Wednesday, January 30, 2013

My experience at Creating Change

This was cross-posted on The Asexual Agenda.

Creating Change is the big annual conference held by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.  Creating Change 2013 was held last weekend in Atlanta, Georgia.  I had the opportunity to attend and be on a panel called “Asexual Voices”.  The hosts of the panel were David Jay, founder of AVEN, and Sara Beth Brooks, founder of Asexual Awareness Week.  The panelists were Rin, Ivy, M., and me.

[Left to right: Hannah, Sara, M., David, me, Ivy, and Rin.  Hannah was also an important part of our contingent, though not on the panel.]

The panel was simple in structure: half an hour of introductions, and an hour of Q&A.  This was followed by a caucus, a place to discuss things like media representation and campus inclusivity, and a place to network and eat cake.

The panel was all the usual basics, but conveyed through a personal lens.  Here we had a wide range of experiences.  An aromantic, two panromantics, and a gay gray-A (me).  A man, a woman, and two agender people (each with their own individual expression).  One mono relationship, one poly schrodinger’s relationship.  We found asexuality through AVEN, Tumblr, and through our own invention.  And each our own person besides that.

The highlight of Creating Change, for me, was simply meeting these people.

The second highlight was watching David Jay and Sara Beth Brooks do their organizational magic.  While there were hundreds of workshops to go to, I discovered that all the big names in LGBT activism would not attend workshops.  Instead, they’d camp by the couches and have nonstop meetings with other leaders.  David Jay and Sara were among these people.  At the end of each day, they’d share their stack of business cards, and share a few of their stories.

Many orgs wanted to talk about making more ace-inclusive materials.  For example I met someone who wanted to get asexuality into the Unitarian Universalist Sex Ed curriculum, which is currently being redesigned.  There was also much talk about whether it would be beneficial to fight for an ace-inclusive ENDA.  This is a huge deal, which I will discuss more later.

But for the most part, I did not do sit in on these meetings, and did not do networking myself.  After all, I do not run an organization, I just run a blog, and one that I don’t intend to advertise to the wider LGBT community.  Instead, I attended a few workshops, and tried to catch up with sleep (I had the misfortune of having my flight cancelled and rescheduled to a red eye).

To be honest, I’m a bit of a pessimist and cynic when it comes to the usefulness of workshops.  I feel like everything is either too general or abstract to be applicable, or too specific to have relevance to me.  Or I’m too sleepy to tell what’s going on.  Therefore I may not be the best person to ask about them.  However I did very much enjoy  a workshop on creating community-based surveys, because I have done work in this area, and am likely to do more.  I found out about all the things we did wrong with the 2011 AAW community census, and how to do it better next time.

Al in all, it was a great experience.  Thanks to our sponsors for making it all possible!  A link roundup is coming soon [ie it will appear on The Asexual Agenda, not here].

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Infatuation with logic

I was amused when Jason Rosenhouse pointed out an essay by a creationist called "If You Understand Nothing Else About Evolution, Understand IFF."  IFF stands for "if and only if".
Evolution does not necessarily exclude Adam and Eve and the Fall, and evolution is not a scientific conclusion, obvious or otherwise. For Christians to reckon with evolution they must understand evolution. And to understand evolution, they must understand IFF. Understanding IFF does not force one’s position on evolution, but it does force one’s understanding of evolution…

And while this is a perfectly good use of IFF, IFF has no place in scientific hypotheses. A scientist would never say “if and only if my hypothesis is true, then we will observe a certain observation.”
"If and only if" (usually abbreviated "iff", but not in all caps) is an extremely elementary concept in logic.  But the creationist blogger, Hunter, is treating it as an advanced concept.  It's as if understanding "IFF" shows that he is intellectually superior to scientists.  Instead, it just shows that elementary logic is a novel concept to Hunter.

The irony is compounded by the fact that Hunter does not in fact seem to understand "if and only if" and its application.  It doesn't make any sense to say "IFF has no place in scientific hypotheses".  "If and only if" is a logical connective, just like "and" and "or".  Would it make sense to say, "AND has no place in scientific hypotheses"?

Basically, the whole discussion of "IFF" seems to be a way to dazzle the audience with logical knowledge, and mask the argument's central incoherence.

A fun comparison comes to mind: Objectivism.

Many people know Objectivism for its peculiar form of libertarianism, but it's a comprehensive philosophy which also covers epistemology and metaphysics.  Objectivism begins with three axioms: existence exists, conscious exists, and the axiom of identity ("A is A").

