Tuesday: Hili dialogue

It’s Tuesday, a day of no distinction whatsoever.  But, at great expense, I replaced my stock of walnuts for my squirrels, and they are happy again. Yesterday one of them took a walnut from my hand (their eyes get REAL BIG when they see the huge nut), but then accidentally dropped it over the ledge. I’ve never seen a squirrel look so bereft. Naturally I gave him another.  It is now warm enough that the squirrels are starting to bask in the sun: I found one stretched out full length, front and back legs extended, sleeping in the sun on the warm sill. I hope that there will soon be babies.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili has been surfing the Net. I don’t know how she does it, unless she mistakes the computer mowse for a real one. Malgorzata explains Hili’s frustration:

I hope it is understandable that Hili does not have a very high opinion about the people scribbling on the internet about every prejudice and crazy idea they have. Even in Polish “drizzle” and “intellect” are not normally connected in any way. But in a cat’s superior mind they are—when there is an obvious dearth of thought.

The dialogue:

Hili: It’s drizzling.
A: What’s drizzling?
Hili: Human intellect is barely drizzling.
A: What?
Hili: I was surfing the internet for half the night.


In Poliah:
Hili: Siąpi.
Ja: Co siąpi?
Hili: Intelekt siąpi, ledwie, ledwie.
Ja: A tobie co?
Hili: Nic, pół nocy surfowałam po necie.

Two cat graphics

I’m a tired boy, what with a talk to write, other work to do, and a passel of hungry squirrels that never get full. And so, to end the day, I’ll simply present you with two nice cat graphics. I’m sure you’ll want to send at least one to your friends.





Are you scientifically literate?

I hope so.  But I’m not as good as I hoped.  Diane G. called my attention to a scientific literacy test at, of all places, the Christian Science Monitor (no questions about disease are asked, of course!).

I could beef that there are too many physics and chemistry questions, but that’s because I scored a lousy 82% (I got 41 of the 50 questions—the same score that Diane got.) Given that the average for all takers was 66%, and I’m a scientist, for crying out loud, I feel like a chump. But I didn’t miss any biology questions.

Well, take it and see how you do. It’ll take about 10 minutes. Put your scores below if you’re either proud or brave enough.

More Snowflakes at American universities: MIT students claim that celebration of Israeli independence makes them feel “unsafe”

This seems to be becoming a regular feature here: students playing the “safe spaces” card to try to get events or talks cancelled that offend them. This time it’s at a redoubt of academic excellence—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—and this time the university didn’t give in to the students with hurt feelings. And once again I have to turn to a conservative website, Legal Insurrection, to find the story.  But I’ve corroborated it elsewhere, as with the Facebook posting below.

In fact, the MIT students, who were of Palestinian descent, objected to a celebration of Israel’s 67th birthday organized by a group of Jewish students under the aegis of MIT’s Undergraduate Association (UA). The celebration, part of regular student activities, had already been planned for last Thursday when a group called Palestine@MIT objected strenuously, trying to get the celebration shut down. What was bizarre about this is that they claimed that the celebration would make them feel “unsafe”. The group’s “open letter” on Facebook said this (my emphasis)

The Israeli Independence Day raises politically sensitive questions given that it just so happens to represent the 1948 Palestinian Exodus, also known as the “Nakba”. This is a day of extreme tragedy and traumatic loss for millions of people, including many students here at MIT. As Palestinians and supporters of Palestine in the MIT community, we are alarmed by the fact that the UA are endorsing this event, given that the UA represents us as well. We feel unsafe in an environment that celebrates a catastrophic day for one nation at an official school-wide capacity by a body that represents all students equally, with no regards or sympathy towards our tragedy.

We direct this message to the entirety of the student body with a request for change. We request the UA to detach the carnival from SpringFest, and to refrain from sponsoring and/or publicizing it at a school-wide capacity.

Of course these people wouldn’t think twice about the effect on Israeli students of holding one of the many BSD or other anti-Israeli events held all over the country on college campuses. (And I’d object equally strongly if Jewish students tried to shut those events down, or claimed that they felt “unsafe.”) But they have the right to object, and even to try to get the even cancelled. What would be unconscionable—and would constitute censorship—would be if the already-scheduled event were shut down because of this dubious “unsafe” trope.

