Dan Dennett: a new book and an interview in the NYT

August 27, 2023 • 12:00 pm

I recently finished Dan Dennett‘s new autobiography, I’ve Been Thinking (cover below; click to get an Amazon link), and I was deeply impressed by what a full life the man has had (he’s 81).  I thought he spent most of his time philosophizing, writing, and teaching philosophy at Tufts; but it turns out that he had a whole other life that I knew little about: owning a farm in Maine, sailing all over the place in his boat, making tons of apple cider, hanging out with his pals (many of them famous), and traveling the world to lecture or study. Truly, I’d also be happy if I had a life that full. And, as Dan says in his interview with the NYT today, he’s left out hundreds of pages of anecdotes and other stuff.

Although I’ve taken issue with Dan’s ideas at times (I disagree with him on free will and on the importance of memes, for example), you can’t help but like the guy. He’s sometimes passionate in his arguments, but he’s never mean, and of course he looks like Santa Claus. Once at a meeting in Mexico, I was accosted by Robert Wright, who was incensed that I’d given his book on the history of religion a bad review in The New Republic.  Wright plopped himself down beside me at lunch, so I was a captive audience, and proceeded to berate and harangue me throughout the meal. It was one of the worst lunch experiences I’ve ever had.

Because of Wright’s tirade, I was so upset that, after the meal was done, I went over to Dan, jumped in his lap, and hugged him (telling him why). I was greatly relieved, for it was like sitting on Santa’s lap. Now Santa, who’s getting on, has decided to sum up his career. The book is well worth reading, especially if you want to see how a philosopher has enacted a life well lived.

In today’s paper there’s a short interview with Dan by David Marchese, who has been touted as an expert interviewer. I didn’t think that Marchese’s questions were that great, but read for yourself (click below):

I’ll give a few quotes, mostly about atheism and “other ways of knowing,” First, the OWOK. Marchese’s questions are in bold; Dennett’s responses in plain text. And there are those annoying sidenotes that the NYT has started using, which I’ve omitted.

Right now it seems as if truth is in shambles, politics has become religion and the planet is screwed. What’s the most valuable contribution philosophers could be making given the state of the world? 

Well, let’s look at epistemology, the theory of knowledge. Eric Horvitz, the chief scientist at Microsoft, has talked about a “post-epistemic” world.

How? 

By highlighting the conditions under which knowledge is possible. This will look off track for a moment, but we’ll come around: Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s last theorem. 1990s, the British mathematician Andrew Wiles proved a theorem that had stumped mathematicians since it was proposed by Pierre de Fermat in 1637.

It was one of the great triumphs of mathematics in my lifetime. Why do we know that he did it? Don’t ask me to explain complex mathematics. It’s beyond me. What convinces me that he proved it is that the community of mathematicians of which he’s a part put it under scrutiny and said, “Yep, he’s got it.” That model of constructive and competitive interaction is the key to knowledge. I think we know that the most reliable path to truth is through communication of like-minded and disparate thinkers who devote serious time to trying to get the truth — and there’s no algorithm for that.

Note this bit: “the most reliable path to truth is through communication of like-minded and disparate thinkers who devote serious time to trying to get the truth.” This means that all knowledge, including the “other ways of knowing” of indigenous people, has to be vetted by like-minded and disparate thinkers. If it hasn’t been, it’s not another way of knowing, but only a way of claiming to know.

But wait! There’s more!

There’s a section in your book “Breaking the Spell” where you lament the postmodern idea that truth is relative. How do we decide which truths we should treat as objective and which we treat as subjective? I’m thinking of an area like personal identity, for example, where we hear phrases like, “This is my truth.” 

The idea of “my truth” is second-rate. The people who think that because this is their opinion, somehow it’s aggressive for others to criticize or reject them — that’s a self-defeating and pernicious attitude. The recommended response is: “We’d like to bring you into the conversation, but if you’re unable to consider arguments for and against your position, then we’ll consider you on the sidelines. You’re a spectator, not a participant.” You don’t get to play the faith card. That’s not how rational inquiry goes.

Marchese asks too many questions about AI and ChatGPT, topics which, while they may be important, bore me to tears. He also gets a bit too personal. He should have stopped inquiring after the first answer below.

There was something in your memoir that was conspicuous to me: You wrote about the late 1960s, when your pregnant wife had a bowel obstruction. 

