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Posts Tagged ‘rebecca watson’

Too long ago for it to still be topical, Greta Christina asked for some ideas on how the atheist and skeptical communities can “take on social justice”.

It’s a less intensely important question to me than it might once have been. I’ve been drifting a little from the “community” part of atheism and skepticism online lately, more through a reordering of my priorities and time management than any fading of my passion for the subjects themselves. But I’m going to chip in with an idea of what might benefit a lot of online communities, all the same. It’s not a specific suggestion for something which can directly be put into place (which is what Greta was asking for); it’s just where my mind went on giving the question some thought.

Don’t expect everyone to speak with one voice.

On anything.

There needs to be room for genuine, deep, fundamental differences of opinion to be expressed, among people who coexist in a community and share some common goals and interests. That really needs to be a thing that’s okay. Otherwise disputes and disagreements will still be inevitable, but they’ll also be needlessly divisive.

And we need to be very selective in what assertions someone can make which render them persona non grata to us. We need to be very slow and cautious in deciding that somebody’s differences make them such a hostile, destructive outsider that their collegiality absolutely cannot be tolerated, and they must be either forcefully and vehemently corrected or simply cast out.

We spend a lot of time telling religious people that, even though we think they’re completely, empirically wrong about things they strongly believe, and that our beliefs might offend them personally on a visceral level that makes them recoil from our very existence, we’re still people, and we deserve respect. Well, some of the ideological and personal gaps between atheists are at least as wide and chasmic as those between myself and any given god-botherer, so the same logic deserves to be turned inward, too.

To take a completely arbitrary and uncontroversial example: some atheists think that Rebecca Watson was right in the advice she offered after being approached by a man in an elevator in a way she found inappropriate. Other atheists think that she overreacted in a way that was unjustified and sexist.

Now, there are unquestionably some terrible human beings who’ve taken hardline positions on both sides of this argument. But neither of these viewpoints is enough to make somebody a bad atheist. Neither of these viewpoints alone should make someone unbearable for you to be in the same room with. If the single fact you know about someone is that they disagree with you on “elevatorgate”, it’d be a real shame if that meant you could never swap any stories about your experiences of religious persecution with them, or share thoughts on how to discuss your godlessness with deeply religious relatives, or in some other way engage with each other on a topic that’s meaningful to both of you.

And this doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about Rebecca Watson’s courageous feminist activism and/or feminazi misandrist histrionics. If you think the implications of that whole clusterfuffle are important, then of course you should keep talking about it and explaining why it matters. But it’s not a great idea to use a simple yes/no analysis of “Are they on the right side?” as a litmus test for whether somebody really counts as a part of your group.

Now, if you do manage to give up on expecting your tribe-members to all agree on anything, this may make it harder to define exactly what it is that unites you all. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe you don’t need to maintain unity among the group even on important matters. Maybe you might have some positive interactions with folk who, for whatever reason, fail to see the heroic/evil Rebecca Watson for who she really is. Maybe, if we try to see people as still being part of our community even when they’re painfully misguided and wrong about some really obvious and important things, then our efforts toward “social justice” could – and bear with me, because this may sound crazy – benefit from an atmosphere of diversity and inclusivity.

So that ended up being less a practical suggestion, and more another restating of my tiresomely idealist philosophies. I make no apology for feeling compelled to repeat myself.

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I don’t really have the combined time, energy, and enthusiasm for the subject to analyse Jen McCreight’s latest post in much depth. It’d take hours I don’t have or could be spending on better things to fully lay out the interesting points she raises, the problems she highlights, the ways in which I take issue with how she sometimes addresses them, and so on.

If I were also to go into everything Rebecca Watson’s ever done which I’ve strongly agreed with, strongly disagreed with, or which has provoked a reaction from other people about which I have strong feelings, I’d be here all day. Ditto Ophelia Benson. They write a lot, and people write about them a lot, and it gets complicated and intricate. (Greta Christina’s still pretty much unqualifiedly awesome.)

So, since I don’t have the time, the energy, or the enthusiasm to hammer out all the fine details, I’m going to have to continue covering things with inadequately broad strokes, and acknowledging the shortcomings of my own approach.

