Saturday, January 30, 2010

PZ does Rocklin

The Q&A at Sierra College

Three out of eight. That's how many of the talks by PZ Myers I attended during his California tour. PZ's presentation on Thursday evening at Sierra College in Rocklin (just north and east of Sacramento) was his valedictory. He chose for this occasion a slight variant of the presentation he gave his UC Davis audience last week. Ray Comfort was once again front and center as the embodiment of creationist stupidity, providing an all-too-easy target and generating lots of laughs from a capacity crowd in 110 Weaver Hall. (A sign on the wall said the lecture hall could hold no more than 133 people, but I suspect that a few more than that were actually present.)

While PZ's two-lecture repertoire for his “Complexity and Creationism” tour produces a series of similar talks for those of us who attended multiple events, each venue generated its own unique Q&A sessions with the audience. In my reports on the California tour, I've concentrated on this aspect of the presentations. After a brief recap of the main body of PZ's presentation at Sierra College, I'll give my account of the audience reaction. In my opinion, it was the most spirited of the three events at which I was present, although the number of attendees was also the smallest.

The main event

After a Mr. Deity clip, which PZ has been using at his stops to settle the crowd, Brett Ransford of Freethinkers of Sierra, the local sponsor of PZ's appearance, introduced the evening's speaker. Brett recounted PZ's expulsion from a screening of Expelled while Richard Dawkins was permitted to stroll into the movie theater unmolested. Upon taking center stage, PZ quipped that he was pleased to have been regarded as scarier than Dawkins and launched his presentation.

“Creationists have no good arguments for anything,” declared PZ, providing his audience with the central theme of his talk. He cited the example of Geoffrey Simmons, M.D., who has written a book titled Billions of Missing Links, only to demonstrate in a radio debate with PZ that he was completely ignorant of the existence of a rich trove of whale ancestors. PZ freely admitted that he was rude enough to label Dr. Simmons as ignorant (the usual definition of lack of knowledge, after all), which caused a lot of gasping and clutching at pearls among the radio station's delicate religionists.

It turned out that Simmons had limited his research on whales to a perfunctory reading of a Scientific American article on cetacean evolution—although apparently not turning enough pages to discover that the magazine had included a lengthy list of the whale's extinct ancestor species.

“That's just the standard creationist approach to research,” said PZ.

Several of PZ's slides served up jaw-droppingly stupid statements by Ray Comfort, famed banana connoisseur and the star of the evening's creationist freak show. These included Comfort's claim that Darwin thought human males and females had evolved independently, his similar statement about elephants and dogs.

It doesn't help Ray Comfort's credibility that his introduction to a special giveaway edition of Darwin's Origin of Species was a cut-and-paste job that included outright plagiarism.

PZ also touched on creationists' excessive literalness. (Well, they are rather hung up on “the Word.”) Michael Behe sees “little trucks and busses” in biological systems. “I mean, literally,” he says. In a similarly wacky vein, Ken Ham's Creation “Museum” sports signs boasting that the facility presents a “literal interpretation” of the Bible story of Genesis.

Literal interpretation? “Those are two words that don't go together,” said PZ.

Creationist Jerry Bergman once debated PZ over the question of whether intelligent design ought to be taught in school (presumably as a legitimate subject and not as a good example of pseudoscience). While PZ argued that ID creationism lacks the theoretical framework and evidence that science requires, Bergman responded that you don't need a theory—all you need are facts. (Huh?) Besides, according to Bergman even a carbon atom is irreducibly complex (Wha—?) and, as we all know, blah, blah, blah, Hitler!, blah, blah.

That sterling performance by Bergman qualified him for selection as PZ's example of the derangement of creationists. Hard to argue with that one.

PZ was also sorry to note the existence in his backyard of the Twin Cities Science Association. At its website, the TCCSA offers a gibbering essay by Bergman in which he states,
All functional systems that require two or more parts to function properly are irreducibly complex.
Michael Behe would beg to differ.

Both versions of PZ's “Complexity and Creationism” talk (the ones that I saw, anyway) conclude with his slide in support of the pillars of science—reason, evidence, critical thinking, and naturalism—and denouncing the myriad aspects of irrational belief—namely, gods, demons, angels, etc. He expressed the hope that religion would someday be nothing more than a mildly eccentric hobby, rather like knitting, playing Dungeons & Dragons, or writing poetry.

The Sierra College audience was engaged and vocal even before PZ officially inaugurated the post-talk question-and-answer session. Quips and comments abounded. (When PZ poked fun at the “design requires a designer” trope with a slide that asked, “Does thunder require a thunderer?”, an audience member asked, “Would someone who turned away from belief in a thunder god be a Thor loser?”) We also discovered that the audience included a famous young polemicist for whom Ed Brayton named an award for creationist inanity. It added some excitement.

As usual, the following is not a literal transcript (except in the few instances where I dare to enclose text in quote marks). It's an abridged narrative based on my notes and it tries to present the gist of the exchanges rather than a verbatim account. To the best of my ability, I try to give an accurate sense of the discussions. A few asides from yours truly appear in brackets. Anything labeled with a “Q.” is from the audience, but sometimes I add “[Audience]” to highlight that an exchange is occurring among the attendees (while PZ watches in bemusement).

