Don’t be that guy

There are really bad, dogmatic ways to defend evolution, and every once in a while I run into them. And because I’m a wicked jerk, I criticize the people who do that, even when they announce that they are atheists. So this morning I ran into this nonsense on Twitter:

@DrewJPS ‘Evolved from mokeys’ is theist bollocks. As is ‘Macro/micro evo’. Never been uttered in by scientists. Ever. Ignore.

And with that, mine eyes looked up, and beheld Steven Stanley’s Macroevolution: Pattern and Process on my bookshelf before me, and I did query @DrewJPS.

Damn. So all my books about macro/micro don’t exist?

And I listed a few well known authors who have written books on this topic. Not creationists, but respected scientists and science journalists. And @DrewJPS doubted me.

@DrewJPS .@pzmyers So you’re willing to defend macro/micro evo’? Show me peer-reviewed papers. Not yours.

And therefore did I drop the PubMed bomb upon him. And I waited, expecting retraction and apology, and new learning to dawn in the brain of @DrewJPS. Instead, I got an abrupt change of subject.

@DrewJPS @pzmyers Ok, read it. How, as a a free-thinker, did you get rapped up in this ‘RadFem’ bullshit? Atheismplus is bullshit.

I think I can regard his authoritative contempt for feminism with the same low esteem I hold his opinion on evolution. Bye. Blocked.

Fellow atheists, don’t be that guy. Please. It’s embarrassing.

It just gets funnier. Now his friends are joining in the act.

@DrewJPS clearly he’s a creation scientist. No main stream scientist recognises that term. Francis Collins is a theist and rejects that term

@Brazen_Thinks Also a witch-hunting twat that will send you to prison with no evidence #AtheismPlus

@DFCW It’s an group of ‘RadFem’ that call themselves Altheists. Mental. Not in my name …

@DrewJPS militant feminists are really annoying.

Clearly, the only possible reason that I would point out their ignorance of a body of thought about evolution is that I’m an annoying militant feminist.

It’s about time

One more prominent scientist bites the bullet: Richard Lenski has a blog. Interestingly, he credits a talk by C. Titus Brown about “How to build an enduring online research presence using social networking and open science” as the inspiration that woke him up to the importance of this and other forms of public engagement. It looks like a good talk, too, except that it’s a presentation that’s 72 slides long — my ideal for an hour talk is 12-15 slides. But as long as it works…!

I think it’s also a little on the long side because it goes through objections people make very thoroughly.

We told you! You didn’t believe us but we told you!

Here, at long last, is proof sufficient to most systems of jurisprudence that I am not PZ’s alter ego.

It’s the video from the #FtBCON panel Science, Skepticism, and Environmental Activism, held Saturday evening California time, also featuring Madhu Katti and Jennifer Campbell-Smith, my colleagues from the Network. The panel also featured Piasa the European starling.

Sing it, Carl

Blake Stacey has a good quote quoted at Science after Sunclipse:

The business of skepticism is to be dangerous. Skepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, including, say, high school students, habits of skeptical thought, they will probably not restrict their skepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials, and 35,000-year-old channelees. Maybe they’ll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Perhaps they’ll challenge the opinions of those in power. Then where would we be?
— Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, Chapter 24.

Did you know douchebags are full of dihydrogen monoxide?

Doing what I do for a living, I often find myself reading things on Facebook, Twitter, or those increasingly archaic sites called “blogs” in which the writer expresses concern about industrial effluent in our air, water, consumer products or food. Sometimes the concerns are well-founded, as in the example of pipeline breaks releasing volatile organic chemicals into your backyard. Sometimes, as in the case of concern over chemtrails or toxic vaccines, the concerns are ill-informed and spurious.

And often enough, the educational system in the United States being the way it’s been since the Reagan administration, those concerns are couched in terms that would not be used by a person with a solid grounding in science. People sometimes miss the point of dose-dependency, of acute versus chronic exposure, of the difference between parts per million and parts per trillion. Sometimes their unfamiliarity with the basic facts of chemistry causes them to make patently ridiculous alarmist statements and then double down on them when corrected.

