The dog is a nice touch

The National Review apparently has an article this month, sneering at nerd culture in general and Neil deGrasse Tyson in particular (I haven’t read it, since it’s behind a paywall). It’s called “Smarter Than Thou”, and I guess Republicans find intelligence repulsive, and an intelligent black man is an affront to nature.

But here’s a very nice counter to the claim that Tyson is some elitist snooty guy: he explains the difference between climate and weather.

Depends on what you mean by “know”

Chris Mooney is galloping around on his anti-science education hobby-horse again. That’s a harsh way to put it, but that’s what I see when he goes off on these crusades for changing everything by modifying the tone of the discussion. It’s all ideology and politics, don’t you know — if we could just frame our policy questions and decisions in a way that appealed to the conservative know-nothings, we’d be able to make progress and accomplish things. And, as usual, I expect he won’t recognize the irony of the fact that the way he communicates his message alienates scientists and science communicators.

He’s reporting on the work of Dan Kahan, who has done interesting and informative work on how ideology, both left and right, distorts decision making. Motivated reasoning is a real problem, and we all need to be aware of it. But this work, at least as described by Mooney, goes a step further to argue that conservatives aren’t as dumb as they seem — that they know the science, but are using politics and identity to dictate their answers. They already know the science, so teaching them how the science actually works can’t possibly be the answer — instead, we have to work around their biases and lead them by careful wording towards the resolution of real problems. Kahan says,

The problem is not that members of the public do not know enough, either about climate science or the weight of scientific opinion, to contribute intelligently as citizens to the challenges posed by climate change. It’s that the questions posed to them by those communicating information on global warming in the political realm have nothing to do with—are not measuring—what ordinary citizens know.

I disagree. The public does not know enough. I don’t think Kahan or Mooney have a clear idea of what they mean by “know”. And I don’t think they’re recognizing that if they believe they are clever enough to trick the public into revealing their true knowledge by rephrasing questions about science, that perhaps the public is also clever enough to hide their true ideas about science in their answers.

They’ve evaluated public knowledge of science with sets of multiple choice questions phrased in two different ways, to show that the answers you get vary with the wording. First: speaking as a teacher, multiple choice questions are terrible at testing in-depth knowledge and understanding. They’re fine for evaluating basic facts, but even there, they can be gamed. Often, the strategy for answering multiple choice facts isn’t necessarily based on knowledge of the material, but understanding human nature and the psychology of the person who wrote the test — the wording of the question and the alternative answers can be a good clue to which one the instructor thinks is best.

Second, we’ve known about this phenomenon for a fairly long time. About ten years ago, I heard Eugenie Scott explain how soft polls on evolution were: that by changing the wording from “Humans evolved over millions of years” to “Dogs evolved over millions of years”, you could get a tremendous improvement in the percentage of respondents approving of the statement.

Kahan has discovered that you get the same improvement from conservatives if you change “the earth is warming” to “climate scientists believe the earth is warming,” testifying to the fact, Mooney says, that they actually do know what the science says, it’s just that phrasing question wrong punches their button and causes them to reject the idea.

Bullshit. Look, I know creationist arguments inside and out; I can often finish their sentences for them, and can even cite the original sources that they didn’t know their claims came from. This does not in any way imply that I think like a creationist, that I’m ready to accept creationism, that I sympathize or agree with their position, or that I think creationism ought to be considered as a source of facts in public policy. I know what they say, but I also know all the arguments against their nonsense. That a climate change denialist is able to regurgitate what he’s heard a scientist say does not mean he is not also packed to the gills with lies and rationalizations; that he’s able to check a box on a paper exam does not mean that he won’t act against that fact in his public activities.

I’ve also talked at length, hours on end, with creationists. And no, I’m sorry, despite being able to puke up quotations from what scientists actually say, they really are grossly ignorant of evolution. Are we going to start using quote-mining as an example of the scientific process?

Another example from teaching genetics. I once assigned a problem of medium difficulty on a homework assignment, involving Mendelian crosses of flies with different wing shapes. A little later I had the students do the exact same problem in an in-class exercise — a way to spot check whether they’d actually worked through the problem. Easy peasy, they breezed through it in class, and the students I asked could even explain the process for solving it. Then, on an exam, I repeated the very same problem, except that I changed every mention of Drosophila to Danio, and changed the hypothetical phenotypes from wing shape to fin shape. But the numbers, the crosses, the outcomes were all copied directly from the homework. All the changes were superficial.

A third of the class bombed it.

