Sunday, July 17, 2011

Academic Freedom and Scientific Research

As a recent chemistry graduate on my way to a Ph.D. program in the fall, I know too well about the pressures on the scientific community to conduct research whose fruits provide direct benefit to society and abandon those that seemingly do not. Among the latter are projects like the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and the search for the Higgs boson and other subatomic particles using the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The average layperson unversed in the nuances of scientific inquiry simply raises an eyebrow at the mention of such projects and asks, "What's the point of that?" or "Shouldn't we be building faster computers or finding a cure for cancer?"

Don't get me wrong. Faster computers and cures for cancer and other diseases would certainly improve standards of living dramatically. That is not to say, however, that "useless" projects such as SETI and the LHC would not. Society at large wants to streamline scientific research, directing interest and funding toward what is foreseeably applicable and useful. The curiosity of scientists into the fundamental heart of nature by means of basic research should be discouraged.

They forget that these scientific principles, from which we benefit by their medical and industrial applications, come from basic research. The undeniably important technological advances we have come to depend on and take for granted in modern times come from research that was once branded as "pointless" and a "waste of time."

Take, for example, the laser (which stands for light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation). When it was first developed by Gordon Gould, no one thought it would ever have any application whatsoever. Today, the laser is everywhere! Computers, CD and DVD players, certain surgical innovations such as bloodless surgery, and barcode scanners just to name a few applications all would not function without it.

Another example is James Clerk Maxwell’s investigation into the properties of light and electromagnetism in general. His four famous differential equations describing light’s behavior elegantly united electricity and magnetism, which were previously thought to be independent entities. Like Gould, Maxwell’s discovery was deemed as inconsequential or otherwise ignored, denounced as yet another useless pet project of a nerdy scientist.

Maxwell’s research has dramatically shaped modern civilization. We use radio waves and microwaves to easily transmit information across vast distances in short intervals of time. This broad application to telecommunication has irreversibly connected the far corners of the globe through radio, television, telephones, and the Internet. Radio waves are also used in radar, which the British used to defeat Nazi U-boats. Contemporary applications include air traffic control, nautical navigation, and meteorological prediction. Scientists in the early 20th century used electromagnetic radiation to probe the atom, leading to the development of quantum mechanics, a revolutionary and fascinating field with astounding applications of its own.

I close with a quote from Carl Sagan:

Maxwell wasn’t thinking of radio, radar, and television when he first scratched out the fundamental equations of electromagnetism; Newton wasn’t dreaming of space flight or communications satellites when he first understood the motion of the Moon; Roentgen wasn’t contemplating medical diagnosis when he investigated[…]“X-rays”[…]Fleming wasn’t planning on saving the lives of millions with antibiotics when he noticed a circle free of bacteria around a growth of mold; Watson and Crick weren’t imagining the cure of genetic diseases when they puzzled over the X-ray diffractometry of DNA (The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark).

These scientists were simply allowed to satisfy their curiosities, pursue basic research, and publish their findings. The numerous wonderful applications followed shortly thereafter.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


So as a little present to myself for surviving 5 weeks of Teacher Boot Camp (and after enduring the occasional disingenuous comment from ASU staff in my 'No God' t-shirt), I redesigned a DAFT t-shirt using the same 'riff-on-fraternity' theme. I figured I'd repost the design here in case anyone wants to order one for his or her self. I ordered a girly version:

Custom t-shirt printing at

But a less feminine/unisex version would look like this:

Custom t-shirt printing at

Of course, no one should feel restricted to order a particular color-- confusing the public always amuses me.


Monday, July 4, 2011

My Last Post: A Clarification

So, if you didn't notice yesterday, I kinda lost my temper at Richard Dawkins. In my passion, it came out less as a simple critique of his position and more as if I was calling for his head.

I want to clarify that.

