Archive for January, 2011

This blog, above all else, is committed to the truth.

And, in that spirit of providing you with honest and accurate commentary, I’m not even going to look up the names of those two football people who got told off or fired or something for being sexist dicks.

If I started doing research like that, it might provide you with the misleading impression that I give enough of a shit about their names to look them up, or even to remember them after hearing everyone yammer on about them all day. So fuck research.

Whoever they were, they got caught saying some pretty demeaning things about women, and as such they have been widely castigated. I think at least one of them’s been fired. Seems jolly sensible. Sexism is bad. Can’t be having that.

Of course, there’s been a bit of a response from the other direction, too. The first hint of it that I noticed was when Michael Marshall tweeted:

RE Gray and Keys – are we also calling for the sacking of women broadcasters who’ve said ‘men are pigs’ or ‘men think with their penis’?

Later adding:

Just to reiterate, I don’t side with Gray. I’m just interested that we treat sexism by men more seriously than sexism by women, & wonder why

Some people took this idea further. In particular, Giles Coren wrote a piece for the Daily Mail, noting the common disparity in how certain topics are treated depending on the gender of the people involved.

Only last week, for example, Jo Brand, the newly crowned Best Female TV Comic at the British Comedy Awards, was on Have I Got News For You and replied to the question “What’s your favourite kind of man, Jo?” by saying: “A dead one.” Oh, how the audience fell about. And the other contestants, all male, chortled away too.

I’m not saying it wasn’t funny. I’m just saying we live in a world where the thorough-going awfulness, uselessness and superfluity of the male sex is such a given, that a frontline television comic can get big laughs by saying she’d prefer it if we were all dead.

Anton Vowl thought Giles’s whole effort worthy of relentless parody, but I’m more willing to concede that the guy has a substantial point.

I mean… why is it okay to make those jokes about one gender but not the other? Remove the question from the context of any sanctimonious whining about how tough men have it these days, and just consider it on its own merit. The above joke is funny, but laughing at dead women is much more likely to be uncomfortable and unacceptable. What’s the reasoning behind it?

You can answer this in part by bringing up the general power balance present in the world. Women are struggling to gain full acceptance in many ways; men generally don’t expect to be discriminated against beyond the level of vacuous joking. Women being actually murdered by men is a more prevalent societal problem, and so joking about it is less acceptable.

But, even given that such an imbalance exists, is that really the way you want to redress it? Declare that demeaning jokes and insults are acceptable only one-way, to bring the more powerful side down to the weaker’s level? It seems like this way we both lose.

There is a difference between sexist jokes against men and sexist jokes against women, but it’s not simply that one’s okay and the other isn’t.

Prejudice against men isn’t simply identical-but-in-the-opposite-direction to that against women. The motivations behind it are different.

Misandry is presumably, for the most part, a reaction to the perception of male dominance. This doesn’t justify it – there are far better ways to respond to gender imbalance than to demean men in an effort to drag them down to whatever level women feel they’ve been reduced to.

But it comes from a very different place, and is motivated by different emotions, from misogyny, and so it merits a different kind of response.

One joke is funny, and the other sinister, because of the different assumptions on which each one rests.

Gender-based prejudice against men is implicitly justified by the assumption that they’re big boys, they can handle it, and it’s not actually doing anyone any harm, because men are still dominant and in control and powerful.

And there’s no doubt that this assumption is harmful and wrong. Whatever might be said about the general role of men in society, or “the patriarchy”, many individual men can feel demeaned and unfairly belittled as a direct result of exactly such careless bandying about of sexist stereotypes.

This is just a fact. Many men, for instance, feel insecure about the size of their penis, because unfair mockery and ridicule based on this arbitrary quality is socially acceptable. It shouldn’t detract from the similar prejudicial suffering of women (which is also very real) to point out that this does happen to men, and it is unjust when it does.

Gender-based prejudice against women, on the other hand, is implicitly justified by an entirely different set of assumptions. The unspoken undercurrent seems to state that women just aren’t as relevant as men to this discussion. Birds don’t understand football. Chicks are emotionally unstable and don’t have any rational opinions worth listening to.

Which also sucks, and is entirely unfair and causes a great deal of unwarranted pain, and is something actively struggled against by many compassionate people, while still being ingrained at some level in general social discourse.

In short: sexism against men and women both exist, and are both bad, and both deserve to be addressed. But they stem from different sources, and they need to be considered in different ways. We don’t need to act like taking serious notice of one problem means the other one “doesn’t matter”.

Giles is right about a lot of this. Unfortunately, he ultimately falls into the same trap that he’s bemoaning.

Many women have reacted to the deeply ingrained societal bias against them by making cruel and biased jokes about men – which, as Giles points out, are unjust, and would be far more obviously so if the gender roles were reversed.

But when Giles responds in turn to this unfair bias, he does much the same thing again himself: proposing unfair stereotypes about women, which fail to recognise the huge variety of experience that an entire gender is subject to.

