Wednesday, January 27, 2010

PZ at Sacramento City College

The Q&A session

Sacramento City College has pride of place as one of the oldest community colleges in California. The campus is full of old-fashioned brick buildings, including the newer structures. City College lies only a few miles from the State Capitol building. Back in 1980, when I was a legislative staffer, a bunch of us traveled down to SCC for the dedication of the sprawling brick-and-glass office-classroom structure at the front of the campus in honor of a local legislator (who had been a professor at City College in a previous life).

The PZ Myers grand tour of California college towns was in Sacramento on Tuesday night for the sixth of its eight stops. The Sac City Freethinkers were the local sponsors of PZ's speaking tour. They booked him into the Student Center, where over 200 people were on hand to hear what PZ had to say.

Having attended PZ's appearance at UC Davis, I thought I knew what to expect. While PZ was using the title “Complexity and Creationism” for all of his presentations, it turns out he has a couple of different presentations that he serves up in alternation at these stops. To my best recollection, there were only three slides in common between the two presentations I saw (including the title slide). In Sacramento, PZ concentrated his fire on Stephen Meyer, author of the egregious Signature in the Cell, whereas in Davis he focused more on arch-idiot Ray Comfort.

The core of PZ's talk, of course, was essentially the same in both variants: critical thinking is a key component of science and is anathema to creationism. That may be one of the reasons that creationists think that complexity is an indicator of design (rather than a sign of the chaotic constructions of biology).

PZ typically talks for an hour and then spends a second hour taking questions from the audience. He followed this pattern at City College, fielding a wide range of queries. One person in attendance seemed to be trying to pin PZ down on the significance of “information”—necessitating a designer, perhaps?—and another asked lengthy and rambling questions that had people shifting impatiently in their seats, but for the most part PZ found himself dealing with friendly and engaging queries.

As with my report on the UC Davis Q&A, the following is not a transcript. I dare to put a few phrases of sentences in quotes because my notes indicate that PZ spoke those actual words, but this is mostly a narrative paraphrase and summary of the many questions and answers.

Questions & Answers

Q. What do you teach and study?

A. Developmental biology and neuroscience.

Q. If the pre-Cambrian protists contained information in their genomes that prefigured the Cambrian lifeforms, obviating the need for any extraordinary explanations for Cambrian complexity, where did the information in the protists come from?

A. It's like Russian dolls, where each doll contains a smaller doll inside. If you go back far enough, you're starting to talk about abiogenesis and that's chemistry, the development of self-replicating forms that can evolve.

Q. Abiogenesis is so unlikely, so low in probability, we have to ask where the first cell came from. Isn't this like a whirlwind assembling a 747 from a junkyard?

A. Cells are chemistry. There are many, many models for prebiotic forms that give rise to life. There are RNA-based models. Models based on generation of metabolism. Any given outcome is unlikely, but only one needs to succeed. Early cells were not like modern cells. They were very different. See Robert Hazen's Genesis for a good introduction to scientific thinking on the origins of life.

Q. What do you think about free will?

A. It's a concept based on ignorance. An illusion.

Q. Given our difficulty in finding fossilized cells on earth, should we be looking to the astronomers for new biological discoveries in space?

A. It would answer lots of questions if we were able to find an example of a different kind of biology. Perhaps there's something on Mars. Right now, however, we are dealing with a population of size zero.

Q. Have you read the work of Nick Lane? Are you familiar with Life Ascending: the Ten Great Inventions of Evolution?

Nick Lane is a very good writer and I recommend his books. I have not, however, read Life Ascending.

Q. In Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life, Nick Lane says that it's very unlikely for eukaryotes to have formed by fusion in the way people think occurred.

A. The process is not unlikely. What's unlikely is the occurrence of a particular form of life, such as our ATP-based mechanism. That was quite by chance.

Q. Why do protist genomes contains genes for proteins for eukaryotes?

A. Protists have genes for producing proteins that they must use in ways different from the ways that eukaryotes use those same proteins. They make the proteins, but we aren't sure why. It's an area of active research.

Q. Thank you for your final slide with the list of things that critical thinkers should refuse to take seriously. [The slide listed gods, demons, angels, souls, spirits, original sin, virgin births, ascensions, transubstantiation, prayers, miracles, heaven, hell, and reincarnation.]

A. You're welcome. That's my cranky slide.

Q. I'm from Lodi, where the city council is abandoning nonsectarian prayer to open their meetings in favor of prayers celebrating Jesus. One of our public school principals is looking for novel ways to put God into the classroom.

