# When 2 + 2 = 5 and Other Ways to Be Wrong with Heuristics

I recently finished my first set of classes toward a BS in data analytics. It’s not very useful advice now, I hope, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend attempting this in the academic quarter containing the most critical election of your lifetime. That notwithstanding, this means I’ve spent the past several weeks immersed in discussions of deriving meaning from numbers.

As I was gearing up to start my term, a “debate” broke out on Twitter. I put the term in scare quotes, because what actually happened is that one group of offered reasoning and explanations and another group pointed to the first and had vapors about the end of Western civilization. The question at hand? “Does 2 + 2 = 4?” The answer some people found objectionable? “Sometimes. Not always.”

Surrounded as I’ve been this term with issues of data quality, making assumptions explicit, the limits of the most common statistical tests, and error terms, this “debate” has never been far from my mind. I saw an echo of it again today, and lo and behold, I finally have some time to write about it.

The boys who cry “Postmodernism!” without much understanding of the history of philosophy are all but background noise these days, so I mostly noted their existence once again and moved on. Funnily enough, though, this actually is a postmodernism question. This is all about deconstructing the meaning of the equation. Are we talking about some ideal of “2” and “4”, or are we communicating about something else, where “2” and “4” are abstractions of reality that may be more or less reflective of that reality?

Also, does anyone else laugh when someone claims that questioning the perfect, inherent two-ness of “2” will be the end of civilization as we know it? Continue reading “When 2 + 2 = 5 and Other Ways to Be Wrong with Heuristics”

# Second Choices and Delegate Allocations: Why Primary “Electability” Is a Wild Guess

Let me declare my biases up front. I voted for Elizabeth Warren yesterday in Minnesota. She was my first choice among the huge field of Democratic contenders. Like hers, my main priority is seeing as many of her plans as possible enacted. My next four choices dropped out before I got to vote. If I have to choose between Sanders and Biden (I don’t), my choice is Sanders, but the margin is very narrow, based mostly on candidate negatives on both sides, and easily shifted by things like VP choice.

I also spent nearly a decade doing actuarial (pension) math for a living. I’m not a trained actuary, but I have a lot of experience in determining probable outcomes in situations with a lot of variables. More importantly for this post, I’ve spent an awful lot of time identifying and making explicit the assumptions that go into these calculations.

Yes, I’m writing this (or compiling it from various places I’ve talked about the question over the last few days) because of the pressure for Warren to drop out of the race. At best, it’s based on assumptions about what would happen to her votes that don’t match the best information we have. At worst, it’s counter-productive to seeing progressive issues move forward.

• People who are prepared to vote for Warren will switch predominantly to Sanders.
• Those votes will roll up to enough of a gain in Sanders delegates to prevent a brokered convention.

There’s also a third assumption I’m seeing in my social media that Warren really wants delegates so she can throw them to Biden specifically to prevent Sanders from becoming the nominee. I’ll talk about what can happen at the convention later, but I’m not going to address this assumption directly because:

• It’s coming from a small minority even of Sanders supporters.
• Those are the same people who think snake emojis are solid politics.
• Their reaction to this post will be the same no matter what I say.

On to the main assumptions.

#### Second Choices

Would Warren supporters move primarily to Sanders if she dropped out? Not according to them. Continue reading “Second Choices and Delegate Allocations: Why Primary “Electability” Is a Wild Guess”

Charles Murray has a new book out. Yay.

Hadn’t heard of Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class? Well, that’s because his publisher didn’t make review copies available. So the first places to get their reviews out were those feeling no need to take a critical view of the book, like openly white supremacist sites and The Federalist. Unsurprisingly, they think it’s great.

The reviews that do engage critically will take longer. “Critically” here means “Does this accurately represent our best knowledge of the subject?”, rather than “Ugh, don’t like.” Not that those are mutually exclusive. Asking those questions take time.

