Sam Harris dares us to convince him he’s full of nonsense.

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, among others, has issued a challenge regarding his book The Moral Landscape. He wants us to come up with a refutation to the central thesis of his book. The best entry will be posted on his website and the entrant will win $2000. If an entry succeeds in changing Dr. Harris’s mind, the entrant will receive $20,000. So, what are the criteria?

2. Can you give some guidance as to what you would consider a proper demolition of your thesis?

If you show that my “worst possible misery for everyone” argument fails, or that other branches of science are self-justifying in a way that a science of morality could never be, or that my analogy to a landscape of multiple peaks and valleys is fundamentally flawed, or that the fact/value distinction holds in a way that I haven’t yet understood—you stand a very good chance of torpedoing my argument and changing my mind.

3. What sort of criticism is likely to be ineffective?

You will definitely not win this prize if argue against views I don’t actually hold—which you might well do if you fail to notice the distinction I make between finding answers in practice and there being answers in principle, if you narrowly define science to mean doing the former while wearing a white lab coat, if you imagine that my thesis entails that scientists are more moral than farmers and bricklayers, or if, like the philosopher Patricia Churchland, you do all of those things with an air of scornful pomposity appropriate to a Monty Python routine.

Entries must be no longer than 1000 words. Submissions open on Feb. 9th, 2014. Here are the official rules of the contest.

You know this is like waving a giant crimson flag at a herd of angry bulls, right? I read The Moral Landscape when it was brand new, and I actually liked it then, but now I’m reading it again just because I love to argue. I suspect that the real fun of the challenge will take place well outside of the judging panel’s remarks. You can’t take apart the master’s house with the master’s tools, but we can totally throw eggs at the house from outside, and if we throw those eggs hard enough, some of them will smash the windows.

Don’t Make Me Uncomfortable: High School Chemistry Edition

Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post Blogs has run this very…special…op-ed from someone named David Bernstein who is pissed as heck that his son has been told he needs to learn chemistry, and he’s not going to take it anymore.

I was recently informed by a school official at my son’s high school that the state of Maryland mandates that every student take chemistry in order to graduate. [It turns out that it is not, in fact, mandated by the state but that is what I was told anyway.]

With us so far? Someone told his son he had to take Chemistry, so Mr. Bernstein went and Googled for info about curriculum standardization, but didn’t Google far enough to find out that actually, Maryland schools’ science requirements do NOT mandate Chemistry instruction.

With the mistaken assumption fraying at his nerves, Mr. Bernstein’s case against mandatory Chemistry instruction includes such gems as this:

Now I don’t begrudge chemistry, which has brought forth many of the great inventions of our time, from the pain killer I took an hour ago to the diet soda I’m sipping on now (I’m actually sipping on Scotch. In fact, my very own mother, who if I am lucky will never lay eyes on this article, is a chemist, and believes that chemistry is the most noble of human pursuits and doesn’t understand how I, a former philosophy major, was able to eke out a living.

and this:

But my son is not going to be a scientist. The very thought of it makes me laugh. Your son should take five classes in chemistry so he can be a scientist and make America more competitive.


But my son is not being exposed to chemistry, he’s spending a year of his life studying chemistry every day, which translates into a year of misery for him and our entire family, and paying for tutors who just get him through the course. It doesn’t take a chemist to know that my son is not going to be a chemist. He’s 15, not 7. It’s really that obvious. You took chemistry (I’m not talking to you scientist). What do you remember from that year? Nada, I bet. Next time a school official preens about the importance of chemistry, I’m going to ask him or her how many elements there are in the periodic table. Hint: you can find the answer on Google.

Just off the top of my head, I notice that David Bernstein does not show very high expectations for his son. I remember what it was like to be a teenager, and if I’d found an op-ed in the WaPo with either of my parents talking about, for example, my struggles with Pre-Calculus this way, I would’ve been pissed off. I was a much nicer person at 15 than I am at 32, but seeing my mom talk about how her daughter was never going to be a mathematician would have raised my hackles.

