Be excellent to one another!

I saw Bill & Ted Face the Music this weekend, and this is not a review. The movie is too stupid and goofy to warrant a review, and the plot does not have any logic to be explained, and the characters are all cartoons that don’t need analysis, so there isn’t much to say about it.

I still recommend it highly. If you need a dose of giddy optimism with a triumphantly cheerful ending — as we all do — it’ll do the trick, as long as you don’t think too hard about it. You wouldn’t be watching a Bill & Ted movie if you wanted to think, though, so that was a pointless point.

Billie and Thea are most excellent successors to Bill & Ted, though.

Why do people believe the Earth is flat?

That’s a hard question, with a lot of different answers — I’m more accustomed to addressing a similar question, “why do people believe in creationism?”, and I agree with one of the assertions of this blogpost that says flat-earthers (and creationists) aren’t necessarily stupid. It’s true! The problem with these misbegotten questions is that smart people get derailed into defending them, at painful length. It’s tragic, because these are people who are deeply interested in what are scientific questions, and they’ve become committed to the wrong answers, because humans are better at deciding their presuppositions are correct, rather than in questioning whether they might be wrong. So I’ll accept half of this statement.

I, as many people in science communication, am fascinated with flat earthers. Here you have a group of people steadfastly rejecting evidence that’s right in their face. Today, I want to tell you why I nevertheless think flat earthers are neither stupid nor anti-scientific. Most of them, anyway. More importantly, I also want to explain why you should not be embarrassed if you can’t remember how we know that the earth is round.

The part I disagree with is the claim that they are not anti-scientific. Not stupid, sure, but the whole problem is that they are using their intelligence to promote anti-scientific perspectives. I think the author is trying too hard to be charitable and infer a shared respect for the scientific method. I also think she’s fitting the breadth of weird views into too narrow a range, even while acknowledging the diversity of flat earth beliefs.

But first I have to tell you what flat earthers actually believe and how they got there. The most popular flat earth model is that of a disk where the North pole is in the middle and the south pole is an ice wall on the edge of the disk. But not all flat earthers sign up to this. An alternative is the so-called bipolar model where both poles are on the disk, surrounded by water that’s held by a rim of something, maybe ice or rocks. And a minority of flat earthers believe that earth is really an infinite plane.

They mostly agree though that gravity does not exist, and that the observations we normally attribute to gravity come instead from the upward acceleration of the flat earth. As a consequence, the apparent gravitational acceleration is the same everywhere on earth. I explained last week that this is in conflict with evidence – we know that the gravitational acceleration is most definitely not the same everywhere on earth.

Here’s a problem: I’m not an expert on flat-earth belief, but I’ve seen the documentary Behind the Curve, and a scary number of YouTube videos, and I’ve never seen this claim that the flat earth is constantly accelerating upwards. Most of the stuff I’ve seen is people also freaking out over the idea that the earth is in motion, spinning and moving through the universe. It’s the notion of movement that is part of their objection.

They do often deny the reality of gravity (and also of space, in general), but the most common explanation is “density” — that denser objects sort of “sink” downwards, which kind of misses the question of what defines “down” in the first place. Their rationalizations are an incoherent mess, and there is a multitude of bad explanations. Should we give them credit for honestly trying to answer the question, but being hindered by a weak notion of evidence? Like creationists, flat-earthers do seem to only be aware of evidence from personal experience, and are unpersuaded by mathematical abstractions or theoretical considerations or observations that aren’t a product of simple eyewitness interactions.

Where I object is in the idea that their disagreement ought to be taken seriously philosophically, or that they are really trying to address a question scientifically…they just lack the tools to get the answer.

What’s wrong is that flat earthers’ claim they are leading a scientific argument. But there is no scientific argument about whether the earth is flat. This argument was settled long ago. Instead, flat earthers’ argument is about whether you should trust evidence that other people have collected before you. And it’s an important argument because this trust is essential for society and science to progress. The only alternative we have is that each and every one of us has to start over from scratch with birth. You see, flat earthers would eventually figure out the earth is round. But it might take them a thousand years until they’ve reinvented modern science.

This is why I think scientists should take flat earthers’ philosophical problem seriously. It’s a problem that any scientifically advanced society must address. It is not possible for each and every one of us to redo all experiments in the history of science. It therefore becomes increasingly important that scientists provide evidence for how science works, so that people who cannot follow the research itself can instead rely on evidence that the system produces correct and useful descriptions of nature.

