When librarians turn to the dark side…

I thought all librarians were perfect saints, champions of goodness and openness, and then I read that the New York Public Library had banned Goodnight Moon for decades, because of the fact that an influential librarian, Anne Carroll Moore, didn’t like it. She apparently thought children’s books ought to have a “once upon a time” feel to them, and she was the Authority in charge of deciding what children should like.

Anne Carroll Moore was not a fan of Margaret Wise Brown’s work. Brown, with her Bank Street training, was “looking at the mind of a child, operating at the level that a child understands,” says Bird. “She was trying to get down on their level, whereas Anne Carroll Moore placed herself above the children’s level, handing what she viewed as the best of the best down to them.”

Yet Goodnight Moon is a book I read repeatedly to my kids, to the point where we wore it out and had to buy multiple copies. Just this week, I saw my granddaughter carry a copy to my wife and demand that she read it. She’s 15 months old. I can’t even imagine why a librarian would block stocking such a sweet, innocent story. Moore was apparently progressive in other ways, but I just don’t get it.

Then I read this little aside about Margaret Wise Brown.

So no one was pressuring the NYPL to stock the book, least of all Brown, who died in 1952. (Recovering from surgery for an ovarian cyst in a hospital in France, she playfully kicked her leg up, cancan-style, to show a nurse how well she was feeling; the action dislodged an embolism from a vein in her leg, which traveled to her brain, killing her nearly instantly.)

Huh. Should I go out of my way to tell my granddaughter that story? Should I wait until she’s old enough to no longer be quite so attached to Goodnight Moon before she learns about reality? Am I now policing the content she is allowed to see? I could probably turn her into a little Goth girl if I made it a point to tell her how the authors of all her favorite children’s books died.

There clearly is big money in self-help books and pick-up artistry, though

I think I first heard about Peter Boghossian years ago when that “street epistemology” fad swept over atheism, and I thought that sounded like a good idea — being able to communicate about key concepts in atheism and skepticism in a casual, informal way? Sign me up. Then I witnessed some of it at meetings and on YouTube and was quickly de-impressed. It mainly seemed to be a game of leading questions calculated to trap uninformed people into contradictions, not into thinking, and to leverage their discomfort into considering alternatives. Proponents hate me when I say it, but Ray Comfort figured this out before they did, and he’s not exactly a brilliant philosopher.

My disenchantment only grew as I learned more about this Boghossian fellow. He’s an obnoxious ass! Are you telling me he’s a master of the gentle art of persuasion? If so, he doesn’t practice what he preaches.

Now he’s come out with this book, How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide, which is just nuts. What next? Trump writing a book on modern physics, Deepak Chopra writing about mathematical rigor, PZ Myers becoming an Instagram model, Uwe Boll producing a movie classic? Boghossian and his coauthor, James Lindsay, are temperamentally and intellectually incapable of writing a guide to handling challenging conversations. They’ve always relied on simply pandering to the biases of their right-wing friends.

I’m never going to buy their book and have no interest in reading it. Oliver Traldi has written a review…a charitable review, even, although it does reject their approach, and notes that a lot of it is rehashed pablum from the self-help genre.

All in all, How to Have Impossible Conversations was better than I expected. If you do as Boghossian and Lindsay say and not as they do, you’ll probably be more successful in persuading people during contentious conversations — as long as you have enough common sense to exclude the weird shit as well.

That “not as they do” is important. Boghossian and Lindsay are just the worst.

Traldi also brings up another criticism that I’d felt worming around in my guts in all my encounters with this “street epistemology” stuff, but he expresses it well for me.

If, as Boghossian and Lindsay seem to indicate, the readers’ own beliefs are as brittle as anyone else’s and rest on as shaky a foundation, why should they be in the business of trying to persuade anyone of anything? If we are really masters of doubting everything we believe, why would persuasion techniques be a rational thing to try to engage in? What would we be trying to persuade people of… stuff we ourselves don’t think is true? Who in the world would that help?

That’s a fundamental question. What, exactly, are we atheists trying to do? Answer that first, before you try to tell others how they’re supposed to be like you.

Dramatic wars begin with a grievous setback that makes everyone desperate to fight back, right?

I isolated myself in a coffee shop, buckled down, and pounded straight through my grading. I got it done! Early even! The students…well, umm, there were some rough spots. The mean was about 65%, brought down by one specific page where they had to do some math, and it was a massacre. I was imagining that page soaked in blood, with more pouring out of my wicked pen, and was getting a little uneasy. I know what we’re going to be going over in the next class!

