Pamela Gay: Make the World Better

By Phil Plait | August 19, 2012 6:30 am

At James Randi’s The Amazing Meeting this year, my friend and fellow astronomer Pamela Gay made a speech that covers a lot of ground, but essentially boils down to two ideas: do great things, and don’t let the bastards grind you down.

The JREF put the video of her talk on YouTube, and it’s simply fantastic.

She also paraphrased it for a post on her blog that’s well worth your time to read: Make the World Better.

There’s lots I could add, but there’s no real reason to. Just watch this, and be happy there are people like Pamela out there in the world.

Now go out and make the world better.

MORE ABOUT: Pamela Gay

Comments (29)

  1. Diederick

    We have elections in a month in the Netherlands. Two years ago, most people voted for the far right because they thought that they had the answer to the economic crisis. Now that the far right has been cutting spending for two years, most will vote for the far left, because they find that the cuts impact negatively on their own income. It seems there are only extremes.

    I found a poster by a politician of a smallish party that read ‘Be loyal to you ideals’. Based on the above, I don’t think many people even have ideals. That’s why it is hard to dream.

  2. Bigfoot

    Phil, I’m delighted to see this reference on your blog. I’m very happy that Pamaela Gay expressed this at TAM. I’ve been very disappointed in how DJGrothe has reacted to bloggers who posted news of harassment and discomfort of some female attendees at TAM. It is very troubling that DJGrothe blamed poor female attendance at TAM on those that reported the inappropriate behavior on their blogs (shades of the shame of rape victims being blamed for reporting rapes) and I keep hoping he will see the light on this issue, but I am losing hope. I am happy to see Pamela Gay bring up the fact at TAM that this is a major problem even in science and rationalist groups.

  3. noen

    “We must learn to accept all differences” — That is Liberalism. Now… I’m a liberal, I totally agree with her, but there are A LOT of people who do not believe that we should accept people who are different. Conservatism does not accept difference. Rush Limbaugh and other conservative pundits have argued strenuously against empathy. Which is what you need to have in order to accept people who are different than yourself.

    Seems to be a bit preaching to the choir to me.

  4. Better to preach to the choir than to stay silent in this day and age noen. If she doesn’t speak nobody who actually needs to hear this will. stop being as divisive as the conservatives you claim to disagree with. I thought it was a great speech with a lot of stuff that doesn’t get said nearly enough.

  5. Renee Marie Jones

    Unfortunately, the bastards are better at grinding than even the most heroic among us are at resisting being ground. Leonard Cohen got it right: the war is over, the good guys lost.

  6. Ian

    Great stuff! This should be common sense, yet somehow it’s not

  7. Pamela is really great. I wish I had that much courage.

    @Renee, don’t despair, it’s an uphill battle until it’s not. That kind of social change always seems impossible, and it never seem to make any progress, but that’s only an illusion. Battles are won and lost, but overall, we make progress.

  8. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I am confounded by the proposition that we should listen to Gay’s experience on skepticism and criticism.

    While she is a skeptic she is also an admitted religionist. That would be like listening to homeopath members on skepticism. A homeopath takes a poison, dilutes it until we can observe no specific effect and claims it works as a remedy. A religionist takes natural law, dilutes it among all possible events until we can observe no specific effect and claims it works as proof for gods.

    We now know that universes can follow from physical laws. Gods are neither necessary nor very likely. Theism is no longer a sound proposition to accept for skeptics.

    The same goes for physical laws that can follow from selection on universes, which eventually will make deism an iffy proposition to accept for skeptics.

    Of course we have always the religious special pleading card, but that is again an unsound proposition for a skeptic. And we all know how religionists react to criticism of their pet exception from skepticism, they take it personally.

    I don’t mean to say that she should be silent, but I mean to say that, like homeopaths, her religious ideas should be criticized at every opportunity on a skeptic basis. I don’t see that happening.

  9. noen

    Torbjörn Larsson, OM said: — “While she is a skeptic she is also an admitted religionist.”