Furthermore, I am not a chemist or a scientist in any way, but I do remember some things that I learned in Chemistry that don’t come through so easily in Google. I remember how to dilute an acid or base with water (hint: you measure out the water first!). I remember balancing equations. I remember performing titration. I also remember that my Chemistry teacher was an asshole who clearly held teenagers in disdain and was not fond of teaching, but amazingly enough, I still learned stuff from him because he didn’t treat me like I was never going to be good at science so there was no reason to bother.

An experimental physicist recently told me that at this phase in chemistry instruction “it’s all about memorization anyway.” There will be no other phases in chemistry instruction for my son. He will forget everything he “learned” a week after the class is over. I can’t remember a thing, and I was a pretty good chemistry student.

Dude, do you ENJOY talking about how your teenage son is so intellectually limited?

This one here is possibly a useful point, but the unexamined class privilege on display is really quite amazing:

Now you’re getting desperate. You’re really going to make my son spend a whole year in a subject he will never use so that he can prepare to suffer at a boring job some day? I don’t know what you do for a living but I love what I do and rarely engage in work I don’t enjoy. If we’re going to pressure him, let’s do it in subjects where he can grow and put to use some day.

*nervous titter* Mr. Bernstein, as a member of a younger generation, I can assure you: unless you have the power to pull tremendous strings for your son, he will NOT have such a good time of it in the job market. Just because YOU got a Philosophy degree and still managed to make a living—at something you enjoy, no less!—doesn’t mean your kids will be so lucky. In fact, I can basically guarantee that your kids will be significantly less fortunate than you are. Not because they’re less intelligent, industrious or adaptable than you are, but because the American job market is in such a state relative to the educational attainment of the new generation that young people have to fight to the death just to get a spot at “entry level.” It was bad enough for my age group, and for the people who are just finishing college now, it is considerably worse. Your sons WILL have to accept work that they don’t enjoy, and they will have to do it well and with a good attitude, or they will not be able to make a living. Between now and the time he starts applying for jobs, your chemistry-hating older son will need to learn the life skills to follow instructions, act as part of a team and get the job done. He isn’t going to learn that if he takes nothing but electives.

Here’s what I think happened: David Bernstein didn’t enjoy learning Chemistry as a teenager, while his mother the chemist pressured him to do better and was disappointed that her son showed so little interest in the natural sciences. David is bitter because his mother wasn’t proud of him, and he wants to spare his son the agony of being told the world does not revolve around his interests. Now his son is struggling at Chemistry, and rather than tell him he’s smart enough, and that his hard work will be worth it in the long run, David Bernstein tells his older son that he will never be a scientist. Chemistry and other demanding, highly technical subjects are for other people’s kids to learn.

Planetary Resources is making cool stuff happen.

Via BlagHag, Phil Plait shares the news with us about the upcoming endeavors of space startup Planetary Resources, which has every intention of mining outer space for natural resources. Are we about to live in a science fiction novel? Oh yes. It appears we are, and it will be fierce.

THE PLAYERS INCLUDE but are not limited to James Cameron (yes, that one), Peter Diamandis of the X-Prize Foundation, and Eric Anderson, Chairman of the Board of the Spaceflight Federation. Basically, it sounds like these guys are serious about what they’re doing.


In roughly sequential order, their grand plans are:

First, they’re not going to try to jump straight to digging minerals and precious metals out of asteroids, but rather…

Instead, they’ll make a series of calculated smaller missions that will grow in size and scope. The first is to make a series of small space telescopes to observe and characterize asteroids. Lewicki said the first of these is the Arkyd 101, a 22 cm (9″) telescope in low-Earth orbit that will be aboard a tiny spacecraft just 40 x 40 cm (16″) in size. It can hitch a ride with other satellites being placed in orbit, sharing launch costs and saving money (an idea that will come up again and again in their plans). This telescope will be used both to look for and observe known Near-Earth asteroids, and can also be pointed down to Earth for remote sensing operations.


