Diversity: Science March Edition

Yesterday I attended the March for Science in Washington, DC. It was a good time, and I think it was a worthwhile event matched by numerous other marches worldwide. For those who followed the march’s organization on Twitter and in other media, one of the most visible controversies surrounded diversity and inclusion in the march. Some tweeters are still criticizing the involvement of Bill Nye as a major figurehead in the march. They don’t like him because he’s a white male and they’d rather see more non-white/non-male role models promoted as figureheads in the march. Or they don’t like him because he said something wrong about gender or race at some point. He said some wrong things about science too. He’s not even a “real” scientist. He’s an imperfect and overprivileged white man — he’s the status quo. Isn’t he the sort of thing that protests are against? 

Me at the US Capitol Building during the March for Science

Diversity/inclusion in STEM is a complex subject, and I’m going to have to address it across several posts. For this post, I don’t have time to justify my background or expertise in the subject; I just want to talk about Bill Nye for a minute. I have two little girls, and I would love it if they take an interest in STEM. My oldest has already identified paleontology and entomology as potential careers (she’s also picked “snowman” so take that with a grain of salt). We’re lucky to live in a college town where she has met dozens of female STEM professionals. We have female STEM role models in the family. Check, check and check.

But role models only demonstrate possibilities to a kid. “I could be a blahblahlogist like so-and-so I guess.” The mere existence of a role model is not enough to inspire interest or to perceive that role as desirable. That’s because there’s a distinction between identity and efficacy. One day my daughter, age five, found Bill Nye’s show on Netflix and proceeded to binge watch it for weeks. That’s the missing piece of inspiration. Now she can get back to those role models with a little more context. Now she can maybe have conversations and ask questions. I have no doubt that a non-white/non-male celebrity could be what Bill Nye is, but for right here and right now, he’s a celebrity that people recognize, who has influenced kids across multiple generations to see science as more than nap-inspiring, and hopefully some of those kids are not just the status quo of white males. I just don’t think there is another science celebrity who has the kind of popular reach and recognition that he does. A successful popular movement needs to put celebrities out in front, or else it’s just a bunch of nerds rehearsing their complaints to each other.

The “Ugly Americans” are the ones at home

800px-ConstantinoAriasUglyAmericanSorry to poop the party, but it’s starting to sound like Lochte was in fact robbed, and Brazilian officials fabricated a story to retaliate against media embarrassment.

This morning I listened to yet another roast of US Olympian swimmers Lochte, Conger, Bentz, and Feigen over their alleged drunken shenanigans in Rio. “Why are we still talking about Lochte?” they ask, and then proceed to rehash the worst version of allegations against him. It’s not clear what the four are actually, officially, accused of, but the public story is that Lochte “fabricated” a robbery story, and most articles claim that he “could be” charged with filing a false police report.

But there are huge problems with the quasi-official story, starting with the fact that Lochte never reported anything to the police. He did not file a police report, let alone a false one. He did not make any formal accusations in the Brazilian justice system. He — Lochte — spoke to American media and related a story that is now mostly corroborated. The story embarrassed Brazilian authorities, and in retaliation for that embarrassment they fabricated the story that Lochte fabricated his story. Then Brazilian officials detained three of Lochte’s companions, and demanded that Feigen — who up to this point is not evidently accused of anythingpay $47,000 to leave the country (they eventually accepted $11,000).

An anonymous police source initially claimed that Lochte had vandalized a bathroom, and that he and his companions amicably compensated the store manager for the damage. Later, the official (leaked) story was revised to include multiple armed off-duty police officers working private security. Later, the story was revised with the detail that one of the officers brandished a firearm and demanded an unspecified amount of money, and the athletes handed over most of their cash and perhaps wallets. That sounds like a robbery. After a few days of public outrage, an actual investigation by USA Today cast doubt on the official story and mostly corroborated the swimmers’ version. Witnesses and surveillance video back up the story that the swimmers were removed from their taxi, detained at gun point, and coerced to pay money before they were permitted to leave. There appears to be no evidence that they vandalized the bathroom, or that anyone damaged the bathroom at all.

