Sunday, March 30, 2014

Made in Criticalland

Massimo Pigliucci started a new blog Scientia Salon, which is already bearing fruits.  I enjoyed this essay by Alan Sokal (yes, that Sokal) about academic postmodernists and extreme social constructivists.  In the 80s and 90s there were many such academics claiming that science was entirely based on prejudices.  Interestingly, Sokal claims that they have now backed off from the most extreme views, particularly because they were upset at the way the Bush regime used postmodernism to justify its anti-science policies.

Sokal's primary citation for this is "Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern" by sociologist of science Bruno Latour in 2004.  I thought it was worth a read.

 Latour actually says a lot of great, quotable things about critical theory:
What has become of critique when my neighbor in the little Bourbonnais village where I live looks down on me as someone hopelessly naı̈ve because I believe that the United States had been attacked by terrorists? Remember the good old days when university professors could look down on unsophisticated folks because those hillbillies naı̈vely believed in church, motherhood, and apple pie? Things have changed a lot, at least in my village. I am now the one who naı̈vely believes in some facts because I am educated, while the other guys are too unsophisticated to be gullible: “Where have you been? Don’t you know that the Mossad and the CIA did it?” What has become of critique when someone as eminent as Stanley Fish, the “enemy of promises” as Lindsay Waters calls him, believes he defends science studies, my field, by comparing the laws of physics to the rules of baseball? What has become of critique when there is a whole industry denying that the Apollo program landed on the moon? What has become of critique when DARPA uses for its Total Information Awareness Project the Baconian slogan Scientia est potentia? Didn’t I read that somewhere in Michel Foucault? Has knowledge-slash-power been co-opted of late by the National Security Agency?
Of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but, like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless. In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognize, still burnt in the steel, our trademark: Made in Criticalland.
Latour uses an extended war analogy, although it's not clear who he thinks his enemy is.  It's something something capitalism something.  He talks about reassessing our tools of war as the times change, which seems to really mean changing his epistemology to better fit the conclusions that he had already decided on.  He only knew his epistemology (ie scientific facts are purely social constructs) was wrong when other people used the same epistemology to come to conclusions he didn't like.  But okay, his epistemology was terrible, so it's probably a good thing if he gets rid of it.

A third of a way through the paper, it takes a sudden turn towards the incomprehensible.  I found it so baffling, that my mind could only interpret it as a series of non sequitur jokes.  So I laughed.  I feel the same way I do about many an unwanted commenter on my blog.  "It's not that I disagree with you, it's that I literally don't understand what I would be agreeing or disagreeing with!"

It begins with Latour introducing his solution to critical theory's problem:
What I am going to argue is that the critical mind, if it is to renew itself and be relevant again, is to be found in the cultivation of a stubbornly realist attitude—to speak like William James—but a realism dealing with what I will call matters of concern, not matters of fact.
Curiously, "matters of concern" and "matters of fact" are crucial to Latour's thesis, but they are not immediately defined, nor ever defined.  I can only guess at the definition based on contextual clues scattered throughout the article.

This is immediately followed by a long discussion of Heidegger's distinction between objects and things.  (I can see why Heidegger is famous for being so opaque, even compared to other philosophers.)  A handmade jug is a thing (which is a celebrated category), while a can of Coke is merely an object.  On first glance it sounds like Heidegger is merely conveying his prejudices, his romanticization of handmade objects.  Latour appears to agree.

But rather than dismissing the distinction between objects and things, as I would, Latour argues that objects and things have been complicated in the modern era.  For instance, when the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia had their disasters, they transformed from objects into things.  I don't know what conclusion Latour draws from this, because I cannot make sense of how he describes his conclusion:
My point is thus very simple: things have become Things again, objects have reentered the arena, the Thing, in which they have to be gathered first in order to exist later as what stands apart.
 Latour goes on to describe the current state of critical theory:
We can summarize, I estimate, 90 percent of the contemporary critical scene by the following series of diagrams that fixate the object at only two positions, what I have called the fact position and the fairy position—fact and fairy are etymologically related but I won’t develop this point here. The fairy position is very well known and is used over and over again by many social scientists who associate criticism with antifetishism.
To Latour's credit, he at least immediately defines what the fairy position is, though I don't understand his definition.  I'm not sure why it is necessary to observe the etymological relation between fact and fairy--perhaps in Criticalland, unlike everywhere else, etymology is destiny?

 Figure 2: I think that the dark circles represent "facts" and the white circles are "fetishes".  I think the circles on the left might be the "fairy" position, and the ones on the right the "fact" position?  I'm honestly not sure.  This is the first in a series of diagrams, none of which have captions.  I'll spare you from the others.

Latour goes on and on about this.  But to be honest I couldn't read the whole thing, because at this point my palm was in the way.  I'm not saying that Latour's article is nonsense because it's incomprehensible--papers in my own field, condensed matter physics, are also notoriously impenetrable.  But I get the sense that the underlying things being described are rather simple, and that nothing really justifies being so opaque.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Asexual story project

One of my cobloggers just launched The Asexual Story Project, which is a site collecting auto-biographical stories from people on the asexual spectrum.

And if this encourages you to take a look, I contributed a story which has never been told before.  It was actually nice to tell a personal story which didn't really have any sociopolitical point to it.  It didn't even have to represent all asexuals, because I mean it's just one of many stories available to read.