He’s entirely right to deride the insane idea that “If women ruled the world, there would be no wars.” There are women around the world who hold some executive power, after all, and I don’t think we’ve seen any evidence that they couldn’t be just as capable as men of fucking the whole place up if given half a chance. But how does Giles respond?

What nonsense. Women are far meaner, more brutal, aggressive, small-minded, jealous, petty and venal than any man.

If women ruled the world ­countries would be invaded because “she’s always been jealous of my feet” and because “she looks down on me for going out to work”.

Millions would die, torture would increase. If women ruled the world there would be carnage.

Not helping. It’s unfair when women go over the top describing how awful men are, so don’t make it worse by doing the same thing yourself. That was your whole point.

Have I done enough yet? I’ve lost the thread a bit. I’d be interested to see which aspect of this most people think I’ve got the most wrong.

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I’m really not interested in this story, but it’s starting to feel a little remiss of me not to at least mention it.

Recently, the media made a big hoo-hah over the fact that the constellations aren’t where they used to be in the sky, because of shifts in the way the Earth moves.

This was old news – it’s been going on for centuries, and has been trotted out in the media before – but someone wanted to sell some newspapers, so it’s back again as if something had only just happened. It hasn’t made any noticeable difference to anyone’s lives this time around, either.

Then, someone did some data analysis on popular horoscopes, and found that they all tend to say the same bland generic crap regardless of what sign they’re for. (For some reason the words “keep”, “feel”, and “sure” seem to leap out at you across the board.)

This is also not even slightly news to anyone who’s had much practice at thinking.

And, to the continued surprise of nobody, astrologers have responded by down-playing the importance of basing what they do on anything so drab as reality.

Phil Plait‘s write-up of this points to this article on astrology.com, which offers some revealing advice (just before happily admitting that astrology is pseudoscience) to readers who, while happy to base their life choices around some imaginary pictures in the sky, are worried that they’ve been using the wrong ones:

If it’s always been easy to link predictions to actual events using your sun sign, continue to follow that. If you’ve been reading your rising sign like me, and it works, continue that. If you feel your “new” zodiac sign coincides more. You just may even want to give that a whirl!

Doesn’t that sound inclusive and progressive and non-dogmatic and lovely? Astrology can be about whatever works for you.

These new signs are a load of nonsense because scientists don’t understand us, but if they suit you better, then go for it!

There are so many different kinds of astrology – which just means there are loads of different ways for it to be right! Just ignore all the ones that don’t work for you.

If you’re usually a Libra but you’ve read the horoscopes for all the signs and feel more like a Sagittarius today, just follow your heart!

In fact, why not start by deciding how you feel, then find a horoscope which sounds like that, and that’s what sign you are today! You can even go back and look through readings for the past few weeks, if you like! It’s probably ascendant or in retrograde or something so that’s totally allowed if it works for you.

Sorry, but sarcasm is the only thing I have that’s strong enough to overpower my stifling lack of interest. I’ve written about astrology already as much as I want to, and it’s still just as much bunk as it was then.

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Dr Kermit Gosnell, if the allegations made against him are to be believed, should be locked up for life.

He apparently spent decades performing illegal abortions, with inadequate equipment and untrained staff, causing untold harm to hundreds of women and a number of deaths.

No doubt many will miss the point, but as PZ points out, the case of Kermit Gosnell is entirely unconnected to the legal, authorised pregnancy terminations available in medical clinics across the country.

Based on infection and fatality rates, legal abortion is “safer for the mother than carrying a pregnancy to term“. Over a million abortions are performed each year in the US, the overwhelming majority of which happen safely, accompanied by appropriate counselling and follow-up care.

The only connection that these procedures have to the kind of fucked up shit Kermit Gosnell is accused of is that, if the anti-choice fanatics (who are jumping all over this case) get their way and have all abortion outlawed, many more women will feel that going to some dodgy back-alley hack with no official regulation is their only choice.

They want a woman to have to choose between bringing an unwanted baby to term, with all the risks and complications that involves – even if, right now, it’s just an indistinct cluster of cells – or seriously risking her health with a dangerous quack who could just be after her money and not have any real idea how to use those sharp things he proposes to shove into her vagina.

There’s a lot to object to about this story, but claiming Gosnell’s actions as the inevitable result of a society that allows safe legal abortions isn’t it.

Update: Wow. PZ got another email about this, from a woman making anti-abortion arguments that were visceral, emotive, and sub-rational. He’s not impressed.

And rightly so. The fact that it looks icky shouldn’t be our ultimate guide to the ethics of a procedure like abortion. It’s not hard to make all kinds of surgery look pretty disgusting, whether or not it involves a fœtus. The thing that matters to us should be the facts, not a gut response based on how our brains are programmed to instinctively react to certain unpleasant sights.

And anyway, for someone like PZ, it’s not even that grisly a spectacle:

I’m a biologist. I’ve guillotined rats. I’ve held eyeballs in my hand and peeled them apart with a pair of scissors. I’ve used a wet-vac to clean up a lake of half-clotted blood from an exsanguinated dog. I’ve opened bodies and watched the intestines do their slow writhing dance, I’ve been elbow deep in blood, I’ve split open cats and stabbed them in the heart with a perfusion needle. I’ve extracted the brains of mice…with a pair of pliers. I’ve scooped brains out of buckets, I’ve counted dendrites in slices cut from the brains of dead babies.

