Scientists Think They Know Everything

Occasionally, I hear a person say something like, “Scientists think they know everything.” I am always slightly off-put by these statements, because I think it’s the furthest thing from the truth. In many ways, ignorance is the motivation for scientific thought and investigation. Some scientists even believe the primary goal of a scientist is to remain forever uncertain. Whenever I hear people talking about “know-it-all” scientists, I think about a lot of things—ego, responsibility, indeterminacy, magic wells. Mostly, I think of this particularly amusing (somewhat controversial) TED talk by Dr. Stuart Firestein:

Firestein talks about the nature of science, knowledge, and even formal education. (And magic wells, which is likely my favorite part of the talk and probably also indicative of my reverence for Murakami.) Essentially, Firestein’s argument boils down to the idea that there is progress in “less pejorative. . . thoroughly conscious ignorance.” At the same time, I don’t think Firestein is saying that all approaches to knowledge are equal. He emphasizes the importance of Kant’s “question propagation” in how he talks about turning molecules into perceptions or even the oddities of robotics. Firestein isn’t dismissing the validity of science. He is simply expressing that scientific knowledge isn’t complete or perfect.

“There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy.” ―Jacob Bronowski

Science that expresses an absolute knowledge becomes dogma. Dogmatic science, to me, isn’t science.

If you want to talk about uncertainty and how we grapple with it as a collective people, I can roll with Alan Watts and primary consciousness and the age of anxiety. Or we can move to John Keats and meander with negative capability. Then, we can play a hand of cards with Voltaire. This grappling is expressed in varying areas of culture from philosophy to literature to film. For me, it’s ludicrous to think that uncertainty theory exists only outside of science and in the pursuit of artist presence. I cannot help but wonder if this concept of factual knowledge and ego has trickled down from the type of “bulimic education” that Firestein mentions in his lecture, but maybe I will propagate a bit more on that after a cup of coffee, or several.

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A Skeptic’s Guide To Writing Contests

Earlier this morning, I submitted a short story to a popular literary journal’s writing contest, and I feel worse for it. I have never submitted to this type of contest before. Despite knowing fiction writers and poets who have won story and poetry contests, I have even advised other people against this practice. Writing contests have often rubbed me the wrong way. We can chalk it up to my inner skeptic. We can call it bad math. Writing contests? I just don’t trust them. But here I am, short another $20 looking at my Submittable ticket receipt, and drinking coffee like any other regular day in the life.

Many of my friends have entered contests with a reader’s fee. (Say, $20.) A journal would announce its contest, promise the winner $500/publication, and the runner-up $100/publication. This amount varies depending on the contest, journal, allotted reader’s fee, etc. In exchange for the reader’s fee, writers will receive a subscription to the literary journal. Writers begin submitting their stories and paying the journal’s fees. A journal hosting the contest might receive 1,000 manuscripts during their reading period. That’s a lot of reading fees. $20,000 of reading fees. For a long time, that sounded like bullshit to me.

Maybe I’ve become a bit more amiable over the years, because I’ve met the readers and judges of these contests and heard their horror stories. Or maybe I’ve gotten an insider look into literary journals that allows me to see how difficult funding can be. I am saddened by a recent article and movement that’s been floating through the literary scene entitled Save the Alaska Quarterly Review. This article illuminates some of the obstacles faced by journals, and the hashtag #saveaqr is a painful reminder of these problems.

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I realize I could just be saying all this to make myself feel better about spending that $20.

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Question: Examining The Ten Commandments Controversy

[Dog-faced Atheist] Ask
What is one of your unpopular opinions?

Over the past ten years, there have been movements that attempt to extract the Ten Commandments from courthouses. I am against removing the Ten Commandments. I think we should add all types of philosophy to courthouses in no particularly hierarchical fashion. The idea of eliminating Ten Commandments monuments is essentially the removal of a type of literature, art, and philosophy. I think we should add quotes from the Quran, Torah, Tao Te Ching, the whole big shabang of holy books to courthouses. Let’s get crazy and add Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh while we’re at it.

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In all seriousness though, I do think we should add more culturally diverse influences to the art and literature aesthetic of courthouses. This means expanding beyond just political quotes and portraits of dead white Presidents.

There are a couple of reasons that this might be considered an unpopular opinion:

  1. Adverse Public Reaction
  2. Separation of Church and State
  3. Arbitrary Decision Making & Favoritism

The repercussions of this idea have to be considered equally.

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On Writing Fiction Alone

A year or two ago, I wrote a story called “The Black Tiles on Split Road.” It was originally called something else at the time. Something with the color green. The story was about this man struggling with his alcoholism and anxieties about fatherhood. He is outside mowing the yard on a Sunday morning when he finds out that his youngest daughter has been involved in an accident at the church. After reading this story aloud, a man came up to me and told me all about his childhood mowing yards with his father and how the smell of cut grass made him feel sick too. He said his father had recently died and that “The Black Tiles on Split Road” had connected with him. He didn’t cry, but his voice had that edge to it. When he finished telling me about the funeral, he paused, then said, “Thank you. It feels good not be alone with it anymore.”