And more times than I can count, if said statements are in a public venue like a comment thread, someone will pipe up by repeating a particular increasingly stale joke. Say it’s a discussion of contaminants in tap water allegedly stemming from hydraulic fracturing for natural gas extraction. Said wit will respond with something like:

“You know what else might be coming out of your tap? DIHYDROGEN MONOXIDE!”

!!!.999999999 . . .!

Dihydrogen monoxide is, of course, water. For the sake of quite likely wholly unnecessary but pro forma explanation, water molecules have two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, hence the symbol H2O; “dihydrogen monoxide” is a way of saying “two hydrogens and one oxygen” in a way not wholly inconsistent wiith accepted chemical terminology, though not in a way anyone ever uses except as a joke.

Though I chuckled once or twice when I first heard the joke back in the end-1980s, back when kilometer-thick sheets of solid-phase dihydrogen monoxide occupied the Northern Hemisphere as far south as present-day Kentucky, it got old fast.

I recognize the temptation to poke mild fun of people who make embarrassing mistakes. I’ll cop to having done so myself, f’rinstance in the post I linked above on the phrase “patently ridiculous alarmist statements.” But it’s one thing to snicker at people who have made basic, easily correctable mistakes, especially when you offer them a way to make that correction.

The “dihydrogen monoxide” joke doesn’t do that. Instead, it mocks alleged “gullibility” in a way that dissuades the corrected from learning.

It may have been first used, as far as Wikipfftdia can tell, by students at UC Santa Cruz riffing on a very similar joke that warned people about the dangers of “hydrogen hydroxide”; the students responsible liked the joke and printed up fliers to post around campus, an early form of Tweeting. But they thought “hydrogen hydroxide” wasn’t quite viscerally scary enough to people unacquainted with chemical terminology, so they upped the ante. Everyone had heard of “carbon monoxide,” and everyone knows it’ll kill you, so the three decided on the dihydrogen monoxide synonym as much more scary.

It wasn’t the first time the term had been used. Google Books records it being used as early as 1910, in a magazine snippet ironically poking fun at scientists for their abstruse technology:

Screen shot 2013-07-11 at 6.31.06 PM


There are a few other examples of the term before 1990, most of them seeming more or less innocuous. It took Usenet to make the joke version spread.

Here’s how the joke works:


  1. Someone makes a statement you find excessively ill-informed and credulous about the dangers of a real or imagined substance.
  2. You make the dihydrogen monoxide joke.
  3. Other people who are in on the joke laugh, or at least you imagine them doing so.
  4. You get a modicum of outside reinforcement of the value of your intellect, should yoou be insecure about same.
  5. The original target of the joke learns nothing, thus ensuring further opportunities for your own levity and morale-boosting.

And you know what? That’s fine if you’re fine with it. If you’re fine with a world in which there are intellectual castes, in which the Alphas get to sneer at the Betas and Gammas, who themselves have in-jokes they use to ridicule the Epsilons. For those that like that sort of thing, as Wilde said, that is the sort of thing they like.

And I understand the appeal. I know the appeal, for instance, of writing things that don’t give everything up to the casual reader, that reward the reader who’s willing to ponder, to look things up, to think about things for a while and be comfortable in not knowing what’s there all at once. That’s the whole point of literature, or poetry, of riddlles and puzzles. They’re fun. And they challenge intellectual laziness.

But ignorance — using the word in the strictly literal, non-pejorative sense — is different. Ignorance of science is an evil that for the most part is foisted upon the ignorant. The dihydrogen monoxide joke depends for its humor on ridiculing the victims of that state of affairs, while offering no solution (pun sort of intended) to the ignorance it mocks. It’s like the phrase “chemophobia.” It’s a clan marker for the Smarter Than You tribe.

The dihydrogen monoxide joke punches down, in other words. It mocks people for not having had access to a good education. And the fact that many of its practitioners use it in order to belittle utterly valid environmental concerns, in the style of (for instance) Penn Jillette, makes it all the worse — even if those concerns aren’t always expressed in phraseology a chemist would find beyond reproach, or with math that necessarily works out on close examination.

Besides, I find myself wondering how many of the people who use the dihydrogen monoxide joke would respond appropriately if they were told their Starbucks drink had been proven to contain significant amounts of oxidane. I suspect not many. If that applies to you: “oxidane” is one of two official names approved by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry for a particular chemical substance. The other?  “Water,” and its equivalent in whatever your vernacular might be. See how easy that was to just explain?