What it does sound like is a robbery perpetrated by police, and that’s not such a shocking idea. Even if they vandalized something, neither police nor private citizens are entitled to forcibly collect payment at gunpoint. In Brazil, the laws are not somehow exotically different from US law on this point. If you threaten physical harm in order to coerce payment, unless its part of established due process, it’s robbery. Foreign tourists are especially easy targets for police who briefly detain them, quote some imaginary charges, and demand an on-the-spot fine that can be rounded down to however much you have in your wallet. Officers were accused of doing this right here in Utah, although there wasn’t enough evidence to prove it (they were collecting on-the-spot fines without recording copies of the citations, so there’s no way to know if they were pocketing the cash). What makes it more plausible in Rio is that the police there are already known to do this a lot.

So with all the outrage over Lochte’s lies and reckless behavior, what did he actually do? What are people so mad about? First, he embellished the story with a dramatic flourish: a cocked gun “to his forehead”. Evidently the gun was not put to his forehead. Oh and he forgot to tell us that he was there to pee. That monster. Honestly, who goes to a foreign country and pees there!? (Oh, right, organisms. Lochte must be some kind of organism that  needs to pee.) And somehow he “damaged” or “knocked down” a “sign” or “framed poster” or “loosely attached canvas advertisement”; the authorities can’t keep their story straight about that either. Were they really so upset over a poster? Were games moved to North Korea or something?

All of America is falling over itself to condemn these few bits of distortion or omission, but what’s most amazing to me is that people are so eager to disregard the true parts of his story (which seems to be almost all of it), and nobody seems to care that the Brazilian police, government officials and Olympic organizers have indulged in much bigger fabrications in order to punish Lochte for speech that they find embarrassing. They apparently have no sense of due process, and they haphazardly target Lochte’s friends for actions allegedly done by Lochte.

I’ve heard numerous people indulge in the bigotry of low expectations, casting Brazil as a poor defenseless third world country that’s just trying to protect its dignity after the outrageous and insulting actions of some privileged rich white “ugly Americans” trampling over local customs. I call bullshit. Brazil has the world’s 7th highest GDP and elected to host the Olympic Games, which are notorious for stimulating some of the worst official corruption and police excesses in host countries (something we Utahns have some experience with; it’s hard to find news records from that era, but this article paints a picture of the style of riot-squad crackdowns that were commonplace in Salt Lake City during 1997 to 2002). I’ll bet Brazilians also need to pee sometimes.

And it’s nonsense to argue that those pious Brazilians were upset by some rowdy hard-partying Americans. I’ve seen how Brazilians party. This can’t be that shocking to them. And, most importantly of all, these were not “offended locals,” they were police working in an unofficial capacity. They were the authorities, and that matters in a big way. When a notoriously flaky athlete revises a few details in his story, it’s annoying; but when a nation’s justice system changes its story after already detaining people, collecting large sums of money, and throwing world opinion into a flurry of outrage against mostly innocent people, that’s fucking serious. Let me be clear: I don’t care one bit about swimmers or really about sports in general, but I have no stomach for false accusations, abuse of power, or mob justice.

So why are Americans in such a hurry to join the Lochte hate party?

A lot of Lochte’s critics attack him and his friends for “drinking all night.” It’s conspicuous to me that nobody has attacked the French athletes who hosted the party. Nobody is asking what other countries were represented at that party. Maybe we expect that kind of behavior from “the world,” but we Americans are supposed to be shining puritanical beacons on a holy hill, right? That’s so hypocritical of us. About 27% of American business travelers engage in binge drinking while on official business. About 50% of American college students “drink more alcohol” while studying abroad than they do at home, and 11% of them get “black out drunk.” Even if frowned upon, this is not really unusual behavior, especially when people are placed into intense situations in new contexts, and especially in competitive atmospheres where they might have something to celebrate.

