ReligionScience

Science and Secularity: An Interview With PZ Myers

By Courtney Caldwell. Interview done on August 4, and originally posted at Skepchick Events.

PZ Myers is a name that needs little introduction within the atheist community. A friend to Skepchicks, long-time blogger, and favorite on the secular event circuit, PZ Myers is atheism’s favorite curmudgeonly teddy bear. I recently caught up with him at the Answers in Science event in Houston, TX to discuss his busy schedule, his book (online and in-stores on Tuesday!), and how to make secular events science-friendly. 

You spoke here today with Aron Ra, Zack Kopplin, at the Answers in Science event here in Houston. The secular community has always had an emphasis on science, but it can be really hard to make things digestible for lay-people especially since many of us aren’t scientists. What are some of your suggestions on that front?

Oh you want me to tell you all my secrets?

Yes!

I have one secret I have shared with many scientists and very few have taken me up on it. When you read most science reports, what you find is when they try to make it accessible to the public is they try to emphasize how important it is. “This will lead to the cure for cancer!” or “This will solve the riddle of human origins!” You know, all that kind of stuff…

Very sensationalized…

Yes! And usually false. I always tell them don’t do that. Just extirpate that word “important’ from your glossary. Don’t use “important.” I tell them the word you want to use, to connect with the public, is “beautiful.” Tell them how beautiful this research is. Then it becomes something that stands alone, you can then talk about it in the context of just what it is, how it fits with everything. Then you’re not suddenly saddled with this need to convince the reader that “Oh, this will change your life.” Because most times it won’t. And everyone wants to see something beautiful! Right? I think, just a fossil, is just a beautiful little artifact and you can get caught up in that.

And Mike Aus kind of talked about that today, in his speech he talked about the need to be more careful about how we brand things because there’s a lot to be said about the beauty of things. So that kind of ties in there as well. Now, from a speaker perspective, you’ve done quite a few of these, you’ve been to every Skepticon, right?

Yep!

You’ve done plenty of other conventions too, so does it ever get boring? Just talking? Are there other things you think speakers can do to break up the monotony?

*laughs* Oh, no… I mean, I like to talk! So it’s never a problem for me. But I think there would be good things that conferences should start doing to break up this routine. I think some of our problems right now stem from… that we’re promoting an authoritarian mindset. You know, “Here are the big names in the field, you must have them speak.” And yet, when you go to these communities you find all these people all over the place who are entirely competent and can say good and interesting things and give unique perspectives. So we need to do more of that. I have a couple times I’ve been brave enough to do this, I’m not always brave enough, but I go in and say “I’m not going to talk, I’m just going to do a Q&A.”

That’s cool though, that gives people time to talk to you about what they want to hear!

Then they can, I just tell them, anything you want to ask me, as long as it’s about science or atheism – obviously my personal life is off the table – but that’s always been fun because then you get a back and forth with other people, you get engagement. It’s worked best in smaller venues, not things like this [Answers In Science was a 220-person event], where you’ve got a podium or a lectern, and you’re just standing in front of a crowd. But when you’ve got something in the round… for example, I’ve done a couple talks in bookstores, and that’s the best way to handle it is just “Okay…let’s just…”

“Just have at me!”

Yeah! “Let’s have a conversation!”

So, how do you find the time to be as involved as you are? You blog constantly. You’re a full-time professor at University of Minnesota Morris. How do you not get burned out?

I’m also the director of our research program. *laughs*

See, I can’t even name everything!

And I wrote a book! So there’s a few things… I usually try to turn this around on people… “Why are you so lazy? Why are you getting so little done?”

Right? It makes me feel terrible!

Well, there’s a couple things. I live in Morris, Minnesota. There’s nothing to do in Morris, Minnesota. I think I’d be a lot less productive if I lived in a big city. Also, all the stuff I do, I do it because I love doing it.

I think that’s really the key, is if you’re not enjoying doing it you probably shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. Now, you’ve also been a huge proponent of Atheism+ from the beginning. In FACT, I read online that you are actually the puppetmaster of A+. So it must be true. But one of the goals of A+ is to be more inclusive in the conference scene. How do you think we as organizers can do that better?

