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The professional science writer has a daunting task. His or her audience will consist of all ranges in education, from elementary school kids just getting their first taste of the wonder of the natural world, to retired professors. It's not an easy job, and maybe that's why so few succeed in making a living at it. Sadly, now it's even harder, thanks to a cavalier attitude towards science fostered by certain elements in the political establishment:

Why is it that politicians who say they want to strengthen science teaching standards can sound so post-modern about science? --Carl Zimmer

If you read Discover magazine in the 90s or science articles in the Times in the lst few months, then odds are you've enjoyed the work of best selling author Carl Zimmer. Carl is a creationist alright; only in that he creates understanding. He's also universally recognized as one of the most gifted and prolific science authors in the world with a writing style that breaks down complex topics into digestible, bite sized chunks that even the beginner wonder junkie can consume with delight. So I was excited, from the perspective of both a writer and a science buff, that I had a chance to virtually sit down with Carl this week, ask him about his writing, science, and the technology behind it all. Image Warning

DarkSyde (DS): Carl how did you get interested in writing about science originally?

Carl Zimmer (CZ): I stumbled into it. In college I was an English major, and I was doing a lot of writing on my own, almost all fiction. But I took writing classes from Vicki Hearne and Peter Matthiessen, both of whom have done a lot of great non-fiction work, and they helped me appreciate the possibilities of non-fiction. I spent the first couple years out of college doing various jobs, such as working as a carpenter, and I continued to write stories. Then I moved to New York and couldn't figure out how to go on being a carpenter there. I decided to look around for jobs at magazines, and I wound up at Discover because they had an opening for a copy editor.

I proved to be a mediocre copy editor (as the typos in my blog make clear), but fortunately, I was able to make a lateral move. I worked as a fact-checker and wrote short items for the front of the magazine. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the work.

At home I was getting less and less inspiration from my fiction, but at work I was getting to learn about all sorts of remarkable things, from the collisions of black holes to the biochemistry of glowing beetles. Only when I was actually writing about science did it occur to me that it might be a good match. I had always been interested in science. In college I had drawn weird looks in my physics class from the engineering majors and pre-med students when I said I was taking the course simply because I was interested in it. But I never put two and two together. They had to be put together for me. Fact-checking taught me a huge amount about writing and science. I'd get to see how science writers distilled lots of complicated information into a few thousand words. I'd also see how easy it was to make mistakes in the process. I got to call up world-class experts and get them to explain their research to me. I learned that you can't get embarrassed about asking questions that sound incredibly stupid. I stayed at Discover till 1999, ending up as a senior editor. By then I had published my first book, At the Water's Edge, and was midway through the next, Parasite Rex. I wanted more time to work on books, and it seemed like the right time to start writing for other magazines too. I've been on my own since then.

DS: In the foreword to the Yearly Kos Science e-book The Kosmos Kronicles you talked about how the new media and technology. How has that changed your work habits and where do you see it taking writers like yourself in the future?

CZ: I live in a small town in Connecticut, two hours from New York and Boston. My wife and I have two little girls. So I spend most of my day in my office in our house, reading and writing at my computer. A decade ago it would have been very difficult for me to make a living as a freelance science writer under these conditions. But thanks to Adobe Acrobat and Google, I can get my hands on most of the scientific papers I need, communicate with scientists around the world, and stay connected with my editors. I still remember calling my editor for Parasite Rex in 1999 and saying, "I'm done with the book. I know this sounds crazy, but what if I just send you my manuscript by email?" And then I watched as a couple year's work flashed out of my computer and over the phone wires. I had a sense that things were going to change a lot, and they have.

In 2000 I set up my web site, where I started posting articles and information on my books. I was invited to write about the history of evolutionary biology for a web site at the University of California. And then in 2003 I started a blog. What I like most about blogging is that it's self-publishing run amok. There are a lot of subjects that I am fascinated with to the point of obsession, and I know that it would take a lot of work to convince an editor to commission a story on them. So I can just write about them myself. I can also write about them in little essays. It's a style I enjoy, but for which there isn't much call in regular magazines and newspapers. Of course, that's not the most common style of blogging. I couldn't fire off a dozen posts a day. But there are no blog police telling you to stick to the house style. You just write it, and within a few seconds somebody in Siberia or Brazil is reading it. When I started blogging, I didn't think the medium would change the business of science writing.

I suppose I still have a deep-seated skepticism from the 1990s, back when people would make all sorts of claims about the coming information revolution. I still remember promises that e-books were just about to make regular books a thing of the past. But now I'm not quite so skeptical. Blogging and related media are growing in a healthy way, rather than soaring and crashing. Most bloggers may not be able to make a living at it, but some can get a little genuine ad revenue. On controversial issues in science, such as global warming, stem cells, and creationism, blogs can be much more nimble than conventional outlets responding quickly to changing events and getting to the heart of the matter. A lot of people apparently like that, I'm happy to see. I just hope that the spirit of experimentation continues. I just participated in the New York Times's first podcasts, talking about a story I wrote on the evolution of leeches. I find that entirely bizarre-but in a good way, a bizarreness I hope endures. Still, I won't stop writing books. Pixels on a screen can't replace hard covers and good paper stock.

DS: In Soul Made Flesh, you follow the discovery of the human brain as the seat of consciousness. There was considerable tension between religious and secular centers of power and the burgeoning science of neurology. Can you briefly summarize a portion of that?

CZ: Neurology as a science was born in the mid-1600s, and it summoned all the conflict between tradition and science at the time. It's very hard to put yourself in that era, because we live in such a brain-centered age. Before the birth of neurology you had people saying that the brain was no more capable of thought than a cake of suet or a bowl of curds. To say that the mind was matter in motion, as Thomas Hobbes did, was a scandalous thing, because it threw into doubt centuries of received wisdom about the nature of the soul. Bishops would rail again the "mechanical philosophy," worrying that it reduced people to machines. Hobbes was a political philosopher, however, so he couldn't back up what he had to say with much science. But at the time a group of English physicians and natural philosophers were exploring the brain and realizing that it really was much more than a bowl of curds.

But I should point out that this episode was not some simple split between science and religion. The central figure in Soul Made Flesh is Thomas Willis, who wrote the first book on the brain and coined the term neurology. He was a fiercely devout Anglican who hosted a secret church during the Commonwealth, when the Book of Common Prayer was banned. He saw his science as serving the Church, and was at great pains to make people understand that his work would not lead to atheism. He believed that by curing brains he would give people the opportunity to find salvation. Thomas Willis would not have even called himself a scientist. The word would not come into existence for almost 200 years. He would call himself a natural philosopher, seeing his mission to find evidence of God's work in nature.

DS: Do you see any modern day analogues?

CZ: The analogies are rough, but they are there. History runs in a cycle when it comes to how people view themselves and the world. A certain kind of understanding works well enough until new observations and ideas throw it into doubt. It takes a long time for people to find a new system into which these new things can fit comfortably. The brain offers a good example of this shifting consensus. Thomas Willis worried that people would take him for an atheist for suggesting that learning, memory, dreams, and the rest of our psychological life was produced by chemical corpuscles in the brain. By the 1700s this had become conventional wisdom. Now we're in a second neurological revolution, with brain imaging allowing scientists to dissect thought, with a growing understanding of the underlying chemistry, and an enormous industry in trying to alter that chemistry.

I don't think we've figured out how to live with this new kind of understanding of the brain on a day to day basis. There's also a fair amount of resistance to the idea that this precious brain ours is the product of billions of years of evolution. Now we can see the genes that build our brains, and we can see that the same genes built the front end of the nerve cord on amphioxus, the closest invertebrate relative to vertebrates. But the idea that natural selection and other forces could turn one into the other can be a staggering notion.

    Image hosting by Photobucket
Top: The whale transitional 'ambulocetus' which means 'walking whale', done for Carl Zimmer's book At the Water's Edge. Right, a rough series of whale evolution with ambulocetus placed in chronological order. lllustrations courtesy of paleowildlife artist Carl Buell. Nevertheless, researchers now have reason to suspect there's a slight flaw in this diagram; can you spot it?

DS: Speaking of evolution, one of the favored lines of misinformation creationists once used to sell their wares was the absence of transitional whale fossils. But in At The Water's Edge, a truly classic evolutionary science book if ever there was one, you reviewed several exciting finds that demolished the creationist canard, correct?

