08 June, 2008

Many Meetings with PZ Myers

Meeting PZ Myers is like rubbing shoulders with a rock star, only with science.

PZ's blog Pharyngula has, in a very short time, changed my life repeatedly. I stumbled across it at the turn of the year, spent a captivated few days reading post after archived post, and I've not missed a day of it since. Pharyngula gave me insight into a whole new world: one in which biology is discussed by ordinary people alongside actual scientists, where atheism is a glorious celebration of godlessness rather than a shameful secret, and where fruitful argument is the order of the day.

PZ proved that you can have your outspoken atheism and your job, too. So, change one: I started speaking out rather than try to slip under the radar. Change two: he was among those who inspired me to start this blog and speak my mind without fear. Change three: I now know that evo-devo exists, and it should prove a fruitful line of inquiry for a poor SF author trying to evolve her aliens properly. Change four: I found out that atheists had started coming together to effect change, and ended up feeling a lot less alone in the struggle against religious right fuckery. And the changes go on and on, right up to those that happened over the past week when my baby blog hosted the first ever Carnival of the Elitist Bastards and was fortunate enough to get an approving nod from PZ. That allowed me to meet PZ Myers not as some anonymous fangirl, but as the captain of the HMS Elitist Bastard, which I have to tell you is a change I liked very much.

Seeing PZ speak has changed my life just as much as his blog has. For one thing, I discovered he's lying to us all.

He likes to claim he isn't all that funny or fire-breathing in real life. I'm not sure how he gets away with such claims. Granted, he doesn't shout from a pulpit like a Texas televangelist, but there's plenty of fire there. Anyone who loves science as much as he does breathes fire. It's not the fire of hell and brimstone, but the fire of the phoenix. It doesn't burn (unless you're a hapless Christian silly enough to try to take PZ head-on), but renews. It impassions. It's going to keep me warm on a lot of cold nights.

As far as not being funny, well. The audience certainly laughed a lot in response to his incisive, at times diamond-cutter sharp sense of humor, so I think we can lay that self-depricating little myth to rest.

He is soft-spoken. He doesn't shout. He doesn't rant. He's just implacable, which is a tremendous force all its own. Relentless logic doesn't have to scream to ring out loud and clear. After watching him lecture twice, I have a lot of sympathy for his foes. It must feel like getting run down by a bulldozer shoveling an avalanche down upon you. I'm glad he's on our side, I'll tell you that.

His talk for the Northwest Science Writer's Association is available in podcast at Real Science. I strongly urge you to listen to it. I'm not going to rehash it - others have done a better job. I'm just going to discuss a few points that are salient to me as a writer and blogger. You'll filter his lecture through your own interests, of course, and it's best that you do. Especially since what follows is based on my paltry notes and pathetic memory: it was a choice of relying on those or putting off this post YET AGAIN so I could listen to the podcast. Be warned.

With that caveat, let us move on into what PZ wants to see more scientists and science writers do: speak out. His students, when asked to mention scientists and popularizers of science, come back most often with Bill Nye the Science Guy, Mythbusters, and Marie Curie. Where's Attenboro, Sagan? he asks. They've never heard of them. PZ tells us it's our fault. We aren't promoting science enough. And he's right.

He has a list of what scientists and science writers can do to get science out in the public eye:

  • Show passion and personality.
  • Be a patient instructor.
  • Be an advocate (and in this, he advises us to shun caution and avoid those weasel words that make laypeople believe that science doesn't have any near-certain answers).
  • Be positive.
  • Argue Argue Argue.
Looking at that list in stark black-and-white crystalizes matters. I remember looking at that Power Point slide and thinking this is it. This is exactly what we must do if we want science to become something the public can approach and enjoy. Carl Sagan was nearly all of these points. So were great popularizers like Isaac Asimov, James Burke, and Stephen Jay Gould.

In an impatient culture, though, people often don't have the attention spans or the time necessary to sit down with a good book and read it cover-to-cover. I think this is why PZ emphasized blogging so much during his lecture. He encouraged more scientists (and lovers of science) to blog. And yepper, there was a Power Point slide for that, too:
Why Blog?
  • Short form writing.
  • Entertainment.
  • Community Building.
  • Consciousness raising.
  • Advocacy.

