The remainder of my review of Mooney and Kirshenbaum on paper will have to wait a bit longer. You see, I now have Mooney and Kirshenbaum in real life to discuss.
Always happy to have an excuse to visit the big city, I stopped by the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington DC to see Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum speak about their book. I would estimate there were a little ove a hunred people there.
Mooney and Kirshenbaum tag-teamed their prepared remarks. These remarks were brief and mostly focused on the reasons for writing the book, and a brief summary of what was in it. The points that have caused controversy both with me and with other critics were not raised. In short, pretty generic and unobjectionable stuff.
There were some interesting points raised during the Q and A. Alas, my clever move of making sure I got a seat by sitting down early backfired on my when it turned out I was in an especially inconvenient location for getting to the microphone. About ten seconds after they finished speaking there was already a line at the microphone that was clearly too long for the allotted time. So I didn’t get to ask them something snotty, like, “What did PZ Myers ever do to you?”
We math professor types were well represented, with two of the questioners so identifying themselves. The first one offered the funniest line of the night. As an example of mathematical illiteracy he cited a statement made by a student on a course evaluation: “This professor makes it very difficult for the average student to get an A.”
Actually, the audience reaction to that was interesting. Some people laughed immediately. Then there was a second wave of laughter as more people suddenly realized why that is such a stupid thing to write. Then there was a final wave of laughter comprised primarily of people who didn’t want to admit they didn’t get the joke.
The subject of Francis Collins’ appointment to head the NIH came up. Chris Mooney fielded that one, remarking that Collins’ credentials are impeccable and that his religion shouldn’t be a concern because he is on the right side on evolution.
I haven’t commented on Collins to this point mostly because I was having trouble figuring out what exactly was bothering me about it. His CV is certainly very impressive. I don’t care for his religious views, but that would only be an issue if there was some reason to think his religion would compromise his objectivity in doing his job. I haven’t seen any convincing reason to think that it will, though there are some legitimate questions. It is annoying that now the position of NIH head will be used as a platform for promoting evangelical Christianity, but that too is hardly a disqualification. We all use such platforms as we have for promoting the things in which we believe.
What’s disturbing about this actually has nothing to do with Collins at all, but rather with the process that led to his nomination. There is simply no question that Collins’ outspoken religious views were considered a big resume enhancer, and that an identical person outspoken about atheism would not even be considered for the job. I have seen people get very indiginant with folks like Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers and Steven Pinker for raisingf objections to Collins. “They’re placing a religious test for public office!” they huff. Nonsense. The religious test already exists.
I would add that none of Collins’ major critics have said he should be disquallified for his religion. They have instead pointed to specific statements Collins has made that call his objectivity into question in ways that are directly relevant to the job. But that’s a different post.
The highlight of the night (at least for me) came when one questioner, a scientist from the NIH, approached the mike. She aksed a question about science blogging, mentioning two of her favorite bloggers in the process. They were PZ Myers and … wait for it … me!
I let out a little whoop at that, but it didn’t come out very strongly and mostly served to make the people sitting near me wonder what was going on. When the questioner mentioned my name a second time Sheril, who was at the mike and who knew that I was there, mentioned that I was in the audience. I waved and said hello at this point, and the audience laughed. Some of the people sitting near me then asked about my blog, so if any of them have stopped by for a visit, welcome!
After the Q and A I spoke to my fan for a while. Several other people came over as well and soon we had a nice little discussion going about blogging in general and about M and K’s book. I mentioned that I didn’t care for the book and thought it had quite a few problems. A few of the audience members in the group agreed with that, though I got the impression that most of the people didn’t seem to have read it.
My SciBlings Zuska and Benjamin Cohen were there, so it was nice to see and talk to them for a while. Then it was on to get an autograph from M and K. Though I was disappointed with the book, it was nice to be able to see them again. All in all, an enjoyable evening.