You want to make me back down by trying to inspire revulsion with dead baby pictures? I look at them unflinchingly and see meat. And meat does not frighten me.

Holy shit.

Sleep well, everyone.

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Joe Nickell is one of the big dogs of skepticism.

Less well known on my side of the pond, perhaps, but still a huge deal in the world of skeptical inquiry, particularly as regards paranormal investigations. He’s done a huge amount of work over a number of decades, exploring claims of supernatural phenomena, assessing bizarre and potentially anomalous situations, and seeking any evidence that they might be caused by things beyond the material world.

The list of books he’s written and TV shows he’s contributed to is truly intimidating, and his work has no doubt been hugely beneficial in bringing home the importance of rationality and evidence-based reasoning to a wide audience.

And this interview I heard him give recently bugged the shit out of me.

D.J. Grothe was speaking to him for the For Good Reason podcast, and Joe was discussing his lengthy career investigating alleged paranormal phenomena. Like the various ghost-hunting TV shows, he’s visited many sites of supposedly spooky happenings, trying to pin down whether there might be a ghost causing it all, and avoiding the common pitfalls that these shows tend to fall into, such as screaming and leaping into the air every time someone clears their throat, tuning your psychic vibes into a porn channel by mistake, or just plain making shit up.

So far, Joe’s found nothing conclusive to support any supernatural claims, but obviously he keeps an open mind with every new investigation he goes into.

In fact, a far greater bugbear for Joe than people touting unsubstantiated paranormal woo seemed to be the “armchair skeptics”, who like to sit comfortably at home and proclaim knowledgeably to the world that there’s simply no such thing as ghosts, no matter what some deluded fools with a creaky house think they’ve been hearing.

I obviously took this as the personal insult it was no doubt intended to be. So, I’m going to say it:

There’s no such thing as ghosts.

I’m not in an armchair, but I’m sitting comfortably enough, so it probably still counts.

Look, just because I have the balls to state an opinion doesn’t mean I consider every aspect of the matter incontrovertibly settled and have no interest in re-evaluating my position based on new evidence. I’ve wondered before why atheism seems to come under disproportionate fire for being closed-mindedly certain about things, as if religious believers were generally any better at honestly considering the evidence that they might be completely wrong in what they believe.

I’d say that applies to things like ghosts too. Believers don’t seem to be obliged to genuinely consider alternative explanations which undermine the foundations of what they think, but people who don’t get on board are often branded as stubbornly refusing to accept the evidence just because they dare to question it.

I’m getting off track. Obviously Joe Nickell isn’t convinced by claims about ghosts either, so he’s not railing against fellow non-believers like this. But he did spend a good deal of the interview distancing himself from anyone who simply dismisses ghostly reportings without investigating them. On his website he describes his position as a kind of middle ground between “mystery-mongerers on the one hand and so-called debunkers on the other”.

I’m going to call bullshit on the dichotomy he claims to reject. (And also on the suffix “mongerers”.)

If someone professes a belief in ghosts, I have never once heard someone else then immediately respond by sneering: “Oh, so you’ve already made your mind up that ghosts definitely exist? You’re not even prepared to consider the possibility that you might be wrong? That’s such a closed-minded approach to take.”

And yet these exact assumptions are regularly made about non-believers in all kinds of things, even by fellow skeptics.

Why? If I don’t believe in ghosts, it’s because I haven’t seen any convincing evidence that they exist. Nowhere within that statement is any implicit assertion that I wouldn’t believe it even if I did encounter convincing evidence. I hope I would change my mind under such conditions, since I claim to aspire toward rationality.

In fact, it can be a fun and worthwhile exercise to try and pin down exactly what would constitute “convincing evidence” for such a supernatural phenomenon. I haven’t done this for ghosts yet, and would need to research the background to the phenomenon more before I tried. I would hope that paranormal investigators who claim to be scientific about what they do have at least some idea of what these criteria might be.

It’s clear that an armchair skeptic (hi!) is quite capable of expressing an opinion far less presumptive, condescending, and assholeish than Joe seems to think a good deal of other skeptics really hold. Many would say something like:

Well, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I can’t know for sure what was going on in [allegedly ghostly/haunted/whatever location], because I haven’t checked it out, and no other investigative teams have looked at what’s going on yet. I’m yet to see anything to convince me, but who knows what might be causing [observed phenomenon]? I can’t say anything without having been anywhere near the place. This armchair is really comfy. Someone get me some more Doritos, I don’t want to get up.

And this would be all very fair and reasonable and inclusive and probably mollify Joe a good deal. But I think a reasonable armchair skeptic can say more than this, and doesn’t have to sound so wussy and accommodating.