It’s ridiculous to think the celebration would make students feel “unsafe”. Seriously? As if Jewish students have a habit of attacking their opponents physically, much less verbally! The “unsafe” trope is clever, though, as it wields more psychological influence than just saying you’re just “offended.” Offense is merely an emotion produced by words, but a lack of “safety” implies that violence is in the offing, thereby having a greater resonance with people.  You don’t have to insulate students from words, but you’d damn well better protect them from physical harm! But I doubt that those Palestinian students really feel that they’re in danger. Rather, they have simply learned the tropes that are most effective in shutting down opposition.

At any rate, MIT’s UA president Matthew Davis, rejecting the request to un-sponsor the celebration, wrote a letter that was a model of rationality. Here’s part of it (my emphasis):

Every student group at MIT is recognized by the Association of Student Activities (ASA), and through this organization, all undergraduate student groups are recognized by the UA. Every recognized student group has the ability to apply for funds from the UA through the Financial Board, and is eligible for such funding as long as they are recognized by the ASA, with no other consideration.

As part of this, it is often the case that some student groups will be ones with which other undergraduates are uncomfortable, or may express an idea contrary to the opinions of others. In the course of history, it is often the case that such groups would not be allowed; moreover, it is often the case that those who hold a minority opinion, contrary to that of the majority, may have their opinion silenced either through the active suppression of the majority, or a lack of resources provided. Perhaps the most valued and intrinsic desire of every human being is to have a voice – to allow their ideas to be expressed. There are two courses of action the UA may take in regards to controversial groups and ideas – either recognize no groups, whether of the majority or minority opinion, if there is a hint of controversy, or recognize all groups equally, regardless of the popularity of their idea.

In these cases, consistent with what has been stated above, the UA has always taken the case of the latter, and recognizes all groups equally, so long as that group is recognized by the ASA and is operating consistent with MIT policies. The reasons for this are many – but perhaps most importantly, by recognizing all ideas and opinions equally, we are more able to allow a free expression of ideas, allowing undergraduates to be exposed to a wide range of opinions, and choose for themselves those of which they are for, and those of which they are against. At times, this will result in us feeling uncomfortable – and it is the challenge of every one of us to recognize why that is the case, and act accordingly. Please note that this freedom does not extend towards groups or events which are in violation of MIT policies, such as the MIT Nondiscrimination Policy.

That’s how a thoughtful person who adheres to Enlightenment value deals with the Special Snowflake Syndrome, and I wish other students—and all college administrators—could handle issues this way. That way we wouldn’t wind up with colleges like this:

By the way, the lawyer Ken White, who publishes at Popehat, has an interesting piece called “‘Safe spaces’ and the mote in America’s eye” that’s well worth reading. While White regularly excoriates the kind of victim mentality evinced above, he wonders, in this post, how the new generation of students would ever have learned to value free expression, and concludes that their environment have given them precious little influence to develop that value.

h/t: Malgorzata, Andrew

Misunderstandings about determinism

I’m giving a talk on free will at the Imagine No Religion 5 meetings in Vancouver in June (the event appears to have sold out already). As you might imagine, it’s a complicated task. But one of the things I want to cover are the misunderstandings people often have about physical determinism, which include these:

Determinism leads to fatalism.

Determinism leads you to act badly, including cheating and criminality.

Determinism means that nobody should be punished for anything, as they had no choice in what they did.

Determinism means that we can predict in practice everything that will happen. (Determinism doesn’t mean that we humans always have all the information we need to predict things, and of course some things are fundamentally unpredictable if they’re affected by quantum phenomena.)

(By the way, if you’ve encountered other misconceptions, please note them in the comments.)

But by far the most common misconception I’ve encountered is this one:

Determinism means that it’s useless to try to influence the behavior of others (or to change anything else), as those results are predetermined.

Frankly, I’m surprised at this one, as it’s easily dispelled.  My common rejoinder is this: if you meet a friendly dog, and then begin kicking it every time you see it, the dog will soon begin to avoid you. You’ve influenced that dog’s behavior. And so it is with people and institutions.  Determinism does not mean “unalterable”; it means that what happens obeys the laws of physics.

Now it is also true that whether or not I kick the dog is itself determined, and that behavior is the ineluctable result of my genetic and environmental history, which themselves are determined. It’s truly an infinite regress. But none of this shows that the impact of environments on us—how people treat us, talk to us, and other things we experience—cannot alter our behavior. For those influences feed into our wet onboard computer—our brain—and affect its output. What move one makes in a chess match, for instance, will affect the response of a computer that you might be playing against. With computers, as with us, if the input differs, so will the output. And, since our brains have evolved by natural selection, if you alter an input, the output will (like the skittish dog) likely be adaptive.

