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Beliefs? I’ve got ’em.

This meme spotted on Facebook. It’s far from the first one I’ve seen…hence this post.
Hat tip to Ed Brayton for pointing it out in annoyance. 

I have beliefs. Some of them are almost certainly false, but I still have them. I do the best I can to hold onto the true ones* and let the false ones go, but sometimes I fail.

I’m hardly rational, all the time– I’m practically made of biases. I can try to correct for those, and realizing that I have them is a huge part of that, but I can’t make them go away.

 My default state is not rationality– rationality is what happens when I’m able to focus on an issue and carefully consider it without my emotions running high, using the tools I’ve been taught. Sometimes I use them wrong. I don’t always use the ones I should.

I let the beliefs related to theism go, some time ago– most of them, but I still tend to anthropomorphize all kinds of things, see patterns that aren’t there or at least aren’t there intentionally, and sometimes I’m guilty of magical thinking.

In all of these things, I am very like every other atheist out there. Because I’m also a human being, and that’s how we work. If you consider yourself a rationalist, please stop pretending otherwise. That really isn’t rational.

*Knowledge being justified true belief. 

Repost: Equality worth working for

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”  — Martin Luther King, Jr.

The true meaning, mind you– not merely what is reflected in the law, but in how we see each other.  How we evaluate each other’s worth, respectability, humanity.  Not by the color of each other’s skin, but the content of our characters.  That, in turn, will reveal our collective character.  

Dr. King’s foundation for his beliefs was unquestionably in his faith.  Being a Baptist minister, that is where he found his strength: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”  For him, the glory of the Lord could only be revealed when people of different colors could love and value each other as equals.  Jennifer Sanborn writes:

You see, for me, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is first and foremost a Baptist minister, and a child of the same. I imagine it is because I am also the child of a Baptist pastor (and grandchild of two others) that I take particular pride in placing “the Reverend” at the start of his name. “Reverend” is a title that he earned with his education and his occupation, but also a title to which he was called, bringing unparalleled dignity and relevance to what it means to serve society as a religious leader.

I’m sure many people feel similarly, now as well as when MLK originally gave that iconic speech, which was essentially a sermon to America on the meaning of loving one’s fellow man.  As a non-believer I find no conflict in welcoming that sermon, and only a slight bit of discomfort in wondering how he would have responded if asked whether atheists would be included in the pluralistic group exhorted to “sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”  I won’t remotely pretend, however, that there is any comparing the lot of atheists to that of black Americans in 1963.  That isn’t the point.  The point is, from whence is a committment to equality derived for those who don’t believe it was God-given?

It would be a fair bet to say that prejudice almost always precedes rationalization, whatever that rationalization is.  I’m pretty sure that human nature, perhaps ironically, includes both the justification for equality as well as the explanation for why humans are so prone to denying it.  And that is because of two salient facts:

1. Both science and religion have, at many points and many places in history, been used to rationalize bigotry. 
2. And yet, neither one has ever or will ever come up with a good reason to treat people unequally.  

If either of the above points seems at all contentious, remember that the numerous mentions of slavery in the Bible were used as a  primary reason to believe that black slavery was part of God’s divine order in the South, as well as the legacy of Spencerian “social Darwinism” which maintained that certain races were inherently inferior.  After all, if it weren’t so, why were they doing so poorly?  Why were they so easily conquered and used for the purposes of the more powerful white Europeans and Americans, if not because they are inherently inferior by evolution or design, whichever your preference? 

I’m still in the midst of my very long quest to discover what exactly human nature is, anyway, but the revelation of the above facts in my life can be attributed primarily to the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker around 2004.  You see, after (and before) publishing a book called The Blank Slate which used powerful data from experimental psychology to demolish both the idea that there is no such thing as human nature as well as various myths about exactly what that nature is, Pinker and every other psychologist who uses evolution as a means to explain why humans behave as we do has been hounded by accusations that their work will be used to justify prejudice. 

