Sunday, December 10, 2017

Andrew Sullivan on baking cakes

As always the following is my personal opinion and not necessarily that of my employer, friends, family or potted plants.

To follow news from the USA I regularly read the New York Magazine Daily Intelligencer. Once a week or so they have a column by Andrew Sullivan, who is the very peculiar combination of (a) Catholic, (b) homosexual, and (c) conservative. His average column follows a fairly predictable formula: first complaining about Donald Trump or the state of the Republican party, then a section break, then bashing left-wing activists over something or other. So as to maintain one's conservative reputation despite criticising conservatives, I presume?

Anyway, the most recent column takes a different approach. Titled "Let him have his cake", it takes the side of a religious baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple and now finds himself in front of the US supreme court. Then there is a section break, and then he complains about Donald Trump. It is the other way around, you see?

Anyway, his gay wedding cake argument proceeds as follows:

1. If there are alternative solutions, like finding another baker, why force the point? Why take up arms to coerce someone when you can easily let him be -- and still celebrate your wedding?

That is probably what I would do in such a situation, as I am relatively conflict-shy. But this is a legal issue, one of principles, and as always in such situations it has to be asked what would happen if everybody made use of the 'right' to refuse service.

It is my understanding that the USA had a time when a black person could find themselves in a town where every single bar served only whites. Surely given the rampant religiosity in some parts of that country it is at least not immediately absurd to think that a gay couple might find themselves traveling through a town where every single hotel would turn them away by citing religious objections to gay marriage?

2. The baker's religious convictions are not trivial or obviously in bad faith [...] those religious convictions cannot be dismissed as arbitrary (even if you find them absurd). Opposition to same-sex marriage has been an uncontested pillar of every major world religion for aeons.

This is a really interesting argument. My first response is that yes, religious convictions are all entirely arbitrary by definition. That's just the thing about religion, it is based on faith instead of logic or empirical evidence. The founders of one religion just made up some random beliefs, and the founders of another religion just made up some different random beliefs, and that is why there is not just one religion on the planet, as would be expected if there existed an actual god who communicated with people. Conversely, ideas that are not arbitrary are shared across different belief systems and accordingly not religious per se.

(Just as an aside, I don't really see where in the Bible or the Koran it actually says "Thou shalt not marry somebody of the same sex." Does it actually say so somewhere? I know that the Bible considers gay sex to be an abomination, at least between men, but funnily enough that particular "conviction" is not really insisted on very much at this time, or at least not to the degree that any significant number of religious politicians tries to outlaw gay sex. Because such convictions are indeed arbitrary.)

So yes, the conviction that gays should not marry is arbitrary. And that raises the problem that if there is a right to discriminate based on religious conviction, people can simply make up additional convictions to refuse service to other groups and in other cases. It is hard to argue that some taxi driver's newfound religious conviction that they do not want to drive around an interracial couple is 'arbitrary' if something as obviously arbitrary as not being able to use a light switch on the Sabbath is considered not arbitrary.

Interestingly, Sullivan seems to understand the problem - I worry that a decision that endorses religious freedom could effectively nullify a large swathe of antidiscrimination legislation - but ultimately this worry does not carry the day with him. Is he perhaps a bit naive about the intentions of the other side?

As a mirror image of the above we then get the following:

3. Equally, I worry that a ruling that backs the right of the state to coerce someone into doing something that violates their religious conscience will also have terrible consequences. A law that controls an individual's conscience violates a core liberal idea.

I do not understand what terrible consequences he expects. The consequences would be that people are treated equally, hardly something I would call terrible. And I think he confuses "controlling an individual's conscience" and "making them behave professionally". Those are not the same thing. An individual is allowed to believe that gays shouldn't be allowed to marry, but they should not be allowed to discriminate against gays. It is really as simple as that, even knowing that Sullivan will call me a "fanatic" for seeing it like this.

4. Much of the argument for marriage equality was that it would not force anyone outside that marriage to approve or disapprove of it. One reason we won that debate is because many straight people simply said to themselves, "How does someone else's marriage affect me?" and decided on those grounds to support or acquiesce to such a deep social change. It seems grotesquely disingenuous now for the marriage-equality movement to bait and switch on that core "live and let live" argument.