Say it ain’t so, Genie!

Eugenie Scott is planning to retire from the NCSE. This is not possible. There is no one fit to replace her!

Although…perhaps I should apply for the job. I looked at the qualifications, and it was like looking in a mirror, man — especially that last bit about “the ability to work effectively and diplomatically with diverse communities and allies”. It sounds just like me, right, gang? I should go for it.

Look here, we’re like clones of each other! If I can so perfectly emulate her lecturing gestures, there’s no reason to assume I won’t be as great at the rest.


<quick cut to directors of the NCSE, all looking horrified…then scrambling to find more inducements to Genie to keep her on>

Bruce Alberts, failure

This is not a very exciting video, but I might just inflict it on my cell biology students in the fall. We got a fair amount of flak from students last time around who were frustrated when labs didn’t work like a recipe from a cookbook — yet that’s how science usually proceeds, with lots of tinkering and frustration and repetition.

I also like his point about how teaching is important for science (although the students won’t really care about that.) I don’t think I really got the breadth of my discipline until I had to master it in order to teach it — there’s nothing quite like the panic behind “I’ve got to lecture for an hour on vesicle transport tomorrow!” to focus the mind wonderfully on a subject you might have found of only passing interest previously.

(via Sandwalk.)

My ulterior motive

In case you’re wondering why I’m experimenting with video, there actually is an ulterior motive, and it’s the same one that got me into blogging in the first place: teaching. I’m teaching science at an undergraduate institution, and contrary to many people’s expectations, a bachelor’s degree does not confer a deep understanding of science, and it can’t. Students come out of high school with an ability to read and do basic math (at least the ones we admit to college!), and have wildly varying abilities in writing, analysis, and thinking. I think the undergraduate university’s role is more to deepen the student’s abilities in those general skills, and also to provide a broad knowledge base in a discipline of their choosing. We’re preparing students to go off and do science, if that’s what they want to do. I’ve done my job if my students go to graduate school competent and confident, ready to get to work and explore the natural world. Or if they choose not to follow a science career, they’re open to read and think about the world in a scientific way.

So there are a couple of things I do in my upper level lab courses. I take a hands-off approach: I teach students how to use the tools in my lab, give them a general idea of what would be cool to do or see, and turn them loose. If I see a combination of frustration (“I can’t get it to work! How do I get it to work?”) and play (“What if we do this?”), it’s a success. I have them blogging because it’s a sneaky way to get them to think about the subject of the class outside of class, and also to get them to blend their interests — which usually aren’t identical to mine! — with what I’m teaching.

And then there are presentations. Communicating your work is an important part of doing science, too. I try to get them to do that with the blogging, but also our university promotes a capstone experience, our senior seminars. Before a student can graduate, they have to do a one hour talk on some subject in their discipline, and it’s a big deal/ordeal to the students, and also a big deal/ordeal for us faculty in one of the largest majors on campus. Their quality varies all over the place, even though many of my colleagues and I do incorporate requirements for giving in-class presentations in our upper level courses, and we have a preparatory course on writing that includes giving presentations. There’s a limitation on doing that in class, though: you’ve got 20 students, you can’t chew up multiple class hours getting them all to do rehearsals and rehearsals under your supervision. We usually get an abstract and a promise and a conversation with them to help explain the data, and then boom, they do their talk to the class. It’s one shot and they’re done. That’s not the way to learn.

So I’ve had this idea…this is a generation that’s comfortable with their camera phones, that whiles away hours on facebook and youtube. What if I tried to combine that with doing presentations? What if, in one of my lab courses, I made the final project to be producing a short youtube video explaining some piece of data that they’d gotten in the lab? Put a micrograph or a chart or a time-lapse video on the screen and explain it with a voice-over, or stand in front of a camera while discussing some fine point of theory, or make a how-to video on how to use the microscope. It’s something they could tweak until it looks good, I’d be able to review work in progress fairly easily, and then what they put up for final evaluation might be a little more polished. This would be a useful skill for the future. I’m also rather impressed with how Casey Dunn has his students make creature features.

