Weighing in on ElevatorGate: Perspectives and Privilege.

  1. Before I start: Trigger warning for talk of potential sexual assault and misogyny. Oh, also orientalism and Islamophobia and talk of FGM. Also describing the opinions of MRAs, PUAs, and an immensity of mansplaining, so even if you don’t need TWs, you might want to affix a small pillow to your forehead.

Also, if you happen to be my mother, than I’m warning you that I use several different swearwords here. If you’re Richard Dawkins, then you’re not my mother and you don’t get to complain if I swear.

If you’re lucky enough to not have been in the more skeptically and atheistically inclined corners of the internet this weekend, you’ll probably not have heard of ElevatorGate. Here’s a summary of events. For those of you who are already well aware of what’s been going on, I’ve popped some headings up so you can skip the summary, if you like.

What Happened at the Convention

Last month was the World Atheist Convention here in Dublin. One of the speakers was Rebecca Watson. Rebecca spoke on a Communicating Atheism panel. Her talk focused on her experiences as a female atheist activist- particularly her experiences of misogyny and inappropriate sexualisation. That night she went to the hotel bar with other attendees. Stayed up chatting till 4am, at which time she said to everyone that she was exhausted, that she’s had enough and was going to bed*. She gets into the elevator. A man follows her in to the elevator, says that he finds her very interesting, and would she like to come back to his room for coffee. She declines, goes to bed.

A few weeks later, Rebecca puts up a vlog in which she talks about the things she’s been doing, including this. If you don’t fancy looking through all of it, she talks about the afternoon panel from about 2:30, and her comments on Elevator Guy start at about 4:40.

Here’s her criticism of Elevator Guy:

“Just a word to the wise, guys? Uh, don’t do that. You know, I don’t really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable. But I’ll just lay it out that I was a single woman, in a foreign country at 4am in a hotel elevator with you. Just you. And I.. Don’t invite me back to your hotel room, right after I’ve finished talking about how it creeps me out and it makes me uncomfortable when men sexualise me in that manner. So.. yeah”

That’s it. She didn’t call ElevatorGuy a rapist. She didn’t say that this was the worst thing that has ever happened. She didn’t say anything, in fact, about the intentions of ElevatorGuy. She said that a thing had happened, that in that context it was highly inappropriate and made her feel uncomfortable, and she advised people to not do things like that in future. She then, by the way, goes on to say that loads of other people- both men and women- at the conference were awesome.

What Happened Next.

I’d love to say that what happened next was that the internet said “oh, right”, and toddled on about their business with just a little bit more of an idea of how to not make people feel incredibly uncomfortable. Maybe that some people asked for clarification on what had happened, got it, and than moved on. Because this? This should not have been a big deal.

But these things are always big deals.

Accusations fly of how Rebecca hates men. Of how she’s a feminazi who doesn’t want men to ever be able to talk to women. About how men can do nothing these days without being accused of being rapists. Of how she’s making a big deal over nothing** and should Get Over It. Of how she’s villifying poor, innocent ElevatorGuy*** who was probably just a shy, socially awkward chap who wanted nothing more than a cup of coffee. Of how she’s some kind of big-headed vanitybot who can’t accept that obviously an offer of coming back to someone’s room for coffee and a chat at 4am is hardly ever an invitation for sex, and how dare she think that anyone could be attracted to her.

All because, by the way, she said that a thing made her feel uncomfortable and that people should probably not do things like that.

But then things got worse. So, so much worse. Because here is where Richard Dawkins got involved. Yes, that Richard Dawkins.

What Richard Did Next.

Richard Dawkins commented on this. Fortunately for me, Jen McCreight has done a marvellous job of covering this one, so I don’t have to. But because I’d like to keep at least one or two readers here for the moment, I’ll quote RD’s original comment (as posted in Pharyngula):

Dear Muslima
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


If your forehead’s all bruised from the headdesking, don’t blame me. I told you you’d need that pillow. I wouldn’t be surprised if RD finished this screed with an entreaty to Watson to finish off her vegetables because there are poor hungry kids in Africa**** who’d just love a plate of mushy, overcooked broccoli.

There are a few things I’m not going to even start with here. The lumping of all Muslims into one big, amorphous blob. The assumption that no Muslims are, in fact, Americans. The equation of a religion with a billion or so incredibly diverse followers and the actions of assholes who choose to interpret that religion in a very particular, very narrow, very fucked-up way. Because those things? Those things are important. They are big deals. They are not things that I wanted to leave unmentioned here. But they are also things for another day, and another post. Because here I want to focus not on the ways that the skeptical community can be prejudiced against other groups. I want to focus on the ways in which we have just treated one of our own.

What RD did was not unique, or special. It was not particularly different to what many other people had done. All it did, really, was fan the flames. And oh, what flames there were! Flames and flames and flames and flames and flames. And flames. And that’s just the flames on my own little RSS feed.

