ScienceSkepticism

…In Which I Am Reminded I Live in a Bubble

I have rather expansive tastes in the media I consume, so my Google Reader includes many science and skeptic blogs, a few newspapers, a dozen webcomics, some music blogs, and some random fluff like Gawker, a site that sometimes keeps me up-to-date on what’s going on pop culture and sometimes baffles me with idiotic coverage of people like Julia Allison (if you don’t know who she is, count yourself lucky that you don’t read Gawker). Today I read this entry reporting a mob at Barnes & Noble to see Neil Degrasse Tyson, news that comes as absolutely no surprise to me or probably to most of you reading this. The writer, though, seems shocked that someone he’s never heard of could attract so many people. WTF?

I’m often reminded that I always live in delightfully liberal bubbles like Boston, where pretty much everyone agrees that same-sex marriage should be a given, women should have access to birth control, and creationism is a fairy tale. This time it’s a reminder that I also live in a rational bubble, where an amazing, intelligent astrophysicist following in the footsteps of Carl Sagan is far more important and more interesting than a social-climbing fameball with nothing to say at all. The entire week I was in London was a total dream, spending 100% of my time with fascinating people who were smart and funny and curious about the world, eager to learn more and to teach more. I came home to do Skeptics in the Pub last night, full of even more awesome critical thinkers.

I’m always interested to see whether or not that rational bubble is growing. I mean, it’s gotta be a good sign when Tyson rocks a book store so hard that even Gawker stops fawning over celebutards for a moment. It gives me hope that we’re gaining some momentum, showing people that science is important.

Here’s my favorite comment from the Gawker thread, posted by user “ian spiegelman”:

Um… A person who actually knows something real about something that can be tested and that challenges the imagination? A person writing about actual, provable ideas that don’t involve the “Here’s what I don’t get” philosophy of every non-fiction book out there right now? Gosh, why would anyone choose him over the mighty “I Hate You” works of Jim Norton and Ann Coulter? And the four dozen “Barack is Messiah” books from the other side?

Because people are rightly sick of that shit. You can debate the universe and physics, but you have to be a thousand times smarter than most of the humans who are allowed to publish books. Science can provide a true “spin-free zone.” Even if the author is spinning one way or another, it’s still within the heady world of physics, a world with no room for Jim Norton to tell you why he thinks so-and-so “stinks” or for Denis Leary to tell you why good ol’ Irish Boston logic will save America, or for Coulter to vomit all over your face with things only members of The Brand really even pretend to believe.

Science books, even bad ones, lets us escape America, a place where any high school drop-out blue collar idiot can come along with “I have street smarts” and sell a satchel of shit to a lot of stupid, hopeless people.

Am I a snob? God yeah I am! Scientific non-fiction is the only shot we have against semi-tarded “working class” millionaires who are poisoning every single conversation in America. It’s the one thing that they can’t counter, because they’re too fucking stupid. And ideas of how we got here and how we might evolve is more interesting to ANYONE than yet another hack going off about “America is getting sissified.”

I’d rather a thousand science books a year come out than to see one more of these “I’m a just a blue collar guy but I know what’s up” books come out. They are a fucking cancer.

The writer who says he’s just blue collar and doesn’t know much but he knows *this much* is a wicked little coward who should be ridiculed until he needs a hospital.

Your thoughts?

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PS: A few random things happening back inside our rational bubble. First, you can listen to me interview Tim Minchin on the Little Atoms radio show via this handy mp3, or via Feedburner or on iTunes! Second, my dear friend Brian Dunning informs me that he’s throwing a big to-do for his 150th episode of the Skeptoid podcast! Those of you in Cali should attend and heckle him live, which is even more fun than yelling at your iPod. Info is here.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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64 Comments

  1. ‘Science books, even bad ones, let us escape America, a place where any high school drop-out blue collar idiot can come along with “I have street smarts” and sell a satchel of shit to a lot of stupid, hopeless people.’

    Well-written! Was not aware of Gawker – am struggling now as to it would be wise to continue to ignore it, or add it to my ever-growing list of things-to-check-daily…
    (Thanks!)

  2. Just reading the headline of the gawker piece “Who Is Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Since When Is He a Literary Rock Star?” speaks volumes for those of us in living in the same bubble the headline says that the author is saying I’m and idiot, and who’s with me? holding his hand up for that “high five” that with any luck won’t ever come.

  3. Much of my rational bubble exists in the world on ones and zero’s. However over the past 8 months we have a small monthly Skeptics in the Pub going here in Bellingham WA and we hope to have some speakers set up for special events over the next year.

    Rebecca, I am not quite sure about your description of a “liberal bubble” as somehow synonymous with skeptical thinking given that liberal politics often seems married to some fairly extreme woo in my allegedly enlightened area.

