Free speech on the wane in UK universities: only 20% of them don’t impose censorship

This report comes from the February 2 issue of the Guardian, but it’s likely to still be accurate—or even worse. The article reports on a survey by the online magazine Spiked of how much censorship of speech occurred at 115 British universities; that is, whether speech was suppressed even more severely than the law mandates.

This isn’t just an off-the-cuff survey; as the Guardian notes, the rankings “were overseen by Professor Dennis Hayes, head of the centre for educational research at Derby University and Dr Joanna Williams, senior lecturer in higher education at Kent university – show each university administration and students’ union graded green, amber or red based on an assessment of their policies and actions. Institutions have been given an overall ranking based on the two combined.”

Here are the Spiked ratings, in alphabetical order by category, with a key (if you go to the site, you can click on each diamond and see the reasons for the university’s ranking).  Note that the Guardian mentions that some ranking criteria may be a bit wonky.

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That’s four out of five universities with some speech restrictions beyond the law, and that’s sad. A few examples from the article:

  • Professor Thomas Scotto, of Essex University’s department of government, invited Israel’s deputy ambassador to give a talk to political science students, he hoped for “lots of disagreement: that the speaker would express his views and that the students would challenge him”.Instead, a noisy protest outside the venue ramped up into an attempt to storm the building, students in the lecture theatre heckled the Israeli diplomat, and it became impossible for him to begin. With feelings running high, university security said they could no longer guarantee the speaker’s safety. The event had to be abandoned.“It broke my heart that some students came with pages and pages of notes ready to challenge the speaker, and that was wasted because other students violently opposed him being there,” says Scotto. “One of the key goals of the university is ‘excellence in education’: I don’t think we accomplish this when an element of the student body believes the only appropriate tools they have when confronted with ideas and people they disagree with is to throw temper tantrums and employ hecklers’ vetoes.”
  • At Portsmouth University, student union president Grant Clarke says in a statement that policies aimed at defending students from racist, sexist and homophobic harassment don’t preclude people from openly talking and discussing these issues, “but we don’t accept these behaviours on our campus”.

This one really gets me for its blatant hypocrisy (my emphasis).

  • . . . at Essex, bans on certain newspapers are framed by student union president Chantel Le Carpentier as “a commercial decision to boycott the Sun and the Star from sale in our shop based on their representation of women in the media and sexist attitudes … We use our freedom of speech to urge people not to buy it by not stocking it on campus.”

Now why is Oxford in red? Spiked says this (more details are given at the page):

The University of Oxford and the Oxford University Students’ Union and its constituent colleges collectively create a hostile environment for free speech. The university, which has received an Amber ranking, restricts ‘offensive’ and ‘needlessly provocative’ speech as part of its Free Speech and Bullying and Harassment policies. It also bans the publishing of racist, sexist or homophobic material using university computer services and banned a controversial debate on abortion in 2014. The students’ union, which has received a Red ranking, places restrictions on pro-life groups, and the common rooms have, collectively, disbanded a rugby team, lobbied the Oxford Union to rescind a speakers’ invitation and banned ‘Blurred Lines’.

And why is Cambridge amber? It’s not the administration, but the students, who have also banned the Sun:

The University of Cambridge and the Cambridge University Students’ Union collectively create a chilling environment for free speech. The university, which has received a Green ranking, holds no substantial restrictions on speech, other than a minor restriction on ‘offensive’ emails. The students’ union, which has received an Amber ranking, places restrictions on ‘aggressive’ and ‘disrespectful’ speech in student meetings and uses an inflated definition of sexual harassment that could be used to restrict speech and opinion. The students’ union has also banned the Sun newspaper. Due to the severity of the students’ union policies and actions, the institution’s overall ranking is Amber.

Finally, who’s doing the censoring? As in the U.S., it seems to be largely the students. The Guardian notes this:

In fact, Spiked’s rankings show it is not usually university managements that are behind outright censorship on campus: only 9.5% have done so, according to the research. By contrast, 51% of student unions have actively censored certain types of speech or instituted bans. “Students’ own representative bodies are far more censorious than universities,” says Slater. [Tom Slater, assistant editor of Spiked].