I’ve mentioned this quote which I can’t precisely remember at least once before on this blog, and do please let me know if you have any idea who said it better than I’m going to – but the point is this:

Yes, we shouldn’t go into situations like this assuming that we know what’s going on, seeking only to confirm our initial suspicions and ignoring or explaining away any evidence that might point to a new and unexpected (possibly paranormal) phenomenon.

But, we also don’t have to act like these exact initial reports – strange noises in old buildings, spooky sightings of people who weren’t there, unexplained images appearing in photographs, whatever – haven’t been seen before thousands of times and always led to nothing.

I think a more appropriate skeptical position would be something like:

Well, I can’t know for sure what was going on in [allegedly ghostly/haunted/whatever location], because I haven’t checked it out, and no other investigative teams have looked at what’s going on. But I can tell you the type of things people have discovered in other similar-sounding cases, when they’ve looked into it and found no real evidence for anything supernatural. Based on the present evidence in this case, some combination of these explanations, or something similar, is just more likely than a sudden breakout of actual ghosts. Do we have any salsa dip?

Based on the available evidence so far, “There’s no such thing as ghosts” is an entirely reasonable provisional conclusion to draw.

(A thought occurred shamefully late in my redrafting of this piece, which I’m adding in here: The reason that “the available evidence so far” is of any worthwhile quality at all, and can lead us toward any useful kind of conclusions, is in very large part due to the hard work and dedication of people like Joe Nickell, who aren’t satisfied to just sit in their chairs and philosophise, and devote a great deal of time and energy to getting out there and investigating these things and solving genuine mysteries.

I don’t want it to sound for a moment like I’m saying that scientifically minded skeptical investigators of the paranormal aren’t doing brilliant and vital work in enriching our understanding of the world. All I’m doing is defending some of the people who don’t choose to do that themselves, and who on occasion get a slightly unfair deal.)

If some evidence turns up which this provisional conclusion cannot satisfactorily account for, then we will have to abandon what would then an inadequate theory in favour of a superior one. But the fact that this could happen doesn’t diminish our confidence in our current theory for the time being.

There’s no such thing as ghosts.

So, yes, if I were investigating some allegedly paranormal experience, I would go in there working under the assumption that it’s not a ghost. Just like a biologist discovering a new species would work under the assumption that it evolved by natural selection and is related to all other life on the planet. They would try to find out more about exactly how it relates to other species, and would give absolutely no serious thought during this time to the possibility that it had been intelligently designed.

Maybe, after much research, it would turn out that there was no plausible way this creature could have evolved through Darwinian means, and intelligent design must become the hypothesis that best fits the facts. Although I have no idea how this could be established in practice, if that was truly where the evidence ended up leading, a reasonable biologist would have to accept it.

But they wouldn’t have been wrong to have ignored that possibility in the first place and continued assuming it had evolved. Evolution is a pretty damn solidly established model of reality. Years of experience have given us good reason to use it as our default setting, and to demand a high level of evidence before abandoning it for something better.

I’ve not decided a priori that there’s no such thing as ghosts, that no further discussion is needed, and that any future observations must always by necessity be explainable through other means.

It’s just a good model of reality to work from.

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It’s time for an Ultimate Showdown.

In July 2010, Phil Plait gave a speech espousing a hippie philosophy of universal love and harmony, in which he called for an end to any expressions of anger and aggression, and declared that the one true path allows only peace and tolerance for all our fellow men, no matter what they believe.

Since then, the skeptical community has been riven between two factions: Phil’s followers of the Light, and the dark and menacing hordes of PZ Myers, whose shrill screams of abuse and condemnation against the wacky and deluded echo around the blogosphere.

Allegiances have been made and broken, and now these two armies prepare to determine once and for all which single immutable philosophy shall dominate all skeptics’ interactions with believers and the public in the future.


…Okay, no.

There is a debate going on here, but it’s nothing like as silly and dramatic as it’s often made out to be. It’s not even especially divisive. Most infuriatingly, it’s not an argument with two clearly divided opposing sides. It’s not about Phil vs. PZ, arguing over some contentious philosophical point on which they utterly and irreconcilably disagree.

From what I’ve managed to untangle of the often garbled debate, almost everyone agrees on almost everything. And everyone’s been banging on about it far more than necessary.

I am now going to bang on about it far more than necessary.


Setting the scene

The title of Phil’s talk, and the theme which has carried the ongoing discussion since then, was “Don’t Be A Dick”. Phil has observed that “vitriol and venom are on the rise”, and this has prompted him to ask a certain question of his fellow skeptics. This question generally either resonates profoundly with people, or makes them grit their teeth with frustration at the implicit over-simplification.

A show of hands in the room reveals that many of the audience used to believe in something which they don’t any more – “flying saucers, psychic powers, religion, anything like that”. Then he asks this:

How many of you no longer believe in those things, and you became a skeptic, because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard?

A few hands are raised again, but not many.

It was somewhat rhetorical, so let’s spell out the points that I think Phil wanted people to take away from that particular question:

  1. Most people aren’t persuaded to change their minds by being screamed at and called idiots.
  2. Therefore, if skeptics want to change anyone’s minds, they should not scream at people and call them idiots.