  4. @James Fox: My description of the liberal bubble is meant to set up my point that I often live in a world in which I am happy with the people and activities taking place around me. It has nothing to do with any non-rational thinking amongst people who happen to be liberal.

  5. @Rebecca: I’m glad Consumerist got away from them, because the rest of those blogs are so, so bad now. I got BANNED from Jezebel (twice) because of my skeptical views. It seems you have to be nicey-nice to people who believe in ghosts (I was trying to explain to them about “hypnagogic hallucinations” and they were having none of that) and I was like, the ONLY atheist there — every time I said, “God does not exist” (and nothing else) I’d get jumped on. “OH MY GOD DO NOT BE SO MEAAAAN!”

    It’s a bunch of lame-lame-lameness.

  6. @Frankiemouse: It’s called “working” but um. Not so much. I’m really great at skimming, though. For the most part I skim and just read the bits that are interesting. Scienceblogs, especially PZ, always gets me because the comments are so fucking entertaining.

    I have a REALLY hard time keeping up with podcasts, though.

  7. And you know, the comments in that gawker post are not bad! I was expecting a lot of agreements with the actual post, but oh man, there seems to be a lot of science nerds at gawker! Yay! And now any regular readers of gawker who may have been unaware of him, now know!! So, really, I’m glad they made that post.

    I so want to watch NOVA right now.

  8. @marilove: I tried so hard to like Jezebel, but man was it hard. I remember one of the very first posts I read on there was about how birth control pills that prevent you from menstruating must be bad because menstruation is natural. The end. It was awful. I gave the blog time to get better, and it does have its moments . . . some of the writers have merit, I think. Sadly, many do not and the content is as variable as Gawker.

    Agreed on Consumerist, I totally love them to death and am glad they were picked up by Consumer Reports. The best blog left on the Gawker network is io9.

  9. Gosh, why would anyone choose him over the mighty “I Hate You” works of Jim Norton and Ann Coulter? And the four dozen “Barack is Messiah” books from the other side? Because people are rightly sick of that shit.

    Sweet Jesus, I hope this sort of sentiment becomes a trend. Electing a professor-in-chief* was a good indicator that at least some of the populace is sick of the anti-intellectual, spiteful, oversimplified status quo.

    * phrase shamelessly stolen from this guy

  10. I love Gawker’s Top Chef recaps. That’s about all the use I get out of them anymore, and even that I’m a little ashamed of. They do trash Scientology pretty regularly, though, and I’ll give Denton props for refusing to take down that Cruise video after the C0S went after him. Jezebel’s useful for the links (not always the commentary) it provides. Agreed that i09 is the best, although some of their commenters scare me. Annalee Newitz is, for my money, one of the best writers on the internet now.

    There were quite a few good comments on this piece, but it’s also true Gawker exists in its own bubble. Hopefully it’s indicative of a larger trend, but it’s hard to tell.

  11. @Rebecca: Yep. I gave Jezebel nearly a year, but after all the woo and quackery that is just accepted there, and all the fucking sexism (which is kind of ironic, considering), I gave up. A few of the writers are great, but they are hidden behind a bunch of shit. AND THE COMMENTERS UGH. I still pop by every now and then to see whats up, but man. Do they HATE dissenters. Basically if you’re not in the “In Crowd” they tear you down. I’m like, am I on ohnotheydidn’t @ livejournal, or Jezebel? It was pretty awful.

    I haven’t checked out io9 in a while, I should do that.

    Consumerist, I think, is going to become amazing how that they are with Comnsumer Reports.

  12. Rebecca-
    Your bubble sounds like some kind of imaginary wonderland to me. I am trapped in someone else’s bubble where I have to explain to people on a daily basis that religion is not actually genetic and so Obama is not “half-muslim”, and no, I don’t understand what you mean because if you meant what I thought, then you would actually be too dumb to breathe, therefore I must be mistaken and you must have meant something else.

    Here – in this bubble – people think it is strange that I would like to go to the local college to hear a former Secretary of State speak or that I actually read those – what cha call ’ems – “blags”? – written by real life scientists.

    I should probably move, but I keep thiking that I am reforming my neighbors.

  13. Because people are rightly sick of that shit.

    Some of us are, most people aren’t, as evidenced by how many books they sell. When people like Neil outsells the scary transsexual Coulter (or Frankin, who is the same character on the left) book after book after book, there will be reason to celebrate.

    It’s a mistake to lump Dennis Leary in with Coulter. His humor comes from anger, hers comes from hate, which is why he’s funny and she’s pathetic. “Why We Suck” is very funny, and I’m sure Dennis would admit that it’s nothing more than a rant designed to make a buck, not a prescription to fix America.

  14. That bubble must be fun.

    I live in Texas, and not in a major part of Texas, but outside of Austin in a place we can call “no where.” I am reminded daily as I take my hour long commute south on I-35 behind a 1-ton pickup truck with camo “truck-nutz” dangling from the trailer hitch that I am, in some ways, very much alone.