The Q&A

Q. I feel like I must be missing something that everyone else seems to understand. What is a crocoduck?

A. In a debate between the Rational Response Squad and Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, Cameron pulled out a large picture of the “crocoduck” as an example of something that evolutionists are supposed to believe in. And it's not even original with them. They apparently got the idea from a Worth 1000 chimera contest. It's an example of how creationists don't even understand what they are attacking. This crocoduck tie was designed by Josh Timonen and is one of only two in existence. Richard Dawkins has the other one. If you see someone wearing this tie, it's either me or Richard.

[PZ may be unaware that the world of fashion is notorious for knock-offs. is advertising a “Crocoduck tie like Richard Dawkins wears!” We'll all be wearing them the next time PZ comes to California.]

Q. [Robert O'Brien] “I don't know if you recognize me, PZ. In your own words, your contributions to science are piddling. Those are your words, not mine. I just happen to agree with them. To that I would add that your arguments against God are just as risible as those of Dawkins and the other occupants of the new atheist clown car. Given that, why should anyone who is not already one of your chamchas pay attention to you as opposed to others who are far more accomplished and rational?”

[O'Brien appeared to be reading his remarks and he spoke faster than I could write. As previously noted, this report is not a literal transcript. However, O'Brien showed up in the comments, as you can see below, and was kind enough to provide a definitive take on his screed. The use of the word “chamchas” is rather affected when perfectly good words like “sycophants” and “kiss-asses” are available, but perhaps it merely means that O'Brien and I share a penchant for vocabulary building.]

A. Well, it seems we have a creationist in the audience after all. And you did a standard creationist thing. You took my words out of context. When I say that my research is “piddling,” it means that my work—like that of many others—is a small contribution to the aggregate of science. That's what science is, a collection of evidence in a theoretical framework. Religion and creationism is not based on evidence.

Q. [Robert O'Brien] We have evidence, too!

A. Where, for example, is the evidence for the existence of God?

Q. [Robert O'Brien] There are many proofs for the existence of God.

A. So give us one. Which is your favorite? Which is the strongest argument for the existence of God?

Q. [Robert O'Brien] I like Gödel's ontological argument, which is a mathematical proof. The definition of God is that he possesses all positive properties. If he exists, then he has all of those positive properties. Not existing would be a negative property, which he cannot have, so he has to exist.

Q. [Audience] That begs the question. You said, “If he exists.”

Q. [Robert O'Brien] That's a starting point in the argument. It's more complicated than that. I'm not presenting a formal proof.

Q. [Audience] That's just “proof by definition.”

Q. [Robert O'Brien] No, it's not.

Q. [Audience] Yes, it is.

Q. [Audience] PZ, I won't presume to speak on behalf of all of my fellow mathematicians, but I'd like to point out that Gödel's ontological argument would make 99.99% of us into theists if it were really a rigorous proof. However, mathematicians are as big a hodgepodge as any other segment of the population. Gödel's argument is clearly not regarded as a proof by the mathematical community.

Q. [Robert O'Brien] It is a proof. Speaking as a statistician—

Q. [Audience] Then you're not a mathematician!

Q. PZ, could you not see religion used as a hypothesis for formulating things like a basis for morality?

A. Yes, but religion is a primitive hypothesis that has been falsified many times, as one religion gives way to another. And you don't need religion as a basis for morality.

Q. Isn't atheism just a dogmatic assertion that there is no God? Doesn't science require at least agnosticism?

A. There is no assertion of any proof of no God. Science is “operationally” atheist, not dogmatically. The God hypothesis is useless in the pursuit of science.

Q. If God is the sum of all positive and all encompassing, then doesn't the lack of negative qualities mean that he's not all encompassing?

Q. [Audience] That depends on what you mean by positive and negative.

Q. [Audience] Relativism for the win!

Q. What would it take to serve as evidence for the existence of God?

A. Believers need to provide a hypothesis that I can test and measure.

Q. Why is it always the Judeo-Christian God? Why not some other God or Creatrix? And what about the diversity of evolutionary beliefs among religions. The Catholic Church says that evolution is not just a hypothesis.

A. That was the previous pope. The current pope is not as clear about it.

Q. He hangs out with ID creationists like Cardinal Schönborn.

A. Right.

Q. Atheism says that there is no absolute basis for right or wrong. What if everyone agreed that the Nazis were right. Would what the Nazis did still be wrong?

A. If everyone agrees, then there would be no one to point out that they were wrong. “But the natural world will eventually bite you in the ass if you act on the basis that mass-killing is a good thing.”

Q. [Professor Vernon Martin] Moral objectivism is not a way out of the woods. It's a tricky business.

Q. [Audience] Thomas Schick has a disproof of God based on the original argument of Parmenides.

Q. Our notion of what is reasonable is always changing. Years ago it would have been perfectly reasonable for me to light up a cigarette while sitting in this lecture hall (and having quit within the past year, I really want to), but today it's unthinkable. We indulge in lots of practices without thinking about them, such as clipping the ears of Dobermans, because that's what we're used to at the time we do it.

A. That just goes to show that there is no objective morality.

Q. In your role as a figurehead of science and atheism, how would you direct all atheists to deal with religionists. What would be the most utilitarian approach?

A. If I were the figurehead, I would immediately resign. I value the diversity in the community of nonbelievers. I'm a biologist. I value biodiversity.

