No, Virginia, There Is No Santa Claus

Recapping this for the holiday season. For those who aren’t familiar with the famous essay, “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” which this piece is satirizing/ commenting on/ replying to, here’s the original, published in 1897. Enjoy!

santa claus 1
“Dear Editor: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

-Virginia O’Hanlon

Virginia, your little friends are right. There is no Santa Claus. It’s a story made up by your parents.

Your friends have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except when they see. And good for them. Skepticism is healthy. It keeps us from being duped by liars and scam artists and people who want to control and manipulate us. More importantly: Skepticism helps us understand reality. And reality is amazing. Reality is far more important, and far more interesting, than anything we could make up about it.

Your friends understand that there is plenty about the world which is not comprehensible by their little minds. They understand that all minds, whether they be adults’ or children’s, are little. They see that in this great universe of ours, humanity is a mere insect, an ant, in our intellect, as compared with the boundless world about us. But your friends also see that the only way we can gain a better understanding of this great universe is to question, and investigate, and not believe in myths simply because they’re told to us by our parents and teachers and newspaper editorial writers.

Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they simply understand that Santa Claus does not freaking exist. Continue reading “No, Virginia, There Is No Santa Claus”

No, Virginia, There Is No Santa Claus
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Skepticism, and Emotional Responses to Terrible Ideas

This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry.

(Content note: passing mentions of spousal abuse, rape, intense racism, homophobia, transphobia)

ear
Does being a good skeptic mean listening calmly and patiently to every idea, and considering every idea with a completely open mind?

Strike that. Let me phrase that question in a more honest way, a way that makes my position clear: Where on Earth did we come up with the cockamamie notion that being a good skeptic means not having an emotional response to terrible, harmful ideas, and not treating those ideas with the contempt they deserve? Where did we get the notion that being a good skeptic means treating every idea, no matter how ridiculous or toxic, as equally worthy of consideration? Where did we get the notion that bad, harmful ideas should not make us angry, and that we should never get angry at anyone who brings them up?

Ron Lindsay recently wrote a piece, “Questioning Humanist Orthodoxy: Introduction to a Series” (No Faith Value blog, May 18, 2015), in which he criticized, among other things, humanists who respond angrily and emotionally to supporters of the death penalty, and who don’t calmly make what Lindsay considers to be good, rational arguments against it. PZ Myers has already responded to the core content of Lindsay’s essay (“Brave Ron Lindsay,” Pharyngula blog, May 19, 2015), so I’m not going to do that here. And in any case, I don’t want to pick on Lindsay: he is very far from the only person to put forth this idea. Several prominent atheists and skeptics have chided progressives for expressing anger over debates about abortion (citations collected at “Having a Reasonable Debate About Abortion,” Greta Christina’s Blog, March 13, 2014), and Massimo Pigliucci described these debates about abortion as “a tempest in a teapot” (“David Silverman and the scope of atheism,” Rationally Speaking blog, March 14, 2014).

This is a very common idea in the skeptical world: the idea that being a skeptic means being willing to entertain and discuss any and all ideas, with a completely open mind, with no attachment to any particular outcome — and with no emotional response.

And it’s an idea that should be taken out into the street and shot.

homosexuality can be cured newspaper
Let’s set aside abortion and the death penalty for a moment. Let’s use some different examples, ones that will make my point more clear. Let’s imagine that someone shows up at your dinner party, or comes into your online forum, and says that husbands should be allowed to beat and rape their wives. Or that homosexuality is a serious and dangerous mental illness, and gay people should be locked up in mental institutions. Or that black people aren’t fully human.

How are you going to respond? Are you going to say, “Hm, that’s an interesting idea — I don’t agree, but I’m curious why you think that, let’s calmly look at the evidence and examine the pros and cons”?

Or are you going to say some version of, “That is vile. That is despicable. The fact that you’re even proposing that is morally repulsive. Apologize, or get the hell out”?

And assuming that you did call the idea vile and toss the person out — how would you respond to someone telling you, “You’re a bad skeptic! You shouldn’t be so emotional! If someone is questioning black people’s basic humanity, you should be willing to debate that dispassionately, and with an open mind!”? Continue reading “Skepticism, and Emotional Responses to Terrible Ideas”

Skepticism, and Emotional Responses to Terrible Ideas

A Woman’s Room Online: Misogyny, and the Idea That the Internet Isn’t Real

Content note: misogyny, harassment, threats of violence and rape and death, images of same

Here’s the thing. For hundreds of millions of people, the Internet is our workplace: we go there to collaborate, to do research, to promote our work. The Internet is the place where we meet our friends. It’s where we get our news. It’s where we organize charity activity, or political activity. For hundreds of millions of people, the Internet is a central hub of human activity.

