True confessions

Oh, I hate these difficult questions.

If you’re a professor and you want to change the world, what do you do? In 1993–quit and become an activist. In 2007—start a blog.

Or so it seems. PZ Myers blogging at Pharyngula is probably doing more for evolution than PZ Myers publishing papers in scientific journals. Is that true PZ?


Hmmm, I guess it wasn’t so difficult after all!

Just to expand a little bit, though: it’s definitely not true that I’m now doing a better job of increasing the scientific understanding of evolution. I’m not discovering anything new (well, except that I do have an undergraduate research program that’s ambling along slowly), and I have few prospects for producing revolutionary new insights into evolution. I’m not at a Research I university, I don’t have a huge grant that is funding a large team of graduate students and post-docs. That’s just reality, so that answer is clear.

If the question were rephrased — am I doing more now to increase the public understanding of evolution? — the answer is a little more encouraging and a little more murky. I get some blowback from people who are absolutely convinced that my antagonistic stance towards religion is hindering the acceptance of evolution; they are completely wrong, of course, so that doesn’t bother me. I also get creationists who demonize me rather savagely, which is actually a plus, as far as I’m concerned. Most of the mail I get and comments from colleagues is overwhelmingly positive, so I think my answer to that version of the question is a confident “yes” — and obviously, I’d stop if I thought it were “no.”

Here’s a metaphor (any Biblical associations are entirely intentional) for what I think I do. Science is a healthy, productive apple tree, and the branches are producing delicious fruit. There are a lot of people milling about under the tree, eyeing the fruit, unable to reach it, and some are wondering if it’s rotten and tastes terrible (and some are spreading malicious lies that it is poisonous).

I’m just a guy with a ladder, up in the tree and tossing apples down to the crowd. There are growing numbers of other people with ladders, too, and we’re all using this medium to spread the fruit of knowledge around. We’ll happily accept the accolades of those enjoying the delicious apples, and I think we’re playing an important role in the system, but don’t confuse the disseminators with the producers.


  1. Moses says

    Yeah, but what about PYGMIES & DWARFS? :) And the EVIL-UTIONIST nightmare, the BANANNA of DOOM?

  2. Brian Thompson says

    Then you have ID proponents like Flood Geologists who climb up other ladders and toss down plastic apples saying, “See! They’re not edible after all!”

  3. Bruce says

    PZ, you’ve rekindled my interest in biology and evolution, given me some fire for my confrontations with god botherers and otherwise kept me amused and informed.
    I don’t owe you any money, do I?

  4. rrt says

    I don’t owe you any money, do I?

    Well, if that book thing plays out…

  5. says

    No no, by “doing more for evolution,” they obviously mean actual human evolution. By being so awesome in the public eye, you improve perception of scientists and atheists. This in turn will get more scientists and atheists laid, gradually increasing the proportion of thinking people contributing to the gene pool.

  6. Dutch Vigilante says

    You’re throwing apples? That is so rude! You should gather apples, climb down from your ladder and beg the others to pretty please accept an apple!

  7. says

    Wait…are you suggesting that I’m the scientists’ pimp? That suggests another metaphor: the scientists are all these well-endowed men and women in skimpy clothing, and I’m this fast-talking dude named P-Zizzy, dressed in purple with a big hat and high shoes, and I’m describing their charms to the crowd passing by…

  8. says

    “and I’m this fast-talking dude named P-Zizzy”

    No, no. You need an “izzle” in your name somewhere now-a-days. Or at least I keep hearing crap like that from kids. Jeez, I’m 20 and don’t understand these damnable kids. Shizzle, fizzle, pizzle… puzzle? Mumble elsewhere!

  9. says

    And, to extend the metaphor somewhat, occasionally some of the folk convincing others that the apples are, in fact, laced with cyanide get conked in the head.

    Pharyngula: Scrumping for science!

  10. SteveF says

    Thats the benefit of being a geologist; I can do my research in a relatively short time (go to site, work out whats going on, write up), so that should always leave me with research to do, irrespective of teaching commitments (I’m projecting a bit into the future here since I haven’t finished my PhD).

    BTW PZ, I am sure you are aware, but I looked up citations of your papers and they are pretty damned good. One of the Journal of Neuroscience papers from ’93 has 79 cites, and a second author paper from ’86 has 226 cites. So, you might not be producing much new research, but your previous work is obviously pretty significant.

  11. Mike says

    If the question were rephrased — am I doing more now to increase the public understanding of evolution?