Social justice as cryptolect

My coblogger Queenie explains how "social justice" on Tumblr has been used as an excuse for bullying.  It's not really a problem specific to Tumblr or social justice IMHO, but it's worth talking about that specific case.  One of the problems Queenie identifies is the demand for perfection, the idea that we should never use any concept or word that is even slightly problematic.  As many people have observed, this results in a relatively fast language development on Tumblr.

While there are honorable intentions behind improving our language, one of the effects is that social justice language becomes a cryptolect*--a jargon used by a group in order to exclude outsiders.  Furthermore, people who do not share this language are immediately identified as outsiders, and subsequently attacked.  The consequences of this behavior goes against the spirit of social justice.  People should not halt all language development, but rather moderate it with the knowledge that there is an intrinsic benefit to sticking to established language.

*I considered several words here in place of "cryptolect", including "slang", "jargon", "argot", and "cant".  The connotations of "cant" seem to be closest, but unfortunately it has a second definition which is extremely negative.

To illustrate what language development looks like on Tumblr, I offer a few illustrative examples.  My first example is a case where I myself argued for changing our language.  I argued that "sexual" is not a very good way to refer to people who are not asexual, and that "allosexual"--a word which has been established on Tumblr--is a reasonable alternative.  Of course, not everyone is happy with "allosexual", and in fact the other week I saw someone argue that it was "confusing" and "a little appropriative".  As a third example, I refer you to arguments over the words "trans" and "trans*".  "Trans*" is meant to be more inclusive, but some people find it problematic.  I think few people get angry over that distinction though, since even trans people often aren't aware of the issue.

I don't mean to say that people are wrong to want to change our language.  These are not ridiculous issues; language profoundly affects the way we think, and the way we feel.  However, I wish to show that these arguments over language can often be quite specific and obscure.  (Of course, some of my readers are hip to Tumblr and are perfectly familiar with the examples I gave.  But try to see it from an outsider's perspective.  Wouldn't you grant that they are obscure?)  It is perhaps regretful that outsiders are unfamiliar with the language issues, but it is not the least bit surprising.

So if you get angry that people aren't hip to the cryptolect you've just developed, you may find that you are angry at everyone.  Unless you think it is productive to be angry at everyone, it may perhaps be worthwhile lowering your standards.  I think Tumblr people intuitively understand this concept, which is why they don't get angry about "trans" vs "trans*".  Even insiders often don't understand that issue, and of course we can't be angry at insiders.  I advocate extending this same attitude towards outsiders, even if you're less inclined to be sympathetic towards them.

Let me put this in the style of a social justice argument.  It's often said that "intention isn't magic": when people say problematic things, the fact that they didn't intend to hurt people doesn't magically erase the hurt.  Likewise, the social justice cryptolect has the best of intentions, but the intentions don't magically erase any harm that it might cause.  And as it turns out, it can be harmful, especially towards disadvantaged people.

In particular the cryptolect hurts people who don't have access to your particular internet community, and to people who are older.  Older people have lived through multiple iterations of language, and might have different associations with words than young folks do.  For example, it's well-known that older people are less enthusiastic about the word "queer", because it's a slur that was only reclaimed in the last generation.  And also recall that there are many reasons why people might not have access to Tumblr.  Perhaps they don't have the time because they have poverty-level jobs.  Or perhaps they feel barred from the community because of the very same bullying engendered by Tumblr's demand for perfect language.  And of course there are plenty of people who do have access to Tumblr but choose not to touch it, just as I choose not to touch Twitter.

In two of my examples, the problematic words were themselves words coined by internet communities.  "Allosexual" is known to originate on Tumblr, and "trans*" is the kind of unpronounceable word that you know had to come from somewhere on the internet.  These problematic words were themselves created in response to other words that were deemed problematic.  This demonstrates that even when you identify a problematic term, the term used to replace it may also be problematic.  Hopefully the replacement is an improvement.

What this shows is that if a word is problematic, that is not sufficient reason to get rid of the word.  Sure, the word has problems, but there are also inherent problems with getting rid of the word.  First, the word used to replace it will probably also have problems.  Second, you contribute to a cryptolect which makes your community more inaccessible to outsiders.  While this doesn't mean that we should never intentionally adjust our language, it does mean that we should avoid doing so unless there is a fairly good reason.  And keep in mind that every community thinks it has good reasons for creating its own lingo, but tends not to appreciate the reasons why other communities create their own lingo.

If you agreed with my argument, I'd like to point out that this is a situation where all options are problematic.  Keep the language we have, it hurts people.  Change the language, it hurts people.  No option is perfect.  We cannot demand perfection.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why I am ambivalent about skepticism

You know, I don't read any specifically skeptical blogs anymore?  I can't remember when I dropped the last one, but I dropped Skepticblog because I found I wasn't actually reading through anything there.  In general, my reading list has shrunk over the years, and I now track about 10 blogs in the broader atheist/rationalist/reality-based/science community.

There are many ways to define modern skepticism.  It's a philosophy, a community, and a set of institutions.  But I find that I am becoming disconnected from each of these definitions, one by one.  I don't work for, or give money to any skeptical institutions.  And my interests have shifted such that I no longer read any specifically skeptical material.  That just leaves the philosophy.

The thing about skeptical philosophy is that skepticism does not have a monopoly on critical thinking.  One can be a perfectly adequate critical thinker with or without skepticism.  However, I think my outlook is part of a distinctively skeptical tradition.  It's valuing criticism, arguments, and evidence, even over short-term happiness or political gain.  It's that peculiar combination of enjoying intellectual discussions for their own sake, while also listening to the voice of pragmatism.  It's suspicion of all narratives, especially one's own narratives.  It's giving a shit about what other people believe and why they believe it.