Some scientists and science communicators have already gotten a head start, however. They can do that without seeing the book because they’ve been dealing with the “evidence” and the arguments on this topic for ages. And of course, because heritability is an easily misunderstood topic, there are some good explainers out there.

So what should you read if you want to learn about heritability from experts rather than political scientists whose prior work on the topic hasn’t held up? Try these articles on the basics and methodological challenges of studying heritability. (Please note that some of these sources uncritically discuss the history of scientific work aimed at a “cure” for autism.) Continue reading “Readings in Heritability”

# A Brief Timeline of Events in the David Silverman Firing

October 18, 2019 update: I was indeed missing something important. See the Q2 2018 Q&A in American Atheist below.

Sorry for the dead air. I’ve been both sick and working on other commitments. However, with the news that Atheist Alliance International has hired David Silverman into the executive director position they created for him, I do want to get this up.

What is this? This is a short summary of things that have been said about Silverman’s suspension and firing with dates (and some annotations) attached. There’s confusion about just what’s been alleged by whom aside from the allegations of sexual misconduct, and I’m already tired of trying to straighten that out on a piecemeal basis. So here’s a timeline I can send people to. It’s probably missing some important statements now that I’ll add as I remember or am pointed to them.

#### 2018 Timeline

April 10: American Atheists’ announcement of suspension

On the evening of Saturday, April 7, 2018, the American Atheists Board of Directors received a complaint regarding David Silverman, the President of American Atheists. The Board takes very seriously the concerns expressed and, in accordance with organization policies, the Board has placed Mr. Silverman on paid leave while an independent investigation is conducted. Mr. Silverman has pledged his full cooperation with the investigation.

April 11: Nick Fish’s statement to Christian Post

The allegations relate to alleged violations of the American Atheists employee code of conduct and staff handbook. Because this is a personnel matter, we cannot go into any more specifics about the allegations.

April 13: American Atheists’ announcement of firing

The Board of Directors has reviewed internal documents and communications related to the initial complaint as well as evidence relating to the additional allegations brought to the Board’s attention. Today’s announcement is based on these findings, and the Board intends to cooperate with any future investigations.

American Atheists is committed to creating and maintaining an environment that is safe and welcoming to all. Based on the allegations made, and the evidence presented, the Board believes it is prudent and necessary to reaffirm that commitment and move forward with new leadership.

# The Plank in the Skeptic’s Eye

I haven’t had much to say about the Atheist Community of Austin voting out a significant chunk of their board and losing multiple volunteers over work with a skeptic YouTuber who decided he needed to weigh in on trans women in sports. By and large, that’s because I haven’t had time to follow it all, and I can’t see how I could be any help by talking about the situation in ignorance.

(If you’re in the same position, you can watch these two interviews with former board members and volunteers. I’m not aware of similar summary explanations from the remaining organization, but I’d be happy to link to those as well. Still, I don’t think any of these are necessary for this post.)

I’ve also been thinking about the situation mostly from an organizational standpoint. One of the boards I’m on is in the middle of revising its bylaws, and the other has that on our to do list, so I’m thinking processes. Plus, last year, I had people say they were going to show up to vote against my election to the board because of my “intolerance” of their position on trans issues. We had to consult the bylaws to figure out how to let them do that, since I was running unopposed. Then they never showed. But I digress.

More recently, I’ve been going through my older posts for a couple of projects. As I did, I realized just how much of load of nonsense “mission creep” really was. Don’t get me wrong. I knew it was nonsense. I argued it was nonsense. I simply missed something important because I let others frame the argument. Continue reading “The Plank in the Skeptic’s Eye”

# Putting Sealions to Work

I’ve been gearing up to get back to more regular blogging here for a while without actually doing it. As commenting has shifted to social media, so have a lot of my observations of the world. But I don’t want to be dependent on sites that aren’t mine for retaining the things I have to say, so I’m going to try to put more of this here.

