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.

Photo of line-art graffitti in blue on a brick wall painted white. Image is a woman wearing headphones with her hair splayed out behind her and her finger to her lips. Text below reads, "Shhh..."
“Silence at the end of the tunnel, IV” by Newtown Graffitti, CC BY 2.0

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?”

Why Are You Talking?
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Scientific Racism and the Validity of Racial Categorization

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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.

Photo of fake street signs at the intersection of Privilege Place and Race Road.
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”

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”

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”

Retconning Mythinformation Con

Let Me Count the Ways

I hate understanding what Peter Boghossian is tweeting about. It doesn’t make him less wrong. It just means I have to write about it, because everyone else is trying to figure out what he thinks he means, and he’s still wrong.

This latest nonsense is no exception. It’s nearly fractally wrong. Let me count the ways.

Screen capture of three Boghossian tweets. Text in the post.
Text: Tweet 1: There are no right angles in nature, yet no one says right angles are *social* constructs because they’re not morally motivated to do so.

Tweet 2: I’ll amend this with the modifier “Platonic” or “perfect”.

Tweet 3: Actually. I rescind this. I think it still holds. No?

He went back later and specified Platonic, in case you think it makes a difference.

Let’s start with the way this is supposed to be wrong. Continue reading “Let Me Count the Ways”

Let Me Count the Ways

The Myth of the Pay Gap Myth

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In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama had this to say about the U.S. gender pay gap.

You know, today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment.

Women deserve equal pay for equal work.

You know, she deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship. And you know what, a father does too. It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode. This year let’s all come together, Congress, the White House, businesses from Wall Street to Main Street, to give every woman the opportunity she deserves, because I believe when women succeed, America succeeds.

Now, women hold a majority of lower-wage jobs, but they’re not the only ones stifled by stagnant wages.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and this year marked a slight shift in the celebrations. While humanity hasn’t completely abandoned “When is International Men’s Day?” Day, this year included significant celebrations of Pay Gap Sea-Lioning Day.

Photo of one pan of a balancing scale covered with coins against a backdrop of more coins.
“Money” by Dun.can, CC BY 2.0

A day dedicated to women’s equality wouldn’t be complete without discussing the pay gap, and, as usual, this brings the apologists out of the woodwork. We don’t need to do anything about the pay gap, they imply, because it isn’t discrimination. There is no shortage of men on social media ready to tell you that “leading feminists” say Obama’s 77-cent figure specifically is a lie.

Which feminists? In particular, self-proclaimed “equity feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers has dubbed the gap a “myth”, a claim that, being short, is perfect for the Twitter debate club and drive-by commenters to haul out whenever people address pay disparity.

Even the head of a skeptics organization has claimed in the past that the pay gap isn’t real.

Even private-sector sex discrimination is more relic than reality. The so-called pay gap, the “73 cents for every dollar a man makes,” one hears recited like a mantra by feminists and politicians, doesn’t exist. When true cohorts are compared — men and women with equal education, seniority, duties and hours — the pay gap shrinks to a couple of pennies.

But does this “pay gap myth”, which Sommers continues to recycle in widely read publications, hold up under scrutiny? Is it true that the reason women are paid less is because they choose to go into different fields and work different hours than men do? And if choice does play a significant role, should we stop talking about the pay gap? Continue reading “The Myth of the Pay Gap Myth”

The Myth of the Pay Gap Myth

5 Things That Don’t Make You Right on the Internet

I wrote this post for Patreon patrons ages ago, playing with formats. I could update at least one section, but then I’d look less like a prophet. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

It’s true that not everyone on the internet spends all their time arguing. It’s just that the people who do argue online spend so much time and so many words at it that it drowns out almost everything else. Cat pictures manage to rise above but only because cats have trained us not to argue with them.

Of course, we can’t just argue. Arguing as a genial pastime is apparently one of those social activities that require face-to-face interaction. Online, we have to win. We have to be right, and we have to make other people acknowledge that we’re right.

That, however, is not so easy on the internet, where anyone can cut and paste any old nonsense to keep an argument going until you start to think that camping on the Arctic tundra sounds like a nice vacation. Gish Gallops, links to irrelevant pay-walled articles, and long-discredited assertions of fact–all get in the way of declaring our victories even when we’ve managed to earn them.

So what do we do when good arguments don’t do the trick? We make stuff up. We pick out behaviors that sometimes go along with being terribly, horribly wrong, then we claim that anyone doing them has lost the argument.

That may work when all we really need is a reason to step away from the computer and get some sleep. It’s a terrible idea if we have any interest in getting to the bottom of a disagreement. Unfortunately, once we’ve come to some agreement on these made-up “rules”, many of us act as though we believe they determine the truth of an argument.