But how much does that count for?  And I haven't been paying attention lately, so for all I know the skeptical movement has shifted when I wasn't looking.

I mean, it wouldn't be so extraordinary in these times, for skepticism to redefine itself in light of the growing atheist/rationalist/reality-based communities.

What I find really distasteful is the particular ways in which popular skepticism has begun to distinguish itself from the rest of the rationalist community.  As I've described before, skeptical leaders have made some major mistakes which sided themselves antifeminist factions in the atheist community.  There were some ridiculous issues with harassment policies at conferences, and the revelations that certain skeptical leaders participate in harassment.  This is terrible, because now the kind of people who are likely to defend that sort of behavior are more likely to identify as skeptics, and people who find it disgraceful are less likely to identify.

But whatever, I can be a skeptic and still be a feminist.  Nobody ever said that skeptics can't be critical of one another, and in fact it's practically a requirement.

Another way skepticism has been redefining itself is in its scope.  Almost a year ago, there was a little scuffle between Skeptic magazine writer Daniel Loxton, who argued that skepticism should be modest in scope, and atheists who thought it should be broader.  I thought Loxton made a compelling case.*  Daniel Loxton works with investigative skepticism, and it is reasonable to limit investigative skepticism to claims that can, as a practical matter, be investigated by skeptics.  But where does that leave us lay skeptics?  I asked him, and he said,
People should of course arrange and prioritize their personal lives in whatever way seems best. For myself, I am not especially interested in building a subculture of self-indentifying skeptics, but in skepticism as a field of research and activity pursued by professional, semi-professional, and expert-amatuer practitioners (and by serious volunteers and learners at other stages of development of their practice).
*I thought that people on the other side also made a compelling case.  I don't agree with myself.

Loxton is not personally interested in building popular skepticism, which is well and good since he is not the only one running the movement.  But since then I've been wondering, is anyone really interested in building popular skepticism anymore?  Is it just me, or has popular skepticism shrunk, and been displaced by a broader atheist/rationalist/reality-based/science community?

I don't know, it could just look that way because my own interest has shrunk.  I wanted to test my hypothesis by looking up Skeptic magazine subscription numbers over time, but I couldn't find the numbers (and anyway it's confounded by the overall decline of print media).

In summary:
  • I'm losing interest in reading skeptical material.
  • I think my philosophical outlook is distinctively skeptical, but I'm not sure this counts for much.
  • The skeptical community is starting to differentiate itself from other rationalist communities by being particularly unfeminist.
  • Popular skepticism appears to be shrinking.
This leaves me rather ambivalent.  I still think of myself as a skeptic, or skeptical, but I probably wouldn't put it in a blog title if I started a new blog.   I'm a little sad about this, but I should not be sad.  Hobbies are mortal, and when they die they just get replaced with more hobbies.

Friday, March 21, 2014

TUVWXYZ Hexagons

TUVWXYZ Hexagons, by Meenakshi Mukerji

Some time back, I posted the WXYZ model, which consists of four intersecting planes.  Following the invention of the WXYZ, origami masters created so-called "planar models" with more and more intersecting planes.  This one is an intersection of 7 planes.  Each plane consists of 6 units, for a total of 42 units.

While you can make four planes intersect in a symmetric manner, you might not expect 7 planes to intersect very gracefully.  Here's a diagram showing how they go together (from here):

Each color represents a single plane.  The diagram on the left shows what's above the black plane, while the diagram on the right shows what's below the black plane.  It turns out that the symmetry group is that of a tetrahedron--note that there are exactly four hexagons.  This is actually better than you can do with, say, 8 or 9 planes (but worse than you can do with 10!).

Another thing to notice is that these are not, strictly speaking, planes.  Notice that the diagram on the left is smaller than the diagram on the right.  All the "planes" intersect at the center of the model, so you'd expect there to be an equal amount on either side of each "plane".  They are simply approximations of planes.  Isn't that funny?

There's got to be some interesting math behind which numbers of planes allow for symmetric planar models.  But it's completely beyond me.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why this person is no longer a skeptic

I found this essay called Why I am no longer a skeptic, by Stephen Bond, and I was immediately sympathetic.  I think that one can agree with the values of skepticism, and feel disconnected from the skeptical identity, the community, and the institutions.  The essay seemed to express this view, at first.

Then it turned out that the whole thing was a bunch of mischaracterizations and unsupported assertions.  The essay successfully explains what it purports to explain--why the author is no longer a skeptic.  It does not make a persuasive case that anyone should follow the author.

Are skeptics elitists?

Stephen Bond talks about how skeptics like to make fun:
I'm not going to plead innocence here: I've often joined in with the laughter, at least vicariously; laughing at idiots can be fun. But in the context of skeptic sites, the laughter takes on a bullying and unhealthy tone.
I appreciate that the author honestly has this impression, but when I compare it to my own impressions, it seems off-base.   Your impression against mine, not a good argument, eh?  People like to make fun, and can be bullies about it, but skeptical institutions do their best to discourage it.  On the Skeptic Society's about page, there's a quote by Spinoza, something to do with understanding human actions rather than ridiculing them.

