A beautiful mind

I am not a fan of beauty pageants, especially after hearing about the preliminary questions in the Miss USA contest. The women were asked if evolution should be taught in US schools. Only two of the 51 contestants could bring themselves to answer yes.


But here’s the good news: one of those two was the ultimate winner.

The newly crowned Miss USA, Alyssa Campanella, 21, of Los Angeles, who calls herself “a huge science geek,” says evolution should be taught in public schools.

Before her victory night, Miss California earned her way into the semi-finals in preliminary judging including interviews in which she was one of only two among 51 contestants to unequivocally support teaching evolution.

I suppose the photo is redundant. I already like her for her brain. How about if we judge all future Miss Americas by their performance on a test of general knowledge?

You really don’t want to know how the other 49 answered the question.

What’s your online reputation?

When I fly off to give talks, I’ve got three basic categories that I choose from: there’s the “science is godless, and here’s why” talk for atheist audiences, there’s the “development and evolution go together like peanut butter and chocolate” talk for atheists or scientists, and finally, there’s the “you better pay attention to the online world, and here’s why” talk for scientists, who often don’t have a clue about blogs and twitter and facebook. Now Nature gets in on the latter act, with a feature on managing your online reputation. It turns out that most scientists, especially younger scientists, are already fully aware of how important it is to have an identity on the web.


I was interviewed for the article and podcast, but one thing I didn’t really pick up on was one focus of the article, on professional companies that manage online reputations. They give the example of a cancer researcher who has been purportedly lying about his background, is currently under investigation for research misconduct, and who commissioned a company to patch up his reputation (or more likely, bury the ugly rumors under a mountain of inanities).

Online Reputation Manager, headquartered near Rochester, New York, is a company that uses search-engine optimization strategies to repair the online image of clients who have been besieged with unfavourable press. These include flooding the Internet with positive messages to drown out the negative. A company representative confirmed ownership of the e-mail address, but could not say whether Potti is a client.

Ugh. This doesn’t work. Anyone searching for information on Dr Anil Potti who discovers blithering press releases like “Dr. Anil Potti Likes Spending Quality Time With His Wife And Three Daughters” is going to sniff out the scent of a stinker. Not to mention that Dr Anil Potti, his misconduct investigation, and his pathetic attempts to cover it up, have now achieved prominent mention in both Nature and Pharyngula.

You want a good online reputation as a scientist? First rule: be honest and forthright.

Jerry Coyne’s open letter

Go read Open letter to the NCSE and BCSE. Or read it here:

Dear comrades:

Although we may diverge in our philosophies and actions toward religion, we share a common goal: the promulgation of good science education in Britain and America–indeed, throughout the world. Many of us, like myself and Richard Dawkins, spend a lot of time teaching evolution to the general public. There’s little doubt, in fact, that Dawkins is the preeminent teacher of evolution in the world. He has not only turned many people on to modern evolutionary biology, but has converted many evolution-deniers (most of them religious) to evolution-accepters.

Nevertheless, your employees, present and former, have chosen to spend much of their time battling not creationists, but evolutionists who happen to be atheists. This apparently comes from your idea that if evolutionists also espouse atheism, it will hurt the cause of science education and turn people away from evolution. I think this is misguided for several reasons, including a complete lack of evidence that your idea is true, but also your apparent failure to recognize that creationism is a symptom of religion (and not just fundamentalist religion), and will be with us until faith disappears. That is one reason–and, given the pernicious effect of religion, a minor one–for the fact that we choose to fight on both fronts.

The official policy of your organizations–certainly of the NCSE–is apparently to cozy up to religion. You have “faith projects,” you constantly tell us to shut up about religion, and you even espouse a kind of theology which claims that faith and science are compatible. Clearly you are going to continue with these activities, for you’ve done nothing to change them in the face of criticism. And your employees, past and present, will continue to heap invective on New Atheists and tar people like Richard Dawkins with undeserved opprobrium.

We will continue to answer the misguided attacks by people like Josh Rosenau, Roger Stanyard, and Nick Matzke so long as they keep mounting those attacks. I don’t expect them to abate, but I’d like your organizations to recognize this: you have lost many allies, including some prominent ones, in your attacks on atheism. And I doubt that those attacks have converted many Christians or Muslims to the cause of evolution. This is a shame, because we all recognize that the NCSE has done some great things in the past and, I hope, will–like the new BCSE–continue do great things in the future.

There is a double irony in this situation. First, your repeated and strong accusations that, by criticizing religion, atheists are alienating our pro-evolution allies (liberal Christians), has precisely the same alienating effect on your allies: scientists who are atheists. Second, your assertion that only you have the requisite communication skills to promote evolution is belied by the observation that you have, by your own ham-handed communications, alienated many people who are on the side of good science and evolution. You have lost your natural allies. And this is not just speculation, for those allies were us, and we’re telling you so.

Jerry Coyne

Richard Dawkins has also commented on it.

