A man raps to his cat (and a poll)

Well, it looks as if the government is going to shut down in about 8.5 hours. If you were going to go to the Smithsonian today, do it now.  But first, place your bets here, then I’ll show you a cat rapper:

Your reward for voting: Moshow the Cat Rapper making up a spontaneous rap as he bathes his Sphynx cat Ravioli.  Moshow has a lot more cat raps on his YouTube channel, which you can see here.


If you’re wondering whether Ravioli needs a bath, the answer is “yes.” Here’s part of an interview with Moshow:

As a person who has four cats myself, I’ve never actually given a cat a bath before while I was in the bath. So I think off top, can you break down what exactly Ravioli’s situation is and why you have to take that extra care with Ravioli?
Well, all four of my cats are really, really special. What you’re actually seeing, when you see me in the tub with Ravioli, all four— I call them my kids— all four of my kids are getting a bath at the same time. They are from the sphynx descent; Sushi, Tali and MegaMam they don’t have fur, they have have skin just like we do. With that comes how we get dirty, so if you don’t give them a bath, with them using their litter, just day after day, dirt builds up, it builds up oil on the skin. You have to give them baths as if they were human.

Ravioli’s a German Rex and he still has that sphynx’s descent, he only has his first two layers of fur to his [directum] which is why he’s so curly. If you see him over the course of two or three weeks, his hair starts knotting up and gets real tangly, so he has to get baths once every two and a half weeks or so.

I, too, got in the tub when bathing my late beloved cat Teddy. He was covered with motor oil when I first got him (he’d lived on the streets for three years and wandered in through the cat door covered with oil from huddling under cars in the winter). It took several baths to get him clean, and to discover that he was snow white and not yellow. To help him feel secure (and protect my nether parts), I donned a bathing suit, put about six inches of lukewarm water in the tub, and then let Teddy stand on my chest while I shampooed him.  He was a gentle cat and never balked.

HuffPo fails to correct erroneous post on hijab-cutting

Three days ago I highlighted HuffPo‘s article on a Canadian Muslim girl’s complaint that she was attacked by a man (twice) who cut up her hijab with scissors. Here’s the article (click on screenshot):

As I noted at the time, this report turned out to be false: the girl admitted she made up the story. One would think, then, that HuffPo would correct this story, or at least add a note that it was false. But it hadn’t done when I made this comment on February 16.

It’s been three more days, and while the site has reported elsewhere that the girl’s story was false, do you think HuffPo revisited the original report to either correct it or link to the followup?

Don’t make me laugh. It’s HuffPo, Jake!

Baby aardvark doesn’t want to get weighed

I’m tired today (the Laland post took a lot of work), and so all you’re gonna get for the rest of today are cute animals.

Winsol is a three-week baby aardvark (Orycteropus afer) who lives at the Cincinnati Zoo, and as you see from this video, he doesn’t want his vitals taken.  Winsol will get some hair later, but aardvarks (rare to see in zoos) never get hairy.

Fun aardvark fact:  This species is the only living member of the mammalian order Tubulidentata.

Fun fact #2: Aardvarks are native to sub-Saharan Africa.

Fun fact #3:  Aardvarks eat only ants and termites, yet they have teeth, and those teeth grow continuously.

Postmodern Poo: A Harvard course on scatalogical literature (“the canon is a chamber pot”)

An anonymous reader sent me this announcement for a course at Harvard, and at first I thought it was an enormous joke. Now I’ve learned it’s for real. For one thing, there is indeed a professor at Harvard called Annabel Kim: she’s an Assistant Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures. And her c.v., here, lists a related book in progress:

Unbecoming Language: Anti-Identitarian French Feminist Fictions (forthcoming from the Ohio State University Press)

Cacaphonies: Toward an Excremental Poetics (in progress)

But the ultimate proof is that Harvard lists the course in its catalogue, reproducing the text beneath the poster’s pile of friendly poo. The course description (the same as on the poster) is below, and I’ve bolded a few part. But hell—the whole thing should be bolded!

French literature, from the Middle Ages to today, has been consistently and remarkably scatological. Fecal matter is omnipresent in works and authors that we consider canonical (e.g. the fabliaux, Rabelais, de Sade, Beckett, Celine) and yet its presence has been remarkably submerged or passed over in readerly and critical reception of modern and contemporary French literature. This course proposes to take this fecal presence seriously and to attend to the things it has to tell us (hence the plurality of cacaphonies) by starting with the following premise: If literature is excrement, then the canon is a chamber pot. We will focus on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and read a diverse range of scatological texts in order to use the scatological as a means to: 1) Theorize an excremental poetics where excretion provides a model for the process of writing. The task of excretion, which translates into concrete form our experience of the world (we excrete what we take in, processing and giving it new form), is also the task of literature; 2) Allow for a new interrogation and critique of the canon and the ways in which it serves to conceal, contain, sanitize, and compel culture; 3) Provide another angle from which to approach the question of gender and writing, as gender organizes both literature (e.g. the paucity of canonical women writers) and defecation (e.g. the gendering of constipation as a feminine condition); 4) Offer an alternative theory of the significance of fecal matter to the dominant one provided by psychoanalysis (i.e. feces as gift, gold, a la Freud). The goal of the course is to begin to articulate and realize an original approach to literature that, rather than take feces as a site of disgust, takes it as a site of creation.

