My interview in L’Express about “progressive” attacks on science

December 27, 2022 • 9:15 am

I was interviewed about a month ago by Thomas Mahler and Laetitia Strauch -Bonart for the French magazine L’Express; the topic was attacks on the Left coming from science. (The title translates as “Big interview. Jerry Coyne: ‘The attacks against science from the left are worrisome.'”)

If you can read French, the link below is free (click screenshot). If you want a not-so-great Google translation into English, simply contact me.




Discussion with Dawkins today

September 1, 2022 • 10:00 am

Reminder: this evening/afternoon/night, depending on where you live, Richard Dawkins and I will have an hourlong discussion (I envision 45 minutes with 10-15 minutes of questions from the viewers) about Richard’s new book on flight. Readers can type in questions, which will be curated, and I will chose what I think are the good ones. You can get the details by clicking on the screenshot below; the show begins at 6 pm U.S. Eastern time.

And if you can’t make it, a video of the show, sponsored by the Center for Inquiry, will eventually be put on YouTube.

See you there!

A week from Thursday: I interview Richard Dawkins about his new book

August 23, 2022 • 10:45 am

The Skeptical Inquirer is the reason-promoting magazine of the Center for Inquiry, itself affiliated with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Every Thursday they feature a live video presentation or interview that is later put on YouTube.

Next Thursday (Sept. 1) at 7 p.m. now rescheduled for 6 pm EDT, I have the pleasure and honor of discussing Richard Dawkins’s new book on flight with the author himself. You can register for free to see it live, or watch later on YouTube. Click on the link below to go to the description and to register. It will be an hour long, and I understand that there will be questions in the last ten minutes or so.

I’ve read the book twice and mentioned it briefly last week (you can buy it on Amazon at this link). I have a big list of things to talk about, but I’m willing to crowdsource questions from readers about the book, and perhaps a few general questions about Richard and his work (nothing personal, please!). If you have a good question, I’ll consider asking it, so put it in the comments.

Intellectural freedom in STEM: An interview with Anna Krylov

August 2, 2022 • 12:00 pm

We’ve met Anna Krylov on these pages before (see here); she’s a quantum chemist and the Gabilan Distinguished Professor in Science and Engineering and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Southern California. And we met her because she’s an opponent of the invasion of wokeness into STEM, and because she somehow got an anti-woke paper, “The perils of politicizing science” into the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters. That paper got a lot of attention, most likely because it was congenial to all those who deplore the fulminating wokeness of science but are afraid to speak up. (Try getting an op-ed extolling merit over identity into a science journal these days!)

Now she has an interview about what she calls the attacks on “academic freedom”, though I’d prefer to call it “freedom of speech”. To me, “academic freedom” means the freedom to teach what you want, so long as it is within the discipline you’re addressing and uses respectable standards of scholarship to address debatable issues.

But never mind the distinction. Have a look at the piece, which is good, and weep for the way science has become so politicized—and so quickly!  It’s almost like a disease that doctors are afraid to treat—much less diagnose. But Anna has no fears. Click below to read her interview with the Academic Freedom Alliance. The interview was conducted and edited by Olivia Glunz.

I’ll give just two excerpts:

What is the current state of academic freedom in chemistry and the natural sciences?

Traditionally, the natural sciences have not been strongly affected by politics. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, research on evolution, the climate, and stem cells has been politicized, but in general the natural sciences have been blissfully far from politics… But not anymore.

In chemistry, which is my field, research as such is generally not controlled; we do have freedom to pursue different research topics, subject to ability to secure funding. In other domains, particularly biology, things are different. For example, research relating to populations, genetics, heredity, human biology, or sexual reproduction became extremely politicized. Academic freedom in this field is very much affected by the current climate.

But even though chemistry research is not ideologically controlled, I see censorship and other forms of suppression creeping into our institutions, professional societies, and even publishing.

