FtBConscience looms ahead

It starts Friday evening, Central time. You can view the full FtBConscience schedule online right now — please note that all times listed are on US Central Time. This is a purely historical artifact, because I put the first draft of the schedule together, and I included a big messy table of time zones that gave the hours of events in Perth and Moscow and points in between, and everyone puked over the complexity. I think they all just said “screw it, we’ll use Myers’ time zone”.

All the sessions are organized in one hour blocks of time; most are a single hour, a few are two hour discussions. The way this is going to work is that speakers should only assume they have 45 minutes to talk, and leave 15 minutes of slack for questions.

We’re going to be strict about the times, I hope. I’m moderating lots of sessions, set up in alternating hours, so if I don’t crack the whip and close out discussions promptly on the mark, I’ll get lost and confused. The FtB facilitators who are moderating the sessions will be under orders to be disciplinarians.

We also have a chat room set up for random conversations. We moderators will be watching that, but if it gets hectic questions might fly by. I’ll be watching the youtube channel for my sessions, so that’s another place you can leave questions/comments.

As always, go to FtBCon.org for the latest information. Miri is in charge of that, I think she might have a stroke when it comes time to deal with the flood of updates that will be necessary as the con is in progress. Be patient, this is our first time.


This blog network has decided to put on a show. We go to conferences a lot, we have conversations with all kinds of atheists, we have things to say and we know you do, too, so we have decided to put on our own conference, with our themes and interests. And because we’re a blog network, we’re entirely comfortable with doing it all in our pajamas, so we propose to do this entirely with the technology our readers have on hand already: the internet. And further, we’re going to do it entirely for free — if you can get on the internet, you can access the talks and panels. If you can type, you can converse with everyone in our chat room.

A conference for atheists with a conscience

An Online Conference
19-21 July 2013

FtBCon is a free, online conference organized by the Freethought Blogs network. It will take place on July 19-21 and will focus on social justice, technology, and the future of the freethought movement. Without travel, registration, or hotel costs, FtBCon will be accessible to freethinkers around the world. Conference sessions will be held through Google+ hangouts, and attendees will have the opportunity to interact with each other in chat rooms and to submit questions to moderators.

We are currently assembling our schedule. If you or your organization are interested in participating, submit your session ideas for consideration by e-mailing PZ Myers with a proposal.

See that last bit? The event is a month away, and our schedule is filling up, but we also want to make this a participatory event that draws out your voices. If you’re part of a group that you’d like to see represented, if you have something valuable to say that fits into our overall theme, contact me soon and we’ll see if we can fit you into our programming grid.

There is a long list of scheduled speakers at FtBCon.org. Want to listen to them? Want to join them? Come right here to FreeThoughtBlogs on 19-21 July.

Building up to a fundraiser

Remember FtBCon, the online conference we did before virtual conferencing was the only way to hold a conference? We’re going to be doing something similar, but different, at the end of this month — we are plotting some video events, some twitch streams, some auctions, some targeted blogging, all that sort of thing, all geared to provide content while we ask you all for donations to our legal fund. If you look at the top left of the window here, you’ll see some text saying “COMING SOON: FTB’S SEPTEMBER FUNDRAISER”, and if you click on that, it will take you to a page listing a schedule of events. Well, it will…it doesn’t yet. We’re working on it. We aim to have that list up next week, and then we’ll start spamming you with mentions of the fundraiser itself, which will be over the weekend of 26 September. We’ve got some ideas ready right now, but the purpose of this post is to ask you for suggestions. What would you like to see?

For example, for me we’re considering forcing me to watch some ghastly video, while you chortle at my reactions. Maybe we could let people bid for a seat at the viewing so you can react too? I’m thinking of some niche science blogging (that is, spiders) with donation requests in the post. I may also do a live video/Q&A of my macrophotography and photomicroscopy toys, with real time video from my cameras/microscopes — would you chip in a bit to watch that? There are some other ideas floating around here that we’re whipping into shape, but please, do make suggestions for what you’d like to see and do.

It’s not just me, either. We’re going to ask lots of other FtB bloggers to join in. Who’s your favorite blogger, and what would you like them to do for a few extra dollars?

All donations will end up in our GoFundMe or our new PayPal donation site, paypal.me/freethoughtblogs. Look for more information next week!

Some trolling actually works

The FtBCon discussion of the psychology of trolls was interesting, but one thing I think it could have used is some appreciation of effective trolling strategies. Look at what they’ve accomplished with wikipedia; they have driven some people off the internet, and the ongoing online harassment is at least a distraction to many of us. This is the real threat: that trolls are working to dominate the discussion, and sometimes they succeed.

