Let’s talk about evo-devo and evolutionary novelties on Friday

It’ll be a casual science convo on Friday at 3pm Central. I’m not going to do a lot of prep work because I don’t have the time, but I can talk about new evolutionary features off the top of my head. How about mammary glands? You like mammary glands?

If you’re one of my patrons (only a dollar a month, cheap), you can also join in the Zoom call. If you hate long-winded livestreams, I’ll also pluck out one of the more interesting excerpts and post that on Saturday.

Debate as a tool for misinformation and propaganda

David Gorski rips on all those quacks and debate-me bros. It’s good stuff.

Challenges to “live debates” from science deniers are challenges that scientists should, with only the rarest of exceptions, generally decline. Nothing good comes of them, as they are theater, not science. Their purpose is not even really to persuade anyone. Rather, it is to represent pseudoscience as being worthy of being on the same stage (or Zoom meeting) as science, quacks as worthy of having their beliefs presented as being of similar credibility to science-based medicine presented by real doctors, pseudoscientists as worthy of being considered equally with scientists, and conspiracy theorists as worthy of being considered equally with real experts in a field. They are a tool of propaganda and almost never a tool to get at valid science. That’s exactly why cranks love “live public debate” so much, even when faced with criticism from an even crankier crank, and, even better for them, these forums allow them to puff up their egos by convincing themselves that they’ve bested a real expert.

If that doesn’t demonstrate why scientists should politely decline such requests, I don’t know what will. To paraphrase Scott Weitzenhoffer, such debates are like trying to play chess with a pigeon; it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory. Depriving them of that opportunity not only drives them up the wall, but it prevents them from using you, as a scientist, physician, or science communicator as a tool to foil to use to spread their misinformation.

Maybe we ought to have some kind of pledge where we all agree to not give those people oxygen. David has been more consistent than I have in spurning the debate-me bros, but I’d sign it, too.

I have to disagree with him mildly on one thing, though.

I can’t resist spoiling the answer to this question by saying right away that the answer is no. All truth does not come from “live public debate.” I won’t say that it’s always a bad idea for a science advocate to agree to a debate like the sort in the “challenges” by Dr. Oz and Steve Kirsch. After all, Steve Novella showed me how it’s done back in 2012 when he accepted a challenge of convenience to debate Dr. Julian Whitaker about vaccines at FreedomFest in Las Vegas in 2012. (The Amazing Meeting was being held the same weekend in Las Vegas; so he and I were there already.) However, it turns out that Dr. Whitaker was very bad at the deceptive debate techniques that cranks use, but also Dr. Novella was very, very good at anticipating and responding to common antivaccine arguments. Even though Dr. Novella basically mopped the floor with Dr. Whitaker, I still had misgivings, as I did when Bill Nye similarly wiped the floor with creationist Ken Ham in a debate of science versus pseudoscience with respect to evolution. Basically, I view these examples as the exceptions that prove the rule that scientists really shouldn’t debate cranks…

Floors were neither mopped nor wiped in those debates. They’re still filthy. I agree with Novella and Nye, so I agree that they did a fine job of presenting their position, but no, the “loser” of those debates did not see the error of their ways, and the majority of their fans did not change their minds. I don’t pay any attention to this Whitaker person, but I do check in on Ham now and then — and he brags about his debate. He believes he triumphed, and his followers slavishly agree with him. See also Kent Hovind, who claims to have been in 260 debates, and to have won every single one of them with half his brain tied behind his back. He even claims to have won a debate with me, which didn’t occur!

If those are our best examples of victories, I’m going to go ahead and say it: it’s always a bad idea for a science advocate to agree to a debate.

It’s time to register for Convergence

Yesterday, I got email from the Convergence con, an event that used to be a regular summertime highlight for me. I have fond memories and have really enjoyed it in the past, but it’s been disrupted the last few years by this annoying thing, rhymes with schmandemic? And I haven’t gone. It’s back this summer, and they’re doing all the right things, requiring proof of vaccination to get in the door and requiring masking at all times, but I reluctantly decided I’ll have to skip it again.

There is just too much uncertainty right now — I’m not doing anything that involves large groups of people in the foreseeable future. Maybe the year after, when the entire country comes to its senses and has taken active measures to stop the spread? Ha ha, I made a joke. I’m just going to be a contributor to anything that might increase the spread of a disease for a while.

Also, another factor: I looked over the scheduled panels, and noticed a real dearth of science & skepticism talks. They used to have a well-populated science track at this con, but it seems to have withered away. I can guess why: in previous years, I and others would get involved in the planning stages and submit long lists of prospective panel topics that the con committee could select among, and which were then a further draw for more science participation. I wonder if that specific group of people have had low confidence in the safety of attending, and therefore have withdrawn from the planning sessions? I know that’s the case for me, personally. Instead, there’s going to be a lot more video game stuff this year.

I’m afraid that if I’m too cautious to attend the American Arachnological Society meetings in person this year, I’m not going to attend a meeting that’s just for fun. Joy is dead, don’t you know?

There are so many symptoms of brain rot around us

I wonder how history will look back on the first decades of the 21st century. When I was growing up, this was supposed to be the century of miracles and wonders, of science and technology leading us to a golden age. It hasn’t panned out that way.