Except there’s a fundamental misapprehension here that they want a correct and useful description of nature. They don’t. They have a conclusion already, and what they actually want is a rationalization that only looks scientific that delivers them to their desired answer. That is the opposite of scientific reasoning. They want validation, preferably in the form of buzzwords from physics or biology or whatever discipline they realize has more credibility than their uninformed speculations.

Ultimately, most of these people are trying to defend religious beliefs. Many of them are painfully overt about it — the Bible says we were created in 6 days, or that the Earth is flat and has corners — and openly declare that science is atheistic and not to be trusted. Scratch a creationist or a flat-earther, and you’ll typically find a religious zealot.

Again, that doesn’t imply that they’re stupid. The most effective supporters of their religious beliefs have been smart people who are very good at twisting logic to deliver their predetermined conclusion. Look at Philip Johnson, for instance: a clever, educated man who used lawyerly logic to support an unscientific claim of Intelligent Design creationism, and he was darned effective.

What I’m saying is don’t underestimate your opponents, don’t assume they’re ignorant yokels, but at the same time don’t give them credit for sharing your appreciation of rational, scientific thinking, because that’s not what they’re doing.

The RNC is a racist, criminal organization, and the US is run by a mob family

I have enough rage in me right now that I’m more concerned with keeping my heart from exploding than I am in feeding the flames, but I still watched this episode of John Oliver on the RNC. I didn’t watch those smug fear-mongering Republican assholes while they were in full flower, and Oliver delivers just the right dose of their evil to keep me alert but not spasming in twitching, bleeding-from-the-ears fury.

More protests and riots, please. Tumbrels and guillotines, too. Écrasez l’infâme. Tear down the criminal regime and it’s lackeys.

It’s another week

My university stays the course, no changes in policy, although the number of COVID-19 cases in Stevens County are climbing, I’ve had students tell me they can’t come to lab because they’ve been exposed, and are under quarantine. It’s all so predictable, but we’re on cruise control.

The missives from on high are sounding just like this humor piece on Miskatonic University’s safety plan.

Thank you for submitting Miskatonic University’s proposed COVID safety plan. We have a few brief comments and questions.

Social distancing in classrooms
You write that “through queer and monstrous perversions of geometrical laws, students will be seated at blasphemous angles outside the curves of our dimensions, thus remaining safely six feet apart.” Please clarify whether safe distancing could be achieved without resort to “loathsome horrors beyond human conception.”

Food services
We agree that students need not wear masks during meals. However, please revise the final plan to say “while eating,” rather than “while slobbering and ravening with delight.”

Huh. I didn’t find it very funny.

It’s bad, so bad

Tomorrow morning at 10am Central, I’ll attempt to do a Bad Science Sunday video live. I’ve got an awful creationist book — it’s by an engineer — and we’ll have some fun tearing into it.

I won’t try to do the whole thing, but will focus on his arguments about evolution. You’ll see how bad this book is, even though he tries his best to pretend he’s all about logic and reason and not at all about creationism, but he’s not very good at hiding it.

Done! Unfortunately, it took an hour and a half to just skim through a few fragmentary excerpts fro this very bad book. Creationists have a real advantage.

The Legend of PZ terrifies the populace, once again

Oh, no — I have been not-invited to not-appear on a radio show about me.

Dear PZ,
I host a US radio show from here in the UK, with ArtistFirst Radio Network, which predominantly focuses on bullying and abuse.
A few years ago, you had an infatuation with attacking me. To this day, I have no idea what this was about, or even what provoked you.

Wait, what? This person is named Debra Rufini, and I had to look her up — she was gesturing maniacally on the interwebs at me back in 2008. I can tell you what “provoked” me: she was sending me dozens of emails, sometimes daily, in which she complained in the same way she is here. I responded to her first email, which was a list of 50 “proofs” for the existence of a god. It was very silly.

I replied to her frequent and obsessive emails precisely four times — while she was pestering me for over 5 years. To claim I had an infatuation with attacking her is contrary nonsense.

When I politely asked you, you cowardly ran away from facing up to me, hiding behind your website, insisting that I had an ‘obsession’ with you – one of the major traits of NPD; provoking, followed by victim blaming.
The subject of my last show was the serial killer, Rosemary West. After all my broadcasts covering abuse of all forms; from spiritual abuse carried out in the church, to Narcissistic Personality Disorder, it’s only right, and about time that I host a show exploring and examining my own bully – you!

