The privilege of the forum

As anyone in the atheist/skeptical/feminist blogosphere has heard, there is a massive kerfuffle going on about Rebecca Watson’s response to being creepily propositioned in an elevator1. I really don’t have much to say about it because far better writers than I have covered all the bases I can think of. What hasn’t been addressed is the fundamental fuck-upedness of one of the underlying assumptions of Rebecca’s critics: there is such a thing as an appropriate forum.

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Can we quit pretending philosophers are deep thinkers now?

I’ve always been annoyed by the idiocy of some philosophers. Not by the idiocy of philosophy, like some scientists I know—without Popperian epistemics, the whole of science would be incapable of any claim to truth beyond a fallacious appeal to consequences—but the incapacity of certain philosophers to consider the implications of empirical science.

I note this because of a discussion I found in Greta Christina’s archives about why atheism doesn’t make sense. Someone asked why Greta didn’t mention the cosmological argument for a creator god. (The cosmological argument basically states that everything in existence has a cause; the universe exists; therefore the universe has a cause; therefore god.) She mentioned the obvious complaint, that positing a god only shifts the question one step back: if everything has a cause, what caused god?

Aside: I’m mildly upset that until this week I’d never read anything by Greta Christina. The woman is a skeptical goddess. </hero worship>


But I think that there’s a more sound response to be made against the cosmological argument. Greta’s response punctures the argument for god, but doesn’t address the hole that the cosmological argument seems to put in naturalistic explanations of the universe: what made everything exist in the first place?

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The joy of data

I wanted to share a bit about what I’m working on right now. (Other than my thesis and imaginative writing project, the things I’m supposed to be doing.) I’ve discovered two wonderful tools for data exploration. First is Google Public Data Explorer, which has been around for a while. It’s really cool and has some nice data sets. I wish it had a better map visualization, though. If I want to compare, say STD rates by state, I’d rather shade the states than have different colored dots on them. Normally, you can embed your graphics, but WordPress is picky about embedding anything so I can’t, and have to settle for a permalink to a graph showing that the number of students in California whose parents did not graduate high school has decreased dramatically since 2005.

The other tool, and I think the better, is IBM’s Many Eyes. For one thing, you can upload your own data. For another, you can get image files of your visualizations. This is nice for people like me, who can’t edit their blog’s html, but still want to show you a map of “bigfoot” “sightings” since 1870.

A map of "bigfoot" "sightings." Apparently people like to drink in the woods on the West Coast.

Why am I playing with these tools when I could be getting drunk on Southern Comfort, cinnamon whiskey, and Kahlua? Well, for one I like data better than hangovers. But I’m also working on a post about secession and the many cultural and political divides in the US. Data is necessary for any argument, but to convince anyone it must be presented clearly, accurately, and in an interesting manner.


Over the course of the last ten years I’ve learned that it’s generally not a good idea to have a plan. Plans, yes, but every time I don’t have a back up I get screwed. Screw myself. Whatever.

I’ve switched career goals twice since I started college. As I started my freshman year, I was dead set on international law. I declared my double major in biology and rhetoric early on, joking that I would be the first prosecutor at the Hague to call a dolphin as a witness. Two of my high school friends and mock trial teammates half-seriously planned the law firm of Tan, Wertz, and Collins.

Somehow during my first year I changed my mind to medicine. I honestly don’t remember why. I think I might have just burnt out on rhetoric and needed a change. That didn’t last long, though. I had two major back surgeries in nine months. I had to withdraw from one class, and take a leave of absence for an entire semester. I came back too early, and nearly drowned in the course work. The idea of 48-hour shifts as a resident made me vomit. I couldn’t possibly be a doctor, and that made me hate myself.

Thankfully, at the same time I was struggling so hard, I took my first research class. My group’s project was, in retrospect, ill-conceived, unfounded, uninteresting, and likely violated university rules on human experimentation. It still got me hooked. I also went to my first science conference that year, an evolutionary biology meeting in Washington, and that gave me a glimpse of the excitement academia offered me*.

Since then, my goals have never waivered. It’s been over two years and I’ve never considered any options other than getting my Ph.D. and eventually a professorial appointment. Of course, this lack of a plan B has screwed me over. Again.

This semester has sucked. Between fibromyalgia, being on Vicodin, and some weird neuropathic pain that no one’s been able to figure out, I’ve barely been able to attend class, I’ve needed to withdraw from at least one class and take incompletes in others. I’m taking at least a year off before applying to graduate school, and I’m faced with the terrifying prospect of spending more than a few months doing something that doesn’t involve research for the first time in two years.

And of course I’m totally unprepared for it. I haven’t had a “real job” since May. I don’t know how I’ll manage not having a major project on my plate. And if I never end up going to grad school? I have no clue what I’ll do with my life.

*That’s not to say I didn’t, or don’t, have regrets. Even though I love research, and could never imagine abandoning it for practicing medicine, I still have the subconscious resentment at being forcibly shunted away from medicine.

Mice and Ligers and Genomic Imprinting (Oh My!)

Males and females have been fighting for control since the dawn of time. I’m not talking about Mars vs. Venus stuff. I’m talking about sex.

In many species, males and females do not have the same interests when they reproduce. In polyandrous (females mate with more than one male) species, the offspring in a litter don’t always have the same father. Mothers therefore want multiple equal (smaller) offspring, while fathers want their offspring to be big and outcompete other males’ offspring in the womb.