Compare to say, social justice "call out culture" which also leads to bullying.  People have brought up the issue, but I don't see people discouraging it to the same extent bullying is discouraged in the skeptical community.
If anything, I'm convinced that most [skeptics] would prefer to keep the resources unequal. The average skeptic has little time for spreading the word of reason to the educationally or intellectually lacking.
Like the entirety of the skeptical movement is dedicated towards educating people and disseminating information.
About ten years ago there was a short-lived movement to rebrand skeptics as "brights". This proposal was widely derided within the community, perhaps because it revealed too much about the skeptic mindset.
That was more the atheist community, not the skeptical community, but whatever.  If "bright" had been a popular term, it would have confirmed Stephen's belief that skeptics are elitist.  Since "bright" was not a popular term, it still confirms Stephen's belief?  One wonders why Stephen even bothers with evidential arguments.

Are skeptics sexist?
Women are present on skeptic forums in much the same way that women are present in early Star Trek episodes: while the men can take on a variety of roles, the women are always sex characters. Their every attribute is sexualised and objectified. Intelligence in a male skeptic is taken for granted; intelligence in a female skeptic is a turn-on.
Actually I largely agree with this section.

Are skeptics Islamophobic?

I think Stephen Bond might be conflating the skeptical community and atheist community, especially since their primary example is Richard Dawkins' infamous "Dear Muslima" comment.  Not really the best example, since that comment caused large swaths of the atheist community to become disillusioned with Dawkins.
[Dawkins] builds us a generalised picture from a number of isolated and unrelated instances. Female genital mutilation, for example, is nothing to do with Islam, as Dawkins probably knows, though he's quite happy to throw it in there and suggest it's endemic. The effect of his screed is to portray Islam as a kind of institutionalised woman-torture in which all Muslim men are complicit, thus slandering about half a billion people
You know, I can accept that Dawkins was a tremendous ass, and that the atheist community can be Islamophobic, and that Dawkins in particular is Islamophobic.  But I don't agree that this is an instance of Dawkins being Islamophobic.  I mean, Dawkins does not really say or imply that female genital mutilation (FGM) is endemic among Muslims.

And while it's bad to slander half a billion people, this argument largely seems like an attempt to shut up criticism.  When Bond stated that skeptics are sexist, you didn't see me complaining that the they were slandering skeptics, who are not all sexist.  Sexism is a problem among skeptics, it needs to be said, alright?

Are skeptics neoliberals?

Allow me to summarize the argument in this section.
  1. Metaphors are necessary for political, social, and economic advance.
  2. "Skeptics, in insisting on the primacy of scientific knowledge, deny the value of non-scientific metaphors in future scientific advance."
  3. Skeptics, therefore, must believe that "western liberal democracies have made all the political, social, cultural and economic advances they need to."
  4. Skeptics want to spread scientific thinking worldwide, and therefore want to spread liberal democracy worldwide.
  5. That's neoliberalism, and it's bad.
Aside from the unfounded claim that skeptics reject metaphors and therefore political progress, what I'm hearing is that Stephen Bond can't stand any community that has capitalists in it.  Fair enough, he has his political differences, but it hardly seems like an indictment of the skeptical community specifically.

Is science affected by politics?
The idea that politics could or should have any input into science is anathema to skeptics.
Says who?  No citations are provided. It seems clear to me that science is affected by politics, so I don't know what they're disagreeing with.  But perhaps we don't agree on the extent of it.  The author thinks skeptics should avoid "cheerleading indiscriminately for all science, any science."  In particular, the author criticizes medical science, evolutionary psychology, linguistics, and economics.

Actually I don't see skeptics really cheerleading for these fields.  Linguistics and economics simply aren't discussed much.  The medical establishment is frequently criticized--it basically has to be criticized in any discussion of alt-med, because we seek to understand the motivations of alt-med users.  Evolutionary Psychology is also a frequent target of criticism (in my experience, even in offline groups).  And at the same time we also express the value of those fields.  Overall I'd say we get a much more balanced view than that of Stephen Bond.

Are fortune tellers bad?

Here the author argues that fortune tellers are just used as entertainment, that the clients of big name psychics know that they're being lied to, and the placebo effect helps people.  I note that the Stephen Bond himself sincerely believed in superstitious things before identifying as a skeptic, so the argument apparently does not apply to him.  Also psychics have done lots of demonstrable harm, so Bond largely comes across as an insensitive jerk.

Earlier he was accusing skeptics of wanting to keep resources unequal, but now I just think this is true of Bond.

Their crimes pale next to those of our financial institutions, and all the others who convince the public to throw their life savings at the stock market, take out mortgages they can't afford, buy junk they don't need with money they don't have, and pay for the fuck-ups of bankers and the greed of speculators.
Come to think of it, why do we ever discuss problems that aren't capitalism?  Like sexism, why did the author bring that one up?  Wait, no, I suppose sexism is capitalism (but psychics are not).  Nevermind then.

Is skepticism just about comforting people?

Here Stephen argues that people believe in nonsense because it is comforting to them.  The same is true of skepticism.
But as much as hocus-pocus is a comforter for the disenfranchised, skepticism is a comforter for nerds. Even the privileged need to be reassured in their ways; no one is too old or too grand to be tucked in at night with a conscience soother.
This is not much of an argument, because anyone can accuse their opponent of only believing what they do because it is comforting.
And as long as it does no harm to them and others, I wouldn't want to disabuse anyone of their faith, or deprive them of their warming blanket.
Okay, now I'm really convinced that Bond has no interest in spreading the value of reason, and instead "prefers to keep resources unequal".

