up quote that Madison said that the government was based on the ten commandments. You can look at the quotes and the Madison quote (pg. 117) on amazon for free. Ong page 111, he also “cites” a prayer study and how it benefits one’s immune system (though he talks about it as if the study was focused on people who pray, it is their own immune system that is better, but I haven’t heard about that). He doesn’t give a citation for this or the discredited Madison quote.


  15. says

    O’Reilly was predictable. The usual strawman arguments. He’s pathetic.

    The one part I think that Dawkins nailed was that truth is not a subjective opinion held by each individual. An individual may have an opinion as to what truth is, but opinions are like assholes unless you can test each asshole. Unless you can test each asshole, one can rightly assume that they each have a similar smell.

  16. says

    The other part that Dawkins did well at was exposing the excluded middle in O’Reilly’s presupposition that one is immoral if they are not a christian.

    O’Reilly corrected stated that Stalin was an atheist, but was unable to demonstrate that Stalin acted as he did because he was an atheist.

    Dawkins pointed out this flaw by inferring that that unless one can demonstrate that Stalin acted immorally as a result of his being an atheist, then it makes as much sense to say that he acted the way he did because he had a mustache.

  17. CalGeorge says

    Dawkins did a good job.

    He makes atheism ultra-cool. Sales Rank: #24 in Books.

    It’s climbing again!

  18. says

    I watched the video. Typical O’Reilly fashion, always on the offensive. I liked RD keeping cool and making sure to counter the whole Hitler thing with a comical mustache analogy.

  19. Loren Petrich says

    The idea of the religion business being desirable for keeping the common people under control was around long before Karl Marx — it was common in the classical Greco-Roman world.

    Plato even went so far as to advocate banning his society’s religion from his Republic as full of bad examples; he proposed that it have an official religion which he invented and which he called a “royal lie”.

  20. Fox1 says

    I like how the argument for religion that the founding fathers give (in Billy’s head) for patterning the country after christianity (in Billy’s head) is probably the same reasoning Constantine used when he decided Yeshua would be a great way to keep his empire docile, and started up Bill O’Reilly’s church.

  21. RichVR says

    I watched it twice. All I can say without my head exploding is that people in the other thread were right. Dawkins shouldn’t have done it. It was too short. Nothing of substance can be said when O’Reilly controls the time and, as the host, controls the segment. Dawkins was too kind, agreed with O’Reilly too many times and had only a fraction of the total camera time. But what do I know?

  22. Rieux says

    I watched it twice. All I can say without my head exploding is that people in the other thread were right. Dawkins shouldn’t have done it.

    Disagree. I was in the “Don’t go, Richard” camp for the past few days; I was worried that Orally was going to be in high “shut up/cut his mike” dudgeon. On the show, though, Billo seemed positively docile–the segment was so anticlimactic and half-assed on the host’s part that I think the exposure that The God Delusion received overcomes whatever mild damage was done by Orally’s sleepy scorn.

    I call it a victory for Dawkins, but mostly by forfeit.

  23. says

    “Fundamentals of Genetics, Evolution, and Development”, or FunGenEvoDevo for short

    What’s this? Is PZ turning into *gasp* a fundamentalist?!?

  24. llewelly says

    Christian Burnham:

    What? P.Z. hasn’t worked out how to blog and drive at the same time? I’m a little disappointed.

    If Minnesota Highway Patrol saw him driving with four tentacles while blogging with six, they might feel a need to pull him over and investigate.

  25. amph says

    It was like the opening of a chess game. The same moves that have been played a thousand times before. And long before they reached the endgame, it was all over. No one won, it was not even a draw; it was an aborted discussion.
    (You could also say that O’Reilly escaped by terminating the ‘debate’.)

  26. Neal Erickson says

    I haven’t seen/heard any more than a few seconds of O’Reilly in the past few years (Franken, Maddow, Daily Show, etc). But I swore I was watching Stephen Colbert! I realize the connection, but Colbert hardly has to exagerate the mannerisms, dismissive tone, and the total monopolization of the conversation.

  27. Nick says

    PZ Myers:

    I’ve got about 60-70% women in my classes. I think we’ve got about a 60-40 split overall in the university here.

    Do you see the unbalanced gender split as a problem?

  28. xebecs says

    […] people in the other thread were right. Dawkins shouldn’t have done it.

    By appearing with Bill and acting reasonably, Dawkins earned respect from at least a few of the viewers. This is no different from the result when a creationist gets on stage with a real scientist — respectability is given to the position commonly considered to be “less respectable”. In one case the respect is deserved, in the other it is not, but that is irrelevant to the result.

    It’s a shame Dawkins couldn’t have landed a few more telling blows, but I’m confident we scored some points in the big game.

  29. says

    Ad hominem is not about calling an ass an ass. It is about saying that someone is an ass and therefore their belief that the sky is blue is wrong.

    It is necessary to call Bill O’Rielly an ass. The possibility of someone committing the ad hominem fallacy is unrelated to that necessity, or the enjoyment one may gain from it.

  30. rrt says

    I agree that this was a sort of low-level, default win for Dawkins. Not much was accomplished, certainly not in reaching O’Reilly’s core audience, who are as likely to be ignorant of evolutionary biology and philosophical naturalism as he is. But I do think there were a few clear points made:

    –Dawkins came across as an intelligent, cool, competent, non-frothing guy, undermining the audience’s stereotype of atheists.
    –O’Reilly’s arguments were abysmal, and Dawkins did manage a few well-placed one-liners that undermined Bill’s arguments or made it clear there were strong disagreements that Bill wasn’t going to allow time to explore (to be fair, little time was budgeted).
    –Dawkins was interesting, and was limited by O’Reilly’s control of the interview and time constraints. I, and I think at least some O’Reilly fans, was left wanting to hear more from Dawkins. That’s important.

    So at the least, I think the core audience was left thinking “huh, he didn’t seem so evil,” and some part of the audience with sufficient specific knowledge and/or curiosity was left wanting to know more about Dawkins’ ideas.

  31. Zil says

    Back in my Harvard days I took an intro Physics class from Professor Mazur. I remember it fondly – he was a wonderful lecturer and his classroom demos were nothing short of awesome. He crarcked me up every time he said the word “smooth”, though – with his accent it came out “smoose”. Don’t know if he’s de-Frenchified his speech any since then –

  32. says

    My expectations were much lower, and I was actually pleasantly surprised. Yes, O’Reilly’s every word was pretty stupid, and often inaccurate, but, I didn’t expect him to be this polite, or let Dawkins actually respond in a meaningful way to his points. Yes, it doesn’t seem that major or deep to us, but simply having the view explained as being a reasonable viewpoint on a right-wing conservative talk show, particularly when O’Reilly’s views are likely to be those of a reasonable proportion of his audience, so the rebuttals are particularly meaningful, I can only think it’s good.

  33. says

    “Opiate of the masses” – it bears repeating that many of the current Republican leaders are inverse Marxists because of that and their desire to redistribute wealth upwards as far as possible, create as much inequality as possible, etc.

    Loren Petrich: Right, but Marx’s innovation (shared with Epicurus, who was also part of the subject of Marx’s dissertation, I might add) is to recognize that this is a bad thing.