Archive for June, 2011

You know, I’m a bit uncomfortable with some of this discussion about children being sold as sex slaves.

I know, I know. Me and my crazy hang-ups.

This post on Bound, not Gagged, a blog for sex workers, is worth reading. It provides some context to some of the hyperbole around the issue of child sex trafficking in America.

Because yes, even around something as serious and terrible as child sex trafficking, hyperbole is still possible.

A number of celebrities have recently appeared in short filmed segments as part of a big campaign against this scourge, which has cited a figure of 100,000 to 300,000 for the number of children currently involved in sex trafficking in America. That’s an utterly horrifying idea, and may have motivated some people into some sort of action… but it’s also completely inaccurate.

If you look at those numbers and where they came from, it turns out that this is really nothing more than a guess, not backed up by any particularly vigorous science, as to how many children might potentially be at risk of some sort of abuse, sexual or otherwise.

It takes a monumental and seemingly deliberate misinterpretation of the data to start touting this as the number of children currently involved in the sex trafficking industry.

The author of the post refers to “fetishists” of child sex trafficking – meaning not those vile criminals directly involved in the activity, but those with a tendency to become zealous in their righteous campaigning against it. And it may not be an inappropriate word. It’s a subject which stirs some understandably strong emotions, and there can be a tendency to start assuming the worst, believing every half-credible factoid that comes your way which confirms the worst, and riding a wave of well-meaning indignation for as long as there’s enough (mis)information to fuel it.

A consultant involved in the campaign is quoted as saying:

I don’t frankly care if the number is 200,000, 500,000, or a million, or 100,000 — it needs to be addressed.

Which doesn’t do much to diminish the validity of the “fetishist” label. I can’t help thinking you really should care about numbers. There are more things we can do with numbers than point to how small they are and dismiss the problem, as some campaigners seem to fear is all will happen. Numbers should also have an impact on how we craft our response. If we thought there were a thousand children in sex trafficking in the US, we’d deal with it differently than if we thought there were a million.

And if you think people will only respond with enough concern to a thousand kids in sex slavery if they’re made to think there’s actually a million… well, you’re not giving your fellow humans much credit.

Perhaps part of the objection is that this kind of fact-checking downplays and dismisses the enormity of the crime in question. But if you think that the actual numbers of children suffering sexual abuse, which might be in the thousands rather than hundreds of thousands, are something that people will choose to dismiss or ignore, then you’re doing the other members of your species a rather condescending disservice. We get that it’s still horrible and deserves a response when it’s not exaggerated by a factor of a hundred.

“There are over a hundred thousand child sex slaves in this country!”
“Actually, it’s probably on the order of a thousand.”
“Why are you trying to make it sound like this isn’t an important issue?”
“Not important? Dude, there’s a thousand kids out there in sex trafficking, that doesn’t sound important to you?”

Of course, I’m veering a little close to straw-mannery here, or at least to being uncharitable. Most of the celebs involved were no doubt simply asked if they’d mind giving a little of their time to capitalise on their fame for what is unquestionably a good cause. It’d be a bit harsh to start blaming Justin Timberlake for not looking closely enough at the statistics.

And even the people claiming not to care about numbers are surely well motivated, even if they sometimes let reality get a little blurred in the face of their need to be seen to be acting nobly.

But the issue of truth is not one to be easily discarded. And if addressing something accurately doesn’t also allow us to address it better… Well, then, I just don’t know where we are.

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Dial M for Miscarriage

I know I say I value genuine dialogue and constructive discussion over just shouting at people and dismissing them as idiots for daring to disagree with you. Some of the time I manage to walk the walk.

But if you think a 15-year-old with a drug problem should be sentenced to life in prison, because the baby she was carrying died for reasons that can’t be blamed on her by any means connected with reality – if this is really the way you want the world you live in to be run – then I have no idea whatsoever how to talk to you about that.

Outcry in America as pregnant women who lose babies face murder charges.

(h/t Skepchick)

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The HuffPo isn’t always the most reliable source of, well, anything. But they done good this time.

They’ve recently posted a series of articles by Radley Balko of The Agitator, on Myths of the Criminal Justice System.

Very short summary: The law is kinda screwed up.

Some examples of things I didn’t know:

  1. Through various technicalities and exemptions, you can actually be tried a bunch of times for the same crime.
  2. The law has a tendency to go much easier on police who abuse it than the rest of us.
  3. “According to the Innocence Project, about one in four convictions that have been overturned by DNA testing involved defendants who at one point had actually confessed to the crime for which they were later exonerated.”
  4. The way the registry of sex offenders works is insane.

And so much more. Read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

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Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre has won the tabloid bullshit of the month award over at Five Chinese Crackers. It could not possibly be more deserved.

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Just quickly: Geert Wilders, blasphemer against Islam and probable dickhead, has been acquitted on charges of hate speech.

This is basically a good thing, for obvious reasons to do with the goodness of free speech that don’t need repeating here.

I am le tired, and Heresy Corner’s got this one covered.

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Quick anarchist update: I’m still not one, and I’m still reading.

