Thursday, June 30, 2011

Thursday unprofessionalism

1. A lesbian couple shared a kiss at a baseball game in Minneapolis.  A security guard reprimanded them, telling them “we don’t play grab ass here”, whatever that means and telling them they must “adhere to the 10 Commandments” while they were at the stadium.

Here they are (the first version, anyway):

  1. You shall have no other gods before Me
  2. You shall not make for yourself a carved image--any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
  3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  5. Honour your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbour's house; you shall not covet your neighbour's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbour's.'

Not a lot in there about kissing at sporting events.  While it bothers me that the idiot didn’t even know the commandments he was accusing others of breaking, the issue here is of course that a security guard should think it’s part of his job to berate people on what he considers to be their moral failings.  This is different from a random stranger accosting them: he was abusing his power.

It could have been worse though.  He could have thrown them out.  In Kentucky, two men were thrown out of a public swimming pool for being gay.  This was especially sad because the men had developmental and intellectual difficulties.  They already felt excluded and pointed at by society for their differences and they were further humiliated by being prevented from doing something everyone else is allowed to.

The Pavilion staff immediately entered the pool area and asked my clients and their staff to leave the Pavilion," stated Shirlyn Perkins, Executive Director of Mending Hearts, Inc. "My staff asked The Pavilion staff why they were being asked to leave, and they were informed that 'gay people' weren't allowed to swim there. My staff told this man that what he was trying to do was discrimination. The man stated that what he was doing was in the Bible and he could do it.

My emphasis, his idiocy.

He also said:

We own this place and can tell you to leave if we want to.

This is a public pool, owned by the public, which includes the men who were ejected.  More abuse of power, even more horrible than the other.

Hate the sin, not the sinner, eh?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Believing in evolution

Jerry has beaten me to it.  I had a post in mind inspired by the recent news of the answers given by Miss USA contestants who were asked whether evolution should be taught in schools.

I was less horrified by those answers than many people, but I suspect that’s largely due to the fact that I attach no importance at all to the views of Miss USA contestants.  I understand that these things are more culturally significant in America than here in the UK and that people will probably listen to what they say, but I found it hard to get excited about.  What I did find disquieting was the fact that they presumably wouldn’t have been chosen as finalists if they hadn’t given answers in the heats that were popular in the states they were from, which says something about those states.

But anyway, it has revitalised the question of whether we should talk about “believing” in evolution and that’s what Jerry’s post is about.  We broadly agree on his conclusion, but I have to say I disagree with the majority of the post.

First, the conclusion: I think we should probably be careful with our language in this area.  In particular, we should be mindful of our audience and be aware of how they might take what we say.  To many, evolution is a proposition that requires faith.  To many, contradictory propositions can be equally valid. Professing a ‘belief’ in evolution might be seen to relegate it to the status of religion - a faith position – when we know this isn’t the case because evolution is a fact.

So to communicate effectively, we might have to be careful about what we say, especially in public.  But having said that, I don’t agree that there’s a problem with professing a belief in evolution.  Or in gravity.  I believe in evolution because it happens to be true.  I believe in other things that are true and in some things that are probably true.  I probably believe in some things that aren’t true, although not knowingly.

The difference between my believing something and a faith-head believing in a god is that curious word ‘faith’.  Faith is not a good reason to believe something.  Evidence is a good reason.  I believe evolution because there’s so much good evidence for it.  I don’t have faith in evolution, because there’s no need for it.

I think this is the message we need to get across: not specifically that evolution is a fact, but that there are good reasons and bad reasons for believing things and things can be true or false independently of whether we happen to believe them. So that’s my strategy: I’m happy to say I believe in evolution, but I’d always qualify why that’s different to a faith position.  But I still think there are good reasons to be mindful of our audiences and of how they might take our words.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The art of evolution

Darryl Cunningham has written a comic about evolution. It’s very good indeed.  I particularly like the way I kept thinking “Hm… He’s made too big a leap there, I can already think of some objections the loonies will make about that.” And then in the next panel he deals with those objections.

I don’t think I’ve seen a simpler, more cunningly put-together introduction to evolution.  It draws heavily on the examples we’re all familiar with and I’m pretty sure I can tell what books Darryl read when he wrote it Smile

You should also read his other work, including the excellent Psychiatric Tales, which you can buy in print form at places like this.

Thursday Unprofessionalism

PZ reports here about a bunch of Young Earth Creationists who organised a field trip at a meeting of the Geological Society of America and carefully hid their agenda. They didn’t tell anyone they were YECs or that they’d spring their lunatic ideas on everyone once the trip was underway and nobody could back out.  They gibbered about a young Earth for a while then later claimed that they’d convinced the experts.  I doubt that.

This is all grossly unprofessional.  They lied by omission about their motives and intentions.  They wasted the attendees’ time.  Then they lied about convincing the experts.  One of them – Marcus Ross – presented a paper at the conference which directly contradicted his belief that the planet is less than 10,000 years old.  When challenged on it, he was at first evasive then said:

I am not speaking as a young earth creationist here. When I speak at young earth creationist meetings I use a different framework than when I speak at the Geological Society of America meeting."

