Please don’t use this argument

I got briefly drawn into a twitter argument with a fellow atheist who proudly flashed this image:

The next time you get bullied by religious people on facebook, remind them that they are using hardware and software invented and built by atheists, including facebook!

That is embarassingly bad. And when I pointed out a few of the flaws in that claim (briefly, ala twitter), he just repeated the claim and then accused me of trolling.

Look, it’s a terrible argument. It annoys me in multiple ways.

  • Have you ever heard Christians claim that all of science is built on a Judeo-Christian foundation? I sure have (WARNING: Creationist video on autoplay at link!). I’ve been told many times that Newton didn’t believe in evolution. It sounds stupid when they say it, it sounds stupid when atheists say it.

  • What, do you really think there are no religious scientists and engineers? Tim Berners-Lee is a Unitarian Universalist. Guglielmo Marconi was both a Catholic and an Anglican. James Clerk Maxwell was a Baptist. I mean, seriously, you’re going to claim our modern technological world is the product of atheists, and you’re going to ignore Maxwell? Jebus. Pretty strong selection bias you’ve got there.

  • I die a little bit inside when you tell me that your paragon of techno-atheist excellence is Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Who thinks that Facebook was something that couldn’t possibly have been invented by a devout Christian?

  • All anyone needs to do is cite one Christian who worked on the development of the internet, and your argument dies. Is it wise to stake your claim to something all it takes is one counterexample to shoot down?

  • I notice all the exemplars in the picture are white men. Keep using this logic; let’s start bragging to everyone on the internet that they are using hardware and software invented and built by white people. It’s the same argument. Do you see the flaws yet?

  • We are living in an interesting little bubble of time in which our best educated, most economically stable people are drifting into more secular ways of thinking. Odds are that if you’re sufficiently secure economically that you can go to Harvard in a tech field, even so secure that you can drop out of Harvard, you’re also likely to be secular or liberally religious, and you’re also more likely to be white. Do not confuse cause and effect. You are succeeding because being godless and pale-skinned gives you an edge — you’re looking at people who started out on third base. It’s not because being godless gives you special science powers.

You are not going to find many people who are more adamant than I am that religion and science are incompatible — they are fundamentally different ways of determining the validity of truth claims, and one works while the other perpetuates garbage — but I am not going to confuse that with an incompatibility between religious people and science. Scientists who are religious are quite capable of setting aside supernatural beliefs to work well and succeed in the lab. Being an atheist doesn’t turn you into a scientist or engineer. Avoiding church doesn’t make you a better scientist or engineer — practicing science, no matter how silly the hobbies you practice in your spare time, does that.

Screw it, gimme a steak

As I’ve been shedding the meat from my diet, I don’t need discouragement like this: a fellow ate a vegetarian burrito and picked up a tapeworm from it, which infected his brain. Is there to be no reward for virtue?

Of course, when you think about the mode of transmission, it probably got into the burrito by way of the poor hygiene of the cook, who’d either been handling raw meat or feces…

Wait, take it away, suddenly I don’t want the steak, either.

Handicapping the papacy

The Rationalist has a tally of candidates for the office of pope, and I’m sorry, but despite a lingering affection for Formosus, I don’t care. The trend is obvious: old, old guys with dogmatic views, with the only drama being in how deeply conservative the new guy in the big hat will be. Nothing will change.

Worst of all, nothing will change and the media will still orgasm over which withered brain ultimately wins this archaic and poisonously irrelevant position.

I didn’t know I was signing up for a psychology experiment!

Jadehawk has an interesting post up on what psychology considers harassment — that is, when the pros assess effective harassment campaigns, what do they do?

Conclusion: Even mild interruption, ridicule, and criticism elicits stress responses, and all these mild stress-response-elicitors count as harassment in psychology. That doesn’t mean we should stop criticizing people, and it doesn’t mean that people who want to be skeptics, scientists and/or activists don’t need to learn to deal with a certain degree of both criticism and “trolling”. However, as with microaggressions, a constant barrage of aggression (some low-grade some decidedly less so) is typically more wearying/damaging than the occasional blatant, massive outburst. Consequently, telling a person who’s subjected for months to non-stop criticism, “satire”, parody, “trolling”, and plain old “as defined by every college campus everywhere” harassment* on multiple fronts that they aren’t being harassed is pure, unadulterated bullshit. Even the thickest skin will eventually be worn down** my months, or even years, of this sort of thing.

Yeah, years. But here’s the surprise from my perspective: what creationists and Christians did to me would not be considered harassment. They were not camping on my virtual doorstep greeting me first thing every morning with a flood of stupid videos and photoshopped images. They were not using twitter to masquerade as my friends under pseydonyms. They were not setting up blogs and forums with no other purpose than to malign me and a few other atheists personally. Even when I pissed off the Catholics, what would happen is that many individuals would fire off an angry letter or two, and then move on with their lives. It meant I got a deluge of email, but it wasn’t one or a few nuts going on a prolonged tear. Mabus was an exception. He isn’t anymore.