Well, first of all let me just say, I’m not the puppet master! It’s driving me nuts, people are always coming up and saying this kind of stuff! And Atheism+ is an independent entity. And I actually consciously stayed away from it, because as I mentioned before, that whole authoritarian business, I hate that! And I think it’s just great that a bunch of people are doing this independent experiment to try to form a more egalitarian atheism. More power to them. But what can you do? Well, there’s lots of things, you have to knock down barriers. You know about our recent experiment with FtBCon?

Yep, I was on one of the panels!

Oh, which panel were you on?

I was part of Miri’s “Mental Health, Religion, and Pseudoscience” panel. 

Oh good, okay! I haven’t seen them all yet! We generated so much stuff over the weekend. And the next one is going to be even bigger – it’s kind of scary! But yeah, I think that’s one thing you have to do is knock down the barriers and make it inclusive. You know we have done this as educators for so many years and I think it’s a lesson from education that you need to take to heart. The lecture format is fine for getting raw information dumped on people. But when you want them to learn, you have to break it up.

Yeah, make it more digestible.

Right, well, and also interactive! So for example, I teach a cancer class, and it’s a fairly rigorous, upper-level class with micro-biology and stuff like that. So what I did is I said, “This is going to be really dreary and tense” so I created these sections where we get together, over at the student union, over coffee, and we talk about cancer on multiple levels. Like, “Does somebody you love have cancer?” “How did you deal with it?” “Do you have a history of cancer in your family?” “Are you worried about this?” We’ll talk about a magazine article or something relatable to cancer. And just… you know, getting a better opportunity for one-on-one discussion. Where it’s not so much ME, the master of the molecular biology of cancer who knows all this stuff already, as it is people who know something about cancer, because we all do.

So I want to talk about your book, The Happy Atheist, because it’s coming out on the 13th! You’ve been working on it for a few years, right?

No, I haven’t! It was done so long ago! This has been a frustrating thing. Basically what the book is it’s a collection of essays from the blog, and here is the amazing thing… proofreaders and editors have gone over it! I get all these copies back, red marks all over the place, I was kind of embarrassed. So it’s all cleaned up now, and it’s beautiful! But it was done ages ago, and then my first editor had a mid-life crisis or a nervous breakdown, or I tell everybody “He read my book and went mad!” But what happened is he essentially dropped the ball for a year before the publisher noticed it and fired him.

So it’s just been kind of in limbo then!

Yes, I’ve just been sitting there going “What’s going on with this thing?”

So we should have had this book in our hands long ago!

Yes, you should have had it like a year and a half, two years ago. I mean there’s also this matter of marketing, publishing houses care about marketing, can you believe that? And they were going back and forth on this, they quickly ruled out the possibility of releasing it at Christmas for some reason. We talked about Easter… and well, now it’s a summer book.

Do you think that the book will appeal most to old fans, new fans, or will it be a little bit of something for everyone?

It’s an interesting experiment, because this is a book that’s going to appeal to people who are already sympathetic to the atheist cause. This is not my outreach to Christians book.

You have one of those in the works?

*laughs* No. And I never will! So it’s just, an exploration of ideas. It’s me, talking about what I think is really important in atheism and science and secularism. And I think it will find a receptive audience in people who are already receptive to those ideas.

So do you think it will cover the same range of topics – because you’re very prolific on your blog, you cover a lot! You’ve desecrated crackers, you’ve got this outlandish notion that women are people…

I know!

All these things you cover, do you think the book will run the gamut as well?

A lot of it’s older stuff, because like I said it’s been delayed for so long. There’s no hardcore science in there. I consciously said, “That’s something different.” The second book is actually about evolution and biology. So I left that out, it’s a lot of atheism, there’s a bit of general science in there. The weird thing is this was before I started really getting fired up about feminism and equality. But people who read this will say, “Oh, it was all there!”

And that was one of the things I wanted to ask you too! What was your “Aha!” moment in regards to social justice issues, because it definitely seemed like there was a turning point.