Well, I can only say that I find this argument rather disingenuous. The discussion went to the effect of, "if Bob and Jim are allowed to marry, your own heterosexual marriage does not lose any of its status, so what is it to you?" If the discussion was to the effect of "hey, we just want you to let Bob and Jim marry, but you can still treat them like second class humans and discriminate against them", then I have missed that.

5. A commenter on Rod Dreher's blog proffers a series of important questions in this respect: "If the cake shop loses, does that mean that if I'm, say, a freelance designer or an artist or a writer or a photographer, I can no longer pick and choose my clients? If the Westboro Baptist Church comes to me, I can't reject them on the grounds that they're deeply un-Christian scumbags? If I'm Jewish, do I have to design a Hitler's Birthday cake with swastikas on it? Would a Muslim cake-shop owner be forced to design a cake that shows an Islamic terrorist with crosshairs over his face, a common target design in most gun shops in America? Can a gay, atheist web designer choose not to do work for the Catholic Church, or would we have the government compel him to take on a client he loathes?"

This is perhaps the superficially most convincing argument presented by Sullivan. (Partly it may be that I find this style of argument particularly useful.) However, I feel that it mixes up a few different scenarios.

Yes, it seems to me that somebody who opens a shop or provides a service should not be able to refuse service to a church merely for being a church. That would be exactly the same kind of discrimination as refusing service to homosexuals, and it would be unacceptable to me. On the other hand, I think that a Hitler's birthday cake or a face in cross-hairs is a different kind of message to write in glazing than "Bob & Jim".

Yes, I get the idea that the latter supports gay marriage and is thus as objectionable to a certain kind of deeply religious person as mass murder is to other kinds of persons, but I believe that one would have to be quite nihilistic to not see the difference between those two points of view. One message seems objectionable because of an arbitrary, made-up religious dogma, the others are objectionable because they are demonstrably hateful and evil. Still, I understand how this is a difficult difference to see for some who hold a certain view of the first amendment of the US constitutions, for the kind of person who, for example, sees European countries outlawing Holocaust denial as engaging in a terrible restriction of free speech and taking the first step towards totalitarianism.


6. It always worries me when gays advocate taking freedom away from other people. It worries me as a matter of principle. But it also unsettles me because some gay activists do not seem to realize that the position they're taking is particularly dangerous for a tiny and historically despised minority.

Again, these are two very different types of freedom we are talking about. Historically, the freedom taken away from gays was the freedom to exist. The freedom Sullivan considers to be taken away from the baker is the freedom to discriminate against others. I find it puzzling how the latter can possibly be held to be a freedom worth defending, let alone be equated with the former.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Some thoughts on oral presentations

The Systematics 2017 conference in Adelaide was great, and as always I learned a great deal and enjoyed interacting with colleagues. Also this was simply the first time since I came to Australia that I saw South Australia, and it was the last state that I had not seen so far.

Looking back over the talks (oral presentations) I heard over those three days I wonder, however, about the different aspects that people decide to focus on in those talks. There are five types of talks that I find particularly odd.

The overly introduction focused talk

The average conference talk in science is structured like the average scientific paper: (1) introduction providing background information and leading into the aims of the study, (2) methods, (3) results, and (4) a discussion putting the results into context and explaining what they mean. What I call the introduction focused talk is when the speaker spends so much time telling us how cool their study group is and what had already been known about it decades ago or perhaps what they are trying to achieve that by the ten minute mark I wonder if we will ever get to hear what they have actually found out.

Now this is of course perfectly fine if the speaker is a first year graduate student who has only just started their project, but it is somewhat less understandable if a more senior researcher actually has lots of interesting data but, due to their misplaced sense of priorities, only manages to flash one tantalising results slide for twenty seconds before their talk is cut off by the session chair. In such cases something is off about the balance of the talk, just saying.

Relentless wet lab wonkery

One of the frustrations of the last few years, clearly driven by the rise in high-throughput sequencing, is the increasing amount of lab method wonkery in conference talks. People who could otherwise be great and engaging speakers go through slide after slide with little lines that are meant to be DNA fragments, explaining at length how those fragments are produced, barcoded, amplified, size selected, pooled, and sequenced, often for approaches that have been around for several years.