Maybe the real reason for this outrage is that people love to see the mighty brought low. Deep down, a lot of Olympic viewers are watching because they are hoping to see some dramatic failure. Perhaps a horrifying injury or a tantrum. Under the surface, they resent the great talent and extraordinary dedication of Olympic athletes, and they’re hoping to see some evidence that they’re not so great after all. “You may swim fast but you’re not better than me.” This resentment is easily concealed in the excess baggage of moral expectations routinely placed on Olympians. We love to draw oppressively tight lines around athletes, and when they step outside those little boxes it gives us an excuse to completely destroy them. It’s an especially sickening pattern considering that many of these athletes will have nothing else of note in their entire lives. They have completely devoted themselves to honing skills with little economic value other than their potential sponsorships or endorsement deals, and most of them will not get very substantial endorsement opportunities.

Maybe another reason is that we Americans secretly don’t like each other very much. Maybe we don’t like ourselves very much. That could explain why, at seemingly every Olympics, people find an excuse to start talking about the “Ugly American” — a stereotype from the fucking 1940s — before beatniks, hippies, the civil rights era, before the cold war, around the time when Hillary Clinton was born — about how we privileged Americans plod carelessly around the world, mocking and offending the locals, carrying our entitled belligerence wherever we go. It’s why “the world hates us”. But it’s a steaming crock of shit. Everyone who’s traveled internationally seems to have a story of how they observed or encountered some “ugly Americans” in their travels (I do too). And maybe they’re also in someone else’s story. But this stereotype is not really based on anything.

But there are simple explanations for the “ugly American” perceptions: First, the Americans you encounter while traveling are usually just randomly selected upper middle class persons from anywhere. The odds are pretty good that you won’t make fast friends with a randomly selected upper middle class American from anywhere. Go to any airport, pick a random person in expensive clothes. I bet you won’t like them very much.  In my experience this trend is quite robust. Second, Americans stand out to you because you understand their language. Unless you’re proficient in a lot of other languages, you probably have no idea what other travelers are saying or doing or the ways they might be insulting to the local culture. But your ears hone in on those American voices, and perhaps your instinctive reaction is to think “please, please don’t embarrass me here.”

I might add that, almost everywhere I’ve traveled, from San Diego to Vancouver to New York to Fort Lauderdale; from Australia to Japan to France and Sweden; in nearly every place I’ve observed someone peeing outside. It’s an epidemic, almost as though people have developed an urgent physiological dependence on it.

So, yeah. This story, everything about it, is triggering my spidey sense. I could easily be wrong, but a lot of things aren’t adding up. In fact, the one thing in all this that adds up best is Lochte’s story, the one for which he’s being crucified.

Only America has this problem.

Guard bear threatens pedestrians. [Image by Gillfoto, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Guard bear threatens pedestrians. [Image by Gillfoto, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

A few days ago, we saw yet another tragic massacre in which a frustrated young man blocked the doors of a classroom and released a pride of lions to attack the defenseless people trapped inside. A day later, a tragic story of a child eaten by a negligent neighbor’s animal. And on Friday, two more school maulings in a single day. The rapid succession of violent events has left Americans struggling to understand the cause of all these injuries and deaths from large predators. Many wonder if America’s unique habit of collecting exotic large predators might be the underlying cause for all these people being eaten by exotic large predators.

But conservative pundits are skeptical, and argue that deeper causes, not lions and bears, are more likely to blame for the epidemic of people being eaten by lions and bears. “These things happen,” said presidential candidate Donald Trump, who suggested that similar tragedies could be avoided if professors had predators of their own. Some experts respond by noting instances where professors have used their animals to attack colleagues, and other cases where large cats or bears were inadvertently left unattended in student restrooms.

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The memristor skeptics

Illustration of the memristor in electrical network theory. Image from Wikipedia, produced by Parcly Taxel.

Illustration of the memristor in electrical network theory. Image from Wikipedia, produced by Parcly Taxel.

A story of skepticism gone horribly wrong.