He pointed out that science blogging is good practice for scientists. It's good practice for any writer - blogging forces you to get the words out, be succinct in your presentation of ideas, and garners you immediate feedback that can drastically improve your writing. Blogs are also becoming a huge part of the new media. A growing percentage of us are getting their news and entertainment through blogs. PZ's right to advise more scientists to take advantage of the power of blogs to shape and inform public opinion.

PZ, of course, is something of a controversial figure (particularly to those Christians who took advantage of the question-and-answer period to challenge him for challenging their beliefs). It makes perfect sense that he'd include controversy as a major part of his talk. "Controversy sells," he said, and that's all too true. So you tackle the controversies head-on. PZ stated that you've got to get something that gets people angry. A fight gets people on your side. People against you help you hone your arguments.

I've seen that in action with Expelled - I don't think we've ever done better at getting the message out about what science is actually about than when we were fighting that noxious pile of dog vomit. I can guarantee you that people who didn't give two tugs on a dead dog's dick what the scientific meaning of the word "theory" was now understand it simply because of the negative reviews of the movie. Plenty of folks ended up on Pharyngula, getting their daily dose of science blogging, simply because Mark Mathis was stupid enough to boot PZ out of the theater, but let Richard Dawkins in.

Science wasn't something high on my list of priorities aside from a useful tool for my writing until I stumbled across the whole creationist attack on evolution. A huge community of very excellent science bloggers and writers made got me passionately, angrily involved in its defense, and because of that, I'm learning more science. I can't be the only person that's true for. And that's one of the reasons PZ doesn't shy away from controversy. It hooks people. It interests them. Any good writer will tell you that - without conflict, there's no story, and without a story, there's no readers. QED.

But controversy and passion aren't the only tools in the science populizer's arsenal. There's also the little matter of the cultural hook. PZ mentioned several science books that did a wonderful job promoting science by using pop culture as a lure:

The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios
The Physics of the Buffyverse by Jennifer Ouellette
The Sandwalk Adventures, Clan Apis, and Optical Allusions by Jay Hosler


I especially like the last three, seeing as how I'm a comic book advocate.

In closing, PZ had a startling tip: the most important thing about science, he said, isn't its importance. There's a tendency to emphasize what's important - without science, there's no cure for cancer, no solutions to the energy crisis, no flying car. And these are vital things, but PZ contends they're not important enough to the general public to be the only hook.

"Never mind 'importance,'" his Power Point slide said, thus shoving aside everything common sense tells us about what a writer should focus a science story on. "Science writing is all about beauty."

"They appreciate the fact you've told them this little piece of something beautiful," he said as we sat absorbing that extraordinary claim. And I realized, sitting there frantically scribbling my notes, he's absolutely right. Carl Sagan didn't spend as much time emphasizing the importance of cosmology as exploring the wonder and the gorgeousness of it all. Controversy and pop culture may lure people in, but what they're going to stay for is science's awesome beauty.

Science has too often acted helpless in the face of public apathy and ignorance. Every scientist and science writer who bemoans the lack of interest in scientific subjects among the general populace needs to go listen to PZ's lecture, and start employing his tactics. Especially that last.

PZ's lecture put me very much in mind of something Neil Gaiman said when I saw him at the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2001. "Being contentious is what you should be doing," he said. "You should be shaking people up." I have a feeling PZ would be in whole-hearted agreement with that.

He's certainly not afraid of being contentious. In the question-and-answer, a Christian stood up to challenge him on his outspoken atheism. PZ never flinched. He's unapologetic in his views and never, ever compromises them. "Religion itself is a lie and a danger," he said, also calling it a "perilous short-circuit in our thinking, and we have to be aware of it." Plenty of people are out there who can support theistic views, he said. He isn't interested in being one of them.

And I have advice for the next Christian who plans to stand up and bludgeon PZ with the old "Science can't explain things like love" chestnut: don't. The results are brutal. I'll leave it up to you to listen to that delightful little exchange on the podcast. But it can't bring across the smile that spread across PZ's face when that got thrown in his teeth. "Wicked delight" I think describes it fairly well. This was the smile of a gunfighter whose pistol has already cleared the holster when he realizes his opponent is not only a fumbling klutz, but shooting blanks to boot.

