Ph.Blog.

As our About Us page mentions, I’m a Ph.D. student in biology, specializing in environmental toxicology.  Since I’m at the University of Ottawa and I didn’t have the requisite UOttawa Student Who Doesn’t Work With Fish human sacrifice, my model organisms are fish.  When I’m not blogging or cleaning aquaria, I’m pursuing that degree: reading scientific papers, trading Emails with the aquatic facility regarding space and fish, injecting fish with things, collecting fish tissues, and otherwise living the demanding life of a soon-to-be Doctor of Philosophy.  This isn’t an unusual life for an atheist blogger. Dozens of us are involved in education, science, or both, and I can name several relatively big names who are working on their graduate degrees at present.  This experience, and the background required to get this far, has colored my perspective as a writer and thinker on issues surrounding atheism and continues to inform my approach to many of my creative endeavors.

So why don’t I talk about it more?

A lot of it has to do with Jen McCreight.  Once upon a time she wrote several posts addressing this very same question, and most of those situations apply to me as well.  I blog under my own name, more-or-less, and I’ve made no particular effort (other than not using my last name very often) to create a wall of plausible deniability between this blog and the rest of my life.  Ania’s and my business cards have both of our full names on them; we refer to our personal affairs regularly; I even mention every now and then what university will eventually be on my diploma.   So, my commentary here may end up reflecting on me either as a potential hire someday or as part of some review of my relationship to my university.  I cannot afford to vent my occasional frustrations with my professional relationships in a public forum under my own name, even more than someone like PZ Myers who is already in a tenure-track position.  I take enough risks with the above; I go no further.

Another problematic aspect is the nature of my research.  Part of the requirement for Ph.D. work is originality, which means that a Ph.D. has to represent a body of new pieces of scientific information not previously known.  Where a master’s degree, depending on the institution, might permit the bulk of one’s work to be confirmatory or otherwise not entirely new, I do not have that option.  Every similar project that someone else is doing, at whatever stage in their career, is potentially a threat to mine.  If someone else publishes something that answers one of the questions I’m asking, it’s likely I will have to dramatically reevaluate one of my planned experiments and one of the chapters of my future thesis, at substantial cost in time (both sunk and about-to-be-sunk), resources, and the goodwill of my supervisor.  Worse, since I’ve already hit snags with other experiments and had to go with backup plans that otherwise might never have seen the light of day, I currently skate on a particularly thin layer of newness atop substantial bodies of older work defining my fields.  So, it’s not in my interest to publicize my unpublished work any more than being a scientist absolutely requires.  I presented a poster this week at the Society for Experimental Biology’s annual conference in Valencia, Spain, which was an intensely informative and helpful experience in addition to being in fracking Valencia.  But dispersing my ideas further than that just yet, before they’re published and unambiguously mine, is not a great plan.  If I get scooped, I might not get my degree.

There’s also a simpler reason why my work doesn’t impinge on this blog very much: It’s my work.  This is my hobby.  This is one of the things I do to get away from what I have to do.  As much as I enjoy being a Ph.D. student, part of what makes that intense job liveable is being able to step away from it.  Getting to think more broadly and about things other than the minutiae of my very specific future contribution to the world’s knowledge is absolutely vital to my sanity, and I maintain that by keeping my professional and blogging subjects at least that separate.

When I have some published results to celebrate, we’ll hear more about my Ph.D. research, and I’ll render a delectable expose about how it, like everything else in science, makes more sense in a world without fairies and devils than with them.  Until then, not so much.

But there is one aspect of my degree that merits more commentary now, and that’s the teaching requirement.

Graduate students at many (most?  all?) institutions receive payment for their work as such, officially in exchange for any maintenance tasks we do for our labs and for the prestige our activities and mere registration bring to the university.  Sometimes, that payment is additionally in exchange for serving as a teaching assistant, lab demonstrator, corrector, or other educated but low-level university employee.  This payment offsets our living expenses and, ostensibly, helps make our ability to pay rent and otherwise survive less of a worry and keeps our minds squarely on the tasks at hand.  As an international student, that money is particularly vital, since my tuition in a semester approximately what a Canadian graduate student would pay in a year.  So I generally teach two sections of a lab course during each semester of the normal school year, in addition to trying to survive my research agenda.

