Episode 30: Spiders, Science, and Avoiding Pedestals with PZ Myers
In this episode we talk to the well known and respected Dr. PZ Myers about the war on science, spiders, and why we shouldn’t put heroes on pedestals including PZ himself.
1:34 PZ’s Origin Story
3:17 The War On Science
9:00 How PZ Became An Atheist
13:19 Calling Out Bad Atheists
17:49 The Myth Of Cancel Culture
22:11 Spiders! Oh My!!
PZ Myers is a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris. He co-founded the Freethought Blogs Network which is the home to his personal blog Pharyngula that has a mix of science and social justice and frequently both at the same time. He is currently studying spiders and really hates Tuesdays and Thursdays this semester.
There is some exclusive bonus content from our time with PZ available to our show donors and members only. Check out our Ko-fi page.
Voice Over 0:03
This is Glass City Humanist, a show about humanism, humanist values by a humanist. Here is your host, Douglas Berger,
Doug Berger 0:13
and this episode we talked to the well known and respected Doctor PZ Myers about the war on science, spiders, and why we shouldn’t put heroes on pedestals including peasy himself.
Voice Over 0:26
Glass City Humanist is an outreach project of the secular humanists of Western Lake Erie, building community through compassion and reason for a better tomorrow. If you live in the greater Toledo, Ohio area, and are looking for a humanist community, then please check us out. You can reach our group at humanists wl e dot o RG, or from a link on our website quest city humanist dot show.
Doug Berger 1:00
With us today is PZ Myers. He is a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota Morris. He co founded the Freethought blog network, which is the home to his personal blog for Pharyngula that has a mix of science and social justice, and frequently both at the same time. He is currently studying spiders, and He really hates Tuesdays and Thursdays the semester. Thank you for being with us today. Dr. Myers.
PZ Myers 1:31
Glad to be here. Yeah.
Doug Berger 1:34
The first question I had for you is how and why did you get involved with blogging? Because you you were a longtime blogger? How did you get involved with it?
PZ Myers 1:47
Yeah, that’s that’s ancient history. No, I got involved with it. Because I live in Morris, Minnesota, which is very remote, we’re way out on the western edge of Minnesota. very rural country, at a small university. And so I initially set up because I wanted to be able to talk to people who shared my interests. I mean, there’s certainly there’s some here, it’s a liberal arts university. So of course, we get along just fine, but you don’t have the breadth of differences that we do on the internet. So that’s where it started.
Doug Berger 2:24
Okay. And what does Pharyngula mean?
PZ Myers 2:30
Yeah, it’s, at the time I started it, I was working on zebrafish. And the particular stage I’m interested in zebrafish is this this particular point in time when they’re setting up the fundamentals, spatial information of the embryo, and they’re beginning to develop Oregon’s they’ve got, you know, the framework is being put in place, and that happens to be a stage called the pharyngula stage. So it’s an announcement that Yeah, I’m interested in developmental biology and also that nobody’s ever gonna be able to pronounce it. I am so surprised to get as popular as it did.
Doug Berger 3:17
And as I mentioned in your introduction, you teach biology to college students. What’s it like being exposed to these many years of religious conservatives war against science? What’s it like in the classroom has it taken hold? Or are they at least a little bit smarter than that? Or
PZ Myers 3:39
Oh yeah, they’re definitely smarter than that. No, it’s this this is really an A battle from the outside trying to get it in that you know that like I said, this is a small rural town so there’s plenty of churches and very conservative churches, and they hate the idea of teaching evolution. They occasionally bring in creationist speakers at their church events and so forth. But it’s it’s just not affecting the classroom because the students are here to learn and they want to learn the best science that’s out there and it’s not creationism you know, I occasionally get a student who’s kind of leaning creationist who has been brought up with it for instance, but they either learn pretty quickly that that’s not compatible with the science the evidence, the observations, the experiments, and they either drop out or become English majors are or the they learn that and then they learn better that you’re not you’re not going to get anywhere with creationism.
Doug Berger 4:50
And, and we see that the current battle recently is between beleaguered school board members and parents who do their own research to oppose mass mandates and vaccines. What do you think that we can do to stamp down that kind of action or attempt it?
