Sunday Sacrilege: Expanding Minds & Inspiring Service

I haven’t done one of these in a while — it’s a dispiriting time to be an atheist — but I was inspired by a sign near my house. This is a truly excellent motto.

Expanding Minds & Inspiring Service

That would be a great theme for an atheist community, but of course, that sign was posted outside the Campus Lutheran Ministry Christus House, which is cause for some reservation. Religion does not expand minds, but instead narrows them. You would not go into the Campus Lutheran Ministry and find the pastor explaining how you should question everything, explore the wide world of ideas, and be reluctant to accept dogma, because their mission is to get you to accept their peculiar, limited, tightly circumscribed interpretation of Jesus Christ. The place where you’ll get your mind expanded is a few blocks north, on the campus of the University of Minnesota Morris, a secular institution.

I’m not going to accept the literal truth of that part of the sign. It’s a nice ideal, though. Too bad they don’t implement it.

The second part of the sign, though, “Inspiring Service”, is more legit. I remember from my church-going days that that was a serious and important message. Some of it was self-serving: service meant volunteering for the church or donating money to the church. Some of it was well-intentioned but horribly harmful: we were regularly exhorted to support missionary efforts in Africa. There was also, however, real good that was done. There were food drives to help the poor, visits to shut-ins, call for donations to help those who had fallen sick, requests to assist the elderly. I mowed the lawn of one little old lady who would invite me in afterwards to say a little prayer and praise the Lord. I went along with it, to be nice, and because she definitely didn’t need an argument.

A while later, she died, and she left me a gift in her will: a giant print of “Christ knocking at the door” in a fancy gilt frame. I was told it was because she’d noticed me looking at it in her house, which was true — I had found it remarkably unattractive. I think I would have preferred a decorative lamp as a Major Award, but OK, I accepted it in the spirit with which it was given. It was a nice thought.

My point, though, is that there is an honest and sincere spirit of service in many church-goers, and I think that is a good thing. An important part of a successful movement has to be an ideal of community, and that requires effort to maintain. It requires service.

That got me thinking about atheism. Unfortunately, I think atheism exhibits the inverse of the traits of religion with respect to that motto.

There are close-minded people within atheism, I can assure you of that, but at its best, atheism practices that ideal of expanding minds. I have been involved in programs specifically geared to discuss science, and there are others who’ve worked hard to communicate principles of philosophy ad logic. We can probably all list a hundred individuals who are more interested in taking advantage of the profit potential of atheism — we have our Joel Osteen types — but there are far more atheists who are honestly interested in learning and teaching. We know their interest is sincere, because the ones who do it for pure motives are also the ones who don’t make bank off lecture tours.

But “inspiring service”? Oh god. Ask that of an atheist group and the vast majority will look elsewhere and wander off. The libertarians will clamor for a hanging. YouTube videos will appear condemning everyone of trying to build a petty empire off the membership, or simply shrieking, “HELL NO” at the very idea, and screaming about SJWs taking over. If we wanted to do “service”, we’d join a church. That’s telling, actually. You can’t build a community out of a mob of arrogant individualists who consider contributing to the greater good to be a crime against their independence.

Imagine, though, what a powerhouse atheism could be if it actually implemented the ideals in that sign. Imagine a movement built on teaching and learning, and also on sharing and working together in a community where every member was respected.

We could also imagine if a church actually worked towards both ideals…they’d stop being part of a religion and turn into a secular community. That wouldn’t be a bad outcome, either.

I’m afraid neither are going to happen, though.

It’s too hot, so I’ve been hanging out with the spider babies

The lab is significantly cooler, at 20°C (the spiders are kept comfortable at 30°C in incubators) and our Steatoda triangulosa egg case has had a few feeble little spiderlings crawling out. Here’s one:

What do you think, adorable or irresistible? It was moving slowly, so it’s alive but still kind of weak and uncoordinated. Give ’em time, they’ll be hunting prey and gamboling about soon enough.

Also, useful information: S. triangulosa takes 17 days from laying to emergence from the egg sac at 30°C. File that away somewhere.

