Hey, that’s Bill Nye!

Did you know that before he hit it big with a kids’ science show, he was in a small comedy group local to the Seattle region? Here he is, playing a cop in Ballard. If you don’t know, Ballard is a suburb north of Seattle that is infested with people of Scandinavian ancestry.

I think science communicators can greatly benefit from a background in theater or similar performing (which I totally lack, I know, you’ve noticed). So don’t be shy about engaging with any audience on any topic!

The sad little #seriousacademic

By now, probably everyone has read that strange moan of anxiety about social media titled “I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer” — or at least, if you’re an academic who enjoys a good eye-roll over someone with a massive 2×4 rammed up his butt, you’ve read it. It’s the one where an anonymous young Ph.D. student whines about people on Twitter or taking selfies or using instagram or writing blogs…in an anonymous blog post. They make a lot of silly complaints about people using hashtags at conferences and how the powers-that-be keep telling them how important their social media presence is to their career (which is really weird: my experience has been that administrators dread the fact that professors are speaking publicly about their experiences at their institution, and would love to be able to bottle that genie back up). There has been a flood of rebuttals to the fundamental wrongness of the “serious academic”, and I’ll just mention The Tattooed Professor, Meny Snoweballes, and Dean Burnett as good examples.

I want to take a different tack. I feel for this person.

It’s a really tough time to be a starting academic — it’s always a tough time. We get so many demands. Publish. Publish lots. Write grants. Write many grants, because almost all of them will be rejected. Teach. Every course is a challenge, and some of us have to teach multiple courses per term. Serve on committees. Attend meetings. Review papers. Dance, monkey, dance, or you’ll never get an academic job (you probably won’t anyway), you’ll never get tenure, you’ll never get promoted.

And then all those voluble assholes on the internet are adding pressure to tweet or write blogs or get out of the lab and talk to the public? Oh, hell no. Let me just fill up my lab notebook with numbers and gel photos and data, and pay me to do that. I’m running as fast as I can to just keep up without throwing these damned social obligations on my back.

I sympathize. Really, I do. There are lots of things I don’t like about my job (die, committee meetings, die), but I’m obligated to do them, so I do them. No matter what your job, there are always inevitable requirements to occasionally shovel out the stables. Academia in particular is rife with an excess of expectations, and everyone knows it.

But the first thing I have to point out is that social media isn’t one of them. You won’t get tenure for your Twitter activity, and in fact there is an academic bias against outreach and social activity and public engagement. “Serious academic’s” bleat is less an act of rebellion than a performative act of solidarity with staid traditional academics. It’s a person looking in terror at the chaos and uncertainty ahead of them in academia, and picking what they think is the side of the establishment…and they aren’t even certain that that is the right side to pick, witness the fact that their essay is anonymous.

But the most important thing I have to say is that they’re doing it wrong. They’re focusing on the obstacles and forgetting about the purpose. Nobody goes into academia for a love of grant writing and committee meetings. We don’t even go into it over the thrilling prospect of tweeting to a conference hashtag.

We go into it for the joy of the discipline. Remember that?

Personally, I signed on to this life because of some great experiences in science. I was lucky and was employed in a lot of extracurricular science stuff through college, and it was that that was more influential than my classes, I’m sad to say. I was doing animal care and assisting in animal surgeries in the department of physiology and biophysics — lowering electrodes into a living brain was enthralling. I worked with Johnny Palka on fly pupae, watching nerves grow into the developing wing. I did mouse brain histology in the psychology department with Geoff Clarke. I was Golgi staining fetal tissue with Jenny Lund and counting dendritic spines. These were the events that convinced me that I wanted to do more.

I went off to graduate school with Chuck Kimmel and discovered zebrafish embryos. Do you people even know how beautiful an embryo is? Exploring how cells behave in the complex environment of the organism is what kept me going.

Very serious academics

Very serious academics

I did a post-doc with Mike Bastiani and saw that grasshopper embryos are just as beautiful.

Then my first job at Temple University, where I had teaching obligations for the first time, showed me that I really enjoyed teaching. So I’ve followed that star, too. It all works. At every step, pursue the joy, while never forgetting to also do the duties. Some people don’t enjoy the teaching, so they focus more on the research. Some people, believe it or not, have a talent for management, so they move into administration, or into running large labs.

And some people write books. Or make videos. Or compose music or poetry about esoteric subjects. Or write blogs. It’s all good. You don’t have to do it all. You just have to always keep your attention focused on what brings you to your bliss.

Don’t let other people tell you what you must do with your life, and avoid the temptation to lecture others on what is the one, true, proper way to be an academic. If you find deep satisfaction in grinding out data, do it. If you enjoy teaching, do it. If you enjoy communicating to the public about that weird stuff you’re doing, do it.