Ross is doing (presumably) proper science, but only as a means to gain respectability to lend false weight to his crazy assertions of a young Earth.  This is called “hypocrisy” and “lying” and is deeply unprofessional.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Yay, I’m fashionable! However, Trevor Philips is a bit of a dick

Trevor Philips is the Chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.  I don’t really know what that is, but according to Wikipedia, pretty much everyone has resigned since he took over.  He seems to have a habit of defending free speech unless anyone says something he doesn’t like, when he tells them they should shut up.  And he feels “under siege” as a faith-head from atheists whose views he feels are (presumably lamentably) ‘fashionable’. I don’t think I’ve ever been fashionable before.

"The thing I've become anxious about in recent times is this – there is certainly a feeling amongst some people of belief that they are under siege, that they are often disadvantaged, that they are looked at and considered in some way different and their faith makes them less worthy of regard," he said.

Well boo fucking hoo.  Belief for no good reason is not worthy of regard. Nobody else with unsupported beliefs gets to claim they’re under siege if people denounce them.  Well they can, but people are likely to suspect they are mentally ill. Someone guffawing “BWA HA HA! FOOLS! THEY SAID I WAS MAD, MAAAAAD, BUT I’LL SHOW THEM! I’LL SHOW THEM ALL!” is usually the first clue that something is not quite right with that individual.  But if you’re religious, not only do you get to behave like this, you’re bound to have swarms of atheists agreeing with you. It is by far the most astonishing phenomenon of our times.

He gets creepier and more mealy-mouthed as he goes on.  Especial kudos due for his saying it’s perfectly fair that women are excluded from being priests in the Catholic church; that the government shouldn’t interfere with church business (presumably including discrimination, the covering up of widespread, institutional child rape and the routine subjugation of half the population); and that ‘old fashioned’ religion (apparently defined as stuff Philips personally doesn’t agree with) is bad, but modern religion (which seems to quite closely match his own views) is awesome.

But this is what grabbed me the most:

"Our business is defending the believer. The law we're here to implement recognises that religious identity is an essential part of this society. It's an essential element of being a fulfilled human being.”

So which is it?  Am I unfulfilled or inhuman?  According to Philips, I can’t be both. 

Does any of this sound like equality to you?  Doesn’t sound that way to me.

A good cause, nicely and unpatronisingly described

Ex rugby player Ben Cohen has started a foundation to campaign against bullying in general and especially bullying of LGBT people.  He just gave a very impressive interview about it on BBC Breakfast.  Very open and straightforward, without ego. 

Support it! I can and will not abide bullying of any kind. Cohen seems intelligent and sensitive and has a huge following.  I’m delighted that he’s putting all that to work.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thursday Unprofessionalism

A bit of a crossover topic this week since today’s Thursday Unprofessionalism is about creationism being taught in schools.  In UK schools, as it happens, which is if anything worse than in some other places because we have things like a national curriculum which says you can’t do it.

In 2006, it was found that 59 schools were using materials supporting Intelligent Design.

Nick Cowan, head of chemistry at Bluecoat school, in Liverpool, said: "Just because it takes a negative look at Darwinism doesn't mean it is not science. I think to critique Darwinism is quite appropriate."

Appropriate indeed, providing the criticism makes sense.  But the criticism espoused by the ID proponents doesn’t. It asks us to simply ignore – for no reason at all – the mountains of evidence in favour of evolution. It offers instead some cherry picked examples for which it fudges the significance and posits appeals to ignorance and false dichotomy (we don’t know every precise detail about everything, so a euphemistic designer must have done it). At least, this is the relatively respectable variety of ID.  The more prevalent variety just goes ahead and shamelessly lies. It says there are no transitional fossils, regardless of how many they are shown. It claims that if evolution is true, we should see fronkeys and crockoducks.

This is not an appropriate critique of evolution. An appropriate critique would make some hypothesis about evolution and try to falsify it. So the ID approach is unprofessional in two separate ways: it teaches nonsense as though it’s the truth and it teaches a false and harmful version of critical thinking.

Occasionally we get people in UK politics who speak sense, possibly by accident:

The [then] chairman of the parliamentary science and technology select committee, the Lib Dem MP Phil Willis, said he was horrified that the packs were being used in schools.

"I am flabbergasted that any head of science would give credence to this creationist theory and be prepared to put it alongside Darwinism," he said. "Treating it as an alternative centralist theory alongside Darwinism in science lessons is deeply worrying."

The teaching packs were sent to all secondary schools by the least inappropriately-named group in history: Truth in Science, which can’t help lying every time it opens its mouth:

"We are not attacking the teaching of Darwinian theory," said Richard Buggs, a member of Truth in Science. "We are just saying that criticisms of Darwin's theory should also be taught."

Which is a lie. They do attack the teaching of evolution. And they don’t want to teach valid criticisms of it, because there aren’t any.

"Intelligent design looks at empirical evidence in the natural world and says, 'this is evidence for a designer'.