Is skepticism positivism?
...skeptics have no time for philosophy; many skeptics hate and fear it. It's the skeptic Kryptonite. As a fundamental, rigorous, intellectually respectable but defiantly non-scientific discipline, philosophy makes a lot of skeptics feel threatened.
There's basically no way that Stephen Bond's essay stands up to philosophical scrutiny, but maybe philosophical scrutiny isn't really the correct standard to use.  I use a lower and more casual standard, which Bond still fails.

Next, Stephen identifies skepticism with the discredited philosophy of positivism.  Based on what I know of positivism, it is unlike modern skepticism in very relevant ways.  Any philosophy people want to comment?

Is skepticism ugly?
The truth is, I became a skeptic for aesthetic reasons, and the truth is, its aesthetics now repel me. I increasingly find the core skeptical output monotonous and repetitive: there are only so many times you can debunk the same old junk, and I've had it up to here with science fanboyism.
I did not personally come to skepticism for its aesthetics.  Indeed, I don't really care for Saganesque "awe and wonder at the universe" aesthetics, and resent that people expect me to have these aesthetics just because I study physics.

I think aesthetics are largely irrelevant, although it may decrease or enhance your personal enjoyment of a community.  If you don't like the aesthetics of skepticism, that is a perfectly good reason to focus on something else you find more enjoyable, although it doesn't really say anything about skepticism.


While Stephen Bond's criticisms seem completely off the mark in most cases, I now seriously suspect they are in fact applicable to whatever skeptical forum that he used to frequent.  I don't know which forum it is, and the only representative I know of is Stephen himself.

And indeed Bond is very guilty of many of the same things he criticizes.  He seeks to mock rather than to understand.  He seems to have picked up bad arguments such as, "You just believe that to comfort yourself," and "Why talk about that when there are bigger problems?"  He doesn't believe in "spreading the word of reason", and would "prefer to keep the resources unequal".  And he clearly knows very little about philosophy.

"Why I am no longer a skeptic" is a serious indictment of skepticism, not because Stephen points out many things wrong with skepticism, but because he himself exhibits so many bad beliefs and terrible arguments.  I don't have a problem with people departing from the skeptical community, but I sure hope they leave in a better state than this.

Ref: Debunking Denialism also fisked the same post.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Atheist orgs should be held to higher standards

Last year, I criticized the way that national atheist orgs seem to have their priorities all wrong. Right now American Atheists is trying to remove the "WTC cross" from the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.  They lost in district court and are currently in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.  So allow me to critique these orgs again.

My point of comparison for atheist orgs are national LGBT orgs, which always receive a healthy amount of criticism from the people they are supposed to represent.  In my view, atheists do not criticize atheist orgs nearly enough, and it's as if most atheists don't even know how.  Here I present a few general lessons I learned from the way queer people criticize LGBT orgs.

1. Losing in court may be worse than nothing.  When DOMA and Prop 8 were brought to the US Supreme Court, many activists were worried.  Is the Supreme Court ready for this?  If the Supreme court rules for DOMA and prop 8, it would set a bad precedent that could stick around for a long time.  These fears did not play out (SCOTUS ruled against DOMA, and punted on prop 8), but they were reasonable fears to have.  Regardless of the merits of AA's case, we should be seriously asking whether they are likely to win or lose.

There is something to be said about bringing something to the table repeatedly to keep it in the public consciousness.  For example, LGBT orgs are constantly bringing up ENDA to the legislature even though they know it will lose for a long time.  However, the argument here is that ENDA is good PR even when it loses.  Whereas it is obvious to anyone that AA's case against the WTC cross is very bad PR.  I cite the comedians.

2. Priorities matter.  Here on the internet, it is poor taste to compare the direness of two issues.  When you say "there are starving children in Africa" or "Women in the middle east have it far worse", that's really just a way of shutting people up.  The thing is, it doesn't cost anything on the internet to talk about all issues, big and small.  But when it comes to national orgs, they have a limited budget and it costs lots of money to do anything.  Abandon your preconceptions about "oppression olympics"--they do not apply here.

Mind you, smaller problems often cost fewer resources, so this doesn't mean orgs should always just focus on the biggest problems.  However, I suspect bringing a court case to the 2nd Circuit of Appeals is not that cheap?  One of these days I'm going to look into atheist org budgets to see if I'm correct.

3. Priorities are set by the privileged.  One of the major complaints about LGBT orgs such as the HRC is that they focus too much on marriage equality.  This is seen as disproportionately representing the needs of people who are well-off--the people who donate most to LGBT orgs.  I suspect that younger critics aren't very familiar with the many ways that marriage equality is substantially beneficial to immigrants and people of lower socioeconomic class, but I see their point.  People aren't going to get married if they're bullied into suicide, or if their society prevents them from finding partners, you know?

I wonder, who funds American Atheists?  Probably a bunch of older people who are financially privileged.  It's only natural.  Are these people sufficiently educated about the problems of the common atheist that they can set their priorities right?  Do they have our best interests at heart, or their own best interests at heart?  It's like that time that Michael Newdow filed a lawsuit to remove "God" from US currency, he cited testimony from old numismatists.  That seems like a horribly nonrepresentative group of atheists, doesn't it?

You all deserve better atheist orgs.  Criticize the ones we have now.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How religious people *should* relate to science

Some years ago, I attempted to illustrate the different views on the relationship between science and religion.  For each view, I drew two diagrams: one showing how science and religion relate, and another showing how they should relate.  This is the all-important is/ought distinction.  In fact, most people talking about the relationship between science and religion don't explicitly make an is/ought distinction, but I infer an is/ought distinction because frankly nothing makes sense otherwise.