CZ: One reason I love my job is that I can watch scientific history in the making. For well over a century years, scientists knew relatively little about the evolution of whales. Darwin recognized evidence that whales were mammals, and that they had evolved from ancestors on land. But there were no amphibious whales around that represented the intermediate stages from land to sea. Whales and dolphins are committed to the sea, with streamlined swimming bodies that leave them helpless on land. Some predictions logically follow: transitional species once existed, and if paleontologists ever managed to find their fossils, the fossils would show more signs of an ancestry on land. While I was at Discover, paleontologists in Pakistan and Egypt started finding spectacular fossils of 45 million year old whales with legs. That was one of the inspiration for writing At the Water's Edge, to show how some of these open questions are now being answered, and to show how major transitions in evolution have happened. Creationists used to make a great deal of the absence of these fossils, and now they try to claim that all these ancient walking whales somehow have nothing to do with whales today. But these fossils were exactly the sorts of thing you'd expect to find if evolution actually happened. And with several dozen intermediate species now known, this is turning into one of the best-documented transitions of all.


Eusthenoptern, an early 'lobe-finned' fish. Again taken from Carl Zimmer's book At The Water's Edge by paleo-wildlife artist Carl Buell. It lived about 380 million years ago and those fins exhibit fossil homologies to our own limbs. Although they're not easy to make out, the forerunners of the familiar arm and leg bones are there.

DS: And how about the amazing transitional fish covered in the same book, fish with legs and primitive lungs literally!

CZ: It was a remarkable coincidence that while some scientists were finding walking whales, others were finding fish with fingers. These creatures lived 360 million years ago and still had fish tails and gills and lots of other fish anatomy. But they also had limbs and other pieces of anatomy that let us walk around on land today.

The strange thing was, those early creatures couldn't walk around on land. The adaptations must have first emerged for some other function in the water maybe holding onto underwater vegetation or clambering around submerged logs or even doing push-ups to reach the air and breathe. Lungs don't fossilize, but a number of living fishes have them. And if you look at the evolutionary tree of fishes, the simplest explanation for their lungs is that lungs evolved very early in their history long before tetrapods started using them to breathe on land. As more and more of these transitional fossils bridging sea to land come to light, they show how big changes in evolution happen bit by bit. The tetrapod body plan did not pop up overnight. It emerged over millions of years, and many parts of it first evolved for adaptations that had nothing to do with what we use them for.

From about 360 million years ago, this fossil fish, called Acanthostega, may look like a land dweller, but the creature was probably as helpless on land as a catfish. The limbs and digits likely acted more like specialized paddles which provied the creature with extra-maneuverability in shallow, swift moving streams.

DS: Another topic you're written extensively about is parasites culminating in Parasite Rex. How does the study of these rather distasteful creatures shed light on evolution and on human evolution specifically?

CZ: For starters, it shows that parasites are the great success story of evolution. There's an estimated four species of parasites for every free-living organism. And they're not just passive creatures, but staggeringly well-adapted to making the most of a host. (See my new post on parasitoid wasps that perform brain surgery on their cockroach hosts if you doubt me!)

Parasites are also one of the most important engines driving the evolution of their hosts. If you acquire a mutation that helps you resist the wasp that's killing all your cockroach pals, you may well win the legacy game. If you look at the human genome, it's profoundly shaped by the evolution of defenses against parasites.

At the same time, though, the parasites have invaded the genome itself. Virus-like stretches of DNA replicate themselves in our genome, despite the fact that they don't make proteins that do us any good. Almost half the human genome is made of these genomic parasites. Parasites can also tell us a lot about our history because they've spread with us. We acquired tapeworms when our hominid ancestors were scavenging for carcasses on the African savanna. Malaria first became a scourge with the rise of agriculture, turning farmers into excellent targets for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The bacteria that causes ulcers spread with humans when they first emerged from Africa and went with them all the way to the New World. Some scientists have even argued that we picked up lice from Homo erectus when our species first arrived in Asia. Parasites just go to show that nothing in nature cannot fascinate.

DS: Looking forward, are you hopeful or pessimistic about the future  of Science and science education in the US?

CZ: The well-being of American science depends not just on lots of scientists doing good work, but on the rest of us having a good basic understanding of science. I'm not saying we all have to be top-notch electrical engineers, atmospheric scientists, epidemiologists, and organic chemists all rolled into one. But we need to speak a basic lingua franca of science in order to understand new developments in science, to decide where government funds for scientific research ought to go, and sort out the good and bad effects scientific research can produce.

It's hard to get a sense of how well we, as a country, speak that  lingua franca. Jon Miller at Northwestern, wrote an interesting review in 2004 (pdf). He defines scientific literacy as the ability to read and understand the Science Times section of the New York Times--a definition that's flattering but arbitrary. By that measure, scientific literacy has actually doubled in the United States over the past twenty years, putting it on par with countries like Britain and France and actually above Japan. But the good news pretty much stops there. Miller finds that only seventeen percent of Americans qualify as scientifically literate.

Part of the problem is that the lingua franca gets harder to learn as the years pass because more things are discovered and more of those things get incorporated into our lives. But that explanation only goes so far. Miller writes that half of American adults say that the Sun rotates around the Earth, and 14 percent think that the Earth rotates around the sun once each day. Those figures are not typos. About 40 percent of American adults can offer a minimally correct explanation of DNA. According to 55 percent of Americans, antibiotics kill viruses (they don't).

At the very best, then, our grip on the lingua franca is incredibly fragile. It must be nurtured. President Bush's call for 70,000 new high school science teachers would be a good step in the right  direction, although the simultaneous slashing of student loans may make it harder for the students of those teachers to go on to become science majors in college.

It doesn't help our fragile grasp on this lingua franca for President Bush to support intelligent design in science classes "so people can understand what the debate is about," as he puts it. Every major scientific organization deplore the idea. Nor does it help that a 24-year-old Bush campaign worker, one George Deutsch, wound up lecturing NASA scientists about how they had to refer to the Big Bang as a theory, because it is, he wrote, "not proven fact; it is opinion," adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

Mr. Deutsch has since resigned. Apparently his offense was his lying about dropping out of Texas A&M--not his misrepresentation of what scientific theories are. (Hint: not opinion.) If Mr. Deutsch knew about this difference, his actions were cynically corrosive. If he didn't know, then he was ignorant and shouldn't have been overseeing the flow of information from NASA--let alone dispensing wisdom to astrophysicists.

It used to be easy to take for granted that the United States would always produce great scientific work. Certainly this country still has a lot to be proud of. When I write about important new scientific work, most of the time I'm describing work carried out by American scientists. That's not chauvinism, but recognition of the facts on the ground. The United States still fosters a vibrant scientific culture that attracts people from other countries to do research and to learn. But this kind of culture needs care and feeding, or it withers.

Carl Zimmer is the author of several popular science books and writes frequently for the New York Times, as well as for magazines including The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Science, Newsweek, and Popular Science. Carl's books include Soul Made Flesh, Parasite Rex and Evolution: The Triumph of An Idea. To see more of his writing, visit his personal blog, The Loom.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 05:44 AM PST.


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Comment Preferences

  •  If God had wanted us to learn about science stuff (4.00)
    he would have made it easier to understand.  :)

    -6.88/-5.64 * You know what's happening. Fight it.

    by John West on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 05:49:25 AM PST

    •  Many are called ... (none)
      ... but few are chosen. :)
    •  Many thanks for this diary! (4.00)
      Thank you DarkSyde, and thank you, Carl!

      The well-being of American science depends not just on lots of scientists doing good work, but on the rest of us having a good basic understanding of science. ... But we need to speak a basic lingua franca of science in order to understand new developments in science, to decide where government funds for scientific research ought to go, and sort out the good and bad effects scientific research can produce.

      Amen.  If we do not educate children today in the basics of science, just as we teach them reading and writing (hopefully), then those ignorant kids are going to be supporting ignorant Congresspeople who make ignorant decisions.  

      Jon Miller, a political scientist at Northwestern who does research on what average people understand about science, has found that ...

      American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth... (NY Times)

      Do we want the fate of our scientific institutions put in the control of this population?  And yet that's what's happening.

      We have a lot of expensive and dangerous toys on the one hand, and more essential decisions to make on the other.  We have a lot of solutions to huge problems facing us on the one hand, and, on the other, superstition and misinformation even among progressives and policymakers.  

      Even as Bush announces that we need to make an effort to produce more scientists, he's cutting aid to college students.

      It's alarming.

      We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. -Albert Einstein

      by Plan9 on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 07:26:12 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  super! (4.00)
    just emailed this to my son's science teacher.


