Free BBC broadcast: Three biologists (including Matthew) on their new science books

September 26, 2022 • 9:15 am

I can’t imagine NPR putting on a program like this; it’s long and science-y (without jokes), and intelligent. The moderator is not a radio announcer but a scientist.  What we have are three scientists discussing their new (or upcoming) books about genetics and evolution in a BBC panel moderated by geneticist and science journalist Adam Rutherford. You probably know that Adam himself has written several books on genetics.

The show is 42 minutes of discussion with 8 minutes of live audience questions. Here are the three participants and their new works:

Our own Matthew Cobb, Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester. Matthew’s talking about his new book on genetic engineering, The Genetic Age: Our Perilous Quest to Edit Life. In the U.S. it’s called As Gods: A Moral History of the Genetic Age (out here November 15). I’ve previously highlighted some positive reviews.

Alison Bashford, Laureate Professor of History at the University of New South Wales and Director of the Laureate Centre for History & Population. Her new book is An Intimate History of Evolution: The Story of the Huxley Familyand deals with both Thomas Henry Huxley and his grandson Aldous Huxley. A positive review of her book is at the Guardian

Deborah Lawlor, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Bristol, is working on a book about the inheritance of diabetes in pregnant women in Bradford of both British and Asian descent. She’s also from Bradford where the show was filmed, and so is a local in two respects.

I recommend listening to it all, but if you want to hear just Matthew, he describes his book beginning at 27:43. But then you’d miss Bashford’s eloquent description of the Huxleys and their contributions.  One fact that I didn’t know was that both T. H. and Aldous Huxley suffered from depression (it was called “melancholia” then), which led Aldous to think about a genetic basis for their condition.

Click below to go to the show’s main page, where you can download the podcast.

And click below to listen to the show. Do it soon if you want to listen, as the BBC doesn’t keep its shows up long.

h/t: Anne

Krista Tippett leaves public radio

July 4, 2022 • 9:00 am

I’m not often one for Schadenfreude, but I may have felt it a bit yesterday, when friend told me that they’d heard NPR announce that Krista Tippett‘s “On Being” Show, which I’ve railed against for years, is finally ending its two-decade stint on NPR.  Click to read the announcement in the NYT.

The good news is that I don’t have to hear her spout her spirituality every Sunday on my way to the grocery store, always seeming to be on the verge of bursting into tears as she interviewed her guests. The bad news is that she’ll still be around hosting a podcast. But more good news is that I almost never listen to podcasts, so I’m done with her.

My friend shared my feelings, saying, “I can’t listen to Tippett. The sound of her voice gives me hives.”

You can go here if you want to read the many rants I’ve posted about her show. I don’t think many readers share my animus; they just don’t listen to her. But since my car radio is tuned to NPR, and I always go grocery shopping at the time on Sunday morning when her show is on, it’s either Tippett or silence. Why do I listen to her? As I always say, “For the same reason you smell the milk when you already know it’s gone bad.”

Click to read:

I’m sure that some other readers have shows that they follow because they love to hate them. In fact, I may not be feeling Schadenfreude in the classic sense, which is pleasure derived from someone else being harmed, for I take no joy in Tippett’s “misfortune”—if it is a misfortune. What I am joyful about is that there will be less woo on NPR, and perhaps some discourse that arrives somewhere.  And perhaps Tippett wasn’t given the heave-ho, but just got tired of a weekly show, though going to a podcast seems like not much of a change. At any rate, the NYT report implies that she is the one who made the decision, and her woo- and spirituality-laden show was actually doing well:

“On Being,” a weekly interview show about the mysteries of human existence, hosted by Krista Tippett, airs on nearly 400 public radio stations, with more than half a million weekly listeners. Archived episodes are downloaded millions of times per month. By any reasonable metric “On Being” is thriving. Yet on Thursday, Tippett and her team sent a letter to her radio affiliates, announcing that after nearly 20 years, the radio version of “On Being” would cease production in June.

“We’re going to move on,” Tippett said. “This is going to end in its current form. It’s almost existential, theological, right? Things die.”

