Another reason 2016 sucks

Because we’re victims of a lawsuit intended to harass us. As you’ve probably heard earlier this year, Skepticon, Amy Frank-Skiba, Stephanie Zvan, The Orbit, Freethought Blogs, and I are the target of a ridiculous $2 million lawsuit by Richard Carrier, and the legal bills are coming due (actually, I’ve already coughed up a good chunk of change). I don’t believe there’s any way we can lose, short of doing something stupid like not hiring competent legal representation, which costs money.

Skepticon is already asking for donations to help cover the legal costs, the rest of us will be tagging along shortly with a separate fundraiser. We’re all in this together, and the only reason Skepticon is doing their bit separately is because they’re a 501(c)(3) organization, so donations there are tax deductible, while the rest of us are just lowly ordinary citizens. Please do help us out by donating to Skepticon, but you might also save a few pennies to throw at the rest of us.

Oy, I can’t believe we have to do this.

Journalists, stop using this one word

Or at least learn to use it correctly. This article reminded me of one of my least favorite words:


It’s rarely used appropriately — it’s more of a weasel word applied to dignify positions that ought to be laughed off the page. For example, here are phrases that the press might qualify with the modifier “controversial”:

  • The earth is roughly spherical.
  • The earth is about 4.5 billion years old.
  • Dinosaurs did not live at the same time as humans.
  • The planet did not experience a Great Flood any time in human history.
  • The Civil War was fought over the institution of slavery.
  • The United States has been and is a fundamentally racist nation.
  • Global warming is real, and anthropogenic.
  • Vaccines work and save lives.
  • Black people are human.
  • Women are people.

Every one of those claims is actually true, and is well-supported by the evidence. The existence of people who disagree with each of them is also a fact, but that fact is not sufficient to render the ideas “controversial”. We share a world with Alex Jones and David Icke, people who state the most absurd, insane, ridiculous propositions as facts, and their intrusion into any and every argument does not suddenly make every established idea that they disagree with “controversial”. I’ve had to deal with people for years who think evolution is a “controversial” theory, and the press just parrots the C-word right back for them.

So, just a suggestion for 2017: before you label something “controversial”, ask yourself whether it is actually something about which there is serious doubt and a substantial body of realistic argument on both sides…or even whether it is at all appropriate to fit it into this cartoonish two-sides model of everything. Because I guarantee you that the evidence-less, weak, minority side is going to love it when you elevate their lunacy to the status of a “controversy”.

California has not legalized child prostitution

I knew a child prostitute once. She was 14 or 15 years old, and hung out near a bus stop in Seattle — I used to work late at the university while I was an undergraduate, and it would often happen that I’d have to wait a half hour or so at the stop before transferring, and I kept bumping into this scantily dressed girl shivering on the street. I bought her donuts. We’d talk, briefly. She was miserable and hungry, and there wasn’t much I could do other than a cruller and a little distracting conversation while she was warming up in the donut shop.

I guess I was handling the situation all wrong. I should have had her arrested.

The Tea Party is outraged because California legalized child prostitution…only they didn’t. California passed a law that changes the status of children in the sex trade from criminals to victims.

Does SB 1129 actually legalize child prostitution? No. No, it does not, and that’s an incredibly unfair reading of the law. What the law does is to actually transform a child prostitute — who is not legally capable of providing consent — from a criminal into a victim. The law is designed to aid child prostitutes pimped into the system by sex traffickers.

Sex traffickers and pimps will still be prosecuted. Men and women who sleep with child prostitutes will still be prosecuted. However, rather than arrest child prostitutes and put them in the juvenile detention system, the law provides money to pay for social services so that these children are protected. Police will continue to temporarily detain underage prostitutes, but rather than lock them up in jail, they are diverted into the dependency system, which centers on caring for abused and neglected children.

But you should see the online shrieking of the Trumpkins. All they see is that the damned liberals are trying to sell children into sex slavery, which is exactly the opposite of what’s going on. They are unable to see a young girl in a desperate situation as someone who needs help, rather than further abuse and shaming.

