“It’s just a joke” is a joke of an excuse

Matthew d’Ancona has seen through the game and noticed that the excuse of “satire” is a hollow shell of a rationalization, especially when listeners know that the plain, literal meaning of the “joke” is what’s actually intended, and what they find most amusing is that you’ll actually be flustered and unable to cope if they say their horrible statement was “just a joke”. It’s the tool that Carl Benjamin, Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson have used to crawl to prominence.

In what moral universe is the statement “I wouldn’t even rape you” categorised as “satire”? For this is how – in an interview on Sunday with the BBC’s Andrew Marr – Gerard Batten, Ukip’s leader, described a tweet sent to the Labour MP Jess Phillips in 2016 by Carl Benjamin, now one of his party’s principal candidates in the European elections.

According to Batten, Benjamin is a “classical liberal”, “not a bad person”, “a proponent of free speech” and “wasn’t actually making a literal statement”. And there we were, thinking that he was just a vile misogynist, using social media to declare whether, in his opinion, a member of parliament should be raped or not.

In this universe, let’s assume that everyone is of average intelligence and able to comprehend their native language. The Benjamin rape “joke” is a gimmick that is read by everyone for what it is — a statement of misogyny and cruelty and contempt. The “it’s satire” claim is a pretense that everyone can see right through, but that defenders of misogyny, who are also intelligent enough to know it is socially unacceptable, can use to argue to their mothers that they don’t really think about harming women, while they can simultaneously snicker with the lads down at the pub about judging women on their fuckability.

d’Ancona and many others can see right through the rhetoric, and the people who pretend they can’t simply don’t want to.

Benjamin was invited to an atheist conference (a damning fact in itself), and the audience cheered and whooped when he repeated that remark. Don’t ever try to tell me that your typical atheist is gifted with greater intelligence and insight into reality — I’ve seen the fact that they’re just as susceptible to self-delusion and ignorance put on display. And also just as easily manipulated by terrible people who reassure them that their prejudices are righteous.

Oh no! I forgot Paul Nelson Day again!

You can’t really blame me, can you? He’s so bland and forgettable, and has such goofy ideas. I was supposed to celebrate last week, on 7 April, so I guess I’ll just celebrate now.

There will be another Paul Nelson Day. Meh. Except…

Goddammit Plato, shut up.

I see from the comments that everyone else has forgotten who Paul Nelson is.


OK, I’ll explain: Nelson is a fellow of the Discovery Institute, an Intelligent Design creationist whose schtick was to register and attend legitimate scientific meetings and present “evidence” that evolution needed a designer. At one meeting where I met him, he had a poster claiming that he had a metric called “ontogenetic depth” that he could measure, and had been measuring, to show the complexity of developing organisms. I was interested. I asked him for his protocol so I, too, could go into my lab and get a number for the complexity of zebrafish. He said he would. He didn’t. I asked him multiple times, every time he had an excuse and promised to get it off to me soon. He never did. Still hasn’t. Apparently, his poster was presented under false pretenses and his method was imaginary.

So I take this opportunity every year to remind a creationist of his failure, and to highlight his dishonesty to everyone else.

Don’t you just love reading myths about yourself?

I get a good chuckle over them. Like this claim that I am bitter about not being one of the Four Horsemen.

That’s practically an article of faith among the slymier trolls. It says they don’t know anything about me, but are colossally good at projection.

I would first point out the curious fact that I’m not and never have been an administrator of any atheist organization (I’ve fallen into the role of maintaining a blog host for a rag-tag squad of diverse writers here at FtB, but go ahead, ask them how much “administration” and “leading” I do), nor have I been on the board of any organization. I haven’t even tried to acquire any kind of leadership position, ever. Nor has anyone tried to recruit me to such a position — I think it’s been clear to every responsible person on the internet or the atheist movement that maybe I’m a little too independent (or disorganized) to be a good choice to be given any power at all.

I’m OK with that, too. I think of myself primarily as a teacher and a biologist, and I’m in my dream job right now. I haven’t even put myself up for promotion to full professor because I mainly see that as a position that would saddle me with more administrative responsibilities…although that may have to change, since I’m getting pressure from my university to fill out the paperwork and do my share of more committee work.

So this clown’s first mistake is to think I have any ambition to fill that role.

His second mistake, though, is a far more common one, and one that I consider destructive to the movement. The “Four Horsemen” were nothing but hot air. It was the equivalent of a Google hangout, with four friends getting together and filming themselves while talking. It is not an appointed position. You can’t join it now. It was four people who were already popular who hung out one afternoon, made a video, gave it a snappy title, and sold it. It’s simply perverse to think I’m upset that I wasn’t rewarded with an opportunity to shoot the breeze with some other guys, one of whom I never even liked.