Yes, and some things, like Jesus, come back to life.

Tippett, 61, was speaking last week on a video call — with her camera off, so she wouldn’t stare at her own face — from the Minneapolis offices of “On Being.” In its searching, intimate conversations with poets, scientists, philosophers, faith leaders and more, “On Being” makes space for the timeless amid the up-to-the-minute urgency of news, traffic and weather. In a ceremony in 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Tippett a National Humanities Medal, for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.”

All I can say after years of listening is that she may have delved into the mysteries of human existence, but after two decades she hasn’t solved one of them. Her show (originally called “On Faith”) consisted of her interviewing the “spiritual” folk: poets, priests, novelists, and so on, feeding them softball questions and listening to endless blather about, well, the nature and mystery of being. I never learned one damn thing from the show, nor did it stimulate my thinking. To me it was the aural equivalent of the paintings of Thomas Kinkade.

But I fulminate—for the last time about her, thank Ceiling Cat. A bit more about her future and the replacement show:

“On Being” isn’t really dying. And that delving will continue, in new forms. Alongside its sister show, “Poetry Unbound,” “On Being” will move from a weekly radio production to a seasonal podcast model. The show plans a yearly release schedule of two seasons, each one made up of 10 to 12 episodes, with the first season to begin in October. There are also plans for outreach work, including workshops and more live events. And an app is in the works as well.

Ergo, there will still be an “On Being” show that sounds similar to one on NPR. Why the move, then?

The NYT gives a pottd biography that includes stuff about the beginning of the show.

She hadn’t planned to return to media. But she had spent several years thinking explicitly about big questions: What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? Who will we be to each other? She came to believe that those questions belonged on public radio, particularly as a rejoinder to the more absolutist voices speaking about religion, like those of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

. . .Tippett often quotes the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and toward the close of our conversation, she quoted him again, this time a line from “Letters to a Young Poet”: “Live the questions.”

“On Being” has always been about questions. Now there are more even more. Which Tippett welcomes. “It’s time to live them more deeply and differently,” Tippett said.

Those questions have no answers, save the first one, “What does it mean to be human?”, whose answer involves all the genes and behaviors unique to H. sapiens.  But of course that’s not what Tippett means by the question.  As for, “Who will we be to each other?” I guess I’ll be Jerry A. Coyne, aka Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus).

As a scientist, I prefer to “deal with the questions, which we strive to answer.” Tippett never answered any of them. And you don’t “live” questions: you try to answer them. Tippett, I suppose, prefers to wallow in the Great Mysteries of life.

Her time slot is, I believe, being replaced by a show from Shankar Vedantam, who did a podcast but now moves to NPR. I haven’t heard his “HIdden Brain” show, and I hope it’s better than “On Being”.  My friend has heard it, and says it’s more science-y than “On Being,” and doesn’t give her hives. Looking at Vedantam’s Wikipedia page, however, i see this:

[Vedantam] has lectured at Harvard University and Columbia University, served on the advisory board of the Templeton-Cambridge Fellowships in Science & Religion. . . .

Will there be more woo in the offing? We shall see. In the meantime, I wish Ms. Tippett good luck, but the words “good riddance” also come to me.

I feel better now.

(From the NYT): Krista Tippett. Credit…Galen Fletcher for The New York Times


The slow death of NPR

March 21, 2022 • 1:00 pm

I suspect that any number of us could have written this piece at Unherd—at least in echoing its message—but it was written by William Deresiewicz, author, critic, and former English teacher at Yale.

What I mean by the above is that many readers have declared themself sick to death of NPR, offended by its fulminating wokeness that once wasn’t there. And if you deny that NPR is getting woker and woker, hewing to a “Progressive Leftist” line with little deviation, then you haven’t been listening. I have the local NPR station as the only one set on my car radio, and now I almost prefer silence, for what comes out of the speakers is absolutely predictable.