. . . While we are free, more or less, to carry out research, we are not free to talk about how we carry out our research and education. What do I mean by that? We are not entirely free to discuss practical aspects of the scientific enterprise. For example, how do we execute the publishing and peer review process? How do we fund research? How do we hire students and faculty? These are very important practical questions, and they are currently very difficult to discuss. If you start challenging some of the current practices that involve social engineering—which are, in my opinion, in conflict with the merit-based approach for carrying out science—you can easily get yourself in trouble—as did Dorian Abbot, a geophysics professor at the University of Chicago. His research is not controversial—he studies climate and the possibility of life on other planets. But Dorian spoke out against the current social engineering based practices in hiring. By simply sharing his thoughts on these issues, he found himself in the center of “controversy”. There were petitions by students and postdocs calling him violent and dangerous and demanding to remove him from teaching. The University of Chicago resisted these calls, but when Dorian was invited to give a lecture on his research at MIT, a Twitter mob successfully pressured MIT to disinvite him.

Just think about the implications of this case—you invite a scientist to discuss his research about life on other planets and the climate, but you cancel his appearance not because of some flaws or controversy in his research but because of his opinions on topics that are not related to his work. This trend is clearly detrimental to science. Imagine a scientist who is about to discover a cure for cancer or a solution to the energy problem. However, because this scientist has some opinions or behaviors that we do not approve of on moral or political grounds, we refuse to listen to his lectures and read his papers, and we ban his research. This is highly dangerous for science… and unfortunately this is happening now.

This kind of cancellation because the speaker has said things not in a scheduled talk, but in other places, is becoming more common, and this kind of deplatforming is shameful. At least we should be able to discuss these issues, especially in science, where quality work is more easily discerned than work in the humanities. But no discipline should have to experience the kind of disapprobation that Abbot did. Fortunately, the University of Chicago defended him by ignoring the calls to punish him.

One more Q&A;

What are some practical steps for promoting academic freedom on campus?

I like this attitude: we should stop complaining and start doing!

I would organize my suggestions into two categories: one is individual responsibilities, and the second is what we should do as communities.

As individuals, we need to learn how to speak up. Solzhenitsyn, a famous Soviet dissident who wrote The Gulag Archipelago and received the Nobel Peace Prize, once said, “The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. One word of truth outweighs the world.” We often fail to do this. Many people are willing to take part in the lie. They remain silent and complicit; they do not speak up.

Where do we start? I have a very simple suggestion for everyone: If you witness a lie—call it out; do not stay silent. If you see that the King is naked—say “The King is naked”.

That said, I do understand that speaking up is not easy. There could be consequences, and there often are consequences—recall Dorian Abbot’s case. But while no one wants to be a martyr for free speech, we should learn from history that we cannot just hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.

. . . This brings me to what we can do as communities. We do not need to act as isolated agents. It’s easier to take down a single person than a group—there is strength in numbers. That is why I am really delighted to see organizations like the AFA and FIRE taking the lead in providing support and protections for the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom. These organizations make a real difference by defending individuals who would otherwise be standing all alone against a powerful university or a professional organization “machine” that wants to fire or “disappear” them for their unpopular views. The AFA and FIRE provide counterweight to administrators who forget what their role is supposed to be and become complicit with the mob justice of cancel culture promulgated by small groups of extremists.

This is the same set of tactics recommended for atheists or humanists who oppose the incursion of religion into government. I know from talking to my colleagues that many despise the replacement of science by social engineering, and the climate of ideological uniformity that it promotes, but dare not speak up for fear of being branded bigots. I myself have been reluctant to talk about some of this, but of course as a retired professor I have little to lose. And I’ve found, by speaking up and doing stuff, we’ve actually accomplished the strengthening of free speech at the University of Chicago, a place that wouldn’t seem to need it but has been increasingly cowed by wokeness.

Here are two of the other questions she answers, and there are more as well:

You recently published several articles about threats to academic freedom in the natural sciences. What motivated you to do this, and how did you find the courage to speak your mind?


How do you encourage your students to be open-minded and appreciate diversity of thought?

More power to Anna. She is not retired, but in our conversations she has to encourage me to speak up more!