Broad strokes time: There has been a lot of vicious, creepy, unpleasant, unnecessary verbiage on this part of the internet lately. The above named female skeptics have been the objects of direct and deliberate abuse – language intended to demean them, mock them, and cause them emotional pain – significantly more often than they have been the initiators of any such negativity towards others. It’s by no means been a one-sided issue, but it’s clear to me where the balance lies so far.

I can’t think of anyone else who’s spent as much time trying solely to make another specific person feel bad about themselves via insults and belittling, as that elevatorgate blog has with Rebecca Watson. She gets called a cunt a lot. Replacing her own name with a slur makes it easier for some people to dehumanise her, so that they don’t have to worry so much about how else they treat her. And I don’t even know what the hell this is. The most egregious stuff in this debacle has been the invective hurled at a number of women. So that’s where most of my anger and attention is.

There are, without question, numerous blogposts which could be written about occasions when Rebecca Watson has been overly harsh with someone, or snapped aggressively, or been curtly dismissive of a point which might have been valid. But to place all your emphasis on that, without comparing it against the hundreds of specific, personalised rape and death threats other people have sent her, would be like starting a site about male victims of rape without ever acknowledging that women can be sexually assaulted too. There are unquestionably real and important issues to be raised, but your emphasis can make you seem oblivious to the context into which you’re wading.

And if I had the time, energy, and enthusiasm, I might try raising those issues, and providing the context to them in such a way that I could bring these things up without being an ass. But I don’t. And, given how much downright hateful shit some of the above named have faced lately, they deserve some of that context before I go ladling on any more public criticism.

Thus, while Rebecca Watson et al. are certainly not blameless paragons of virtue, they have my general, conditional support, on the broad-strokes issues. If I had to “pick a side”, because I had so little time and energy that I wanted to really oversimplify things, it’d be theirs. I wouldn’t be entirely content with that solution, but it’d be the least repellent choice open to me.

My next post will be about something which really does interest me. And no, it’s not how all police are bastards.

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This might not be timely, but it’s a subject that just keeps coming back.

To recap: A few months ago, Rebecca Watson talked about an uncomfortable interaction she had with a guy she didn’t know in an elevator.

The complicated and diverse discussion about gender politics which ensued has been fascinating, and I mean that in a “massive car accident” sense only about 90% of the time. Part of this ensuing discussion has included a fair bit of abuse heading Rebecca’s way, some predictable, some surreal, some pretty batshit crazy. I think I’ve written about elevatorgate itself as much as I want to, but if you want to develop your own opinion further, here’s an idea for some research you could try.

Look up some blog articles and videos by people criticising Rebecca’s attitudes and actions regarding elevatorgate. Then calculate the percentage of those blogs and videos which have been made by terrible, terrible people.

This is what I find most frustrating about it all. There doesn’t have to be the preponderance of awfulness which there seems to be among people taking issue with things Rebecca has said or done. There’s room to disagree with her or object to her in a number of legitimate ways. But, for instance, Abbie Smith – who presumably wouldn’t have been blogging on ScienceBlogs for as long as she has if she hadn’t clearly demonstrated the capacity to concisely express thoughtful and intelligent views on things – doesn’t seem so interested in those.

She mostly seems interested in using the word “Twatson”. Like, a lot.

It comes up repeatedly in her blogs and comment threads, and here’s one particular instance where she explains her reasoning behind it:

Its a trip-wire, alerting me to the presence of stupid people. See, Ive found that all you have to do is lay down a funny alliteration, and stupid people fall over themselves on that point, ignoring everything else. They literally lose the ability to read and write, not to mention make cognizant points. Its not an effective teaching tool, its just funny. I do it to Creationists. I do it to HIV Deniers. I do it to anti-vaxers. And I did it here. You fell for it. *enthusiastic-clapping*

Like calling them rude names, being really patronising toward someone can be a lot of fun, but it probably won’t make them like you or think you’re worth listening to.

Personally, I do find it a bit of a struggle to keep reading through a whole blog post of what someone has to say when they throw out childish taunts at people I respect with no apparent reason. Maybe that means I’m stupid and have just fallen over. But it’s a shame, because some of Abbie’s points are worth making. The Richard Dawkins Foundation’s sponsorship of childcare for TAM attendees, for instance, is a cool thing that deserves to be noted. Her blog’s name is ERV, after its intended focus on endogenous retroviruses, and I don’t doubt I could learn all sorts of fascinating stuff if I read some of her posts on that subject more thoroughly.