Did these students know how to solve the problem? I suppose Mooney could claim that they knew how to do fruit fly genetics, but simply didn’t know the details of fish genetics. But I would say no, not at all; that they could reiterate the procedure they memorized in one problem does not in any way imply that they could understand the concepts. It was the same damned problem! The students who could repeat an answer in one very narrow context did not know the science. They were unable to generalize and apply a conceptual understanding to a specific problem.

(For those of you concerned about my students, this is a common problem; a lot of what I’m doing in the classroom and exams is taking ideas they’ve grown comfortable with and twisted them a little bit to compel them to THINK about the problem, rather than trying to find which rut in their brain it fits best. Learning has to be procedural and general, not liturgical. They mostly get it eventually, oh, but how they suffer through the exams. “This wasn’t in the homework or the class examples!” is a common complaint, to which I reply, “Of course not.”)

Mooney likes to cite empirical, practical results of his approach, which is good…but unfortunately, they always undermine his premises, and he sometimes isn’t even aware of it.

Later in the paper, Kahan goes on to assert that precisely this strategy is working right now in Southeast Florida, where members of the Regional Climate Change Compact have brought on board politically diverse constituencies by studiously avoiding pushing anyone’s buttons. Kahan even shows polling data suggesting that questions like "local and state officials should be involved in identifying steps that local communities can take to reduce the risk posed by rising sea levels" do not provoke a polarized response in this region. Rather, liberals and conservatives alike in Southeast Florida agree with such a statement, which references a major consequence of climate change while ignoring the gigantic elephant in the room…its cause.

I’ve emphasized that las bit, because it is so damning. What good is this approach? If you know anything about science at all, you understand that how we know what we know, the epistemology of science, is absolutely critical to our progress. You’re stuck like my students in the early part of the semester, able to tick off check boxes on a multiple choice test or follow a cookbook procedure to arrive at a specific answer, but unable to generalize or extend their knowledge to new problems (really, let me assure you though, most of them got much better at that by the end of the term!). Those respondents in Florida don’t understand the science — all the participants know is which buttons to push, which ones to avoid, with the aim of steering the poor stupid mouse through the maze to a cheese award at the end.

OK, to be fair, this is a case where Mooney is at least vaguely aware of the problem. Here’s his next paragraph.

Here’s the problem, though. Maybe this approach will work up to a point, or in certain locales (in North Carolina, the response to sea level rise is pretty different). But at some point, we really do need to all agree that the globe is warming, so that we can then make very difficult choices on how to deal with that. To save our feverish planet, it is dubious that merely having conservatives know what scientists think—rather than accepting it themselves, taking the reality into their hearts and identities—will be enough.

Very good. So why did Mooney write a whole column arguing that conservatives aren’t really as anti-science as they seem to be, that ends with an acknowledgment that, well, not knowing how reality works isn’t a good long-term strategy for responding to challenges from reality? The entire first 90% of the article is bogged down with this misbegotten notion that we can equate science understanding with checking the right alternative on a multiple choice test, only to notice in the last paragraph that oh, hey, that’s not science.

The truth only bullies liars

Gah. SE Cupp. She is the worst: a right-wing atheist who fully supports the dishonesty of the Fox News types, and who has no regard for reality. Atheists who bury themselves in a new set of delusions sicken me.

She got into an argument with Bill Nye — that’s a bad sign, since the last loon he had to put down was Ken Ham. She was really peeved that those “science guys” keep confronting climate change denialists with facts. Science bullies her ideological cronies!

“Isn’t it a problem when science guys attempt to bully other people?” Cupp asked Nye. “Nick here had to say, ‘I’m not a denier.’ He had to get it out: ‘I’m not a denier.’ Because really, the science group has tried to shame anyone who dares question this, and the point I’m trying to make is, it’s not working with the public.”

This was after she threw up some statistics, that only 36% of the American public think global warming is a serious threat to their way of life. I’d have two replies to that: 1) polling data on what a deluded public thinks is not a measure of the truth, and 2) the problem here isn’t scientists explaining the science, it’s propagandists like Cupp using dishonest media like Fox News or Heritage Foundation tracts to cast fear, uncertainty, and doubt over the evidence.

Watch the encounter and see Cupp hopelessly outclassed.

Best part of the interview? This exchange:


Brilliance and brainlessness — that’s the interwebs

I just want to point you at this beautiful graphic illustrating the depth at which the Malaysian Flight 370 black box rests. The ocean is really, really deep, you know. And sometimes a well-designed visual communicates the magnitude of the problem well.