The Freethinker interviews Richard Dawkins

July 16, 2022 • 1:00 pm

I’m not sure about the nature of this website, The Freethinker, but it appears to be a rationalist and humanistic venue. But I haven’t investigated it in any detail as I really don’t care about its politics given that the article at hand is an interview with Richard Dawkins. Nor is the interviewer named; it’s just “Freethinker.”

Much of the interview you may already know about, as a lot of people here follow Richard, but I’ll highlight just a few intriguing questions and answers. The Q&As in the piece are indented, and click on the following to read:

The introduction includes this:

On his sitting room wall, I spotted two paintings that seemed somehow familiar. They turned out to be by Desmond Morris, the zoologist and surrealist painter; the larger one was The Expectant Valley, which served as the cover for the first edition of The Selfish Gene (1976). Dawkins later acquired them from the artist.

You’ll recognize the painting to the right:


‘Please focus on the science in your write-up rather than the politics,’ he said as I was leaving, ‘it’s more interesting.’ But that is the risk of being a public intellectual with a Twitter account: humans are an odd species, and with all the scientific insight in the world, it is hard to predict which ideas will do best in the meme pool. We leave readers to judge for themselves.

Well, the job of the interviewer isn’t to call attention to Twitter scandals, but to illuminate a person. The interview does a creditable job, but concentrates too much on social media and on memes—an idea I still consider clever but unfruitful, as it hasn’t explained much. More later  Here are a few parts of the interview that struck me.

First, and I love this, Dawkins explains what The Selfish Gene is about. It’s a masterpiece of concise summary:

Freethinker: In a nutshell, how would you sum up the book’s thesis?

Dawkins: Natural selection is the differential survival of genes in gene pools. Individual organisms can be seen as survival machines for the genes that ride inside them. When an individual dies, its genes die with it. If it dies before it reproduces, they really do die. Individuals are descended from an unbroken line of successful ancestors, where ‘successful’ means that they reproduced and their descendants therefore inherit the genes that made them successful. That is what makes living creatures such good survival machines for the genes inside them.

So when you look at an animal and ask why it does what it does, the answer is, for the good of its genes. Genes are ‘selfish’ in the sense that they look after their own self-preservation. Individuals do not – they are not selfish, or not necessarily. They may be driven to be selfish by the selfish genes, but the selfish genes may equally well drive them to be altruistic. The ways in which individuals work for the survival of their genes is dependent upon their ecology, and they may do it up trees or underground, or in water or in deserts. They may be predators or prey, parasites or hosts. But it is all fundamentally about the same thing, which is preserving the genes into the distant future.

“Freethinker” asks a lot of questions about memes (it’s the subject of more questions than any other), referring to a word coined by Richard as a “unit of culture” analogous to a gene. Like genes, memes can spread or not spread via selection, in this case cultural or psychological selection. As examples of memes, Dawkins has often used catchy “earworms”: music or phrases that you can’t get out of your head.  And Dawkins notes, as he has before, that religion is a particularly insidious and invidious meme, since it spreads both horizontally (via proselytizing) and vertically (through indoctrination of children). He mentions that religion is, perhaps, a highly successful meme because children are identified by their religion: we speak of a “Jewish child” or a “Hindu child” while we wouldn’t speak of a “Republican child” (poor kid!).

I don’t want to dwell on why I think memes, though a good idea, hasn’t proven especially fruitful. Richard himself—while he thinks the idea has been fruitful—mentions some of the difficulty of analogizing memes and genes. My own view and critique is best summarized in my review of Susan Blackmore’s enthusiastic book on memes, The Meme Machine; that review was in Nature in 1999 and you can read it here.

Another exchange below: “I don’t do movements?”

Freethinker: Looking back on the New Atheist movement in the 2000s, what was the high point of that for you?

Dawkins: I don’t do movements. I suppose when four books came out within a couple of years of each other: The God Delusion, Sam Harris’ End of Faith, Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great. By coincidence – there was not a conspiracy or anything. That might have been a high point.