And you know what? That’s exactly what has happened.  And it still happens.  People think that if they can show differences between the psychology of men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals, blacks and whites, they will be able to show that treating any one or more of those groups as inherently less human is justified.  I really don’t want to get into all of the specific attempts to show that, because it would take away from the fundamental point that there’s nothing we can discover about a specific group of humans that would justify, for example, slavery.  Nothing that would justify physical or cultural genocide, rape, internment, disenfranchisement.  And that is because the humanity of humanity doesn’t need to be determined by conducting some elaborate experiment– it is literally standing right before us. 

I believe that tribalism is instinctive– that people find an element of safety in clinging tightly to those who are like themselves.  They will certainly base that in-group/out-group association on ideology, but it’s even easier to base it on traits that are evident at a glance.  Familiarity and similarity are the primary triggers for empathy, which means that strangers and people not like us are the “best” enemies.  And that is why, again and again throughout our history, we have been able to deny the humanity of certain groups of people in order to persecute them.  Not by knowing them, looking them in the face, having a conversation…because that would demonstrate that they’re more like us than we thought. 

I suppose that’s where I find my fundamental belief in equality– the abject failure, despite our best and most heart-felt efforts, to show that any class of humans really doesn’t deserve the label of “human.”  Martin Luther King Jr. managed to punch through that barrier of prejudice for so many people because he emphasized how much we have in common, how similar we are fundamentally, and how different life could be if we were just willing to encounter each other as fellow human beings, fairly and honestly.  That’s why his speech had and continues to have such a tremendous impact, and why we continue working to make his dreams come true.

*This post first posted Monday, Jan. 17, 2011

Biased ! = wrong

Let me say this, right from the start: I love biases. No, I don’t love that they exist, but I think they’re endlessly  fascinating. I love thinking about them, identifying them, figuring out where they come from. Studying biases is how I came to the realization that the way we generally think about human reasoning is mistaken. Humans are not rational creatures who occasionally succumb to a bias which perverts their ordinarily sound, logical thought processes. We are creatures who are practically made of bias, for whom attempts at objectivity (or as close as we can get to it) are counter-intuitive and require effort. A 2003 paper by psychologists Martie Hasleton and David Buss on biases in social judgment begins:

Humans appear to fail miserably when it comes to rational decision making. They ignore base rates when estimating probabilities, commit the sunk cost fallacy, are biased toward confirming their theories, are naively optimistic, take undue credit for lucky accomplishments, and fail to recognize their self-inflicted failures. Moreover, they overestimate the number of others who share their beliefs, demonstrate the hindsight bias, have a poor conception of chance, perceive illusory relationships between noncontingent events, and have an exaggerated sense of control. Failures at rationality do not end there. Humans use external appearances as an erroneous gauge of internal character, falsely believe that their own desirable qualities are unique, can be induced to remember events that never occurred, and systematically misperceive the intentions of the opposite sex

…to give just a few examples. Approaching the matter from an evolutionary standpoint, they then go on to suggest that these biases are not necessarily “design flaws,” (maladaptive traits) but actually features. A suggestion they make in that paper to agree with psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby remains, in its simplicity, one of my favorite things to quote: “[An evolutionary perspective] suggests that the human mind is designed to reason adaptively, not truthfully or even necessarily rationally.”  What does that mean in practice? Well, that understanding the world as it really is, and thinking about it in the most logical possible way, is not necessarily the most efficient way to get your genes into the next generation. Rather, the specific lies we tell ourselves actually make it easier for us to get food, avoid being killed, find mates, and reproduce. If this is the case, we should expect to see people lying to themselves constantly…and we should expect to find ourselves doing the same.

That’s kind of a discomfiting thought. But you get over it. Reading Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me, for example, had me grinning (though occasionally ruefully) to notice examples of self-justification bias and other means of avoiding cognitive dissonance that I’ve been guilty of numerous times. It still doesn’t remove the sting of being accused of bias by others, especially people who believe that sufficient to discredit what you’re saying. And that is what I’ve been getting to in this post.