But perhaps I've been too charitable to people who argue that there is no conflict between science and religion.  Recently Friendly Atheist hosted an essay by Sean McDowell which argues that there is no conflict.  The argument is primarily based on citing various religious scientists.  You can tell that they are not making an is/ought distinction, not even implicitly, because their argument is incoherent any way you slice it.

Interpreted one way, they are arguing that science and religion ought not to conflict.  If so, then why do they make historical arguments?  Why do they merely refer to religious scientists without making any attempt to justify the views of those scientists?

Interpreted the other way, they are arguing that science and religion do not conflict.  If so, it makes sense to refer to religious scientists, but it does not make sense to ignore the fact that they are in the minority.  Nor does it make sense to ignore the millions of religiously motivated creationists in the US.  It does not make sense to say,
The idea that science and religion are at odds is a popular myth in our culture, perpetuated by news headlines like “God vs. Science” in Time magazine.
since descriptively, it is entirely true that there is conflict between science and religion.

The arguments religious people make in favor of the compatibility of science/religion are nonsense.  Here are the arguments they should be making:*
  1. Religion has conflicted with science in both the past and present.
  2. If possible, it would be better if science and religion did not conflict.
  3. It is reasonably possible for religion not to conflict with science.
  4. Religious scientists are presented as models for this possibility.
*Whenever an opponent offers advice on how you should make your argument, it should be considered suspect at best and disingenuous at worst.  My advice is no exception.

Note how this argument is different from Sean McDowell's argument, in that it does not deny the conflict between science and religion.  In fact, it's important to recognize that conflict, because that's the first step in resolving a conflict.  It's important to study why religious people oppose evolution.  It's important to think hard about why religious scientists are the exception rather than the rule.

It's important to confront the ways in which religious scientists fail as models.  For example, Francis Collins is a great ally against Intelligent Design, but has argued that evolution cannot account for altruism, implicitly rejecting the entire field of evolutionary altruism.  Another scientist mentioned was Owen Gingerich, and I am appalled to find that he thinks some beneficial mutations must be "inspired".  (I looked into the third example named, Paul Davies, and he seems more acceptable.)

Collins and Gingerich have only minor problems, but why is it that even when people think their religion does not conflict with science, the conflict often remains?  Why is it that religious people who consciously reject the "god of the gaps" simultaneously accept the "god of the gaps" under a different name?  People who advocate the compatibility of science and religion should be thinking hard about this problem so they can solve it.  When people deny the conflicts between science and religion, they become examples of the conflict.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Atheism and asexuality: a historical comparison

This is part of my "Fantastic Primer" series, in which I imagine explaining asexuality to an atheist audience and atheism to an asexual audience, as a tool to explore intersectionality. Please read the introductory post, which explains the premise.

When I first became aware of the atheist and skeptical movements, they were the only social movements I was really familiar with.  But to really understand what's going on, it helps to participate in at least one other social movement for comparison's sake.  Here I compare the history of asexual and atheist movements over the last decade.

A brief overview

I can trace asexual communities to the HHA mailing list in the late 90s, and then the AVEN forum in 2001.  On its front page, AVEN defined "asexual" as "someone who does not experience sexual attraction", framing asexuality as an orientation, rather than a dislike of sex or a political stance against sex (as it had been framed by some other communities).  At first this definition was only a guideline, but as AVEN grew, it solidified into the universally accepted definition.  AVEN was by far the biggest asexual community for a long period of time.  Only in recent years (since 2011 or so) has Tumblr emerged as a major alternative community.

To speak of the atheist community history is to reveal my biases.  Even if I sample from many atheist communities, it is but a small corner.  What I know: Apparently galvanized by 9/11, there were several bestselling atheist books in 2004-2006.  Wired published an article in 2006 which profiled several of the authors (sometimes called the four horsemen), and coined the phrase "new atheism" (a label that has always met mixed reception).  In 2007-2011 I remember that the biggest ongoing dispute among blogs was the so-called "framing wars".  The issue was, are atheists too angry, and do they need to frame themselves more diplomatically?  But in 2011, there was "Elevatorgate", which caused a much bigger divide between atheists who are more or less feminist.

There are some interesting parallels.  Both had seeds planted in 2001 (9/11 for atheists, the founding of AVEN for asexuals).  Both grew in response to media attention around 2004-2006 (bestselling books for atheists, major TV appearances for asexuals).  Both communities are fundamentally part of the internet age.  And since 2011, each community is involved in a sort of bipolar split (the feminist schism of internet atheism, and the tumblr/AVEN split for asexuality).

A difference in size

The most obvious difference is that the atheist community is far larger and more fractious than the asexual community.  Among the consequences:
  • Atheists have much more offline activism and community building.  In my experience, many atheists offline aren't even aware of the major discussions among internet atheists, whereas many asexuals offline are so aware of the internet communities that it's common to exchange screen-names at meetups.
  • Kerfuffles among atheists are far nastier and more common than anything I've ever seen in asexual communities.  I often think the biggest kerfuffles in asexual communities are ho-hum.
  • Asexual communities have been much more coherent than atheist communities.  The history of modern asexuality is primarily the history of one large forum, plus a few offshoots. Modern atheist history consists of literally thousands of blogs, YouTube channels, podcasts, forums, offline groups, and who knows what else.  The asexual community is the unusual one here; I don't know of any other queer identity which has ever been so centralized.
External pressures cause internal struggles

It seems laughable now, but in 2008, the atheist "framing wars" were a big deal.  A lot of people felt that atheist writers weren't being sufficiently diplomatic towards religious people, independently of whether the atheist writers were right on the matters of substance.  Many social movements deal with the "tone argument", but I've never seen it fleshed out in such depth as on atheist blogs.  Why was this such a big deal?