America throwing away its freedoms in a frightened response to terrorism. Spastically bombing and blowing up distant countries in a futile 20 year war that ended in defeat. Electing the dumbest bumbling president in our history, then doubling down by later electing a corrupt clown. QAnon. Billionaires getting richer, unchecked, while demonstrating their idiocy. Our public intellectuals are Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson. The IDW. A congress that sits on its thumbs while trying to decide if an insurrection to take over the capitol should be punished or not. Previously mentioned corrupt clown planning another presidential run while announcing his intent to jail anyone who disagreed with him…and not being arrested. Black people being murdered at will by cops. Climate change, and its neglect. The MAGA movement. Brexit. Boris Johnson. A serious pandemic that is approaching a million deaths in the US alone (although, to be fair, the US has been the absolute worst at making a coherent response to the threat.) Anti-vaxxers. And, to put the slimy icing on the shit-flavored cake, blockchain and bitcoin madness.

Here’s another story about how cryptocurrency is a giant Ponzi scheme. It was obvious from the beginning that it was a scam. It divided the population into three groups: the wealthy grifters who have been promoting it, the gullible marks who happily handed over their money to the lying con artists, and the rest of us, who were smart enough to see that it was another fraud by the rich to bleed the less well-off. Perhaps just as damning is the fact that our government closes its eyes to this massive Ponzi scheme running unchecked — perhaps because our government is run by and for the kind of people who benefit from it — when there are solutions.

Going after fly-by-night stablecoin issuers will devolve into a hopeless game of whack-a-mole. The only real solution is to ban the trade of private cryptocurrencies entirely. We cannot stop foreign actors from issuing unbacked stablecoins and manipulating crypto prices on unregulated exchanges. But we can make it illegal to sell cryptocurrencies on banked exchanges, such as Coinbase, operating entirely legally while they cash people out of the Ponzi scheme.

This would, of course, kill off cryptocurrency almost entirely, relegating it back to an oddity of the tech enthusiast. No one should shed a tear. Cryptocurrencies have virtually no legal use case. They’re great for facilitating ransomware, laundering money, distributing narcotics and child porn, running Ponzi schemes, and… not much else. They fail as currencies due to high transaction costs. They fail as “digital gold” or a “store of value” because they consume ludicrous amounts of energy to run what is essentially a glorified spreadsheet.

China already banned cryptocurrencies entirely, and India and Pakistan are poised to do the same. Other countries have also made moves to prohibit or constrain cryptocurrencies, but Western liberal democracies are notably permissive. This is in no small part due to aggressive industry lobbying, which includes hiring former financial regulators and compliance officers into the industry to influence policymakers.

We do nothing. Congress has been bought.

So yeah, I’m curious. How will the world summarize this moment we’re living in from the perspective of the 22nd century? So many problems, all with solutions that we talk about but never act upon, future citizens will wonder whether it was a consequence of contaminated tap water or some brain-eating fungus, because it’s otherwise inexplicable. Unfortunately, I’ll never know, because even if I had a time machine, the histories will probably be written in Mandarin, and all the ones in English will all be censored.

Florida Men

Here’s another reason to avoid Florida: these idiots are on the road. Apparently there was a bit of a wrangle with one person tailgating, another person throwing a water bottle, and then this guy, Eric Popper, decides that the appropriate response is to fumble in the center well and pull out a gun, and proceeds to unload 11 shots sort of vaguely in the direction of his enemy.

I’m impressed. He shot up his own car door and window, dashboard, and windshield. He has his eyes closed and is just firing wildly. Tres macho.

Astonishingly, or maybe not since this is ‘Merica, this was the outcome.

According to the arrest report, both the victim and Popper reported the incident to the police. During the investigation, Popper told state troopers he believed he was shot at so that was why he began shooting. The other driver said he did not have a firearm but said he did throw a water bottle at Popper’s car. Surprisingly, there were no reported injuries. Both parties were released at the scene.

Were they given back their driver’s licences and allowed to get in their damaged vehicles and drive away? Neither of these guys should ever be allowed on the road again.

Most people would agree we don’t come from monkeys, and we didn’t Big Bang, right


Trump guy at a Trump rally, talking about flat earth:

Let’s go Brandon!

Jesus fucking christ, I’m just going to put my head down and work on genetics now.

Currently on schedule

Deviations will not be allowed, or the whole course train will crumple in a tremendous crash.

So: Mondays I give the lecture I prepared the day before, and get the genetics lab ready, and grade student problem sets. Tuesday, prep the lecture for Wednesday, and teach the lab. Wednesday, give the lecture, compose a new problem set, also work with my biocomm students. Thursday, second lab…also the day the university throws meetings at me. Friday, all spiders. Saturday, run through the next genetics lab, make a video summary. Sunday, write Monday’s lecture.

Can’t stop all semester long. The routine rules me now.

Except this week, I have to write the first take-home midterm, which I’ll then have to grade over the weekend. I’ll cope. Today, for instance, I got up at 4:30 and got the lecture done early, to give myself a little time to put together a first draft of the exam. The trains will run on time, or a head will roll. (I’m a fascist to myself, not to the students.)

I’m also anxious about this stupid pandemic and how it’s going to try and derail me. That’s why I’ve got all these contingency plans in my pocket. I have a timetable. Death and disease must not disrupt it.

You may ask, this is only the third week of a 15 week semester, why a midterm now? One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that if the students don’t the simple fundamentals early on, their train will crash and burn when we get to the hard stuff, so I do an early check on their comprehension.

Crank up the stupid to warp factor 11!

I despair. Since I watched that Dan Olson video about crypto, and really learned how stupidly deep the rabbit hole goes, I’ve started regularly checking David Gerard’s blog, Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, every morning. This is too much. After a few decades of dealing with the ludicrously inane garbage creationists spew, and living under Donald Trump, and then having to wallow in the idiocy of Jordan Peterson, now I’m going to pay attention to criminal grifting NFT-bros? Brain, stop it.

At this rate, every last bit of my confidence in the fundamental goodness of humanity is going to be eradicated. We apparently have no vestige of any kind of survival instinct left.