Archive for January, 2011

I’m finished with the catch-up posts from my time in the wilderness now.

But, if you already miss my disconnected and untimely ramblings on old news that you’d forgotten about some time ago, fear not! Sometimes it just takes me weeks to have an opinion on something.

I didn’t say much about any of this at the time, but Martin Robbins wrote a couple of months ago about this thing called Rock Stars of Science. This is some sort of campaign intended to make science seem cool, by getting the nerds who do it to stand near some awesome people.

Martin’s not a fan of the campaign, and I can’t say I’m loving it based on what I’ve seen so far either. I’ve clicked round their website for a while, and I can’t see many people learning anything worthwhile as a result of this.

There are some rallying cries about the importance of science, mostly to the effect of “Let’s cure cancer!”. There are lots of photographs that someone’s clearly gone to a great deal of effort to take. There are lots of scientists staring at you through a fashionable colour filter. And there are some big walls of text about the details of the research that the “Rock Docs” are doing, in which I’m not sufficiently interested to read more than half a paragraph. And I’m already on board with this whole science thing.

But, although much of Martin’s complaint is valid, I think he kinda misses the mark in his response as well.

Chris Mooney was involved in the campaign itself, and although I have my considerable reservations about his own stance on this, he’s annoyed at Martin for at least some of the right reasons. He quotes Martin’s article, referring to a photograph taken on the Moon depicting one of mankind’s more impressive achievements:

If you don’t understand why this is one of the coolest things you will ever see, then you really aren’t cool, in fact you’re the opposite of cool. You are to cool what Dan Brown is to literature.

As Chris points out:

To which the American public responds “!#$@^ you, I liked The Da Vinci Code” and returns to watching Dancing With the Stars.


The thing about Martin’s comment is that it seems to imply (although I suspect this may not really be his position) that anyone who doesn’t automatically gush over the achievements of science, and stare in wide-eyed wonder at photos that represent extraordinary accomplishments in remarkable fields of study, is a hopeless Philistine who’ll never appreciate the beauty of science and isn’t even worth trying to reach out to.

Which is quite clearly neither conducive to a better public understanding of science, nor particularly fair to millions of Dan Brown fans.

Surely a big part of science communication needs to be about providing people with that sense of wide-eyed wonder, helping them to understand the astonishing truths that science has uncovered about the world around us, which aren’t immediately obvious to the uninformed layman. I don’t even think Martin would disagree with this in principle.

This is the reason (well, one of many) why Carl Sagan is especially cherished among popularisers and practitioners of science. He had a knack for powerfully communicating the beauty and awe of the ideas he talked about, and making these truths and discoveries seem as wondrous as they deserve to. If the coolness of a particular image should be self-evident to anyone with any sense, we would neither need nor value as we do the kind of skill that Sagan had. The concept of a “science communicator” might even be redundant.

I don’t think the Rock Stars of Science has done anything especially helpful, though I admit I probably haven’t experienced its full effect. But there absolutely should be something like that going on, to try and connect with people who’d otherwise shrug and go back to their reality TV and cheap thriller novels, and grab their attention long enough to explain something neat to them.

Given the often lamentable portrayal of “science” that their mainstream news outlets and trashy stories are probably giving them, it’s hardly their fault if it’s not immediately obvious why some of the cool things real science has to offer are worth getting excited about.

I am among those who are convinced that there is more concentrated awesomeness in Martin’s pixelly image of the Sun taken through the Earth than anything Bret Michaels is ever likely to do. But to fully understand, appreciate, and enjoy one of those, I just have to switch on my TV and stare dumbly forward; to really get the other one, I need to know what the hell neutrinos are.

We can and should keep talking about how great science is. But the people who need persuading of that are central to the science communicators’ struggle. They might not see it right away, but let’s not rule out their potential to someday see the same wonder that we do.


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An episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! from a couple of seasons back dealt with “Sensitivity Training“.

They laid into those office seminars and such, which expect participants to make awkward conversation in circumstances contrived to help everyone understand the difficulties faced by minorities in everyday life. It’s well intentioned stuff designed to counteract prejudice and discrimination, primarily in the workplace.

It’s true that insensitivity and cruelty can be a real problem, and that even someone who doesn’t hold any actively discriminatory views might have a few things to learn about moderating their behaviour in order to avoid making things uncomfortable or difficult for the people they interact with. But this kind of “training” rarely seems like a good way to achieve any worthwhile goals.

The main problem is that, rather than helping people see past their superficial differences, these sessions tend to focus on the aspects of a person that makes them part of a “minority”. If I talk to a black person for the purposes of sensitivity training, I’m talking to them as a black person, not just as a person. If I’m talking to someone Asian, the implicit message is that the sensitive thing to do is to talk to them exclusively about Asian-y things.

Our chances of interacting as fellow humans, with a rich variety of thoughts and feelings and passions that don’t depend on our background or genetic make-up, is actually diminished by this fixation on our differences.

Here’s something which came to mind while I was watching Penn and Teller talk about this.

I know very little about, say, Sikhs. Almost nothing, in fact. I just barely know how to spell them. I’m aware that Sikhism is a significant global religion, I’d guess it’s been around a good few centuries, and that it’s probably mostly something you’d find in Asia. I may have met a Sikh, but I honestly couldn’t tell you.

Here’s something I’m pretty sure I know about Sikhs though, at least at a basic-to-moderate level, and don’t need any training in sensitivity to learn:

I know how not to be a dick to someone just because they’re a Sikh.

I don’t need to understand anyone’s cultural background, or be intimately acquainted with their historical hardships and travails, to know that. Not being a dick is quite an adaptable approach.

