Fallen Warriors

I’m just back from WisCon, held right next to Wisconsin’s capitol. We drove home through countryside dotted with military memorials made up of helicopters, tanks, and airplanes. Given that context, and the change happening in many parts of the world, it strikes me that there’s never been a better time to reprint my Memorial Day post from two years ago.

One of the things that struck me in travels through Scotland and the Canadian Maritimes was the monument in every town. Most of them were tiny, just a handful of names from each war–not because few died, but because the town was that small. The memorial at Edinburgh Castle, on the other hand, is of a scale and a simplistic majesty that imposes awe, a trick more church designers would like to have up their sleeves, I imagine.

Whatever the size, most memorials are central and public and impossible to overlook. That isn’t something we do well here. Monuments are destinations, traveled to on special occasions. Memorial Day is a single day of remembrance, Veterans Day, one more, and the rest of the time, our veterans are treated as disposable.

Some volunteered; others answered a call not of their choosing. They risked their lives and health for us. Many died. Worse yet, many killed. Many lost people who had become, in some ways, closer than kin. And we give them a day for those who lived and a day for those who died and maybe a little space out of the way.

We suck at remembering.

Fallen soldiers at least get a day, though. There are others who have fought and died for our society who don’t get that. Nor did they fight with the resources of our military or approval of our government behind them. I’m talking about the culture warriors.

It’s tempting to pretend that “culture war” is just a colorful turn of phrase. It isn’t. People have died every time our country has been persuaded to recognize the right of another group to be considered full human beings.

Workers died organizing unions. Women died claiming control of their own destinies. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, Jews, Irish, Italians, eastern Europeans–all have died insisting that no one people have a monopoly on humanity. Many people died for not keeping their sexuality or gender identity a secret. Others died because keeping that secret pushed them into shadows populated by predators.

They died because they challenged rules that were basely unfair. This made them outlaws in the eyes of many, stripped them of the protections we offer those who do not presume to transgress. This made them fair game, and they were hunted. Those who didn’t die rarely escaped without injury. No one offered them medals.

In the face of this, they persisted. Because of them, fewer of us are outlaws today. We can claim protection, imperfect as it is, that was won for us in the wars. Unlike many wars, these have made the world a better place.

So go out and enjoy that better world this weekend, but as you boat and picnic and enjoy family and friends, take a moment. Remember those soldiers whom we have promised to remember, and remember the others, who are too easily forgotten.

They fought for our freedom too.

Fallen Warriors

Saturday Storytime: Drag Queen Astronaut

It is the weekend for a new Tiptree Award to be given “for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.” One of the best parts of the award is the Honor List that goes with it, an opportunity to be introduced to new writers who see near and far with clarity and imagination, like Sandra McDonald, from the 2010 list. An excerpt of her recommended story:

Joe tapped his mechanical pencil. The desk blotter was covered with a sea of tiny dots, like a Rorschach test only he could make sense of. “You can’t stay. They’re going to send you back to the Navy, and they’re going to shove you in a desk job somewhere, and congratulations. You just won a nice quiet life with your family.”

“I’m not going.” This was the answer I’d rehearsed on the flight in – military, not civilian, and who knows what fresh hell it would have been to be recognized as the person who the media had now ridiculously and inaccurately dubbed the Drag Queen Astronaut. “It was just for laughs.”

Like the time Alan Shepherd presented a gallon-sized vat filled with ammonia and yellow dye as his urine sample for the Gemini program doctors. Wally Schirra did the same thing to a nurse, except he used apple juice. One Apollo mission radioed in a UFO to Mission Control. John Young once smuggled up a contraband corned beef sandwich, which pissed off the techs who feared tiny bits of meat jamming million-dollar equipment.

Joe’s pencil made another series of dots on the blotter. “No one’s laughing, Jim.”

So that’s how I lost Artemis 6, the mission I was scheduled to command. Lost my astronaut appointment. Gary put up a fight for me, as did some good friends I can’t begin to thank, but astronauts have been fired for less: ask old-timers about Apollo 7, when the ill crew refused to follow piddly orders from Capcom and lost their careers over it.

The first person I saw after getting my termination letter was Scott Stevenson, who’d been ducking me since our return to earth. I knew through other people that he blamed me for forever sullying our mission. We’d always be the Flight of the Transvestite – in books, on the internet, in our obituaries.

“I guess they had no choice,” was all he said.

NASA shoved me right out the door and forgot all about me.

Until the day they desperately needed me. But that came later.

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: Drag Queen Astronaut

If You Don’t Stand Up for Us Today

“At the government teat.” Not only do anti-government legislators consider compassion to be a despicable virtue and caretaking a despicable act, but in the fight over health care in Texas, someone has produced flyers depicting them as that particularly female despicable act of breastfeeding. Rep. Senfronia Thompson, fed up with all the attacks on women in this session, isn’t going to take it quietly.

