Monday, May 31, 2010

The consequences of blogging

"I can't deal with the statistical likelihood that somewhere, some business person with an opportunity that would help me will turn away from me because of some objectionable knowledge about me. Because of my blog. If I blog. How do you deal with that?"

I worry about it occasionally, but try not to let it bother me too much. But I may be in a totally different boat than you. Evolutionary biologists, even academics in general, tend to be a fairly godless liberal lot. While I may make some people disgruntled, most don't care, and a lot actually like me more. Heck, I've even received opportunities because of my blog that I wouldn't have received otherwise (woo getting published!).

But if you're not lucky like me, and you still want to blog, I would suggest blogging anonymously. Even that has risks, though. I don't think you can ever be truly anonymous on the internet, no matter how hard you try. I guess you have to weigh the costs and benefits of having a blog. It's nice to get your thoughts out there, but if it's crippling in "real life" without any real gain...

Are there any bloggers who have felt the consequences of blogging and have advice for this person?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Making a biological child for gay couples

"Is there a way to have two people of the same sex have a kid who is biologically related to both? (Either gay or lesbian couples)"

Short answer: Yes! But it's complicated.

Long-ish answer: Creating a child from same-sex parents isn't as easy as just combining the DNA from two eggs or two sperm. The main problem is genetic imprinting, where gene expression is modified epigenetically. That just means the actual sequence isn't changed, but something else is edited, like adding methyl groups or modifying histones (the proteins that help wind up DNA).

And depending on if you're a mother or a father, you genetically imprint your gametes differently. And since you generally need one functioning copy of these select genes, it doesn't help to have two female or two male versions where they're both turned on or off (too much or too little can both be harmful).

While that seems impossible to overcome, science is pretty impressive. Researchers have already overcome this in mice, where two egg cells were used to produce fatherless mice. So yes, it has been done in another animal!

However, who knows when or if we'll ever see it in humans. There are always ethical concerns when you're dealing with human subjects, and it's hard to predict if offspring would be completely healthy using this method. I think you'd have a hard time getting this past a review board since it's not a necessary medical procedure - same-sex couples don't need biologically related children, even if it would be nice. But, you never know.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Thoughts on grad school

"What are you most looking forward to about grad school? What are you hoping to achieve? And, what will you actually be studying? I mean, is there really more to know about copulatory plugs?"

I'm most looking forward to finally be studying what I've always wanted to research: human genetics and evolution. I don't know the exact topic yet since UW has you do a year of lab rotations, but there are a lot of exciting projects going on there. I haven't been able to investigate that area yet since no one at Purdue really researches human genetics or evolution too much - I think mainly because we don't have a medical school.

So no, I'm not going to be researching copulatory plugs anymore. Even that wasn't my main project at Purdue. My bigger project was looking at population genetics and historical demography in kangaroo rats. I'll be able to talk more about them here once they're officially published, but until then, I have to keep quiet.

And looking at the bigger picture, I'm excited to be furthering my education and becoming an "expert" in my field. I really enjoy research and teaching, so I think academia is the right place for me. And I just love to learn - I'm geeking out about all the advanced classes that I'll be taking, which I think is a good sign.

...Okay, and it's nice knowing I have an assured paycheck for five years in this crappy economy and that I'll be Dr. McCreight at the end. But really, those are just perks! Really nice perks, hehe.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Curse words and other nonsense

"What is your favorite curse word?"

Fuck.

Okay, that's not very creative. But it's so versatile! Is there a way you can't use it? Maybe not as a preposition... And you can even add stuff to it. Fucktard. Fuckward. Fuckballs.

Other than that, I'm a fan of the more funny, nonsensical, bizarre swear words. Asshat (just imagine a top hat on someone's butt, it's funny), douchenozzle (why so specific?!), douchebagel (don't ask).

I also have some not-really-swear-words that I use as substitutions.* Fudgemuffin is my delicious sounding replacement for fuck. Buttmonkey is basically your bitch who does stuff for you. Meatblanket/shield/purse/etc is a person you're just using for some task (they're probably also your buttmonkey).

This isn't exactly swearing, but I also have a bad habit of saying "I pooped it out" when I mean "I finished that task/project in a very quickly, with probably reduced quality." This probably would have been good for my twitter followers to know months ago. No, I haven't been talking about my bowel movements.

What creative swearing or other language do you use?

*I actually never cursed until I got to college, so I had to be creative. I grew up in house where I couldn't even say "crap" or "sucks" (even though my parents liberally swore and dropped f-bombs around me, hmph). At least it's better now that I'm an adult. When McCain said his bear DNA nonsense on TV, I lost control and yelled "Fuck you!!" and my mom cheered me on in agreement.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

"Atheist" as a derogatory word

"How often, if ever, have you been called an atheist in a derogatory way?"

Honestly, not that often. I think I'm in a unique position, though. Since I'm known for being so vocal about my atheism - I was leader of the horde here for 3 years - people treat me differently. Conversations start with people already knowing my views and the fact that I'm going to stand up for them, so I think they take less pot shots. That and my friends and acquaintances pretty much only contain people who wouldn't use "atheist" in a derogatory way. I think I scare away the people who would.

That being said, I have gotten it before. It's more common at a public club event, where some random person is looking for a debate. They'll sneer about "atheists" using that tone of voice that just drags the word out to emphasize how much they detest it.

To be honest, I think I've been called "feminist" in a derogatory way more often. That or various terms that would indicate that I'm homosexual. At least the first two terms are at least true about me.

How about you all?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

This event is giving me good vibrations

A public service announcement for anyone interested in a wacky celebration that's coming soon. May is National Masturbation Month, and Sunday is the 10th Annual Masturbate-A-Thon. Nope, I'm not jerking you around! You can get more information on how to lend a hand at either of those websites, though they may be mildly NSFW.

This event might rub some the wrong way - the idea alone could probably give some people a stroke. But I have to give them a hand for such a creative idea!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

This is what happens when you let the angry feminists evolve

You get Angler Fish. See men, you should be happy we let you be more than a walking bag of sperm. Well, at least we let you think you are.

Seriously though, nature is fucking bizarre. And therefore awesome. Odd natural history tidbits like this is what makes me love being a biologist.

Monday, May 24, 2010

I'm going to Disney World!

It sounds very stereotypical, doesn't it? "You've just graduated college - what are you going to do now?!" But it's true. Tomorrow I'm driving down to Florida with three of my close friends, and staying for a little less than a week. We're going to Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and a beach or two (still to be determined). the fangirl in me is still a little cranky that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park won't be open yet...oh well, I'll have an excuse to come back later.

I'm pretty excited. The first and only time I went to Disney World was in 5th grade, when I would have been about 10 years old. Personally, I think that's the most awkward age to go. I was too old to appreciate all the characters walking around - I knew they were just random people in suits, and that weirded me out a bit. Though I did get a photo with Scrooge McDuck, because DuckTales was awesome.
Yeah 90's jean overalls, wooo!

But I was also too young to really enjoy most of the rides. I didn't get into roller coasters until I was peer pressured to go on some when I was about 17, mainly because Disney managed to scare the crap out of me for a while. My mom said we needed to go on at least one real roller coaster, and got us in line for Space Mountain despite my protestation. To this day this amazes me, since my mom hates roller coasters and wouldn't even get on the spinning teacups with me and my dad.

To make matters worse, my family ended up being in the first car. It's single file seating, so my dad was first (much to his chagrin), then me, then my mom. Now, my dad is 6'6". The whole time it looked like he was going to get decapitated by one of the rafters, so I was screaming bloody murder. But then about halfway through the ride I just stopped. The little logical side of my brain (yes, it was there at age 10) thought, "This ride is going to last for another minute. No one can stop the ride because you're screaming. Might as well just not bother."

Of course, my parents thought I had passed out.
Dad: Are you okay?!
Me: *whimpers* No.

And since I'm convinced parents are kind of sadistic at times, they think this is the funniest story ever.

Anyway, I'm super excited for my trip. I'm going to ride everything this time now that I actually like roller coasters. I never went on famous stuff like Splash Mountain, and I will conquer Space Mountain! I'm also excited to just sit around on a beach for a while. I finally found a new swim suit that fits me, so I don't have to stress about that anymore. My solution was buying a top that was much bigger than the bottom. Thank you, boobies!