  •  Zimmer is good (none)
    I'm reading Soul Made Flesh right now, and honestly didn't connect it to the leach story in the Times until now. It's a good book, and the way that he's woven Willis' story, and the history of the English Civil War, into the story of evolving understanding of the brain, is fascinating. There are some unhappy parallels to our own time.

    I work in history, but my recreational reading (when not kid's lit) is science. Zimmer's a good author for folks like me who lack an adequate background for really technical material.

  •  Science writers (4.00)
    are probably our most important journalists.  The U.S. will succeed by being the most advanced science and technology nation in the world.  We need good writers to explain it to the nation.  Science is under attack.  It's a bit of a weird world right now with Bush calling for more science teachers and yet his same party is attacking scientific inquiry (stem cells, intelligent design, global warming, etc.)  I really, really wish that scientific writers would spend more time talking about the scientific method because this seems to be the biggest source of confusion among non-scientists, and it is exploited by bad actors.

    Now, my gratuitous whine, why don't science writers write about chemistry.  Don't say because it is too hard, because if writers can explain the string hypothesis, they can explain chemistry.

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. -- Daniel Patrick Monynihan

    by Unstable Isotope on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 06:00:42 AM PST

    •  about string theory (none)
      If you can understand string theory in its full rigor, you are my intellectual superior! (ok, that isn't saying all that much. ;-) )

      Witten is one smart guy; that is all that I can say.

      Though, it did annoy me that a physicist could walk right in and (deservedly) win our top prize (Field's  Medal)

      When liberals saw 9-11, we wondered how we could make the country safe. When conservatives saw 9-11, they saw an investment opportunity.

      by onanyes on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 06:05:17 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  String Theory for the layman (none)
        Michio Kaku wrote a book, "HYPERSPACE,"  on this for us laypeople  and it is wildly vivid in description -- enough so that one can visualize it and be a changed person.

        "I did NOT have sex with that lobbyist!"

        by donailin on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 06:31:56 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Thanks for the rec (none)
          I just checked on the reviews, it looks fascinating.

          " weapons of mass destruction over there, but Coretta knew and we know that there are weapons of misdirection right down here." -Rev. Lowery

          by Cecile on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 09:44:28 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  String theory, the short answer: (none)
        The world we know, at our scale of reference, with Newton's Laws and such, is understandable down from the scale of galaxies down to size of the atom everyone learns about in fifth grade.

        Anything smaller, the quantum world, the one which makes people feel stupid because they didn't take four semesters of physics, is really not that difficult to comprehend.  The quantum world is about forces and some statistics.  We think about them, in the Big World, in terms of electricity, mass, magnetism and gravity, independent of what actually makes a magnet magnetic or a planet heavy or a proton positive.

        Joining the two scales of reference, the Big World of atoms and galaxies together with the Small World of Quantum Theory requires some fancy stitching.  Here is where string theory comes into the picture:  it attempts to bridge these two scales of reference.

        String theory, like many scientific ideas, got labeled in a poor way.  There aren't really "strings" down there, we can think of them as one-dimensional points, for our purposes.  These points, and there's no good reason to think of them as anything other than points for a layman's explanation.  The "string" business comes from the idea that a guitar string tuned to E has a certain E-ness, and one tuned to G has a certain G-ness.

        Now, in the same way the old Ptolemaic universe tried to reconcile itself to the motion of the planets with bizarre epicycles, the String Theorists have proposed and disposed of many theories. These theories are shot down almost as fast as they emerge.  There are some explanations which propose an arbitrary number of dimensions, some of which are wrapped in on themselves in these one-dimensional points.  One old fave, the Magnetic Monopole, has been as thoroughly disproved as the unicorn:  as if there could be a particle with Positiveness and another with Negativeness.

        One thing is for sure, a great many physicists who make a full time career waiting for yet another crackpot String Theory to emerge, so they can build an experiment to disprove it.  But one thing is for certain, the Big World and the Small World can't operate on different rules, there has to be a simple explanation, the simpler the better.  Didn't say easy explanation, or an easy to explain explanation, but one does exist, and it occupies a great many theoretical physicists, who are unfortunately obliged to test these theories in the Big World.

        People are usually more convinced by reasons they discovered themselves than by those found by others.

        by BlaiseP on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 10:49:02 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Try an A-ness of 400 cycles per second. (none)
            And each step in the harmonic [tuning] cycle is a function of that A string and the 400 cycle definition.

            Sounds to me like the key is a harmonic theory to tie the strings into a melody whole. Indeed, the 'skins of the onion' implies a certain three-dimensional harmonic interplay of the whole, at a minimum. Add other dimensional elements and you get the multi-dimensional aspect.

          When the harmonic is in tune, it is whole (stable in the quantum sense); when it is not, it's chaotic [noise] and describing it's individual elements may not even give a hint of the whole (the totality of the situation or object).

          Of course, quantum snark may vary in your universe.

          Energy and information are the primary elements of the universe.

          by walkshills on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 09:47:45 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  I am afraid (4.00)
      that science cannot hold a candle (in the dark) to the interest shown in this country for MWW's (missing white women).  When that changes perhaps I will begin to hope.  Until then I will simply picture a republican, wrapped in the flag, cutting down the last tree on Easter Island with a huge gas powered chain saw while the jubilant crowd about him sing, shout and praise him loudly for his patriotism.

      Can I go to the planet with the sane people now?  Please?

      Here in the mouth of madness one thing is terribly clear...madness does not floss

      by Thameron on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 06:40:26 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  perhaps (none)
        we need to propose the theory that the missing mass in the universe in MWW. It's the "White Matter" theory.
        •  The MWW effect is already explained (none)
          by the theory of Shit Happens. The problem is the evangelical preachers like Gretta Van Twistyface and Rita Deepthroat prey on their viewers by taking a stand against reality by refusing to accept that Shit Happens without proof of a body. The body doesn;'t satisfy the truth either - they then get FBI profilers, and other scatolists to explain the hows and whys of happening shit.

          Of course, the most reasonable explaination: the MWW have been raptured.

          To claim secular societies are rejecting God, is to concede that religious societies are rejecting reality.

          by Kudos on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 07:48:59 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  Oops... Bad example. (none)
        Easter Island's last tree was gone before the first European (let alone Rethug) ever saw the place. ; ) (Nonetheless, IMO your point is still a good one.)
  •  nice diary (4.00)
    as usual.  That blog is well worth checking out.

    What is ironic, in my opinion, is that true science is far more interesting and "miraculous" than using some religious myth for scientific purposes could ever be.

    When liberals saw 9-11, we wondered how we could make the country safe. When conservatives saw 9-11, they saw an investment opportunity.

    by onanyes on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 06:00:48 AM PST

  •  Science needs evangelists. (4.00)
    And science writers are part of the solution.  I wish more scientists had a voice, though, too.  I'm not quite sure how to accomplish that.

    We should be out at public lectures, at church lectures, telling our side.  Many of us aren't quite so evangelical, though.

    Scientists expect the facts to speak for themselves.  But that's not working for us.  

    •  Richard Dawkins has been preaching (none)
      to the choir with his books and essays on evolution, faith and science for 20 years. For the layperson - If you can say "nuclear" then the sciency detail that weave through his writing should be a challenge. He really is crystal clear on pure science and suffers no fools.

      I think Bush and Osama have jolted him into an activist for science and against the creeping influence of faith based nutters.

      His new book on the damage that religions have inflicted on human progress will rival DarkSyde's treatise on atheism. He did a two part documentary on the topic called "The Root of All Evil" that has already aired in the U.K.

      To claim secular societies are rejecting God, is to concede that religious societies are rejecting reality.

      by Kudos on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 07:22:28 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I watched it (none)
        and I was not impressed.  He can do better, he needs to do much better if he wants to gain any widespread acceptance beyond the 10% or so of us who are already wholly anti-superstition.  

        If I can plug my own field a little, science needs to understand why the old superstitions just won't die in the face of reason, rather than just preach to the choir that these old superstions are disproven.  That's why I study the psychology of Religion.  Tell me why a Fundie believes instead of just making fun of him.  Tell me how Religion evolved rather than call it 'the root of all evil'.

        Mark Twain -Let me make the superstitions of a nation and I care not who makes its laws or its songs either.

        by Kingsmeg on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 11:01:20 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I guess I enjoyed seeing anyone (none)
          reject the idea that faith-based beliefs deserve automatic respect. He comes off as arrogant, which is understandable, when he refuses to allow his facts to be corrected by a God salesman on a subject that many consider him to be the world's leading expert/ His quote about how "most believers in a god are atheists when it comes to all the other possible gods people believe in... so, why not just take one more step." Religious loyalties are analogous to gangs - eventually one group forgets why they are Crips and the other are Blood.

