Discussion thread

February 23, 2021 • 10:15 am

I’ve more to say today, but I’m busy working on a response to Adam Gopnik’s latest letter in our exchange of views about the question “Are the methods used by science the only way of knowing?” As expected, Adam defended literature as a “way of knowing”, and I have much to say in response—too much to be shoehorned into 1200 words. Condense, condense, condense. But the exchange will go on for at least three letters each, or more likely four, and it’s both enormously fun and has also made me think hard.

Until this afternoon, then, I offer this post as a platform for readers’ discussion.  You can talk about anything you want, but I’ll make a suggestion, which you don’t have to address:

How is the new administration doing? Clearly it’s miles better than Trump’s, but are there things you aren’t keen on? What about the expensive ($1.9 trillion) pandemic relief bill? Will $1400 stimulus checks to those making below a certain amount really constitute any substantial help? Does the minimum-wage increase belong in this bill? Is Joe’s administration too woke? How is he handling the pandemic?

It’s not a sin, you know, to find fault with an administration that you see as a tremendous improvement over the four-year nightmare that was Trump.

Or, discuss whatever you want.

Response from Adam Gopnik in the “Ways of knowing” discussion

February 20, 2021 • 10:45 am

Adam Gopnik didn’t lose any time replying to my first argument, on the “Letters” site, that the empirical methods used by science are the only way to know the truth about the universe. (When I expressed surprise at how fast he answered, he said that, well, he’s used to working on a deadline. But he beat the deadline by five days: they expect only one letter a week.)

At any rate, you can read the first pair of letters by clicking on the screenshot below, and see Adam’s defense of literature as a “way of knowing.” I’m working on a reply now.

From now on I’m not going to call attention to each bout of our discussion because there will be at least six letters; the next thing you hear from me will be when the discussion is over. You can bookmark the site if you want to follow the interchange.  But I did want to call attention to the first two “letters”, for they contain the gist of our respective arguments.

This is fun. I get to engage someone who knows literature in depth as well as more science than the usual critic, and we are friendly and civil.

A “Letters” discussion between Adam Gopnik and me on ways of knowing

February 16, 2021 • 10:30 am

For a few years I’ve had email conversations about “ways of knowing” with Adam Gopnik, who writes for the New Yorker and has also published several books. Our conversation has centered on whether science is the only way of knowing, or whether there are other ways of knowing as well. Adam defended the arts in this respect, and we’ve had some vigorous back and forths about whether music, painting, and literature in particular can be ways of knowing. I wanted to formalize our thoughts in a systematic way, and so I asked Adam to join me in a series of exchanges on the “Conversation” site of Letter. I just put up the first letter, which you can read by clicking on the screenshot below.

Our discussion critically depends, of course, on what we mean by “science” and “ways of knowing”. I’ve tried to define those carefully in my first letter, construing science rather broadly so that the topic becomes “the methods used by science” as ways of knowing. My position, which you’ll recognize if you’ve read this site for a while, is that yes, the methods of science are the only way of knowing. Religion is not, art is not, and ethics is not. I see philosophy and math as more circumscribed ways of knowing, since they convey knowledge about what holds within a system of axioms, but not about the universe. (I’m not a “mathematical realist”.) Of course philosophy and ethics are often informed by facts about the universe, and mathematics is an indispensable tool for understanding the universe.

Anyway, you can read my first thoughts (and definitions) in the first letter, posted on the site today (click on screenshot below). Adam will respond within a week, and we’ll each produce three or four letters in total, depending on how the conversation goes. I’m looking forward to this because scientists don’t usually get to engage in such a discussion with people who know a lot about the arts. I’m honored that Adam chose to join me in the exchange.


Matthew talks about Rosalind Franklin tomorrow

October 15, 2020 • 8:30 am

Mark your calendar for tomorrow: Matthew Cobb, sponsored by the groups indicated below, will be talking about the scientific contributions of Rosalind Franklin, and will, I’m sure, dispel many misconceptions that have accreted around her life. He’s kicking off a series of talks on women in science.

This talk will be virtual, but you have to register in advance to see it (it’s free), and then test your connection, as there are two ways to connect. (The site walks you through it.) Registration is here, or you can click on the screenshot below. And. . . you can even ask questions.

Note that it’s at 11 a.m. Eastern time or 5 p.m. Central European Time.