The one downside for you guys is that I'm going to have limited to no internet for a week. Gasp! I'm going to try to make some posts today, but I need your help for inspiration. Either ask me random questions here in the comments, or ask me questions anonymously at formspring.me. I already have some good questions backlogged there, and I will get to them! You can also follow me on twitter, because I'm sure I'll be tweeting hilarious things and photos from my Florida adventure via phone.

Now, off I go to pack! Weeeeee!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Video: My lecture on Boobquake, Skepticism, and Feminism

My lecture last night in Chicago went wonderfully. Thanks to Elyse, Dr. Jen, Bruce, Matt, and anyone else I'm missing from Women Thinking Free for doing a great job organizing the event. It was a lot of fun talking to everyone afterward too!

Bruce videotaped the talk, and you can watch it here:

Jen McCreight - Boobquake Presentation from Bruce Critelli on Vimeo.



I hope everyone enjoyed themselves. It was a honor to be the inaugural speaker for WTF, and I hope this organization thrives! We need more active female voices in skepticism, and this is one great way to promote that.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Are second generation atheists more mellow?

During a recent Point of Inquiry podcast, Chris Mooney and Elaine Ecklund discussed the differences between first and second generation atheists (starting about 15 min in). First generation atheists are those that were once theists and raised with religion, while second generation were raised by non-theist parents. Mooney has a summary of Ecklund's points at his blog:

On the air, Ecklund observed that the first generation atheists tend to be more critical of religion, and more driven in making such criticisms. After all, religion is something that is much more personal to them, and that they have rejected. We second generation atheists, though–for I am one–we tend to be more mellow. Or so Ecklund finds, anyway.

But I pressed her on the point. After all, although I’m “second generation,” I was pretty angry at religion when I was a college atheist activist. I was pretty driven. Yes, I mellowed with time–but I was and still remain second generation.

What’s more, I’m sure that there are some first generation atheists who aren’t particularly driven to bash religion, no matter the difficulty of their deconversion experiences or the powerful impact these had on their lives–it’s just not in their temperament.

Still, Ecklund defended the generalization despite my devil’s advocacy. In general, it is of a piece with her finding that family upbringing is a central predictive factor for later life religiosity or the lack thereof, as well as for who actually becomes a scientist (they tend to come from less religiously observant households).

While I disagree with Mooney on a lot of other topics, I'm going to have to agree with his devil's advocacy here. There are far too many factors going on to simply pin critical attitudes on your former beliefs (or lack thereof). Now, this is a generalization, so I can't simply say "Look at me! I'm second generation, and I'm anything but mellow!" I may be an exception to a general trend.

But I think a more accurate idea is that someone's religious environment as a whole - not just how they were raised - helps shape how critical they are of religion. I know I just got done saying anecdotal evidence is not equivalent to good science, but forgive me while I use some to illustrate my hypothesis:

I am a second generation atheist. My dad, while he won't label himself, is pretty much an atheist and instilled a good skepticism of religion in me. My mom is a wishy washy deist/Greek Orthodox, but she never taught me her beliefs or took me to church. I was left to my own devices when it came to thinking about religion, and for the most part I considered myself an atheist/agnostic my whole life. As a child, I really didn't care about religion. I had a very "to each their own" attitude, and saw religion as a general force for good in the world. Everyone in my town was pretty much the same - no one really cared what religion you were, or if you were godless.

Then I moved to a conservative Christian town while simultaneously maturing and realizing the world isn't all rainbows and unicorns.

I realized religion wasn't simply about charity and redemption and love. I realized, first hand, that religion could lead people to believe in stupid, ridiculous, unscientific claims, and to say and do hateful and harmful things. I've never thought religion automatically made someone a bad person, but I did reject the idea that religion automatically makes someone a good person.

Because of this eye opening experience, I became much more vocal about my atheism and skepticism. If I had gone to Indiana University or an even more liberal college, I can pretty much assure you I would still be a mellow agnostic. "Aggression" toward religion isn't based solely on your family, but on your experiences on a whole. If you realize the damage religion and religious belief can do, you're more inclined to speak out against it.

And I know I'm not just one person who has reacted this way. After being President of a student organization for non-theists for three years, I've been around hundreds of young atheists - some first generation, some second generation. For those where Purdue is more conservative and religious, they tend to be more vocal and aggressive. For those who see Purdue as a liberal escape from their rural Christian towns (this personally terrifies me), they're just happy to have another atheist to hang out with.

I've even seen the exact opposite of what Ecklund is claiming. Some of the more cooperative, friendly, pro-religion non-theists are those that come from religious families. They often say this is because they're surrounded by religious people who are wonderful, kind, intelligent people. It makes it hard to speak out against religion when you know it has helped someone you care about and love. On the flip side, sometimes it's hard for us life-long atheists to relate to religious people, since we don't have family members to act as examples for us. It's easier to fall into the trap of stereotyping all theists and religious belief as being the same negative caricature.

I also see this exception when looking at my father. He's basically an atheist and will be vocal and critical of religion to like-minded people like myself. However, he would never say these things in public or to religious friends. He strongly believes that religion is your own business, and he shouldn't go around criticizing something that helps so many people. My dad was raised in a religious family, the vast majority of which is still religious (some very devoutly so) - but he's not an aggressive Dawkins-esque first generation atheist.

Now of course, my observations are not scientific and are still biased - I mostly (but not solely) interact with people who are part of a club for non-theists, which may self select for more critical voices. But at the same time, I don't think you can say upbringing is the main factor for how atheists treat religion when there are so many other complex factors going on. Family upbringing may be a central predictive factor for later life religiosity and who will become a scientist, but that doesn't also mean it predicts how critical you are of religion.

I also have to be skeptical if Ecklund doesn't have other motivation going on. She's funded by the Templeton Foundation, and it would probably be very nice if she could paint a picture of criticism of religion stemming from some sort of emotional rebellion from our parents rather than a rational realization that we need to speak up. It seems like a scholarly equivalent of "Oh, well they'll grow out of it eventually." Ecklund had an interesting interpretation on the frequency of religiosity of scientists in her book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think - interesting in that she collected the data, but came to a very discordant conclusions in the discussion. That's also where this first/second generation data comes from, so I don't know if I can completely trust how she's interpreting her data.

Regardless, my experiences are not scientific, and I would love to see someone do a broader study. Something that encompasses first and second generation atheists across a while range of ages and professions (the book focuses on just scientists). It would kind of also be nice if the author wasn't funded by a biased organization, ahem...

Male antelopes lie to increase their chances of having sex

Replace "antelopes" with "humans" and I think most of us would nod in agreement. But this is the first time researchers have found "intentionally misleading behavior in animals for the explicit purposes of mating." Ars Technica has a great overview of the study:

The four-year study looked at the behavior of topi antelopes (Damaliscus lunatus) in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. This area is dominated by a huge number of predators, including lions, cheetahs, leopards, and hyenas, all of which prey regularly on antelopes. When topi detect a predator nearby, they often make snort-like alarm calls.

From February to March, male topi hold small territories through which receptive females pass to assess each male’s mating potential. The authors noticed that, while a female in estrus was on a male’s territory, the male would sometimes emit alarm calls, even in the complete absence of a predator. These false alarms are acoustically indistinguishable from true alarm snorts.

The authors set out to determine whether these false alarm snorts are simply predator detection errors, or if they function to deter the female from leaving the territory in order to secure more mating opportunities with her. The results overwhelmingly supported the authors' "sexual deception hypothesis." False alarms almost never occurred without a receptive female on the territory, the onset of the false snorts was highly correlated with a female’s attempts to leave the territory, and, after emitting a false snort, males managed an average of 2.8 extra booty calls.

You may be wondering why females continue to fall for the lies of males. If this behavior evolved, you think females would also evolve to detect lies, right? It boils down to probability and consequences: Lies happen a lot less frequently than truthful signals, and believing a lie has less severe consequences (mating with a less desirable male) than ignoring a true signal (getting eaten).

This questions comes up a lot when you're discussing dishonest signaling, which actually happens more than you would think in nature. One of the more popular example is bluffing in fiddler crabs. Sometimes when a fiddler crab loses its enlarged claw, it will grow back a weaker, cheaper claw. While these claws aren't as good in fighting, they're just as good at intimidating other crabs. It's not worthwhile for crabs to check and see if another crab is bluffing, because the consequences of the signal being true are so large (getting the crap kicked out of your crabby self).

