Fair warning to convention attendees

So I just got back from CSICon, which was great fun. I gave a talk on the role of chance in evolution (it’s more important than many think), and I think people recorded it. I also have a rough summary that I’ll polish up and post to Pharyngula. But…

You’ll have to wait a bit. This year I’ve decided I can no longer drive myself into total mental collapse by doing new talks all over the place, so I’m going to be recycling a fair bit. I’m going to use this same talk at Skepticon and Eschaton 2012, so if you’re going to those events too, you might want to skip one of my sessions. Except that at CSICon, I had to compress it down to a half hour, so there will be some additional stuff at those two meetings.

I’m also scheduled to do two talks at Eschaton, so I’m not going to give that same talk twice. It’ll be a talk on science education on Saturday morning, and one on evolutionary theory on Saturday evening.

And then in December I’ll post a written summary of my talk, and try to come up with something new to say for Spring meetings.

Thanks, Discovery Institute!

Evolution News & Views, the DI’s Pravda, did something good for a change: they alerted me to the availability of BBC 2’s show, Secret Universe: The Hidden Life of the Cell. Here it is!

Of course, you can see why the DI would like this video, since it uses all their favorite buzzwords like “complexity” and “machines” to describe processes in the cell. And it’s true that the cell is complex and contains complex machinery, but that, as I’ve been trying to get through to them for years, does not imply that they did not evolve, because evolution routinely generates complex machines. The evolutionary explanations given are not “spin”, as the DI explains, but good answers for the origin of these processes.

One major caveat: the star of this show is the CGI animation of the molecular activity of the cell, and as usual, it portrays everything as excessively linear and deterministic, and the necessary omission of water from the animation grossly skews the chemistry. One of the scientist narrators, Bonnie Bassler, does briefly explain that everything is stochastic, with molecules bouncing about randomly rather than zooming through empty space directly to their destination. But otherwise, it is a nice basic and rather cartoony overview of what goes on in a cell.

SciAm video whiffs it on this extinction event

Smilodon at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits

Kitty. Victim of the late-Cenozoic extinction at the Page Museum in Los Angeles.

I usually like Scientific American’s short science explainer videos, but this one — Instant Egghead – Are We Facing the Sixth Mass Extinction?” — bothers me for a few reasons.

Fred Guterl starts off by saying that we don’t know yet whether our current extinction event qualifies as a “mass extinction.” It’s a bit of a semantic question, as the threshold for what constitutes a mass extinction is debated, and some rankings put different events in the top five. But let’s just take Guterl’s statement as meaning “we don’t know whether this current extinction is as big as the really big ones we’ve had in the past.” It’s an excellent point. It’s become received wisdom among a certain crowd that we’re facing Big Dieoff 6.0, and reminders that this isn’t necessarily any worse an event than, say, the extinctions at the end of the Eocene are always good. Not that the end-Eocene extinctions were a kitten romp.

The video goes off rather quickly, though, starting with the quick “citation” of a UNEP estimate of up to 200 species extinctions per day, which seems to have been taken urban legend style from an estimate Norman Myers made in the 1970s. Myers gave the range as 50-200, and he was saying 50 in 2006. We’ve seen a lot of estimates by different biologists. In 1993 E.O. Wilson offered an estimate of 30,000 species per year going extinct, about 85 a day. It depends on what models you use, and those models are the topic of debate.

Still, that’s more an editing quibble than anything. Few maintain that species aren’t going extinct faster than is “usual” for the Cenozoic.

There are a couple other WTF moments in the video, chief among them the statement that the end-Permian extinction was caused by Siberian lava flows igniting large coal deposits, creating a atmospheric CO2 spike “on the order of what we’re seeing today.” There’s certainly lots of evidence to support the idea, but it’s not a slam dunk, and other mechanisms remain possible.