A. Public school classrooms should have topics based on evidence. The supernatural doesn't belong in science classes, which are based on nature. It's important to support good teachers. Talk to them and encourage them when they're doing the right thing. But also talk to the principals and get in their face when they're encouraging bad things. So far the noise machine is very one-sided. We need to make noise, too.

Q. How do we combat the constant rebranding of creationism?

A. Creationists keep trying to hide what they're doing. A good example is intelligent design. They are creationists. That's why I don't call them “intelligent design theorists.” I always say “intelligent design creationists.” They don't like that.

Q. What about the concept of irreducible complexity? Is that a contribution of intelligent design to science?

A. Irreducible complexity is real, but it's not new. Hermann Muller was talking about this back in 1919, and he saw it as supporting evolution. It's wrong when creationists say irreducible complexity cannot evolve incrementally. We have lots of examples.

Q. What is the book you're supposed to be working on?

A. I feel extremely guilty because here I am in California doing a speaking tour instead of working on my book. It's a book about atheism.

Q. What about scientists who have room in their lives for God?

A. I have the same response to them as I have to theologians. Scientific training doesn't make you immune to bullshit. The Language of God by Francis Collins has no arguments to support his religious faith. He just keeps saying he believes.

Q. That's not true. Collins makes a strong case that evolution cannot explain the existence of altruism.

A. I'm sorry, but Collins is utterly ignorant of the huge body of research on altruism. It has been studied a great deal and Collins demonstrates that he is familiar with none of it. How can Collins use altruism as an argument for God when he never addresses the work of Hamilton and others in that field?

Q. I've been reading The Greatest Show on Earth by Dawkins. What other books would you recommend?

A. It's a great book. You should also look at Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True and Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish.

Q. [A little girl] Why does your last slide have that dot-dot-dot at the end?

A. That's because there's a lot more nonsense than I could fit on one slide. It tells you the list goes on and on.

Q. What about Stephen Hawking? In A Brief History of Time he keeps talking about knowing the mind of God.

A. Hawking is an atheist who uses the Einsteinian metaphor of identifying God with the universe. It's the way physicists like to talk. I don't understand them.

Q. Since you teach neuroscience and have a strong opinion about free will, you should check out this great neurolaw site. [Possibly The Law and Neuroscience Blog; if someone caught more detail, please let me know. —Z]

A. I'm not familiar with that one.

Q. Steven Pinker touches on free will in How the Mind Works. On another topic, there's the anthropic principle, which in some formulations is used to argue that universes evolve to eventually produce life. We're the end result.

A. It's not surprising that we live in a universe that is compatible with our existence.

Q. I'm a writer who is very interested in your topic of complexity, but I understand exactly nothing of what you said during the past hour. Is there a Science for Dummies book you could recommend?

A. Then I have failed. You should read anything by Carl Zimmer. He writes very clearly. Perhaps you were not exposed to enough science in your education. It's important to encourage kids at an early stage. Be advocates for your children by talking with their teachers and encouraging good science education.

Q. Why don't rational thinkers go on the attack? Why don't we challenge creationists? We should demand that they answer the question of who designed the Designer.

A. That is definitely happening. Read Dawkins, The God Delusion. The “New Atheists” are speaking out. We thought for a long time that we had to be polite. While those of us who are teachers don't attack—shouldn't attack—our students when they believe nonsense, we must confront the irrational ideas. We are getting louder and noisier every day.

Q. There are science supporters who don't want to be associated with atheism.

A. We do have an image problem. Personally, I am proud of being an atheist. We shouldn't hide our dedication to rational thinking. Creationists shouldn't call us arrogant when they go around claiming that only they know the truth.

Q. The National Academy of Sciences is dominated by a majority of atheists and nonbelievers, right? Is there any movement toward speaking out more?

A. There is a growing attitude that favors speaking out because we've seen the consequences of remaining silent. We can't afford to just assume that things will work out in the long run.

Q. The most rabid atheist is less scary to me than the real religious zealots. Who invented burning at the stake?

A. Right.

Q. I see a similarity to gay rights and the rights of racial minorities in the struggle for acceptance of atheists as part of society. Even today we hesitate to help racial minorities in Haiti and in New Orleans.

A. We should be angry rather than calm when we see examples of prejudice.

Q. So many religious people think that there will be chaos if people stop believing in the existence of a God who can serve as a supercop.

A. They're trying to fill in a vacuum. They don't believe that you can be moral without God. It makes you wonder about them.

