Atheists Talk–Massimo Pigliucci

How to Tell the Difference Between Science and Bunk
Atheists Talk #0059, Sunday, March 1, 2009

Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, of the Stonybrook Institute in New York, is a biologist and a philosopher who has published about a hundred technical papers and several books on evolutionary biology. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, selected “for fundamental studies of genotype by environmental interactions and for public defense of evolutionary biology from pseudoscientific attack.” Massimo is also an atheist and has published articles in Skeptical Enquirer, Philosophy Now, The Philosopher’s Magazine and American Atheist Magazine.

Greg Laden, who has been a frequent and popular guest on “Atheists Talk,” is an evolutionary anthropologist and professor at the University of Minnesota. On Sunday, Greg turns the tables and does the interviewing, talking to Massimo about Ken Miller and the role of god in tweaking the genome at strategic moments, whether or not man is some sort of elevated creature according to biologists who should know better, and the role of pseudoscience in weakening the public’s understanding of evolution.

Produced by Minnesota Atheists. Directed by Mike Haubrich. Hosted by Stephanie Zvan. Interview by Greg Laden.

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Atheists Talk–Massimo Pigliucci

Assessing the Odds

A while ago, I looked at the renewed proposals to expand gambling in Minnesota and concluded that it didn’t make sense, in a time of declines in the national gaming industry, to spend money on new gambling infrastructure in the hopes that it would start generating revenue soon enough to be of help. At the time, I noted that state lottery revenue was up in a bare majority of states, but numbers for Minnesota weren’t available. They are now.

I’m doing my heavy blogging for the day over at Quiche Moraine. Today I continue looking at whether adding more gambling as a source of state revenue makes any sense for Minnesota.

Assessing the Odds

Class Warfare

Analysis: Obama plan to finance agenda with tax hikes on rich elicits class warfare cries

The budget outline includes activist initiatives on energy, health care, education and climate change.

It would boost taxes on the wealthy, oil companies and other businesses while cutting Medicare and Medicaid payments to insurance companies and hospitals to make way for a $634 billion down payment on universal health care. It would also limit charitable and other tax deductions for the affluent and trim spending on government subsidies to big farms.

Predictably, Republicans complained, much as they had done during last year’s presidential campaign, that Obama was pitting the haves against the have-nots.

Why is it only class warfare when those who aren’t wealthy are asking for something? What is it the rest of the time? Class occupation? Class siege? Classicide? Or is it just that only the rich have class?

Asked whether the class-warfare argument could complicate White House efforts to win support for some of its big priorities, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, “No. And I think it’s important to understand that what the president has enumerated in his budget today is precisely the blueprint and series of promises that he made over the course of two years in a campaign … that the American people voted for.”

Class Warfare

The Best Love Songs

…are the ones that look beyond the first blush.

I used to think I didn’t like love songs, that they were all kind of banal and repetitive. Cute, but not very interesting. Then I discovered it was a Tolstoy problem [pointless Anna Karenina reference]. It was only the perfectly happy, love-makes-the-world-perfect love songs that I didn’t like. Luckily, they’re not all like that.

The Ship Song

…and the passing of my youth seems like a new beginning.

Inspired by Scicurious, who wrote about “The most annoying love song ever written.”

The Best Love Songs

A Royal Scandal?

Rumors swirled in the monarchy of Heckofalot today, as the Twitter account of The Princess filled with what at first appeared to be postmodern song lyrics:


and later lapsed into apparent code:



Residents were first amused but rapidly grew concerned for the safety of the royal family. They were promptly reassured by The Prince (or is he The Butler?).

Ummm… Ignore those tweets from @bethanyg. The “Tiny Tyrant” got to her machine before I could close the lid.

The Princess threw her voice and authority behind the story.

Sorry – while I was at Arts Advocacy day, @duchessbeatrix decided to reinvent social media — on my account.

However, rather than calm the masses, these Tweets only raised new concerns. Her Grace, the Duchess of Heckofalot has long been known to Tweet in her own distinct voice.

Thank you to everyone who attended the my official birthday celebration at the palace. Thanks to everyone else for wishing you could.

This charmingly despotic voice is also in evidence at Her Grace’s blog.

Unlike other monarchies, we do not grant knighthood to any random pop music star or captain of industry that wonders in the door (Britain I am looking at you). We take such titles seriously here. To become a knight in Heckofalot, I will beat you on the head with my scepter until you cry and beg me for a title. Not only will this prove you worthy but it also makes me giggle.