At the time, I couldn’t tell him what I was really thinking. I had never mowed yards as a child for money or had an abusive father. I had never struggled with putting a parent in a nursing home or keeping up the maintenance on a house of my own. I didn’t have children or a wife. I had never been divorced or had an accident at a church as a child. Very little in that story had happened to me, or someone I knew. I simply wrote it down.

Conversations like this have occurred several times over the years. It happened again this past weekend at the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival when a woman naturally assumed that I was married after a reading and told me that she didn’t like her husband’s teeth very much either.

I wouldn’t call my stories lies necessarily. They might not be true in a traditional sense, but they contain some grain of truth. A less empirical one. Maybe a distorted version of myself who has been persistently collecting voices and images and fear. If my stories are any good at all, then they relay some type of vulnerability or inner life about myself. The nature of truth that I pursue in writing fiction is occasionally a truth more readily adopted by the reader than by me. I think my writing reveals a collective, essential version of myself.

In my stories, I have been a number of people. I have written my way into characters a sailor, a widow, a moonshiner, a nine-year-old boy, a jazz musician, a speaker of tongues, a gay bartender, a bus driver, a Johnny Cash impersonator, an angel people whose lives I have never lived, but I believe in escaping the self when writing fiction. I think this fallacy about the empirical truth in fiction comes from the idea of “writing what you know.” I often feel like the more immersed I become in a story the closer I am to becoming like everybody else.

Though it might seem wildly cliché, I feel like I am layering masks onto myself, and beneath each mask is my face or some version of it. I imagine my body in front of my desk with the window’s white light pouring over me while I perform this intricate balancing act of metal and wood and carved plastic others piled on top of my cheek bones as I stare with my eyes barely open into the back of where another person’s eyes should be with my neck hurting, arms outstretched, and masks curving upward into the room like the smoke of a prayer’s candle, and then there’s me somewhere beneath it all forgetting for a moment the person I saw in the narrow reflection earlier that morning who sat down with a cup of coffee in front of a legal pad at some point thinking about words and those who have died. Sometimes, it’s just harder to recognize me.

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Throwback Thursday

March 17, 2009 — Saint Patrick’s Day

I spent a lot of my childhood growing up in a nicotine-stained bowling alley, and it was there that we found our dog. Dogs were common  at this particular bowling alley. Even the owner frequently brought “her babies” to work with her— two Miniature Schnauzers and a Scottish Terrier. So, it didn’t feel strange at all to see a Labrador pup on the counter one day, and it didn’t feel strange at all sliding him off the counter and walking out with him either.

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Women (and Dogs) in Secularism III

I am finally back from the Women in Secularism III conference. You check out photos from the conference over at Bruce F Press Photography. (I am in the background of several of these shots. See if you can find me!)

When first talking to some of my friends about the Women in Secularism conference, I noted how odd and exciting it was for me to be attending a conference unrelated to literature or creative writing. One friend said, “Well, really, it’s all about finding your people.” To say the least, the women present at this conference were definitely my kind of people.

In addition to thought-provoking panels and discussions, there was unsurprisingly a dog presence at the conference.

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Amy Davis Roth, owner of Surly-Ramics, spoke on multiple panels and sold some of her necklaces in the storeroom. She makes ceramic necklaces that feature science-orientated subjects among other topics. I bought a dog necklace (pictured above) and later found out that she even does custom pet designs over at her Etsy shop. Her jewelry features messages like “Think” and “This is what a humanist looks like” or art prints of microscopes, organic matter, fossils, atoms, space, Darwin illustrations, depictions of iconic artists, and more. Her jewelry and ceramics are the perfect gift for the pro-science advocate.

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Leaving the New Atheist Movement: An Interview with Pat

Recently, a woman named Pat posted a quick message on her tumblr blog about how she left the New Atheist Movement. Intrigued, we began talking and what follows below is a transcription of our interview. Pat would like to remain (mostly) anonymous. Since her first language is not English, some substitutions have been made and designated in the bracketed dialogue below. This interview was our first time having an actual conversation aside from the occasional miscellaneous comment online.

[The interview was preceded by a short introduction of my blog and its purpose. Pat shared with me a photo of her dog, Monica, named after a character from the tv show Friends.]

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Interview with a Former Movement Atheist

Sarah: Before returning to the university, you had been out of college for almost five years. What made you decide to go back to school? Particularly as a student of theology?

Pat: My husband and Fidel Castro. [laughs] We moved from Florida to New York when Castro stopped being President in 2008. Or maybe right before, I can’t remember. Castro is in my imagination a lot. . . I wrote a paper once about how Castro is a symbolic figure for extremists. Some people go straight to Hitler in history. For me, it’s Castro.

S: Did your view on Castro have anything to do with your atheism?

P: Not really. I became an atheist, because I identified with that community. I didn’t like the term New Atheist very much, so I called myself a Movement Atheist. It’s more neutral. . . When I signed up for my first intro class, I was a New Atheist until I discovered the meaning of Movement Atheist. Really, I had been in the Movement the whole time.

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