          To claim secular societies are rejecting God, is to concede that religious societies are rejecting reality.

          by Kudos on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 07:31:13 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  One way (none)
      One way we can make a difference is through our children.  I think we have a lot of influence over our children in this respect.  My boys have a natural curiosity and aptitude for science but I encourage it, a lot.  I think it's definitely having an impact.  They grow up quickly, and time flies, and these kids will be out there in the world, so to speak, before we know it.

      On Bush: "He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire." --(borrowed from) Churchill

      by joanneleon on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 08:34:04 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  agreed! (none)
        there are fantastic books that will turn kids on to science. lots of great toys too. if teachers are constrained from teaching the kids what they need to know, parents need to step up...

        Crime is contagious....if the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law. -- Justice Louis Brandeis

        by FemiNazi on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 09:04:04 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  science evangelists (4.00)
      I agree about the need for science writers and evangelists. I'm a neuroscientist and I'd love to see a prominent neuroscientist -- or someone else -- come forward. There are some partial successes, but no big ones.

      Strangely, among the best popularization of neuroscience has come from Tom Wolf. He gets it, writes powerfully and writes beautifully.

      PBS has done a terrible job in biology, evolution and neuroscience.

      But the intellectual challenge is not trivial. It's more than just explaining things in simple language. It's also coming to simple, common sense consensus among scientists about what we do, what he have achieved and where we are headed. I've watched this in my field. 30 years ago Neuroscience was excitiing, but none of us could explain what it was all about. (To paraphrase Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the world was so young we didn't have words for things, so we were pointing all over the place). Over the 30 year interval a great deal has been achieved both in accumulating information and maturation in patterns of thought. For example, 30 years ago ideas about learning were a mess. Now there have been dramatic new discoveries, but, I think equally important, better ways of thinking about the core issues and a broad consensus about what learning is. This process is not a simple one and it takes additional time for these ideas to percolate through science and into the realm of public understanding.

      But we do need public intellectuals and great science writers. Although I  haven't read Carl Zimmer's books, he may be an important and rare breed.

      •  Yes, it's good to see Zimmer step up (none)
        to the science plate. After losing such greats as Richard Feynman and Stephen Jay Gould, I was wondering who would succeed them. I have now bookmarked Zimmer's blog page.

        Thanks for this diary. I haven't looked yet, but I'd love to see a Zimmer essay on Francis Bacon, if there is one. That dude was so far ahead of his time!

        "That story is not worth the paper it's rotten on"--Dorothy Parker

        by martyc35 on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 11:06:15 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  I'm afraid (4.00)
    I'm one of those science illiterates.  It just goes swooshing over my head.  But I love to read the broad histories of it.

    A very well written diary, as usual!

    •  Probably not... (none)
      You probably are not one of those who still thinks the Sun goes round the Earth.

      If you have gotten that far... then you are no illiterate.


      The CHICKEN-hawk Bushiter's Iraq War- 1268 Dead, about 25K Medivacs and 9000 Maimed... Fought the Bushiter Way... Wasting other people's money and lives.

      by RedMeatDem on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 07:21:45 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  When I was accepted into college (none)
        (many moons ago), my chemistry teacher, who personified staid, broke into hysterical laughing.

        I said look, just because I'm stupid in chemistry.....  ;-)

        •  I'd venture to say (none)
          that your teacher - was wrong.  

          That's the type of attitude that I fend off, vigilantly, for my kids.  I tell them not to let anyone tell them what they're good at or what they should like.

          Some of the science magazines are a great reading for laypeople and people who want to start reading more science.  Discovery used to be one of my favorites.  They also have a kids version of that mag, as does National Geographic.  I have a science background but it's more broad than deep, and my curiosity is wide-ranging.

          There's another magazine which we love called "New Scientist" which has very digestible and enjoyable articles.

          On Bush: "He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire." --(borrowed from) Churchill

          by joanneleon on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 08:13:23 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Its a shame whenever (none)
          teachers or other authority figures treat young people that way. I'd like to see everyone get to try their hand at academics without being subjected to a priori ridicule like that.

          Albert Einstein flunked his first few college entrance exams and required remedial help to pass.

          The world was my oyster but I used the wrong fork -Oscar Wilde

          by Agent of Fortune on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 08:46:03 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  You don't have to be brilliant (none)
          Way back in 1976 when I was at the University of Texas, I took a few astronomy classes. I realized early on that I was not nearly bright enough in physics to become an astronomer. I voiced this to one of my profs and he told me I didn't have to be a brilliant scientist to be useful to science.   Way back then he was preaching that science needed people who could explain to the ordinary person what scientists do, because the scientist are notoriously poor at doing that themselves.

          Sadly I didn't follow is advice. I ended up with a degree in cultural anthropology with a minor in computer science, inspired by a brilliant linguistics professor named Lehman.

          Bush's father should have withdrawn earlier

          by se portland on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 10:30:16 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  My God... (none)
        I was about to post that I got a call at home once from the bartender and a few of the regulars at my pub to settle an argument about whether the earth orbited the sun, or vice-versa. And I'm an English major who can't get his head around what exactly electricity is, or how it works. What little science I'd managed to pick up piecemeal somehow made me an authority with that bunch.

        What will survive of us is love

        by howth of murph on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 09:30:48 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  It seems to depend on which side of your brain (none)
          is stronger.  On verbal and history tests, I always scored in the high 90's percentile.  Always, and with minimal effort.

          Science and math were always a struggle.  Math mainly because I was one of the unfortunate's who had what was called 'New Math', which forever scarred me!

          But science? I remember thinking 'who gives a crap'?

  •  OK. The wasp surgery (none)
    just blows my mind. No higher education, no universities or labs or correct parenting with emphasis on math and science for the wasp. The wasp knows exactly where to go in the cockroaches brain and take away free will so it can be a host for the larvae, so it can willing walk as the wasp drags it to it's final destination -- a host that will not dry out and die, but stay relatively "healthy" so that it can be nutritious for the larvae growing within it.

    Dude, that just freaks me out on so many levels that I can't read the rest of this diary. I gotta digest this for awhile.

    "I did NOT have sex with that lobbyist!"

    by donailin on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 06:18:12 AM PST

    •  Ooooh. Did you have to say... (4.00)

      Antennae check -- now!

    •  I agree-incredible (none)
      Wasps are amazing and oh so creepy. Zimmer did a great job of explaining it. Great writing.
    •  Creepy indeed (none)
      I still feel a little squemish after reading that.  I wonder if they ever miss?

      " weapons of mass destruction over there, but Coretta knew and we know that there are weapons of misdirection right down here." -Rev. Lowery

      by Cecile on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 09:49:39 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  When you have recovered, (none)
      Look up the ichneumon fly (wasp), equally fascinating, or the burying beetles who cheat during the mating process, claiming to have a dead body to bury for the kids to eat when they don't.

      There is also that large wasp, Pepsis, whose charming habits of stinging a particular variety of tarantula (and only that variety) and laying her single egg inside the spider so that it can be devoured from inside while still alive were described by the entomologist, Alexander Petrunkevitch, way back in the 1950s in an article in the Scientific American.

      Now we know how comedians came up with the line, "I am not making this up!"

      "That story is not worth the paper it's rotten on"--Dorothy Parker

      by martyc35 on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 11:28:59 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Ta (4.00)
    Great diary, as most of yours usually are, Darksyde.  Thanks, to you, and to CZ.

    You might be interested that some (besides the two of you) are recognizing the importance of 'science writing'.  For instance, in Australia, the national flagship university, Australian National University, offers that field as a major in their curriculum.  I think others do, too -- perhaps Monash and NSW Technological Uni -- though I am not certain about that.

    As you say, the science writers job is a most difficult on (an no, I am not a science writer).  Bridging the gap between hard-core science and the rest of us, placing the findings in understandable terms of the non-scientist, manipulating it into digestible byte-sized chunks (forgive the pun:), is no easy task.

    Again, thanks to you both.

    Life is not a 'dress rehearsal'!

    by wgard on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 06:29:00 AM PST

  •  I love to torture my mother (4.00)
    ...with questions like: "Mom, you've seen the animals that are on the Galapagos Islands, right?" "Yes." "Which ones were on Noah's Ark?" At this point I get the 'you know you're going to hell, don't you?' look.

    If the Media had done their job, would there BE a war in Iraq?

    by carneasadaburrito on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 06:37:11 AM PST

  •  Great diary as usual... (none)
    I suspect it's difficult, but I wonder if we can get James Burke... his perspective, as I noted today, puts the creationist and Lysenkoist nonsense all in perpsective.