Today, I posted an anonymized snippet of conversation:

Them: If I’m wrong, why won’t you try to educate me instead of saying I’m ignorant?

Me: Have you read the article you’re commenting on yet?

I posted it because it amused me. Then a friend commented that the original sounded a lot like sealioning. Of course, that’s exactly what it is.

This person has already been arguing (read: asserting their opinion) at length. I’ve been commenting mostly short posts in return, pointing out they’ve already told me they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re frustrated because they’re working harder than I am and getting nowhere. So they’re trying to challenge me to do more.

This person: You telling me I’m ignorant isn’t valid unless you do a lot of work to fix it.

Same argument, slightly different wording.

So why am I blogging this? Because my friend’s question made me realize that this is why sealioning fails so badly around me.

Even before we had a name for this kind of bad-faith arguing, we had sealions. Oh, did we have sealions. And I developed strategies back then that still serve me well dealing with them today. Namely, if someone wants me to do work, they need to demonstrate they’re willing to put in work themselves. Also, they need to do it first.

A lot of people don’t like that last part. Not just sealions, but onlookers too think it’s unfair not to go into this with the assumption people are really there for conversation. I don’t really care. It’s my labor. They’re my conditions.

At the same time, I’m already doing work. These interactions tend to start something like this: Continue reading “Putting Sealions to Work”

# Why Are You Talking?

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Back in 2013, the second Women in Secularism conference was put on by the Center for Inquiry. It was an amazing conference, with strong panels and talks by Rebecca Goldstein, Maryam Namazie, Amanda Marcotte, and Soraya Chemaly. Yet this isn’t why the conference is remembered.

It’s remembered most for the opening remarks given by Ron Lindsay, in which he bristled at being told to “Shut up and listen.” He considered it an abuse of the concept of privilege to be told to shut up, even for the purposes of listening. He was appalled to be told he didn’t know what he was talking about.

He quoted a feminist in that speech who was both not part of the secular movement and not representative of the positions movement feminists had been trying to get movement leaders like him to engage with for several years. He only came to understand why his speech was so damaging when he held a listening session with CFI staff some time later. Then he apologized.

Lindsay would have saved himself and his organization quite a bit of trouble had he shut up and listened instead of fighting against the concept. Sadly, if the rest of the movement learned anything from his experience, they appear to have forgotten it before the allegations against Lawrence Krauss finally hit the news. Continue reading “Why Are You Talking?”

# Scientific Racism and the Validity of Racial Categorization

This post is brought to you courtesy of Patreon. If you want to support more work like this, you can sign up here.

The following is based partly on posts previously published in 2008 and 2012. It’s been consolidated and revised to be accessible to audiences new to this discussion. Images used in the post are mine taken at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s exhibit on race, developed by the American Anthropological Association, first mounted in 2008, and revived in 2017.

“Scientific racism” refers to the attempt to justify racist beliefs and policies through the use of scientific studies. Proponents of scientific racism, unsurprisingly, prefer to use less-loaded terms like “race realism” or “human biodiversity”, but even “scientific racism” can lend an unfortunate patina of validity to the arguments they make. It suggests–reinforced by many of those sympathetic to the claims involved–that the arguments we’re all having over race are merely political. It says those of us who fight scientific racism object to the policies promoted, to the racism, but that the whole enterprise is sadly, regrettably, unavoidably scientific.

However, this simply isn’t true. While scientific racism is decidedly racist and particularly anti-Black, it fails to be scientific. How badly does it fail? The very concept of “race” as used by scientific racists isn’t scientifically valid.

This isn’t to say that race is never a valid scientific concept. You’ll sometimes see people say, “Race is a social construct”, as though this invalidated the concept. It doesn’t. Race is a social construct, but it’s been a durable and very powerful construct. We have scads of documentation of how race has been defined, redefined, and enforced over time. People have lived and died en masse over race. Governments have been organized around the concept of race. Race is not only valid but critical in studying social and societal dynamics.

