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Marly Marl – Droppin’ Science

I admit I’m surprised by this, given the high standards I hold my homeland to, but I suppose I shouldn’t expect so much of the 16 to 18 year old set regardless of the locale. A Canadian survey recently found that only 4% of Canadian teens see science as ‘cool’ – which leads me to ruminate upon the sorry state of science PR when you can’t fucking make robots and lasers and spacecraft appealing to youth. Seriously. You know, robots. Robots! Dinosaurs, too!

The same survey found that only 37% of these students were considering post-secondary study in a science course. This badass infographic tells me that that’s comparable with China’s current crop of university students, where enrollment in science and engineering is just over 40%, so I don’t think that’s actually too bad a figure. Not when you compare it to the USA’s unsurprising and paltry sub-15% of enrollments in those degrees.

Across the Pacific, a recent poll found – in total disregard for national stereotypes – that Australians are more interested in science than sport (although, I dare you to prove that during prime-time in football season).  All this despite the presence of this anti-reason douchebag as a prominent public figure and both state and federal governments intent on funding the exact opposite of science education.

I don’t know what conclusion to draw from all this. All I know is that a basic understanding of science is going to become more and more essential for every member of society, as the problems we face will grow more and more complex and require more knowledge to understand. It’s especially damning if our only science graduates are reclusive antisocials and all the cool kids run off to do law and economics, because science desperately needs to be communicated (and communicated well) in order to be accepted and understood.

We’ve already seen examples of what happens when scientific illiteracy reigns: Americans with their bizarre restrictions on stem cell research; Europeans with their paranoid aversion to GM crops; drought-stricken cities voting down recycled water; the continuing spread of HIV across Africa courtesy of false wisdom bestowed upon us by the king of all douchebags; and the myriad of horrible things done by witch doctors, exorcists and homeopaths across the globe. It’s not so bad now, but when a frighteningly large percentage of people don’t even know how long it takes the Sun to go around the Earth, what completely avoidable problem will we march willingly into next?

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Hey there, cadets.

I’ve been away, I know. Let’s pretend my absence has been humorous and implausible, something like a thrilling and wildly dangerous mission to destroy a secret shadow government facility where future pop stars were being grown in giant vats of nutrient slime. Sure, let’s call it that.

In reality, I’ve been lazy.

There’s a fair bit of time-starvation in there, courtesy of mini-me #1 and mini-me #2, mind. I’ve had spare time, but there is a special kind of exhaustion one gets from chasing a toddler for the last few hours before bedtime that really squashes my desire to preference activities other than a lazy game of Halo or Urban Terror.

Just recently, though, a couple of interesting things have happened.

First up, this blog has been nominated for a 2010 Canadian Weblog Award! Not bad, given how sporadic and rant-heavy the thing has been over the past few months. Presumably, this means enough people have considered the year’s catalogue of my infrequent sub-space dispatches and decided the lack of volume is trumped severely by the calibre of my have word writy things make sense.

I’m fairly proud of my writing; I suspect I could turn tricks as a professional wordsmith in a pinch. Atomique (who is a Wizard of Media and Communications) recently praised one of my shorter pieces, a letter to my MP regarding the Australian government’s position on Julian Assange in the wake of Cablegate. It went like this:

Hi Teresa,

I’m just dropping you a quick email to let you know how disappointed and horrified I am by our government’s handling of the WikiLeaks Cablegate affair and Mr Julian Assange.

I refer to recent actions by the Prime Minister and the Attourney-General in which they condemn the man as a criminal before any court of law has convicted him of such.

Regardless of what may eventually come of any investigation into Mr Assange’s activities as head of Wikileaks, it is abhorrent to think that our Prime Minister is so willing to discard an Australian citizen.

Above and beyond all of the media hype surrounding Mr Assange, I applaud the man for his efforts in promoting transparency in government and freedom of information.  The least our government should do is support him as it ought any other citizen, let alone give him the thanks he deserves for his service to the common good.

I am utterly disgusted with the government and its actions, and I urge you to lend some thought to my concerns.

Sincerely,

Atomique’s glowing review:

That was articulate, clear and concise. A plain English triumph, too. If I was marking it, I’d give it an HD, the highest mark.

U haz mad communik8shun skilz.

