Monday, July 29, 2013

Questioning atheist org priorities

Lots of queer people, especially the younger generation, criticize the overemphasis on marriage equality in national queer activism.  There are far more important issues like employee discrimination, suicide, and homelessness.  Legalizing same-sex marriage, on the other hand, most benefits wealthy and privileged queers.*  In particular, people love to hate the HRC, the national activist org which seems to symbolize the establishment in queer activism.

*One observes that same-sex marriage also least benefits the younger generation.

I basically agree that same-sex marriage is overemphasized.  And more broadly, I think it's healthy that queer activism has lots of internal criticism over priorities.

Sometimes, I see what national atheist orgs are doing, and I wish atheist activists would be more like queer activists.  Why isn't there more criticism of the priorities of national atheist orgs?

This is inspired by FFRF's recent objection to a proposed Holocaust memorial in Ohio which would be on public land, and prominently features the Star of David.  In the link you can see Dave Silverman defending FFRF's move on Fox News.  Note that Dave Silverman is not the head of FFRF, but the head of American Atheists, meaning that there are two orgs supporting this action.

This isn't just a questionable use of resources and political capital.  Even if the cost was zero, it still doesn't seem right.  Having a Star of David on a Holocaust memorial is appropriate, and is clearly not a government establishment of Judaism.  At most you can argue that it is tacky to sideline the non-Jewish victims of the holocaust, but tackiness is not a church/state-separation issue.  Dave Silverman said that the memorial would look like a temple or synagogue to people driving by; I'm placing an image of the memorial next to a synagogue to highlight the absurdity of this claim.

This is not the first time atheist orgs have done this.  A few years ago, American Atheists filed a lawsuit over the inclusion of the so-called World Trade Center Cross (a cross formed by steel beams among the rubble after 9/11) in the 9/11 memorial.  The local student group discussed this one time, and some guy from American Atheists came to defend the lawsuit.  His main motivation was that they were just so offended by this monument to superstition, when 9/11 itself was caused by superstition.  He also said that they pursued this lawsuit because they were sure that this was the one lawsuit they were most likely to win.  So they need better legal advice too.

And then there are things like lawsuits against "In God we Trust" on our money.  Actually it would be great to get that motto removed, and I would wholeheartedly support it if it cost nothing.  But lawsuits are not free, so it's a question of priorities.  Surely there are non-symbolic issues that are more important to fight?  Non-symbolic issues are not only more worthwhile, but also draw more public support.

Other atheist issues can be found on SCA's key issues page.  Here are just a few:
  • Public Funding of Religious Schools
  • Schools Discriminate Against Nontheistic Students
  • Tax Exemptions for Religious Organizations
  • Religiously Motivated Employment Discrimination
  • Housing Discrimination by Religious Landlords
  • Military Discrimination Against Nontheists 
  • Federal Aid to Countries That Limit Religious Freedom
  • Religious Employers Denying Healthcare Coverage Based on Personal Beliefs
  • Religiously Based Child Abuse and Neglect
Why is atheist activism so different from queer activism?  Where's the popular criticism of atheist org priorities?  Sure, there's criticism, but not on the same scales.  I do not know the reason, but I offer a couple ideas.  First, I believe atheist orgs are working on much smaller budgets than national queer orgs, so the stakes aren't as high.  Second, there's a bit of a taboo against criticizing the tactics of fellow atheists, because everyone seems to have different ideas of how angry or gentle to be.  You are welcome to advance your own explanations.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Reactions to FtBConscience

Last weekend, I attended FtBConscience, a free online conference put on by Freethought Blogs. Here, "attended" means I watched several talks and panels live, lurked in the chat, and watched more videos in the following days. I wouldn't normally watch a bunch of hour-long videos, because the format really doesn't work for me, but the conference felt like more than the sum of its parts. There's something magical about designating it as a conference. I think it's knowing that a lot of other people in the movement who are watching the same videos and discussing them.

