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Monday, February 28, 2011

No children were harmed in the writing of this post

I have a special place in my heart for a lot of people accused of making or possessing kiddie porn.

What? Did she really say that?
  
A photo of actual children here
might bias you against me.
Yep, I did.  But hear me out.  I say this because child molestation is one of the worst crimes possible in the minds of probably most Americans, and because of this a lot of people who weren't actually molesting children-- for the sake of making and distributing pornography or otherwise-- tend to get caught up in the legal crossfire and punished in ways that are far out of proportion to their deeds. Call me a bleeding heart, but I don't think it takes away in the slightest from the severity of real child victimization to feel for those who didn't actually victimize any children, but are treated as if they did.

For instance, teenagers who are guilty of "sexting"-- sending racy photos of themselves to each other.  No child molestation there, and yet in some parts of the country these kids are receiving felony charges and convictions for it.  In my own state of Texas they're considering downgrading this "crime" from a felony to a misdemeanor.  That's an improvement, but it would still mean using laws that were originally intended to prevent adults from preying on children to also punish teenagers for ill-advised behavior that damages little but their own reputations.  I understand the impulse to protect them from this considering that once photos get onto the internet they effectively become immortal, but surely arresting, convicting, and putting teenagers on a sex offender registry alongside rapists and actual pedophiles is precisely the opposite of "protecting" them.

In a case I read about today, the culprit is a little less innocent than a sexting teen-- okay, he seems downright creepy-- but what happened to him is nonetheless a travesty of justice.  A 34-year-old Indiana man named Eric Rinehart had sexual relationships with two young women, aged 16 and 17 respectively.  Yes, I know-- ew.  But it was entirely legal for him to do so, as the age of consent in Indiana is 16, as it is in roughly half the country.  One of the girls offered to take naked photos of herself for him, and he agreed and then later took more photos of her as well as the other girl.  He didn't distribute them at all, just kept them on his computer.  Here's what happened next:
In 2007 Rinehart was convicted on two federal charges of producing child pornography. U.S. District Court Judge David Hamilton, who now serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, reluctantly sentenced Rinehart to 15 years in prison. Thanks to mandatory minimum sentences, Hamilton wrote, his hands were tied. There is no parole in the federal prison system. So barring an unlikely grant of clemency from the president, Rinehart, who is serving his time at a medium-security prison in Pennsylvania, will have to complete at least 85 percent of his term (assuming time off for good behavior), or nearly 13 years. 
Hamilton was not permitted to consider any mitigating factors in sentencing Rinehart. It did not matter that Rinehart's sexual relationships with the two girls were legal. Nor did it matter that the photos for which he was convicted never went beyond his computer. Rinehart had no prior criminal history, and there was no evidence he had ever possessed or searched for child pornography on his computer. There was also no evidence that he abused his position as a police officer to lure the two women into sex. His crime was producing for his own use explicit images of two physically mature women with whom he was legally having sex. (Both women also could have legally married Rinehart without their parents' consent, although it's unclear whether federal law would have permitted a prosecution of Rinehart for photographing his own wife.) 
"You can certainly conceive of acts of producing actual child pornography, the kind that does real harm to children, for which a 15-year sentence would be appropriate," says Mary Price, general counsel for the criminal justice reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "But this is a single-factor trigger, so it gets applied in cases like this one, where the sentence really doesn't fit the culpability."
Families Against Mandatory Minimums, or FAMM, is a non-profit organization dedicated to changing legislation to prevent grossly out-of-proportion sentencing.  They deserve all of the support we can give them, but making changes in this area is decidedly an uphill battle.  
In his sentencing statement, Hamilton urges executive clemency for Rinehart. He points out that under federal law Rinehart received the same sentence someone convicted of hijacking an airplane or second-degree murder would receive. For a bank robber to get Rinehart's sentence, Hamilton writes, "he would need to fire a gun, inflict serious bodily injury on a victim, physically restrain another victim, and get away with the stunning total of $2.5 million." . . .
Hamilton is not the first federal judge to express frustration over federal child porn sentencing laws. In May 2010, The New York Times profiled U.S. District Court Judge Jack Weinstein, who after 43 years on the bench has essentially gone rogue, twice throwing out convictions of a man convicted of receiving child pornography because of the five-year mandatory minimum sentence attached to the offense. Weinstein has also indicated that in future child porn cases he will disregard the federal rules of criminal procedure and inform his juries of the sentences defendants will get if convicted. 
I would imagine that opponents of draconian laws against drunk driving have an easier time of it than people who take aim at those having to do with child porn.  Nobody wants appear as though they are coddling sexual predators, and so they are reluctant to speak out against the worst travesties of justice that come from laws intended to protect kids.  The road to hell is paved with such intentions, as a Florida lobbyist named Ron Book can attest.  Fear plus grief plus a desire for revenge can be the equation for some horrific legislation.  In order to prevent the victimization of people as an unintended consequence of this kind of legislation, we need to be able to speak up about it.  And in order to do that, we need to realize that there is a clear distinction between disapproving of a behavior (actual child molestation) and approving of measures purporting to stop it which actually don't-- just as with any other crime.

In the meantime, things do not look good for this case:
It could actually have been worse for Rinehart. Under federal law, he could have faced up to 25 years in prison. In exchange for a guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to seek only the minimum sentence. Unfortunately for Rinehart, that plea agreement also prevents him from challenging his conviction or sentence. His only hope for early release is executive clemency. Given the clemency records of the last two administrations, that does not seem likely.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sue Blackmore decides that religions are not, in fact, viruses of the mind

The world needs more scientists with wacky colored hair
Sue Blackmore is one of the go-to voices in the UK on matters of religious thinking and consciousness. She is, believe it or not, an atheist with a PhD in parapsychology.  Originally a firm believer in the paranormal, she reached the conclusion in the course of her study that it doesn't in fact have any scientific basis.  At that point she decided to find out what the mind really is capable of doing, which resulted in a number of books including the excellent (though steeply priced) Consciousness: An Introduction.

