Thursday, May 30, 2013

Go Anita Sarkeesian

Anita Sarkeesian is producing a series of videos called Tropes vs Women in Video games, and this is the latest video (also see part 1). Warning: lots of violence.

A bit about the history of the project:  Anita Sarkeesian proposed it on Kickstarter, and got a lot of backlash and harrassment for it.  In the counterbacklash, the project got way overfunded ($160,000 when she asked for $6000).  As a result, it has very nice production values.  I like it a lot.

But the video also felt discomforting in a way that's difficult to express.  I've only played a few of the specific games mentioned in the video, but every single trope felt familiar.  And while there was much horrifying graphic violence, it simultaneously felt completely ordinary.  And the fact that it felt ordinary was itself sickening.  And then to see the same story lines be repeated a hundred times made it worse.  In any particular game, violence seems justified through extraordinary circumstances, but when the same "extraordinary circumstances" appear in game after game, it becomes inexcusable.

Incidentally, on Sarkeesian's blog, I found this video series Extra Credits.  The creators view video games as a medium, just like TV, movies, or literature.  They have lots of ideas on the direction of the gaming industry.

These days I play more board games than video games.  Board gaming is also male-dominated (at least in the US), because when I was younger they were marketed almost exclusively to boys.  There also used to be a lot of war games that were basically terrible.  These days a lot of board games no longer center on war or violence, but the male majority persists.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Repulsion is not body shaming

This post was cross-posted on The Asexual Agenda.

[Content note: genitals, body shaming]

I'm going to say something that is perfectly obvious to nearly every person in the asexual community (and probably also to kinky people).  It is okay to be repulsed by genitals, bodily fluids, or by any particular sexual practice.  It is okay to make an effort to avoid situations where you have to watch or participate in such activities.  It is not okay to shame other people for participating in such things.  It is not okay to inform strangers that you find their PDA disgusting, or to make jokes about how gross vaginas are, or anything like that.  That's clearly crossing some sort of line.

On Jezebel, there was a post about a guy who told his girlfriend that he found vaginas unattractive, and joked that hers was particularly repulsive.  Lindy West said the letter-writer should break up with her boyfriend "fucking yesterday".  Hard to argue with that.

However, it sort of seems like Lindy West thinks it's not just the body shaming which is a dealbreaker, but the repulsion itself.  It's hard to tell, because she never outright says it:
I don't care how much you think you like this dude, and I don't care how "nice" he is to you when he isn't telling you that your fundamental anatomy (your literal fundament) is so filthy and revolting that he needs to wear a hazmat suit just to coexist with you beneath the duvet. That's not something that a loved one thinks, let alone says to your face when you're at your most vulnerable.  Even if the "vaginas are icky" attitude can be explained away by weak "social conditioning" apologia, the acting out on it can't.
So anyone who tries to defend the personal experience of repulsion is just spouting "weak social conditioning apologia."

I appreciate that body shaming is a serious problem.  I appreciate that it's not just a few individuals, but a whole culture, that goes so far as to sell products to women to help their vaginas conform to ridiculous standards.  And I appreciate that this is a bigger problem than the problem I'm complaining about.  I don't want to derail, which is why I'm posting this minor complaint on a separate website, a week after the article appeared.

But seriously, this is a minor step every sex-positive activist should take towards asexual inclusion.  Just like how you shouldn't say, "Every person is a sexual being", you also shouldn't say that repulsion is always wrong.  Some fraction of asexuals experience repulsion to various degrees (and presumably, this variation exists among non-asexuals as well).  Most asexuals are not going to use their repulsion to shame other people, because it's blatantly obvious that this repulsion is thoroughly atypical.  It doesn't make much sense to shame other people when you know that it's really about you and not them.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Quick comment on Kaitlyn Hunt

In the news last week: 18-year old Kaitlyn Hunt, living in Florida, was in a relationship with a 14-year-old girl.  The relationship was consensual, but the parents of the 14-year-old disapproved, and charged Kaitlyn Hunt with "lewd and lascivious battery on a child 12 to 16" (basically statutory rape).  Kaitlyn Hunt falls under Florida's "Romeo-Juliet" laws because her victim was over 14, and Kaitlyn was less than 4 years older.  However, the Romeo-Juliet laws do not prevent her from getting two felonies, they only offer a path for her to get off of the sex offender registry.

The story of Kaitlyn Hunt has been national news, especially in LGB news outlets such as The Advocate.

Nonetheless, I don't really think of it as an LGB issue, but a criminal law issue.  If it is unjust for Kaitlyn Hunt to get two felonies, then it is also unjust for anyone else in the same situation.  The Romeo-Juliet law should be expanded to either reduce sentences or remove charges entirely.  (I also believe there should be no sex offender registry whatsoever, but I would not defend this in an argument.)

Because the laws are too strict, there are too many cases where people are technically breaking the law, but no one cares to enforce the law.  This gives the opportunity for prejudicial selective enforcement, which is what happened to Kaitlyn Hunt.  The parents of the 14-year-old allegedly blame her for making their daughter lesbian, and this motivated the charges.

Criminal law and justice issues disproportionately affect minorities because of selective enforcement.  The selective enforcement of laws against black people is so common that it hardly counts as news.  This is why anti-racist activists care a lot about criminal justice reform.  I'm less convinced that there is systematic selective enforcement of statutory rape laws against LGB people, but it's still good that it got the attention of LGBT activists.

(expanded from a post on Tumblr)

Friday, May 24, 2013

Gaydar as cold reading

A lot of people don't like the idea of a gaydar.  A gaydar is all about differentiating between gay/lesbian people from straight people (and you can forget about bi/pan/ace people) based on appearances.  This can be problematic.

