Blogging journal clubs as a tool for disseminating science

A while back, I gave a keynote talk at an evo-devo conference, and one of the things I told them was that public outreach was important, and one tool to get your message out was blogging. Telling that to a mob of working scientists who have other pressing matters occupying them is dangerous, but I also told them of one easy way to spread the word about science: make your students do it, and coopt existing educational frameworks to make it happen. The specific suggestion I made was that graduate student journal clubs should be drafted to make writing a blog entry about that week’s paper a part of the work.

Those of you who haven’t been through the grad student grind may not be familiar with journal clubs, but they’re nearly universal. A general topic is chosen for a term — I’ve been involved with journal clubs as broad as “Neurobiology” and as specific as “Astrobiology and mechanisms of bacterial survival in space”. The group usually meets once a week, and each week one member presents a discussion of a single paper in the field. It’s fun, it hones critical thinking, and forces students to trace ideas through the primary research literature.

Anyway, you can see how easily that would adapt to science blogging. Just have your student presenter be responsible for writing up a basic summary of the paper to be posted to the web ahead of time — they’re already doing all the work, they’ve made notes on the paper, it’s an easy step to take…and it adds an outreach and communication component to an existing educational responsibility. It’s win-win all around. If you’re faculty running a journal club at your university, think about doing it next term — it adds to the flowering of accessible summaries of key research papers.

Want an example? Here’s one from the evo-devo group at the University of Oregon, on Evolution, Development, and Genomics. It contains everything you need, references, links to sources, and good summaries of research — and it all spins out organically from something grad students everywhere do all the time. The only thing it’s really missing now is active comments from outsiders, and that’s one concern … when we’re all doing this, it’s going to be hard to get the readership for any one journal club blog to get good feedback. The important thing, though, is that the information is out there.

One thing I can do to help is link to some of these sorts of blogs. If any of you are going to be trying this next fall, send me a link to your public journal club page, and I’ll put together a listing and post it at the start of the school year (don’t send it to me now, it’ll get lost — contact me in August). Also, and even more importantly, get your blog registered with Research Blogging, which is an excellent central aggregator of exactly the kinds of articles a journal club blog will be churning out.

It’s not just the Catholics!

Bill Donohue will be so relieved. Here’s a story about a youn girl being raped, her assailant protected by the church, and the girl herself getting all the blame…and it’s the Baptists! Tina Anderson was raped by Ernest Willis, a Trinity Baptist Church member, when she was 15, and got pregnant. She accused Willis in the church, and here’s what happened:

When the pastor heard Anderson’s allegations, he told her that if she had “lived in the Old Testament,” she would have been stoned to death for not reporting the attack sooner.

“He also said I had ‘allowed myself to be put in a compromising situation,’ Anderson said. The pastor decided she needed to be “church-disciplined.”

“I was completely humiliated,” Anderson said, her voice quavering at the memory. “I hoped it was a nightmare I’d wake up from, and it wouldn’t be true anymore.”

“Church discipline” apparently means sending the victim out of state and asking all church members silent, not bringing the matter to secular authorities. They stayed quiet for 13 years.

Meanwhile, Tina Anderson went on with her life, got married, had kids, and took a job as a music teacher at a Baptist college. When she was contacted by investigators tracking down the case, though, she did something remarkable: she woke up to how she’d been abused.

“I was kind of in shock, but I just answered his questions,” Anderson said. “Everything is changing because I’m seeing the things I was taught for so many years are not necessarily correct. It’s almost like I had blinders on, believing all of this was my fault.”

This is beautiful; this is what it is like to free yourself of religion.

“If they’re not dealt with, the cycle will continue,” said Anderson, who resigned from the Baptist college the day before Willis was arrested. “I do not, anymore, unquestioningly obey authority, which is what they would teach.

Beware the gay stormtroopers!

The American Humanist Association is making a push to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the American military. They want you to write a letter to your representatives supporting the repeal.