But I had a thought the other day, when I was typing something too slowly into Google, and it started suggesting things I might be about to search for.

It does that now, Google. While you’re typing, it’ll give you a drop-down list of popular things you might be planning to look for, and start a pre-emptive search for you. Type the name “Justin”, and you won’t need to press Enter or carry on your search, if it was Bieber or Timberlake you were after. The letter “f” is all you need to be given a link to Facebook’s login page.

This sometimes provides an interesting snapshot of what’s popular online, and what people think or want to find out.

There are some things that really aren’t popular on the internet, and some which don’t seem to have as bad a rap as you might think.

Hitler was a good atheist socialist man woman? Snakes are cute? Infanticide is OK? Well, it’s the internet. There’ll always be people being contrary for the sake of it. The end result is inevitably ambivalent on many things, and never wholly damning.

Well, almost never.

It’s a cliché that nobody likes politicians, but it’s one of those clichés which got there for a reason. The vitriol applies across the political board:

Obviously this is a long, long way from qualifying as research into people’s opinions, but it shouldn’t be surprising if this does provide a coarse summary of how a lot of people feel.

But if they’re really that widely despised, the idea that we don’t actually need these things, at least in their current form, deserves more of a public airing and a more serious consideration. The idea of doing without them shouldn’t be a laughable concept, or something we consign automatically to an imaginary alternate universe.

We’re working pretty damn hard on eliminating cancer, after all.

Oh, and I should mention that there was one other category I found, whose unscientific Google predictive opinion was perhaps even less favourable than politicians’:

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…and their ideas that some people seem to think they have.

PZ Myers commented recently on an article about religion. Specifically, it was about ways atheists are wrong about religion. He was not impressed.

Here’s my own examination:

5. Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism

Like PZ points out, the author of this “myth-busting” article has missed the point of atheists like Sam Harris here. It’s not that liberal religious people are directly supporting the extremists. Rather, the way faith and religious belief are held up as virtues to be respected, with moderate and benevolent examples being cited to support this, bolsters the cultural notion that religion in general should be respected and lauded, which makes it harder to see the obviously abhorrent aspects of fundamentalist religion.

4. Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God

I understand why anti-religious atheists are so reluctant to accept the fact that being religious doesn’t mean belief in the supernatural. The simplistic and convenient myth they’ve constructed would be shattered.

That we’ve constructed?

Dude, you’re welcome to believe in a “healing and renewing power of existence” and call it God if you want, but have you talked to any Christians lately? They’re not going to church to worship a “creative principle in life”. They’ve read their Bible, and they know who God is, and for upwards of 40% of them he’s the conscious and deliberate agent who created humans in their present form in the last 10,000 years or so.

If you’re going to dismiss the whole idea of a personal god as a straw man, you’re either being pitifully disingenuous or you’re profoundly ignorant of what religion actually means to most people. Sure, plenty of people do deviate from that notion into a more vague “spiritual essence” kind of belief, but that’s only one faction. And it’s not like that faction goes uncritiqued by prominent atheists either, or by the godless community as a whole.

3. Religion Causes Bad Behavior

This is a weird one, because he cites Christopher Hitchens saying something very sensible which largely refutes it. As Hitch points out, religion often exacerbates, justifies, coordinates, and excuses many negative things done in its name, even if it can’t be directly blamed for the natural tendencies of our species.

But this doesn’t seem to give a lot of ground to the supposed myth-buster. It still admits that religion is a source of calamitous evil – but it’s also true that religion doesn’t prevent people from doing good things, or always inevitably lead to immorality. I don’t know any atheists who would disagree with this, but it’s still not exactly a recommendation. Religion is unnecessary for people to do good. On the other hand, I’ll let you come up with your own examples of atrocities which would never have been perpetrated were it not for a religious motivation.

2. Atheists are Anti-Religious

This is another one where the author effectively points to a few dried stalks sticking out of somebody’s collar and starts shouting “straw-man!”

A lot of atheists are anti-religious. I know I am. But it’s true that not every atheist is anti-religion, and even if you have no truck with faith systems, being an atheist doesn’t mean that you hold all people with religious beliefs in contempt.

Having said that, this is just stupid:

Atheism is not in any way shape or form related to an opinion about religion.

Really? Not in any way, shape, or form? You can’t see any correlation between atheism – a lack of belief in any god – and opinions on religion – a belief system typically centred around some sort of god? No? Not even a flexible, generally-indicative-if-not-100%-consistent link?

1. All Religions are the Same and are “Equally Crazy”

The author doesn’t link to the Greta Christina article he partially quotes here, but frankly I’m satisfied with her conclusions.

It’s certainly worth recognising the differences between religions, and the ways in which some are more destructive than others. It’s also important to note the psychological difference it makes to have your unsupported beliefs shared by a few billion people, and how this bears on the “crazy” label as applied to any particular person and their ideas.

Believing that you’re Napoleon will likely get you treated for mental health problems. Believing that you regularly commune with a 2000-year-old man-God who holds your eternal salvation in his capricious grasp is practically a requirement to be elected to the highest office of the world’s largest superpower. It’s legitimate to see one crazy idea as more strongly indicative of serious psychological issues than another.

