• Thu, Nov 2 2006

Genetics Interview #23: Dr. PZ Myers of Pharyngula

In the world of science blogging, one man is known to all – Dr. PZ Myers of Pharyngula. I don’t think I have to say any more!

1. When I was in high school (class of 1990), I learned very little about DNA and molecular biology. Now, PhD’s teach high school biology in some schools and pre-teens are running gels! What was your experience with science in high school? From your experience as a college professor and father, how well prepared do you think students are to understand basic life sciences and critically analyze science news?

My exposure to science in high school was poor. I got a good foundation in math, and was lucky enough to have a great chemistry teacher who was excellent at communicating the basic principles of science, but otherwise…content was thin, teachers were more engaged with aiming the classes at the lowest common denominator, and we wasted a lot of time. I was keen on biology, but the course was so low in information that I might as well have slept through the whole thing. Evolution wasn’t even mentioned.

I know some of the science teachers at my local high school now, and a couple are good and conscientious and informed, and I think they try to do a good job. Unfortunately, the classes are packed with student clowns who have gotten the new mission of the high schools: pass everyone, no matter what. We have great graduation rates, achieved at the cost of dumbing down the classes so much that the juvenile delinquent who comes to class drunk and spends the hour disrupting learning with fart jokes will get a passing grade. Couple that with a culture that says instructors should teach to the test and assessment as determined by standardized testing is the be-all and end-all, and you’ve got a disaster building. Kids are having a hard time learning. A high school diploma is fast becoming a meaningless scrap of paper.

We still get good, smart kids in the colleges, but they either come from wealthy school districts, or they’re largely self-disciplined and self-taught. For the most part, our job is to take in raw talent and teach them from the ground up, I think — most are not well prepared.

2. Most everyone would agree that you are a very engaging writer. How important do you think it is for scientists to communicate with the general public about what they do and why it’s fascinating or important? Do you think science students should take writing classes (I never did but now I wish I had!)? How did you learn to write so well?

I’m flattered, but I’m mainly aware of my shortcomings as a writer. I think I have a lot of flaws, but the way I handle it on the weblog is to just write without much thought or concern — I’m letting spontaneity substitute for skill. That works in this particular medium, where we communicate with short messages and letting personality come through is essential.

Public communication by scientists is essential. I think that one of the ways we’ve built a disconnect between the public and the scientists, while generating an enormously successful scientific enterprise, is that we train young scientists to communicate well within the conventions of science — which are very specific and efficient and useful — but we ignore that business of communicating with people who are not well informed in our disciplines. In fact, the term ‘popularizer’ has rather negative connotations to many of my colleagues, and might well be considered a black mark in a tenure and promotion review. That bias leaves the scientific community isolated, and at the mercy of the misinterpretations of journalists and the misrepresentations of politicians and religious figures with an anti-science agenda. It’s been a disaster.

I wish it were possible to solve it by just making science students take more writing classes. Unfortunately, we’re also demanding greater and greater depth of understanding of science in our students, and they just don’t have time. Well, unless we’re willing to go to 5-6 year program for a BA/BS degree.

3. You are a famous (notorious?) atheist and “godless” scientist. When did you start feeling so strongly about illogic of religion and why? How do you think you might view genetics and the genome revolution differently than a believing scientist?

I drifted away from religion in my teens. I didn’t think much about it until many years later, after getting a lot of training in science, and the absurdity of religious beliefs was a real shock. Discovering that religion as commonly practiced was in outright denial of basic scientific principles and was using ignorance to justify odious social policies was simply the final straw. I often get accused of an emotional revulsion at religion, but it’s not true: I thought highly of the good people in the church I left as a young fellow, and do not dislike people simply because they are religious; it is a purely intellectual contempt for the idiocy of religious beliefs. I regret that good people are hobbled by them.

Once upon a time, I would have said that my view of genetics/genomics wouldn’t be much different from those who profess a faith — good scientists can sequester their religious beliefs from the practice of science. Unfortunately, I’ve since read Francis Collins’ new book, and that incoherent spewage of irrational lunacy is swaying me the other way, to regard religion as a toxin that corrupts good minds. The Language of God is precisely the kind of example that convinces me of the destructive failures of religious belief.

4. Do you agree with bioethicist Arthur Caplan that genetic technology is going to be the changing force of the 21st century? Why or why not? And what do you think of bioethics anyway?

Yes, I agree, if we’re given the opportunity to pursue it. We’re already seeing unmistakable signs that opponents of change are trying to throttle back the pace of the research. I can sympathize — we do have to evaluate the impact of scientific advances on the social fabric, and bioethics is an important part of that assessment — but I also think that scientists have an obligation to provide a balancing tension to the more conservative elements of our society. It is our job to push forward, without regard for the artificial constraints of culture. It’s the bioethicist’s job to urge restraint and consideration for those wider issues.

How fun would bioethics be, anyway, if the mad scientists all simply capitulated?

5. The Dalai Lama referred to consciousness as something that is not possible to examine objectively with current scientific methods. Do you think that we’ll be able to understand everything in the universe eventually or are there some things that will always remain just unknowable? What of life’s greatest mysteries are you dying to learn more about?

I think the Dalai Lama is wrong. That consciousness is still an open question does not mean that it is inaccessible to scientific methods — it means it is a hard problem, not one removed from the natural world. The only way to examine it objectively is with science. I’d be curious to know what the context of that remark might have been, whether it was merely an admission that we do not have an answer (a comment to which I would not object, but would find irrelevant to the validity of science) or whether he’s promoting some goofy metaphysical alternative.

Define “we”. I know I sure don’t know everything and don’t have the capacity to do so, and that no human being can possibly encompass all of our current understanding of science. It’s only going to get harder and harder to advance knowledge as the supporting foundations of our scientific understanding of the universe requires greater and greater time and effort to absorb. In that sense, I think there are limits to what we human beings can learn, and we’ll need radical changes to make radical leaps in our knowledge. Who knows what the effect of longevity research could have on that problem? Or perhaps we’ll just have to accept with good grace our future cybernetic replacements.

I do not like the word “unknowable”. I don’t think there are any principles of the universe that are entirely unknowable — it will just take time and focus to address specific problems of interest. “Unknowable” is usually tossed out as a secret codeword for unapproachable metaphysical ideas, concepts which I find uninteresting and irrelevant and of no consequence.

There aren’t any mysteries I’m dying to learn about. My perspective is more that I am constantly reminded about how much new stuff I can learn about every day — what I want to do is tell people to open their eyes and look at all the wonderfully ambitious questions people are pursuing, and all the exciting new answers that are available. Heck, people should know about old answers: if you don’t know calculus, why aren’t you trying to learn it now? Can you master a foreign language? Will you open a science textbook and try to understand it now and then? Don’t think of our situation as one where there is some single essential problem to be solved, but that we live in a world with a wealth of opportunity to learn constantly, from birth to death.

Thanks so much, PZ! Anyone who has the talent to come up with the phrase “incoherent spewage of irrational lunacy” is a must-read for me. ;)

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