None of these official communications did anything to prepare the citizens of Heckofalot for today’s Tweets. “Is something wrong with our dear Duchess?” they wondered aloud. “Surely, The Princess and The Prince (or is he The Butler?) would tell us if anything were amiss!”

But that was only the public speculation. Away from the prying eyes of the pervasive social media, other theories were put forth. People spoke in hushed tones of thwarted invasions and aborted palace coups. They also whispered of a
theory that your correspondent trembles to commit to print.

Yes, in their offline privacy, the citizens of Heckofalot turned to one another and asked, “Does our Duchess tipple while she Tweets?”

A Royal Scandal?

A Year on Propranolol

The part I remember best is waking up with my head down on my arms. On my desk. With the voices around me, it only took a moment to figure out where I was. Oh, crap. I decided I must have fallen asleep at work. What could be more embarrassing than that?

Then I remembered.

I know the science on propranolol, emotion and memory is all terribly last week, but I’ve never promised or even particularly tried to be a current events blogger. Also, I still owe Juniper a blog post, and while this isn’t that post, it gets at some of the later stages of how my emotional life changed from child to adult.

I still can’t say what switch flipped between my junior and senior years of high school and took me from deeply depressed and anxious to moderately functional. My social circle hadn’t changed much, but the individuals I hung out with within the circle did. It might have been the one newish friend who I knew wanted something from me but who didn’t reject me when it wasn’t something I could give. Come to think of it, I can’t imagine how that lack of rejection could have been anything other than critical.

Whatever happened in high school, time and success and independence were all very good for me. So was Ben, although that is, again, another story. Eventually, depression was brief (still despair-deep, but brief) and tended to be set off by triggered memories.

The anxiety never went away, though, as might be expected. (Ed, I promise. I’ll keep reading you even if you stop posting about my life.) I still haven’t learned to fall asleep properly when anything remotely exciting is happening, much less anything where people are relying on me. For most of my life, the time before sleep has been filled with obsessive deconstruction of the prior day and planning for the next–or fiction. I prefer the fiction.

Waking life was hardly free of anxiety either. As an adult, I’ve been one of the people whom others look at and ask, “Can you do this?” Usually it’s something I haven’t done before, so I’m as curious as they are. I rarely say, “No,” but this tends to leave me with big unknowns in my life, big opportunities to disappoint. I’m not fond of disappointing people.

I was over 30 before I realized it, but I’d been getting migraines on a very regular basis since at least junior high. I didn’t know that’s what they were, because in a way, I was one of the lucky ones. Only a few migraines a year actually hurt. For the rest of them, the debility came from strange visual and somatosensory effects, hypersensitivity and confusion.

I love my doctor. When I walked in with a big list of symptoms that could, even in this day and age, get me labeled “hysterical” and said, “I think I get migraines, although mostly they don’t really hurt,” she pulled out her PDA and started checking off symptoms rather than immediately referring me to a psychologist. We tried a few drugs for treatment of symptoms, including some stunningly bitter pills that dissolved on the tongue. They worked, but they were nothing that insurance was going to cover at the frequency I got migraines, and they did nothing to cut down the frequency.

Then she asked me how I felt about abortion. She already knew I wasn’t planning to have kids, but she wanted to be sure I wouldn’t feel compelled to carry to term if I accidentally became pregnant while on propranolol. If I would have, she’d have prescribed something else. The idea of congenital defects was obviously quite disturbing to her, pregnant as she was.

With a few more checks of my blood pressure against the lowest recommended pressure for the drug (I was borderline), she sent me off with strict instructions to either come in or check my blood pressure with one of the in-store cuffs every few days for the next few weeks and a six-month prescription. Six more months were to follow if it helped and didn’t produce undesirable side effects. After that, with a little luck, I’d be migraine-free.

Believe me, I checked my blood pressure. Getting used to propranolol felt almost as strange as the migraines. I felt so light. It wasn’t lightheadedness, except when I stood up too quickly. (I learned how to get out of bed slowly, in stages.) I was just light.

It took me a while to realize I couldn’t get really upset if I wanted to. I could still recognize things that were wrong, and I still acted to fix them. I just didn’t do it riding on a wave of righteous adrenaline. I could get angry and act angry, but I couldn’t feel the same degree of anger I was used to. Flooding my body with adrenaline no longer produced any noticeable results. My reputation for calm in the face of chaos became more than just me putting on a calm face to keep others from freaking out and getting me going. It was now true.