But I’ve had to fight a natural inclination not to just say “Yeah, I’m done with you now” ever since she decided to be obnoxious and unkind.

She recently went on a weird tirade against Jen McCreight as well, which has been suitably picked apart over at Jen’s blog.

There’s just nothing about this approach which is a good thing, in any way. It goes beyond dissent, disagreement, dispute, disrespect. It’s a lashing-out which makes some people feel good, and allows them to dismiss any objections, by deciding ahead of time that anyone espousing civility or politeness is being obsessive and over-sensitive. It’s already been determined, beyond any inclination to question further, that indiscriminately calling Rebecca Watson a twat is fine and totally justified, and anyone who suggests otherwise is just obsequiously sucking up to her.

Let’s not keep doing that.

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Okay, there was another thing.

The group headache that is elevatorgate trundles on. And I read a couple of things worth reading about it.

For a start, ryawesome is embarrassed for the skeptical/atheist movement. And it’s not hard to see why. I do take issue with his “don’t throw a tantrum” dodge by which he sort of avoids generalising against all skeptics and atheists – there’s a reason I try not to harangue “Christians” as a monolithic group when discussing homophobic bigotry, not least because I’d alienate every single one of my Christian friends – but there’s no point pretending there isn’t a substantial problem that he’s addressing.

I’ve always been annoyed by the ease and readiness with which “smug” is hurled as invective against atheists in general, partly because it doesn’t match my experience of many atheists, and partly because it’s a pretty limp accusation next to anything you’d use to describe religious fanatics. But I’m grudgingly having to admit that that stereotypical arrogance is exactly what great swathes of the skeptical community exhibited when they decided that a woman was wrong to make an offhand comment about feeling uncomfortable in an interaction with a man she didn’t know.

And perhaps more to the point, there’s been distressingly little humanity on display from a lot of people who I suspect would identify as humanists. This includes some of Rebecca’s critics, and also some of those defending her, such as the lady who looks forward “to watching [Richard Dawkins’] legacy crash and burn”.

I know I’m veering close to just shouting at everyone to stop being shit again, and I know how self-defeating this would be. But… but… gah.

However, Keir Liddle also makes a point that’s bugged me for a while now.

Namely, other skeptics acting like twats or being perceived as twats does precisely zero to undermine the importance of a skeptical worldview. Being an atheist is about not believing in God. Whether or not you’re an atheist has absolutely fuck all to do with how much you enjoy the company of the kind of people who post on atheist message boards and write anti-religious blogs.

And I think the ideas in these two posts are entirely complementary. There’s no contradiction there; in fact, there’s no reason they can’t work well together. If anything, people who do still identify strongly with the skeptical or atheist movement should be the most vocal in rebuffing those serving to give it an embarrassing reputation. I wouldn’t get embroiled in these things so much, albeit often inarticulately and sometimes inconsistently, if it didn’t matter to me how people with whom I share a “skeptic” label behave.

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Right. I wasn’t going to talk about this, but I’ve unexpectedly had an opinion, so what the hell.

Brief summary of what’s been going on, in case your Twitterstream and RSS feed haven’t been exploding over this in the same way that mine have. Skip the next four paragraphs if you know what I’m talking about and it’s already given you a headache.

Rebecca Watson. Cool lady, Skepchick, atheist activist. She’s at a conference a while ago, giving a talk on religion and feminism and stuff, mingling with other critical thinkers. Hangs out in the bar afterward, decides she’s done and announces her plans to go to bed at around 4am. Is followed into the lift by some guy, who invites her to his hotel room for coffee.

Rebecca makes a video, describing this encounter and why it made her really uncomfortable and was not an okay thing to do, and offers this advice to any men in a similar situation: “Don’t do that.”

You know how YouTube comment threads can get. Some people went a little over-the-top in castigating this guy as a sick sleazy creep deserving of nothing short of contempt and disgust. Others went a little crazy in slamming Rebecca for speaking out about something that made her uncomfortable, and for daring to criticise a man for what they – from their expert witness position of not being there and not really knowing a thing about what happened – deemed totally innocuous and nothing to get worked up about.

