I had the great pleasure of hearing Hemant speak this weekend, the Pastafarians of USC brought him in to talk about, strangely enough, math. It turns out that Hemant has some sort of day job that doesn’t have anything to do with being an atheist.
How is this relevant to a secular group? Well, I will tell you. He gave a talk about how, while atheists tend to be very alert about bad thinking trying to take over science or history education, we were less aware that there was a lot of bad thinking in teaching math. I was surprised myself, perhaps because it just never occured to me. I started college as a math major with the intention of getting a BS/MS in 5 years. And I ended up in Film, so, whatever that’s worth.
Hemant made some points about how math is taught, which is that teachers give kids formulas without explaining how they got to those formulas. See, to me, as a very lazy person, I only ever remembered like 3 formulas and then figured everything else out based on those formulas. Apparently, that’s actually the better way to learn math because you understand how it works, not just that this formula does this.
I admit that I was being a total teacher’s pet and I knew the answers to everything. I tried to resist, I swear I did, but it was math and I like it! We talked about polyominoes, which is like dominos and tetris — you have to put a square next to another square. I’ll put a picture.
We got assigned a task to determine how many different shapes you can make with 5 blocks and draw them all. I won a free copy of his book, because I am super awesome.
We also learned statistics from World Series of Poker, that standardized tests only test how well you take standardized tests, math teachers aren’t taught to think or teach critically. Hemant gave some cool examples of practical things he did in the classroom to teach different concepts — my favorite was memorizing the names of angles in parallel lines and transversals by having kids play DDR and jump into the correct position based on the names given.
It all boils down to math is awesome, math should be more about open-ended questions and applying critical thinking, and teaching math should be engaging not boring.
First up this morning was a marginal breakfast. I don’t understand this — why do people put cooked fruit into things that don’t need cooked fruit. Cooked fruit is not chocolate. It does not make things better. It makes them measurably much worse. Croissants don’t need jelly on the inside. It’s gross.
George Hrab opened the conference with a brilliant song, the best part of which was the direction to make sure that any questions you direct at a speaker are actually questions, not opinions, speeches, or comments on the speaker. It was pretty funny.
Michael Shermer was first up and I literally don’t remember what he talked about. I was not awake and not that interested, so I guess it just didn’t stick.
Then there was a panel, Skepticism and TV. I got over the fact that *I* wasn’t on the panel, but I have to say it is really hard to look at these panels of old white guys and think that they’ve made the effort to get more than one point of view. When they found out Adam Savage wasn’t coming, they had the opportunity to try to get a minority or a woman on the panel, and they didn’t. Which was a shame because everyone on the panel agreed with one another and didn’t have a lot of useful advice on how to get more skepticism on TV.
Here’s the thing, when you don’t have young people talking about what’s going on, you miss stuff. If you don’t have women, or mothers, or people of color, or people from different socio-economic levels, you don’t hear about whether people are actually being exposed to skepticism on TV.
Did the old white men mention any of the children’s programming out there? No, not at all. And that’s probably the place where you see the most skepticism incorporated into fiction storylines. Look at Dora the Explorer, or any of the other investigative type shows that are aimed at kids. Those teach critical thinking and why don’t they think that that qualifies as skepticism on TV. Yes, you watch Bones or whatever and it’s absurd and not related to real critical thinking, but prime time adult television is not the only thing on TV. There’s more than the Discovery Channel.
They also talked a lot about editing and how to get around being edited in ways they don’t want to be. I’ll just say that it’s almost impossible to get by a determined editor. They’re tricksy people.
Yes, so I took some issues with that panel.
Next up was Lawrence Krauss. A few months ago, Krauss made some statements in support of his friend who was an admitted rapist of underage girls. There was a fair amount of backlash, and threats to walk out on him at TAM. If that happened, I couldn’t tell. There’s so many people in and out of the room anyway, it wouldn’t have been noticed, but also I think that elevatorgate has so overshadowed this that no one quite cared as much.
He gave a history lesson on Richard Feynman, which was OK, but I wasn’t that interested in a biography.
Then Jamy Ian Swiss led James Randi and two others in a recap of Project Alpha, which was when two magicians pretend to have Uri Gelleresque powers for several years and the lab believed them despite the fact that it was very obvious what they were doing. Embarrassing for science, but kind of hilarious for magicians. It shows how lame psychics are.