Still, it's very interesting that they've now documented this type of bluffing specifically in regards to sex. I have a feeling we'll see more examples of this in the future, now that researchers will be keeping their eyes open!

(Via Carnal Nation)

Who needs God when you have biologists?

Yes, I'm being very sensationalist - but this still freaking awesome. Craig Venter's research team has officially created the first artificial organism. The complexity of this endeavour is mind boggling - a genome isn't a simple thing - which makes this very technically impressive. But in addition to being able to say "Look what we can do!", this also has a number of large implications for future projects. Now that we can make our own genomes, we can create artificial organisms specialized for fuel production, insulin production, etc... How neat is that?!

PZ has a more scientific summary, and Jerry Coyne has a very good "quick guide" for the not so biologically inclined readers.

I do like Coyne's response to those that are wondering if biologists are "playing God":
But what creationists cannot get around is the increasing demonstration that life is merely an immensely complicated chemical reaction. Venter’s team made a genome able to direct and support life using off-the-shelf nucleotides and some other reagents. Eventually, in a few decades, they’ll be able to make a fully living bacterium in the same way. And then we will have played God, at least the way religious people mean it. ...Life is just complex chemicals—nothing more, nothing less.
Biology is awesome*!

*Obviously not a biased statement.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Don't forget to visit me in Chicago Saturday!

This is just a friendly reminder that I'll be giving a talk about feminism, skepticism, and boobquake this Saturday in Chicago! It's for Women Thinking Free (yes, WTF), and should be a load of fun. Especially since it's in a pub. The Skepchicks have all the details over here.

You know how I know it's going to be awesome? Because the sheer anticipation sent the organizer, Skepchick Elyse, into labor. Congrats on producing another skepchick, Elyse!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Indiana congressman resigns because of affair

Indiana congressman Mark Souder (R) is resigning after admitting he had an affair with an aid. PZ summarized my shock perfectly:
"He's one of those conservative, abstinence-only sorts of politicians who
uses family, family, family to flog his politics for him, so it's no surprise
that the reason he's quitting is that he got caught with his pants down in an
affair.

But sit down, here's the part you will not believe: it was a heterosexual
fling! Maybe he should get a medal from his party for confounding
expectations."

Good job, Indiana! We're so great at defeating stereotypes!

Of course, I can't rejoice too much. Knowing my state, he's just going to get replaced by another conservative hypocrite.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Feminist toys

I may have already come up with an atheist toy, but now here are some for little feminists:

Today is International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia

Twenty years ago on May 17, the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its list of mental health disorders. To commemorate that, we have the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. From the IDAHO (not the greatest acronym...) website:

In 2008, sexual relations between persons of the same sex were punishable by death in 7 countries and considered to be some form of crime in more than 80 others. In most countries in the world, people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transexual, intersex, queer, ... community are being denied their fundamental human rights as defined, inter alia, by the Universal Declaration of Human Right, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The Day has been launched with the idea of creating a worldwide community of activists and committed people, sharing the ideal of a world without homophobia nor transphobia in which everyone can freely live their sexual orientation and the gender identity they wish to live in.

One of their current campaigns is to "expose and oppose the negative impact of religious fundamentalist discourses and to give visibility and promotion to voices who are working for inclusion, tolerance and peace." I tend to do that all the time, so maybe I'll participate in their other campaign: a Kiss-In!

Gay, straight, black, white — whatever you look like and whatever your political stripes are — as long as you believe in love and equality for ALL people everywhere, we want you to join us in a kiss-in near where you are.

Record a video of you with your partner and/or friends featuring friendly kisses in a creative way. Put these videos on Youtube or other video shareware and share them with kissin@idahomophobia.org or go directly to our special site www.gays.com/idaho

Unfortunately, I don't have anyone to kiss here, so I'll post an old picture of me about to kiss a really hot gal:

Heh heh, I'm so tricksy.

Anyway, go check them out and show your support!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

I graduated!

I now have a Bachelor of Science with the Honors curriculum in Biology from Purdue University!
Major 1: Genetic Biology
Major 2: Ecology, Evolution, & Environmental Biology
Minor: Psychology
Honors thesis: Inferring mating habits in banner-tailed kangaroo rats (Dipodomys spectabilis) using DNA extracted from copulatory plugs

Wooooo! A big thank you to my family, friends, and instructors for helping me along the way. I now will sound ten times smarter in any debate because I have some letters after my name ;)

And thankfully our commencement ceremony wasn't too religious. Purdue has four ceremonies due to the sheer number of students, and mine was the last one. The first three had a Lutheran minister speak, and apparently he enjoyed referencing God a lot and asking people to pray during the "Moment of Reflection." Our commencement got a Rabbi, who was wonderful - he was funny and completely and utterly secular.

Now, I don't think a public university should designate a time for religious speakers, as that inherently shows a preference for religion over non-religion. Not to mention, even when they try to be diverse, they never include anything outside of Abrahamic religions - when I went a couple years ago (for the grad of my boyfriend at the time) they still just had a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and a Muslim (no, they didn't walk into a bar). My big beef is that after the "Moment of Reflection," the choir sings "Amen" over and over again. Um, yeah, that's not a moment of reflection...

But anyway, it was nice. Afterward there was a little reception for the College of Science, where my parents got to meet some of my professors. I liked this one interaction with my biology professor from Sophomore year:

Prof: I love meeting parents because I get to see Mendelian genetics in action!
Me: *laughs*
Parents: *awkwardly chuckle because they have no idea what that means*

Then later I got to explain that he was nerdily saying that I looked like both of them, hehe.

I guess I'm officially a scientist now, yaaay!

PS: Oh, and I got recognized by random professors and parents I didn't know because of Boobquake, hahaha.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

No talking about animal sex in academia!

A while ago a paper was published that discussed oral sex in bats. Now, if you've ever hung around biologists or evolutionary psychologists for more than five minutes, you know that we tend to be a little obsessed with sex. Seeing papers like this greatly amuses and interests us - I know I was sent this paper by at least 10 different biologists I know.

So what happened to Prof. Dylan Evans of University College Cork surprises me. I'll just repost his letter so you get the whole story:
Dear Colleagues,

The President of University College Cork, Professor Michael Murphy, has imposed harsh sanctions on me for doing nothing more than showing an article from a peer-reviewed scientific article to a colleague.

The article was about fellatio in fruit bats. You can read it online at http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0007595

It was covered extensively in the media, including the Guardian - see http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/nov/10/oral-sex-bats-improbable-research

The colleague to whom I showed the article complained to HR that the article was upsetting. I had been engaged in an ongoing debate with the colleague in question about the relevance of evolutionary biology to human behaviour, and in particular about the dubiousness of many claims for human uniqueness. I showed it the colleague in the context of this discussion, and in the presence of a third person. I also showed the article to over a dozen other colleagues on the same day, none of whom objected.

HR launched a formal investigation. Despite the fact that external investigators concluded that I was not guilty of harassment, Professor Murphy has imposed a two-year period of intensive monitoring and counselling on me, and as a result my application for tenure is likely to be denied.

I am now campaigning to have the sanctions lifted. I would be grateful for your support on this matter. I have created an online petition at:
http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/freedebate/

I'd be grateful if you sign the petition and ask your colleagues to do so. If you also felt like writing directly to the President of UCC, his address is:

Professor Michael Murphy
The President's Office
University College Cork
Cork
Republic of Ireland.

Your support would be greatly appreciated.

Dylan Evans
If someone gets upset for you bringing up something sexual (that's relevant) during a biology discussion, something is wrong. Just because us humans like to be puritanical about things doesn't mean nature follows suit. I've blogged before at the diversity of sexual behavior in living organisms - we shouldn't be ignoring that because "oral sex" sounds gross or sinful. It's still part of the discussion, whether you like it or not.

I wonder what would have happened if Dr. Evans showed this colleague papers about homosexuality, polygamy, rape, necrophilia, traumatic insemination... I'm betting on fainting and pearl clutching.

(Via Pharyngula)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Why Boobquake failed: God's relationship with mankind is passive aggressive and abusive

Kazem Sedighi apparently got wind that people around the world were laughing at his ridiculous claims that immodestly dressed women cause Earthquakes. Apparently we misunderstood what he really meant, so during this Friday's prayer sermon, he offered further explanation:

"Some ask why (more) earthquakes and storms don't occur in the Western world, which suffers from the slime of homosexuality, the slime of promiscuity and has plunged up to the neck" in immorality, he said.