I have a secret friend!

We walked into the lab today, and discovered someone has been helping. There was a gigantic lacy cobweb stretching from the sink across the lab bench to the microscope — we use that scope every day, so we know it wasn’t there yesterday afternoon, but had appeared magically overnight. I tried to photograph it with my phone, holding up a black heating pad behind it to provide contrast, but it was just too wispy and gauzy to capture. If you squint real hard you might see the grayish lines extending from the lower left upwards to the right. And if you can’t, well, you had to be there.

We looked around and couldn’t find the spider. It probably has a cozy cranny it’s cuddled up in when those clumsy humans come bumbling around.

We had to tear the web down because, like I said, we use the scope everyday. I’m hoping our little friend will web up everything else in the lab, though, because my dream would be to come to work in a huge spider web, the walls all cobbed up, and little spiders scurrying everywhere.

“Free Speech” is the new religious excuse

So tired of the false accusations…as someone who works on a college campus, ground zero for the PC wars, I have to tell you it’s about as bogus as the War on Christmas. No, college students aren’t trying to silence conservatives, because a lot of college students are conservatives. Conservatives are pouring cash into like-minded student organizations, paying to bring in reactionary fools as speakers, handing out free posters endorsing idiocies, like Turning Point USA, and you can’t turn around without seeing reactionary clods whining about The Gays or The Trans Creeping Into Muh Bathroom, and surprise–no one sets them on fire or kicks them off campus. The crusade to slander universities for being oppressive bastions of PC thought is a load of nonsense invented by people with stupid ideas who didn’t like the fact they’d get their rhetorical asses kicked in any environment that wasn’t packed with their ideological allies.

Martha Gill gets it. The the threat to free speech is an invented pseudo-controversy. The usual suspects promote it as a way to pretend that a goddamned majority is somehow an oppressed class.

This sort of argument is everywhere. It often seems like the first line of defence when a notable figure has overstepped the mark. And just this month the academic Jordan Peterson launched a website, Thinkspot, to protect users from all the “censorship” that is around right now.

The argument that you can’t say anything was given a boost when, in 2015, the Atlantic magazine published The Coddling of the American Mind, an article by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff suggesting that young people, particularly students, were attempting to shut down discussions about topics they disagreed with. Universities, they argued, were sacrificing knowledge on the altar of hurt student feelings.

Then, the explosion. Thousands of articles were written defending free speech against the undergraduates, along with a slew of books – from Mike Hume’s Trigger Warning to Claire Fox’s I Find That Offensive! to Haidt’s 2018 book borrowing the title of the original Atlantic article. There has been the phenomenon of Jordan Peterson, who says the unsayable but is still somehow a bestselling author. (Almost every piece on has an argument defending free speech.)

She cites chapter and verse of counter-examples, and they jibe with my experience on a liberal college campus. It’s not that my environment has been sanitized of views I find disagreeable; I assure you, I am regularly rolling my eyes at the nonsense that gets promoted here. We had Ben Shapiro give a talk at UMM, and if that dishonest twerp can get a platform here, you’ve got no grounds to claim that conservatives are censored. Don’t worry, though: even as they rake in the cash from obliging conservative think tanks, they’ll keep on whining that they get no respect at the universities.

There’s a reason for that lack of respect, too.

Free speech advocates also misunderstand the motivation of those who might want to shut down a debate: they see this as a surefire mark of intolerance. But some debates should be shut down. For public dialogue to make any progress, it is important to recognise when a particular debate has been won and leave it there.

Even the most passionate free speech advocate might not wish to reopen the debate into whether women should be tried for witchcraft, or whether ethnic minorities should be allowed to go to university, or whether the Earth is flat. No-platformers are not scared – they simply think certain debates are over. You may disagree, but it does not mean they are against free speech.

There is also the problem of self-awareness. The trouble with the free speech defence is that it works to shut down any argument against it. You want to say something boring, or irrelevant, or malicious? Claim someone is trying to ban you from saying it. Dissent isn’t merely dissent then, it’s censure. (And censorship should be banned.)