    Not mutually exclusive. Religious people are just as capable of being skeptics, rationalists and scientists as anyone. Your problem is you are trying to shove everyone into your strawman view of religion.

    “We now know that universes can follow from physical laws. Gods are neither necessary nor very likely. Theism is no longer a sound proposition to accept for skeptics. “

    Actually we *don’t* know these things. Some people *believe* them to be true based on as yet untested theories (string theory). Not everyone and not every intelligent person believes as you do. But go ahead. I am looking forward to your proof that god does not exist.

    You seem to be equating skepticism with atheism and that is just not true. You also seem to feel that anyone who is a skeptic would necessarily agree with you. That is also false and an extremely narcissistic self-serving attitude. You are not the center of the universe. There are other people in this world and they are NOT YOU.

    Arrogance is when you take your own beliefs and feelings and project them onto others demanding that they conform to your world view. “We must learn to accept all differences” is good advice (though I fear it is perhaps not enough) and I suggest you take it. Refusing to listen to someone because of their religious views is the very definition of bigotry.

  10. I got to see this live. She was the first (and really only) person to take this whole bit on without flinching. I spoke to her later, and she was actually quite surprised at all the positive feedback she was getting (which made me a little sad that she was surprised at it, it should have been a given that her feedback would be positive).

  11. Richard Wolford, PhD

    I am looking forward to your proof that god does not exist.

    Dead wrong. I look forward to your proof that the invisible pink unicorn does not exist.

  12. I am looking forward to your proof that god does not exist.

    It is incumbent on the claimant of something to provide evidence of something, not the other way around. In other words, the sentence should read, “I am looking forward to your proof that god does exist.”

    That said, I do agree with you that in a Venn diagram, atheism and skepticism are not the same circles. They do overlap a great deal, but I know many skeptics that are theists, and many atheists that are not skeptics.

  13. CosmoQuest is one of the most important public outreach efforts in the United States. Moon Mappers is a great great tool for introducing people to Moon Science.

    As for me, living in Central America, the barrier to make it available for public schools is the language. But is a barrier that is not impossible to sort out. Moon Mappers, Galaxy Zoo and many other projects from Citizn Sky are just to good to let them pass by. It is a challenge worth to accept and for spreading the word.

    Keep the good fight, Cosmo Quest! Thanks for helping us to make the world a better place!

  14. noen

    ” In other words, the sentence should read, “I am looking forward to your proof that god does exist.” “

    I don’t have to because I do not assert that god exists. I assert, in opposition to Torbjörn Larsson that we *can* listen to “religionists” (whatever that means and I have no idea what is meant). And I reject the implication that… again, “religionists”, whoever they are, can be discounted out of hand.

    I find such views narrow minded, parochial and tribal. It identifies groups of human beings as “other” and then uses that as justification for dismissing them. I object. I object most strenuously. It is wrong to do that to other human beings. It is immoral.

    Criticism is one thing but to simply dismiss out of hand everything she said because she does not measure up to some ideological standard of purity is repulsive. It is obscene. We can’t afford this hunter-gatherer tribal mentality of Us and Them any more.

    But I think I know the real reason some might not wish to listen to her. She’s a woman. As simple as that.

  15. Chris

    @Torbjörn Larsson and @noen.

    While I agree that it is contradictory for a skeptic to believe in any specific religion since virtually all religions assert unbelievable claims despite a total lack of evidence or even worse claims that can be easily disproved. And also the most fundamental tenant of all religions – faith – is the total antithesis of skepticism.

    Despite this Pamela Gay never once mentions religion and all of her points are totally valid. So I fail to see how her being religious negates anything that she said. You should judge the validity of her comments based on what she says not on some other belief she may have.

    I do have a valid criticism of this talk although it is extremely minor and that is the quote which she attributed to anonymous. That quote is actually the beginning of a poem by Marianne Williamson.

    Good post Phil, Keep making the world a better place.

  16. Alex

    Thank you doctor, that was inspiring. And it changed my worldview as I watched it. So you, like Dr Gay, have made the (or at least my) world better for having experienced this!