My explanation is that it came from external pressure on atheists.  Atheists are stereotyped as angry.  This simple stereotype causes a cascade of conflict.  Some atheists proudly embody the stereotype, rebuking the idea that anger is wrong.  Some atheists are not very angry, but thought to be angry anyway.  Some atheists cringe at other atheists' anger, because they're afraid of reinforcing the stereotype.

A loose parallel in asexual communities was the conflict over definitions.  The primary external pressure on asexuality is the way people erase and delegitimize it.  People inside the community think that only if they have the right definition and present it the right way, they could relieve some of this pressure.  In the early 2000s, there was an alternative community to AVEN, called the Official Asexual Society.  This community held to a stricter definition of asexuality, requiring members to not like sex or masturbation, and for this to be reflected in a history of abstinence.

As AVEN hit mainstream news in 2004, it became clear that the stricter definition was not an effective path to legitimacy.  The Official Asexual Society changed its name to the Official Nonlibidoist Society (because "asexual" had been soiled by AVEN's mainstream attention), and it eventually died in 2007.  This led to another cascade of conflict, as the former members of the Official Nonlibidoist Society moved to AVEN and brought along very negative attitudes towards sex, but that's another story.

Social justice divisions

"Elevatorgate" describes an incident in which atheist activist Rebecca Watson was propositioned on an elevator.  Later in a vlog, she mentioned the incident and said, "Guys, don't do that."  This led to a lot of backlash and counter-backlash.  Entire blogs and forums arose dedicated to hating Rebecca Watson.  Most prominently, Richard Dawkins dismissed her problem as unserious by comparing it to the plight of Muslim women.

There had been plenty of arguments over feminism before, but I knew this one was a big deal when the offline atheist groups started talking about it.  Elevatorgate is widely regarded as the beginning of a divided community.  Not many people talk about the elevator incident anymore, but the lines are still drawn, and feminism and social justice are bigger sources of conflict and bitterness than they ever used to be.

By comparison, the "conflict" between asexuals on Tumblr and AVEN is not really a conflict at all.  The main difference between the communities is just the format: tumblrs vs forums.  But more differences spontaneously appear; Tumblr is reputedly more social justice-y than AVEN.  Tumblr asexuals certainly seem to talk more about race and LGBT issues.  And some tumblrites criticize AVEN for being sexist, racist, transphobic, ableist, or otherwise not up to standards.  I've been watching this carefully to see if it emerges as a larger conflict.

The lesson I would draw from this is that feminism and social justice are common sources of conflict for social movements.  Your movement is not unique.

I think the reason is that social justice demands to be intersectional.  You may argue that social justice movements should be separate from other movements to prevent community division (just as we would keep vegetarianism and gay rights separate, even if some people advocate both).  But while a separate social justice movement can fight for national policies, it would be powerless to fight for change within other social movements.  There is only one group of people who can fight for minority inclusivity within the atheist community, and that is the atheist community.  Likewise for the asexual community and any other community.

Disclaimer: I am a biased source, and this history does not attempt to be objective.  With respect to the framing wars, I've been pro-anger (although not angry myself).  I've taken the social justice side of the current atheist schism.  I am mostly on Tumblr, but have no ill will towards AVEN.

6. Atheism and asexuality: a historical comparison
7. Why atheism and asexuality taste great together 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Christian sorority kicks out couple

A bit of local news, for me: Two members of the Christian sorority ADX at UC Berkeley were kicked out for forming a relationship with each other.  Despite the support of their local chapter, the national board of ADX decided it was against the charter.  The couple now protests ADX.  Good for them.

On Friendly Atheist, most people felt the same way. But a couple commenters argued that ADX was within their rights:
And the fact is that sororities and other groups have a right to hold to a certain ideology and expect their members to hold to it as well. Nobody is being treated like a second class citizen. Nobody's rights are being taken away.
They didn't need to join such an organization, unless of course their goal is to change it from within. If the organization has no goals, no guidelines, and no consistency, it would not be a "Christian" sorority.
Let's take these arguments seriously for a moment.  It's true that organizations have a right to enforce certain rules on their members, and exclude people who disobey.  It's not just that they have the right, sometimes it is just and good.  For instance, I've heard that many queer sororities and fraternities have a rule against members dating each other.  This is a just and good rule because breakups can ruin communities.

But some rules, even legal ones, are injust and bad.  To sort out the good from the bad, the rules should be subject to public criticism and social pressure.

ADX disallowing same-gender relationships is not a good and just rule.  Kicking out loyal members from a group is never good in itself, and needs some other good to justify it.  Christianity is not sufficient justification because Christianity is not justified.

Of course, that argument is not very satisfactory because obviously the members of ADX are Christian, and we're not going to agree on Christianity any time soon.  Indeed, the protesting couple is Christian as well, so they have to resort to different arguments:
ADX is supposed to be interdenominational, Foo argued. What about Christians who support same-sex relationships?
There are valid arguments to be made on Christian terms.  As in the quote above, ADX's policy goes against their goal of being interdenominational.  You could also criticize ADX for not being upfront about excluding people in same-sex relationships (the charter only says something about not letting sisters "stumble").  Or you could make Christian arguments against homophobia.  Or you could just point to the way this community tore itself apart.