PZ Myers offers some advice, regarding just when it is and isn’t okay to make sexualised comments at a stranger in a confined space in the middle of the night. Hemant, in the friendly manner that earned his blog its name, calls for calm. Richard Dawkins weighs in on a comments thread, and Jen McCreight picks him apart. PZ has another go at explaining things with a calm civility that many wouldn’t expect from him.

And here we are. You’re up to speed.

Now.

To get to my Opinion wot I has had, we need to take a bit of a detour. I’ll try not to ramble.

Who remembers Dr Laura? She’s been a talk-show host and self-help guru type in America, and was the inspiration for the character at whom a famous Jed Bartlet rant was directed. She’s kind of a dick.

Last year, she was fielding a call on her phone-in radio show, from a black lady wanting some advice on dealing with her white husband’s friends, who would sometimes casually use racial slurs that she found offensive. Dr Laura questioned whether the n-word was really something to be offended by, and said it herself eleven times over the course of the conversation.

She repeatedly said arguably the most objectionable word in the language, in a rather confrontational manner, to a black woman who’d come to her for help, after the woman expressed some surprise that Dr Laura would say it at all in such a blasé fashion. Dr Laura was widely criticised for being insensitive, and apologised the next day, but completely undermined this later by saying some bullshit about her First Amendment rights.

Here’s where I think much of the problem lies:

One thing I suspect Dr Laura knows, with considerable certainty, is that she’s not a racist.

Racists are other people. Racists hate black people, or at the very least think less of them just because of the colour of their skin. That’s a horrible way to treat people. Dr Laura would never act like that. She doesn’t have a problem with black people just because they’re black.

So when this black woman comes along, and starts implying that Dr Laura is racist – as if it’s somehow offensive when she, Dr Laura the non-racist, utters a perfectly harmless word that she hears black people using all the time – well, that’s just rude. This black woman needs to calm down and get some perspective and stop making these horrible accusations.

Because Dr Laura knows that she’s not a racist.

And, goes my thesis, one thing that a lot of men know is that they’re not sexist.

A number of people have been indignant and quite angry that Rebecca found the behaviour of Elevator Guy (as he’s come to be known) at all creepy. One thing that I think motivates this is that he wasn’t doing anything that far off what many of them might find themselves doing: approaching someone they find interesting and attractive with an invitation to further discourse. They’ve tried to chat up women before, maybe under similar-ish circumstances, and they’re not all chauvinist pigs.

So how dare this woman come along and start implying that we men, because of perfectly innocent behaviour like this, are all sexist? She’s obviously making a fuss about nothing. Sexists are other people who hate women and only think of them as objects. We’re not like that.

The problem being, of course, that people are quite capable of getting things wrong, offending others, revealing hidden prejudices, and otherwise failing to be perfectly politically correct and socially acceptable, even without being some horrible sexist racist monster, and without meaning any harm at all.

What Dr Laura didn’t appreciate was that racism is a much bigger deal for some people than it is for her, and that even if her intentions weren’t actively to disparage any person or any race, there’s a wider culture of racial tension and abuse out there, and she can’t claim to be apart from all that simply by knowing, as I suspect she does, that she’s just better than all those horrible racists out there. (And also that her bruised ego at being accused of racial insensitivity isn’t the most important part of the conversation.)

Similarly: what some of Rebecca’s critics might not appreciate is that gender politics is complicated and difficult, and even “nice guys” can misjudge things, or make faulty assumptions, or just get it wrong, and should really consider accepting the mild rebuke when it’s offered, rather than passionately insisting that they didn’t do anything wrong, because they’re not sexist. (And their offense at having their “nice guy” status called into question isn’t the most important part of this conversation either. Rebecca didn’t even call anyone sexist. Nobody’s been written off as a horrible monster because of what they did. Just learn from this.)

And I think I’m done.

I like having opinions. I should try it more often. Feel free to tell me why this one’s a load of bollocks, though.