Students are also responsible for the amber ranking of the University of Manchester, but I won’t embarrass Matthew with the details. I can only imagine what would happen, both in the U.S. and U.K., if students ran the universities.

My book precis in The Scientist

The Scientist asked me to provide them with a short summary of Faith versus Fact—not an easy thing to do given the diversity of topics in the book. However, I complied, and they’ve just published, for Book Day, my short opinion piece “Science & Religion: A centuries-old war rages on.” Thanks to the editors for giving me the chance to have my say.

In the next two weeks there will be a number of podcasts and pieces associated with The Albatross, and I’ll put the links here. Some of the material you’ll be familiar with (especially if you’ve read or are reading the book), while some are tangential and have new stuff in them.

The “trigger warning” debate continues in The New Republic

Five days ago I published a piece in The New Republic criticizing the proliferation of “trigger warnings” in college courses and assignments, something done largely at the behest of students.  My view is that there could be no end to such warnings, for nearly anything can “trigger” students, in ways running the gamut from mere offense to full-blown traumatic stress disorder. While, as I said, professors should be sensitive to material that might disturb a large proportion of students, it’s impossible to take into account every student’s potential offense when presenting a course, or when calculating what material that might disturb at least one student. As Jenny Jarvie wrote in The New Republic last year, there’s no end to offense-worthy topics:

Oberlin College has published an official document on triggers, advising faculty members to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly” contribute to learning goals and “strongly consider” developing a policy to make “triggering material” optional. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, it states, is a novel that may “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.” Warnings have been proposed even for books long considered suitable material for high-schoolers: Last month, a Rutgers University sophomore suggested that an alert for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby say, “TW: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence.”

More important, there’s no evidence I know of that a student’s well-being is improved by being warned about “triggering”. Indeed, some have suggested that exposure to “triggering” material might be more helpful than avoiding it completely. In the absence of evidence, all I can do is echo Jarvie’s note:

As the list of trigger warning–worthy topics continues to grow, there’s scant research demonstrating how words “trigger” or how warnings might help. Most psychological research on P.T.S.D. suggests that, for those who have experienced trauma, “triggers” can be complex and unpredictable, appearing in many forms, from sounds to smells to weather conditions and times of the year. In this sense, anything can be a trigger—a musky cologne, a ditsy pop song, a footprint in the snow.

And indeed, a committee set up by the American Association of University Professors on trigger warnings issued a report criticizing the practice, recommending that students with a history of bad reactions seek counseling and therapeutic help before any classes:

Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered, and, more generally, expand their horizons so as to become informed and responsible democratic citizens.   Trigger warnings suggest that classrooms should offer protection and comfort rather than an intellectually challenging education.  They reduce students to vulnerable victims rather than full participants in the intellectual process of education.  The effect is to stifle thought on the part of both teachers and students who fear to raise questions that might make others “uncomfortable.”

The classroom is not the appropriate venue to treat PTSD, which is a medical condition that requires serious medical treatment. Trigger warnings are an inadequate and diversionary response.  Medical research suggests that triggers for individuals can be unpredictable, dependent on networks of association.  So color, taste, smell, and sound may lead to flashbacks and panic attacks as often as the mention of actual forms of violence such as rape and war.  The range of any student’s sensitivity is thus impossible to anticipate.  But if trigger warnings are required or expected, anything in a classroom that elicits a traumatic response could potentially expose teachers to all manner of discipline and punishment.

 Aaron R. Hanlon, a visiting professor of English at Georgetown University, soon to join the English Department at Maine’s Colby College, disagrees with all this, and has written a polite rebuttal of my piece, also in the New Republic. His article, “My students need trigger warnings—and professors do, too.”  Although his argument seems a bit confused (it’s not completely clear whether he really thinks that we should retain trigger warnings, since he agrees with me that they’re infantilizing and could proliferate needlessly), he defends them on three grounds.