So, anyhow, I really should write some more, so I will. And I suppose I ought stay on-topic, given my nomination in the 2010 CWAs was in the music category. Courtesy of the of the process for the CWAs, having now made the shortlist of finalists I get all of December to make up for a slack previous eleven months. BAM! Electoral abuse, baby!

Secondly, I curated the December 4th edition of Curated By Interesting People. Curated by Interesting People is a project run out of the UK where interesting people share interesting things: a curation is restricted to one song, one video, one website, one twitter feed. There other curators are a motley, accomplished and certainly interesting bunch. I’m in good company among some of the other interesting folk with a background in music, like the guy behind Banco de Gaia and Eric Kleptone (music nerds represent!).

The curation covers me for science and music, so I’ll direct you over there now for your usual dose of what I’m really supposed to be writing about.

Seeing as I now have this renewed energy for the blog and a motivation in freakishly dystopian surveillance by the CWA judges, keep your sensors on this quadrant for more out of me this month.

This kind of scientific ignorance irritates me right to my goddamned core.

For fuck’s sake, let me spell this out: essentially, science is just a set of rules about how to make observations. Everything – EVERYTHING – else is just corollaries built upon established observations. So, if you can come up with a better way to understand things than by observing them, pony up the ideas because we’re all ears. Otherwise, haul yourself and your counterproductive wordhole back to the mud hut you belong in and stop using all this awesome shit that the rest of us enjoy courtesy of science.

Masculine-heavy? What, women don’t have eyes and the ability to document their findings? Not only are you ignorant, completely dimwitted stranger commenting on my highschool friend’s equally shortsighted anti-fluoridation rant on Facebook (apologies, highschool friend in question; I gotta say what I gotta say), but you’re a dipshit, too.

Fuck, old age is making me angry. No, wait – I’m in my thirties so that seems unlikely – it’s the stupidity of others that makes me angry, and I become increasingly intolerant of it as the years pass. You want to talk about what’s doing the planet in? It’s people fighting to suppress reason, and that really REALLY makes me want to go on a cockpunching spree.

Guh. Here, if you’re as worked up as I am by now, you probably need to calm down. Staying on the topic of observations, check out this awesome interactive flash “game” that lets you zoom in and out towards either end of what we know about the tiniest and the largest things in the universe. Nice.

I’ll get around to the children’s edition of ‘Make Yourself a Scientist’… soonish.

Some bits and bobs (space-bits and space-bobs included as well, of course) today:

That’s from an awesome blog I accidentally found, Geek Art. Nice stuff here. Very nice stuff. Go, go now.

Check these mad videos I found there:

I recently gave my dad the following advice about web browsers. For your own safety on the web as much as everyone else’s, give the following some consideration.

It’s important for the health of the internet as a whole to have users on a variety of web browsers out in the wild – it cuts into criminals’ profit margins to craft virii* and exploits that target multiple browsers.  That being said, IE has a lot of unbeatable  compatibility advantages, so I recommend using IE for safe browsing like web banking, your corporate intranet, government sites, etc. and another browser (any other browser, as long as it’s not IE: Firefox, Chrome, Opera, Camino) for run-of-the-mill surfing and visiting new sites.

* Yes, I know it’s ‘viruses’ these days, but I enjoyed the eccentricities of Latin words in English that we had last century. It’s not often I’m the crazy old guy clinging to the past.


My new FaceBook avatar. Yes, I’m a dork

Okay, the rant (a topic I’ve hit on before, but damn is the sequel a good one):

Dear lady at the pharmacy who tried to sell Atomique on homeopathic remedies because ‘this one time there was this cat who got hit by a car and I gave it something homeopathic because I couldn’t think of anything else to do and then when the cat got to the vet the vet said he was amazed that the cat hadn’t gone into shock and so it must have been the homeopathy that did it therefore homeopathy works’.

Listen, lady at the pharmacy: that story about one cat is a very very very poor sample size to back any statement of efficacy of your magic potions. Statistically speaking, I’m sure that one out of every such-and-such number of similar accidents involving cats results in the cat ‘surprisingly’ not entering shock. In clinical trials (and other, not so clinical events), homeopathic remedies DO NOTHING. Medical studies require a certain amount of test subjects to ensure a significant number of results in order to determine what effects a substance has. Not one thorough study, ever, has produced any observation that indicates homeopathic remedies do anything at all.