Why are people electing the douchebags who pass anti-woman legislation instead of more representatives like this?

If You Don’t Stand Up for Us Today

Help Keep Atheists Talk Going

Mike explains at his blog. Normally, I wouldn’t just lift a whole post, but I think it’s justified in this case.

Atheists Talk is a volunteer effort by a larger group of people than those you hear on the air. I appreciate all of the people who contribute your time to help me make it a show worth listening to. The costs that we incur are not for the labor, but for the fee we pay to the radio station. It is well worth going through AM commercial radio because it extends our listenership in ways that podcasting alone couldn’t do.

We have a fundraising drive going on, so that we can keep renewing our six month contracts. Even though we negotiated the price downward from what we had paid in our first two years, the price at $5320 is still quite a chunk for our general fund. Please read this appeal and send in what you can to help us justify the expense to the members who support us.

This program costs $5,320.00 every six months. We sell some ads, but most of our costs are covered by supporter donations. The program is broadcast live on AM950 KTNF, but most of our listeners follow our podcasts. Of the 114 programs our number one download was the program broadcast from the Minnesota State Fair, “All About Atheism,” that had over 21,000 downloads. Next most downloaded was the very first program we did, with Richard Dawkins, at 13,000, followed by “Dialogue with a Christian” with over 10,000. After that, there are seven programs with over 7,000, ten over 6,000 and 15 over 5,000. Within two to three weeks of production, every program has between 1,000 to 2,000 downloads.

We have a donation link.

Be sure to listen to Sunday’s show. I will be talking to Eric MacDonald about the right to make one’s own Choice in Dying.

Pass the word, and please help if you can.

Help Keep Atheists Talk Going

The Politics of the Null Hypothesis

In which I talk about the lack of evidence for a genetic explanation for variation in human intelligence. In public.

Nothing about the field of IQ studies is free of political influence. It’s naive to believe that any kind of research on a purported measure of individual merit could be politics-free in a self-proclaimed meritocracy with wide inequalities. Binet’s original work was meant to determine which children should have access to additional educational resources. IQ scores are used occasionally to sort out “inappropriate” candidates for various jobs, including those whose IQs are too high for a role. IQ as a proxy for merit is used to argue that a group does or does not face discrimination in educational or career opportunities. This is all terribly political.

The question isn’t whether there are politics surrounding this issue or where. They’re everywhere. The question is where does the politics get in the way of the science? Again, the answers don’t favor Pinker’s view of a fatwa against genetic explanations of individual differences.

For those of you visiting from the Scientific American Guest Blog, welcome to Almost Diamonds. Kick back. Relax. Drinks are in the fridge. If you’re looking for more on politically sensitive science, may I interest you in the following posts?

What Is Race Good For?

The Argument for Race
There were four main arguments made for the biological validity of race:

  1. Genetic testing allows for grouping by country of ancestor origin.
  2. Race may not predict the things it’s been used to predict in the past, but it’s an important proxy for genetics in medicine.
  3. Yes, assignment of humans to racial categories is an arbitrary procedure, but we use arbitrary names for parts of other continua. Why not race?
  4. You’re just being PC, Marxist wankers.

I think we can ignore #4, but the rest were addressed in the discussion.

Sex, Science, and Social Policy

There’s just one little problem: The studies themselves. In 2001, Paul, Linz, and Shafer took a look at what kind of evidence was being used by those who wanted to marginalize sex-related businesses. What they found was impressive…but not in the way one would hope.

The researchers started with a list of four requirements that would need to be met for a study on the topic to be considered scientific. In situations like this, where laws and regulations may be challenged in court, scientific evidence isn’t just a good idea. It’s the legal standard, so meeting these scientific criteria is important.

Rape Myth #1: She’s Probably Lying
The Rate of False Report

The standard figure passed around by victim advocates suggests a rate of false reports of 8% based on FBI crime statistics from 1997. This is comparable to rates for other crimes. However, citations can be found for rates as low as 1.5% and as high as 90%. In other words, huh? How do we deal with a range that big?

Luckily for those who want to sort out the truth of the matter, two papers came out in 2010 that shed considerable light by examining how false rape report rates are generated. David Lisak, Lori Gardinier, Sarah C. Nicksa, and Ashley M. Cote collected those prior studies that had the best (and most transparent) processes for sorting between false and merely unproven allegations. They also used a similar process for determining the rate of false reports of rape at a U.S. college.

Skepticism and Rape Adaptations

Now, the problem is not that Dr. Shackelford is an evo psych researcher. There are people doing good work in evo psych. The problem is that Dr. Shackelford isn’t doing good work on this topic. In particular, the work he is presenting, relating female infidelity to rape of female partners by male partners, doesn’t tell us anything that the already robust scientific literature on rape hasn’t already told us.