Which is another lie. ID doesn’t deal in evidence because evidence has to be for something. You form a hypothesis and then you see what evidence supports it.  ID looks at stuff and then claims it’s evidence, but without the discipline of the hypothesis-forming and careful testing.  The government explicitly said that schools shouldn’t use these packs, but some apparently were. How unprofessional can you get?

Fortunately, few schools apparently teach creationism of any form in science classes, but some seem to.  For example, there’s strong evidence that at least some of Peter Vardy’s Christian faith schools have taught creationism as science (for example, ex-pupils have said so and senior members of the foundation and a former principle of two of the schools have publicly espoused creationism.

Teaching creationism as science is deeply unprofessional because it’s not science.  It’s unprofessional because it teaches incorrect critical thinking and a wrong view of how science works. It’s also a very thinly disguised means of propagating religion. In all these senses it is child abuse, carried out by people who are trusted to protect and educate.

Suddenly nipples

Our society has a hard time with nipples.  Less so in the UK and much of Europe, where it’s not that much of an issue, but the US in particular seems to face extraordinary and daily anguish about nipples.  Male nipples are alright, of course.  It’s only female nipples that are obscene.  It’s fine for women to walk about without a shirt on… providing they cover their nipples with stickers.  The US Supreme Court upheld a rule made by yokels in some hick town or other to force strippers to wear the stickers too. Note that this isn’t a law about protecting women from objectification.  It’s not about protecting women at all.  It’s about protecting the men who might otherwise be driven stark insane at the obscene prospect of seeing a nipple.  Unless it’s one of their wife’s nipples, presumably, which are not obscene.

If you *ahem* ‘accidentally’ show a female nipple at the Super Bowl, it will cost you $550,000.  If you’re breastfeeding in public – making use of the actual primary biological function of your nipples - be prepared to have strangers verbally abuse you with little restraint.  Men and women alike will feel entitled to tell you what they think of you. 

As if all this isn’t weird enough, it’s always fun to look at borderline or extreme cases to throw the idiocy into sharp relief:

  • Thomas Beatie is a man who used to be a woman who carried a child to term.  He posed topless in many pictures with his nipples exposed. Many celebrity women pose naked while pregnant but always with their nipples covered because they are obscene. Beatie’s nipples are not obscene, for some reason. Are they not female (and therefore obscene) nipples because he has a beard?  And doesn’t shave his armpits?  He has sufficient ladyparts to construct a baby, but his nipples are definitely male and therefore acceptable.
  • This is an anecdote, but seems plausible: there was a show in the US about plastic surgery on transsexual women. The ‘before’ shots showed uncensored ‘male’ nipples, but the ‘after’ shots, following breast augmentation, had censored nipples.  The only part censored was the only part that hadn’t changed – the nipples – which everyone had already seen anyway.
  • This case turns the idiocy up to eleventyone.  Andrej Pejic is a model famous for being androgynous.  At work, he frequently dresses in traditionally female costume. He appeared on the cover of the magazine Dossier in this pose, with a vaguely Monroe-like styling.  Barnes and Noble deemed his nipples obscene and demanded that it’s copies of the magazine be wrapped in opaque plastic.

The problem, of course, is not these outliers. It’s the fact of the inequality between what men and women are allowed to show.  The extreme examples are just cases where society has become confused by its own double standards.

The double standard exists for very much the same reasons women in many countries and cultures are required to wear burkas: it’s purely a control issue.  Men want to control who can see and interact with ‘their’ woman’s body.  In case we think that the burka is the most extreme example of this, I’ve occasionally wondered whether foot-binding in China, which went on until the middle of the 20th century, wasn’t the pinnacle. It looks to me like a particularly fetishised version of the same thing: women with bound feet literally couldn’t walk very far or do very much because of their unspeakable deformities. Talk about exercising control over someone. For once, this was propagated not by religion but by some notion of social class.  Poor women needed to work so couldn’t have bound feet. Binding the feet of ‘your’ women was a mark of social and economic class.  That’s right, tortured women were objects of envy.

We’re so obsessed with this idea of who’s looking at our birds that the sight of a couple of square inches of every female’s flesh ended up as a taboo.  We don’t call the nipples of animals we milk commercially ‘nipples’, we call them ‘teats’.  We also call the drinking attachments on babies’ bottles ‘teats’ rather than ‘nipples’ (at least in the UK: I’ve occasionally heard them called nipples in the US).  We can’t even mention female nipples, let alone display them.

As it happens, there are lots of places where it’s legally fine for women to be topless.  The UK (as I understand it) is one of them.  It’s also widespread through Europe and there are places in the US where female nipples are not – at least legally – obscene.  Few people take advantage of this fact in the UK. Given our police officers’ well-known unfamiliarity with the law, it’s unlikely that anyone who did would go far without being arrested anyway.

It’s not entirely surprising that prudery is linked so strongly with religion. If there was ever a mechanism that could convince people en masse that it’s right that they’re discriminated against by fostering societal shame in return for, say, half the population wanting to take their shirt off on a hot day, it’s religious indoctrination.

