Discussion thread

July 23, 2021 • 10:30 am

It’s a hot, dispiriting day, they’ve closed nearly all the places at the University where you can buy food (pandemic; though I usually bring my lunch, I wanted to treat myself today), and not much is happening in the world. Until there’s something that grabs me, then, I’ll throw the discussion to the readers, but will suggest some topics. (You don’t have to adhere to them!)

Here are a few topics:

The name of the Cleveland Indians baseball team has been changed to the “Cleveland Guardians” for obvious reasons (could they have made it the “Cleveland Native Americans”?). Here’s the announcement by Tom Hanks. The name probably needed to go, and I can see why “Guardians” was substituted for “Indians” (same number of syllables, almost the same number of letters ,and it rhymes), but surely there was a better name. Whaddya think? (Tom Hanks, according to reader Ken, was a big fan of the team.) How about the “Cleveland Fire” after the famous Cuyahoga River Fire? (Oh, I forgot, Chicago’s soccer team is named “The Chicago Fire.”)

Why didn’t the Olympics require all athletes, save those who are medically compromised, to be vaccinated against coronavirus? (Only 83% of the American athletes have been vaccinated.) Is the Olympic committee dumb or what? And what about those unvaccinated athletes? Granted, they got more jabs than Americans in general, but I thought athletes would take care of their health.

Over at the New York Times, David Brooks has a strange column, “Is America racist?“, which answers “yes” but adds that America is not “white supremacist” towards black people. This seems to me a contradiction, since racism is based on the idea that the oppressor is superior to the oppressed. Maybe I’m wrong, but what’s with Brooks, anyway?

Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan failed a key test in the Senate, with Republicans voting against advancing it. It’ll need 60 votes to pass. Does it have a chance? If it does pass, won’t Biden have to raise taxes, and not just on the wealthy?

Attorney General Merrick Garland is on a “gun tour” of five U.S. cities with gun-related homicide problems. It seems futile, since what they’re suggesting is simply preventing those who legally own guns from selling them illegally. Only an idiot would think that would accomplish anything, but is there a viable solution to the spate of gun-related homicides in America?

Or, beef about whatever you want, or extol that which you deem worth extolling.

Discussion thread

July 14, 2021 • 12:00 pm

There is lots to do today, and to be sure there isn’t much news, nor any articles that interest me sufficiently to write about. It may be that I’m suffering from malaise, but no, I’m not getting the usual articles from readers about stuff that bothers or excites them. Many posts here are inspired by stuff sent by readers.

I’m wondering if I can get the readers to talk amongst themselves.  There are many news topics: Cuba, booster shots, where you want to travel now that restrictions are loosening, how Biden is doing, what will happen to Afghanistan,  and so on.

Or, what is bothering you today? We all have our worries, and maybe it’s something like the leak in my office ceiling I found this morning, which was repaired by a fantastic guy from facilities who performed technical feats I never could have done (it was a loose gasket in a very old copper pipe way up above the ceiling). Now it’s better.

Or what are you feeling good about? I’m taking pride in rescuing 8 ducklings from Botany Pond, including every one of a brood of six that was dumped into the water without a mother. (Try rescuing a one-day-old duckling and you’ll see what I mean).

Or how about them Cubs? (They suck, but the White Sox are at the top of the American League.)

These threads always seem to go better than I imagine, and I will feel I’ve succeeded if I get 50 responses.

Or, if you wish, ask me a question (not too personal!), and I’ll go through the thread later and provide what answers I can.

Discussion thread

June 25, 2021 • 10:00 am

I’m back from downtown! As a senior, I got to go to the head of the line, which stretched two blocks, and I was in and out in 15 minutes. (A friend of mine, not a senior, waited four hours in line the other day). Illinois has rigorous requirements to get a “Real ID” driver’s license, including presenting a passport or similar government ID, a driver’s license, utility bills, bank statements (to show your mailing address), a social security card, and a mortgage or rental agreement. But I had ’em all.

Nevertheless, let’s go ahead with this discussion:

The news is a bit thin today, though the collapse of the Florida high-rise condo dominates it.  But there’s not much to discuss about that tragedy; 99 people are still missing as of this morning.  I’ll leave this thread open and see of readers can forge some kind of coherent discussion.