It wasn’t until I annoyed a subset of atheists that the real harassment began. Serious harassment. People who have no lives and think the most important thing to do every day is to pour out their hatred for me, or Rebecca Watson, or Ophelia Benson, or anyone on the Atheism+ forum. I’m not talking principled disagreement or even stupid disagreement: I mean commitment to do any dumbass thing they can to lash out, and being driven by hatred for a few people.

I do want to address one bizarre comment from some guy named Hunt, though, who is commenting on Jadehawk’s article.

A lot of these people deserve each other though. The Slymepit seems to be a perfect counterpart to PZ, who has trolled and harassed creationists, for instance, for a decade. He’s finally come up against people who are as willing to put the same energy into trolling back, irreverently and in a very similar way to what he’s done to others for years, and it’s pissing him off. What goes around comes around.

Nope. He doesn’t get it. I disagree strongly with creationists, and they disagree with me, but I don’t troll or harass. When I visited the Creation “Museum”, I informed them of my plans, I even signed an agreement to not cause trouble while I was there, not that I planned to; when I encourage my students to attend creationist talks, I also tell them to be polite and non-disruptive, and that the goal is to get information, not interrupt them. I don’t criticize creationists by sneering at their sexuality, defacing photographs of them, and getting up every day with cheery enthusiasm at the prospect of calling them fat, or ugly, or thinking of ways to tweak their names to make them sound like terms for genitalia.

I have a blog that ridicules creationism by dismantling their idiotic arguments, and that isn’t even obsessive about that…and definitely isn’t focused exclusively on just a few individuals.

What those jerks are doing isn’t in any way similar to what I’ve ever done. And what’s worse, it isn’t similar to what creationists have done: Eric Hovind may not be very bright, but he’s never sunk to the depths that the denizens of the Slymepit have.

But then, the false equivalence is one of the most common tools in use by the trolls. “He has criticized creationists, therefore he is fair game for me to draw him having sexual congress with a dog. It’s ‘dissent’!”

You know what’s most annoying to me, though? For years we’ve been trying to make the case to the public that you can be a decent human being while not believing in god. And then these slack-jawed, 4chan-lovin’, youtube-chatterin’ privileged gits come along and instead demonstrate that atheists can be the biggest assholes of them all.

Maybe if they sink a lot of the budget into special effects…

There is no accounting for taste or credulity. Universal Pictures is planning to make Eben Alexander’s book into a movie. You remember Alexander; the Proof of Heaven guy, the surgeon who ‘died’ on the operating table and claimed to have visited heaven?

It might be interesting to see the effort. The whole tone of Alexander’s fantasy is one of vagueness, ineffableness, incomprehending awe — he talks about seeing indescribable beings like birds or angels that he can’t do justice to in words, for instance…I don’t think crisp CGI is exactly going to work in his favor.

What I taught today: the great cis vs trans debate

My students get a full exposure to the Sean Carroll perspective in his book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, and I’m generally pro-evo devo throughout my course. I do try to make them aware of the bigger picture, though, so today we had an in-class discussion/’debate’ (nothing so formal as a debate, and it was more a tool to make them think about the arguments than to actually resolve a question). Fortunately, there’s one really easy exercise we can do in developmental biology, because some big names in the field have already clearly laid out their positions in a couple of relatively succinct papers, so I had a shortcut to bring the students up to speed on the issues. I split the class on Monday, having half read a paper by Hoekstra and Coyne on “The locus of evolution: evo devo and the genetics of adaptation” (pdf), which argues for the importance of trans-acting mutations in evolution, and another by Wray on “The evolutionary significance of cis-regulatory mutations” (pdf), which argues for the importance of developmental changes through changes in cis regulatory regions.

I drew this little cartoon on the board to illustrate the situation: that changes in the coding regions of genes produce mutations that can have broader effects throughout the cell (trans: they can affect other genes not on the same chromosome), while changes in regulatory DNA will have discrete effects on just the gene on the same strand of DNA they are (cis).


Then I asked them put together an argument as a group advocating for the significance to evolution of their ‘side’, cis or trans, which they then delivered to their opponent, with opportunities for rebuttal and counter-rebuttal.

Ah, pitting the students against one another…always the fun part of teaching.

There was good friendly discussion. Both sides had to dig into their respective papers to find the arguments, and then restate them to make their point, both of which are good exercises. The battle waged to and fro, and then our hour was up and I asked them to vote for who ‘won’, in the subjective sense of making a good argument and persuasively advancing their position. The results:

Which position do you think makes the best case for the significance of their phenomenon in evolution?

