Atheists should have good rules for behavior

It has come to my attention that certain people — certain thuggish, stupid people — are objecting to the Code of Conduct for the American Atheists 2014 convention. In addition to complaining that it shouldn’t bother to address the needs of trans people (WTF?), they object to this section.

American Atheists does not tolerate harassment of or by conference participants in any form. Prohibited conduct may include but is not limited to harassment related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, age, religion, sexual images in public spaces (not related to convention sessions or materials), deliberate intimidation, stalking, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention. Racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic conduct will not be tolerated.

That all sounds good and reasonable to me. But some people are complaining that at an atheist convention, it is far too PC to say you may not harass people for their religion, and then they point to David Silverman, who is known for his confrontational style and his willingness to openly disagree with religious convention.

These objectors are obtuse and wrong. This does not say you may not disagree with someone; it does not say you may not publicly express a different opinion; it does not say you have to be kind and gentle to bad ideas.

It says you may not harass someone.

Harassment is persistent, aggressive behavior with the purpose of intimidating or silencing someone. The code of conduct even goes into detail: “deliberate intimidation, stalking, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.” To say that you may not do that to a religious person is not a violation of the purpose of American Atheists; I’d say it’s actually a damn good idea if atheists don’t harass religious people and make respectful behavior towards other human beings a part of their policy…while still continuing aggressive campaigns against bad ideas.

So if Thomas Monson, president of the LDS church, shows up at AACON2014, you can argue with him, you can tell him how much you dislike his church, but if he asks you to step aside and leave him alone, you will do so. David Silverman can give a talk in which he castigates the Mormons for their hypocrisy and the absurdity of their religion, and if Thomas Monson raises his hand to ask a question afterwards, the audience will not heckle him and shout him down. And when he starts walking up the aisle to leave afterwards, you will not grab him, block him, spit on him, shout obscenities at him, or interfere with him in any way, because that would be harassment, and that would put you in violation of the code of conduct. Well, and also put you in violation of many norms of civilized behavior.

I have no objection at all to the American Atheists code of conduct, and think it is a fine document fully in accord with the aims of the movement. If you disagree, you shouldn’t go anywhere where you might find yourself in groups of people. Perhaps you’d be better off living in a small cave in the middle of nowhere? Or perhaps confining yourself to the company of trolls on youtube?

I was pointed to the commitments and code of conduct for an anarchist book fair. They’re rather progressive. It doesn’t matter who you are, when people gather, there will be rules to regulate your behavior.

Your morning wakeup to hate

Drink your coffee and eat your breakfast first. This clip of Stan Solomon, a right wing talk radio host, will ruin your appetite.

He hates blacks, Latinos, Jews, gays, environmentalists, just about everyone, and it’s all wrapped up in his fervent Christianity.

…it doesn’t make a difference what group it is. If you put anything ahead of doing what’s right in God’s eyes, or better yet ignoring the reality of God, then you’re a tool, you’re a useful idiot.

(via Right Wing Watch.)

I am so tempted to visit Fargo Grand Forks next week

I’ve been informed that there will be a lecture at UND next Tuesday. I might be able to find time to dart up and come right back home that night…it’s only about a two hour drive.


I’ve heard of Boys before. It’s going to be ugly. There he is, not only attacking atheism, but doing so as a young earth creationist who rejects evolution. But also because Boys had his moment of infamy about 5 years ago. Anyone else remember this? He’s the guy who urged Bush to nuke Mecca and Medina.

Do we sit on our fat bottoms, wring our hands, and wait for Muslim terrorists to strike? What good will that do? What good will result in doing nothing until one or two major cities are in rubble? My suggestion is take offensive action. The only possible way I can see that we might, I say might, escape another Muslim attack upon our nation is for President Bush to issue the following declaration to the world:

“My fellow Americans, as your President my primary responsibility is to protect and defend the U.S. I am not interested in world opinion or in playing games at the UN. Our intelligence reveals that Muslim terrorists are planning to hit us again; furthermore, terrorist leaders have promised that our cities will be in ruins. I believe them so I have been authorized by the Congress to make the following promise: Within 24 hours following an attack upon the U.S., our Air Force will bomb Mecca and Medina into the “Stone Age.” Innocent Saudi Arabian civilians will have 24 hours from the attack on us to flee the two cities that will be razed.