You needn’t discuss only one topic, but some comments should refer to others.  Lots of stuff to talk about: How is Biden doing? Are you happy with his immigration policy? Will the filibuster eventually disappear? Do you think the Supreme Court has been ruling more favorably for liberals than you expected? Will Trump make a comeback? Why is there still no First Cat? Did Biden really achieve bipartisanship with his new infrastructure deal?

But you can ignore those suggestions. Let’s see what’s on readers’ minds. You can also beef about stuff if you wish.

Dawkins converses with Tyson

May 30, 2021 • 9:30 am

Here’s a 54-minute conversation, one on one, with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins. The title is “Combatting Anti-Science with Richard Dawkins,” but the conversation goes further than this. There’s no need for me to summarize the discussion between these two well known science writers, so I’ll just highlight a few points.

Tyson first blurbs Richard’s new book, called Books Do Furnish a Life: An Electrifying Celebration of Science Writing (link to Amazon site), a collection of Richard’s book reviews and other miscellaneous pieces. I must read it, and I’m told one of the chapters is a review of my book Why Evolution is True (this is my blurb). Richard also reveals that he has two more books on the way, one about flight called Flights of Fancy; he doesn’t reveal the other one.  Tyson, who, curiously, says that he’s read only three of Richard’s 30-odd books (he names them) asks which of them was the best selling volume. I bet you can guess.

They discuss how their writing has changed, and what tips they’d give other sciences writers (Tyson’s revelation is “most people don’t read”, which conditions how he writes). Tyson also tells us why he follows his own social media, despite it often being toxic.

They then change to the topic of reason, with Tyson asking Dawkins about how he persuades people whose views aren’t based on reason. They discuss their differing views about how to deal with religion. Tyson has always been more of an accommodationist, while Richard, who’s an explicit anti-theist, is peeved because he thinks that even if people don’t inflict their religious views on others, they are depriving themselves of missing out on the true wonders of the world, including the Big Bang and evolution.

Other questions that come up:

Can you be religious and a secular humanist at the same time?

Can you base ethics on secular humanism?

Why are people religious?

Is religiosity really decreasing, or is it being replaced by stuff like woo?

Note that at 32:25, Tyson says that there’s evidence that “ducks can be superstitious”. Actually, it’s not ducks but pigeons, and you may know about this “superstitious” behavior involved with pigeon treats and Skinner boxes.

Things slow down a bit after 40 minutes, but at 52 minutes Tyson asks Richard to reprise his epitaph, which is apparently the last section of Books Do Furnish a Life. You won’t be surprised, and I won’t reveal it, but it’s a take on Dawkins’s view about how lucky we are to be alive, which you may have seen in his books.

Voilà: the discussion:

h/t: Bryan

The conversation with Adam Gopnik continues

April 23, 2021 • 9:15 am

Over at The Conversation site, I’ve posted a response (“Letter 7”) to New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik in our continuing debate about the question posted by the title below (click on screenshot). This is my last response, as I started the sequence and each of us gets four “letters”.

In his last letter (“Letter 6”), Adam emphasized that I hadn’t answered several of his challenges, including his demand that I weigh in about two sub-fields of evolutionary biology: epigenetics as a means of adaptation, and evolutionary psychology. As Adam said, “there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud, and others who think  epigenesis is significant in ways you strongly don’t.”

I didn’t have the space to respond to both of these, as they’re tangential to our exchange, but I did defend the field (though of course not all the work) of evolutionary psychology. As for epigenetics, I don’t think it’s been shown to be an important cause of adaptive evolution in organisms, although there are cases where environmentally-induced epigenetic modifications of the DNA can persist for several generations.

Adam’s last letter also began his defense of the claim that abstract art and music can convey “knowledge”. I took issue with that, as I think it’s palpably false. But you can see my arguments in Letter #7.  I also issued my own challenge to Adam:

But maybe I’m wrong. So here are my challenges to you: please give me the “knowledge” conveyed by abstract paintings like “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)” by Pollock, “Cossacks” by Kandinsky, or Malevich’s monochrome “Black Square.”  And what is the knowledge we gain from non-programatic or “absolute” music like Beethoven’s first piano trio and his first string quartet?  If, like science, art is a “way of knowing”, these questions shouldn’t be hard to answer.