To the nearest approximation, I completely agree with both of these points, and I think most people would.

But these are not the only things being argued.


Only human

Let’s put the skeptical outreach issue aside for a moment here. Is screaming insults directly into somebody’s face ever actually acceptable? Is it ever recommended, a good idea, a productive and worthwhile means of achieving your goals, or even permitted by the rules of basic human decency?

I think there’s a strong case to be made for “No”. The kind of hostility Phil’s talking about is a clear sign of irrational, out-of-control anger. Insofar as he’s simply advising us not to be this unrestrainedly furious, he’s not said anything remotely controversial.

This doesn’t relate to skepticism as much as it does to the kinds of acceptable human interaction that most people should have learned by the age of five.

By extension, this kind of dickishness is not a problem with skepticism, it’s a problem with people. It’s characteristic of our entire species, so anyone who feels compelled to abandon the skeptical movement because some people in it haven’t got the hang of not being an obnoxious ass might as well recuse themselves from the entire human race while they’re at it.

But most humans, and most skeptics, are better than this. We don’t need to be reminded that yelling so much abuse that people are getting hosed down in spittle is bad form. So let’s look at the more subtle points that people have taken from Phil’s talk.


Who listens to dicks anyway

The point about screaming in people’s faces seems trivial. But there are other, less comically extreme ways to violate Wheaton’s Law.

The question becomes: When have you ever changed your mind because someone was rude and unkind to you?

The implied follow-up is: By comparison, when have you ever changed your mind because someone was polite and gentle to you?

And the implicit assertion behind it all is: People will be more likely to change their minds if you are polite and gentle than if you are rude and unkind. Therefore, we should be polite and gentle, and we should not be rude or unkind.

The first sentence may well be true. I know that I find myself far less inclined to listen and take on board somebody else’s points in a one-on-one debate if they’re being deliberately obnoxious and cruel. And I’m not alone in this; people do tend to be reinforced in their opinions, rather than receptive to counter-arguments, when coming up against someone who disagrees with them in a combative and hostile way.

Civil discourse seems like a much better way to bypass prejudices and biases and exchange some information, which is surely a necessary thing for any rational person to change their mind. There’s a great deal to be said, when talking about their beliefs to someone who you think is wrong, for not being outright abusive and unkind to them.

But there’s actually a much better reason than this to moderate your dickish abusiveness.


The bigger picture

Whoever you’re arguing with, whatever the circumstances, and however reasonable and approachable you’re being, they’re almost certainly not going to have a sudden complete turn-around right in the middle of this one conversation, as a direct and instantaneous result of what you’ve said.

This is actually quite sensible. If they’ve spent a long time believing what they do, and it’s seemed like a viable worldview all this time, then anything new they learn which might shift their position deserves some thinking time. You might have made a lot of sense, and maybe they had to admit to themselves that their arguments didn’t hold up. But at the very least, they should probably sleep on it before entirely reversing a long-held position, and see whether you still seem right in the morning.

It’s futile to engage in personal discussion if you’re going to count any result other than instant capitulation as a complete failure. The effect you have on your opponent might take a long time to materialise.

But, crucially, they’re not the only ones being affected.

If your debate is happening in a public auditorium, or in a series of blog posts and comment threads, or anywhere else that other people can observe it, then other people will observe it. And this is a vital part of the discourse. In many cases, the effect on the spectators will be greater than that on your opponent.

Look at Sylvia Browne. (Not for too long, or your will to live may start to dissolve, possibly along with your eyes.) Robert Lancaster’s site about her is brilliant, thorough, extremely critical, ruthlessly polite, and is in no way a form of direct argument with Sylvia Browne herself. I don’t know of anyone in the skeptical community who would consider such an argument remotely worthwhile. Nobody is trying to change Sylvia Browne’s mind about anything.

Instead, the site exists for the benefit of the people who might needlessly throw away huge sums of money or be severely traumatised as a direct result of what Sylvia Browne does. Trying to persuade her to abandon the industry that’s made her millions and formed the basis of her life’s work for decades is futile – but people who aren’t entrenched in any real delusions, and have just been a bit impressed by what they’ve seen her do, will often be open to reasonable explanations. And there are a lot more of them than there are of her.

Everyone who’s arguing with Sylvia Browne is (or should be) doing so for the benefit of the mass of onlookers.

And something that might benefit said mass is for you not to be a total dick.

Now, there are always going to be people who leap to accusations that you’re being rude and unfair, no matter how carefully you tread. Sylvia certainly has her zealous supporters who seem to take any kind of skepticism as a direct and unprovoked attack, however delicately and reasonably it’s phrased.

My advice on that score is: try to have a better sense of what constitutes needlessly dickish behaviour than Sylvia Browne’s most rabid fans. If you find this difficult, you may be beyond my help.

Some of her followers will be open to changing their minds, but it probably won’t happen overnight. Someone’s opinion of any particular fake psychic tomorrow will be largely dependent on what their opinion was today. But over time, with enough exposure, the message will get through to the world as a whole: this point of view also exists, and isn’t going away, and might just have something to it that’s worth listening to.