Now. Think about what it would be like if every time you went to work, every time you went out with friends, every time you went out to get a newspaper, every time you went on a charity walkathon, every time you went to a neighborhood meeting to plan the new public park, you had people screaming at you how worthless you are, how ugly you are, how much they hate you, how much they want to torture and rape and kill you.

Think about showing up to work at 8:30 in the morning, and sitting down in this room.

A Woman's Room Online 23
Continue reading “A Woman’s Room Online: Misogyny, and the Idea That the Internet Isn’t Real”

A Woman’s Room Online: Misogyny, and the Idea That the Internet Isn’t Real

How Dare You Show Me My Mistake! My Reply to Phil Zuckerman About the Global Gender Breakdown of Atheism

So when I wrote that globally, there’s no gender split in atheism, and that men being more likely to be non-believers than women is a localized phenomenon — was I mistaken?

Phil Zuckerman
Phil Zuckerman — professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, author of Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion, and the upcoming book Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions (scheduled for publication in December) — thinks so. Here’s a link to his article. The tl;dr: He says most of the current data supports the conclusion that men are more likely to be atheists than women, pretty much around the world. How much more likely varies — the gender difference in non-belief varies from country to country — but with a couple of exceptions (example: self-designated agnostics in Japan and Belgium are about evenly split between women and men), men around the world are, on average, more likely to be secular than women. The poll I was citing in my piece — WIN-Gallup International “Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism 2012,” August 6, 2012 (PDF, Table 8, page 20 of 25) — is an outlier. To quote Dr. Zuckerman about this poll, “It may very well be valid. But for now, it is such a major outlier — so much so, that until we have more studies and more data confirming these unique and exceptional findings, we should remain skeptical.”

For the record, Dr. Zuckerman doesn’t think this gender difference in non-belief comes primarily from innate differences between the sexes. He doesn’t know where it comes from, although he posits a number of possible explanations, mostly sociological (although he’s “not going to totally, utterly discount or disregard biology outright”). And he says, “Of course, none of the above means that this gendered difference is fated and eternal. In 25 years, we could find different results.” But he does think that the poll I was citing is an outlier, and that when I said there there’s no global gender split in atheism, I was mistaken.

A number of people have pointed me to Dr. Zuckerman’s piece, and have asked me to respond. Here’s my response:

How. Dare. You.

HOW DARE YOU?!?!?

You’re deliberately misunderstanding what I obviously meant! You’re going out of your way to twist my words and make me look bad! You’re determined to be offended! You’re looking for people to be angry at! You’re trying to stir up controversy! You thrive on drama and attention! You’re trying to get rich through blog traffic and book sales! You’re being politically correct! You’re on a witch hunt! You’re the thought police! All those people who say how horrible you are, the people who harass you and threaten you and spread disinformation about you and keep re-registering new Twitter accounts when you block them so they can keep harassing you — they’ve got it right about you! You are a horrible person, and you’re destroying atheism and freethought!

Or, to put it another way:

You’re probably right. You have more experience, more expertise, and more knowledge in this area than I do. My mistake.

I’ll say that again, and I’ll put it in boldface and italics so readers can’t miss it, and I’ll clarify for the irony-impaired that this is what I actually mean and the “How dare you?” rant was a snarky jab at public figures who respond poorly to criticism:

You’re probably right. You have more experience, more expertise, and more knowledge in this area than I do. My mistake.

I still think the bulk of my criticism of Harris was correct and fair. I think his original statement about the supposedly innate causes of the gender split in his followers was sexist; and I think his follow-up statement supposedly clarifying his original statement was sexist. As I wrote earlier: I think these statements were sexist, even if you do accept some degree of innate gender difference between women and men. And I think they’re still sexist, even if there is a global gender split in atheism (which I’m now convinced there probably is, although it’s interesting that it varies so much from country to country). Given how massive and pervasive gender policing is (and how extensively well-documented this policing is), I think it’s sexist to immediately reach for “the difference is innate, manbrains and ladybrains are born so different” as the default explanation for gender differences. (I’ve written a more thorough explanation of why this is elsewhere.)