"Who says they don't occur? Storms take place in the U.S. and other parts of the world. We don't say committing sin is the entire reason but it's one of the reasons," he said.

But, he said, "sometimes, God tests a nation. ... (God says) if believers sin, We slap them because We love them and give them calamity in order to stop their bad deeds."

"And those who have provoked God's wrath, He allows them (to commit sins) so that they go to the bottom of hell," Sedighi said.

Oh, well, in that case, that makes perfect sense! I totally understand now. God's relationship with humans is really like a relationship with an irrational, passive aggressive, emotional abusive person.

Me: *puts on tank top*
God: ...
Me: What's wrong?
God: Nothing.
Me: Are you sure? Do you not like this shirt?
God: It's nothing.
Me: Okay *prepares to go out*
God: Ahem.
Me: What?
God: You should know what.
Me: I'm expected to read your mind? You know only you can do that.
God: Didn't you read that book I gave you?
Me: Yeah, but it didn't say anything about tank tops...
God: Whatever.
Me: Okay, well, I'm going out now.

And then three months later God slashes your tires, kills your cat, breaks your entire CD collection, and sends you to the bottom of hell.

Seriously God, if you created humans, you should really know how they learn. Punishing people months after they perform the naughty deed does not produce negative reinforcement. Our behavior isn't going to improve if you conveniently make earthquakes and tornadoes and floods appear to be caused by natural means, irrespective of the morals of that area. Do you really want us to behave, or do you just take sadistic glee in watching the US sink into the ocean?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

What do you want to delete from your brain?

Sometimes I wish I could delete useless information that has slowly accumulated in my brain to make room for stuff that really matters. It makes me sad that I can still sing the whole Pokerap and every other song from the Pokemon CD, but memorizing stuff for biochemistry was nearly impossible. 150 Pokemon? No problem? 22 Amino acids and their structures? Gaaahhh! If only we made silly child jingles about biochemistry...

Though I do have one useful song I learned - a little ditty that sings every state in the US alphabetically! I'm amazed that I still remember it from 5th grade.

What useless knowledge would you delete from your brain if you could?

Why I would be executed in Iran

If I lived in Iran, I would be executed pretty quickly. Some of the things I've done that are death-worthy (especially the first one):
  • Enmity against God, corruption on earth, apostasy, heresy and blasphemy
  • A third conviction of drinking alcohol
  • Homosexuality
  • Distribution of obscene/pornographic audio-visual materials
You can also be executed for:
  • Adultery
  • Public order crimes (stop those protests!)
  • Drug possession
Why do I bring this up? Iran Solidarity, headed by the wonderful atheist activist Maryam Namazie, is protesting the execution of political prisoners in Iran.
We have all been in love, spoken our minds, joined protests, political groups and campaigns, poked fun at that which is taboo and taken a stand for what we believe in.

The only difference is - depending on where we were born – some of us don’t live to talk about it.

As you may have already heard, on 9 May 2010 four young men and one woman were executed by the Islamic Republic of Iran after being falsely accused, tortured, and charged with ‘enmity against God’ in sham trials. The executions were carried out in secret and without the knowledge of their families or lawyers. Farzad Kamangar (35 year old teacher and trade unionist), Ali Heydarian, Farhad Vakili, Shirin Alam-Houli (28 years old) and Mehdi Eslamian never even got to call their families to say goodbye.

Tragically, these executions are not new. The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the execution capitals of the world and is the only state that continues to execute minors.

From 13 May onwards join me in protest against the 9 May execution of the five political prisoners in any way you can. Protests have already been taking place in Iran and at Iranian embassies in various cities worldwide, including a successful general strike in Iranian Kurdistan on 13 May. You can join rallies taking place in your city; pass this information on; ask your friends to support the action; write letters of protest; write to the media; raise the issue at events you organise or attend and at your places of work, school and in your neighbourhoods; do acts of solidarity anywhere you can; volunteer; lend your expertise to make publicity materials, translate, fundraise… Demand the expulsion of the regime from its seat in the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, from the International Labour Organisation and other bodies. Demand that its embassies and consulates be shut down. And call for an end to the death penalty in Iran and everywhere.
Boobquake was a lighthearted event, but there is serious turmoil going on in Iran. You can support the cause and find more information by joining the Facebook page here.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I'm now on the Secular Student Alliance's Board of Directors!

Squueeeee!

I'm super excited to be a new member of the Board of Directors of the Secular Student Alliance! The SSA is an absolutely fabulous organization that helps freethinking student groups across the world flourish. As a former club president, I know from experience how helpful they are. They brought many wonderful speakers to our campus, such as Hemant Mehta, PZ Myers, Greta Christina, and Eddie Tabash. Without their help, there's no way our little club could have funded their visits.

On top of that, they're always there when you need advice or event ideas. I can't tell you how many time I dug through their Activity Packets or references their press release guide. And last year they organized a wonderfully informative and fun conference for secular students, which included the infamous trip to the Creation Museum! They have given me a reason to take a trip to Ohio this summer (I'm speaking too, woo!), and I think that's quite an accomplishment...

I can't wait to give back and help the SSA. Thanks so much to everyone who voted!

PS: If you want to help out the SSA, go give a donation here.

Clit cutting is not equivalent to Christmas and wedding dresses

I usually adore Amanda Marcotte, but I have to say one of her latest pieces is really facepalm worthy. She actually defends the American Academy of Pediatric's new "compromise" on female genital mutilation to offer "ritual nicking, such as pricking or minor incisions of girls' clitorises."

I didn't originally post about this issue because many other excellent bloggers made the same points I would have made. Melissa McEwan sums it up best:
See, this way, people can honor that awesome tradition without actually removing part or all of the genitalia. Everyone gets a little something: Girls get only a little heinous physical and psychological trauma, and their guardians get to practice their violent misogyny, just in a slightly less violent way. Yay for compromise!

...FGC is a human rights violation. It has no medical purpose, and its cultural rationale is steeped in gender inequality. There is no reason to tolerate even this proposed alternative version of the procedure in a culture with an ostensible belief in gender equality.

Insert the 10,000 posts I've written about consent and autonomy here.

And, despite the AAP's claim that endorsing nicking will be a deterrent, Equality Now rightly notes that advocating a more minor version of the procedure will almost certainly mean that "mothers who have until now resisted community pressure and not subjected their daughters to FGM in the U.S., in part because of the anti-FGM law, could be forced under the AAP guidelines to ask pediatricians to 'nick' their daughters' clitorises if it is legally permitted."
So why does Amanda Marcotte defend it?
People do this sort of thing all the time, and usually they get applauded for it. They realize a religious or cultural tradition is backwards---silly at best, oppressive at worst---and they’re faced with a choice. Do they abandon their heritage, or do they compromise? Obviously, being a big time atheist, I wish people abandoned their traditions more, but as someone who still gets a kick out of Christmas, I understand the urge to hang on to some stuff. Doctors offering a relatively harmless, ritualistic alternative to more severe cutting could go a long way towards encouraging the view of it as merely a ritual, and not something that has to produce long-term damage to count.

... And it’s not like Western culture is so free of blatantly misogynist traditions, either. Part of me wishes that we had a two minute nicking at the doctor instead of the entire painfully misogynist wedding tradition that persists in the name of tradition. Everything from white gowns to bouquet tosses to the father “giving” the bride away---all about reducing women to objects that exist strictly to fuck and marry men, if not suggesting that we’re male property. But people hang onto it, because it’s tradition. And we applaud every nudge in the right direction, from refusing to be given away to keeping your name, instead of suggesting that anything but a marriage boycott for all is inadequate.
...I'm sorry, but cutting a clitoris is not equivalent to rocking around the Christmas tree or walking down the aisle in a frilly white dress. For one, people choose to celebrate Christmas and have a traditional wedding. I still merrily celebrate on the 25th without religious pressure, and I'll likely let my dad give me away in a white dress because I choose to do so. It's all about choice, and young girls subjected to female genital mutilation have absolutely no choice. By allowing this, we're taking away their one last voice.