I do not mean to make the suggestion that Richard Dawkins is now somehow irrelevant because of his views on feminism. His comments on Pharyngula infuriated me, do not be mistaken, and he has certainly lowered himself in my estimation. But, the fact of the matter is that his scientific work has served to educate millions upon millions of people in the facts of evolution, natural selection, and rational thought in general, including me. That can not, and never will be, discounted by any serious critic.

But, despite his reverential position in our movement, and in fact precisely because of it, he must be criticized when it is due, something that he, as a champion of peer review, must certainly be aware of. And I did so, in my own sweary, pinko way. And my criticism stands; our movement has, in my opinion, begun to stagnate. And yes, I know I'm a radical shouting expert, but the best movements always are such. Thus, I promise, in my term as DAFT's president, I will always push us to move beyond the Four Horsemen, without forgetting them, into new ways of thinking, into new areas of activism and helping our fellow man. That, right there, must always be at the heart of any social movement that seeks to make positive change, as I believe ours seeks to. Are Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett awesome? Yes, without question. But they are not the end-all-be-all of secular thinking. We need to give the same attention we give them to the Amanda Marcottes, the Sikivu Hutchinsons, the Annie Laurie Gaylors, the Susan Jacobys of our movement.

As for ElevatorGate (or whatever the Internets are calling it now), Hemant Mehta puts it perfectly:

I don’t think most of us are disputing the big issues here.
Elevator Guy put Rebecca in an awkward situation and he should have known better than to do that. He’s not necessarily a rapist or sexist, but he’s definitely ignorant.
The fact that some women and men don’t see this as a *HUGE* deal doesn’t make them stupid or misogynistic or anti-women. But I hope everyone at least recognizes the way situations like this *could* escalate (in worst-case scenarios).
No one saying you can’t flirt with women. But understand that if your flirtation isn’t returned, the thinking on the other side may not just be “I’m not interested.” It might be “I’ve had guys hit on me (or a friend) like this before and it ended badly.”
We ought to be cognizant of that.
 Succinct and simple. The guy was an asshole, and forgot his manners entirely. I don't believe Rebecca Watson was outside her rights to call him on it, and point out that this behavior is unacceptable. Maybe she could have put things better, but, hell, that can be said in every situation. Men, I just want to point out, very quickly, that just because you believe Elevator Guy didn't have foul intentions doesn't excuse his behavior. At all. And the fact that you believe Watson was overreacting? Read some goddamn Audre Lorde and bell hooks already.

Before I end this post, I would really like to thank everyone who posted on Facebook, Tweeted me, or texted me to ask about the post and discuss the issues I raised, especially Scott, a member of DAFT, who raised many important questions and who, I think, should be teaching a class on how to respectfully conduct a debate. I absolutely love, LOVE being called on what I write or say, because frankly, my big mouth combined with my history of brain surgery and prefrontal cortex issues tends to lead to me saying silly things. As long as I am President of DAFT, this will never be a group that has one unchallengeable viewpoint, because our movement is so unique. I would like, of course, for everyone to be as lefty and radical as me, but I know that won't happen. All I can ask is for every member of this group, every reader of this blog to question themselves and their views, and to inform them with scholarship before blithely dismissing the trials of other people, as Professor Dawkins did. If we can all do that, well, I think we can well and truly make some change. More than President Obama could ever dream of.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

In Which It All Comes Tumbling Down

Sometimes, events happen that shake the foundations of things that you hold very near and dear to your heart. I have always known, since I first read The Blind Watchmaker, that Richard Dawkins is a very intelligent man, a brilliant scientist, and an incredibly eloquent speaker. But, as things turn out, he's kind of a privileged dick.

To make a long story short, recently at an atheist conference Rebecca Watson, who writes at the excellent Skepchick blog, was approached by a man in an elevator at four in the morning, who asked her back to his room for coffee. Regardless of the purity (or lack thereof) of his intentions, it was a very poor move on his part. Cue the uproar: many people responded to her post saying that she overreacted, others shot back at them pointing out, rightly so I believe, that Watson was well within her rights to feel uncomfortable in this situation.