And as Dr. Zuckerman himself stated, there are lots of possible explanations for this gender split. Possible causes that he cites are that having less power and privilege and agency (as women do) can make people turn to religion for consolation and support; that women are socialized to be less assertive and less independent, making them more vulnerable to religion; that it could have to do with women’s expected roles as caregivers, or with the greater expectation that women work inside the home. I would add to that list of possible causes: the cultural expectation that being religious and passing religion on to children is women’s work; a culture that equates being religious with being civilized and moral (especially sexually moral), and that sees enforcing civilization and morality (especially sexual morality) as women’s work; the fact that religion is one of the few arenas where women traditionally have some power and social status (women often do much of the day-to-day running of religious institutions, even though men are usually the most visible leaders); the pervasiveness of sexism and misogyny in organized atheism. Given that we know all this, and given that the gender split in atheism does vary so much from country to country, and given that the evidence for significant innate gender differences in behavior and psychology in humans is tenous at best, I think it’s extremely sexist to immediately reach for “innate differences between manbrains and ladybrains” as the explanation for this gender split in atheism.

But when it comes to the specific question of whether there really are more male atheists than female atheists worldwide, it seems likely that I was mistaken, and that the study I was citing was an outlier. My apologies.

Now. How hard was that? Continue reading “How Dare You Show Me My Mistake! My Reply to Phil Zuckerman About the Global Gender Breakdown of Atheism”

How Dare You Show Me My Mistake! My Reply to Phil Zuckerman About the Global Gender Breakdown of Atheism

Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality?

This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine.

Here’s the conundrum. On the one hand: As rationalists, we’re striving to be rational, to the best of our ability.

On the other hand: As rationalists, we’re striving to accept reality, to the best of our ability. And the reality is that our brains are not rational. Our brains are a hot mess. Our brains are loaded with quirks and kluges and eighty kajillion cognitive biases, which are there for good evolutionary reasons but which can make for some seriously crummy thinking. And they always will be. I suppose it’s possible that humanity will eventually evolve to a state in which all our cognitive biases have vanished and we’ve become perfectly calibrated thinking machines — but I doubt it. And if that does happen, it won’t be while any of us are alive.

So how do we deal with this? As rationalists, the most obvious way to deal with our cognitive biases is to learn about them, understand them, learn to recognize them, and do our best to counterbalance them or set them aside. That’s usually what we advocate, and what we strive for. Including me. But can it ever be more rational to just accept our irrationality, and work around it or with it, and even use it to our advantage?

dumb-bell
Let me give a couple of examples. When it comes to exercise, the rational thing for me would be to exercise at home. My gym membership costs money, and it takes time to get to the gym and back — time and money that I’d love to spend elsewhere. I have exercise equipment at home: it’s not quite as good as what I get at the gym, but it’s fine, I can get a perfectly good workout with it. But I don’t. I almost never work out at home. And when I do, I don’t keep it up for very long. When I’m at home, it’s too easy to be distracted and enticed by a dozen other things — including the sofa. When I go to the gym, on the other hand, I do actually work out. The only real willpower involved is getting myself there in the first place. Once I’m there… what else am I going to do? After all, I’ve already spent the time getting myself to the gym, I’m not about to turn around and go home again. It’s the “sunk cost fallacy” in action. And once I start working out at the gym, it’s easier to stay in a groove and just keep working out until I’m done. It’s not like there’s anything else to do at the gym: there’s no kittens, no snacks, no Internet, not even any TV except the TVs that you can only watch when you’re on the exercise equipment. A typical home workout for me lasts fifteen minutes at best: at the gym, I typically spend at least an hour.

This is entirely irrational.

So the question is: Do I say to myself, “My gym membership is irrational, so I’m going to cancel it and just make myself work out at home somehow”? Or do I accept the reality that, as irrational as it is, as costly of time and money as it is, my gym membership keeps me exercising? Do I accept the fact that my brain is easily distracted, and choose to exercise in a place that keeps me focused? Do I not only accept the fact that my brain is wired with the sunk cost fallacy, but actually use this fallacy to my advantage?

Which is the rational choice?