Q. It would be like herding cats anyway.

A. I am so tired of that analogy!

Q. Atheism is not a formal philosophy. It doesn't impose a uniform perspective on people.

Q. [Audience] But religionists are dogmatic and dangerous.

Q. [Audience] But not uniformly so.

Q. [Brett Ransford] Excuse me for interrupting, but could you please direct your questions to PZ? Mental masturbation is nice, but—

A. Masturbation? Oh, no, this is intercourse!

Q. Tell us about your blog! How do you manage to post so much on it?

A. I attribute it to poor impulse control. The key to a successful blog is to write several posts a day.

Q. Were you given a religious upbringing?

A. I was raised in a mildly religious family as a Lutheran. I consider that I was inoculated against religion by having been infected at a young age by a weak strain.

Q. I accept evolution, but I'm not an atheist.

A. You have my permission to go to church. Just don't use religion to interfere in the secular rights of others.

Q. I don't go to church. I hug trees.

A. There is the example of Loyal Rue, who is completely rational in his approach but is still a believer. He has a number of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and a Templeton Foundation fellowship.

Q. Have you had any conversion successes?

A. It doesn't work that way. You present believers with your evidence in as persuasive a way as you can and then you wait and see. It might be years later before anything happens. There are examples like Kurt Wise, who studied under Stephen Jay Gould, but decided he had to accept Jesus and could not accept science. That's a failure.

Q. My friend believes that evolution is God's way of working in the world.

A. Then he doesn't understand evolution. The nature of evolution is stochastic and nonteleological. It's not guided and it has no predetermined goal except survival. Religious figures like Rick Warren need God in the process to provide meaning. I haven't written much about Warren. He thinks we're all supposed to be happy slaves under the absolute dictatorship of God.

Q. Why do so many religious people reject science?

A. Because science is in competition with their religion. Evolutionary science attacks the sense of self and purpose that they need in their lives, which they can't seem to find without deriving it from religion.

Q. There will be a talk on Relics of Eden, the evidence for evolution in human genetics, on the last Friday in February. [Details, anyone? —Z]

A. Creationists think that attacking the fossil record is the best way to attack evolution. They don't seem to understand that the best evidence is being found in biology, in genetics.

Q. Creationism keeps shifting. We've had “creation science,” “scientific creationism,” “intelligent design,” and “teach the flaws.” What's next?

A. I'm hoping it's complete collapse. Creationism has not been able to gain any scientific credibility. Groups like the Discovery Institute—which pretends to be scientific—are getting more and more fundamentalist. They don't make much headway with abstract arguments. Look at Dover, which was supposedly about intelligent design and Of Pandas and People. It was pushed by the old-fashioned creationists on the school board, who probably felt betrayed when the Discovery Institute ducked out. The Discovery Institute doesn't bring in much money anymore, at least not from their creationist activities. Answers in Genesis is the big money maker.

Q. Won't creationists just create their own schools and teach their anti-scientific ideas there?

A. Many already have. They want to destroy public education, which is like the Republican strategy.

Q. Would you say the Wedge strategy has failed?

A. Yes. It has not worked out the way they once hoped.

Q. Science flourishes in an atmosphere of opposition and questioning. Haven't creationists therefore done science a favor?

A. I'd disagree. Science grows with questioning, but creationists are a side-show. Their arguments are beside the point and are not part of the scientific discussion.

Q. Groups like Wallbuilders are trying to rewrite history.

A. Yes, that's one of the things they're trying to do in Texas right now. The Texas School Board has a great influence on the nation's textbooks. The extremists on the board are turning toward history, citing non-historian David Barton as an authority.

Q. I've heard a lot of mudslinging tonight, but we won't get anywhere if we constantly disrespect each other. Religion has been part of society for thousands of years and should be treated with more respect.

A. Bad sanitation has been part of society for thousands of years, too.

Q. You can't tell people what they believe is bullshit. You need to educate them.

A. You can do both. Bad ideas deserve to be treated with complete and utter disrespect. The ideas, not the people who hold them. Getting people to understand critical thinking and evidence is a long-term effort. It doesn't happen overnight.

Q. Will people eventually evolve beyond religion?

A. No, I don't think so. Sanitation has advanced a great deal over the years, but there are still dirty people. Society has become more civilized in many ways, but we still have crime. Crime will always exist. Religion will, too. I'm perfectly fine with people having the freedom to practice their religions in private and in their churches. I don't, however, support their right to impose their religious beliefs on me or other people. I'm rather optimistic—perhaps irrationally so—because I think progress is possible and that most people just want peaceful lives to enjoy themselves and raise their families.

Q. Should we perhaps downplay evolution and emphasize critical thinking instead?

A. Better science education is important, but that includes evolutionary theory as well as critical thinking. We can't ignore it. I also think we need to teach more mathematics as part of a better science education (although I know that Zeno will think I'm pandering to the mathematicians when I say that).

Q. I'm a nonbeliever who is worried that people will know what I think. It's great for groups like this to meet and provide a safe environment to interact with others. The Internet helps, too.

A. It can be a problem to deal with family members and friends who don't have an appreciation for the scientific approach. The Internet has been a big help in getting the message out there that you're not alone. Otherwise you might feel completely intimidated. But you also need to speak out. Isn't it better to be a tiger than a mouse?

Q. Why don't most people believe in evolution?

A. Evolution doesn't generate belief in itself. There's no reason to suspect that belief in evolution contributes to the survival of a species. Some humans believe in evolution, but most creatures don't believe in it at all.