Needless to say, I am not denigrating the value of literature, music, and art, as those who follow this site know that I’m a big booster of the arts. I am simply arguing that neither the purpose nor the effect of art like this is to convey “knowledge”.

I look forward to Adam’s final letter. After that, our discussion will have reached its end.

Discussion thread: the trial of Derek Chauvin and other matters

March 30, 2021 • 11:00 am

How about a discussion thread while I’m on the road? Here’s one possible topic, but feel free to bring up anything.

As you know, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is now on trial for the murder of George Floyd in the infamous kneeling-on-the-neck incident. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. The jury has a mixed racial composition, so reports the media, but that reporting itself implies that jurors will judge the case based on their race.

I’ve been loath to call the death of Floyd “murder” because there wasn’t a verdict yet, and because even the news doesn’t do that, but it sure looks as if Chauvin showed some sort of wanton depravity, kneeling on Floyd’s neck much longer than necessary.

Here’s CNN’s Van Jones analyzing the case in a seven-minute segment. Jones apparently thinks that Chauvin is guilty, and saying that “the system is on trial”: if Chauvin gets away with it, police officers across the U.S. will feel free to do the same thing.  But the jurors cannot try the system: they are trying Derek Chauvin. The purpose of a trial is to see if an individual broke the law under a particular set of circumstances, not whether the American system of policing is flawed. That said, like Van Jones I can’t imagine how Chauvin’s conduct could be found acceptable.

I suspect there will be a guilty verdict on at least one of the charges.

The coverage will be live (an unprecedented even in Minneapolis) at the site below:

Discuss your take.  Should the system be on trial? Is Chauvin guilty? If so, of which of the charges?

Another letter in my exchange with Adam Gopnik

March 18, 2021 • 9:45 am

Over at the “Letter” section of The Conversation site, I’ve posted another response in my continuing discussion with writer Adam Gopnik about “Ways of Knowing”. The topic is in the screenshot below, and you can see my latest (“Letter 5”) by scrolling down.

My letter doesn’t need a gloss, as the whole conversation is self-explanatory. I think that we’ll finish with a total of eight letters—four each—with me writing one more piece and then Adam finishing off the discussion after writing two more letters.

Discussion thread: politics and stuff

March 16, 2021 • 9:30 am

My visit to the dentist should be quick, but I think it’s time to let readers talk amongst themselves. The topic of politics always engenders discussion—and strong feelings—so I might suggest that one. (I’d suggest recent books you’ve read, but I usually do that in conjunction with describing a book I’ve just read.)  But there’s lots to discuss here. A few questions:

Is there any possibility for bipartisanship, as Joe promised so often during his campaign?

Is there any hope for meaningful immigration reform?

Are the Democrats too woke?

What do you like best about what Biden’s done so far?

What do you think is Biden’s most negative accomplishment so far?

Do you think a $1400 stimulus check given to each qualifying person will really do substantial things for Americans?

Is there any chance Andrew Cuomo will stay on as New York’s governor?

Is Beyocé overrated?

Did you know that Bob Dylan will be 80 on May 24?

Is there a worse word than “impactful”?

What is the best novel of all time? (Same for movies.)

Adam Gopnik’s second letter to me

March 10, 2021 • 11:00 am

Just a note: Adam Gopnik has responded to my last letter on the “Letter” website of The Conversation. The topic we’re discussing, as you can see in the title below, is “ways of knowing”, and you can see Adam’s latest response (“Letter 4”) by clicking on the screenshot.

There is a lesson to me about how science is done, a statement about Darwin’s view of human evolution that I find dubious (but will check), and some claims about how sociology is best done not through sociological research, but through literature. I shall respond in a week or so. In the meantime, read for yourself, and feel free to respond below, being aware that Adam is my friend and you must not be rude, though you can be critical of either of us.

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.