The other side of the problem: read the comments, and you’ll suddenly appreciate of the conspiracy wackaloon problem, too. Here’s one sample:

This is a fantastic graphic and just to make you think about this problem logically….

what are the odds that a middle-aged 3rd world pilot would:

1) Know how to knock out virtually every tracking system on the plane
2) Fly a route that missed every satellite and every ground tracking station
3) Crash Land the plane in 3 miles of water
4) In the remotest area of the globe, with almost no chance of recovery.

To pull this off would have taken the resources of a modern, 1st world country with extraordinary technology, and the military skills to pull it off.

It makes you wonder what was in that cargo hold, and why somebody didn’t want it to arrive at it’s destination.

Don’t you just love the casual racism/ageism of the premise? A Malaysian pilot couldn’t possibly be as smart and well-trained as an American pilot, and it takes a freakin’ First-World Genius to be able to crash a plane in the Indian Ocean. And of course it had to be intentional, there’s no way a serious error in a modern plane could cause a mere accident.

Seriously, just look at the lovely graphic, and don’t read the comments unless your blood pressure is a little low.

It’s been a bad month for the creationists

I almost pity them. First there’s the discovery of gravitational waves that confirm a set of models for the origin of the universe — I can tell they’re trying to spin that one (it confirms the universe had a beginning, just like the Bible says!), but it’s obvious which perspective, scientific or religious, has the greater explanatory power.

Then there’s Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos, in which every episode so far has taken a vigorous poke at creationist nonsense. I think they cry every Sunday after church, because they know that later that evening they will be attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture. It’s been great.

And now, look, the Cassini spacecraft has found an ocean beneath the ice of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus.

For years, the motto among astrobiologists — people who look for life in distant worlds, and try to understand what life is, exactly — has been “follow the water.” You have to start the search somewhere, and scientists have started with liquid water because it’s the essential agent for all biochemistry on Earth.

Now they’ve followed the water to a small, icy moon orbiting Saturn. Scientists reported Thursday that Enceladus, a shiny world about 300 miles in diameter, has a subsurface “regional sea” with a rocky bottom.

This cryptic body of water is centered around the south pole and is upwards of five miles deep. It has a volume similar to that of Lake Superior, according to the research, which was published in the journal Science.


There is hope yet for Space Squid! Or maybe space progenotes. Isn’t it wonderful that we keep finding gloriously natural discoveries in the universe?

The tears will flow again in a few weeks, when Neil Shubin’s new series, Your Inner Fish, premieres on PBS. I’m really looking forward to this one.

It is a good time to be passionate about science.

Tonight! In Morris!

In addition to be buried deep in grading, tonight I’m hosting our monthly Cafe Scientifique.

The next Café Scientifique will take place on Tuesday, March 25, at 6 p.m., at the Common Cup Coffeehouse (501 Atlantic Avenue, Morris, MN 56267). Brad Heins, assistant professor of organic dairy management at the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC), will lead the discussion, “Organic Food: Fact or Fiction?” All are welcome to attend. Audience participation is encouraged.

Oh, yeah, I’m also about to step into non-stop class/meetings/lab, not to emerge until 6pm, and then racing off to the coffeehouse, so you may not hear much from me today. It was extremely annoying that FtB was moribund all morning, my normal blogging time.

Guess who’s speaking at the NSTA National Conference


The featured speaker at this year’s National Science Teacher Association conference in Boston is…Mayim Bialik.

The lucky ones among you are saying right now, “who?”. Others may know her from her television work, but maybe don’t know the full story behind her ‘science’ activism.

She’s an actor who plays Sheldon’s girlfriend on Big Bang Theory. Right there, as far as I’m concerned, we have a major strike against her: I detest that show. It’s the equivalent of a minstrel show for scientists, where scientists are portrayed as gross caricatures of the real thing — socially inept, egotistical jerks who think rattling off an equation is a sign of intelligence. I think it’s literally an anti-science communication show. Who in their right mind would want to be anything like Sheldon, the narcissistic nerd? Who would want to work with people like that? The message it’s sending instead is that if you are a superficial asshole, you should become a scientist, where you will be loved for personality traits that would get you shunned in civilized company. (We also see the same phenomenon in atheism, where so many people think it’s a great excuse to be the insensitive Vulcan.)

But OK, that’s a matter of taste, I will admit, and maybe not enough of a reason to be appalled to think she is going to be speaking to science teachers (although it’s enough for me). And she does have a Ph.D. in neuroscience, you have to respect that.