I think all these arguments are good and useful.  But even if it's not the most persuasive argument, the main reason I think ADX's policy was unjustified is because homophobia is harmful and Christianity is unjustified.  Even if the group were upfront about being exclusive, I would still criticize the group.  The couple, Kylie and Sophia, does not have to agree with me.  I nevertheless applaud their activism.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The cost of knowing

Imagine that we have a game show where the host asks you to open one of two doors.  You don't know what rewards are behind each door, but if you're willing to part with $500 of your previous winnings, the host will tell you.  Should you pay $500 or not?

Of course, it depends on your prior belief in the difference in value of the two doors.  If the difference is at least $1000, then it's worth it to pay so you can be sure to get the better door.  Otherwise, it's not worth it to pay.  The best way to assign your prior belief is to buy DVDs of the old episodes of the game show and see what sort of rewards have been behind the doors in the past.  But buying DVDs itself costs money, not to mention the value of all that time you'd spend watching the show.  It's not clear how much you'd stand to gain from knowing whether to pay $500 or not.

The game show is a metaphor for our existence.  To navigate life in the best way possible, we need to know stuff..  But learning costs time and money, and sometimes isn't very fun.  So there is likely some knowledge which has costs outweighing the benefits.  But the problem is compounded because we don't know which knowledge is worth knowing.

In my life, I've been influenced by modern skepticism, which values truth above all else.  But there's not actually a contradiction here.  Skepticism doesn't take the ridiculously dogmatic view that it is always worth spending the time to know everything.  In fact, through their actions, skeptics implicitly acknowledge the cost of knowing:

1. Skepticism collects experts in many fields and topics and makes their knowledge accessible so that no one needs to know everything.
2. Skeptics teach and learn the general guidelines of rational thinking.  These are easily understood, and have broad applicability.
3. Skeptics focus on pseudoscientific beliefs that are either a) especially harmful, or b) entertaining. Countering harmful beliefs may cost a lot, but the benefit is great.  On the flip side, there's not much benefit to making fun of ridiculous beliefs, but that's a form of skepticism that is more accessible.  It's like gateway skepticism.

As a skeptic, I think there are a few things that could improve a person as a rational thinker, but which are not necessarily worth the cost.  For instance, Brute Reason recently discussed (and criticized) the idea that we should surround ourselves with friends that disagree with us.  It seems possible that having friends who disagree with you could indeed help you change your mind towards more correct beliefs.  But even if this were true, is it worth the cost of altering the whole way you make friends?  Surely there are easier ways to keep your beliefs in check.

Another example is the idea that we should "keep our identity small".  In the linked essay, Paul Graham argues that discussions over religion and politics get nowhere because everyone has their religion and politics tangled up in their identity.  It seems true that people are less willing to relinquish beliefs that relate to their identity.  But I contend that getting rid of identity labels may be too high a price to pay, if it's possible at all.  Besides, it only mitigates bias if both sides give up their identity, and there's no way to force the other side to do it.  There's got to be a better way to reduce identity-related bias.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

I don't categorically oppose religion

I suppose I'm what the media calls a "new atheist"--I'm an atheist and I advocate for atheist causes.  Many people see opposing religion as the primary atheist cause.  But in my case, this is not entirely accurate.  I oppose many religions, but I don't know that there is anything wrong with religion per se.

I oppose most religions I see around me, for many reasons.  Faith is seen as a virtue.  Supernaturalism is encouraged.  Voices from ancient societies are thought to have moral authority.  Special privilege and admiration is given to people who happen to enjoy ritual or awe (not that there is anything wrong with enjoying those things).  And of course religious people systematically advocate many specific causes that I oppose, such as Creationism and abstinence-only sex education.

I don't think any of these are essential properties of religion.  Perhaps you think that at least some of them are essential--for example, many people think that if there are no supernatural beliefs, then it's not a religion.  But even so, you can certainly imagine a religion that places a much lower value on faith, does not value ancient morality, and does not advocate such terrible political causes; I would oppose this hypothetical religion far less vehemently.

To make the hypothetical more concrete, what if I moved to some part of Asia?  I know very little about how religion interacts with society on the other side of the world.  In that situation, I would tentatively still oppose religion, but it would be a kind of shallow opposition until I learned more about the specific harms caused by religion in that culture.

Even in the US, there are some "religions" that I have little to no problem with: Unitarian Universalism, Secular Judaism, and the Sunday Assembly.

I put religion in scare quotes because I've heard many atheists argue that these are not religions.  There are likely reasonable arguments to be had about the best definition of religion, but my impression is that atheists are using motivated reasoning; they want to be able to say concisely that they oppose religion, so they're motivated to argue that things they do not oppose do not count as religion.

I don't think it's useful to get too attached to any particular definition of religion--if you're interacting with UU people (who see themselves as having a religion), would you rather argue with them about what counts as a religion, or would you rather work together on more productive causes?  (Disclosure: my boyfriend is ex-UU.)  Another advantage is that no one can cheat their way out of criticism.  If you say you're spiritual but not religious, maybe because you have a personal relationship with Jesus but don't participate in any churches, that doesn't give you an out.  If you think that my atheism is a religion, I think you're really stretching the definition, but also it doesn't matter.  If there appeared an atheist organization that had a hierarchical structure and performed rituals and sermons in a church, it could more plausibly be called a religion, but that still wouldn't make it wrong.

TL;DR: I oppose the major religions in my present society, but I am unwilling to generalize to everything in the world, present or future, which could plausibly be called a religion.