In 2008, researchers at HP Labs announced their discovery of the memristor, a type of electrical device that had been predicted by Leon Chua in a 1971 paper titled, “Memristor– the missing circuit element.” Memristors have been in the news again recently due to HP’s announcement of a bold new computing project called The Machine, which reportedly makes heavy use of memristor devices. Thanks to the sudden attention being paid to memristors in the past few years, we now know that they were with us all along, and you can even make one yourself with a few simple hardware items.

Since I teach my department’s introductory course on electronic devices, I’ve been studying memristors to see if it’s time to add them into the basic curriculum. During my reading, I started to notice a small percolation of skeptical voices. They appeared in popular science magazines, blog posts, and comment threads, and said some very unexpected things, like “HP didn’t really invent a memristor” and even “the memristor may be impossible as a really existing device.” I soon noticed that several of the critics were published researchers, and some of them had published their critiques on the arXiv, a preprint site used by credentialed researchers to post draft articles prior to peer review. The skeptics reached their peek in 2012, but fizzled out in 2013. One of those skeptics went out with a bang, crafting a bold conspiracy theory that still echoes in discussion fora and in the comment threads of tech industry articles. This post chronicles the rise and fall of his career as a memristor scholar. I also offer some speculation as to how the debacle could have been avoided.

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Escaping the traps of Facebook, Google and other centralized data hordes

A furor erupted this week over a research project conducted by Facebook in which they manipulated the feeds of over 600,000 users in order to measure their emotional responses. To many, this sounds like a trivial intrusion, perhaps on par with the insertion of advertising content. But several scientists have argued that it constitutes a serious breech in established research ethics — namely the requirement for informed consent. In the world of scientific research, the bar for informed consent is quite high. Facebook chose to rely on their Terms of Use as a proxy for informed consent, but that is unacceptable and would establish a dangerous precedent for eroding the rights of future study participants. An author at the Skepchik network contributed this critique of Facebook’s behavior:

What’s unethical about this research is that it doesn’t appear that Facebook actually obtained informed consent. The claim in the paper is that the very vague blanket data use policy constitutes informed consent, but if we look at the typical requirements for obtaining informed consent, it becomes very clear that their policy falls way short. The typical requirements for informed consent include:

  • Respect for the autonomy of individual research participants
  • Fully explain the purposes of the research that people are agreeing to participate in in clear, jargonless language that is easy to understand
  • Explain the expected duration of the study
  • Describe the procedures that will happen during the study
  • Identify any experimental protocols that may be used
  • Describe any potential risks and benefits for participation
  • Describe how confidentiality will be maintained
  • A statement acknowledging that participation is completely voluntary, that a participant may withdraw participation at any time for any or no reason, and that any decision not to continue participating will incur no loss of benefits or other penalty.

Of course this level of detail cannot be covered by blanket “Terms of Use” that apply to all users of a general-purpose communication platform. Slate’s Katy Waldman agrees that Facebook’s study was unethical:

Here is the only mention of “informed consent” in the paper: The research “was consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research.”

That is not how most social scientists define informed consent.

Here is the relevant section of Facebook’s data use policy: “For example, in addition to helping people see and find things that you do and share, we may use the information we receive about you … for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

So there is a vague mention of “research” in the fine print that one agrees to by signing up for Facebook. As bioethicist Arthur Caplan told me, however, it is worth asking whether this lawyerly disclosure is really sufficient to warn people that “their Facebook accounts may be fair game for every social scientist on the planet.”

Of course Facebook is no stranger to deceptive and unethical behavior. We may recall their 2012 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, which charged “that Facebook deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public.”

The problem is simple: Facebook is a centralized service that aggregates intimate data on millions of users. They need to find ways to profit from that data — our data — and we have little control over how their activity might disadvantage or manipulate the users. Their monetization strategies go beyond their already troubling project to facilitate targeted ads from third party apps, apps that you might assume have no relationship to your Facebook activities. Facebook also manages the identity and contact networks of those users, making it difficult to leave the platform without becoming disconnected from your social network. It is a trap. Last week a Metro editorial claimed that it’s getting worse, and recommends that we all quit “cold turkey.” Some users have migrated over to Google services as an escape, but Google has faced similar FTC charges that reveal isn’t any better. So Google is just another mask on the same fundamental problems.