Wherein I get to the point.

And here is where I get to what I would like to say about this. What I’m talking about is mainly about how the discussion of this has gone- which is, in turn, a thing which mainly exists in the comments of the posts I’ve linked to so far in this post.

I want to talk about how what happened has been framed. And what that says about who is and is not privileged in our society.

Let’s go back to those accusations against Watson that I mentioned earlier. They tend to fall into a certain small number of categories.

  1. Rebecca is, herself, privileged. Loads of worse things happen to women every day and she needs to get over herself.
  2. ElevatorGuy wasn’t a rapist! Why are people being mean to ElevatorGuy? Can’t a guy catch a break around here? Why did Rebecca call him a rapist?!
  3. Rebecca wants to outlaw flirting. If a man can’t approach a woman in a suggestive manner, then nobody will ever have sex with anyone, ever.
  4. This is totally just another way that women make false accusations against men. Just like those false accusations of rape that happen all the time. ALL THE TIME, DOODZ.
  5. So, yeah, women get raped. But what about the poor non-rapist men who feel uncomfortable being associated with rapists?
  6. …yeah, I’m just expressing my opinion. You want me to not express my opinion now, huh? Fuckin’ feminazis, trying to silence men.

Okay. So I’ll admit that I’ve taken a liberty or two with phrasing here. Guilty as charged. But the concepts are reasonably true to form. And here’s the thing about them:

They’re almost all talking about how men feel, and how ElevatorGuy felt.

This is a problem of framing, and one of perspectives. You see, Watson didn’t actually accuse ElevatorGuy of any terrible intentions. She just said that a thing had happened, and how she felt about it, and that people shouldn’t do those kinds of things if they don’t want people to feel uncomfortable. Particularly if the person in question has specifically stated that they don’t want that kind of interaction.

The responses don’t talk about that. The responses don’t talk about Watson’s perspective. They don’t frame the issue as one which is about her. They frame the issue as something she said, which is about men. Men are the people who are relevant, in these responses. Men are the ones whose feelings we should worry about, and think about, and consider.

A woman mentions a thing that made her feel uncomfortable, and the discussion surrounding this is all about how the men felt to hear about it.

This is systemic privilege. A group of people are so accustomed to having discussions be framed around them, that even when the thing being described is mainly about a non-group member, they are able to alter the discussion to be about them.

A woman mentions a thing that made her feel uncomfortable, and is immediately villified and told that her concerns are unimportant.

This is systemic privilege. A group of people are so accustomed to having discussions be framed around their needs, their issues, their comforts and discomforts, that they are unable to see a thing from an outside perspective.

A woman mentions a thing that made her feel uncomfortable, and her concerns are brushed off and compared unfavourably to a relatively-marginalised group.

This is systemic privilege. A group of people are so accustomed to their privilege that any marginalisation that is not incredibly extreme is invisible to them. So accustomed to their privilege that they cannot imagine anyone can walk in the same circles they do, exist in the same society, and not share it.

There are many, many more things that I could say about this. About why ElevatorGuy acted inappropriately. About the contexts in which this happened. But this post is about framing. About who gets to talk, who they talk about, and what that means. About whose perspectives are seen as worthwhile.

* Can’t fault her on this one, since I, lightweight I am, had begged off about three hours beforehand.

** She wasn’t the one making the big deal here. A minute or so of talking on a vlog? Not. Making. A. Fuss.

*** Did you see anything in that quote where she says ElevatorGuy is a bad person? Because I didn’t. She says that he did a thing, that she felt uncomfortable, and that people shouldn’t do that thing. I’m not a bad person because I ate the last of your cookies. I just owe you a damn cookie and should probably not do that again.

**** Just Africa, of course. And all of Africa. Because Africa’s a country, not a continent, and everything is the same there and everyone knows that all the kids in Africa are poor and hungry, and all the kids in Europe and the US are rich and full. (yes this is snark)

Weighing in on ElevatorGate: Perspectives and Privilege.

Everyone loves linkspams, right? Right?

Some awesome/interesting things from the internets recently:

What with it being Pride week here, let’s start with some queer stuff! And what better than a rather depressing post about legal homophobia? Una Mullally – “How can a teacher tell a pupil it’s okay to be gay when our education system discriminates against gay teachers?

More optimistically, Put This On The Map are an awesome bunch of queer kids and allies looking to go a little beyond It Gets Better, and make things better now.

Since we’re on the subject, here’s an awesome post about misgendering, assumed heterosexuality and passing ‘privilege’. The Only People with Straight Privilege are Straight People

Over on Feministe, Juliet writes about Love in a Time of Calling Out. This is kinda beautiful, about privilege and hurt and the people who we love and who love us most, about the often incredibly difficult balances between asserting our own needs and being kind to those we love, about the oh-so-personal intersections within ourselves and in our lives.