Why would somebody want to listen only to news that fits your ideological bias? The radio, like a college, is an instrument for learning, and, when partly funded by the taxpayers (as NPR is), should help challenge our thinking. Taxpayers don’t fund the New York Times or Fox News, yet even in this article Deresiewicz doesn’t mention the one-sidedness of a station that’s partly funded by tax dollars. What he’s beefing about is the ideological slant of NPR. The fact that it’s publicly funded only makes its one-sidedness more objectionable. Believe me, if Fox News were funded by taxpayers, Democrats would be up in arms, and I’d be among them.

At any rate, click below to read.  Yes, I know some of you will approve of NPR’s shows on art or music that NPR has, but what the author is talking about is a pervasive ideology.

Deresiewicz begins with his discovery of NPR in 1987, when it was meatier and doing in-depth stories that simply couldn’t be covered by other stations (the author refers to an “All Things Considered” story about hiking the Appalachian Trail). He also fell in love with “Morning Edition” and “Fresh Air”. I liked those shows, too, and am not sure that even “Science Friday” with the inimitable Robert Krulwich is aired.  (I have to admit, though, that I always detested Garrison Keillor.) But, then. . . things changed:

And that’s the way it was for over 30 years, through the advent of Talk of the Nation and This American Life, of On the Media and Here & Now. NPR became the soundtrack of my life — when I drove, cooked, ate, exercised, did laundry — three or four hours a day, every day.

That is, until around the beginning of last year. My discontent had been building since the previous summer, the summer of the George Floyd protests. It was clear from the beginning that the network would be covering the movement not like journalists but advocates. A particular line was being pushed. There was an epidemic of police violence against unarmed African-Americans; black people were in danger of being murdered by the state whenever they walked down the street. The protests were peaceful, and when they weren’t, the violence was minor, or it was justified, or it was exclusively initiated by the cops. Although we had been told for months to stay indoors, the gatherings did not endanger public health — indeed, they promoted it. I supported the protests; I just did not appreciate the fact that I was being lied to.

But it wasn’t just that story. Overnight, the network’s entire orientation had changed. Every segment was about race, and when it wasn’t about race, it was about gender. The stories were no longer reports but morality plays, with predictable bad guys and good guys. Scepticism [sic] was banished. Divergent opinions were banished. The pronouncements of activists, the arguments of ideologically motivated academics, were accepted without question. The tone became smug, certain, self-righteous. To turn on the network was to be subjected to a program of ideological force-feeding. I was used to the idiocies of the academic Left — I had been dealing with them ever since I started graduate school — but now they were leaking out of my radio.

So that is pretty much what I did. Now, in addition to The Unspeakable, I listen to Blocked and Reported (Katie Herzog and Jesse Singal), The Dishcast (Andrew Sullivan), The Glenn Show (Glenn Loury, with John McWhorter as a regular guest), Honestly (Bari Weiss), and LibertiesTalk (Celeste Marcus). I don’t agree with everything these people say, still less with everything their guests do. Weiss is on the centre-Left, Sullivan and Loury on the centre-Right, but more to the point, all of these figures are heterodox, which means that their positions aren’t predictable.

The problem is that I don’t much like podcasts, as I can read faster than I can listen, and I don’t have a substitute for NPR, which I listened to only in my car. (I can’t listen to the radio if I’m doing something else, for I can’t pay attention to two things at once.)

You may disagree with Deresiewicz’s characterization of NPR, but it pretty much jibes with mine. I listen because I have to, but not raptly.

He goes on, decrying one-sidedness as not conducive to examining one’s views:

. . . But for me the most important way, and not just because it is the one I find most salient for me, is this. You change your mind when you consent to stop ignoring things you know full well but do not want to think about — things that you push to the edges of consciousness, or all the way out. Few of us are scientists. We do not gather facts through careful, ordered processes; we aren’t compelled to make our arguments in formal terms in front of expert referees. Our thinking is less about finding the truth than about making ourselves feel good. And so when we encounter a countervailing piece of information, an uncomfortable truth, we dismiss it as an anomaly, or as not undermining the general point, forgetting the previous “anomalies” and not regarding how they might together utterly destroy the point.