Fun observation: websites always get a lot of mealy-mouthed males commenting on issues like this.  Many insist that it’s not the nipples but the fact that female nipples reside upon breasts that’s the problem.  Breasts are considered sexual objects and so…. well, you see in what question-begging direction this preposterous argument lies.  What if we cover up the breasts and show only the nipples then?  Won’t peephole bras solve the problem? The issue isn’t and has never been about what’s actually on display: it’s about arbitrary rules imposed on half of society for the purposes of control.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

To be a cuttle

A post by Cuttlefish that resonates with my business about choice in dying.  Here you go:

It’s a lovely poem and a strange story. I love the idea of people nakedly mobbing my funeral – not that I’ll have a funeral – to cavort about for no particular reason.

It’s what I would have wanted, had I lived.

Great Ormond St finally says sorry to Baby P whistleblower

Sorry to copy the headline, but that’s almost sort of what’s going down.  See here.

An environment where experts – especially medical experts – can’t stick out their necks and say what their expertise tells them, is a wrong kind of environment.

Choice in dying

There was a documentary by Terry Pratchett last night about assisted dying. You might still be able to see it on iPlayer if you’re quick.  It’s a topic of some concern for him because he was diagnosed in 2007 with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. He wants to be able to die when he’s ready, in peace, without having to worry about those he’ll be leaving behind. He’s famously said he wants to die while sitting in a chair on his lawn in the sunshine with a glass of brandy in his hand and Thomas Tallis on his iPod.

Pratchett and his assistant went to Switzerland to visit the Dignitas clinic to find out about how they operate. The guy in charge showed them round the apartment where the dying takes place and described the procedure: you’re met by two people – not doctors – who ask you many times at each stage if you’re sure you want to go ahead.  If you are, you first drink something to prepare your stomach, then – if you’re still sure – you drink the poison, quite quickly go to sleep and then stop breathing.

Pratchett then attended the death of a motor-neurone disease sufferer, Peter. Peter was perfectly clear about his desire to die now, while he could.  He’d obviously made his mind up and understood his options. He’d discussed it with his wife – who was there with him – and although they disagreed on the timing (she wanted him to wait a bit), she’d accepted it as his decision and was obviously as well-prepared as she could be under the circumstances. Peter very calmly and not at all mournfully took the poison and died.  It was very moving: sad, obviously, but there was a very strong sense that this is what Peter wanted and in the end he got it. As he was dying, he thanked Pratchett and the film crew: it was all very British.

The striking thing about the documentary was that Pratchett and his assistant were clearly struggling to decide what to think about the whole business.  They were quiet, sad and rather shocked at what was happening.  They seemed to show some distaste about the location (a rather garish flat on an industrial estate, sometimes with two families occupying it at once) but Pratchett in particular praised how the assisted suicide was carried out.

Pratchett’s case highlighted the problem with the Dignitas approach (which I’m sure is the only approach it can take).  The organisation made it clear that if Pratchett wanted to die now, while mostly in control of his faculties, that would be OK, but if he were to leave it much later when his mind had largely gone, they wouldn’t be able to help him. They’d have to be sure it’s what he wanted at the time and as his illness progresses, there’ll be a point at which they could no longer be sure.  So if Pratchett wants to die at Dignitas, he’ll have to do it earlier than he might otherwise have wished.  Assisted suicide is about controlling your own death and with some illnesses, this choice is at best limited, even in Switzerland. 

There was a Newsnight programme immediately afterwards, but I couldn’t bear to watch it.  From what I’ve heard, this was a good decision. There’s a description here including some bizarrely edited video of Jeremy Paxman interviewing Pratchett.  It was Paxman I wanted to avoid. The documentary was very sensitive, plainly striving for the dignity those people featured desired. I’ve little doubt that Paxman did his usual in fixating on some  footling aspect of a turn of phrase with lurid glee and at blaring volume.  I didn’t want to see that.  Naturally, there was a Bishop there.  Just what we need:

The Bishop of Exeter, the Right Reverend Michael Langrish, said: "I want to see much more emphasis put on supporting people in living, than assisting them in dying."

If there’s one thing we can actually be certain we own, it’s our own lives. But Bishops, of course, will tell you that we don’t even own that.  They’ll tell us what we’re allowed to do with them when we’re alive and won’t let us give them up if we want to.  Of course we want to see more emphasis placed on supporting people in living, that was never the argument and nobody is saying otherwise. Plainly the Bishop was using a banal rhetorical ploy to deflect attention from the fact that he’s advocating the suffering of others to preserve his personal ideals, which he got from a book. Sadly – very, tragically, sadly – he gets to impose his views on countless others and influence the law just because.

There was also some shameful hyperbole:

But Alistair Thompson, a spokesman for the Care Not Killing Alliance pressure group, said: "This is pro-assisted suicide propaganda loosely dressed up as a documentary."