There’s also an interesting mention of passenger pigeons that goes nowhere. In the context of species extinction rate models Guterl mentions that there was a population of billions of passenger pigeons in North America for who knows how many millions of years, and yet only two fossils of the species are known. And then he drops it, not explaining the fact’s relevance. I mean, I got there, and you probably did too — it implies that for each species we know went extinct back in the day, there were likely many we don’t know of whose fossils we have not yet found. What that implies in terms of past extinction rates I’m not sure: it’scertain that species we don’t know of  went extinct and aren’t counted in the totals, but it would seem equally plausible that species we don’t know about survived the extinctions of the past, or that species we do know about that we now count as victims of mass extinctions actually survived those extinctions but left no trace for a few millon years afterward. Perhaps someone here with a better understanding of paleontology can help me out with this. In any event, it would have been nice to have Guterl finish his thought there.

My biggest problem with the video, though, is in Guterl’s suggestion that our changing the atmosphere’s composition — referring to the end-Permian extinction, as well as the “Great Oxygenation” of the Paleoproterozoic — is what’s got scientists worried about mass extinction these days, given that we happen to be adding CO2 to the atmosphere faster than the Siberian Traps did 252 million years ago. And scientists are indeed worried about the effects of climate change on biodiversity.

But scientists working on studying and preserving biodiversity — which after all is the positive way of saying “not having a mass extinction’ — are worried about a whole lot more than climate change. We could completely solve the atmospheric CO2 overburden on Tuesday and still be faced with an extinction crisis as we plow up grasslands, cut down forests, bottom-trawl the oceans, and build new sprawling cities on land that once supported wildlife.

The IUCN identifies habitat loss as the main threat to 85% of the species it lists as “Threatened” or “Endangered” on its Red List. The Red List includes 391 terrestrial plant species of all threat levels described as potentially threatened by climate change or severe weather, compared to 5,582  that may be threatened by human disruption of their habitat. The equivalent numbers for terrestrial animal species are 1,991 potentially threatened by climate change and 13,388 by habitat disruption.

There are errors inherent in the IUCN data that stem mainly from lack of resources to assess species, but the implication is clear. Climate change is thought to pose a serious threat to many species. Human-caused habitat disruption is likely a more serious threat.

One of the problems I have with the mainstream environmental movement these days is that “environmental protection” has been conflated with “climate change mitigation.” You can search environmental publications in vain for a long time for mentions of other issues. When I started editing environmentalist publications in 1992 — the year of the first Earth Summit, in Rio — public attention was about evenly divided between the importance of preserving biodiversity and the threat of climate change. You can see evidence of this in the newly revamped Google Ngram viewer, by comparing mentions of the relevant phrases in books archived by Google as a function of time:

Expressed as a percentage of text in all books in the database, “biodiversity” peaks relative to “climate change” in 1997, then actually starts to decline in 2003. “Climate change” gains the lead the year the Al Gore’s movie came out. Google’s data runs until 2008. My personal anecdata would suggest that the lead “climate change” started developing in 2006 probably grew dramatically after 2009, with biodiversity likely to catch up a little bit sometime next year due to renewed attention to the issue on the UN front.

The point is that environment has become synonymous with climate in many minds. Thinking of biodiversity as of secondary importance (at best) to climate change has resulted in proposals to stem climate change that would actually harm biodiversity. They include everything from seeding oceans with iron to cutting down rainforests for biofuel soy plantations to siting utility-scale solar plants on intact and biodiverse desert habitat when there are former alfalfa farms in the neighborhood.

By mentioning only climate change in a video that purports to address whether we’re facing a mass extinction, Scientific American helps promote this emphasis on climate change — which is obviously a huge threat — to the exclusion of the greater causes of current extinctions. Yes, it’s a video lasting less than three minutes, but one could easily mention agricultural conversion and overfishing and forest clearcutting in a short video. They aren’t complicated concepts.

By all means, SciAm should rail against climate change. SciAm should persuade people to look at their carbon footprints, to demand changes in the way we run our industrial society, and to challenge the idiots in charge who’d deny any climate problem exists. But this was supposed to be a video on the current extinction event, and you somehow failed to mention the larger causes of that extinction. That does a disservice to SciAm’s viewers — and to the science.