After that, once they’re flight-tested, more of these small spacecraft can be launched equipped with rocket motors. If they hitch a ride with a satellite destined for a 40,000 km (24,000 mile) geosynchronous orbit, the motor can be used to take the telescope — now a space probe — out of Earth orbit and set on course for a pre-determined asteroid destination. Technical bit: orbital velocity at geosync is about 3 km/sec, so only about an additional 1 km/sec is needed to send a probe away from Earth, easily within the capability of a small motor attached to a light-weight probe.

Many asteroids pass close to the Earth with a low enough velocity that one of these probes could reach them. Heck, some are easier to reach in that sense than the Moon! Any asteroid-directed probe can be equipped with sensors to make detailed observations, including composition. It could even be designed to land on the asteroid and return samples back to Earth, or leave when the observations are complete and head off to observe more asteroids up close and personal.

This stage does not sound very profitable, but this is what sets this group apart from a sci-fi villain of cartoon capitalism: they’re looking at the long game. The first stage is about figuring out what they’re dealing with, so that when they move on to more ambitious, more expensive, more invasive operations, they’ll know what they’re doing.

Next step is to make space exploration sustainable:

Once a suitable asteroid is found, the idea is not to mine it right away for precious metals to return to Earth, Lewicki told me, but instead to tap it for volatiles — materials with low boiling points such as water, oxygen, nitrogen, and so on, which also happen to be critical supplies for use in space.

The idea behind this is to gather these materials up and create in situ space supply depots. Water is very heavy and incompressible, so it’s very difficult to launch from Earth into space (Lewicki quoted a current price of roughly $20,000 per liter to get water into space). But water should be abundant on some asteroids, locked up in minerals or even as ice, and in theory it shouldn’t be difficult to collect it and create a depot. Future astronauts can then use these supplies to enable longer stays in space — the depots could be put in Earthbound trajectories for astronauts, or could be placed in strategic orbits for future crewed missions to asteroids. Lewicki didn’t say specifically, but these supplies could be sold to NASA — Planetary Resources would make quite a bit money while saving NASA quite a bit. Win-win.

$20k/liter to get water from Earth into space? Yikes.

I quite like the idea of using asteroids for space supplies, because we’re running kind of low on nice things like water and oxygen here on Earth. If we can dig up more of those things from places that aren’t trying to sustain life, then that both helps space exploration pay for itself, thus making it more viable, and makes the effort less ecologically expensive for the planet that’s arranging space travel. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, the concept of “sustainability” is very important to me, and this is an example of something very big and expensive practicing sustainability.

Third stage is effectively making our planet bigger:

The last step is to actually get the precious minerals from the asteroids and bring them to Earth. The exact setup for this isn’t clear at this time — again, the press conference should reveal that — but for the moment it may not really need to be. There are several options.

I’m sure that in the ensuing years of sending small spacecraft around to piggyback on satellites, they will figure out efficient ways of getting minerals down here.

I, for one, look forward to the era when I can buy electronics made from raw materials that weren’t mined from conflict-ridden sections of Africa.

Finally, what is their motivation, if this is going to cost so much up front and take so long to turn a profit?

The vision of Planetary Resources is in their name: they want to make sure there are available resources in place to ensure a permanent future in space. And it’s not just physical resources with which they’re concerned. Their missions will support not just mining asteroids for volatiles and metals, but also to extend our understanding of asteroids and hopefully increase our ability to deflect one should it be headed our way.

This again was a topic I discussed with Lewicki specifically. He agreed with my proposition that all three topics — science, deflection, and resource use — are tied together. After all, we need to understand asteroids scientifically if we want to use them or prevent them from hitting us. We can use them for depots to establish better exploration of them, and sometime in the future we may need to deflect one to prevent all this from being a moot point anyway.

 To put it in fictional terms again: they want to give us a chance to live in a hopeful, triumphant sort of sci-fi novel, and minimize the risk of having to face the sci-fi apocalypse.

Sperm from stem cells! The sky is falling!

