Open Thread – October 16th, 2010

By Razib Khan | October 16, 2010 12:16 am

Yesterday regular contributor “miko” announced two things. First, he’s signed up as one of the 1,000 for the Personal Genome Project. And, he’s fired up a weblog to chronicle his journey. I know at least one other reader, my friend Paul, is also among the 1,000. Combined with the recent reveal of Genomes Unzipped, we’re in interesting territory. You also have Genomeboy, who’s been around longer…at least by the standards of personal genomics. How many other similar blogs are there like this? Judging from 23andMe’s post on Genomes Unzipped the industry leaders are going to have be careful, balancing the demands and pressures from the bottom, as well as the fiat power of our legal high priesthood. Good luck on that.

A new Farhad Manjoo piece in Slate, This Is Not a Blog Post, will be getting a lot of attention from bloggers because it is about blogging. This is a weblog. My posts consists of links, short commentaries on links, paper and book reviews, as well as essays. My prose is altered by the fact that it is written with the prior understanding that I’ll have links embedded into technical terms. A review of a paper will always have a link to that paper, and I will include the abstract as a matter of course so that the authors can “speak for themselves” at least to some minimal level. Some of my posts are inspired and strongly influenced by “personal communication.” But I never do reporting. By reporting, I mean specifically going out to get a quotation from someone, and putting that quotation into the body of the prose (though I will use quotations which others have retrieved). Rather, my posts are shaped by people I talk to, as well as informed commenters.

Speaking of which, that’s another reason why this is a blog. When Andrew Brown solicits a contribution from me to Comment is Free there are comments, but I only glance at them cursorily and don’t get involved, no matter how much they insult my honor. I obviously don’t follow all the comment threads here in too much detail, but I’m very active. The main reason is that I learn a lot from commenters, though fostering fruitful discussion means that I have to invest some labor input. Blogging with comments has an interactivity and dynamic component to the content generation which I do not perceive in articles, at least in such a free-form and helter-skelter manner.

In regards to my philosophy of commenting, I’ve already fleshed out some of the specifics earlier. But I thought I would explicitly acknowledge something: I treat people differently based on how much value I believe they add to my own understanding of a topic. When it came to Alan Templeton vs. the Bayesians I naturally deferred to the statistical geneticists in the audience. I don’t require detailed elaborate explanations from them, authority accrued through expertise and the wisdom of the community will suffice. This does not mean that a commenter whose authority I defer to will be found to be correct in the end, simply that I don’t have the expertise or labor hours to make a better assessment myself.  Their spare opinion nevertheless adds value because of the source. Some of the commenters use real names, others use handles with email addresses tied in to Facebook profiles, while others have IP addresses which I can trace to the Broad Institute and such. I try and get a sense as to the nature of the commenter.

Now let’s move to another topic. What was the historical significance of the Battle of Tours? Unless you are a scholar of this time and place I am not interested in your unadorned opinion, because I almost certainly am in a better place to make an assessment than you are because I know more about the battle and its historical context than you do. In the spring of 2003 I developed an interest in Charles Martel and read a series of monographs and articles on his life and times, and I have also taken a long-term interest in the late Merovingian and early Carolingian phases of the Frankish polity for reasons not having to do with the Battle of Tours (a curiosity as to the early ethnogenesis of the proto-French and proto-German national identities). Obviously when it comes to macrohistorical questions I’m no scholar, and my lack of other languages means that I’ll always be hobbled by a reliance on secondary sources. But I do know quite a bit, and am in no mood to be swayed by the opinions of other lay persons. That’s why I demand elaboration, even if I know more on a given topic than than someone else, I can still learn quite a bit from their train of thought and the data which they enter into the record.

Because this is my weblog I’m framing the issue here in a dyadic manner, but obviously commenters interact with each other, and are bystanders. In cases where I defer to someone quite often I’ll be privy to some detail of their identity which make the deference intelligible. I can’t simply go around telling everyone that a pseudonymous commenter is “professor/post-doc/grad student X”, but hopefully commenters will understand that when I give deference I usually have a reason (if a commenter asserts an affiliation or identity, but doesn’t provide self-evident proof, I can confirm with an IP trace, or contradict if I find something amiss). In contrast, in cases where I demand commenters elaborate and give their reason in a clear fashion there’s an obvious positive externality: I’m not the only one who benefits from the explanation!