It was hardly propaganda. It was very sad and didn’t hide any of the realities of assisted dying.  As I said, Pratchett, despite being in favour of assisted dying, is clearly somewhat disturbed and doesn’t quite know what to think about what has happened. This isn’t exactly the way propaganda is done.

Mr Thompson said: "The evidence is that the more you portray this, the more suicides you will have.

Well, perhaps, although I’d want to see some impressive evidence before I accepted that claim. But it begs the question anyway: it assumes that suicide is automatically bad.  So I guess it’s just more of the usual: thoughtful, moving documentary, stupid, knee-jerk reactions, with clergy stoking the fire.

For more about assisted dying and other topics, see Choice in Dying.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Who voted for you, Your Grace?

Well this is fairly hilarious.  I had the germ of the same idea when this weasel first started criticising present day politics but I didn’t work it through.  It’s entirely my fault: I hadn’t realised that the church had caught up with Darwin yet, let alone the UK government coalition, so he caught me off guard.  The link is very funny, but as usual I’m going to up the ante.

The king of the Church of England, Dr Rowan Williams, has criticised our government for doing things nobody voted for.  That’s not quite how democracy works, of course. We don’t get to yank our leaders out of power because they didn’t shut up that barking fucking dog next door like the nice man who called on election day promised he would.  He wasn’t even all that nice and, if anything, the dog has barked more since.  But on the other hand, I didn’t actually vote for him, so I’m not sure what moral authority I’m actually entitled to.

This is the exact reason democracy doesn’t work like that. We don’t vote for policies, we vote for parties we hope might implement policies.

There’s a problem with Williams complaining about politics, which is that he wields his own political power. Many millions of people submit to or at least acknowledge his made-up moral authority.  Many of those will back the dubious political cause Williams seems set on.

But Rowan: nobody elected you. You are speaking as a representative of millions, yet nobody got to vote you in there. And, as the article says, nobody voted for the ten commandments either.

Russell Crowe disturbs everyone by talking sense, the media attack him

Presumably media outlets have bots scanning celebrity twitter feeds looking for words they might be able to make a story out of. They might as well get the bots to write the half-arsed, ill-conceived stories as well.  Russell Crowe strikes me as being a bit of a tool, but he seems to have said some sensible things anyway.  Someone asked him whether they should circumcise their child. Why anyone would ask Russell Crowe to decide that is fairly bewildering.  Here’s Crowe’s response:

'Circumcision is barbaric and stupid. Who are you to correct nature? Is it real that GOD requires a donation of foreskin? Babies are perfect.' 

I have to agree with Crowe that circumcision is stupid. Male circumcision itself isn’t all that barbaric, especially compared to the unspeakable horror of female genital mutilation. However, the act itself certainly is barbaric.  It’s a means of indoctrination and control and it’s divisive by design. I also agree that male babies are not improved by removal of their foreskin, much less so that females are improved by the sickening mutilation of their genitals and its consequences.

I’d have gone further.  I’d have called circumcision stupid, barbaric and child abuse.  I’d have called the Jewish religion stupid, child abuse and responsible for much barbarism.

However, needless to say, Crowe has been branded by some random people on Twitter as being anti-sematic and the media have played up without pointing out that the accusation is nonsensical.  Despising some Jewish practice in no way implies hatred of Jews.  You have no right not to be offended and if you are offended, flinging moronic, unfounded accusations around seems unlikely to help.

Unfortunately, Crowe later issued a rather fawning apology.  No problem in setting the record straight, but he apologises for seeming to mock the beliefs and traditions of others. Again, I’d have gone rather further by saying I mock stupid beliefs because they’re stupid. I’d have rammed the point home by mocking them further and – to show that I am an equal opportunities mocker – I’d have done bonus mocking of some other stupid beliefs.

It would be nice if he could have stood up for himself.  I say this in the knowledge that this would be a lot more difficult for Crowe than it is for me. How did society get so screwed up that a perfectly reasonable statement – when made by a celebrity – causes a wave of collapses as people clutch their pearls too tightly.

Two reasons spring to mind: the hold we know religion has on people and our insistence that celebrities must somehow share our views or we’re allowed to punish them.  We gave them their fame and we can take it away if they don’t pander.  Why would anyone make a hero of someone they can control? I’m sure these two reasons are somehow closely related, but I don’t have time to tease it out right now.

Crowe said another decent and sensible thing.  Someone asked him what they obviously considered a loaded question:

'I'm still waiting for @russellcrowe to give his opinion on abortion since he loves babies and all...'

and Crowe replied:

Abortion should always be a woman's choice, there is no benefit to "forced" got it? don't like it then bye.'

Again, nothing tricky here.  I’d have gone further on this one too: if you think abortion is bad for religious reasons, you really need to re-examine your priorities.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Greta Christina on Damon Fowler and being awesome

I posted about Damon Fowler here.  It was a sad story.  It turns out there is some extra sadness and a bit of happiness as described by Greta here.

The sad is that extra worse things happened to Damon.  The happy is that lots of people rallied to help him out.  It shows that atheists can be nice people.