The marvellous Greta Christina tackles the gendered assumptions and pressure put on men in our society, in Wealthy, Handsome, Strong, and with Endless Hard-Ons: The Impossible Ideals Men Are Expected to Meet.

Renegade Evolution has been dealing with waaaay to many antipornradfems who just won’t shut-up-and-listen, and has a Manifesto, as it were.

After all this gender and sexuality, here’s some things about death. Startled Octupus’s post on End of Life Decisions discusses Death with Dignity and quality of life, in the context of her own life and family. TW for euthanasia and terminal illnesses.

And while we’re on the subject, Grief Beyond Belief is a support network set up for non-religious people dealing with grief. I’m so glad this support network has been set up. I remember the first (and, so far, only) time that I lost someone who I loved after becoming an atheist. It seemed like so many details of the grief that I was experiencing were different to that experienced by the religious people who shared my loss. Not that they were lesser or greater, mind. Just different. Instead of struggling with the idea of a just god allowing people to die, I struggled with the reality that we live in a universe where we will all end. Having people who get that, without having to explain it, and without worrying that people will get defensive about their own beliefs? It’s so damn important.

After all that, I’ll leave you with something more fun. The other day, I managed to tear myself away from playing Mass Effect 2 for long enough to read an article on… Mass Effect 2. Shepard Ain’t White: Playing with race and gender in Mass Effect. As if I needed yet another reason to keep playing the thing.


Everyone loves linkspams, right? Right?

Oh, those smooshy, sappy atheists.

This is the worst. hiatus. ever.

I have a bunch of posts to make about things that people talked about at the World Atheist Conference. I have notes! And hopes to turn the notes into cogent, well-written opinions over the next few days! Right in the middle of Bloggly Hiatus 2011!

However: us atheists have a terrible* reputation for being snarky, arrogant, argumentative types. But I spent a lot of yesterday afternoon sitting with a group of people rhapsodising about the amazingness of the universe, how incredible it is that us bags of chemicals can do such awesome things as everything we do, and how our awareness of our finite lives just plain make us want to appreciate everyone we love all the time, and do what we can to make life better for people.

Those pesky atheists. Sappy gits, the lot of ’em.

*or wonderful, depending on your perspective.

Oh, those smooshy, sappy atheists.

World Atheist Conference Day 1

It appears that this weekend is going to be a hiatus to my hiatus, since I’ve somehow, after a series of fortunate events, managed to find time this weekend to go to the World Atheist Conference. Or Convention. Is it just me, or do the lines get incredibly blurry between those two as soon as you step out of strict academia/geekery?

But yes. As I didn’t have the foresight to bring anything I could scribble notes on, this is all from memory as I fill myself up with delicious pad thai, and is therefore subject to incompleteness, inaccuracy and distraction by noodles. Don’t expect insightful criticism today!

I arrived about a half-hour before the conference began, which seemed like a reasonably sensible compromise between wanting to check things out before the talks started, and having a mild case of nerves about showing up to a Big Social-ish Event by myself. I needn’t have worried, by the way.

The conference was opened by Michael Nugent who was, as usual, both entertaining and to the point. He spoke about how, as atheists, our common identity only has meaning because we live in a society structured on religious grounds. In the absence of this kind of religious structure and dominance, atheism would have no more meaning than not-stamp-collecting. Word for the day, by the way: aphilatelist. I am an aphilatelist. Are you? He also talked about his optimism regarding secularisation of Ireland.

Next was the inimitable Ivana Bacik. She spoke for about three quarters of an hour, about topics as diverse as secularisation in schools, what she would like a secular society to look like, and humanist sources of ethics. I loved her points about a secular society- that she has no problem whatsoever with people being religious, and that her vision of secularisation is of a state which is not religiously biased (as Ireland’s is), and a society that respects people of all religions and none. Nice. Her comments on using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an ethically inspiring text were also interesting- not something that had occurred to me before. I also liked her answer to a question regarding her reasons for ‘coming out’ publicly as an atheist. Turns out that, well, she was just asked about it one day. Sometimes it ain’t about soul-searching and crises, people.

