Biology professor PZ Myers just might be the face of secular activism online. His wildly popular blog, Pharyngula (named after his favorite stage of the vertebrate embryo), is much more than an information hub for biology fans; it is an up-to-the-minute newsfeed of all the information a secularist could want.
In one day, Dr. Myers’ posts included a call for a national atheist convention, a warning about the state of science textbooks in Texas, an exposé on American evangelicals’ involvement in a proposed Ugandan law that would permit the murder of homosexuals, a sample teaching aid using Krispy Kreme doughnuts to demonstrate mitosis, a cartoon about gay marriage and a call to help an atheist leader who is suffering financial hardship after his wife unexpectedly passed away. On top of his blogging duties (and, you know, that whole bit about being a college professor), Myers is currently awaiting the publishing of his first book. You could say he’s pretty busy.
But PZ (Paul Zachary, if you were wondering) found time to chat with me via that most modern of methods: the internet. We met on AOL Instant messenger to talk about science, skepticism, secularism, sexism and schooling. PZ had a few strong words about the state of the religious world… and even stronger words for the atheists of LA.
CP: As a biology professor, how do you feel the incoming flux of students to university is prepared (or ill prepared) for studies in the sciences?
PZ: It's getting worse. More and more students are coming in poorly equipped to handle even basic mathematics. It means they fail chemistry and don't even get into the solid biology I teach.
Some are very good, if they come from a school with a good college prep program...but too many schools are just there to shuffle students through to a diploma.
CP: So do you think that's directly related to the teaching-to-the-test phenomena?
PZ: Partly. And to NCLB. Schools are now scored on how many students they graduate, not how many emerge learning anything. You can either accomplish that by setting high standards and working hard to help students meet them, or by lowering standards and working less. You can guess which strategy wins out.
CP: I see. That must be terribly discouraging.
PZ: It is! My local high school, for instance, is pressured by our very conservative school board to avoid failing anyone. It means that students feel no pressure to excel, and you get some of the most horrible losers dominating the classroom.
CP: Do you find that any of these students come in with ID beliefs or other religious beliefs that prevent them from learning?
PZ: I certainly do. From classroom evaluations, I'd estimate that 20-25% of my students are creationists.
PZ: Most don't speak up about it, though. There is always one or two students every term who try to challenge me on evolution. I think they've read Jack Chick's "Big Daddy" comic book and think it's real.
CP: How does that affect your teaching strategy? Or does it?
PZ: Well, I'm pretty outspoken about evolution. It might make me MORE outspoken in the classroom about it. I teach introductory biology, and got to put the curriculum for that course together -- and it's very heavy on history and philosophy of science, with a strong anti-creationism component in the middle.
CP: How does your administration feel about that?
PZ: The university administration is hands-off. The biology discipline establishes their own standards, designed to be comparable to those of other reputable universities. And of course, my colleagues are unanimous in considering evolution absolutely essential to understanding biology.
CP: Great! So you don't have to fight to teach the truth, other than with the 1-2 creationist students.
PZ: Right. Universities are wonderfully independent islands of integrity, for the most part. It's how the US can have a population of flaming idiots while still maintaining a university system that ranks up there with the best in the world.
CP: And your blog doesn't get you in trouble with administration either?
PZ: The blog is mine, done on my own time. The administration has nothing to do with it.
CP: Right, but they don’t get pissy about it?
PZ: I know it sometimes makes them uncomfortable, but doing anything about it would cross a line that would get them in big trouble with the faculty. Academic freedom is taken quite seriously.
CP: Sounds like we just need to send everyone to university.
PZ: Oh, yes. Especially to mine. More enrollments would be welcome.
CP: I'll tell the people of LA ;-)
PZ: We offer in-state tuition to EVERYONE. So yeah, they should come here. Also, Native Americans are tuition-free. It might be a bit of a shock to move from LA to rural Minnesota though...
CP: I can't handle northern California, so I can't imagine.
PZ: Morris, pop. 5000. We have two stoplights of which we are inordinately proud.
CP: Well deserved!
PZ: Only two stoplights in the entire country!
CP: So, how is being a college science professor different from being a primary or high school science teacher, particularly in terms of approach? Can you be a bit more honest about your theological bent, and about intelligent design and other religious claims masquerading as science?
PZ: It's hugely different. We have more freedom to shape our curriculum. Our obligation is entirely to the state of the current science, and to our colleagues in an interdisciplinary discipline. Public school teachers are much more restricted. They are required to teach a set of standard subjects in a way to make courses equivalent and meet state requirements. High school teachers aren't usually dishonest. But they are more constrained in what they can say and teach. I could, for instance, get up in a lecture and tell all my students they must be atheists. I don't, because I have certain professional standards that I personally feel obligated to meet (I'm teaching biology, first and foremost). High school teachers can't do that at all, for risk of being fired.
CP: What's the solution there? It seems like a huge crisis.