Greta puts it very nicely:

But when Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community stepped up. It provided compassion. It demanded justice. It offered emotional support. It offered practical support. It opened its wallets. It made it unassailably clear to Damon Fowler that he was not alone: that although his school, his community, even his parents, had all turned their backs on him, atheists would take care of him, as best they could, until he could take care of himself. It made it clear that, even though he no longer had a home in Bastrop, he had a home in this movement. When Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community proved itself to be a real community.

If atheism means we just do whatever we want to do... then apparently, what we want to do is take care of each other. Apparently, what we want to do is help people who have been injured. Apparently, what we want to do is speak out against wrongdoing. Apparently, what we want to do is put a stop to injustice. Apparently, what we want to do is make sacrifices for people in need.

A whole lot more than the Christians in Bastrop, Louisiana.

But then the sad again is that this was necessary at all.  That courage can consistently be rewarded with hatred is an international disgrace.  We should have done more for Constance McMillen, shouldn’t we?

Rebecca Watson at the global atheist convention in Dublin

Rebecca took part in a panel discussion on communicating atheism.  She did something important: she pointed out that there are barriers to women communicating atheism that simply don’t exist for men.  She illustrated this by reading out some emails she’s received which threaten rape among other things.  Her message was that you can certainly be a successful female atheist activist, but you’ll open yourself to risk by putting your head above the parapet. 

Now look at the comments.  Rebecca herself points out this one in particular, which is odious:

The fuck, AdamLore, is that she made a good point very well and you’ve just proved that point even further.

There are some other examples:

Woman this woman that... Spesial woman needs that... Bla bla bla... *yawn*

Woman at risk... Evil men.... Blablabla... So tired of this shit... Have a cup of "Shut the f**k up!"

Godfred78 27 minutes ago

Godfred78: Rebecca doesn’t demand special treatment. She just rather feels that she doesn’t deserve to be threatened with rape and death solely because she’s a female who communicates atheism and skepticism.  She doesn’t deserve to be told to shut the fuck up: if you can argue with her, go ahead, but don’t pretend what she has to say isn’t relevant or valuable. And don’t embarrass me as a male by proving her point even more. You’re tired of women wanting to be treated equally and your response is to demand that women shut up?  What a man.  Did I say man?  I meant wanker.

Friday, June 10, 2011

What Sarah Churchwell said

Well, what she said. About AC Grayling’s New College for the Humanities.  Let’s wait and see, but I think the benefit of the doubt is called for, isn’t it?

Beyond awful: woman jailed for being raped

The very concept of being jailed for adultery is itself beyond belief. But look at the kind of thing it leads to: women jailed for being raped.

Although the article is generally vaguely sympathetic, take a look at this:

Ms Gali spent eight months in a Dubai prison after the alleged assault by three co-workers while drinking at the resort bar in June 2008.

Why is the fact that she was drinking at the time of the alleged assault in any way relevant? I’m tempted to think that Dan Nancarrow - who wrote the article - has some sympathy with the argument that women are asking to be assaulted if they drink, are friendly or dress in a particular way.

Grayling’s school

Anthony Grayling is opening a university. He found some investors, did his sums, wrote a business plan and rounded up some genuine superstars to teach there.  What’s not to like?  Well, it’s a private school so it can charge more than the maximum for state universities of £9000 a year.  And it is: double that, in fact.  And this seems to have annoyed some people.  For example, Terry Eagleton, who calls it ‘odious’.

Anyway, why should anyone be surprised at the prospect of academics signing on for a cushy job at 25% more than the average university salary, with shares in the enterprise to boot?

What would prevent most of us from doing so is the nausea which wells to the throat at the thought of this disgustingly elitist outfit.

There’s always been private education in the UK. I don’t see a problem with it providing that everyone has equal access to state schools and that state schools are as good as they can be (which is where we might, admittedly, have a problem).  Why should universities be different to schools?  The rich will have access to better education just as they have access to better (or at least more expensive) food, clothes, cars and houses.  Personally, I’d rather focus on improving state education – and access to that education – than complaining about someone who wants to provide high-quality education privately.  Mostly to rich people, to be sure (although 20% of students will receive scholarships), but I don’t see the part where having more educated people is a bad thing.

Eagleton conjures up a fantasy world where Grayling’s outfit is a piratical entity like the insurance company in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.  The notion that it could be harmful to the education system as a whole is laughable. The charge that the lecturers are abandoning the ailing university system and leeching off its misfortune is equally muddled. They don’t have a duty to the university system. Indeed, at least one – Richard Dawkins – has already been forced to retire by that very system. It strikes me that his talents as a teacher are better used in actual – you know – teaching than in – say – not teaching. It’s difficult to see how this constitutes a betrayal of educational ideals.

Eagleton’s distaste seems to stem from a dubious thin-end-of-the-wedge argument. But this argument is a rather strange one: we should strive for mediocrity to ensure equal access to education?  And again, the rich already have routine access to better education at school level.  What’s the difference? I understand his discomfort to some extent. The argument is one of opportunity: it doesn’t seem fair that the rich might receive more and better opportunities solely because of their wealth.  But this seems to me a systemic problem related to how we measure and regulate the quality of education.  Our last government was less concerned about standards than about bums on seats, which I think was more harmful to the university system than anything Grayling is up to.