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I’ve mentioned a couple of times that Rebecca Watson has been carrying out something she’s calling The Great Apple Experiment over the past week or so. Inspired by some pretty terrible tabloid-friendly pseudoscience in the Daily Fail, Rebecca has been dutifully re-creating the initial “experiment” that Nikki Owen apparently thinks demonstrates that an apple will respond to being spoken to in a loving or hateful way, or to having loving or hateful words written on its container.

She’s kept a log of her methodology on her YouTube account, and recently unveiled the final state of all three of her apple chunks – one treated with love, one with hate, and one control treated indifferently. Her loyal followers then voted on which sample they thought had degraded the most, and which the least, and some mathemagic was done to the poll numbers to decide whether any apples’ feelings had genuinely been hurt in this experiment.

The reason for the title of this blogpost is that I’ve been doing a similar thing myself. I haven’t been recording my progress as extensively all week, and I’ve been a little more lax with my protocols, but, like Rebecca, I’m planning to tighten this up and repeat the experiment in the near future. I’m ready to unveil the results of my own Meh Apple Experiment here today.

Here’s what my three pieces of apple looked like before being sealed in little transparent jars from the 99p Store for a week:

Now, before you scroll past this next picture, take a look at how they turned out after a week, and make up your mind which had degraded the most, and which the least. Then I’ll tell you which I was treating positively, which negatively, and which was the control. I’ve laid them out in the same order as before, so that you can see the progression, not just the final state – if one looks worse in the end, it may have been a little grubbier to begin with, so this seems like useful knowledge to add. The protocol’s still far from ideal, and my camera appears to have forgotten how to focus on stuff, but never mind, here’s what they looked like after:

So, which do you think was put in the “hate” jar, and spoken hatefully to? Now’s the time to choose.

Picked one?

For me, it’s got to be the one on the right. The other two had gone a bit soft, but didn’t really look that bad, but the right-hand one has that big icky splotch of mould right there. It definitely seemed to fare worse than the other two. So, which was actually the “hate” apple?

None of them. It’s a trick question. In a cunning bit of scientific mischief, I got lazy and totally couldn’t be bothered drawing up and attaching labels to the jars, or talking to bits of an apple like some sort of idiot. They’ve all just been sitting on a shelf for a week, in as close to identical conditions as you could hope for. As it turns out, one of them just seemed to decay a bit more than the others in that time. Does there need to be a reason? Shit just happens.

So. Having smoothly passed off my sloth and disregard for scientific integrity as a clever piece of deliberate subterfuge, I do in fact plan to follow this up with a proper experiment in the near future. But this might as well serve as a useful reminder that chaos is always going to play a part in this kind of thing, and you need to control for randomness. In particular, you need a sample size larger than one.

This is probably what annoys me most about the ridiculous piece in the Mail. Even if you accept that the apple chunk she was nice to really did decay more slowly, she’s holding up this one example of something happening which had a 50% chance of happening randomly anyway as evidence for supernatural forces at work in the universe. Look, if I flip a coin twice, I would expect, on average, to get tails once and heads once – 50% each way. But even if I happen to achieve a massive 100% score one way or the other, my psychic mastery of the physical world may still have a way to go.

There are now many more data points, and I don’t think it’s fair to conclude that the overall result is favourable to Nikki Owen’s claims of magic. And I wonder, of the people who dismissed Rebecca’s experiment due to insufficient scientific rigor, just how closely they examined Nikki’s own methodology to make sure her results were also valid. Or maybe it’s not important to do that, because her data supports what they want to believe.

In her own summary of results, though, I do slightly take issue with Rebecca’s mathematical reasoning. I’m hesitant to be too critical, since she was being advised by a proper maths guy who should know his stuff, but hear me out.

72% of respondents thought that the “love” apple looked the best, and only 10% thought it looked the worst. Between the other two, slightly more people thought the control “indifferent” apple looked worse than the “hate” apple. So Skepchick readers’ collaborative effort to determine which apple was which resulted in a 1/3 rate of success (since they got the “love” one right but mixed the other two up).

Now, Rebecca’s conclusion is that this result “failed to prove [Nikki Owen’s] hypothesis”, because only one of the three apples was correctly placed. I think she’s right, but for the wrong reason. Her conclusion fails to “prove” anything, about any hypothesis, because it also has a sample size of one.