The question below I consider confrontational, which after all is part of an interviewer’s job, but it’s naive and, indeed, trivial. It’s a “gotcha” question. (The whole interview is peppered with stuff like this.) Richard’s writing may sometimes be polemical, but I see it as “passionate”. Indeed, I give the first part of Dawkins’s response:

Freethinker: As a writer who has done a lot to popularise many areas of science, your style has been compelling and vivid, but often polemical. Why did you choose to write in this way?

Dawkins: I am not sure I see it as polemical. It is certainly read as polemical by religious readers. . , ,

But of course all critiques of religion are seen as polemical, just as all critiques of wokeness are seen as polemical. The best way to shut down discussion is to call a critic “polemical” or “strident”. But If you want to see real polemics, read Mencken!

On accommodationism and humanism, Dawkins gives good answers, though “logically speaking” is ambiguous pharasing by the interviewer.

Freethinker: People can be inconsistent, and believe incompatible things at the same time. But logically speaking, is it possible to be scientific and religious?

Dawkins: Many people are, but I am not sure whether that falls under the heading of logic. I suppose I have to say it is possible, yes. You could say the universe is such a mysterious place that it would be foolish to be over-confident one way or the other about whether some monster intelligence lies behind it. That would be, for me, bending over backwards an awful long way. It is very hard to be a logical theist.

Freethinker: Would you describe yourself as a humanist?

Dawkins: My only hesitation in describing myself as a humanist would be that it implies giving too much of a privilege to the human species as opposed to other species. I would like to call myself a ‘sentientist’ or something like that – with a moral regard for sentient awareness. A large part of that would be human, but no doubt there are other animals that are capable of feeling pain and suffering something like the way we are. With that reservation, I would call myself a humanist.

The interviewer asks Richard about the American Humanist Association revoking his Humanist of the Year Award (a rather boorish thing to bring up), and asks “Speaking as a scientist, what are your views about the transgender debate?” Did he expect Dawkins to come of as a transphobe, which he isn’t? You can read Richard’s answer for yourself.

Two more bits:

Freethinker: Over the course of your long career, what is the achievement of which you are proudest?

Dawkins: My second book, The Extended Phenotype (1982), about the visible manifestations of genes, because it has the most of me in it, and the most original thought. It is aimed at professionals rather than lay people, although lay people can enjoy it.

Richard has given this answer many times, and means it. I’ve read the book, and yes, of all his books, this has the most “meat”, and is the hardest to read and the most original. But the meat is savory, and if you’re feeling ambitious, you must read it.  I can understand why he is proudest of this, because I feel the same way about Speciation (written with Allen Orr). I’ve had two fairly successful trade books, but of everything I’ve written, I’m proudest of Speciation, also written for professionals. When I dip into that book from time to time, I think, “Damn! I could really think then!” I don’t think I could write it now, but I was at the right age to do so and my mental faculties hadn’t yet begun their inexorable decline.

However, if you consider everything that Richard has written, and combine literary quality with scientific explanation, I put The Blind Watchmaker at the top. Some of the prose is so lovely that it almost brings one—or at least a scientist—to tears. Those who claim, as E. O. Wilson did, that Richard is just a “journalist”, or that he’s not a scientist but a popularizer, should read The Extended Phenotype. 

Finally, the discussion turns to Dawkins’s next book:

Freethinker: What projects are you working on at the moment?

Dawkins: I am working on a new book called The Genetic Book of the Dead, which is aimed at the same kind of audience as The Selfish Gene. Its thesis is that an animal is a description of ancient worlds, of an ancestral world in which its genes are naturally selected. A sufficiently knowledgeable zoologist of the future should be able to pick up an unknown animal and read it as a description of a palimpsest of ancestral worlds in which its ancestors were naturally selected.