Now, though, I get to go home, where my wife has some chore involving the picket fence I’m supposed to do, but once that’s over, I’ve got to honor the completion of one onerous task (if not the outcome).

I’m thinking I’ll sit back and read the new Joe Abercrombie, A Little Hatred. It seems appropriate, very grim-dark, with lots of close-fought bloody battles. For that 65%, you know, which is barely passing and means half the class is getting Ds or worse so far.

(The title does not reflect my feelings towards the students, who are my brave compatriots in the struggle to master cell biology.)

Behe…yeah, he’s over and done with

When Michael Behe published Darwin’s Black Box, there was a loud “Huzzah!” from the creationists — they had new buzzwords, like “irreducible complexity”, for the first time in 50 years, and they had a scientist with a legitimate Ph.D. to cite as an authority claiming evolution couldn’t happen. The “science” was crap, but it was a strong rhetorical play, and we had to respond vigorously to it. It was garbage, but all the back-and-forth enhanced Behe’s reputation. I read it thoroughly and contributed to online discussions about the fallacies in it.

Then he came out with a second book, The Edge of Creation, and the creationists all went “huzzah?”, because there was nothing new in it, no spark of rhetorical flourish they could use in debates, but there was an implication that caused them worries. Behe was claiming you could see the hand of the Designer in ongoing processes, and that It was actively engineering diseases and parasites to kill us right now. Whoops. It was still garbage, but it didn’t trigger a surge of creationist activity that needed refutation. I skimmed it, threw it aside, ignored it.

Now he has a third book, Darwin Devolves, where he returns to the same old stagnant, tainted well and says the same old things, and it’s only going to inspire the die-hard Behe fanchildren, and isn’t going to challenge any scientists at all. I’m not going to pick up a copy. Not going to read it. Not going to critique it. Everything has already been said, he has nothing new that we need to refute, and he’s nothing but yet another crackpot…just one who has a tenured position at a legitimate university, even if he is something of a pariah to his colleagues.

But because he got creationists excited 20 years ago, someone had to suffer through his book for Science magazine, and the sacrificial victims are Nathan Lents, Joshua Swamidass, and Richard Lenski, who write that a biochemist’s crusade to overturn evolution misrepresents theory and ignores evidence.

Behe is skeptical that gene duplication followed by random mutation and selection can contribute to evolutionary innovation. Yet there is overwhelming evidence that this underlies trichromatic vision in primates, olfaction in mammals, and developmental innovations in all metazoans through the diversification of HOX genes. And in 2012, Andersson et al. showed that new functions can rapidly evolve in a suitable environment. Behe acknowledges none of these studies, declaring an absence of evidence for the role of duplications in innovation.

Behe asserts that new functions only arise through “purposeful design” of new genetic information, a claim that cannot be tested. By contrast, modern evolutionary theory provides a coherent set of processes—mutation, recombination, drift, and selection—that can be observed in the laboratory and modeled mathematically and are consistent with the fossil record and comparative genomics.

Deja vu, man. These are exactly the complaints everyone made about Darwin’s Black Box: he didn’t seem to understand modern evolutionary theory, he ignored the multiple mechanisms of evolutionary change, he blithely pretended the evidence against his thesis didn’t exist, and he just sailed on, smug in his ignorance. Nothing has changed. His formula is the same. The same counter-arguments still apply.

Let’s all just ignore this rehash, OK?

A rip-roaring horror story

I picked up this book (actually, my brother gave it to me), and I couldn’t put it down. It’s got everything. It’s got a brave heroic protagonist. It’s got a god-soaked repellent psychopath for a villain who could have stepped straight out of a Steven King novel. It’s got establishment schemers who make everything worse. And most of all, it’s got grisly body horror. I kept reading because I had to know what abomination would be perpetrated on the innocent victim next.

Only it’s not a novel. It’s Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, and it’s about the assassination of James Garfield.

The protagonist: James Garfield was one of those forgotten, minor presidents I didn’t know much about, because he served less than a year and months of that was was spent slowly dying in agony. But, I learned, he was a rather progressive candidate who accepted a nomination by popular acclaim reluctantly, and was a vigorous defender of civil rights who campaigned for dignity and equality for all races. He was a Republican. That tells you how much the party has declined in the last 140 years.