PZ is one of those incredible people who has the courage of his convictions. Whatever you think of him and his outspoken atheism, you can't deny him respect for that. He's a fabulous advocate for science, and he's a rock for atheists. Along with the fantastic ideas for science writing, he's provided me a stellar example of someone who won't compromise his values for the sake of pandering to religious sentiment. Even though we don't fully agree on this point - I don't mind religious moderates so much as he does - I appreciate very much the fact that he won't back down. He's not one of those thunder and no substance folks. There's a cannon in all that smoke.

PZ's talk at the Seattle Society for Sensible Explanations dinner on Friday was a lot more difficult, and I'm not even going to attempt to rehash the biology. I could follow a good bit of what he was saying, but it was the first I'd really heard of the evolution of the eye. That means that, even with my pathetic little notes, I can't do his lecture any justice without a hell of a lot more reading on the subject. Thankfully, PvM from Panda's Thumb was there, and has a post up with links to some spiffy science papers on the whole thing. PZ's also promised to post some of the slides on Pharyngula soon, probably complete with an excellent write-up.

In light of that, I'm going to play up the sizzle more than the steak. PZ promised he'd trash the Bible in his talk. I figured he meant he'd trash-talk it, but no - he ripped Genesis right out of the Gideon Bible he'd filched, and waved it about at several points in his talk. His point: the "science" contained within that page and a half is absolutely ridiculous. You can't encompass the whole of creation within a few verses of awful poetry. He compared that page and a half to the reams of papers tracing just the evolution of the eye. That was a stark example of the paucity of science in scripture. "This is not enough to be talking about science," he said as he rattled it. And he pointed out another flaw: Genesis talks about the waters and the fish, but where are the squid?

Indeed, the squid are MIA in Genesis. So much for all the answers being there, eh?

Someday, I hope he writes up a brief little tract on the evolution of the eye that I can hand to creationists who show up at my door. I didn't ken a lot of the intricate detail of the evolutionary biology, but I grasped just enough to know one thing for sure: things would have turned out very differently indeed had an actual God created the eye. It's complex, to be sure, but not irreducibly so. It's complex the same way a very old city is. You've seen ancient cities that grew up organically and are a complex, somehow-functioning but ridiculous mess. Old streets get pressed into service they weren't originally intended for, old buildings get absorbed into the new, and a lot of nonsensical crap is forced into making some kind of crazy sense out of necessity, whereas things would be a lot more streamlined and sensible if the damned thing had been designed and built from scratch, with modern necessities fully in mind.

That's not a perfect analogy, but it's just about how the eye is. You're talking something that's actually neural tissue - would any self-respecting God press neural tissue into service for seeing when there had to be better material He could have created? What about those crazy upside-down photoreceptors? Looking at the eye is like looking at a stoned MIT student's attempt to design something with the help of a chimpanzee.

PZ compared it to a Rube Goldberg machine. "Only an idiot would design something like this," he said after entertaining us with a slide of a Rube Goldberg machine for making orange juice. "The Designer was demented."

Looking at the slides of how the eye works, I can only agree. And yet, the damned thing works. Evolution doesn't always give us the most elegant solutions to our survival needs - much the opposite - but it gets us there. Somehow. And at least it's never boring!

I'm looking forward now to digging into the story of eye evolution. I'd never really considered before how my aliens see. I've now got a plethora of eyes to choose from, and a fantastic one-liner to come back at creationists with. Everybody wins (except the IDiots).

These two lectures have also inspired me to add a bit more science to this blog: expect regular Sunday Science features from here on, complete with controversy and a heaping helping of sheer beauty.

So that's it. My two encounters with PZ Myers of Pharyngula fame. And I've got the pictures to prove it. That's me in the one on the left, there, and JC from the Seattle Skeptics group on the right.

Envy us, don't you? You know you do. So don't miss PZ next time he's in your town.


12 comments:

Divalent said...