Yes, that’s it: NPR’s mission isn’t to change minds, or even inspire thought; its mission appears increasingly to make those on the Left feel good about themselves—it’s an audible and constant source of self-affirmation. More:

A few examples from my own thought. Some concern the recognition that we on our side are not any better, in many respects, than those scoundrels on the other. Yes, conservatives are making common cause with authoritarian regimes, but only lately did I let myself acknowledge that the Left has done the same for many years: with Cuba still today, Nicaragua in the 80s, North Vietnam in the 60s, the Soviet Union in the 30s. Yes, Republican leaders are cowards who refuse to denounce the Trumpian extremists in their ranks, but only recently did I allow myself to see that many leaders on the Left are equally spineless, equally faithless, equally complicit in the face of the extremists on their own side. For a lifelong Leftist pushing sixty, admitting this is, as Joe Biden might say, a big fucking deal.

I wouldn’t go nearly as far as Deresiewicz in demonizing the Left equally with the right (but remember the Return of the Lapbook Story!)—and Deresiewicz does say he leans Left—but I still feel manipulated by NPR in the same way he does.

And he’s right on the money when he calls for more “heterodoxy” in reporting. When you read for the first time an essay by Hitchens or Orwell, for instance, you can but rarely guess what they were going to say about politics. You might disagree with them, but they had formidable arguments that you needed to answer if you were to be thoughtful about your own views.

The only media I’ve found that isn’t clearly biased in its reporting is the Wall Street Journal news section, but its op-eds are usually a hotbed of predictable right-wing pabulum. The NYT is often reliable, but increasingly its ideology seeps into its news. The same goes for The Washington Post. In other words, the media has become derelict in its duty to make people think.


The third and final show in Matthew’s BBC series on genetic engineering

August 3, 2021 • 11:30 am

Matthew’s third (and last) installment of his BBC show on genetic engineering, 28 minutes long, takes up two topics.

The first is the controversial topic of genetically engineering of either human eggs/embryos, or of humans already born but with genetic diseases that might be ameliorated by genetically engineering only soe cells or tissus in the boy. Only editing at a very early developmental stage creates permanent and heritable genetic change (change able to be passed on to the next generation) in the “human germline”. “Somatic editing” of cells or tissues in a person isn’t able to be passed on.  It turns out, as Matthew notes, that the cases in which one would even want to edit the germline are very few. What is more efficacious is somatic editing: changing the DNA of cells in the body that create the symptoms of genetic disease. This is has already been done, with some success, for sickle-cell anemia, cancer, blindness, and neurological diseases. Those changes aren’t passed on, but one can test embryos for the presence of some of these conditions and practice selective implantation of healthy embryos without having to edit the DNA of the embryo.

The second issue Matthew and his interviewees discuss is “gene drive“, which involves altering DNA in such a way that a specific gene can be preferentially passed on within a species. This can accomplish things like completely eliminating a pest species (listen to the program to see how), rendering a pest susceptible to a relatively harmless toxin, or making pest species unable to be pathogenic, like engineering mosquitoes unable to carry malaria parasites. The problem with this is the uncertainty about how it will affect the ecosystem, not only causing unpredictable effects (every species has predators and prey, for instance), but also spreading, though hybridization or horizontal gene transfer, a driving gene into other organisms.

Anyway, have a listen below.

And, like the last episode, you can win a prize by answering Matthew’s question below. The prize, I believe, is an autographed as his upcoming book about the show’s topic. Here’s Matthew’s tweet, which also links to all three of his episodes.

Matt Taibbi on the decline of NPR

July 31, 2021 • 10:45 am

NPR is the station I always have playing on my car radio, but I pay little attention to it save when I yell and rant when Krista Tippett comes on at 7 a.m. Sunday morning as I’m on my way to buy groceries. And of course Tippett is woke as hell, not to mention unctuous and lachrymose, but I rarely listen to other shows as I use my car infrequently.