Yeah, we lost the baby.

You describe it as “the saddest, loneliest, most terrifying” time of your life. 

Yes.

That occupies one paragraph of your memoir. 

Yes.

What is it indicative of about you — or your book — that a situation you described that way takes up such a small space in the recounting of your life? 

Look at the title of the book: “I’ve Been Thinking.” There are hundreds of pages of stories that I cut at various points from drafts because they were about my emotional life, my trials and so forth. This isn’t a tell-all book. I don’t talk about unrequited love, failed teenage crushes. There are mistakes I made or almost made that I don’t tell about. That’s just not what the book’s about.

Finally, the good stuff about atheism and religion. Although regarded as one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism” along with Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris, Dan has been the least demonized of them, probably because he’s not a vociferous anti-theist and regards religion as a phenomenon deserving more philosophical study than opprobrium. Nevertheless, he makes no bones about his unbelief:

We have a soul, but it’s made of tiny robots. There is no God. These are ideas of yours that I think a lot of people can rationally understand, but the gap between that rational understanding and their feelings involves too much ambivalence or ambiguity for them to accept. What is it about you that you can arrive at those conclusions and not feel adrift, while other people find those ideas too destabilizing to seriously entertain? 

Some people don’t want magic tricks explained to them. I’m not that person. When I see a magic trick, I want to see how it’s done. People want free will or consciousness, life itself, to be real magic. What I want to show people is, look, the magic of life as evolved, the magic of brains as evolving in between our own ears, that’s thrilling! It’s affirming. You don’t need miracles. You just need to understand the world the way it really is, and it’s unbelievably wonderful. We’re so lucky to be alive! The anxiety that people feel about giving up the traditional magical options, I take that very seriously. I can feel that anxiety. But the more I understood about the things I didn’t understand, the more the anxiety ebbed. The more the joy, the wondrousness came back. At the end of “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” I have my little hymn to life and the universe.  That’s my God — more wonderful than anything I could imagine in detail, but not magical.

So how do you understand religious belief? 

No problem at all. More people believe in belief in God than believe in God. [Marchese takes issue with this in a sidenote.] We should recognize it and recognize that people who believe in belief in God are sometimes very reluctant to consider that they might be wrong. What if I’m wrong? That’s a question I ask myself a lot. These people do not want to ask that question, and I understand why. They’re afraid of what they might discover. I want to give them an example of somebody who asks the question and is not struck down by lightning. I’m often quoted as saying, “There’s no polite way of telling people they’ve devoted their life to an illusion.” Actually, what I said was, “There’s no polite way of asking people to consider whether they’ve devoted their life to an illusion, but sometimes you have to ask it.”

There are better questions that could have been asked. For example, I would have asked Dan, “What do you think has been your greatest contribution to philosophy?” and “What has been your biggest error in your work on philosophy?”  Readers might suggest other questions below, though I’m not going to convey them to Dan!

A photo of Dan en famille, with caption, from the interview. I knew him only after his beard turned white, so I wouldn’t have recognized him:

Two of my photos of Dan. The first is in Cambridge, MA, on the way to the “Moving Naturalism Forward” meeting in 2016. We drove the three hours from Boston to Stockbridge, and Richard had to fly back early because of a hurricane warning. Ergo Dan argued with me about free will for three hours’ return drive on the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston (it was not covered with snow). That was something to remember, but I gave no ground:

And Dan at a symposium on religion at the University of Chicago in 2019.  It was tedious at times, and I think Dan is showing some impatience here with the annoying lucubrations of Reza Aslan.

Peter Boghossian interviews Luana Maroja (and a note on “transracialism”)

August 22, 2023 • 9:30 am

When my colleague, coauthor, and conspirator in crime Luana Maroja, a professor of evolutionary biology at Williams College, was teaching a short summer course at The University of Austin, she was interviewed on video about sex and gender issues by Peter Boghossian, also teaching at the U of A.

The interview, below, speaks for itself: Luana did a superb job clarifying the biological controversies about sex and gender (and Peter asked some great questions to draw her out).  As you can see, she’s spirited, eloquent, and amiable, with the latter trait helping her convey antiwoke truths without being seen as “strident”. She’s a great collaborator. The interview is well worth listening to, and I don’t say that because Luana and Peter are friends of mine.