Another example. There’s a computer app that lets you voluntarily block your own access to the Internet. At the cost of $10, this app will let you pre-set a stretch of time during which you won’t be able to get on the Internet — so you won’t be lured by the essentially infinite distractions the Internet has to offer, and can get some work done. (In a branding effort so ironic it’s almost Orwellian, the app is named “Freedom.”) And if you’re thinking, “But I need access to the Internet to do my work!” — there’s another app, “Anti-Social,” that only blocks access to social media such as Facebook and Twitter, in case you need the Internet for research and just want to cut off the more temptingly distracting regions of it.

And if Freedom’s creators are to be believed, it has over 400,000 users.

ten_dollar_bill
Totally irrational. Why pay a company ten bucks for the privilege of not going on the Internet? Why not just, you know, not go on the Internet? But I’m buying the apps right now, even as I write this. Both of them. Because I know myself. I know that I am easily distracted. I know that I can easily spend hours on Facebook and Twitter — and as a writer, I can easily rationalize this time as work. (“I’m not wasting time, I’m doing publicity/ networking/ self-promotion!”) And I know that my willpower is not an infinite resource. I know about decision fatigue. I know that making one decision, once in a day, to not go on the Internet for the next (say) four hours will be a whole lot easier and less fatiguing to my brain than having to make that decision ten times a day, a hundred times a day, every single time I think “Oo, Facebook!” and have to force myself to stay away.

So which is the rational choice? Is it rational to try to make myself be more rational… or is it rational to accept the reality of my irrationality, and work around it and even with it?

I think this is a trickier question than at first it seems. On the one hand… obviously, if some mental workaround gets me exercising or working more efficiently, what’s the harm? But I don’t think this way about any and all consciously chosen irrationalities. I didn’t (for instance) keep taking glucosamine for my bad knee once I found out that it definitely didn’t work. A part of me wanted to, even tried to rationalize doing so, on the grounds that it probably didn’t do any harm and pretending I was doing something to heal my knee made me feel all empowered and stuff. But I couldn’t do it and live with myself as a skeptic. And when people say things like, “I know that my belief in God isn’t rational, but it makes me happy, so what’s the harm?”, it drives me up a tree. I do think we have a moral obligation to be rational. When we’re not rational, when we let ourselves think wrong things just because we want to, we can do harm to ourselves and others — because we have a faulty understanding of how cause and effect actually works in the world. (Look at parents who let their sick children suffer or die, because they believe that medical treatment will anger their god.) And I think rationality is a discipline, one which requires a certain amount of practice. I don’t think it’s so easy to be rational in some areas of our lives, while consciously letting ourselves be irrational in others. I think if we do that, we’re likely to engage in self-delusion at the very times when we most need to be on our toes.

So how do we parse that difference? How do we decide when the rational choice is to practice that discipline and make ourselves not act irrationally — and when the rational choice is to acknowledge the reality of our own irrationality, and accept it, and work with it? What standards might we apply to answering that question?

I’m kind of thinking out loud here, and I don’t really have an answer. (If others have ideas about this, I’d love to hear them!) But I can tell you one of the ideas I’m leaning toward:

There’s a difference between irrationality that denies reality, and irrationality that doesn’t.

“I won’t work out at home no matter how good my intentions are,” “I am easily distracted by shiny beads on the Internet” — these are subjective conclusions, conclusions about what is true for me. Ultimately, it boils down to a personal preference: I just like working out at the gym more. This preference may not be rational — okay, it’s definitely not rational — but it’s not a denial of reality. It’s actually a recognition of reality, and an acceptance of it.

God from Monty Python and the Holy Grail
On the other hand, “Glucosamine works” or “Glucosamine doesn’t work,” “God exists” or “God does not exist” — these are not subjective questions. These are assertions about what is and is not true in the non-subjective world, the world that doesn’t disappear when we’re not here to perceive it. To hold on to the idea that glucosamine works or that God exists, simply because you find the idea comforting and would like for it to be true… that is a denial of reality.

And I care about reality. I think we have a moral obligation to care about reality, and to understand it as best we can, and to prioritize it over wishful thinking.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being irrational in our personal, subjective choices: where we want to live, what work we want to do, what kind of art captivates us, who (if anyone) we want to marry. These choices might be wrong — if we abandon our partner and our family and run off to become the world’s greatest macaroni artist, that hurts people other than ourselves — but it’s the “hurting other people” part that makes those choices wrong, not the irrationality part. Silly, frivolous, irrational passions can be among the greatest joys in our lives.

But when it comes to questions of external, objective reality, I think we have an obligation to act rationally. I think we can accept our irrationality, use it to our advantage, even embrace it and love it. But I think this acceptance, this embrace, has to be part of our acceptance of reality — not a denial of it.

Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality?

Karen Stollznow Legal Defense Fund Is In Place

The Karen Stollznow legal defense fund has been started, and is now in place. If you think victims of sexual harassment should be able to speak out without being silenced by lawsuits or fear of lawsuits, please donate — and please spread the word.

My name is Karen Stollznow. I am an author and researcher with a PhD in Linguistics. In recent months, I wrote an article for a Scientific American Mind blog in which I spoke out about sexual harassment I’d endured from a male colleague for several years. I did this to highlight the wide problem of sexual harassment in the workplace for women, including those in scientific and academic fields. Many people who read the article immediately identified my harasser by name, and spoke publicly about my situation on their own blogs and other social media. They knew who my harasser was because he had recently been disciplined by his employer for his behavior.

As a result, my harasser filed a defamation suit against me, trying to bully me into silence. Although he’s spent thousands of dollars on a lawyer to clear his name, he knew that I could not afford the same. In my attempts to settle out of court he has tried to bully me into signing a retraction, which claimed that I had lied about the whole ordeal, including his ongoing harassment of me, and assaults at one of our professional conferences. Although I didn’t sign the retraction, he posted the document on his very public Facebook page and announced victory over me. This also led to false public edits being made to my Wikipedia page.

I never lied about the harassment I endured and I have evidence and witnesses to attest to my experiences. The only crime I have committed is not being rich enough to defend myself. If you believe in justice and in protecting victims who are bullied into silence, please dig deep and help support this legal fund. I must raise $30,000 in the next two weeks in order to find legal counsel to fight these allegations and clear my own name. If my harasser succeeds in bullying me into silence, it will only serve to embolden harassers, and teach victims that they should never speak up, lest it ruin their lives.

Any money raised through this campaign that is not spent on these legal expenses will be donated to Colorado’s Sexual Assault Victim Advocate Center.

Thank you for listening to my story, and please give as you can. To contact me about this fundraising campaign, email [email protected]

Thank you.

Again: If you’re troubled by the fact that victims of sexual harassment are staying silent because of lawsuits or fear of lawsuits, please donate. Even small amounts help — they really do add up. And please spread the word: on Facebook, Twitter, other social media, your own blog, and any appropriate places you can think of. Thanks.

EDIT: For those of you who may not be familiar with the details of this situation, here is a timeline.

Karen Stollznow Legal Defense Fund Is In Place

Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality?

Here’s the conundrum: on the one hand, as rationalists, we’re striving to be rational to the best of our ability. On the other hand, as rationalists, we’re striving to accept reality to the best of our ability. And the reality is that our brains are not rational. Our brains are a hot mess. Our brains are loaded with quirks and kluges and eighty kajillion cognitive biases that are there for good evolutionary reasons but can make for some seriously crummy thinking. And they always will be. I suppose it’s possible that humanity will eventually evolve to a state in which all our cognitive biases will have vanished and we’ve become perfectly calibrated thinking machines, but I doubt it. If that does happen, it won’t be while any of us are alive.

So how do we deal with this? As rationalists, the most obvious way to cope with our cognitive biases is to learn about them, understand them, recognize them, and do our best to counterbalance them or set them aside. That’s usually what we advocate and what we strive for, including me. But can it ever be more rational to just accept our irrationality, work around it or with it, and even use it to our advantage?

gym-weights
Let me give a couple of examples. When it comes to exercise, the rational thing for me to do would be to exercise at home. My gym membership costs money, and it takes time to get to the gym and back—time and money that I’d love to spend in other ways. I have exercise equipment at home; it’s not quite as good as what I use at the gym, but I can get a perfectly good workout with it. But I don’t. I almost never work out at home. And when I do, I don’t keep up a routine for very long. When I’m at home, it’s too easy to get distracted and be enticed by a dozen other things—including the sofa.

When I go to the gym, on the other hand, I do actually work out. The only real willpower involved is getting myself there in the first place. Once I’m there, what else am I going to do? After all, I’ve already spent the time getting myself to the gym. I’m not about to turn around and go home again. It’s the “sunk cost fallacy” in action. And once I start working out at the gym, it’s easier to stay in a groove and just keep exercising until I’m done. It’s not like there’s anything else to do at the gym: there are no kittens to play with, no snacks to eat, no Internet, and not even any TV sets except the ones that you can only watch when you’re on the exercise equipment. A typical home workout for me lasts fifteen minutes at best: at the gym, I usually spend at least an hour.