One catch: to have the students do it, I have to be able to do it. So in my spare time (hah!), I’ve been tinkering with ideas. I got some clamp lamps to play with lighting, I’ve got some cheap and simple backdrops to play with, I read Steve Stockman’s How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck (which has a lot of damn good basic practical advice), and I’ve been doing some experimenting, most of which will never see the light of day. I’m learning stuff, which is always fun.

And it’s useful stuff, too. For instance, I’m a words and typing sort of guy, so my approach so far has been to write a script and then wrap video and images around it. That doesn’t work so well. I’m slowly learning that in this medium you start with video and images and wrap words around them. And that’s exactly what we do routinely in a science talk! You’ve got these chunks of data in the form of images and numbers, and what you do in a presentation is show them and add your verbal explanation on top. Man, I ought to know this stuff already. I just have to adapt.

So this summer you might be seeing more of my unphotogenic face in videos as I clumsily try to get some basic skills in this medium. The payoff, though, is that in a year or so I’ll be able to teach my students how to do it better, and then we’ll get a fine new crop of video stars who are comfortable explaining science in front of a camera.

But don’t worry, you don’t have to suffer through my struggles, just don’t watch me.

Robin Ince vs. Brendan O’Neill

At #QEDcon (which sounds like a marvelous conference from the enthusiastic tweets resounding everywhere) there was a panel discussion yesterday that I’m looking forward to seeing appear on youtube.

Brendan O’Neill, professional conservative ass, put his opening remarks, “Is science becoming a new religion?” online. It’s a bizarre tirade — it cusses out this new-fangled trend of demanding evidence and expertise for policy decisions, probably because such demands cut him off at the knees.

Robin Ince, professional comedian and science advocate, has put his reaction online, titled “The fascism of knowing stuff”. He’s a bit incredulous that anyone in a culture that uses technology more sophisticated than a buggy whip could be against knowledge.

As someone who has often been called a fascist, you can guess which side of this argument I favor.

Adam Merberg on grazing and Allan Savory and TED

I wish I’d seen Adam Merberg’s excellent takedown of Allan Savory’s TED talk on “greening the deserts” before I wrote my own. Merberg provides a history of Savory’s career that’s remarkably detailed for its relative brevity, with a couple of damning quotes by Savory, including this one:

You’ll find the scientific method never discovers anything. Observant, creative people make discoveries. But the scientific method protects us from cranks like me.

Merberg offers perhaps the best summation of both Savory’s attitude and the pseudoscientific impulse I’ve seen:

Savory argued at TED that Holistic Management “offers more hope for our planet, for your children, and their children, and all of humanity.” What Savory does not tell us is that there is the distinct possibility that if we try to implement those ideas, we will fail. In this case, he will tell us that we misunderstood his ideas. How comforting it will be to know that his ideas were correct, as they always have been!

Also of interest, Merberg offers a sampling of credulous responses from people who pride themselves on being skeptical, including this one:

In Shermer’s defense, it may be that suspension of credulity isn’t really a guy thing.

One of the more interesting parts of Merberg’s piece is his conclusion, where he directs certain uncomfortable questions at TED:

In December, TED responded to concerns that independent TEDx authorized events were “dragging the TED name through the mud” by sending a letter to “the TEDx community” warning that bad science could lead to revocation of the TEDx license. The letter also included some advice for identifying bad science. I can’t help but think that Savory’s work should have raised concerns for anybody familiar with that list. At the least, Savory’s work “has failed to convince many mainstream scientists of its truth,” much of it “is not based on experiments that can be reproduced by others,” it comes from an “overconfident fringe expert,” and it uses imprecise vocabulary to form untested theories.

Of course, TED has no contractual incentive to apply the standards it sets for TEDx organizers to its own talks. However, the letter emphasizes that “your audience’s trust is your top priority,” and I think it’s fair to ask what TED did to respect that trust in this case. Did they research the science behind Allan Savory’s ideas? Are they satisfied that his talk amounts to “good science”? If Savory’s talk had run at a TEDx event, would that event’s license have been revoked? Now that TED has reined in TEDx, perhaps its next move should be to look in the mirror.

Go check it out.