For example, years ago there was a controversy in which the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (NAGAAA) refused to acknowledge the bisexual identities of some of their baseball players.  They interrogated five bisexuals to determine whether they were gay or straight, and in the end they determined that the two white men were gay, while the three men of color were determined to be straight.  (Read about this on page 12 of this report.)  This is obviously an inappropriate and racist way to use a gaydar.

However, I would suggest that there are some innocent uses of a gaydar.  For instance, if I think several people in a group are GLB, that makes me feel safer in that group, even if I may be wrong about some of the individuals.

Whether gaydars are used for good or for ill, it's a separate question whether a functional gaydar exists.  There are actually many studies showing that gaydars really do work.  Here's one.  Based on faces alone, and no other cues, people were 65% accurate in differentiating lesbian women from straight women, and 57% accurate in differentiating gay men from straight men.  Actually, those numbers are misleading*, and I feel it's better to look at the hit rate and false positive rate.

(Table 1.  The image was cropped and some information removed to better fit in my margins.  "Upright" means the faces were upright; the study also considered upside-down faces, but I removed that data from the table.)

In the experiment, there are roughly the same number of photos of gay/lesbian people and straight people.  In real life, maybe 3% of people are gay/lesbian.  With false positive rates of 22% or 30%, most "pings" on the gaydar will be false positives.**

And yet it seems like gaydars are more accurate than that.  Nobody ever says, "I have a really good gaydar.  My hit rate is 10% higher than my false positive rate!"  Why is it that the gaydar seems so much more accurate in real life than in the studies?

I propose (without any real evidence) that in real life, the gaydar mostly works by confirmation bias, and by reading social cues.  In other words, the gaydar is like cold reading.  Cold reading is the method used by psychics to make seemingly-accurate predictions about a person.  Cold reading also works by reading social cues and by confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is about remembering the hits and ignoring the misses.  Psychic readers tend to make lots of deniable predictions.  When they get it right, it's amazing.  When they get it wrong, they act like it wasn't really a concrete prediction after all.  Gaydar also appears to work the same.  We tend to remember the times our gaydar was accurate, and forget the times it was inaccurate.

Cold reading is also about reading social cues, such as the emotional reaction to the predictions.  The gaydar works similarly.  Because I'm familiar with gay culture, I can spot people who have been influenced by that culture.  However, I'm not as familiar with lesbian culture, so it's harder to apply to women.  And it doesn't work on closeted people, or on people of different cultures, or on straight people influenced by gay culture.  It's good to know the limitations of one's gaydar lest it be abused.

In the scientific studies, all social cues are removed, and confirmation bias is removed.  It's interesting that there still exists a "gaydar" under these conditions, but it seems to me that this isn't the gaydar that people talk about all the time.  In real life, people are just talking about cold reading.


*The "accuracy" percentages reported are actually a statistical parameter called A'.  Here is a paper that defines A'.  A' does not really match the intuitive definition of accuracy in my opinion.

**Presumably in real life people would adjust the sensitivity of their gaydar downwards in order to get a smaller false positive rate, and also a smaller hit rate.  Basically this means moving to a different point on the ROC curve.  Signal detection theory is complicated.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Draw Mohammad retrospective

Everybody Draw Mohammad Day was a thing that occurred on May 20, 2010.  There's been some activity in subsequent years on May 20, but I'm not really sure how active it is anymore.  Personally I consider it a success if it's not so big a deal anymore when people draw Mohammad.

In the past I've said some things about Draw Mohammad Day that were not altogether coherent.  In any case, here is my retrospective opinion.

I support people who draw Mohammad.  I think Draw Mohammad Day is a good way to stand in solidarity with people who have been threatened with violence and death for drawing cartoons.  They can't give us all death threats!

It's also, frankly, silly that people get offended by depictions of Mohammad.  As I understand it, the original point of the prohibition is to prevent people from idolizing depictions of Mohammad rather than God.  I don't think there is any danger of people idolizing the drawings from Draw Mohammad Day.  So this is a case of religion enshrining arbitrary rules while ignoring their original rationale.

However, I have reservations about the effectiveness of Draw Mohammad Day as a political tool.  If you wanted to explain to a child why free speech is important, Draw Mohammad Day isn't exactly the kind of example you'd come up with.

"Freedom of speech is important, because it allows us to draw Mohammad, the prophet of the Islamic religion, even if it offends some Muslims."
"Why should we be allowed to do that?"
"Lots of people draw Mohammad on Draw Mohammad Day.  They do it to support free speech!"
"I don't get it.  Freedom of speech is important because it allows us to draw Mohammad in order to support free speech?"

In other words, I worry that the value of Draw Mohammad Day is too self-referential.  Freedom of speech is important because it allows us to support free speech?

Anyway, here is my drawing of Mohammad.

For the record, I did not just draw this to support free speech.  I also drew it because I found it hilarious.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Some opinions on Truzzi

In a previous post, I documented the views of Marcello Truzzi, who resigned from the Center for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) in the 1970s.  In that post, I did not express a positive or negative opinion.  This is not because I believe that a blog post on the internet is an inappropriate place to express opinions.  Actually, I think it's important to interact with history by forming opinions on it.  I just figured the post was long enough and I can express my views separately here.