PZ Myers 5:11
I wish I knew not but just this has been the same situation it’s been like for, you know, 40 years that probably longer but that’s before my time that all the action has been going on at the level of friends and school boards that what’s going on is that you’ve got all these teachers who are sensible and informed and wise, and they’re doing the right thing in the classroom. And then you got these clowns coming in, and taking over student school boards and trying to tell the teachers what to do. You know, a great example was the Kitzmiller trial. That was a case where the teachers are doing the best they can. They’re, they’re teaching the real science. And then you get a couple of wacky school board members were very conservative and who think intelligent design is new, a new idea, with lots of backing behind it. And they tried to force that on the teachers and they objected. It was teachers who brought that trial to court because they were not going to stand for this crap.
Doug Berger 6:24
And it was some of those teachers too, were Christians believe Bible believing Christians, and they still objected to it. Which I found heartening. Oh, yeah.
PZ Myers 6:33
Yes. And you know, some of the best testimonies that test was at trial was like Ken Miller getting up there and he’s a Christian. That you you can actually be a Christian and not be stupid. That ought to be the message we get out there. But the creationists are telling the opposite. They’re saying, Oh, yeah, in order to be a good believer in Jesus, you got to leave your brain at the door when it comes to science.
Doug Berger 7:02
And why do you think in your personal opinion, why do you think protecting the public health has become so political?
PZ Myers 7:11
Oh, man, that’s a tough one. You didn’t tell me you’re gonna ask hard questions. Yeah, you know, it’s personally I think a lot of it is because we have created a media environment that tolerates encourages misinformation that we have, you know, Fox News, we have blaze TV, we have, you know, all these different outlets, we have all these think tanks that are backing it with millionaires and billionaires pumping money into it all to train people to accept the most outrageous nonsense that that they’re they’re being trained to swallow whatever conspiracy theory comes out of a rich man’s mouth. And that has represent repercussions obviously. You know, and you could imagine that it starts off with people with sincere religious beliefs who want to see those religious beliefs promoted. But eventually it gets to the point where you know, I was reading where they’re recently coming out now with pro smoking initiatives, trying to get people to believe that it’s okay to smoke again. That by undermining undermining science and medicine, you have suddenly got away to make a lot of money selling for instance, water as a medicine, and yeah, horse paste and who knows what else? Yeah. So it’s largely I think, driven by media and misinformation.
Doug Berger 9:00
Now everybody knows if they’ve read your blog and and met you in person that you are an atheist? Definitely, how did you come about to become an atheist? Was it because you got into the hard sciences? Or was there a particular incident that led you astray as it were?
PZ Myers 9:20
There were there were multiple incidents, actually. I mean, it was it wasn’t like there was a come to non Jesus moment or something. You know, Rebecca Watson just came up with this really interesting video about it, where they pointed out that one of the major factors is, you know, family, the PPO note, do they actually walk the walk? Or do they just treat religion and church going, as you know, the thing that you do without really believing? And I think I could say that, yeah, that was a contributing factor to me that my parents just By being non nominally involved in particular churches didn’t really believe Didn’t you know, it’s a social thing, you’re, you’re supposed to go to church. So good he go and then you discover well your mom and dad don’t really believe it that much. That that was one factor is just this this erosion of this belief that it was a required thing to believe in God. But other events, you know, I’ve I’ve recounted this in some of my writing about one of the one of the most traumatic things for me was Apollo eight, that was the mission that went around the moon. And that was on Christmas, and Christmas, his presence and good food, and all that kind of stuff. And my family all got gathered around that television to listen to the astronauts read from the Bible. And, you know, here I was, I was I must have been, what 10 or 11 years old. And I’m listening to this and thinking that this is, this is a total waste of time. You’re at the moon. Come on. This is where you talk about science. And you get me excited about the cool geology or whatever you call lunar geology, and, you know, talk about space and all this great stuff. And instead, you’re pulling out this ancient bit of poetry that’s not even relevant. And, you know, some of my family members were all Oh, that’s so sweet. That’s wonderful. And I’m just gagging. And that that was a distinct memory for me that it was one of those events that led me to become an anti theist, more than just an atheist is seeing how this was poisoning the stuff I really cared about.