Not only that, but the underlying mechanism you claim is at work in your snake oil, that water has some kind of supernatural ability to remember the things that used to be in it, is not possible according to the laws of the universe that every single person who studies the way the universe works has come to agree to as the best model to describe how reality works. Homeopathy was imagined by some crazy dickface who foisted it as a miracle remedy on the uneducated public (the same knuckleheads who thought bloodletting was the best way to help the ill) of the late 1700s  – without rigorous testing to see if it actually did anything, an ultimate act of ass-hattery. His fraudulent douchebag followers insist to this day that it has value, despite volumes of scientific discoveries that make its underlying principle laughably retarded.

This is not some elaborate conspiracy to keep you from padding your coffers healing the poor by selling them expensive vials of water, it’s many people in many countries of various cultures all making the same observations and drawing the same conclusion about what those observations mean.

Please stop behaving like what you’re talking about is real, makes sense, or can be conceived of as truthful by anyone capable of reason. If you’re ignorant of the truth behind homeopathy, shame on you for pretending to be knowledgeable so as to try and convince a stranger to part with their money for nothing (Atomique, a clever bear, tells me she tactfully laughed her way out of this laughable situation without incident); if you’re a charlatan knowingly fleecing your fellow humans, go fuck yourself.

A good friend once gave me a mighty compliment: in the midst of a discussion about something astrophysics-y or biology-y, he said to me “yeah, but you’re the scientist.”

As chuffed as I was to be bestowed with that title, I am in no way, shape or form cut out for the precision required for lab work. Or, for that matter, the hours of math grokking needed. I don’t doubt I could learn the math, but it’s just not a thing I want to devote that much of my life to. I love science, but the end result is all I’m after – my talents lie elsewhere.

So, why am I ‘the scientist’ if I’m not an actual scientist? I suppose I do hold a fairly impressive volume of scientific knowledge in my head, gleaned from sources written with laymen like myself in mind, and more importantly, written to at least be a teeny bit entertaining to keep the learning from feeling like work.  I’m not talking about scientific papers here, I’m talking about woks that explain the mysteries of the universe without the weight (intellectually and physically) of a bio-chemistry textbook.  This kind of reading falls on the ‘easier to digest’ side of things than Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I will finish my copy of that some day.

You too can be a scientist (not an actual scientist, though) and enjoy the learning along the way – here’s some source material to get you started:

The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA

Genetics and DNA explained – in graphic novel format! The Stuff of Life not only tackles the basics of life as we know it, but it also chronicles the history behind early genetic knowledge through to the Human Genome Project and modern applications of genetic science. In the book, we follow an alien scientist tasked with studying life on Earth as a means to discover a cure for his species’ own genetic failures. It’s a sneaky way to work all the basics into the story, giving a loose and entertaining narrative to what would otherwise be a dry chronicle of the field.

It’s a clever way to present the material, and the strengths of the genre are used well: the authors use the imagery to lend context and make some of the more difficult concepts easier to grok. It’s certainly easier to follow an explanation on RNA and DNA when I can follow through the panes that RNA is the one with the hat on backwards like a rap dude.

Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution: Modern Physics for Non-Scientists

Relativity is one of those things that has always really nagged me. I’m clever enough to grapple most concepts into submission, but the whole ‘time and space being different depending on where you are and how fast you’re travelling’ thing has always really irked me because I just couldn’t wrap my stupid monkey-brain around it. Richard Wolfson to the rescue!

Professor Wolfson is energetic and excited about physics and about explaining physics. The analogies he brings to the table just make sense, which is all I ever wanted out of relativity (and it turns out, in the end, that my inability to make sense of things due to my very limited personal experience as a being never moving more than a teeny-tiny fraction of the speed of light; it’s all about perspective).

The audiobook of these lectures is hella expensive, but audio is the format I prefer as I like to listen in the family spacewagon. There are videos of this lecture series floating around the intertubes for the low low price of nothing, but I cringe at how 80s it looks. Wolfson’s enthusiasm is much better suited to words alone until the 2nd edition, which I presume would look a lot less like an episode of Head of the Class, finds its way onto Youtube.

(Oh, one more thing: tune out the start of each audio file, until the tacky, tacky stock music is over and done with. Please.)

