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Disabled vet stalks WBC members, invites heckler’s veto

A disabled Afghanistan veteran was arrested today in my hometown of Wichita Kansas on charges of stalking members of the Westboro Baptist Church:

Prosecutors charged [Ryan] Newell, 26, with five misdemeanors Thursday, including stalking and three counts of criminal use of a firearm in an incident involving the Phelps family of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church. He also was charged with false impersonation of a law enforcement officer. . .

Sedgwick County sheriff’s detectives arrested Newell mid-morning Tuesday in the Wichita City Hall parking lot after a detective saw him following a van that carried Westboro church members.

The church members were meeting in City Hall with police officials. Detectives found Newell in a vehicle backed into a parking space. In the vehicle, investigators found two handguns, a rifle and more than 90 rounds of ammunition, sources have said.

The stalking charge accuses Newell of actions targeted at Westboro members and putting them in fear for their safety.

The weapons charges accuse him of unlawfully carrying and concealing or possessing with “intent to use” an M4 rifle, .45-caliber Glock handgun and .38-caliber Smith and Wesson handgun.

“I just can’t imagine him wanting to hurt anybody,” his grandmother, Bonnie Crosby, said.

Agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives went to Newell’s home, and his wife turned over items — including firearms — to law enforcement, said a source close to the investigation.

Newell, who appeared in the courtroom through a video connection with the Sedgwick County Jail, was seated in a wheelchair and was wearing an orange jail jumpsuit. He was ordered to have no contact with members of the Westboro Baptist Church or the Phelps family.

Two lawyers appeared in court offering to represent Newell, who grew up in Goddard. He told Judge Ben Burgess that he had also received offers from a number of other lawyers.

Burgess quipped, “The more the merrier, I suppose.”

Newell remains in jail on $500,000 bond.

I’ve already seen sentiments along the lines that the police should’ve looked the other way and allowed him to shoot some people, that the WBC’s protests should be banned on the grounds that they will provoke this kind of reaction, even that the members of Westboro should have their children taken away because their protests are subjecting them to violence.  Probably no body of people comes as close to being universally reviled in the United States as the WBC, but even so the idea that this justifies murdering them is too insane for me to contemplate.  I can’t even giggle sarcastically about the idea, though I fully understand people’s reasons for loathing the group.

I’ve been aware of the WBC before most people outside of Kansas, probably, given that they showed up at my brother’s 1995 law school graduation at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.  Guess they thought someone gay was graduating?  I was in high school at the time and wanted to confront them, but my mom said it would be a really bad idea.  They’ve gained steadily in notoriety over the years, first rocketing into it in 1998 with their protest of Matthew Shepherd’s funeral and subsequent funerals of gays waving signs declaring that God hates fags, and then in 2005 when they started protesting funerals of soldiers who had died in Afghanistan and Iraq on the grounds that their deaths are punishments from the Lord for the country’s moral decline.  I think pretty much everyone knows who their patriarch Fred Phelps is by now.  He’s a former civil rights attorney who attended the same law school as my father (though not at the same time) but was disbarred and apparently went a bit insane.  He has thirteen children, four of whom are estranged from the family, and I believe the rest have been trained up as diligent sign-waving homophobes.  People make parties out of counter-protesting them now– they show up in crazy costumes waving signs of their own, usually vastly out-number the WBC crowd (not a big church population), and have a grand time.  But the WBC’s practice of protesting the funerals of soldiers has infuriated people to the point that the Supreme Court is currently trying to decide whether they have the right to do so. 