Here are the YouTube notes:

Luana S. Maroja is a renowned evolutionary biologist, Professor of Biology, and Chair of the Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Program at Williams College. She was taken aback when the Society for the Study of Evolution released a statement promoting sex as a spectrum and declaring the validity of “lived experience” in sexual identity. What would inspire such a misguided, conspicuously anti-scientific declaration? In this conversation with Peter, she answers that question.

In plain language, Luana explains chromosomal differences in mammals and how the sex binary is expressed in animals. She addresses popular arguments about exceptions to the binary, such as variations in sex chromosomes, hormone receptor failure, and developmental sex disorders.

They also discuss: Moralistic and naturalist fallacies, bimodality, being “born in the wrong body,” social constructs, clown fish, non-biologists teaching bad biology, and trans racialism.

Luana S. Maroja earned her undergraduate and master’s degree from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and her PhD from Cornell University. Her research interests include population ecology, speciation, population genetics, phylogeny, and phylogeography. Luana studies a variety of organisms, including small mammals, insects, and plants, and has published more than 35 scientific papers.

Luana co-authored The Ideological Subversion of Biology, the cover article in the July/August 2023 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Chapters

0:00 Intro

6:30 Biological view of gender vs sex

12:40 Can you change sex?

15:23 Gender binary

23:55 Reality denialism

28:00 Reaction to SSE videos

38:13 Biological differences in behavior & expression

43:10 Transitioning/Wrap up

I want to make one point about “transitioning” at the very end, where hey discuss why for the woke it’s not only fine but admirable to transition genders, but not okay to transition races (“transracialism”). The philosophical basis of these two transitions was discussed by philosopher Rebecca Tuvel in a 2017 issue of Hypatiaand caused a big controversy after Tuvel concluded this in the abstract (my bolding):

Former NAACP chapter head Rachel Dolezal’s attempted transition from the white to the black race occasioned heated controversy. Her story gained notoriety at the same time that Caitlyn Jenner1 graced the cover of Vanity Fair, signaling a growing acceptance of transgender identity. Yet criticisms of Dolezal for misrepresenting her birth race indicate a widespread social perception that it is neither possible nor acceptable to change one’s race in the way it might be to change one’s sex. Considerations that support transgenderism seem to apply equally to transracialism. Although Dolezal herself may or may not represent a genuine case of a transracial person, her story and the public reaction to it serve helpful illustrative purposes.

and in the conclusions:

I hope to have shown that, insofar as similar arguments that render transgenderism acceptable extend to transracialism, we have reason to allow racial self-identification, coupled with racial social treatment, to play a greater role in the determination of race than has previously been recognized. I conclude that society should accept such an individual’s decision to change race the same way it should accept an individual’s decision to change sex.

Wikipedia describes the blowback from what I think was Tuvel’s a reasonable conclusion. The fracas included a groveling apology by the journal and the resignation of eight editors. Yet I still don’t see any fundamental philosophical difference between a white person claiming that they have a black identity because they “feel black” and a male claiming that they have a female identity because they “feel like a woman.”

On the other hand, the video above inspired some discussion on the Heterodox STEM site about the transracialism vs. transgenderism issue, and some people perceived a meaningful difference from a woke point of view.ˆ That difference is this: transgenderism is supposedly seen by the woke as turning one into a victim or a member of a protected class: it is a disadvantage. (Although transgender women participating in women’s athletics do accrue an advantage, this is largely denied by the woke.)

In contrast, some (but by no means all) forms of transracialism can confer advantages to people—advantages that are seen by the woke as unfair. The discussion centered on white people like Rachel Dolezal who say they are black because they feel black (she also modified her appearance so she could pass as a black person).  By passing as black if you’re not, several people argued that you would accrue an unfair “affirmative-action-based” advantage in things like college admissions and getting jobs.  Other forms of transracialism could also give one advantages: we’re familiar with Elizabeth Warren claiming she had Native American ancestry, a claim that she thought would give her credibility as a member of an oppressed minority. And there’s the book below by an Indian-American who couldn’t get into medical school because of poor grades until he decided to say he was black, and was immediately accepted by many schools. (He later dropped out.) Click to see the Amazon link:

Two points here. First, not all whites who pass as black will get advantages. I’m not sure how much Dolezal benefited personally from pretending she was black, though she did become president of the Spokane branch of NAACP.  On average, a black person is worse off than a white person in terms of prospects, education, income, and so on. Thus you gain the advantage of white—>black transracialism only if you’re assuming the identity of an “elite” black person, like someone in a position to apply to graduate school. And other forms of transracialism, including blacks assuming the identity of Asians or vice versa, wouldn’t get you these advantages because the assumed identity is not credible on a physical basis (though physical appearance shouldn’t matter).