The Politics of the Null Hypothesis

Sexism Always Wins, but It Still Loses

Jen McCreight won’t be talking about Boobquake at conferences anymore.

I’ve already said no to groups who wanted me to talk about it, and suggested another topic. I think we can learn interesting things from what happened, but I’m just sick of how people see it as a green light for sexual harassment. I can only tolerate so much.

In an otherwise decent post about the effects of pervasive sexism, Josh Rosenau asks:

Which raises the question: did sexism win, or was boobquake doomed precisely because it was meant to take advantage of society’s sexism?

Now, let me think about this for a–NO!

Or maybe I shouldn’t be quite so hasty. At least one commenter disagrees with me, saying, “Nobody could have predicted that! Except, of course, for everyone who did, and got shouted down as killjoys,” and, “You can’t solve a problem using the same thinking which created it.”

So, given that argument would my answer be any diff–NO!

To make a short story longer, let’s start with the second part of the statement. Boobquake was meant to take advantage of society’s sexism? It used the same thinking which created it? Boobquake was meant to be a joke, a joke that took one cleric’s claims that “immodest” dress led inevitably to earthquakes via a chain of men’s uncontrollable lust and God’s anger over adultery and broke it apart to make the individual pieces easier to examine and ridicule.

Jen never meant or expected the idea to take off, much less “take advantage of society’s sexism.” Once it did, she did an admirable job of steering the inevitable publicity back toward the original intent of mocking the ideas that women are responsible for inciting men’s unholy lust and that such lust leads to earthquakes. She educated at least a few people on the use of statistics to illustrate these claims. She used the opportunity to allow Iranian women’s rights activists–the people actually affected by the cleric’s claims–to be heard in the West.

That some subsequent events were also shaped in part by the pervasive sexism of our society is unsurprising, but is has nothing to do with Jen’s intent, and I shouldn’t have to spell that out in response to a post on that very topic. Nor is it Jen’s responsibility to deal with the predictability of these events. That particular gem of criticism is just a form of the “she should have known” argument. It might be valid if there actually existed a choice between doing nothing, and thus avoiding sexism, and engaging in activism, during which some women are subjected to sexism. That women aren’t offered that particular choice is, again, not something I should have to point out when the occasion is a post about pervasive sexism. Does anyone, for example, really still think Jen would be exempt from unwanted comments and jokes on her appearance if she hadn’t thought up Boobquake?


Now for the question of whether sexism won. Yes, it won. Sexism always wins. It has the advantage of numbers and entrenched power.

However, sexism also lost, and it keeps on losing.

The Iranian cleric in question changed his stance in response to Boobquake. It isn’t much better than it was before, but he changed it in response to questions from those within his country and his religion. His authority was undermined enough that he had to react.

A large number of the women who participated explicitly rejected the conflations of sex and sin, sex and shame, their clothing and “uncontrollable” male lust. It may not stick, but they’ve done it at least once. That makes them less vulnerable to the coercive messages that surround sex in our society. If Boobquake was a failure in this respect, then so are the Slutwalks that have been spreading across the globe in recent months.

Jen’s profile was raised significantly by Boobquake. That did two important things. First, it added one more good, flexible female speaker to the list of people event organizers draw from. The groups who invite her to speak about Boobquake aren’t turning her down when she wants to talk about something else. Instead, they’re hearing a different talk, frequently the one on “God’s Lady Problem.” Not exactly a win for sexism.

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, Jen has been identified as a resource for other women in both the skeptic and atheist movements who experience sexism. She’s used her blog to promote the complaints of others. She’s modeled behavior for objecting to sexist treatment in a very public way. She’s used her tenacity to keep the pressure on until she gets an official response on the topic. She’s rallied other prominent atheists and skeptics to amplify her message. She has added substantially to the number of effective voices on the topic. She’s done it with the platform that was built, in part, with Boobquake. And now, she’s seing results.

Sexism found a way to pull a small victory out of Boobquake. The house took its cut. But it only wins if people insist that we’ve lost if we don’t get everything we want right now.

Sexism Always Wins, but It Still Loses

The Role of Confrontation in the Gay Rights Struggle

The quest for equal rights for LGBTQ Americans is often cited as an example of constructive confrontation in action. In a recent discussion around accommodationism in the fight to keep creation out of public schools, I was asked to provide some documentation on the topic. I put together a list of almost entirely web-based resources for those interested.

I think is worth sharing here for those who want to address the topic in the future. So, an annotated bibliography on the role of confrontation in the U.S. fight for gay rights:

None of this suggests that there isn’t a role, particularly in the recent swell of support for gay marriage rights, for simply understanding one another as human beings. However, we did have to reduce the risks to LBGTQ populations to the extent where that was possible. That wouldn’t have happened without the changes wrought by confrontation.