    If ‘now’ were to refer to Pharyngula today as opposed to Pharyngula before it shifted to scienceblogs, ironically, part of the answer would be that it appears there has been quite a drop off in the number of posts about evolutionary and developmental biology which made this blog a place to read about exciting new science that provided profound support for evolution, in favour of being primarily political and polemical. Polemical politics, of any variety you want to name is dime a dozen on the net. Lucid, exciting, and often challenging, descriptions of new research in evo-devo on the other hand is not so easy to find.

    Perhaps it is merely that a higher frequency of posts overall with the additional posts being political has reduced the ratio of science to politics here making it look like there are fewer actual science posts coming out here, but I don’t think so (0 for the last 52 posts for instance). As with the creationist/cdesign proponentists, there’s only so far you get slagging the other side without positive support for the evolutionary biology.

    Pharyngula these days is I’m sure a great place for atheist affirmations but not for science content anymore.

  12. says

    Well-endowed as your average man of science may perhaps be, I’m thinking more rock star than pimp. You don’t need to talk anyone else up, you just live a life of charm and glamour, and every kid who picks up a guitar in his garage gets a little hotter by association. Just don’t fall into a coke-fueled spiral of decay… too many Xian parents are frightened by our rock ‘n’ roll as it is.

  13. says

    Wait…are you suggesting that I’m the scientists’ pimp?

    I lament my lack of PhotoShop Skillz. Somebody of greater talent, please, please run with this.

  14. Jameson says

    And our current Administration has been busy hacking at the base of the tree since the get go.

  15. Mosasaurus rex says

    In addition to tossing down the apples, how about crankin’ out a batch of hard apple cider in the form of a book? Are you working on a book perchance?

  16. says

    I get some blowback from people who are absolutely convinced that my antagonistic stance towards religion is hindering the acceptance of evolution

    Actually, I think it’s quite the opposite. The constant pandering and walking on eggshells about religion, and the idea among the general public that it is somehow immune to criticism, hinders public acceptance of good science in general and evolution in particular. As long as people can hold their sacred cow above question, they won’t feel the need to question anything else.

    You are one of the giants in online public science outreach, and all the blowback you get is proof that you are making an impact. They wouldn’t fight you if they weren’t scared of you.

  17. KevinC says

    But you are increasing scientific knowledge. As a science educator, both at your university and here on Science Blogs, you are training others who will go on to do science at research institutions and increase the knowledge base. Without people like you there would be no great research institutions.

    Thanks for the great work.

  18. Traffic Demon says

    Thanks for the apples, and for helping me to free myself from religious thought.

  19. rrt says

    Aaron says:

    “I’m thinking more rock star than pimp.”
    “You don’t need to talk anyone else up, you just live a life of charm and glamour…”

    Wouldn’t that make you P-Ziggy?

  20. Susan B. says

    To take the metaphor even further, some people just don’t like apples. Me, I like apples quite a lot, but I like peaches even better (and I’m more interested in pure math than science). Still, apples and other fruits and veggies are an important part of a healthy diet, and even those who can’t stand apples (no matter how delicious) should suck it up and have an apple once in a while to keep the mind and body healthy.

  21. forsen says

    hizzle fo’ shizzle, P-Zizzle. Keep up the pimpin’ fo’ science. *Yay area shoutout*

  22. says

    Pharyngula these days is I’m sure a great place for atheist affirmations but not for science content anymore.

    Actually, I agree!

    I warned people a while back that I would have to cut back on the substantive posting — I’m juggling a book, a column, sporadic reviews, talks around the region, and a large course in genetics (which is what actually gets most of my time). Something had to give.

    But hey, today is the last day of my classes, and then aside from an optional final I give next week, I’m free from that big task until September! I even have a stack of science papers I was going to write up as soon as the burden is off my back.

  23. Mike says

    To put the metaphor in context, in April, of about 200 posts, only three were apples (T-Rex, Wells vs Hox and Hagfish embryos).

  24. says

    Strange that in person you don’t look much like a serpent, but you have done a great job of convincing people to eat from the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

    And the Other Mike is Wrong. You have been interspersing some good, helpful science stuff since Pharyngula moved over here to Scienceblogs.

  25. Jud says

    PZ said: “I get some blowback from people who are absolutely convinced that my antagonistic stance towards religion is hindering the acceptance of evolution….”

    I note “acceptance of evolution” in that sentence – fair, since that’s an accurate characterization of the content of the blowback – rather than “understanding of evolution,” which was the subject of the first couple of paragraphs. My personal bias is that since I get a kind of ecstasy from learning, I would enjoy greater emphasis on the “understanding,” and less on the “acceptance,” though of course understanding and acceptance enhance each other.