Now that is also an original idea of Richard’s, and in principle a good one. But as a biologist, I would have drilled deeper into this answer (there are no followup questions). How can you be so sure that you can read environments of the ancient past from a DNA sequence?  After all, that sequence is a palimpsest which has been overwritten continuously for three billion years. And don’t you have to know tons of information about developmental genetics to even start such an endeavor? We know that all very young vertebrates develop gill slits, and that’s a clue that we’re all descended from fish and that our ancestors lived in water. But how do you know which bits of the DNA produce the gill slits, allowing us to infer an aquatic ancestor? And how do you know whether the ancestor lived in fresh or salt water? We carry genes from extinct and unknown ancestors that lived in unknown environments; what way can we reconstruct those ancestors and their environments from just a DNA sequence? I’d ask for an example.

In fact, the fossil record combined with a good phylogeny can answer such questions, but I am doubtful about sequencing DNA as a way to infer the environmental forces that impinged on an organism’s ancestors. Dawkins describes DNA as a palimpsest, as it is, but when a document is overwritten millions of times, you lose a lot of the past information.

These are some of the things that I would have preferred to ask Richard about instead of his supposed “transphobia” and “polemic style.” In fact, I’d love to have this as part of a public conversation onstage, which I’ve had the honor of having with Dawkins several times. But I’ll wait until the book comes out, as I anticipate it with keen interest. And my construal of its contents above is purely speculative, as I know nothing about this upcoming book.

h/t: Daniel

Brian Greene: We don’t have free will: one idea in a wide-ranging book

July 8, 2022 • 9:20 am

Physicist Brian Greene published the book below in 2020, and it appears to cover, well, just about everything from the Big Bang to consciousness, even spiritually and death. Click image to go to the Amazon site:

Some of the book’s topics are covered in the interview below, and its breadth reminds me of Sean Carroll’s book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. I’ve read Sean’s book, which was good (though I did disagree with his free-will compatibilism), but I haven’t yet read Greene’s. If you have, weigh in below.

I’ll try to be brief, concentrating on Greene’s view of free will, which is that we don’t have it, we’re subject only to the laws of physics, and our idea of free will is an illusion stemming from our sense that we have a choice. The interview with Greene is in, oddly, the July 1 issue of Financial Review, and is paywalled, but our library got me a copy. (Judicious inquiry may yield you one, too.) You might be able to access it one time by clicking below, but otherwise ask or rely on my excerpts:

Greene also dwells on the fact that we’re the only creatures that know that we’re going to die, an idea that, he says, is “profoundly distressing” and in fact conditions a lot of human behavior. More on that below. Here are a few topics from the interview:

Free will:  Although Greene, as I recall, has floated a form of compatibilism before (i.e., our behaviors are subject to natural laws and that’s all; we can’t have done otherwise by volition at any given moment, but we still have free will), this time he appears to be a rock-hard determinist, which I like because I’m one, too. Excerpt from the interview are indented:

What’s more, beyond thoughts of death, my colleagues, according to Greene, are mistaken in their belief they are making their own choices to change their lives. Thoughts and actions, he argues, are interactions between elementary particles, which are bound by the immutable laws of mathematics. In other words, your particles are doing their thing; we are merely followers.

“I am a firm believer,” he says, “that we are nothing but physical objects with a high degree of order [remember these words, “high degree of order” – we’ll circle back to that], allowing us to have behaviours that are quite wondrous, allowing us to think and feel and engage with the world. But our underlying ingredients – the particles themselves – are completely, and always, governed by the law of physics.”

“Free will is the sensation of making a choice. The sensation is real, but the choice seems illusory. Laws of physics determine the future.”

So then, free will does not stand up against our understanding of how the universe works.

“I don’t even know what it would mean to have free will,” he adds, “We would have to somehow intercede in the laws of physics to affect the motion of our particles. And I don’t know by what force we would possibly be able to do that.”

Do you and I have no more options than say, a fish, in how we respond to the world around us?

“Yes and no,” says Greene. “All living systems, us included, are governed by the laws of physics, but the ways in which our collection of particles can respond to stimuli is much richer. The spectrum of behaviours that our organised structure allows us to engage in is broader than the spectrumof behaviours than a fish or a fly might engage in.”