Mock mock

So we can agree that not coming across as vindictive, petty, abusive, and prone to temper tantrums when anyone disagrees with you is a good way to influence people outside the argument, as well as to make sure you seem more rational and approachable to your debate opponent zemself.

But civility isn’t the only thing that spectators appreciate. They’re a complex and diverse lot, that “third party” you keep hearing about. They’re often put off when you scream in other people’s faces, true, but sometimes they like things that push the boundaries of impeccable politeness. Sometimes they like satire, or mockery, or a good blunt smackdown of some bullshit.

Phil Plait might also have asked: When have you ever changed your mind because somebody screamed abuse at somebody else?

And if you extend this beyond the trivial bounds of cartoonish douchebaggery – replace “screamed abuse at” with “said something curt or abrasive to”, and “changed your mind” with “learned something about some issue which has clarified your position” – then I suspect this becomes a common occurrence.

Certain well-placed sniping, bitchery, sarcasm, and other forms of dialogue with a bit more substance to them than abject obsequiousness can be fun. Both to indulge in personally and to watch from the sidelines. And things that can be enjoyed and laughed at are an important part of any debate which you expect to hold anyone’s interest.

And sometimes, as well as being entertainingly engaging and provocative, potentially dick-like behaviour is simply necessary to make a point. Sometimes it’s not only possible but necessary to call people’s ideas ludicrous, and their decisions ignorant and ill-informed, if you want to retain your intellectual integrity.

The people being criticised in this way might claim that it makes you a dick. But if your criticism is honest and justified, then being this much of a dick is worth it for the ability to make an important point forcefully.


Common ground

Here’s what really bugs me about this debate so far, though: I don’t think I’ve actually said anything here which either Phil or PZ would seriously disagree with. Despite the way that some absolute dichotomy between two opposing worldviews is often depicted, I think their positions are virtually identical.

Phil’s message was primarily about being nicer and less aggressive, but with a clarification about the usefulness of well placed scorn and severity. In essence, his proposition amounts to:

Sure, we shouldn’t be totally spineless, but that doesn’t mean we should act like douchebags.

PZ, on the other hand, has defended taking a more assertive and unapologetic approach, but is careful not to be needlessly cruel to undeserving targets. His point, then, is basically:

Sure, we shouldn’t act like douchebags, but that doesn’t mean we should be totally spineless.

There’s more common ground there than the debate often seems to admit. Really, they’re just expressing concerns about different pitfalls to be avoided.

Phil’s “side” of the debate is often being painted as the caring and thoughtful side, which would never stoop to ridicule of anyone, at any time. It’s as if this particular bloc of skeptics are the only ones who understand that mockery will only ever turn outsiders away from your cause, and would never stoop to anything so self-evidently counter-productive.

But let’s be clear: Phil Plait has never claimed to be the goddamn Buddha.

The image of a man whose brain seems to have caught fire, with a caption reading “The Stupid, It Burns”, is a regular feature on Phil’s blog, often appearing when some kooky opinion is expressed by some person or organisation of note. He’s more than once declared the entire state of Texas (it’s usually Texas) to be “doomed” because of some backwards political decision being made somewhere.

He’s also not held back from loudly expressing his outrage over the dishonesty, credulity, and carelessness that some supposed medical authorities have exhibited over the issue of vaccines, and the number of children who die of preventable illnesses as a direct result of irrational non-medicine.

Does any of this really qualify as being unwaveringly delicate and sensitive toward those who disagree with him?

In fact, it seems perfectly in keeping with the advice given by P-Zed in the presentation he gave at 2010’s TAM London. One of the soundbite suggestions he offered as a counterpoint to “Don’t Be A Dick” was: “Be The Best Dick You Can Be”. The line that summed it up best was: “We shouldn’t be gratuitously obnoxious; we should be purposefully obnoxious.”

PZ and Phil are both, to my mind, pretty good at this.


In Conclusion

The end.

Further reading which I couldn’t integrate into the above blather itself:

Almost Diamonds
A comment from Dawkins
The War Over “Nice”

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Two blogs good

Bloggers are being encouraged to put themselves forward for the Orwell Prize. The deadline’s tomorrow, so if you can quickly muster together ten blog articles you posted in 2010 which you think may go some way toward “making political writing into an art”, then why not put your name forward? There’s no entry fees, and just the one form to fill out.

I scribbled a few things last year that I’m still fairly proud of, so I’m thinking I might throw my hat into the ring. I don’t expect to win (I’ve seen some of the competition I’ll likely be up against), but even making a long-list would be a nice boost.

On the off-chance that anyone reading is sufficiently interested to have any favourites you think I should include, leave a comment here with your suggestions.

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Here’s a crude paraphrasing of a conversation I’ve heard a few times lately, in blogs and comment threads. (The first speaker is female.)

“Men tend to outnumber women in the skeptical community. At events and meet-ups, most of the attendees and speakers tend to be men. I feel like women might be under-represented and may feel alienated from skepticism as a result.”