See, Ben Radford has a very good essay up today at SheThought about the various accusations of bias he has received on behalf of virtually every group he has written about based on something someone found objectionable in his articles. Most recently it has been complaints about his discussion of a soon-to-be-published book for children called Maggie Goes on a Diet, accusing him of bias for not denouncing the book (before reading it, by the way– none of these commentators have had the opportunity to read it yet) as harmful to young girls’ health and self-image. Radford remarks

I don’t mind the criticisms, it’s the bias accusations that annoy me, and it’s instructive to briefly analyze them. When I question claims about aliens and UFO photographs, critics assert that the only logical reason I would do so is because I have a bias or agenda as part of a government conspiracy to keep the truth from the public. When I question claims about alternative medicine and homeopathy, it’s not because I have researched it and know a lot about it, but because I’m being paid by Big Pharma. When I question claims made by psychics, critics say it’s because I have a bias toward protecting the scientific status quo—or that if I were to accept the reality of psychics it would devastate my worldview. And when I question claims about the links between media images and eating disorders, it can’t be because I know something about it—having studied it for years and written a book about the mass media—but because I hate fat people.

Whether Radford actually is biased against fat people, or whether Maggie Goes on a Diet is, is not the point here. As I said the book isn’t out yet, but you can read his article about the protest against for Discovery here and the rest of his reaction to criticisms at the link above.

The point here is that we all have biases. And there is no harm in pointing them out– in fact, it’s always instructive and useful to do so. However, the simple fact of having biases does not make someone wrong. It might provide some useful psychological information in terms of why they’re wrong…or why they’re right. But it doesn’t tell you which one they actually are. From one of my favorite Ed Brayton posts:

Everyone is biased. If one’s bias leads them to make fundamental errors in reasoning, then point out the errors in reasoning. If it leads them to ignore relevant data or distort the nature of the evidence, then point those things out specifically. If you can’t do either of those things then the accusation of bias doesn’t tell you anything about the validity of the claims being made. This is merely a cognitive shortcut to dismiss someone out of hand rather than engage the arguments being made. So here’s the quote from CS Lewis that sums this up perfectly:  “You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong… Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is ‘wishful thinking.’ You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself… If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic…”Spot on. And very useful. The point is that you must first engage the argument on its own terms. Once you’ve defeated the argument, then it’s reasonable to point out that the inaccuracy of the claims may have been due to bias, or wishful thinking, or fear. But until you defeat the argument, you’re not really saying much of anything.

No children were harmed in the writing of this post

I have a special place in my heart for a lot of people accused of making or possessing kiddie porn.

What? Did she really say that?
  

A photo of actual children here
might bias you against me.

Yep, I did.  But hear me out.  I say this because child molestation is one of the worst crimes possible in the minds of probably most Americans, and because of this a lot of people who weren’t actually molesting children– for the sake of making and distributing pornography or otherwise– tend to get caught up in the legal crossfire and punished in ways that are far out of proportion to their deeds. Call me a bleeding heart, but I don’t think it takes away in the slightest from the severity of real child victimization to feel for those who didn’t actually victimize any children, but are treated as if they did.

For instance, teenagers who are guilty of “sexting”– sending racy photos of themselves to each other.  No child molestation there, and yet in some parts of the country these kids are receiving felony charges and convictions for it.  In my own state of Texas they’re considering downgrading this “crime” from a felony to a misdemeanor.  That’s an improvement, but it would still mean using laws that were originally intended to prevent adults from preying on children to also punish teenagers for ill-advised behavior that damages little but their own reputations.  I understand the impulse to protect them from this considering that once photos get onto the internet they effectively become immortal, but surely arresting, convicting, and putting teenagers on a sex offender registry alongside rapists and actual pedophiles is precisely the opposite of “protecting” them.

In a case I read about today, the culprit is a little less innocent than a sexting teen– okay, he seems downright creepy– but what happened to him is nonetheless a travesty of justice.  A 34-year-old Indiana man named Eric Rinehart had sexual relationships with two young women, aged 16 and 17 respectively.  Yes, I know– ew.  But it was entirely legal for him to do so, as the age of consent in Indiana is 16, as it is in roughly half the country.  One of the girls offered to take naked photos of herself for him, and he agreed and then later took more photos of her as well as the other girl.  He didn’t distribute them at all, just kept them on his computer.  Here’s what happened next:

In 2007 Rinehart was convicted on two federal charges of producing child pornography. U.S. District Court Judge David Hamilton, who now serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, reluctantly sentenced Rinehart to 15 years in prison. Thanks to mandatory minimum sentences, Hamilton wrote, his hands were tied. There is no parole in the federal prison system. So barring an unlikely grant of clemency from the president, Rinehart, who is serving his time at a medium-security prison in Pennsylvania, will have to complete at least 85 percent of his term (assuming time off for good behavior), or nearly 13 years. Hamilton was not permitted to consider any mitigating factors in sentencing Rinehart. It did not matter that Rinehart’s sexual relationships with the two girls were legal. Nor did it matter that the photos for which he was convicted never went beyond his computer. Rinehart had no prior criminal history, and there was no evidence he had ever possessed or searched for child pornography on his computer. There was also no evidence that he abused his position as a police officer to lure the two women into sex. His crime was producing for his own use explicit images of two physically mature women with whom he was legally having sex. (Both women also could have legally married Rinehart without their parents’ consent, although it’s unclear whether federal law would have permitted a prosecution of Rinehart for photographing his own wife.) “You can certainly conceive of acts of producing actual child pornography, the kind that does real harm to children, for which a 15-year sentence would be appropriate,” says Mary Price, general counsel for the criminal justice reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “But this is a single-factor trigger, so it gets applied in cases like this one, where the sentence really doesn’t fit the culpability.”

Families Against Mandatory Minimums, or FAMM, is a non-profit organization dedicated to changing legislation to prevent grossly out-of-proportion sentencing.  They deserve all of the support we can give them, but making changes in this area is decidedly an uphill battle.  

In his sentencing statement, Hamilton urges executive clemency for Rinehart. He points out that under federal law Rinehart received the same sentence someone convicted of hijacking an airplane or second-degree murder would receive. For a bank robber to get Rinehart’s sentence, Hamilton writes, “he would need to fire a gun, inflict serious bodily injury on a victim, physically restrain another victim, and get away with the stunning total of $2.5 million.” . . .Hamilton is not the first federal judge to express frustration over federal child porn sentencing laws. In May 2010, The New York Times profiled U.S. District Court Judge Jack Weinstein, who after 43 years on the bench has essentially gone rogue, twice throwing out convictions of a man convicted of receiving child pornography because of the five-year mandatory minimum sentence attached to the offense. Weinstein has also indicated that in future child porn cases he will disregard the federal rules of criminal procedure and inform his juries of the sentences defendants will get if convicted. 

I would imagine that opponents of draconian laws against drunk driving have an easier time of it than people who take aim at those having to do with child porn.  Nobody wants appear as though they are coddling sexual predators, and so they are reluctant to speak out against the worst travesties of justice that come from laws intended to protect kids.  The road to hell is paved with such intentions, as a Florida lobbyist named Ron Book can attest.  Fear plus grief plus a desire for revenge can be the equation for some horrific legislation.  In order to prevent the victimization of people as an unintended consequence of this kind of legislation, we need to be able to speak up about it.  And in order to do that, we need to realize that there is a clear distinction between disapproving of a behavior (actual child molestation) and approving of measures purporting to stop it which actually don’t– just as with any other crime.

In the meantime, things do not look good for this case:

It could actually have been worse for Rinehart. Under federal law, he could have faced up to 25 years in prison. In exchange for a guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to seek only the minimum sentence. Unfortunately for Rinehart, that plea agreement also prevents him from challenging his conviction or sentence. His only hope for early release is executive clemency. Given the clemency records of the last two administrations, that does not seem likely.

Also…

I really wish the term “mansplaining” would go away.  I understand the problem it’s meant to convey– a man assuming he knows more about something than a woman and condescending to her about it– but it’s an awkward portmanteau and just strikes me as juvenile.  Like there’s no way to effectively point out instances of this happening without coming up with a cute name for it.  It also makes it sound as if this is something all men do, or that women never do, or that there aren’t other varieties of prejudice and/or privilege-based condescension.  And if there are, do they all need clever names too?  Richsplaining?  Whitesplaining?  “Gaysplaining” sounds marginally better aesthetically, but a person who uses it would probably be called homophobic even if using it correctly because gays are not a privileged group.