I find it strange that a philosophy would claim to be based on only a few axioms (and pick such terrible axioms too).  It's clearly trying to emulate the structure of mathematics.  But it's not really succeeding, because math doesn't really assume that its axioms are true, it just constructs useful or interesting axiomatic systems, and tries to find tautologies within those systems.  Furthermore, it's not clear that the axiomatic structure of mathematics appropriate here; certainly science doesn't use an axiomatic structure.

The most absurd axiom is "A is A".  It just doesn't belong.  Why take the axiom of identity, and not the axiom of symmetry ("if A is B, then B is A") or the axiom of transitivity ("If A is B and B is C, then A is C")?  I think it's just there to make it sound math-y, and therefore solidly correct.  I can't imagine a legitimate use the axiom of identity in any argument over Objectivism, unless the construction of natural numbers is one of their substantive issues.

Commenter Larry once explained this by saying Objectivism fetishizes deductive reasoning.  That sounds about right, but I'm uncomfortable with using "fetish" as a pejorative, so I found "infatuation" in the thesaurus.

Objectivism is infatuated with deductive logic, and wants to emulate math even when it is foolhardy and inappropriate.  The creationist Hunter is also infatuated with logic, and makes a big deal out of a logical connective at the expense of coherence.  There are some differences too.  For one thing, I believe most Objectivists, unlike Hunter, at least understand the deductive logic that they are infatuated with.

I'm not going to overextend my comparison, since I don't believe Objectivists and Creationists are particularly similar groups.  I was just wanted to talk about two examples.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Going to Creating Change

This was already announced, but tomorrow I am flying to Atlanta for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Creating Change conference. I am a panelist on "Asexual Voices".  It's meant to showcase the diversity of asexual experiences, and I provide some gray-A, gay, and male representation.

See page 90 of the conference program.

No comment for now, followups to come later.

I might as well still be at UCLA!

UC Berkeley's atheist/skeptic student group has renamed itself from SANE (Students Advocating a Nonreligious Ethos) to BASS (Berkeley Atheists and Skeptics Society).

This is hilarious for me, because back when I was an undergrad at UCLA, I was president of an atheist/skeptic student group called BASS (Bruin Alliance of Skeptics and Secularists).  No kidding.  I used to blog about it.

The best part is yet to come.  Here's a photo of BASS at UCLA.

And here's the logo being pitched for BASS at Berkeley.

Notice any similarities?  Yeah, they both have the ichthyostega facing to the right.  It makes sense because otherwise you'd have "ASS" on the fish's ass.

In all seriousness, I believe that BASS at Berkeley came up with the acronym and logo independently, and are not trying to cramp on the territory of BASS at UCLA.  Personally I do not feel slighted at all.  Rather, I am tickled and amused by the coincidence.  Also now I can use the same tag on my blog, haha.

Ref: BASS at Berkeley, BASS at UCLA

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"What people say"

Over a year ago, I commanded everyone: Cite your opponents!  This is a big meta-issue among bloggers who are social critics.

As a critical blogger, I'm used to reading comments that give me pause, and I think, "I could criticize that in a blog post!"  What many of us do then, is rant about "People who say X".  But privately we're just thinking of one person who said X.  Or two people.  Two is a crowd!

So I said we should buck that trend, and link the stuff that gets us started.  For several reasons:
  1. It keeps you honest.  It is harder to make something into a bigger deal than it is, when it becomes clear that you were referring to a single youtube commenter.  
  2. It keeps you honest.  It is harder to misrepresent what a person says when you link to exactly what they said.
  3. When someone is clearly keeping themselves honest, they are ultimately more convincing.
  4. It allows readers to actively participate in the criticism by digging up new problems with the original comment.
  5. It makes it clear exactly who and what you're criticizing.  For example, if you talk about aggressive atheists, I don't know if you're talking about a former roommate who wouldn't leave you alone, or if you're just prejudiced and see all vocal atheists as aggressive.
In the spirit of citing specific examples, I will cite an old Rationally Speaking post on the "mysogyny wars [in the atheist/skeptic community]".  Massimo takes an indeterminate middle ground stance, agreeing that we definitely need to acknowledge the misogyny in our community, but also decrying some of the arguments used on the feminist side.  For example: doesn’t follow, as it has been claimed in the heat of the misogyny wars, that anything a woman says in this department goes...
"As has been claimed" could mean one commenter on youtube, a misinterpretation, or exaggeration.  Or maybe someone notable really said it.  Who knows?  Some readers will get to thinking, maybe he thinks I've said that--he's strawmanning me and my entire faction!  This is how flame wars start.