But the other main thing is harm - remember how doctors are supposed to "do no harm"? While nicking isn't nearly as bad as complete removal, it still isn't all rainbows and pansies. You say you rather have that than a traditional wedding ceremony - well good for you, because cutting my clit seems like a stupendously awful thing. I'll take a meaningless wedding ceremony over that any day. And yes, it is meaningless. Maybe it used to represent patriarchy and objectifying women, but can you honestly say anyone thinks that when they're at a wedding anymore? We don't call for a boycott on traditional marriage ceremonies because they're not hurting anyone, and no one is forced to do it.

And I love how she adds the bit on circumcision being worse than ritual nicking. Yes, it is. But that doesn't mean we should allow ritual nicking because we already allow something worse. That just means we need to keep trying to reduce circumcisions, and treat it the same as other types of genital mutilation.

Yeah, sorry Amanda, but I'm not convinced. It's kind of hard for me to be culturally sensitive to something absolutely barbaric and misogynistic.

This is exactly why I hated my philosophy class

From SMBC:
Replace "Engineer" with "Scientist" and this is pretty much what Biomedical Ethics was to me. In fact, we had this exact scenario, and I replied the exact same way.

Or maybe I hated my philosophy class because we never got a single moment to ask questions during lecture, and during recitations we spent the whole time being fed answers to the quizzes and never had a single discussion about the material. Maybe I would have liked the class if it was more, well, philosophical.

*ahem*

Oh well. Got my A.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why I'm not going to draw Mohammed

Because I don't want to die.

It has become commonplace to hear about people being violently attacked and even targeted for murder for drawing (usually poorly done) cartoons of the Muslim prophet. The Jyllands-Posten cartoon "controversy", the recent South Park episode that had Matt and Trey receiving death threats... Just look at the most recent case of the cartoonist Vilks, who was attacked at a lecture on free speech and has money on his head:


An al-Qaeda front organisation then offered $US100,000 ($A110,730) to anyone who murdered Vilks - with an extra $US50,000 ($A55,365) if his throat was slit - and $US50,000 ($A55,365) for the death of Nerikes Allehanda editor-in-chief Ulf Johansson.
I personally support Draw Mohammed Day and the various secular student groups that have been partaking so far. I think it's incredibly important that we support the freedom of speech and not give religious extremists a free pass. Religious rules apply to members of that religion, and forcing those rules on outsiders with violence and murder is not acceptable. It is as if Jews sent death threats to anyone who ate pork products.

But at the same time, I'm going to be a hypocrit and still my pen. Sorry, but I think age 22 is a little too young to die. I'm not in the business of becoming a martyr - and now that my blog has had attention from Boobquake (which already walked the line of annoying Muslims), I'm not going to line up for the firing squad. Of course, calling out Muslim extrimists for being fucking insane about these cartoons probably doesn't put me in the good.

Oh well. I'll be ambiguous and leave you with what may or may not be Mohammed. The world will never know:

O>-<

(Via Pharyngula)

Your personal opinion does not trump scientific studies

As a scientist, one of my big pet peeves is when someone tries to use a personal anecdote to disprove a scientific study. "Cigarette are bad for you?! But my grandpa chain smoked until he was 96, and he was healthy as an ox!"

Great for your grandpa! ...But that's irrelevant.

The whole purpose of science is to reduce our biases. Looking at your sample size of one (Grandpa) is going to lead you to the wrong conclusion about what's going on with smoking. Your grandpa was an outlier - and while that is interesting, the vast majority of people suffer harmful effects from smoking.

But my bigger pet peeve is when someone's culture, personal opinion, or political belief stands in the way of them accepting science.

For example, during our unit on aggression in my Social Psychology class, we talked about cultural causes for aggression. One example was the Southern Culture of Honor. People who grow up in this culture see a perceived insult as a threat to their ego, which increases testosterone levels* and violent cognitions, and can lead to acts of violence. Southern cities and states have much higher White homicide rates than those populated by northerners**, and in Southern states homicides exceed suicides.

Effects of Insults on Testosterone levels in Southerner and Northerner Participants
When I mentioned this in a tweet, some of my Southern followers got angry and said it wasn't true, and tried to provide anecdotal evidence about how kind and helpful Southerners are. Your neighbors may be sweet, but that doesn't negate an overall trend. Scientific studies aren't saying that all southerners are homicidal maniacs. Though you know, getting angry at a perceived insult doesn't exactly help your cause...

Another topic within aggression that really riles people up is spanking. Numerous studies have been done showing that spanking children increases antisocial*** and aggressive**** behavior. But when people who have been spanked or spank their children hear about this, they get very defensive. I can't recall the number of times I've heard "Well I was spanked, and I turned out fine!" or "I spanked my kids and now they're little angels!"

I'm sorry, but 1) Your specific experience does not negate the average response seen in hundreds of families, and 2) Your evaluation isn't necessarily correct. You could very well have had an increase in antisocial or aggressive behavior, but you didn't have a psychologist assessing your behavior, did you? I'd really like to see a psychological study on why people like to defend spanking. Do they hate thinking that their parents did something wrong? Do they hate having to come up with a better (and possibly less easy) disciplinary action?

And last, but not least: political beliefs that get in the way of accepting science. The one that bugs me the most are feminists who are such huge supporters of female equality that they simply cannot accept that males and females do differ in certain ways. For one, you kind of can't ignore that (biologically typical) males and females differ physically - we kind of have different reproductive organs and chromosomes. We also have different secondary sex characteristics - males are going to be slightly stronger and larger on average.

And because our biology differs, it's not insane to suggest our psychology differs. Saying men are better in some areas and women are better in others does not mean one is superior to another. Saying men may have certain mating strategies and females may have different ones does not mean one is morally superior, or that either are things we should actually do - humans are not simply slaves to their biology, after all. There are differences between the sexes in almost every species where there are two different sexes - humans aren't exempt. To deny these differences because they don't jibe with your political beliefs is simply unscientific.

Now, I know I'm not perfect. There have definitely been times where I've been skeptical of a study when I personally didn't like the results - it's human nature (especially when the study is saying something delicious is bad for your health). But the thing about being a scientist is reducing our biases as much as possible. So next time you find yourself giving anecdotal evidence, remember: Your personal opinion may be an interesting new hypothesis, but until you do a study of your own, it does not trump previous scientific research.

* Cohen et al (1996) Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South
**Myers (2008) Social Psychology
*** Strauss et al (1997)
**** Taylor (2010) in Pediatrics

Monday, May 10, 2010

Goodbye, bad habit!

It's officially the beginning of summer, which means I'm starting my "get back in shape and stop being a fatty routine." I'm already off to a rough start, since I skipped going to the gym with my work out buddy this morning because I had a cold (I promise!). But I've already made an important step:

Eliminating pop* from my diet. Well, mostly.

I'm going back to my rule that I had freshman and sophomore year - I'm only allowed to drink pop on the weekends. This is the best compromise I can come up with for myself - I'm of the mindset that a complete ban on any type of food is doomed for misery and failure. Drinking pop is a horrible habit of mine, and I will easily drink multiple cans a day if it's in my apartment. If I never buy it and limit myself to the drink only if I go out on the weekend, it helps so much. When I did this last time, I lost weight without exercising at all. Of course, now I'm over 21, so to counteract a new vice I'll be working out a little (I really only have alcohol once or twice a week, though).

Hopefully by the end of the summer I'll be a little healthier, and shed my Oh My God Winter Is Depressing Eat Lots of Junk Food pounds.

What are your bad food habits? Are you attempting to change them, or just relishing their deliciousness?

*Also known as soda, for you weird people who use the wrong slang.

The Evolution Litmus Test

A couple days ago when I was waiting for my Biomedical Ethics exam to begin, I started chatting with this girl sitting near me. She was in my recitation class, but I didn't really know anything else about her. Somehow I mentioned I was a biology major, and she brought up the one biology class she took as an Animal Science major: it was my favorite Biology class at Purdue, Evolution of Behavior.

Now, even though one of my research advisors teaches that class, I promise I'm not being biased - every day I left that class absolutely amazed at how interesting and inventive nature was. I've always been more of a lab rat and genetics nerd, but this gave me real appreciation for natural history and behavior. We talked about insanely interesting topics like the evolution of echolocation, altruism, dominance regulated ovulation suppression, and electric fish communication. And as a perk, I thought the class was pretty easy; if you just understood basic evolutionary principles and paid attention at all (which was a given, since it was so cool), you'd do fine.

