How I spent the last few days

I am sad to say I missed the American Atheists 2013 National Convention — it sounds like it was a blast, but I was booked up with a series of talks out in lovely warm sunny Seattle. Here’s what I’ve been up to.

On Wednesday, I talked to Seattle Atheists on “Moving Atheism Beyond Science”. I argued that modern atheism is built on the twin pillars of anti-religion and science, and not that there’s anything wrong with either of those, but that we have to have a wider foundation. In particular, I defied the recent trend to broaden science to encompass morality — I see that more as a conservative effort to refuse to step out of our comfort zone of science to consider philosophy and ethics — and most of the talk was a review of the ways science has failed to support a moral standard. Science has a definite place of importance, but let’s stop using it as our sole hammer.

Then I attended Norwescon, a science-fiction convention. People give me weird looks when I say I’m going to a con as a scientist/educator — but really, this is another example of stepping out of our comfort zones and reaching out to a different population of people…and SF people are a very receptive audience for science talks. So here are the sessions I was up-front and talking (there were others where I just sat back with the audience, of course).

Evo-Devo: More than a cool band name. This one was cool and right on my interests. I shared the panel with Annie Morton, a local ecologist, Jim Kling, a science journalist, and Dr Ricky, a scientist and also author of a food blog, Science-Based Cuisine. I started off by giving a definition I’d been asked to give on Twitter: Evodevo: Primacy of regulatory mutations in the evolution of form in multicellular organisms. I know, it’s much narrower than the standard definition which emphasizes comparative molecular genetics, but I was trying to summarize the current focus. And then we went back and forth on the details.

The Anthropogenic Extinction event. Somehow, I ended up on a series of depressing panels. I shared this desk with Annie Morton again, and Kurt Cagle. Short summary: we’re doomed. My final statement was that one basic rule is that you don’t shit in your own nest, and now that we’re a global species, we apparently have forgotten it.

Bullies Still Suck: Why We Don’t Just Get Over It. Oh, jeez. The most depressing panel ever. I was on it with Mickey Schulz (Geek Girls Rule!) and Maida “Mac” Cain. I think I was there to represent targets of online bullying, but here’s the deal: it was attended by a large number of SF con nerds and geeks who could give us all lessons on what real bullying is like. I didn’t have to say much at all: the audience spoke out with testimonials about their lives as four-eyed nerds, gay people, trans women, Asperger kids, “sluts” so-called, and rape victims. I think my main job here should have just been to shut up and listen.

It’s the End of the World As We Know It, with Gregory Gadow, Peter Blanton, Russell Campbell, and Dr Ricky. We were supposed to talk about our favorite doomsday scenarios. I don’t have one. I did say I thought all the emphasis in the popular press on big explosions and cosmic collisions and such was egocentrism, that that’s not how most extinctions occur. I gave the example of the Heath Hen, a chicken-like bird that was common on the eastern seaboard at the time of the European colonization, and that gradually was reduced to a single isolated population on Martha’s Vineyard by habitat destruction and hunting, and when it was down to the last few hundred animals in the 19th century, efforts were made to give it a sheltered sanctuary. The population briefly rose to a few thousand individuals before a fire killed many, then a storm killed more, and then a disease spread from turkey farms to kill even more, reducing them to 7 individuals, mostly male, and the last lonely bird died in 1932. That’s what we should expect. No grand spectacular drama, we’re most likely to flicker out with a dismal whimper.

Blinded by Pseudoscience. I wasn’t suppose to be on this one, but Dr. Ricky asked me to get on the stage with Janet Freeman-Daily, Gregory Gadow, and Ro Yoon. We talked a lot about cancer quackery, especially the Burzynski fraud, and tried to deliver some suggestions about how to detect when you’re being lied to: too good to be true promises, demands for money up front, lack of scientific evidence, etc.

Designer Genes. Gregory Gadow was the moderator, and it was largely a discussion between me and Edward Tenner…and we pretty much agreed on everything. I think the theme was unintended consequences: sure, we can and will be able to do amazing things with somatic and germ line gene therapy, but trying to do this with complex systems is likely to have all kinds of unexpected side effects. Correcting single gene defects is one thing, but ‘improving’ the human race is a far more complex problem that isn’t going to be easily accomplished.

Remedial Exobiology, with Annie Morton and Dame Ruth. This one was very well attended and less depressing! At a science fiction convention, there were a lot of authors in the audience who are very interested in the topic of implementing good biology in their stories (sorry, but I said that there were almost no science fiction stories that addressed biology competently, and we also snickered at James Cameron a bit). I tried to be fair and give shortcuts: I said imagination is good, you don’t have to master all of biology, but instead of just starting with bipedal anthropoids and building a new alien on that body plan, at least browse through the available and highly diverse morphologies present in other lineages on this planet, and build on that. One person in the audience also recommended this book, Eighth Day Genesis: A Worldbuilding Codex for Writers and Creatives, as a tool for inspiring science-based creativity.

And now I’m winding down and getting ready to fly home and resume teaching biology in Minnesota again. I encourage all science educators to stretch out and try talking about their favorite topics in different venues: it’s how we expand the relevance of science!


  1. #1 Tj
    Melbourne, Oz
    March 31, 2013

    Looks like you had a busy weekend and I now have a list of bookmarks for events to attend when I visit you continent next year. Cheers.

  2. #2 Joe
    April 1, 2013

    Burzynski quackery… Tow the line you dope.

  3. #3 Andrew
    April 1, 2013

    Happy Atheists day to all atheists, April the first.

  4. #4 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    April 1, 2013

    Joe, please explain.

    Andrew, your Bible allusion is so funny I had to grow gills. Can you hear me laugh? …No?

  5. #5 michelliberty
    April 2, 2013

    morality is societal ,it as nothing to do with religion , the religious love to say if your an Atheist where do you get your morals from , well we get them from the need to survive, its not to complicated , if we depended on religion to be moral how many more tribes and cities would have perished in the name of god.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.