PZ: There is no solution. Public school teachers have a different job: it's to get a diverse public up to speed on the basics of a subject. It's reasonable to have different expectations for them. We college profs are dealing with a more select population. Our goal is to push students to understand the details of a subject.
CP: But even if students aren't coming out with basic understandings of things like the scientific method?
PZ: Oh, that part. Yeah, that's an issue. Part of the problem is that the standards are not monitored and enforced. For instance, our state standards REQUIRE students to be taught evolution in high school. Only about a third of the students are actually taught that; others are taught a bizarre mix of creationism and evolution; others, the teacher just conveniently fails to offer any instruction in the controversial subject.
CP: Indeed. My boyfriend, who grew up in South Carolina, never heard the "e word" in school
PZ: But also, a lot of schools just don't care. All that matters are graduation rates.
I was never taught anything about evolution in high school either! And that was in the mid-70s, in Seattle.
CP: Yikes. I guess I was fortunate to grow up down here. Or over here, to you. Over and down.
PZ: It varies, though. There is the widespread bias that the South is the worst place for teaching evolution, but any of the university towns down there do a great job. Meanwhile, rural Minnesota is a hellhole of ignorance. So don't tie it to geography -- it's all about the importance given to schools and education in an area.
CP: True. And I know my share of creationists here as well.
CP: So, switching gears, you write often on the imbalance between men and women represented in the scientific and atheist communities.
PZ: Yeah. Annoying, isn't it?
CP: It is. And even the problem seems to be invisible; not just the women. Where do you think that imbalance stems from? How do we begin to combat it?
PZ: Well, it comes from social biases, of course. We take for granted that women will have role X, and men role Y, and women who do Y are invisible.
CP: You would expect the atheist community to be above that sort of social/religious proscription.
PZ: We have to consciously work against it. This business of atheist conferences always inviting the same old guys, for instance -- we just need to hammer away at organizers, telling them to invite more women, until people become aware that hey, women are atheists, too!
CP: Right. you posted that poll on atheist women of 2009, and several commenters said "I have never heard of these people."
PZ: I think the atheist community is better about it -- at least we don't sit around trying to justify excluding women. But we do take them for granted, and that's what perpetuates an unconscious bias.
CP: I noticed a lot fewer people attending the women's lectures at the AAI Convention as well
PZ: That's the unconscious bias again. People want a show at the conferences, and they know the noisy male peacocks will make a lot of noise. What they don't know is that the peahens in our community are pretty damned flamboyant, too.
CP: Oo, touche.
PZ: Really -- Marcotte and Benson and Christina would make an even louder noise than Dawkins, who when you get right down to it, is very softspoken.
CP: Yes. He is one of the most humble and reserved people I have ever met, on a personal basis anyway. Speaking of Dawkins, does he ever text you? And if so, does he ever say "LOL"? The world wants to know.
PZ: We chat a bit on the intertubes, sure. No, he doesn't LOL of l33tspeak.
CP: Too bad. You should get him into it.
PZ: Nah, not his metier.
CP: Fair. So PZ, for those of us who are scientifically-minded, but not teachers, what can we do to promote science and skepticism? Is it just a matter of speaking openly about it (other than enrolling at your uni, which we all will now)?
PZ: That's part of it. I've always been baffled by this sentiment that you should avoid controversial topics at the family dinner table. Isn't that the best place to bring it out? But yeah, being openly confrontational and being confident in your ideas is important. I'd also say the biggest thing we could do is encourage more literacy and numeracy. High school and elementary math teachers are probably the MOST IMPORTANT PEOPLE IN THE UNIVERSE for getting us into a new enlightened age.
CP: And their numbers are dwindling, aren't they?
PZ: Yes. Their subjects are hard. Somehow people have this idea that school has to be easy to be fun.
CP: I know that in my high school, you only had to get through Algebra 2 to graduate
PZ: Yes. When I was in high school, there was a college track and a, I don't know what they called it, too-stupid-for-college track? The college track had all these math and science and foreign language requirements above and beyond what was needed to graduate. Other schools now have this wonderful International Baccalaureate program that imposes higher standards, too. Why can't we just have that universally applied? If you can't do basic trigonometry and say a few phrases in Spanish, you aren't fit to be a high school graduate.
CP: In college I was the only person in my calculus class who wasn't required to be there
PZ: Oooh, I am so elitist.
CP: Is that me, or you? Don't be too impressed - - I got a C.
PZ: You passed. That's all you should need.
CP: We’ll see. All right, I have a question from reader Craig from North Hollywood: “Atheism is a null stance. You can be atheist and never talk about it. What motivated you to not only be atheist, but to talk about it?”
PZ: First of all, atheism as practiced by this new generation (and many of the old) is more than that. It's a positive philosophy that applies considerable rigor to how we interpret the world. Gods don't meet any reasonable, minimal standard of evidence, so they are not included. But the fact that we can talk about standards of evidence obviously implies that it is more than just a null philosophy. Also, of course, we're in opposition to the believers, who all seem to be frackin' idiots, yet are handed power and authority without earning it. So we MUST be vocal to oppose the foolishness. You don't win by not playing the game at all.