So perhaps, while in conversation with my new Sikh friend, it comes up that they don’t want to join me in my puppy-kicking afternoon in the park, because puppies are sacred to their religion. I can then learn about this at the time, and bring into play my moderate skills of not being a dick to someone just because they have some different ideas from me. I can respect that, once they’ve explained it.

And maybe I can also extend this to, say, not being a dick to someone just because they’re black, or a woman. It’s the same basic skill. Ideally, I’d put it into blanket effect and have it active all the time, but part of the knack involves listening when someone suggests that you’re not employing it as thoroughly as perhaps you should.

If any Sikhs are reading this, let me know if you were offended by the crass Western assumptions this article makes about the role that gratuitous violence to small animals plays in your faith.

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While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.

Although I’ve decided, at least for the moment, that I’m not an anarchist, and am fairly sure that there can be some inherent value to a centralised state, I’m still fascinated by the discussion.

I tend to find myself sympathising a great deal with anarchists on almost all points, and agreeing with just about everything except the ultimate conclusion.

A post I read recently on the ideological similarities between atheism and anarchism got me thinking about this again. If I were to base an estimate on my own limited experience rather than actual data, I’d guess that atheists are over-represented among anarchists. And it’s clear that some political philosophies are much more prevalent than others among the atheist and/or skeptical community.

One thing I notice about the arguments on the side of anarchism is that they all tend to be profoundly humanistic. They give a tremendous amount of credit to the potential for people to do good. If you can’t share that idea to some extent, you’re not going to be a very happy atheist.

I wonder if, in ten years’ time, I’ll have shaken off the last vestiges of authority and gone full-on crazy anarcho-liberal, or whether I’ll have swerved way back in the other direction.

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Catching up: Eating insects

While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.

We should be eating a lot more insects.

I’ve no idea how this can ever really take off or gain much mainstream traction. But it seems to be an immensely fruitful avenue of possibility, and the only real counter-argument seems to be: “What? Ew! Why?”

And I can see how that’s kinda persuasive.

But there’s fucktons of nutritious biomass out there being overlooked because the idea seems kinda icky.

Well, have you ever seen a cow? They sure don’t look delicious. And in their natural state, they’re really chewy. But we’re quite capable of making them more palatable.

The TED talk here and the surrounding blog post lay out the arguments neatly. It’s an extremely efficient use of protein, and we’re running out of space to raise livestock.

Om nom nom.

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While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.

Oh yes, I wasn’t just teasing: This post is about sex.

In fact, it’s about the best sex of the year.

Happy birthday to me.

Take it away, Dr Petra.

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While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.

Elton John’s had a baby.

Okay, that deserves some clarification.

Elton John and his partner David Furnish have a child, born recently to a surrogate mother. Good for that kid. The couple have been going to some lengths trying to adopt for some time, so there seems little doubt that this baby will grow up being loved and well taken care of.

If they were a straight couple who’d had a child naturally, there’d be absolutely no chance of the state taking it away unless they could prove their suitability as parents.

But when the BBC reported on this moderately interesting celebrity gossip which isn’t really any of our business, they decided to balance out the heart-warming family-centric nature of this story.

Specifically, they interviewed a guy who wants all gay people to be executed.

Both sides!

You might have heard of this guy, Stephen Green. He’s the front-man for a bunch of fanatical right-wing fundamentalist zealots who speak for no-one, called Christian Voice. They’re best known for things like trying to outlaw a play which was a bit rude, supporting a proposed law in Uganda which would make homosexuality punishable by death, and living a life of humility and poverty in the way Jesus wanted his followers to do.

I made one of those up.

And it’s not the one about supporting capital punishment for all gay people. Stephen Green praised the Ugandan politician who put that bill forward as “trying to protect his nation’s children”, and expressed hope that the country would “stand by their Christian values”.

I wonder what counterpoint he might bring to this story about two men raising a child together.

The fact that Stephen Green’s a dick isn’t news, but the BBC’s decision to give him a platform in this situation is baffling. No sane reporter would turn to Fred Phelps for an alternative viewpoint when covering the funeral of a war hero. Nobody’s obliged to give a shit about Kent Hovind’s “perspective” on any new biological discovery.

You don’t need to cater to the vicious, cruel, inhumane, wrong fringe opinion, just through fear of not being sufficiently “fair”.

(h/t noodlemaz)

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While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.

The latest British Social Attitudes survey indicates that 51% of people in this country identify as having “no religion“.

That’s most people. Only a minority in the UK, apparently, are sufficiently bothered about any particular religion to count themselves a member of it.

There’s a margin of error, obviously, and other surveys have given different results. But it’s clear that we’re a significantly and increasingly secular country.

But as the Guardian article points out, religious tolerance appears to have been on the increase in recent decades, as much as its adherence has been becoming sidelined. Christianity may be more open to ridicule than it used to be, but failure to hold a particular faith is much less widely seen as an inadequacy or inherent unsuitability for any kind of public office.

And Christmas still seems to be as popular as ever. Interest isn’t obviously waning, nobody’s trying to have it banned or renamed Winterval, and not being religious doesn’t seem to be holding people back from enjoying whatever festivities are there to be enjoyed.

Even if most people really aren’t religious any more – which it looks like will soon be undeniable in the UK, probably within my lifetime – that doesn’t need to worry the remaining religious people at all. The New Atheism movement hasn’t been working towards an atheist majority; we’ve just been trying to earn the respect, recognition, and non-religious rights that a lot of people haven’t wanted to afford us in the past.

So long as none of those same rights are lost to religious people just because there aren’t as many of them as there used to be, they’ll cope fine in the minority.

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