Dan Savage and I have something in common

Savage is the new Humanist of the Year! I think that means we have to give each other a hug if ever we meet.


He’s going to be at the American Humanist Association Annual Conference in San Diego on 30 May-3 June, along with those and many other interesting people. I wish I could be there—I’ll be landing back in the US around then, after a long week in Romania, but I think I’ll need time to recover and get back to work.

But to all of you who’ve been exasperated with the refractoriness of certain elements of the atheist movement…check out the humanists. That stuff so many fight against bitterly is simply taken for granted in the humanist community.

I can defend both Lawrence Krauss and philosophy!

Philosophers are still grumbling about Lawrence Krauss, who openly dissed philosophy (word to the philosophers reading this: he recanted, so you can put down the thumbscrews and hot irons for now). This is one of those areas where I’m very much a middle-of-the-road person: I am not a philosopher, at least I’m definitely not as committed to the discipline as someone like Massimo Pigliucci, but I do think philosophy is an essential part of our intellectual toolkit — you can only dismiss it if you haven’t thought much about it, i.e., aren’t using philosophy at all.

So I’m pretty much in agreement with this post about the complementarity of philosophy and science. In fact, I’ll emphatically agree with this bit:

Scientists and mathematicians are really doing philosophy. It’s just that they’ve specialised in a particular branch, and they’re employing the carefully honed tools of their specific shard just for that particular job. So specialised, and so established is that toolkit, that they don’t consider them philosophers any more.

I’ll also agree with the flip side, where he defines philosophy:

Philosophy’s method is bounded only by the finite capacities of human thought. To the extent that something can be reckoned, philosophy can get there. As such, philosophy will never stop asking “why”.

But then I start to quibble (oh, no! I must be infected with philosophy!).

So what this is really saying is that science is a bounded domain of philosophy, while philosophy is unlimited, which sounds like philosophy has the better deal. But I’d argue otherwise: what’s missing in philosophy is that anvil of reality — that something to push against that allows us to test our conclusions against something other than internal consistency. It means philosophy is excellent at solving imaginary problems (which may be essential for understanding more mundane concerns), while science is excellent at solving the narrower domain of real problems. Science has something philosophy lacks: a solid foundation in empiricism. That’s a strength, not a weakness.

I think that’s where philosophers begin to annoy us, when they try to pass judgment using inappropriate referents — which is also how scientists like Krauss can annoy philosophers. And philosophers are so good at rationalizing disagreement away while carping on others. For instance…

Because scientists have a rather poor track record when it comes to doing philosophy.

Sam Harris’s attempt to provide a scientific basis for morality springs to mind, where he poo poos metaethics only to tread squarely in a metaethical dilemma. Or Richard Dawkins and his dismissal of religion as a false belief system, meanwhile dismissing the rather significant psychological and cultural functional roles it has played throughout human history, and may still play today.

Or Krauss, who without a hint of irony, suggests that good philosophers are really just bad scientists, when in fact he’s a good scientist doing philosophy badly. His definition of “nothing” comes not from within science, but is a grope in the dark for a definition that conforms with his particular theoretical predilections. That’s not how one defines things in polite (philosophical) circles, as David Albert pointed out.

After stating that scientists are philosophers and that science is a branch of philosophy, we’re now told that scientists do philosophy poorly. So is he saying that scientists must do science poorly? I know who’s not going to get invited to my next cotillion, that’s for sure.

Rather, scientists do their brand of philosophy very, very well — philosophers seem to be playing a two-faced game here of wanting to claim science as one of their own when they like what it accomplishes, but washing their hands of it when they don’t like it. Nuh-uh, people, you want to call us philosophers, you have to live with the stinking chemicals and the high energy discharges and the reeking cadavers now too.

His examples aren’t persuasive. I’ll skip over Harris, I’m not particularly fond of his efforts to explain morality, but the Dawkins complaint is weird. He does not disregard the immense psychological and cultural roles of religion: in fact, those are reasons why he and I both detest religion, because we’re aware of all the harm it does and has done. That we think the physical and psychological harm is enough that we should change it is not a sign that we’re doing bad philosophy at all; it’s a sign that we scientifical philosophers consider reality and empiricism to be extremely important factors in our thinking…apparently to a greater degree than many non-scientifical philosophers.

As for Krauss, I thought the Albert review was awful — typical unbounded philosophy with no anchor to the truth. Krauss’s definition of “nothing” was not just a grope in the dark. It was a definition built on empirical and theoretical knowledge of what “nothing” is like. Krauss is describing the nothing we have, Albert is describing the nothing he thinks we ought to have. Krauss is being the scientist, Albert is being the philosopher, and the conflict is driven because the philosopher is unable to recognize the prerequisites to doing science well.