    I feel that posts regarding your stance towards religion are empty calories, mentally speaking – kind of as if I went to what I thought was a biology lecture and instead heard a talk on atheism, or reasons not to believe in Daddy-in-the-Sky. I personally think the habits of mind inculcated by science stand a fine chance on their own vs. goddidit, but if you’d prefer “it happened naturally ’cause there’s no god to do it,” to “it happened naturally, and here’s how,” leaving your audience to infer there’s no god required, hey, it’s your blog, and a damn fine one it is.

  26. Mike says

    One problem with the posting here is that you can’t go back and edit or delete posts when you get intervening posts that might have changed what you wrote.

    Anyway, first, I should have noted the three science posts in Aprils 200 posts were excellent and I will be very happy to see more of it. PZ is one of the best at conveying the excitement of his science (Richard Fortey would be another) and those posts are gold and the kind of thing that made Pharyngula stand-out from 99.999% of the web.

    As to ‘The Right Mike’, I actually counted the April posts and hunted for the substantive science posts, whereas it appear ‘The Right Mike’ is relying on his feelings, so I can live with being “Wrong” according to him.

  27. Robert says

    I have to say, its the atheism that brings me here. Then the fisking you give those ID slingers. But the science is good too. SO in other words I come to see you breath fire at religion, but sometimes I end up learning something too! Damn you!

  28. Hank Fox says

    I think another metaphor could also apply:

    A very great number of us, in the U.S. and the world, are finally just tired of the constant fundamentalist-conservative religious nattering. We’re interested in the REAL stuff, science and reason, instead. We’re tired of sectarian religion serving as a major influence on public policy – tired of being left out and ignored in public debate, and of seeing mystical hoo-ha given equal weight with informed research when decisions are made. Tired of watching con men and parasites become the religious equivalent of rock stars. Tired of constant low-grade fear that our safety and freedoms will be trodden down by the marching morons of some ugly faith-based future.

    In this supersaturated solution of disgust with the unreal and desire for the real, you’re a seed crystal for the GOOD future.

  29. kmurray says

    PZ underestimates the impact he and other science bloggers have had, on myself at least.

    I started frequenting secular blogs in search of some comfort that the world is not wholly populated by irrational religious loonies. I found that comfort and a whole lot more at Pharyngula.

    The articles on evo devo, invertebrates and all that cool stuff have me seriously considering some post-grad courses in biology. I’m a middle-aged engineer, with no previous interest in anything squishy.

  30. Tinni says

    Your apples are THE best apples around. They cured me and inoculated me from a pesky religious infection, and gave me a nice buzz too! You have influenced my life for the better, and definitely deserve a very nice gift for cephalopodmas.

  31. says

    As the science geek who posed the question, thanks for answering PZ!

    To strain the apple tree metaphor, I think Pharyngula is advancing the science of evolution by spreading apple seeds with the luscious fruit.

    Connecting people with science will produce better acceptance and more support–more apple trees.

  32. says

    While I agree that the ‘science’ posts have dropped off from their previous saturation, and I would like to see more of them return, I’m really looking forward to paying money for this book of yours.

    In short, while I’d rather have both more science in the scienceblogs and EvoDevo Kicks the Future in the Face, by PZ Myers(or whatever the title is), I’m actually okay with a non-permanent drop-off in the former so’s we can get the latter.

    Okay, so that wasn’t really ‘in short’. Sorry.

  33. Isaac says

    While it may be true that there is a large number of posts blasting theists and theism, I think it needs to be pointed out that those posts also explain why their positions regarding science and the natural world are wildly off target.

    It would be easy to just call Michael Egnor names and say he’s wrong, but we also get the in depth explanations and analyses–using Egnor’s own words–about WHY he is wrong.

    And in the process some *real* science gets disseminated.

    This blog performs a valuable service by confronting the more mainstream charlatans (Deepak Chopra immediately comes to mind) who may sound substantive to the naive or un(der)educated, and explaining why there is no “there” there.

    There are lots of other blogs that deal purely with in depth technical and science matters, but those tend to be frequented more by those already initiated. I believe this blog has a wider appeal than those others, as does others like Phil “Bad Astronomer) Plait’s blog.

    Someone has to be able to explain complex matters to the genreal public, and I feel Pharyngula does that just fine.

    The passing of Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould left a void–the scientist that could communicate with the public–and I feel PZ Myers is doing that admirably.

    Could just be me, though.