I feel sad for “Serious Academic”. So young, and so certain of the one true path for all. He reminds me of someone.

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

Try being the “Joyful Academic” for a while. It can be hard, especially in the current climate, but if nothing else, being true to yourself is more rewarding than trying to be true to someone else’s ideal.

Online Gender Workshop: Innumeracy

Online Gender Workshop, as ever, is brought to you by your friendly, neighborhood Crip Dyke.

A new and interesting series of posts directly related to gender should commence later today. And, yes, I’m aware that life came along inconveniently and too-long delayed my promised gender-sudoku post. That, too, will come, but not immediately.

Here I just want to point out of bit of innumeracy that bugs me. Why innumeracy in the online gender workshop? Ultimately for the same reason as the sudoku-gender connection: the biggest problems caused by our gender systems are with

  1. The compulsory nature of the system, and
  2. The poor thinking we humans do both implementing and reflecting on the system.

Any general improvement in critical thinking among the various peoples of the world should be of use in correcting #2, at least over time. And so I can be a bit of a martinet on the issue of carefully and critically thinking for oneself.

[Read more…]

#cvg2015: Electric boogaloo

We’re up all bright and shiny this morning, after partying until 1am last night with celebrities: Amanda Marcotte and Rachel Swirsky stopped by, along with milling hordes of people who burned through our party supplies a little faster (OK, a lot faster) than we expected. We’re making a grocery store run this morning.

Then at 12:30, we’re showing people how to do a simple alcohol extraction of DNA from fresh fruit. At 3:30, I’m off to the Edina room to answer science questions.

Working scientists take time away from their undersea labs and volcano lairs to answer your science questions! Panelists: PZ Myers, Gwen “Bug Girl” Pearson, Steven Theiss, Rachael Acks, Raychelle Burks

At 5, it’s Science vs. Religion in Dystopia, in Atrium 4.

Authors like Philip Pullman, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien have often pitted religion against science, blatantly or through symbolism. How do these authors tilt their respective playing fields? How do their dystopian portrayals of the “other side” compare? Panelists: PZ Myers, Heina Dadabhoy, Emily Finke, Jairus Durnett, Cassandra Phoenix

Then, at 8pm, the party begins once again! I missed you there last night, I hope you can make it now.

#cvg2015: The beginninging

Today is the opening day of Convergence. Yesterday, we got all our stuff moved in, today we get it organized and pretty.

What I’m doing today: this afternoon at 2 Mary and I will be in the Sandbox showing kids how to identify bones in owl pellets. It will be disgusting and fun.

At 5pm in Plaza 1 I’ll be on a panel that is optimistic: “Technology won’t destroy us.”

Paranoid predictions about the technological downfall of mankind abound in media, but technology has also made human lives immeasurably better. We’ll talk about more realistic portrayals of tech, science, and human improvement. Panelists: Renate Fiora, PZ Myers, Heina Dadabhoy, Dan Berliner, Jason Thibeault

I’ll do my best to bring everyone down.

Then at 8pm, we open our party room (228) to the world. We’ll be there until 1am, talking and drinking and shaking our fists at god or whatever it is we atheists do.

Come on out!

Space left me feeling cold and empty


I’m a fan of the Science Museum of Minnesota, and I’m out here touring the place today, but their latest theme, Space, did not satisfy. Maybe it’s just me, but I think the space program has lost its way — if it ever had a good direction in the first place — and the exhibits just confirmed it for me.

Gadgetheads will enjoy the exhibits. It’s gosh-wow engineering all the way through. The Omni Theater movie is called Journey to Space, narrated by Patrick Stewart, and you’ll get your fill of thundering rumbly lift-offs and a dome-shaped screen filled with flame and smoke. The space shuttle is glorified, we are given many grandiose promises about the next generation, the Orion spacecraft, and we get to watch a few of the hundreds of astronauts who’ve been to the International Space Station gamboling about.

[Read more…]



I am full up on science — we had a long day of zebrafish-inspired talks (also sticklebacks! And Amia!), and I am dazzled with how far the science has progressed since my antique days as a graduate student. I’m also impressed with the legacy my graduate advisor has created — great labs live forever.

The science part is done. Tomorrow it’s an all day party at the Kimmel farm. I’ll be home sometime around 5, so if anyone in Eugene wants to get together in the evening (in addition to the meetup on Sunday morning), I’ll probably be hanging about the Valley River Inn bar.

Online Gender Workshop: Teaching Gender Attribution for Skeptics and Scientists

Online Gender Workshop, as ever, is brought to you by your friendly, neighborhood Crip Dyke.