“Let no one be deceived as to our motive. We don’t want to harm any person nor do we desire any territory, and there is no reason for anyone to be killed—as long as there is no attack against our nation. This decision was made to protect U.S. citizens; however, if there is a choice between us and them, it will be them who die. Moreover, Muslim leaders will be the ones who pull the trigger on their own people. If Muslim leaders want to destroy their two holy cities, then they will do so by attacking us. We will respond in 24 hours. May God protect and bless America.”

Stupid to the point of evil, that’s Don Boys. And he’s being sponsored by Baptist Campus Ministries, which claims to be bringing “honor and glory to the Lord Jesus Christ through Bible-based thoughts, words, and actions”.

Honor and glory.

Fuck your honor and glory, Christians.

My New Atheist agenda is to murder fewer people, not more.

All these rape flavors…

So far we’ve had honest rape, legitimate rape, and now forcible beat-up rape. Oh, and let’s not forget forgotten rapes, although everybody else seems to have.

How about if we keep it simple? There’s sex without consent. That’s rape, period. It’s not somehow ameliorated if the target is drunk, unconscious, too young to know better, or if you were so kind as to not beat them up, tie them up, or kill them during the act.

It’s also still rape even if you intimidate the victim into silence, get social collusion to shame the victim, or otherwise suppress the evidence that you did it.

If you force someone to eat shit, it doesn’t matter if you put sugar sprinkles on it, or worse, if you put ground glass on a different piece of shit and try to excuse yourself because you didn’t make them eat that.

Holy crap, it’s gotten this bad?

The brain drain is beginning. Nearly 20% of American scientists would like to get out of this country.

New data compiled by a coalition of top scientific and medical research groups show that a large majority of scientists are receiving less federal help than they were three years ago, despite spending far more time writing grants in search of it. Nearly one-fifth of scientists are considering going overseas to continue their research because of the poor funding climate in America.

Why, you might ask? Because funding for research is drying up everywhere.


That could be fixed, you know. Divert that cash that’s being deployed to prepare to bomb Syria and other foreign countries, and we could probably rebuild our scientific and technological infrastructure before it’s too late.

Although, with all the idiots emerging from public education believing in nonsense while the media cheer them on, it might already be too late.

Cloning brains with Science

While we’ve been waiting and waiting for the physicists to get their act together and deliver on Mr Fusion home energy sources and flying cars, the biologists have been making great progress on the kinds of things that turn biologists on. The latest development: growing tiny little human brains in a bucket. Only let’s not call them brains…they are cerebral organoids. Hugo Gernsback would be so proud.

Here’s the latest development. Start with embryonic human stem cells, or induced pluripotent stem cells (cells which you’ve reset to a kind of embryonic state by using a virus to transfect them with the genes OCT4, SOX2, KLF4 and MYC, which trigger a change to a pluripotent state). Culture them in a cocktail of chemicals like basic fibroblastic growth factor and retinoic acid, which induces the cells to become neurectoderm, a precursor tissue of the nervous system. Imbed these cells in a gelatinous capsule that gives them a framework on which to grow, and also prevents them from just sprawling out into an amorphous neurectodermal sheet. Let them grow in a spinning bioreactor which circulates nutrients around them, and watch. They begin to form structures resembling those of the embryonic human brain, all by themselves.


They show many of the properties of normal embryonic brains. Brains develop from the inside out; new neurons arise deep inside, and then migrate outwards along radial glia to the surface. These mini-brains show similar behavior, forming the beginnings of a laminar structure with roughly the same pattern of growth. They exhibit regional specification. We have a forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain, for instance, and there are molecular markers for these areas; those molecular markers are selectively expressed in areas of the mini-brains, too. During development, our neurons exhibit fleeting electrical activity, especially the production of calcium action potentials (we gradually switch to sodium action potentials as the nervous system matures). These brains have bursts of calcium activity which can be diminished with tetrodotoxin, a nerve poison that affects signal transmission in neurons.


Awesome. Before you start imagining growing complete adult human brains in a vat to the point where they start doing philosophy, though, there are realistic limitations.