So when this girl brought it up, of course I gushed about how much I loved that class. To which she replied,

"Oh, I don't believe in evolution. I just took that class to see what the different opinion was like."

The only thing that kept me from calling her out on the stupidity of her statements (EVOLUTION IS NOT FUCKING OPINION) was the fact that I didn't want to totally upset myself right before I had to take a difficult exam. But of course, she had to go on,

"It was so hard! I didn't understand anything he was saying all semester!"

I asked her if she took the required introductory evolution classes before taking this one, and she said no - her Animal Science advisor said the class was easy and she waived the requirements. This made me fume. Evolution of Behavior is a 500-level class meant for upperclassmen and graduate students. We spend about a day reviewing the principles of evolution because it's assumed you've already learned them in the various required classes. So if you stick a creationist in that class with no knowledge of evolution, of course they're going to be totally confused. And now they can proudly claim "well I took a class on evolution and so I know it's wrong" just because they didn't have the skill set to understand the class!

The thing that annoys me the most is that this person is graduating with a degree in Animal Sciences. If you are getting a degree in something biology-related, you should understand and accept evolution. Hell, I know Biology students (mostly molecular or pre-med people) who don't accept evolution, so it's not a matter of curriculum*. But to know that we're giving degrees to people who fail to understand - no, outright deny a basic tenet of biology is shameful.

Would chemistry give degrees to someone who thought the five elements were more accurate than the periodic table? Would physics give degrees to a someone who thought gravity was fairies holding us down to the ground? Would earth and atmospheric sciences give degrees to flat-Earthers? Would astronomy give degrees to people who think the moon is made of cheese?

Maybe with the way American education is set up, you can't stop someone from graduating based on these things. Maybe they adamantly believe in fanciful superstition, but are smart enough to give the desired (aka correct) answers on exams. How do you hold back someone with crazy beliefs if they got As in all the classes?

And while I hate giving creationists undeserved credentials ("I got a degree in Biology, and I know evolution is false, trust me!"), I guess they can go have jobs where evolution doesn't matter as much. Go pipette for hours at some company for all I care. But when these people are going on to become teachers or scientists, it's scary. You need to be able to understand and accept evolution to 1) Teach it to others so we don't keep perpetuating ignorance, and 2) Come up with plausible hypotheses, do good research, and interpret results correctly.

This is why I think we need an Evolution Litmus Test in these fields. Do not accept people into your school or Masters/PhD program unless they accept evolution. I don't care how you do it - a written test, an essay question on the application, a simple check box to weed out the honest, asking pointed questions during interviews, sending grad student spies to mingle and get the truth out... But figure out what people deny basic science before you turn them into scientists. A friend shared with me a story about a fellow grad school interviewee at a very prestigious university who was a unabashedly proud young earth creationist around the other prospective students (but not current ones or professors) - do not let this ignorance infiltrate your program.

I know people are going to claim I'm just putting an "atheist requirement" on studying biology, but I am not. There are many many biologists who are religious but still accept evolution. I have friends here at Purdue who go to church weekly, are in religious clubs, and will still laugh at Intelligent Design for it's anti-science lunacy. This is just a scientific standard. If you don't believe in a fundamental of the field, you should not be able to claim some sort of expertise in it. It's as bad as graduating in History with a focus on WWII and believing the Holocaust was a hoax. It proves you do not understand the topic, and it is embarrassing to the school.

But really, is it that outlandish to require people to understand the field you're hiring them in?

*Note for non-Purdue people: AS is part of the College of Agriculture, and Biology (what I'm in) is part of the College of Science, so we have very different curriculum. Hence why she didn't have to take those intro Biology courses that teach evolution (though those still fail to educate some bio majors).

Saturday, May 8, 2010

I'm done, weeeee!

Yesterday I took my last final exam of my undergraduate career. Crazy to think how fast these four years went...and in a week I'll be handed my degree. I'm officially done!

...Well, except for the fact that I have four to five years of graduate school coming up. And then a couple years of post docs. Hooray, academia. Oh well, I like it, and that's all that matters.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm celebrating by going to my good friend's day long bachelorette party in Indianapolis. If I return alive tomorrow, I'll do some real blogging. Until then, consider this an open thread.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Purdue Non-Theist display case vandalized

The Stewart Center at Purdue University has a bunch of glass cases that line its hallway where student groups are allowed to put up little displays advertising. Groups get a week reserved, so you see displays rotating through of everything from breast cancer awareness, traditional African dance club, anthropology club, upcoming musical performances, College Republicans, religious clubs...

But apparently an atheist club is just too much for Purdue to handle.

The Society of Non-Theists (which I just officially stopped being President of - was for 3 years) finally got a display case of our own. I helped our former treasurer put up the display at 3:15pm on Monday. It included a sign saying "This is what non-theists look like" with happy photos of our club members, our benign club t-shirt, some atheism-related books, and Darwin fish stickers.

And now it's covered in marker with "In the beginning, God created..."Thank you, vandal, for perfectly illustrating why we need this club on campus. Because we can't even say we exist in the most friendly way possible without someone trying to come by and shut us up or put is down. Though it really doesn't surprise me; our flyers are constantly vandalized like this (or just torn down). Makes sense that they wouldn't stop because of some silly glass. Foolish of me to think the display would last untouched for at least 48 hours.

I've never seen something like this happen to another case, not the Episcopalians, the Pagans, or the Muslims (the Islamic case is right next to ours and untouched). I guess Purdue still has a long way to go. Off to email this to the proper Purdue people, though they're just going to tell me there's nothing they can do...again.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Well, at least the Catholics will just come out and say it

Plenty of religions are misogynist, but like to play it off as being in the best interest of the women (Burkas? Clitoridectomies? Forced childbirth? Totally for your own good, honey). But you have to give it to the Catholic Church for being honest:
"Three Catholic women's communities in Washington state are being investigated by the Vatican. They were chosen for review as part of an extensive investigation into American nuns. The Vatican says it's following up on complaints of feminism and activism."
You know, I have a t-shirt that says "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people." I think that is honestly the simplest definition for feminism - equality for women.

Splendid to know the Vatican is against that.

Instead of raging, I think I'll let Tim Minchin take it away:


(Via Pandagon)

A confession of astronomical proportions

I used to believe in astrology.

That's embarrassing for me to admit, now that I'm a strong skeptic - but it's true. While I never really believed in God, I wasn't totally immune to supernatural thinking my whole life. Between age 13 and 17 I was very into astrology. Out of all things, why that? I think it happened for three main reasons:
  1. I was fascinated with astronomy when I was a little kid - it was the first science I loved, much more than my current field of biology. I loved learning about stars and planets, star gazing, and picking out constellations. I can still point out all the different patterns in the night sky (though I've always known the winter sky better). I was part of our elementary school astronomy club, and I was dying to go to Space Camp (but I could never convince my parents to let me). Because of my love for space, I think the idea of it having some sort of supernatural power really resonated with me.
  2. I think that's an age where everyone is looking for answers, and I settled on the stars. By age 13, I was already fairly certain that the idea of God or gods was just silly. I was exposed to different religions enough to logically think about their flaws and come to the conclusion that they were wrong. But no one really debated astrology, so I wasn't forced to think critically about it.
  3. I felt like I had proof. I'm a Scorpio, and the description just seemed to fit me so well - determined, passionate, secretive, moody, obsessed with sex. I now know that this is hardly proof (more on that later), but it was convincing evidence to a young girl.
Now, before you laugh at me, remember most atheists were at one point religious. Is believing that planets have some sort of control over your personality really that much more insane than believing in an invisible supreme being that cares about what you eat and screw, and sends his own son (who's also himself) down to earth to save you from something bad one of your ancestors did by dying and coming back to life?

Didn't think so.

Anyway, when I say I was really into astrology, I mean it. I didn't believe in newspaper horoscopes because I didn't think they were done rigorously enough. I had books on astrology and drew my own charts. I would defend astrology and explain that it's much more than your sun sign - that you have to look at the planets, and ascendants, and lunar nodes, and angles between all of these things, and what houses they were in... It was a complex art, and I told myself that people rejected it because they were only seeing the pop culture version of it.