In a recent thread, Okidemia posed a question that many parents have these days: When and how should I teach my child/ren about trans* folk?

Okidemia framed it this way:

…kids have not been told about transpeople yet, because we don’t know any. Thus an important educationnal question:
at what age would you* speak about it to kids? (certainly, you* should begin before they meet psychologically transgendering acquaintances –as opposed to biologically transitioning which certainly happens later in life.

One of the reasons this question seems so confounding is that, like many confounding questions, it is the wrong question. [Read more…]

Drowning in noise: How accommodating nonsense poisons our discourse

I’m at the World Humanist Congress, and just finished up an hour and a half tag-teaming David Silverman on the topic in the title. He played the bad cop, while I was the good cop, which is an interesting switch. Here’s the text of what I planned to say, but of course I tended to drift from the script in the actuality.

Whoever said that the answer to bad speech is more speech never had to run a modern website. I used to run my own web server for my blog, before I realized that I had better things to do than nursemaid a swarm of technical details and decided instead to pay a professional to do it well, and one of the things I had to do was maintain all this code that was there specifically to limit access. It was vitally important. I could be down deep in the bowels of the beast, monitoring all the incoming data, and the instant I would plug that ethernet cable into my server to connect it to the internet, literally within milliseconds it would be getting hit with pings — almost all spammers, and also lots of automated hacking code, looking for loopholes in my implementations of communications protocols so that bad messages could be uploaded into my machine to do them harm.

Every website, even the ones that assert the most devout dedication to the principles of free speech, are extensively filtered. From my personal experience, I’d have to say that less than 1% of the attempts to communicate via the internet are legitimate, or are sincere, honest attempts by a human being to talk to other human beings, and the bulk of the attempted discussions are spam and dedicated efforts to corrupt communication.

You don’t have to run a server to know this. Just about all of you use email; every modern email server has built-in traps to block spam. Gmail, for instance, uses some smart algorithms to detect and dispose of spam and you don’t even see most of the garbage that is trying to come through. You really would be drowning in noise without those filters.

It’s also the case in every instance of non-technological discourse in which you engage. Look at this room; I’m talking, and you’re all being so polite and not interrupting; no one is yelling at me, and none of you are suddenly standing up and announcing that you’d like to sell me penis enlarging pills. And then when the Q&A rolls around, you’ll all take turns. Of course we limit speech all the time by common courtesy and by formal rules of order. We could not have a civilized conversation without these rules.

The tricky part is establishing those rules. The naive free speech absolutist is neglecting the fact that the privilege of free speech has to come with the responsibilities of free speech. Every right has to come with a recognition of limits on those rights.

Some of those limitations are easy. For instance, you may have a right to free speech, but you don’t have a right to an audience. Here’s David Silverman, who just gave a ferocious talk advocating the importance of atheism, and I might think everyone ought to hear that…but that doesn’t mean Dave gets to show up at someone’s house at dinner time and harangue everyone with it. It doesn’t mean he has the right to show up at an Anglican church on Sunday and override the religious sermon with his far superior atheist sermon. He should have the right to set up an Atheist TV channel, so people can voluntarily tune in and listen to what he has to say, if they want to.

I think we can all agree that we don’t have a right to impose our views on others, but that it is a violation of the principles of free speech when others, governments or religious organizations or corporations, try to dictate what we may read or hear — that on the one hand, forcing people to read a message is wrong, but on the other hand, limiting voluntary access to media is also wrong. So when governments arrest individuals who express their rejection of religion, or when they shut down access to Twitter by all of their citizens because the state is being criticized, or when the press is corrupted and no longer questions the actions of the state, we can all agree that that is a violation of a principle that we consider important for the welfare and happiness of free people.


Not even that idea is without exceptions.

Here’s one big problem I have. Words have power. I shouldn’t even have to say this to people in an organization which believes strongly in the power of communication and persuasion and reason: we’re not promoting the cause of humanism with soldiers and tanks, but solely by telling people about the virtues of humanist thought, and encouraging open-mindedness and critical thinking and the questioning of dogma. And we all think that working within the framework of law and media is an effective and appropriate way to do that. At least I haven’t heard anyone suggesting that the world humanists need to start up a military arm.

But there’s often a curious asymmetry in how we think about this. Words have power, but we think everyone ought to be able to use this power freely? Really? There ought to be no restrictions on how words can be expressed? I don’t think we really believe that. We ought to recognize that, because it’s the only way we can properly develop rules and protocols for restricting speech.

Let me give you some specific examples where free speech absolutism fails.