Here are five common arbitrary internet rules on winning that don’t actually make us right online. Continue reading “5 Things That Don’t Make You Right on the Internet”

5 Things That Don’t Make You Right on the Internet

Puppies, Slates, and the Leftover Shape of “Victory”

I wasn’t going to write about Vox Day’s Rabid Puppies and their Hugo Awards slate this year. I was just going to enjoy Uncanny Magazine‘s win for Best Semiprozine and Naomi Kritzer‘s win for Best Short Story with “Cat Pictures Please“, because it is a weird and wonderful thing when people I know win awards for work I like. I was going to enjoy the success of a fiction slate swept by women, three of whom are women of color and one of whom didn’t write in English, because the WorldCon should look more like the world than it generally has. I was going to enjoy looking at a slate full of winners of serious quality, because I like this genre, and I get tired of defending it from charges it is only pulp (mmm, pulp).

I was going to do all that, which is plenty. Then I looked at the numbers in the nomination long lists (pdf, de-Puppied numbers at the bottom of this post). I noticed something important.

There is one thing you should know about Vox Day, assuming you can’t avoid him altogether. Well, one thing aside from him being alt-right before the alt-right was identified as a thing. One thing aside from him being such a secure sexist that he has to declare the inferiority of women whenever anyone will listen. One thing aside from his self-published fiction being just sort of tedious and fascinated by its own fascinations.

That one thing is that he always declares victory.

As schticks go, it’s not terribly impressive. It’s a lot like those people who look at science, scrinch their foreheads at the math, and pop out some late-night, freshman-who-took-one-philosophy-class deepity about “But what if the world is really…?” If your musings aren’t falsifiable, you’re not going to impress a scientist with your depth of thought. If you claim everything is a win condition, we all know you’re just not prepared to lose.

This year, Vox Day lost badly. Continue reading “Puppies, Slates, and the Leftover Shape of “Victory””

Puppies, Slates, and the Leftover Shape of “Victory”

About that “Arc of the Moral Universe”

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

Did you know the original was part of a sermon?

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just.[^1] Ere long all America will tremble.

Theodore Parker was an abolitionist who published those words in 1853. His words were popular at the time, but we know them through Martin Luther King Jr., who quoted a paraphrase that had been attributed to Parker. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” King, of course, was also a minister.

It shouldn’t be any surprise then that the sentiment is ultimately a religious one. In fact, we should perhaps twig to this from the paraphrase, or even from the phrase “moral universe”. The idea that the universe has inherent moral qualities hasn’t been demonstrated. The impetus to view it that way is religious or at least is one of the impetuses to religion.

Yet I hear nonreligious people and skeptics use the phrase all the time. It’s used to energize activists and to comfort people in danger of burnout. Far more rare are statements or essays that question the idea even in its particulars. We even have a book with a title borrowed from the phrase arguing for the premise.

Yes, the book argues that nonreligious forces–science in particular1–are what bend the arc and that religion has the capability to reverse it. Yes, that book and many of the other uses of King’s quotation are referring to a metaphorical moral universe rather than the supernatural one of Parker’s original words. However, the directionality and inevitability of the quotation are generally accepted, if sometimes hedged.

If we don’t allow religion to dominate, our world will become more just. If we keep fighting, we will achieve more justice for more people.

The problem, of course, is that this isn’t necessarily true. Continue reading “About that “Arc of the Moral Universe””

About that “Arc of the Moral Universe”

Both and Neither: On the Utility of Multiple Models

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons a couple of months ago. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

There are arguments, common arguments, that I’m entirely done with. They can’t be won–the social reason for having an argument–and the debate does little to nothing to clarify the issues–the epistemological reason for arguing. That makes them pointless except as practice debates, and I get quite enough practice on issues I still hold some hope of settling.

What kind of debates am I talking about? These are arguments like modernism versus postmodernism or whether our actions are socially determined or chosen by us. The debates around these topics go on endlessly with much heat and very little light. Proponents of each side hold the other in contempt as obviously wrong.

All these arguments do, as arguments, is degrade our belief in each other’s ability or willingness to reason. Of course, this is a risk any time we enter into an argument with someone, but it’s a nearly inevitable outcome of these particular debates. Why? Because everyone is wrong. That is to say everyone is right.

Confused yet? Great, let’s go on.

Illustration of a pipe over a map with the caption "This is not a pipe nor a territory."
“The Treachery of Images” by Bill Smith, CC BY 2.0

Fundamentally, this is a problem of models. By that I mean that this is a problem we should expect when we take complex and recurring phenomena and work to generalize and simplify it in such a way that we can fit it within the limits of our understanding. We lose something in the translation. “The map is not the territory.” In fact, it may be distinctly unlike the territory in several ways.

We should expect our models to be right, in that they tell us something important about that reality. At the same time, we should expect our models to be wrong, in that they fall short of fully reflecting reality. And when we have competing models that have lasted and have strong proponents on each side? Well, then we should maybe consider that they’re each giving us different pieces of useful information about reality. Continue reading “Both and Neither: On the Utility of Multiple Models”

Both and Neither: On the Utility of Multiple Models