I don't know if it's really true that the atheist movement today is divided by Deep Rifts over feminism and social justice, or if this is a narrative exaggerated by reading too many atheist blogs. Whatever the case, the segment of the atheist movement surrounding FtB is partly formed by this narrative, with many people explicitly advocating a more social-justice-conscious movement. FtBCon made me feel pretty good about the resultant community.

In FtBCon, women were more than just a presence, and more than just a significant minority, they were everywhere. There were lots of people of color, and of many colors. There were queers of all sorts, of course there would be. There were trans people who weren't even on the trans panel, talking about completely different things. There were people with mental illnesses, and people with disabilities. A few years ago, atheists could only have dreamed about this degree of diversity.

This kind of diversity doesn't just affect who is in attendance, it positively impacts the topics as well. In particular, I very much enjoyed the panel on religion, pseudoscience, and mental illness, and the panel on the lack of Asian faces.

For those who didn't know, I'm half White, half Chinese, though my mother grew up in the Philippines, not China (thus the Catholicism). I don't think I'm very culturally Chinese or Philippino, based on how little I relate to the associated experiences. But it's pretty hard to miss the lack of Asian people in the skeptical and atheist movements. I don't really have any idea why that is, but the panel was able to provide some insights based on what they knew of several Asian cultures. Also, Yau-Man Chan is awesome.

I don't have any personal experiences with mental illness, but I was still struck by the panel on mental illnesses. Here were people who have been pressured to use alternative medicine, to "think positive", and to consult priests. Because of their personal experiences, they could speak with particular expertise, and also particular compassion, about many skeptical issues. It made me feel like the skeptical movement has been missing these voices all along, and never realized it!

You can still watch FtBCon talks on the website or on YouTube.  The next conference is already being scheduled for January 31 to February 2.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Attend FtBCon

I will try to attend FtBCon this weekend, which is a free online conference with a great set of speakers.  I haven't really attended any atheist or skeptical conferences since TAM in 2010, because it costs a lot of money and commitment.  But this is great.  More online conferences, please.  You should attend as well.

Although, I will miss the Friday sessions because... board games.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A hundred Zimmermans

I'm not the most compassionate person, and the death of Trayvon Martin hasn't had the emotional impact on me as it has had on others.  However, I am much more disturbed by the possibility that it represents a larger trend, and that the well-publicized acquittal of shooter George Zimmerman may exacerbate the trend.

It's much easier to know something is deeply wrong with the case than to pinpoint exactly where it went wrong.  I've heard some people argue that the jury was biased.  Other people have argued that it was not an error in the verdict, but a fucked up system within which it was the correct verdict.

Initially I thought that there might be two unrelated injustices.  One injustice to kill Martin, and another injustice to acquit Zimmerman.  On the one hand, you have people who immediately suspect any black kid in their neighborhood, and feel it's appropriate to stalk them with a gun.  On the other hand, you have a court system which seems to give too much of an advantage to self-defense claims.  Isn't that just like life, to have such a high density of injustices that they're practically bumping into each other?

However, the evidence simply does not bear out my idea of two unrelated injustices.

See that?  That's a hundred Zimmermans right there.  Homicides where a white person shoots a black victim are much more likely to be ruled as justified by self-defense.  The ratio is even greater in states with SYG ("Stand Your Ground") laws.  The number of white-on-black homicides ruled to be justified is 236 (using data from 2005 to 2010).  So when I say that's a hundred Zimmermans, it's no exaggeration, it's an understatement.

Just imagine these same prejudices and disparities flowing not just through homicide trials, but through every aspect of life. 

My understanding is that in states without SYG, people have a duty to retreat before resorting to self-defense.  In states with SYG, people may use self-defense in certain cases even if they have the opportunity to retreat.  In an earlier report of the study, it shows that the primary effect of SYG laws is to increase the homicide rate by 8% (but Wikipedia says there are a few disagreements on this figure).