Greg Laden is talking about one way trolls work: the Serengeti Strategy. He cites Michael Mann on this topic.

[Read more…]

You really want me to suffer through an anti-vax conference? How sweet.

Boy, a lot of people have offered to pay the admission fee for me to attend that anti-vax conference at UMTC (you people must really, really hate me), and I actually checked my calendar to see if I’m available that day…and sad to say, I’m not. That’s the same weekend as FtBCon, which means my first alternative, to send a proxy from FtB there, is also out.

If you’re still interested in supporting sending a skeptical delegate to this meeting, though, let me know in the comments. I might be able to dig up a knowledgeable, critically-minded individual in the Twin Cities area who’d go and write up the story.

Another thought: the Twin Cities is a seething hotbed of Skepchicks — maybe we should pass this mission on to them?

Talk to us about what you would like to talk about

FtBCon is coming on 22-24 August, and this is your chance: we are taking proposals for talks and panels.


Anything goes. You’ve got some subject you’d like to get in front of a camera and tell the world? You’ve got a group of people with a shared message you’d like to promote? You’ve got an idea that must be discussed, and you’d like to suggest a few experts who’d be recruited to explain it all? Go for it. There are only a few catches. You have to write a good proposal; you have to get it to us by 22 July; and it has to pass muster with our crack team of inspectors.

Do it nooooow!

Cthulhu’s Minions: Evil Gods for Atheists

After I botched it last night, the Lovecraftians have regrouped and we will be having Cthulhu panel at FtBCon 2. It’s tonight, at 10pm Central (in about 2 hours). Confirmed: Michael Davis, Robert Price, Toren Atkinson, and me. A few others have been invited and might show up. If you’re desperately excited about shambling horrors from the outer darkness and really, really want to join in, email me, maybe I’ll squeeze you in. Also, we might need sacrifices.

And…here we are.

My weird weekend in St Paul

Hey, it’s Fall Break for me, which means no classes or labs, but instead, I have to buckle down and get all caught up in my grading, so that’s what I’ll be doing the next few days. I thought I’d give a quick summary of my talk at the Paradigm Symposium, though. It was an odd experience. It had been a weekend full of woo and pseudoscience; that morning, L.A. Marzulli put on the most ghastly spectacle of ignorance and nonsense I’ve ever seen, raving about how evolution was false and aliens built piezoelectric teleporters in Peru and people with funny-shaped heads were signs that the End Times were here. I had been tempted at that point to drop my entire planned talk and simply get up there and tear every single one of his lies down…but I had a few hours to cool down, and I took into account that this was probably going to be the most hostile audience I’d ever had anyway, and went back to my original plan, a talk about biology. The talk was titled “An examination of the evidence for alien intervention in the history of life on earth”. It was a bit of bait and switch, because once I was up there I told them I couldn’t say much about that.

The first thing, I put the most antagonistic comment front and center: I told them that if I was here to talk about the scientific perspective on the evidence for aliens mucking about on planet Earth, there was one big problem: there isn’t any. They may have photos of lights in the sky, or the testimony of abductees, or the amazing mythology of ancient peoples that names the alien’s home star, and sure, that’s data of a crude sort…but there are many alternative explanations for the observations, and you simply can’t pick one alternative because it’s the one you like best. Blurry photos of ambiguous phenomena, numerology, interpretations of myth or religiously motivated pictograms in rocks, are very, very bad evidence, poorly assessed and clumsily shoe-horned into pet mythologies. They are not going to get published in peer-reviewed science journals.

I know what some of them would think about that: it’s a conspiracy theory. The grand poobahs of science are acting as dogmatic gatekeepers who will not allow the bold new ideas of an open-minded generation of serious investigators to enter the temple of science!

But that’s not it at all. I know a lot of scientists; I am one. We grew up on science fiction and weird ideas — I read Fate magazine as an adolescent — we love the idea of extraterrestrial intelligences. We have the same desire they do to see strange ideas come true, and experience exotic and mysterious phenomena.

But we also have standards. Extraordinary phenomena require extraordinary evidence. You don’t become a scientist unless you can couple imagination and curiosity to rigor and discipline.

And the current “evidence” doesn’t rise to the level it ought to — the enormous hypothesis that we have been visited by aliens is supported by the thinnest, feeblest, most bizarrely subjective nonsense.