So what is the fix? I’m putting my money on The Red Matrix, a solution that supports distributed identity, decentralized social networking, content rights management and cloud data services.


The core idea behind the Red Matrix is to provide an open specification and protocol for delivering contemporary internet services in a portable way, so that users are not tied to a single content provider. The underlying protocol, called “zot,” is designed to support a mix of public and privately shared content, providing encryption and separating a user’s identity from their service provider.

While still in its early stages, the Red Matrix provides core features comparable to WordPress, Drupal, Dropbox, Evernote and of course social networking capabilities. It is hard to summarize the possibilities of this emerging platform. I’m still discovering new ways to leverage the platform for things ranging from personal note management to blogging. Although the Red Matrix is small, it is an open source project with a fanatical base of users and developers, which makes it likely to endure and grow.

This seems like a good time to announce the Red Matrix companion channel for this site: www.bawker.net/channel/FairCoinToss. This channel acts as a “stream of consciousness” for material related to this blog, containing supplemental information, technical posts, short comments, reposts of news items, and other miscellanea. The primary WordPress site will be reserved for more detailed posts. Any readers are welcome to comment or otherwise interact by joining the Red Matrix at my server or one of the other public servers in the Red Matrix network.

Non-testable facts are commonplace in mathematically driven science

Observation that lacks a theory

An observation that lacks a theory

At first inspection, the scientific method seems to dictate that all accepted facts should rest on concrete observations. Based on this notion, some skeptics are quick to dismiss the scientific legitimacy of mathematically driven research. But there are many examples of important scientific findings that are essentially mathematical theorems with no prospect for physical falsification. A simple class of examples is the family of bounds and asymptotes. In this post I’ll examine a couple of specific examples from information science and engineering.

There’s an interesting set of articles that recently appeared on Pigliucci’s ScientiaSalon site. The first of these articles, titled “The multiverse as a scientific concept,” defends a mathematically-driven hypothesis that has no prospect for empirical validation. This article was authored by Coel Hellier, a professor of astrophysics at Keele University in the UK. The second article, titled “The evidence crisis,” offers a highly skeptical critique of the mathematical research methods used by string theorists, who introduce unobservable physical dimensions (and perhaps other controversial features) in order to produce a self-consistent mathematical theory that unifies the known physical laws. The second article is by Jim Baggott, who holds an Oxford PhD in physical chemistry, and has authored some critical books on modern physics, like this one.

I am very interested in the relationship between empirical and mathematical research. At just this moment, I have two article revisions in progress on my desktop. The first article provides an almost entirely empirical approach to validate a new heuristic technique; the reviewers are upset that I only have empirically tested results without a single mathematical theorem to back them up. The second article is more theoretically driven, but has limited empirical results; the reviewers complain that the experimental results are inadequate. This is a very typical situation for my field. There is an expectation of balance between theory and experiment. Purely empirical results can easily represent experimental or numerical mistakes, so you should ideally have a predictive theory to cohere with the observations. On the other hand, a strictly theoretical or mathematical result may not have any practical utility, so should be connected to some empirical demonstration (I am in an engineering field, after all).

Since I’m not a physicist, I won’t weigh in on the merits of string theory or the multiverse. In thinking about these topics, however, it occurs to me that there are a lot of scientific concepts that are purely mathematical results, and are effectively unfalsifiable. I think one such example is Shannon’s Capacity Theorem, which plays a foundational role in information theory. Simply put, Shannon’s Theorem predicts that any communication channel should have a maximum information capacity, i.e. a maximum rate at which information can be reliably communicated. There is a whole branch of information science devoted to modeling channels, solving for their capacity, and devising practical information coding techniques that push toward those capacity limits. A large amount of work in this field is purely mathematical.