I am telling you, this story is just…asking for the fertility-controls-you crowd to start losing their shit. More than usual, I mean.

Caroline Parkinson at BBC reports that Japanese scientists have successfully bred mice using sperm made from embryonic stem cells:

Japanese researchers successfully implanted early sperm cells, made from the stem cells, into infertile mice.

The working sperm which they made was then used to father healthy, and crucially fertile, pups, Cell journal reports.

A UK expert said it was a significant step forward in infertility research.

If you’re now thinking, “this is just begging for jumping to conclusions,” you’d be right.

But he said the Kyoto paper was “quite a large step forward” in developing a process by which sperm could be made for infertile men, perhaps by taking as a starting point a cell from their skin or from something like bone marrow.

He added: “Clearly more work needs to be done to refine this process, but it’s hugely exciting.”

That much is fine, but somehow, the comments on the Jezebel story are all about how this means men are about to become obsolete.

Continue reading

Natural Selection Shows Sympathy for Vaginas

Neil Bowdler at BBC tells us of penile spines that Homo sapiens lost in the shuffle of evolution:

The researchers then focused on two deletions, linking one to penile spines and another to the growth of specific areas of the brain.

They then tested the effects of the deleted sequences in human skin and neural tissue, and found further evidence to support their claims.

So now they’re trying to figure out a theory for why the human penis no longer has spines.

Penile spines are barb-like structures found in many mammals. Their role remains under debate, and they may play different roles in different species.

They may increase stimulation for the male during mating. They might also play a part in inducing female ovulation in a small number of species, but there is evidence that they can cause damage to the female too.

Then there is the suggestion that they might have evolved to remove “mating plugs” – material that some male species deposit in the female genital tract to block other males’ attempts to fertilise the same female.

I am not a biologist, but I would like to suggest that “they can cause damage to the female too” may have been motivator enough for our species to shed this feature. Having enormous brains also means the babies present with especially large heads, which (along with our relatively small hips due to upright posture) means that childbirth for humans is difficult, painful and dangerous in ways that it isn’t for most other mammals. Ergo, could it be possible that giving birth to increasingly large-headed infants made human females predisposed to copulate with males with more pleasure-inducing and less injury-inflicting genitalia? Since the commitment of pregnancy makes females the “bottleneck” of reproduction, we don’t need all men—just a small fraction of them, really—to be available for copulation. I can just picture primitive hominid females looking at their options and saying, “If it’s gonna hurt that much coming out, then dammit, I want it to feel good going in.”


Do religious apologists have a repressed man-crush on Richard Dawkins?

If you want people to read your article about religion, atheism and/or science, you know what you need to do? Start it with a nice picture of Richard Dawkins’s face. Love him or hate him, the man sells papers.

Seriously, though, I’m having a hard time grasping how Christianity’s appeal to the “intellectually and educationally excluded” should be a point of pride. Sticking up for the little guys, great. Choosing the side of “little children” in opposition to the “learned and wise”? Really? That’s where you want to plant your flag? If you expect the rest of us to join you in equating anti-intellectualism with moral integrity, don’t hold your breath.

What it means to lie

When we talk about lying, we usually assume we’re talking about outright fabrication: making a statement of fact which directly contradicts reality, but actually there are several different ways to lie. One might exaggerate or distort, or lie by omission. One might distract from the issue by weaseling around the question. All of these are effective ways to coerce people to behave in certain ways, which is the purpose of deception. It wouldn’t occur to anyone to lie if it made no difference in the way other people respond.

But then there is the good old-fashioned, straight up lie, in which you simply make shit up because the truth gets in the way.

Exhibit A: Andrew Wakefield.

What do you call it when people in positions of authority get together and create an outright falsehood for the purpose of pursuing a lucrative lawsuit over a problem that doesn’t exist? What do you call it when they turn that falsehood into hysteria that leaves thousands of people—especially small children—vulnerable to otherwise preventable disease, which inevitably kills some of them? What do you call it when they make a career out of lying to parents of young children about the health risks facing their kids, out of demonizing the big bad corporations that make products which actually keep people healthy?