I complained that the post desperately needed specific examples, as did the rest of the public discussion on feminism.  Massimo said that he had specific examples, but this one post was to make more general comments.  And I said fair enough!

Indeed, I think I should moderate my previous conclusions.  I think it is overreaching to say that it is always best to cite specific examples.  Perhaps I merely wish to assert the value of citing specific examples.

The most common counterargument I've heard is that when you cite a specific person, you're "attacking" that person.  If that person has site statistics, they'll see what you said and attack right back.  You've just turned it into another internet drama!  A lot of people don't have the emotional energy for that, and consciously avoid it.  Also, experience tells me that these fights aren't particularly productive.  They tend to focus a lot on interpreting vague comments.  Thus, if the goal of citing opponents is to have a more productive discussion, it frequently fails at that.

On the other hand, citing your opponents keeps you honest, and makes you more credible.  No extenuating circumstances can change that.  If you're unable to cite any instances of aggressive atheists because you're afraid that they'd refute you, then so much the worse for your attempted argument!

Above all, it's worth being conscious of the decision (when reading and writing) to cite specific examples or to speak in generalities.  Take it with a grain of salt whenever people talk about "what people say".

Friday, January 18, 2013

The news cycle

I don't pay that much attention to the news cycle because a lot of it seems to be about specific incidents which aren't really that important in the scheme of things. How does the number of deaths from the Newtown shootings (or similar shootings) compare to the number of deaths from car accidents or suicide? Not much I bet.

Mainly, it seems like these stories are just a cue for the public debate to turn to a particular subject. Like when Aaron Schartz died, that's our cue to talk about open access, because you know that's what everyone else is going to talk about. Which is fine, I guess.

It all seems kind of silly to me though. My boyfriend pointed out that the Newtown shooting was our cue to talk about gun control and mental health, while Aaron Schwartz' suicide was our cue to talk about about internet activism. But this is all backwards.

Mental health care is clearly an effective response to suicide, and probably not an effective response to shootings. In fact, by associating shootings with mental health, we stigmatize mental health problems and discourage people from seeking care when they need it.

Draining a tank solution

See the original puzzle

You could just open all the walls, leaving only 10/9 gallons in the corner tank.  However, it's more efficient to drain it in three stages.

There are many variations on this solution, but they all leave 1/3 of a gallon.

Once you've seen this solution, finding the best solution for 16 tanks or 25 tanks is quick work--unless there's a more complicated solution that I haven't found.

Monday, January 14, 2013

What fallacies are most common in real life?

When we talk about logical fallacies, there's a "canonical" set of fallacies we spend most of our time on.  But are these the same fallacies that occur most often in real life?  Are there any kinds of fallacies that you see in your day to day life that doesn't get talked about much?

I believe that by far the most common is the argument from vehement assertion.  Seriously, most people don't properly argue at all, they just state their opinions at each other.  Then they state them again more loudly.  Then they struggle to find another way to state their opinion so that other people can correctly understand it (because if they disagree, surely they've misunderstood).

Then there's the hasty generalization.

I also think the sunk-cost fallacy gets short shrift.  I believe in completely finishing the food I pay for, even if I don't want any more, but this is almost certainly irrational.

What do you think?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Noticing confusion

One of the critical thinking gems in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is the idea of noticing confusion.  It's based on an idea by Eliezer Yudkowski on Less Wrong:
Your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality.  If you are equally good at explaining any outcome, you have zero knowledge
In other words, if I give a phenomenon for you to explain, you should be better at explaining it when it is a real phenomenon, and more confused when it's something I just made up.  (See the Less Wrong post for an example.)

I might quibble a bit with Yudkowski, since I don't think it's a test of your strength as a rationalist exactly.  I think it's a test of how good you are at making predictions about reality.

If, for instance, you know something about the way eggs behave, and I told you that my carton of eggs had some liquid dripping out of it after bringing it home from the grocery store, you might explain it by saying one of the eggs broke.  If my story was a lie, but you weren't confused by it, that's okay.  That just means you're unable to predict whether a particular egg will break or not (though you are able to predict what happens when an egg breaks).  Similarly, any time you fail to be confused by fiction, that represents something you are unable to predict (or bad at predicting) about reality.

In Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, hyper-rational!Harry uses "noticing confusion" in a particular way.  When Harry Potter encounters a particular story that doesn't fit into his worldview, he says "I notice that I am confused."  This is open acknowledgement that he has either made a wrong prediction based on a flawed worldview, or the story is wrong.