In one of these posts, written by PZ Myers at Pharyngula, the Richard Dawkins, he of God Delusion and Four Horsemen fame, posted this:

Dear Muslima
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don't tell me yet again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep"chick", and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn't lay a finger on her, but even so . . .
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.
And later...
No I wasn't making that argument. Here's the argument I was making. The man in the elevator didn't physically touch her, didn't attempt to bar her way out of the elevator, didn't even use foul language at her. He spoke some words to her. Just words. She no doubt replied with words. That was that. Words. Only words, and apparently quite polite words at that.

If she felt his behaviour was creepy, that was her privilege, just as it was the Catholics' privilege to feel offended and hurt when PZ nailed the cracker. PZ didn't physically strike any Catholics. All he did was nail a wafer, and he was absolutely right to do so because the heightened value of the wafer was a fantasy in the minds of the offended Catholics. Similarly, Rebecca's feeling that the man's proposition was 'creepy' was her own interpretation of his behaviour, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator. It would be different if he physically attacked me.

Muslim women suffer physically from misogyny, their lives are substantially damaged by religiously inspired misogyny. Not just words, real deeds, painful, physical deeds, physical privations, legally sanctioned demeanings. The equivalent would be if PZ had nailed not a cracker but a Catholic. Then they'd have had good reason to complain.

So, we are to think, if we follow the Great Oracle, we should totally ignore the plight of women in the Western world because others have it worse off.

About that.... um, no. That is the sort of relativism that infuriates me, and manages to completely miss the point. It completely misses the point that 1 in 7 women in the United States alone have been the victims of attempted or committed rape during their lifetimes, and the ratio becomes 1 in 4 before the age of 18. Add to that the fact that the conservative part of our country, and even some of the liberals, seem all too ready to put the onus of blame onto the victim rather than the attacker, we have a culture here that is built to oppress women, in the workplace as well as on the streets.

This is the reality, not hyperbole. Professor Dawkins is absolutely correct that female genital mutilation is a horrific practice, it does not give us the right to blithely pass off the issues, even if they are not so nightmareish as those he speaks of, that women are faced with every single day. And the fact that he thinks he can is unbelievably arrogant and offensive to me, as it should be to anyone who seeks for equality to exist someday.

This has brought even further into perspective a problem I have recognized with the secular movement recently. For the past six or seven years, ever since this has actually become a social movement, we have been all too happy as nonbelievers to band together and snicker at the religious, watching our YouTube clips of Dawkins, Hitchens et al and referencing all of the atrocious writings in the Bible and, occasionally, the Koran. I will not say that this has not been incredibly important for us; as one of the most ostracized and loathed groups in this country, solidarity and community are essential to our wellbeing, as they are with any minority group. But, this has led us to think that that is enough, and it simply is not. Theological and historical arguments are all well and good, but there must be more if we are ever to make the kind of change we want to see. Hence, we MUST become more aware of issues of social justice, feminism being one of the most important.

I mean, for fuck's sake, it's about damned time we did something different. The more we sit at our conferences, in our basements, snickering at the silliness of Jesus wafers, the more we enable our ostracization. It is only once we make it a priority to make the world a better, more equal place will we truly come into our own. We have the voices; the Jen McCreights and JT Eberhards and Amanda Marcottes are already, I think, pushing in this direction. I do not consider myself anywhere near as eloquent or intelligent as them, but I hope that we can kick the asses of the Dawkinses and start making our own new leaders, because frankly, the old white men are getting boring.

So, that's my statement. I think that Dawkins and Hithcens have, in terms of leading this movement into a new realm, have passed their expiration dates for the moment. (I reserve judgement on Harris and Dennett). Are they still brilliant scholars? Yes, but that is not enough when they are so clearly out of touch with issues like feminism.

So, it is here that I announce my support for McCreight/Marcotte '12: A New Way Forward. Or something like that. I bet they can make up a catchier slogan.