I like the words “prejudice” and “privilege,” because they’re generally applicable to errors in rationality (the former) and perspective (the latter), and don’t suggest that mistakes about the abilities and values of different groups are all fundamentally different in kind.  Sexism already suffers from a good deal of confusion on that matter given that there are entirely legitimate statements that can be made about differences between sexes.  The illegitimate ones, however, can come from the same kinds of thought processes that produce any other kind of in-group favoritism and aren’t inherently any better or worse.   There are a million different ways to think sloppily, but I think it’s better that the commonality of these varieties of sloppiness be emphasized.

Equality worth working for

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

The true meaning, mind you– not merely what is reflected in the law, but in how we see each other.  How we evaluate each other’s worth, respectability, humanity.  Not by the color of each other’s skin, but the content of our characters.  That, in turn, will reveal our collective character.  

Dr. King’s foundation was unquestionably based in his faith.  Being a Baptist minister, that is naturally where he found his strength: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”  For him, the glory of the Lord could only be revealed when people of different colors could love and value each other as equals.  Jennifer Sanborn writes

You see, for me, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is first and foremost a Baptist minister, and a child of the same. I imagine it is because I am also the child of a Baptist pastor (and grandchild of two others) that I take particular pride in placing “the Reverend” at the start of his name. “Reverend” is a title that he earned with his education and his occupation, but also a title to which he was called, bringing unparalleled dignity and relevance to what it means to serve society as a religious leader.

I’m sure many people feel similarly, now as well as when MLK originally gave that iconic speech, which was essentially a sermon to America on the meaning of loving one’s fellow man.  As a non-believer I find no conflict in welcoming that sermon, and only a slight bit of discomfort in wondering how he would have responded if asked whether atheists would be included in the pluralistic group exhorted to “sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”  I won’t remotely pretend, however, that there is any comparing the lot of atheists to that of black Americans in 1963.  That isn’t the point.  The point is, from whence is a committment to equality derived for those who don’t believe it was God-given?

It would be a fair bet to say that prejudice almost always precedes rationalization, whatever that rationalization is.  I’m pretty sure that human nature, perhaps ironically, includes both the justification for equality as well as the explanation for why humans are so prone to denying it.  And that is because of two salient facts:

1. Both science and religion have, at many points and many places in history, been used to rationalize bigotry. 
2. And yet, neither one has ever or will ever come up with a good reason to treat people unequally.  

If either of the above points seems at all contentious, remember that the numerous mentions of slavery in the Bible were used as a  primary reason to believe that black slavery was part of God’s divine order in the South, as well as the legacy of Spencerian “social Darwinism” which maintained that certain races were inherently inferior.  After all, if it weren’t so, why were they doing so poorly?  Why were they so easily conquered and used for the purposes of the more powerful white Europeans and Americans, if not because they are inherently inferior by evolution or design, whichever your preference? 

I’m still in the midst of my very long quest to discover what exactly human nature is, anyway, but the revelation of the above facts in my life can be attributed primarily to the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker around 2004.  You see, after (and before) publishing a book called The Blank Slate which used powerful data from experimental psychology to demolish both the idea that there is no such thing as human nature as well as various myths about exactly what that nature is, Pinker and every other psychologist who uses evolution as a means to explain why humans behave as we do has been hounded by accusations that their work will be used to justify prejudice. 

And you know what? That’s exactly what has happened.  And it still happens.  People think that if they can show differences between the psychology of men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals, blacks and whites, they will be able to show that treating any one or more of those groups as inherently less human is justified.  I really don’t want to get into all of the specific attempts to show that, because it would take away from the fundamental point that there’s nothing we can discover about a specific group of humans that would justify, for example, slavery.  Nothing that would justify physical or cultural genocide, rape, internment, disenfranchisement.  And that is because the humanity of humanity doesn’t need to be determined by conducting some elaborate experiment– it is literally standing right before us. 

I believe that tribalism is instinctive– that people find an element of safety in clinging tightly to those who are like themselves.  They will certainly base that in-group/out-group association on ideology, but it’s even easier to base it on traits that are evident at a glance.  Familiarity and similarity are the primary triggers for empathy, which means that strangers and people not like us are the “best” enemies.  And that is why, again and again throughout our history, we have been able to deny the humanity of certain groups of people in order to persecute them.  Not by knowing them, looking them in the face, having a conversation…because that would demonstrate that they’re more like us than we thought. 