A simple hypothesis is that jurors are biased towards white shooters of black victims, and that SYG laws insert a little more subjectivity into the the trial, giving jurors more opportunity to be affected by their biases.  I also thought that the data would be confounded by the fact that there is a preponderance of SYG states in the South; however, the study authors seem to have considered this already.

In the trial of Zimmerman, SYG wasn't used by the defense.  Evidence showed that Zimmerman pursued, so he wasn't covered under Florida's SYG.  Therefore, Zimmerman's acquittal doesn't necessarily reflect the injustice of SYG per se, but rather reflects the injustice that appears even in states without SYG.

The data, though preliminary, is sufficient to convince me.  Stand Your Ground increases violence AND it has disparate impact on black people.  However, repealing Stand Your Ground will still leave more than half of the problem, and may not even have changed the individual case of Martin and Zimmerman.  More is needed, but it's not clear what.  Maybe neighborhood watch volunteers shouldn't be allowed to carry guns?  Maybe we need to change the attitudes of the typical juror?

Monday, July 15, 2013

New topic: Modular origami

While I was writing about my motivations for blogging, I had a realization.  My modular origami hobby fits perfectly as a topic.  Blogging about modular origami will give me an excuse to learn more about it, and a reason to make cool models.  I already post photos on Facebook, so blogging about it makes sense.

Origami, of course, is the art of folding paper into pleasing shapes.  In modular origami, you fold paper into modules, and then fit many modules together to make a larger shape.  Typically the shapes are based on platonic solids.  Because the modules must stick together without tape or glue, and because the geometry needs to be just right, modular origami is a blend of art, functionality, and math.

Interestingly, like a science, modular origami actually advances and improves over time.

This is one of the things I've folded.  Already seen on my other blogs.

I used to do origami when I was a kid.  I folded tiny cranes from 1''x1'' paper.  I can't do that anymore.  But I got into modular origami a year ago after a well-chosen gift from my mother.  Now I have a shelf full of models.  Many of these, I find in the few books I have by Meenakshi Mukerji, Gurkewitz & Arnstein, and Tomoko Fuse.  I also occasionally look to the internet or try creating things on my own.

So here's what I'll do.  I'll post a photo of a model roughly once a month in the origami category.  Most of the time I will not include instructions, since I'm afraid of violating the copyrights of authors I respect.  I may discuss a few interesting things about the creation of the model, or I may go off about polyhedra.

Today's model is the "Flowered Sonobe" by Meenakshi Mukerji.  It's "flowered" because if I had made an octahedron or icosahedron instead of a cube, the vertices would have looked like flowers.  The cool thing about this model is the totally ace color scheme.  The modules are mainly made of black paper, but most origami paper is white on the back, so all I need to do is fold over the edges.  Then I insert purple paper into the black modules.  Colored inserts are a clever idea I had not thought of myself.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Why do I blog?

I'm going through one of those rare moments where I'm not an ever-flowing fountain of blog topics.  So let's go meta.  What's my motivation for blogging?  I've been around for over five years, maybe it's time I answered that question.

I first started reading blogs around 2006, when I started going to college.  At first I only read the Bad Astronomy blog.  Back then, the blog was hosted on the Bad Astronomy webpage, which I had serendipitously discovered through the Internet Anagram Server.  I remember discussions of astronomy, alternative medicine, pareidolia, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster (which was new at the time).  I remember periodically browsing the blogroll, which included Pharyngula, Skeptico, and Memoirs of a Skepchick (back then it was just Rebecca Watson).

At some point I discovered rss, and started reading lots of blogs regularly.  I tried most of the ScienceBlogs, the major atheist blogs, and skeptical blogs.  This set my expectations for what a blog should be like.  I read blogs written by ordinary people, as opposed to journalists.  But they were not about personal lives, they were about science, politics, religion, and opinions opinions opinions.  They were ordinary people who gained influence.