He’s right, and there’s no attempt, at least in this interview, to be compatibilistic and say, well, we have a form of free will worth wanting. 

Death: From the interview:

“People typically want to brush it off, and say, ‘I don’t dwell on dying, I don’t think about it,”‘ says Greene via Zoom from his home in New York, where he is a professor at Columbia University. “And the fact that we can brush it off speaks to the power of the culture we have created to allow us to triumph over the inevitable. We need to have some means by which we don’t crumble under the weight of knowing that we are mortal.”

. . . Greene believes it is this innate fear of death twinned with our mathematically marching particles that is driving my colleagues to new horizons, and driving my decision to write this story, and your choice to read it, all bolstered by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Greene’s view appears to be that a substantial portion of human behavior is driven by a combination of two things: the “naturalism” that deprives us of free will, combined with our learned (or inborn) knowledge and fear of death. The death part is apparently what, still without our volition, forces us into action. I’m not sure why that’s true, as the explanation’s not in the interview but perhaps it’s in the book. After all, some people argue that if you’re a determinist doomed to eternal extinction, why not just stay in bed all day? Why do anything?  If we do things that don’t enhance our reproduction, it’s because we have big brains and need to exercise and challenge them. Yes, we know we’re mortal, but I’m not sure why this makes me write this website, write books, read, or do science. I do these things because they bring me pleasure. What does mortality have to do with it?

Natural selection:  According to the writer and interviewer Jeff Allen (an art director), Greene thinks that the promulgation of our mortality, as well as much of our communication, comes from storytelling, which has been instilled into our species by natural selection. Things get a bit gnarly here as the interview becomes a bit hard to follow. I’m sure Greene understands natural selection better than Allen, but Greene’s views are filtered through the art director:

Natural selection is well known for driving physical adaptation, yet it also drives behavioural change, including complex human behaviours such as language and even storytelling. Language is a beneficial attribute that helps us as a species succeed, as is the ability to tell stories, which prepare the inexperienced with scenarios that may benefit them in the future.

“Evolution works by tiny differentials in adaptive fitness, over the course of long timescales. That’s all it takes for these behaviours to become entrenched,” says Greene. “Storytelling is like a flight simulator, that safely allows us to prepare ourselves for various challenges we will face in the real world. If we fail in the simulator, we won’t die.”

Darwin’s theory of evolution is one of the recurring themes of Greene’s book.

Note in the first paragraph that evolved language and storytelling “helps us as a species succeed”. That’s undoubtedly true—though I’m yet to be convinced that storytelling is anything more than an epiphenomenon of evolved language—but whatever evolved here was undoubtedly via individual (genic) selection and not species selection. Traits don’t evolve to enable a species to succeed; they evolve (via selection) because they give their bearers a reproductive advantage. I’m sure Greene knows this, but Allen balls things up by throwing in “species success”.

Consciousness: If you’re tackling the Big Issues that deal with both philosophy and science, it’s consciousness, defined by Greene (and I) as both self-awareness and the presence of qualia, or subjective sensations (Greene calls it “inner experience”).  I’ve written about this a lot, and don’t propose to do more here. We have consciousness, we don’t know how it works, but it’s certainly a physical property of our brains and bodies that can be manipulated by physical interventions. The two issues bearing on Greene’s piece are where it came from and how will we figure out how it works. (Greene implicitly rejects panpsychism by asking “”How can particles that in themselves do not have any awareness, yield this seemingly new quality?”. That will anger Philip Goff and his coterie of panpsychists.)

I’m not sure about the answer to either., We may never know whether consciousness is an epiphenomenon of having a big brain or is partly the result of natural selection promoting the evolution of consciousness. I suspect it’s partly the latter, since many of our “qualia” are adaptive.  Feeling pain is an aversive response that protects us from bodily damage; people who lack the ability to feel pain usually accumulate substantial injuries. And many things that give us pleasure, like orgasms, do so because they enhance our reproduction. But this is just speculation.