I think that appreciating the boundaries of both disciplines as well as their strengths is important for getting along. Krauss may not have appreciated what philosophy has to offer, but a substantial reason for the friction is the smugness of philosophers who disrespect the functional constraints required for doing good science. Scientists don’t get to be “bounded only by the finite capacities of human thought”. We also have to honor the physical nature of reality.

In my head I have the capacity to flap my arms and fly. In the real working world…not so much.

Cafe Scientifique tonight!

I was up early this morning and just got off the radio, where I told you the whole story. Were you listening? KKOK/KMRS out of Morris, Minnesota? You get it every day with the weather and the farm report?

Oh, OK, I’ll repeat myself. Tonight, Tuesday the 26th of February, at 6pm in the Common Cup Coffeehouse, Sylke Boyd will be talking about “Sundogs and Halos and Pillars—oh my”. This is an informal, casual conversation about science — she’ll talk about what causes these strange atmospheric phenomena, and also be showing lots of lovely pictures of the strange skies above Morris, Minnesota.

Come on down, everyone!

I know this feeling

Maybe you know the feeling, too. You’ve got a career that you work at every day for years, that you take seriously and try to improve constantly, and you’re periodically dragged off to meetings where administrators and bureaucrats tell you what you should be doing — and the information is useless because they’ve never even tried to do it, preferring instead to kibitz professionally. So I felt that familiar sinking pit of despair as I read this article about the current political strategies for ‘fixing’ education. All that saved me from spitting on the screen was the author’s reply.

I’m thinking about the current health care debate. And I am wondering if I will be asked to sit on a national committee charged with the task of creating a core curriculum of medical procedures to be used in hospital emergency rooms.

I realize that most people would think I am unqualified to sit on such a committee because I am not a doctor, I have never worked in an emergency room, and I have never treated a single patient. So what? Today I have listened to people who are not teachers, have never worked in a classroom, and have never taught a single student tell me how to teach.

What I taught today: maternal effect genes

You know I teach the 8am courses every term, right? Every semester for years I get my oddball classes that weren’t present in the curriculum 13 years ago (when I started here) stuffed into the cracks of the schedule. I’m slowly getting to be a little pushier and am gradually making my way into wakier hours with other classes, but so far, developmental biology is still in the darkness. Fortunately, this talk was so jam-packed with excitement and action that they couldn’t possibly sleep through it! Right?

Just a word about the presentation slides: I’m a firm believer that less is more. My goal is not to display my lecture notes, or lists of bullet point slides that make my points for me, but to show complex and interesting illustrations that I talk about and explain — whoa, I know, how radical. I’ve sat through too many talks that flash 60-80 slides at me in an hour, and it’s too much. Take your time, people! That said, I used 18 slides in a 65 minute lecture today, which I felt was a little excessive — I aspire to someday do a lecture with half that number. But I am weak and need the crutch now.

Also, I returned exams today. People asked if I’d post their answers. No way in hell! These are exams and have the privilege of privacy. I will say that in general the students answered well. The goal of that kind of exam isn’t to confront students with a question that has a specific answer, but with a problem that they should explore, defend, or criticise.

So the subject today was maternal effect genes in Drosophila, specifically the prepatterning information that specifies the anterior-posterior and dorsal-ventral axes. Yes! I can tell you’re all excited!

So I gave them the precursor observations to the actual molecular biology, all this lovely modeling of gradients and information domains that was rich with Turing elegance, and then I dashed their optimism with the cold water of reality: molecular biology has shown that instead of beautifully designed systems, we’ve got bits and pieces cobbled together in a functional kludge. Any pretty patterns we do see are the product of brute force coding.

So they got the overall picture of A/P patterning in flies: a gradient of the Bicoid protein, high in front and low in back, is read by cells to determine their location — its the GPS signal of the early fly. The Nanos protein, also found in a gradient but from back to front, is a hack: it’s only purpose is to clear away a leaky remnant of another gene, Hunchback, which isn’t supposed to be expressed yet (although Nanos may be the diminished rump of a more elaborate ancestral posterior patterning scheme). And the Torso related genes are specifically involved in ‘capping’ the front and back ends of the fly.

The main point of interest about the terminal genes like Torso is their mechanism: we sometimes talk about maternal genes as like a paint-by-number system in which Mom lays out the lines for different areas of differentiation in Baby, and then the embryo fills in the details. The terminal genes are like a perfect example of that: in the follicle, cells literally paint the vitelline membrane of the fly with different informational molecules during the construction of the egg, and then as the embryo develops, these molecules trickle across the perivitelline space (a gap between the outer membrane and embryo proper) to bind receptors and trigger regional differentiation.