Q. More people believe in religion than in evolution.

A. There are a lot of stupid people. Evolution does not necessarily promote intelligence as a survival trait.

Q. Perhaps part of the problem is that science isn't exciting enough. You get an endorphin rush from adventures, not from rational thought?

A. Really? You don't? There is no greater rush than learning something you've never known before, in discovering something that no one knew before. “All the best drugs are from science, you know. Discovering the truth about the universe is a real rush.”


As some people began to disperse and others gathered around PZ, Robert O'Brien came over to brace me with a question or two, since he had discerned that I was one of the mathematicians in the audience. (The other best-represented academic department at PZ's talk was philosophy.)

“Do you deny the existence of Gödel's ontological argument?” he inquired.

“Not at all,” I replied. “I merely observed that it's not widely accepted as a proof of anything.”

“Oh, okay. I thought you might be denying its existence. But it is a proof.”

“Not likely. Not if most mathematicians aren't willing to accept it. And we don't.”

And when I say “we,” I'm not including self-described statisticians like Robert.

A day later, Robert posted a comment on his blog concerning the Sierra College event and his confrontation with PZ Myers:
I also did not expect to be asked to defend Kurt Gödel's Ontological Argument, which I was unprepared to do. (Although, even if I were prepared, I do not think I could have done it justice as a critical respondent among an, umm, unsympathetic audience.) I give credit to PZ for unexpectedly turning the tables and essentially catching me flat-footed; it won't happen again.
Want to bet?

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.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

All good things must come to an end

PZ is wrapping it up

The frenetic California tour is in its final stages. PZ Myers was booked into Sacramento City College for today, Stanford University for tomorrow, and Sierra College for Thursday. A map I drew of PZ's Golden State trek accompanied my earlier post (PZ does Northern California) on this topic. I also included links to information on the separate venues, except that Sierra College appeared to have nothing to say about where and when PZ would appear. I have since determined that he has been booked into Weaver 110 between 7:00 and 9:00 in the evening on the Rocklin campus. The Sacramento Area Skeptics has the scoop and it's also listed on the Facebook page of Freethinkers at Sierra College.

Maybe I'll see you there.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

PZ does Davis

The Q&A session

You may have heard the expression that some town is merely a “wide place in the road.” This applies in a major way to the city of Davis, a small town into which someone dropped a major university. As you approach Davis from the west, Interstate 80 widens into six lanes, accommodating the peak hours of traffic from UC Davis and the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. I found a parking space in one of the public lots ($6 for a 12-hour permit—I wanted to go back the next day to use it again!), grabbed my umbrella, and trekked across the campus.

It was raining steadily on Thursday night when PZ Myers arrived in Davis to talk about creationists and their inanities. The venue for his appearance was 194 Chemistry, a large lecture hall I've been in before. It was on that very site back in the eighties when I was privileged to hear Duane Gish hold forth at length on the imminent death of the theory of evolution, which had been overthrown—according to Gish—by the second law of thermodynamics. (Curious how selective creationists are in the scientific facts they accept.) It was while Gish was talking that I realized he had undoubtedly heard why it was invalid to use the second law to argue against evolution, but he persisted because it was a useful ploy with which to impress the ignorant.

The creationist game hasn't changed much since then. PZ was going to hold forth on “A few things I've learned about creationists.” At least, that's what it said on his first slide. When he spoke, however, he rendered it as “Stuff that really pisses me off about creationists.”

While the audience was assembling for the talk, I took the opportunity to introduce myself to PZ. I asked him if he would be “holding court” later in the evening. “Is that what they're calling it these days?” (PZ is obviously unused to folks who talk with my arch and slightly archaic second-language manner.) “Well, it's the way that I say it, although it's a bit pretentious.” PZ appeared momentarily nonplussed. It later turned out that the second slide of his talk bore the word ”pretentious,” the first in a series of adjectives he would use that evening to define the nature of creationism and creationists. Perhaps he suspected I had seen his talk the night before in UC Santa Barbara, but that was really too far away. It was just an odd coincidence. Spooky!

The crowd settled down when “Mr. Deity and the Science Advisor” appeared on the lecture hall's projection screen. (Guess who plays the science advisor?) After an interlude of a few minutes for late arrivals to drip dry in the lobby and get seated, PZ launched into his talk.

As I mentioned the framework for his talk was a series of adjectives which PZ used as jumping off points for describing various creationist fatuities. It worked well, although it appeared that PZ could have spoken for an entire hour on any one of the adjectives. I presume PZ has been using the same basic spiel at each of his California stop. The Q&A that follows, however, will be unique to each venue.

The following report is a paraphrased narrative, not a literal transcript—except where I dare to include quote marks. (I'm afraid I lack the chops of a courtroom reporter.) I hope that I captured the essence of most of the exchanges.

Questions & Answers

Q. Michael Behe has dismissed Joe Thornton's brilliant work on gluticosteroid receptors as “piddling.” What's so great about Behe's own work?

A. Behe has published credible research on histones. It might also, however, be described as piddling—as is PZ's own work. “But much of scientific progress is just the aggregate of great amounts of piddling research.” The Biologic Institute was spawned as the research arm of the Discovery Institute, but its impact on actual science research is invisible.

Q. Have you heard the argument that natural selection may be real, but that's not proof that evolution is real?

A. That position is often taken by those who argue for a distinction between so-called macroevolution and microevolution. Natural selection is allowed to make small changes in their view, but it's supposedly incapable of transforming a creature's “kind”—the non-biological term used by creationists based on biblical phrases contained in passages like Genesis 1:25, “God made the beast of the earth after his kind.” The distinction is false, as if arguing that someone who could walk across a city could certainly never walk across a county.