Greene also thinks that natural selection has something to do with human consciousness, but it’s not clear from the following whether he sees consciousness as an epiphenomenon of our big brain and its naturalistic physical properties, or whether those properties were molded by natural selection because consciousness enhanced our reproduction:

“My gut feeling,” says Greene, “Is that the final answer will be the Darwinian story. Where collections of particles come together in a certain kind of organised high order ‘brain’, that brain is able to have particle motions that yield self-awareness. But it’s still a puzzle at this moment.”

Where Green and I differ is in what kind of work might yield the answer to how consciousness comes about. Greene thinks it will come from work on AI, while I think it will come, if it ever does, from neurological manipulations. Greene:

“That’s perhaps the deepest puzzle we face,” says Greene. “How can particles that in themselves do not have any awareness, yield this seemingly new quality? Where does inner experience come from?”

Greene’s suspicion is that this problem will go away once we start to build artificial systems, that can convincingly claim to have inner awareness. “We will come to a place where we realise that when you have this kind of organisation, awareness simply arises.”

In June this year, Google engineer Blake Lemoine said an AI he was working on, named LaMDA (Language Models for Dialogue Applications), got very chatty and even argued back.

I suppose this is a version of the Turing test, but it will be very, very hard to determine if an AI bot has “inner awareness”.  Hell, I don’t even know if my friends are conscious, since it depends on self-report! Can you believe any machine that says it has “inner experiences”?

With that speculation I’ll move on. Greene also muses on the origin and fate of the universe, and whether it might “restart” after it collapses, but cosmology is above my pay grade, and I’ll leave you to read about that yourself.

h/t: Ginger K.

John McWhorter versus “The View”

December 2, 2021 • 12:30 pm

The View” is a discussion show, run by a changing group of women, that’s been going for 25 years. They invited John McWhorter on to discuss his new book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Americaand I read that there was some “friction” between McWhorter and the regular hosts. I managed to find two clips on YouTube, and here they are.

In this first clip, McWhorter explains the “third wave” of anti-racism (i.e., “woke anti-racism”) and why he thinks it’s ineffectual.  The only pushback he gets is a confused question about whether, if McWhorter thinks that “woke anti-racism is a religion”, then is racism itself a religion?  But the friction that supposedly occurred isn’t really in this clip. I think it dealt mainly with McWhorter calling anti-racism of the woke stripe a “religion”, which angers both the Woke and the religious.

Here McWhorter is asked about his supposed contention that the extreme right—the Capitol stormers—”don’t have real power.” This seems to be an accusation (one with which i’m deeply familiar), that you shouldn’t spend time calling out the Left when the Right can do so much more damage. I think I’ve answered this repeatedly, and needn’t do so here, but McWhorter’s answer is Luther’s “Here I stand; I can do no other.”  Whoopi Goldberg seems to accuse McWhorter of denying the very existence of racism, or at least how serious racism is.  McWhorter doesn’t deny racism, but he’s not given a chance to explain his fix before the segment ends.


h/t: Divy

Reason interviews John McWhorter

November 26, 2021 • 12:15 pm

I usually get bored listening to one person talk for an hour on video, but I found this interview of John McWhorter by Reason (a libertarian site) absorbing and thought-provoking.  If you listen to the whole 65-minute interview, you’ll hear pretty much the entire panoply of McWhorter’s views on race, which are also in his new book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.  I’ve listened to the whole video, but haven’t yet read McWhorter’s book (much of its draft, however, used to be on his Substack site).

I’m heartened that McWhorter describes himseslf as a “Sixties-style liberal”, which is how I see myself, too. He’s certainly not an “alt-righter” or conservative, but he’s often characterized that way as he doesn’t buy into the standard “progressive” Left views on racism.

Part of the YouTube notes:

That’s New York Times columnist and Columbia University linguist John McWhorter talking about his best-selling new book Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. He argues that the ideas of Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, and The 1619 Project undermine the success of black people by sharpening racial divides and distracting from actual obstacles to real progress.

His shortlist for what would most help black America? “There should be no war on drugs; society should get behind teaching everybody to read the right way; and we should make solid vocational training as easy to obtain as a college education.”