Thus you could justify a difference between transracialism and transgenderism only if you’re woke, and it’s a practical rather than a philosophical difference.  Transracialism isn’t okay because some forms of it give one an unfair advantage via forms of affirmative action, while transgenderism is always okay because it puts one into a protected class that is said to be oppressed.

That’s one way the two forms of “trans” identity can be differentiated, but only by woke people, and only using practicality and ideology rather than philosophy.  Philosophically, I still agree with Tuvel that there’s no substantive difference between assuming a different gender or assuming a different race.

UnHerd interviews Richard Dawkins, tries to get him to praise religion

June 8, 2023 • 11:00 am

Here’s a new interview with Richard Dawkins by Freddy Sayers (the editor-in-chief of UnHerd), who apparently tried to create a lot of buzz by issuing this tweet. It turns out that his first two claims are exaggerated, as I’ll show below. But Dawkins does—and rightly so—decry universities for the abysmal treatment of Kathleen Stock. It’s a good interview, though, and you’ll want to read it if you follow Dawkins.

 

Click the screenshot to read. And no, Richard doesn’t think that New Atheism was a mistake.  He is eloquent and interesting enough that this kind of buzz, or journalistic hype, is unnecessary.

I’ll give a few relevant quotes, with a long section in which Sayers tries to make Dawkins laud religion:

On religion:

FS: In the realm of theoretical physics, for example, there are whole dimensions of the universe that we simply don’t know how to describe yet. Is there not a chance that some of those feelings might be perceiving physical realities that we don’t yet have a way to analyse?

RD: As it happens, this evening I’m going to a meeting in London with Lawrence Krauss, the American theoretical physicist, who has just written a book called The Known Unknowns, which is about all that we don’t yet know. And physicists are proud to admit that there’s a lot that they don’t know, but they’re working on it. It is entirely possible — probable, even — that there are beings in the universe who already do understand things that are beyond our understanding, and that our brains simply aren’t big enough to understand these profundities about the universe. But to somehow equate those with mystical feelings that you get when you’re in love, or when you contemplate a rose, or religious feelings, that’s a naive confusion.”

. . . here’s where Sayers is almost hectoring Dawkins, trying to get him to admit that religion is, on balance, a good thing:

FS: Your work on evolution and natural selection holds that most things about human nature and the human body, in our evolved cells, are there for a purpose.

RD: Yes — and I might be in a minority of biologists for believing that. For that reason, I’ve been called an ultra-Darwinian. Quite a lot of other biologists feel there’s a lot in life that is not actually Darwinian, in the sense that it’s not actually designed by natural selection, but is there by chance.

I think Sayers is getting balled up here in the word “purpose”, which in evolution is just shorthand for “natural selection increasing adaptations.” We don’t see structures as “purposeful” in a teleological sense or being somehow driven to a goal. But even if Sayers realizes that, the next question is wonky.  For Sayers seems ignorant of the possibility that natural selection can create byproducts that are not in themselves adaptive, as in the (likely) evolved tendency for humans to believe authorities, especially parents. Dawkins fends him off.

FS: In which case, should we not view the religious impulse, or mystical impulses, and those feelings that we were just talking about, with more respect? Should we not view them as more likely to be more intelligent than purely a kind of mistake, possibly being wiser and more purposeful than you have been prepared to admit?

RD: Not wiser and more purposeful, but possibly there for a reason. I readily agree that, because it’s a human universal, pretty much, and therefore logically that means that it is highly probably that it is of Darwinian advantage. That, I get. It doesn’t mean religion is true, though. I mean, you could say, the tendency to be religious, the tendency to believe in something supernatural, the tendency to think there’s something higher than you, the tendency to think that people also can connect… all this could have been built in by natural selection.

I often suggest that this could be because children have been naturally selected to be respectful of what their parents tell them, what their culture tells them, because they need that in order to survive. Religion flourishes because children who are vulnerable, in a dangerous world, need to be instantly obeying their parents advice, not to endanger themselves. You don’t question what your parents say, you just believe what they say, which means the child mind is pre-programmed by Darwinian natural selection to be credulous of what elders tell them. And that is fertile ground for falsehood, as well as truth.