  34. Lisa says

    PZ – Thanks so very much for your wonderful and humorous science blog! As a non-scientist, I must say your blog and the clever commenters have really turned me on to science and the cultural interaction. I especially have a much stronger understanding of evolution. And those cephalopods . . . To tell the truth, I never really thought about or cared about cephalopods before reading your blog. They sure are interesting though.

    I know my science background is limited compared to most Pharynguloids; I mainly lurk. However, I’ve found the love of science I developed from Pharyngula is expanding into other areas. I’m regularly reading SEED (great evolutionary biology column!) and starting to read books like Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale. These aren’t the sort of readings I would have ever previously selected.

    Many thanks again, PZ!

  35. says

    I must say I like the zebra-striped pirate’s hat! Nice touch!

    Dustin, is that like “The reason Baptists must stay pure before marriage is that sex might lead to dancing”?

  36. Dustin says

    Hey man, I used to run with the Actuaries. I know what it’s like out there. Step off.

  37. Don says

    Certainly increasing my understanding of evolutionary science. I come here partly for the godless atheism, but mainly for the same reason I visit Ben Goldacre’s

    Which is to take a malicious pleasure in watching gobshites being elegantly eviscerated.

  38. Francis says

    As a lawyer, I find that some of the hard science posts go past me. But I’m slowly learning, and that’s tremendous fun.

    What’s also fun is finding a community of people who are ready to stand up for atheism / agnosticism in a thoughtful and intelligent manner, and rip hard into the godidiots whose nonsense so often goes unchallenged.

    thanks, PZ, for all your hard work.

  39. Mooser says

    On the other hand, the apple-throwing trees in the “Wizard of Oz” still scares my wife terribly. She can’t watch that scene. And in truth, I can think of no earthly reason why she should be compelled to. Can you?

  40. Dustin says

    And in truth, I can think of no earthly reason why she should be compelled to. Can you?

    Yeah, but only if you have a copy of Dark Side of the Moon. Otherwise that movie is un-watchable.

  41. Scott Hatfield, OM says

    PZ, I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: one skilled, highly-visible popularizer and defender of science education is worth a thousand tireless workers who never manage to step outside their own esoteric interests.

    And, with respect to ideology, it is difficult to be an effective popularizer without colorful or raising challenging ideas. I don’t share all of your views, but I do share the attitude that science educators need to rattle people’s cages at times in order to be effective. I often use the things shared on Pharyngula as springboards for discussion, and the competition for ideas is essential not just to science, but progress of any kind, as far as I can see.

    Or, as John XXIII once said, “What are ideas between friends?”


  42. Liane says

    Usually come here for the red-meat atheism, but quite like the cute-cephalopod pics and duck-penis posts meself. Find that the evolutionary info is presented very accessibly – even for a flaky humanities type like moi – and it’s always a pleasure to see the BANANA IS ATHEIST’S NIGHTMARE types roundly eviscerated. (Who knows, if my science teachers in high school had been half as cool as PZ, my career path might have turned out quite differently, lol.)

    So thanks, PZ!

  43. says

    Bonk! That’s the sound of the coconut bouncing off of some dumb heads. Oh well, you should always wear a helmet (or tin hat) if you are milling around under a coconut tree.

  44. Kseniya says

    Dorid, that’s hilarious! (Tulle, I can’t view yours for some reason, I’ll have to try again later.) I’d like to see someone take a stab at ‘shopping up Ziggy Phardust as well!

    Pharyngula (PZ’s entries and the many and varied comments that follow) has primarily inspired me to learn to pursue and to practice critical thinking, to question the validity and untouchability of religious doctrines and beliefs – not to reject out of hand, but to question. I’ve also rediscovered my childhood love of squishy things, a love I’d abandoned in adolescence, in favor of being a little more… you know… girly… Feh. I’m all done with that nonsense now. Let’s just say, it’s possible to have ones squid and eat it. :-)

    There’s also a propagative effect at work here. I have no doubt that Pharyngula is influencing me and that some of that influence is rubbing off on the people around me. For example, I recently bought The Blind Watchmaker and The Ancestor’s Tale for myself, and The Demon-Haunted World for my little brother on his 16th birthday. These are books that, a year ago, had not sparked my interest or entered my awareness. What’s significant is that these book purchases are really just the tip of my personal Pharyngulan iceburg.

  45. Bob Sturm says

    Here is how I see science working:

    Three blind scientists are trapped on a desert island–which really isn’t a desert at all since it is surrounded by water. Though, technically a desert is defined by annual rainfall …

    Three blind scientists are trapped on a deserted island, except for a lone sleeping elephant–unbeknownst to the three blind scientists, which are stuck on this island, see. They know they are stuck, but they don’t know they share the island with a sleeping elephant.