Another of Eagleton’s complaints is that the college is funded.  Yes, he really finds a problem in the fact that rich people have invested in something designed to make them money.  He’s not above being disingenuous either:

This piece of the so-called private sector will actually be parasitic on the public one, rather like surgeons who use public facilities for private operations. The college's degrees will be awarded by the University of London, which ought to know better than to collude in an enterprise which could result in seeing its professors poached by those with the biggest bank balances. London Uni will share its libraries and other facilities too, thus ensuring that its own students are forced to share resources with those who have bought their way in.

First, I think we can be pretty sure that London University will charge for use of its facilities, in one way or another. Second, students will not be ‘buying their way in’.  They’ll also need the grades.  He’s trying to make it sound as though money is the only qualification required.

The new college, staffed as it is by such notable liberals, will of course be open to all viewpoints. Well, sort of. One takes it there will not be a theology department.

No, and there aren’t physics or biology departments either, so what?

Eagleton’s piece is a string of personal attacks, the presentation of speculation as fact and outright fabrication.  This is my favourite part:

There will be a number of private unis where students are assigned fags and expect to stroll into the Foreign Office with a third-class degree, and a lot of other places which cannot afford to paint the walls.

Calm down, Terry.


Sometimes I think that what some people really can’t stand about people like PZ is that they are entertaining.  We already have accommodationists telling us we have to be more serious and gloomy: are they really so concerned about offending believers or are they jealous that nobody is taking any notice of them?

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Blog posts and videos from the World Atheist Convention 2011

Some blog posts. Some videos.

At the moment there are only two videos from the event, but I’m sure more will appear soon.

A superb example of utter nutjobbery

Look at this.  Just look at it.

This man is obsessed with finding phallic symbols (which are of course evil) in the artwork and even the very design of……. Denver airport. It’s quite an extraordinary thing to devote a life to.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Atheists need not apply

Jerry Coyne posts on WEIT about a Pew Survey showing what US voters are looking for in a presidential candidate for 2012.

Here’s the depressing part:

Having served in the military seems to be more desirable than possessing the hands-on experience of a former governor. Personally, I struggle to see why military service should count as a qualification for political office, but here we are.

People seem reasonably open to the idea of a female president, which is nice, but somehow sex makes more difference than colour. The cynic in me suspects that people think it’s not OK to appear racist, but fine to appear sexist. Or perhaps people are blind to their own sexism.

Atheists don’t stand a chance.  A candidate would be better off admitting an extramarital affair than a lack of belief in god.  Notice the wording of the category as well: the A-word isn’t even used.  We can’t blame this on confusion over the word ‘atheist’ which many people wrongly equate with a nihilistic viewpoint.  This is people not trusting people who don’t believe something irrational.

My own score would be no difference right down the line except for a preference for people with relevant experience.  I haven’t decided whether I’d be less likely to support someone who’s had an extramarital affair. On the one hand, everyone makes mistakes, I have no desire to be judgemental and I can’t bring myself to generalise about this kind of thing.  On the other, it’s evidence of dishonesty.  But on the other (third) hand, it’s not clear to me that dishonesty of that sort necessarily counts against being able to do the job. Would I feel differently if the category were “committed fraud” or “stole candy from baby”? Probably not: I’m less concerned with whether a crime has been committed as I am with whether someone has been hurt through dishonesty.

I suppose this means I’m more results-oriented than emotional, but we knew that.

More video of PZ Myers talking to Muslim creationists

Filmed by the Muslim creationists outside the World Atheist Convention.  More inconsequential babble from them, I’m afraid.  Once again, they constantly interrupt, change the subject, refuse to allow PZ to answer, babble instead and refuse to cite any evidence.

PZ is a lot more patient than I would have been.

Maryam Namazie at the World Atheist Convention

Maryam Namazie's brilliant speech at the World Atheist Convention.


I’m back from the Global Atheist Convention in Dublin and very good it was too. I’m too busy and guilty about taking time off to write much about it, but I have to congratulate Atheist Ireland for putting on an excellent gig.

If I have a complaint, it’s that the panels could have been designed a little better.  For example, the one on sexism in atheism was uncomfortably one-sided, but fortunately this was addressed later by Rebecca Watson.  While I’m delighted that none of the panel have encountered much in the way of sexism, I doubt this is the typical experience.  The joint message of the panel and Rebecca’s talk was that women can succeed if they push themselves forward, but that they expose themselves to risk by doing so. Given what I know of some of Rebecca’s past battles along these lines, I was puzzled that she wasn’t on the sexism panel anyway.  She’d have been the first person I’d have asked.

The accomodation/confrontation panel seemed a bit of a wasted opportunity.  I’d expected it to be a discussion between people with different views on the subject.  At the least, I expected a discussion about the relative merits of each.  Instead, most of the panellists talked about their experiences of confrontation which – while interesting – weren’t really on topic. Only Richard Green of Atheist UK really seemed to understand that there even is an ongoing battle.  Unfortunately, he was rather dull and I fear his message might have been lost on many.