Maybe I am wrong, but I think most people do no want to hear, at least primarily, what somebody did on the bench, they want to hear for example how the study plants or animals evolved and what that means biologically. The lab wonk talk is like going shopping for a used car and finding that every salesman first walks you through the way a combustion engine works.

Relentless bioinformatics wonkery

This is the same as the previous, only with a focus on how the sequence reads are quality controlled, contigs are built, alignments are made, etc. Except in the context of a methods workshop it is perhaps even less helpful than lab wonkery. Most biologists in the field can at least easily visualise what happens to the DNA fragments the lab wonk is talking about (even if they don't really care and want to see the biologically meaningful results), but the bioinformatics realm is so full of impenetrable jargon that ironically only those who don't need to hear the talk will be able to understand it anyway.

Selling well known facts as great new insights

Another frustration that I have are those speakers who present as their awesome new insight something that every marginally competent audience member has been aware of for years.

High-throughput sequencing gives us more data than Sanger sequencing did? Who knew? So, museum specimens have degraded DNA? You don't say. GBIF exists, and the public can download specimen location data from it? Wow. We should be taking photos of herbarium specimens and putting them into online databases? Quick, somebody invent JSTOR Plants!

I am not saying that these are not points that can be made as part of the introduction to one's topic, to show how far we have come in a very short time. But if the entire point of the talk is something to the effect of "future directions in our field" or "where we need to be in 2028" one does expect something that did not already happen a decade or so ago.

The self-promoting and frustratingly off-topic keynote

Finally, I am starting to notice a certain type of keynote or plenary talk, where a hotshot scientist is invited to provide a broad overview of developments in their field, usually to frame the more focused and detailed talks that will follow after it in the program.

Keynotes and plenaries are always more like review articles than research articles, and I just have to admit that I do not go to conferences primarily to hear them. Nonetheless I have heard great and engaging plenaries, including at this recent conference, and can enjoy some of them even when they are largely about historical developments. It just depends on the choices made by the speaker.

What I really find frustrating are speakers who see these talks largely as opportunities for self-promotion. Their talks show at least several of the following features:
  • Nearly everything that is mentioned is the speaker's own work and that of their students, virtually ignoring contributions from others in the field.
  • Accordingly, many of the images in the slides appear to be photos of their numerous students and postdocs, usually goofing around in the field or looking awkward in front of a computer screen.
  • A good part of the remaining images are scans of the tops of the speaker's own articles, with the journal name showing prominently ("look, I have a Nature paper!").
  • The content of the talk is at best tangential to the title that it was advertised under, presumably because the speaker is re-using the same slides as for the last four such talks they gave under different titles and on different occasions.
Of course I would not expect everybody to agree with me, but my favourite type of talk is still a standard contributed presentation that is well-balanced between background and results, with methodology largely limited to a few informative bullet points.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Is not making sense a prerequisite for being published in a newspaper?

Apparently there is a scientist who thinks that, to quote the headline of his article, "We don't need to save endangered species" because "extinction is part of evolution".

As with the people who argue that one should be allowed to discriminate against gay couples even after gay marriage is allowed but fail to make the connection with how horrified everybody would be if the same argument were made about, say, interracial couples, so in this case I am deeply puzzled how this guy can make his argument without realising that "one day you are going to die anyway, so I can brutally murder you now" follows the exact same logic. If his argument makes sense, then so does this one*.

I am somewhat less puzzled why his contribution was published. It is so idiotic as to raise an outcry, and as we know all publicity is good publicity for the newspaper, especially if they do not even claim that he represents the editor's opinion.

*) I hope it is clear that I draw the opposite conclusion, i.e. that the murder argument is the reductio ad absurdum for the extinction one.

Monday, November 27, 2017

South Australia field work, part three

The Systematics 2017 conference in Adelaide has now started, but here are a few final pictures from field work.

On our way north from Adelaide I was very happy to find the rare salt lake ephemeral Hagiela tatei (Asteraceae). It had already finished its life cycle, but I hope that I got a few seeds for my work.

The northernmost area we went to was Mt Remarkable National Park. There, however, we did not find much because it was fairly dry.