It’s also a nice segue into the dorsal/ventral patterning genes, because flies do something similar there: proteins imbedded in discrete regions of the vitelline membrane diffuse to Toll receptors, where they selective activate the Dorsal protein by freeing it from the Cactus inhibitor. We go from a paint-by-number kit to a restored gradient from back to belly side of localization of free Dorsal protein to the cell nucleus. By the way, in case they were getting bored with flies, Dorsal is homologous to NF-κB in us vertebrates, using the same nuclear exclusion/inclusion mechanism, and NF-κB is a hot molecule in biomedicine and cancer research right now.

That was my hour. I closed by threatening them with talk of zygotic genes, specifically the gap genes, next week.

Also, Wednesday we’re going to try something a little different. We’ve finished chapter 5 of Carroll’s book Endless Forms Most Beautiful so they should be ready to weigh the importance of various mechanisms, so I split the class in two and told half of them to read Wray’s article on the importance of cis-regulatory mutations in evolution, and Hoekstra and Coyne’s article that argues for a more balanced emphasis. I’d love to have a fight break out in the room.

Didn’t you just love public school?

Miri is ruining everyone’s fun again, telling stories about being bullied in school, and showing this fierce video.

I was lucky. I wasn’t really bullied; my fate was to be neglected and marginalized. I was the dirt poor kid who wasn’t a jock or popular, so I was mostly uncategorizable and overlooked. An example to illustrate the weird social limbo I was in: I was only one of four kids at the school to be a national merit finalist; I’d gotten a near-perfect score on the SATs. We all got invited to the principal’s office when this was announced, and he sat us down: the basketball star, the doctor’s kid, the straight A student (and no resentment against any of those three — all were good people), and me. The principal knew all the others well, they had a good reputation, and he was joking around with them, and then he turned and gave me this look…’whothehellisthis and whyshouldItalkto him’, sniffed and turned back to the others, without saying a word to me.

We got the honor of a few minutes announcement at a school assembly, and it was similarly weird. Each of us four were announced, the teachers and principal said a few lovely things about them, and then they came to me, last, and just said my name, nothing more, before moving on. It was nice to be mentioned, but man, I was clearly regarded as the aberrant weirdo who was only there by mistake. I was the outlier, the person from the wrong class (make no mistake, classism thrives in America), the nobody who didn’t fit.

Again, I wasn’t bullied much in high school. I wasn’t angry at that treatment. What it did instead was make me someone who never felt a lot of self-worth and just kind of generally alone and miserable. But fortunately another thing I lacked was the serious depression that many people experience, even when they aren’t neglected, and so I’ve managed to cope.

I do sometimes wonder what it would have been like to actually have a teacher take an interest in me and encourage me, but at least I never had one make my life difficult. I was too invisible for that.

Oh, no, I’ve been doing it wrong!

Everyone is always complaining that the drama and controversy is ‘all about the traffic’ — that the only reason people take controversial stands on the internet is to stir up noise and get lots and lots of attention. I’ve been saying for years that it’s not true; you can get brief flurries of traffic by highlighting some infuriating topic, but it doesn’t really build an audience.

And now I learn the true recipe, and that I’ve clearly been doing it all wrong. Michael Nugent did a rough experiment to evaluate the popularity of sexist jokes, assessing the popularity of two pages with the same joke, but different photos.

…the joke with the sexist photo has received more than 43,000 likes and 24,000 shares.

But the exact same joke has also been posted on a different Facebook Page, without the sexist photo, and has received only 53 likes and 18 shares.

Taking into account that the first page has nearly four times the audience as the second page, that means that the joke is 200 times more popular when accompanied by the sexist photo.

Well, you can’t really make that kind of quantitative measure: traffic growth isn’t usually trivially linear. But clearly if I want more traffic, I have to stop promoting minority issues and begin pandering to social dogma, so I’m going to have to make a few changes around here.

The Monday Metazoan is going to become the Monday Meat Market, in which I post a photo of a bikini clad woman and encourage people to comment on her appearance (Send in your pictures! Or better yet, pictures of your ex-girlfriend!). The Wednesday Botanical will be the Wednesday Flower, where flower is a euphemism for female genitalia: we’ll be showing off gynecological closeups. We’ll still keep the squid around, sort of, for the Friday Cephalopod, but now it’ll be Tentacle Rape Friday, with nothing but hentai clips.

I know it will be tough on the regulars, and many of you might depart and never look back, but hey, 43000 ‘likes’ on one lousy joke? Think of the money! And all I’d have to do is throw away my self-respect and spend the next few years hanging out on the internet with assholes.

That’s how you get lots of hits on the internet. I’ve just been wasting my time calling out religious nonsense and sexism. (Hmmm…I could also suck up to religious people, there’s a big traffic base.)