Reason’s Nick Gillespie spoke with the 56-year-old McWhorter about what white people get out of cooperating with an ideological agenda that casts them as devils, what black people gain by “performing” victimhood, and what needs to change so that all Americans can get on with creating a more perfect union.

Andrew Sullivan interviews Steve Pinker

October 30, 2021 • 11:00 am

Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s 72-minute “Dishcast” conversation with Steve Pinker, who’s doing a lot of events related to his latest book on rationality. The video was advertised in an email to Sullivan’s subscribers, so it hasn’t yet gotten many views. Here are the YouTube notes:

Pinker’s new book is Rationality. It’s like taking a Harvard course on the tricks our minds play on us. We had a blast — and I pressed him on several points.

. . . If you’d [like to] watch the whole episode in living color — and see the most famous hair in academia — we videotaped the remote convo in the Dishcast studio. It even has the view from Pinker’s window in the background.

I don’t have the book yet, so I don’t know what Steve’s definition of “rationality” is, nor is it discussed very much in the video, so I’ll give the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of “rationality” and “reason” that seem to comport with this discussion:



I would amend the “reason” definition to add “and apprehension of truth” to “The power of the mind to think and form valid judgements by a process of logic.”

This is an excellent discussion between two smart people, one of whom (Sullivan) has a strong belief in the irrational tenets of religion (he admits they’re irrational), while Pinker is an atheistic rationalist. About 25 minutes in, this leads to a discussion that is conducted with such civility that you can almost miss it: “Can religion be rational?” Otherwise, the tenor and content of the discussion is at a very high level, and Sullivan does a terrific job of bringing out Steve’s ideas while challenging some of them.

Notice the big picture of Darwin behind Sullivan.

Some of the issues and questions covered:

Are we the only animals who are rational?

What might have been the selection pressures that gave rise to the evolution of rationality?

If we’re rational, why do so many people believe in paranormal phenomena, superstitions, and so on? Why do so many people reject vaccination when it seems the rational thing to do?

Re the above: how can rationality result in religious belief?

Since there are mathematical realists who believe that the structure of mathematics is “out there” somewhere, and that mathematical truths are in existence but waiting to be discovered, Sullivan wants to know if you can apply that same logic to God. (Pinker’s answer is “no”, but is very politely delivered.)

What does Pinker see as the most pervasive and problematic forms of irrationality in modern society? (#1: The “my side” bias.)

Can rational beliefs or action on the part of individual be irrational for their society?

Sullivan, speaking as a gay man, asks Pinker how to approach raising questions that could harm his community (i.e., the idea that homosexuality is produced by the behavior of one’s mother). Pinker raises two possibilities using the example of his own background, which is Jewish. (Pinker, by the way, mentions that his next book will involve the use of euphemisms, “genteel hypocrisy,” tact and taboo in producing a better society.)

A Kendi-inspired question: Is it rational to call people racists when they have no racist beliefs or intentions, but commit an act that some people see as racist (or, as Kendi might say, are not actively antiracist)? In other words, does intent matter?

Is it rational to ignore or oppose nuclear energy when it may be an important cure for global warming?

Why do iconic events like 9/11 or the murder of George Floyd lead to some irrational reactions?

How does Pinker maintain his composure in the face of continual attacks from the Left?

Have a listen!

Bill Maher’s new show, including interview with Steve Pinker

October 9, 2021 • 12:30 pm

This will surely be taken down very soon (only clips of Maher’s shows can be shown), so I’m putting it up without having watched it. It’s Bill Maher’s entire show from last night. The interview with Pinker, discussing his new book Rationality, starts at 8:05 and ends at 18:26.  (Note that he’s wearing his custom caiman cowboy boots.)

The panel includes reporter Robert Costa and musician Michael Render. Maher’s final solo comedy segment starts at 43:55.

UPDATE: As expected, the video of the whole show has been taken down. If a clip appears with the interview, I’ll post it here.

h/t: Paul