With regard to empiricism, here are the features that I think are interesting about the capacity theorem: First, capacity is a limit. It tells us that we can’t achieve higher rates on a given channel. In terms of empirical testing, all we can do is build systems and observe that they don’t beat the capacity limit. That is not really an empirical test of the limit itself. Second, we usually don’t measure capacity directly. Instead, we use an assumed model for a hypothetical physical channel, and then apply some mathematical optimization theory to predict or infer the capacity limit.

Given these two features, I think the capacity theorem — along with a huge body of related research — is not truly testable or falsifiable in the way many empiricists would prefer (and I think that’s okay). Here are some specific points:

  1. We cannot falsify the proposition that every channel has a capacity. It is a consequence of the same mathematics that grounds all of probability theory and statistics research. In order to falsify the capacity theorem, we have to discard most other modern scientific practices as well. It is interesting to me that this is a strictly mathematical theorem, yet it forces inescapable conclusions about the physical world.
  2. If we did observe a system that beats capacity, we would assume that the system was measured improperly or used an incorrect channel model. Nearly every graduate student finds a way to “beat” the capacity limit early in their studies, but this is always because they made some mistake in their simulations or measurements. Even if we keep beating capacity and never find any fault in the measurements or models, it still would not suffice to falsify the capacity theorem. It’s a theorem — you can’t contradict it! Not unless you revise the axioms that lie at the theorem’s foundations. Such a revision would be amazing, but it would still have to be consistent with the traditional axioms as a degenerate case, because those axioms generate a system of theories that are overwhelmingly validated across many fields. This revision could therefore not be considered a falsification, but should rather be thought of as an extension to the theory.

The point of this analysis is to show that an unfalsifiable, untestable mathematical result is perfectly fine, if the result arises from a body of theory that is already solidly in place. To add another example, I mentioned before about how some researchers try to find information coding schemes that achieve the capacity bound. For a long time (about 50 years), the coding community took a quasi-empirical approach to this problem, devising dozens (maybe even hundreds or thousands) of coding schemes and testing them through pure analysis and simulations on different channel models. In the 1990’s, several methods were finally discovered that come extremely close to capacity on some of the most important channels. To some researchers, these methods were not good enough, since they only appear to approach capacity based on empirical observations. To these researchers, it would be preferable to construct a coding method that is mathematically proven to exactly achieve capacity.

In 2009, a method known as Polar Coding appeared, which was rigorously shown to asymptotically achieve capacity, i.e. it’s performance should get better and better as the amount of coded data goes to infinity, and when the amount of data reaches infinity, then it should work at a rate equal to capacity. This was hailed as a great advance in coding and information theory, but again the asymptotic claim is not truly verifiable through empirical methods. We can’t measure what happens when the information size reaches infinity. We can only make mathematical projections. Because of this, some researchers I know have quietly criticized the value of polar codes, calling them meaningless from a practical standpoint. I disagree; I value the progress of mathematical insight in concert with empirical research and practical applications.

To conclude, I want to offer one further observation about the mathematical system from which these theorems arise. When studying the axiomatic development of probability theory, statistics, and stochastic processes, I was really struck by how little attachment they have to empirical observations. They are mathematical frameworks with a number of fill-in-the-gap places where you specify, for instance, a physically plausible probability distribution (a commenter on Baggott’s article similarly described string theory as a mathematical framework for building theories, rather than a single fully-qualified physical theory). But even the physical probability distributions are frequently replaceable by a priori concepts derived, say, from the Bernoulli distribution (i.e. the coin toss process), or the Gaussian distribution under support from the Central Limit Theorem (another purely mathematical result!).

While we like to think that the history of science is a story of theories devised to explain observations (which may be true in some sciences), in many fields the story is partially reversed. The sciences of probability, statistics, and information theory (among many others) developed first from a priori mathematical considerations which defined the experimental procedures to be used for empirical studies. This history is chronicled in two of my favorite books on scientific history — The Emergence of Probability and The Taming of Chance — both written by philosopher Ian Hacking (who has authored a number of other interesting books worth examining).