But aside from their popularity, down at the actual level of rationality, all religious beliefs must be just as unfounded in reality as any other. If “faith” is such a virtue, they’re supposed to be believed without recourse to evidence or reason or the things we usual base our sane and sensible beliefs on.

It’s not that people are crazy. But religions themselves? Pretty much.

I suppose it’s possible that the author is right to complain that religions “which aren’t reliant upon any supernatural beliefs, miracles or magical claims” are being unfairly swept up with the others.

The problem there is that I have literally no idea what a religion like that would look like.

Answers on a postcard.

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Teachers use Education on America!

It’s not very effective…

(That was an attempt at a Pokémon meme reference. It might not make any sense.)

Anyway, the loveliest girl of all the lovely girls in America, as verified by SCIENCE, believes that evolution should be taught in schools.

Yay, I guess? I mean, she’s right on that one narrow point, but it’s not like her opinion should particularly matter.

That’s not to disparage her as a woman or as a beauty contest winner, by any means. I dare say most people’s opinions on most things shouldn’t particularly matter, including a great deal of my own.

JT Eberhard finds listening to these contestants’ opinions almost unbearably painful, and it’s hard to disagree. But it’s not something we ought to see as damning of women or attractive people. The parade of ignorance on display here is probably a fair cross-section of American culture. Hell, the fact that not a single one of the 51 women went on a tirade about their Muslim president trying to implement an atheist communist Nazi military state probably puts them some way ahead of the curve.

What I’m most prompted to wonder is why so much attention is still paid to this bizarrely outdated spectator sport, in which the highest criteria for praise, apparently, are to look very traditionally and conservatively and unimaginatively attractive, and to express some opinions so bland as to be utterly inoffensive to anyone. Why is that what we want to encourage other humans to try and do, and reward them for it?

I think the way we ogle and objectify women really needs to move with the times.

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A new study into inattentional blindness gives an important reminder of just how profound our brains’ shortcomings often are.

Subjects in an experiment were told to follow a jogger through a park, and to pay particular attention to something entirely arbitrary – in this case, to count how many times the jogger touched his hat. This made sure they couldn’t focus much on the rest of their surroundings. (I presume the jogger is also a part of the experiment, not someone just passing by, though this isn’t explicitly spelled out in the article.)

As a result, nearly half of the participants entirely failed to notice a violent staged brawl going on between several students, only a little way off to the side of the road.

That was during the day. When it was dark, this oblivious proportion went up to two-thirds.

The experiment was inspired by – but perhaps too late to help – a police officer given a 34-month sentence for perjury and obstruction of justice, after claiming not to have witnessed a similar fight, under similar conditions, while chasing a suspect. It was decided that he couldn’t possibly have failed to see something so obvious, and must be lying to try and cover the incident up.

The conviction was overturned on an unrelated technicality, but the guy still seems to have been somewhat screwed over. We need to be willing to look out for when science tells us things about the unreliability of our brains, which go against how we feel like we perceive things.

If the title of this post is a mystery to you, it’s a reference to a classic experiment into this same quirky brain phenomenon.

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Dan Savage, not for the first time, is mostly right.

His plea in this video is to those Christians who consider themselves in the liberal and tolerant subset of their religion, who keep reminding him that not all Christians are bigoted homophobes.

The problem, as he points out, is that they issue these reminders by emailing him personally, much more often than they do so by publicly denouncing other bigoted or homophobic Christians. He wants them to do more to join non-religious types in condemning the extremists, and do some good while boosting Christianity’s credibility as a source of tolerance and compassion.

And I think it is worth trying to bring some liberal Christians onto our side here, and to ally with them to some degree in combating values that we both find abhorrent.

(We’re still going to think your faith is ridiculous. Fair warning. But that doesn’t need to be constantly on the table while we’re talking about stuff like gay rights or abortion.)

The thing to remember, though, is that these abhorrent values are unequivocally Christian values. The history of Christian progressivism or fundamentalism has been a complex and bumpy one, but The Good Atheist is right to suggest that “hijacking” is an over-simplified description of what the conservative fundamentalists are up to. Their justification for bigotry comes straight from the same Bible that liberal Christians find their inspiration to be compassionate and charitable.

One thing that’s different, though, is the claim to speak for all Christians. That is something you only here from the right-wing nut side of things, and this is to the liberals’ credit. But Dan’s right to point out that, a lot of the time, the end result amounts to “silent complicity” by the latter group of the former’s prejudices.

A lot of the liberal Christian reaction is limited to emailing complaints to people like Dan Savage for their unfair characterisation of Christianity as being wholly bigoted and homophobic. But members of the bigoted and homophobic wing of the religion are out there debating with him on national TV shows, and this is the kind of thing responsible for defining the public face of Christianity. If that face is one of intolerance and hate, whose problem is that? Who should it fall to to correct the imbalance, to stand up for a compassionate, tolerant, liberal Christianity, to make sure this is a view that’s also heard and appreciated and understood?

Not mine. Not Dan Savage’s. We’re not part of that movement. We can’t be responsible for its PR.

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