The Nonfiction Works of Isaac Asimov

Okay, so not only did Asimov rock out at writing bad-ass science fiction, but he rocked the ever-living-FUCK out of writing about science.

If I do a quick count over at Wikipedia I tally up over fifty books of his dedicated to popularising and demystifying science.  I’ve read but five of them, all collections of essays on particular topics often grouped together, and every one of them has been mind-staggeringly enlightening. Even the oldest I’ve read, 1968’s Science, Numbers and I still has much knowledge to pass on forty years later.

Asimov writes his non-fiction like a wise uncle sitting at the table after dinner, regaling the family with insight into the inner workings of any topic the gathered children can throw at him. His ability to lend a sense of scale to the majesty of science and bring it into our own realm of understanding is unparalleled (sorry, Richard Wolfson).

These books are also well easy to get your hands on – I’ve yet to walk into a second-hand bookstore that didn’t sport a few of these books on the shelves, courtesy of the great volume of them he wrote.

I’ll sign off with the introduction from Asimov’s Only a Trillion, but stay tuned, there’s a children’s edition of this post to follow!

One of the stories my mother likes to tell about me as a child is that once, when I was nearly five, she found me standing rapt in thought at the curbing in front of the house in which we lived. She said, ‘What are you doing, Isaac?’ and I answered, ‘Counting cars as they pass.’

I have no personal memory of this incident but it must have happened, for I have been counting things ever since. At the age of five I couldn’t have known many numbers and, even allowing for the relatively few cars roaming the streets thirty years ago, I must have quickly reached my limit. Perhaps it was this sense of frustration I then experienced that has made me seek ever sense for countable things that demand higher and higher numbers.

With time I grew old enough to calculate the number of snowflakes it would take to bury Greater New York under ten feet of snow and the number of raindrops it would take to fill the Pacific Ocean. There is even a chance that I was subconsciously driven to make chemistry my life-work out of a sense of gratitude to that science for having made it possible for me to penetrate beyond such things and take – at last – to counting atoms.

There is a fascination in large numbers which catches at most people, I think, even those who are easily made dizzy.

For instance, take the number one million; a 1 followed by six zeroes; or, as expressed by physical  scientists, 106, which means 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10.

Now consider what ‘one million’ means.

How much time must pass in order that a million seconds may elapse? Answer: just over 11½ days.

What about a million minutes? Answer: just under 2 years.

How long a distance is a million inches? Answer: just under 16 miles.

Assuming that every time you take a step your body moves forward about a foot and a half, how far have you gone when you take a million steps? Answer: 284 miles.

In other words:

The secretary who goes off for a week to the mountains has less than a million seconds to enjoy herself.

The professor who takes a year’s Sabbatical leave to write a book has just about  half a million minutes to do it in.

Manhattan Island from end to end is less than a million inches long.

And, finally, you can walk from New York to Boston in less than a million steps.

Even so, you may not be impressed. After all, a plane can cover a million inches in less than a minute. At the height of World War II, the United States was spending a million dollars every six minutes.

So–let’s consider a trillion. A trillion is a million million¹: a 1 followed by 12 zeros; 1,000,000,000,000; 1012.

A trillion seconds is equal to 31,700 years.

A trillion inches is equal to 15,8000,000 miles.

In other words, a trillion seconds ago, Stone age man lived in caves, and mastodons roamed Europe and North America.

Or, a trillion-inch journey will carry you 600 times around the Earth, and leave more than enough distance to carry you to the moon and back.

And yet a good part of the chapters that follow ought to show you quite plainly that even a trillion can become a laughably small figure in the proper circumstances.

After considerable computation one day recently I said to my long-suffering wife: ‘Do you know how rare astanine-215 is? If you inspected all of North and South America to a depth of ten miles, atom by atom, do you know how many atoms of astanine-215 you would find?

My wife said, ‘No, how many?’

To which I replied, ‘Practically none. Only a trillion.’

¹That is, according to American and French usage. In England, a billion is 1012 and a trillion is 1018, that is, zeros are counted in groups of six, not in groups of three as in America and France.

I’m so time-poor at the moment.  I can barely scrape together the time to polish off the decks to get ready for my next gig, let alone bang a few words together. So, I’ll be cheap and use someone else’s words.