What’s bad about this argument is that it has become canon that the Four Horsemen were some kind of sacred institution within atheism, something with more weight than a casual conversation.There was so much anguish expressed after Hitchens died — who now will sit in his throne? We must have a fourth horseman! It was fucking weird. It got even weirder when Sam Harris decided Ayaan Hirsi Ali ought to be crowned. There was no crown, no throne, no authority here! I said that at the time, and I say it now, the peculiar coronation of the Four Horsemen is a sign that even atheists are susceptible to symbols and myths and religious thinking, and the worst are the ones eager for authoritarianism.

Shorter answer: we never had an atheist tetrarchy, and it’s silly to think I aspired to become part of a non-existent, imaginary leadership. It’s flattering that some people think I was close enough to want to join that club, but honestly, I was also close enough to see how empty the title was, and to have a realistic view of its meaning. Which was nonexistent, except in the minds of people who desire some kind of intellectual domination.

The new astrology, accepted by True Skeptics

Skeptics, in my experience, are always strongly anti-astrology. It’s a ridiculous exercise in fortune-telling, based on the idea that distant stars and planets are influencing you at the moment of your birth and shaping your destiny. We laugh.

Then there is Chinese astrology, which we usually only see on paper placemats at Chinese restaurants*, although if you’re part of that cultural tradition, maybe you encounter it more often. It’s also ridiculous. Apparently, everyone born in 1957, like me, are “reliable and independent”.

I think we can all agree that that is absurd.

But there is one kind of astrology that is accepted without question by skeptics, and it annoys me to no end. It is the tedious categorization of “generations”. I recently listened to a podcast that went on and on about characterizing this generation, that generation, asking what we’ll call the next generation, what their attributes will be, and it was infuriating. The borders defined between “generations” are arbitrary, every generation is made up of diverse people, and you can no more define the nature of individuals with this categorization than you can with a paper placemat at a Chinese restaurant.

Look, the baby boom was a real thing: it described a demographic surge after WWII, in which sociologists noticed a rapid rise in the number of children being born. That’s a notable phenomenon. However, whoever first decided to describe the people inside that wave of births as “boomers”, shifting from a description of a population to a generalization of the individuals within that population, deserves to be dragged out and hanged, because it then spawned a whole pointless trend. First we had to name the generation after the boom, Gen X (fuck you very much, Douglas Copeland), and then we had to set up those stupid boundaries which mean nothing, since babies are born continuously, making the discontinuities pure invention. Finally, people made elaborate charts illustrating the long lists of attributes of each generation, an exercise that makes Chinese restaurant placemats look sane and sensible in comparison.

These things are garbage pseudoscience at best, and indulgences in bigoted stereotyping at worst. There are real shifts in the cultural environment over time, and it’s good to recognize those as aspects of our history, but it does a real disservice to the human beings involved to dismiss them as “boomers” or “millennials” or my favorite, “unknown, still being defined”. It’s about time someone stood up and pointed out that these are misleading labels that are about as credible as signs of the zodiac or Myers-Briggs personality tests.

*Chinese-American restaurants, I should say. I never saw them in Beijing, and the food was also completely different.

Why this should be is a total mystery

Jordan B. Peterson has found his people — the evangelical protestant theocrats at that institution of miseducation, Liberty University.

I wonder what he thought of their Creation Studies department or their doctrinal statement?

We affirm that all things were created by God. Angels were created as ministering agents, though some, under the leadership of Satan, fell from their sinless state to become agents of evil. The universe was created in six historical days and is continuously sustained by God; thus it both reflects His glory and reveals His truth. Human beings were directly created, not evolved, in the very image of God. As reasoning moral agents, they are responsible under God for understanding and governing themselves and the world.

A self-proclaimed evolutionary biologist like Dr Peterson ought to find that at least a little troubling.

I get email

Jebus. Another creationist.

isn’t it true that according to evolution a part of a feces (a bacteria) can evolve into a supermodel (human)? just a thought

No. According to evolution, they can only evolve as far as a creationist.

No. According to creationism, nothing evolves, which means you, sir, are nothing more than a part of feces.

No. Bacteria are complex single-celled organisms that should not be reduced to mere poop; your argument relies on denying reality.

No. Humans are not derived from E. coli or other fecal bacteria, but from a completely different lineage.

No. Evolution is not reducible to a goal-oriented process. Bacteria will evolve and change over time, but there is no reason to anticipate a particular multicellular outcome.

No. Supermodels are unique and specific instances of an evolutionary process (as are we all), so I don’t know why you are trying to belittle them by comparing them to poop.

No. You seem to be ignoring all the complex and contingent forces operating on organisms over the last 4 billion years.


Bored now. Fuck off, scum.