All I can say is this: the course is a damn travesty, larded with postmodernism. I pity the students who take it, and I pity the professor, who is not only going to have to deal with this for the rest of her professional life, but may be endangering her tenure. For surely even Harvard can’t think that this is worthy teaching or scholarship!

Now I’m not sure if Dr. Kim made this poster to advertise the course, or someone made it as a joke. But given that the whole course is an unwitting joke, it hardly matters.

Laland at it again: touts a “radically different” account of evolution

Yes, the folks who want evolutionary biology to be radically expanded to take into account phenomena like development, “niche construction,” culture, and epigenetics are at it again, and again they have nothing to offer but a few lab examples mixed with a lot of hype. And the promoter of this view is once again Kevin Laland from the University of St Andrews, who has published a new piece in Aeon, “Science in flux: Is evolutionary science due for a major overhaul, or is talk of a ‘revolution’ misguided? Now Laland is not just a dispassionate person who sees evolution neglecting these areas, for he’s head of a £5.7 million Templeton grant “to further our understanding of evolution.” Templeton has donated a lot of money lately to projects trying to revise or dismantle the current neo-Darwinian view of evolution. I’m not quite sure how this fits into their science-loves-religion agenda, but it must.

To Laland and his co-investigators, “furthering our understanding of evolution” means relentlessly beating the drum to say that the modern evolutionary synthesis is severely deficient, and that saviors like Laland and The Templetonians are going to fix it. Laland’s essay adds nothing to what these workers have said before (see this Nature essay and its rebuttal from four years ago)—things that I, along with others, have characterized as an overblown and careerist program designed not so much to further evolutionary biology as to advance the reputations and grant-bestowed dosh of the “revolutionaries.” (See here and here as well the Nature link and the three papers at bottom of this post.)

It’s not that development, epigenetics, and culture don’t play a role in evolution. As I’ve written before (see here and here for instance) “Evo-devo”, or the study of development and evolution, has produced great insights, like the finding that the Pax-6 gene controls eye formation in taxa as distant as flies and mice—taxa in which eyes have evolved independently. It’s just that development folds neatly into the study of evolutionary biology, and wasn’t really neglected—just laid aside until we had the molecular tools to study it. Epigenetics is important in putting marks on genes that enable cell lines to differentiate, and to produce sexual conflict in embryos, but there’s no evidence, as the touts pretend, that environmentally-induced epigenetic marks have been important in evolution. (They are almost invariably erased when gametes are formed, ergo can’t produce permanent changes).  Culture has certainly played a rule in the evolution of some species: the most famous example is how lactose tolerance has evolved in human societies that keep sheep, goats and cattle. Culturally inherited songs learned by “brood parasites” in birds can initiate speciation when a parasite lays its eggs in the “wrong” nest and thus gets imprinted on a new host, and so on. But these have been studied for years (remember the blue tits who learned to drink cream by piercing milk bottles?), and the idea that culture can change selective pressures on genes is hardly revolutionary. (Do remember, too that the vast majority of species on this planet don’t have cultures that can pass on nongenetic information between generations.)

The problem is not that these phenomena aren’t interesting. It’s that they haven’t been shown to be ubiquitous in evolution, and some things, like “Lamarckian” epigenesis, have never been shown to be important in nature, though you can demonstrate them in the lab. Given how multifarious nature is, almost everything has happened at least once, but to call for a new view of evolution you have to show that your favored phenomenon is widespread.  None of the promoters of the “extended evolutionary synthesis,” like Laland, have done that. They just keep writing the same article over and over again, adding the same tired (and sometimes flawed) handful of examples.

So Laland’s Aeon piece isn’t really new in those respects. What is new are two things. First, Laland admits that the talk of an “evolution revolution” is exaggerated: no “paradigm shift” is in the offing. Yet although such a paradigm shift may not be happening, we are still, says Laland, on the verge of a “radically different and profoundly richer account of evolution”. Second, Laland has started hitting below the belt by smearing his critics: he says that resistance to this “richer account” is the fault of “traditionally minded” evolutionists (I suppose I’m one). He’s trying to equate, I think, scientific conservatives with political conservatives.

Here’s a quote from Laland; the emphases are mine:

Why, then, are traditionally minded evolutionary biologists complaining about the misguided evolutionary radicals that lobby for paradigm shift? Why are journalists writing articles about scientists calling for a ‘revolution’ in evolutionary biology? If nobody actually wants a revolution, and scientific revolutions rarely happen anyway, what’s all the fuss about? The answer to these questions provides a fascinating insight into the sociology of evolutionary biology.

Revolution in evolution is a misattribution – a myth propagated by an unlikely alliance of conservative-minded evolutionists, creationists and the press. I don’t doubt that there are a small number of genuine, revolutionarily minded evolutionary radicals out there, but the vast majority of researchers working towards an extended evolutionary synthesis are simply ordinary, hardworking evolutionary biologists.