I sometimes wonder what happened to that kid at the bus stop. I graduated and left Seattle; I heard later that the donut shop got closed down because the owner was arrested for being the local fence. That area around 3rd & Pike (I think it was) wasn’t exactly a safe place back in the 1970s.

Finally! Someone I agree with on the Russian interference

I believe Russia did meddle in American politics, at least in the sense of assisting Republican propaganda. I could easily accept that their tinkering, and partisan influence from what should be non-partisan bureaucracies (like the FBI) shifted the vote margins by a percentage point or two. You can even argue with me by how much of a percentage and I’d just shrug and go along with it.

But what made an even bigger difference, what really made Trump possible, was an incompetent, smug, conservative Democratic party that bumbled the election at every point. It looks like Matt Taibbi shares my opinion.

Did the Russians do it? Very possibly, in which case it should be reported to the max. But the press right now is flying blind. Plowing ahead with credulous accounts is problematic because so many different feasible scenarios are in play.

On one end of the spectrum, America could have just been the victim of a virtual coup d’etat engineered by a combination of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, which would be among the most serious things to ever happen to our democracy.

But this could also just be a cynical ass-covering campaign, by a Democratic Party that has seemed keen to deflect attention from its own electoral failures.

The outgoing Democrats could just be using an over-interpreted intelligence “assessment” to delegitimize the incoming Trump administration and force Trump into an embarrassing political situation: Does he ease up on Russia and look like a patsy, or escalate even further with a nuclear-armed power?

Emphasis is mine. All the news about Russian interference is just playing to the media and giving the DNC an excuse, all while distracting the party from actually confronting their deep internal problems and doing something about it.

Because, I fear, they don’t want to do anything about it.



That’s no insult, it’s a zebrafish craniofacial development website. It’s cool that it’s managed by my graduate advisor, Chuck Kimmel, but it’s also full of images of zebrafish skulls (fish skulls in general are amazingly beautiful, with all kinds of delicate detail). I’m pining for a confocal microscope of my very own now.

It’s also a subset of FaceBase, an even grander collection of data on craniofacial development in those lesser creatures, humans and mice. If you’re interested in the formation of the head and neck — and you should be, those are complex hotspots for all kinds of developmental disorders — check it out.

I don’t wanna make book recommendations

It’s that time of year when I think everyone got Amazon gift cards and then they go asking me to make book recommendations. It’s hard. Writing a science book is even harder. And there are a lot of bad science books out there.

One problem is that everyone wants the shortcut: there’s a hot new science topic, lots of people are curious about it, they want to know more, the publishers see an opportunity, so they commission a flashy pop sci book that will sate that curiosity. And it’s garbage, because it’s written by people who don’t know the basics, or because it’s written for people who want to hear that the answer is magic. Case in point: there are no good popular books about epigenetics right now, as far as I can see. If it’s got “epigenome” in the title, just scratch it right off your list. This may change, I hope it will change, but it’s an example of a topic where the situation is rather dire. That’s unfortunate, because it’s an important topic.

At the other extreme, there are the textbooks. There is a reason that textbooks exist, and it isn’t just the venality of publishers and the conservative nature of professors: they are dense repositories of basic knowledge. My genetics class uses Klug’s Concepts of Genetics, it’s not light reading, and to get the most out of it you should actually sit down and do the problems at the end of each chapter. Does that sound like fun? How does the $196 price tag sound to you?

There is a sweet spot in popular science writing where the author manages to simultaneously explain the basics and get them right, while also getting the big picture explained in an interesting way. Carl Zimmer consistently hits that target, Sean B. Carroll is good, Adam Rutherford’s Creation does a fine job of covering biotech and the origin of life, Nick Lane is always amazing. The microbiome was one of those buzzwords that spawned a lot of crap books, like the word “epigenetics” now, but Ed Yong rose above the dross and came out with a good general science book on the subject.

But it’s still really difficult to address requests for recommendations. Usually it’s because someone wants an answer that they can digest in a couple of days of light reading, and often, that can’t be done.