Well, it was kind of a weird “Aha!” moment because this was all stuff I took for granted. It was stuff I never ever questioned and all of a sudden people started coming after me about this evil feminism stuff! But I would say the real turning point for me was I gave a talk at the London TAM. And I had a brief aside where I sort of cussed out dictionary atheists and that was the start.

Ah, I remember that.

Yeah, because I came right out and I said, “This is nonsense to say that atheism is just a disbelief in god!” Because that has so many implications… People have this long history of how they’ve got to that point, and that stuff is important. It’s part of who you are, so why are you pretending that it’s just this superficial phrase – it’s not! And I was very surprised when people got so upset about that.

Do you think that there’s anything you’ve said in the past, recent or otherwise, that you would change it either in content or tone?

*Long sigh* No… actually… no. There have been places where I’ve been really harsh. One good example is  Michael De Dora, who’s now the CFI guy who’s in Washington working with Congress. And I really jumped on him about a statement he made. I called him a witless wanker, which everyone remembers for some reason. And the thing is, you know, when I look back on what he said, I still feel that was a really stupid, bad thing he said. He basically gave aid and comfort to creationists with this really idiotic remark that came out of his philosophical background that I thought was the real poison there. But at the same time, now, I don’t see people as one-dimensional. Michael De Dora’s a good guy, he’s doing good work! He’s doing stuff that I think is really important to atheism which is advancing it in politics and society. I wouldn’t take back what I said about him before, but I would also say now that I have a much more rich and nuanced view of the man. And I think we all evolve in our views about people. You know, there’s parts of me that people will find aggressive and annoying and I just accept it, “Yep, that’s who I am!”

You have kind of taken a bit of an issue with the “civility” movement of atheists. Do you think that there is a time and place for civility and maybe it’s more that you’re just annoyed that they’re so damn passive-aggressive about it all the time?

I think civility is very important in certain context. When I’m talking to creationists I usually take a civil approach at first. I don’t walk up and punch them in the nose and then say, “Now we start our discussion!” No, I ease in, I do the basics and things like that.

But my objection to the tone movement is that they are so one-sided and they try to dictate how everyone else should be. There’s an element of smugness to it, that I will come right out and say “Yes, being nice to people is a good thing! There’s lots of places where you should be nice to them.” But I’ll also say, there’s sometimes where it’s not so good. There are some times where you know, Don McLeroy does not deserve civility. It’s time to slap that man down! And the problem with the tone movement is that they will deny that possibility. That’s what bugs me.

Sometimes it feels like it’s their way or nothing else.

Right, which is a very peculiar thing for a movement dedicated to civility!

I just have one more question for you today: Where do we enlist in the atheist revolution you mentioned in your talk today?

It’s in your heart.

That’s very new-agey of you!

Oh gee, thanks! Oh, dear. Okay, well… the atheist revolution is going to be a peaceful revolution. It’s going to be us waking up. That’s really what it’s going to be is lots of people waking up. What I expect to happen in the near future is an ever-accelerating growth, because what happens is you’re sitting there all alone thinking you’re the only atheist in the community. Then you discover on the internet, there’s a whole bunch of others, and then you come out. And then all of a sudden all these other people notice. And it gradually elevates the respectability of atheists and pretty soon you reach a critical mass and then we take over the world! No, we just become… the default. Which will be kind of nice. But we won’t line up the other guys against the wall. We’re not that kind of revolution.

PZ’s book The Happy Atheist is available online and in-stores August 13th at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. You can get the tree version or the e-version. To keep up with the latest news on science, social justice, and the impending atheist revolution, make sure you check out freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula

Featured Photo Courtesy of Vic Wang, VP of Humanists of Houston. 

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer who just moved to a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband and two young kids. When not counting how often the words "pride," "liberty," and "freedom" are used in local business, road, and pet names, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and raising her two kids to be critical thinkers. She is the managing editor of Skepchick Events, a Grounded Parents admin, and a Skepchick contributor. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Google+

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8 Comments

  1. Wouldn’t it be great to be one of his students? Some of the best Professors I ever had used that interactive technique. Unfortunately, not everybody can pull it off. I’m thinking of the classroom scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” with students asleep in a pool of drool.

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