She is probably most famous for The Meme Machine, however, a book in which she takes the idea of the meme which Richard Dawkins proposed in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene (yes, it really was that long ago) and ran with it.  I don't think most people who use the word "meme" these days really have any idea where the term originally came from and how it was formulated.  Some people don't even know how to pronounce it, because they don't realize it was intended to sound similar to "gene" in order to convey a similar means of propagation.  Genes, Dawkins wrote, have their own metaphorical interests which can be viewed as independent from ours in that they "desire" to be perpetuated  into the next generation.  In the same way, memes are ideas which "desire" to be spread as far and widely as possible.  Blackmore expressed this epidemiologically, comparing memes to viruses which need hosts that are most conducive to spreading them.  A memeplex is a conglomerate of ideas which are transmitted together because they are mutually supporting, such as a philosophical outlook or a religion.

As you can imagine, an idea's interests that are independent from ours might well be also contrary to ours, which is what the word "virus" is intended to convey.  Viruses are not symbiotic with us-- they manage to propagate at the expense of our health by making us sick.  In his 2006 book Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett compared religion to a lancet fluke which invades the mind of an ant, driving it to climb to the top of a blade of grass to be eaten by grazing animals, and didn't seem to fully acknowledge how that analogy could be perceived as insulting to believers.  It smudged the line between being willing to die for worthy causes, of which martyrdom is perceived to be one, and being made to die pointlessly for someone/something else's desires.  You might say "Well, that's the entire point-- the memes just make you think you're doing something meaningful!"  Maybe so, but that's assuming one's conclusion.  Most of us would grant that some forms of self-sacrifices are in fact noble and not at all pointless, but both Blackmore and Dennett would say that those are caused by memes as well.  How do we determine which ones are virus- or fluke-like and which are not?

After attending an Explaining Religion conference at the University of Bristol, Blackmore says that she no longer views religions as viruses of the mind in the sense of being detrimental to their hosts. Why? Two main reasons:

1.  Michael Blume was able to show that religious people have far more children than non-religious people.
2.  Ryan McKay was able to show using experimental data that "religious people can be more generous, cheat less and co-operate more in games such as the prisoner's dilemma, and that priming with religious concepts and belief in a 'supernatural watcher' increase the effects."

To the first point a person could note that there are more important things in life than the number of one's children.  True in a proximate sense, but not in an ultimate one.  If we're evaluating the benevolence of a meme on an evolutionary scale, increasing reproduction is a clear advantage even if it's not in the best interest of individuals or, indeed, the world itself.  To the second point, which is well-supported by a number of studies that have been performed over recent years, a person could dither about the degree to which being cooperative and honest should be counted as more a benefit to the individual or to the group, and then talk about whether it promotes in-group cooperation at the expense of creating inter-group hostility.

However, I'm not sure we really need to conduct either discussion.  Memetics is not the only way to examine religious ideas epidemiologically.  The advantage in looking at religion as a memeplex is that it emphasizes that religious ideas are transmitted between human minds just like any other ideas, but I think that Pascal Boyer manages to do that more effectively using his epidemiological approach because he doesn't feel compelled to treat ideas as strict analogs to genes.  He tries to figure out first what should count as a religious idea, and then discusses which religious ideas are more likely to "stick" and which others are not, but not by attributing metaphorical interests to them.  That isn't to say that Boyer doesn't have his own ideas about whether religious ideas are on the whole more beneficial to us or more detrimental, but that question is not essential to his theorizing about what fundamentally makes an idea religious and likely to spread.  In fact, it's quite irrelevant to that theorization.

I don't think the matter of whether and when religion benefits humanity and when it harms us should be off-limits to scientific inquiry.  And even if I did, scientists are going to research those topics anyhow.  But it doesn't seem appropriate to make a decision about the value of religion as a whole as part of your theorizing about how it works.  These studies which point out various ways in which being prompted to think religiously causes people to be better to each other are tightly circumscribed and specific.  I don't think showing that people tend to behave better when they think they are being watched, for example, really says anything about the value of religious beliefs in general even if one function of religion is to perpetuate the idea that there is always someone watching.   This experimental data is important, but it's also important to hold off on forming grand conclusions on the basis of a few studies.  It's good that Blackmore has decided religion isn't a mental virus, but that doesn't mean it's a mental panacea either.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Musical interlude: Katie Melua



Ketevan "Katie" Melua (born 16 September 1984) is a Georgian-British singer, songwriter and musician. She moved to Northern Ireland at the age of eight and then to England at fourteen. Melua is signed to the small Dramatico record label, under the management of composer Mike Batt, and made her musical debut in 2003. In 2006, she was the United Kingdom's bestselling female artist and Europe's highest selling European female artist.

Gendering the jokes

Judy Gold: one funny lesbian
Psychologist Jesse Bering's latest "Bering in Mind" column at Scientific American addresses lesbians in comedy-- why are there so many?  Or rather, why are there so many in comparison with straight female and gay male comics?  Obviously the vast majority of comics who do stand-up, whom Bering refers to as "heavy-hitters in the world of comedy," are straight males.  Is there something that Louis CK, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and Doug Stanhope have in common with Sandra Bernhard, Judy Gold, Wanda Sykes, and Margaret Cho that draws both groups to the clubs?

Bering challenges us to name a single gay male stand-up comic without consulting Google.  I came up with Andy Dick, but stopped there.  I know there are more, but on the spot couldn't seem to muster any other names.  Eddie Izzard definitely bends gender expectations with his transvestitism, but gay he is not.  Bering suggests a reason for the disparity:
Still, one of the hottest findings to emerge from contemporary humor research is the fact that while both men and women say that they value a "good sense of humor" in potential partners, the two sexes mean vastly different things by this. Men prefer women who find them funny ("humor receptivity"), not funny women per se ("humor production"). Women display the opposite trend in their dating preferences. These were the basic findings reported in a 2006 issue of Evolution and Human Behavior by psychologist Eric Bressler and his colleagues. 
The authors interpret these data, and similar data, by drawing from psychologist  Geoffrey Miller’s ideas about the evolution of humor. Miller has argued that ancestral males’ ability to produce entertaining humor demanded a set of heritable cognitive skills, including intelligence and creativity, and thus was a hard-to-fake signal of genetic quality. Due to the sexes’ differential investment in reproduction (just at a coital level alone, about 90 seconds versus 9 months), women would have evolved to be more receptive to signs of genetic quality than males. Men, meanwhile, would have been on the lookout for women who responded positively to their humor. 
I'd heard of this theory before, and find it entirely plausible but also a bit depressing.  Anecdotal evidence from my personal life shows that plenty of straight men are willing to at least claim that they are attracted to funny women-- not just women "with a good sense of humor"-- but it's entirely possible that they did so just thinking that that's what I wanted to hear.  I definitely find myself attracted to men who are funny, and like to think that they feel the same sort of attraction.  But maybe not.  Or at least, maybe not to the same degree.  Straight women certainly aren't immune to feeling a rush of pleasure when someone appreciates their displays of intelligence and creativity in the form of humor; we just don't seem to be nearly as keen to step up onto a stage in front of strangers to experience it.  Julia Sweeney is a notable exception-- when talking about her research into how the mind works in Letting Go of God, she says to the audience "I found that all of our brains are on drugs all of the time. We give ourselves hits: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and vasopressin. The next time all of you laugh, I'll get a hit of adrenaline through my veins, and if you don't when I expect you to, I'll get cortisol instead and I'll feel anxious. I always thought I was a person in my family who escaped addictions, but now I realize that I am up here on this stage right now partly because I am an addict."

Why does Sweeney seem to be often in the company of lesbians in that regard?  Bering suggests that it has to do with hormones:
Researchers who study homosexuality have discovered that the brains of many lesbians were over-exposed to male hormones during prenatal development, influencing not only their adult sexual orientation, but also masculinizing other behavioral and cognitive traits in which there exist innate sex differences. This is not true of all lesbians, but it is especially true for those who exhibit male-typed profiles. So it is not implausible that some lesbians’ courtship strategies would largely mimic opposite-sex-typed patterns, including a differentiated capacity for humor production that attracts female attention. This would not be a conscious strategy, it must be emphasized, and indeed this is what many critics of evolutionary psychology repeatedly fail to realize. So, for heaven’s sake, don’t mistake this as me saying that lesbian comics go on stage just to score chicks. Gene replication is simply a mechanistic means to an end; if it works, it works. Many evolutionary psychologists, including Miller, believe that our minds are often just epiphenomenal interpreters.
The confusion Bering is addressing here has to do with proximate versus ultimate concerns, and it's a common one for both the incredulous people who hear EP theories and don't find them to line up with their own introspective reasons for doing what they do, and often evolutionary psychologists themselves.  A proximate reason is what's going on in your head-- "I do comedy because I enjoy it.  I love making people laugh."  An ultimate reason is what your genes want you to do-- "I do comedy because it'll get me laid, enabling me to further my lineage."  These reasons are not mutually exclusive, though that doesn't mean that the explanation of ultimate concern is necessarily true. Our genes and hormones might not give a damn about whether we get up on stage to make people laugh or not, regardless of who we are.  But it's possible that they do, and that idea doesn't need to be threatening.  The conflict comes in when people differ as to what extent our minds are epiphenomenal interpreters-- the means by which we manufacture after-the-fact motivations for our actions-- as opposed to being directly causal.

For (a possible) example, an early comment on Bering's article:
This seems so obviously cultural to me. It's not considered 'feminine' or 'lady-like' to talk bluntly and sometimes vulgarly the way comedians must to elicit laughs. Lesbians have already been questioning and contradicting social norms of femininity, making it FAR easier for them to fit into the comedy domain.
I don't want to claim that this person thinks that by appealing to social constructivism, he/she can reclaim a degree of agency stolen by evolutionary (read: genetic/hormonal) explanations.  That might not be the case.  But if he/she is, he/she is barking up the wrong tree-- cultural forces don't rescue free will any more than biological ones do.  "My culture made me do it" is as much an abdication of responsibility as "My genes made me do it."  Aside from that, though, it seems like this explanation is begging the question-- why is it not considered "feminine" or "lady-like" to speak in the vulgar ways often used by comics?   Where does that come from?  The goal posts have just been moved back a few yards.  Eventually, we still have to answer the question of where these apparently very influential gender norms originated.

The psychology of comedy is endlessly fascinating to me.  I know the common understanding is that analysis ruins a joke, but I'm prepared to murder a few jokes mercilessly in order to reach a better understanding of what makes people laugh, why it does, and-- most interestingly to me-- why the things that make people laugh so often become a moral issue.  More on that later, hopefully.  In the meantime, have a good weekend, and listen to whatever makes you laugh.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Rock Beyond Belief

A secular-type person?  Going to be anywhere near North Carolina on April 2nd?  Then consider attending:


From a statement by the Military Associations of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) on how the event originated:

On Sep 25th, 2010, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association held a concert on the Fort Bragg Main Parade Field. Attendance was projected by BGEA to be 10,000, but photos indicate closer to hundreds than thousands. Whatever the size, this event was specifically "evangelical in nature" according to the event site and letters sent to the community by the senior Ft Bragg chaplain. The photos also show that the Golden Knights parachute team performed at the event, which requires special military authorization. An included "Family Fun Event" has balloons and face painting targeted at children and the "God Rocks" children ministry. The prayer call associated with the event calls for soldiers to bring their "battle buddies". The chaplain enthusiastically encouraged members of the local community to attend. New reports by the Freedom From Religion Foundation show the Army spent at least $50,000 of taxpayer funds on this event. . .
On a positive note, the Ft Bragg commander's letter offered "similar support to comparable events." The fact is that only evangelical Christians would request an evangelical event, so there will be no request for a 'comparable event'. MAAF would oppose an military promotion of religion or nontheist beliefs like atheism or Secular Humanism just as it does Christianity. That having been said, nontheists at Ft Bragg may request the opportunity to hold an event for themselves with no atheist "evangelical" purpose. The new Ft Bragg military group Military Atheists & Secular Humanists is planning an event titled Rock Beyond Belief. While any event held should not be a "me too" copy of this evangelical concert, nontheists do come together and local nontheists may accept the commanding general's offer to host a nontheistic, non-evangelical event that has none of the Constitutional complications of Rock the Fort.
As noted on the poster, the event will be free for both military members and civilians.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Deconstruction of a boogeyman

My long-time friend Ed Brayton blogs over at Dispatches From the Culture Wars about various topics related to the "interface of religion, science, law, and culture."  A stalwart defender of civil liberties, he has come under fire from an indeterminate number of trollish posters accusing him of being insufficiently anti-Sharia and anti-Muslim for not being willing to proclaim that Muslims are all evil people who are taking over America to implement their religious law.  So he posted a response today to clear the air, and it's definitely worth reading in full, though rather frustrating that some of the points in it needed to be made in the first place.  Two in particular stand out for me:


1.  You don't prevent a people from becoming oppressive by oppressing them.  Fear of Muslims and Sharia law is not a legitimate reason to treat Muslims as though they are lacking in the human rights we recognize in everyone else.  Even if all 1% of Americans who identify as Muslim were trying to take over the country and make it an Islamic theocracy, that wouldn't justify denying them the right to religious expression.  We don't deny the rights of Christian Reconstructionists who are trying to implement a Christian theocracy.  We don't forbid them from building churches. Neither can we do so for Muslims.  The freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment apply to us all.  The freedom of expression clause provides for us to all practice our faith (or lack thereof) as we see fit in compliance with the law, and the establishment clause precludes the implementation of Sharia to govern non-Muslims.  See how easy that is?  If you want freedom, you have to permit others to have it too.


2.  You can't take the religious text of a group of believers and presume to dictate to them or anyone else what they believe in or about that text.  Ed's dissenters have been finding the most barbaric passages they can in the Qur'an and the Hadith and then citing them as though all Muslims believe them to be inerrant, cling to them, and think they should become law. Why? Most believers don't treat their religious texts that way, even the ones who say they do.  You can disagree with someone's interpretation of a certain passage, but you can't determine for them how they interpret it.  If a Muslim man says that he doesn't think it's permissible to beat a woman, then he doesn't think it's permissible to beat a woman.  End of story.  Muslims may argue amongst themselves until the cows come home about what interpretations should be held by a "true" Muslim, but the rest of us don't get to choose which ones they believe.* 


I don't see any conflict between loving liberty and allowing Muslims to have it.  That's why I want them to have it.  People who love liberty only for themselves and those like them do not love it at all.  What they love is actually called "power."  


*I see this happen all of the time in arguments between atheists and Christians, by the way, and it drives me up the wall.  "The Bible says this, therefore you believe this."  If the Christian responds with either "No I don't" or "I do, but that's not how I interpret it," the response is flatly denied.  How much more of an obvious straw man could you get than outright telling someone, over and against their objections, what they believe in order to refute it?  

So, the Anonymous thing was apparently a hoax.

*Blush*

Guess I can stop defending the free speech rights of scoundrels.  Well, at least these scoundrels.  For now.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

It's...nice to have a diagnosis?

Some of these people are really annoyed at you
Apparently I might have Pedestrian Aggressiveness Syndrome.  According to the Wall Street Journal,
Researchers say the concept of "sidewalk rage" is real. One scientist has even developed a Pedestrian Aggressiveness Syndrome Scale to map out how people express their fury. At its most extreme, sidewalk rage can signal a psychiatric condition known as "intermittent explosive disorder," researchers say. On Facebook, there's a group called "I Secretly Want to Punch Slow Walking People in the Back of the Head" that boasts nearly 15,000 members. . . 
 Some researchers are even studying the dynamics that trigger such rage and why some people remain calm in hopes of improving anger-management treatments and gaining insights into how emotions influence decision making, attention and self control.
"We're trying to understand what makes people angry, what that experience is like," says Jerry Deffenbacher, a professor at Colorado State University who studies anger and road rage. "For those for whom anger is a personal problem, we're trying to develop and evaluate ways of helping them." 
Signs of a sidewalk rager include muttering or bumping into others; uncaringly hogging a walking lane; and acting in a hostile manner by staring, giving a "mean face" or approaching others too closely, says Leon James, a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii who studies pedestrian and driver aggression.
I'm guilty on the muttering and staring thing.   Maybe even the "mean face" thing occasionally, though it's hard to tell, being always behind the face.  But let me explain, please-- for me, it's not simply about people being slow.  There are good reasons to be slow on a sidewalk, and if you get angry at someone for being old or disabled then you're...not a pleasant person.

My problem is with those who exhibit the kind of lack of awareness as to think that stopping suddenly in a crowded entrance to a store, train station, etc. to root around in one's purse is a good idea.  People who play the "I'm not moving" game when confronted with someone moving in the opposite direction while carrying something obviously heavy.  People who fail to comprehend that before they can board a bus, train, tram, or elevator, they're going to need to step back and let others disembark.  In general, people who either don't appear to have the first notion of how to conduct themselves considerately in a situation where masses of people are trying to get from one place to another, or who just don't care.  Airports are a big one-- yes, maybe you still have two hours left on your layover, but that's no reason to make life difficult for someone who was given thirty minutes to traverse an entire airport in order to reach their next connection (not an exaggeration-- this has happened to me multiple times).  Try browsing the shops by doing the leisurely "I've got half a day to kill" saunter directly in front of them, instead of smack in the middle of the hall where sweaty people are frantically trying to break the space-time continuum to get to their flights.

Any narrow lane of passage through which people other than you are trying to travel?  Not the best place to stop and check if someone has texted you.  A crowded sidewalk?  Might not be optimal to decide with your friends that you should walk five-abreast at approximately one mile an hour.  I realize that children are walking random opportunities for catastrophe, but do you really need to halt everything to scream at the young'un at the top of an escalator or the end of a moving walkway?

No, I do not bump people or step on toes.  I don't intentionally try to impede them in retaliation-- what good would that do?  I just sigh and, if my patience has been completely depleted, occasionally say things under my breath that I'm both unable to resist saying and simultaneously hope that no one hears.  Most of the time.

I'm not a bad person...am I?  If so, blame the syndrome.

Some links for Sunday

  • Westboro Baptist's reply to Anonymous is predictably childish.  (That link goes to the PDF, but you can see a jpeg version here.)  Short version: "Bring it!"
  • Speaking of shutting down web sites, the Department of Homeland Security shuttered nearly 84,000 of them last weekend on suspicion of child porn.  People attempting to access those sites were greeted for up to six days with a banner noting the accusation but no further details.  Charges were ultimately brought against 10 of the sites.   Operators of many of the other sites are not pleased.     
  • Eight years after a Savage Love reader proposed "a frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex" as a definition for Rick Santorum's surname in response to his rabidly anti-homosexual views, the former Pennsylvania senator is finding that he now has a "Google problem."  
  • More things Bill O'Reilly can't explain.  
  • Going to be anywhere near Pasadena, CA at the end of June?  If so, go to the Science Symposium featuring Michael Shermer, Bill Nye, Brian Dalton (Mr. Deity) and James Randi.  I'll envy you from afar.
  • Susan over at Farmgirlfare has instituted a Daily Donkey feature, spreading joy and cuteness for those of us not lucky enough to have farms of our own.  A sample:

Dan and Daphne (she only looks dead) 1/9/08

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Anonymous threatens Westboro Baptist

"Aggressive proponents of free speech," my arse.   I would wonder how it's possible for them to claim that label while simultaneously threatening to shut down a group's website due to ideological differences with a straight face, but they're Anonymous-- there's no face to see.

Note: this response is not because of any love lost between me and the WBC.  That's definitely not the case.  I just fervently believe that trying to silence a group is not the way to go about combating their ideas.

Martin Robbins at The Guardian elaborates:

Anonymous have succeeded in generating yet more publicity for an organization which thrives on attention and frankly, like the BNP in the UK, gets far more media coverage than it really merits or deserves.
Meanwhile, their actions will have little impact on a collection of people who live together, protest at real world events, and use shock value to get mainstream media attention. It is naive to believe that hacking some websites can bring down this sort of group. The best thing anyone can do is ask the media to shut the fuck up about them.
And finally there's the sheer hypocrisy of it. Anonymous make a big deal about freedom of speech, calling themselves variously "the Voice of Free Speech", or "aggressive proponents for the Freedom of Speech." Which would be great, if they were, but are they?
Well no, compare and contrast with: "the propaganda & detestable doctrine that you promote will be eradicated [...] we will not relent until you cease the conduction & promotion of all your bigoted operations & doctrines." The self-appointed defenders of free speech want to shut down people's websites. Bang goes another irony meter.
(Hat tip to Tracy King for the link)

Friday, February 18, 2011

The saddest tattoo

Oh, I know there are sadder ones-- Ugliest Tattoos is on my blogroll.  But this one must be way up there:


I have a recommendation for his left arm, though—something from Leviticus 19.  
Lev 19:26 Eat not on the mountains, nor shall ye employ auguries, nor divine by inspection of birds. Lev 19:27 Ye shall not make a round cutting of the hair of your head, nor disfigure your beard. Lev 19:28 And ye shall not make cuttings in your body for a dead body, and ye shall not inscribe on yourselves any marks. I am the Lord your God. Lev 19:29 Thou shalt not profane thy daughter to prostitute her; so the land shall not go a whoring, and the land be filled with iniquity.  
Uh-oh. So even if this wrestler avoids the temptation to lie with a man, he's damned by Leviticus 19:28. Heck, at this point he might as well go get funky and wild with a quadruped.

What gets me, though, is just the idea that someone would be so committed to disapproving of homosexuality that they'd see fit to indelibly mark that disapproval on their body.  Normally when people get Bible versus tattooed on them (and plenty do, regardless of what Leviticus may say), it's something inspiring.  Something from Psalms, or perhaps John 3:16.  Not this guy-- he wants to be sure the world knows that he thinks an Old Testament verse condemning homosexuality from a chapter immediately preceding one that condemns bad haircuts is right on the money.  Well okay, thanks for sharing.  Maybe if he turns out to be gay himself, or just realizes that there is in fact nothing wrong with being gay, he can use this tattoo as an object lesson on how minds change.  I'll be optimistic and hope that he already does.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

It's not (just) the word; it's how you use it

Somebody pointed out in the Pharyngula thread that while "female" can be used as a noun, so can "black," and it doesn't sound very good to refer to a black person as simply "a black."  Comedian Lisa Lampanelli refers to "the blacks" on purpose because being offensive is her shtick.  I think that using those words as nouns rather than adjectives seems dehumanizing because it makes it sound as if being black or female is the totality of who you are, rather than a descriptor.  I don't actually know anybody who refers to women as "females" when talking about individuals in a social context, but would find it odd and off-putting if someone did.

Somebody else pointed out that Jen McCreight has used the word "female" on her blog before without any objections, which earned a swift and biting reply:

So, I just went back and looked at my 104 blog posts from December, January, and February to see if you're right*. Here's my usage of the word "female":
- 5 times to refer to "A large list of awesome female atheists" to promote diversity
- 3 times as an adjective, one of which was referring to myself
- 7 times in a quote from someone else that I was debating, so not my words
Once as a noun - when referring to females of all species, not just humans 
So, yeah, maybe there's not a peep because I'm not using the word female in a way that could potentially be found offensive. Imagine that.

Also, I don't think it's really necessary to pounce on someone for using the word "hysterical" when referring to women, regardless of its origin.  It doesn't mean that person is secretly a misogynist.  It's entirely possible for women-- yes, including feminists-- to be irrationally excited or outraged about something.  It's obviously wrong to use to word to dismiss legitimate concerns, but not inappropriate across the board.

I don't believe that words have power when divorced from context-- magical invocations are not real.  The context always matters.  We teach children not to use certain words because it's much simpler that way-- they're capable of grasping "Don't use the word 'stupid.'"  Later on they (hopefully) come to understand that there are a multitude of situations in which saying "stupid" is perfectly acceptable.  Part of becoming mature is realizing that the usage is important too.  Who is speaking?  What are they talking about?  Are they being sarcastic, hyperbolic, jokey, poetic?  Intent isn't fucking magic, either.  But it does matter.   The people yelling "It's all about intent" are just as wrong as the ones yelling "It's all about the language you use."  It's both, dammit.

I'll end with Jay Smooth talking about how to tell people they sound racist.  It's a bit old, but this is one video everybody should see.  Maybe it could be useful in the sex/gender conversation, too...fancy!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The only thing I hate about being a feminist...

Bill Bailey, hilarious feminist
...is that it's still possible to make general statements criticizing them and be taken seriously. 

Richard Dawkins weighed in on the sex/gender dispute, pretty much attributing all of the consternation to a blanket disapproval of the "million dollar challenge" (an experiment intended to show that women are essentially sexual gate keepers by asking how many men would accept a million-dollar bet to find a woman who would sleep with them by the end of the day, versus how many women would) and the use of the word "females" to refer to women.  Missing the point rather grandly, I would say, in agreement with Jen McCreight's comment here.

But what mainly irks me is this: he is able to say, honestly and truthfully, that "When the Million Dollar Challenge was offered at the American Atheists meeting, it deeply offended some feminists." Which, of course, allows commenters who find the offense unjustified to immediately set upon the "feminists." Oh, those darn feminists, always so outraged about the silliest little things.  No sense of humor or perspective.  Only a feminist would be bothered over this "hysterical twaddle" (as Dawkins put it).  I'm trying to imagine what would happen if an experiment regarding race was presented at a meeting, and he said that it "deeply offended some people concerned with racial relations."  One would hope that everyone is concerned about racial relations, and so would find it rather ridiculous to say something like "People concerned with racial relations getting offended, nothing new to see here."

Likewise, I would say that everyone should be concerned about gender relations.  It's certainly open for debate whether feminism should be primarily about disposition (as in, "I believe firmly that women are equal in value to men and should have the same rights as far as is possible") or disposition and interests ("I believe all of that, plus I'm specially concerned with how women are viewed socially by men and each other").  There are plenty of people in the former group who don't consider themselves feminists because they're not also in the latter.  There are also, I'm sure, plenty of people who are in both groups but who don't call themselves feminists because they associate them exclusively with those people who are irrationally outraged, however you might choose to define that.  I don't like being associated with Andrea Dworkin, but that certainly isn't enough to make me disavow membership in an entire body of people concerned with gender on the broader scale.

If Dawkins had said that when the Million Dollar Challenge was presented, it "deeply offended some women,"  it would have implied that women are the only ones, rightly or wrongly, who would be offended by the Challenge.  If the issue had been race, it would have been like saying that the experiment "deeply offended some black people."  Even though the word "some" is in there, the assumption is that offense would only be felt by members of the specific group being discussed.  But aren't we at the point now that that assumption is entirely unjustified?  That you don't have to be a minority to be offended by racism, female to be offended by sexism, gay to be offended by homophobia? 

By asserting that the offended party are feminists, Dawkins is suggesting that feminists (however he defines them) are the only ones who would be offended. Since he does this as part of a dismissal of what he calls "hysterical twaddle," it seems pretty clear that he thinks of feminists as being the type of people to get offended in the form of hysteria about twaddle. Some of them clearly are. But that has nothing to do with whether the offending object in fact is hysterical twaddle. People concerned about race issues often differ on whether a particular act or idea should be considered racist, and hence presumably worth getting bothered about. People concerned about gender often differ on whether a particular act or idea should be considered sexist or otherwise problematic in that regard, and hence worth getting bothered about. I happen to think that the most appropriate term for the latter group is "feminists," and therefore that slamming feminists as a group makes a person look like an arse. And I don't support enabling arses to proliferate in their arsiness. You don't get to dismiss the legitimacy of offense about something by identifying the group offended by it, and certainly not by dismissing the group offended by it. That's the essence of the ad hominem fallacy.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Top 10 Logical Fallacies in Politics

Wonder how he managed to narrow it down to ten.... 

This is a very good list explanations and examples of fallacies commonly made by politicians.  In the world according to Gretchen, all children would learn about logical fallacies in school at a young age and then go home and apply that knowledge when watching politicians speak on TV.  They and their parents would have animated discussions about which fallacies were made and how they know, and as they approached voting age the kids would have developed a sturdy sense of skepticism about everything coming out of the mouth of anyone who had either received votes or was asking for them.

I'd settle, however, for them learning about fallacies in school.

Iowa grandmother speaks in favor of gay marriage

I love this lady:

Monday, February 14, 2011

Testosterone and empathy might not be best buds

Via Dr. X's Free Associations:
Research Shows Testosterone Reduces Mind Reading Abilities, Empathy Levels 
New research conducted by scientists from the Utrecht and Cambridge Universities has found that an administration of testosterone under the tongue in volunteers can negatively affect a person’s ability to “mind read”, an indication of empathy. Moreover, the effects of testosterone administration are predicted by the 2D:4D foetal marker of prenatal testosterone.
The study findings bear important implications for the androgen theory of autism, as testosteron is an androgen, and confirms previous rodent research findings showing that testosterone in early brain development organizes the activation of the hormone in later life. The study was designed by Professor Jack van Honk at the University of Utrecht and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge, and was conducted in Utrecht.
Simon Baron-Cohen authored The Essential Difference, in which he proposed that autism could be characterized as having an "extreme male brain" due to the emphasis of people on the autism spectrum on systematizing rather than empathizing.  Obviously by that he doesn't mean that autism is male-specific, though it does occur in males with a much higher frequency (about 4:1, from what I have read), but that it represents an extreme example of the traits that more often typify the brain of a man than a woman.   So this study would appear to support his theory, although it has come under fire from psychologists such as Cordelia Fine, who accuses Baron-Cohen of misrepresenting the findings of experimental research on the subject.  I haven't read her book Delusions of Gender yet to see how well these accusations hold up, but am looking forward to it as it comes recommended by Uta Frith,* commonly regarded as one of the pre-eminent authorities on autism.  