I suggested that they imagine that I proposed that there was an elephant roaming the hall of the Union Depot, which is where the meeting was being held. That would be really cool — I love elephants. It would make me ridiculously happy to find a domesticated elephant sharing this room with us. And they might think that would be awesome, too — but looking around, there was no elephant is in sight. It was a fairly open space, and aside from a curtained area, there wasn’t anywhere where an elephant could possibly be hiding.

Just on the obvious evidence of your eyes, you would say there is no elephant there. But maybe, as an open-minded person, you might assume that I’ve got some additional information — I’d just come from behind the curtain, so maybe it was lurking back there. So you ask me to support my claim…and in reply, I say, “I found a peanut in my pocket. How else could it have gotten there other than that it was put there by a friendly elephant?”

Would the quality of my evidence and my logic reduce or strengthen my claim of an elephant? I think everyone would agree that that is extraordinarily poor reason and exceptionally weak evidence, and it would greatly reduce my credibility, and you’d be even less likely to accept the possibility of elephants lurking in train stations.

That’s how the scientific community feels about these stories of aliens. An enormous, earth-shaking reality is proposed, and the best evidence anyone can trot out is trivially dismissed blurry photos backed up by unsupportable logic. No, I’m sorry, until the alien proponents can provide better evidence, they’re not going to be taken seriously, and floundering about and flinging even more blurry photos and bizarre claims and elaborate fairy tales about ancient hieroglyphics is going to weaken your case.

Then the bulk of the talk was a discussion of why the idea that aliens hybridized with humans, or that humans are aliens who emigrated to Earth, is completely ridiculous. I tried to keep it as basic as possible. The first bits were a primer on what a gene and an allele are, a quick explanation about how we have roughly 20,000 genes, and that basically all mammals, to a first approximation, have the same suite of genes, and that differences in the forms of those genes in a mouse or a human allow us to estimate how closely related we are. I showed them a cladogram and explained how it was generated and what it meant.

I addressed some of the most common misconceptions: I explained that chromosome number isn’t that big a deal, and showed them a synteny map to illustrate that it just meant the genes were juggled about in a different arrangement…but they were still the same genes. I knew some of the more knowledgeable people might have heard that the human genome project had found some genes that were unique to humans and not shared with other mammals, so I explained what ORFans were, and how they aren’t the key to finding signs of alien tinkering. I probably spent the most time discussing an actual, known case of “alien” genes in the human genome, the analysis of human and Neandertal genomes.

That’s the kind of evidence we expect to see if their stories are true, I told them.

I had to mention one thing that had been bugging me all weekend, even if it wasn’t strictly about biology. Could aliens have offered cultural guidance, rather than tinkering with genes? And I told them flat out that the question was a bit insulting and also often a bit racist. So I showed them a photo of the pyramids (man, there had been a lot of talk about Egypt this weekend) and said that it was peculiar that alien astronaut proponents are always talking about aliens helping to build these monuments, but…and then I showed a photo of Notre Dame cathedral and asked, why don’t you think the French needed alien assistance to build that? It helped that John Ward had given a talk earlier in the conference where he described the quarries where the stones of the pyramid had come from and how they’d been built by human labor.

Finally, I touched on the peculiarity of little grey men — why are so many of the aliens described so human-like? I told them that evolution would not predict any such convergence to a remarkable degree, and that was evidence that these creatures were actually projections of human fears and desires, rather than physical visitors.

My summary slide:

  • We are children of this Earth

  • We know our kinship to other children of Earth

  • We know the history of our genes

  • We know the history of our populations

  • Humans have accomplished greatness on our own

Humanity: Alien-Free for 6 million years, and proud of it!

I suppose I could have said “Earth: Alien-Free for 4.5 billion years”, as well. I was defining humanity pretty broadly, too, to stretch it to 6 million years.

The Q&A wasn’t as bad as I feared. A couple of people were aggressive about challenging me — one wanted me to enumerate all of the alien abductees I’d talked to, and I’ve only met a few, and most of what I know comes from reading. But that’s hardly relevant: as I said at the beginning, trotting out more anecdotes from people who claim their butts were probed is only going to weaken their credibility. Most of the people wanted clarification, and there were some questions about junk DNA, nothing unmanageable.

I think I reached a few people, anyway. I have no illusions that scales fell from eyes and anyone decided that aliens are bunk on the basis of what I said, but maybe they’ll think a little harder about what constitutes good scientific evidence. I invited the conference organizer, Scotty Roberts, to join us on FtBCon in January, and maybe we could argue some more.