We all know that sensationalism sells newspapers, and articles that portend a major upheaval make for better copy. Creationists and advocates of ‘intelligent design’ also feed this impression, with propaganda that exaggerates differences of opinion among evolutionists and gives a false impression that the field of evolutionary biology is in turmoil. What’s more surprising is how commonly conservative-minded biologists play the ‘We’re under attack!’ card against their fellow evolutionists. Portraying intellectual opponents as extremist, and telling people that they are being attacked, are age-old rhetorical tricks to win debate or allegiance.

I had always associated such games with politics, not science, but now realise I was naive. Some of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans I have witnessed, seemingly designed to prevent new ideas from spreading by fair means or foul, have truly shocked me, and are out of kilter with practice in other fields that I know. Scientists, too, have careers and legacies at stake, as well as struggles for funding, power and influence. [If I were Laland, I’d look in the mirror here.] I worry that the traditionalists’ rhetoric is backfiring, creating confusion and inadvertently fuelling creationism by exaggerating division. Too many reputable scientists feel the need for change in evolutionary biology for all to be credibly dismissed as fringe elements.

Here we see a would-be Galileo crying that he’s been stifled and censored by hard-core traditionalists—evolutionary conservatives. And his critics are FUELING CREATIONISM!

In fact, “conservative-minded” evolutionists like myself, Brian and Deborah Charlesworth, and Doug Futuyma, haven’t been the ones erecting the strawman of a proposed “evolution revolution”. It was scientists themselves—people like Laland, Massimo Pigliucci and the “Altenberg 16” participants, physiologist Dennis Noble, my Chicago colleague Jim Shapiro, epigenetics-touter Eva Jablonka, and the entire panoply of scientists (yes, most of them “fringe biologists”) at The Third Way site—all of these people have either explicitly called for a revamping of evolutionary thinking and a drastic expansion of evolutionary biology, if not its replacement. (Some reject a “gene-centered” view of evolution and argue that adaptations result from “self organization”—surely non-neo-Darwinian views!) Yet none of these calls are based on any new empirical evidence that evolutionary biology needs the “radically different” take that Laland touts in his article.

Actually, “conservative-mindedness”, while it may not be good in politics, is an eminently sensible way to do science. That is, if we have a view that explains what we see pretty well, as does neo-Darwinism, then we should abandon or seriously modify that view only when enough evidence has accumulated to show that the view is full of holes or seriously deficient. That hasn’t happened with neo-Darwinism, despite Laland et al.’s endlessly repeated and largely identical screeds. Since serious evolutionists haven’t embraced Laland et al.’s views, he now tries to smear people who are careful scientists, loath to hop on new bandwagons, by calling them “conservative-minded biologists”. He even says that these “conservatives” can fuel creationism, which is a stupid and erroneous claim if I’ve ever heard one. In fact, it is people like Laland who fuel creationism: just see how often organizations like the Discovery Institute tout evolution’s “third way” and call attention to the revisionists’ criticisms of neo-Darwinism. The claim that evolutionary biology is seriously deficient because it ignores important insights is a claim tailor-made for the ID movement.

What about the substance of Laland’s Aeon essay? There isn’t much there beyond what he’s said before. He gives a few examples of epigenetic changes that can be passed on for several generations in the laboratory, but at least one of these (inheritance of fear of some odors in mice) is controversial, and the rest have no relevance to nature. Laland gives not a single example of an adaptation in nature that evolved because its initial phases involved environmentally induced changes in the DNA that somehow got passed on and then became adaptive. In the light of this gaping lacuna, why do these people keep banging on about “Lamarckian” epigenetic evolution? I can see no reason beyond the careerism that Laland imputes to the “conservatives”.

Laland talks about “gene-culture” coevolution, noting the lactose tolerance example, but that’s nothing new, and was already incorporated into evolutionary theory well before Laland starting trumpeting it. I’ve taught it for years in introductory evolution! Laland touts the importance of development as limiting the possibilities of evolutionary change, since you have to evolve adaptations in the milieu of an already-existing system of development. But that again is hardly anything new. Yet when Laland argues that evolutionary “convergence”—the evolution of similar phenotypes in very unrelated species, like the existence of marsupial “moles” that are very similar to placental moles—is too striking to involve natural selection alone, and must involve the channeling of evolution by developmental plans, he’s on shaky ground. After all, fishy appearances evolved in the ancestors of fish, ichthyosaurs, and dolphins—three groups with very different developmental systems. As Darwin said, and Charlesworth et al. emphasize (see below), animals and plants are quite plastic, and seem able to evolve remarkably similar appearances despite very different developmental systems and evolutionary backgrounds. If development severely restricted how animals could evolve, artificial selection experiments with a given end in mind would often fail.  Just looking at the breeds of dogs is refutation enough of Laland’s claims.

Several readers called my attention to Laland’s essay, and as I read it I got the sinking feeling that I was just reading the same essay I’ve read many times before. And I was. Some of Laland’s words are new—like his invidious criticism of “conservative-minded evolutionists”—but there’s no new evidence adduced. Until that evidence accumulates—and we need more than one-off lab studies—there’s little call to start bashing evolutionary theory.

The claims of Laland, his fellow investigators on the Templeton grant, and the “Third Way” evolutionists have been adjudicated by evolutionists I deeply respect, and have been found wanting. These people aren’t diehard opponents of new phenomena in evolution, but rather people who change their minds only when they see evidence from nature to do so. To read three good rebuttals of Laland et al.’s self-promoting and overblown claims about the “new evolutionary synthesis”, read the papers at the bottom, which are freely available.