    And he wasn't even talking about Bush or creationists!

    "It's better to realize you're a swan than to live life as a disgruntled duck."

    by Mumon on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 06:58:16 AM PST

  •  great interview (4.00)
    I subscribe to and highly recommend Zimmer's blog! I also recommend the blog of Carl Buell, the illustrator cited in the interview: . He does unbelievably amazing work with Photoshop and a Wacom tablet...
    •  Excellent (4.00)
      link and not just a great artist, Carl Buell is a great guy and a good friend. Tomorrow, in honor of Darwin's Day, I'll have a post up with some exclusive paleo wildlife art Carl Buell did just for Kossackdom.

      Read UTI, your free thought forum

      by DarkSyde on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 07:07:01 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Michael Crichton receiving annual journalism award (none)
    from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
    Here's the NY Times article:
    Journalists like to think of themselves as presenting as accurate a picture as they can of the real world.

    The American Association of Petroleum Geologists takes a broader view. It is presenting its annual journalism award this year to Michael Crichton, the science fiction writer whose latest book, "State of Fear," dismisses global warming as a largely imaginary threat embraced by malignant scientists for their own ends.

    "It is fiction," conceded Larry Nation, communications director for the association. "But it has the absolute ring of truth."

    Essential funk: 'Impeach the President' by the Honeydrippers

    by pontechango on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 07:19:24 AM PST

    •  Crichton is NOT a journalist. (4.00)
      And IMHO not a very good novelist either. Of course Sturgeons law covers the entire genre.

      -- If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all. * Noam Chomsky

      by NCrefugee on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 07:24:46 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Tell that to Sen. Inhofe and the wingnut brigade (4.00)
        Actually, I think it's a good thing that Crichton is receiving the award.  It makes his relationship to the oil lobbyists concrete.

        Essential funk: 'Impeach the President' by the Honeydrippers

        by pontechango on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 07:31:17 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Damning with faint praise... (none)
          I think a "journalism" award from the petroleum engineers is rather meaningless, anyway. A group that calls a novel "journalism" has missed the point from the start.
      •  plus... (none)
        ...i think he's kind of a wingnut, and his books border on propaganda. he infiltrates our consciousness with cute little tales of dinosaurs and insipid tv shows. i hate the guy...

        Crime is contagious....if the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law. -- Justice Louis Brandeis

        by FemiNazi on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 09:07:15 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Oh Snap! (none)
      I heard Jon Stewart or some comedian mention this and I thought it was a JOKE.

      lol, there's actually an association of petro geo-s that have book awards???


      "I did NOT have sex with that lobbyist!"

      by donailin on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 11:30:29 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Great interview...... Evolution Yes !! (none)
    ................ I can't wait to buy Zimmer's books.  Love reading about the complexity and surreal elements of life around us and in the past ( or is it the beginning).   I can sit for hours and watch insects going about there business or focus on a small area in the garden and watch the micro action unfold.  Truly amazing world.  Looking at Buell's artwork, don't you want to be there for a day just to witness the wonders of the world at that time?  Thanks for the info on the good reads.

    "Mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillion of infidels"

                                                                      Walt Whitman        

  •  What can be done about the science channel? (none)
    I enjoy the work of Zimmer and a few other good science writers, but the uneven quality and skills in science writing drives me to screaming fits sometimes.

    The discovery channel is sometimes the best but often the worst.
    Take 3 min worth of information, add pointless dramatic music and 45min of red herrings and sometimes biblical references, end with a quick interpretation of some new discovery (couched as a question with dramatic music), sprinkle liberally with illustrations and stock photos which may or may not have bearing on the subject.

    Cue commercial.

    Does this help anyone except the advertisers bottom line?

    I find that the only thing worse is a history channel piece narrated by Spock.

    -- If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all. * Noam Chomsky

    by NCrefugee on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 07:21:35 AM PST

  •  I'm curious - how many readers work in science? (none)
    I ask because I do - I've been a practicing geologist for over 20 years.  But I don't read Discover Magazine.  I remember when it started up several years ago - it seemed like a glossy Popular Science.  I've read National Geographic off and on over the years, but it seems more of a photographic log than a science journal.

    I do read literature in my field and related fields - Environmental Science and Technology, Journal of Ground Water, various US Geological Survey and EPA publications, and lastly - environmental regulations (both state and federal).  

    After all that, picking up a Discover magazine is the last thing I'm likely to do.  I'd much rather spend my limited spare time reading about history, cooking, current events, and spending time with my family.

    So -  my question - how many practicing scientists read Discover?  I'm curious if I'm out of the ordinary, or if the magazine is more geared toward average people who have a casual interest in science but don't actually work day in and day out as scientists.

    What do you think?

    •  Too bad (none)
      It strikes me that while practicising scientists know their fields deeply, usually, there's so much going on in so many areas that it's easy not to be informed about others.  Unless one's reading....

      Not that I don't understand, mind you.

      "I desire what is good. Therefore, everyone who does not agree with me is a traitor." King George III

      by ogre on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 08:19:32 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yeah - Sometimes I feel bad about it (none)
        My field (hydrogeology) involves geology, physics, chemistry, and -- to a lesser extent -- microbiology.  So it's fairly broad to begin with.

        But my spare time is rare and valuable, so I feel more interested in pursuing non-scientific matters than scientific ones when I'm outside work.  I guess it fulfills a need in me to be more well-rounded.  

        I'm an advocate of the sciences. I give talks at local schools (elementary and high school - for some reason I can't get traction with the local middle school) as well as universities where I've been a guest speaker on applied geology.  My kids are both mad about science.  I think I'm being a good role model with respect to promoting science.  

        Oh well - no accounting for personal taste...

    •  My reading (none)
      I don't read Discover, just never grabbed me. I do read Natural History and Seed, though, and occasionally Wired (although I find that one more irritating than enlightening).

      I read a lot of science in my spare time.

  •  Damfine, DS. Damfine. (none)
    Just sayin'.

    As someone who's made a living writing and editing, it's a real joy too read your work.

    And Zimmer's.

    Pardon me; I'm going to go back and roll in it.

    "I desire what is good. Therefore, everyone who does not agree with me is a traitor." King George III

    by ogre on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 08:17:23 AM PST

  •  talk about writing... (none)
    When I read the teaser at the top:

    "Carl is a creationist alright; only in that he creates understanding."

    I thought, Uh-oh, is this guy a Creationist with a Big "C"? from this phrase... and he was all the time working in Discovery Mag, ohhh no..... but wait, ohhh it's a joke......Whew: Oh, so he is a Scientist who creates understanding, not a creationist... Gosh. Oh. Yes, it got my attention, DarkSyde, but for the wrong, um, right, um oh well fergitabawit... :)

    Ok, now I'll read the very interesting interview article!



  •  Great post (4.00)
    Yes, we need more people like Zimmer.

    I still ache for the loss of this guy...

    •  Indeed (none)
      I have read a couple of his books (reading Cosmos now), and have started passing them around to friends who are normally not science inclined. Sagan was one of a kind.

      "The next time everyone will pay for it equally, and there won't be any more Chosen Nations, or any Others. Poor bastards all." ~The Boomer Bible

      by just another vet on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 09:05:32 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Carl Sagan -- We need to hear his message today... (none)
      Here was a scientist who was a combination of intellect, leader, change-agent, ethicist, humanitarian, sexy, a true rock star of science...! :)

      "A central lesson of science is that to understand complex issues (or even simple ones), we must try to free our minds of dogma and to guarantee the freedom to publish, to contradict, and to experiment. Arguments from authority are unacceptable."
      --Carl Sagan



      (Didn't George Deutsch have to read Cosmos to be part of NASA? Hmph.)

  •  Awesome (none)
    DarkSyde.  I really, really enjoy your diaries.  Lots of multi-faceted great stuff in this one.  I love how you tie things together - my mind just rejoices when people do that well.  

    Also, the access that we're seeing, interviews with well known experts and such, in dkos diaries is a trend I am very excited about.  And it's the kind of access that's earned, not purchased, isn't it?

    A good friend of mine and I sometimes talk about what and who can save us, save the world, so to speak, and although we're a bit biased I think we are right in saying that it will be the scientists.    Not just because of knowledge and talent either - it's the attitude and mindset that's even more important.