Here’s Matthew’s own summary:
It’s a 40 minute talk (already recorded), followed by live Q&A that might go on for some time. It’s about Franklin’s life, not simply the DNA years. It puts particular emphasis on her post-DNA work on viruses, and casts a rather different light on people’s impressions of what the double helix meant at the time. It doesn’t go into her love life nor do I call her ‘Rosalind’. She is ‘Franklin’ throughout. It was fascinating working on this and helped clarify my views of her – which are even more positive than they were before I began. Includes lots of photos, extracts from her letters to Watson, etc etc.
And here’s the official blurb for the talk:
If you’ve registered, you can go here and click on the “Already registered? Click here” button, or click on the screenshot below. Note on the webinar page there’s a button for asking questions. Put Matthew in the hot seat!

Discussion thread

September 23, 2020 • 9:30 am

There’s not much interesting to write about today (I have one reading recommendation that I’ll post later): I haven’t found much intriguing science to talk about, the country is in turmoil with the pandemic and the upcoming election, and the big fracas about Trump’s Supreme Court nominee is fracturing America even further.  Plus I’m dispirited, as are many. Yesterday we passed 200,000 Covid-19 deaths in America (four times the toll of the Vietnam War), the rest of the world is about to exceed a million deaths, and a spike in the pandemic may be in the offing.

So here’s a discussion thread, and I don’t want to proffer a topic. Maybe people want to kvetch about their woes, or maybe they want to tell us what bright spots they find in their lives. Or tell us what you had for dinner.

I was lazy yesterday, so I made what I call “poor man’s Peking duck”, my own invention. I cook a chicken breast and shred it. Then I slice green peppers into shreds, and place the shredded chicken in a flour tortilla with some slivers of pepper. I slather the contents with hoisin sauce, and then roll up and eat the tortilla. Real Peking duck, of course, is crispy duck skin or meat heaped inside a mandarin pancake (flour, but thinner than a commercial flour tortilla), with scallion shreds and hoisin sauce added. In my version, the chicken mimics the duck (poorly), the peppers mimic the scallions, and the tortilla mimics the pancake. But it’s easy to make and very good.

Though normally I have beer with Chinese food, I had to finish a bottle of 2016 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and so I washed my concoction down with red wine. Not the best combination, but the wine wasn’t going to drink itself. After dinner I had my evening treat, which has become more abstemious and less calorific over the years. I’ve discovered that five plump and juicy Medjool dates (I buy these ones from Amazon, and they’re great) make a satisfying snack, even though they’re 40 calories per date (the recommended “serving size” on the bag is ridiculous: one date).

Or maybe you’d like to describe your last meal if you could have anything you wanted.

Or talk about something besides food. The world is wide.

Discussion thread: the Democratic convention (or anything else)

August 19, 2020 • 1:15 pm

I’m jammed this afternoon, and so am giving readers the chance to sound off on either the topic below or anything else of interest.

I didn’t watch the Democratic National Convention, as I already know I’m voting Democratic, but I did watch Michelle Obama’s speech on video, which I quite liked.  Now many people are extolling last night’s very short virtual speech by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, calling her “the future of the Democratic Party”. (She was seconding the nomination of Bernie Sanders, an empty gesture but one that she was asked to do; I do recognize that she now endorses Biden.) Ocasio-Cortez, whom I don’t much care for, though some of her stands are okay, was given 60 seconds to speak but used 100 seconds, something that I, as a punctual, keeping-to-time kind of guy, don’t like.

Here’s her speech, for which she’s being touted as “The Future of the Democratic Party.” As far as I know about her legislative accomplishments, that future involves trading insults on social media, and we already have that. Over at HuffPost, people are falling all over themselves to tout her as a future President of the United States.

Well, unless she moves more toward the center (and yes, I want a President on the Left, but not the far Left), I’m not on board.

Discuss this, or discuss the convention in general. Was it successful? What were the highlights (I haven’t heard Jill Biden’s speech)? Does Trump even stand a chance now? RealClear Politics gives Biden a 7.6% advantage over Trump (below), and it’s holding pretty steady. (Remember, that’s a popular-vote poll, while the Presidency is decided by the electoral college. Still, Trump cannot win should these figures hold in November.)

Discussion thread

August 12, 2020 • 10:00 am

I have little free time today, and am thus putting up a discussion thread. Readers can talk about anything they want. I’ll start with a suggestion, but you need not take it up.

There are a pair of articles in Psychology Today about how and why The University of California eliminated the SAT standardized achievement test despite its own council’s exhaustive reserach and recommendation that it be retained because it (especially in conjunction with high school grades) was one of the best predictors of college achievement (measured by grade point average, or GPA). You can read the two parts below, or just weigh in on the general trend of colleges and universities (and now graduate schools) eliminating standardized test results as criteria for admission.

Click on the screenshots to read:

Part 1:

Part 2


Or discuss what you want: Kamala Harris, the pandemic, or whatever, but try to keep the discussion reasonably coherent.