I have a rather negative view of Truzzi's views:
  • He took agnosticism to an unreasonable extreme.  He wouldn't even have tentatively conclude that Velikovsky's theories were wrong.  He felt anything less than agnosticism meant you held a burden of proof.  I think he didn't really internalize his own quote, "Extraordinary ideas require extraordinary proof", or he had a different understanding of it than I do.
  • He seemed to really dislike hypotheses that involve paranormal claimants cheating or doing bad statistical analysis.  I don't see why this should be singled out as a bad hypothesis, unless you're emotionally attached to the idea that everyone is essentially a good person.
  • He thought people were rational to consult alternative medicine when there were no orthodox solutions.  It's the Pascal's Wager of alternative medicine (and it fails just as badly).
  • He felt there was a conflict between CSICOP's role as advocate and role as judge.  I think the legal analogies aren't helping.  In my experience, researchers have all sorts of biases and favored conclusions, but this doesn't necessarily compromise their science.  You just need to use methods that filter out personal biases, and adversaries to spot errors.
  • As a matter of personal taste, Zetetic Scholar was just too serious and dry for me.  But then, I expose myself to the same complaint...
It also seems that Truzzi's criticism of skepticism was roughly opposite that of many critics today.  Today, critics would like to broaden the scope of skepticism more, while Truzzi wanted a narrower scope.
Do any of you, dear readers, have opinions on Marcello Truzzi or his ideas?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

An older controversy: Marcello Truzzi and pseudoskepticism

While the blogs are arguing over the boundaries of skepticism, I want to summarize what I've read about an older controversy: those surrounding Marcello Truzzi.  Marcello Truzzi is credited with the saying, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" (later paraphrased by Carl Sagan as "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence").  In 1976, Truzzi was one of the founding members of CSICOP, the first major skeptical organization in the English-speaking world.  However, Truzzi soon resigned from CSICOP, and became one of its biggest critics.

[Marcello Truzzi.  source]

What happened?  (The short version)

In 1976, Marcello Truzzi was the editor of CSICOP's periodical, which at the time was called The Zetetic (zetetic being a synonym for skeptic).  However, Marcello Truzzi wanted to include paranormal proponents in CSICOP and in the magazine.  The CSICOP board disagreed and gave him a vote of no confidence.  They found a new editor and renamed the magazine Skeptical Inquirer.  Marcello Truzzi went on to publish his own periodical called Zetetic Scholar in 1978.

Marcello Truzzi criticized many skeptics for already having a conclusion prior to investigation, and for claiming to be impartial judges when they were really advocates for one side.  He popularized "pseudoskepticism" as a term for what he criticized.

That's what you can find on Wikipedia.  However, I dug a little deeper, into the archives of Zetetic Scholar (which are publicly available) to explore Truzzi's views.

The purpose of Zetetic Scholar

[The cover of Zetetic Scholar No. 1]

In the first issue of Zetetic Scholar (henceforth ZS), Truzzi explains the purpose by way of legal analogy.  Paranormal proponents and CSICOP act as lawyers on opposing sides of the case.  ZS, on the other hand, is not a lawyer, but an amicus curiae, or "friend of the court".*  ZS is merely interested in bringing the full body of information to the jury--the readers.  As such, Truzzi refrains from expressing his own opinion on most of the matters at hand.

*I'm told that in the real court system, amicus curiae are far from impartial, so perhaps the analogy is not as good as Truzzi believed.

It's not really about "balance" in the sense of pretending that paranormal claims are on equal footing.  The first article in the first issue is all about Bayesian analysis, and it argues that it is rational to so strongly reject paranormal claims if you have low prior belief in them.  In subsequent issues, other writers respond and critique this article--and that's the kind of balance that ZS has.

Truzzi says that the subject matter of ZS is paranormal claims, which he distinguishes from supernatural claims (issue 10).  Supernatural claims are about miracles that defy the natural order, where paranormal claims simply say that our understanding of the natural order is missing something.  Truzzi also uses other criteria for what belongs in ZS.  He would not include flat-earth claims because there is no group advocating such a claim, only individuals.  He would not include Creationism, because Creationists are only interested in discrediting evolution, and have no constructive alternative theory (issue 8).  He would not include the kind of stuff in the newspapers, because it would be overkill (issue 5).

The content and flavor of Zetetic Scholar

[A typical illustration, from Zetetic Scholar No. 2.  The creature is not related to any article.]

So what sort of stuff made it into ZS?  There are articles about UFOs, correlations between celestial bodies and human behavior, Velikovsky's theory* that Mars and Venus had catastrophic close-encounters with Earth, talking dogs, remote viewing, the sasquatch, and so on.  There are articles with meta topics, like the concept of pathological science, surveys of belief, and epistemology.

*Originally, Truzzi had Martin Gardner, one of the CSICOP founders, as a consulting editor, but Gardner apparently resigned when he found that Truzzi would be giving space to Velikovsky's theories.

The majority of the space is taken up by "dialogues".  They start with a "stimulus" essay, and then Truzzi solicits responses from lots of different people.  They go back and forth for hundreds of pages across multiple issues.  One can be forgiven for thinking this quite dry, but perhaps the driest parts are the bibliographies.  There are lots and lots of bibliographies, especially in the early issues.

Every issue, there is an editorial, which gives us a very brief glimpse into Truzzi's mind.  He mostly talks about the proper way to argue paranormal claims.  In issue 5, he expresses reservations about the words "crank", "pseudoscience", and "pathological science", because they may be used to prejudge.  In issue 6, he says true zeteticism is about suspending judgement while doing further inquiry.  In issue 8, he says it might be rational to try dowsing or alternative medicine when you are desperate and there is no orthodox alternative.

The other motif in the editorials are exhortations to get more subscribers.  ZS had fewer than 500 subscribers, which is what it would take to break even.  By all accounts, ZS is a labor of love. But over time, ZS goes on a less frequent and more irregular schedule.  In the last few issues, Truzzi apologizes for being late, and promises the next issue will be on time.  The last issue is in 1987, and the second-to-last is in 1983.

The Mars Effect

[Affectionate satire seen in Zetetic Scholar, No. 11.  Truzzi, in a bishop's clothing, says "The position of our church remains open and seeks to be fair-minded towards all parties in the Mars Effect controversy.  We only demand that the sinners REPENT!"  A sign says "First Church of Zeteticism Bishop M. Truzzi".]