1. If students have concerns about “triggering” material, professors would be churlish to ignore them.

Trigger warnings are nevertheless important because no matter how knowledgeable and comfortable professors are with the intellectually and emotionally challenging material we teach, our students are real people with real histories and concerns. They do indeed want to be challenged—to be made uncomfortable by literature—but it’s our job as professors to do more than just expose them to difficult ideas. It’s our job to help see them through the exposure.

I don’t mean to say that we should become licensed therapists or trauma experts on top of our ordinary specializations, or worse, to pretend to have expertise we haven’t earned. But so long as we’re happy to evangelize about the truly disruptive and real life-changing possibilities of our subject matter, we also need to be prepared to teach that difficult and sometimes disorienting material responsibly and attentively, not just to cast out barbs of hardcore human expression while we watch our students puzzle and weep.

I don’t completely disagree with this, and with material that seems likely to disturb an entire class, including graphic violence, rape, and murder, it’s not amiss to tell the students beforehand that those scenes are there. Any novel about or description of the Nazi concentration camps, for instance, will be disturbing, and we can predict that.

But how can we predict whether a student will be disturbed by issues like ableism, corpses, insects, words like “dumb” or “stupid”, death, vomiting, injury of any sort, police brutality, mental illness, violence, dehumanization, sexist attitudes, class warfare, and even consensual sexual activity, hunger and thirst? Those are just a few of the many issues that have been the subject of trigger warnings. We simply can’t issue warnings for every potential “issue” in a piece of literature or art on the chance that one or more students might find something disturbing. I’m simply going to list, off the top of my head, six of my favorite books of fiction and movies, and see what trigger warnings might apply:

Dubliners: adultery, pedophilia, death
Anna Karenina: adultery, suicide
Crime and Punishment: murder, death, class warfare, hunger and thirst
The Last Picture Show: bestiality, prostitution, sexism, semi-consensual and consensual sexual activity, death, homophobia
The Godfather: violence, death, sexism, crime
Lawrence of Arabia: colonialism, violence, death, homophobia, class warfare, racism, hunger and thirst

You get the idea. Of course if you include nonfiction, including anything that involves war or violence or injury or sex, then the list expands considerably. This leads to Hanlon’s second reason that trigger warnings are useful:

2. The warnings actually expand the discussion about books and literature by relating the material to students’ lives and concerns. I find this implausible. But first let me give Hanlon some plaudits for his teaching: according to Ratemyprofessors.com, his reviews are superb, some of the highest I’ve seen. Clearly the man is a caring and effective teacher. That aside, I doubt whether it’s useful to drag into discussions the reasons why students find some material triggering. Here’s how Hanlon defends it:

An interesting byproduct of trigger warnings is that they prime a class for discussion. Students don’t just nod at “sexual assault in Ovid” and write it down; they begin to engage with an aspect of the material, they give signals about how they’ll be affected, they evaluate the warning in relation to the language and subject matter of the text (which they better have already read in preparation for the class!). A trigger warning doesn’t have to be an act of censorship or a straightjacketing of interpretation; it can be a starting point for a ranging discussion that ultimately challenges students’ points of view.

Given that the difficult and potentially triggering material we teach must not be abandoned because it’s timeless, provocative, germane, or simply canonical by accident of history—and given that a trigger warning can actually open up a discussion of material with which students have an initially low comfort level—we simply can’t dismiss student calls for trigger warnings. We have to take them seriously, not because literature (or life) needs a censor or students need to be coddled, but because being more acutely aware of how students are responding to challenging material is just better and more responsible pedagogy. It’s true that life is triggering and won’t usually come with its own trigger warnings. But students are in their seats in part to be better prepared for that reality, and it’s professors’ jobs to facilitate that kind of intellectual development.