Doug Berger 11:55
Yeah, there was the other day. Our State Historical Society had a picture up from 1969. It was Neil Armstrong. It was what was it like a public gathering in Wapakoneta, his hometown. And they were having it was at the fairgrounds, and it was a big party. 1000s of people were there. And it was hosted by Bob Hope, who’s from originally from the Cleveland area, and had Ed McMahon. And in the caption, it said, Dr. Albert Sabin was there. And I was like, why was Dr. Albert Sabin at this party? Here come to find out because I did a little reading was that he did his initial research on his polio vaccine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. And so I’m like, that would not I don’t think that that would happen today, where they would have some big event like that, and honor a scientist like that, because of this anti intellectualism view that they’d have today.
PZ Myers 13:14
If they did, there would be protesters out with really stupid,
Doug Berger 13:19
right? Maybe Westboro would show up or something. Who knows. The The other thing that I wanted to get into also, one of the topics, continual topics that you talk about on your blog, is that you are known for calling out terrible people in the freethought community for being terrible. And at one point, you had been sued by somebody that had been called out you you yourself, Hadn’t you just kind of reported what had happened? And they sued you too? Yeah. Why do you think that the problem of terrible people in our community just doesn’t seem to want to go away? It just, you seem to find them keep coming up in and sprouting up again,
PZ Myers 14:11
right? It’s the same problem that I think the religious people have is that you put somebody up on a pedestal, and then you refuse to ever consider the possibility that they may have flaws. You just you just don’t want to do that. Everyone’s got to be perfect up there. So what that means is then that you’ve got this concerted effort by the community to consciously ignore the bad things that are going on. And as skeptics, as humanists, as atheists, we shouldn’t be doing that we should be, you know, we should. You know, it would be nice if you could call out somebody for their bad behavior and it doesn’t mean that you set them on fire. Throw them in a ditch somewhere. It means that that behavior is repudiated by everyone involved. And the perpetrator, you know, wakes up and notices that, oh yeah, I’ve been I’ve been doing this wicked nasty thing, and I’ve got these really bad attitudes and I should work on fixing them. They never seem to. It’s more. Yeah. Yes. It was perfectly okay that I raped children when I was young. I’ve gotten better since they say, but it was not that you can’t complain about pedophilia. That seems to be one of the more common sorts of excuses they make. So you know, or they pretend that they that they didn’t know about it, you know, all the people who were associated with Jeffrey Epstein, for instance, there’s there have been a number of them, who, you know, prominent scientists who are involved in this. And as far as I know, not a single one of them has stepped up and said, Oh, I was wrong. To do that, that I shouldn’t have done that. Wait, excuse me, there is one who George Church actually came out and said, that was a mistake. It shouldn’t have happened. And I will do my best not to ever have it happen again. But all the other people… No, I didn’t know about that. He was a good guy.
Doug Berger 16:31
Yeah, there’s that photo with Lawrence Krauss and Steven Pinker and Jeffrey Epstein.
PZ Myers 16:38
Right. Yeah. And Krauss is one of the worst who made the most horrible excuse I’ve ever heard for this by saying, you know, all the women I saw him hanging out with were over 21. And I don’t believe that he carded them. No, I don’t think so sure. That that was just you know, it was it was clearly this, this interesting self rationalization that he was doing that. They they were supposed to have been over 21 therefore they were over 21 Never mind that. Epstein was busily objectifying them all. You It doesn’t mean that when you turn 21 all of a sudden you are fairgame right.
Doug Berger 17:27
Hello, this is Douglas host of the Glass City Humanist. Would you like to hear more from our episode, check out our Ko-fi page and donate or become a member to see exclusive bonus content. That’s ko hyphen fi.com. Slash glass city humanist.
Doug Berger 17:49
You obviously you teach on a college campus. And there’s been a steady stream of reports recently talking about the myth of cancel culture. Do you see any of that in your neck of the woods? Or? Or do you have an opinion on on that myth?