Remind you of anything? Yeah, Christians versed in theology who claim people who attack "simple Christianity" aren't really understanding what it's really like. Astrology is no different, and let me tell you - something can be complex and nuanced and still be bullshit.

So why do I bring this up at all? Well, thanks to the boobquake media attention, I was contacted by the astrologer Eric Francis. He was a huge fan of boobquake, and extremely friendly. Even though he knew that as a skeptic I would probably think astrology is bullshit, he still wanted to do my chart for me (and gave me permission to poke fun at it). Eric didn't know about my past relationship with astrology, which made me unable to resist. Even though I no longer believe in it, I wanted to know what a "real" astrologer would say.

You can find his full analysis here, but here's just a taste:
"And as you might imagine, she's got it all going on -- a Sun-Pluto conjunction in Scorpio, in the 8th house (she jokingly described herself as a sex-obsessed Scorpio, though her precise Sun-Pluto conjunction in the 8th house turns up the heat by a few orders of magnitude). This powerful alignment is conjunct the asteroid Astraea, the goddess of justice. So this is passion driven by a sense of balance and integrity.

Boobquake was planned for Monday, when the Full Moon happened to be fast approaching, carrying lots of momentum -- with the Moon itself reaching full phase exactly conjunct her natal Sun/Pluto conjunction. So she was in the cosmic spotlight as well as the regular one. The Full Moon so personally aspected against her chart provided a sense of emotional presence, which is why this event, while funny, was taken seriously."
Yes, I understand all of that. How I wish I could replace my astrological knowledge with those biochemistry reactions I was supposed to memorize.

It sounds cool, doesn't it? Seems to make perfect sense (especially if you read the whole article) and fit the story well, right? That's why astrology can be so convincing. It relies on something known as confirmation bias - people tend to remember accurate predictions and forget the inaccurate ones. Eric was able to come up with multiple examples of things that support my personality (which he learned about from my blog) and boobquake (which he learned about from the media). But he doesn't analyze every single relationship in the chart (see all those lines in the middle?). I'm rusty on my astrology, but I assure you there will be things that don't quite fit in there.

What I really should have done is given Eric fake birth information for me and see if he still makes it fit his story. Something tells me he still would have been able to dig some meaning out of that different chart. Unfortunately for skepticism, I was too nice to turn his good intentions into a science experiment.

But you want to know what the really interesting thing about that chart was? When I saw it, my initial thought wasn't "I'm going to write up a huge post debunking astrology!" It wasn't even "Now I can write a little backstory about how I used to believe this crap!"

It was "Wow, how cool!"

Even four years after "losing my faith" in astrology, I still had an emotional reaction to it. All the emotional triggers were there, and I felt that same excited rush as when I would look at my own chart, or draw up a chart for a friend, or read about complex interactions that I didn't originally understand. I used to not understand my religious friends when they explained the same experience. That an ex-Catholic would go to mass, and even though they no longer believed a word of it, they easily went through all the motions and had the same emotional reaction to their surroundings. That a crucifix or stained glass could trigger memories and dig up old feelings. That hearing an old hymn could make you feel closer to God, even if you now think he's a fairy tale. That being told about the horrible torture in hell can instill fear in your heart, even if you know it's not real.

Do these things prove that astrology or Catholicism are true? Of course not. What they show is how deeply people can get emotionally connected to their superstitions. That even after years of rational thought, certain stimuli still result in trained reactions. We all know about Pavlov's dogs, but we have a hard time admitting it applies to us too.

Even though I know astrology is bunk, I don't think I'll ever totally shake the emotional connection. If people ask my sign, I'll still happily reply "Scorpio!" out of habit (hey, at least it's the most badass sign to have). If skeptical men use that as a dating litmus test, I'm screwed. When people poke fun at the vagueness of sun signs (the Forer effect), I'll instinctively start explaining how it's more complex than that, even though that's bunk too - much like an ex-Catholic may still explain that no, Catholics don't worship Mary, even though what they do believe is still nonsense. I'll still poke through the Sextrology book at Borders and giggle at what my supposed kinks are because of my particular planetary alignment.

And while I still may get some enjoyment out of it, at least I know it's not real. Now it's similar to my fascination with Harry Potter - I can babble about how I'd totally be a Ravenclaw, but I don't really think magic is real and my Hogwarts letter got lost in the mail. If I ever become a true believer again, feel free to stick me on the first train to crazy town - especially if it's scarlet.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Charismatic prayers shut off skeptical part of believers' brains

No, this isn't me attempting to call theists stupid - it's a new study out in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. From New Scientist:

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Schjødt and his colleagues scanned the brains of 20 Pentecostalists and 20 non-believers while playing them recorded prayers. The volunteers were told that six of the prayers were read by a non-Christian, six by an ordinary Christian and six by a healer. In fact, all were read by ordinary Christians.

Only in the devout volunteers did the brain activity monitored by the researchers change in response to the prayers. Parts of the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices, which play key roles in vigilance and scepticism when judging the truth and importance of what people say, were deactivated when the subjects listened to a supposed healer. Activity diminished to a lesser extent when the speaker was supposedly a normal Christian (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsq023).

Schjødt says that this explains why certain individuals can gain influence over others, and concludes that their ability to do so depends heavily on preconceived notions of their authority and trustworthiness.

It's not clear whether the results extend beyond religious leaders, but Schjødt speculates that brain regions may be deactivated in a similar way in response to doctors, parents and politicians.

It's always fascinating to me when we find more and more scientific discoveries that explain religious behavior. Of course, I still wonder what the causal relationship here is. Do people become believers because the logical part of their brain shuts off when presented with unsupported religious woo? Or does the logical part of the brain shut off only in believers who have been trained to accept that people like faith healers are telling the truth?

(Via Boing Boing)

I'm going to be published!!!

Yes, that warrants three exclamation marks.

You may or may not have heard of the book The Atheist's Guide to Christmas. It was released in the UK last year to raise money for the Terrence Higgins Trust, a UK HIV charity. Here's a little summary of the book from Amazon:
42 atheist celebrities, comedians, scientists and writers give their funny and serious tips for enjoying the Christmas season. Last year, Guardian journalist Ariane Sherine launched the Atheist Bus Campaign and ended up raising over GBP150,000, enough to place the advert 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life' on 800 UK buses in January 2009. Now Ariane and dozens of other atheist writers, comedians and scientists are joining together to raise money for a very different cause. The Atheist's Guide to Christmas is a funny, thoughtful handbook all about enjoying Christmas, from 42 of the world's most entertaining atheists. It features everything from an atheist Christmas miracle to a guide to the best Christmas pop hits.
Well, it turns out HarperCollins is developing a US edition, and they wanted to add a couple American authors to make it more appealing to this side of the pond. And because of all the boobquake media attention, one of their editors stumbled upon my blog and said they loved my writing and sense of humor. I was asked to do a longer humor piece on atheist toys, based off of my Atheist Barbie joke! Excuse the caps lock, but:

I AM SO FREAKING HAPPY!

It's been a goal of mine to get my creative work published ever since I was a little kid. I've been writing fiction stories since second grade, have a novel fairly far in progress (and other ideas that are less developed), have taken creative writing classes whenever I can, and absolutely love writing (which hopefully you can tell from my blog). I always said I wanted to be published before I graduated college, and there was that nagging cynical voice in the back of my head that said it wouldn't happen. But now due to the bizarre circumstances of an offhanded joke becoming internationally popular, my dream is literally coming true.

I can't believe I'm going to be published in the same book as fabulous writers that I deeply respect, like Richard Dawkins, Simon Singh, AC Grayling, Phil Plait, and Ariane Sherine. And not only that, but the editor reacted so positively to my piece (which is the top secret project I've been working on the last week), that this will probably open a lot of doors for me.

The US edition will be released on November 2, 2010 (my birthday! What are the odds?). The Amazon page for it is a little sparse now, but you can preorder it here. If you order the editions of it that are already released, they won't have me in it.

I didn't think anything could top the Colbert Report...but fulfilling this dream at age 22 kind of wins.
YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A new hypothesis on how sexual reproduction evolved

Man, to think I took a class that spent the whole semester talking about the evolution of sexual reproduction. It looked a lot like panel one, but I was never exposed to this brilliant hypothesis:Pfffft, take that, Muller's ratchet!

Now, the real question is if I'm brave enough to email this to my professor. Maybe after graduation...