Eugenie Scott was up next, but I didn’t listen to that talk, I looked at books and walked around. I wasn’t very interested in Climate Change Denial and I was tired and wanted to move around. I’m trying to get over feeling guilty for not going to every talk, but it’s uncomfortable to sit all day.
And then it was lunch — I sat with the amazing Greta Christina and several other really cool people. Elevatorgate was the primary topic, but what I liked that we talked about was how the movement needs to be getting people in disadvantaged circumstances involved. So many people who are in the movement are there because they are the ones who can afford it. If you look at where the large populations of black people are, they are also poor places with strong religious communities. South Carolina and Mississippi have huge percentage of black people in their population, and those are places where being an atheist is not necessarily safe but more importantly, these are places where there are problems facing the community that are so much more pressing than religion. Teen Pregnancy, education, jail time. These are problems that the skeptic community should be working on, because we can’t get people to participate if they’re struggling to live. Let’s get people in better life circumstances so that they can spend time on education and learning to be scientifically literate. And it’s not just the South, of course, it’s inner city, it’s Detroit, it’s Compton.
Ok, sorry, off the soapbox.
After lunch, it was just pure uninterrupted awesomeness.
Jennifer Michael Hecht spoke first, and she decided she was going to try to talk about everything that ever happened ever and that she would accomplish this by talking super fast. She talked a lot about the history of skepticism, which is the focus of her very excellent book Doubt, A History. She was fantastic. She talked about the movie The Road to Wellville, and said that a lot of people who go to quacks do it because, essentially, they want the attention. Though she also implied that women could get a happy ending from a chiropractor.
They had to cut her off before she was finished, and then it was time for PZ, who was hilarious. Every slide had a picture of either squid or octopi, which I feel is necessary. He was talking about the biology of aliens. I think his most interesting point was that there are several highly intelligent animals on earth that are self-aware that we still don’t know how to communicate with, yet we’re seeking out aliens.
He was awesome, and was followed by Pamela Gay, who I didn’t particularly like. Not that she wasn’t good, she was calling for more funding and emphasis on science. What I didn’t like was her criticism of the skeptic movement as scattered, as though the emphasis of everyone on the movement should be on science. The fact of the matter is that not everyone can care a lot about every cause — outrage fatigue. Science education is important, and I’m for it and happy to support it, but it’s not what I’m particularly interested in. It’s not the cause that I’m going to spend time on. That’s not because I’m scattered, it’s because my time is spent elsewhere. I appreciate her enthusiasm for the cause, but it’s not a very useful criticism.
And then it was time for the best thing I’ve ever seen ever. I can’t wait for it to be on YouTube, because I want to watch it again. It was a panel on the future of humans in space. It was moderated by Phil Plait, and had Bill Nye the Science Guy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Pamela Gay, and Lawrence Krauss. NdGT started off real quiet and then he jumped in like a ninja and started kicking ass. He thinks that we don’t spend enough money on science and we should double NASA’s budget and do everything. The bank bailout was more money than everything we spent on NASA in its fifty year existence. Lawrence Krauss sort of poo-pooed the idea of humans in space, and Neil deGrasse Tyson bitch slapped him, with major assistance from Bill Nye.
NdGT totally dominated, and I didn’t want it to ever end. I would say it was impossible to follow, except it was Tyson himself who was following it up, so he was fine. He is a great speaker — he’s funny, he’s passionate, and he knows what he’s talking about. Once again, it was simply so amazing that it’s difficult to sum up. His focus was on stupid things that people believe that aren’t true. I told Jarrett that Bill Nye and NdGT should be in a buddy cop movie together, he tweeted it, and the Jen McCreight saw that NdGT in his talk was going to go on his Twitter feed and she quickly posted it AND he read it outloud. Hysterically funny. I want it to happen.
And when NdGT was finished, that was it for the day. I went back to my room for a while, came back up while Jennifer Michael Hecht was doing autographs. I sat in a throne-like chair beside her while she fielded people who wanted her signature on her books. It was entertaining sitting on that side of the table. After that, I went down to eat. Saw Heidi Anderson briefly and then got ready for Penn’s Party. I hung out with Jen McCreight and some people before the party and then it was time for Donuts and Bacon.