But let’s consider what might happen: a student will be “triggered” because he’s been mugged, or a woman has been sexually assaulted, or someone who is hearing-impaired is offended by “ableism.”  How will this relate to the “triggering” material itself? Usually, I suspect, it will involve personal testimony about someone’s experiences and feelings, things that may be only tangentially connected with the material itself. If someone who has been assaulted, for instance, is triggered by the pervasive violence in Cormac McCarthy’s novels, and tells us why, does that really open up the discussion and create a “better and more responsible pedagogy”? Or does it simply give students the opportunity to use the class as a therapy session, or to become the center of attention, or to vent?

I can, however, imagine some cases in which it could be valuable. For instance, the distressed relative of someone killed in Auschwitz might recount how her great-uncle was dragged from his home, stuffed in a railroad car, and then, on the platform at Birkenau, separated from his wife and children and led to the gas chambers. That sort of experience can help bring literature alive. But I doubt that this is the kind of discussion that will usually follow when we ask students to explain to the class why they find material triggering. (I’m not talking about students meeting privately to discuss material with the professors, something to which I have no objection. But of course, as Hanlon notes, we’re not trained to be therapists, and he also objects, as do I, to “sensitivity training sessions.”)

3. Finally, we need trigger warnings to protect the job security of itinerant academics who don’t have tenure. Hanlon argues that without trigger warnings, untenured or adjunct faculty could be dismissed for harming students’ psyches:

The unfortunate irony in all of this is that the legitimate concerns of professors like Coyne about the potentially infantilizing effects of trigger warnings on students have been expressed seemingly without connection to concerns about infantilized professors. Given that over 75 percent of professors at U.S. colleges and universities are contingent faculty—like adjunct professors—who are operating without the prospect or protection of tenure, one of the better arguments against trigger warning policies is that they provide a more straightforward path to dismissal for the contingent professor who innocently fails to pick up on a particular trigger.

Reluctance to trust an expert’s understanding of a text (and the implications of all its dark corners) is also infantilizing professors in a way that can impede student learning. Failure to pay contingent faculty enough money to work one job instead of shuttling between piecemeal work at two or three universities; failure to provide them with office space in which to have those difficult conversations with students one-on-one; and failure to support their pedagogical choices in the classroom all reduce the ability of professors to see students through difficult material. Arguing flatly against trigger warnings won’t make these realities go away, but arguing for better institutional support for faculty can improve the conditions under which trigger warnings become necessary by giving faculty the resources to be more supportive of students.

. . . The student call for trigger warnings at Columbia may be flawed in its recommendations, but it’s fundamentally a call for more thorough teaching. We can’t merely admonish the students; we must support all faculty toward the end of teaching intellectually and emotionally challenging material more attentively.

I’m in complete agreement with Hanlon about universities’ use of adjunct or temporary faculty as a form of intellectual slave labor. You wouldn’t believe how little highly-trained instructors make compared to tenured faculty. Often the adjuncts must teach at several colleges simultaneously just to make a living. It looks as if Hanlon himself might have gone part of that route, at least judging by his status as an adjunct assistant professor, though there may be other reasons for that status. But this argument for trigger warnings seems remarkably self-serving—and inaccurate. I seriously doubt whether universities oppose trigger warnings because it makes it easier to get rid of adjunct faculty! Here Hanlon seems to go off the rails, grousing about the general (and distressing) situation for many Ph.Ds, but a situation that’s largely irrelevant to his topic.

As for the Columbia students’ call for trigger warnings as a way to promote better teaching, I don’t believe that for a minute. Unless you construe “better teaching” as “teaching that doesn’t offend or disturb students”, the Columbia students’ letter was about one thing, pure and simple: identity politics. It is about the right to demand warnings or even censorship of challenging material. And that is a road to worse teaching, and to the displacement of academics into the realm of purely personal concerns.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

First, reader Diana MacPherson goes all abstract on us with an artsy photo of a dandelion (Taraxacum officinale):

Here is something completely different…I was trying out my Sony NEX-7 camera with an adapter (metabones) that allows me to use my Sigma (with a Canon mount) macro lens with it. I just wanted to see if I could make it work. The dandelion seeds look like neurons to me.