In 1980-1982, CSICOP was embroiled in a drama surrounding its investigation of the Mars Effect.  The Mars Effect is an alleged correlation between people who become successful athletes, and the position of Mars in the sky when they were born.  CSICOP sponsored a study to confirm or disconfirm the Mars Effect, and published its negative results.  But one of the people studying it, Dennis Rawlins, resigned and accused CSICOP of using bad statistical analysis to hide positive results.  In response, CSICOP attacked Rawlins' character and motivations, which caused further controversy.

Because of Truzzi's connection to CSICOP, Truzzi felt the need to express his opinions on the matter, whereas usually he would refrain from expressing his opinions in ZS.  On the substance of the Mars Effect, he just says that critics have not yet disproven the correlation.

Truzzi has much stronger criticisms of the way CSICOP handled the claim (Issue 9).  He criticizes CSICOP's political, rather than scientific, response to Rawlins' accusations.  He talks about the tension between CSICOP's supposed role as an ultimate judge of paranormal claims, and its role as an advocate protecting the public from the dark forces of "irrationality" and "pseudoscience".  Truzzi thinks it's important that someone fulfill the role of advocate, but doesn't like that CSICOP also pretends to be a paragon of paranormal investigation.

Nonetheless, Truzzi does not wish to discredit CSICOP, only to reform it.  While Dennis Rawlins resigned and publicly criticized CSICOP, Truzzi took the path of resigning and starting his own magazine as a constructive alternative.


In the final issue of ZS, four years after the previous issue, Marcello seems to have stronger opinions (or perhaps he's just expressing them more freely).

First he criticizes Project Alpha, wherein James Randi hired magicians to infiltrate and fool parapsychology researchers.  He doesn't think it stands up to serious scientific scrutiny, and laments that skeptics are holding a magician (James Randi) up as their knight.  He disagrees with the quote by H.L. Mencken, "One horse laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms."

Second, he publishes an editorial, "On Pseudoskepticism".   He criticizes people (without pointing any fingers) for holding a negative position on paranormal claims, rather than an agnostic position.  If such a person claims to be a skeptic, then they are a pseudoskeptic.  Only by taking the agnostic position can someone avoid the burden of proof.  He also criticizes people for jumping to the conclusion that if paranormal claimants have the opportunity to cheat, then they must have cheated.

I do not know if anyone responded to this editorial, since no more issues were published.  I believe Truzzi still continued work on his Center for Scientific Anomalies Research (which was founded by him in 1981) for some years afterwards, but activity declined.  Truzzi died much later in 2003.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Yes I'm one of those atheists

This is part of my "Fantastic Primer" series, which incorporates a few fictional elements.  Please read the introductory post, which explains the premise.

Why I'm not so worried

In the previous post of this series, I explained why I had really low expectations of how my atheist readers would react to asexuality.  In contrast, I think my asexual readers will hardly be bothered by my atheism.  Why?  Because of this:

The data is from this survey, although some of it may not be in the public report.  I did not choose how to aggregate the groups; I would have split spiritual and non-religious groups.  Non-religious non-spiritual people make up 19%.

I don't know why there are so many atheists, agnostics, and non-religious people.  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the community is centered online, or that its members are relatively young.  Or perhaps it's in who decides to stick around the asexual community.  Or it could be that religious asexuals are less likely to search for ways to understand themselves outside of abstinence and celibacy.  An indulgent explanation is that identifying as asexual requires some introspection, and that introspective people are more likely to leave religion.

In any case, any asexual who interacts with the asexual community probably interacts with a lot of atheists, agnostics, and non-religious people.  It's hard to see it as a big deal when you do it all the time.

On the other hand, even non-religious people, even self-identified atheists, sometimes have prejudices about those atheists.  You know the ones.  The "new atheists", "fundamentalist atheists", "militant atheists", or what-have-you.  They not only disbelieve religions, they actively oppose religions and faith.  They're angry, they're jerks, they're dogmatic, they only ever respond to fundamentalist religions, they're mocking, etc. etc.  Yeah, those.  I'm one of those, minus the stereotypes.  For want of a better term, let's call us "movement atheists."  (This is just my term, not an established label.)

And that's why, even though I'm not worried, I think there is still some utility in explaining where I'm coming from.

No I'm not here to deconvert you

Lots of people have told me stories about that one atheist they knew in high school, who was a jerk about it.  They tried to argue everyone around them out of religion, sometimes pushing people to tears.  I'm not sure what to make of these anecdotes.  I guess they were just assholes?  I don't really have enough information to say?  I've heard a smaller number of similar anecdotes about asexuals who were really pushy.  What do you make of those?

I think it will become immediately obvious that I am not very pushy.  Persuading people out of religion is by all accounts very difficult, and could only possibly be accomplished over a period of decades.  I don't see the point of working at it with every word I write.  When I do try to persuade people, I only do it a little at a time, by writing things on the internet that people are free to ignore.  In this series here, I'm not trying to persuade people out of religion at all.

Most stereotypes of movement atheists directly contradict my experience.  I don't think religion is the root of all evil.  I recognize that lots of religious people are in opposition to religious fundamentalism.  I don't even think all religion is bad.*  I'm not that angry or passionate.  Basically I just think that: a) Religious beliefs are wrong, b) these beliefs frequently cause harm, and c) this is a problem that personally interests me.  I don't have to believe that religion is the biggest issue in the world to advocate atheism, just like I don't need to believe that asexuals have it the worst in order to advocate asexual visibility.

*I withhold judgement on religions I'm unfamiliar with, though I think supernatural beliefs are all wrong.  This is not a consensus in movement atheism, it's just my own position.

I think an apt comparison is to politics.  It's more than a comparison really--it is politics.  Atheism vs religion is really a parallel universe of politics.  When my friends talk about politics, they talk about the latest scandal or crisis, and various stupid things that politicians have done.  Many of my queer friends talk about the parallel universe of queer politics, which is mostly about problematic things said by various people.  As for movement atheists, they talk about stupid things that religious leaders and politicians say.