Some may rightly argue that these claims are not totally unfalsifiable, since they are anchored to a theory that could have been independently falsified. The main point of my post, however, is to point out that a purely mathematical exposition can expose novel, very real truths about the physical world — truths that cannot be verified or falsified on their own.

Why school led prayer is wrong

This post comes from my perspective as an educator, and also as a frequent unwilling participant in publicly led prayers. There are two simple reasons why institutionally directed prayer is wrong: equal rights and individual privacy. We often hear about the equal rights aspect, but I think the invasion of privacy is more powerful and more troubling. When Kevin Lowery, principle of Lebanon High School in Missouri, led a prayer at the school’s graduation ceremony, he did more than alienate a few non-Christian students and parents. He faced those students and their parents with an awkward choice: they could either bow their heads in grudging compliance with Mr. Lowery’s religious exercise and join in the subsequent applause, or they could stand visibly apart from the crowd and thereby out themselves as detractors. This presents the non-Christians (or non-participating Christians) with a crisis in which they must either go against their consciences, or be spotlighted as outsiders. That is coercive and it is wrong.

Suppose that instead of praying, Mr. Lowery had asked all the Christians in the room to stand. Suppose he had asked all the non-Christians to stand. How about just they Muslims or the Jews? How about all the Atheists? These would be pretty intrusive requests, but leading a prayer from the pulpit is no different. It is extremely easy to sort out who is from who isn’t by watching what people do when the praying starts. It may be the case that many evangelical Christians enjoy having their religious views exposed as publicly as possible, but most people prefer to keep their views and affiliations quiet, and they shouldn’t need to give any reason for exercising their own privacy.

Atheist advocate Jerry Coyne has been heavily pursuing this matter at Lebanon high school, and has received many responses from people on “both” sides of the issue. One of the first responses Coyne received was from a school board member, Mr. Kim Light, who asked: “My question is whether or not this is funded and/or supported by the University of Chicago and is this YouTube viewing conducted using university resources and conducted during time that could be used for instructional or research time.”

Mr. Light’s “question” was in fact a thinly veiled threat, probing at the blurry line that separates academic freedom from (potentially) objectionable outside interests. Mr. Kim’s threatening stance is not uncommon coming from those who want to constrain the speech of university professors. Here is my response to that kind of threat: I am knowingly and deliberately writing this post during “business hours” from my university office, using my university computer while sitting on my university chair. The purpose of this post is to give a message to any of my students or colleagues who may be reading: I respect your religious privacy and autonomy. I will not ever force you to publicly expose your religious views in any university function. I will not ever impose a religious exercise on you or on the members of any captive audience. If you have special needs associated with your religious views, I will make an effort (within reason) to discretely accommodate those needs.

I feel it is important for all educators to acknowledge that their students and peers comprise a diverse population, and we have a professional obligation to be neutral in all respects except for scholarly performance and professional conduct. If a student wants to approach me about religion, then we can have a free discussion. If a student wants to say a quiet personal prayer before an exam, that’s their prerogative (luckily I’m an Atheist or else I might consider that to be cheating). But I understand it is not my place to corner people into a religiously themed exercise.

This isn’t a hard concept at all.

The Noble Jerry Coyne

ImageJerry Coyne, a prominent “New Atheist” and author of the popular book Why Evolution is True, is seriously immersing himself in theology by studying Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Coyne is in the vanguard of “evangelizing” Atheists, who are often criticized for not sufficiently understanding the positions of sophisticated, modern theologians. By taking time to study and respond to these ivory tower materials, Coyne shows that he’s a genuine class act. I want to applaud his decision, as it presents a positive contrast to the Courtier’s Reply position — in essence, “I don’t have to study something if I already know it’s false” — that has been creeping like a nasty weed through Atheist circles. It’s nice to see someone taking the high road of intellectual engagement.