Q. You can't beat militant fundamentalists when it comes to extremism. Scientists don't go blowing things up. It's religious people who do that. And they destroy culture. Look at Branson, Missouri, which is my own personal definition of hell.

A. There is a double standard because the fundies are the ones in charge. The Christian right is privileged, even though we've seen more domestic terrorism from them than from other groups.

Q. I'm concerned that atheism may be growing, but the movement's diversity is not.

A. Oh, it's improving. Some years ago, any meeting of atheists and freethinkers would be almost entirely male and mostly people in their sixties. Now we have more young people and more women are involved. Minority involvement is less than it might be, but let's be fair and admit that they have other fights that are more immediate and pressing.

Q. We can be good without some guy in the sky watching us. We should teach philosophical ideas and history in schools to show that non-Christian cultures such as the Greek civilization also had notions of moral behavior.

A. There is a dearth of comparative studies of societies in schools. We spend too much time in school emphasizing details. We need to spend more time on critical thinking skills and mathematics. Give people the tools they need. I think philosophy in grade school would be good, but Dennett would disagree strongly. He'd say we'd mess the students up and they'd have to spend years relearning things that they learned wrong.

Q. What is your opinion of evolutionary psychology?

A It's an interesting idea, but all too often it becomes wild extrapolation. The evolutionary psych people seem to disregard the complexities that make it difficult to find explanations for everything.

Q. I'm an agnostic and I understand that science is based on evidence for things and evidence against things. In your list of things we shouldn't believe, you say we shouldn't believe in an afterlife. If that's so, where is the evidence against an afterlife.

A. You have to show evidence that fits your hypothesis. If you think there's an afterlife, then you are obligated to present evidence supporting it. If you don't have it, Occam's razor says we're justified in not taking it seriously. Lack of evidence means you have no basis for your claim. You may as well believe in fairies and unicorns, for which there is no evidence.

Q. Why would you want to disbelieve in unicorns?

A. Well, I can't disprove unicorns.

Q. How long till we have an openly atheist president?

A. I don't know. A long time, probably. Perhaps twenty years? It would be nice if it happened in my lifetime, but I have my doubts.

Q. There are measures of complexity other than Claude Shannon's. For example, we use a different system of measure in figuring the complexity of software.

A. Yes, I picked Shannon although there are other measures. The important thing is that creationists don't have any standard for complexity. They don't even have any units for their complexity, whereas Shannon's information theory has a solid mathematical basis.

Q. Dawkins has a complexity argument against the existence of God, where he points out to creationists that any God able to follow the path of every particle in the universe would necessarily be even more complex than the entire universe itself. Such a God is therefore excessively complex and a universe without such a God would be simpler and therefore more likely.

A. Yes.

Q. Why do creationists keep using the second law of thermodynamics as an argument against evolution.

A. Because they don't understand it. They don't realize their argument could just as well be used to disprove growth.

Q. What is the role of the agnostic in advancing critical thinking and advancing science?

A. Please get off the fence and join us. Waffling is a waste of time. We need you with us.


pzmyers said...

One error: I have read Life Ascending -- it was another book she mentioned that I hadn't read.

Zeno said...

Thanks, PZ. I struck out a couple of words. I admit that I had trouble reading my notes of her long and rambling question (most of which wasn't a question at all).

llewelly said...

Zeno, thank you for taking such excellent notes on the Q. and A. sessions. And thank you for providing links to what the people speaking were referring to.

llewelly said...

"What do you think about free will?"

As a child, I was taught God allowed murder, rape, torture, genocide, and other brutalities to occur in order to allow humans the freedom to choose between evil and good. I have too often seen theists try to use "free will" as a way to explain why God allows evil. It is a theist's way of shifting the blame for God's immorality onto humans.

unapologetic said...

We do have an image problem.

Here, I will agree with him 100%. But I doubt he'll go so far as agreeing that he's part of that problem.

I'll also go him one further in his response to the last question: we need as many allies as possible in the policy fight against creationism and religion in the public sphere, whether they believe in gods or not. The "image problem" holds us back in that effort.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I don't know. It's not like atheists were universally beloved before they got mouthy...

tomh said...

unapologetic said...

we need as many allies as possible in the policy fight against creationism and religion in the public sphere

What is this policy fight you keep talking about? You do know that creationism and religion in public schools is forbidden, I'm sure, so that policy is settled. What is the policy you want to fight about?

sociology dissertation said...

It is a theist's way of shifting the blame for God's immorality onto humans.