  17. Silentbob

    @15 Chris

    … it is contradictory for a skeptic to believe in any specific religion since virtually all religions assert unbelievable claims despite a total lack of evidence or even worse claims that can be easily disproved. And also the most fundamental tenant of all religions – faith – is the total antithesis of skepticism.

    Indeed. Christianity, in particular, is explicitly anti-skeptical:

    The other disciples therefore said unto [Thomas], We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.
    And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.
    (John 20:25-29, my emphasis)

    You should judge the validity of her comments based on what she says not on some other belief she may have.

    You are equally right about this. :-)

  18. Silentbob

    @15 Chris

    Oh, by the way, it’s “tenet”, not “tenant”. ;-)

  19. LarryR

    Thanks, Dr. Plait for posting this. I thought it was a great speech, and had to write a comment on the linked site after listening to it and reading it. It was one of those things that needed to be said, and not swept under the rug. As to her beliefs, well, I am sure that, as a scientist, she knows the difference between science and belief. They are two different things and she is definitely entitled to pursue both. If she cannot have a belief and still remain a scientist, I’ll opt for a plate of hash instead.

    It made me think of your “Don’t be a Dick,” speech, which seemed to generate nearly as much anger. Why?

  20. Gunnar

    I agree with noen and LarianLeQuella that skepticism and atheism are not really synonymous. As another speaker at (I think) the same TAM pointed out, it is possible to be an atheist without really being a true skeptic. See Jamy Ian Swiss’s “overlapping majesteria” speech, given (I think) at the same TAM where Pamela Gay spoke. (It is one of the linked videos that shows up after watching the link Dr. Plait provided to Pamela’s speech). He credibly pointed out Bill Mahr as an example of a particularly militant atheist who does not qualify as a true skeptic because of his gullible support of several pseudo-scientific positions such as anti-vaccination. There are a depressing number of atheists who are every bit as irrational as some of the most fundamentalist religious fanatics.

    There are also some religionists who qualify as very effective and rational skeptics on most issues. Some of the latter are even willing to concede the possibility that not everything their preferred religion claims is necessarily true.

  21. Gunnar

    @Silentbob:

    Indeed. Christianity, in particular, is explicitly anti-skeptical:

    The other disciples therefore said unto [Thomas], We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.
    And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.
    (John 20:25-29, my emphasis)

    Right on! Nothing arouses my skepticism more or my baloney detector to a higheer state of alert than the admonition, “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” This admonition or ploy is so obviously made to order for religious charlatans, and has so often been used by precisely such scoundrels to deceive and intimidate the fearful and gullible, that the very use of it destroys the credibility of whomever uses it. The use of it in The Bible makes The Bible itself (and even Jesus Christ himself, if he actually said that) very highly suspect!

  22. noen

    Gunnar said: “Christianity, in particular, is explicitly anti-skeptical”

    There is a difference between the Bible and one’s theology which is essentially one’s interpretation of the Bible and how it fits into one’s beliefs overall. Atheists are fundamentalists in this regard as they believe the only legitimate interpretation is a literal one. I was taught in my Lutheran Sunday school classes that Biblical literalism is a heresy. It’s the idolatry of the text. That Christians (or at least us Lutherans) do not worship the Bible, they worship god. Fundamentalists then, atheist or Christian, commit a basic error when they choose to see the Bible as a source of truth instead of god.

    It is important for scientists to interpret their texts literally but only a child or a fool thinks Moby Dick is about a whale hunt.

  23. gerryfromktown

    I’m sorry noen, but I am an atheist and I absolutely do *not* “believe the only legitimate interpretation is a literal one”. There are very few parts of the bible that can be interpreted as literal with any legitimacy.

    Of course, I realize you likely didn’t mean what you said. What you perhaps tried to express was your opinion that atheists think that all Christians believe exclusively in a literal interpretation of the bible.

    In other words you believe … that we believe … that you believe in the Bible literally … and you want to us to stop believing this.

    OK, I’ll never assume that Lutherans are Biblical literalists again (doesn’t change the fact that plenty of your fellow Christians are literalists, even you were taught that this is heresy).