I suppose that’s where I find my fundamental belief in equality– the abject failure, despite our best and most heart-felt efforts, to show that any class of humans really doesn’t deserve the label of “human.”  Martin Luther King Jr. managed to punch through that barrier of prejudice for so many people because he emphasized how much we have in common, how similar we are fundamentally, and how different life could be if we were just willing to encounter each other as fellow human beings, fairly and honestly.  That’s why his speech had and continues to have such a tremendous impact, and why we continue working to make his dreams come true.

Some thoughts on “opting out.”

To return to a Michael Pollen note for a bit (sorry), I came across a section of Omnivore’s Dilemma today that devoted some discussion to “opting out.”  The context was home-schooling parents who also decide to buy their food from local farmers rather than from the grocery store, and Pollan described them as having “opted out once already.”  By this, Pollan meant that they had already once said “no” to a segment of American culture to which the vast majority of people say “yes.” 

I think most people underestimate the effect that opting out can have.  As much as I personally dislike being told that I’m opposed to some sort of behavior simply because it’s “different” when I think that it’s actually because I have a good reason for opposing it, it’s true that people often regard things with suspicion because they’re not normal. 

Having read Dan Savage’s sex advice column Savage Love for– gosh– fourteen years now, I would estimate that at least half of the letters submitted are from people concerned about whether their sexual proclivities are normal.  And his answer is always some variant on the same sentiment– who cares, so long as it makes you happy and it doesn’t hurt anyone?  But clearly people do care.  If they’re going to be strange and do things differently, it’s like they want permission to do it.  They want to know that their desires are legitimate, and they acknowledge that having to explain themselves to interested parties for deviating from the norm is taxing, which is why they want assurance that what they’re doing is in fact normal…even though it isn’t.

Yes, I did just compare having weird sexual kinks to home-schooling. 

Sure, the two things are different in a lot of ways, but I’d suggest that the relevant difference here is mainly about taste vs. ideology.  There’s not much you can do about taste– you can either hide it or be open about it, feel ashamed or feel confident, but it’s going to be there regardless.  With ideology, on the other hand, it’s about trying to be a different person than you would be if you were “normal.”  Some people are born into weird ideologies while others convert to them, but there’s often a moral dimension involved either way. 

Opting out is a conscious decision– it requires recognizing that one can choose not to do things the way most people are, and making that choice.  My understanding of homosexuality is that it definitely does not feel like a conscious choice, but deciding to be “out” is.  Even people who can look back and see their homosexuality written on the wall, so to speak, before they even realized it seem to have to go through a period of either going into the closet and/or (if they’re lucky enough to be in an accepting environment) make a deliberate choice to embrace that aspect of who they are and live as openly gay. 

Does having opted out in one dimension of your life make it easier to opt out in others?  Maybe.  At Skepticon 3 philosophy professor John Corvino gave a talk comparing coming out as gay to coming out as a skeptic/atheist, and it certainly sounded like the first experience made the second one a lot easier.   And it’s not necessarily a positive thing– in her book True Porn Clerk Stories, former video store clerk Ali Davis writers about certain customers who have reached the point of renting six or more porn movies per day, the people she’s no longer afraid to label “porn addicts,” having rejected society’s norms in other ways before reaching that point.  Sometimes opting out means taking control; sometimes it means giving up. 

Opting out has costs.  It might mean having fewer things to talk to your family about at Christmas.  It might mean being passed over for a job.  It might, as in the case of ethical choices, mean that people believe you are implicitly judging them for not joining them in your decision, and come to resent you for it.  It might mean that people conclude that you’re being different just for the sake of being different, and mock you because others are being different in a very similar way, as if it’s ever possibly to be truly unique.  It might, in some circumstances, mean that your rights are not acknowledged, or that life is made harder to live in some other way because most people simply do not have the same interests.  Can it suck?  Yes, very much.   It will always be mind-boggling to me to hear or read people say outright– in conversation, in letters to the editor, in debates– that they’re not concerned about the interests of minorities if their own aren’t affected.  Sure, let’s ban tattooing, ferret ownership, strip clubs, Islamic mosques, urban farmingI don’t want any part in any of those things, so screw people who do!