The correct answer is that what you need to do is register at the University of Minnesota and sign up for my classes. I’ll whip you into shape in 15 weeks of harsh discipline.

It’s the same old racist genetics

Another domain the alt-right neo-Nazis want to claim for their own is genetics. Sarah Zang has a very good overview of how the deplorables are eyeballing modern genetics and genomics, and mangling it to support their racist theories, titled Will the Alt-Right Peddle a New Kind of Racist Genetics? My only objection would be that this isn’t a new kind of racist genetics at all — it’s the same old garbage, in which they misinterpret results to support their preconceptions. The interesting thing, though, is that geneticists are gearing up to fight back.

Jedidiah Carlson was googling a genetics research paper when he stumbled upon the white nationalist forum Stormfront. Carlson is a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and he is—to be clear—absolutely not a white nationalist. But one link led to another and he ended up reading page after page of Stormfront discussions on the reliability of 23andMe ancestry results and whether Neanderthal interbreeding is the reason for the genetic superiority of whites. Obsession with racial purity is easily channeled, apparently, into an obsession with genetics.

Stormfront has been around since the ’90s, which means it’s been around for the entirety of the genomic revolution. The major milestones in human genetics—sequencing of the first human genome, genetic confirmation that humans came out of Africa, the first mail-in DNA ancestry tests—they’re all there, refracted through the lens of white nationalism. Sure, the commentators sometimes disagreed with scientific findings or mischaracterized them, but they could also be serious about understanding genetics. “The threads would turn into an informal tutoring session and journal club,” observes Carlson. “Some of the posters have a really profound understanding of everyday concepts in population genetics.”

Carlson has been arguing with the bozos on Twitter, and I’ve been occasionally bouncing off them here and there — the “human biodiversity” gang, their intentionally neutral term for pseudo-scientific racism, kinda despises me. Even before I read this article, though, I was working up some new material for the genetics course I’ll be teaching in January specifically to address some of these problems at a fairly basic level.

One concern I’ve had for a while now is that often in undergraduate genetics we’re teaching a kind of simplified Mendelism as a starting point, and in the lab we do crosses that have been time-tested for clarity and consistency. Students start out with this kind of crude beanbag genetics in their heads, which actually is a good beginning point to get the concepts across, but then when we get into real genetics, that is considerably messier and more difficult, they may flounder. At least, that’s been my experience; but we also see it in the general public where they got a bit of Mendelian pea-crossing in high school, and then they hear something about epigenetics and just go off the rails.

This year I think my first class will involve throwing examples at them of unexpected genetics, stuff that doesn’t fit their high-school version, and start ’em out by preparing them to not trust simplistic interpretations, and to realize that Mendel’s results were a starting point for a model. It’ll also help to let them know that they don’t know everything right from the first day.

But then we’ll go right back to Mendel, and work our way up from that foundation to the hard, fun, bewildering stuff. And maybe I should try to include at least a little section on the genetics of race near the end. The garbage that Stormfront is peddling has been around for a long time, and maybe we need to start addressing it at the undergrad level now…and yes, at the high school level. I’ll have to leave that to the high school science teachers out there reading this.

“Spokane, Washington’s Most Single Man”

One man’s quest: to have sex with teenagers. His tools: misconceptions about biology, access to a meme-maker, and boundless self-pity. Ladies, meet Lucas Werner…and run away.

He’s an atheist in Washington state, going by the name “OlympiaAtheist” on facebook. I wish he wouldn’t. Atheists have enough reputation problems as it is.

His obsession — it really is an obsession, it’s basically all he writes about — is that he’s 37 years old, he wants a girlfriend who is less than half his age, and that he thinks he is biologically entitled to have sex with younger women. His strategy is to create terrible, terrible meme images and post them on the web, which I’m sure is going to draw in the high school girls like bees to honey. Here’s one example. There are many more.


You should have sex with him, because he has lower telomerase levels than younger men, and therefore he’s not going to give you cancer. And you’re a bigot and a hypocrite if you don’t take him up on his kind offer. Here’s a photo of a bridge.

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