    So what is the metaphorical meaning of “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed”? (And please. avoid any Bibical literalism, we wouldn’t want you to be heretical!)

    [Sorry this is so off topic- the talk by Pamela Gay was wonderful and inspiring]

  24. Chris

    @noen “Atheists are fundamentalists in this regard as they believe the only legitimate interpretation is a literal one.”, this is just totally inaccurate. I’ve never heard any atheist say that the only way to interpret a religious text is literally, word for word, of course there are many ways to interpret any text. Further it is not possible for someone who has no religion to be a religious fundamentalist. The problem with religion, if you’re a skeptic, is that all religions Lutheranism included make assumptions based on no evidence. For example presumably since you are Lutheran you believe in the divinity of Jesus.

    I would also like to point out that your views on Lutherism are hardly the only views. A Pew research poll in 2008 (http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf) showed that 30% of Lutherans believe that the bible is the divine word of God to be taken literally. This by the way was also the belief of Martin Luther the founder of your faith.

    “the Bible as a source of truth instead of god.”, Even your own belief that the bible is a source of God is a proposition of faith and therefore does not meet the skeptics challenge.

    Every mainstream religion I know of, regardless of how literally they choose to interpret their sacred texts, make fundamental assumptions based on faith: the existance of God, the existance of an afterlife, the holy spirit, miracles, ect…

  25. Daniel J. Andrews

    Would it kill people to actually do some in-depth study before pontificating on matters they know very little about? You think because it is about religion your uninformed opinion matters? You think you can jam religion and those who hold religious beliefs into your own tiny ignorant preconceived strawmen notions of what religion is and what religious people must believe? You think because you read The God Delusion or books of the same from others that gives you an informed viewpoint? Actually if you did read that book you’re likely more deeply mired in ignorance than you were before.

    Dunning-Kruger applies, and no-one is immune including brilliant authors of evolutionary books. Be nice if people would recognize that soon as the topic turns to religion. Sigh.

    Re: Pamela’s talk. She’s my new hero. I am angered at what she’s had to experience. While growing up I thought it was just a matter of time before the old sexists died off and a more enlightened outlook took over. Now I’m getting old and there seems to be no shortage of sexists to take the place of the old guard. I had someone compliment me on having the forward thinking outlook not usually found in my generation. That was rather discouraging to hear because it was my generation that was fighting to end sexual discrimination, promote equality and respect, and yet here we are now equated with the very things we were fighting.

    I feel like we have failed. I wonder if the 20 and 30 something’s who are fighting this now will find their generation being equated with sexism and discrimination when they reach their 50s to 70s. ?

  26. Infinite123Lifer

    “it is contradictory for a skeptic to believe in any specific religion since virtually all religions assert unbelievable claims despite a total lack of evidence or even worse claims that can be easily disproved.”

    I think we could agree that worldwide the most unbelievable worse claim is that god exists. So somebody has proved god does not exist then?

    I am just curious relating to what is contradictory for a skeptic now.
    Could we have realized over the course of our evolution that some stars were actually worlds?
    Could we have proved such hokum as the speed of light in 10,000 B.C.E.?
    Could we have harnessed such rubbish as the internets during the Renaissance?
    Could we have thought based on lack of evidence of our time that there is no god?

    For how many thousands of years do people continue to dream of impossibilities to bring us to today. How are any impossibilities greater than another? Is there a grading scale for rubbish? :) If not I think we should propose one:

    The Rating of Rubbish Scale or (RoR). 1-8 (8 being super rubbish, 1 being not rubbish)
    God 8
    Organized Religion 7
    Astrology 6
    Psychics/Homeopathy 5
    Aliens visited earth 4
    Our overall understanding of Life, the Universe and Everything 3
    GR, QM 2
    Mathematics 1
    This is ridiculous. You cannot categorize rubbish no matter how much it roars.