Here’s another reason besides simple common decency to end a discriminatory practice: It will drive Bryan Fischer insane(r). Fischer is the unpleasant Idaho bigot who thinks homosexuals should be imprisoned, and he’s got his own peculiar take on gays in the military.

Homosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews. Gays in the military is an experiment that has been tried and found disastrously and tragically wanting. Maybe it’s time for Congress to learn a lesson from history.

To Bryan Fischer, it’s a simple and direct causal relationship: gay people want to join the military so they can reinstate Adolf Hitler’s policies and exterminate the Jews and Christians, and the Nazis were all gay all the time. But wait, you say, didn’t the Nazis round up homosexuals and put them in death camps? Your paltry imagination cannot grasp the subtle twists that the minds of frantic homophobes can invent.

Scott Lively’s well-documented book, “The Pink Swastika,” exposes a secret homosexual activists don’t want you to know about Nazi Germany: that although the Nazis did persecute homosexuals, the homosexuals the Nazis persecuted were almost exclusively the effeminate members of the gay community in Germany, and that much of the mistreatment was administered by masculine homosexuals who despised effeminacy in all its forms.

See? They only killed all the swishy ones, but the butch ones all joined the SS. The logic is irrefutable. Extravagantly masculine macho men who want to beat up and imprison and subjugate other men must be gay themselves…oh. Hey. Isn’t Fischer promoting… nah, that couldn’t be.

His source, Scott Lively, isn’t exactly reputable, either. Watch Missionaries of Hate (sorry, non-Americans, that’s on Hulu). Lively is the American missionary who inspired the Ugandan hate laws; you’ll also learn about the odious liar, Ssempa, who is using Christianity to foment an insane level of prejudice in Africa.

I’m not at all worried about a diverse community of gays suddenly charging off into flaming fascism. I’m more concerned about existing fascists in the evangelical community acquiring more influence. They are far more predisposed to encourage oppression.

A retraction from the American Academy of Pediatrics

This is good news! After the outrage over a prior policy statement, the AAP has revised and clarified their position on female genital mutilation:

The American Academy of Pediatrics has rescinded a controversial policy statement raising the idea that doctors in some communities should be able to substitute demands for female genital cutting with a harmless clitoral “pricking” procedure.

“We retracted the policy because it is important that the world health community understands the AAP is totally opposed to all forms of female genital cutting, both here in the U.S. and anywhere else in the world,” said AAP President Judith S. Palfrey.

The contentious policy statement, issued in April, had condemned the practice of female genital cutting overall. But a small portion of statement suggesting the pricking procedure riled U.S. advocacy groups and survivors of female genital cutting.

Smart move.

There was a rumor going about that the Royal Australian New Zealand College of Obstetricians was going to consider the practicality of supporting that clitoral “pricking” business — fortunately, it is not true and the RANZCOG is just as forthright in rejecting the procedure.

It would make our start-of-the-year faculty orientation meetings interesting, anyway

A Muslim cleric thought he’d discovered a loophole in Islamic religious law that would allow the restrictions on Muslim women in the workplace to be loosened.

He said that if a woman fed a male colleague “directly from her breast” at least five times they would establish a family bond and thus be allowed to be alone together at work.

“Breast feeding an adult puts an end to the problem of the private meeting, and does not ban marriage,” he ruled.

“A woman at work can take off the veil or reveal her hair in front of someone whom she breastfed.”

Just when you think the Abrahamic attitude towards women couldn’t get weirder or more demeaning…

To their credit, nobody seems to have taken this fatwa at all seriously, and it has been decreed a bad interpretation of Islamic law. Now they just have to take the next step:

Egypt’s minister of religious affairs, Mahmoud Zaqzouq, has called for future fatwas to “be compatible with logic and human nature”.

I guess that’s an end to all fatwas, then.