One lone, isolated trial of something like this can’t single-handedly “prove” anything, in the same way that nothing is “proven” about alternative medicine by that one time you took some homeopathy and your ‘flu totally went away after like a week.

Rebecca’s result is compatible with pretty much any hypothesis that doesn’t contain any overwhelming generalisations. It’s entirely in line with the idea that the decay of apples can be slowed by speaking to them lovingly and caringly; it’s also perfectly consistent with the (correct) theory that this is all total bunk. It’s just one apple.

I am personally compatible with the hypothesis that people with a green left eye tend to have a green right eye, because both my eyes are green. There is, in fact, a strong correlation between those two variables, but you’d have to look at more faces than mine before you could conclude that. Also, the existence of other people whose eyes aren’t both the same colour doesn’t completely invalidate the model which says that these two things tend to be associated. I’m also consistent with the hypothesis that people with brown hair tend to wear glasses, but if I were the only human you’d ever studied, you wouldn’t know what to make of that idea either.

No individual data point is going to lead to any useful conclusions on its own here. If we’re going to treat this like an idea that deserves to be checked out, we need to get much more data in before we have any idea what to do with the null hypothesis.

Personally, I wonder how much it’s even worth treating this kind of thing seriously, and the extent to which skeptics are obliged to do proper science on this kind of insubstantive nonsense before we’re just allowed to tell the silly people to go away. But that’s a musing for another time. I’ve rambled way too much on this already.

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…and being skeptical just got a little more fabulous!

Sorry. I’m not at all happy with myself for that line. The point is that James Randi, legend and grand high archbigwig of the skeptical world, is gay. So yeah. He talks about it with D.J. Grothe on the latest For Good Reason podcast.

It’s not earth-shattering news. But at the same time, it’s not no news, either. Maybe something like this ought to be a complete non-event, in an ideal world – but for those of us who live in this world, coming out is rarely an entirely trivial thing. It may not be a moment fraught with drama, as Randi’s certainly wasn’t. But we still live in a profoundly heteronormative society. (There have probably been like five or six occasions when I’ve written that word in the years since I picked it up from my uni housemates, but it feels like I use it all the time these days.) The notion of being straight as the default setting is not one that’s been completely given up anywhere, so professing to be of some other configuration is unavoidably a noticeable action.

A few people are insisting that nobody ought to be displaying any interest or expressing any emotional response to Randi’s announcement at all, because someone being gay ought to be such a non-issue as described above. And I’m sure they think that their position is the most tolerant and accepting of all, but I rather think it misses the point. Simply claiming that someone’s sexuality makes no difference to you – even if it’s entirely true and your judgments of people are genuinely made without any prejudice – isn’t enough. While the prejudice and oppression still exist, it’s up to the rest of us to overcompensate.

Not everyone is as comfortable in themselves and as assured of a largely benign response as Randi is. For some people, being open about their sexuality is a big event, and one that may be followed by serious negative consequences. One very easy (and not totally insignificant) way we can help those people out is by adding a cheer to the chorus at times like this. It’s important for them to see that other people who come out publicly are being supported, not chastised for daring to bring it up.

The people not willing to do that because “it makes no difference” sometimes sound quite aggressive in making this point (plenty of examples in the comments thread below Randi’s announcement). But their aggression is for some reason directed at the gay guy who’s just come out, as if it’s offensive of him to expect anyone to be interested in this. Guys. Not helpful. The people you should be angry at are the homophobes and bigots whose hostility and prejudice make this an issue in the first place. In some parts of the world, people are still being murdered over this kind of thing, so don’t get grouchy that some people haven’t simply got over it yet and could still use a little positive feedback on occasion.

So, rock on, Randi. You’ve deserved a big parade of your own for a long time, anyway.

Also, Baba Brinkman is awesome, and excels more than any other in the field of “music that on paper I really shouldn’t like but which actually totally does it for me”. Go watch the video for his rationalist anthem, Off That.

Also also, Rebecca Watson is doing some APPLE SCIENCE, bitches. (I would add a “WITH HER FALLOPIAN TUBES, BITCHES” but I don’t want to cross the memes.) Watch her experiment, and learn how you can set up your own! All you need is an apple, a knife, some cheap containers, and a callous disregard for the fragile emotions of the helpless fruit in your care. Go team science!

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