With that in mind, my view of atheists is similar to how a democrat might view other democrats.  I can admit that atheists on average have some excesses.  I don't always like what organizations or leaders say.  As for pushy atheists, they're not much different from pushy liberals.  Arguments can become unproductive, but there's nothing wrong with arguing in principle.  Compare it to religious evangelism if you like, but I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with religious people advancing their own beliefs, except that those beliefs happen to be incorrect.

How I fell into movement atheism

Of course, that's just my attitude, and here I must add standard disclaimers about how I can't really represent a whole group.  In fact, I should really explain my particular background.

I grew up Catholic, in California.  My family was not particularly religiously observant.  I attended church weekly when I was young, but at some point I stopped because I found it excruciatingly boring.*  My father married into Catholicism and did not attend church.  My parents didn't care to instill ideas of heaven and hell, and had a rather secular morality.  I went to public school, except for my high school which was a Jesuit school.**

*Catholic services are reputed to be especially boring, but I didn't know that at the time.  All I knew was that the Church was too echoey, and I didn't understand a thing said.
**Jesuits are a relatively liberal and intellectual organization within Catholicism.  They run good schools.

During my last years of high school I was very interested in skepticism.  I liked Michael Shermer's Skeptic column in Scientific American.  My favorite column was one about bottled water (which was becoming fashionable at the time), and how it was no better than tap water.  I was interested in critical thinking and effective methods for aligning beliefs with reality.  I applied this thinking to religion too, though somehow I knew that I wasn't "supposed" to do this.  I discretely read a deist's personal webpage, and I compared his arguments to those in the apologetics classes I was taking at the time.  After I graduated, I decided to identify as an atheist and not Catholic.

And for some reason, I waited a year to come out.  I basically didn't have a good reason to wait.  My mother was upset at first, but otherwise my parents accepted it just fine.  Much later, when I identified as asexual, I didn't hesitate to come out immediately.

I started reading blogs when I was in college.  At first I only read the Bad Astronomy Blog, which grew out of a website that debunked moon hoax conspiracy theories.  From there I started reading other skeptical blogs and atheist blogs (which are two different things, to be explained later), and then I started a blog myself.

Later, when I came out, I decided to try the skeptical student group on campus.  They were a really eccentric bunch, but I liked them.  I guess I'm a joiner!  (This is probably also why I stick around asexual communities.)  I served as president of the skeptical group for a year.  I wasn't a very good leader, in my honest opinion.  In my new university as a grad student, I participate in the atheist student group, but I stay away from leadership roles.

To sum up some key details, I grew up very liberal and nominal Catholic.  I didn't leave the Church out of anger or distaste, or in reaction to conservative elements.  I left it because I disagreed with high-minded philosophical arguments.  I often think I am too dispassionate about Catholicism's harmful attitudes about queerness, abortion, birth control, and so forth, just because they weren't relevant to my own experience.  I'm thankful that movement atheists are a diverse bunch, with some more passionate than others.

I'm not much of an activist, because all I really do is discuss things.  In particular, I stick to atheist blogs and atheist student groups. Perhaps I could be called a dillettante, but this is not much different from people who comment on various political news stories without being political activists.

Next time, I will talk about the various goals of movement atheism.

A realistic way to categorize atheists (in which I define the "movement atheist" distinction)
Why atheists focus on certain religions

The Fantastic Primer series:
1. Introduction
2. Why I don't trust you
3. Yes, I'm one of those atheists
4. A skeptically-oriented Asexuality 101 
5. Atheism as minority, atheism as political cause 
6. Atheism and asexuality: a historical comparison  
7. Why atheism and asexuality taste great together 

Another way of viewing the skepticism/atheism dispute

Recently, PZ Myers declared he was "officially divorced" from the skeptic movement.  He's reacting to attempts by skeptical leaders to set stricter boundaries on the scope of skepticism (for example, see Daniel Loxton or Jamy Ian Swiss).  PZ has a tendency to amplify drama, but I think there is some real underlying disagreement between many people who identify most closely with the atheist movement, and people who identify most closely with the skeptical movement.

The classic way to view the dispute is that there is a philosophical disagreement.  Skeptics believe that they should only tackle claims that can be tested by empirical evidence.  Atheists are unsatisfied with this because any claim can be made "untestable".  Personally, I view this philosophical question as a red herring, because I just see them as complementary rhetorical strategies.  Here I propose an alternative view of what the dispute is really about.  I developed these ideas while commenting on Skepticblog, and while reading about the history of skepticism.

The popularization of skepticism

The subtext of the dispute is the popular expansion of skepticism in the last decade.  As Daniel Loxton documented, skepticism of the paranormal has existed for millenia, at least.  But in the English-speaking world, the big shift of the 20th century was the founding of CSICOP in 1976.  But though CSICOP was an important organization, the founders did not expect what happened in the 21st century (or maybe the 1990s?).  Skepticism became popular, and developed a large grassroots component.

The upshot is that now there is a popular skeptical movement.  People identify as skeptics.  There's the popular periodical, Skeptic.  There are many skeptical podcasts, blogs, and conferences.  There are local groups like Skeptics in the Pub and university student groups (like the one I used to be involved in).

But skeptics who investigate claims or write for skeptical periodicals have a very different perspective from people who are just enthusiastic about skepticism, or who use it as a social outlet.  If you write for a skeptical periodical, you have to stick to what you can demonstrate rigorously.  If you're a skeptical leader, you have to separate your personal views from your views as a skeptical activist.

But I'm just a lay skeptic.  I don't have any views as a skeptical activist, because I'm not an activist.  I just have views and interests.  Some of them are skeptical, some are not.  I don't really need to make a distinction like the leaders do.  And while I recognize the important difference between testable and untestable claims, I'm not literally going out and testing claims most of the time.  A lot of time, I'm more interested in the psychology and philosophy of critical thinking, where the testable/untestable distinction isn't so relevant.  The psychology of testable and untestable beliefs is about the same.

So there's some potential for friction between skeptical leaders and lay skeptics.

The popularization of atheism

At the same time popular skepticism is emerging, so is the popular atheist movement.  Some say that "new atheism", as it's sometimes called, began with 9/11.  9/11 drove home the serious harm that religion could cause.  But I'd say it really became popular around 2004 or so, when atheist books were hitting the bestsellers list.  I would also identify the growth of the internet as a major cause, just as the internet was a cause of the popularization of skepticism.

Nowadays, new atheism is big.  Really big.  At times it seems like atheists have taken over major parts of the internet (eg Reddit?).  Furthermore, they have very significant overlap with skepticism.  Most skeptics are atheists, and most atheist activists uphold skeptical thinking as one of the highest virtues.  The atheist movement threatens to swallow the skeptical movement whole.

But most people who participate in the atheist movement are lay skeptics, like me.  (Most of them are also lay atheists, in the sense of not personally doing activist work.)  Thus, they don't really have much use for the boundaries set by skeptical leaders.  In fact, it seems to them that their interest in skepticism of testable claims blends smoothly into their skepticism of untestable religious beliefs.  Therefore, the friction between skeptical leaders and lay skeptics is applicable to skeptical leaders and new atheists.

So what would have been friction within a movement turns into a clash between two movements.  And now we have to deal with the fact that many skeptics, even if they're atheists, don't necessarily know what the atheist movement cares about, and vice versa.  Yikes!

The disastrous collision with atheist politics

The atheist movement is its own tempest of internal politics.  Several years ago, there was a perpetual dispute between "accomodationists" and "militants" (those are the pejorative terms that each side used for the other side).  Skeptical activists sure got caught up in that argument, but that wasn't so bad.

Right now there is a much more bitter dispute between feminist atheists and not-so-feminist atheists.  There have always been arguments over this issue, but it reached popular awareness with "elevatorgate".  Then everything went to hell.  Elevatorgate is really old news now, but the whole dispute has gone through many many iterations with no signs of dying.

Skeptical leaders have made some major missteps with regard to the atheist feminist wars.  There was the whole story about The Amazing! Meeting not having a very good anti-harassment policy.  DJ Grothe (president of JREF, which organizes TAM) blamed the low female attendance at TAM on the talk of harrassment problems at conferences.  Soon afterwards, Surly Amy (one of the Skepchicks) got harassed at TAM.  The rest is history.

This has left a lot of feminist atheists feeling like organized skepticism is on the wrong side of the dispute.  And skeptical leaders' attempts to define the boundaries of skepticism doesn't help.  Skeptical leaders do care about including women and people of color, but they also strongly feel that feminism and anti-racism are beyond the scope of the movement.  Feminist atheists, on the other hand, say that all they are asking for is for skepticism to tackle testable claims related to feminism, humanism, and anti-racism, while also implementing the appropriate measures to ensure equal access.

As for the not-so-feminist atheists, I worry that they'll take the queues from leadership and slowly dominate the skeptical movement.  That's a scenario where I would seriously just quit.  Right now, leaders are in the position where they don't want to take sides, but I think they need to take a stand to ensure equal access.

Anyway, that's why there's so much drama.

I suggest, as a solution, that skeptical leaders and activists become intimately familiar with internal atheist politics.  Call it atheist sensitivity training.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

On Jamy Swiss on skepticism

PZ Myers wrote a post in which he "officially divorces" himself from the skeptical movement (whereas before he was only "so over" the skeptical movement).  This interests me because I like the skeptical movement, I like PZ Myers, and I like internet drama (schadenfreude!).  This particular drama has also been the talk of the blogosphere (eg here, here).  PZ Myers was reacting to a talk by Jamy Ian Swiss, who is a skeptical leader and magician.  The talk is not online (ETA: it's here, but I haven't watched it yet), but by all accounts it's similar to this talk from 2012:

Of course, I had to watch the video to see what everyone's on about.  Upon watching it, I discovered I have Opinions about it, which I'm sure you're all fascinated to hear.  But seriously, let me know if you're interested in me expanding out any of these comments.

6:37 - Swiss immediately defends himself by saying he's an atheist.  I view this as a sort of "Some of my best friends are gay!" moment.  The atheist movement has never really been about siding with every atheist, just like feminist movements have never believed women are always right.

11:18 - Swiss starts telling a few anecdotes about meeting atheists who were anti-skeptical. While I'm sure the anecdotes are true stories, it comes off as a bit... stereotype-enforcing?  There's a basic misunderstanding of the atheist movement here.  Insofar as it can be said to have unified views, the atheist movement supports skepticism.  Seriously, there's some bitter dispute in the atheist movement about what goals the atheist movement should have, but both sides of that dispute agree on skepticism.  If there's an atheist who believes in The Secret, most atheist activists consider that deeply regrettable.  Although, we wouldn't necessarily force such a person out, in the same way that Swiss thinks it's okay if there are some skeptics who have their own pet kooky ideas.  (But I agree Bill Maher is terrible, and I think he should be shown the door.)

17:28 - Swiss suggests that skeptics have the broadest view of the atheism/humanism/skepticism magisteria.  This is kind of arrogant, especially given his earlier missteps in understanding the atheist movement.