This seems like a useful practice since cognitive biases tend to prevent us from recognizing any flaws in our own worldviews.  But we get confused a lot, so it's good to remind ourselves that this often means our worldviews need correction.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Sin/temptation morality

When you think of Christian morality, what do you think of?  I think of the way good behavior is enforced through disproportionate punishments and rewards conveniently hidden in the afterlife.  I think of divine forgiveness, which makes it so that religious faith trumps all behavior, good or bad.  I think of the way natural theology is used to argue against certain sex practices.  But most of all, I think of sin and temptation, because that's what I was taught when I was young.

In the sin/temptation model of morality, the choice is central.  We can choose to do good, or we can choose to do evil.  This seems like an obvious choice, but so often we get it wrong because we are tempted to choose evil.  All we have to do is resist temptation and not sin.

I don't know to what extent this is a serious Catholic doctrine, and to what extent it's just the basic morality they teach to the kids.  I do know that I'm not a fan.

Even as a kid I didn't like it.  If it was just about resisting temptation, that was too easy!  As I saw it, the real moral issue was that you didn't know which was the good choice.  If you were tempted to do something, that really just meant you believed there was a possibility that it was the right thing to do.  Resisting temptation just seemed like a way to ignore moral doubts by immediately declaring one choice to be the right one.

Looking back with a more analytical mindset, I think there are three main points in the sin/temptation model.
  1. Morality is connected to the supernatural.  We were taught that temptation comes from original sin.  Temptation is also practically reified into a supernatural entity.
  2. Morality is about self-control and strength of will.  There's right and there's wrong, and all you have to do is pick the right one.
  3. What is moral and what we want are two different things.  We do evil when we prioritize what we want over what is moral.
I'm not going to say that this kind of moral education is all bad.  Obviously I think the supernatural aspect is all bad, but the other two main points have their advantages.

For instance, I think self-control is a good value.  When I was a kid I thought self-control was easy, because I happen to have a lot of self-control.  But I no longer think it is easy in all circumstances, or that everyone has it easy.  Of course, this raises the question of whether encouraging self-control leads to greater self-control, or if the trait is mostly hard-coded into people.  A question for child psychologists.

It is also true that what we want and what is moral are two different things.  Sometimes we have two conflicting preferences, one of which is "baser" than the other.  For example, a kid might want candy because it's sweet, but also want to stay healthy by not eating too much.  And sometimes we're in a Prisoner's Dilemma situation where cooperating is the right way to negotiate our different preferences, but is the wrong way to fulfill our personal preferences.

My problem isn't so much with these values, but with the underemphasis of other important values.  I think a lot of practical everyday morality simply has to do with being aware of other people's preferences, and how you are affecting them.  It's also about making sure to gather knowledge to make the right choices later on, but also not spending too much time gathering knowledge since gathering knowledge has its own cost.  (For instance, my mother takes a long time to pick things to order at restaurants even though it is unreasonable to believe that this significantly improves her decision.)

In short, there are some positive aspects of sin/temptation morality, but I'm not a fan because of the supernatural aspect, and because it pretends that recognizing which choices are the right ones is the easy step.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The feminist stamp of approval

I find it silly how responses to feminist critics just repeat the same patterns over and over again.  I feel that there is practically a stereotype of a defensive sexist.  I don't assume the stereotype accurately describes anyone, but somehow people step into that stereotype again and again, like they aren't even aware of it.  This opens them up to all sorts of stock criticism, and they don't even know.

I feel bad for people because they probably just don't read any internet feminism and don't know any better.  I don't like that feminism is a minefield for people who aren't familiar with the language and tropes.  Sometimes I wish I could bridge the clear communication gap.  Alas!  I am but one person, and anyway I'm too partisan to be a credible mediator.


As just one example, I want to mention a few more things in the column by Shermer that I discussed the other day.  To be clear, I am not saying that Shermer is an especially bad or notable case (I hope to show more and better examples in the future), it's just the example I have on hand.

Shermer's primary problem is that he tries to build his credibility by citing woman who agree with him, or give him the feminist stamp of approval.  His interviewee, Cara, says "[Shermer] is, in my estimation, as pro-woman and pro-atheism as they come."  He quotes Harriet Hall who says, among other things, "I have always been a feminist but I have my own style of feminism."  He refers to co-founder of the Skeptic Society Pat Linse:
Pat Linse, was involved in the first wave feminism [I'm sure he meant second wave] of the 1960s, and she recalls the lamentable in-group bickering about who were the “true feminists,” and how this led to witch hunts and purges that splintered the movement and made it a less effective political force.
Finding women who approve of you is a thoroughly standard and unimpressive response.  Finding feminists who agree with you shows ignorance of the sheer divisions in feminism.