    On Bush: "He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire." --(borrowed from) Churchill

    by joanneleon on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 08:25:28 AM PST

  •  Science Obsession (none)
    Several responses to blogs before, I engaged in an interchange with another responder who concluded I ought to enter my own blog. Surprisingly for a blog site, this advice was offered not in contempt but suggestion. Not knowing how to enter a blog, I offer the following blog response.

    Underlying the American obsession with science reporting is Logical Positivism, the post-WWI Eastern European intellectual response to losing the war. There being no good reason for a war killing and maiming millions, concluded was Robert Louis Stevenson and Sigmund Freud were correct. Humans are schizophrenic, both rational and irrational.  Needed is for reason to suppress passion, this entrusted to the new priesthood of the scientists, and the new deaconhood of the science reporters.

    Reason manifests itself in understanding and conforming to the laws of nature. Science is the tool whereby this is achieved, the scientist as the true priest. To know a peaceful life, one must be aware of scientific discoveries, identifying the natural laws by which one ought to live. Ushered in is the science reporter, charged with the grave responsibility of informing the public of the discoveries by which they must live.

    Unreason manifests itself in misunderstanding and defiance of the laws of nature.  Liberal and fine arts are the tools whereby this is achieved, the humanists and artists as the anti-Christs. To know a tumultuous life, one is aware of the myths of the artists, identifying the confusion by which one ought not to live. Ushered out is the humanities and art reporter, dismissed with the odious approbrium of misinforming the public of the confusion by which they must not live.

    Fascination by participants on this site with science, and commensurate disdain with the liberal and fine arts is indicative of the absorption of this thinking amongst the left wing in the U.S. Indeed the ignorance of and down right disrespect for history, literature, philosophy, art often exhibited by participants on this site amazes me.

    Europe gave up positivism after World War II, concluding a second spasm of madness revealed not Jekyll and Hyde, but the death of God. There is no natural order. Humans are cast into a wasteland, the desert surrounding the tree of humanly constructed belief providing the only shade which composes the simple set of "Waiting for Godot."

    All is nominal, a product of human definition. No joy is manifest here, the human being imperfect. Life is a struggle to build an always incomplete order, failure invariant. So it is I have concluded what distinguishes the sciences from the liberal and fine arts is certainty versus ambiguity.

    Tying itself to Newton's mechanism, science emulates the certainty of mathematics, imposing precision on an ever variant empirical world.  Presumed is the law of the excluded middle, either A or B. Tying itself to Aristotle's organicism, the liberal and fine arts emulate the uncertainty of description, not imposing precision on an ever variant empirical world. Presumed is disjunction, both A and B.

    Representative of the liberal and fine arts is Hamlet's, "To be or not to be, that is the qustion," not the scientist's "To be or not to be, that is the fact."  In a weak moment, even the scientist can acknowledge the disjunctive, the physicist Schroedinger concluding his famous cat is both alive and dead, not either alive or dead.

    Popular manifestation of the scientific model is the humorless technician exhibited by Joe Friday in Dragnet and the forensic scientists in the innumerable CSI television series. Much to my surprise, it is this image which at least many participants on this site find as the ideal.

    Why seems to me a good topic for discussion.

    •  asdf (none)
      At a panel at the 2005 WorldCon in Glasgow, the CSI guys got a bit of a slagging off for misrepresenting the science, and I can see that. It seems to me that a lot of the fault there is down to dramatic necessity: things happen too quickly, the results are too certain, things which in real-life are fuzzy black and white micrographs are presented in glorious 3-D technicolour. But I don't see that as so much of a problem, except insofar as it's a problem with TV in general.

      Where CSI gets full points from me is that they do a good job of showing the method of doing science. They will look at the evidence, come up with a hypothesis, test it, discard it if it doesn't work, then look for more evidence and try another hypothesis. It's this attitude that worth putting up with a bit of flash-and-dazzle, I think.

    •  But (none)
      you make the fundamental mistake of the immature technologist. You pose the problem as a dilemma (a false dilemma too) - contrasting two world views, when in fact there are many. Even within the liberal arts, the Classicists have a different worldview than the Medievalists or modern Feminists or Marxists or Semioticians or lord knows what else. Not to mention that the social sciences occupy a broad continuum between the two camps you describe. Even a single field like psychology runs the gamut from cognitive scientists to Jungians and Freudians who deal more in abstraction and fantasy than concrete reality.

      Science to some extent and technology to a much larger extent, when you practice it, is an exercise in dealing with ambiguity and imperfect knowledge and teasing out, not certainty, but something more akin to what Dewey termed "warranted assertability".

      CSI (since I've just recently started watching the reruns faithfully) ascribes certainty to the evidence, but that's only the beginning of a search for meaning in a lot of the plot lines, and some of the plots hinge precisely on the ambiguity of what the "certain" evidence really means. That's what makes the show interesting to me. In fact CSI and its spawn are called "police procedure" shows, and the root of "procedure" is same as that of "process", which is the pre-occupation of a lot of the liberal and fine arts.

      Just because the fundamental building block of computers is the highly deterministic binary bit, which does exclude the middle (and even that's oversimplified at the bit level) doesn't mean my screen can't display more shades of color than I'm capable of discriminating.

      We all go a little mad sometimes - Norman Bates

      by badger on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 11:25:37 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Huh? (none)
      So it is I have concluded what distinguishes the sciences from the liberal and fine arts is certainty versus ambiguity.

      The joy of discovery and the joy of creation are similar, two of the many approaches to reducing the marvellous world surrounding us into digestible morsels.  Both seek to understand, but  understanding implies an attempt to master.

      What the members of this forum rail against is the perhaps the desire to do away with the marvellous in the would around us, to make the world conform to what some limited intellect feels it ought to be, instead of expanding our intellect to comprehend the miraculous.

      Mark Twain -Let me make the superstitions of a nation and I care not who makes its laws or its songs either.

      by Kingsmeg on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 11:25:51 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Holy crap batman! (none)
      We could discuss this as a philosophical dilemma, but screw that.
      I was a music major in college, and damn near aced the verbal sat. A liberal arts degree has not barred me from an appreciation of science, or the scientific method. I now diagnose networks and teach people how to use their computers and software

      The philosophers of the Enlightenment and their disdain for superstition, may seem to you to be turning away from God, but for all we can know, God breathed a sigh of relief when we stopped burning each other at the stake for imagined violations of our ancestors misunderstanding of the natural world.

      Democrats are not anymore prone to either science of art than anyone else. In my experience, getting an artist to the polls is much harder than getting a field hand or a college student.

      -- If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all. * Noam Chomsky

      by NCrefugee on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 12:37:37 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you (none)
    I've forwarded far and wide.

    And remember Darwin Day is tomorrow

    Here in the Colorado mountains, the Central Colorado Humanists are having a Darwin Day program at 2 pm, Salida Steam Plant

  •  Not really related.... (none)
    But I just read an article on Ken Ham and since I know DarkSyde writes about knowing your Creationist I thought he might want to check this one out.

    I wrote my own commentary here.

    "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." Seneca

    by Ralfast on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 08:53:48 AM PST

  •  Thanks, Dark Syde... (none)
    Great interview.  I wasn't familiar with Carl Zimmer, but will add him to my list of science writers to consult with my 5-year old science obsessed son.  He gives me hope, though my husband reports seeing some sort of "we're taking back the dinosaurs" bumper sticker next to a christian fish on a parent's car at his school last week.

    In fact, thanks to my son, I've re-discovered my own personal fascination with how the world works.  Taking the journey of exploration in the fields of biology, physics, astronomy, and all the sub-fields therein, has been a true joy for me.

    Another popularizer I enjoy is Joel Achenbach.  Perhaps because he writes with the tone of "whoa! cool!" which is basically how I respond to this stuff as well.  

    When the world was born, it was born on fire, and I'm watching it burn.--RealWest

    by hillaryk on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 09:17:56 AM PST

  •  Lingua Franca of Science (none)
    Yes, definitely a great interview. Also, I agree about the need to speak a Lingua Franca of science, regardless of the branch.

    "It's hard to get a sense of how well we, as a country, speak that  lingua franca."

    One of the things that has always frustrated me about science writing is the way that verbs are unintentionally mis-used. For example:

    Fish acquired air bladders to [insert phrase]. In this case "acquire" and "to" create a misconception that the fish saw the need for something and grew air bladders do satisfy that need.  Another one: Giraffes got longer necks to reach the leaves in the tops of trees. Again, that misconception of purposive development.

    However, in reading about George Deutsch and his clones, putting theory in front of Big Bang or any explanation of a long development time, there is a deliberate mis-use of words. You all know the diff between fact, theory, hypothesis, and the need for a theory to be falsifiable, I won't go into that.