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Iranian and Muslim response to Boobquake

I freely admit that Boobquake did not begin as social commentary on women's rights in Iran or criticism aimed at Muslims. It simply started as a humorous "science" experiment to promote skeptical thinking and poke fun at the cleric's hateful, superstitious view of women. Because Boobquake had such a simple beginning, many people have been tweeting at me that it is somehow anti-Muslim or anti-Iranian. Some feminists have complained that it ignores the real plight of women in Iran and is insulting to their struggles.

I could write a long post about why I disagree, but I don't think this is my place to speak. I'm not well versed in Iranian politics, I'm not a scholar of Islam, and I'm not an expert of women's rights in the Middle East. I'm just a feminist who likes to promote skeptical thinking and whose idea accidentally started important discussion.

But I have been getting immensely positive feedback from people who do understand these things. I've received dozens and dozens of emails from male and female Iranians (some still in Iran, some abroad) who have been thanking me for Boobquake and standing up against the ridiculous cleric. The only concerned emails I've received have been from people making sure I don't think all Iranians think the same way as that man - and I definitely do not. I can't share the emails here for the sake of their privacy and safety (especially for those still in Iran), but I am going to share some public statements that have been made. I think they speak for themselves:

An open message from Mina Ahadi, International Committee Against Executions and Stoning; Mahin Alipour, Equal Rights Now - Organisation Against Women's Discrimination in Iran; Shahla Daneshfar, Equal Rights Now - Organisation Against Women's Discrimination in Iran; and Maryam Namazie, Iran Solidarity:
Dear Jennifer

We wanted to write and congratulate you on 'boobquake.' As signatories to the Manifesto of Liberation of Women in Iran and Iran Solidarity, we felt strongly that it was an important act in defence of women's rights and human dignity. This is particularly so given the silence of so many feminists who seem to have succumbed to the racist concept of cultural relativism that implies that women choose to live the way they are forced to. Clearly though, women everywhere want to live lives worthy of the 21st century and not under medievalism and religious rules. That is why you have received so much support from people in Iran for this action. This support is a reflection of a strong women's liberation movement, which is leading many of the ongoing protests there.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi's views are not merely those of a madman but of the state, the judicial system and the educational system. Under Sharia law, for example, a women's testimony is worth half that of a man's, women are still being stoned to death for sex outside of marriage (with the law even specifying the size of the stone to be used), women and girls are denied access to certain fields of study (they can't be judges for example as they are deemed to be too 'emotional'), and they have no right to travel or even work without the permission of their male guardians. Like racial apartheid in the former South Africa, sexual apartheid demands that women and girls be veiled, sit at the back of buses, and enter via separate government building entrances. Yet despite 31 years of this brutality, women continue to refuse and resist, including by unveiling or 'improper' veiling, even though they are arrested, fined and harassed daily. This resistance is why every now and then leading clerics like Sedighi feel the need to intervene and blame women for some calamity or another. Acts of real human solidarity like yours helps to mobilise opposition to this misogyny whilst strengthening and encouraging the women's liberation movement in Iran.

We look forward to working closely with you from now on and know you will continue to support our efforts.
Excerpts from Fault-Lines and Hem-Lines, by Samira Mohyeddin, an Iranian-Canadian feminist and activist wrote writes at Iranian.com:
What Brainquake conveniently fails to acknowledge is that preacher Pat and the 700 Club, do not run the United States government. However, Mr. Sedighi’s comments are the hallmark of the regime in Iran, a system of governance that has mandated that all girls, both Muslim and non-Muslim alike must cover their hair and dress in a modest manner from the age of nine on! Let’s talk about that! Let’s talk about the sexualization of pre-pubescent girls! These are not social constructs in Iran, this is the law for the past thirty-one years. Women’s bodies in Iran are legally not their own: women have no freedom of mobility, nor freedom to clothe themselves as they see fit. Brainquake’s churlish comparison between a woman’s CHOICE to show her cleavage and FORCED hijab is irresponsible and a further slap in the face to all those women being subjugated under such misogynistic and patriarchal laws. It is as reprehensible a comparison as breast augmentation would be to female genital mutilation.

[...] Boobquake was rightly making a mockery of a comment made by a moronic cleric in the Islamic Republic. Brainquake’s - HEY EVERYBODY WE HAVE BRAINS! – project is further unpalatable because of its pandering to a challenge that women should not even be engaged in; we should not have to sell ourselves and our accomplishments, we should not have to sell our boobs or our brains; if after more than a century of struggle for our inalienable rights we are still shouting these banal and insipid statements as women - perhaps it is us and our movement that needs a shaking at the core, and not mother earth. You see, I am not interested in being invited to join the Islamic Republic at its table; I want to cut its legs off.

[...] I am most proud of growing up and living in a society that did not try and shame my body, and that did not fascistically attempt to shape my mind. I am proud that I do not need the written permission of the male guardian in my family to board a train to Montreal. I am proud of my Masters in Women and Gender studies from the University of Toronto. I am proud that I am allowed to ride my bicycle throughout this beautiful city and I am proud that the country of Canada, for the past fifteen years has recognized my inalienable right to go topless, should I so choose to do so. But what I am most proud of is my ability to distinguish between something that is chosen by me and something that is physically forced upon me.
Excerpt from Women and earthquake: comedy or tragedy? by Khalil Keyvan:
Dear Jennifer

You, I and millions of people laughed at the Mullahs uncontrollably. Subject of ridicule, they have been for the past thirty one years; a rich source and inspiration for many original jokes. They have always been marginalized and hated characters in the community. However, no one could imagine that such social creatures could one day decide the fate of a people. Today, more than ever, these guys are hated for their unimaginable cruelty.

And who would have imagined that a stupid Mullah's remarks about earthquake and veil would get such a broad coverage in the media. Seldom have such satires reverberated on such a scale across the world and united people in such a way. Your creativity and initiative has set in motion a truly global movement to combat the Mullahs and support the cause of women’s liberation in Iran, and this is much appreciated.

We all laughed together. However, my laughter is bitter too. As I laugh, the human tragedies in the past 31 years of Islamic rule in Iran is reviewed for me like a movie. This comedy reflects a massive human tragedy for a population that has borne the brunt of this savagery. For thirty one years we have ridiculed these Mullahs, while at the same time crying our hearts out. I remember my friends, tens of thousands of people who were executed by these thugs, my young friend who wished to play with his father who was hanged by the same people, and my own child who was born in prison and because of the unhygienic environment only lived for one month.

We know these clerics well by their nonsense but also by their associated brutality indicated by the unmarked mass graves, prisons and tortures. Mullahs, for us, mean women with absolutely no legal rights, compulsory veil and religious police. They are serial killers representing God on earth fighting enemies of god. We remember the men and women who were raped in the ghastly Kahrizak prison so as to break their spirits. And we are reminded of the thousands of men and women who are presently in the Islamic Republic's prisons, under pressure and torture, and with some at risk of execution.

[...] The reason for writing this letter is first and foremost to express my appreciation of your hard-hitting ridicule of the mullahs in Iran and of religious fanaticism and your support of women’s rights. Women and all of the people in Iran need friends like you all over the world in order to free themselves from the hell they are stuck in.
Here are some public comments left on my blog by Iranians:
From farzam: I am an iranian and im totally familiar with theses lunatic comments. these idiots are uneducated and as you may know blood thirsty as well. anyway what you've done so far is just fantastic. i thank you from me and majority of iranians who just laugh at bubble head mullas. good luck with boob quake "movement"! wish someday everybody can live free!

From Mahsa: I am writing from Tehran. I love your boobquake idea...It's good to see people care about the repressions in Iran.

From Irani: Dear Jen, you may have no idea yourself, but with this post you have served the cause of freedom for men and women of Iran in a very concrete and powerful way, and, as an Iranian, I want to thank you for that and to let you know that we owe you a great deal. It seems like you are also getting media attention for this, which makes me happy to know -you deserve every bit of that! Once this crazy regime of the apes is gone and Iran hopefully finds a chance to experience peace and freedom, you should come to Iran to see for yourself what you have contributed to!

From Nima: Hello and Salam and Hallo, I am an Iranian from Germany and I want to thank all you cool girls for this reaction to this dumb gouverment. Thank you. Peace through science and knowlegde.
And finally, media coverage from BBC Persia, for any of you who speak Persian: