How I spent the last few days

I am sad to say I missed the American Atheists 2013 National Convention — it sounds like it was a blast, but I was booked up with a series of talks out in lovely warm sunny Seattle. Here’s what I’ve been up to.

On Wednesday, I talked to Seattle Atheists on “Moving Atheism Beyond Science”. I argued that modern atheism is built on the twin pillars of anti-religion and science, and not that there’s anything wrong with either of those, but that we have to have a wider foundation. In particular, I defied the recent trend to broaden science to encompass morality — I see that more as a conservative effort to refuse to step out of our comfort zone of science to consider philosophy and ethics — and most of the talk was a review of the ways science has failed to support a moral standard. Science has a definite place of importance, but let’s stop using it as our sole hammer.

Then I attended Norwescon, a science-fiction convention. People give me weird looks when I say I’m going to a con as a scientist/educator — but really, this is another example of stepping out of our comfort zones and reaching out to a different population of people…and SF people are a very receptive audience for science talks. So here are the sessions I was up-front and talking (there were others where I just sat back with the audience, of course).

Evo-Devo: More than a cool band name. This one was cool and right on my interests. I shared the panel with Annie Morton, a local ecologist, Jim Kling, a science journalist, and Dr Ricky, a scientist and also author of a food blog, Science-Based Cuisine. I started off by giving a definition I’d been asked to give on Twitter: Evodevo: Primacy of regulatory mutations in the evolution of form in multicellular organisms. I know, it’s much narrower than the standard definition which emphasizes comparative molecular genetics, but I was trying to summarize the current focus. And then we went back and forth on the details.

The Anthropogenic Extinction event. Somehow, I ended up on a series of depressing panels. I shared this desk with Annie Morton again, and Kurt Cagle. Short summary: we’re doomed. My final statement was that one basic rule is that you don’t shit in your own nest, and now that we’re a global species, we apparently have forgotten it.

Bullies Still Suck: Why We Don’t Just Get Over It. Oh, jeez. The most depressing panel ever. I was on it with Mickey Schulz (Geek Girls Rule!) and Maida “Mac” Cain. I think I was there to represent targets of online bullying, but here’s the deal: it was attended by a large number of SF con nerds and geeks who could give us all lessons on what real bullying is like. I didn’t have to say much at all: the audience spoke out with testimonials about their lives as four-eyed nerds, gay people, trans women, Asperger kids, “sluts” so-called, and rape victims. I think my main job here should have just been to shut up and listen.

It’s the End of the World As We Know It, with Gregory Gadow, Peter Blanton, Russell Campbell, and Dr Ricky. We were supposed to talk about our favorite doomsday scenarios. I don’t have one. I did say I thought all the emphasis in the popular press on big explosions and cosmic collisions and such was egocentrism, that that’s not how most extinctions occur. I gave the example of the Heath Hen, a chicken-like bird that was common on the eastern seaboard at the time of the European colonization, and that gradually was reduced to a single isolated population on Martha’s Vineyard by habitat destruction and hunting, and when it was down to the last few hundred animals in the 19th century, efforts were made to give it a sheltered sanctuary. The population briefly rose to a few thousand individuals before a fire killed many, then a storm killed more, and then a disease spread from turkey farms to kill even more, reducing them to 7 individuals, mostly male, and the last lonely bird died in 1932. That’s what we should expect. No grand spectacular drama, we’re most likely to flicker out with a dismal whimper.

Blinded by Pseudoscience. I wasn’t suppose to be on this one, but Dr. Ricky asked me to get on the stage with Janet Freeman-Daily, Gregory Gadow, and Ro Yoon. We talked a lot about cancer quackery, especially the Burzynski fraud, and tried to deliver some suggestions about how to detect when you’re being lied to: too good to be true promises, demands for money up front, lack of scientific evidence, etc.

Designer Genes. Gregory Gadow was the moderator, and it was largely a discussion between me and Edward Tenner…and we pretty much agreed on everything. I think the theme was unintended consequences: sure, we can and will be able to do amazing things with somatic and germ line gene therapy, but trying to do this with complex systems is likely to have all kinds of unexpected side effects. Correcting single gene defects is one thing, but ‘improving’ the human race is a far more complex problem that isn’t going to be easily accomplished.

Remedial Exobiology, with Annie Morton and Dame Ruth. This one was very well attended and less depressing! At a science fiction convention, there were a lot of authors in the audience who are very interested in the topic of implementing good biology in their stories (sorry, but I said that there were almost no science fiction stories that addressed biology competently, and we also snickered at James Cameron a bit). I tried to be fair and give shortcuts: I said imagination is good, you don’t have to master all of biology, but instead of just starting with bipedal anthropoids and building a new alien on that body plan, at least browse through the available and highly diverse morphologies present in other lineages on this planet, and build on that. One person in the audience also recommended this book, Eighth Day Genesis: A Worldbuilding Codex for Writers and Creatives, as a tool for inspiring science-based creativity.

And now I’m winding down and getting ready to fly home and resume teaching biology in Minnesota again. I encourage all science educators to stretch out and try talking about their favorite topics in different venues: it’s how we expand the relevance of science!


  1. says

    It was a lot of fun, having you here. I wish I could have gotten to the exobiology panel. Thank you again for making the trip, and I hope we can get you again in a few years.

  2. says

    All good talks for the sci-fi audience. Assuming it was like your previous talks about looking for aliens, remedial exobiology will have been a lot of fun.

    I should see if I can get into some of the cons around San Francisco later this year…

  3. Scientismist says

    I defied the recent trend to broaden science to encompass morality..

    Yes, you hear a lot these days about science as a means of finding the (or a) moral truth — if it can find physical and biological truth, why not moral truth?

    But fifty years ago, when I was a biology grad student, Jacob Bronowski and Jaques Monod were arguing in seminars at the Salk Institute in La Jolla (across town from where the Institute for Creation Research was getting its start in El Cajon) that morality doesn’t so much emerge from the findings of science, but is part of the social commitment that makes science possible as a method of approaching the truth — that science, as a method and a communal project, is an ethic. Monod used the phrase “the ethic of truth-telling,” while Bronowski wrote of a “social axiom to act in such a way that what IS true can be verified to be so.”

    The lessons of Lysenko’s failed biology was still fresh back then, and the cost (both moral and economic) of faking it seemed clear. Today, there is still plenty of politically and ideologically manufactured pseudoscience being promoted, such as anti-vax, climate change denial, and creation “science”. But the ethical cost of acting to promote what must be believed to be true rather that what the evidence says is likely to be true seems too often to be lost in the spirit of “teaching the controversy.”

    It seems to me that we don’t hear so much talk these days about science, as a method of finding the (most likely) truth, being a moral and ethical value in it’s own right. I still think it is.

  4. chigau (not my real name) says

    It seems to me that we don’t hear so much talk these days about science, as a method of finding the (most likely) truth, being a moral and ethical value in it’s own right. I still think it is.

    I think so, too.

  5. geekgirlsrule says

    I’m glad you were at the panel, PZ. It was lovely to meet you, and I hope you weren’t too overwhelmed.

  6. badearl says

    If you like scientifically plausible science fiction, check out some novels by Jeff Carlson. His “Plague Zone” trilogy (about a man-made virus escaping and causing global chaos), and “The Frozen Sky” (about First Contact beneath the ice on Europa) have enough science-based ideas to make the scenarios believable, with plenty of non-stop action to keep the pages turning. He has a new novel “Interrupt” coming out this June which I am really looking forward to.

  7. says

    I enjoy the hard science panels. For me S/F is the social / moral exploration of science. So, (again) for me, having panels on hard science lets me read and enjoy S/F more.

    I think it might help the panelists in the future if ConCom narrowed the general topics with things like; “A Primer…” “The Ethics of… ” etc.

  8. rbh3 says

    …I said that there were almost no science fiction stories that addressed biology competently,…

    Two words: Joan Slonczewski. A tenured microbiologist and John Campbell award-winning (twice) sci-fi author and author of a microbiology textbook.

  9. says

    @Cynickal #10 – Things are lining up for me to return as Biology Track Lead, and possibly Track Manager (nothing will be official until late July.) Most of our leads love getting new ideas for panels; go to the Norwescon website later this summer and send your suggestions to Programming. Or get more involved and join the Convention Committee, which will start meeting in September. As I found out this year, it takes a HUGE amount of work to put this on, and help is always appreciated.

  10. Furr-a-Bruin says

    As far as bullying goes – one of the trends I find disturbing are “zero tolerance” rules that wind up victimizing the targets of bullying – so those kids effectively get bullied twice. And for a bully who doesn’t care about being punished by the school – I imagine they get a huge laugh out of seeing their victims punished by the administration that – in any sane world – should be protecting them.

    Any teacher or administrator in grade school through high school who ever says “I don’t care who started it” or words to that effect should be fired on the spot for being utterly incompetent at discipline. They have to care “who started it” because that’s a primary way of distinguishing bullies from their victims.

  11. says

    Aside from Joan Slonczewski, there’s another biologist, Brian Stableford, who writes about adaptive problems and violent allergic reactions to foreign proteins, and so on.

    And, of course, there was “Your Haploid Heart” by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), who also had a pretty good line in alien sex.