And I love it.

Teaching labs has been one of the most rewarding parts of my academic career, and it saddens me that I’ll almost certainly be passing that up this semester in favor of corrector positions that involve more flexible workloads that I can schedule around my research instead of vice versa.  I’ve particularly enjoyed one class I teach that involves dissections all over the animal kingdom, which has permitted me to share a great deal of entertaining knowledge about obscure animals as well as some fantastic videos.  It’s a lab built around a lecture course in animal diversity and the evolution of distinct body plans and different solutions to the same physiological problems, and that has made it an ideal counterpoint to my (once more) intensely specific individual project.  It lets me combine information with humor, wonder, and context, and it’ll prove to be particularly valuable when I look for full-time teaching positions after graduation.

It’s also the only part of my job that has ever pitted me directly against some of science’s enemies.

Some of the information my students have to learn and keep straight invites a very consistent array of Google searches.  Many of those searches, against all odds, turn up Creation Wiki and Answers in Genesis as the first or second hits.  Here, we have a problem, and a place where I find myself pulled in too many directions to function effectively.

Canada does not have the experience with Intelligent Design propaganda that the United States does.  The US and increasingly Turkey have been the front lines of the war against religiously-motivated destruction of science education.  In the US, a plurality of the people who run for president every election proudly proclaim their denial of science; this does not win elections in Canada.  Canada’s notorious passivity and European influence has made Canadian religion a cultural rather than fervent affiliation.  Large majorities still profess a belief in gods but usually do not rely on that belief to form more than a vague spackle over a mostly science-based worldview.  While this compromise has kept Canada comparatively safe from the plague of anti-science agitators that wafts through the US like a malarial swarm, that vague Christian-ness means that Canadians remain vulnerable to Christian radicalization.  It’s people like them that the Pope Benedict XVI addressed when he asked the world’s wishy-washy Catholics (a large fraction of French Canada in particular) to display their faith openly and proudly rather than ignore it or keep it private.  And it’s people like them, who often receive essentially no religious education but are still expected to profess belief in god as a condition of being regarded as moral human beings, and who have virtually no context for the handful of religious teachings they did receive, who end up being the most vulnerable to the machinations of cult recruiters later in life.  In the quest to understand these inklings of religion, they can end up as nonbelievers, give up partway and stay where they are, or join the zealots, who have an edge on the status quo because they have an actual system in which the various teachings coexist.

Not to mention, religious (usually Catholic) schools are quite numerous in Canada and, in the province of Ontario, receive government funding.  And while the “official” Catholic position is a version of “theistic evolution,” it’s not unheard of for the subject to go totally untouched in religious schools, or deliberately mangled to covertly promote other ideas or avoid creating conflict with more zealous parents.

So Canada has not been immune to ID—it has been complacent.  And that has meant that even Canadian university students do not immediately recognize Creation Wiki and other sites meant to masquerade as valid sources of scientific information as the shams they are.  This is a generation blissfully unaware that, a few hundred kilometers south, legal battles ensue every year about this or that teacher, school district, or entire state trying to cut off their fiefdom’s ability to educate future STEM practitioners at the knees in the name of religion.  This is a generation brought up on the idea that discussing religion is taboo, private, not something that people do, so they’ve never talked about this or any other conflict between religion and reality.  This is a generation that has not been privy to the lengths to which the creationist lobbies have gone to find new ways to present their same ideology to make it look fresh and real for those who haven’t been watching them.  This is a generation that sees a site called Creation Wiki and doesn’t immediately snicker and then look further down the search results for actual science.

I have encountered my students picking through Creation Wiki looking for particularly obscure facts (this time about the segments of crayfish), not recognizing or even noticing the occasional peppering of creationist buzzwords in an otherwise ordinary but unhelpful article.  I have encountered my students picking through the Creation Wiki’s article on Homo erectus (the site claims that species corresponds to the Tower of Babel incident!) in rapt fascination.  Was she thrilled to see these two aspects of their lives so aggressively made to conform with one another and exist as a “whole”?  The ensuing conversation did not prove illuminating.