Next was the first panel discussion of the conference (and the only of the day). For this, Lone Frank, DPR Jones and Richard Dawkins discussed Weird Science versus Weird Religion. Or, that was the idea at least- topics weren’t exactly stuck to, as it was a very participatory kind of discussion. It was also a lot more atheist, as opposed to secular, than the previous speakers. Some areas I do remember being discussed, though:

  • *Our innate tendency to see agency where none exists- based on the idea that brains that react as though that strange rustling noise is a predator are far more likely to reproduce than the ones who assume that it’s just the wind. There are theories that this tendency is the basis for a lot of our initial belief in spirits or gods. DPR talked about how he feels that this means that religions would always crop up even in an environment where none exist. Dawkins disagreed, seeing this as just another cognitive bias to be dealt with.
  • *Communicating the differences between Weird Science and Weird Pseudoscience. The difficulty with communicating science is often that of how to make it accessible to the layperson without dumbing it down, as well as how to communicate the evidence for what can seem like preposterous claims in a way that can be reasonably easily understood. As science advances, it becomes more specialised, and more difficult for the layperson to distinguish between genuine scientific findings and pseudoscience dressed up with ‘sciencey’-sounding words and explanations.
  • *And then there was The Inevitable. Someone was bound to come to heckle, and someone did. I can’t remember the man’s name, but he introduced himself as a Muslim* with a question for Dawkins. He referenced someone that Dawkins had spoken about earlier- a Christian young-Earth creationist ex-geologist who had left geology because he felt that all of the evidence for an old Earth conflicted with his faith, and he did not want to give up or change his beliefs. The geologist had said that even if all the evidence in the world pointed towards evolution, he would not change his beliefs. I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but this man then asked Dawkins if he would show the same honesty if “all the evidence in the world pointed to creationism as opposed to everything being created by chance”. Dawkins was.. not happy to have evolution mischaracterised as ‘chance’. The man then asked Dawkins if he would explain for him how we have come to exist. I’m not sure exactly what Dawkins answered to this one, but it involved questioning which part of the past several billion years he’d like to start with. Owch. That guy did not end up looking particularly well.

One thing that I would like to mention that I like a lot about the conference plan, though, is that although Dawkins- one of the biggest names in atheism on the planet- is there, he isn’t giving any keynote speeches. Instead, he’s involved in two panel discussions over the course of the weekend. I’m not sure if it was deliberate, but if so I think it’s a fantastic way to get people listening to what other, less well-known names have to say.

Right, I’m out of pad thai, which means that this blog post, along with my delicious tofu, is coming to an end. But there was also a delightfully deadpan speech by Tanya Smith, the new president of the Atheist Alliance International, which it is terrible of me to not do justice to. I’ll try and remember to bring a notebook tomorrow and have a more comprehensive account of Day Two!

*You know, I feel a little strange about identifying this guy’s religion, given, well, not wanting to feed into Islamophobia. I do so mainly because he made a very major point of it himself. I would, however, like to point out very strongly that just because this guy is a Muslim who mischaracterised an entire branch of science and refused to accept that he had done so, doesn’t mean that this is an Islamic kind of thing to do. It’s a fundie thing to do. Any comments claiming that this is a Muslim-in-particular thing are unwelcome here, and anyone found doing so will be summarily dragged to Henry St of a weekend to listen to the rantings of the very-Christian street preacher generally to be found there. And then given a history lesson. But not by me, ’cause I’ve better things to do.

World Atheist Conference Day 1

Unfortunate etiquette and why alternative medicine could kill you.

The other day, I want for lunch at my local entirely lovely veggie cafe. As I was munching away on my very tasty green curry, I happened to overhear what the people at the next table over were talking about. In my defense, the place was quiet and they were.. not. Also, I’m an inveterate eavesdropper 😉

These two people were having a conversation about illness. One of them had recently been diagnosed- with what, she didn’t mention, but given the rest of the conversation it might have been some form of cancer. The other had survived some form of cancer. They were talking about his experiences with his illness, and her plans for living with hers. It was.. a pretty intense conversation that they were having. And it was obvious that she was someone struggling to deal with a difficult diagnosis, and looking for support. Which he was providing, in spades.

Where this became worrying was when they started to talk about her options, and whether she would go for ‘the medical route’ or ‘alternatives’. He talked about how medical doctors don’t care about patients as people. How to them a patient is just a cog in the machine. How alternative practitioners, on the other hand, spend time with you and offer real solutions that are tailored to your own needs. And how meditation, positive thinking and art therapy could do more for her than any doctor.

I’m sure this man was incredibly well-meaning. And yes, I’m sure that he’s not wrong when he says that his doctors weren’t interested in him as a person. But, you know something? While art therapy and meditation are lovely things, and while thinking positively can do wonderful things for your outlook and ability to cope, they’re not going to cure this woman’s cancer. And, no matter what he thinks, they didn’t cure his. His unpleasant experiences going through the medical system for cancer treatment were, no doubt, real. But they’re still most likely the reason he’s alive today.

Right then, I wished it wasn’t considered the absolute height of rudeness to interrupt an intimate (if, in fairness, reasonably loud) conversation by telling a distressed woman that her caring friend was wrong, and that taking his advice could very well cost her her life. That she should do all the art therapy and meditating she liked, after taking the advice of her doctors and getting her ass into a hospital for some treatment. That maybe her doctors are a bit busy with making people better, are probably overstressed and overworked, and that if she has a problem with their not being able to take time to get to know her then it might be time to send a strongly worded letter to the Minister for Health. That yes, our health system is incredibly broken- but it’s still the only way she’ll get better. And that dying of untreated cancer is one hell of an awful way to go.