Rhawn Joseph and a new silly claim about extraterrestrial life

He’s back. The weird mastermind behind the Journal of Cosmology and Cosmology.com has created yet another fake journal, The Journal of Astrobiology and Space Science Reviews, and has made another bold claim. By looking at photos from the Mars Rovers, using just his mighty brain, he has determined that the surface of Mars is covered with mushrooms, lichens, and the bones of dead Martians, and further, he has convinced a cheesy British tabloid to report on it, so it must be true.

This is the rabbit hole I got sucked in to today, and since I’ve written about this goofball so many times before, this time I had to make it a video.

“I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous. And God granted it.”

No, we haven’t found good evidence of life on Mars.

The tabloid that annoyed me:

A few books by Rhawn Joseph:

Mars: Evidence of Life:: Evolution, Algae, Viking, ALH8401, Stromatolites, Fungi, Bones, Skulls, Methane, Martians

Sexual Consciousness: Evolution of Female Breasts, Buttocks & the Big Brain

Sexuality: Female Evolution & Erotica

Female Sexuality: The Naked Truth

Online articles by Rhawn Joseph:



Rhawn Joseph’s professional affiliation:

The Martian “science” articles discussed here:

Sex On Mars: Pregnancy, Fetal Development, and Sex In Outer Space

The high probability of life on Mars

Evidence of life on Mars

A High Probability of Life Mars: The Consensus of 70 Experts in Fungi, Lichens, Geomorphology, Mineralogy

The Fake Journals mentioned:

Journal of Astrobiology and Space Science Reviews

Journal of Cosmology


If you really want to look closely at Joseph’s brilliant satirical work, photoshopping my face onto obese women’s bodies, I have a copy here. The original was taken down.

Professional science journalism

Examples of the kinds of dissections that enraged Dr Joseph:

Did scientists discover bacteria in meteorites?

NASA speaks out boldly on the ‘bacteria from space’ claims

I am getting a very poor impression of astrobiology

The Journal of Cosmology replies

An inside view of the Journal of Cosmology

The hubba-hubba theory of human evolution

Diatoms…iiiiin spaaaaaaaaaaace!

I’m not the troll, but I think they caught one in their sample

Funny Looking Rock found on Mars!


No wonder he hates me.

If you want some real science, NASA has all these beautiful images collected by the Mars rovers available for your perusal.

Opportunity: All 228,771 Raw Images

Please don’t scan through them looking for imaginary aliens to fit your wacky hypotheses, or I shall mock you.

Dang it, I’ve fallen into a rabbit hole and it’s going to take me a while to get out

I was sent a link to some pseudoscientific bullshit, and am finding the more I scratch at it, the deeper it drags me in. It’s unadulterated nonsense through and through, with this familiar veneer of academic pretension.

I’ll be back once I’ve cut through all the garbage, if my machete holds up. If it doesn’t, well, it was nice knowing you all.

The Crank Family Robinson

Arthur Robinson is one of those classic American loons — someone with enough real knowledge to be dangerous, who then fritters away his expertise in grandiose plans that somehow never quite pan out, like his plan to build a universal medical diagnosis machine.

Here at what Robinson calls the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, the family has been assembling an archive of human urine. Eventually they hope to gather 50,000 samples, drawn from 5,000 volunteers across a five-year span. The pee is kept in cryogenic vials and stored in dozens of military-grade, minus-80 freezers on the property. Robinson and his kids have already started placing tiny urine samples, each not much bigger than a raindrop, into the family spectrometer, so they can record its chemical fingerprint — the set of peaks and valleys corresponding to its thousands of component parts. Once their catalog of prints has gotten big enough, they’ll start sifting through for hidden patterns in the data, anything that might provide a hint about our health. According to Robinson, these records could contain the telltale marks of, say, early-stage breast cancer or an approaching heart attack, or they might allow him to track the effects of treating those conditions in real time. Once the details have been worked out, he said, this cheap and noninvasive test — a tiny dab of urine fed into the hippopotamus [their personal hulking spectrometer] — could spit out a dossier of diagnostic information.

That’s bad science. Collecting vast amounts of noisy data with no specific hypothesis and then sifting through it looking for patterns is a recipe for apophenia. Another sign that this is a waste of time is that he’s been puttering away at his urine project for over 40 years, with no results. The breakthrough is always one step ahead of him.

I shouldn’t say no results — he has accomplished something. By following the PR moves of his mentor, Linus Pauling, while also preachifying radical Libertarian nonsense about climate change, he has cultivated a little cloud of exceedingly rich conservatives who throw lots of money at him in hopes of wish fulfillment. The Heartland Institute, that hive of lies and corruption, loves him, and filthy rich hedge fund managers (it’s always hedge fund managers — that occupation seems to breed foulness and evil) have been promoting him in the halls of power.