I was so much into blogs that of course I had to start my own.  It was a way for me to take a more participatory role.  I also harbored ambitions of being one of those ordinary people with influence.  But after a few years I decided being a powerful blogger wasn't for me.  Popular bloggers like PZ Myers and Hemant Mehta have to put a lot of work into it!  They probably get hundreds of e-mails, and post several things a day.  I'm also pretty sure I would not use my power very well.  Instead of doing things to help people I'd probably just talk about math and logical fallacies.  And then I'd upset my expert readers for saying stuff all wrong.

When I was more ambitious, I was very interested in increasing my hit rate.  But what killed it for me was when my hit rate became dominated by Google image searches for puppies and kittens.  This landed people on a page that really had nothing to do with puppies and kittens.  Man, page hits, what good do they do me?

Whether this is rational or not, the pendulum swings the other way, and now I just don't care if I have many readers.  Not that I'm trying to push you away, dear reader.  It's just... I realize I don't get very many comments these days, and that's just fine with me really.  I now see different advantages to blogging.

I know every blogger says this, and I say it too: I blog for me.

Blogging gives me a much more active and interesting intellectual life.  It gives me an excuse to read about random topics, and a reason to try to get it right.  It's a sort of precommitment strategy to think about stuff on a regular basis so I have blogging material.

If it weren't for blogs, when would I ever have stimulating discussion?  Most people seem to go to internet comments, or they go to Facebook.  But pretty much everyone agrees that Facebook discussions are not very deep.  Blogging allows for deeper discussion, even if it's one-sided.  Getting to choose the topics is also nice, especially since I like to talk about stuff that would bore most of my meatspace friends.

Generally speaking, offline discussions pale in comparison.  In the local secular group some people don't even know what Elevatorgate was.  In local ace meetups, sometimes there are people who don't know what gray-A is.  I've attended local gay groups that thought the concept of transgender was just so novel.  I think it's a general principle.  I had a friend who liked to argue with 9/11 truthers, and he told me that offline truthers would mess up arguments that all the online truthers would get right.  It's true of conspiracy theorists, it's true in general.

Another advantage of blogging is that I no longer feel the need to participate in unenjoyable arguments.  I have blogging, which is a much better outlet.  Local discussion groups are great, but I don't need them for the discussion.  As for Facebook arguments, they are not missed.

I'm so attached to blogging, that I've stuck with it for over five years.  If "inability to give up on a blog" is a skill, I have it.  When I launched The Asexual Agenda, the point was to put this skill to good use.  Most asexual blogs are too short-lived, so my talent for maintaining a blog for a very long time is useful.  If only atheist activism were as easy as this!

TL;DR I blog because it leads to a richer intellectual life for me.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Tevye as a parable

In my post about gay scouts, I wanted to make an analogy to Fiddler on the Roof, but it wasn't really a good idea because not many people would even understand the reference or agree with the interpretation.  So here I discuss it separately.  There are spoilers, but it's like revealing that Romeo and Juliet die in the end--it doesn't spoil the story that much to know the ending.

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye, who lives in a Jewish village in Tsarist Russia, has three daughters that he needs to marry off. The marriages don't satisfy him for various reasons, but he comes to accept them anyway.  Why?  It's what God wants.  This rationale is strained to breaking point when his final daughter marries into Christianity.  So he rejects his last daughter.  It's really sad.  But the music is great.

So there's a great story about why it is bad to do the right things for the wrong reasons.  Eventually you may come to a situation where the wrong reasons no longer lead to the right things, and lead to the wrong things.  At least, that's one way to view it.
The story also makes me think about the relation of intuitive morals and religious morals.  God isn't really telling Tevye what to do.  There's just something emotionally wrong about rejecting one's daughter, and it's easy to attribute this intuition to God.  There's also something emotionally wrong with rejecting a daughter who converts out of your religion, but it's harder to attribute this to God.

Anyway, Fiddler on the Roof is a must-see for secularists.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Asexual and scientific classifications of love

This post was cross-posted on The Asexual Agenda.  Because of the audience over there, I assume readers have knowledge of asexual models of attraction, but do not assume knowledge of Helen Fisher's model.