Q. Do you get creationists in your classes at UM Morris?

A. “All the time. I treat their questions with respect and I encourage class participation in answering them. The better students leave the creationist arguments in shreds. As the professor, I get to stand back and be the referee. It's great fun.” It's extremely important that teachers make a distinction between the argument and the student, since someone in a position of authority can too easily make life miserable for students who are merely trying to convey dogma that others have inculcated in them. Besides, most students are in-between and may be willing to listen to new information. “I have occasionally planted doubts in their minds, causing them to think.” Sometimes, however, those wearing the armor of God are just too casehardened to do any critical thinking, such as those who filled out teaching evaluations that said, “This class made me love Jesus even more.” Those may well be hopeless.

Q. Isn't it counterproductive to label peoples' beliefs as nonsense when you're trying to engage them in scientific thinking? Isn't confrontation a bad way to influence people?

A. There are plenty of people trying to go the conciliatory route. The more accommodating science writers do not appear to be having significant success in promoting rational thought.

Q. Intelligent design creationists and theistic evolutionists think that a god or a designer needs to interfere in the natural world to create the life we see today. Do they ever specify where God does his tinkering?

A. Most appear to be focused on the notion that it's important to distinguish between the evolution of humans and the evolution of other animals. About half of the United States is okay with the idea that man evolved in some way, speaking broadly. However, about three-quarters are okay with the idea that dogs evolved. That suggests that God needs to be present to give humans their special characteristics. Other than that, most don't seem to care exactly where God does his tinkering. They just know that he does.

Q.Do you agree with Richard Dawkins when he says that evolution is corrosive to religion?

A. “Actually, I believe that all science is corrosive to religion.” Science is based on evidence and critical thinking, which are contrary to received doctrine and dogmatic thinking. Michael Ruse has wondered whether the courts could eventually decide that religion must be protected from science. Is there a fundamental right to religiosity that courts will rally to defend? It's not as though courts base all of their decisions on logic. Purveyors of religion, such as youth ministers, fret that higher education will deprive young people of religious beliefs. Science teachers should be direct in their response. If classes in science and logic and critical thinking cause young people to turn away from the religious ideas that they were taught, the implication is clear. The earth is not 6000 years old. The Grand Canyon was not gouged out overnight by Noah's flood. Jesus did not have a pet dinosaur when he was a young man. “It means that you [the youth ministers] have been lying to them all their lives.” No wonder that they turn away when they find out.

Q. Where is the creationism in practical technology?

A. As in the Salem hypothesis? That's the observation that engineers who are creationists like to describe themselves as scientists. Not all engineers are creationists, but those who are seem to think they should claim that they are scientists.

Q. No, I mean where are the technological applications of creationism? If it's a science, there should be applications.

A. But they aren't. Creationism is a belief system rather than a science.

Q. What are species, exactly?

A. There are many different biological formulations. It pleases creationists that the definition of species is fuzzy, because they can attack different aspects of it. Breeding isolation is an important factor. New species are emerging all the time, such as the breed of mosquito that lives in the London Underground. Clearly that's a species that arose recently, since the Tube has not been there very long.

Q. Why is Behe a creationist?

A. Probably religion, because religion is a comfort to many people and involves friends and family members. Religion is one of the older systems of social organization and contact, a predecessor to Facebook and Twitter. And the thought of burning in torment in hell for eternity can be quite persuasive. It compels compliance.

Q. Do you believe in the historicity of Jesus?

A. Richard Carrier says that Jesus is a myth. He has a forthcoming book in which he sets out his arguments. I agree with him. There may well have been a real person named Jesus about whom the myth was constructed, but it's mostly myth.

Q. Is evolution goal-directed?

A. Evolution's “goal” is better adaptation to survive in a given environment. Our language is full of words that suggest intent and purpose, which can be misleading, but evolution is the natural selection of randomly occurring advantageous mutations.

Q. Religion can be a comfort. Is that why some people don't care about science?

A. There's more comfort in the thought that there is no cosmic jailer! “People also say that religion is a crutch. Throw away your crutch and walk! That would be liberating. It's patronizing to suggest that most people are too weak to do without religion.

“Personally, I'm looking forward to the arrival of the first gay, female, atheist president.”

Q. Religion is used mostly to manipulate people.

A. Thomas Frank documented in his book how Kansas used to be a radical state, but religious extremists were part of the movement that pre-empted the moral high ground and persuaded people that they had to vote against their interests in order to be “good.” As a result, Kansans now regularly oppose programs and policies that would benefit them.

Q. Are you aware of Conservapedia's Bible project?

A. “I brought it to the world's attention. It's a project to remove the ‘liberal’ parts of the Bible.”

Q. Is there a direct correlation between the level of atheism and the amount of scientific thought? Does that mean we should be concerned about an increase in non-scientific thinking?

A. Science has a lot of authority, which is why people try to co-opt it in support of their positions. That's why advertisements say things like “9 out of 10 doctors recommend.” That's why a mockery of science like the Creation Museum exists. The United States is not science-positive in the sense of correct science. We need to exploit the validity of and power of science in order to diminish the influence of pseudoscience.