I wanted to say that, but I couldn’t.

But here’s the thing. There’s nothing harmful about meditating, or art therapy (which, I gather, has many very useful applications), or positive thinking. But there’s something very harmful about thinking that these things are reasonable alternatives to evidence-based medicine. That’s the kind of thing that leaves people dying of treatable illnesses because they didn’t get medical help. Or because they tried the ‘alternatives’ first and by the time they went for medical help it was too late. The kind of misinformation that leaves people thinking that ‘alternative’ medicine provides effective cures for deadly diseases is incredibly dangerous.

And with that, I can’t think of a better way to leave you than with Tim Minchin’s Storm. So here you go:

Unfortunate etiquette and why alternative medicine could kill you.

Conversation versus Debate: if you can’t stand the heat, why don’t you just open the window?

I’m a fan of conversation. I’m a fan of conversation with people I agree with and with people I disagree with. Conversation with people I disagree with can be awesome. I’m fascinated by different points of view, I’m interested in having my own views challenged. And, also, as a sociology nerd I’m endlessly interested in what makes people tick. How our different experiences lead to different conclusions, how where we come from and how we interact with that helps to create who we are. It’s fascinating stuff.

But I don’t like debate.

Don’t get me wrong- I like watching debate. Watching debates can be great, especially watching great debaters. But watching debate to me isn’t like watching a conversation. It’s like watching a game. Watching two masters* of their craft debate each other is like watching masters of any sport. It’s exciting. There’s an immense amount of skill involved. And someone’s gotta win, and someone’s gotta lose.

Debate is a sport, and it is about winning. It’s highly oppositional. In a debate, the only way that you really try to listen to the other speaker is to seek the flaws in their argument. You’re playing to the crowd, dancing around the other debater to win the audience around.

And that can be an immense amount of fun to watch, and I’m sure an immense amount of fun to take part in. But however entertaining debate can be in this context, I no more wish for it every day than I want to invite someone around for tea and be dragged out to run a marathon, chocolate biscuit in hand.

In the real world, when I want to actually communicate with people, I tend to prefer conversations based more on understanding the perspective of the other. On seeing where their justifications are for what they do or think. On listening what the other person has to say, and being listened to in turn. Conversations based on openness as opposed to defensiveness. It seems to me that there’s a lot more to be gained from going into conversations with others with a view to seeing where each other are coming from and listening to the other. It seems to me that that’s the only way to actually learn something from the experience. It’s definitely the only way, for me, that includes the option that where I disagree with someone I might be the person in the wrong. It includes the confidence in myself to suspect that I might be wrong, and to be okay with that and open to the possibility of changing my mind. After all, isn’t that at the heart of scepticism?

And besides, if it turns out that I’m right after all, am I not a lot more likely to be able to convince others of that if we give each other a fair hearing instead of simply hammering home our own pre-existing points of view?

*I have no idea what would be a sensible nongendered equivalent for this. ‘Experts’ just didn’t have the same appeal. Suggestions, anyone?

Conversation versus Debate: if you can’t stand the heat, why don’t you just open the window?

Whose extraordinary claims?

Lots of Sensible Stuff Is Really Really Crazy

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s a sensible statement- if you’re going to have a crazy theory, and you want people to believe it, you should have something really, really good to back that up. But what consitutes an extraordinary claim?

I’ve recently been doing some thinking about some of the basic, ordinary facts about the world we live in that, on the face of it, are completely batshit insane. You know. The way that we live on a ball of rock hurtling through an unimaginably massive universe that somehow ended up in orbit around a giant ball of explosion that’s been exploding the fuck out of itself for billions of years. Oh, and the nice, solid ground that I spend my life wandering about on is actually floating on a layer of rock that has turned to sludge which every so often breaks through the surface at temperatures that would fry me in seconds and that is why people are currently spending a lot of time, eh, bored and waiting in airports. Oh, and I’m (and you are!) distantly related to both the herpes virus, and the sausages I just ate for breakfast. And the bread I ate them on. And this is without even beginning to mention the fact that space and time themselves can be squashed and stretched and all sorts. Oh, and this place where I’m sitting right now used to have frackin’ dinosaurs on it. Dinosaurs! Right here. It was covered in ‘em. Oh, and we’re all made of stardust.

Seriously, this stuff is crazy when you think about it. The fact that I, and maybe some of you, have always taken it for granted is mainly thanks to the fact that many of us were told it as kids, when we believed just about anything.