The same thing happened with anxiety, of course. I didn’t get any less ambitious in what I attempted, but facing failure no longer raised all the ghosts of failure past. I can’t tell you whether I thought about my childhood during that time, thus stripping it of the negative emotions attached to it. I can tell you that the longer I spent without anxiety, the further away those memories got. That anxious kid became less and less someone I knew. I’d already trained myself not to think of my childhood often. The drug removed the emotional triggers that kept me remembering whether I wanted to or not. It let the present run on uninterrupted.

Maybe that could have been a bad thing, an unexamined life and all, except that I’m nothing if not introspective. Not only had I mined my memories for the lessons they could provide, but I had lived in them far longer than they deserved. Distance was a mercy and a pleasure.

The propranolol got rid of the migraines, too. Mostly anyway. I still get them occasionally, just as I haven’t completely trained myself not to respond to non-immediate threats with a burst of adrenaline, particularly around election time. And I still haven’t learned to sleep well.

Still, a year on propranolol was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself, even considering the waking up at work.

I’d been sitting at my desk, having just raised my soda, when someone came around the corner to ask me something. I quickly swallowed–too quickly, setting off one of those pointless but painful esophageal spasms. Pretending I wasn’t about to gasp with pain, I turned to listen to my coworker. When I felt the roaring in my ears, I took a couple of deep breaths to hold back the black, but it was too late.

People look at you differently when they’re afraid you might drop on them at any time. A bottle of prescription drugs and the explanation, “I swallowed funny,” don’t quite cut it. They gather around. They want you to lie down and take things easy and reassure them several times a day for the next several weeks that, really, you feel fine. No, really.

Yes, passing out at work because your blood pressure is low and doesn’t respond well to pain is ever so much more embarrassing than falling asleep.

A Year on Propranolol


Home again, having paid out much sleep debt, eaten much good food, shriveled my fingers in the hot tub and spent many hours in silly and serious conversation with friends. This weekend’s game of choice was apparently creating the world’s most insipid revolutionary slogans.

  • Foreground the optical substrate!
  • Up with the hoi polloi!
  • Inconvenience the bourgeoisie!

We were also the zoo exhibit of choice for several does with yearlings.

“Stay here between us, kids. You’ll be safe. They’re behind glass.”

“Why don’t they do anything? They’re just staring at us. Do they act like that in the wild?”

“No, honey. They’re much more dangerous in the wild.”

“Eek! One moved! Run away!”

Anyway, off to bed so as not to undo all the good I just did myself.


Gone Away

I’m taking a vacation from the internet this weekend. At least mostly. We’ll see how the withdrawal goes. I might not be able to stand it.

Okay, I’m making it fairly difficult for me to get on the internet this weekend. Good enough? In the meantime, check out someone else.

I just met Crystal and Vic this weekend, although I’ve liked Crystal’s blog for a while. I recommend going to find out why she’s just not all that concerned with online privacy. Vic’s a little more concerned, but he’s talking about sociopaths, so that seems appropriate.

Mme. Piggy is totally stealing our shtick with a restaurant review. I mean, sure, her blog’s called Food Devotions and Kermit Love, and she was doing it first, but is that any excuse? And why haven’t I had pho?

Muse is ranting. I always like that. This time, it’s about epigenetics.

Scicurious is reminding me (as though I needed it) why I love her so. She’s answered the “Why Am I a Scientist?” question that Ambivalent Academic started. She says she just sort of fell into it, but everything else about her answer says she was made for the role.

Jessica pointed me at Pride and Predator. It’s in Variety. It has to be true, right?

And oh, people are posting stories. Okay, Kelly’s is a play, not a story: Waiting for Inspiration: A Writer’s Morality Play In Half An Act. Juniper’s is actually lots of stories about getting malaria and the effects of trying to prevent it. Plus exploding taxis. PalMD finished his story of his trip to Honduras after Hurricane Mitch. Greg is still adding new Congo memoirs, although there’s a rumor he’s nearly done. And Quiche Moraine is starting its own nice little collection of stories.

Wait, why am I taking a break again?

Gone Away

Good Times

Considering how much corporate money went into keeping the Republicans in power for as long as they were, there’s something satisfying about hearing a successful, large-company CEO saying (essentially), “I’m about as independent as they come, but I have to say it’s strange to hear the Republicans talking about how the stimulus bill is going to mortgage our future. I mean, considering what they did, I think they pretty well had that covered.”

Not as satisfying as watching an election in which the corporate money wasn’t a big deal, but satisfying.

Extra satisfying when sitting across from the table from someone who had a coworker in my office nearly in tears with the nasty things he said about why McCain lost. That part was very nice.

That is all.

[Updated to hopefully fix an annoying search engine glitch.]

Good Times