Back to the taste vs. ideology thing.  People who opt out for moral reasons may be offended by having their choices compared to opting out for matters of taste because it seems to negate the seriousness of their committment, but you can’t force others to take your interests as seriously as you do.  To them, it may as well be a matter of taste that you want to wear a burqa, raise your own chickens because you object to factory farming, or make sure your children receive their sex education from you and no one else.  What counts as being in the moral dimension for one person might well just look like a quirk or a hobby to someone else.   And conversely, what looks like a hobby or quirk for the person who wants to opt out to take part in it– getting tattoos, going to strip clubs, smoking marijuana– may have a moral dimension for others who are strongly opposed to it. 

Ultimately, I think that having a lot of people around who are openly “weird” in some way or another is a good thing, because it raises our level of cultural tolerance for weirdness.  The more homogeneous a society is, the more dangerous it seems (and probably is) to be different.  I have no particular desire to wear my hair in a mohawk, join a swinger’s club, or homeschool children, but am grateful to live in a culture where those things are tolerated if not warmly accepted.  It’s clear to me that the pursuit of happiness in a country can take as many different forms are there are members of its population, and it is therefore crucial that we protect each individual’s ability to pursue happiness to the maximal extent possible.  That’s clearly not to say that anything which makes a person happy must be allowed, but that the onus of proof for justifying standing in the way of such pursuit always rests on the person  who wants to do so– not one whose pursuit it is.  Diversity of species on a farm makes the organisms raised on it stronger and better defended from attacks by parasites.  Diversity of interests and lifestyles amongst the population of a society makes individuals in it stronger and better defended from attacks on their own happiness.

Who do you admire?

At The Daily Dish, Conor Friedersdorf contemplates the results of a recent Gallup poll asking Americans which men and women they most admire.  Barack Obama won out for men, whereas Hillary Clinton came out on top for women.  Friedersdorf thinks the fact that politicians make up the majority of people on both lists is “all about” name recognition, and I agree. He also says that “I’d never cite a living politician if asked who I admired most,” and I agree with that too.  Nor would I cite a religious leader who is heavily involved in politics, several of whom also figured highly in the ranks (Billy Graham, Pope Benedict XVI, the Dalai Lama).  In fact, the only people at the top who wouldn’t qualify for either of those two descriptions are Angelina Jolie, Oprah, and…Glenn Beck.  Dear god.

The poll asks “What man/woman have you heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire most?  And who is your second choice?”  I admit that if you called me on the phone and asked me this question impromptu, I would have some trouble coming up with my “best” answers.  I don’t keep a list of heroes in my head, because usually it’s not something important to consider unless you are asked for a Gallup poll, or, say, a job interview (why having a good answer to this question is an important quality in a receptionist, I’m not sure).  I couldn’t tell you my top five movies or bands, either.  It’s not because I’m apathetic or without preferences, just that ranking such things never really seemed that important.  But since I’m pooh-poohing the top answers given by the Americans polled, it seems like I should be able to come up with some I might actually give, at least for right now.  Such as…

Radley Balko:  Radley is a journalist.  To sum him up as a journalist, however, would be a little like summing up Norman Borlaug (someone who would absolutely be on my list, if he hadn’t died last year) as a farmer.  Radley’s work is decidedly political, but it is the kind of politics which any person with an ounce of compassion should praise, yet of which most are completely ignorant– seeking out and revealing the cases of people who have been oppressed by America’s justice system, whether by oversight or quite deliberately.   He’s written extensively about the harm caused by no-knock drug raids, prosecutorial cover-ups, asset forfeiture, the necessity of access to DNA testing for convicts, and general police malfeasance.  His work bring injustices to public attention– “My reporting helped get a guy off death row, helped win a new trial and acquittal for a 13-year-old murder suspect, and led to the firing of a corrupt medical examiner in Mississippi.”  His blog, as you can probably imagine, is frequently a depressing read.  But it’s a necessary one, and I admire him for doing this sometimes very dirty work.