Crazy is where you’re coming from

Last week I was at work reading* ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’, Dawkins’ new-ish book on the evidence for evolution. It’s a great read, by the way. The guy next to me- let’s call him Bob, which is not his name- saw what I was reading, and mentioned that while he hadn’t read any Dawkins, he had heard good things about him. At this point I probably murmured something vaguely agreeable and hoped he’d let me read the damn thing**. I was not to be so lucky- Bob started talking about how, while evolution is totally true, like, it’s not the way They say it is. And that he knows that They are trying to mess with the timelines, dude, and hiding evidence of pre-human civilisations for, eh, some reason he didn’t mention. Fortunately, I barely had time to raise even one of my eyebrows before my phone rang and I could escape into the far more sensible world of explaining to someone that yes, they were expected to pay the entire amount on their bill.

It’s obvious to me that if anyone were to find evidence, good evidence, of entire civilisations existing before we’d gotten around to evolving our nice big brains, they would be thinking less about hiding this from everyone than about making space on the mantelpiece for their shiny new Nobel. Not to mention clearing space in their diary for the astonishingly lucrative speaking tours and TV appearances. And getting a nice new haircut for the photo that’s going to be all over the history books, forever. Sure, they’d have to go through a thorough grilling from a good chunk of their fellows, but that, of course, means many, many publications for years to come.

It’s easy for me to say this. I’ve been hanging around universities long enough to know how this stuff works. But that’s not the case for everyone.

Myths and Stories

If there’s one thing that people love, it’s a good story. When it comes to science, and the pursuit of knowledge in general, one of our favourite stories comes right from the pages of, well, all of our other stories. It is, by the way, the myth of the renegade scientist coming up with an incredible idea or insight which nobody believes, fighting the establishment, and, after years at the very least but often decades or even centuries, being vindicated. It’s an awesome story, it gets us right between the Robin Hoods and the Luke Skywalkers. Particularly when the person dies long before their ideas are accepted- oh, we love a good tragedy, with a big heap of ‘if-only’. We identify with the protagonist, we empathise with their struggles against The Man, we root for them, we cheer for their eventual vindication, and we boo the people who were ‘too closed-minded’ to let go of ideas which are patently ridiculous to our eyes. Narratives like this make sense to us. They have well-defined storylines and satisfying endings. Lucky for us, history is littered with these kind of figures. We have oodles and oodles to choose from, in any field you care to mention- start at Socrates and work your way up, you’ll find no shortage of drama and tragedy.

A short intermission

Since we’re talking about narratives, this point is where I tell you to go away from here, click on a link, and get back to me in ten minutes. I want you to read about the Monkeysphere. If you already know all about the monkeysphere- awesome! You get a super gold star. If you haven’t, then you should go and read it and you can have your super gold star when you come back.


Done? Lovely. Apologies for not explaining that myself, but it’s already been done so well.

And that had what to do with everything?

It’s all about the idea of Real People, the ones I know, versus Them. ‘They’ can be any giant, faceless group of people who are In On It, who have an Agenda and who Don’t Want Us To Know The Truth. The Establishment is a big one, by the way. Generally, though, as long as someone’s capitalising a ‘They’, you can be reasonably sure they’re talking about something way outside their monkeysphere. And we are really, really vulnerable to being manipulated when people have us by the, eh, monkeyspheres. Think of the arguments made by creationists, anti-vaccination activists, anti-gay groups- a common thread is that They are trying to pull the wool over Our eyes, to further Their agenda and take power away from Us. And We are, well, the people you know and love. Your kid with autism, your uncle left by his wife who was having an affair with another woman, all the people from your church/mosque/synagogue/temple who were so welcoming when you moved into this town, and who really went out of their way to be there for you and help you through that hard time you had. Those are real people, having real difficulties and issues, who really care about each other and want to help each other through things. They, on the other hand, are people you’ve never met, representatives of institutions you’ve never seen, and They are going around talking as if you’re stupid if you don’t agree that most of the things you take for granted are completely wrong. Also, they believe in ridiculous things- like that animals somehow change into other animals (wtf?!), that the universe is billions of years old (wtf?!), even that you can’t trust the evidence of your very eyes. And did I mention that they think you’re stupid?

In addition to this, we have the fact that many of the explanations that we have found for just about everything in the universe don’t fit into any narrative. They can be intellectually satisfying and beautifully elegant, but they can often be emotionally lacking. When we ask a question like “why are we here?”, then the answer “we are one of the products of billions of years of natural selection, which is still going on, and whose only point is that it continues, and which has been putting every bit as much time into the herpes virus***”, just doesn’t get to many of us the same way that mythic narratives can. When a parent has a kid with autism, it’s a lot more satisfying to be able to blame Big Pharma (which has, in any case, a history of dodgy behaviour), than to accept that we just plain don’t know the answer, but we’re working on it.