    But an Austin skeptics meeting is starting up this Thursday. So there is hope.

  15. Let us not forget that this is the same Neil Degrasse Tyson who recently gave a shout out to Skepchick at a talk. A SHOUT OUT. Awexome.

    I know exactly what you mean about the bubble. I’m not sure if it’s growing but I do think the people in it are finding each other. There’s probably a word for that but I can’t think of it right now.

  16. Every so often I hear a conversation that, while it is spoken in English, contains so many words that I am not familiar with that I really don’t understand what they are talking about. This has been one of those. I don’t know what gawker is. I don’t know who Julia Allison or Jim Norton are and I thought Dennis Leary was that guy from Rescue Me on one of the cable networks. From what I have read in the comments I am guessing that I don’t want to spend to much time finding any of this out. I would so love to meet Neil Degrasse Tyson. I would put up with a riot to meet him.

  17. @Sam Ogden:

    I used to live in a bubble, but like Tod Lubitch I took a dangerous, heroic step out into the world, and left the safe confines of my bubble behind.

    I did that once before. Now I’m working on doing it again. It’s too easy to get comfy in a bubble.

  18. @durnett:

    I have to explain to people on a daily basis that religion is not actually genetic and so Obama is not “half-muslim”,

    It’s weird but I do consider myself half Jewish even though I have never practiced Judaism for one day in my life.

  19. @Hittman: Could we have a stop with all this transexual garbage whenever anyone talks about Coulter? It’s hugely sexist and hugely transphobic and quite frankly, on par with the shit that Coulter spews daily, and I’m getting sick of it.

  20. My kids have always thought my fetish for science shows is weird, but they actually love watching Nova Science Now because they like NDT so much. I feel pretty safe in saying that if my 8-year-old saw him in a B&N, he’d freak out.

  21. A freethinker lives in the first place in a personal mind bubble. After that, it is almost unavoidable in urban societies to interact inside so-called affinity groups. Moreover, we usually tend to forget that we live also in a larger bubble (e.g. Western World, 21st Century) that has a profound impact in our way to (free)think.

    So, it is very healthy to overcome all that “solipsism” to remain acquainted to other “realities” and to other “mindsets”. There is only one rule we cannot forget: Never tolerate intolerance.

  22. @Eliza: Yep. I did a double take. And it’s really, really common to see even in the Skeptical world.

    Apparently, if a woman does not look feminine or womanly enough, she is a transsexual and, apparently, that in itself is an insult and makes her “scary”.

    Makes me sad.

  23. @Rebecca: OH GOD. “Sylvia Brown says you are just supposed to tell the ghost they are dead and to leave you alone.”

    That is the FIRST thing I saw.

    Yeah. Now you know why I practically ran away from that site. It’s full of idiots who believe in quackery and woo.

  24. I saw Tyson give the keynote talk at this last June’s TAM6 conference in Las Vegas. I’d only seen him on TV before. He is a superb speaker and has a high-energy, fascinating stage persona. He’s triply blessed to have a superb intelligence, the gift of charisma, and the ability to be intelligible to non-scientists. No wonder his talk/reading at B&N/Union Square was mobbed. If I had known about this event, I might have attempted to squish myself in there too.

  25. My neighborhood is a bit of a bubble, but not my campus. It’s probably a lot like durnett’s surroundings. A friend of a friend described teaching in this area as doing missionary work. I think of my job as, in large part, prying open the students’ heads.

    I’m located in the bible belt, though not in the heart of it. We get those cursed truck testicles here, too. I kick them when I see them in parking lots. Sometimes I think about trying to create little ovaries, complete with fallopian tubes, to hang under my truck’s trailer hitch.

  26. The first time I saw Truck Nutz, I was driving from San Marcos to Austin in the evening in heavy rain. I’m used to seeing things hanging from trucks – often a small, lynched doll, for whatever reason – so at first my brain didn’t register the rain-drenched horror blowing side to side in front me. But the evil voice deep in my mind, the one that delights in causing my own embarrassment and humiliation, convinced me that this was something I needed to train my focus on. Staring at it caused a slight cognitive dissonance. On some level, I recognized what was in front of me, but it was wrong (being on a truck). It was… familiar. But I couldn’t place it.

    This of course only caused me to focus harder. Leaning over the steering wheel, and inching my car far too close for safety, I muttered to myself: “Is that… Is that a scrotum?”

    That’s when the evil part of my cackled madly at my own shocked horror.

    To Mari and Eliza: I was working with a student last night on a program she was struggling with for class. I had led her to the understanding that a function that she written was not operating in the way that she had expected to which she exclaimed, “That’s so gay.”