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Is this scientism?


Is there science happening here? I need a biologist to tell me.

PZ Myers and Laurence Moran say “Physicians and engineers are not scientists” (a point argued with, I think, malicious intent). Meanwhile Jerry Coyne and others think that car mechanics and plumbers are doing “science, broadly construed.” Sam Harris and Steven Pinker suggest (or at least imply) that scientists will ultimately overtake the humanities; Massimo Pigliucci has strenuously critiqued this latter view, calling it “scientism.”

This debate revolves around a basic rhetorical fallacy: the claim that “scientists” have a unique legitimacy attached to their beliefs, together with a claim of demarcational privilege to decide who is and isn’t a scientist. The arational imposition of intellectual privilege is, I think, the essence of the fuzzily defined “scientism” that non-scientists find threatening. It’s threatening because it is a threat. It attacks the legitimacy of entire classes of scholarship, and the Myers/Moran attack on engineers is one example.

This style of argument is used to de-legitimize a perceived opponent, or (as in Pigliucci’s case) to defend the legitimacy of his own profession. Such defenses are, according to Coyne, “defensive” — check out Coyne’s reaction to a historian who proposed that scientists might benefit from studying history. To paraphrase his position: we (scientists) don’t need you (non-scientists), you need us. On this level, the debate has nothing to do with science or the quality of ideas; instead it is a purely sophistic (and egoistic) effort to disqualify others.

I’ll pause now to remind the reader that I’m an engineer. Speaking as an engineer, I think there is a clear distinction between engineering and science: engineers have to actually get things right or they may suffer immediate economic, functional or ethical consequences. Scientists, on the other hand, have to pass their work through a process of critical review by their peers. The latter process is important to the long-term filtering of ideas, but peer review doesn’t have the same falsifying power as a collapsing bridge, an exploding boiler, a crashing train, a killer radiation leak or a misfired missile. So if we’re talking about legitimacy, I’d sooner trust the beliefs of a randomly selected engineer over those of a random scientist.

But Moran and Myers think engineers are something less. They are annoyed by Ken Ham’s claim that creationists can be successful in scientific careers, something that was argued during the Bill Nye / Ken Ham debate. They are so annoyed by the creationists that they are willing to degrade entire classes of scholars in order to win a fake point.

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I’m with Massimo

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 11.15.18 AMMassimo Pigliucci has taken a lot of heat for his criticisms of “new Atheists.” Pigliucci accuses NAs of being overconfident scientists who tread naively onto philosophical turf. I’m inclined to agree with him: NA’s are sometimes loudly making basic errors, inappropriately associating their views with “science,” and are sometimes making sophisticated excuses to rationalize their lack of rigor. For those who hope to have correct beliefs, a more cautious approach is warranted.

A few weeks ago, Jerry Coyne published a critique on his blog directed at an essay that Pigliucci published last September, titled “New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement.” Among the various blogs I read, I’ve generally found Pigliucci’s blog, Rationally Speaking, to be one of the most intellectually satisfying. But Coyne disagrees, saying:

I’ve been put off by [Massimo’s] arrogance, attack-dogishness (if you want a strident atheist, look no further than Massimo), and his repeated criticisms of New Atheists because We Don’t Know Enough Philosophy. (If you substituted “Theology” for “Philosophy” there, you’d pretty much have Terry Eagleton).

The parenthetical phrase made me wince, since it alludes to the Courtier’s Reply argument that can be used as a sophistic excuse for lack of rigor. It is also pretty rude to equate the professional discipline of philosophy with that of theology, which Coyne believes is utterly vacuous. Later in the same post, Coyne made another alarming remark:

Note to readers: when you see the word “nuanced” used in criticism of atheism, run!

This sounds juvenile to me. All mature fields have nuances — “minor distinctions; subtlety or fine detail” — and you can’t just barge into an established field without carefully navigating those nuances. But that’s exactly how NA scientists sometimes sound when they make overreaching philosophical pronouncements.

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