Can we get back to the point? This was supposed to be about extraordinary claims- it says so, right there up on the top of the page.

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the point. I just needed to take a roundabout way to get there. The point that I want to make is that yes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Which claims are extraordinary, though, depends almost entirely on where you’re coming from. If people that you know and trust, people who have shown themselves to be good and kind and caring people, tell you that a thing is true, then you’re likely to believe them. Or at least, to want to. Especially if their answers are emotionally satisfying and help in making sense of nonsensical events. Especially if the alternatives are things which seem ridiculous, counter-intuitive, or require months or years of study to even begin to grasp. Especially if those who advocate these ridiculous-seeming claims aren’t people you know and trust, but are complete strangers, representatives of institutions far outside your monkeysphere. It’s a tough thing to get past, to counter, argue with, or even to discuss. The major point I want to get across, though, is this: Many of the things we**** know to be true are, on the face of it, completely batsh*t insane. If you’re trying to argue them to people, you’d better remember that and take it into account. Also, when you’re on the side of established fact, you’re always going to be against every person who not only has a crazy idea with little/no good evidence for it, but who also has the narrative power of Joan of Arc, Robin Hood and Luke Skywalker all rolled into one. And while hopefully you won’t end up there, you’re starting off as, of not Darth Vader, at the very least a stormtrooper. Good luck!

By the way…

Yeah, here’s where I put a bit of moralising in. Things like this are why openness and being ‘out’ are so, so important. If you’re going to be arguing for something truly extraordinary, it helps to be a bit more girl/guy next door than One Of Them.


*I answer phones for money. The phone wasn’t ringing. Hence, book!

** I’d say this makes me misanthropic, but don’t we all sometimes wish people would leave us alone at least until the end of the chapter?

***Apologies for anthropomorphising. Also, for repeated mentions of the herpes virus. For one thing, it’s not like there’s just one of them, so that’s entirely inaccurate.

****Ooh er. I said ‘we’. Ye’re all in my monkeysphere now lads.

Whose extraordinary claims?

“I’ll pray for you”

There’s a post over at the Friendly Atheist on “how to push away religious people with good intentions?” Reading through the responses to that got me thinking. Now, I’m in a very different cultural context to most of the people at that blog, living in Ireland as opposed to the US, and I am aware that the way people “do” religion here is very different. But here’s my take on people offering prayers and religious consolations to me:

The Good Stuff

For a lot of religious people, “I’ll pray for you” is code for “I’m thinking of you, I hope things work out for you, and I’m going to set aside some time every day to do what I can towards that in the best way I know how”. For these people, I’d respond in the same way that I would to anyone expressing those sentiments. In many cases, the intention to pray for me comes bundled up with some perfectly appropriate ‘real-world’ actions as well- offers of endless cups of tea and a well-placed shoulder to lean/cry on. In some cases, the person offering isn’t capable of offering those more practical things, and that’s okay too. Either way, when I’m dealing with something difficult, it’s always good to know that I’ve got friends and family who care about me, and who have my back. Whether they express that with “I’ll pray for you” or “I’ll be thinking about you”, it’s still all good, and it still makes me feel loved and fuzzy inside.

But then again..

Despite this, however, there are situations in which religious attempts to be comforting have precisely the opposite result. And yes, if you’re a believing type, this would be a good place to start taking notes*. You see, while offering to pray for someone having a tough time is quite the sweet gesture and, for me at least, is generally appreciated as such, you might want to be careful about offering religious consolations.

Last year I lost someone immensely important to me. It was tough, it hurt, it still hurts. I was lucky to have people in my life who were there for me, who helped me so much in working my way through that loss and all the bewildering array of emotions that went (and go) with it. And yes, some of them offered to pray for me, and that was very sweet. It was good to know that they were thinking about me, that I wasn’t on my own. However, sometimes people took a different route, and tried to console me using their beliefs. They would tell me that it’s okay, that she’s in a better place and she’s happy now. That there was a good reason for all her previous suffering, and that, again, she’s in a better place.

Trust me. When a person is trying to deal with the reality that someone they love is gone forever, trying to make sense of the fact that that person does not exist any more? Telling them that this isn’t the case, that in fact that person is in a happy land filled with butterflies and bunnies, is not the way to go about comforting them. For me, all it served to do was remind me that no, she is not in a nice happy place. She’s dead. And that sucks. And there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it. And, while I haven’t experienced this myself, similar responses to illness (“There’s a reason for it, it’s a blessing in disguise”? Give me a break) and other difficulties would be almost certain to elicit similar responses.

So- praying for someone? Awesome. Go for it! Just make sure to follow up the praying with putting the kettle on, stocking up on biscuits**, getting a good pair of walking shoes and limbering up your hugging arms. But be careful when it comes to offering religious comforts to the non-religious. With the best intentions in the world, it can backfire in ways you mightn’t have expected.