This is entirely irrational. So do I say to myself, “My gym membership is irrational, so I’m going to cancel it and just make myself work out at home somehow”? Or do I accept the reality that, irrational as it is, as costly of time and money as it is, my gym membership keeps me exercising? Do I accept the fact that my brain is easily distracted and choose to exercise in a place that keeps me focused? Do I not only accept the fact that my brain is wired with the sunk-cost fallacy but actually use it to my advantage? Which is the rational choice?

*****

Thus begins my latest piece for Free Inquiry magazine, Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality? To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality?

A Martyr of Modern Skepticism: The Assassination of Prominent Atheist Narendra Dabholkar

A great skeptical leader has been assassinated.

This didn’t happen in a tyrannical theocracy. This happened in a modern, supposedly secular nation, with no state religion, and with first-class programs of science and medicine. And still, for the crime of criticizing religious beliefs, questioning them, and subjecting them to scientific scrutiny, a great skeptical leader was gunned down on the street in broad daylight.

narendra_dabholkar
For over two decades, Dr. Narendra Dabholkar dedicated his life to overcoming superstition in India. Originally a medical doctor, Dabholkar spent years exposing religious charlatans, quacks, frauds, purveyors of “miracle cures,” and other con artists preying on gullibility, desperation, and trust. An activist against caste discrimination in India, and an advocate for women’s rights and environmentalism, Dr. Dabholkar’s commitment to social justice was expansive and enduring. But it was his work against superstition that earned him his fame.

India is a huge, hugely diverse country, and much of it — particularly the South — is thoroughly modern, urban, and largely secular. But much of the country — particularly the North — is saturated with self-proclaimed sorcerers, faith healers, fortune tellers, psychics, gurus, godmen, and other spiritual profiteers. In parts of the country, people are beaten, mutilated, or murdered for being suspected of witchcraft, and there are even rare cases of human sacrifice — including the sacrifice of children — in rituals meant to appease the gods.

Throughout this country, Dr. Dabholkar traveled to towns and villages, investigating claims of miracles and magic, revealing the physical reality behind the tricks — and organizing travelling troops of activists to do the same. He didn’t try to persuade people out of the very idea of religious belief, but he was an open atheist, proud and unapologetic. He was the Founder of the Committee for Eradication of Superstition in Maharashtra (Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti). He fought for years for the passage of a controversial anti-black-magic bill in India.

And it was his work against superstition that almost certainly cost him his life.

*****

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, A Martyr of Modern Skepticism: The Assassination of Prominent Atheist Narendra Dabholkar. To find out more about Dr. Dabholkar’s life, work, and murder — and the context it all took place in — read the rest of the piece. And please share it, retweet it, etc. – this story needs to be heard, outside the atheist/skeptical community as well as within it.

A Martyr of Modern Skepticism: The Assassination of Prominent Atheist Narendra Dabholkar

My Body is the Knife: Skepticism and the Reality of Medical Uncertainty

This piece was originally published in AlterNet.

The cutting edge of science is hard to accept when your body is the knife.

person asking question
“If we don’t know the answer to a question, it’s better to just say, ‘We don’t know.’ And then, of course, investigate and try to find an answer. We shouldn’t jump in with an uninformed answer based on our cognitive biases. And we definitely shouldn’t assume that, because we don’t know the answer to a question, the answer is therefore God, or something else supernatural.”

Skeptics and atheists say this stuff a lot. It’s all very well and good: I totally agree. But what do you do if the question on the table is one you really need an answer to? What if the question isn’t something fairly abstract or distant, like, “Why is there something instead of nothing”? What if the question is one with an immediate, practical, non-trivial impact on your everyday life? Something like… oh, say, just for a random example, “What are my chances of getting cancer, and what should I do to prevent it and detect it early?”

Here’s what I mean. I’ll start with my own story, and get it out of the way. I recently got a presumptive diagnosis of Lynch Syndrome. This is a genetic syndrome that gives you about an 80% chance of getting colon cancer (a cancer I’ve sort of had — my last two colonoscopies found pre-cancerous adenomas which would have turned to cancer if they hadn’t been removed); a 20% – 60% risk of endometrial cancer (a cancer I definitely had, it’s the cancer I had surgery for last fall); and a somewhat increased chance of some other cancers, including an as-yet-unknown-but-possibly-as-high-as-ten-or-twenty percent chance of stomach cancer.