    Is it equally insane to say that either god exists or FTL travel for a human is possible? I mean I am actually kinda lost on which is more impossible. The physics of the Universe is the essence of what the Universe is and we are in essence harnessing an infinitesimal portion of the whole. We are perhaps as blind as the cell on the toe not realizing Mars is a planet . . . but,

    We must be wrong many times before we can be right and it would be madness to map the evolution of an idea over time and the effect of that idea on the world. Like these three things:

    The heliocentric view of the Universe . . .
    Eratosthenes cleared something up in his mind . . .
    The Universe is expanding . . .

    The thing is how are you ever gonna work out whether or not god exists? We measure the light emitted from matter, we observe planets going around the Sun and the Earth is round. The essence of what the Universe is . . . is good enough for me. I cannot disprove that Jesus was the son of God and its just as equally wrong to say someone has to prove it to me, I know they cannot.

    “We now know that universes can follow from physical laws. Gods are neither necessary nor very likely. Theism is no longer a sound proposition to accept for skeptics.

    The same goes for physical laws that can follow from selection on universes, which eventually will make deism an iffy proposition to accept for skeptics.”

    It is all so simple nowadays ever since our progression through the Machine Age, the Atomic Age and into the Post-Modern; The Big Data, age, for a skeptic to assume a sound proposition on the god thing. So . . . God is not needed or very unlikely a force or thing or whatever. Do you know how ridiculous that claim is? It is just as ridiculous as saying god is needed . . . unless of course you can prove to me that god does not exist using a five-sigma threshold.

    “And also the most fundamental tenant of all religions – faith – is the total antithesis of skepticism.”

    Could we have an ability to reach, wonder, aspire and question for various “seeming impossibilities” and yet be able to produce such a feat of conclusive work as the Scientific Method while still achieving the open mindedness to actually dream and believe in what could be understandably considered rubbish? You bet your socks we do. For every thesis how many antithesis’s get thrown out. Thus we have to have the antithesis because though hypothetically we do not need any rubbish or faith in a god to solve problems, it is inevitably encountered in the minds of those working the problem all across the world.

    I have been to pharynguliadissbattle. I know how these arguments work out . . . they don’t and my arguments are weak and full of holes save for a few lines and I am trying to argue that their really is no argument but the quotes I quoted are definitely a sign of progress down the road of what it is to be a skeptic. The roads Y and for every argument you have of whether or not god exists and what a skeptic should believe or not believe in there is another road with things as of yet left unconsidered. Somewhere down the roads when evidence for both reaches their entirety, the road of skepticism and the road of faith might form a connect . . . they already practically do in some cases.

    Prove to me that logic is a stronger asset than faith. You have faith in your logic so don’t even try. Tis’ all a paradox of being human. Everything more and nothing less in order to survive. Pamela Gay is a freaking soldier. Soldiers must have faith in something even if it is nothing or they might freeze. But we don’t care what our soldiers believe in as long as they fight well and neither should the scientific community care what Pamela Gay or any other scientist believes in as long as they are in the battle. And this woman is in the battle!

    If only for every time someone has said “its a miracle” they were wrong and it was really just a set of events which transpired about the Universe to bring time to the moment and make their self proclaimed “miracle” happen. You could never perceive events in their entirety and if some god had its fabric woven in the cosmos we would only be able to observe one thing and feel another. Feel is the concept. How do you feel? Its a ridiculous concept when confronting facts, but an entirely brilliant evolutionary sense for achieving a goal.

  27. Chris

    @Daniel J. Andrews
    “Would it kill people to actually do some in-depth study before pontificating on matters they know very little about? You think because it is about religion your uninformed opinion matters? You think you can jam religion and those who hold religious beliefs into your own tiny ignorant preconceived strawmen notions of what religion is and what religious people must believe? You think because you read The God Delusion or books of the same from others that gives you an informed viewpoint? Actually if you did read that book you’re likely more deeply mired in ignorance than you were before.”, I like how on the same day Phil writes a post about elevating the online discourse you choose to take the low road and throw out a series of insults rather than make a valid point. Also you may want to consider what kind of preconceived notions you have about what atheists think.

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