Following are some words put in an order far greater than mine have ever been arranged in, a transcript of the speech delivered by Richard Dawkins at the Protest the Pope March in London earlier this month.

I was, at first, as outraged as everybody else by the Pope’s opening remarks, as soon as he landed in Edinboro, blaming atheists for the atrocities of Hitler and the others of the 20th century. But then I took comfort from it because it seemed to me that, in a way, it was showing that we have rattled them so much that he was forced to the ignominious expedient of attacking us so as to divert attention from the real crimes that had been committed in the name of the Catholic church. I can just imagine the discussions in the corridors of Vatican power: “How are we going to distract them from buggering boys? And the answer came: “Why don’t we attack secularists? Why don’t we attack atheists? Why don’t we blame them for Hitlerism?”

Hitler — Adolf Hitler — was a Roman Catholic. He was baptized. He never renounced his baptism. The figure of 5 million Catholics is presumably obtained from baptismal figures. I don’t believe a word of it. I don’t believe there are 5 or 6 million British Catholics. There may be 5 or 6 million who have been baptized but if the church wants to claim them as Catholics, then they have to claim Hitler as a Catholic.

At the very least, Hitler believed in a personified providence. He often spoke of it and it was, presumably, the same providence that was invoked by the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich in 1939 when Hitler escaped assassination and the Cardinal ordered a special te deum in Munich Cathedral, quote, “to thank divine providence, in the name of the archdiocese, that The Furor, fortunately, escaped.”

I’m going to read a speech made in Munich, the heart of Catholic Bavaria, in 1922, and I leave you, as a guess, who’s speech it is . . .

. . . “My feeling, as a Christian, points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once, in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them. And who God’s truth was greatest, not as a sufferer, but as a fighter. In boundless love, as a Christian and as a man, I read through the passage which tells how the Lord, at last, rose in his might and seized the scourge(?) to drive out of the temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after 2000 years, with deepest emotion, I recognize more profoundly than ever before that it was for this that he had to shed his blood upon the cross.”

That was one of numerous speeches by Adolf Hitler and passages in Mein Kampf, where Adolf Hitler invoked his own Roman Catholic Christianity. No wonder he received such warm support from within the Catholic hierarchy of Germany.

Even if Hitler had been an atheist, as Stalin surely was, how dare Ratzinger suggest that atheism has any connection whatsoever with their horrific deeds . . . any more than Hitler’s or Stalin’s nonbelief in leprechauns or unicorns . . . any more than their sporting a mustache, along with Franco and Saddam Hussein. There is no logical pathway from atheism to wickedness unless, that is, you are steeped in the vile obscenity at the heart of Catholic theology. I refer to the doctrine of original sin. These people believe – and they teach this to tiny children – at the same time that they teach them the terrifying forces of hell – that every baby is born in sin. That would be Adam’s sin, by the way: Adam, who they themselves now admit never actually existed.

Original sin means that, from the moment we are born, we are wicked, corrupt, damned; unless we believe in their God or unless we fall for the carrot of heaven and the stick of hell. That, ladies and gentleman, is the disgusting theory that leads them to presume that it was godlessness that made Hitler and Stalin the monsters that they were. We are all monsters unless redeemed by Jesus. What a revolting, depraved, inhuman theory to base your life on!

Joseph Ratzinger is an enemy of humanity. He’s an enemy of children whose bodies he’s allowed to be raped and whose minds he has encouraged to be infected with guilt. It’s embarrassingly clear that the church is less concerned with saving children’s bodies from rapists than from saving priestly souls from hell: and most concerned with saving the long-term reputation of the church itself. He’s the enemy of gay people: bestowing on them the sort of bigotry his church used to reserve for Jews before 1962. He’s an enemy of women; barring them from the priesthood, as if a penis were an essential tool for pastoral duties. He’s an enemy of truth; promoting bare-faced lies about condoms not protecting against AIDS, especially in Africa. He’s an enemy of the poorest people on the planet, condemning them to inflated families that they can not feed and so keeping them in the bondage of perpetual poverty. A poverty which sits ill beside the obscene wealth of the Vatican. He’s an enemy of science; obstructing vital stem-cell research on grounds not of true morality but of pre-scientific superstition. Ratzinger is even an enemy of the Queen’s own church. Arrogantly dissing Anglican orders as quote, “Absolutely null and utterly void” – while, at the same time, shameless trying to poach Anglican vicars to shore up his own pitifully declining priesthood.