That being the case…with these claims that their right to protest in general should be taken away, and even that their children should be taken from them, I’m hearing “Ground Zero mosque! OMG!” all over again.  It’s the heckler’s veto— the argument that we can restrict people’s freedom of speech on the grounds that it may provoke violence.  Effectively, it allows people who are willing to be violent to restrict the rights of those whose speech they would use as justification for violence, by punishing the speech rather than the violent response.  We cannot do that, whether the speech in question is admirable or despicable.  Hecklers are people who prevent the speech of others by drowning them out.  Violence attempts to silence others by frightening them, physically incapacitating them, or in the case of a heckler’s veto by getting the government to outlaw certain kinds of speech in the name of their own protection.  It really disturbs me that, hated as the WBC is, people would leap to this conclusion upon hearing that a potential candidate has stepped up to the plate.  Contributing to this man’s defense or expressing “wry” disappointment that he didn’t actually kill anyone, to my eyes, looks like an expression of sympathy for his actions and gratitude that someone (not us, of course) was willing to show up and do the dirty work.  Rather like the remarks at various points between half-hearted condemnation and whole-hearted support that came from various pro-life activists when Scott Roeder murdered Dr. George Tiller last year, also in Wichita.

Everything about that is wrong to me.  I can’t be that kind of cheerleader, no matter who the gun is aimed at.  And I can’t use the fact that someone else is willing to aim the gun as justification for legally preventing his target from doing whatever is angering him (and maybe me) so badly.

God doesn’t like shopping on Sundays

From CBC News:

A debate over Sunday shopping has led P.E.I.’s transportation minister to suggest God had struck down the leader of the Opposition, who fell and injured herself after introducing a bill to allow Sunday openings year-round.
Opposition leader Olive Crane introduced the private member’s bill earlier this week. It would remove Canada’s last restrictions on Sunday shopping. Currently on the Island, stores must close Sundays between Christmas Day and Victoria Day. The bill passed second reading Thursday.Following an appearance on CBC Television’s Compass Monday, Crane slipped on the television set, injuring her ankle and wrist. Transportation Minister Ron MacKinley brought up the incident during the debate on the bill Thursday.
“I’m not what you call a saint, but I believe in God and I believe in [doing] the best I can do. You were at CBC pushing Sunday shopping, were you not? On TV?” he asked Crane. “Right after that interview what happened?”
“We had a bit of an accident,” Crane responded.
“Does that not tell you something?” said MacKinley.
“Like what?” said Crane.
“Like the Lord works in mysterious ways, and maybe you should start worrying what’s going on here? We are going all the time, we’re getting farther and farther away, whether it’s prayers in the schools or whatever it is,” said MacKinley.

If that’s the tack Mr. MacKinley wants to take, I assume he will accept any future accidents involving himself, his family, friends, or anyone who happens to share his ideology as judgments from God.  Because apparently God expresses disagreement with positions on local politics by breaking people’s ankles– perhaps MacKinley actually worships Don Corleone. 

Quote of the day

“The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all. ” — H.L. Mencken

Someone quoted it in response to this case, but I see examples which fit just as well or better all of the time.

What’s a hate group?

From Dispatches From the Culture Wars:

 The Southern Poverty Law Center has added several “mainstream” religious right groups to their list of hate groups for their zealous opposition to equal rights for gays and lesbians, including the American Family Association and the Family Research Council. And the theocons are throwing quite a fit over it.

I’ve said many times that I think the SPLC sometimes paints with too broad a brush so it’s always a good idea to examine the evidence on which they base such conclusions. You can see their report on these anti-gay groups here and judge for yourself. I think they make a stronger case against some than against others.

“No organization better defines what a hate group is all about than the Southern Poverty Law Center,” said Robert Knight, Washington correspondent for Coral Ridge Ministries. “Smearing legitimate groups merely for disagreeing about homosexuality is a very hateful act.”

But the evidence is pretty good in some cases. The American Family Association, for example, has hired Bryan Fischer as one of their chief spokesmen and he has repeatedly offered views that are bigoted and hateful beyond any legitimate doubt. For example, he has argued for forcing gays and lesbians into “reparative therapy” to “cure” them. He has called gays “domestic terrorists.”

Most bizarrely, he has claimed that Adolf Hitler and all the leading Nazis were militant homosexuals, declaring, “[h]omosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and 6 million dead Jews.” He claims that only homosexuals could be as savage as the Nazis were.

Is this bigotry and hatred? Of course it is. No reasonable person could conclude otherwise.

 I sifted through the SLPC’s list, and every group on it is doing far more than “merely disagreeing about homosexuality.”  Some are advocating that homosexuality be made illegal, not just by reversing Lawrence v. Texas but by making sodomy punishable by execution.  At the very least, every group on the list is actively lying about homosexuality in order to bolster its case, which I would say qualifies for the term “hatred.”   I know what a contentious statement this is, but I think it’s possible to be bigoted without being hateful.  To be bigoted, in my understanding, is to hold prejudices, and all it takes to hold prejudices is simple ignorance and the inability or refusal to think critically about that particular subject.  By that standard, I think people who disapprove of homosexuality because they think God disapproves of it could be called bigoted but not hateful.  The hateful ones are the ones who form organizations with wholesome names like the American Family Association which are in actuality specifically devoted to making homosexuals miserable.  The ones who made ridiculous distortions of the truth like claiming that to be gay is to secretly be a pedophile, or that gays have an organized agenda to convert everyone in the country to homosexuality, or that the Nazi Party was controlled by homosexuals.  People who make such claims aren’t simply ignorant or mistaken– they have lost touch with reality, because that’s something hatred tends to make people do.  As the SLPC’s statement says:

Generally, the SPLC’s listings of these groups is based on their propagation of known falsehoods — claims about LGBT people that have been thoroughly discredited by scientific authorities — and repeated, groundless name-calling. Viewing homosexuality as unbiblical does not qualify organizations for listing as hate groups.

People who insist on repeating falsehoods in order to justify their opposition to others are hard to reason with, which is what makes them scary.  It’s what makes them important to watch, which is why this list was made.   I think it’s important to point out that while ad hominem arguments (arguments “against the man”) are still fallacious, the marketplace of ideas can’t be allowed to keep viewing groups who have a demonstrated willingness to lie their asses off as credible.  Dan Savage has some commentary on this topic specifically relating to the SPLC’s list, but I think it’s definitely worth quoting from his post entitled When Will We Reach The Tipping Point?:

I’m old enough to remember when “objectivity” required that a racist troglodyte be included in any discussion about the civil rights of African Americans. I can remember—I can remember barely (I’m not that old)—when racist bigots were regularly invited on television and asked to write op-eds. They argued in favor of segregation and against interracial marriage and were treated like reasonable people who represented one side of an important political debate. (“African Americans: Are they human?”) Amazing but true: Within my living memory, a person could go on TV and argue against the basic civil equality of African Americans, or take a stand against interracial marriage (always out of “concern” for the poor “mixed-race children” of “selfish” interracial couples), and be invited back the next week to serve up more of the same. People made careers out of trafficking in what we now recognize as baldly racist hate speech.

But then a day came when the racist troglodytes weren’t welcome on television anymore. Our culture reached a tipping point. We decided, as a society, that discrimination based on race was wrong, full stop. There were still racists out there, of course, and there still are. But they were no longer treated like respectable people with a legitimate points of view. They were bigots, they were cut off, they were cast out.

For a few days after Tyler Clementi’s suicide, it looked like we might be reaching that same tipping point on LGBT civil rights—the same tipping point we reached on race and the equality of the sexes: bigots would no longer be welcome to pollute our airwaves, our op-ed pages, our culture, and our society with their hatred. Just as we had recognized the harm that racism was doing to our society and said “enough” (which didn’t end racism), and just as we had recognized the harm that sexism was doing to our society and said “enough” (which didn’t end sexism), maybe we were finally ready to recognize the harm that homophobia is doing to our society and were prepared to say “enough” (not that it would end homophobia).

In my flu-induced delirium I thought we were there. I was wrong.

So….Skepticon

I’m glad I went, and I had a good time.  That said, I most likely won’t go back.

It’s amazing, what they’re doing.  A free conference in the Midwest for non-believers, with this kind of lineup of stellar speakers?  Anybody in the area who is remotely interested in these topics would be well-served in checking it out.  This is the third year of Skepticon in Springfield MO, and the list of speakers includes most of the same people from the previous two years but keeps getting larger.  Normally in order to attend a sizable gathering for skeptics, you’d have to be on either the west or east coast.  I would love to attend The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas at some point, but seem to recall the tickets as costing around $400 for the entire weekend, which is beyond the means of many people, let alone college students.

And college students from Missouri State University are the people who instigated, planned, and organized this meeting.  The primary organizer, JT Eberhard, almost never stopped moving.  He managed to sit down and listen to a few minutes of some talks, but from what I could tell he was mostly running around making sure things went smoothly.  That’s what being in charge of a conference is like– the people throwing the party are usually the last ones to have time to enjoy it.  And this conference was like a party in a lot of ways.  In a rare spare moment I met JT and we talked for a bit.  He explained that the intent was to give skeptics a chance to get together, see that there are lots of others like them, curse a lot, later drink a lot, and have fun.

Now, to the controversial part.  I don’t know if Jeff Wagg’s blog post which said that Skepticon is not actually about skepticism but rather atheism is the only openly voiced complaint to that effect, but it seems to be the one getting the most attention.  Wagg’s post is, on the balance, not at all offensive.  In fact, he goes out of his way to note his respect for the conference and its organizers, refers to his ruminating on this subject as “navel gazing,” and in general is about as self-effacing as could be.  The title of his post, “Are Atheists Delusional?” is deliberately provocative and Wagg immediately notes that he believes nothing of the sort, but is simply trying to echo a talk given by Richard Carrier at Skepticon entitled “Are Christians Delusional?”  I still think he could’ve used a better title, but so be it. Wagg’s argument:

I don’t believe the schedule shows “a myriad of skeptical issues.” The e-mail is an admission that the organizers of Skepticon believe that Skepticism = Atheism and that the event is designed to combat religion, specifically Christianity. I believe that if you equate skepticism with anything other than science, you’ve missed the point. As for Christianity, skepticism has nothing to say except about testable claims associated therein. Bleeding statues? Yes, skepticism comes into play. Jesus rose and is in heaven? Seems unlikely, but there’s not a lot more to say. . . The pro-atheist cause is an entirely different endeavor with a community that overlaps strongly with the skeptical community. Skepticism is about drawing conclusions that are proportioned to the available evidence. That’s it. And I think keeping the two things separate if [sic] vitally important.

This message was not taken at all well by Eberhard, who responded at AtheismResources.com, or PZ Myers, who has been a speaker at Skepticon since its inception.  Eberhard notes that several of the speakers scheduled were expected to talk about skepticism generally, and even if it were a conference all about atheism he wouldn’t care:

My first response is that even if we were a purely atheist convention, so what?  Skepticism leads to certain conclusions like homeopathy doesn’t work or that psychics are frauds.  Just as certain as it leads to those conclusions, it also leads to the conclusion that god doesn’t exist (or that anybody claiming to have good reason to believe that god exists has done so in error).  And just like the previous conclusions, people who fail to grasp the godlessness of the universe often hamstring society. 

PZ, predictably, denounced Wagg’s comments as “stupid” concerns about “harming the cause.”  He then linked back to JT’s commentary saying “I think we can tell where the future of skepticism lies,” which caused JT to tweet:

@pzmyers calls me as the future of skepticism, links to me bitch-slapping JWagg. So flattered I shit my pants. 

Let’s back up a bit.

I’ve been following the Skepticon Twitter feed throughout (#sk3), and now that it’s over I noticed there are a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings being voiced, sometimes with people going so far as to say that they’re not looking forward to going back to the “real world” after Skepticon. That’s something people might say about any vacation or trip, and is in fact a regular post-con feeling for people who attend big events like DragonCon or ComicCon. But specifically what people are referring to is the time they spent amongst fellow unbelievers.   The blog for Skepticon 2 summarizes the event somewhat tongue-in-cheek but not untruthfully as “We’re inviting a bunch of famous atheists to Springfield to criticize religion and explain how it’s very dangerous.”  The program for Skepticon 3, on its front page under the title, says “Unbuckling the Bible Belt” and the History section on the back reads:

The Skepticon series began in October of 2008 when a small group of pirates decided that they wanted to make a difference in the town of Springfield, MO.  They then somehow convinced PZ Myers and Richard Carrier to come to the Missouri State Campus to spread skepticism and criticize religion.

It’s admirable that this summary’s author acknowledges that spreading skepticism and criticizing religion are not identical ventures, and I hope he/she would also agree that criticizing religion is not necessarily even a subset of skepticism.  If skepticism means thinking critically and demanding evidence for the truth of an assertion before accepting it as true, which is how I define it, then one can quite easily criticize religion without being skeptical at all.  And, let’s be honest, doing it that way is both easier and more fun for a lot of people, just as criticizing anything you want to be critical about can be easier and more fun if you’re not actually concerned with evaluating the facts.  During his talk on Saturday morning, DJ Grothe described atheism as a kind of skepticism toward a particular topic– belief in God.  He compared it to “a-UFO-ism,” in that an atheist is a person who doesn’t believe in God just as an a-UFO-ist would be a person who disbelieves in flying saucers.  But disbelief in a thing and skepticism regarding that thing are not identical.  People do not necessarily disbelieve in things because they are critical thinkers any more than they believe in things for that reason.  The irony in maintaining that people believe in God because they are stupid is that this conclusion is not at all bright itself, and atheists who maintain such while smugly congratulating each other on their critical thinking skills are not much fun to spend time with.

No, I’m not going to claim that this description fits the majority of people who attend Skepticon.  I will say, however, that creating an opportunity to criticize religion as an end unto itself is an invitation for people to engage in that sort of behavior.  It creates an atheist echo chamber– as DJ put it, people saying “I’m really smart and so are you, so you should agree with me.”  That’s not a bad thing because it “hurts the movement,” though it almost certainly does.  It’s a bad thing because at that point it’s no longer about skepticism, but cronyism.

The two areas of concern to be discussed during a conference on skepticism could be labeled Topic-Driven, or “things to be skeptical about,” and Theory-Driven, or “how/why to be skeptical.”  Most of the talks and both panels in this case were theory-driven, and that’s okay.  But the topic-driven talks actually served to highlight things that should be discussed during the theory-driven ones.  Amanda Marcotte, for example, commented during her interesting talk on how irrationality nurtures sexism that religion acts as a “blank slate” when it comes to encouraging prejudice– because it’s a matter of faith and therefore doesn’t demand the same burden of proof that other areas of belief do, it can be used to reinforce any pre-existing biases people have.  That’s an interesting hypothesis, but she didn’t supply evidence for it.  It could be that religion can only reinforce certain types of bias, or that only certain types of religion can.  Or it could be that religion is actually more likely to produce bias where it previously didn’t exist.  I think that’s unlikely, actually, but it’s possible.  And it’s a discussion worth having, considering the breadth of disagreement about how much blame religion should receive when people invoke it to justify their bigoted thoughts and acts.   These topics don’t have to be avoided because they’re weighty or boring, either– David Fitzgerald, who went next, managed to make an interesting and funny talk out of the ostensibly very dry subject of differing representations of Jesus in historical literature. You don’t have to swap skepticism for ideology to have a good time.  Man, I hope that you don’t. 