I’ve seen Master’s students at their defenses stare confusedly at the question of where genetic variation comes from, and offer in a blank panic, “God”?

This is the generation I have to convince that sites that look like science sites but were written by religious zealots pushing a religious agenda are not to be trusted.

A generation that grew up on the idea that religion and science don’t conflict because they’re “both right” even though they make immediately contradictory statements about how the world works.  A generation that goes glassy-eyed and uncomprehending at the idea of people having religious beliefs that directly oppose known scientific facts, let alone pushing those as an “alternative” to the scientific consensus.  A generation whose spirituality is of the fuzzy, mutable variety that shapes itself gelatinously around any materialist challenge and then returns to whatever it was before once the “closed-minded” attack is over.

This is the generation that I have to convince that some people’s religions are just WRONG.  So that they can pass their midterms.

And I have to do it from within an officially secular and government-run university originally founded by Catholic oblates whose motto is “God is the greatest scientist” and whose campus of religious studies was previously a Catholic seminary.  As an employee several bosses removed of a government legally prevented from promoting any creed, religious or otherwise, and liable to be reprimanded or even removed if I insult the religious beliefs of anyone present.

This is one place where my understanding of what a secular state actually is conflicts with the state’s understanding.  Were it mine instead of theirs, there would be no question that it is my obligation as an educator to correct incorrect ideas I come across, and the reason why those ideas are held would be regarded as a total irrelevance to whether I should be correcting them.  I would have the full support of every level of administration above me all the way to the Prime Minister in telling students that want to trust Creation Wiki: “Your personal beliefs are your business.  You will not do well in this class if you answer questions incorrectly, and that includes answering with a religious rather than scientific understanding of the topic at hand.  This is a science class—religion is the other campus.  You believe what you want—but you will not pass this class if you do not demonstrate an understanding of the science of biology as it currently stands, and for the past 200-ish years, that includes evolution.  You believe what you want—but you will not function effectively as a participant in our information-based, science-utilizing society if you do not understand what science is, what it means, what it does, and what that means for non-science versions of how the world works.  You believe what you want—but Creation Wiki and its kin are not presenting science and will not be accepted as sources thereof in this class.  Within a scientific context, their methods are deplorable and their conclusions are nonsense, and will be treated accordingly if they are utilized instead of correct information in this class.  Believe them if you want—but if your assignments do, they’re not going to like it and neither are you.”

But I suspect, if I were actually that direct, I’d be burned at the stake called in for a long talk with the course coordinator with a real risk of losing my teaching position.  And if that ultimatum led to a more drawn-out conversation pitting literalist or ID religion against science during class time or if my not being a believer somehow became known to my students, the resulting shitstorm would be of…Biblical proportions.  They might even expect me to apologize for educating my students.  After all, if they were prepared to handle this situation reasonably, their students would already know what creationism is and why it can’t be trusted. 

And it’s far too late for me to set myself up elsewhere, in the event that my assorted supervisors decide that educating their students is too trivial a thing to prioritize over not correcting false ideas that they hold extra-super-sincerely and that are actively getting between them and understanding what they and I are teaching.  I want to say that, if the course coordinators ever made an issue of me offering the previous quote as an answer to this scenario when (not if) it happens again, I’d tell them that I’m prepared to walk out of that position on the spot and never even apply for it or any others coordinated by the same people again until they are replaced or they apologize to me …but I’m not.  If I lose a teaching position, not only will my thesis adviser suddenly have to pick up the financial slack from his own grant, but I’ll have massively reduced the range of possible teaching appointments I could get at uOttawa and loudly shat on my chances of getting any sort of teaching-related recommendation in the future.  And possibly put my degree in jeopardy, for good measure.

I haven’t figured out exactly how I’m going to handle Creation Wiki the next time I see its loathsome, laughable face in my classroom, but I have a few ideas.  Maybe I’ll even get thanks from my students for it, like they regularly thank me for having so many educational videos on hand.
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