That isn’t how scientific racists use “race”, though. A socially constructed conception of “race” doesn’t support their arguments. In fact, it’s more likely to expose their racism than justify it.

No, scientific racists are using a more essentialist concept of race. Given the age of much of the research they cite, this may not explicitly be a concept based in genetics. Even their modern research often doesn’t refer directly to genetics (studies that do tend to fall out of favor for reasons I’ll get to), but the implication is that the qualities studied are fixed and inherent to the racial categories being used. We know this requires a shared genetics even if this is never said.

The problem for scientific racism is that race is not a valid concept within human population genetics. Continue reading “Scientific Racism and the Validity of Racial Categorization”

# Hammers, Nails, and Memory of Trauma

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There were recently a pair of bad articles on rape and sexual harassment published in Skeptic Magazine. The first was on the #metoo movement, written by Carol Tavris. H.J. Hornbeck has a series of three posts on this that’s pretty good. I don’t agree with all his interpretations of the points Tavris was trying to make, but he provides a lot of background on the social phenomena and scientific points Tavris invokes.

The second article is a book review on the Sandusky child rape case. The book is written by Mark Pendergrast, whose qualification on the subject is being the author of Memory Warp; The Repressed Memory Epidemic and Victims of Memory. It was published by a small press, which isn’t what you’d expect for a book meant to overturn everything we think we know about an event which received a remarkable amount of press coverage.

I’d recommend this post by Christopher Tevuk on why and how the book fails to do what it set out to do. The short version is that the thesis of the book has already been examined and rejected by the courts.

So why would a skeptic publisher post both of these articles? Why would people who pride themselves on rational thought and examining the evidence promote it? Continue reading “Hammers, Nails, and Memory of Trauma”

# Retconning Mythinformation Con

After last weekend’s debacle at Mythicist Milwaukee’s conference, which included the audience cheering on harassment of a rape victim and victim’s advocate, Mythinformation Con speaker Melissa Chen has decided she knows what really happened. It was impressive enough that I had to share. My comments are included.

Now that #MythCon is over, I see the entire tempest in a teapot that resulted in a very different light. This was more than just an attempt by a radical faction of atheist activists who are fully aligned with the political machinations of ANTIFA to deplatform speakers they didn’t want to hear.

This was presumably Chen’s original position on those objecting to having a professional harasser there. I’m half giggling over “We show up where those we believe to be fascist are engaging in organized action and disrupt or protect those who do” being rendered as “political machinations” and half wondering when the self-appointed hyperbole police are going to show up. Chen posted this several days ago. Dan Arel identifies as antifa (no capital letters required), but to the best of my knowledge, Steve Shives and Kristi Winters have mostly refuted anti-antifa nonsense. If that makes people politically dangerous in Chen’s mind, there are an awful lot of us she’s eyeing as enemies.

Also, this has never been about not wanting to hear people. Winters spearheaded the effort to get Mythicist Milwaukee to remove Sargon as a speaker. She’s listened to more nonsense from Sargon than anyone but his most undying fans. She documented his behavior. She debated him. If Chen ever believed this was about anyone objecting to hearing him personally, she might want to spend more time checking her assumptions about people with differing politics.

It was more than just a campaign to be a thorn in the side of organizers (Mythicist Milwaukee) by driving up security costs with audacious claims to local police and media with no basis in truth.

You can tell me the fans of Gamergater shitlords aren’t dangerous when their targets stop being doxxed and swatted. When their targets’ events stop being cancelled because of shooting threats. When their “ironazi” flags stop showing up at rallies where people die. Then I’ll listen.

Until then, you’re just telling me you’re either not paying attention or not being honest.

This was ultimately about keeping atheism activism within the bounds of “Atheism Plus.”

2012 YouTube called. It wants its authoritarian bogeyman back. Continue reading “Retconning Mythinformation Con”