Mayim Bialik does not vaccinate her kids. She’s the spokesperson for the Holistic Moms Network. I know what you’re thinking: “holistic” doesn’t sound so bad. But take it away, Orac!

Just one look at its advisory board should tell you all you need to know. For instance, there’s Dr. Lauren Feder, who bills herself as specializing in “primary care medicine, pediatrics and homeopathy” and has been a frequent contributor to that bastion of quackery and antivaccine looniness, Mothering Magazine, where she recommended homeopathic remedies to treat whooping cough. It doesn’t get much quackier than that. But Feder is just the beginning. Also on the Holistic Moms advisory board is the grand dame of the antivaccine movement herself, the woman who arguably more than anyone else is responsible for starting the most recent iteration of the antivaccine movement in the U.S. Yes, I’m talking about Barbara Loe Fisher, the founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), a bastion of antivaccine propaganda since the 1980s. She’s not the only antivaccine activist on the advisory board, though. There’s also Peggy O’Mara, publisher of Mothering Magazine and Sherri Tenpenny, who is described right on the Holistic Moms website as, “one of America’s most knowledgeable and outspoken physicians, warning against the negative impact of vaccines on health.” Then there’s Dr. Lawrence Rosen, “integrative” pediatrician who appeared at the NVIC “vaccine safety conference” back in 2009 with Barbara Loe Fisher and Andrew Wakefield. In fact, Barbara Loe Fisher, Sherri Tenpenny, and Lauren Feder are featured very prominently on the Holistic Moms Network page on vaccination.

But that’s not all. If there’s one more thing that should tell you all you need to know about the Holistic Moms Network approach to science-based medicine, then take a look at its sponsors: Boiron (manufacturer of the homeopathic remedy for flu known as Oscillococcinum), the Center for Homeopathic Education (and I bet it is homeopathic too), the National Center for Homeopathy, and a whole bunch of other purveyors of woo and quackery.

And he has a lot more to say, as usual.

So why is this woo-peddling, vaccination-denying sitcom star being featured as a speaker at NSTA? I don’t know. Because she has a Ph.D. and pretends to be socially inept on TV? That doesn’t seem to be a good reason. Will Jenny McCarthy be invited to deliver a keynote next year? How about Ken Ham — he’s very into ‘science’ education, you know. Gosh, if we’re going to open the door to quacks, the pool of potential speakers just expanded immensely! Joseph Mercola? Andrew Weil? Deepak Chopra!

Tsk, NSTA. Do you vet your speakers at all?

Still picking nits over Giordano Bruno

The NCSE, which does good work otherwise, is a bit too apologetic to religion for my taste. They’re bumbling all over themselves to criticize Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos because it highlighted the conflict between religion and science, which is always a no-no for the NCSE. Now it’s Josh Rosenau’s turn to complain bitterly about the historical inaccuracy of even mentioning the unpleasant fact that the church has burned people alive.

Against that outpouring of objections from historians of science and others who want to see the rebooted Cosmos live up to the highest ideals of scientific and historical accuracy…

Hang on there, that’s a bit slimy. Who is saying it was inaccurate? Rosenau cites a bunch of people claiming that Bruno wasn’t a scientist and didn’t die for heliocentrism; but the episode nowhere claimed that he was a scientist. It actually said he was a mystic. You can’t complain that the show was wrong, only that it put the Catholic church in a very bad light…which is actually what has all the complainers wound up. How dare you point out the pernicious influence of religious dogma on civilization? That has nothing to do with science!

…PZ Myers insists that we are all Missing the Point of Giordano Bruno. In PZ Myers’s reading, the point of having a science show talk about Bruno and his cosmology (which he arrived at through a mystical vision and which he set at odds with Copernicans because they did not use heliocentrism as a religious argument) was not to tell a story about the history of science and its relationship to society or religion, but to simply alert the world to the fact: “Bruno was tortured to an agonizing death for his beliefs. Full stop.” And more generally: “The Church maintained an Inquisition to torture people who didn’t follow Catholic dogma in thought.”

Rosenau’s argument is that the Bruno story was misleading and inaccurate. Is there anything inaccurate in those quotes? Here’s a fuller summary of what I was saying.

I don’t think it odd at all that the series brought Giordano Bruno to the fore. This is not at all a show for scientists, but to bring a little bit of the awe and wonder of science to everyone. I think it was a good idea to use a non-scientist as an example of how dogma oppresses and harms everyone. Bruno was an idealist, a mystic, an annoying weirdo, a heretic, and for that, the Catholic Church set him on fire.