In my post on NPR’s new ethics policy yesterday, a couple of readers took time to complain about how dire NPR has become, focusing obsessively on race and gender. Well, that’s what the New York Times and Washington Post do as well, so I’m not surprised, but I can’t vouch for NPR myself. One reader, though, called my attention to a new piece by Matt Taibbi about the decline of the station. Although Taibbi was described as a “center left journalist”, he really does a number on the lefty NPR—a column as funny and scathing as any I’ve seen lately. I’d reproduce it in its entirety, but that wouldn’t be fair, so click on the link below to read his short demolition of the station. I’ll give a few quotes to show the tenor of the piece.

Taibbi begins by showing how NPR denigrates conservative Ben Shapiro in its recent article “Outrage As A Business Model: How Ben Shapiro Is Using Facebook To Build An Empire”—not for being fake news, but for polarizing the media AND being too popular. Here’s a graph from NPR of Facebook engagement (monthly likes, shares, and comments per article) of Shapiro’s “The Daily Wire” site compared to five mainstream media (The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, CNN, and Fox News, along with four conservative sites (Shapiro’s Daily Wire, Breitbart News, The Blaze, and the Western Journal).  The Daily Wire tops them all by far. That doesn’t sit well with the liberal folks at NPR.

Here’s a quote from the NPR piece followed by Taibbi’s ascerbic remark:

“. . . by only covering specific stories that bolster the conservative agenda (such as negative reports about socialist countries and polarizing ones about race and sexuality issues) and only including certain facts, readers still come away from The Daily Wire’s content with the impression that Republican politicians can do little wrong and cancel culture is among the nation’s greatest threats.”

NPR has not run a piece critical of Democrats since Christ was a boy. Moreover, much like the New York Times editorial page (but somehow worse), the public news leader’s monomaniacal focus on “race and sexuality issues” has become an industry in-joke. For at least a year especially, listening to NPR has been like being pinned in wrestling beyond the three-count. Everything is about race or gender, and you can’t make it stop.

Taibbi notes that now even progressive people in the media can’t stand the nonstop wokeism on NPR (and please, readers, don’t tell me that the Republicans are worse than the Woke, as I already know that). Taibbi gives a list of recent NPR reports, accompanied by his own ascerbic comments:

Billie Eilish Says She Is Sorry After TikTok Video Shows Her Mouthing A Racist Slur.” Pop star caught on tape using the word “chink” when she was “13 or 14 years old” triggers international outrage and expenditure of U.S. national media funding. [JAC The article doesn’t mention the c-word, so Taibbi either has inside information or sussed it out.]

Black TikTok Creators Are On Strike To Protest A Lack Of Credit For Their Work.” White TikTok users dance to Nicky Minaj lyrics like, “I’m a f****** Black Barbie. Pretty face, perfect body,” kicking off “a debate about cultural appropriation on the app.”

Geocaching While Black: Outdoor Pastime Reveals Racism And Bias.” Area man who plays GPS-based treasure hunt game requiring forays into remote places and private property describes “horrifying” experience of people asking what he’s doing. [JAC: preferential questionins of blacks is a real problem, but there is article after article about the problem occurring in specific instances, like geocaching and birdwatching. How many more of these do we need?]

Broadway Is Reopening This Fall, And Every New Play Is By A Black Writer.” All sevennew plays being written by black writers is “a step toward progress,” but critics “will be watching Broadway’s next moves” to make sure “momentum” continues.

She Struggled To Reclaim Her Indigenous Name. She Hopes Others Have It Easier.” It took Cold Lake First Nations member Danita Bilozaze nine whole months to change her name to reflect her Indigenous identity.

Tom Hanks Is A Non-Racist. It’s Time For Him To Be Anti-Racist.” Tom Hanks pushing for more widespread teaching of the Tulsa massacre doesn’t change the fact that he’s built a career playing “white men ‘doing the right thing,’” NPR complains. [JAC: This gets the Pecksniff Award for the lot.]