The dogs bark—loudly!—but the caravan moves on.


Charlesworth, D., N. H. Barton, and B. Charlesworth. 2017. The sources of adaptive variation. Proc Roy Soc B 284:http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2016.2864.

Futuyma, D. J. 2015. Can modern evolutionary theory explain macroevolution? Pp. 29-85 in E. a. N. G. Serelli, ed. Macroevolution: Explanation, Interpretation, and Evidence. Springer, Switzerland.

Haig, D. 2007. Weismann Rules! OK? Epigenetics and the Lamarckian temptation. Biology and Philosophy 22:415-428.


Readers’ wildlife photos

Here’s part two of reader Linden Gledhill’s photographs of animals from Costa Rica—mostly birds. (See part one from yesterday.) Linden’s notes are indented:

Elegant Trogon (Trogon elegans). Wow, what a stunning bird! I spent two hours with a guide searching for this species in woods next to an open field.  This was the only shot I captured and unfortunately I didn’t see the intense red breast until the bird turned and flew directly toward me.

White-fronted Parrot (Amazona albifrons). This species was ever present, mainly in very noisy flocks. Even with a 700mm lens I found them difficult to photograph as they were often high in tree tops.

Orange-fronted Parakeet (Eupsittula canicularis). Such a cute bird. I often found these in bonded pairs preening each other or taking termites from large nests in trees.

White-throated Magpie Jay (Calocitta formosa). Spectacular bird; like all Jay species they are always up to mischief.  I found the same flock on multiple days—they roamed a large area along the cost and seem to feed on anything they could find.  One morning I found them eating a fish carcass on the beach (see second photo):

Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) A migratory species which spends its winters in Costa Rica and other southern countries as far as Peru.

Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus) A large insectivore with a great looking toupee. I was interested to learn that they nest in a tree cavity and usually use a snakeskin as a lining for their nest.

Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) Such a bold and inquisitive bird. They have no fear of people and were constantly present around the grounds of the hotel.  They appear to have changed their behaviour and were once limited to the coast of Costa Rica but now have moved inland to follow people.

Friday: Hili dialogue

We’ve reached Friday again—January 19, 2018—and the high temperature will at last rise above freezing in Chicago (it’s now 28° F: -2° C). It’s National Popcorn Day, and in the Indian state of Tripura it’s Kokborok Day, celebrating the local language.

On this day in 1829, Goethe’s Faust: The First Part of the Tragedy, was first performed. In 1853, Verdi’s opera Il trovatore was first performed—in Rome.  Two electricity innovations occurred on January 19: in 1883, the first overhead-wire electrical lighting system, devised by Thomas Edison, began service in New Jersey; and in 1915 Georges Claude patented the neon discharge tube (neon lights) to use in advertisements. On January 19, 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was founded. In 1940, according to Wikipedia, “You Nazty Spy!, the very first Hollywood film of any kind to satirize Adolf Hitler and the Nazis premieres, starring The Three Stooges, with Moe Howard as the character ‘Moe Hailstone satirizing Hitler.” In case you’re curious, here’s the entire 18-minute short. The big question is: would Dan Arel punch Moe?

On this day in 1953, the majority of television sets in the U.S. (73% of them) were tuned to the show “I Love Lucy” for the episode “Lucy Goes to the Hospital“, in which Little Ricky was born.  On this day in 1978, the last VW Beetle made in Germany left the plant in Emden. Production of the Beetle continued in Mexico until 2003, but, sadly, they’re no longer made. In my youth I spent many hours standing by the side of the road with my thumb out, watching for a Beetle—or, better yet, its larger cousin the Volkswagen bus—to come by; the probability that they were driven by fellow hippies, and would give me a ride, was high.  Did any readers have a Beetle, or still have one? Finally, on this day in 1983, the Apple Lisa, Apple Inc.’s first personal computer with a mouse and a graphical interface, was announced.

Notables born on this day include Robert E. Lee (1807), Edgar Allen Poe (1809), Paul Cézanne (1839), Lester Flatt (1914), Phil Everly (1939), Janis Joplin (1943), Dolly Parton (1946), photographer Cindy Sherman (1954) and geneticist Cliff Tabin (also 1954).  Those who died on January 19 include William Congreve (1729), Debendranath Tagore (1905), Thomas Hart Benton (1975), William O. Douglas (1980), James Dickey (1997), Carl Perkins (1998), and Hedy Lamarr (2000; she was not only an actress and singer, but an inventor who devised a torpedo-jamming system that was later used by the U.S. Navy. According to Wikipedia, ” Lamarr and [George] Antheil’s work with spread spectrum technology led to the development of GPS, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.”) Also deceased on this day were Wilson Pickett (2006; I touched him once when he performed at William and Mary for a dance), Suzanne Pleshette (2008), and my favorite baseball player of all time, Stan Musial (died 2013), who played for the St. Louis Cardinals—and only the Cardinals—for 22 years. My father, a huge Cardinals fan, often saw Stan “The Man” Musial play in St. Louis and (on a visiting team) in Pittsburgh (I saw him play once, at the end of his career), and turned me on to his abilities and to Musial’s reputation for being a nice guy. (My dad told me that Musial “never questioned an umpire’s call”). Musial’s father was a Polish immigrant, and so Musial’s real name was Stanisław Franciszek Musiał. Here are some of his accomplishments as recounted on Wikipedia:

Musial batted .331 over the course of his career and set National League (NL) records for career hits (3,630), runs batted in (1,951), games played (3,026), at bats (10,972), runs scored (1,949) and doubles (725), his 475 career home runs then ranked second in NL history behind Mel Ott’s total of 511. His 6,134 total bases remained a major league record until surpassed by Hank Aaron, and his hit total still ranks fourth all-time, and is the highest by any player who spent his career with only one team. A seven-time batting champion with identical totals of 1,815 hits at home and 1,815 hits on the road, he was named the National League’s (NL) Most Valuable Player (MVP) three times and led St. Louis to three World Series championships. He also shares the major league record for the most All-Star Games played (24) with Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.

He also became noted for his harmonica playing, a skill he acquired during his playing career. Known for his modesty and sportsmanship, Musial was selected for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1999. In February 2011, President Barack Obama presented Musial with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the highest civilian awards that can be bestowed on a person by the United States government.

I believe he still holds the record for hitting five home runs in a single day—in a double header.  Here’s a 5-minute summary of his career (yes, the video does work). Obama’s encomiums for Musial begin at 2:32.

Finally, on this day two years ago, ecologist Richard Levins died; I knew him slightly and his office at Harvard’s main campus was on our floor in the MCZ. Levins ran his lab like a Marxist collective (he was a Marxist), and even had “criticism sessions” in which his entire lab would go into a closed room and single out one person to chastise for political improprieties. It was the Cultural Revolution enacted at Harvard! I sometimes saw students leaving these sessions in tears.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili, restless and housebound by the snow, is fighting with the rug:

Hili: I will teach it a lesson!
A: But it was lying down quietly, doing nothing
Hili: Exactly.
In Polish:
Hili: Ja go nauczę!
Ja: Ale on leżał sobie spokojnie i nic nie robił.
Hili: No właśnie.

And out in frigid Winnipeg, Gus (also housebound) watches for rabbits from his Katzenbaum:


A tweet from Stephen Fry found by Grania. Look at that determined kid!

Also from Grania: really wonderful Japanese paper toys. Can I have one of the penguins? (I haven’t talked about my penguin fetish.)

A bizarre tweet found by Matthew:

Rescued fawn returned to mom

Here’s a 16-minute heartwarmer about a white-tailed deer fawn (Odocoileus virginianus) with an injured leg who was abandoned by her mother, rescued, rehabilitated, and eventually returned to mom. All’s well that ends well! The fawn is adorable, and you can see it interact with pet cats and dogs.

The video maker adds some other links;

Here is follow up video one year after release:  https://youtu.be/GvRcix5-qVs

Here is few videos how she learn to drink milk and bathing: https://youtu.be/-KNY_UXHc44 and https://youtu.be/dgNJ05cRXdo

The man appears to be of Russian descent, but the rescue appears to be in the Rockies.

More on #MeToo #TimesUp, and schisms within feminism

I suppose the fracturing of feminism that’s the byproduct of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements—both creating a tsunami of pushback against the misuse of power—was inevitable. For what is considered “consent” varies widely among people, and feelings are running high. I strongly support the calling-out of anyone who uses their power to prey sexually on others, and the reporting, firing, or jailing of those who violate employer’s norms or the law.  But given the present political climate, I think one could have predicted that a bit of the baby got thrown out with the bathwater. Here are a few pieces about current disputes about these issues. (I’m not writing about the justified accusations against people like Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey, as discussions of those are amply available on the Internet.)

If there’s a writer who should be a feminist icon, it’s Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, many of whose works deal with women oppressed by patriarchy. She wrote, for instance, The Handmaid’s Tale, something of a feminist must-read (it was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize). Yet she’s now been damned by many feminists because she signed an open letter to the University of British Columbia (UBC), which decried UBC for its climate of secrecy around the case of Steven Galloway, former Chair of the Creative Writing Program. Accused of sexual assault, Galloway was cleared after a judge’s inquiry, but was fired anyway. The letter simply calls for fairness and openness toward Galloway, and for an independent investigation of how UBC handled Galloway’s case.

That was enough to damn Atwood in the eyes of many women, and she voices her distress in a new article in the Globe and Mail, “Am I a bad feminist?” Her answer is “yes, to many ‘good’ feminists.  An excerpt:

The #MeToo moment is a symptom of a broken legal system. All too frequently, women and other sexual-abuse complainants couldn’t get a fair hearing through institutions – including corporate structures – so they used a new tool: the internet. Stars fell from the skies. This has been very effective, and has been seen as a massive wake-up call. But what next? The legal system can be fixed, or our society could dispose of it. Institutions, corporations and workplaces can houseclean, or they can expect more stars to fall, and also a lot of asteroids.

If the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers? It won’t be the Bad Feminists like me. We are acceptable neither to Right nor to Left. In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated. Fiction writers are particularly suspect because they write about human beings, and people are morally ambiguous. The aim of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity.