But somehow, being a weirdo means, in Rosenau’s eyes, that Bruno must be set apart from the real scientists. The church was only burning heretics, it would be a whole different matter if they were burning scientists.

To PZ’s eyes, nothing about that segment rested on whether Bruno was the brave vox clamantis in deserto, calmly championing heliocentrism and an infinite universe. The fact that Bruno wasn’t killed for those beliefs (not, of course, that he should have been killed for any of his beliefs, nor for stating them publicly!), that he didn’t arrive at his conclusions for scientific or empirical reasons, and didn’t try to test those ideas scientifically, are all, in PZ’s telling, irrelevant.

Exactly! Completely irrelevant!

Why is this so hard to understand? How could science function in a world where theological arbiters of the permissible truth can silence anyone who disagrees with them? I should think living in a culture of fear where you could be murdered for saying something the pope didn’t like was a rather effective way of suppressing scientific progress. Kill a few idealists for saying something against church dogma, and suddenly, those scientific investigations begin to look rather dangerous.

How long would a Darwin have lasted if he’d been born 200 years earlier?

But also, I’m getting a little annoyed with these people claiming that Bruno wasn’t killed for that one specific belief about the movement of the earth. He was! We have the list of eight charges for which Bruno was condemned. Note especially number 5.

1 – The statement of “two real and eternal principles of existence: the soul of the world and the original matter from which beings are derived”.

2 – The doctrine of the infinite universe and infinite worlds in conflict with the idea of Creation: “He who denies the infinite effect denies the infinite power”.

3 – The idea that every reality resides in the eternal and infinite soul of the world, including the body: “There is no reality that is not accompanied by a spirit and an intelligence”.

4 – The argument according to which “there is no transformation in the substance”, since the substance is eternal and generates nothing, but transforms.

5 – The idea of terrestrial movement, which according to Bruno, did not oppose the Holy Scriptures, which were popularised for the faithful and did not apply to scientists.

6 – The designation of stars as “messengers and interpreters of the ways of God”.

7 – The allocation of a “both sensory and intellectual” soul to earth.

8 – The opposition to the doctrine of St Thomas on the soul, the spiritual reality held captive in the body and not considered as the form of the human body.

It’s mostly a lot of New Agey sounding bollocks, with a fascination with contradicting bizarre Catholic doctrine with new, equally bizarre nonsense. So? That the earth rotates around the sun was one of his beliefs, and he didn’t come up with it any more than Josh Rosenau or I came up with the idea of evolution—but you still don’t get to murder people for their harmless beliefs, whether they’re original or scientifically tested or not.

Here’s another example that would have really driven the apologists for religion nuts: Michael Servetus. He was also set on fire in the 16th century for ideas that the Catholic Church detested, specifically for denying the trinity (stop right there and think about it: one of the most ridiculous, unsupportable (by evidence or the Bible, even) beliefs of modern Christianity, and they’ve been killing people and committing genocide for disagreeing with it). But Servetus was an early scientist — he was the first to figure out that the heart was a double-circuit pump, identifying the pulmonary circulation.

But most people didn’t know about it, because after they set him on fire, they set his books on fire too. No one knew about this discovery until William Harvey rediscovered it a hundred years later…and the last few hidden copies of Servetus’s books (I think only 3 survived the flames) were revealed.

So he was executed for his theology. But to pretend that this had no consequences for the advancement of science is ludicrous.

Watch the show yourself and judge what point the segment is making. But if PZ is right and the point was to talk about the horrors of the Roman Inquisition, why not expound upon the Albigensian Crusade or the Hussite Crusade or Joan of Arc or Girolamo Savonarola or William Tyndale, who also were put to death for their theological heterodoxies? Why spin a misleading [assertion not in evidence–pzm] tale about Bruno, implying that he inspired and laid the groundwork for a modern cosmology in which the universe is infinite, our sun is just another star, and our planets orbit our sun as other planets orbit other suns?

Yes, let’s! How about, though, if the lackeys for religion count themselves very, very lucky that Tyson only selected one man as an example, rather than exhaustively listing all of religion’s crimes against humanity? He highlighted one example, and moved on, and still the apologists are up in arms over it.

Here’s the thing. Neil deGrasse Tyson is not a militant atheist. He has specifically said that he does not want to make atheism his cause — he has other goals in mind. And yet, even here, people are freaking out because he openly discussed the deleterious effects of dogma on science.