Q. Are atheists poorly organized?

A. Yes, but there is strength in diversity. There is no official dogma of atheism. “There is no pope of atheism—except for Dawkins.” There is no requirement that atheists subscribe to a particular set of political positions. Some atheists are in favor of abortion. Some are opposed—“even though that's where we get our babies to barbecue.”

Q. Ray Comfort seems to confuse spontaneous generation with evolution.

A. Ray Comfort doesn't even know where the first dog came from. He would say it's creation.

Q. We should tell our science students that they need to understand evolution in order to qualify for good-paying jobs in the future.

A. Would they believe that? It's better to tell them that understanding evolution makes other things easier to understand. For example, ecology makes a lot more sense if you've understood evolution first.

Q. Creationists often attack the radioactive dating of fossils.

A. The dates conflict with the young-earth idea. Therefore they say that you can't assume that decay rates have been in the past what they are today. If they were faster, then everything could be a glowing mass today. Creationists are willing to pay the price of invalidating all of physics in order to make their point.

Q. what about abiogenesis?

A. It's mostly straightforward. “All of biology is chemistry and there is no magic in molecules.” Study chemistry if you want to know how life could have arisen. Read Robert Hazen's Genesis for more.

Q. What is your opinion on humanity's ability to be a responsible steward of the biosphere?

A. We're balanced on the edge. The United States is not a good role model for the developing nations of the world because the U.S. is not sufficiently committed to adopting a sustainable way of life. Despite some hopeful optimism that people are beginning to wake up, things could definitely go in a bad direction.

Q. Why do so many creationists refuse to acknowledge that religious people can believe in evolution? Many Christian denominations have no problem with evolution. One example is the Catholic Church.

A. Many creationists would deny that Catholics are Christian. The Creation Museum contains displays that attack liberal Christians who don't accept young-earth creationism. They define creationism as part of their Christianity.

Q. What about Islamic creationism?

A. In countries like England, which has never had a significant problem with creationism, communities of Islamic immigrants are agitating in favor of creationist beliefs. Turkey, for example, is a very secular nation on paper, but in reality the influence of Islam is very strong. It's like the United States, officially secular but really very Christian.

Q. I fear the rise of a charismatic creationist leader from the fundamentalist ranks, someone like [Heinlein's] Nehemiah Scudder, who creates an extremist theocracy.

A. We need charismatic atheists, but that's not our strong suit. “Perhaps the recent coming out of Brad Pitt as an atheist gives us cause for hope.” Our best response is to concentrate on educating the children, making them critical thinkers. Teach your children. And if you don't have children, consider adopting.

Q. How does altruism fit into an evolutionary scheme of things?

A. This is a community. [indicating the audience] Social cohesiveness is important to our lives and comfort. We work together to maintain our environment. To live well, we rely on cooperation, which is the basis of morality. And we don't eat babies—no matter how delicious.

Q. I am a public school science teacher and some of my students reacted negatively when I introduced the astronomy topic of stellar evolution. I was called into a conference with my principal.

A. Is stellar evolution in your state standards? Point this out to your students and your principal. Tell your students they don't have to believe, but they have to understand. It's a requirement. Tell your principal he doesn't want to be out of compliance with state standards.

Q. Should we teach the flaws of creationism in the science classroom?

A. I do. It can be difficult for a public school teacher whose students might take offense, but I use a historical approach to science. I demonstrate that evolution was not established by atheists who were in league with the devil. Devoutly religious scientists like Lyell realized that the earth was at least millions of years old because that's what the evidence showed. Science is a product of both believers and nonbelievers.

Q. What about the God gene?

A. I don't believe that there are specific genes for emergent properties like belief in God or homosexuality. Those are too complex to be simply identified with genes.

Q. What is creationism's pre-Cambrian bunny rabbit?

A. If someone found a rabbit fossil from the pre-Cambrian, it would not immediately invalidate evolution for me. I would want to do a lot of investigation first. However, creationists do not point to any specific item of evidence that would cause them to abandon creationism. “Creationists work around the evidence.” Nothing persuades them. And they don't understand evidence, pointing to things like the “crocoduck” as a missing link that evolutionists would expect to find. [PZ was resplendent in his crocoduck tie.]

Q. Do religious leaders sometimes go too far and destroy the faith of their followers. Do they commit errors that are faith-crackers?

A. No, hardly ever. Look at Pat Robertson and his statement on Haiti's earthquake being the consequence of a pact with the devil. Most of his viewers probably agree with him. Persistent education is needed to overcome a mindset that lets people agree with pastors no matter what stupid things they say or do.

Q. Why are people susceptible to magical thinking?

A. It's part of our nature. We don't like the thought that some events are not purposeful. People like narrative and they want causal relationships. Magic covers the gaps.

Q. Atheists should move away from “believing” in evolution and emphasize “accepting” it on the basis of evidence.

Q. Right. Our language implies causes where there are none. We say that certain biological features are “designed” for certain functions when we do not mean to imply any designer other than natural selection. It can be misleading. However, we also lose our audience when we speak over-precisely, so there's no good remedy. We have to be as careful as we can, within reason.

PZ does Sacramento

Skeptics in the state capital

The student organization sponsoring PZ's appearance on Tuesday at Sacramento City College, the Sac City Freethinkers, is doing some nice work. A friend at a Los Rios college sent me a copy of a flier that's making the rounds (see below). Looks good, doesn't it? And five bucks gets you in.

Hey, UC Davis was free!