I’ve been blogging for over eight years now. That means I’ve given some thought to commenting, and how best to extract value from interactions with readers, as well as fostering fruitful interactions between readers. I don’t think you do the same when you write an article.

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  • Eric Johnson

    Have you guys ever seen these mind-blowing examples of convergent evolution, involving unrelated taxa?

    Wild, no? That one is relatively uninteresting, though, since some others are additionally Batesian mimics of wasps:

    The following two birds are not mimics. As far as we know. Maybe they lived together in the past, but today one is an African group and the other New World. They have similar habitats:

    Two more highly unrelated birds:

    It’s almost creepy. Those two overlap in range, so maybe there is mimicry. One or a few highly poisonous/noxious birds are known, though that isn’t the only possible reason for aposematism or mimicry.

  • Meng Bomin

    It’s about two weeks late, but I finally got around to posting some of my diggings through the Pew Religious Knowledge Survey report:
    I’m very open to criticism on this one (in fact, I welcome it).

  • Katharine

    Your co-blogger Chris Mooney, who I regard as something of an inveterate wuss, posted this in his recent post about infighting among we secular types:

    However, practically speaking, we also have to pick and choose where we can set the record straight

    Aside from the fact that his statement on this is a pitiful bit of anti-intellectual manipulation, he does realize that the record has to be set completely straight at some point, yes?

  • Razib Khan

    unless chris has become a straussian, i assume so :-) i’ll check out the post, though as you know i generally avoid delving into this area i’m not a ‘new atheist’ really myself.

  • Katharine

    Though I realize the painful fact that being that the majority of the public is religious the alternative ain’t going to be taken so well.

    But I prize actually telling the truth – and the whole truth – rather than the half-truths Mooney appears to advocate.

    It just irks me that some people put little popularity contests ahead of integrity.

  • Razib Khan

    katherine, i know the accusations which come at chris. i’ll be honest that i don’t follow the debates in details. from cursory glance at his critics pz myers seems to stay on topic, while the great (scientist) jerry coyne has a tendency to cast personal aspersions.

    It just irks me that some people put little popularity contests ahead of integrity.

    but even you would admit that in some cases taqiyya is necessary, right? for example, there are substantial numbers of atheists in congress right now. would you want them to come out and admit their opinions, and so likely get voted out? who would they be replaced by? it’s actually a debatable issue.

  • M. Möhling

    completely OT

    Folks, do you know of attempts to analyse statistically parliamentary protocols by checking for verbal clues, like eg the UK hansards? I’d like to do that with Bundestag protocols, but I’m a noob statwise. Make that statwise moron, if you will, as long as you have some ideas on where an how. I’d like to check the nature of debates on particular issues I care for–framing, recurring patterns, deceit, incompetence, whatnot. I only had marginal scientific training, so in all likelihood I won’t add value here, sorry.

  • Razib Khan

    there is no “OT” on open threads fwiw.

  • Sandgroper

    I’m no great fan of either, but when it comes to keeping evolution in school curricula and keeping creationism out of them, I would have my money on Mooney rather than Myers.

    If you can state the truth without deliberately deeply offending people, more of them are likely to believe you. There’s such a thing as ethical persuasion.

    Depends what you want, to be a martyr to atheism, or keep creationism out of the classroom.

  • miko

    I don’t find the Mooney/Myers fights all that interesting–I think they mostly argue at cross purposes. Mooney (and the odious Nisbet) are mainly interested in manipulative politics. That’s fine. It’s a purposefully disingenuous enterprise designed to advance a secular agenda. Accusing spin doctors of spinning isn’t all that interesting. Spin doctors expecting everyone else to spin is insulting. Myers is someone who is fed up with religion being taken seriously (though obviously we have to take certain religious institutions seriously). Maybe he’s an ass sometimes–that’s kind of the point.

  • Razib Khan

    the problem is that many aren’t in either camps. i tend to think that myers et al.’s blasphemy isn’t that big of a deal, and perhaps even productive in a liberal society. but their implication that religion-is-the-root-of-all-evil and that we can get rid of it as a feature of human culture is something i’m really skeptical of.

  • Katharine

    but their implication that religion-is-the-root-of-all-evil and that we can get rid of it as a feature of human culture is something i’m really skeptical of.