One more comment by Taibbi:

Mixed in with Ibram Kendi recommendations for children’s books, instructions on how to “decolonize your bookshelf” and “talk to your parents about racism” (even if your parents are an interracial couple), and important dispatches from the war on complacency like “Monuments And Teams Have Changed Names As America Reckons With Racism, Birds Are Next,” “National” Public Radio in the last year has committed itself to a sliver of a sliver of a sliver of the most moralizing, tendentious, humor-deprived, jargon-obsessed segment of American society. Yet without any irony, yesterday’s piece still made deadpan complaint about Shapiro’s habit of “telling [people] what their opinions should be” and speaking in “buzzwords.”

Oy gewalt! I’m going shopping in a few minutes so I’ll listen for myself, but the drive is only ten minutes. Taibbi concludes, not mincing words, that “NPR sucks and is unlistenable, so people are going elsewhere. And they’re jealous of Ben Shapiro!

I”ll have to investigate this Taibbi fellow. . .

And NPR just had the news.

Some science listening from the BBC

July 30, 2021 • 10:00 am

Reader Dom called my attention to today’s BBC Science in Action program, which contains several items of interest. You can hear the 35-minute show by clicking on the site below and clicking “listen now”:

There are four bits:

Start – 12:20.  A discussion with Elizabeth Turner about her new evidence for 890-million-year-old animals (spongelike creatures), which I wrote about yesterday.

12:20-18:55.  A discussion with Cambridge University’s Dr Sanna Cottaar about the “Insight” probe on Mars’s surface and scientists’ attempt to deduce the structure of the planet.

18:55-26:45: Prof Lesley Lyons from the University of Missouri discusses the similarity of the genome of cats to that of humans, and how that could be used for medical purposes in humans. I’m not keen on this because it implies that they’re going to experiment on cats. As she says, “they’re bigger than mice and cheaper than primates”.

26:45-end:  A remembrance of Steven Weinberg, who died a week ago. There are extracts from two BBC interviews with Weinberg as well as discussions of his work by fellow scientists.

Part 2 of Matthew’s 3-part BBC show on genetic engineering

July 27, 2021 • 9:15 am

I was alerted to the appearance of Matthew’s BBC radio second show on genetic engineering from his tweet below. He’s offering a prize, too, if you understand the final music (put your guesses below or tweet them back at Matthew). I’m told the prize will be an autographed copy of Genetic Dreams, Matthew’s book that inspired this show: The book will appear next year.

Click below and then on “listen now” to hear the program. The BBC summary:

Professor Matthew Cobb looks at how genetic engineering became big business – from the first biotech company that produced human insulin in modified bacteria in the late 1970s to the companies like Monsanto which developed and then commercialised the first GM crops in the 1990s. Were the hopes and fears about these products of genetic engineering realised?

The show is based on lots of interviews—conducted by Matthew himself. It’s a good episode, beginning with the creation of venture-capital-funded genetic engineering firms, firms that made scientists wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, and eventually used recombinant DNA technology to manufacture “artificial” human insulin and growth hormone, as well as over 400 other drugs. But there was a downside of genetic engineering: interviewees complain about the secrecy it imposes on scientific research and about the fact that the technology made medicines more expensive. 

The last part of the show concentrates on GM (“genetically modified”) organisms—specifically crops. We all know about Monsanto’s creation of crops resistant to the herbicide Roundup, giving companies a convenient way to sell both crop and herbicide, as well as making it easier for farmers to tend their fields.  Despite these scientific advances, though, Matthew notes that GM crops haven’t led to more food being produced, all the while increasing the use of herbicides and pesticides that may have dire effects on the ecosystem. At the end, Matthew reaches a conclusion about whether GM technology has been more of a dream or a nightmare.


Matthew’s new BBC show on recombinant DNA

July 20, 2021 • 9:30 am

I knew Matthew was writing a book on genetic engineering, and I knew he was doing a BBC radio series on the upcoming book, but I learned about the show’s first episode, now available, only from a tweet he emitted (below). You can access the 28-minute program, one of three, by clicking on the second screenshot.

Click to listen. This first part covers the advent of genetic engineering, and the huge controversy that took place when I was in graduate school. Did recombinant DNA pose serious dangers to the world. Would some engineered organism escape the lab and kill everyone? This didn’t prove to be the case, but at the time the science was at a very early stage.