The assassin: Charles Guiteau was a cheap grifter, a narcissist with delusions of grandeur. He wanted to exploit the spoils system, whereby an incoming administration would freely hand out jobs and high ranking positions to their pals and people with money (hey, so the system hasn’t changed that much). Guiteau talked himself into thinking he deserved to be ambassador to France and that he was good friends with various politicans (he wasn’t), and when he didn’t get his due, decided to murder the president for the fame.

The real assassin: Guiteau pulled the trigger, but the real killer were the swarm of incompetent doctors who wanted the acclaim that would fall on whoever saved Garfield. Worst of the bunch was Dr. Doctor Bliss — his first name was actually “Doctor”, which would have been improbable in a novel — who seized control of the patient and limited what could be done, all the while issuing enthusiastically optimistic daily progress reports as the President spent months in steady decline. A later analysis of the treatment found the aphorism “Ignorance is Bliss” appropriate.

The body horror: the American doctors did not believe in the germ theory of disease, and rejected Lister’s antiseptic technique. So, as Garfield lay bleeding on the filthy train station floor, what did Bliss do? He stuck his unwashed finger in the bullet hole. He pulled out a series of non-sterile probes and poked them in there. He’s looking for the bullet in the worst way possible, and further, he ends up misdiagnosing him. The bullet had gone through to the left side of Garfield’s body, but Bliss was confident it was on the right, and so he kept probing on the right — every day, he seemed to be torturing Garfield further with this pointless insertion of his finger into the open wound — and eventually got the confirmation he wanted: an abscess formed, and a river of pus ran through the track he’d made with his dirty tools.

Really, you will learn more about pus than you ever wanted to know in this book. Pools of the stuff form in Garfield’s body, streams of it drain out of him, boils full of pus erupt all over his body as sepsis sets in. It is not for the squeamish. I probably just ruined everyone’s breakfast by mentioning it.

It doesn’t have a happy ending. Garfield dies. Bliss is disgraced. Guiteau is hanged. Oh, sorry, spoilers.

The one glimmer of optimism at the end is in Garfield’s vice-president, Chester Arthur, another of those easily forgotten presidents. He is a product of the spoils system, and a minion of a scheming senator who opposed Garfield and who groomed Arthur as a tool to serve his ends. Arthur was also something of a bumbler who’d lucked into appointments without actually getting elected, and who was terrified at the idea of taking over the job. He spends most of the book offstage, blubbering in fear, aware of his own incompetence. But then, when the president dies, he steps into the role, tells the scheming senator to take a hike, and rises to the occasion. His main accomplishment is the reform of the civil service, doing his best to end the spoils system.

I guess that sort of counts as a happy ending.

Anyway, if you’re one of those people into horror novels, who enjoys harrowing, gut-twisting tales of nightmarish experiences, try reading some history. It’s far scarier than anything fictional.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg has a new book, and he’s a man

He’s transitioning to be a man, and while he was working through that, he wrote a book, The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror.

On the one hand, it’s very much a work of fiction. It is not a thinly veiled retelling of relationships and experiences I have had personally. And yet I also began thinking very seriously about my gender identity and the possibility of transition about halfway through writing it. And the title, the idea of a merry spinster — the idea of jolly, self-sufficient female solitude — that’s very dear to me. And in some very real ways, that’s no longer mine.

There’s a line in one of the stories in the book, Cast Your Bread Upon The Waters, where the main character – whose gender is never clarified – refers to their son, against whom they’ve been plotting murder, like this: “My son Johnnie was very beautiful, and I loved him.” It’s one of the first unmitigated statements they make about a person they very clearly loved but are trying to build a case against. Only after they’ve done the deed can they honestly say, I loved him. I don’t want to cheapen the story by saying, “Ah, yes, I too have released someone I love into the sea, it is a point-by-point allegory for transition.” But man. That merry spinster, that Toastified Mallory Ortberg — she was beautiful, and I loved her. And she is! And I do! And she is not gone, there has been no death, no act of violence, no act of disavowal or abnegation or dismissal. And yet she’s not herein the way that she was. Anyhow, it’s a good book, I think, and I’m glad we wrote it.

And still the same writer. It looks good!