These niggles aside, it was a great event.  We were invaded by some Muslim creationists, seemingly led by Hamza Andreas Tzortzis. He or one of his cohorts made a nuisance oh himself during one of Dawkins’ panel sessions by barking the usual creationist questions at him (video here, thanks Jerry).  You can hear his disingenuity (“no, really, I’m a student, I just want to learn”. Sure.) and the reaction of the audience, which is onto him immediately. The group remained outside for the remainder of the conference, spamming the twitter feed relentlessly with inconsequential babble and accosting people they wanted to ‘engage’ with. 

Ah, but it’s a slippery word, ‘engage’. It became increasingly clear that what they meant by ‘engage’ was ‘agree’.  When anyone argued with them, they said it wasn’t engagement and went back to gleefully saying that PZ and Richard refused to engage with them, knowing full well that they were inside the conference listening to talks.

According to the twitter feed, at one point PZ was talking to them outside when Dawkins walked out and saw what was happening, sighed “fuckwit” and went back inside.  I don’t blame him, they were every bit as dull and fuckheaded as any other variety of creationist. If anything, they were ruder and more bewildering than the average, constantly interrupting and changing the subject mid-sentence.  There’s no point in talking to such people.

PZ and Aaron Ra had a go, which you can see here. Don’t expect anything but babble from the creationists.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Daily Mail’s war on science

The Fail has outdone itself with this idiocy.

Women have called the shots at home for millions of years, scientists claim

Scientists may finally have confirmed what every woman from Raquel Welch to Wilma Flintstone has always suspected.

Even back in prehistoric times, the female of the species was very much the boss.

A study has found evidence of ‘alpha cavewomen’ roaming the plains and calling the shots while the menfolk slobbed at home.

Needless to say, the study said no such thing.  It said that in one area there’s evidence that more females than males had arrived from outside the area. Here’s how Nature reports it.  There’s no suggestion at all that the result imply females were alphas: that was entirely fabricated by the Daily Mail.

The Mail again, in possibly the most stupid collection of ‘paragraphs’ ever written:

It also raises the intriguing possibility that Fred Flintstone, the eternally henpecked half of the cartoon partnership with Wilma, might actually have mirrored life on Earth all those centuries ago.

And that Raquel Welch, the doeskin-bikini-clad heroine of One Million Years BC, could have got her movie portrayal spot on.

Alpha cavewoman appears to have travelled far wider than her male counterpart, the research showed. She might even have been the one who went out clubbing, so to speak – reversing the popular conception that it was the bloke who bashed the girl on the head and dragged her home by the hair.

But something seems to have happened to the evolution of the species after those times between 1.7million and 2.4million years ago.

A couple more millennia would have to pass before female independence re-emerged with the bra-burning liberation of the Swinging Sixties.

Not only is this astonishingly stupid, ignorant and glib, it also manages to be numbingly sexist. The ‘joke’ that women are in charge because as everyone knows they nag their husbands was never funny. Besides, in the Flintstones, Wilma was confined to the house doing housework, so the ‘joke’ doesn’t even work.  But at least it was an excuse to put a picture of Raquel Welsh in a fur bikini.

But we all know that Mail readers are terrified that women might one day achieve equality.  The greatest harm of this article is to science.  Look at one of the first comments:

What a silly conclusion these scientists arrived at! All right, so the evidence of strontium in teeth showed that men largely lived and died near their birthplaces, while half of women were likely to find new homes during their lifetime. Since when does this translate to "alpha cavewomen roaming the plains and calling the shots?" The real explanation is obvious. It was men, warriors, who owned and guarded tribal territory. This remained largely unchanged except for new conquests, so more men stayed put. Women on the other hand were traded and exchanged with other tribes, possibly in exchange for property, possibly taken in raids on occasion. However it was done, swapping women among different tribes was a healthy practice that avoided the problems of inbreeding. Naturally this meant far larger numbers of women than men were moved around during their lifetime.

- Cal Brock, Phoenix, Arizona, 02/6/2011 06:44

OK, so the guy’s an idiot and there’s no reason at all to take any notice of what he says.  I hardly know where to begin pulling his bullshit apart.  But he demonstrates very well that when the media fabricate stories, people believe them.  They believe that scientists are stupid, that science is a pointless exercise at best and that science funding should be cut, except possibly for researching cures for whatever their family members died of.

Shame on Paul Harris and Fiona Macrea (wait a minute, it took two people to write this?) for writing this sexist, anti-science, idiotic crap.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Ireland’s disappeared

Foul indeed. It’s horrific. Ophelia Benson on Ireland’s disappeared:

…it was Ireland’s hidden scandal: an estimated 30,000 women were sent to church-run laundries, where they were abused and worked for years with no pay. Their offense, in the eyes of society, was to break the strict sexual rules of Catholic Ireland, having children outside wedlock.