Your opponents are against free discussion (and shouldn’t be allowed to engage in it). You can tack free speech on to any crackpot prejudice you have and suddenly you’re a lone truth-teller standing up to the hordes. It’s a clever rhetorical trick, the free speech defence. But it shouldn’t be taken much more seriously than that.

You want to go on a college campus and argue for a white ethno-state, or that trans people are perverts, or that life begins at conception, or that evolution is Satan’s religion, you can do that — I’ve heard all of that. You don’t get to say it without pushback from better informed people, though, and you’re not going to get the university administration to actively endorse those views, as they do the ideas that America is a pluralist nation with a diverse population that must be served by the educational system, or that human identities are complex and don’t fit into your limited bins, or that biology is a legitimate scientific discipline that tells us that your ideas are bullshit, and that they don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

That’s not censorship. That’s just us turning our backs on your foolishness.

When a glossary speaks truth

The Guardian helps us decode Silicon Valley jargon. A sampling:

diversity and inclusion (ph) – Initiatives designed to sugarcoat Silicon Valley’s systematic failure to hire, promote and retain African American and Latinx employees. The phrase is usually invoked when a company is expounding on its “values” in response to incontrovertible evidence of widespread racial or gender discrimination.

free speech (ph) A constitutionally protected right in the US that is primarily invoked by tech bros and internet trolls when they are asked to stop being assholes. Syn: hate speech. See ideological diversity.

ideological diversity (ph) – The rallying cry for opponents of diversity and inclusion programs. Advocates for ideological diversity argue that corporate efforts to increase the representation of historically marginalized groups – women, African Americans and Latinos, among others – should also be required to increase the representation of people who believe that women, African Americans and Latinos are inherently unsuited to work in tech.

meritocracy (n) A system that rewards those who most deserve it, as long as they went to the right school. The tech industry is a meritocracy in much

same way that America is a meritocracy. See diversity and inclusion.

That’s exactly how I translate those terms in my head.

Can we untangle the bad associations of GMOs?

Two things go together in the public mind: GMOs and Monsanto. I haven’t been a major crusader for GMOs, but whenever I’ve mentioned them (and my positive views toward them), I get emails accusing me of being a shill for Monsanto…but I detest the greedy corporate giant. If I were giving talks on GMOs, there’d be lots of disavowals of Monsanto, and I’d be begging people to not confuse the two.

Kavin Senapathy has been much more active on the GMO front, and she also wrestled with this problem. Now she explains all the ugly contradictions of dealing with Monsanto.

Everything I’d written and said in support of GMOs was factually correct, but my approach had been all wrong. It’s impossible to have a constructive conversation about GMOs without acknowledging that underlying the unscientific claims made by many GMO opponents is a legitimate desire for trustworthy behavior from the companies that dominate the agricultural marketplace.

For instance, I had dismissed the Non-GMO Project’s ever-present butterfly labels as an annoying tactic based on pseudoscience. But the label’s popularity showed that something in the Non-GMO Project’s narrative was resonating with the North American marketplace: The labels play to people’s desire for transparency, to their underlying lack of trust in the food system, and to their desire to have some say in the way our food is grown and made.

Yes! Every organism is genetically unique (almost) and has undergone some modifications — that we’ve moved from trial-and-error reliance on chance variation to directed modifications does not make the technique “bad”. What is bad, though, is the domination of agriculture by corporations that aren’t shy about using unethical skullduggery to maintain that position.

Senapathy is right. What needs to be done first is isolate capitalist villain Monsanto, hold them accountable for their behavior, and then, I think, GMOs will become a non-issue, as they should be.

Apparently, I missed out on the debate

I think this is a paraphrase. I wish it weren’t.

I totally skipped out on the Democratic debate last night because nowadays my usual reaction to any political event involves daydreaming about beheadings and skulls and ripping out hearts and leveling the senate already, and the visceral loathing makes me uncomfortable. If you want to talk about your takeaway from the ridiculous mob of chattering wannabes, go ahead, distill it down for me.