Sayers won’t give up. Religion could be a byproduct of an evolved respect for authority, but Sayers is determined to show that it also must be a “net positive”!:

FS: But if it’s there by natural selection, it must be a net positive?

RD: A net positive in a survival sense, yes – but it doesn’t make it true. [JAC: no, religious belief itself need not be a net positive in an evolutionary sense, but simply a byproduct of an evolved respect for authority that itself is a net genetic positive.] It’s not true that if you sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, you will cause the crops to succeed. But it’s a net positive in the sense that it’s a by-product of the impulse to obey authority, because the impulse to obey authority, in general, is a net positive.

FS: In that context, the latest mostly secular generation could be seen as a species-wide experiment. It hasn’t happened before in history — and you had a fair bit to do with bringing it about. Judging on the evidence, how do you think the secular experiment is going?

RD: The statistics I’ve seen suggest it is slowly getting better. The statistics I’ve seen suggest that the number of people who profess some kind of religion is going down. It’s now below 50%, which is the first time that a British census has shown that to be the case, which I think is good. Similarly in America, which is lagging behind, in this respect, but it’s still going in the right direction. Those are the only figures I’ve seen and, all I can do is offer you my intuition, which is worthless.

Sayers keeps hammering away, desperate to find that religion, despite its disappearance, has simply gone underground:

FS: There’s a book by Tom Holland called Dominion, which has been very influential in suggesting that a lot of what we consider to be secular Western ways of thinking on morality is still drenched in Christian thinking. So perhaps, although people aren’t describing themselves as religious in the census, they’ve just moved those religious intuitions into other realms?

RD: Yes, I think that’s very likely true. You can make a good religious case for the trans debate. I make an analogy with the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, whereby the wine in the Aristotelian accidentals remains wine but, in its true substance, becomes blood. Similarly, the trans person: he has a penis, but that’s a mere accidental, and in true substance he’s a woman. I mean, that’s a perfect analogy to transubstantiation. It even begins with the same prefix.

FS: So which is better, then? We’ve gone through this whole process, we’ve had a whole generation who’ve now been brought up reading your books, and Christopher Hitchens, who are now ardent and proud atheists, and then they end up believing things like you just described. And that has all sorts of societal repercussions. Should we now look back on the New Atheist movement with regret?

RD: No, I don’t get that at all. It’s just an interesting analogy to point out that there is a strong religious element to a current political fad. So what?

Sayers still won’t give up:

FS: The question is: empirically speaking, between conventional religion and what appears to be its successor ideology, which will be proven by history to be better for the flourishing of the species? Early signs are that this new kind of religion, which thinks it’s secular, has some major problems.

RD: Well, if you care about the flourishing of the species, yes, but I care about truth.

Now Sayers is getting unduly antagonistic:

FS: So you don’t care about the flourishing of the species?

RD: Well I do care about it as a human being, but more deeply I care about truth.

Sayers doesn’t like that answer! It might lead to our annihilation!

FS: And if your sense of truth would lead to the annihilation of the species, would you be content with that?

RD: No I would not be content with that. But I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t happen. I think that truth actually is a genuine value. I believe that a true scientific outlook on the world would actually be best for the flourishing of humankind.

And that’s all I’ll say, though you should read Dawkins’s take on affirmative action, the vaccine controversy (overhyped in Sayers’s tweet), and the ruination of science journals by the invasion of woke ideology.

And there’s this nice ending:

FS: So if Elon Musk succeeds at getting human beings to Mars in your lifetime, would you volunteer for his next flight?

RD: No, I wouldn’t volunteer… actually perhaps yes. If I knew I was dying, it might be the last thing I’d do.

Here’s a tweet by Sayers showing the discussion about covid vaccines.

All in all, it looks to me as if Sayers isn’t really drawing out Richard’s thoughts so much as trying to trap him with a number of “gotcha” questions. Yes, it’s fine (and recommended) for reviewers to ask hard questions, but Sayers goes beyond that, particularly with religion. I don’t know if he’s religious, but he sure keeps hectoring Richard about whether religion might be a good thing.

Dawkins, of course, is an expert at answering these antagonistic questions, and both keeps his cool and admits when he’s misspoken.