Finally, perhaps of most personal concern to me, Ratzinger is an enemy of education. Quite apart from the lifelong psychological damage caused by the guilt and fear that has made Catholic education infamous throughout the world, he and his church foster the educationally malicious doctrine that evidence is a less reliable basis for belief than faith, tradition, revelation and authority . . . HIS authority.

If the video seems dry, just hang on ’till the 1:20 mark. I swear, your mind will be subjected to a powerfully strange new reality.

Yeah, so the mother-in-law’s post-grandchild-embirthenating residency on our orbital habitat has come to a halt.  If plotted on a pretty infograph, this departure would coincide neatly with the slumber this blog has lapsed into.  I’m slowly ramping back up to full-scale blogmunition production.

In the meantime, amuse yourself with a thorough exploration of The Known Universe (it’s big, yet the video compacts it into a tidy 6:31).

I tend to shy away from some topics at work when away from my immediate team – I work at a very large institution and I don’t know all the peeps as well as I ought to to get away with all topics of conversation. This blog is where I get most of my ranting done. After all, this is my playground, where I get to spout on about whatever topics are really simmering inside my brain.

But, last week, I slipped up and got into a discussion about one of my pet peeves, organic food. I was in the kitchen, making small talk with a coworker. I asked, “Hey there, what’s up?”

“Oh, just making an English muffin with organic butter,” came the reply.

A Tribe Called Quest – Butter

“Ew, organic.” This is the point at which I found myself backed myself into a corner, because once I’m on a topic, I’ll end up stuck for a while trying to get my point across before discretion kicks in.

Predictably, the next question is “Why ew?”, and the answer leads us both awkwardly down the rabbit hole to Viper Pilot’s wonderful land of proof and studies. I’m so much better at presenting my thoughts when I have time to re-read and edit, so on the fly things can get to the aforementioned awkward when I start talking facts instead of just playing at being the prince of clowns.

I realised what I’d gotten myself into, so started out cautiously. I explained that since it’s yet to be proven that organic food has any increased nutritional value, I feel rather ripped off paying more for anything labelled ‘organic’ (organic in this case as a marketing term, not organic meaning something made of carbon, which, as we all know, all plant matter on the planet is).

Things rapidly went downhill from there; despite me saying words in an order that presented some very reasonable points about the issue at hand, pretty much anything that came out of my wordhole went overhead of anyone else in the conversation. I ventured on quite bravely, trying to weigh in with facts and evidence and that kind of junk without sounding like a dick (which, unfortunately, seems to be what happens these days when you’re knowledgeable without also being a celebrity).

I even worked Norman Borlaug into the conversation…
…and still came up fail!

I knew things were pretty much over when I said “It’s not like a plant knows the difference between an atom of nitrogen that’s come from a chemical fertiliser than one that’s come from some cow poop.” That’s always been one of my favourite points on this matter, but when the response to that is the exact same line over the whole of the conversation (reworded slightly each time) – in this case: “I just think that our bodies aren’t meant to be taking in stuff that’s man-made.” – I had to throw in the towel.

Man-made nitrogen atoms? Sigh.

I ran off at that stage to go fulfil a quest for a latté, far away from shared lunch areas and the sociological dangers within.

I know I have a handful of readers who are science communicators or science educators. How do you guys bring science into a conversation when the average person has been let down so badly by the education system?

(Epilogue: There’s a brilliant line in the above link to the LA Times article written by Russ Parsons:

Furthermore, a lot of the best farming practices of the original organic philosophy — composting, fallowing, crop rotation, the use of nonchemical techniques for controlling most pests — have been adopted by many nonorganic growers, even though they still reserve the right to use chemicals when they think it’s best.

So for what it’s worth, I’m NOT saying I’m opposed to organic growing techniques. But farmers, like scientists, are experts in their fields. As such, if a farmer deems that in a certain circumstance that a chemical is the right solution to come to the best outcome for his crops, then that is a-fucking-okay by me. There’s no way I want to buy a product that’s been developmentally hamstrung by limiting what options the grower has at his disposal just so he can slap a label on his crop that lets him change top dollar for something that’s at best only equal to the alternative.)