    But the lingua franca has to include a consistent manner of speaking about development that clarifies the process that evolution describes.

    This discipline, like the political discipline in progressive and liberal writing to be concise and persistent, is essential to scientific writing, particularly in the areas of explanations of physics, astrophysics, paleogeology, biological evolution, etc.

    So just as there is a Strunk & White for term papers, a George Lakoff for Progressive communicators, is there a style manual (other than APA-formatting style type manuals) that presents that Lingua Franca?


    •  Terminology (none)
      For those interested in more about the misuse of language that unclebucky describes, the technical term for it is the "pathetic fallacy"; there are a number of articles and web sites dealing with it.  It's an extremely easy trap to fall into (I can think of at least one site advocating against it that actually falls into it) but it's very important to be on guard for it.  All too many people's impression of certain aspects of "science" really reflects medieval theological notions such as Natural Law and the Great Chain of Being rather than actual science, and the use of language that implies purpose and intent in natural phenomena just contributes to that confusion.  In a trivial sense it's true that everything happens for a reason, but it's not true that those reasons hold any special meaning for us or even particularly concern us.
      •  Reasons (none)
        Right you are, ebohlman! See, that is the biggest problem, putting reason into science. My take on it is there are certain wingnut people out there who are technically "blasphemers." How is that? They are trying to define (haw haw) the Infinite Diety... How can they....? Well, they do. So part of this faulty definition is "reason for being." This should be no problem for scientists and their communications, except that faulty concepts creep into the very language: "up in heaven", "sunrise, sunset...", "up, down..., east, west...", "before the Big Bang...", etc. That is why a lingua franca for science needs to be standardized.

        Anyway, I nickname my Diety: "The Holy Randomizer." I like that, because that nickname evokes an image of what God is to Our Universe. And the Normal Curve is an apt symbol for the Diety. You see random distributions in osmosis, leaf veins, random differences in populations, and cosmic events. The other reason is that God and Random might irk one of the Bible Thumpers. Also, Vonnegut's "Diety" is the closest in terms of purpose: "God does not [officially] care." He just got his 3-D iPod and he is kinda busy. Hang on, I will make a cartoon, wait... :))

        So, right you are ebohlman, we have to be on guard for this medieval theology (which was worse in terms of science than 1000 years before, when Erastosthanes "devised a system of latitude and longitude, and who was the first person to have computed the size of the Earth.") by checking the cause/result nature of our scientific writings.

        Now, where is that Style Manual?? :)



  •  He Teaches Kids To Attack Evolution (none)
    He Teaches Kids to Attack Evolution
    By Stephanie Simon
    Ken Ham tells thousands of children to treat geology, paleontology and evolutionary biology as sinister lies
  •  It's not post-modernism: it's the American creed (none)
    "Everyone has a right to their opinion." What idea can be more American than that?

    American culture is deeply anti-ellitist, and scientists are an elite. The cultural contradictions of America have finally come out into the open.

    The difference between a liberal and a progressive is that a progressive thinks for himself, whereas a liberal lets the Republicans do his thinking for him.

    by Alexander on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 10:03:58 AM PST

    •  what is post-modernism? (none)
      This term is thrown around a lot but I never understand what it means, in or out of context.
      •  On Post Modernism (none)
        Good question. Modernism has become identified as mathematical/scientific constructivism, artistically manifested in movements such as cubism. Assumed is a matho-mechanical reality which science reconstructs. This is what I assert in a preceding response to this blog as the European response to WWI.

        Subsequently, quoting from my above response, "Europe gave up positivism after World War II, concluding a second spasm of madness revealed not Jekyll and Hyde, but the death of God. There is no natural order. Humans are cast into a wasteland, the desert surrounding the tree of humanly constructed belief providing the only shade which composes the simple set of 'Waiting for Godot.'

        All is nominal, a product of human definition. No joy is manifest here, the human being imperfect. Life is a struggle to build an always incomplete order, failure invariant." Post-modernism is the manifestation of this post-WWII perspective. Jacques Derrida is a good representative of this perspective, emphasizing ambiguity rather than certainty.

      •  Po-mo is the dabbling with some philosophical... (none)
        ideas by literary "theorists". The basic idea is that there is no objective point of view, that any expression of a putative fact is just the expression of an arbitrary perspective.

        While po-mo as a "movement" began in the 1980s, when it comes to substance, there is nothing in it that was not said already in the 19th century, mostly by Nietzsche. It is the result of people in English departments having virtually no philosophical education. A number of years ago, it was impossible to get a job in an English department of a university without being able to write using po-mo jargon, but I don't know if that's still the case.

        The difference between a liberal and a progressive is that a progressive thinks for himself, whereas a liberal lets the Republicans do his thinking for him.

        by Alexander on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 10:45:00 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Thank goodness, (none)
          Po-Mo seems to have died a quick and dusty death in academia, at least on this side of the pond. Having suffered through a couple of conferences where those abominable papers were presented, I will say that complicated ideas can be discussed in language that is not mandatorily incomprehensible.

          However, for anyone who prefers to wallow in the dust, grasping at the motes in his/her own eyes, here is a little treatise that will surely cure those Po-Mo urges.

          "That story is not worth the paper it's rotten on"--Dorothy Parker

          by martyc35 on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 12:00:33 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  Postmodern? --I like this explanation... (none)
        This is what Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus (2004, Oxford University Press) says (p. 694).  

        WORD NOTE postmodern

        Postmodern is among the most widely employed critical terms of our time, mainly because it can mean just about anything. Moreover, it neatly suggests that its user is learned, widely read, up to date on the latest in literary theory, and, in general, really cool, not to say--ahem--edgy. In essence postmodern describes the kind of self-aware writing or painting that doesn't take itself completely seriously, that recognizes with a wink that it's just writing or painting. In some ways, postmodern is an offshoot of Brechtian drama's "alienation" effect, in which the actor may address the audience, move in and out of character, regard the entire play and his role in it with world-weary irony. Similarly, the postmodern author deliberately undercuts the smooth surface of his narrative and by somehow standing back and commenting on the action prevents the reader from "losing himself in the story." Unfortunately, this isn't really very new. Many classic novelists have done this, notably Cervantes and Sterne, not to mention such twentieth-century masters as James Joyce. Just as modernism has been called a variant of romanticism, so postmodernism maybe simply a late form of modernism. Whatever the case, unless you're going to define it clearly, don't bandy the word about. MD

        ( MD is identifed as Michael Dirda on the book cover.)

      •  A long response (none)
        That's a tough one because it's one of those terms that has really suffered from so much popular use without understanding that it's a different term in every field and a STUPID term when used by your average conservative critic of it.  is a decent discussion, though it's a lot to wade through.

        Some basic elements of postmodernism: a reaction to AND continuation of modernism, which itself was sort of the point where the enlightenment finally turned in on itself.  Modernism still had a very strong concept of stylistic unity (in the arts...the idea that every person has a style, and that talking about that style as all one piece of identity is productive) and unitary identity (the idea that the most fundamental way we can talk about people is as individuals).  But it recognized that reality as we experienced it was fragmented (not everything seems to add up), a lot of forces (like economics or psychology) seem to drive our actions, and the universe is not possible to predict completely.

        POST-modernism keeps the "fragmented" and "not possible to predict completely" parts, raises the ante on them, and tosses out the unity of the individual or the concept or the movement.

        So, in philosophy and criticism, we get post-structuralism, which says that there are all kinds of forces and tendencies and movements in control of people and events and literary works, and that even picking one as primary is just a question of point of view.  Instead it's about showing that the more you want to pin down a style or a cause for something, the more the answer turns out to be about how you asked the question than what's actually underneath. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, and some people see it as an expression of his Jazz Age experience, but is the individual person the only thing important in how that work got together?  What about prohibition--it certainly made the plot about bootleggers possible.  What about the oppression of people of color?  You can learn a lot about that oppression by reading in between the lines of a book about the Jazz age.  And saying "the book is REALLY about the failure of the American Dream" already presupposes that books have to have something they're REALLY about.  Postmodernism prefers to realize that the Gatsby you read is not going to be the same as that of someone with a very different background--just witness the number of very different sects based on what they each say are the correct interpretation of the Bible.

