Overcoming the brainwashing, the propaganda, the lies

There’s that bit in Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God in which she tells her mother that she’s an atheist, and her mother replies, “not believing in God is one thing, but an ATHEIST?” — it just tells you how poisoned the word “atheist” had become. It’s gotten better; we’ve been coming out, showing the world we’re just like everyone else, making arguments for a rational, secular morality, and generally working to overcome the prejudice against the label. Imagine an alternative world in which many atheists had followed a different tactic: when ever someone said something disrespectful of atheism, there’d be a mad rush to get their home address and phone number. We’d flood them with threats: if you don’t shut up, we’ll rape your mother and set fire to your house. You’re a whore. I’m going to kill you.

The stigma of atheism would worsen. Now in addition to having a reputation for godlessness (true!), we’d acquire a reputation for truly villainous behavior. People would be even more reluctant to call themselves “atheist”, and only the most vile people would embrace it, worsening the reputation.

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Oh, dear

The context of this graph isn’t entirely clear, but it’s from Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra of UC Davis, and it’s from a poll of 800 first year students, so I presume it’s the results of a survey of their incoming class?


Maybe one of the things we need to do as part of popularizing science to the general public is to emphasize the diversity of life, and talk more about the cool things plants and bacteria and fungi and so forth do. I know I started out as a zoologist, am still mostly focused on animal development, but over the years I’ve become increasingly aware that there are amazing contrasts to be studied. We might wish we could study aliens from Mars, but every time I look at plant development, for instance, I feel like I’m examining extraterrestrials already.

Don’t teach how, only what

It’s the first week of classes. I’ve given the first lecture to my first year introductory biology course and my second year cell biology course, and the theme of both lectures was that science isn’t a body of facts, but a process for learning — and I’m emphasizing to them all that the conclusion is less important than how we come to that conclusion. And what do idiot politicians in Ohio do? They try to pass a law denying school kids knowledge of the process.

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A cautionary tale

Kotaku points to a couple of fascinating essays: one by Dan Golding on the End of Gamers, and the other by Leigh Alexander, saying gamers are over. They’re making similar points: not that gaming is in decline, or that all gamers are horrible people, but that the behavior of unchecked hooligans on the internet has so thoroughly fouled their identity that reasonable people are abandoning the tribe. Calling yourself a gamer has acquired the cachet of identifying as a white supremacist — it stinks.

What really worries me, though, is how much the gamer story sounds like the atheist story…only they seem to be farther along in their implosion than we are, or are imploding more rapidly. We atheists should be taking notes and telling ourselves not to go down this path. I have the feeling we aren’t.

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Feuerstein’s new folly

Joshua Feuerstein, excitable youtube preacher, is now offering a $100,000 prize to anyone who can prove god doesn’t exist. I feel like asking him how he has proven that Thor doesn’t exist, so I can just swap in the name Jesus and walk away rich, except I don’t believe that there is such a thing as “proof” in science, so it would be something of a betrayal of my principles. Also, I doubt that he’s honest: does he actually have $100,000 to give away? Does he have funds in escrow? How is this affair managed and judged? It looks to me like he just took a sharpie and scribbled a claim on a piece of cardboard and held it up in front of a cell phone camera, which doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence that this is a legitimate offer.

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Developmental plasticity is not Lamarckism

Sometimes, people email me with good questions. Here’s one.

When I was a kid, my own visualization of evolution was Lamarckism.

But I didn’t know it. In reading Dawkins and others, I know it doesn’t exist. But it seems this article is claiming it does to some extent. Can you comment? I’m curious as to the current consensus as I’ve been reading a lot about genes that can be turned on and passed to offspring. Can you take a look?

This is a fairly common question. Looked at naively, developmental plasticity seems to be Lamarckian — we’re talking about organisms responding with morphological changes to their environment, just like Lamarck’s example of the giraffe stretching its neck. But that’s only the first step; the transmission of a distribution of traits to the next generation is purely Darwinian.

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