Asked me what?

To claim I’m hiding behind my website is absurd. I’m right here, easily accessible, with my email right there (she’s had no problem finding it), and I’m not clear on what she expects as an alternative. I’m not going to show up in person at her front door — that would be stalkerish, and would suggest a degree of interest in her that simply isn’t there.

But sure, go on some tiny (or even popular) radio show and talk about me. Don’t care.

I would invite you to be my guest on next month’s show … but you will only run off into your mouse hole, gathering your flying monkeys along the way, enhancing the degree of bullying and abuse.
You targeted a weak and vulnerable person in me all those years ago. Justice will be served on behalf of myself and all the others you have targeted. You have other victims too, don’t you?!

Yes. I have other victims, just like Debra Rufini. People who regard me as evil personified, who I mostly have never heard of. Don’t care.

In preparation for this broadcast, I Googled; ‘PZ Myers- bullying.’ I was shocked, but not surprised at the amount of people you have attacked. What a vile individual. You have attacked Professor Dawkins, mentions how you mock and attack anyone who doesn’t agree with you, where you have been referred to as a bully. On another site, you have been referred to as a ‘bigot.’ You’re like an atheist Shirley Phelps-Roper. How easy it is for you to select online strangers from behind your keyboard.

Shocking! I must have mocked and attacked this atheistrev person, although I don’t recall and don’t know who they are. My victims are so numerous I can’t keep track of them!

I have made contact with all the websites which have exposed you for the despicable person you are, sending them this very message, and inviting them for comment, which of course you are free to immaturely post on your website in your usual pathetic manner. However, if you tweak it, as you’ve done so before, you will only be exposing yourself for the dishonest person you are.

All the websites? I don’t believe you. They are like the gnats flitting above the dungpiles on the prairie, too numerous to be counted. Do not underestimate my perfidy, I’ve been cultivating it for years.

I would never “tweak” one of her emails. Every detail is just too amusing. The last time I responded, I included her precise words as a screen capture to make sure no nuance was lost.

This email to you will be aired on the show. And, this is what happens when a bully’s weak victim grows wings of steel, and gets her own radio show. Bullies never win, even if it takes years later for justice to be served. For every anti bullying campaign, media event, or organisation, someone like you is responsible.

Soar high on those wings of steel, Ms Rufini! Don’t care.

Now I have to go add another email filter.

Spider adventure time!

It’s been a rough week, and next week will be even rougher. I seem to have accumulated a collection of scheduled committee meetings. On top of that, I’ve got my first heavy dollop of grading to get done, and next Friday is a big math day which is always frustrating for some of the students.

So today I’m playing hooky and skipping town! Mary and I are heading north with a cooler to stock up on groceries, and to make a field trip to the ecostation looking for spiders. I shall emerge rested and refreshed later this afternoon, I hope.

Night moves

Our spiders are very quiet during the day, but we noticed that every morning their cages were full of fresh cobwebs. We knew they were sneaking around at night, and we resolved to catch them at it. A student, Ade Atolani, and I put together a gadget so we could watch.

We got a Raspberry Pi with a NoIR camera, drilled a hole in a plastic cage, and mounted it above a spider. I had no idea if this would work adequately at all — would we have enough resolution to even see the spider? How effective was this camera at seeing in the dark anyway? — so we just slapped together a quick trial run. We turned everything on late one afternoon, told the Raspberry Pi to take a picture every 60 seconds, and let’s see what we get. Miraculously, it all worked, first try.

What you’ll see in the video is a rectangular wooden frame in a cage, and we’re looking down on it. There’s a nice velvety dark cloth on the bottom, to minimize glare and reflections. At the beginning, there’s diffuse light from the window, so the infrared camera isn’t kicking in yet, but when it gets dark enough, the IR lamps automatically switch on, and the purplish black cloth looks pink. The important thing is that we can see the spider all night long, as it goes through bursts of activity. Awesome.

It looks like we’re going to have to sample at a higher rate, because the behavior is very bursty. We’ll enclose the whole set up in a light-proof box to get rid of the extraneous light. I also want to try some side illumination with an IR lamp to see if we can resolve the webbing as it goes up. This was just a pilot experiment, but it’s very promising.