“Well then do something about it! Get more involved yourself, and try to get other women involved too, start your own group – just don’t keep moaning about it and expecting concessions to be made for you without your having to do any work.”

If the respondent is male, it’s hard not to see this as a fairly typical case of casual chauvinism. But other female skeptics seem to be the ones pushing this view at least as often.

I’m still yet to comprehensively describe my own position on feminism, but I should really get on with it, because it’s rare that I read anyone else’s opinions on the subject without at some point feeling compelled toward self-inflicted cranial trauma.

Rebecca at Skeptical Ireland has some complaints about the assumptions made by certain brands of feminism, particularly in response to an interview with prominent feminist Kat Banyard on the generally excellent Little Atoms radio show and podcast.

Says Rebecca:

Up until this point I never thought of myself as a minority that desperately needed to be stood up for. I do not need another woman to tell me how I should and should not feel about my place within any community…

I refuse to go to a SITP [Skeptics In The Pub] meeting that I have organised and count how many women are at the table, or how many other perceived minorities might be in attendance and then use this a basis to measure success (whatever that means).

She has a valid point about the unhelpfulness of the obsession with quotas (which Dan Jacobs expands on in the comments) that some feminists seem to want us to hold to, and consider a vital measure of the fairness of any group project.

But… surely it’s not a complete red herring to consider whether women are being systematically excluded from a community. It has happened before. Not just to women, by any means, but they’ve been among the more notable targets of this kind of discrimination.

It should be possible to suggest that an infrastructure might have inherent biases which it would benefit us all to overcome, and propose ways we can work on fixing this together… without becoming a caricature and insisting that any men who gather in one place without inviting the same number of women are sexist and should be completely changing things by themselves.

Jen McCreight noted a recent Secular Humanist Conference which had thirteen male speakers and two female. It’s not insane to take this as a cue to wonder if members of the skeptical community – men and women alike – could be doing more to reach out to women who aren’t currently a part of the group.

It’s all very well saying that women should get more involved if they want to see more women getting involved, but does the attitude of the community make it clear that we really want them to? Or are we, at times, carelessly giving the impression that being white and male is the presumed default, and anyone who doesn’t fit the mould probably can’t really be down with this whole “skepticism” thing?

Rebecca’s right that patronising women and assuming they need help against the oppression of all those bastard men solves nothing. I don’t think that “sexism” is the most useful word to describe the problem, or that outright prejudice against women is nearly so significant a causal factor as lazy thinking and reflexive defensiveness against accusations of sexism.

But this isn’t the first conversation Jen’s had where she’s noted a gender disparity and essentially been told “Well, fix it, woman!” And that unhelpfully plays down the things that men can do to help.

I’m probably either a simpering liberal or a fascist pig, based on all this. Place your bets, folks.

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I’m finished with the catch-up posts from my time in the wilderness now.

But, if you already miss my disconnected and untimely ramblings on old news that you’d forgotten about some time ago, fear not! Sometimes it just takes me weeks to have an opinion on something.

I didn’t say much about any of this at the time, but Martin Robbins wrote a couple of months ago about this thing called Rock Stars of Science. This is some sort of campaign intended to make science seem cool, by getting the nerds who do it to stand near some awesome people.

Martin’s not a fan of the campaign, and I can’t say I’m loving it based on what I’ve seen so far either. I’ve clicked round their website for a while, and I can’t see many people learning anything worthwhile as a result of this.

There are some rallying cries about the importance of science, mostly to the effect of “Let’s cure cancer!”. There are lots of photographs that someone’s clearly gone to a great deal of effort to take. There are lots of scientists staring at you through a fashionable colour filter. And there are some big walls of text about the details of the research that the “Rock Docs” are doing, in which I’m not sufficiently interested to read more than half a paragraph. And I’m already on board with this whole science thing.

But, although much of Martin’s complaint is valid, I think he kinda misses the mark in his response as well.

Chris Mooney was involved in the campaign itself, and although I have my considerable reservations about his own stance on this, he’s annoyed at Martin for at least some of the right reasons. He quotes Martin’s article, referring to a photograph taken on the Moon depicting one of mankind’s more impressive achievements:

If you don’t understand why this is one of the coolest things you will ever see, then you really aren’t cool, in fact you’re the opposite of cool. You are to cool what Dan Brown is to literature.

As Chris points out:

To which the American public responds “!#$@^ you, I liked The Da Vinci Code” and returns to watching Dancing With the Stars.


The thing about Martin’s comment is that it seems to imply (although I suspect this may not really be his position) that anyone who doesn’t automatically gush over the achievements of science, and stare in wide-eyed wonder at photos that represent extraordinary accomplishments in remarkable fields of study, is a hopeless Philistine who’ll never appreciate the beauty of science and isn’t even worth trying to reach out to.

Which is quite clearly neither conducive to a better public understanding of science, nor particularly fair to millions of Dan Brown fans.

Surely a big part of science communication needs to be about providing people with that sense of wide-eyed wonder, helping them to understand the astonishing truths that science has uncovered about the world around us, which aren’t immediately obvious to the uninformed layman. I don’t even think Martin would disagree with this in principle.