Live interview with Aron Ra tomorrow

May 28, 2023 • 10:30 am

Aron Ra has asked me to be on his live video podcast tomorrow, and I’m glad to oblige. It will be about evolution. As Aaron told me:

Ideally, we would like to do a half hour of you talking about your career in defense of science against creationism. Then we would do another half hour of taking selected questions from the chat.

The show is at 10 a.m. Chicago time (11 a.m. Eastern time) tomorrow, and you will be able to watch it by clicking on the link below.

J. K. Rowling answers her critics

March 28, 2023 • 11:30 am

There’s no figure more inflammatory in popular culture than J. K. Rowling, once the world’s most beloved author but now demonized by many as a transphobe. Few people are in the middle: Rowling’s either dismissed out of hand by progressives and religious conservatives (some have even burned her books, while Christians see her as promoting witchcraft), while others see Rowling’s comments on transgenderism and the rights of biological women as sensible. (I count myself among the latter group.)

Bari Weiss’s site The Free Press has been podcasting a multipart series called “The Witch Trials of J. K. Rowling“. It’s not a hagiography, but about seven hours of interviews with Rowling, including interviews with her detractors, friends, and sundry experts and acquaintances.  There are seven parts, all created by Megan Phelps-Roper,  formerly a member of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church (she left it), who wrote to Rowling out of the blue (see here) and managed to get long interviews with her.

The podcasts are professionally produced and well put together, and if you have the time, it’s well worth hearing. So far I’ve listened to just the first part (mostly a long interview with Rowling), and the part below: the last bit, when Rowling is asked to answer the strongest accusations of her opponents. Sadly, it’s beyond my ability to listen to seven hours of podcasts!

Here’s Phelps-Roper’s summary from the first link above.

I’ve spent the better part of the past year speaking with people on all sides of this conflict: trans adults, teens, clinicians, and advocates; historians, reporters, authors; Christians who boycotted Potter in the 1990s; doctors, lawyers, and even experts on witch trials. I also sat down with Rowling in her Edinburgh home over the course of several days.

These topics are beyond fraught, and I’m grateful to those who were gracious enough to be open and vulnerable with me—often on the most sensitive of subjects. Regardless of where they stood on the issues, many of the people I spoke with expressed similar concerns about going on the record: the waves of personal attacks that seem to come for anyone who speaks up; the fear that listeners would take them out of context; that they would lose their friends, family, career, safety; that their reputations would be destroyed.

I am not immune to these fears. And yet, I remain a believer in the power of conversation. The ones I had for this series challenged my assumptions and showed me that this conflict is even more complex than I had imagined. I don’t pretend to have answers to the deep questions at the heart of this series. But I’m more persuaded than ever that talking—and listening—will help us find the path forward.

And here’s her the summary of this last episode.

In Chapter 7:  What If You’re Wrong?, released this morning, Megan Phelps-Roper asks J.K. Rowling to respond directly to the most incisive accusations lodged by her critics. Among those criticisms: that the Harry Potter author is engaging in bigotry; that she is blind to her transphobia; and that her words are creating an environment that is dangerous to trans people.

The two also discuss the difficulty of discernment—why it can be so hard to know if you are standing up for what’s right—and the difference between what Rowling says she believes and what her critics claim she does.

No matter where you stand on this heated debate, we think you’ll find her answers well worth your time.

The formal response starts about 10 minutes into the podcast when Phelps-Roper asks Rowling, “what if you’re wrong?” And yes, Rowling is asked some hard questions, including “What would make you change your mind about trans issues?”  If you’re someone who thinks that Rowling is a transphobe, do have a listen to her unscripted responses.

Although ultimately Phelps-Roper seems to come down on the side of Rowling, I’m not suggesting that you listen to just this part. If you have the time, listen to the whole series. (I’m nor sure if you have to be a subscriber like me to The Free Press to hear it all.)

Click to listen (there’s a few ads about 40 minutes in):

An interview with Philomena!

March 8, 2023 • 1:00 pm

Reader Rich sent me this with the note, “Just in case you missed it, a new interview with Diane Morgan here. Funny, lovely lady!  I’m loving Cunk On Earth.”

It’s weird, I can never think of her as Diane Morgan, and once or twice had to look up her real name. I can, however, always conjure up Philomena.

Sadly, she has a boyfriend. I dream of waking up next to her and having her whisper sweet nothings in my ear in that Bolton accent.

 

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?

and

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!