Minnesota mooks don’t like MOOCs

Every once in a while, some news comes down from on high that reveals that the people we’re trusting to lead don’t have a clue about what they’re doing. Now Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education has banned online courses, specifically the excellent suite of free online courses from Coursera.

We do have a law on the books that has the goal of shutting down diploma mills — you shouldn’t get to browse a website and be awarded a Ph.D. in quantum neuroscience. But Coursera doesn’t do that: they don’t issue degrees or even credits, they just provide massive open online courses for free. So you can learn stuff. For free. You don’t go there so you can pretend to learn and get a fancy diploma to hang on your wall, it’s just free information.

This ban is utterly unenforceable and absolutely ludicrous. All you Minnesotans should take your laptop or iPad into the bedroom or bathroom or someplace private, turn off the lights, and browse Coursera — I recommend the biology section, obviously. Oh, look: Rosie Redfield has a course on practical genetics. That should be good. Sign up for something.

Now feel the thrill of being an outlaw. Go commit crimes: learn something.

Hey, maybe the Minnesota OHE is trying reverse psychology on us?

The things you learn at meetings

I learned yesterday that my graduate university, the University of Oregon, has a Science Literacy Program led by an old friend, Judith Eisen. It looks like an excellent idea.

The University of Oregon Science Literacy Program (UO SLP) offers General Education courses for non-science majors designed to improve scientific awareness and general science literacy of the educated public by enhancing competence in and appreciation of science. The SLP will empower undergraduates to consider scientific approaches to societal issues, enable graduate students in the sciences to effectively communicate ideas to audiences of non-scientists, and assist faculty in improving teaching techniques using modern pedagogy.

Awesome. More universities ought to do that. I know my own university has a dearth of non-major science courses that offer that kind of breadth and context — it’s one of those problems we could solve so easily if only the administration would let us hire a few dozen more faculty.

Visit for the trains, stay for the science

I’ve been to the UK a few times now, and I have to say that one of my favorite things about the place is visiting a huge wrought iron train station and hopping onto a train for a long ride through the countryside. I think my ideal for a pleasant British vacation (“vacation”? I don’t know what that is any more) would be to just ride around the country for a few weeks.

So Robin Ince hooked me by starting his story with a train ride (I now want to travel from London to Cornwall), but the real message is about a fundamentally human principle of science: curiosity, inquisitiveness, exploration.

Pamela Gay’s TAM talk

That talk by Pamela Gay that was so well received is now available as a transcript. It’s very good, and it’s also good to see that someone at least was praising skepchicks at TAM, instead of dismissing them.

Although it is offset by the fact that I now know of one woman who was so harassed she had to leave the meeting early. Let’s hope some of the organizers were actually listening to Gay, and that they’ll do better next year.

I’m soon to be stuffed and mounted on the mantelpiece

Bora has put together a history of science blogging, and there I am, one of the grizzled old pioneers, chewin’ tobaccy and slapping mules around. There’s also mention of my old Tangled Bank carnival, which isn’t totally gone — I’ve got the archive stashed on my lab computer, and someday I have to figure out how to extract and resurrect an old Expression Engine blog.

Larry Moran also talks about the crucible of talk.origins, and how a lot of the early science bloggers got their start on usenet (myself included). A lot of the feisty, confrontational style comes straight out of a history of prolonged combat with idiots.

My weekend at #cvg2012

It’s going to take a few days to recover from last weekend — I was participating in CONvergence, a regional Science Fiction and Fantasy convention. It was a fatiguing load of fun, you should have been there. You should go to an occasional non-atheist/skeptic conference yourself! Trust me, it’s relevant.

I’m a guy who’s into promoting godlessness and science, and there are two kinds of events I go to. Right now, there are a growing number of atheist/skeptic conferences that promote our causes, and draw in large numbers of people who already support them; these are internal events that strengthen and reinforce the movement, and in which we can also emphasize specific strains of thought (I tend to push more science at these meetings, for instance). There are also events which are more outreach: talking to people who are not in this movement, but maybe share some common interests. It’s internal vs. external, movement building vs. outreach.

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