PZ Myers 18:09
Do I have an opinion? That’s a silly question. Yes, I have opinions. I have lots of opinions. And I’m not shy about sharing them. Do I see it? Well, not really, because the canceled culture that people are complaining about is largely a fiction. That what what canceled culture is, is holding people accountable for what they say and do. That’s really all that really means is, yeah, we’re not going to overlook that behavior that you engaged in last week. So in that sense, yeah, I see it all the time that you know, we have students who do the right thing all that is, for instance, several years ago, the University of Minnesota was roiled because Condoleezza Rice was invited to be a speaker. And a quite a few of our students noted you know, Condoleezza Rice is kind of a war criminal. Why, why are we inviting her to speak on campus campus? And then it was discovered that she’s getting paid like $100,000 for her appear Wow. Yeah. That you know, that that ought to set everybody on fire is why are we spending so much money on this horrible person to come speak, but the fact that that some of our students protested and refuse to go and boycotted everything that was treated as canceled culture. Okay, then I wholeheartedly approve of canceled culture. We should, we should do more of it. Yeah. Yeah.
Doug Berger 19:54
I think that there’s some, some topics and some discussions that we Don’t need to be having again and again and again. Particularly when it talks about racism and sexism. And, you know, that’s to me, those are not debatable issues.
PZ Myers 20:11
Correct? Yeah, that, you know, I’ve got transgender friends who have made this good point is that why should we encourage people to debate whether we are human or not? You know, the humanity of these people is not in question. Yet we have this growing movement, you know, the, the TERFs, or the gender criticals, or whatever, who are jumping on this and basically trying to make human beings illegal. It’s a that’s another term we also apply to people who weren’t born in this country and migrate here is, suddenly they’re illegals, there’s no such thing as an illegal human being.
Doug Berger 20:51
Yeah, that’s the main thing that I like to try to get across to people is that everybody has some basic dignity and worth that they have. And people shouldn’t be deciding whether or not they deserve equal treatment or, or help or things like that, you know, it should, yes, it should come from just being human.
PZ Myers 21:16
Right. And, you know, like, I lived through the Reagan years, and, you know, the 80s 90s, the early 2000s, when people were basically persecuting gay folk, just saying, you know, they deserve what they get. But that gay diseases, Jesus’s curse on them, and horrible, horrible things like that. And I think we’re a little bit behind that now. A little bit, a little bit. Yeah, there’s, I can think of a few prominent people on the right, who still think that way, but you know, that that’s something that we ought not to reward with speaking gigs on college campuses. Just, we’re done with that. They’re, they’re all people. That’s just, if you want to argue with that, you’re not going to do it here.
Doug Berger 22:11
I noticed when following your blog, and and checking out your public posts and your YouTube channel, that you’re currently studying spiders. But you previously studied zebrafish? Why did you change it? Why didn’t you change up?
PZ Myers 22:32
There’s a lot of reasons. If you’d follow my blog for long, you know, I also have an obsession with cephalopods. These I, I’m really interested in creatures that deviate from what we think of as the norm. You know, we’re very human centric, very vertebrate centric, and zebrafish of course are vertebrates. And I don’t want to encourage us to think that way that we should always be appreciating the diversity of nature, and all the different solutions that have evolved. So I was I was, I use cephalopods as my exercise. You know, whenever I read a dozen papers about fish, take a moment go read a paper about octopus, right? Right. It just broadens the mind. And then I just realized, Hey, I’m in landlocked Minnesota. There are no cephalopods anywhere near me. I can dream about working on them, but I can’t do a thing with them. And so I started casting about for other organisms that would be entertaining to explore, and discovered, I discovered a number of papers by people who were studying Parasteatoda this, this house spider is a model organism. And it sounded really interesting. They’re asking interesting questions. And also, I could go out to my garage and collect a whole bunch of these. And then there are easy protocols for raising them in the lab. So I thought, yeah, I should be doing this. So that was one motivation behind the switch. The other is increasing concern about the environment that you’ve noticed global warming, all this climate change going on. There’s an insect apocalypse going on right now. So what I saw also was an opportunity to look at local foreigner and see what’s going on locally right here in my neighborhood, and ask what’s going on my very first project with these spiders was, I propose that we study spiders as a proxy for the larger community of insects that are out there because spiders almost are almost all entirely predators. On arthropods, other insects and other insects, insects I was not going to get into because there’s just too many of them, right? They’re too different. I can’t possibly comprehend all that taxonomy. So you have to wade through, but you can use spiders as a proxy. Because if something is depleting the population of insects, the spiders are going to feel it. And if by studying spiders, you can get a handle on that. So yeah, that was my first project is I got a group of students together. And we sort of canvassed our local community, visiting garages and shacks and houses and, and just asking what spiders are present here and getting a count. And then the plan was, I would come back in the next year and the year after that, and repeat the same process. And then we get a we get a picture of how are the spider populations faring here in western Minnesota. And then this stupid pandemic comes along. And suddenly, it is not cool to go visit strangers homes. Okay, even if, even if you’re doing something as weird as looking at their spiders, suddenly, it’s a bad idea. Also, it’s a bad idea to get your students and drag them out to all these houses. And so that project got put on the backburner. And I’m hoping that people will get smart and everyone will take the vaccine, and we can end the pandemic so I can go count spiders again next summer. That’s the real reason I want everybody to get vaccinated. Okay, so we can get out of this fight? Yes.