The Role of Confrontation in the Gay Rights Struggle

Not in My Constitution

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

A constitution or other governmental charter is a document that exists to specify the operation of a government–and to ensure the rights of the people governed. The largest debate over the U.S. Bill of Rights was over whether the amendments were needed to protect what should be “natural rights” and whether there was any possibility that the enumeration of rights might be considered to limit citizens’ rights to those explicitly granted.

We, the people of the state of Minnesota, grateful to God for our civil and religious liberty, and desiring to perpetuate its blessings and secure the same to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution

Yesterday, the Minnesota House voted to put a question on the November 2012 ballot. In a state in which marriage of same-sex couples is already disallowed by law, in a state where judges have already agreed ruled on the issue, voters will be asked whether our constitution should be amended to limit legal recognition of marriage to unions between one man and one woman.

There wasn’t a great demand for this legislation. Polls in recent years have shown an upswing in support for gay marriage, and an overall lack of support for this kind of amendment. The only poll showing support for an amendment vote is an anti-gay-marriage group that won’t release details on the polling.

The House members who voted for an amendment referendum didn’t speak in favor of the amendment. The one who spoke in favor of the referendum said only that he wanted voters to be able to decide the issue.


Section 1. OBJECT OF GOVERNMENT. Government is instituted for the security, benefit and protection of the people, in whom all political power is inherent, together with the right to alter, modify or reform government whenever required by the public good.

Sec. 2. RIGHTS AND PRIVILEGES. No member of this state shall be disfranchised or deprived of any of the rights or privileges secured to any citizen thereof, unless by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers. There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the state otherwise than as punishment for a crime of which the party has been convicted.

Supporters of the amendment suggest they’re trying to “protect” the traditional definition of marriage, something that won’t be replaced or altered by extending the right to marry to gay and lesbian couples. They have identified no public good that will be served by the codification of discrimination. They offer reasons to prohibit gays from marrying that are based solely in religious traditions, personal discomfort, and lies about homosexuals. They claim that equality is an equal right to do something that only person wants to do.

No one has offered a reason for this proposed amendment that could outweigh the continued denial of equal rights to citizens who contribute to make our state what it is. Certainly no one has offered a reason to turn our founding documents, the documents that exist to protect our rights, into a barrier to the rights of all our citizens. We cannot let this abuse of our public documents stand.

Not in My Constitution

Saturday Storytime: Rapture

On the most recent date on which virtuous humans are supposed to be lifted from their Earthly cares, I can’t think of any better story to share than this one by Sally Gwylan, in which the battle between religion and humanism is aided by an unusual agent. An exceprt:

The auditorium blazed with the new electric lights and was full to overflowing. There was never a chance I would find Josef in that seething mass by venturing into it, so I went round back & climbed the stairs up to the outside walk. A small crowd pressed up near the open windows to listen, but not all the sashes had been raised. I chose one of these closed windows for my vantage point.

As I searched the mass of people below me for Josef’s gipsy curls & defiant red scarf, the Reverend’s words deviled my ears despite the barrier of the window-glass. A small man whose gestures & intonation burned with fevered zeal, Owings exhorted his audience to Pray! Pray for the Holy Spirit to lead them into the ways of righteousness!

And as he shouted, the air inside the hall began to sparkle, golden motes drifting down. I doubted my eyes, but others were seeing it too, looking up, gaping, and it was then I spotted Josef’s set jaw & bold mustachios pushing through the crowd at the back, with Gretchen drawn but determined just ahead of him, the babe wrapped up tight in her arms. Rather than hurry down to find them I stayed watching the dustfall a moment longer.

Soon all faces were turned up to the glittering motes. Some shouted, a babble of Hallelujahs & Glorys. I believe I saw vents in the sculpted ceiling from which the dust issued, but the stuff spread out quickly, & surely the people below couldn’t tell the source.

Flash & humbug, I thought.

Sweet manna! Owings’s voice rang out. Rejoice for the Lord is with us tonight! & the people in the hall raised up their arms, their heads tipped back as though the golden fall were a shower of welcome rain. Every face filled with wonder.

Even — this is what haunts me, this is the impossible thing — my rebel Josef’s. Gretchen too, the both of them stopped in their tracks and gaping with childish awe as I have never seen either do before & certainly not at such a conjurer’s trick. Cold went through me like a gale off the lake — even now my hands shake with it.

Unable for a time to turn away, I watched & listened as fever took the crowd, some losing themselves so far as to fall to the floor in fits of jerking limbs. Josef & Gretchen did not do so, yet their open-mouthed gullibility was near as bad. Owings’s words pounded the glittering air, sin & pridefulness & render unto Caesar, on & on, a hammer forging his auditors into the shape he desired, til at last I could take no more and stumbled home.

Where I write and wait, hoping that Nathan will return before the others do.

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: Rapture