While there are regions expressing markers for typical human brain regions, they aren’t well organized — I looked at the sections of cerebral organoids, and while bits and pieces looked familiar, they weren’t in their canonical relationships to one another. It’s a kind of scrambled brain.

The laminar structure of the brain doesn’t fully form — it’s just the rough beginnings. It really is like a very early embryonic brain, and is not going to function to generate thoughts and perceptions.

It’s only brain tissue. They aren’t growing elements of the circulatory system, for instance, so there are no blood vessels delivering nutrients. That limits growth, and the largest cerebral organoids are only about 4mm in diameter. That might only be enough to generate an assistant professor of philosophy. (I joke! Don’t come after me, philosophy fans.)

Now this is pretty darned cool, and would be a shoo-in to win first prize at the Mad Science Fair, but you might be wondering what you can use it for. These are not functional brains, so no, you militarists, you can’t use them to control cruise missiles. What they are good for is studying developmental processes that build human brains (pure science!) and for figuring out the mechanistic causes of serious brain disorders (medical science!).

And the authors turned around and started doing just that. There are known defects that affect the proliferation of cells building structures in the brain, genetic diseases like microcephaly. You cannot do experiments on microcephalic human beings, and it’s been very difficult to generate good animal models of microcephaly — we have such unusual brains to begin with that it’s hard to find a brain analogous in sufficient detail in mice. But here’s what they can do.

They had a patient with microcephaly, with a known genetic cause (a mutation in a gene called CDK5RAP2). They can’t experiment on his brain, obviously, but what they could do is take a few of his skin cells, transfect them with the four inducing genes, and produce a clone which could be cultured in a dish and put through the organoid production procedure and make little tiny copies of his embryonic brain state. Now you can do experiments.

What they observed was that some brain areas in the organoids were smaller (complicated by the fact that overall growth was reduced), and that there more more neurons and fewer glia in affected regions. The hypothesis is that CDK5RAP2 maintains cells in a dividing state, and it’s absence causes premature maturation of neurons, which leads to reduced total numbers of neurons in the adult. They also tried inducing greater CDK5RAP2 in the organoids to rescue the phenotype — the experiment was confused by the fact that CDK5RAP2 overproduction seems to trigger cell death, and they do not have precise control over dosages, but they do find suggestions that glial production is rescued. They also did the complementary experiment of RNAi knockouts of CDK5RAP2 in non-patient organoids, and they did see a surge of neuron production. So it looks like they’re getting a good handle on the cellular processes behind this form of microcephaly.

So what they’ve built is a useful model for studying early brain development in humans that doesn’t involve experimenting on any actual humans. This is going to be useful for all sorts of developmental disorders.

Also, Mad Science Fair contests.

Lancaster MA, Renner M, Martin C-A, Wenzel D, Bicknell LS, Hurles ME, Homfray T, Penninger JM, Jackson AP, Knoblich JA (2013) Cerebral organoids model human brain development and microcephaly. Nature doi:10.1038/nature12517.

What do you get when a creationist visits the Galapagos?

I think it’s an anti-Darwin: instead of observations, you get pretty pictures; instead of insights, you get a cloud of murk and lies. Georgia Purdom of Answers in Genesis visited the Galapagos, and now she’s coming out with a book of religious apologetics.

After my return, I started thinking about writing a book on the Galápagos Islands. I wanted people to see that what we think about how and when the Galápagos Islands formed and how the wildlife changed over time has to do with a person’s starting point or worldview. The Galápagos Islands both past and present are a display of God’s majesty in His creation and His mercy in preserving life in a fallen world instead of an “icon of evolution.” I also wanted people to appreciate the diversity and beauty of the wildlife and landscape that is unique to the Galápagos through the 2000-plus photos I had taken.

If you should ever see this book, think about Purdom going to the Galapagos on a sight-seeing trip and learning absolutely nothing, and compare it to Rosemary and Peter Grant who spent decades there, documenting patterns of change in the bird populations of Daphne Minor. I learn something from the Grant’s work, while Purdom’s delusions will just make the world a stupider place.

Give the Purdom book a pass. Get the Grants’ How and Why Species Multiply: The Radiation of Darwin’s Finches instead.