Yesterday I wrote about the Aziz Ansari affair, which began with a piece published on Babe by Katie Way, recounting the sexual liaison that a woman called “Grace” had with actor and comedian Aziz Ansari. Columnist Bari Weiss in the New York Times wrote a column defending Ansari against charges of sexual predation, claiming that while he was guilty of being boorish, he could not be expected to pick up “nonverbal cues.” An excerpt from Weiss’s piece:

There is a useful term for what this woman [“Grace”] experienced on her night with Mr. Ansari. It’s called “bad sex.” It sucks.

The feminist answer is to push for a culture in which boys and young men are taught that sex does not have to be pursued as if they’re in a pornographic film, and one in which girls and young women are empowered to be bolder, braver and louder about what they want. The insidious attempt by some women to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex takes women back to the days of smelling salts and fainting couches. That’s somewhere I, for one, don’t want to go.

A related piece, by Elizabeth Breunig in the Washington Post, is not as powerful but does add—and I agree—that we need to have a public conversation about sex, which differs from other forms of human interaction that have well defined and widely understood rules of etiquette. Breunig implicitly criticizes both Ansari, for lacking the empathy to see his date was uncomfortable, and Grace, for not having the temerity to just leave the apartment and the situation:

Instead, we ought to appreciate that sex is a domain so intimate and personal that more harm can be done than in most social situations, and that given that heightened capacity for harm, we should expect people to operate with greater conscientiousness, concern and care in that domain than in others. If you are still hanging around your tired host’s home long after the party is over, excuse yourself and leave — don’t wait for them to order you out or call the police. If you are kissing someone and they’re barely responsive — if they say, as Ansari’s partner did, “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you” — then get their coat for them and call it a night. Ansari didn’t commit a crime. But cruelty isn’t restricted to criminal acts. In all domains of life, but especially where it comes to sex, we must insist that people consider one another’s interior lives, feelings, personhood, dignity.

I also posted a video by HLN and former CNN Anchor Ashleigh Banfield (here), strongly criticizing both Grace and Katie Way for the Babe piece. I’ve never seen a news anchor so publicly exercised, even mentioning the term “blue balls”, but Banfield was plenty angry. Some of her words from that video:

“But what you [Grace] have done in my opinion is appalling. You went to the press with the story of a bad date and potentially destroyed this man’s career. . . And now here is where I am going to claim victim. You have chiseled away at a movement that I, along with all of my sisters in the workplace, have been dreaming of for decades: a movement that has finally changed an oversexed professional environment that I too have struggled with over the last thirty years in broadcasting.”

After hearing this, Katie Way invited to appear on television, refused and wrote a nasty email about Banfield. A piece in MEDIAite by Lawrence Bonk (?): “Ashleigh Banfield fires back after getting insulting email from writer of Aziz Ansari piece.“, gives Way’s gratuitiously nasty email response. Here it is in full (originally from Business Insider):

It’s an unequivocal no from me. The way your colleague Ashleigh (?), someone I’m certain no one under the age of 45 has ever heard of, by the way, ripped into my source directly was one of the lowest, most despicable things I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Shame on her. Shame on HLN. Ashleigh could have “talked” to me. She could have “talked” to my editor or my publication. But instead, she targeted a 23-year-old woman in one of the most vulnerable moments of her life, someone she’s never f—— met before, for a little attention. I hope the ratings were worth it! I hope the ~500 RTs on the single news write-up made that burgundy lipstick bad highlights second-wave feminist has-been feel really relevant for a little while. She DISGUSTS me, and I hope when she has more distance from the moment she has enough of a conscience left to feel remotely ashamed — doubt it, but still. Must be nice to piggyback off of the fact that another woman was brave enough to speak up and add another dimension to the societal conversation about sexual assault. Grace wouldn’t know how that feels, because she struck out into this alone, because she’s the bravest person I’ve ever met. I would NEVER go on your network. I would never even watch your network. No woman my age would ever watch your network. I will remember this for the rest of my career — I’m 22 and so far, not too shabby! And I will laugh the day you fold. If you could let Ashleigh know I said this, and that she is no-holds-barred the reason, it’d be a real treat for me.


Banfield responds here (her response begins 50 seconds in):

Banfield, who applauded the #MeToo movement in her video yesterday, is certainly a feminist, but, like Atwood, wants both compassion in sexual encounters as well as legal and professional punishment of those who violate the law in those encounters.

Finally, and I’ll just drop this in passing, there’s yet another controversy involving Catherine Deneuve, who, along with others, signed an open letter (which could have been clearer) decrying the infantilization of women they discern in regarding every come-on as sexual harassment. It’s too long to go over this one, so, if you want to see the ire it’s aroused, read the Quillette essay by Ulysse Pasquier, “Catherine Deneuve, #MeToo, and the fracturing within feminism.