CP: All the believers are frackin' idiots?
PZ: I don't think they are intrinsically idiotic. But as soon as they start prating about their crazy beliefs, they act like idiots.
CP: Ahh. And they can be idiotic and still gain power merely because they pay lip service to god.
PZ: Christians who don't preach their god as justification for their actions, but instead use reason and evidence to promote a certain behavior, are no problem.
CP: Well that takes me to another question: Is there such a thing as harmless religion? Or does even the most mild/moderate religion implicitly support uncritical thought and thus support even the most violent religion?
PZ: There is no such thing as a harmless religion. I don't believe that religion compels people to fly airplanes into buildings, except in the most pathological cases. Most of the Christians in our country are good people who want to do well by their neighbors. However, what religion does do is convince decent people that it's okay to go into the voting booth and flip a switch that will deny their neighbors equal rights. It teaches people that they don't need any rigor or discipline or evidence for what they believe -- if it makes them feel good, it must be true. Marx had it right when he called it the opiate of the masses. For most people, it's a sedative that makes them dopey and pliable and gullible. It's the overdose that is toxic and kills them. And their neighbors.
CP: But if the moderate religionist legitimizes unreasonable faith, isn't s/he a little responsible for the person who takes unreasonable faith to a violent extreme?
PZ: Yes! But talk to religious people, and what you mostly find are people who don't want their children to go to hell, who agree with you that it is evil to kill in the name of the Lord. Telling them that it is their fault that Paul Hill murdered a doctor doesn't impinge on them at all -- they reject the idea. (Mostly -- some will tell you that Hill was a good man.) But you don't get them to change by telling them religion will make them kill people, because most won't. But telling them that religion will make them stupid and susceptible to abuse might be a step in the right direction.
CP: A question from reader Ross from Burbank: “If atheist activists were successful, what kind of a world can we expect?”
PZ: If atheists were kings and queens of the world...there would still be wars and evil and abuses. There is nothing inherently religious about capitalism, for instance, and an atheist America would still be a relatively Darwinian social environment.
CP: I hope there's a “but” coming!
PZ: All we'd do is get rid of the genuinely stupid excuses for wars, and maybe shape our institutions to be more responsive to evidence-based arguments. So it would be an incremental shift in the better direction.
CP: So it's a good starting place.
PZ: But that matters! As an evolutionary biologist, I know that incremental advantages work -- we shouldn't expect revolutions and radical changes in a single generation. We need processes that work to carry us in a better direction. And secularism is that process. Science and technology are our human tools for creating better worlds. Religion is a tool for complacency and stepping backwards. With over 6 billion people on the planet, we cannot afford that -- a step backwards is the death of billions.
CP: Hear hear. All of social justice has been a process. I can't vote because of an amendment. I can vote because of people standing on sidewalks and writing letters and all sorts of tiny actions that started something.
PZ: Yes. And democracy works not because it always gives us the right decisions (it sure doesn't), but because it gives us a process for refining how our culture works.
CP: All right. If you could get everyone to read one book in 2010, which would you choose?
PZ: Mine. Oh, I'm so glad you gave me an easy one.
CP: LOL (tell Richard Dawkins I said that)
PZ: OK. But until my book comes out, everyone can read Dawkins Greatest Show on Earth, or Shubin's Your Inner Fish, or Coyne's Why Evolution is True".
CP: Can God create a rock He can’t lift?
PZ: There is no God. He can't create anything, and if he could, he has no power to lift it.
CP: Damn. That really makes it tough.
PZ: Yeah, I've got a speck of dust on my desk. I double-dog dare god to lift it. He won't.
CP: Be careful! I've read email forwards where He makes chalk roll down professors' legs!
PZ: Yeah, right. Quite a downfall from the smitings and the lightning bolts and the pillars of fire, isn't it?
CP: God has gotten rill lazy.
PZ: Or people have gotten less gullible, and less willing to believe wild stories. There is hope!
CP: When you die, if your soul does survive, and you come face to face with God, completely aware that you have spent your entire life being wrong and steering people away from Him… what will you wear?
PZ: Wear? Do ectoplasmic entities need clothes?
CP: You're the scientist here.
PZ: I wouldn't be worrying about what to wear. God should be worrying, because I'm going to call him to task and ask him what right he has to bring us to judgment. I may also criticise HIS fashion sense if he's wearing that boring robes-and-sandals get up.
CP: So, shorts and a Hawai'ian tee?
PZ: Nah. Naked. The better to piss on his shoes. Besides, if heaven is really paradisial, I want to be ready for the wild sex.
CP: Well, Dr. Myers, anything final you want to say to the atheists/agnostics/skeptics of Los Angeles?
PZ: Are they loud enough and bold enough? That's what I expect of 21st century atheists. No gods, no kings, and NO COMPROMISES.
Professor Myers will be speaking at the Orange County Freethought Alliance this May. You can read his science and secularism blog, Pharyngula, here.