I say I got a presumptive diagnosis, because they didn’t actually find the genetic markers that normally point to Lynch Syndrome. But this doesn’t mean I don’t have it. According to the genetic counselor, it’s entirely possible — likely, even — that there are other genetic markers associated with Lynch Syndrome, ones that researchers don’t know about yet. And my family/ personal history of Lynch Syndrome cancers is strongly suggestive of it. It’s pretty much a textbook case of “Lynch Syndrome family history.” So we’re proceeding on the assumption that I have it… even though we don’t know for sure.

So in addition to my now-annual colonoscopies (oh, joy), we had to decide if I should get stomach endoscopies. I have an increased chance of getting stomach cancer… but my genetic counselor said there currently aren’t any agreed-upon medical guidelines on stomach endoscopies for people with Lynch Syndrome, and suggested that I consult with a gastroenterologist. So I talked to a gastroenterologist… who said that there currently aren’t any agreed-upon medical guidelines on stomach endoscopies for people with Lynch Syndrome, and that the two of us would have to make whatever decision seemed right to us, updating it as new information comes in.

You may be noticing a pattern here. Presumptive diagnosis. As yet unknown. No medical guidelines. It’s possible. It’s likely. As new information comes in. Whatever decision seems right. Proceed on the assumption, even though we don’t know for sure.

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This is often the reality of science. There are questions that are pretty much settled: questions we hypothetically might re-visit if giant heaps of new contradictory evidence came in, but that have had an overwhelming body of evidence for decades or centuries pointing to one answer. (Questions like, “Does the Earth orbit the Sun?”) There are questions where the general broad strokes are mostly settled, but where we’re still figuring out many of the finer points. (Questions like, “What the heck is happening on the subatomic level?”) And there are questions that we’re very much in the process of answering, questions on which scientific consensus hasn’t been reached, questions for which the data that’s giving us answers is still coming in, questions we’re still making educated guesses about based on limited information, questions for which our “best educated guess” answers are changing on a yearly and even monthly basis. Questions like… oh, say, just for a random example, “How exactly do genetic factors influence people’s likelihood of getting certain kinds of cancers — and what are the best ways to address these factors to improve prevention, early detection, and treatment?”

Those of us who value science understand this. In fact, we more than understand it. We embrace it. We see it not as a weakness, but as a strength. Science isn’t a body of knowledge so much as it is a process, a method of gathering knowledge. And the way that this process self-corrects with new information is one of the main reasons it’s so jaw-droppingly successful. (If you think science isn’t jaw-droppingly successful, think for a moment about the device you’re reading this on.)

But if you’re living your life in the middle of one of those unanswered questions, this uncertainty and shifting ground can be a hard reality to take. The cutting edge of science is hard to accept when your body is the knife.

And I think this is one of the reasons many people are so skeptical of science, so dismissive of it, so ready to say, “Oh, what do those scientists know? They keep changing their minds! Last year they told us not to eat carbs, now they’re telling us carbs are okay! They can’t even make up their own minds — why should we believe anything they say?” On a practical, day-to-day basis, the cutting-edge, not-yet-answered science that most people are intensely engaged with, the one that most people deeply care about, is medicine. And the reality of uncertainty in medicine is often frightening, upsetting, depressing, and even enraging.

The cutting edges of astronomy, of botany, of quantum physics? Most people aren’t even aware of them. Their immediate effects on people’s lives don’t generally start until the science is fairly settled. Even with computer science — another science that affects our lives profoundly on a day-to-day basis — most of us don’t even touch the technology until it’s more or less hammered out.

But medicine is different. With medicine, a significant amount of research is being done on human beings. A case could be made that all medicine is research being done on human beings: medical protocols and best practices are constantly being updated and refined, even in areas that are pretty well understood. And when it comes to terminal illnesses, it would be irresponsible not to pursue uncertain, incompletely understood avenues of treatment that have highly unpredictable outcomes. If the choices are “try something that might or might not work” or “die”… well, most of the time, that’s a no-brainer. (My wife Ingrid got arrested nine times for demanding, among other things, that the FDA grasp this simple principle and shorten the research protocols for experimental AIDS drugs.)

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In the cutting edge of medical science, human lives are the knife.

And that can make people feel very freaking cranky about medical science.