Wagg’s principle complaint is that he doesn’t think religion is an appropriate topic for skepticism past a certain point, and that point is “testable claims.”  In his view, bleeding statues qualify, but resurrection does not.  Bleeding statues and such are the domain of investigator Joe Nickell, who also spoke at Skepticon and explicitly rejects the label of “debunker” because he wants it noted that the falsity of supernatural claims is not a foregone conclusion for him.  But could Nickell investigate the topic of resurrection?  Sure he could– by applying what we know about biology to specific claims that someone came back to life.  And aside from cases of someone flat-lining and being revived via defibrillation and the sort, what we know is that people don’t come back to life.  Therefore, the skeptical stance to such a proposition is not to deny it outright, but it’s also certainly not to believe it, or even to adopt the kind of agnostic position we might have when being asked what color socks the president is wearing today.  The skeptical stance regarding the claim of resurrection is: Everything we know says that it’s incredibly unlikely that that thing happened, so I do not believe it.  Not only is there incredibly sketchy evidence for the resurrection of a man, but there is evidence against it.  Skepticism can be applied to any and all empirical claims, and the resurrection of a person, like so many other religious claims, is empirical.  Hence, fair game.  Richard Dawkins goes so far as to say that a universe which was deliberately created would look different from one which wasn’t, so our understanding of the universe can be counted as evidence against the existence of the creator god in whom so many believe.  Essentially, he claims that the hypothesis offered by Intelligent Design, effectively the teleological argument, is actually refuted by the available evidence its proponents intend to confirm it.*

So religion is not at all a subject which should be counted as out of bounds for skeptics– so long as they are being skeptical about it, and not simply mocking and condemning it.  If someone is the type of person who cares enough about religion to have become an atheist as a conclusion to a lot of thought and research, it baffles me why they wouldn’t be interested in what research has to say about why people are religious in the first place, and what evidence science might have to offer about religious claims.  Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell has its critics among believers and scholars (and many who fit only one of those categories), but in addition to saying 1) Hey, we shouldn’t consider religion a sui generis topic that isn’t susceptible to the same scrutiny we give every other claim about reality, and 2) Here are the most common arguments for theism and why they fail philosophically, which are both important messages, he also delves into the considerable body of research on why and how people actually believe.  Which, I think, is the next logical step for a true skeptic so that he/she doesn’t fall into the “they’re just stupid/evil” trap.  And the explanations are there, if you just look for them– trust me.  If you’d prefer to believe that the majority of world’s population are actually just stupid and/or evil, I can’t help you.  But I can say that that’s not a skeptical position to take. 

So, I guess that means I don’t agree with Jeff Wagg.  But neither do I necessarily agree with DJ, whose perspective is right-on but he doesn’t seem to be skeptical enough about skeptics.  I don’t think he acknowledges that they’re vulnerable to the same tendencies as everybody else in terms of wanting to belong, and forming an “us vs. them” mentality.  That’s how you get people who think that being skeptical is about your position on topics– a conclusion rather than an approach, which is not how science works.  It’s not about making sure everyone agrees and celebrating that….quite to the contrary, it’s about pulling out the disagreements and examining them, finding out which arguments are legitimate and why. That’s fun. That’s skepticism. 

*Is Dawkins right about that?  Maybe, but that discussion could go on forever, and I don’t honestly think that most atheists became atheists by applying the teleological argument in reverse.  Even if they agree that evolution demonstrates that a creator god who directly intervened in existence to create each species is unnecessary, that belief is not what made them atheists.  People were skeptical about the existence of gods long before evolutionary theory was even a glimmer of an idea, as even William Dembski will admit when pressed (perhaps by Christopher Hitchens), and it’s possible to find atheists today who either deny evolution (rare) or don’t actually understand evolution that well though they know they’re “supposed” to believe it (much more common).  The Hitchens/Dembski debate from the 18th has been posted on Youtube, by the way. Worth a watch I think.

Odds and ends

I’m getting ready to go to Skepticon 3 tomorrow.  It doesn’t actually start until Friday, but it’s a good seven hours to Springfield, Missouri so I figured I’d allow a day for the drive and then hopefully wake up fresh and open-minded Friday morning.  I love a conference you can attend in a t-shirt and jeans– well, probably with a cardigan as it’s a little cooler up there. Living in Texas can spoil a person.  