MacPherson

I have a substantial backlog of great photos from Stephen Barnard, which I’ll release slowly. These are from April 25:

A Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) bringing material to the nest. I’ve determined that there are at least two eagle chicks and I have video to prove it. [JAC: We’ve seen it.]

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American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) attacking a Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera):

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Reader James Billie sent us some of his local birds:

The turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) were taken from our front porch.  The hen is ignoring the display of the cock.

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The common loon (Gavia immer) is taken from our back deck.  He/she is fishing in our pond.

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The great egret (Ardea alba) is also taken from our back deck.  The white plumage is a bit burned out – darned that auto-exposure!  J

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Tuesday: Hili dialogue

It’s Tuesday and that means Book Day! Yay? But I will avoid all temptation to see how it’s doing, which is truly the Road to Perdition. Although temperatures in Chicago were in the 80’s yesterday, today they’re dropping 30 degrees, with highs only in the mid-50s. The weather is nuts. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili requests nearly the whole nine yards for breakfast.

A: English breakfast or continental?
Hili: English, please: bacon but hold the eggs.

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In Polish:
Ja: Śniadanie angielskie, czy kontynentalne?
Hili: Angielskie, bekon, ale bez jajek.

Brother Tayler’s Sunday Sermon: The National Day of Prayer

For the next couple of weeks I’ll be busy doing Important Cat Stuff, mostly related to the book, so posting may be a bit thin. However, like Maru, I do my best.

Jeffrey Tayler, mirabile dictu, continues his series of antitheist articles in the Sunday Salon, and, if anything, his language has gotten more “strident,” asymptotically approaching that of H. L. Mencken. His latest piece, about Obama’s proclamation of the National Day of Prayer (a yearly travesty in a secular country) is called “Obama, Bush and Carson believe this nonsense? Our faith-addled, God-fearing leaders need to put superstition aside.” (Subtitle: “We expect dimwits like Huckabee to buy into the fire and brimstone. Must President Obama overindulge the faithful?”).

You may recall that the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) successfully challenged the legality of the Day of Prayer in 2008, when a Wisconsin federal judge ruled it unconstitutional. I was elated! However, the judge stayed enforcement pending an appeal, and, sadly, her ruling was overturned by a three-judge appeals court. As Wikipedia notes:

The panel ruled that FFRF did not have standing to sue because the National Day of Prayer had not caused them harm and stated that “a feeling of alienation cannot suffice as injury.” The court further stated that “the President is free to make appeals to the public based on many kinds of grounds, including political and religious, and that such requests do not obligate citizens to comply and do not encroach on citizens’ rights. The federal appeals court also cited Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which referenced God seven times and prayer three times.

The issue of standing is one that judges always use to uphold theocratic laws and pronouncements; I wonder what does count as “injury” in such a case? Perhaps some lawyer can weigh in. At any rate, Tayler’s long piece takes apart the sham of an American President appealing to the almighty. Here are two quotes:

“The United States,” Obama then tells us, “will . . . work to . . .  protect religious freedom throughout the world,” and also “take every action within [its] power to secure” the release of “prisoners of conscience — who are held unjustly because of their faiths or beliefs.”

Well and good.  So what action will the Obama administration take to free the brave, ailing blogger Raif Badawi, imprisoned by its longtime U.S. ally Saudi Arabia on charges of apostasy since 2012 and subject to public lashings?  It should be noted that Badawi would hardly benefit if the brutal theocracy destroying his life became even more devout.

And one more:

Then comes the jarring prelude to the peroration:

“I, Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim May 7, 2015, as a National Day of Prayer. I invite the citizens of our nation to give thanks, in accordance with their own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings, and I join all people of faith in asking for God’s continued guidance, mercy, and protection as we seek a more just world.”

There we have it: the president of our secular republic citing the Constitution as legal sanction for his promotion of religious activity.  In case it’s unclear, “giving thanks” requires an addressee, which a reasonable individual would have to conclude is none other than the Lord Himself.  “Blessings,” too, invokes God.