"... blogging forces you to ... be succinct in your presentation of ideas..."

Or not; if you're Orac.

Nice summary.

Anonymous said...

Is it "argue, argue, argue" or "just point a finger and gigggle"??

I admire PZ for walking a fine line between the two (really, he jumps with facility back and forth) and that's why I think he's so effective. Attempting to intellectually engage the delusional is ... well... if you throw a white glove in a mud puddle, the puddle doesn't get very "glove-y"

Mikkle said...

Was that your analogy of the ancient city for the evolved eye? I like it ..and may use it in my own explanations. Thanks for the summaries of Dr. Myers' seminars. I had very much the same impressions when I met PZ at his last visit to Seattle, although, unlike you, I had sit there and grin like an idiot fanboy.

breakerslion said...

"A huge community of very excellent science bloggers and writers made got me passionately, angrily involved in its defense, and because of that, I'm learning more science. I can't be the only person that's true for."

You aren't, but I could wish for more that found science stimulating and less that found religion hypnotic.

Those of us on the East Coast are indeed jealous of those who have more access to our heroes. Enjoy. I begrudge you not.

george.w said...

PZ's blog has definitely been an education for me. Before reading there, I honestly thought the extreme ignorance-mongers were somewhat rare and could be reasoned with; now I know quite clearly that neither is the case.

Blogging is huge exercise in writing. Instructors should have all their students blog.

Dana Hunter said...

@Divalent - well, yeah, of course excepting Orac. ;-) Or me, for that matter.

Anybody else ever have that problem where the short, easy and elegant post in your head ends up as a two billion word monstrosity when it's written?

@anonymous: I'm so quoting that line! Glove-y. Awesome.

@Mikkle - 'twas my very own analogy, and you may filch it at will! If you're in the Seattle area, we should discuss getting together for another big event so we can grin like demented fanpeople together!

@Breakerslion - I suppose tis our jobs to create such people. Religion really loses its lustre when you've seen the beauty and power of science. We can be the bearers of the Good News. ;-)

@George: same here. I had no idea this stuff was so pervasive until I stumbled on Pharyngula, Panda's Thumb, and a few others one day. I don't know which is more horrifying - that it happens so much, or that people who'd be willing to fight to keep creationism and other assaults on science out aren't aware of the extent of the problem...

Excellent food for thought, all of you, and thank you as well for the delightful compliments! You don't know how relieved I am that I did PZ at least a little justice.

Efrique said...

Yeah, it doesn't take much familiarity with the mammalian eye to realize it's fucked up bit of 'design'. The light-sensitive parts are in backwards (they point away from the light). Blood vessels in front of, rather than behind, the light-sensitive parts. Crazy.

Squid eyes, on the other hand, are somewhat better organized.

Dana Hunter said...

Well, now we understand why PZ admires squid so. ;-)

Leigh said...

Great post! And congratulations for launching the Elitist Bastard.

I too am a PZ fangirl and every day (really, several times a day) Pharyngulite. I came into this world via a passion for keeping creationists out of our schools, and once here, found . . . beauty. PZ is right about this, as he is about so many things.

Speaking of beauty, my son (14 years old) has conceived his own passion . . . for astronomy. Boy, is he fired up. He told me this a few days ago: "Mom, this sounds really dorky, but if science were a woman, I'd marry her." (Normally he's very articulate. He just couldn't find any words to explain how BEAUTIFUL and EXCITING the universe he sees through his telescope is to him.)

In this world, we seldom get validation that we're doing something right. This was my moment to hear "Raising kids. Ur doin it rite."

Efrique said...

On the topic of life-changing blogs and posts, one that had a big effect on me came along a little before the start of the year, so you may not have seen it:

Greta Christina's Atheists and Anger.

Anonymous said...

J. Hussein Christ hisself would envy that pic of you and PZ. Better than your daddy ordering your death, fer shure.

Dana Hunter said...

@Leigh: UR DOIN IT RITE! I hope your son holds on to that passion through the onslaught of hormones and craziness that is high school. You could be raising the next Carl Sagan, you never know!

@Efrique: Thanks for the link! That was an excellent post.