Discussion thread

June 16, 2020 • 9:30 am

This is an experiment born of my difficulty with braining today because it’s the anniversary of Grania’s death. Feel free to talk about anything. I’ll suggest some topics based on recent events or on New York Times or Washington Post articles, but you’re not at all required to even mention these.

A NYT editorial by Jennifer Finney Boylan that, while extolling the Supreme Court decision on LGBTQ rights, accuses J. K. Rowling of “hate”. (Boylan is a trans woman.)

A WaPo article on North Korea blowing up the liaison office with South Korea in the DPRK village of Kaeson, which served as an informal embassy. Is Kim Jong-un just bluffing for some unspecified gain. After all, war with South Korea (and perforce the U.S.) would destroy the country.

Here’s a Torygraph video of the destruction of the building:

Joyce’s Ulysses. Have you read it? (It took me about four tries, and I still like Dubliners (especially The Dead) better, though Ulysses is a world class novel—one that you need a guide to read.)

Ricky Gervais’s t.v. series After Life. I’ve managed to watch the entire first season and, like many readers, thought it was very good.  To me it was marred at the end, however, by the seeming need to wrap everything up with a bow in a happy ending, with Tony getting a girlfriend, making peace with the people he didn’t like (even giving a treat to Diane Morgan), reconciling himself to living, and so on. It was an abrupt ending—too abrupt—and though I think two more seasons are in store, I don’t see the point of going on with the series given the plot resolution. Change my mind!

And for your reading pleasure: a wonderful photographic essay on the Indian state of Gujurat.

Somebody start. And I tell you what: if there aren’t at least fifty comments, I’ll be disappointed in my readers and shoot this cat.

Conversation with attorney Andrew Seidel on June 11 about the secular origins of the United States

May 10, 2019 • 11:30 am

If you’re in Chicago, mark your calendars for June 11. For on that evening I’ll be having a conversation in town with Andrew Seidel (sponsored by the Freedom from Religion Foundation [FFRF] and the End of the Line Humanists) about Andrew’s new book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American. To be released in four days, the book deals with the secular origins of America—neither the founders nor the founding “principles” were religious—and shows how those who promulgate that myth (mostly the Christian Nationalists) are dead wrong and ignorant of history. It’s a must-have book for secularists.

Andrew, with whom I’ve worked on a few cases as an evolution expert or “censorious person,” is a constitutional lawyer and the Director of Strategic Response at the FFRF. And the book is good: I’m nearly done with my first read.

The official announcement is below. The discussion is free, it’s at 7:30, and it’s held at the University of Illinois at Chicago, with the address given in the flyer (click on screenshot to enlarge). Andrew’s book will be available at the venue and he’ll be signing it. If you’re in Chicago, we’ll be delighted to see you there. There will be lots to discuss and lots of myths to dispel.

Dan Dennett versus two believers (including Reza Aslan): a discussion of faith at the University of Chicago (tickets free)

January 28, 2019 • 8:30 am

Maybe it’s a bit clickbaity to use the word “versus” in the title, but since Aslan is a faith-coddler, and the other religionist, William Schweiker, is identified as “Leading Theologian and Ordained Minister of the United Methodist Church, Author of Dust that Breathes: Christian Faith and the New Humanisms, and Director of Enhancing Life Project”, this looks to be a discussion in which there will be disagreement. And it looks like big fun.

Click on screenshot to go to the site, where you can register (just give your name and email) to get one or more free online tickets (click on the green “register” button). I’m going, and of course I’ll report on how it went.

Here’s the description of the program.

Tuesday, February 5th at 5:30 PM
The Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts
915 East 60th Street
Chicago, IL 60637

The Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge invites you to a discussion about the past, present, and future of belief. Join award-winning writer and commentator Reza Aslan (author of Beyond Fundamentalism), controversial philosopher of science and culture Daniel Dennett (author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon), and respected religious ethicist William Schweiker for a conversation that will take the long view on religion as a human enterprise: its history, its power, and its prospects. We hope to bring believers, critics, and everyone in between into a productive—and provocative—dialogue about the place of faith in our changing world.

Religion, Identity and the Construction of Faith will be moderated by David Nirenberg, Interim Dean of the UChicago Divinity School. The discussion will be held at the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center Performance Hall on February 5, 2019. Doors open to the public at 5:00 p.m.; the event will run from 5:30-7:00 p.m., with a reception to follow.

Award-winning titles by these acclaimed authors will be available for sale by the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in the lobby of the Logan Center Performance Hall from 4:30-7:30.

Given the moderator and discussants, it looks as if Dennett will be playing the role of the Greeks at Thermopylae.