I suppose this is an instance where outsiders perceive a group to be monolithic (or they perceive any divisions to be a novelty), whereas to insiders, all the divides are obvious and old news.  As I understand contemporary feminism, one of the major things they seek to correct are the shortcomings of second wave feminism.  Thus, explicitly, one of their major opponents are second wave feminists.  From the description of Pat Linse, it sure sounds like she was a second wave feminist who didn't see any shortcomings.  Instead, it sounds like she blamed people who pointed out the shortcomings of second wave feminism for petty bickering.

Harriet Hall may also be unaware that saying you're your "own style of feminist" has very negative associations.  There's a history of people who oppose feminism, yet describe themselves as their own kind of feminist (eg).

But I don't know anything about Pat Linse or Harriet Hall, so I don't know if they're really like that or if they just unknowingly gave negative descriptions.  The point isn't that this necessarily reflects negatively on Shermer, Pat Linse, or Harriet Hall, but that it completely failed as a rhetorical tactic to build credibility.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Shermer on women in atheism

Michael Shermer, head of the Skeptic Society apparently said the following in an interview:
Viewer: Why isn’t the gender split [among atheist speakers] closer to 50/50 as it should be?

Michael Shermer: I think it probably really is 50/50.  [...] It’s who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, go to conferences and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it; you know, it’s more of a guy thing.
This comment set off another bloggy drama, with Ophelia Benson criticizing this comment (link unavailable), and Shermer responding. I'm already several weeks late to this drama, so instead I will make more general comments about how people were talking past each other.

My first thought is that if there are in fact fewer atheist speakers, calling atheist speakers "more of a guy thing" is strictly speaking, correct.  Then the real question is why is it a "guy thing"?  Is it because women in those positions are less popular?  Or they get harassed more?  Is it because most women are socialized not to pursue such speaking positions?  Is it because some major religions especially discourage women from disidentifying with religions?  Or maybe it's self-perpetuating--there have been fewer women attending atheist conferences in the past, and conference-goers might be more likely to become speakers.  I am agnostic about the precise mixture of causes, and so is Michael Shermer.

Ophelia Benson does not agree with this defense, because "it treats the current situation as something that just happened, randomly, somehow, probably because guys do guy things and women do women things."  In other words, saying "it's a guy thing" treats the issue as opaque to all explanation, and devalues any speculation.  Harassment of women in atheist groups happens a lot, and that's certainly one place to start speculation.  (Additionally, harassment is intrinsically bad, and is worth reducing even if it is not a cause of fewer women in atheism.)

Skipping ahead, Shermer says:
I do not believe that the fact that the secular community does not contain the precise percentage of blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans as in the general population, means that all of us in the secular community are racists, explicitly or implicitly.
As I recall, implicit association tests show that the majority of people are implicitly racist (70% of white Americans).  But I'll interpret Shermer charitably, and assume that he means that disproportionate ethnic participation does not necessarily imply that people are implicitly or explicitly racist.  This is true.  For instance, some of it could be due to the fact that black and Latino people are on average poorer, and because conferences cost a lot of money.  Or perhaps a lot of active atheism is spread through word of mouth, mostly to people of similar ethnicity.  There's also a lot of regional variation in ethnicity demographics.

That said, implicit racism is certainly worth considering as part of the cause, especially since we have independent evidence of its existence.  Shermer mentions implicit association tests, and says:
[Implicit Association Tests are] a fascinating and revealing line of inquiry, but what concerns me is how this research can become the perfect tool of the inquisitor, a chapter in a secular Malleus Maleficarum: Witches (alleged bigots, racists, and misogynists today) don’t even know that they’re witches (bigots, racists, misogynists) because it is subconscious. You may deny you’re a witch (bigot, racist, misogynist) because you don’t even know you are one.
I think- I think this completely fails to rebut the substantive point about implicit sexism or racism.  Also, if it's a problem with 70% of white Americans, "hunting" specific individuals is clearly the wrong way to go.  (Or perhaps this is the very point Shermer wishes to make?  It's unclear.)

In summary, Shermer says technically correct things, but only with the "technically" qualifier.  There's lots of other stuff in there, but for another time.