I tend to shy away from some topics at work when away from my immediate team – I work at a very large institution and I don’t know all the peeps as well as I ought to to get away with all topics of conversation. This blog is where I get most of my ranting done. After all, this is my playground, where I get to spout on about whatever topics are really simmering inside my brain.

But, last week, I slipped up and got into a discussion about one of my pet peeves, organic food. I was in the kitchen, making small talk with a coworker. I asked, “Hey there, what’s up?”

“Oh, just making an English muffin with organic butter,” came the reply.

A Tribe Called Quest – Butter

“Ew, organic.” This is the point at which I backed myself into a corner, because once I’m on a topic, I’m sort of stuck there.

Of course, the predictably-next question is “Why ew?”, and the answer leads us both awkwardly down the rabbit hole to Viper Pilot’s wonderful land of proof and substance. I’m so much better at presenting my thoughts when I have time to re-read and edit, so on the fly things can get to the aforementioned awkward when I start talking facts instead of just being my usual prince of clowns self.

I realised what I’d gotten myself into, so started out cautiously. I explained that since it’s yet to be proven that organic food has any increased nutritional value, I feel ripped off paying more for anything labelled ‘organic’ (organic in this case as a marketing term, not organic meaning something made of carbon, which, obviously, all plant matter on the planet is).

Things rapidly went downhill from there; despite me saying words in an order that presented some very reasonable points about the issue at hand, pretty much anything that came out of my wordhole went overhead of anyone else in the conversation. I ventured on quite bravely, trying to weigh in with facts and evidence and that kind of junk without sounding like a dick (which, unfortunately, seems to be what happens these days when you’re knowledgeable without also being a celebrity). I even worked Norman Borlaug into the conversation – and still came up fail!

I knew things were pretty much over when I said “Yeah, but it’s not like a plant knows the difference between an atom of nitrogen that’s come from a chemical fertiliser than one that’s come from some cow poop.” That’s always been one of my favourite points on this matter, but when the response to that is the exact same line you’ve been getting the whole conversation(reworded slightly each time) – in this case: “I just think that our bodies aren’t meant to be taking in stuff that’s man-made.”

Man-made nitrogen atoms? Sigh.

I ran off at that stage to go fulfil my quest for coffee, far away from shared lunch areas and the dangers within.

I know I have a handful of readers who are science communicators or science educators. How do you guys handle trying to bring science into a conversation when the average person has been let down so badly by the education system?

Yesterday, I received that ring at the door. You know the one, the one that happens just a little too early on a Sunday to be any of your friends.

There, standing on my stairs, were two well-dressed gentlemen from obviously different generations. They didn’t even need to tell me way they were there, for the tell-tale selection of colours on their pamphlet gave away what they were trying to sell all too easily. What is it with Christian door-knockers and their love of yellow parchment tones and brown text on their handouts?

I had time to read the all-caps ‘JESUS’ on the pamphlet before greeting them with a “Morning gentlemen, how are things?”

They were fine, and proceeded to tell me about some Jesus event they wanted me to attend. I told them that if I had the time to sneak off anywhere, it’d be to the 2010 Global Atheist Convention in Adelaide (which was already on its last day by then). Knowing they were beat, the two gentlemen bade me good day and went on their way.

While Atomique was fairly chuffed by my handling of the situation, I so dearly wish I’d been able to mount a stronger stand. But, with a toddler at your knees, you need to choose to spend your time wisely.

Had I had it in me to open a can of worms, the response may have been drastically different…

“Look, guys – I know you’re trying to do the right thing,” I start, tone conversational and welcoming (I don’t want to scare anyone off), “but really, if you’re trying to make the world a better place, you do it by going and doing good things. You do good things for your friends, your family, your community. You figure out what good things are by examining the world and caring to improve the lives of those around you. What you don’t do is run around convincing people to follow a two-thousand year old guide book on how to get into somebody’s secret country club after you’re dead.”

They probably bail at that point, and, doubtfully, will either of them take any of what I’ve said to heart. But, still, it would’ve made me feel warm on the inside, knowing that I may have planted just the tiniest seed of change in the younger guy’s brain.

Next time, maybe.

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