Ethan Siegel damns those who claim that science and religion are incompatible

Reader Steve sent me an email with a link and his comment: “I enjoy reading Ethan Siegel’s posts. This one goes a bit too far in support of religion in my opinion.”  I didn’t really know who Siegel was, but he’s apparently pretty well known: his Wikipedia bio describes him as is “an American theoretical astrophysicist and science writer, who studies Big Bang theory. He is a professor at Lewis & Clark College and he blogs at Starts With a Bang, on ScienceBlogs and also on Forbes.com since 2016.” They add this:

Described as “beautifully illustrated and full of humour”, [Siegel’s] blog won the 2010 Physics.org award for best blog, judged by Adam Rutherford, Alom Shaha, Gia Milinovich, Hayley Birch, Lata Sahonta, and Stuart Clark and the people’s choice award, and his post “Where Is Everybody?” came third in the 2011 3 Quarks Daily science writing awards, judged by Lisa Randall, winning a “Charm Quark” for “[taking] on the challenge of simplifying probability estimates without sacrificing the nature of the enterprise or suppressing the uncertainties involved”. Siegel headed the RealClearScience list of top science bloggers in 2013, as his “unmatched ability to describe the nearly indecipherable made him an easy choice for #1.” Siegel also wrote a column for NASA, The Space Place.

I’ll take people’s word about the high quality of Siegel’s blog, but it’s surely been diminished a tad by his new piece on Medium (the apparent host of “Starts with a Bang”) to which Steve pointed me:  “Yes, science is for the religious, too.” It’s a poorly thought out defense of accommodationism that is short on arguments and long on thinly-disguised invective against people like me, who, he says, are harmful to society because we don’t recognize that religious people can like science and that science isn’t “hostile to faith”.  It’s basically Steve Gould’s NOMA argument all over again: “People of good will should recognize the beneficial effects of both science and religion, and respect each other’s views. Those who don’t are simply hurting society.” (That’s my characterization, not Siegel’s quote.)

And here’s how non-accommodationists hurt society:

There’s a public perception that’s harmful to everyone: that science is hostile to faith, and that religious people aren’t interested in science. Yet this is not what the data shows at all. While there certainly exist scientists that are elitist and antagonistic towards religion, the vast majority of scientists share the same levels and types of religiosity as the other members of their country’s culture. While there are a number of religious people who have no interest in science, widespread surveys indicate that most religious people support science quite strongly.

. . . To push the viewpoint that religion and science are inherently at odds not only does a great deal of damage to the integrity of both, it runs contrary to people’s actual, lived experiences.

The “lived experiences” trope alerts you immediately that there may be some virtue-signaling going on here, and I think there is. But let’s look at Siegel’s argument, which is threefold:

1.) Many religious people are interested in science and support scientific research.  That’s true; I have no quarrel with this. But that doesn’t address my own argument, made in Faith Versus Fact, that the grounds for incompatibility have nothing to do with whether scientists can be religious and religious people can be fans of science. This kind of cognitive bifurcation just shows that people can accept two incompatible ways of judging what is “true” at the same time. Here’s my argument, in brief:

  • Religion and science both make claims about what’s true in our Universe. Theologians and believers, when being honest (almost an oxymoron), will admit that, yes, their religious beliefs are underlain by claims about reality, and if those claims be not true, then religion be not true. Here are two of several quotes to that effect I cite in FvF:

A religious tradition is indeed a way of life and not a set of abstract ideas. But a way of life presupposes beliefs about the nature of reality and cannot be sustained if those beliefs are no longer credible.  —Ian Barbour

Likewise, religion in almost all of its manifestations is more than just a collection of value judgments and moral directives. Religion often makes claims about ‘the way things are.’ —Karl Giberson & Francis Collins

Or, if you want the Bible, look at 1 Corinthians 15:14: “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”  That is, if Jesus wasn’t resurrected, it makes no sense to be a Christian.

My further argument:

  • Science has a way to find out what is true, or at least to arrive at better and better approximations of what is true, while religion has no way to do that.
  • The result is that different religions make conflicting claims about reality (e.g., “Was Jesus the divine son of God?”) that cannot be resolved.
  • Religion has also made false claims about reality (e.g., creationism, the Exodus, etc.) that science can correct, while religion has no way to correct science.
  • Therefore, religion is incompatible with science because it uses a different methodology to adjudicate truth, and because the outcomes of that methodology (what religion deems “true”) cannot be verified.

The incompatibility can be seen with a religious scientist like Ken Miller, a pious Catholic. In the lab he acts like an atheist, never considering the supernatural and accepting only as true what can be tested scientifically. But when he steps into his church he immediately believes in things like the Resurrection and transubstantiation—things that are not only unevidenced, but disbelieved by other faiths and, frankly, ridiculous for a grown man to believe. Accepting truths about the cosmos using two different methods demonstrates the incompatibility between science and religion. To put it another way, in science faith is a vice while in religion it’s a virtue. Or still another way: science has ways of finding out whether its claims are wrong, while religion doesn’t. (As I said, science can sometimes demonstrate that religion claims are wrong.)

So Siegel simply misses the boat here. Showing that there are religious scientists and science-friendly believers doesn’t show that science and religion are compatible, any more than saying that someone who believes in faith healing as well as scientific medicine has compatible beliefs.

Siegel’s argument for compatibility gets worse when he argues that the “unknowables” of science are comparable to the “unknowables” of religion:

The truth of the matter is that there are certain unknowables in this Universe; certain questions that even if we gathered all the data we could ever gather, we’d be unable to answer. The amount of information we have access to is enormous, but finite nonetheless. There will always be room for wonder, and there will always be questions beyond humanity’s capabilities of drawing robust scientific conclusions. Most importantly, there will be differences in what each of us determines is the “most likely” or “most logical” possibility in the absence of certainty, and that we must treat one another with respect, even when we reach different conclusions.