Rather than addressing the TSA outcry going on right now about people having to choose between either a startlingly detailed full-body scan or a startlingly invasive full-body  rubdown if they want to fly, I’m going to link to two people who have provided full-throated, comprehensive rants on the subject:
Jennifer from Ravings From a Feral Genius with Sex Abuse Via The TSA: It’s Actually Come To This
and Ken from Popehat with Gropers to Gropees: Shut Up And Take It Or Hit The Road

Suffice to say that I’m very happy not to have to fly anymore, at least for the foreseeable future.  I will indeed hit the road. 

“Psychic” Kids

Well, this sounds like about the worst idea for a TV show ever.

Jen from Skepchick writes:

In summer of 2008, the American television channel A&E premiered a series called Psychic Kids: Children of the Paranormal and has just begun airing the second season this November. Presided over by professional psychic Chip Coffey, and a few other mediums and paranormal experts, the show finds kids, who tend to range in age from 12 to 18 and who have experiences with visions, demonic possessions and other assorted unexplained and disturbing phenomena. The gathered experts then teach these “children of the paranormal” how to use their psychic powers to resolve their problems while filming it for a weekly, hour-long television episode.I’ll start my serious commentary with an admission – I have not watched this show. I intended to, when I first saw the commercials for the second season and thought it would be a good topic to write about. But at my very first research stop – the official Psychic Kids website – I realized their own description gave me more than enough to work with:

PSYCHIC KIDS: CHILDREN OF THE PARANORMAL™, profiles children who live with an incredible secret: they have psychic abilities. Feeling scared and isolated, these kids have nowhere to turn…until now. Help is on the way in the form of psychic/mediums Chip Coffey, Chris Fleming and Kim Russo, who themselves grew up with these senses, and licensed psychotherapist Edy Nathan, who has more than 20 years experience.
In this intense journey, the experts draw on their own personal experiences, training and unique outlook on life to bring troubled kids together to show them how to harness their abilities and, ultimately, show them that they’re not alone in this world.

Okay. In case you don’t see what’s wrong with the above paragraphs, let me unpack it a bit. Basically, a group of grown adults are singling out children who are troubled, who feel scared and isolated, and who claim to be haunted by evil spirits and possessed by demons, and telling them their problems can only be fixed by learning how to use their psychic powers in front of television cameras for the financial benefit of said adults. Clearer now?
If there ever were a case that screams exactly what the harm is in letting psychics go unchallenged, this is it. Not only are kids and their parents getting sucked into believing things with no solid evidence, but targeting children with documented psychological problems and giving them bogus solutions precludes them getting professional medical therapy and assistance they obviously could use. Even worse, televising the entire process normalizes the idea for the audience, which might include other troubled kids and parents who decide to try the same “solutions” with even less-scrupulous paranormal experts who aren’t being held to even the low standard of honesty television documentation imposes.
Not only is there nothing redeeming about Psychic Kids, it’s not even harmless entertainment. It’s actively harmful, and the victims are not adults who made their own mistakes, but kids in need who are being deceived and exploited. In short, it’s repulsive. The only real solution to this show is to out it for what it is and level the critical thinking influence to starve it out of of existence.

Now, as already noted I’m not a parent.  But…..if I had a child who was feeling alone, scared, and troubled, I’m pretty sure that my first impulse wouldn’t be to hand him/her over to this guy to be on his television show.  Being on any show at that point sounds like a pretty bad idea, honestly.  And if the kids on this show are simply playing a role and don’t believe themselves to have psychic powers at all, that’s not a great deal better– they’re still conveying the idea to viewers that this is what you should do when you have kids or are a kid like the ones these people are presenting themselves to be.

The readers on Skepchick have started a letter-writing campaign to tell A&E what a spectacularly bad idea this show is.