    My response was “No, it’s totally heterosexual,” hoping that by replying with something equally absurd and meaningless she’d see how silly it was to call code “gay.” A better come back would have been “The only orientation c++ has in object.”

  27. I’ve never seen Truck Nutz in, um, the flesh, and only just googled them…

    …horrific and scary.

    In answer to writerdd’s question, my guess is in the desert a couple thousand years ago, but I might be wrong.

    And as for using “gay” as an insult, the only person I know who uses it regularly IS gay. I don’t quite know what to make of it, other than he just likes to piss people off.

  28. I live in rural Oklahoma, but seldom hesitate to admit my skepticism or agnosticism, though I am less vocal about the latter. My only disagreement with some of the comments are those which express the idea that all blue-collar people are stupid or ignorant. Some certainly are, but all are not. Many of them do encourage their own children to continue with education, for example. You will certainly find the anti-education, supertitious, dolt from time to time. But having the advantage of almost 56 years to look back on lets me see those people are decreasing in number. Too slowly, for my taste, but I honestly believe we hear all the creationist bullshit and such because the believers can sense it is on the slow way out. They are especially zealous right now because they fear losing–which they are.
    Just for the record, I was a farmboy who has lived again in the country for over 20 years (mainly because it is dark, I am an amateur astronomer) but I have real bachelors, and master’s degrees (psychology) and worked in my chosen profession for 19 years. I changed professions in my 40’s and now am a Physical Therapist Assistant. When I graduated the last time with my new Associates in Applied Science I DID wear my master’s hood.

  29. writerdd: an ‘ethnic’ Jew is supposed to be someone who is descended from an ancient Israelite population (there are some shared genetic characteristics which support this) but the definitions and boundaries shift all the time. Add to that your ethnic Jewishness is inherited from your mother (where it used to be the father), and the whole thing becomes meaningless. I tend to say to people ‘prove I’m Jewish’. So if you’re born to an ethnically Jewish mother, you are Jewish, whether you like it or not.

    Then there’s the religion of Judaism which is a different thing. If you follow that religion you are Jewish but that doesn’t mean you are also ethnically Jewish. You can convert (although it takes a long time). This further makes a mockery of the ethnic theories, as a descendent of a converted female lineage would be considered ethnically Jewish. Who keeps records, you know?

    Anyway, I find the whole thing meaningless and stupid. It’s like claiming to be ‘ethnically Viking’.

  30. @Rebecca:
    I think we all live in a bubble in a sense. We all have our favorite haunts, favorite people, our workplace, etc., which we call our personal “comfort zone.” It takes a concerted effort to expand that bubble to include more and diverse experiences/people. Many are incapable or unwilling to take the time and effort. Some become so set in their ways that they see no use in doing so.

    The Internet helps to a certain extent, because it allows us to vicariously meet others of different backgrounds, browse libraries we will never set foot in, etc. Blogs like Skepchick are part of that. I have never been in a physical room with as many skeptics as I encounter here, nor am I ever likely to do so.

    One can only hope the rationalist bubble is growing. We are all doing our part, some right here on this blog. :-D

  31. RebeccaT – The first meeting is this Thursday at 6:00PM at the Waterloo Icehouse on 38th Street. If you look through about 3 weeks in the Skepchick posts, you’ll see an announcement for the formation with an email address for Ms. Taysia Glover who appears to be putting it all together (I don’t want to post her address here. Not sure how etiquette on things like that work.)

  32. RebeccaT – I just noticed a little Agenda widget on the right hand side of the main page. The Austin Skeptic meeting is listed there. Has that thing always been there? Or is this just the first time I have visited the site sober?

  33. @Mike Planchon: I grew up outside a tiny north Texas town with about 500 people. I lived there from the time I was 9 until I turned 18. Personally I found almost everyone to be dolts. Most of them delighted in their ingnorance, using it as a badge of honor as if their ignorance made them better. I always thought that the town was dying by inches and that it stank of desperation. The people like me who wanted more left as soon as they were out of high school. This left a population of people who were either retired and unconcered or too scared to leave and too poorly educated to do anything. I passed through the town about a year ago. I had been gone for 18 years and I was shocked by how much worse it had gotten. I feel very sorry for the tiny number of children who live there. Meth has ravaged the place. You are a rarity in rural Texas/Oklahoma.

  34. The writer who says he’s just blue collar and doesn’t know much but he knows *this much* is a wicked little coward who should be ridiculed until he needs a hospital.

    God, I love that sentence. I have no interest in hearing what someone feels in their “gut” or what they “believe”. It doesn’t matter what someone believes, what matters is what can be proven!

  35. I read your post and I was going to write something inciteful and profound — so much so, I had to join the site.

    Unfortunately, I’ve been drinking Canadian whiskey (damn Canadians) and now I’ve forgotten what I was going to write!

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