Yes, science may not be able to answer all questions about the Universe because we lack the tools to do so, because the questions are hard (how does consciousness work?), or because the questions involve knowing irrecoverable history (how, exactly, did life begin?). But science has explained many previously enigmatic phenomena that, for lack of answers, were once imputed to God of or the supernatural (e.g. epilepsy, disease, lightning, etc.), while religion has never answered a single question about the “nature of reality” that it claims to adddress. The progress of science over the last 500 years stands in stark contrast to the absence of progress of theology, which has not answered a single question about the nature and workings of the divine over a much longer period of cogitation. That’s why we have thousands of religions, all making different (and often incompatible) claims about reality

2.) “Among scientists, belief in God aligns quite closely with the beliefs held by other members of that particular country.” To support this, Siegel shows a graph taken from the work of Elaine Ecklund, a professional accommodationist funded by Templeton:

Yep, it’s true that in religious countries scientists tend to be more religious, and in less religious countries are more atheistic, but it’s not a perfect correlation (look at the US vs. UK, realizing that the US is far more religious than the UK). More important, so what? Of course scientists will be more religious in more religious nations, because that’s the way they were brought up! This says absolutely nothing about the compatibility of science and religion.

Sadly, Siegel neglects the really important statistics: Scientists, at least when we have the data, tend to be far more atheistic than the general public. We know this from both the US and the UK. In the US, for example (data differs slightly from Ecklund’s; see FvF pp. 12-13 for references), 83% of the general public believes in God, and only about 4% admit to being atheists. In contrast, the figures for US scientists as a whole are, respectively, 33% and 41%. For scientists at “elite US universities”, the figures are 23% and 62% (the latter number includes atheists and agnostics), and for members of the National Academy of Sciences, the figures are 7% and 93%!  Siegel doesn’t point out this disparity, which should be evident from the US data above! Figures from the UK are comparable, with more accomplished scientists being less religious.

If science and religion are compatible, why, at least in countries where we have data, are scientists so much less religious than the general public? It could be that nonbelievers are more attracted to science, or that science actually makes people less religious, or (most likely) a combination of these factors. Either way, this shows some conflict between science and faith.

Siegel also neglects these data from a 2015 Pew Poll:

So much for “lived experience”: your own and your perception of other people’s!

3.) “While there are a number of science-and-society issues where the general populace and scientists have differing opinions, there are many such issues where their viewpoints align extremely closely.” The quote is from Siegel, and he gives this figure to support it:

Well, there are SOME areas where their viewpoints align extremely closely, but more, it seems, where there’s a significant disparity between the views of scientists and the public. But how, at any rate, does the graph above demonstrate Siegel’s point? It may show that in some areas religious people adhere to the views of scientists, but that doesn’t mean that science and religion are compatible. I haven’t denied that many believers respect science and promote scientific research. That’s admirable, but doesn’t speak to the fact that in the religious realm, believers have no good reasons for believing what they do.

I don’t want to go on, because Siegel’s article doesn’t make any new arguments for compatibilism. His main point seems to be that religious people and scientists need to respect each other for the good of society, and that both science and religion make positive contributions to society. As for “respect,” well, I’ll respect believers as people in the sense that I’ll be civil to them, but I refuse to respect their superstitious beliefs. As for both making a contribution to society, I’d argue that science is essential to human progress, while religion merely impedes it, has become superfluous, and one day will disappear without ill effect (as it has in Scandinavia).

I get it: Siegel wants to look like a good guy, just as Gould did in his NOMA book Rocks of Ages. You don’t look very good if you claim that science and religion are incompatible, but if you say they are compatible, well, you don’t offend anybody. You look conciliatory and nice. That’s why Siegel’s whole piece is infused with a distasteful kumbaya tone. One example, from near the end of his piece:

While there are elements of society that are quick to brand anything religious as “anti-science” or anything scientific as a “threat to your religion,” the truth is that people of all different religious beliefs and upbringings grow up to be outstanding scientists. The truth is that scientists have religious beliefs that are in-line with the rest of their country. There is no universal religious perspective or experience, and that we all have ways of making personal connections with each other, and finding common ground for building trust and mutual respect. It’s time to put an end to the insensitive, snide, and snarky remarks that denigrade [sic] those with differing beliefs from our own, and to work together to educate, share knowledge, and respect the diversity of possibilities for what we don’t know.

. . . Religion is for anyone who wants it in their life, and science is as well. They are neither fundamentally incompatible, nor are they mutually exclusive. Knowledge, education, self-improvement, and the bettering of our shared world are endeavors that are open to everyone. We don’t have to (and likely won’t) always agree with one another, but we can always work to understand a perspective that differs from our own. Perhaps, someday in the near future, that will be the story that makes headlines, rather than attempts to sow discord between two of the most influential forces for good in our world.

This sounds lovely, yes? But it has no bearing on Siegel’s point. As for me, I’ll continue to “sow discord”, which, no matter how civil I am, will still be perceived as “insensitive, snide, and snarky.” There’s no way you can argue against religious delusions without being perceived that way!