    I think religion is both cause and symptom at times of various kinds of human idiocy. I’m pretty firmly in PZ Myers’s camp on this, mostly because of Mooney’s and Nisbet’s solicitations of we people in science in particular – I consider being told to tell half-truths about this to be about as bad as being told to fudge statistics outright.

    I still think at the heart of this there is a basic misunderstanding from Mooney and Nisbet of the basic ethical standards we must hold ourselves to in the practice of science and the extent of their importance.

    What if Galileo had ‘framed’ his work?

  • Katharine

    Also, some idiot teenagers broke into my car. (Yes, I realize not all teenagers are idiots, Sandgroper. But your kid is in a tiny minority.)

    They didn’t steal anything, but they broke into a neighbor’s car and stole their laptop.

    I wish I could sit those two kids and their parents down and spout verbal abuse at them for 24 hours. Putting those two little a**holes in the clink is not enough.

    That’s how mad I am that I got woken up at 4:00 in the morning instead of my usual 7:00.

  • miko

    Huh… I was also up at 4, but it was to the dulcet tones of my cat vomiting.

    Katharine, I think you’re really on to something about what offends scientists about Mooney/Nisbet. Of course scientist are somewhat selective in what data they present (and scientists who are good getting papers in the glamorous magazines are often those who can frame it to appeal to certain editorial concerns). But the card Mooney says we should keep in our pocket is that religious truth claims are not even wrong, they are often ridiculous, and they can be dangerous. If these ideas are central to your atheism (and I think they are for a lot of atheists), then Mooney’s mode of interaction becomes mostly lie by omission. The equivalent of cherry picking your stats, or not showing the control that didn’t work. We act like finding common ground is an inherent good… it depends.

    Then there is the utter vapidity of the claims that evolution is “compatible” with “religion.” Well, it is completely in contradiction with the specific religious beliefs of most Americans. Then we have public goofballs like Francis Collins, who thinks he’s Catholic but is really just a deist, who are apparently “evidence” for the lack of conflict between science and magic. As if cognitive dissonance = logical compatibility. Ok, time to slow my roll… this is a topic on which progress cannot be made.

  • Katharine

    Mooney by himself comes off as a little fearful, too, as if somewhere out there there’s a vat of tar and a bucket of feathers waiting for him if he doesn’t pay tribute to the fundies. And if that’s seriously the case with many accommodationists, I can feel a little empathy there because I’ve had my car vandalized because of bumper stickers on it.

    The example of being selective about which data you present and framing it for a CNS journal is somewhat different because there’s no capitulation to people who bash you and people who are going to outright deny what you say and framing a paper in the context of an issue is not lying to your audience. I see it more as a bit like application of mathematics or physics to a new topic.

    What Mooney is suggesting is deliberate half-deceptions, which are sometimes worse than total deception because it’s harder to unravel, and when someone comes over to our side and then discovers what the accommodationists have done to get him to think that, well, I don’t know what’s going to happen there.

  • miko

    “…when someone comes over to our side…”

    Yeah, but is Mooney really trying to convince anyone? I feel like ultimately it’s more cynical than that. He is trying to get fundies to misunderstand the issue (don’t worry, your kids will still be Christian…oops! we educated them and now their atheists!) so they will vote against their interests (or at least not vote for their interests). To me, this is the hallmark of Roveian politics at it’s worst–the denial of information (or the production of misinformation with wedge issues) to prevent rational voter behavior, particularly swing voters. Not that swing voters aren’t morons to start with.

  • omar

    Razib, its my impression that Meyers would have no problem with accepting that religion as a feature of human culture is likely to be around a long time. But that it will be around is one thing, that it will cast the deciding vote on what gets taught in public schools (or what is permitted to be said in public in a liberal society) is another. Religion may or may not be an important social tool, it may or may not be a feature of our inherited psychological and social toolbox, but its certainly not beyond the range of rational examination and discussion. And if religious people can freely hold and disseminate anti-atheist views, why can’t atheists freely disseminate theirs? Unless you believe that religion is an important pillar of social peace and atheism is specifically dangerous for society? we can certainly discuss that possibility too…

  • Razib Khan

    And if religious people can freely hold and disseminate anti-atheist views, why can’t atheists freely disseminate theirs?

    for the record i’m relatively sanguine about PZ’s blasphemous activities. rather, i’m generally skeptical of the suggestion that PZ has made that religion can be turned into a hobby like knitting. i used to aim for this too, but i don’t think it’s feasible in the near future.