One of the few plants flowering in the area was Solanum ellipticum (Solanaceae); identification kindly provided by Tim Collins.

I have seen more millipedes last Saturday than in the first forty years of my life. What is their deal? Somewhat disappointing then to learn that they are introduced and invasive. But seriously, the situation reminded me of this comic.

Our final site was Tothill Ranges reserve which is managed by the NGO Bushland Conservation. One of the members kindly lead us around the reserve. Pictured above a slope with lots of grasstrees, but what I was after are the small white dots on the ground: paper daisies.

A nice Acacia (Fabaceae) flowering in Tothill Ranges, unfortunately I forget the name.

And finally a paper daisy. Chrysocephalum semipapposum (Asteraceae) is, of course, common and widespread, even occurring in Canberra. But it is also extremely polymorphic, and the plants in this population here are much smaller than the ones growing back home.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

South Australia field work, part two

A few more pictures from field work; not sure if I will have internet again before Sunday.

The above picture shows the lookout over Scott Cove in the north-western corner of Kangaroo Island taken yesterday.

At that very place were two species of mint bush. This one is the aptly named Prostanthera spinosa (Lamiaceae). I do not yet know the name of the other one.

The last Kangaroo Island photo is this tiny sundew (Drosera, Droseraceae), but I don't know its species name either.

Today, however, we have worked in the Fleurieu Peninsula. This is the coast as seen from the cliff-tops of the Newland Head Conservation Park.

A little birdie wondering what those weird humans are doing in its habitat. Apparently a rosella, but a different species than the ones I know from Canberra.

Also found in the heath of Newland Head: Chrysocephalum apiculatum (Asteraceae).

Finally, Hindmarsh Falls, south of Adelaide. The area here south and south-east of Adelaide is much more lush and green than I expected from South Australia and reminds me rather more of Tasmania...

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

South Australia field work, part one

Currently I am doing field work in South Australia with Tim Collins of UNE. The past three days Bev Overton very kindly guided us around Kangaroo Island, where we collected plants for Tim's research.

Kangaroo Island has a beautiful coastline, but of course so has much of Australia.

Close to this spot we ran into an angry hive of feral bees but got away relatively lucky.

Above a ball of seagrass. I read about these in one of my daughter's nature books, but this is the first time I saw them with my own eyes.

Coming to the flowering plants, this is Olearia ciliata (Asteraceae). Fairly small for a daisy bush, which is why I could not at first believe that it is indeed an Olearia.

I was very happy to find Leiocarpa supina (Asteraceae) as it was on my 'shopping list'. It is not exactly rare, I ultimately saw it in several coastal locations. I assume the orange lichen in the background would have to be the same species as the one in Tasmania, that of the Bay of Fires.

Finally a particularly rare species. We learned that Stilidium tepperianum (Stylidiaceae) is a Kangaroo Island endemic, and we were fairly lucky to see it.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

What race is a dickhead, indeed

Reading the recent news items about an Australian senator with Muslim background being abused in a pub by a bunch of racists, two thoughts occur to me. The first regards the oh so clever comeback by one of those racists after being called a racist: "what race is Muslim?"

The thing is, of course, that there are legitimate and illegitimate cases of people being called racist. If, for example, a hypothetical atheist were to say, "mainstream Islam as currently practised is problematic to me because so many of its adherents consider homophobia and sexism central to their beliefs and identity" then calling that statement racist is just wrong. Maybe that atheist is also mistaken, and maybe they are also incidentally racist, but the argument as stated would be explicitly about a belief or behaviour, regardless of what particular person holds the belief or shows the behaviour. It is not a racist statement.

This present case, however, isn't that. Somebody who says, "why don't you go back to Iran" and calls their opposite "monkey" is clearly not making an argument about theology; they are just being racist. Those statements are what is called a dead giveaway.

The second thought is the same that I always have when reading about white racism in countries like the USA or Australia: I gawk, open-mouthed in amazement, at somebody whose ancestors lived in Europe a mere two hundred years ago telling somebody else to "go back" to the country of their parents. Ye gods, one of those guys apparently called himself an "original Australian". The mind boggles. One wonders which Aboriginal tribe he identifies with, and what the other members of the tribe think about that...