Team trans: 1
Team cis: 0
Both positions are important: 8

Minnesota mildness for the win!

I did think one student comment was perceptive and exposed the whole argument for a sham. If they were to go off to graduate school in developmental biology, they wouldn’t be picking Team trans or Team cis: they’d be pursuing a phenotype or a pattern of interest, and then analyzing how it worked and came to be, and they’d simply accept the evidence, cis or trans or both, however it turned out. Follow the data, always.

Now that’s a healthy attitude.

Can you handle two polls in a day?

Here’s another one. A few Australian political leaders are taking a cue from the Americans and following a piecemeal approach to destroy abortion rights. You know how this works: the majority of the population favors those rights (and gay rights, and marijuana decriminialization, and so many other reasonable positions), so the haters get into office and start nibbling around the edges. They start choking off funding here and there, they throw money at propaganda, they make it increasingly difficult to get a basic medical procedure, and before you know it, abortion doctors are marginalized, people who get abortions are treated as pariahs, and public opinion starts to shift, because ignorance is a fairly potent lobbying group.

So the Australians have been doing the same thing. At least some people are noticing and beginning to speak up.

Should abortion laws be tightened using federal government legislation as flagged by Senator John Madigan?

Yes 43%

No 54%

Not sure 3%

There was one other little bit that I wanted to comment on.

On Wednesday, Senator Madigan will introduce a motion in the Senate aimed at stopping the public funding of abortions that are used purely to select boys or girls.

He told my colleague Lenore Taylor that he had ”seen data that abortion on the basis of gender selection is happening overseas and that means it is likely to be happening here”.

This may be an unpopular opinion, but if we’re going to be consistent and regard fetuses as undeserving of the rights of full adult humans, and if we’re going to respect the woman’s right to choose her own reproductive future, we can’t be in the business of telling women what good reasons they’re allowed to use. Elective abortions to select the sex of their child are perfectly reasonable, rational decisions. They should be allowed, and we shouldn’t be horrified if women elect to do them.

There is a problem that many people devalue girls so much that they could skew the sex ratio. But that’s a completely different issue — the institutionalizing of patriarchal values — and it isn’t addressed by dictating the choices women may make with their own bodies.

I also find it ironic that it is the same people who unthinkingly promote those patriarchal values who are horrified that they lead to women opting to abort more female fetuses. I’m not impressed that you insist on the right of girls to be brought to term so you can treat them as disposable once they reach reproductive age.

Netroots Nation offering admission by poll?

Netroots Nation is the big progressive political conference sponsored by the gang at the Daily Kos. It’s being held in San Jose this year, at the end of June. They are opening the doors to their exhibition hall and giving 6 organizations free booth space — and among those vying for a slot is American Atheists. I would have thought they’d just give AA the space because progressives and atheists are such a natural match for each other…but no. They’ve decided that the way to determine who should get this space is by…an open, public, online poll.

Oh, we’ve got this.

Go take a look at the list of candidates for the free booth space. American Atheists is a natural, but I’ve got to say…there are a lot of worthy possibilities there. Wrestle with your conscience for a bit and vote for the one you like best.

Oooh, maybe we don’t have this. You people are always exercising your brains and thinking about your choices, and you might go haring off and voting with your mind rather than your shriveled little obedience gland.

Halos in the sky

I just got back from this evening’s Cafe Scientifique — where were you guys? — and I got to see lots of pretty pictures of halos and sundogs and light pillars. One of the nice things about living in Morris is that we actually get a lot of that weird atmospheric phenomena here, because we have lots of the raw material for them here: ice crystals. Vast drifting clouds of hexagonal crystals, flat and columnar, of various proportions, floating in the sky at various orientations to both refract and reflect light into our eyes.

I won’t go into all the details, since you weren’t there. And since most of you live in a less blessed place than the cold crisp upper midwest in the wintertime, you won’t get to see them, because your wicked heat melts all those sharp edged crystals into sludgy droopy droplets. Sorry. But I wanted to pass along one tip.

There’s some free software called Halosim that lets you do simulations of ice crystal distributions in the atmosphere. You specify their sizes and proportions and shapes, and then it traces the paths of light rays and produces an idealized image of what you should be able to see.


It’s very cool. You can tinker and see that to make dramatic sundogs, for instance, you need lots of flat hexagonal platelets floating in a mostly horizontal orientation, and presto, you’ll get a pair of virtual suns 22° to either side of the real one.

Well, maybe you can do that. It’s PC only, so I can’t run any of the simulations on my home computers myself. I’ll have to settle for looking at the real thing, darn it.