What do you call it when you promulgate a lie that spreads disease that used to be vaccinated to near-nonexistence, without making the slightest dent in autism rates?

Because that’s what I call evil.

How discussion of sex brings the funny

First, we have a half-assed “review” of Sex at Dawn by Megan McArdle, who demonstrates how to make an argument by assertion without bothering to be subtle about it:

Here’s the thing: humans aren’t like bonobos. And do you know how I know that we are not like bonobos? Because we’re not like bonobos. There’s no way observed human societies grew out of a species organized along the lines of a bonobo tribe.” (emphasis in original)

I’m sorry, but she just ripped the rug right out from under me. I can’t parody that. The parody is built right in, which leaves me with nothing to do except add a little imagery: picture an 8-year-old with face stuck in permanent eye-roll position, hands reflexively on hips, and she cuts off everything you try to say with, “Nuh-uh!” Only now, the 8-year-old is employed full-time by The Atlantic.

And then the author of the book which McArdle hates so much offers up this suggestion:

Genital-genital (G-G) rubbing between female bonobos appears to affirm female bonding, is present in all bonobo populations studied (wild and captive), and is completely absent in chimpanzees. Human data on G-G rubbing are presently unavailable. (Attention: ambitious graduate students!)

Emphasis is so, so mine!

Thanks to Christopher Ryan for my first LOL of the week!

Adult stem cells for sale!

Since I’m making a Science Groupie post, you might be wondering if I have anything to say about the new synthetic bacteria breakthrough by J. Craig Venter. Of course I do. It mostly consists of “HOLY FUCKING SHIT THAT’S SO AWESOME THE FUTURE IS NOW!!!” So, yeah, there’s that.

I’ll leave the commentary on that to more qualified voices. Not that anyone seems to need to know what they’re talking about before they pontificate about creating monsters in petri dishes, but nonetheless, I just don’t have much to add to the discussion.

In other science-related news, we have Mademoicell, the new design by Chelsea Briganti for women to use for harvesting menstrual blood. So why would anyone want to do that, you ask? Isn’t that shit supposed to get flushed down the toilet and away from decent people?

“The stem cells found in menstrual blood possess embyronic stem cell markers, which means that they can differentiate between nine different types of cells,” the designer Briganti says.

Hear that, everyone? MENSTRUAL BLOOD CONTAINS USEFUL STEM CELLS! Which means the monthly offering from Aunt Flow has tremendous scientific potential. Briganti’s product isn’t really new: we already have Célle, a service that stores women’s monthly discharge for potential future clinical use. Also, we’ve had menstrual cups available from various companies for years, and I don’t see any reason why I can’t just empty my Keeper into a Zip-Loc bag for cryo-preservation.

Célle sounds like a huge racket, though. Not that there isn’t legitimate potential in their service, but when you combine the fact that their business model is “every client for herself (and perhaps her immediate family)” with the fact that the value is all potential, then you don’t really need to show your clients any bang for their buck. There’s no telling how long their clients will have to keep paying $500 per year to store their “monthly miracles” before they actually get some return on their investments.

Furthermore, if menstrual stem cells are comparable to embryonic stem cells, or even a viable mid-point between embryonic cells and bone marrow, then their real usefulness to society will not be in a profit-making venture which only serves the families of those women who pay for it. Its real potential is in scientific research which yields discoveries which lead to treatments that work for everyone, not just Cryo-Cell customers.

So, I want to know: where are the scientists using menstrual stem cells in their research, and how much will they pay per ounce? They don’t even need to use any specialized equipment or retain any staff with medical training to extract the cells. Like I said, it’s just me with a Keeper and a Zip-Loc bag. I’m sure the usual suspects will find ways to vilify the endeavor, because, you know, a woman can only donate menstrual stem cells when she isn’t pregnant, but they can’t stop us from menstruating, so let ’em wring their hands. I’ve got valuable stuff in my uterus every month, folks. Where do I sign up?