Amanda Marcotte expresses some of her reservations about Baron-Cohen's work toward the end of this talk, worth watching in full:


*When Uta was a visiting scholar at Aarhus I talked with her about doing a study to examine the relationship between autism and religious belief (or lack thereof), but unfortunately didn't manage to get it off the ground before it was time for me to head back to the states.  That's still a project that definitely needs to be done.

Also...

I really wish the term "mansplaining" would go away.  I understand the problem it's meant to convey-- a man assuming he knows more about something than a woman and condescending to her about it-- but it's an awkward portmanteau and just strikes me as juvenile.  Like there's no way to effectively point out instances of this happening without coming up with a cute name for it.  It also makes it sound as if this is something all men do, or that women never do, or that there aren't other varieties of prejudice and/or privilege-based condescension.  And if there are, do they all need clever names too?  Richsplaining?  Whitesplaining?  "Gaysplaining" sounds marginally better aesthetically, but a person who uses it would probably be called homophobic even if using it correctly because gays are not a privileged group.

I like the words "prejudice" and "privilege," because they're generally applicable to errors in rationality (the former) and perspective (the latter), and don't suggest that mistakes about the abilities and values of different groups are all fundamentally different in kind.  Sexism already suffers from a good deal of confusion on that matter given that there are entirely legitimate statements that can be made about differences between sexes.  The illegitimate ones, however, can come from the same kinds of thought processes that produce any other kind of in-group favoritism and aren't inherently any better or worse.   There are a million different ways to think sloppily, but I think it's better that the commonality of these varieties of sloppiness be emphasized.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Some disjointed thoughts on "inclusiveness"

Claudia guest posts at Friendly Atheist on what she dubs "Femalegate":
The situation: There’s a discussion and the subject of inclusion of woman in the movement comes up. The panel has 5 men and 1 woman. In the audience, men outnumber women two to one. The complaint that women are hit on too much at meet-ups is met with comments about it being “biological” (which can be easily read as, “So suck it up”). Eventually one woman, feeling belittled and passed over in favor of men in the audience, calls the panel out for the use of terminology. In return, she gets jeers and a sarcastic joke.
From here, the situation could have gone in various directions. As a community that prides ourselves on intellectual honesty and the ability to recognize (and even celebrate) nuance, we could have:
  • Had a conversation about how panel discussions on delicate topics should and should not be handled.
  • Discuss how a broad context of many different factors can contribute to making a minority feel unwelcome.
  • Recognize the importance of the original subject and start over brainstorming the kinds of concrete steps that can be taken to make the movement more welcoming to women.
All of these would have been mature, complex, yet worthwhile ways to take the conversation.
We chose none of these.
Instead we decided to spend the better part of a week debating whether the word “female” is offensive (though, to be fair, the guest posters themselves attempted, but failed, to take the debate elsewhere).
Virtually no attention was paid to the broader context. Most comments trying to explain how context matters were totally disregarded in favor of saying “female isn’t offensive!”
You know what can make you feel unwelcome? That when you try to explain why you find something unwelcoming, you are told (in no uncertain terms) that you don’t have the right to feel that way, you’re being oversensitive, or you have to get over yourself. There seem to be a lot of people who say they want to hear from women in regards to how inclusiveness could be improved, but they are absolutely unwilling to admit that they could possibly be doing anything wrong.

There’s a vulnerability in being offended that has been overlooked a bit. I think that non-believers can get used to being more often the offenders rather than the offendees, and can forget that it’s actually pretty taxing to experience feeling bothered about something you consider important, and risk being mocked or thought of as thin-skinned for speaking up about it. It shouldn’t be a point of pride to never be offended…”sucking it up” isn’t a virtue unto itself. Brave people don’t “suck it up;” they speak up.

It’s one thing to listen to the complaints of an offended party and disagree about their validity, and quite another to openly dismiss them as not worthy of any serious consideration. When someone complains about not feeling included, respect the fact that they are to some extent opening themselves up to being thought foolish. Take them seriously, even if you disagree.

Having said that, there is a certain incentive for women who are part of a “boys club” to keep things that way. The most non-inclusive comments can actually come from other women who want to solidify their position as being reasonable and unemotional, unlike those fragile hysterical women who are complaining. The same women who consider themselves feminists, proving that women are capable of cerebral pursuits currently dominated by men, will turn around and slap down other women with the same anti-feminist rhetoric that would drive them crazy if applied to themselves. This is something all of us women/females/whatever have a responsibility to hold ourselves accountable for avoiding.

The subject of men speaking up for female interests is a tricky one–it’s not always easy to tell whether it should be gratifying or annoying. It can be immensely gratifying to know that women aren’t the only ones who care about whether we’re included. It’s annoying, on the other hand, if those men appear to be speaking for us. I sometimes wonder if having “token females” on panels, or as the only ones giving talks about gender, is actually damaging to the interests of the rest of women involved by making it seem as if there’s a Single Female Perspective. Having a multiplicity of female (and male) opinions can relieve the burden of being expected to represent an entire gender and allow women to just speak openly as individuals.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Two very different accounts...

...of the same panel at a regional meeting of American Atheists in Huntsville, Alabama on the subject of gender relations:

One says it all went to hell and it's no wonder a woman who stood up to ask a question ended up in the bathroom in tears with people consoling her.
The other says the woman who ended up in tears was melodramatic and self-righteous, demanding unreasonable special treatment.

Cue the resulting shitstorm.

Neither one sounds impossible, but neither one sounds like the whole truth either.  Not having been there, there's no way I can know what parts of which were true and which were not.  What I can suspect is that sexism, or at least confusion regarding how people of different genders should treat each other, is not born of religion.  It might be fostered by religious creeds, but it certainly doesn't require them to exist.

Jen McCreight, who blogs at Blag Hag, frequently writes about the problem of sexism in atheist organizations.  They do seem to attract men in greater proportions than women, which can lead to a "boys club" atmosphere which makes women feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, thereby causing the gender discrepancy to become a self-perpetuating problem (although at this particular meeting of AA the number of women was estimated at 30% by the first source, which is pretty good considering).  Then there's the additional factor that atheists like to emphasize a commitment to science, and psychological discussions emerging from evolutionary research tend to emphasize differences between the sexes, which can sometimes be confused with pseudoscientific explanations or be misinterpreted even if it's actually well-researched and presented, and...well...you can see how the opportunities for misunderstanding and discord tend to crop up like dandelions in springtime, especially when people try to use these explanations as justifications for their behavior.