Asexual communities are renowned for building complicated models of love and attraction.  These models are formed through the decidedly non-scientific processes of listening to lots of anecdotes and mass speculation.  There are definitely some weaknesses to the process, but it's quite valuable for what it is.

Scientists have their own models of love and attraction, formed independently and through different methods.  The strengths of the scientific method and that used by asexual communities complement each other.  Wouldn't you like to compare the results?

Though there are likely many models created by scientists, I will stick to the model of love defined by Helen Fisher.*  She classifies three emotional systems used in mammalian mating and reproduction: lust, attraction, and attachment.  Not all mammals have all three emotional systems, but they exist in all human cultures studied.

Lust is also known as sex drive or libido, is the urge for sexual consummation.  Lust is associated with estrogens and androgens, and with activity in the amygdala and hypothalamus.

Attraction is an emotional system which causes an individual to prefer courtship with a specific other individual.  This saves on resources used for courting and provides a fitness benefit if the attraction is directed at mates who will produce more fit offspring.  In humans, it is also known as passionate love, romantic love, and obsessive love.  Attraction is associated with increased activity in dopamine and norepinephrine, and decreased activity in serotonin in various parts of the brain. There is a long list of symptoms associated with attraction:
  • The loved one takes on special meaning
  • An inability to love other individuals
  • Intrusive thinking about loved one
  • Crystallization, or tendency to focus only on the loved one's positive qualities
  • Quickly changing psychophysiological responses including euphoria, sleeplessness, shyness, flushing, butterflies in the stomach, dilated pupils, accelerated breathing, and anxiety.
  • profound empathy for loved one
  • sexual desire for the loved one
In humans, attachment is also called companionate love.  It's basically the emotion which keeps long-term partners together.  It's associated with feelings of calm, security, and emotional union with the partner.  Neurologically, it associated with oxytocin and vasopressin in certain parts of the brain.

This model can be compared to asexual models of attraction.  Asexuals have this concept of sexual attraction, which is distinguished from sex drive and also from other forms of attraction, most notably romantic attraction.  There's also the concept of romantic relationships vs platonic relationships, with some people desiring one, both, neither, or not fitting within the distinction.  And then there are crushes, which are a specific component of romantic attraction, and squishes, which are the platonic equivalent.  How's that for a quick summary?

It's interesting that both asexuals and Helen Fisher draw a distinction between attraction and sex drive.  Although in my view that distinction is not drawn on precisely the same lines.  I would say sexual attraction is those feelings which causes you to desire sex with people you see out and about, or perhaps only with particular individuals that seem attractive to you.  But that's really two definitions, the first one falling within Fisher's lust, and the second one being one of the symptoms of Fisher's attraction.**

Some of the other symptoms of Fisher's attraction, we might refer to crushing or squishing.   And of course, crushes and squishes are part of larger wholes, romantic attraction and platonic attraction respectively.  But asexuals don't seem to distinguish between companionate and passionate love.  I personally think they should, because my own experience is that passionate love very neatly describes that which I don't experience, more so than "sexual attraction".

For fun, I drew a visual summary of my comparison, though there are many ways to draw it differently.

[Transcript: In blue I show Fisher's model, which includes Lust, Attraction, and Attachment.  In red I overlay an asexual model, with Sex Drive being part of Lust, Sexual Attraction being part of Lust and of Attraction, and Platonic Attraction and Romantic Attraction each covering part of Attraction and Attachment.]

It's natural to ask why the models are different, and if the models are compatible with each other.  I believe there are lots of valid distinctions between the different components of love and attraction, and the different models simply highlight different sets of distinctions.  Note that each model also contains finer distinctions that I ignored for simplicity.

The distinctions drawn by Helen Fisher are between different emotional systems associated with different chemicals in different parts of the brain.  They're distinctions that become apparent in cross-species research.  The distinctions drawn by asexuals are mostly social distinctions.  If some particular component of attraction is noticeably missing in a set of people, and it's socially useful to talk about that component, then asexuals will put a name to it.