This is all accomplished by genomic imprinting. In all mammals, some genes are switched off by methylation. Most of the time, all the genes are “re-set” after fertilization, but in about 1% of genes the parental pattern is inherited. This is handy for sexual conflict. Males pass on genes for growth that are turned on, and females pass on ones that are turned off.

This is actually why ligers (yes, the lion-tiger hybrid that Napoleon Dynamite ruined) are so enormous. Lions are polyandrous, so their sperm contains genes imprinted for enormous growth, and their eggs contain genes imprinted to counteract that. Tigers are monogamous, so they don’t have the sex-specific imprinting. So when a male lion fertilizes a female tiger, the paternal genes run wild, causing the offspring to be enormous.

Scientists have been able to create bimaternal (BM) mice by fusing the nuclei of two ova.  This results in baby mice (mouslings?) that have only maternally imprinted genes. As expected, they are much smaller than normal. In addition, according to a new study in Human Reproduction, they live longer. This is interesting, but not  terribly surprising. Small mice usually live longer.

Of course the researchers and science reporters (especially the reporters) overstate their case. They claim that this might shed some light on the difference between male and female lifespans. Bullshit. We know why males don’t live very long, and it’s because of what hangs between our legs. Testosterone wrecks the heart and other organs. In fact, if they’re so inclined, men can remove the offending organs and extend their lifespan a decade or so. Besides, normally-conceived males and females have identical patterns of imprinting, so there’s no imprinting would explain the difference in lifespan.

The three scientists

I just got done schmoozing with the people who funded my summer research. It was two minutes of trying to dumb down complex ecological and population genetics concepts to the level a couple of 70-something former liberal arts majors could understand, and an hour of waiting for them to look at the other student researchers’ posters. In other words, purgatory. On the other hand, I got a chance to look around at how the other students were presenting their research. I like to put things into categories (sort of the hallmark of a biologist) and I started developing an idea of what makes science so diverse. I think there’s three basic types of scientists.

First, there’s the Tinkerer. The Tinkerer is interested in finding out what makes things tick, but mostly in figuring out how to put things together. The three chemistry student researchers fit into this. They’re playing around with some funky cyclic molecules, trying to synthesize them more efficiently and in a more environmentally friendly way. Dr. Frankenstein was a Tinkerer, as are the chemists that design drugs and agronomists that breed or genetically engineer crops.

Then you’ve got the Puzzle Solver. Puzzle Solvers look at the universe as a giant sudoku puzzle: they start off with a curious observation, and try to find the variables that make the data work. These are the people for whom “the scientific method” was made. Science is a series of hypotheses and tests, but the puzzle solvers treat it as an end in itself; the journey is the thrill, the endpoint an afterthought. It seems like Puzzle Solvers occur in all disciplines. Watson and Crick were certainly puzzle solvers, as were, I think, Marie Curie and Elizabeth Blackburn and her collaborators.

Finally, there’s the Story Teller. Storytellers are interesting because neither the result nor the test is particularly interesting on its own. A fact or even a truth can only illuminate a historical pattern which is itself of interest. We might call these people natural historians. Darwin is an excellent example: his theory of natural selection was the common thread in all the smaller stories of how the multitudes of organisms came to be in their current forms, habits, and locations. Jack Horner is another of my favorite scientific Story Tellers. Each fossil is a bit of a story about how dinosaurs lived.

Of course , most scientists have aspects of some combination of the three. I am predominantly a Puzzle Solver, but I’ve got aspects of a Tinkerer and Story Teller as well.

Beware the College Republicans

I just saw this poster from the Willamette College Republicans. They were going for “superheroes,” overshot, and landed in “crazy vampire stalker.”


How to recognize a geek

There are occasions when I wonder if I’m cut out for the life in academia I’ve been planning for the last two years. This usually happens when I’m reading a depressing post by the grad student cum blogger extraordinaire Scicurious, or an experiment isn’t working, or I have a flareup of fibromyalgia, or I despise the subject we’re studying **cough**molecular genetics**cough**. But then something happens to bring me back.

This happened last night. I was insomniating, which happens far too often, and I decided I might as well make the skeleton of my research proposal for my molecular ecology class. I kinda hate doing field work in November, so I’m doing some modeling to try to explain the time-dependency of molecular clocks. (If you can’t understand the linked article, don’t worry; it’s not important.) I was looking over the manuals for the programs I’ll be using and papers of previous attempts (failures all) to explain it. As I read and wrote out a tentative procedure, I had this conversation with myself*:

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To the asshat in my econ class:

The Asshat

You are an asshat. When the professor says to ask any questions you have, she did not mean leading questions. Your knowledge of economics is not sufficient to perform the Socratic method on a lima bean, let alone a professor. Having read The Communist Manifesto and being, like, so into socialism does not make you qualified to comment on the interaction of supply and demand. Especially if you have your history so ass-backwards that you think that the USSR surpassed the US in military production.



Happy Labor Day America, fuck you Nestle

Today’s Labor Day in the U.S., and while the rest of the country is off to the beach or having barbecues, I’m sitting in front of a computer. I’ve got to finish the abstract for my presentation (how, exactly, are you supposed to explain an entire project in 250 words?) and the presentation itself. Presentations are always a problem for me because I have that horrible trait combination of procrastination and perfectionism. I finally sat down to make the PowerPoint on Friday, and discovered that I needed to make or steal 30 figures. Ugh.

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