Penn has a band called the No God Band — they’re decent, and the party was essentially a concert for them. They did a lot of covers and some original songs as well. I ended up hanging with Jen some more, as well as Hemant and a few others. I saw Christina Rad briefly, and that was fun. It was really loud and I was really tired, so I ended up bailing after about an hour and a half. Then I collapsed in exhaustion because my legs could no longer hold me up.
AND THAT WAS FRIDAY!
When I was an adolescent, I really wanted to be Mr. Spock. I thought that being hyper-logical and unemotional would be far better than being hyper-logical and hyper-emotional. I think there is a particular kind of self-loathing that kids develop when they’re far more intellectually developed than they are emotionally developed, like I was, and it can result in an extreme distrust of emotions and things that are not strictly logical. It took me going through and coming out of an extreme depression to realize that treating emotions as the enemy wasn’t only kind of stupid, but it was also really unhealthy.
I think that there is a lot of this in the atheist/skeptic community. I don’t want to fall into the fallacy that women are more compassionate than men, but I do think that the lack of large numbers of women doesn’t help. The association of emotions with women is so strong that it seems many people are uncomfortable with thinking of emotions as important empirically, or important in comparison with logic. It’s not just men who don’t want to be seen as weak, women are also afraid of being seen as stereotypically female and not as rational as men.
Today, Hemant at The Friendly Atheist posted about a woman who, at the hands of her religious upbringing, was taught to be so ashamed of her body that she was unable to breastfeed because she was so uncomfortable with her breasts. Hemant made a real effort to give a feminist response – women have the right to choose what to do with their bodies and it’s not his place to make those decisions for someone else – but he also said “It’s ultimately her choice, but I think I’d feel more comfortable about her decision (as if it matters what I think) if there was a more scientific rationale behind it.”
I recognize in blogging you often say things off the cuff that, given a little more thought, you probably would have worded differently, but I have to say I was a bit flabbergasted that Hemant would dismiss dealing with trauma as lacking in “scientific rationale”, as though any decision made based on emotion is necessarily irrational and therefore bad. And I should say I’ve no reason to think that he wants to change the language, but I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. I love Hemant, I love his blog, I can only assume the best of him, so I hope that the way he worded it wasn’t the way he meant it.
I feel like the atheist/skeptic community does a lot of dismissing of people’s feelings. It happens whenever a woman brings up feeling uncomfortable, underrepresented, or underserved by the community. It happens whenever people point out the small number of minorities, or being uncomfortable by perceived racism. There’s something about emotions that seems to really bother people. If nothing else, I think it isn’t useful to dismiss someone’s feelings as invalid, no matter how wrong you’re sure they are. Perhaps it’s too difficult a line to walk, but treating people’s emotions as something they should be embarrassed by isn’t only cruel, it doesn’t serve any useful purpose. Ideas and behavior are things worth critiquing, but someone’s emotions cannot be invalid, you cannot argue with someone that they can’t feel something, that’s not how it works. How they respond to their feelings? Yes, that’s fair game, but that they have feelings at all isn’t something you get to say is bad.
I can’t help but look at the traditional associations of emotion with women and children and logic with men and be a bit bothered by all this from a feminist perspective. I don’t think it’s conscious, but it seems like because emotions are seen as girly they are also seen as unimportant and weak. And if something is logical or rational, it is manly and strong and important. It’s not limited to this community, but also a lot of my friends who are interested in film, a group that is dominated by men as well. When a movie is technically impressive, it is important, but if a movie relies on emotions, it is not. The King’s Speech shouldn’t have won the Oscar because it’s just a story about emotions, not a technical feat like Inception or The Social Network, because emotions aren’t important. That’s why some movies go to Lifetime and some go to Spike TV.
I ultimately decided that Spock was more irrational than people because he treated the emotional experience as invalid. Although dedicated to logic, Spock never took the extra step and accepted that human emotion was rational, and existed for rational reasons, and that to dismiss it was very limiting. Ignoring the importance of emotion and emotional health isn’t actually a rational way to deal with people. To pretend that human emotions don’t matter or aren’t important, to dismiss mental health as a non-scientific reason for pursuing a course of action… it is most illogical.