Yet I constantly receive emails and comments on this site from people who feel that they’ve produced a Professor Ceiling Cat “gotcha” moment by informing me that I am somehow tacitly endorsing free will by either implying that behaviors can be changed or by even trying to change them (or persuading others to do likewise). Often the emails or comments are rude or verging on it. Such is the nature of many people who see discourse as an intellectual game to be won.

But those “corrections” are misguided. Certainly my own efforts to, say, change the behavior of creationists or onlookers by mocking or correcting them is an ineluctable result of my genes and upbringing. But that doesn’t mean that I’m being hypocritical or inconsistent in what I say. I have no free choice about what I do, but what I do can still affect others. (Of course, all that, save some quantum indeterminacy, is programmed into the Universe!)

Here are some examples of people purporting to point out my mistakes on this issue:

First, an email by someone telling me that my efforts to change Paul Nelson’s mind were inconsistent with my views on free will.  (Actually I wasn’t trying to influence Nelson, which is futile: I was directing my comments towards readers and those on the fence, trying to educate them):

Dear Dr. Coyne:

It was determined by the laws of physics that Paul Nelson would hold this position and make this video.
He couldn’t do other.

Daniel [last name redacted]


Here’s another email I got yesterday from a friendly reader who wanted clarification about the same post, clarification that I provided:
“God, I despise Liars for Jesus. They should be mocked, reviled and refuted. Be my guest in the comments.”
We both know that Paul Nelson has no choice in what he does, free will is nonexistent.  The above sentence clearly implies a moral judgment regarding Paul.  How can you reconcile what you said with what you know to be true regarding libertarian free will (or any other kind for that matter)?


Here’s a comment from reader David Ellinghaus on my post “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the death penalty“:

I am firmly opposed to the death penalty myself. However, this is a truly mad argument. The idea that nobody can be held morally accountable for anything that they do is a dangerous one. Arguing that people do not have choices – that their actions are predetermined is a slippery slope. According to this line of thought, people cannot and should not be expected to make changes or attempt to make changes in their behaviour. Furthermore, is there any point in trying to improve society when things are simply fated to happen? Just an insane argument with very insidious connotations.

Secondly, in reference to a particular point you made in this article, how can punishment be a deterrent if people would have carried out their actions anyway? It is logically fallacious to suggest that imprisonment would deter somebody whose actions are already predetermined.

I trust that the average reader here, even if she’s a compatibilist, can see the fallacy of this email. No, I don’t believe in “moral accountability,” which to me implies that one can choose freely. (Indeed, the survey of Sarkissian et al. shows that many people connect a belief in determinism with an absence of moral responsibility.) But I do believe in responsibility or accountability, by which I mean that a person who did a good or bad act is the entity who performed that act, and should be treated accordingly, especially for punishment. Punishment should, I believe, be exacted for social good, and can involve rehabilitation, deterrence, and keeping people who are dangerous out of society to prevent further damage. Those are all compatible with determinism, and need involve no “moral” opprobrium. But if you want to call society’s code of conduct “rules of morality,” I don’t have a strong objection.

As for there being “no point in trying to improve society when things are simply fated to happen,” we already know the fallacy of that. To say that it’s an “insane argument” or “logically fallacious” is simply rudeness piled on top of misunderstanding.


Finally, reader Explorer commented in part on my post “More nonsense at NPR about God

. . . . I find the need to both argue that there is no free will, while criticizing people as if they have it, to be a hilarious invocation of only embracing an argument when it suits one’s needs. It’s like watching creationists who embrace any bit of science which might support them, while being willing to ignore it when it disproves their views.

In this case, as well as other numerous topics where there are odious behaviors which I do believe are due to the actor’s choices (the orthodox Jews not wanting to sit next to women, for example), I don’t understand how the criticisms of the the choices fit in with pointing out there was no real choice involved.

Personally, I believe that theoretically perfect prediction of a choice is not the same as a choice not being made. It’s just funny to constantly read someone who does argue that choice doesn’t really exist while simultaneously criticizing those choices.

This again is a rude and arrogant comment, one that went too far over the line of civility (thus removing “Explorer” from further discourse). It’s also mistaken. One can indeed affect people’s behavior by criticizing it, as I’ve mentioned a gazillion times above—even if those bad behaviors were themselves determined.  It’s just like reprogramming a computer so it gives a different output when you feed it the same input.