And of course the categories associated with different chemicals are not identical to the categories associated with sets of traits that are commonly missing.  After all, it's not the chemicals themselves which are commonly missing!  I don't know anything about neuroscience, but surely there are lots of other possibilities, like neuroreceptors in some part of the brain behaving differently, I don't know.  It's also likely that there are many different neurological differences that are socially useful to group together, thus why asexuals don't make use of every distinction found in neuroscience.

As I said, the scientific and asexual models complement each other.  I hope the comparison has expanded your conceptual world.


*If you're interested in reading into this, I first recommend Helen Fisher's TED talkThis post also uses lots of paraphrasing of the following references:

Fisher, H. Lust, attraction and attachment in mammalian reproduction. Human Nature 1998, vol. 9, No. 1, pp.23-52.
Fisher, H. The drive to love: The neural mechanism for mate selection. ed. by R.J. Stenberg and K. Weis. The New Psychology of Love, 2006.

These references were kindly suggested by Massimo Pigliucci and Ronnie de Sousa.

**The truth is that most asexual models involve multiple definitions and lots of fuzzy lines.  No doubt the same is true in scientific research, but of course it looks much more unified when I only consider the studies done by a single researcher, Helen Fisher.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Scouts, Mormons, and doing the right thing for the wrong reasons

I generally don't blog about news because I am just too slow to do it.  I will probably get to commenting on SCOTUS's recent prop 8 and DOMA decisions by 2014.  In the mean time, I still wanted to comment on the less recent news that the Boy Scouts of America decided to allow gay scouts under age of 18.

There are a lot of reasons to think the change is too little too late.  There is still a ban on openly gay scouting leaders, and on atheist and agnostic participation.  I'm not sure they will punish troops that discriminate, since they didn't enact a non-discrimination policy, they only ended an explicit discrimination policy.  And the BSA still gets financially supported by the government.  Nonetheless, I was happy with the change.  They can take it a step at a time, and surely they'll let gay scout leaders quite soon.

My boyfriend was less happy with the change.  Disallowing openly gay leaders while allowing gay scouts only makes sense if you believe nonsense about gay men being sexual predators.  And I thought, it's good that we have different levels of approval.  In the hypothetical world where the BSA cares about what we think, my easily-won approval gives them incentive to step forward, and my boyfriend's hard-won approval gives incentive to step forward even more.  These dynamics play out on a larger scale, allowing cynics and optimists to work together for a better world.

But after some time, I became more cynical with the BSA's new decision.  I have a friend who is an eagle scout and LGBT activist, and I asked him what all the Mormon troops would do about it.  He explained, the LDS church (the church of Latter-day Saints, aka Mormons) is actually a major proponent of allowing gay scouts!  The opponents were mostly Southern Baptists and other religious groups.  But the LDS church, one of the biggest supporters of the BSA, apparently supports inclusion of gay youth in scouting, even as they oppose same-sex marriage.

It doesn't make a whole lot of sense in my opinion.  It's probably for whimsical religion reasons.  You can see this in the church's press release:
The current BSA proposal constructively addresses a number of important issues that have been part of the on-going dialogue including consistent standards for all BSA partners, recognition that Scouting exists to serve and benefit youth rather than Scout leaders, a single standard of moral purity for youth in the program, and a renewed emphasis for Scouts to honor their duty to God.
Rather than having standards based on the inherent inclinations of scouting youth, the LDS church instead wishes to emphasize "a single standard of moral purity" and scouts' duty to God.  Presumably the reason openly gay leaders are disallowed is because most openly gay adults are having sex outside of marriage (which could only be between a man and woman), which goes against the Mormon standard of moral purity.  And "atheist scout", I suppose, is an oxymoron to them.

This is a case where religious people are doing right things for the wrong (religious) reasons, and it matters.  It matters because they're not going to be able to move forward any further with those wrong reasons.  Gay scout leaders won't happen.  Atheist scouts aren't even on the table.  And that's why I'm now more cynical about the new BSA policy.