Should creationism be taught in science classes? Many creationists literally argue that their freedom of speech is abridged when they are not allowed to teach their views in public school classrooms, to children. One of the most popular slogans of the intelligent design creationism movement is “Teach the Controversy” — they are arguing that the issues ought to be resolved by giving equal time to all sides, and letting the kids decide which is right. That really is a free speech argument.

I’m a teacher, and I have no illusions. If you give kids a choice between an easy answer that says all you have to do is believe, and that god did it is an acceptable alternative, vs. the complex answer that requires math and data and a rejection of the dogma their parents promote, most will happily accept the one that makes studying for the exam easiest. I also know that if we open the door to anything goes, then education becomes a matter of opening a firehose of noise on the classroom, and drowning the kids in chaos.

The answer is that we have to have criteria for determining what core ideas must be taught, and that we humanists and atheists have a pretty clear idea on that: we advocate for a secular and universal education, where the content is dictated by reality : if an idea is supported by the evidence and there is a clear reasonable path by which any reasonable person can arrive at a consensus, then we should teach that, and not the idea that is contradicted by the evidence. But even that answer is fraught: how do you teach poetry? And the creationists will reply that what must be taught is socialization and the proper place of the student in society, and only religion can give that. We could argue for hours over this issue, and we do.

Here’s another example:

Should rape and death threats be protected as free speech? This is a hot issue on the internets nowadays, and yes, people are actually arguing that using online media to harass, stalk, and threaten people is a free speech issue. And it is! If you’re a purist who believes that everyone ought to be free to create multiple pseudonymous accounts and deluge their enemies with racist, sexist, or abusive slime, then of course you’re going to demand that your right to do so may not be infringed. You’ll also make the same playground excuses we all heard as kids.

“Toughen up.” “Only crybabies can’t take it if they’re called a mean name”. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

These excuses are all wrong. Remember, words have power, and only abusers of that power will deny it. The victims of these abusers are already tough — it takes a thick skin to persist on the internet anymore — and they’re not complaining about one insult. They are drowning in the noise: technology has given bullies the power to deliver a torrent of abuse online with great ease, and unfortunately, most of the media are enablers of that bullying. Getting told once that you ought to be raped is annoying and infuriating; being told dozens of times every day is discouraging and repressive. I know way too many people who have been driven completely off the internet by free speech fanatics who flood all of their communications with hatred and abuse.

Just because I’m trying to be difficult today, keep in mind as well that some people find messages that their cherished religious beliefs are false to be discouraging and repressive. These are concerns that must be recognized; it is important that we don’t fall into the trap of glibly announcing that free speech is simply wonderful, all we have to do is talk to each other in the sunlight and reason with one another, and everyone will be won over by the side of goodness and logic and mutual respect. Because that won’t happen.

Should lies be protected as free speech? How do we deal with, for instance, faith healers? Their promises don’t work. They are so tempting to the weak and sick, though: when the choices are to undertake an agonizing regime of chemotherapy, against simply praying harder, there are many people who will understandably choose the latter course, because someone is lying to them about the effectiveness. How do we deal with advertising? It’s easy when the lies are obvious, such as the old campaigns in which doctors were recruited to endorse cigarettes, but what about ads that say beautiful women will find you irresistible if you swamp your body odor with Axe body spray and drink the right kind of watery beer? Don’t pretend that it’s all just caveat emptor and the weak have only themselves to blame — we’re all susceptible to psychological games, says the guy using an Apple iPad, because they’re really cool.

I think, and I suspect that most of you agree, that truth ought to be an ultimate arbiter — that what we ought to prize most is honesty and accuracy in our communication, and that it ought to be a human value to demand evidential support for any claim. It is important that we state our expectations up front and clearly, and that that value is a significant component in how we evaluate speech. But we also have to appreciate that that is not a significant component to others: that they may define truth by how well a statement can be reconciled to their holy book, rather than to reality.

To sum up my concerns about free speech:

You don’t have a right to an audience. This is a critical limitation of free speech right now, in a day when technology has made it trivially easy for abusers to circumvent the limitations of courtesy and protocol.

Words have power. Guns also have power; is unregulated access to guns the best path to a free society? We’re engaged in that experiment in the US right now, and I can tell you…no. Similarly, we have to recognize that words must be used responsibly.

Speech can do great harm. Words can enlighten and educate, but they can also oppress and mislead. As humanists, we must appreciate the importance of truth, and do what we can to stop the promulgation of lies.

There are no easy answers. A commitment to free speech is hard — and the easy answers are so attractive. On the one side we have the contingent arguing “You can’t say that!”, and on the other we have people saying, “I can say anything I damn well please, anywhere, anytime!”, and neither is right. We must be aware that the task is one of navigating between the two extremes.