ETA:  Also covered on She Thought and Pharyngula.  

12-year-old girl beaten after Christian youth meeting for “having a boy’s name.”

From Change.org:

What’s in a name? A 12-year-old girl at Hernando Middle School in Mississippi was beaten by five fellow students — reportedly because they said her name, Randi, was “a boy name.”
“They started talking about me like I was a man,” she told local news station WREG. “That I shouldn’t be in this world. And my name was a boy name.” The four girls and a boy surrounded her after a Fellowship of Christian Students meeting, and, she said, kicked her in the rib and leg, hit her in the face, sat on her, pushed her face into the floor, and threw her onto a cafeteria table.
Apparently, the incident was caught on surveillance camera, but in order to maintain student privacy, the film has not been released. A school administrator issued a statement, said WREG, that “fighting is not tolerated and that disciplinary action will be taken to the fullest extent of the law.” No charges were filed, however, because the police were not called. Whether the attack was an isolated incident or part of ongoing bullying remains unknown.
The student in question was not said to be LGBT — but whether she is or not doesn’t matter. She was beaten because she was perceived to be in some way not conforming to her gender. That is yet another reason schools need to include discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in diversity and anti-bullying programs. It is not just LGBT students at risk, but potentially others as well. Students, teachers, and staff must learn that even characteristics some people might view as “deviant” or “sinful” are still no excuse for violence and bullying.

The part in bold is what is most important to me.  I’m not going to blame the kids’ Christian youth group for this, much less Christianity as a whole, much less religion as a whole.  For all we know, the timing of this attack is irrelevant to the motivation.  The only reason I think it’s worth mentioning at all is that perhaps in the future, the Fellowship of Christian Students could emphasize that beating the crap out of a girl because you think her name is boyish is not exactly loving behavior

My continuing suspicion is that at the root of homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, and any other gender-role-based hatred you will find a rigid belief in the necessity of conforming to gender roles– a belief that there are ways that men and women should behave, look, and apparently even be named, and there is something wrong with people who do not conform to these standards.  This suspicion first occurred to me while being assaulted and called a dyke for having short hair in middle school, and has pretty much developed and strengthened from that point on.

The more complex problem is where this fervent desire to maintain gender conformity comes from, and everybody seems to have a different answer to that.  Some people are willing to chalk it up entirely to religion, and indeed it certainly seems like most religious systems on the planet have some kind of prescriptions about how men should be and how women should be, but I think it’s more likely that those prescriptions became codified in religion because they existed prior to it.  That because people already thought that such conformity was necessary, they decided that that’s what God/the gods/the universe want as well.  There are even (even?  I guess this is not surprising at all) people who use evolutionary psychology to make the argument that men and women have evolved to be certain things and therefore that’s how they should be.  I have no issue with arguments that there are male and female behavioral tendencies that have evolved, but once you start getting normative with that stuff, I will whack you soundly over the head with the Mallet of Naturalistic Fallacy. 

I’m guessing the parents of the kids who beat this girl up didn’t specifically tell them that people who diverge from tightly prescribed gender roles have something wrong with them and should be punished.  But there are a lot of ways to convey that message less explicitly and most people don’t seem to see anything wrong with doing so.  No, you’re not going to catch me saying that kids should only be given gender-neutral toys or toys intended for the opposite sex, boys should be enrolled in ballet and girls signed up for the baseball team whether they like it or not, etc.  But while I know full well that kids like to have things simple and categorized while they’re young, I can’t help but think that accommodating that urge when it comes to gender is going to serve them poorly later on, and certainly that actively providing and enforcing views about gender conformity when they’re at any age is encouraging them to become like the students in this story.

Of course, maybe these kids just hate Randi and were using any excuse to go after her.  “You have a boy’s name” is such a stupid reason to go after anyone that it’s entirely possible.  But the gender role conformity thing shouldn’t be dignified by calling it anything other than stupid.

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