May 30, 2011

Fallen Warriors

I'm just back from WisCon, held right next to Wisconsin's capitol. We drove home through countryside dotted with military memorials made up of helicopters, tanks, and airplanes. Given that context, and the change happening in many parts of the world, it strikes me that there's never been a better time to reprint my Memorial Day post from two years ago.

One of the things that struck me in travels through Scotland and the Canadian Maritimes was the monument in every town. Most of them were tiny, just a handful of names from each war–not because few died, but because the town was that small. The memorial at Edinburgh Castle, on the other hand, is of a scale and a simplistic majesty that imposes awe, a trick more church designers would like to have up their sleeves, I imagine.

Whatever the size, most memorials are central and public and impossible to overlook. That isn’t something we do well here. Monuments are destinations, traveled to on special occasions. Memorial Day is a single day of remembrance, Veterans Day, one more, and the rest of the time, our veterans are treated as disposable.

Some volunteered; others answered a call not of their choosing. They risked their lives and health for us. Many died. Worse yet, many killed. Many lost people who had become, in some ways, closer than kin. And we give them a day for those who lived and a day for those who died and maybe a little space out of the way.

We suck at remembering.

Fallen soldiers at least get a day, though. There are others who have fought and died for our society who don’t get that. Nor did they fight with the resources of our military or approval of our government behind them. I’m talking about the culture warriors.

It’s tempting to pretend that “culture war” is just a colorful turn of phrase. It isn’t. People have died every time our country has been persuaded to recognize the right of another group to be considered full human beings.

Workers died organizing unions. Women died claiming control of their own destinies. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, Jews, Irish, Italians, eastern Europeans–all have died insisting that no one people have a monopoly on humanity. Many people died for not keeping their sexuality or gender identity a secret. Others died because keeping that secret pushed them into shadows populated by predators.

They died because they challenged rules that were basely unfair. This made them outlaws in the eyes of many, stripped them of the protections we offer those who do not presume to transgress. This made them fair game, and they were hunted. Those who didn’t die rarely escaped without injury. No one offered them medals.

In the face of this, they persisted. Because of them, fewer of us are outlaws today. We can claim protection, imperfect as it is, that was won for us in the wars. Unlike many wars, these have made the world a better place.

So go out and enjoy that better world this weekend, but as you boat and picnic and enjoy family and friends, take a moment. Remember those soldiers whom we have promised to remember, and remember the others, who are too easily forgotten.

They fought for our freedom too.

May 28, 2011

Saturday Storytime: Drag Queen Astronaut

It is the weekend for a new Tiptree Award to be given "for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender." One of the best parts of the award is the Honor List that goes with it, an opportunity to be introduced to new writers who see near and far with clarity and imagination, like Sandra McDonald, from the 2010 list. An excerpt of her recommended story:

Joe tapped his mechanical pencil. The desk blotter was covered with a sea of tiny dots, like a Rorschach test only he could make sense of. “You can’t stay. They’re going to send you back to the Navy, and they’re going to shove you in a desk job somewhere, and congratulations. You just won a nice quiet life with your family.”

“I’m not going.” This was the answer I’d rehearsed on the flight in – military, not civilian, and who knows what fresh hell it would have been to be recognized as the person who the media had now ridiculously and inaccurately dubbed the Drag Queen Astronaut. “It was just for laughs.”

Like the time Alan Shepherd presented a gallon-sized vat filled with ammonia and yellow dye as his urine sample for the Gemini program doctors. Wally Schirra did the same thing to a nurse, except he used apple juice. One Apollo mission radioed in a UFO to Mission Control. John Young once smuggled up a contraband corned beef sandwich, which pissed off the techs who feared tiny bits of meat jamming million-dollar equipment.

Joe’s pencil made another series of dots on the blotter. “No one’s laughing, Jim.”

So that’s how I lost Artemis 6, the mission I was scheduled to command. Lost my astronaut appointment. Gary put up a fight for me, as did some good friends I can’t begin to thank, but astronauts have been fired for less: ask old-timers about Apollo 7, when the ill crew refused to follow piddly orders from Capcom and lost their careers over it.

The first person I saw after getting my termination letter was Scott Stevenson, who’d been ducking me since our return to earth. I knew through other people that he blamed me for forever sullying our mission. We’d always be the Flight of the Transvestite – in books, on the internet, in our obituaries.

“I guess they had no choice,” was all he said.

NASA shoved me right out the door and forgot all about me.

Until the day they desperately needed me. But that came later.

Keep reading.

May 27, 2011

If You Don't Stand Up for Us Today

"At the government teat." Not only do anti-government legislators consider compassion to be a despicable virtue and caretaking a despicable act, but in the fight over health care in Texas, someone has produced flyers depicting them as that particularly female despicable act of breastfeeding. Rep. Senfronia Thompson, fed up with all the attacks on women in this session, isn't going to take it quietly.

Why are people electing the douchebags who pass anti-woman legislation instead of more representatives like this?

May 26, 2011

Help Keep Atheists Talk Going

Mike explains at his blog. Normally, I wouldn't just lift a whole post, but I think it's justified in this case.

Atheists Talk is a volunteer effort by a larger group of people than those you hear on the air. I appreciate all of the people who contribute your time to help me make it a show worth listening to. The costs that we incur are not for the labor, but for the fee we pay to the radio station. It is well worth going through AM commercial radio because it extends our listenership in ways that podcasting alone couldn’t do.

We have a fundraising drive going on, so that we can keep renewing our six month contracts. Even though we negotiated the price downward from what we had paid in our first two years, the price at $5320 is still quite a chunk for our general fund. Please read this appeal and send in what you can to help us justify the expense to the members who support us.

This program costs $5,320.00 every six months. We sell some ads, but most of our costs are covered by supporter donations. The program is broadcast live on AM950 KTNF, but most of our listeners follow our podcasts. Of the 114 programs our number one download was the program broadcast from the Minnesota State Fair, “All About Atheism,” that had over 21,000 downloads. Next most downloaded was the very first program we did, with Richard Dawkins, at 13,000, followed by “Dialogue with a Christian” with over 10,000. After that, there are seven programs with over 7,000, ten over 6,000 and 15 over 5,000. Within two to three weeks of production, every program has between 1,000 to 2,000 downloads.

We have a donation link.

Be sure to listen to Sunday’s show. I will be talking to Eric MacDonald about the right to make one’s own Choice in Dying.

Pass the word, and please help if you can.

May 25, 2011

The Politics of the Null Hypothesis

In which I talk about the lack of evidence for a genetic explanation for variation in human intelligence. In public.

Nothing about the field of IQ studies is free of political influence. It's naive to believe that any kind of research on a purported measure of individual merit could be politics-free in a self-proclaimed meritocracy with wide inequalities. Binet's original work was meant to determine which children should have access to additional educational resources. IQ scores are used occasionally to sort out "inappropriate" candidates for various jobs, including those whose IQs are too high for a role. IQ as a proxy for merit is used to argue that a group does or does not face discrimination in educational or career opportunities. This is all terribly political.

The question isn't whether there are politics surrounding this issue or where. They're everywhere. The question is where does the politics get in the way of the science? Again, the answers don't favor Pinker's view of a fatwa against genetic explanations of individual differences.

For those of you visiting from the Scientific American Guest Blog, welcome to Almost Diamonds. Kick back. Relax. Drinks are in the fridge. If you're looking for more on politically sensitive science, may I interest you in the following posts?

What Is Race Good For?

The Argument for Race
There were four main arguments made for the biological validity of race:

  1. Genetic testing allows for grouping by country of ancestor origin.

  2. Race may not predict the things it's been used to predict in the past, but it's an important proxy for genetics in medicine.

  3. Yes, assignment of humans to racial categories is an arbitrary procedure, but we use arbitrary names for parts of other continua. Why not race?

  4. You're just being PC, Marxist wankers.

I think we can ignore #4, but the rest were addressed in the discussion.

Sex, Science, and Social Policy

There's just one little problem: The studies themselves. In 2001, Paul, Linz, and Shafer took a look at what kind of evidence was being used by those who wanted to marginalize sex-related businesses. What they found was impressive...but not in the way one would hope.

The researchers started with a list of four requirements that would need to be met for a study on the topic to be considered scientific. In situations like this, where laws and regulations may be challenged in court, scientific evidence isn't just a good idea. It's the legal standard, so meeting these scientific criteria is important.

Rape Myth #1: She's Probably Lying
The Rate of False Report

The standard figure passed around by victim advocates suggests a rate of false reports of 8% based on FBI crime statistics from 1997. This is comparable to rates for other crimes. However, citations can be found for rates as low as 1.5% and as high as 90%. In other words, huh? How do we deal with a range that big?

Luckily for those who want to sort out the truth of the matter, two papers came out in 2010 that shed considerable light by examining how false rape report rates are generated. David Lisak, Lori Gardinier, Sarah C. Nicksa, and Ashley M. Cote collected those prior studies that had the best (and most transparent) processes for sorting between false and merely unproven allegations. They also used a similar process for determining the rate of false reports of rape at a U.S. college.

Skepticism and Rape Adaptations

Now, the problem is not that Dr. Shackelford is an evo psych researcher. There are people doing good work in evo psych. The problem is that Dr. Shackelford isn't doing good work on this topic. In particular, the work he is presenting, relating female infidelity to rape of female partners by male partners, doesn't tell us anything that the already robust scientific literature on rape hasn't already told us.


May 24, 2011

Sexism Always Wins, but It Still Loses

Jen McCreight won't be talking about Boobquake at conferences anymore.

I've already said no to groups who wanted me to talk about it, and suggested another topic. I think we can learn interesting things from what happened, but I'm just sick of how people see it as a green light for sexual harassment. I can only tolerate so much.

In an otherwise decent post about the effects of pervasive sexism, Josh Rosenau asks:

Which raises the question: did sexism win, or was boobquake doomed precisely because it was meant to take advantage of society's sexism?

Now, let me think about this for a--NO!

Or maybe I shouldn't be quite so hasty. At least one commenter disagrees with me, saying, "Nobody could have predicted that! Except, of course, for everyone who did, and got shouted down as killjoys," and, "You can't solve a problem using the same thinking which created it."

So, given that argument would my answer be any diff--NO!

To make a short story longer, let's start with the second part of the statement. Boobquake was meant to take advantage of society's sexism? It used the same thinking which created it? Boobquake was meant to be a joke, a joke that took one cleric's claims that "immodest" dress led inevitably to earthquakes via a chain of men's uncontrollable lust and God's anger over adultery and broke it apart to make the individual pieces easier to examine and ridicule.

Jen never meant or expected the idea to take off, much less "take advantage of society's sexism." Once it did, she did an admirable job of steering the inevitable publicity back toward the original intent of mocking the ideas that women are responsible for inciting men's unholy lust and that such lust leads to earthquakes. She educated at least a few people on the use of statistics to illustrate these claims. She used the opportunity to allow Iranian women's rights activists--the people actually affected by the cleric's claims--to be heard in the West.

That some subsequent events were also shaped in part by the pervasive sexism of our society is unsurprising, but is has nothing to do with Jen's intent, and I shouldn't have to spell that out in response to a post on that very topic. Nor is it Jen's responsibility to deal with the predictability of these events. That particular gem of criticism is just a form of the "she should have known" argument. It might be valid if there actually existed a choice between doing nothing, and thus avoiding sexism, and engaging in activism, during which some women are subjected to sexism. That women aren't offered that particular choice is, again, not something I should have to point out when the occasion is a post about pervasive sexism. Does anyone, for example, really still think Jen would be exempt from unwanted comments and jokes on her appearance if she hadn't thought up Boobquake?


Now for the question of whether sexism won. Yes, it won. Sexism always wins. It has the advantage of numbers and entrenched power.

However, sexism also lost, and it keeps on losing.

The Iranian cleric in question changed his stance in response to Boobquake. It isn't much better than it was before, but he changed it in response to questions from those within his country and his religion. His authority was undermined enough that he had to react.

A large number of the women who participated explicitly rejected the conflations of sex and sin, sex and shame, their clothing and "uncontrollable" male lust. It may not stick, but they've done it at least once. That makes them less vulnerable to the coercive messages that surround sex in our society. If Boobquake was a failure in this respect, then so are the Slutwalks that have been spreading across the globe in recent months.

Jen's profile was raised significantly by Boobquake. That did two important things. First, it added one more good, flexible female speaker to the list of people event organizers draw from. The groups who invite her to speak about Boobquake aren't turning her down when she wants to talk about something else. Instead, they're hearing a different talk, frequently the one on "God's Lady Problem." Not exactly a win for sexism.

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, Jen has been identified as a resource for other women in both the skeptic and atheist movements who experience sexism. She's used her blog to promote the complaints of others. She's modeled behavior for objecting to sexist treatment in a very public way. She's used her tenacity to keep the pressure on until she gets an official response on the topic. She's rallied other prominent atheists and skeptics to amplify her message. She has added substantially to the number of effective voices on the topic. She's done it with the platform that was built, in part, with Boobquake. And now, she's seing results.

Sexism found a way to pull a small victory out of Boobquake. The house took its cut. But it only wins if people insist that we've lost if we don't get everything we want right now.

May 23, 2011

The Role of Confrontation in the Gay Rights Struggle

The quest for equal rights for LGBTQ Americans is often cited as an example of constructive confrontation in action. In a recent discussion around accommodationism in the fight to keep creation out of public schools, I was asked to provide some documentation on the topic. I put together a list of almost entirely web-based resources for those interested.

I think is worth sharing here for those who want to address the topic in the future. So, an annotated bibliography on the role of confrontation in the U.S. fight for gay rights:

None of this suggests that there isn't a role, particularly in the recent swell of support for gay marriage rights, for simply understanding one another as human beings. However, we did have to reduce the risks to LBGTQ populations to the extent where that was possible. That wouldn't have happened without the changes wrought by confrontation.

May 22, 2011

Not in My Constitution

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

A constitution or other governmental charter is a document that exists to specify the operation of a government--and to ensure the rights of the people governed. The largest debate over the U.S. Bill of Rights was over whether the amendments were needed to protect what should be "natural rights" and whether there was any possibility that the enumeration of rights might be considered to limit citizens' rights to those explicitly granted.

We, the people of the state of Minnesota, grateful to God for our civil and religious liberty, and desiring to perpetuate its blessings and secure the same to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution

Yesterday, the Minnesota House voted to put a question on the November 2012 ballot. In a state in which marriage of same-sex couples is already disallowed by law, in a state where judges have already agreed ruled on the issue, voters will be asked whether our constitution should be amended to limit legal recognition of marriage to unions between one man and one woman.

There wasn't a great demand for this legislation. Polls in recent years have shown an upswing in support for gay marriage, and an overall lack of support for this kind of amendment. The only poll showing support for an amendment vote is an anti-gay-marriage group that won't release details on the polling.

The House members who voted for an amendment referendum didn't speak in favor of the amendment. The one who spoke in favor of the referendum said only that he wanted voters to be able to decide the issue.


Section 1. OBJECT OF GOVERNMENT. Government is instituted for the security, benefit and protection of the people, in whom all political power is inherent, together with the right to alter, modify or reform government whenever required by the public good.

Sec. 2. RIGHTS AND PRIVILEGES. No member of this state shall be disfranchised or deprived of any of the rights or privileges secured to any citizen thereof, unless by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers. There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the state otherwise than as punishment for a crime of which the party has been convicted.

Supporters of the amendment suggest they're trying to "protect" the traditional definition of marriage, something that won't be replaced or altered by extending the right to marry to gay and lesbian couples. They have identified no public good that will be served by the codification of discrimination. They offer reasons to prohibit gays from marrying that are based solely in religious traditions, personal discomfort, and lies about homosexuals. They claim that equality is an equal right to do something that only person wants to do.

No one has offered a reason for this proposed amendment that could outweigh the continued denial of equal rights to citizens who contribute to make our state what it is. Certainly no one has offered a reason to turn our founding documents, the documents that exist to protect our rights, into a barrier to the rights of all our citizens. We cannot let this abuse of our public documents stand.

May 21, 2011

Saturday Storytime: Rapture

On the most recent date on which virtuous humans are supposed to be lifted from their Earthly cares, I can't think of any better story to share than this one by Sally Gwylan, in which the battle between religion and humanism is aided by an unusual agent. An exceprt:

The auditorium blazed with the new electric lights and was full to overflowing. There was never a chance I would find Josef in that seething mass by venturing into it, so I went round back & climbed the stairs up to the outside walk. A small crowd pressed up near the open windows to listen, but not all the sashes had been raised. I chose one of these closed windows for my vantage point.

As I searched the mass of people below me for Josef's gipsy curls & defiant red scarf, the Reverend's words deviled my ears despite the barrier of the window-glass. A small man whose gestures & intonation burned with fevered zeal, Owings exhorted his audience to Pray! Pray for the Holy Spirit to lead them into the ways of righteousness!

And as he shouted, the air inside the hall began to sparkle, golden motes drifting down. I doubted my eyes, but others were seeing it too, looking up, gaping, and it was then I spotted Josef's set jaw & bold mustachios pushing through the crowd at the back, with Gretchen drawn but determined just ahead of him, the babe wrapped up tight in her arms. Rather than hurry down to find them I stayed watching the dustfall a moment longer.

Soon all faces were turned up to the glittering motes. Some shouted, a babble of Hallelujahs & Glorys. I believe I saw vents in the sculpted ceiling from which the dust issued, but the stuff spread out quickly, & surely the people below couldn't tell the source.

Flash & humbug, I thought.

Sweet manna! Owings's voice rang out. Rejoice for the Lord is with us tonight! & the people in the hall raised up their arms, their heads tipped back as though the golden fall were a shower of welcome rain. Every face filled with wonder.

Even -- this is what haunts me, this is the impossible thing -- my rebel Josef's. Gretchen too, the both of them stopped in their tracks and gaping with childish awe as I have never seen either do before & certainly not at such a conjurer's trick. Cold went through me like a gale off the lake -- even now my hands shake with it.

Unable for a time to turn away, I watched & listened as fever took the crowd, some losing themselves so far as to fall to the floor in fits of jerking limbs. Josef & Gretchen did not do so, yet their open-mouthed gullibility was near as bad. Owings's words pounded the glittering air, sin & pridefulness & render unto Caesar, on & on, a hammer forging his auditors into the shape he desired, til at last I could take no more and stumbled home.

Where I write and wait, hoping that Nathan will return before the others do.

Keep reading.

May 20, 2011

Anna Fur Laxis

This one is burlesque, boys and girls. Don't play it if you don't want to see skin.

It's always impressive to see just how many ways there are to do something as simple as take your clothes off. And how much of that time can be spent doing nothing of the sort.

May 19, 2011

Rich Man's Frug

I love this set as a commentary on the entertainments of the upper classes. Ah, Fosse.

As I originally saw it on stage:

In its original movie setting, with additional editorial and a smaller set:

May 18, 2011

The Hands of Guan Yin

I know what is going on in this video. The mechanism is simple. But there's nothing simple about the way it ends up looking.

May 17, 2011

Coin-Operated Boys

There's a lot of this sort of dance around, and lots of people who do it well. This video is more of a rarity because the dancers in it are working together to create the experience, not just displaying their individual virtuosity.

May 16, 2011


It's going to be a busy week, with a beta of Kelly McCullough's second Aral Kingslayer book to read and think about and all the usual work stuff to get done. So, instead of me spending time writing anything, y'all will get to see the hangovers of my impossible desire to grow up to be Cyd Charisse. Enjoy a week of choreography that goes beyond.

This, for example, demonstrates that two is merely the lower limit for a tango.

May 15, 2011

The Accommodationism Debate Explained

Desiree Schell, of Skeptically Speaking and other general awesomeness, will be on Atheists Talk in a few weeks to talk about strategies for effecting change. Since the announcement about her appearance happened in the middle of yet another discussion about accommodationism, Desiree (being the smart and highly prepared woman she is) asked for a clear description of a topic that doesn't come up in what she does as a skeptic or union organizer. I think the results are worth sharing here.

I mainly stick to scientific skepticism, and I don't follow atheist controversies very closely, so can someone tell me exactly what an accommodationist is? Every time I ask that question I get a different answer. And that's understandable; I claim terms all the time to structure my own thoughts. But can someone (or a few of you) on this thread tell me about your perception of what that word means? It would help me, because it's pretty obvious that it's going to come up on air.

Accommodationism is used to refer to the idea that in order to get the support of religious people on political issues (teaching of evolution, separation of church and state, etc.) one should be careful to not challenge their religious beliefs or should, perhaps, even reinforce them. It's as big a debate as it is because the idea is both very pragmatic and very problematic.

I think the pro-accommodationism argument is pretty clear and simple. The anti-accommodationism argument is a little more complicated:

  1. Try as you might to not disturb religious beliefs, the truth and supremacy of someone's religion is exactly what these arguments often boil down to. At some point, you're stepping on someone's religious toes. The actual question is whose.
  2. Stepping on the toes of one religion generally looks, to the apathetic masses, like stepping on all religion, no matter what you try to do. Playing a middle game is tricky on the mass level.
  3. While accommodationism might work on a single political issue (although we don't have evidence that it has), there are going to continue to be fights, all coming out of this same well of religious privilege. Reinforcing the privilege to win one fight is going to make the next fight harder.
  4. Therefore, the way to go is to take on the larger issue of religious privilege, even if it causes problems in the short-term. At that point, this becomes a fight about equality and civil rights, and the whole plan changes a bit.

So, would working with a number of different stakeholders (one of them being a church group) on a single-issue campaign like lobbing the government to keep fluoridating the city's water system, be considered accommodation? Or is it only accommodation when working on a campaign that involves religion?

There will be a few people who say both. They'll get lots of attention, but they're not the sort of people who actually leave the computer and get anything done. For the most part, only the second would be.

So what if an atheist doesn't much care about the larger idea of religious privilege, and is only personally interested in a single issue like ensuring that evolution is taught in schools. Are they an accommodationist by default?

Probably not by default, but for a single issue, an accommodationist approach really does make a lot of sense if you can find a big enough religious population to whom the issue isn't intrinsically threatening.

I think that's why this is so intractable. It's really a difference of values, and you know how those go.

Do I ever.

May 14, 2011

Saturday Storytime: The Mad Scientist's Daughter

Theodora Goss specializes in short work. Given that, it's not terribly surprising that the two stories she published last year are both being collected in a Year's Best, or that the following story a finalist for a 2011 Locus Award. An excerpt:

Mary created a trust that holds the deed to the house. We are all listed as beneficiaries:

Miss Justine Frankenstein

Miss Catherine Moreau

Miss Beatrice Rappaccini

Miss Mary Jekyll

Miss Diana Hyde

Mrs. Arthur Meyrinck (née Helen Raymond)

But it is her house, really. Her father left it to her, along with a moderate fortune. She is the only one of us who has inherited any money. Science does not pay well; mad science pays even worse.

Keep reading.

May 13, 2011

The Value of Defiance

I'm in the middle of a migraine, and Blogger has royally pissed me off over the last couple of days. Today, I'll just point to a couple of other posts that provide context to each other. Jerry Coyne comments on the idea that a new study showing religion is globally pervasive suggests that uprooting its ideals is "hopeless":

That’s hogwash. As we can see from the tremendous secularization of the world over the past few centuries, especially in Europe, it is not impossible for religion to wither. The pervasiveness of a belief gives no warrant that that belief will be with us forever. Look how pervasive, only a century ago, was the idea that women were second-class citizens. This was true in nearly every society. Ditto for gays and ethnic minorities. And look how attitudes have changed! Granted, women, for instance, still get the short end of the stick, but in many parts of the world they’re much better off. Most of us now realize that people should be treated as equals, regardless of gender, color, and sexual orientation. That would have been inconceivable a few hundred years ago.

Let’s just tinker a bit with Trigg’s statement:

“If you’ve got something so deep-rooted in human nature as the idea that women are inferior, thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests,” Trigg said. . “The female-equality hypothesis of the 1960s—I think that is hopeless.”

So how do we go about undermining the authority of a such a pervasive idea? Paul W points out that if we really want to understand that, social science offers us a great deal of research on the topics of conformity and minority influence.

Here are some topics worth looking up on Wikipedia—Mooney should demonstrate his familiarity with this stuff if he wants to be taken at all seriously, and his critics would do well to know about the six decades of relevant research he persistently ignores:

Conformity, Asch Conformity Experiments, Normative Social Influence, Social Proof, Information Cascade, and especially Minority Influence and Spiral of Silence.

Scientists and philosophers especially are in a position to exert minority influence, ending a spiral of silence by providing social proof, and undermining the information cascade that supports religion.

But that is exactly what Mooney is most opposed to—he is against the experts voicing the kind of expert opinion that has the greatest potential for minority influence, and he actively tries to undermine the appearance of expertise and minority solidarity that makes minority influence work best. He is firmly on the side of the normative conformity that keeps the masses ignorant of the kind of minority but expert view that could actually change a substantial number of minds.

The reading and the suggestions to be derived from it aren't terribly straightforward, but this is stuff you'll want to know if you're running against the herd.

May 11, 2011

The Accommodationism Challenges

Mike McRae, Tribal Scientist, indulged me in a discussion of his goals surrounding his latest salvo in the accommodation debate.

There are frequent olive branches thrown down in request of a ceasefire. Perhaps the most common is the plea for diversity. This call seems democratic, inclusive and reasonable. After all, if there are many different problems and many different audiences, there must be a need for many different methods. Let’s all live and let live, right? If one approach doesn’t work, another will.

The mediators are somewhat like a ring species for Accommodationis warminfuzziness and Newatheist confrontationist.

Yet there is an element of intellectual laziness in this view. Of course, no one approach in communication will reach all demographics, or solve all problems. Diverse approaches are indeed necessary. Yet this is not the same as saying all approaches are necessary. Some will conflict. Some will be resource hungry and have no hope of success for one reason or another. Identifying solutions to the problem of how best to communicate science in the face of religion will take more than guessing, hoping and shouting into echo chambers. Like anything in science, it demands research, critical thinking and evaluation. No act of communication should be above criticism or beyond the need for evidence, clarity and precision.

I wanted to know why he put up a snarky post. I wanted to know why he generalized his criticisms to the group instead of making them specific to particular behaviors and people. Basically, I wanted to know why someone critiquing communication was engaging in such nonconstructive criticism. His response:

You ask what I hope to accomplish? Culture change. Encouraging atheists to see that if they want to defend their choices, those values they appreciate so much in science don’t suddenly disappear and allow them to have robust opinions based on gut feelings and wishful thinking.

Based on the rest of my conversation with Mike, I'd like to offer a set of challenges to those advocating that "New Atheists" be more accommodating of others in their communications.

Challenge 1: Decide whether this is important to you.

Is confrontation as a tactic among atheists an issue you think needs to be addressed? Will it really change the world if you can get a few people to follow your advice? Or are you annoyed by some people who have stomped on your feelings on the blogosphere?

These aren't frivolous questions. You've got work to do. They've got work to do. And change, as you already know, is hard. You should also know that if you do this wrong, you're going to entrench the bad blood over this issue even further. Every little thing you (and everyone else with any kind of platform) say on the topic goes on record these days. If you don't care enough to do this right, maybe it's time to shut up about it, at least in public.

Challenge 2: Know your audience.

Who are you trying to reach? Are you talking to published "New Atheist" authors? Are you talking to atheist groups that sponsor ad campaigns or social meetups? Are you talking to groups that lobby and pursue legal action? Are you talking to blog commenters? Are you talking to forum campers? Are you talking to unaffiliated atheists who just want religion to leave them alone?

These types of groups have very different goals. They have different tactics. They have different degrees of centrality and authority. They have different religious backgrounds and degrees of education. You have to take the time to understand them--ask them real questions and listen to the answers--if you want to know what language to speak and what problems you're going to offer to help them solve.

You also have to understand that you frequently can't address multiple groups using the same message. They're just too different. Being an atheist only gives you so much in common with other atheists. At the same time, however, any individual atheist may belong to many of these groups. You're never going to have the luxury of addressing just one set of concerns at a time, and you're going to have to go to extraordinary lengths to keep from generalizing between groups based on the cross-group memberships of certain individuals.

Challenge 3: Learn to see privilege.

Being an atheist won't get you killed very often. In many environments, being an atheist is entirely invisible. In some, it's perfectly respectable. That does not put atheists on par with the religious. Unless you understand where the differences are, you will never be able to effectively address the concerns of atheists.

Read a privilege checklist or two. Understand what it means to have an area of your life that you choose to keep hidden because there are consequences of doing otherwise. Understand what it means to be watched for signs that you represent a degenerate type. Understand how much time and energy it takes to answer questions whenever you identify yourself. Understand how much it takes to run constant calculations on whether to go with the flow or upset the social order. Understand what it means to watch people take the time to decide whether they really knew you at all when you come out. Understand what it means to hear political debates on whether you're ruining modern life.

Only once you get all that can you actually understand what you're asking otherwise.

Challenge 4: Recognize the limits of your own expertise.

There is a fair body of cognitive science having to do with communication. It doesn't begin to approach the complexity of real-world (meatspace and electronic) communications. There is a lot of information to be had from these studies, but this is a very new science, given the size of the topic. It can only tell us so much.

One of the things it can and has told us is that the power, privilege and out-group status of the speaker have an effect on how the speaker's message is received. We know that whether we are trusted or even heard as speakers is often largely out of our hands. What we don't know, what cognitive science, or at least those presenting the cognitive science, has yet to tell us despite our very real need for the information, is how to overcome this problem.

Until that happens, asking people to understand the cognitive science is reasonable. Asking people to replace current behavior is not. Confrontational tactics for minority groups may not be supported in the cognitive science literature, but neither are they shown to be worse than any other tactics for minority groups. In the presence of privilege, we simply don't expect any communication tactic to have a high rate of success. (Legal tactics, on the other hand....)

Meanwhile, there are other disciplines that do suggest the confrontational approach has merit. The history of social movements is plastered with groups taking approaches that make people feel uncomfortable and threatened. It is also plastered with groups succeeding with approaches that make people feel uncomfortable and threatened. And frankly, familiarity with this sort of social history shows just how mild "confrontational" atheists of the current sort are by comparison.

Even if you aren't concerned with social change directly, recognize that attacking the privilege problem directly is a communication tactic with the potential to succeed. Privilege gets in the way of effective communication. We can go around this with the appropriate tools when cognitive science gives them to us. Until then, we can do our best to go through.

Challenge 5: Recognize others' work and expertise.

This is the point where I tell you to drop the word "but" from your vocabulary. Atheists, even highly annoying ones (whichever set that may be for you), have made major accomplishments in the past couple of decades. Best-selling books, wide blog readerships, social mobilization for political action, communities that support out atheists and those who have left religious communities, successful events at the regional to international level, cogent social criticism, historical scholarship, increased visibility of abuses of power despite a hobbled press.

Is there crap being produced as well? Of course. Sturgeon's Law. That doesn't make the accomplishments I just mentioned any less real.

It also doesn't exempt anyone from the requirement to deal with the accomplished as, at the very least, people with as much to teach as you believe they have to learn. The lessons they have to teach may well include the fact that what they do is so more difficult than it appears on the surface--requiring extraordinary timing, wordsmithery, and humor--that most people may as well not try. You'll never learn it if your approach is to say, "Yeah, they wrote a best-selling book, but it's only because...."

Challenge 6: Offer something better.

The problem of addressing religious privilege while simultaneously working around the bald fact that the religious hold most of the political power is tough. It's ugly. Nobody who is trying to do both thinks it's simple. Your final challenge is to deal with the real difficulty of that problem.

However, the people who are tackling that work aren't going to be lured by a message that is, in essence, "Ignore the privilege problem in order to solve problems that require political power." Privilege is power. Your audience knows that solving individual political problems while allowing the privilege to persist is fighting a hydra. Offering a sharper sword only makes the heads multiply faster.

However, offer the equivalent of a torch, and you've got something. If you want to shape how atheists communicate, figure out how to offer them something that undermines religious privilege at the same time.

No, I don't know what that is either. All I know is that if you offer something short of that, you're offering less than what atheists ultimately want and need, and that won't work. That's why you need to decide up front how important this is to you. That's why it's a challenge.

May 08, 2011

Standing on Aether, Thinking Airy Thoughts

Or, Theology as Pseudophilosophy

There's been a rash of criticism lately of New Atheists (or Gnu Atheists, popular atheists, internet atheists, outspoken atheists, non-invisible atheists--whatever term makes the writer comfortable that he's not being prejudicial while generalizing for paragraphs on end) that we're being anti-intellectual and displaying our lack of education by not grappling seriously with serious philosophy of religion. Everything used to be so much better and it's all terribly concerning according to Michael Ruse:

Perhaps it is just a turf war, but I don’t think philosophy is something to be ignored or done after a day’s work in the lab over a few beers in the faculty club. I think if you want to show that science and religion are inherently in contradiction, then you should show why people like Kuhn (and indeed Foucault) are wrong about the nature of science. That I think is morally wrong, namely taking positions with major political and social implications, without doing your serious homework. Just mentioning Galileo’s troubles with the Church or Thomas Henry Huxley’s debate with the Bishop of Oxford is no true substitute for hard thinking.

Jacques Berlinerblau:

In fact, what is fascinating about the New Atheists is their almost complete lack of interest in the history and philosophical development of atheism. They seem not the least bit curious to venture beyond an understanding that reduces atheist thought to crude hyper-empiricism, hyper-materialism, and an undiscriminating anti-theism.

And R. Joseph Hoffmann:

The old atheism was full of cranks and angry old men, but some of them were clever. Many of them (as my grandmother used to say) knew a thing or two. The big distinction between the old and the new is that the old atheism depended on a narrative, based in philosophy, and linked itself to a long tradition of rational decision-making. Not choosing to believe in God was an act of deliberation, not a foregone conclusion. At its best, it was studious and reflective.

Repeating a message in this way can be a very powerful thing. It can, in fact, make one deal with the message in a serious way. However, not all messages benefit from the serious treatment. This is one message that doesn't.

Jerry Coyne makes some excellent points about the difference between understanding history and getting stuck repeating it endlessly instead of moving forward. If the majority of us can't build on what our forebears knew, while leaving the details of exactly how they figured it out to those who like that sort of thing, we'll get nowhere.

We don't criticize farmers for not being socially conversant in biochemistry, although biochemistry underlies what they do. Nor, more importantly, can we legitimately exclude farmers from criticizing biological or biochemical theorizing--if their criticism is that the theories involved rely on faulty understanding of farming.

One of the hallmarks of pseudoscience is that it operates from faulty premises. Some of those faulty premises come from misunderstandings of the scientific process (e.g., not understanding the importance of good controls), but some come from misunderstandings of the subject being studied. Experiments in telepathy depend, in both the design and analysis phases, on the idea that communication is verbal and unambiguous (as well as the idea that humans are honest). Experiments in astrology rely on the idea that humans are internally consistent and externally different. Experiments in alternative treatments for the common cold rely on the idea that the condition is not self-limiting.

Theorizing on the causality of autism spectrum disorders frequently assumes that historical increases in diagnoses reflect a real change in the neurology of a population. Those studying the relative intelligence of the black, white, and oriental races assume that those are valid biological categories and that their measurement instruments are valid proxies for genetic differences. Too many experiments in evolutionary psychology assume "human universals" can be determined by studying undergraduate psychology students or industrialized populations and that social structures aren't self-maintaining in the absence of underlying genetics.

To extrapolate, pseudoscience is often a process of deciding that something needs to be explained without first checking to see whether an explanation already exists. All the rigorous design, careful statistical analysis, and flawless logic in the world can't help you produce good results if your premises are faulty. Biochemists can do all the meticulous work they want on how a particular type of bacteria present in a field breaks down pig manure and liberates nitrogen, but if the field under study only ever sees cow manure, the results are going to be meaningless. At that point, it becomes pseudoscience just as much as if the work itself were shoddy.

Philosophy is different than science, of course. That doesn't mean, though, that pseudophilosophy isn't just as important a concept to understand as pseudoscience is. And as with pseudoscience, the problems of pseudophilosophy don't only happen when someone screws up the process by, say, falling prey to a fallacy. They can just as easily happen in the process of formulating questions.

There may be no stupid questions (except for the one you ask again because you didn't listen to the answer last time), but there are bad questions. "Why is a hummingbird?" is a bad question. It isn't a bad subject, but the question, as posed, won't get you the answers you want except by chance.

"What do hummingbirds all have in common?" "How are hummingbirds different from other birds?" "Why do we call them hummingbirds?" "What is the evolutionary history of hummingbirds?" "Where do hummingbirds live?" "Why do hummingbirds capture our imagination?" "What would happen if hummingbirds disappeared?" "What about my backyard is attracting hummingbirds?" "Why does that piece of expressionist art suggest a hummingbird when it's not remotely realistic?" All those and plenty more are questions that produce answers that increase our knowledge, about us, about our world, and about hummingbirds.

They also reflect our knowledge of the world. "Why is a hummingbird?" is a question that might have been seriously asked at one time. The answer would have been (in the form of a poem or essay) that the rapidly beating wings of a hummingbird demonstrate some lesson about work and life or that the creature is simply too beautiful to not exist. Answers then assumed that "why" was a question of existence or nonexistence.

As our knowledge of evolution and ecology has broadened, "why" has given way to questions of this organism or feature instead of that, this location or function instead of another. As our understanding of perception and cognition has developed, "why" has become a question of identification and classification.

The "why" that is a question of existence is met with "Why not?" Creatures exist in numbers and with a degree of diversity that we cannot count. We can only estimate. That one more exists is not a matter of surprise requiring explanation, although its individual characteristics might be. We question why one would ask the question.

The same goes for religious philosophy. We are being told we should respect the serious work done by philosophers on these fundamental questions. Instead, we look at what we know of the world around us and ask why anyone is asking. Can the questions that made sense when religious philosophy mediated between competing ideas still produce any answers with meaning today, when religious philosophy is being used to defend its own existence in a world that continually reveals its secrets to us?

Michael Ruse thinks we must grapple today with "Does a creator god exist?" because someone else once did. Instead, we look at our universe and ask what "creation" would even mean in this context. When we understand that we don't know whether our universe has always existed, whether time is a meaningful concept outside the bounds of our universe, whether our universe is the only one, it is perfectly valid to look askance at those who assume creation in order to ask about gods. When we know from our scientific pursuits that humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize, it is important to demonstrate not just that the question can be asked, but that it can lead to a meaningful answer.

The same goes for the "special place of humans" and "eternal salvation." The idea that human exceptionalism is any more valid than hummingbird exceptionalism cannot be taken for granted. Claims to the contrary require privileging one's own frame of reference over all others. Until those who apply vast amounts of logic to the "problem" can make a convincing case that their question is more important than the question of the "special place of bacteria," they haven't demonstrated that their work is worth my respect. Neither has anyone who mistakes unsupported dualism for a philosophical question in desperate need of an answer.

Until these questions are phrased in ways that reflect what science has taught us about the world, all the philosophical work done on them may be perfectly logical and rigorous, but it still hasn't established that it isn't pseudophilosophy, grand edifices built atop faulty questions. Until it has, it hasn't demonstrated that it's worthy of our time, our attention, and our respect.

There is nothing remotely ignorant or anti-intellectual about the demand that we be shown that questions formed in more ignorant times remain meaningful given our increasing knowledge of the world. There is nothing at all unserious about our requests for evidence that these questions are demanding answers. And equating those demands to anti-intellectualism, lack of curiosity, and tempter tantrums...well, let's just say it doesn't display any will to engage with current atheist intellectual traditions.

May 07, 2011

Saturday Storytime: The Things

You probably know Peter Watts, through his run in with U.S. Customs and Immigration, if nothing else. You probably know this story, through the movie starring Kurt Russell. You probably don't know Peter Watts' version of this story. An excerpt:

I am being Blair. I escape out the back as the world comes in through the front.

I am being Copper. I am rising from the dead.

I am being Childs. I am guarding the main entrance.

The names don't matter. They are placeholders, nothing more; all biomass is interchangeable. What matters is that these are all that is left of me. The world has burned everything else.

I see myself through the window, loping through the storm, wearing Blair. MacReady has told me to burn Blair if he comes back alone, but MacReady still thinks I am one of him. I am not: I am being Blair, and I am at the door. I am being Childs, and I let myself in. I take brief communion, tendrils writhing forth from my faces, intertwining: I am BlairChilds, exchanging news of the world.

The world has found me out. It has discovered my burrow beneath the tool shed, the half-finished lifeboat cannibalized from the viscera of dead helicopters. The world is busy destroying my means of escape. Then it will come back for me.

There is only one option left. I disintegrate. Being Blair, I go to share the plan with Copper and to feed on the rotting biomass once called Clarke; so many changes in so short a time have dangerously depleted my reserves. Being Childs, I have already consumed what was left of Fuchs and am replenished for the next phase. I sling the flamethrower onto my back and head outside, into the long Antarctic night.

I will go into the storm, and never come back.

Keep reading.

May 05, 2011

Anatomy of a Rape Debacle: Failure from Start to Finish

By now, you've probably heard this story:

A teenage girl who was dropped from her high school's cheerleading squad after refusing to chant the name of a basketball player who had sexually assaulted her must pay compensation of $45,000 (£27,300) after losing a legal challenge against the decision.

The United States Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a review of the case brought by the woman, who is known only as HS. Lower courts had ruled that she was speaking for the school, rather than for herself, when serving on a cheerleading squad – meaning that she had no right to stay silent when coaches told her to applaud.

That the victim should have to pay the school's legal costs because she sued for the right to be an active participant in her school and protect herself at the same time is the kind of thing that leaves a person wondering how matters got so incredibly fucked up. It takes a lot of failures to get this far. Here is a (probably incomplete) list.

Failure of Humanity
First, of course, we have the rape itself.

The cheerleader and three football players were at a party at the home on Pinewood early Saturday, according to an arrest warrant affidavit filed by the Silsbee Police Department.

The girl told police that three males forced her into a room, held her down and sexually assaulted her, the affidavit states.

I won't be explaining why this is a failure. If you need it explained, go away.

Failure of Justice
This case was heard by a grand jury three times. The first jury declined to prosecute citing a lack of evidence. That lack of evidence, by the way, included a rape kit and witnesses.

When others at the party tried to open the door, two of the males fled through a window of the one-story house, the affidavit states. The third boy remained behind.

One of the boys who fled left behind a pair of shorts, the affidavit states.

One of the males later returned and made threats so he could retrieve his shorts, the affidavit states.

A second grand jury was convened after the prosecutor was accused of failing to prosecute zealously because he thought the outcome was predetermined. found sufficient evidence to indict after insisting upon hearing everything twice--with no changes to the available evidence. At that point, the victim had already had to testify three times.

The victim, unwilling to deal with more of the slow grind(er) of justice, supported a plea deal for the man she would later be asked to cheer. Instead of a charge that exposed him to the possibility of 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, he received two years probation, community service, a $2,500 fine, and an anger management class. (The anger management class is something else I won't explain, but only because I can't. Maybe there are no sex offender treatment programs in the area?) He also avoided having to register as a sex offender, so potential future victims won't see him coming.

Charges against the second adult indicted were dropped, possibly because the victim was unwilling to testify there as well. The prosecutor only said that "unless new evidence is found, the case, which has garnered national attention, is over." The status of charges against the juvenile accused rapist are unknown, although he's no longer a juvenile.

This is not particularly atypical, for those few rapes that are reported to the police.

Failure of Priorities
The town of Silsbee, TX is not particularly unusual in being "sports-obsessed." However, that doesn't make the school or the appeal court correct when one argues and the other accepts the idea that "This act constituted substantial interference with the work of the school because, as a cheerleader, HS was at the basketball game for the purpose of cheering, a position she undertook voluntarily." Sports may be organized around schools, but that does not make them the work of the school. In this day and age of restricted funding, that really, really ought to be self-apparent. Ditto for cheerleading, and doubly so for the sort of cheerleading that isn't a competitive sport itself.

Failure of Safety
This is technically a failure of priorities as well. Learning is supposed to be the first priority of schools, and in order for learning to occur, students need to be undistracted by concerns for their security. If there are not policies in place to deal with conflicts like these, in which an aggressor wants to take part in activities in such a way as to be a threat to the recovery of the victim, there need to be. Those policies also need to go out of their way to accommodate the victim, not the aggressor. That goes for bullying, and it certainly goes for rape, even if the charges are bargained down.

Do I hear someone saying that sports aren't learning? Well, for one thing, that's not what the school and the appeals court argued. For another, that places the imperative to safety even higher. During academic activities, the need to keep the victim safe has to be somewhat balanced by the educational needs of the aggressor. In extracurricular activities, those educational needs are lessened, or perhaps don't even exist. Then the school becomes primarily responsible for the safety of those in its care.

Even if the only charge the rapist had ever faced was the misdemeanor assault he pled to, even if the accusations were still in court, he, not she, should have borne the brunt of any conflict between their activities. But that wasn't the only charge. Silsbee is a small town, and everyone in town knew about the rape. School officials certainly knew. So did every other cheerleader and all the athletes.

That means that when the superintendent placed her rapist's desire to play sports over the victim's need to establish some control over the situation, he didn't just make the victim less safe. He made all those cheerleaders less safe. Cheerleaders are already subject to high levels of sexual harassment. The superintendent reinforced the importance of school tribalism, sports, and athletes--all of them--over the safety of the school's cheerleaders. He told the cheerleaders, the athletes, and everyone else watching that rah-rahing for the school was so important it was worth siding with a rapist over his victim.

Failure of Counsel
The suit against the school district was filed on First Amendment grounds. Although that wasn't frivolous, since the ability to shun a rapist is a compelling claim, the suit should have been brought on Title IX grounds instead. Yes, Title IX. Former prosecutor Wendy Murphy explains:

Title IX requires schools to take “prompt and effective” steps to redress sexual harassment, sexual assault and any other form of sex discrimination. It also forbids schools from exacerbating a situation by creating or allowing a hostile environment to develop on campus in the aftermath of a reported sexual assault.

...the ruling would have gone the other way if the case had been filed under Title IX. That the victim’s parents did not sue under Title IX is unfortunate but not surprising given how little has been done to educate anyone about the connection between Title IX and sexual assault.

This story has sparked loads of commentary, but so far I have yet to see a single mention of Title IX even though the law has been around since 1972.

Title IX expressly forbids sex discrimination, which includes sexual harassment, the most severe expression of which is sexual assault. Yet 9 out of 10 people asked say they believe Title IX only requires equality in athletics, as in making sure girls can try out for boys’ teams.

Other federal laws that cover discrimination against other “types” of students haven’t morphed and narrowed like this into sports-equity rules.

Schools aptly emphasize that laws forbidding racial or religious discrimination are primarily aimed at preventing targeted violence and harassment–not equal distribution of soccer balls. Presumably this is because being free from violence is far more important than scoring baskets if the goal is to achieve an equal educational opportunity.

That's right. Our federal laws require that our schools provide women and girls that safe, equal space that this young woman was denied, but almost no one knows it. I suggest you read all of Ms. Murphy's article (bonus clueless Larry Summers story).

Failure All Around
So that is how a a teenaged victim of a gang-rape ends up owing legal costs to the school district that failed her so badly. It takes an awful lot of people to screw things up on this scale. It takes rapists, a tepid prosecution, an indecisive grand jury, misplaced school pride, an insufficient attention to the duty of protecting a district's students, and a lack of knowledge of the rights female students are already supposed to be guaranteed.

In fact, as far as I can tell, the only people who did anything right in this situation are the victim and their parents. Remarkably, they also seem to be the only people who have lost by this. Lovely.

May 03, 2011

It's Okay to Not Like Things

Via Arvind, posted for my friend Michael. He knows why.

May 02, 2011

Big News Is Too Big

The first time I stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon, my response was, "Yep. That's big." Then I promptly slipped on some ice and wrenched my knee. I spent the rest of that brief visit sitting down, slowly doling out peanuts to the ravens. I remember the ravens in a fair amount of detail and have been fascinated with corvidae ever since. The Grand Canyon is still just big.

It isn't just an animal versus rock thing, either. The Little Colorado River flows through a vertical chasm nearby that gripped me as well. I was impressed by how deep and straight the water has cut through the rock and the narrowness of the channel. It was small, by comparison, but the details captured my imagination.

The Grand Canyon, on the other hand, is simply immense in a way that dwarfs its details. Maybe if I'd had more time and mobility, I could have gotten to know a small piece of it. Maybe then the pressure to have an opinion about the place--and that pressure does exist--could be met with more than a shrug. For now, it simply remains big.

On the morning September 11, 2001, the news changed between the time I got out of the car at work and the time I got to my desk. I listened to the radio long enough to understand that, once again, this was something that was simply big. I could, perhaps, if I listened longer, focus on one small aspect of the whole until it made sense, but the whole was always going to be too large. The details were never going add up to something I would truly understand.

There was a conference room with cable news reception. I didn't go in. The pictures weren't going to help, and watching the anchors and guests try to make sense of something that big was only going to make me hate their superficiality.

People drifted out of the room all morning. I don't know whether they gave up on making it all make sense, or whether they each found their own little details from which to mine meaning. At lunchtime, there were two people left, two I respected for their thoughtfulness. I gently chased them out of there with the suggestion that that much immersion might not be good for them. I suspect they were still trying to find the piece that would make it all make sense.

We haven't found it yet, nearly ten years later. Those of us who lived through it almost certainly never will. Historians who look back from a distance probably won't either. Like us, they'll focus on one detail or another, just as we've done with all of these events that are just too big.

In the meantime, however, we have a new event to deal with. In itself, it isn't very large. A dying man is dead, at the hand of one of the nations he harmed. His influence will not have died with him. But he, himself, is dead, and his death is part of an event that is simply too big for us to handle.

There is, once again, immense pressure to decide how we feel about bin Laden's death, despite the overwhelming size of the events he set in motion. How we react, each of us, will depend on the details we took away with us in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. It was a crime, a tragedy, a political lever, a moment of deep political insecurity, a blow to our national pride, and much more. Our personal reactions now are informed by at least one of those, but I doubt that any of us can be informed by all of them at once.

As it was on September 11, it is time to give ourselves and each other a little break. We're all behaving appropriately to our understanding of that immense event and those that followed. We're all behaving inappropriately to someone else's.

We can't ever understand the whole of what has happened to us, but maybe, just for a day or two, we can understand that much and let each other be with our personal, emotional, insufficient reactions. Even those of us who have nothing more intelligent to say than, "This is big."

May 01, 2011

Punching "New Atheists"

Last week, David Roberts wrote on Grist about why he had avoided commenting on the climate change report from Matt Nisbet. Those who have followed the accommodationism arguments will recognize that name. I think they'll also recognize the social manipulation Roberts sees in this report and others like it.

Predictably, the attacks aimed at green groups drew outrage from their targets. Just as predictably, the outrage was used as evidence that S&N are brave truth-tellers, renegades, the "bad boys of environmentalism." I don't know if S&N planned it that way, but the strategy turned out to be pure media gold.

If S&N had come forward with nothing but a positive agenda for the future of clean energy, they likely would have been politely ignored by the mainstream media just like dozens of earnest green agenda-bearers before them. (Grist's bookshelves sag under their weight.) But S&N capitalized on an insight that had been ignored by their forebears: nothing, but nothing, draws media interest like liberals bashing liberals. They enjoy conservatives punching hippies. They dig centrists punching hippies. But they looove ex-hippies punching hippies. A pair of greenies bravely exposing the corruption and dumbassery of all the other greenies? Crack rock.

It's important to note that it's not just Beltway reporters who love this stuff, though they love it the mostest. Ever since the perceived successes of Bill Clinton's triangulation and the ascendency of the New Dems, the road to acceptance on the left has been paved with hippie punching. To be legit, one must signal to one's peers that one is not like those liberals, the old-fashioned, soft-headed, bleeding-hearted, slogan-shouting kind. One is a Pragmatist, not a Partisan, a traveler on the Third Way, not on the old, boring Left Way, a hard-headed, practical sort, not some kind of dippy dreamer.

Similarly, there is nothing like a brawl among secularists to get people to sit up and pay attention. Sounds good, right? All press is good press and all that? Well, that depends on your goals.

The difficult thing is, they all face the same perverse incentive structure. The wonky stuff -- and BTI cranks out some genuinely good wonkery -- doesn't get clicks. What gets attention (and thus keeps the appearance of influence alive) are the attacks on hippies doing it wrong. These incentives have led the Breakthrough crowd to meditate endlessly on the failings and failures of others pursuing similar goals by different means. In S&N's increasingly baroque telling, the green groups and their partisan blogger defenders are omni-incompetent: spending money wrong, pursuing the wrong policies, dealing with the wrong people, framing wrong, arguing wrong, responding to their critics wrong, and almost single-handedly insuring that there is no progress on climate change.

Similarly, "New Atheists" have been tarred as omni-vituperative: they don't merely disagree with people in strong terms, they destroy them, leaving them weeping husks with shredded reputations. And they scare away all the religious folk who would otherwise jump up to work with secularists. Or maybe not.

The effect has not been the dawning of a new day of post-partisan support for clean energy. Turns out demonstrating one's moderate bona fides by punching hippies doesn't actually bring any conservatives over. They're as partisan about clean energy as they are about climate. Mostly, the result has been lots and lots of press attention on hippie errors, a subject upon which everyone with a keyboard is apparently an expert.

Exactly. I said it Thursday, but it bears repeating. "A gatekeeper's job is to keep people out, not to let them in." They don't want you on their side. They do, however, like the results of the squabbling.

The ineffable but unmistakable property of a Breakthrough-esque foray into politics is that it makes douchecanoes of everyone it touches, like some sort of inverse King Midas. Its authors, the journalists who cover it, its critics -- no one comes out looking good. I've paddled that douchecanoe myself, many times, and every time ended up feeling vaguely dirty. I can't put my finger on the precise mechanics, but I've learned to recognize it.

So I decided, with a few lapses here and there, to stop responding. Life is too short to spend around things that bring out your inner douchecanoe. I'd rather write about ideas I'm excited about. That's why I was going to let Nisbet's report slide on by.

Isn't it really about time all of us secularists did the same? Pay attention to what we want to pay attention to, pay attention to what we want others to pay attention to, and stop distracting them by punching each other, no matter how entertaining they find it. Expend our energy on them, not on each other.

We're at the bottom of the pile now. What have we got to lose?