*No, I’m not talking about you, C, and you know it. Put the notebook down and thrown on the kettle there garl.

**Cookies, for you Americans. Cookies.

“I’ll pray for you”

On Existentials and Skeptics.

I thought I’d start this off with something easy. You know, nothing too deep. Nice and simple and unchallenging. Unfortunately, I appear to want to talk about existentials, so the nice, simple stuff is going to have to wait until later.

I’m in my mid-late 20s, I have a couple of Arts degrees*, and, in case nobody’s mentioned it to you, we’re in a recession**. Having an entirely fashionable quarter-life crisis is only to be expected. In my case, this has revolved around two main themes. The first is pretty basic- where am I going in my life and why am I nowhere near any of the massively important ‘grown-up’ milestones that so many people around me seem to be galloping past? The second is far more interesting than that, and is to do with some ways in which I have done a bit of growing-up over the past few years.

One of the major things I have been doing over the past few years is coming into my own as a skeptic. While it didn’t hand me a ready-made career, college did teach me an awful lot about critical thinking- and once you start that (awesome!) process of questioning and looking deeper into the world around and within you, it’s hard to stop. For me, this process also involved a transformation, so gradual I couldn’t tell you where it started and when it stabilised, towards what currently appears to be a confident atheism. My newfound perspective on the world was something I found both marvellous and terrifying- but that’s a whole new topic for another post. However, what is relevant here is that I spent a lot of time lurking about skeptical and atheism-related blogs and communities, as well as devouring all the related books I could get my hands on.

Those people love science. I mean, they really, really love it. I love it too- the process of finding out, of increasing knowledge, the ways in which we correct for our biases and come to the most wonderfully fascinating discoveries. It inspires all sorts of flowery language in me, images of our relentlessly chipping away at out own ignorance, the wonders of describing what we can barely grasp, our having created tools to compensate for the weaknesses of the very minds that created them- that sort of thing. I think it is, for want of a better word, awesome.

As for what I do, what I’m trained in? It’s in the grey area between Real Science and, well, Everything Else. One of the unfortunate things about being around a community of people who are so excited about science is that they’re, to put it mildly, a bit less excited about things that may not strictly be considered science. Social science is fuzzy that way. Because in the social sciences we are people studying people, it’s impossible for anyone to be unbiased or detached from the data. You may think you can, but any social scientist worth their salt knows that even sociologists are part of society, have been moulded and biased by the very thing we want to study. It provides quite the challenge, to be honest. But it means that if you’re going to do good research, one of the first things to do is to quit even thinking you’ll get the same kind of certainty that your counterparts in the hard sciences can achieve. Useful knowledge and fascinating insights? Absolutely! But it’ll rarely be replicable, or generalisable, and you’ll never be able to fully correct for your own bias.

And yes, this is where the existential comes in. One of the major fears I’ve had in recent times is that I’m going in the wrong direction in my life. That I took a wrong turning back when I started college, and, goddamnit, if I could do it over I’d be a marine biologist*** by now. Or, at the very least, doing something that I’d need a lab for. In my head, for a while, that was what was truly useful, what would make a real difference in the world.

It wasn’t until the other day that it hit me that I was thinking about things the wrong way around. Sure, it would be lovely to go back to college and do another degree in something deliciously sciencey. In the kind of science that everyone acknowledges is Science. In the kind of thing that doesn’t get disparagingly referred to as wishy-washy, or somehow not real. But that wishy washy, not-real-science field? That’s where I cut my teeth on critical thinking. That’s where I learned how to examine, and re-examine, and to question everything. To not take things at face value. It’s where I developed the very skills that made me want to go back to college and be a ‘real’ scientist.

So you never know. Maybe someday, when I’ve the money****, I’ll take myself back to college and have a fine old time at Real Science. However, for the moment, I’m okay with being a person who knows how to do good research and answer questions that could do with answering, and I’m okay with my field being one that people see as a bit ‘fuzzy’. It was that fuzziness that taught me to look harder, question more, and be prepared for my assumptions to be shown up at any moment. It’s really… kind of awesome.


* BA in Sociology and Politics, and MA in Sociology of Development and Globalisation. Entirely lovely, both of them.

**It is possible that you’re not in a recession. Lucky you! Please send information regarding your location, as well as immigration requirements and procedures. Also, since you’re not in a recession, you probably have a sofa for someone to crash on, right?

*** In my fantasies, I am a marine biologist somewhere marvellously exotic, making incredibly fascinating discoveries that just happen to take place in breathtakingly beautiful coral reefs. I can dream, right? Right?

****I KNOW! I made a FUNNY! I have Arts degrees, we don’t make money! The lulz, they kill me.

On Existentials and Skeptics.