A successful protest in Chicago

There was an anti-vaccination rally yesterday in Chicago — boring and silly! What’s more interesting is that Women Thinking Free (a fabulous new organization) had a counter-demonstration. You can read an account or two or three of the event from the rational perspective; it sounds like the anti-vaxers are also anti-science. The rally and anti-rally also made the news, and that’s actually a good account, which plainly states that there is no evidence of a link between autism and vaccination, that Wakefield’s study was flawed, and that Wakefield has had his license to practice medicine revoked.

I’m troubled by one thing. The theme of the literature the smart people were handing out was “Hug me — I’m vaccinated”, and they’ve got a photo of Wakefield hugging one of the skeptics, which is safe, because they’ve had their shots. But has Wakefield? Has anybody asked him if he’s up to date on his vaccinations?

They might have infected him with skepticism, you know. Or he might have been swarming with kook cooties.

Another courtier speaks up

A couple of years ago, I sat down one morning, bemused by yet another bit of empty apologetics from god’s sycophants, and banged out a short bit of amusement called The Courtier’s Reply. It got picked up everywhere, to my surprise. I mean, seriously, I have to confess that I whipped that out in 20 minutes, no edits or rewrites, just shazam, it’s done. I’m really peeved at myself for anguishing over this book I’m working on, because apparently, all I’ve got to do is get a big glass of root beer, pop some bubblegum in my mouth, put something bubbly and light on the stereo, and once I enter a zen trance, the book will be done tomorrow. I’m going to try that right after this.*

Another apologist is quoting it now. One of the most amusing consequences of its popularity is that so many theists get it completely wrong: they see the Courtier’s Reply as an attempt to excuse atheists from bothering with theology at all, when it’s quite the opposite: it’s a rebuke to theologians, pointing out that going on at length about rarefied epiphenomena and delicate points of dogma is a waste of time when you haven’t even established the central point of the matter, a reasonable justification for believing in a god or gods, period. I’ll give credit to Eric Reitan for seeing that point, dimly, although he ultimately decides that it’s all about avoiding intellectual responsibility.

It is, of course, but he’s picked the wrong target. It’s not the atheists who are shirking that responsibility, it’s the blind theologians who spin elaborate fables out of air.

What Reitan does in his essay is an interesting sidestep. He acknowledges that there are two kinds of theologies — “apologetic theology”, which attempts to address the reality of god’s existence, and the misleadingly named “substantive theology”, which he claims is about the operational consequences once we’ve assumed god’s existence — and he simply waves away apologetic theology for now. He still claims there’s good reason to believe, but it’s not the topic here — it’s exclusively about whether we can dismiss “substantive theology”, which is what the Courtier’s Reply argues.

His mission, then, should be to justify that word “substantive” and show us exactly how this kind of theology can be useful and worth pursuing, even if the existence of a deity is unverifiable and unevidenced. He fails. He falls into the same waffly, weebly, worthless noise that all the modern excuse-makers do, whether it’s Karen Armstrong or the Dalai Lama.

But belief in God isn’t primarily a belief about the contents of the empirical world. It is, rather, a certain holistic interpretation of our experience, one that offers an account of the meaning and significance of the empirical world and the lives we lead within it. To believe in God is to understand the world of ordinary experience in terms of an interpretive worldview that posits the existence of “something more.”

Let me clarify that for you, Dr Reitan. You are saying that religion is a nice fairy tale that makes you feel good.

That’s not enough for me. I stand with millions of unbelievers everywhere who demand something a little more, who expect that the ideas that we will use to guide our lives will also be true. Theologians seem to have decided that truth is optional and irrelevant.

That abandonment of the truth is the heart of his argument, and he goes on at some length to justify parity between supernatural and natural worldviews. He tries to claim that theology is just like naturalism, equally unjustifiable and ultimately arbitrary, and simply a matter of convenience and compatibility with our personal philosophies. We have to “try on” different philosophies about the universe in order to determine which one fits, as if the universe is a rack of clothes with different sizes for different folks, and we have to each pick and choose to determine which universe is best for us.