        In MAKING art, it's about this idea of categories not being distinct; essentially, postmodern artists think all these distinctions between high and low art, or even the idea that one person should have one style (if you encountered early and late beatles albums, or old rap Outkast and "Hey Ya!", and nobody told you it was the same people, would you really think they had to come from one person?  probably not.) are all artificial.  So you can mix and match, parody high with low and vice versa, put things into new contexts (hip-hop's use of sampling is about as popular a postmodern art as exists), and realize that there's nothing sacred about the idea of an individual's personal experiences turning into great art that we consider "fully-realized"--it's about artists playing with the tools they have at hand, and sometimes the very idea of following or fighting tradition just isn't the question to ask.

        In history, it's realizing that nobody can write a book that's about all the important events, because -- hey, wait a second -- who gets to decide "important?", and that you are NECESSARILY picking some kind of agenda, even if it's not one that's commonly considered "political."

        For the human psyche, postmodernism asks: why are we so concerned with the functioning of people on an individual level, rather than as aggregates or even as competing parts of a personality?  Freud says you have a subconscious, but who says they're all just one why does that part always get treated like it's "the REAL you", covered up by "surface" reactions.  After all, the part people see has a lot of effect on my life.  And the answer isn't just to flip it around, but to realize that either way are just pretty arbitrary ways of slicing up the cake.  Ever met someone who seems completely reasonable in religion but not in politics (or insert any other two fields of thought, or situations)?  A postmodern approach suggests that of COURSE people are going to be contradictory in themselves, and you don't have to say, like Freud does, that SECRETLY THEY RECONCILE BECAUSE OF SOME ROOT CAUSE OR CONFLICT.

        So to sum it all up (though by now, you should realize that even "summing it up" is a bit tough), pomo is a way of looking at culture that recognizes that we box things up into categories pretty arbitrarily, especially the category of "a single human being", and that even if we try to be objective, even the category of OBJECTIVE breaks down to some extent, because we already decided ahead of time what kind of information is going to be the tie-breaker (is the dictionary what decides what a word means, or is the important thing the way everyone you know uses it?  Or if you said "both", how you balance the two is still a personal call, or more precisely a call that you've been taught to make in certain ways by your friends and parents and schools).

        This is NOT to say, as conservative critics claim, that knowledge is so fraught with uncertainty we shouldn't jump out of the way of a speeding car, or oppose politicians with unpalatable agendas, or believe that science provides a highly descriptive model of the universe that gets better all the time.  It's that we should recognize the times when our understanding is provisional, and the times when it's ALWAYS going to be provisional, (which is most of the time), and only lean on what we know as far as it'll actually withstand.

        •  dadafountain Not! (none)
          Bravo, well done! Indeed you do not spew forth the nonsense which Dada thought at the fount of reality. Sadly other commentaries insist on demeaning that which they do not understand instead of seeking to understand. Ah, but is this not the way of the anonymous blog?
          •  There is a difference (none)
            between demeaning what you do not understand and understanding what you have examined and nevertheless have chosen to reject.

            I read Jacques Derrida, and I also had more exposure to semiotics and all those French guys like Claude Levi-Strauss than I care to recall. And I studied self-referential literature, too. Nabokov was a master at that, but he didn't need post-modern criticism to imagine it into being. He just did it. The Po-Mo guys just came sniffing around afterward.

            I studied Ferdinand de Saussure, too, and I liked what he had to say--such as one of those nice (in the old sense of the word) dichotomies like language has a tendency to resist change and yet always be mutable. Good observation, but a little old now.

            I have heard a whole lot of crap from deconstructionists, though, and no one can tell me I'm just too stupid to understand them. The ones I heard were parodists, trying to sound like they knew what they were talking about because they had to survive in a publish or perish world and hoped they sounded like post-modern deconstructionists so that someone would give them tenure. They were phony and snobbish at the same time, which is an unflattering combination. They seemed to assume that if you didn't want to speak their speak-style, you must be empty in the head. I kept an open mind until I was convinced that they had nothing to offer me. Sorry, a waste of my time, to use a metaphor that George Lakoff might like. There is a difference between an open mind and an empty head, too.

            I also remember when Freudian analysis hit Lit. Crit. in the 1950s. Thankfully, that fad came and went pretty quickly, too. Poor Woody Allen. That Freudian crap ruined his life:-).

            "That story is not worth the paper it's rotten on"--Dorothy Parker

            by martyc35 on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 05:44:42 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

      •  Postmodernism... (none) a movement built on the notion that all knowledge is subjective, that there is no objective truth, and that all fields of human endeavour, including science, are intrinsically a product of their parent culture. The one, sole, notable exception to this relativism is Post Modernism itself, which is surprising immune to Post-Modern analysis. I wonder why that is...?
        •  Because you can touch something (none)
          and when you do, physically, that is real on both the subjective and objective levels.

          Reality, the verb, is an ongoing moment-by-moment process by which we make the world and the universe real. Don't get sucked in by the noun, reality, for it can and does change.

          The world and our universe are not an either-or concept. They are BOTH. And you just can't ignore that, period.

          So, who stood to gain from a subjective world? Look around: it should be fucking obvious.

          Energy and information are the primary elements of the universe.

          by walkshills on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 08:31:26 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Bush as parasite & Rovian mechanism (none)
    Parasites are also one of the most important engines driving the evolution of their hosts.

    There are moments when I see that the Constitutional ideal as the primary organism and our long history as a nation in fighting parasites - secessionists, railroad magnates, banking tycoons, multinational corporatists, Bushco - who have developed successful strategies for surviving within the skin of the host, the Constitutional nation we have developed.

    There is the gnawing suspicion that this last parasite is insidiously working to re-engineer the whole wiring of the brain and cognitive function of the host. The concerns of the parasite and those of the hosts are entirely different conceptions of the world despite being intimately interlinked.

    This helps define the chasm between the two entities, but if offers no solace or solution at this time.

    The dark side implication of the quoted statement is that at some point the host will no longer evolve if the parasitic invader overruns the basic survival structure of the host, destroying key mechanisms; both could become dancing zombies, or worse, altogether extinct, one of many adaptations which didn't work out.

    How easy is it to forget that protecting against parasites is always a key function of an organism? Parasites don't have anything else to do all day long (or night) but to steal whatever energy they need to sustain themselves. If there is a Rovian mechanism, that is it.  

    Energy and information are the primary elements of the universe.

    by walkshills on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 10:05:04 AM PST

    •  I would like to see.. (none)
      I would like to see if this concept could be expanded on. Perhaps by some of the scientist here as well as the philosophers.

      I cannot think of anything that negates it as a valid theory off the cuff.

      -- If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all. * Noam Chomsky

      by NCrefugee on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 12:51:06 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Thanks for the insight, NCrefugee (none)
          I've seen this vision in several forms, but realize how difficult it is to translate such a philosophic statement into a plausible framework. I would invite anyone to expand and add to the thesis. I have also tried to conceive this in terms of individual maturation, which seems straight-forward, but isn't.

          We are lucky that we have such a well-defined concept as the Constitution to key to; that is, unlike so many nations in history, we are not just a function of the powerful interplay of competing forces, military, economic and religious. We have a functional basic document.

          There is also the hard fact that the full expression of the Constitution has been an incredible struggle since its creation. And it's still not fulfilled. The dark elemental parts of our society which have countered that are alive and growing stronger.

        With everything that is happening right now in the USA, the Constitution may never be fulfilled.

        Quite frankly, I never thought I would make that statement.

        And NC, I hope you find your way home, too.  

        Energy and information are the primary elements of the universe.

        by walkshills on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 08:23:40 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Parasitic Repugs (none)
    Thanks DarkSyde; I always enjoy and read your work. Nice interview.

    Though I must say I hate parasites of any sort it's great to know that cockroaches have something to bother them too..ha

  •  My son was apparently more (none)
    knowledgeable than half the people in this country at the age of 4.  He could also name the planets, put them in the proper order, in the proper color and size, and tell you numerous facts about them.
  •  one last bit (none)
    The simplest formulation, at least in some fields:

    MODERNISM:  "Oh no! There's nothing holding everything together!  The center cannot hold!"

    POSTMODERNISM"  "Hooray!  There's nothing holding everything together!  The center cannot hold!"

  •  Zimmer Books at the Library (none)
    After reading this article, I called my library, which had almost all the Zimmer books on the shelf. I ordered them and a few hours later had them in my hot little hands.

    I am looking at the Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins. Spectacular book.

    Text is very clear, and in a cursory reading of page 124 on Neanderthaler adaptations to survival, the cause/effect relations read "right" for science (who am I to review it, but it's a nice reading text).

    The images he had selected make this an inspirational book. The reconstructions of the Hobbit people and the Neanderthals look like some of my neighbors! :D

    Thanks DarkSyde for that once cryptic description that first got my attenion. :)


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