Added note: Had Explorer written the same comment in a civil manner, making the identical points (saying something like “I don’t understand how you comport determinism with the idea that you can change people’s behavior. I don’t think those can be reconciled”, then he/she would not have been removed from the commentariat. With the increase in readership here, I see an increasing number of people who come over and just begin whaling away, not paying attention to Da Roolz. And I can’t urge people to “read the Roolz” every day. Some people get second chances, or are rebuked privately, but I expect discourse on this site to remain civil, with readers being polite to the host and to other readers. I may not always catch transgressions but, like Maru, I do my best.

Offended PEN members refuse to participate in annual gala because Charlie Hebdo got an award

Jebus! Here’s the Roll of Shame: six writers who took a misguided stand against Charlie Hebdo, apparently not understanding what the magazine was all about:

Peter Carey
Michael Ondaatje
Francine Prose
Teju Cole
Rachel Kushner
Taiye Selasi

What did they do? According to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, these writers “[withdrew] as literary hosts at the group’s annual gala on May 5, adding a new twist to the continuing debate over the publication’s status as a martyr for free speech.” At that gala, the magazine will receive the 2015 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, an award that apparently hurt the tender feelings of those six. Other writers, like Deborah Eisenberg, didn’t withdraw but also criticized Charlie Hebdo for “denigrating portrayals of Muslims.” Sorry, but the magazine published denigrating portrayals of Islamic belief, which Eisenberg simply gets wrong, mistaking criticism of a faith—or of bad behavior of its adherents—with hatred of people.

Here are their reasons for not showing up:

In an email to PEN’s leadership on Friday, Ms. Kushner said she was withdrawing out of discomfort with what she called the magazine’s “cultural intolerance” and promotion of “a kind of forced secular view,” opinions echoed by other writers who pulled out.

Mr. Carey, in an email interview yesterday, said the award stepped beyond the group’s traditional role of protecting freedom of expression against government oppression.

“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” he wrote.

He added, “All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”

. . . In an essay for The New Yorker’s website after the attack, Mr. Cole noted that the magazine claimed to offend all parties, but in fact in recent years “has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations.” (Mr. Cole declined to comment for this article.)

Seriously, “racist and Islamophobic provocations”?  The word “provocation” clearly implies that the magazine is somehow responsible for what happened to its employees.  And as for “racism,” well, Muslims are not a race but a religion.  And I wonder if Cole would have written his essay had Charlie Hebdo made fun only of Catholicism and Christianity rather than Islam. Where’s the criticism of “Catholicphobia”? Chalk one up for New Yorker’s “let’s-not-offend-anyone-except-Republicans” attitude.

All of this, I think, rests on a deep misunderstanding of the magazine’s aims, which were to satirize Islam (along with every other religion), but also to stand up for the rights of minorities and immigrants in France, regularly mocking the French Right. Combine that with the hyprocritical Leftist double-standard of coddling Islam because it’s a “minority group” comprising people of color, and you get this kind of stupid behavior.

Andrew Solomon, the president of PEN International, was also surprised, saying this: “We all knew this was in some ways a controversial choice,” he said. “But I didn’t feel this issue was certain to generate these particular concerns from these particular authors.”

Garry Trudeau, whom I no longer admire, also belongs on this list after excoriating Charlie Hebdo for hate speech and for “punching down.” One can almost read Trudeau’s remarks as blaming the magazine itself for the murderous attack by terrorists.

The saddest thing is that PEN International has always promoted freedom of expression. That is, in fact, one of its goals. Here’s a statement from their website (my emphasis):

International PEN, the worldwide association of writers, was founded in 1921 to promote friendship and intellectual cooperation among writers everywhere; to emphasize the role of literature in the development of mutual understanding and world culture; to fight for freedom of expression; and to act as a powerful voice on behalf of writers harassed, imprisoned, and sometimes killed for their views.

Thank Ceiling Cat that Salman Rushdie, a voice of sanity who himself continues to experience the same threats that decimated Charlie Hebdo, made a statement supporting PEN’s ideals:

. . . Salman Rushdie, a former PEN president who lived in hiding for years after a fatwa in response to his novel “The Satanic Verses,” said the issues were perfectly clear. Mr. Ondaatje and Mr. Carey were old friends of his, he said, but they are “horribly wrong.”

“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” Mr. Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

PEN issued a statement extolling Charlie Hebdo but respecting the Shameful Six for their “convictions”, misguided as they were. And the PEN statement gets the aims of the magazine right:

But, based on their own statements, we believe that Charlie Hebdo‘s intent was not to ostracize or insult Muslims, but rather to reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority of radical extremists to place broad categories of speech off limits—no matter the purpose, intent, or import of the expression.