What especially bothers me about Obama’s proclamation (you can read some of its offensive religious pandering in Tayler’s piece) is that in his first inaugural addressObama emphasized the comity of believers and nonbelievers:

“We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.”

I guess the nonbelievers got left out in the Day of Prayer proclamation. But of course there was no injury! Every day could be proclaimed as a day of prayer (hell, why not have a Year of Prayer?), and there would still be no injury. The head of a secular country has no business dedicating days to worshipping and propitiating a nonexistent being.

A new form of Intelligent Design: geological period-specific!

Well, this is from The Onion, and of course it’s a spoof (a great one, by the way), but it’s clearly written by someone familiar not only with evolution, but with the fatuous “non-continuity” arguments for intelligent design (ID). One of them, for instance, is Michael Behe’s self-contradictory claim that he has no problem with the common ancestry of all creatures, but he doesn’t accept macroevolution. Another classic non-ID creationist argument is that microevolution clearly occurs, but macroevolution (whatever that means) must be due to God.

The author of The Onion piece, one “Stephen Jossler,” makes a related argument, accepting all of evolution except for that occurring during the Triassic period (ca. 250-200 million years ago), which was clearly God’s handiwork. Read, share, and tw**t this really great parody, “I believe in evolution, except for the whole Triassic period.

A few short excerpts:

This so-called Triassic period saw the formation of scleractinian corals and a slight changeover from warm-blooded therapsids to cold-blooded archosauromorphs. Clearly, such breathtakingly subtle modifications could only have been achieved by an active intelligence.

. . . Think about it: I’m supposed to believe that the same process that we know slowly changed us from simple bacteria into highly advanced reptiles over the course of the Paleozoic era is also responsible for turning us into highly advanced reptiles with different body lengths? Do these people ever pause to think how ridiculous they sound as they advance these theories?

And this could have come right out of the Discovery Institute’s playbook:

For a half-dozen million years, life advanced from prokaryotes to primitive fish to mammal-like reptiles via natural selection, and we’re supposed to believe that that just continued happening? I don’t think so. Isn’t it much more likely that a formless, invisible deity intervened, temporarily stopped the course of evolution, and shaped each and every trilobite over a period of six days? Of course it is, at least to any objective observer.

So, if you follow my reasoning to its logical end, the only sound conclusion is that, at some point, God paused evolution and stepped in, made a few modifications, and boom! Pterosaurs. There is simply no way evolution alone could be responsible for the giant leap between archosaurs and other, different archosaurs with better developed hip joints and slightly differently shaped teeth.

Finally, this bit really tickles my ribs:

. . . Now that I’ve inarguably proven the truth, we need to take a stand against these pseudoscientists who are misrepresenting 300-million-year-old fossils as 230-million-year-old fossils and claiming the Earth is 44 million years and 51 weeks older than it really is.

Maybe this is geek humor—an inside joke—but it’s a really good inside joke!

h/t: About half a dozen readers.

This has got to be a first

. . . or rather, what the Brits would call a “double first.” (Don’t mind me; I’m just trying to soothe my nerves.)

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AND. . .

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Meanwhile, both P. Z. Myers and Larry Moran have been quite helpful, disarming the critics before they strike. P. Z. takes on those people who argue that religion isn’t about truth, but meaning and community, while Larry goes after the criticism that believers and faitheists are sure to level at my book: it doesn’t address The Best Arguments for God. (It does.) Thanks to both!

 

An erstwhile creationist becomes a biologist, due in part to us!

Over the past five years, one of our readers—Dan Metz—has been undergoing an odyssey. This involved leaving a strict religious background, abandoning belief in creationism and accepting evolution, and then, ultimately, becoming a biologist. It’s a heartening story, one that shows how even a “strident” atheistic site run by a biologist can, despite the godlessness, turn people towards science.

We first heard from Dan in 2010, when, writing anonymously, he described how learning about evolution was the key factor in his leaving religion (he was originally a Southern Baptist creationist from the Appalachians). Here’s just a small bit from that letter:

You probably know the rest. The initial rejection of what I’d read, trying to get someone to explain to me why all the evidence pointed toward evolution instead of away, realizing that the answers that I was getting from the creationist side were either evasive, inconsistent, or deceitful. And the long, slow, painful process of shedding a belief I’ve had instilled in me since childhood.