17:51 - Swiss says that skeptical organizations are purely concerned about testable claims, as opposed to claims based on faith.  Of course, he explains, someone who believes in ghosts purely on faith doesn't get a free pass, and even people with religious beliefs are using evidence-based arguments (and thus fall within skepticism).  I consider this a concession on Swiss' part, but PZ appears to have misinterpreted it, leading to unnecessary disagreement.  In any case, I've expressed the opinion that this philosophical issue is a red herring.

19:30 - Swiss says that when people criticize skeptics of giving religion a free pass, they're setting up a strawman.  I don't agree at all.  Everyone knows that skeptics claim not to give religion any free pass, but some people think that they are in fact giving religion a free pass, based on their behavior.  For example, some consider it a double standard that Swiss won't accept an atheist who asks for his astrological sign, but will accept a skeptic who believes in the resurrection of Jesus.  I'm not sure that this is a good argument, but it's definitely not a strawman argument.

22:01 - Swiss refers to a panel on diversity in the skeptical movement and laments that the panel was rather non-diverse, being made entirely of atheists.  Here's another example of that double standard.  Would he say the same if they all disbelieved in ghosts?

22:13 - Swiss says that skepticism would only focus on gay rights when gay rights opponents make testable claims.  JREF, though it is run by two gay men, is a skeptical organization, not a gay rights organization.  I agree.  Further, I think this is all people are asking for when people say that skeptics should place some focus on women and people of color--they want skeptics to tackle testable claims, and for women and POC to be represented among leaders.  (See Greta)

25:01 - Swiss criticizes "Skepticism 2.0".  I had never heard the term before, so I looked it up.  It refers to the grassroots popularization of skepticism.  Skepticism 2.0 is associated with blogs, podcasts, and skeptics in the pub.   But Swiss very clearly supports grassroots skepticism, and seems to mean something entirely different by "skepticism 2.0".  Basically he's criticizing people who want to depart from the canonical topics of skepticism.  The language confusion is not auspicious.

26:31 - How can anyone claim that pseudoscience and the paranormal doesn't matter? Swiss rattles a list of especially harmful examples.  I totally agree.  I resent when people reduce skepticism to talking about bigfoot and UFOs.

27:53 - "You are still welcome in my skeptics tent, but the one thing that is neither fine nor good is to come into my skeptics tent and declaring that you are moving it." ... Your skeptics tent?  It sounds a lot like he's saying skeptical leaders such as himself have the sole power to dictate their focus.

30:50 - People are not fooled because they're stupid.  Mocking the people who are fooled is victim-blaming.  Hear hear.

39:50 - Swiss says that the primary purpose of grassroots skeptical organization is not to do activism, but to connect with like-minded individuals.  I'm glad he thinks so.  At times in the talk it seemed like he was complaining about grassroots skeptics contributing to mission drift, or otherwise crippling activists.

Next I plan to read Daniel Loxton's document on the history of skepticism.  So far seems fascinating.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Why I don't trust you

This is part of my "Fantastic Primer" series, which incorporates a few fictional elements.  Please read the introductory post, which explains the premise.

Playing the representative

Blogging fame is a mixed blessing.  When I first started my obscure little blog, I wanted to be well-read, to be like the skeptical and atheist bloggers I admired.  Then I realized how much work it would be--getting e-mails, moderating comments, making a special effort not to say something totally wrong.  But for all that, I'll accept my newfound fame.

Of course, I'm anxious.  And most of all, I'm anxious about how my asexual orientation will be received.

"Oh, no, that's not a problem at all!  Why would anyone have a problem with that?  It's just the same as any other orientation."

Yes, yes.  Thanks for your support.  To some extent, my anxiety is amplifying my pessimism, and I know that.  But even if my anxiety is irrational, it is still a real emotion.  Let me explain where it's coming from.

Like anyone else, I am a person with many attributes.  My most important identity is that I'm a physicist.  I also have a strong interest in recreational math.  I like to play board games and fold modular origami and play electric guitar.  I'm an ex-Catholic atheist.  I'm particularly fond of the skeptical aspects of atheism, just because I think it's intellectually interesting.  And I'm gray-A, meaning I'm partly asexual.

Well, I know which one of those traits will stick out to blog readers the most.  Yep, I'm the asexual atheist blogger.  And I'm going to be complicit in my own shoehorning.  Generally speaking, asexuality constitutes only a fraction of my blogging, but now I'm obliged to give it a much greater fraction, at least temporarily.  After all, I'm sure some of you don't even know what asexuality is (and others think they know, but don't).

Negative expectations

But hold on, I'm not getting to the explanations yet.  That will be in another post.  First I want to talk about various negative reactions I expect from the more ignorant and troll-ish among you.  This is a deliberate tactic to challenge my readers to not give me these responses.  Will you rise to the challenge?

-I expect people to ask me why I'm even blogging about this subject.  "So you don't like sex, why is that a big deal?"  "Asexuals don't really experience oppression, so what is there worth fighting for?"  "If you don't being shoehorned into the role of the asexual atheist blogger, why are you talking about it?"

-I expect people to ask me about my history.  "Could it be that it's some residual sexual shame from your Catholicism?  I'm just interested to know if there's any pattern of this among asexuals."

-I expect to have to deal with atheists who are tired of feminism.  "So what, atheists have to care about asexuality too?  I thought it was ridiculous when people said we had to fight ageism, but now this?!  Asexuals aren't even oppressed!  This is some PC bullshit."

-I expect people to lecture me on science.  "People can't be asexual.  Especially men.  Evolution programmed us to like sex. What you're describing sounds more like a disability."

-I expect people who obviously didn't read anything I wrote.  "Isn't a lack of libido a medical issue?"

-I expect people with hangups about basic linguistics.  "Just because you define asexual as a lack of sexual attraction doesn't make it the real definition."

-I expect people to tell me about some asexual they had met.  "I had a friend who thought he was asexual for a while.  Then he realized he only liked kinky sex."  "In high school I knew someone who was asexual, and she was always railing against porn and hookups."