Doug Berger 26:44
All right. Well, as we wrap up this interview here, usually give a minute to my interviewee to go ahead and take the microphone. And if you have something to promote, or something that you want to get people to know the takeaway from, from what we’ve talked about today, feel free.
PZ Myers 27:05
Okay, the takeaways I would say, this has been an ongoing theme and all of my writing is that science is important. But it’s still got to take into account social factors, that we’re working with human beings, and you got to appreciate the complexity of human interactions. So social justice plus science forever. Okay, that’s that’s one thing. Then the other is, of course, you already mentioned I should plug freethought blogs. So we’ve got this, this network of bloggers that we that we put together. It’s been 10 years now. And we’ve got something like 30 blogs that are relatively active. And we were all of them have to be involved in social justice in some way. They’re not all science blogs, we get a few science blogs, but main criterion is, are you appreciative as of social justice, and we’ve had a few blogs that got kicked out to large, loud fanfare because they weren’t that they were pretty bad. And so I thought, yeah, I’m sure when they flamed out, it gets loud and we get sued a couple of times. And yeah, usually the lawsuits fold because it’s really stupid to sue because somebody doesn’t want to hang out with you. That’s basically what they were doing. So yeah, we should you should check in with free thought blogs.com where we’re trying to get geared up for the new fad, which is podcasts. So yeah, once a month, we get a group of us together and we hang out and record a we call it a Podish sort of cast because we didn’t know what the name is. Is it a podcast isn’t what it was, I don’t know what this is. It’s just it’s just a bunch of social justice warriors hanging out and chatting.
Doug Berger 29:06
PZ Myers 29:10
You would never do so. No, not at all. Yeah, but I think it’s valuable. You know, it’s one of the things we’ve kind of lost in the atheist community over the years was was that sense of community? Because there were so many so many deep rifts forming and loud bickering and angry people and so forth. So having having a little community podcast, having a network of blogs, that’s a way to replace that and hopefully rebuild a community from the ground up.
Doug Berger 29:47
Okay, well, again, I thank you PZ for your time today and, and good luck with your spider research and all of your other endeavors.
PZ Myers 29:58
Sure, yeah. I got 150 spiders sit in the lab right now. Yeah, they’re doing fine. It’s some of my projects had to be on hold for a while.
Voice Over 30:11
Thank you for listening. For information about the topics in this episode, please visit the episode page at glasscityhumanist.show. Glass City Humanist is an outreach of the Secular Humanists of Western Lake Erie, and is supported in part by a grant by the American Humanist Association. The AHA can be reached at americanhumanist.org SHoWLE can be reached at humanistswle.org. Glass City Humanist is hosted, written and produced by Douglas Berger, and he is solely responsible for the content. Our theme music is Glass City Jam composed using the amplify studio See you next time.
Transcript is created by machine and is approximate to what was recorded
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Written, produced, and edited by Douglas Berger and he is entirely responsible for the content. Incidental voice overs by Shawn Meagley
The GCH theme is “Glass City Jam” composed using Ampify Studio
This episode by Glass City Humanist is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.