The only solutions I know:
1.  Be mature and respectful.  In addition to facilitating communication, it highlights the fact that your opponent isn't willing to exercise these capacities and makes them look like the villain.  ;-)
2.  Try to be objective.  Don't take someone's word for it regarding what happened just because you agree with them general or want to believe that what they say is true.  People who agree with you are still capable of being wrong.
3.  Listen to what people are saying; don't misrepresent them-- creating a straw man version of their thoughts for you to knock down just makes you look foolish.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A big bowl of super

Oatmeal pretty well sums up my thoughts about football on this Super Bowl Sunday taking place in, of all places, Dallas:
In short: Don't give a damn.  Never have.  Have a very hard time, actually, understanding why people do.

But I hope the people currently congregating by the hundreds of thousands at Cowboys Stadium, and the millions more watching them and--soon-- the two teams of large men about to throw themselves at each other periodically interrupted by commercials that cost nearly $3 million for 30 seconds, have a wonderful time.  Yet again, I'm opting out.  Could still go for the beer and nachos, though.

GO PIGGERS!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The problem with "Jesus chicken"

Those familiar with the Chik-Fil-A restaurant chain have known for quite a long time that the ownership is explicitly conservative Christian, which hasn't meant much for people who like to eat there except that they must remember it's closed on Sundays.  But recently it has come out (pardon the expression) that the company also contributes significantly to anti-gay causes.  The New York Times says:
Nicknamed “Jesus chicken” by jaded secular fans and embraced by Evangelical Christians, Chick-fil-A is among only a handful of large American companies with conservative religion built into its corporate ethos. But recently its ethos has run smack into the gay rights movement. A Pennsylvania outlet’s sponsorship of a February marriage seminar by one of that state’s most outspoken groups against homosexuality lit up gay blogs around the country. Students at some universities have also begun trying to get the chain removed from campuses. . . 
Over the years, the company’s operators, its WinShape Foundation and the Cathy family have given millions of dollars to a variety of causes and programs, including scholarships that require a pledge to follow Christian values, a string of Christian-based foster homes and groups working to defeat same-sex marriage initiatives.
Hence a certain amount of outcry from gay rights groups.  Change.org has created a petition asking Chik-Fil-A to stop funding anti-gay groups such as Focus on the Family which has so far received over 25,000 signatures, and many individual gay rights supporters have decided not to patronize the restaurant chain any longer.  Alvin McEwen writes at Pam's House Blend that "lgbts also have a right to decide where NOT to spend our money. Furthermore we and our allies have a right to make a stink in regards to a company who wants us to buy its product, but not afford us respect."

In other words, a boycott. It's a time-honored concept-- a way for people to express their disagreement with the ethics of a company by refusing to do business with it.  Otherwise known as "voting with your wallet."  The idea is that financial support for an institution enables it and therefore can be construed as an endorsement of its policies, therefore revoking such support while saying "Hey everybody!  I'm revoking my support!" means that you've both ceased enabling that institution and attempted to make others aware of your reasons and encourage them to do the same.  It's a legal and peaceful way of making your views known.  Right?

Not to Michelle Malkin, apparently.  In these efforts the conservative columnist sees an "ugly war" waged by a "left wing mob":
Progressive groups are gloating over Chick-fil-A's public relations troubles exacerbated by the nation's politicized paper of record. This is not because they care about winning hearts and minds over gay rights or marriage policy, but because their core objective is to marginalize political opponents and chill Christian philanthropy and activism. The fearsome "muscle flexing" isn't being done by innocent job-creators selling chicken sandwiches and waffle fries. It's being done by the hysterical bullies trying to drive them off of college grounds and out of their neighborhoods in the name of "human rights."
Gosh, you'd think that people were crowding the streets screaming and trying to use the law to prevent Chik-Fil-A from erecting a new establishment purely out of objections to its ideology!  Oh wait, that's what people did in reaction to the proposed so-called "Ground Zero Mosque."  What's happening in this case is an objection to ideology, yes, but not just that.  It's an objection to political efforts on behalf of that ideology to oppose equal rights for a segment of the American population.  And that objection is not taking place through violent means or legal enforcement-- it's taking the form of voluntary boycotts, and student efforts to encourage their universities to stop using Chik-Fil-A as a vendor.  Essentially, they are asking universities to participate in the boycott as well.

During the protests in New York at Cordoba House, many of us were asking conservatives who opposed the Islamic community center why they oppose the property rights of the building's owners.  Now as gay rights advocates are boycotting Chik-Fil-A, I would ask Michelle Malkin why she doesn't support the right of individuals to do business with whom they please.  It's one thing to say that while boycotts in general are fine, this one in particular is misguided and inappropriate because of x, y, and z.  Then we could have a discussion on the merits of x, y, and z and would probably still disagree, but the basic understanding that everyone has a right to speak their mind both verbally and with their wallets would be there.

But that's not what she wants to do.  The objections Malkin is making could be applied just as easily to any boycott by conservatives of liberal businesses.  The next time an organization like the American Family Association declares that it will boycott a automobile manufacturer or food producer for so much as advertising in a gay-friendly way, I wonder if she will call them "hysterical bullies," or instead support them in speaking out against the fearsome left wing mob of...people who are okay with the idea that there are gays who want to do things like drive cars and eat soup.

Trying to decide who do business with can be tricky for people who care about the political involvement of companies and corporations (and trust, they will go on being involved in politics whether we care or not).  The most important part of minimizing that difficulty is freedom of expression.  We have to be able to find out, to research, to exchange ideas, to act, to let others know of our actions, and to hear about theirs.   The way to influence an entity whose primary concern is its profit margin is indisputably through our business choices-- it's the only power we as individuals have, which makes it sacred in a way.  It shouldn't be treated lightly, and it should never be denied.