How can we even begin to answer such a question without seriously “trying on” the alternatives? In its broadest terms, theology is the intellectual project of developing and exploring a range of alternative worldviews that all have something in common–namely, they include belief in a transcendent reality that is in some way both fundamental and good. As such, theology falls within a much broader intellectual project, one that develops and explores not only theistic worldviews, but other worldviews as well, such as the naturalistic one endorsed by Dawkins, Myers, and Sanderson.

Of course, an interpretive worldview has to fit with our experience, including what science teaches us about the world. And not every theistic worldview meets this criterion (Young Earth Creationism comes to mind). But while a specific formulation of theism might have to give way before scientific evidence in just the way that a specific version of Darwinian theory might need to give way to a more nuanced and comprehensive version, the overall theological project–to shape a theistic worldview consistent with experience–remains viable regardless of what science teaches us. What this means is that in a broad sense a theistic worldview is empirically unfalsifiable…just like a naturalistic one.

Stark raving naked bullshit. This is what you get when you try to pretend that reality is a “worldview”.

The views of theologians are obviously unfalsifiable — they’ve been tedious exercises in futility for millennia, always going in circles and spitting out ever more bizarre and arcane dogmas that lead to a constant splintering of interpretations. The big difference between science and religion here is that science is a tool focused on assessing the validity of its propositions. Religion has absolutely no way to test any of its ideas, and its proponents seem to like it that way — it gives them free rein to promote imagination over evidence and revelation over experiment.

So, tell me, Dr Reitan: are theologians working on a grand project to reconcile Christianity and Islam? Even Protestantism vs. Catholicism? Is that too much, should we narrow our goals to resolving smaller sectarian differences, like the Wisconsin vs. Missouri synods of the Lutheran church? Which particular sect has the worldview most consistent with experience?

Reitan’s “substantive theology” seems to be particularly unsubstantive — it relies entirely on avoiding any kind of grounding in reality in order to excuse this idea that an objective, unyielding external reality is irrelevant.

And so we must struggle to assess the relative merits of the alternatives available to us–something that we simply cannot responsibly do by ignoring those thinkers who, as part of a rich traditional of rigorous inquiry, attempt to construct plausible theistic world views and uncover the explanatory power of theism in relation to the full breadth of our human experience.

And there’s the problem: constructing “plausible theistic world views”. How does one determine that a particular theistic world view is plausible? Are virgin births and resurrecting rabbis plausible, while dwarfs forging magic rings or galactic overlords throwing criminals into volcanoes are implausible? They only seem plausible if you uncritically except the “apologetic theology” of a Jehovah or Niflheim or Xenu, and Reitan is right back to his original attempt to separate these into two different domains of theology. One cannot exist without the other.

Furthermore, he misses the other failure of theology. Scientists construct “plausible world views” all the time: we call them hypotheses. The difference is that we then commit ourselves to trying to disprove our hypotheses, and we revise them as we test them. Reitan wrote his little essay in reply to a piece by Terry Sanderson, and unsurprisingly completely neglects this telling and relevant point:

I look at it this way. If science disappeared from human memory, we would soon be living in caves again. If theology disappeared from human memory, no one would notice. Theology is a completely and utterly useless pursuit. It is self-indulgence of the first order. It grieves me that public money is spent on theological colleges while real education struggles to gain the funds it needs to maintain itself.

Science provides tangible evidence of its accuracy and importance. Religion makes excuses for its absence of the same. There is no “rich tradition of rigorous inquiry” in religion, as we can see from its lack of progress, and the apologists are deluding themselves when they claim there is.

You want intellectual irresponsibility? Turn to the fools who build elaborate claims of fashionable nonsense. Reitan does understand what I was saying with the Courtier’s Reply:

Myers’ satire has as its backdrop a story in which a pair of con men have pretended to make a new set of clothes for the emperor but present him instead with nothing but thin air, along with a cockamamie story to the effect that those who are stupid or unfit for their positions can’t see these fine clothes at all.

Exactly. When the worldview fits, wear it, Eric Reitan.

*Look for the critics to quote that comment once the book is out, too.