Moors are lovely places, no werewolves at all

This may be my last bit of pleasure reading for a while, as the storm of a new semester strikes. But I’m happy to say I finally got to On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk by Richard Carter, and it was wonderful. Science and history and geography and evolution and culture all tangled up in musings while walking about the moors around Hebden Bridge — I got to visit that place a while back, and it was lovely and dense with a feeling of history. Now you too can sample it! Then get on a plane or train and go visit it! I’m sure Richard will be happy to give everyone a tour.

It’s also interesting for me since part of my paternal family came from that region in the Beforetimes, in the Long Long Ago. Maybe I should pick up a copy for my Out West family.

The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes

Now there’s an ambitious title: Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived. It’s a substantial book, but I would have thought it would have had to be a bit longer to cover everyone, and really, a biography of every individual who ever lived would probably get a bit repetitious.

Fortunately, this isn’t a collection of actuarial tables and obituaries. It’s something much more useful: a description of how we know what we know about humanity, from the perspective of genetics, with a solid awareness of the limitations and capabilities of such an approach. That’s helpful — one of our big problems right now is the abuse of genetics by the ignorant to advocate for an impossibly deterministic and racist view of human history. This book counteracts that by describing the methodology accurately, and you’ll learn a lot by reading it. But don’t panic, it’s not a textbook — it does tell the stories and is a good read.

If you doubt me, a revised chapter has been made freely available, A New History of the First Peoples in the Americas, just for us provincial Americans (the full book has a far more global perspective). This one focuses on some of the historical and scientific controversies around efforts to pigeonhole American Indians into one ill-fitting racial category or another.

The idea that tribal status is encoded in DNA is both simplistic and wrong. Many tribespeople have non-native parents and still retain a sense of being bound to the tribe and the land they hold sacred. In Massachusetts, members of the Seaconke Wampanoag tribe identified European and African heritage in their DNA, due to hundreds of years of interbreeding with New World settlers. Attempting to conflate tribal status with DNA denies the cultural affinity that people have with their tribes. It suggests a kind of purity that genetics cannot support, a type of essentialism that resembles scientific racism.

The specious belief that DNA can bestow tribal identity, as sold by companies such as Accu-Metrics, can only foment further animosity—and suspicion—toward scientists. If a tribal identity could be shown by DNA (which it can’t), then perhaps reparation rights afforded to tribes in recent years might be invalid in the territories to which they were moved during the 19th century. Many tribes are effective sovereign nations and therefore not necessarily bound by the laws of the state in which they live.

When coupled with cases such as that of the Havasupai, and centuries of racism, the relationship between Native Americans and geneticists is not healthy. After the legal battles over the remains of Kennewick Man were settled, and it was accepted that he was not of European descent, the tribes were invited to join in the subsequent studies. Out of five, only the Colville Tribes did. Their representative, James Boyd, told The New York Times in 2015, “We were hesitant. Science hasn’t been good to us.”

Data is supreme in genetics, and data is what we crave. But we are the data, and people are not there for the benefit of others, regardless of how noble one’s scientific aims are. To deepen our understanding of how we came to be and who we are, scientists must do better, and invite people whose genes provide answers to not only volunteer their data, but to participate, to own their individual stories, and to be part of that journey of discovery.

A book about human genetics with a humanist perspective? That debunks 19th century dogma about race and intelligence? Yeah, it’s good. I’ve been trying to think of ways I could fit it into my already packed-full genetics course, or whether I could offer a non-majors course that incorporated it as a text.

But at least I can tell you all that you need to read it.

There will be a test. Not that I’ll be giving it, but rather that our entire culture seems to be testing you on this subject right now. You should read the book so you can answer it correctly.

Hooray for random mail deliveries!

It must be Christmas. Got a pile of packages in the mail all at once today, including some lab stuff (not shown).

I’m looking forward to Twilight of the Gods (maybe this weekend, if I’m a good boy and get my grading done), but does anyone know anything about the Theodora book? I’m always up for learning about Byzantine empresses, but this is one of those things where I didn’t request it, a prescient publisher just thinks I should take a look at it.

You’re telling me dinosaur reconstructions contain assumptions?

They do, and they always have. Here’s an interesting way to illustrate that: make reconstructions of modern animals as if we had no idea about the expected distribution of fat and other soft tissues. Here’s a baboon drawn from its bones while pretending ignorance of hair and lips and such unfossilized stuff:

This is from a book by John Conway, CM Kosemen, and Darren Naish, called All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. I’m going to have to add it to my list.