One could view his setup with idle curiosity: the science maverick on his ranch, with a seven-figure budget for his indie urinalysis. But the movement in which Robinson belongs (as a member, if not a shepherd) has nudged a few steps closer, in recent months, to the center of our national politics. Alternative theories of climate change — that is to say, those at odds with mainstream science — are now ascendant at the highest level of government, along with deep suspicion of environmental regulations. And other alt-science points of view — on vaccination, nuclear power, intelligent design — have been showing signs of purchase in the Trump administration. Even Robinson himself may soon be making tracks for Pennsylvania Avenue. Chief among his financial backers are the Mercers — hedge-fund billionaire Robert and his daughter Rebekah — who are better known these days for their avid right-wing activism and sponsorship of Steve Bannon. In March, reports emerged that Rebekah Mercer had made the case for Robinson to be the nation’s new national science adviser. “It would be an honor to do it,” he told me.

He’s probably best known to conservatives for his petition to deny climate change and reject the Kyoto protocols, which got 31,000 signatures, mostly from people totally unqualified to assess the evidence. I guess that was another of his successes, since the US failed to ratify it.

“I think [the petition] was tremendously important,” another signer, the Princeton physicist and noted climate-change contrarian William Happer, told me recently. “It showed there are lots of highly credentialed scientists who really know a lot about the details of the science and don’t agree with the alarmists.” (In the past few months, Happer, like Robinson, has been short-listed for the job of science adviser to President Trump.)

(The article is from 2017. Neither got the job. Happer did bag the job of director of the National Security Council office for emerging technologies, which is a bogus appointment. Trump has appointed a weatherman, Kelvin Droegemeier as his science advisor, who has turned out to be a weasely coward.)

He has also garnered conservative approval for his stance on nuclear power. Personally, I have mixed feelings about that — I’m not dead set against nuclear power, but I have reservations. Robinson, though, goes a bit further. He thinks nuclear radiation is beneficial, so we ought to be getting zapped more.

If we could use it to enhance our own drinking water here in Oregon, where background radiation is low, it would hormetically enhance our resistance to degenerative diseases. Alas, this would be against the law.


He also thinks we could dispose of nuclear waste by incorporating it into building materials for homes, so we could all bathe in its sweet glow all the time. He’s an anti-vaxxer who thinks AIDS was simply a physiological reaction to gayness.

And this is what the wealthy Trumpkins think is a fabulous scientist.

So, it’s “Atheist Day”

I’m sad to say that I don’t care anymore. I got all these messages that 23 March 2019 is Atheist Day, a “global event” with a few scattered local events, some of which look rather interesting, but the whole concept is leaving me cold, and I wasn’t sure why. I tried to figure out what was turning me off to the idea.

First thing that turned up was the source: Atheist Republic. I really dislike the organization — it’s very 2005, a group of people who are proud of themselves for the simplest possible conclusion, and who refuse to consider anything deeper. Their main web page makes the hoary old argument that “Atheism Is a Lack of Belief in Deities”, nothing more, and announces that there is “no singular, decisive atheist movement,” all while trying to represent an atheist movement. It’s the denial of any social responsibility, this idea that there is no point to atheism other than slapping each other on the back and telling each other, “you’re right!” when someone says there is no god. Over that.

Also, in past encounters with the group, there’s the casual, unthinking misogyny. But then, I guess that’s just part of the old-fashioned atmosphere. The good old days, you know.

And then Twitter is flooded with the #AtheistBecause hashtag. That was just a reminder of a disappointment. Some of you might recall I had this series on the blog, “Why I am an atheist”, in which I invited the audience to send me their personal story of why they were atheists. It was very popular, and there were quite a few thoughtful, interesting submissions, to the point where I was actually thinking of putting them into a book. I had drafted some release forms and was getting ready to send them out, when there was a peculiar shift. I was still getting submissions, but I was also getting all these frantic emails asking me to delete entries or edit out names — people were noticing that when they googled their names, the first thing that popped up was…their declaration of atheism. This was not good if you were, for instance, applying for jobs (and that also tells you how messed up American attitudes towards atheism are). The day the number of retraction requests exceeded the number of submissions was the day I knew that little project wasn’t going to happen.

I’m still getting retraction requests, by the way. Every few months someone writes to me and pleads to have their name redacted, or the whole dang post deleted. I oblige every time, of course.

Also by the way — the number of women making those deletion requests exceeds the number of men. I can’t imagine why.

I think I’ll spend my Atheist Day working through a couple of papers on spiders — I still have grand plans for my summer research, once this damnable snow goes away. Funny thing, though: spiders are all atheists. I guess I’ve found my people…errm, organisms.