-I expect people to make awkward jokes that I've totally never heard before.  "So, if you cut off your arm, will it grow into another person?"

-I expect people who will react positively at first, but who won't like some of the things I say afterwards.  Some people won't like gray-A or demisexual identities.  Some people won't like aversive asexuals.  Some people won't like asexuals who seek relationships with non-asexuals.  Some people won't like it when I defend non-asexuals who choose to be celibate.

I expect people to wonder where I get these crazy expectations.  Let me tell you.  I have Google alerts on the word "asexual".  I know what people say in forums, blogs, and the comments of news articles.  Some people have said these things to me.  But I'm challenging readers not to say it here.

Are atheists any better?

Surely, people who read atheist blogs are better than the commenters on random news articles.  In my experience, atheist groups, both online and offline, are the most pro-LGBT groups out there.  Unfortunately, pro-LGBT attitudes don't always carry over to asexuality.  Anti-asexual attitudes, while less virulent than homophobic attitudes, also tend to be more bipartisan.  Liberal people prove to have all sorts of sexual hangups that basically only become relevant when asexuals show up.

Atheists in particular have hangups relating to religious puritanism.  Atheists love to make fun of religious attitudes towards sex.  People who don't masturbate?  They're fooling themselves.  Sexless marriages?  Good thing they're not passing on their genes.  When prompted, they'll often say that they're just making fun of religious purity culture, and are totally respectful of asexuals who might engage in the same (lack of) behavior.  This is never very reassuring, especially since others respond by making fun of asexuality.

As for the times that atheists talk directly about asexuality, it's not good.  Some atheists get it, and some don't.  See my links at the bottom of this post for examples.

Some people will say, "Why should you expect any better from atheists?  Atheists are just as flawed and prejudiced as anyone else."  Clearly I don't expect better.  This entire post is about how low my expectations are.  But I want better.  And I know it's possible, considering the uniformity of pro-gay/lesbian attitudes among atheists.  At the very least, it should be possible among readers of my blog.

A more standard asexuality 101 to follow.

Examples of atheists and skeptics talking about asexuality on forums:
JREF forum
Thinking Atheist forum
Previous posts on the issue:
Atheists on asexuality
Making fun of sexualities: Godless edition

The Fantastic Primer series:
1. Introduction
2. Why I don't trust you
3. Yes, I'm one of those atheists
4. A skeptically-oriented Asexuality 101
5. Atheism as minority, atheism as political cause 
6. Atheism and asexuality: a historical comparison  
7. Why atheism and asexuality taste great together 

Friday, May 3, 2013

A fantastic primer on atheism and asexuality

I'm going to start a new blogging series, with a fantastic premise:

Suppose that I suddenly acquired a large number of asexual readers.  How would I explain my atheism to them?  Suppose that I suddenly acquired a large number of atheist readers.  How would I explain asexuality to them?

Of course, I mean "fantastic" in the sense of "fantasy".  And it's a rather self-indulgent fantasy, I'll be the first to say.  Furthermore, it seems unnecessary.  Writing a primer doesn't require a large readership by any means!  But in practice, I tend to write very differently depending on who I think my audience is.

The "fantastic" aspect also allows me to drift from the series' fictitious purpose.  I'm not really writing this to educate other people, so it's okay if I miss some details, or if I present a rather one-sided perspective.  It's okay if the series is considerably longer than any primer ought to be.  The real purpose is for my own enjoyment.  It offers opportunities for me to explore my interests: intersectionality, and comparisons between movements.  And if some people find it useful as a real primer too, that's fine by me.

Feel free to play along with the scenario by asking questions.  Perhaps I will pretend that dozens of people asked the same question you did.

This introduction is incomplete without pointing out that one of the fictional scenarios is less fantastic than the other.  While I am not a well-known atheist blogger, I am a relatively well-known asexual blogger.

Ref: Asexuality 101 (my real primer on asexuality)

The Fantastic Primer series:
1. Introduction
2. Why I don't trust you
3. Yes, I'm one of those atheists
4. A skeptically-oriented Asexuality 101 
5. Atheism as minority, atheism as political cause
6. Atheism and asexuality: a historical comparison 
7. Why atheism and asexuality taste great together

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

My homophobia diary

I occasionally encounter homophobic comments when me and my boyfriend are out in public.  If it happened all the time, I would find it very disturbing, but fortunately, we mostly hang out in San Francisco.  So it doesn't happen very often and I can laugh it off.

Since our relationship started two years ago, I've taken to keeping a little diary of these comments.  The last time I posted this diary was at the end of 2011.

But in 2012, something funny happened: there was only one entry, in January. The next time I encountered a homophobic comment was last week, April 2013.

The difference between 2012 and 2011 (1 time vs 5 times) is statistically significant.  What happened?

The optimistic possibility is that San Francisco reached a tipping point of some sort.  But maybe there's another explanation.  Perhaps our PDA is less obvious than it used to be, or we're not going out as often.  Or maybe I've become deaf to homophobia.  Or maybe the whole city's already seen us snogging, so no one is shocked anymore!

Here are the two new entries:
January 2012:
As we're walking to the train, we're talking about Tolkien, and to what extent he might have invented various fantasy archetypical races.  A high school kid asks us, "Hey, were you guys just holding hands?"  "Yes!" says my boyfriend, as we walk by.  "You're fucking faggots!" he yells at our backs repeatedly.
April 2013:
We're on the train, talking about strategies in Eminent Domain, a deck-building game.  A woman says in a low voice, right as she's stepping out of the car, "You're disgusting to look at."  My boyfriend didn't hear her and I had to tell him afterwards.
I like my new idea of noting our conversation topic in my diary.  There's a dissonance between what we were doing before, and the homophobia, and this dissonance is aesthetically pleasing to me.