    In an attempt to figure out how they got in this story and where they are, one scientist reaches out and happens to grab the leg of the elephant. “Ah. I have found a tree here. A large trunk of a tree.”

    The second scientist says, “How can you be sure?”

    “Where there is a tree, there are leaves,” the first scientist predicts.

    So the second scientist reaches up and grabs the elephants ear. “Yes. It must be a tree, for I have found a large leaf. It is quite a large frond,” the second blind scientist says.

    The third scientist excitedly exclaims, “It is indeed a tree, and I can tell you what kind of tree it is! You two have found a trunk and leaves, and I have found two coconuts!”

    Content with their superior skills of deduction the three decide to celebrate by making pina coladas. That was precisely when all hell broke loose on this deserted island, once inhabited by three blind scientists and a sleeping male elephant.

    Moral: Science can be dangerous. You may think you are looking for the Higgs boson, but you may inadvertantly crush the nuts of a sleeping cosmic elephant.

  46. natural cynic says

    the right mike: Strange that in person you don’t look much like a serpent, but you have done a great job of convincing people to eat from the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

    Even stranger, PZ is taking the part of Jesus in one gnostic interpretation of the the Tree of Knowledge myth. The serpent is Jesus, opposing the demiurge who wants to keep A & E innocent and ignorant. Jesus/serpent is the one that tempts and convinces A & E to become enlightened.

  47. forsen says

    Dorid, that’s indeed ROFLMAO hilarious… but what we really do want is some compromising pictures of P-Zizzle slingin’ dope with Snoop Dogg & some other bad-ass, G-thang hustlas.

  48. windy says

    You should gather apples, climb down from your ladder and beg the others to pretty please accept an apple!

    Accept an apple? How presumptuous of you. Apples are sour and have pits and worms in them. We demand that the scientists bake us apple pie! In fact, forget the apples!

  49. bernarda says

    I have a question for PZ or anyone else.

    I just ran across something called “Haptonomy”.

    Does anyone know what this is?

    At their site, it seems rather airy-fairy.

    “With the feeling of security that haptonomy establishes comes the desire and zest for life (libido vitalis). The psychotactile contact, which is specific to haptonomic phenomenality, is in no way reducible to “touching”, it solicits the person’s vital force of intention. With this affirmation of his existence, or better still the confirmation of his affectivity, he can take the initiative to activate his own faculties, aptitudes and genetic gifts in his relations with others.”

    Frankly, I read the words, but I can’t make any sense out of it.

    The fact that they also try to maintain a monopoly on the process, if you can call it that, makes me wonder what they are up to.

  50. Hairhead says

    Look, PZ can’t be a science-pimp without ho’s–er–scientists.

    All your Photoshop Whizzes out there, we need:

    1) PZ in full pimp reglia

    And behind him

    2) the heads of Darwin, Einstein, and Curie superimposed on the bodies of appropriately-sexed hotties.


    3) a sleazy back alley they’re all standing in front of.

    Go to it!

  51. says


    But hey, today is the last day of my classes, and then aside from an optional final I give next week, I’m free from that big task until September! I even have a stack of science papers I was going to write up as soon as the burden is off my back.

    That’s good to hear. I sometimes skim the science articles, because the hardcore genetics tends to go a bit over my head, but I always absorb the photos/drawings/diagrams and read enough of the text to get the general concepts.

    As others have already said, Pharyngula has drawn me deeper into the world of evo-devo, which previously had only been something that read about in Scientific American and Discover. I read actual books about it, now.

    But it’s also been a helpful tool in focusing my thoughts on atheism, creationism and the general ugliness and brutality I see in most (if not all) religious arguments. I’d tackled creationists before in other fora, but I never had a reliable set of rhetorical and evidentiary tools to do it with. Now I do.

  52. David Marjanović says

    my personal Pharyngulan iceburg.

    A castle of ice? That I wanna see! :^)

  53. David Marjanović says

    my personal Pharyngulan iceburg.

    A castle of ice? That I wanna see! :^)

  54. dorid says

    Look, PZ can’t be a science-pimp without ho’s–er–scientists.

    well, I was going to do him with a couple of squids, but getting the fishnet stockings on over all the tentacles became a problem.

  55. Ian H Spedding FCD says

    Hey, watch where you throw those appples! One landed on my head and I immediately came up with a theory of gravity – only to remember someone had thought of it before and someone else had thought of a better one anyway.