This is the reason (well, one of many) why Carl Sagan is especially cherished among popularisers and practitioners of science. He had a knack for powerfully communicating the beauty and awe of the ideas he talked about, and making these truths and discoveries seem as wondrous as they deserve to. If the coolness of a particular image should be self-evident to anyone with any sense, we would neither need nor value as we do the kind of skill that Sagan had. The concept of a “science communicator” might even be redundant.

I don’t think the Rock Stars of Science has done anything especially helpful, though I admit I probably haven’t experienced its full effect. But there absolutely should be something like that going on, to try and connect with people who’d otherwise shrug and go back to their reality TV and cheap thriller novels, and grab their attention long enough to explain something neat to them.

Given the often lamentable portrayal of “science” that their mainstream news outlets and trashy stories are probably giving them, it’s hardly their fault if it’s not immediately obvious why some of the cool things real science has to offer are worth getting excited about.

I am among those who are convinced that there is more concentrated awesomeness in Martin’s pixelly image of the Sun taken through the Earth than anything Bret Michaels is ever likely to do. But to fully understand, appreciate, and enjoy one of those, I just have to switch on my TV and stare dumbly forward; to really get the other one, I need to know what the hell neutrinos are.

We can and should keep talking about how great science is. But the people who need persuading of that are central to the science communicators’ struggle. They might not see it right away, but let’s not rule out their potential to someday see the same wonder that we do.

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An episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! from a couple of seasons back dealt with “Sensitivity Training“.

They laid into those office seminars and such, which expect participants to make awkward conversation in circumstances contrived to help everyone understand the difficulties faced by minorities in everyday life. It’s well intentioned stuff designed to counteract prejudice and discrimination, primarily in the workplace.

It’s true that insensitivity and cruelty can be a real problem, and that even someone who doesn’t hold any actively discriminatory views might have a few things to learn about moderating their behaviour in order to avoid making things uncomfortable or difficult for the people they interact with. But this kind of “training” rarely seems like a good way to achieve any worthwhile goals.

The main problem is that, rather than helping people see past their superficial differences, these sessions tend to focus on the aspects of a person that makes them part of a “minority”. If I talk to a black person for the purposes of sensitivity training, I’m talking to them as a black person, not just as a person. If I’m talking to someone Asian, the implicit message is that the sensitive thing to do is to talk to them exclusively about Asian-y things.

Our chances of interacting as fellow humans, with a rich variety of thoughts and feelings and passions that don’t depend on our background or genetic make-up, is actually diminished by this fixation on our differences.

Here’s something which came to mind while I was watching Penn and Teller talk about this.

I know very little about, say, Sikhs. Almost nothing, in fact. I just barely know how to spell them. I’m aware that Sikhism is a significant global religion, I’d guess it’s been around a good few centuries, and that it’s probably mostly something you’d find in Asia. I may have met a Sikh, but I honestly couldn’t tell you.

Here’s something I’m pretty sure I know about Sikhs though, at least at a basic-to-moderate level, and don’t need any training in sensitivity to learn:

I know how not to be a dick to someone just because they’re a Sikh.

I don’t need to understand anyone’s cultural background, or be intimately acquainted with their historical hardships and travails, to know that. Not being a dick is quite an adaptable approach.

So perhaps, while in conversation with my new Sikh friend, it comes up that they don’t want to join me in my puppy-kicking afternoon in the park, because puppies are sacred to their religion. I can then learn about this at the time, and bring into play my moderate skills of not being a dick to someone just because they have some different ideas from me. I can respect that, once they’ve explained it.

And maybe I can also extend this to, say, not being a dick to someone just because they’re black, or a woman. It’s the same basic skill. Ideally, I’d put it into blanket effect and have it active all the time, but part of the knack involves listening when someone suggests that you’re not employing it as thoroughly as perhaps you should.

If any Sikhs are reading this, let me know if you were offended by the crass Western assumptions this article makes about the role that gratuitous violence to small animals plays in your faith.

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While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.

Although I’ve decided, at least for the moment, that I’m not an anarchist, and am fairly sure that there can be some inherent value to a centralised state, I’m still fascinated by the discussion.

I tend to find myself sympathising a great deal with anarchists on almost all points, and agreeing with just about everything except the ultimate conclusion.

A post I read recently on the ideological similarities between atheism and anarchism got me thinking about this again. If I were to base an estimate on my own limited experience rather than actual data, I’d guess that atheists are over-represented among anarchists. And it’s clear that some political philosophies are much more prevalent than others among the atheist and/or skeptical community.

One thing I notice about the arguments on the side of anarchism is that they all tend to be profoundly humanistic. They give a tremendous amount of credit to the potential for people to do good. If you can’t share that idea to some extent, you’re not going to be a very happy atheist.

I wonder if, in ten years’ time, I’ll have shaken off the last vestiges of authority and gone full-on crazy anarcho-liberal, or whether I’ll have swerved way back in the other direction.

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