In 2012, Dan wrote again, this time making his identity public and recounting how he worked two years in banking to save up enough money to go to college and study biology. Again, a small part of his testimony:

In that letter, I mentioned my “biggest regret”–that I had never pursued the opportunity to study biology academically. I now proudly report that in another two weeks or so, I will have completed my first semester as an undergraduate in biology and mathematics. Your book, your site, and the comments of encouragement that your readers posted in response to my first letter were all instrumental in nudging me toward my current position in life. And I couldn’t be happier!

Note that you, the readers, get a large bit of credit for helping Dan fulfill his dreams. You might want to look back at the comments to see the encouragement he got.

I heard from Dan again yesterday, and he’s succeeded brilliantly:

Dr. Coyne,

It is amazing how things can change in so short a time. I wrote to you five years ago as a confused and floundering young apostate, unsure of my place in a world suddenly bereft of gods and magic and neat little explanations for every manner of phenomenon.

The encouragement I received from you and the readers of your website (which I continue to peruse daily) led me to pursue a degree in biology, mathematics, and chemistry.

I completed that degree last week, with the titles of Summa Cum Laude, Dean’s Scholar, and Artis Fellow (head of all Dean’s Scholars of the graduating class). I am also a National Research Fellow through the Ecological Society of America, and have the honor of describing not only a new species, but a new genus of eukaryotic parasite as the fruit of my undergraduate research.

I’ve been accepted into a PhD program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography under the tutelage of a scientist I’ve admired for years.  This would not have happened had it not been for our initial correspondence. So thank you, and thank your readers.

My friends, family, and professional contacts have given me the support I needed to excel as an undergraduate. But I seriously doubt that I–an uneducated man from a very rural, very religious background–could have even conceived of a career in understanding the chemical mechanisms of parasite-mediated behavioral control had it not been for our initial correspondence.

So I simply wanted to thank you, and to wish you well on the outreach of your new book. I, of course, will be ordering a copy as soon as my next paycheck comes in.

Thanks,
-Dan

You can see the announcement of Dan’s success, and of his ESA fellowship, at this post from Radford University’s newsfeed.

And here’s the man himself demonstrating how to get pinched by a crab:

Finally, Dan asked me to convey this to the readers:

[G]ive my warmest regards to your commenters. They’re a big-hearted bunch, to throw such well-wishes to a guy they never met. It’s a trait they share with their host!

Now isn’t that nice?

Oliver Sacks’s last interview

The latest RadioLab on National Public Radio features a taped interview with Oliver Sacks, “Dr. Sacks looks back,” which is probably the last time we’ll hear from him. As you probably know, Sacks has been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer (see here and here), and decided not to give further interviews. But Robert Krulwich, armed with a tape recorder, visited Sacks in his Manhattan apartment and persuaded him to speak one more time. It’s the final part of this broadcast, starting at 31:10 and lasting about 23 minutes, ending with some lovely and ethereal music.

Krulwich handles it with affection and humor, not worshipfully or elegiacally, which makes it all the more poignant: it’s as if he’s expecting Sacks to continue contributing to the show in the future. Sacks describes how he felt when he got his terminal diagnosis (very upset and regretful for things he won’t see), but spends most of his time discussing his life as a gay man, and the loneliness of not being able to find love. (“I haven’t had any sex for thirty-five years.”)

How wonderful, then, and yet how sad, that Sacks finally managed to find a partner—real, reciprocated love—when he was 77. (Sacks is now 81.) The show finishes with a  bit about Sack’s strong desire to see the color indigo, which he did only twice, and with Krulwich’s hope that perhaps Sacks will see that long-sought color once again. (I’m not sure if that bit has religious overtones.)

So farewell, Dr. Sacks, and thanks for all the tales.

sacks

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