Never mind. It's good to see that Sac City is making an effort. Besides, the UC Davis Agnostic & Atheist Student Association did make a pitch for contributions and I tossed in some money. (Thank goodness they didn't call them “love offerings”!)

So pitch in five bucks and catch PZ in the capital city of the Golden State.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The professorial one

PZ does Davis—and so do I

Last night in the university town of Davis, California, I was privileged to meet PZ Myers of Pharyngula fame. Naturally, I am flattered to see that he reported our encounter by describing me as “the professorial Zeno.” Clearly PZ regards me as a peer in the suave and debonair fraternity of pedagogues. That is the way I should take it, right? It wasn't as though he intended to describe me as rumpled and tweedy, right? (One must be careful with one's adjectives.)


I took notes during PZ's presentation and will be writing up the Q&A session that followed his prepared remarks. The Q&A will vary significantly from venue to venue, so I'll be pleased to share the highlights of the Davis speech.

More to come.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"The Simpsons" did it

Where's the scoop?

The San Francisco Chronicle went berserk when Mark McGwire finally admitted to having used steroids to pump himself up during his baseball career. The weirdly wonderful Bay Area newspaper splashed a transcript of McGwire's remarks as its headline story, and accompanied it with an opinion piece by a sports columnist. On the front page!

Like I said, the Chronicle went berserk.

Normally this is the sort of story that would not hold my attention. My inclination is to snort in disgust and turn the page. If especially exercised, I might mutter, “Don't these idiots remember that they have a sports section?” (That's the part of the paper where game reports and box scores are conveniently sequestered so that I can conveniently dispense with them all by discarding that section of the newspaper.)

I put mendacious McGwire out of my mind and would probably have forgotten all about it except for a paragraph I encountered in John Ortved's The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History. Here it is, from page 253, where Ortved is discussing the celebrities who flocked to lend their voices to episodes of The Simpsons:
Of course, boys being boys, the real draw was always the sports figures.

Larry Doyle: The biggest hullabaloo was when Mark McGwire came in. That was when loads of people who didn't have any reason to be in the recording booth ended up there. All the girls and all the guys were there. He seems like a nice guy, but he looks like a monster. His arms are as big as your legs—that's not an exaggeration.
And I guess we now know why that was, don't we?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Talking about honor

I kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee

I should get satellite radio. It might preserve my sanity while driving through the big red spot in the middle of California. The Highway 99 corridor down the middle of the San Joaquin valley is the stiff and unyielding backbone of right-wing political thought (or lack of thought) in the Golden State. Scanning the broadcast bands on the car radio is a claustrophobic venture into a very narrow spectrum of opinion. Whenever the undiluted real thing is unavailable, you never lack for a crowd of third-string talk-show loudmouths—wanna-be Limbaughs, Hannities, and Becks. It's an education in American exceptionalism, Judeo-Christian moral superiority, and my-country-(extreme-)right-or-wrong.

Time to fire up the CD player.

Perhaps you're thinking I should try the FM band instead. Surely it's the AM dial that is infested by such Neanderthal grunting. FM stations must be better. Right?

Sort of. There are fewer talk shows, but still plenty of country-western broadcasts and a handful of Golden-Oldie stations. It was while I was popping back and forth between talk and music that a coincidental juxtaposition gave me a small epiphany.

A talker was reprising an old rant about the superiority of Christian culture to Islamic. His evidence included the eagerness of Muslims to engage in honor killings, one chilling example involving the supposedly moderate founder of Bridges TV. As Reuters described it, Bridges was established “with a mission to show Muslims in a more positive light.” When Muzzammil Hassan beheaded his estranged wife, he did a very effective job of contradicting his broadcast company's message. (He seems to be an idiot as well as a murderer.)

The talk-show host stressed that such killings were the peculiar domain of non-Christian cultures, so all the more reason we should deport every last one. Westerners would never put up with this kind of thing.

Okay. Heard it before. I switched the radio to FM. I recognized the song being played. The Kingston Trio was singing its 1958 hit “Tom Dooley,” which got a lot of play in my childhood. Perhaps you know it:
I met her on the mountain
And there I took her life
I met her on the mountain
And stabbed her with my knife
Dooley is on his way to be hanged because he murdered his lover. The song is based on a real murder that occurred in North Carolina in 1866. She was seeing another man and Dooley was jealous.

Ancient history, of course. And we should make allowances for folk songs. It's not as though we were supposed to identify with Dooley and sympathize with him, right? (“Poor boy, you're bound to die.”) I switched to another music station. More oldies, but no more “Dooley.” An hour later, I got this instead:
Then I awake and look around me, at four gray walls that surround me
and I realize that I was only dreaming.
For there's a guard and there's a sad old padre—
arm in arm we'll walk at daybreak.
Again I touch the green, green grass of home.
Yes, they'll all come to see me in the shade of that old oak tree
as they lay me neath the green, green grass of home.
Time for more capital punishment, this time with Tom Jones. He was singing “Green, Green Grass of Home,” with which he had a hit in 1966. Okay, so he's on death row. We don't know, however, that he necessarily killed his girlfriend.