I really feel that the NCSE has lost its way on this issue. I want to support the NCSE, but it has become increasingly hard to do. I have heard these arguments over and over again that they have to coddle religious believers because they need them to support science. They don’t. As we’ve said repeatedly, we aren’t asking that the NCSE give atheists even as much support as they do the religious: imagine if they had “atheist projects” or an “atheist coordinator”—there’d be rejection from the Christian community. We’re not stupid, and we know that the NCSE has a delicate political game to play as well, so all we ask is that the organization we’d like to support should be genuinely secular, and stay entirely out of the religion/atheism argument. It’s what they say they’re doing, but it’s not what they’re doing. And the hypocrisy is corrupting.

Nothing will change in what atheist scientists are doing. We will continue to support science and science education, but that doesn’t mean we will feel obligated to support the NCSE.

It’s funny. The organization has such a finely tuned political sense and diplomatic strategy to promote science to the whole of the United States, and have managed to profoundly alienate that segment of our society that is most dedicated to promoting science. That’s quite an accomplishment. Maybe we should stop supporting them because they’re that incompetent at the political side of their mission.

Why do physicists think they are masters of all sciences?

If you asked me about cosmology, I’d defer to physicists — I’ve read Stenger & Hawking & Krauss & Carroll, and I might be willing to say a few generalities about what I’ve learned about the process, but I’d always say you should look to the original sources for more information.

There seem to be a lot of physicists, however, who believe they know everything there is to know about biology (it’s a minor subdivision of physics, don’t you know), and will blithely say the most awesomely stupid things about it. Here, for instance, is Michio Kaku simply babbling in reply to a question about evolution, and getting everything wrong. It’s painful to watch. This guy isn’t really an idiot, is he?

Man, he doesn’t have a clue and is just making it up as he goes along.

Fundamental error: he confuses evolution with natural selection, and thinks that if we aren’t being hunted down by sabre-toothed cats, evolution has stopped. This is wrong. We currently have reduced mortality compared to our ancestors, which suggests that we are less strongly selected in specific ways, but we are still experiencing selection — some of us have been selected for lactose tolerance in the last 10-15,000 years, for instance, and sexual selection is ongoing, and in case you hadn’t noticed, there are still diseases around that kill people.

But most importantly, reducing mortality and selection allows variants to survive, increasing the diversity of forms present in the population. You could even argue that reducing selection increases the rate of evolution. Selection is a conservative force that retains only a subset of the population for propagation into the next generation, you know.

And the rest: “gross” evolution? What the hell is that? Creationists already mangle the distinction between micro- and macro-evolution, now all I need is some half-assed third category getting peddled by the ignorant. And where does he get this idea that Australia is the product of accelerated evolution? That makes no sense at all; isolation meant the populations there evolved relatively independently of forms elsewhere, not that something goosed their mutation rates.

Oh, look: somebody in the comments asks Kaku about why we only use 20% of our brains. Let’s hope the next time he answers a reader question, he’ll tell us at length what we can do with the sleeping 80% of our brains. (I use mine for fulminating at morons, how about you?)

Actually, I’d rather he tried to answer the question in the title of this post.

When will the AAAS stop pandering to superstition?

Jerry Coyne has made a strong observation, and is also hinting at an alternative, about the way the AAAS panders to religion. Once again, they’re having a session at the national meeting in February dedicated to the accommodationist view, with a one-sided slate of speakers all preaching about the compatibility of science with superstition. We’re all getting a little tired of this, I think; it’s the same old story where a bunch of credulous apologists get to trample freely all over science in the name of putting up a façade of simpering friendship with religion, all in the name, they say, of political expediency.

Coyne is peeved about several things: the dishonesty of the evangelical position (no, the Trinity is not supported in any way by science), the blatant bias of these discussions that are presented as if they are an open-minded way of handling the issues when they only offer one side, and the unrepresentative nature of these panels that completely ignore with the purpose of implicitly rejecting the views of a very large bloc of American scientists. It’s freakin’ obvious that the AAAS is pandering to evangelical Christianity, and that minority views that are actually in opposition to science are being presented as reasonable compromises. Here’s what Coyne says and suggests:

What irks me about all this are two things. The first is the complete omission of contrasting anti-accommodationist views. There is a huge subset of AAAS members who don’t feel that science and faith are in harmony–indeed, that they are in dire conflict. Those views never get represented at these meetings. You will never see a AAAS symposium on “The incompatibility of science and faith,” with scientist-speakers like Richard Dawkins or Victor Stenger. (What a lovely thing that would be!). The AAAS chooses to present only one view, as if it represented a majority of its members. What about the many of us who feel that the best thing for science–and humanity as a whole–is not respectful dialogue with evangelical Christians, but the eradication of evangelical Christianity?