  • Katharine

    Tim Minchin’s Peace Anthem for the Middle East:

    You don’t eat pigs, we don’t eat pigs,
    It seems it’s been that way forever
    So if you don’t eat pigs, and we don’t eat pigs,
    Why not not eat pigs together?

  • Sandgroper

    #14 – Thank you, Katharine. (Makes mental note to stop skiting about his kid online.)

    Sorry about the car.

    I don’t go with Mooney on framing. I don’t go with spin. I don’t go with achieving a desirable outcome by tricks. I don’t go with half-truths or misleading people. Because those things are offensive to scientists. I detest politicians. I don’t go with Myers on insulting people or deliberately offending them, and the constant repetition of the same themes and ridicule. Because those things are offensive to everyone else.

    But there is nothing wrong with ethical persuasion, which is none of those things.

    Let me try to put a counter-example – if you are trying to explain the scientific evidence for the earth being 4.6 billion years old, and the evidence for evolution, to someone who doesn’t get it, or who is just uninformed and doesn’t know what to believe, and in the process you go out of your way, irrelevantly, to insult and deeply offend that person, how much chance do you reckon there is that person will listen to what you are saying objectively and come to a reasoned conclusion?

    Well, ethical persuasion is not doing that. What Gary Orren simply calls persuasion is what I call ethical persuasion, because there are some techniques of persuasion which are clearly unethical. Gary does not advocate using unethical techniques, and he lists them but does not teach them. I know, I have discussed it with him, and he is very clear on that point.

    Minchin’s not eating pigs thing would be an example of persuasion – finding common ground. Except that would deeply piss off the Chinese. And me.

    Ethical persuasion is telling the truth, but putting it across in a way that will make your audience identify with you and be receptive to the logical case that you are presenting to them, rather than alienting them and making them view you as an enemy or a dislikeable person, because once that happens, you have lost them, they are no longer listening or objectively evaluating what you are saying. It is also using various techniques to make what you are saying more easily understandable, like by telling stories to illustrate what you are trying to explain.

    You are never going to covince the committed fundies. Forget it. Never. The best you can shoot for is to convince all the uncommitted people in the middle, the swinging voters, as it were, who just don’t know enough or have thought and read about the subjects enough to have an informed opinion, and you will never convince them if you come across as someone who goes out of his way to insult and offend people. Even if it is not them you are insulting and offending, they will dislike you for being someone willing to do that to other people. Myers may have an army of sycophantic commenters, but what you don’t see is the size of the silent army who dislike him. I’m not Muslim (I’m not anything), but I dislike anyone willing to publicly desecrate the Qur’an – it is a needless offence to a lot of perfectly decent moderate Muslim people who don’t deserve to be offended. I could try to be clever and suggest Myers has turned himself into a kind of religious figure, but I’m not that clever.

    Which is why I think both Mooney and Myers are wrong, and why I stopped listening to either of them a long time ago. It’s a waste of time.

    OT, but if you ever get a chance to sit in on a lecture by Gary Orren, I recommend it. He’s a very erm persuasive speaker. Totally irrelevant side note, but Gary was a professional baseball player (short stop) who injured his back very badly in an automobile accident and had to quit baseball, so he decided to become a Harvard professor instead. There may be other people who are even better than Gary on the subject, but I don’t know them.

  • Eric Johnson

    Dudes, why bother with ‘progress’ against religion.

    I’m thoroughly agnostic of course. But I tend to think religion is salutary. What do you guys think of the old Chesterton chestnut (possibly not actually said by Chesterton): “when a Man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing – he believes anything.”

    When I look at the 20th century, that epigram rings rather true for me. Of course I realize that it’s not one of the more provable or falsifiable propositions about history. It is pretty subjective. So, how would ol PZ reply? My mom picked up Hitchens. I told her that if it doesn’t cover that question – and cover it quite deeply – it can’t be worth much.

    I can also see, of course, that afterlife beliefs and nuclear ICBMs don’t really mix too much better than drinking and driving do. Whether the Iranian regime, say, is really as ultra-religious as some would claim, is debated I guess. What about the bizarro, uh, philosophy, of the North Korean regime – is it any safer than religious worldviews?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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