But Tom wasn't finished. The radio station then played his 1968 hit “Delilah.” (What was this, a Tom Jones festival?) It's a poignant love song in which the jilted lover stalks his former girlfriend and finds it necessary to kill her when she mocks him after her tryst with another man.
At break of day when that man drove away, I was waiting
I cross the street to her house and she opened the door
She stood there laughing
I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more
Well, she did laugh at him. And Delilah's killer is apparently remorseful—even as he demands an explanation from her corpse:
My, my, my Delilah
Why, why, why, Delilah?
So before they come to break down the door
Forgive me, Delilah, I just couldn't take any more
That really makes him a lot more sympathetic.

These examples prove nothing, of course. Western culture does not celebrate or empathize with killers in general or men who kill women in particular. Let us speak no more about it.

Besides, I want to listen to today's broadcast of Bizet's Carmen.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Rejection is such sweet sorrow

The art of the turn-down

Something weird happened last summer. I don't really have an explanation for it. Perhaps it's like what occurs to a super-saturated solution. Some seemingly imperceptible disturbance perturbs the solution and—zap!—it sudden crystallizes.

Anyway, something similar happened to me and—zap!—I became a novelist.

The notion had been kicking around in my head for years, goaded by various family members. We have dozens of stories in my extended clan. Happy stories, funny stories, sad stories, bizarre stories. All kinds of stories. (Some have appeared on this blog.) I'm sure this is true of all families, but my relatives are certain that our family's stories are more fascinating than most. Retellings of family legend and lore are often followed by a canonical couplet:

“Whoa! Someone really ought to write that down!”

“Yeah, but it would have to be as fiction! No one would believe it really happened!”

A seed was planted in my brain, watered regularly by family gatherings at which I'd hear that closing couplet after a raconteur's storytelling. A critical point of some sort was reached last summer and I wrote my family's story—with all of the names changed to protect the guilty. I became a novelist!

An unpublished one, that is.

After some dithering and some encouraging feedback from friends who read the manuscript, I shopped the novel around a little bit. I sent some sample pages to a big-time literary agent in San Francisco. After a few weeks, I got my first rejection notice. She doesn't want to represent me.

You might naturally assume that I was crushed upon reading the rejection notice. Actually, I was richly entertained.

Yes, I was disappointed. The disappointment, however, was mitigated by my enjoyment and appreciation of the rejection letter itself, which struck me as a masterpiece of its genre. Here's my favorite part:
[R]ejecting manuscripts that become successful books is a publishing tradition. Assume we are wrong. Persevere until your books reach the goals you set for them.
Isn't that splendid? I was breathless with appreciation. Surely she was talking to me and was admitting that my book was fated to be one of the successful books that she would someday rue having rejected!

I had not expected to laugh out loud at a rejection notice, but I did. Perhaps when I have the experience of more of them, I'll find that they are all similarly clever and the novelty will wear off.

And then I won't be special anymore.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

PZ does Northern California

Eight one-night stands

The estimable PZ Myers of the University of Minnesota (Morris) is bringing his one-man show to northern California later this month. The (in)famous Pharyngula blogger will be giving a talk on creationism and complexity. If I were to hazard a guess, I suspect Dr. Myers will be giving the lie to the argument beloved by intelligent design creationists: “Oh, my goodness! Look how complicated life is! God must have done it!”

Uh, no.

But it will sound more eloquent when presented by PZ.

I suspect that Dr. Myers made only one mistake in agreeing to his northern California jaunt: It's not a good idea to let a mortal enemy set your itinerary. PZ's schedule is clearly designed to run him ragged and result in UM Morris reclaiming a mere remnant of the robust man he once was.

Do I exaggerate? Check this out:

I've included links (where available) to the particulars of each event, but could not find anything for Chico (and the Sierra link is pretty thin, with details presumably forthcoming). If anyone has better links, please leave them in comments or e-mail me. I'll update the links as more information becomes available.

This post is, of course, an exercise in redundancy, since anyone really interested in PZ's visit to California will have already read about it on Pharyngula. But that's okay. I can't help myself. And making the map was fun. (Does PZ actually know what he's in for?)

I have been on every one of the campuses PZ is visiting (some of them several times) and it will be no problem for me to attend his speech multiple times. If I do that, I'll consider wearing a hat with the brim pulled low so that no one will think I'm a stalker. Good idea!

Time is out of joint

O cursed spite

It appealed to me greatly when I saw it in the bookstore. At last, a calendar devoted to tracking dates instead of wasting time on extraneous fluff. It was “The Calendar.” (Nice, functional title.) It didn't sport any art or other distractions. This it proclaimed in large print on its cover:
No kitties, no flowers, no inspirational quotes, no babies. Just 12 big blank grids for 2010.
What could be more straightforward?

I happily purchased The Calendar and took it home. I posted it on my wall. (That's what you do with calendars, right?) The dates were big and visible and easy to read from anywhere in the room. Nice!

I sat down and got to work on my spring semester syllabus. Naturally, I kept glancing at the calendar. The birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.? That's a Monday holiday in the school schedule and there's no instruction on that day. According to The Calendar, it will be January 19.

Wait a minute! According to the college website it will be January 18.

Scratch the head. Look at The Calendar. Look at the website on my computer screen. Go up to the The Calendar and look more closely. Hmm. January 18 is correctly labeled (in the fine print) as Martin Luther King Day, but it's the first day of the week.

Bloody damn. It's a Monday through Sunday calendar (the weekend is, in fact, the end of each line). Unlike 99% of the other calendars out there, The Calendar's first column is devoted to Monday.

I checked: The same publisher offers a “bad cat” calendar with the conventional Sunday through Saturday format.

This is going to drive me crazy all year.