I agree that a realistic symposium at the AAAS that didn’t try to whitewash Christianity into a friend of science and reason would be wonderful — I’d want to go. Like him, I doubt that it would happen, in particular because it would be misrepresented by the accommodationists. It’s already happening; if you look at the comments there, you’ll find Nick Matzke mangling the idea. He’s obsessed with the last sentence I quoted above, and apparently believes that such a symposium would consist of ringleaders of the Evil Atheist Conspiracy plotting how to destroy Christians. The session topics would be something like this:

  1. Why all religions are evil and must be eradicated

  2. Christians: Should they be burnt at the stake, or merely imprisoned for life?

  3. Ignition temperatures and incineration requirements for human bodies

  4. Closing hymn of praise to Richard Dawkins

I don’t think Nick Matzke can even imagine what a group of secularists would find useful at AAAS — he’s projecting quite a bit, and presuming that such a session would be as one-sided and blinkered as these sessions the evangelical Christians are running. They wouldn’t. I’m as antagonistic to religion as Coyne is, maybe more so (hey, there’s another session possibility: “Atheists Roast Christianity,” where we all vie with each other to insult religion the most), but unlike what the Matzkes of the world assume, we are actually aware of the political situation.

If I were in charge of organizing such a beast, here’s what I’d look for. I’d want to have an honest religionist or philosopher/historian of religion there to give a talk on key doctrinal conflicts: what are they? How do modern Christians and Muslims and Jews resolve them? They are there, of course: there are major points like teleology in the universe and mind-body dualism that are unsupported or even contradicted by science. He wouldn’t have to endorse or oppose any of those points, but simply, clearly, explain where the conflicts lie.

I’d want someone to discuss secular approaches to school and public education. These do NOT involve teaching atheism in the schools. I’m a big fat noisy atheist myself, but when I get into the classroom to teach one of those controversial topics like evolution, my atheism is not an issue, and I don’t tell the students they have to abandon their gods to be a scientist. What the attendees at AAAS do not need is someone telling them how wonderful Christianity is; what would be useful is someone explaining how to teach honest, evidence-based science without compromising their principles, no matter what they are.

I’d want someone with political and legal expertise to discuss what the law actually says about science education. The perfect person would be someone like Barry Lynn, or Sean Faircloth, or Eddie Tabash — a person who could lay out exactly what kind of political tack scientists should take with legislators to keep the taint of religious bias out of support for science.

Actually, the atheist-run version of such a session would be what a science organization should want: instead of some half-assed stab at rapprochement with clearly unscientific, irrational, traditional metaphysics, and instead of the tribal war council the accommodationists imagine, it would be a rational discussion of how secular scientists (which would include religious scientists who are committed to keeping their beliefs out of the lab and classroom) can get their jobs done in a crazily religious country. As long as these pious zealots are left in charge, though, that’s not what we’re getting.

I can go to atheist meetings to get my rah-rah on for godlessness; people like Leshner, the organizer of the currently planned come-to-Jebus meeting, can go to church and get their idiot-ology affirmed there. An AAAS symposium ought to be actually accomplishing something for all of the members of the organization, not just the atheists and especially not just the deluded apologists under loyalty oaths who want to Christianize science.

How to game Google Scholar

I’ve heard back from a few people now who contacted Google about the issue of indexing creationist sites in Google Scholar; these are informal remarks from the team, not an official policy statement, but they’re still interesting. And revealing. And useful. They’ll change your perspective on Google Scholar.

The premise of the petition to Google to stop serving up creationist claptrap is a misconception. Google Scholar does not index on content; it can’t, it’s just a dumb machine sorting text. Google Scholar does not, and this is the surprise to me, index on the source — it makes no decision based on whether it’s an article from Nature or from a kindergarten Sunday School class fieldtrip. There’s nothing they can easily tweak to exclude garbage from one source and include jewels from another: the internet is one big garbage heap to Google, and they’ll dig for you, but it’s your job to sort gems from trash.

The way items get on Google Scholar is based entirely on whether they’re formatted like a scholarly paper. They aren’t sharing the details, but it has to be fairly general stuff, like having a title and author and not being surround by advertising bric-a-brac, or whatever. Any ol’ nonsense will do, since they don’t evaluate content, and any ol’ author will also do, since they don’t care if it’s being published by the university or the insane asylum, just make it look sort of like a serious paper, and it will show up.

And now you know how Answers in Genesis can find their twaddle on Google Scholar. If there’s anything they’re good at, it’s pretending to be scientific, going through the motions while demolishing the substance. This is good information to have, actually, and you should pass it on to your students, and take it into account when using the service.

Why I hate Robin Ince

You might want to look at Ince’s web page: he’s touring in March and April, and in May he’s gathered together Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre, and Simon Singh for a “science tour celebrating the universe and many of the wonders that lie within it”. That all looks wonderful, you think, and so do I. I would like to see that.

But then, look at the venues.

To my horror, surprise, and dismay, “Morris, Minnesota” is not among them. They’re all strange little places like Glasgow and Oxford and Cambridge and of all places, London. Those places don’t need these kinds of tours. The rural midwest does. I want to see Robin Ince tour Alabama and Mississippi and Kansas and Texas. But no, he turns up his snooty European nose at us.

I’m also a bit peeved that he didn’t plan this schedule without checking my calendar. I’ll be in the UK the first week of June, and his shows are all done by then. Hmmph.