Once again we see the cognitive dissonance produced on the Left between its Enlightenment values of free expression and of desire to protect the rights of minorities. But those values never included prohibition of criticizing “minority faiths.” The attitude of those six writers, and of their running dogs, threatens to do in all Enlightenment values, values opposed by the extremists that attacked Charlie Hebdo and the many Muslims who silently support them.

As Rushdie said, the Shameful Six are simply and horribly wrong.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

First, our regular chick on Stephen Barnard’s bald eagle nursery. There are now two chicks visible, and you can see them being fed (well, at least one of them) in this video. (Click to enlarge.)

Two eagle chicks. One is getting the short end.

Reader Ronaldo Bartl sent a variety of photos from South America:

Some pictures from a recent trip to Argentina, Mendoza province. Hope you enjoy them!
All taken with a Nikon D7000 and Nikon 18-200VRII zoom lens, almost every one at the long end of the range. Pictures were taken on a trip from the city of Mendoza to the Aconcagua provincial park, some at the park proper, at ~3.000m altitude.
Guanaco (Lama guanicoe):
Pair of chimango caracara (Milvago chimango). Legs color differ among sexes, yellow for female, gray for male.
A better photo of one of the caracara.
A couple of pictures of what I believe to be Darwin’s nothura (Nothura darwinii):
A photo of a family of Andean geese (Neochen melanoptera):
A couple of photos of, I think, a black-billed shrike-tyrant  (Agriornis montanus). Or “Gaucho Serrano”, in Spanish. Quite common at the site (the Aconcagua provincial park), they would run/hop from stone to stone, where they perked up and scanned the surroundings. They beg for anthropomorphizing, don’t they? :-)
A photo of a Andean condor (Vultur gryphus):
I’m not a naturalist, so any or all species identifications may be off, but those were the closest matches I could find searching the net.
I found the landscapes there amazing, and reminiscent of a trip I made through Death Valley a couple years ago. If I remember correctly, you are rather fond of Death Valley yourself, aren’t you? [JAC: Indeed!] I’ll send a couple of pictures later.
And for people who enjoy good wine and food, you’ll find plenty of both at Mendoza.

A Moonrise (and more) from Astro Sam

We have several bits and bobs for Monday morning. First,  Official Website Astronaut™, Samantha Cristoforetti, has a lovely new tw**t up (she tw**ts in several languages):

Screen shot 2015-04-27 at 4.42.25 AM

Screen shot 2015-04-27 at 4.43.04 AM

I have to say that the various space programs have mastered social media—a great way to get public support for their endeavors. They even post YouTube videos from the ISS (see below).

And yesterday was AstroSam’s birthday, as this tw**t from astronaut Terry Virts shows (Matthew follows all these people):

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 6.46.51 AM


Here’s a tw**t with a video that shows Sam’s space experiments (click screenshot to go to the video):

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 6.07.26 AM

The YouTube notes:

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti running experiments in weightlessness during her Futura mission for scientists from all over the world. The International Space Station offers three state-of-the-art laboratories where research can be done without gravity. The European Columbus laboratory, the Japanese Kibo and the American Destiny module offer facilities for physics, biology, geophysics and medicine.

Samantha’s 40-hour work week is devoted to science and maintaining the weightless research centre. This video gives a fast-track impression of some of the experiments she worked on. In quick succession we see Samantha working on: exercise machine ARED, measuring her body mass, the robotic droids SPHERES, ESA’s microgravity glovebox, muscle-measurement machine MARES, centrifuge-incubator Kubik, Biolab, Materials Science Laboratory and ejecting miniature satellites called Cubesats into space.

If you have half an hour, be sure to see the really great video in which astronaut Suni Williams demonstrates how you sleep, eat, exercise and live on the ISS, including the all-important question, “How do you use the bathroom?” I love the way they can just fly around on the vehicle like Superman.

h/t: Mattew Cobb

“Those people”

A new Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller satirizes the new Hate Laws that masquerade as “religous protection acts”:


h/t: Linda Grilli


Monday: Hili dialogue (and lagniappe)

I am ensconced in a warm bed but can hear the wind wailing loudly outside, and I know that shortly I’ll be out in it.  And I see that the high temperature will be only 49•F today. Spring is taking forever to arrive! The big excitement for today: I’m going to eat my Tiger Cookie before it gets stale.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, spring is already there, and Hili is pretending to be a Big Cat:

A: Are you yawning?
Hili: No, I’m roaring very softly.


In Polish:
Ja: Ziewasz?
Hili: Nie, ryczę cichutko.
And there’s a bonus photo today, showing that spring has come to Poland:
The orchard starts blooming. Day one.

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