Boy, howdy, do I understand that. I hate this uncertainty about my Lynch Syndrome. I would much rather just have the bloody diagnosis. I would much rather know for sure that I have this syndrome, instead of having to act on the assumption that I have it even when I don’t have a test result confirming it. If for no other reason: The fact that they didn’t find the genetic marker? It means that my family can’t get tested for that marker to see if they have it or not… so they now have to work with this vagueness as well, this not-very useful information that “You may or may not have a 50% chance, or a 25% chance, of having this syndrome, but we have no real way of knowing, so maybe you should be getting more frequent colonoscopies than you normally would. Or something.”

This is frustrating as hell.

But here’s the thing.

Medical science is the reason we even know about Lynch Syndrome. Medical science is the reason I’m getting colonoscopies every year instead of every five years, and am getting my pre-cancerous adenomas scooped out every year before they turn into cancer. Medical science is the reason we know that the tendency to get some cancers is heredity: it’s the reason that, even before my doctors knew anything about Lynch Syndrome specifically, they were looking at my mom’s cancer history, and insisting that I get colonoscopies early. Medical science is the reason millions of people are getting regular colonoscopies and mammograms as a standard part of their medical care, and are getting cancers and pre-cancers detected and treated early. Medical science is the reason colonoscopies and mammograms even exist. If we’d known about Lynch Syndrome forty years ago, my mom could have caught her cancer before it ate her up at age 45. It’s painful to think about that. But I can’t be sorry that the current medical science, imperfect as it is, is keeping me alive.

When I was growing up, people used to talk about finding “a cure for cancer.” As if cancer were one disease, and we were going to find one magic-bullet cure for it. I think some people are disappointed that this magic bullet hasn’t happened: that cancer is turning out to be hundreds of different diseases, and that after all these decades, after millions of dollars and millions of person-hours poured into it, cancer research is still about prevention and early detection and improved treatments and increased lifespans, much more than it is about a “cure.”

But the reality is that cancer is a much more survivable disease than it was when I was growing up. More people with cancer are getting it caught early. More people with cancer are living longer. More people are getting their cancer fully treated, and are living full lifespans and dying of something else. More people with cancer who can’t get it fully treated are living longer, and better, than they would have fifty years ago, or twenty, or even ten. More people with cancer are getting treatment that isn’t excruciating and doesn’t completely screw up their lives. More people with cancer are getting treatment that’s less excruciating, and is screwing up their lives less completely, than it would have fifty years ago, or twenty, or even ten. And some people aren’t getting cancer at all… because they’re eating their fiber, because they quit smoking or never started, because they’re getting regular colonoscopies and are getting their pre-cancerous doodads scooped out before they turn cancerous. Oncology is an imperfect, inexact science… but it’s getting better all the time. Prevention and early detection and improved treatments and increased lifespans are not trivial. Millions of people are alive today because of them. I’m one.

And I’m not going to embrace the results of the scientific process that’s keeping me alive — the messy, uncertain, unpredictable, loaded-with-false-starts, “try a hundred things with no idea which one, if any, will pan out” scientific process — and then piss all over it because it isn’t perfect.

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Greta Christina is the 2013 Honored Hero of the Foundation Beyond Belief for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation’s Light the Night Walk. To participate in the Light the Night Walk, go to the LL&S website. To participate under the Foundation Beyond Belief banner, find out how to join an existing team — or start one of your own.

My Body is the Knife: Skepticism and the Reality of Medical Uncertainty

Angry Atheists and Equality: Greta's Podcast Interview with "Life, the Universe & Everything Else"

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Podcast time! When I was at the SkepTech conference earlier this year, I gave a podcast interview to Gem Newman of the “Life, the Universe & Everything Else” podcast, hosted by Winnipeg Skeptics. That interview is now up — along with the rest of a very interesting show.

In the interview, we discuss angry atheism, the role religious believers can play in fighting the harm done by religion, strategies of arguing religion with believers, the importance of coming out and atheist visibility, internalized atheist stigma, my favorite arguments against religion, challenging entrenched biases within skepticism, hyperskepticism (or what I’m now calling denialism) and treating ordinary claims as extraordinary ones, straw Vulcans and the notion that being unemotional about an issue makes you more rational, tone-trolling about misogyny, coming out bisexual versus coming out atheist, Twitter walls, self-publishing, and more. Enjoy!

Angry Atheists and Equality: Greta's Podcast Interview with "Life, the Universe & Everything Else"