Joel Salatin:  Joel is a farmer– but not a regular one.  To quote Wikipedia, he is
“a self-described ‘Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-Farmer'” who “produces high-quality ‘beyond organic’ meats, which are raised using environmentally responsible, ecologically beneficial, sustainable agriculture.”  To unpack that, it means that he doesn’t just farm without using pesticides or genetically modified animal foods, which is what “organic” usually implies.  Hence the ‘beyond organic’– the goal of Polyface Farms is to start with grass and build a progressive and decidedly non-industrial food chain off of it.  Cows, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, and pigs, all living off and contributing to the grass and each other’s…err…products.  No pollution production, no pesticide runoff, no tight confinement of animals in dark spaces eating food that makes them sick.  No docking of tails for depressed pigs.  No government subsidies, because the government doesn’t subsidize growing grass, or cows that were fed only grass or chickens that were fed only grass and the grubs of other animals that ate grass. Just a circular, self-perpetuating cycle of food production– something you’d think was the norm until you found out otherwise.  I admire that immensely. I also admire Michael Pollan for making sure the world has the opportunity to know who Salatin is.

Eugenie Scott:  Eugenie, who sometimes goes by “Genie,” is an anthropologist who heads up the NCSE (National Center for Science Education) and is, incidentally, one of the biggest fighters against creationism in public schools and promoters of evolution in America.  See Kitzmiller v. Dover.  Eugenie generally operates behind the scenes, but she is probably the foremost authority on the evolution/creationism controversy in the country.  And it’s not just about Dover– it’s about a country-wide ongoing tireless battle to make sure that what is taught in public school science classrooms is actually science, and she’s been contributing toward that effort for more than 20 years.  I find a lot to admire in that kind of dedication. I also admire Lauri Lebo for writing about the Dover trial in a way that could make everyone understand it and feel like they know everyone involved in it, because that’s absolutely necessary if people are expected to care. 

Carol Tavris:  Carol is a social psychologist who studies human bias.  She is co-author of a very important book entitled Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, which is a lesson in intellectual humility that everyone– everyone— needs.  I could make a list of science-based books that have made my head spin with possibility…and will, at some point.  But reading this one, and hearing Carol talk about it in the interview below and this one, really punched through for me.   As often as people throw around the term “cognitive dissonance,” they don’t really seem to understand it.  It’s not the simple fact of holding contradictory views– it’s the discomfort that arises from realizing that your views are contradictory.  Intellectually honest people feel cognitive dissonance and seek to resolve it by changing their views.  Intellectually dishonest people either don’t feel it to begin with or they find a way to avoid the discomfort by rationalizing their views to make them seem consistent, which is what Mistakes Were Made is all about.  We’re all regularly intellectually dishonest– it’s the norm, not the aberration.  Bias is in our nature, and bias is, in my view, infinitely fascinating.  That willingness to brave that chasm of human folly and make it easier for the rest of us to do so as well is why I find Carol so admirable.

Atheism and (not) being a dick: a belated rant with copious footnotes

The “What would convince you that there is a god/supernatural/really weird thing out there?” argument continues. I didn’t read the whole thread.  I’m feeling fatigued on the subject, honestly.  It’s easy to demonstrate the existence of weird things (even really weird ones), rather more difficult to prove the supernatural (depending on how you define it), and impossible, so far as I’m concerned, to prove the existence of a god.  There.

A few months ago the discussion was raging over what it means for a skeptic to be a dick, after “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait gave a talk entitled “Don’t Be a Dick” at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas.  You can read Daniel Loxton’s* summary of the situation on Skeptiblog here.  He and P.Z. Myers had quite a lot of back-and-forth during that time, both on Skepticblog and on Twitter,** which was definitely interesting to read.  But it was disenchanting as well, because it’s always disenchanting to see (or be one of) people who are part of a group defined as much by the perception of outsiders as by those of insiders disagree dramatically about what that group represents, and how much they should care.  I’m trying to describe this without portraying it as if there are only two sides, because there never are.  There are not simply a) those people who tell it like it is, vs. b) those people who accommodate.  There are also people who think they are “just telling it like it is” but are actually dicks, and people who are perceived as accommodating but are actually just telling it like it is according to them rather than those accusing them of accommodation.  And, of course, other people in between those groups.  If you’ve taken part in any ideological group’s discussion concerning “strategy,” “message,” or “framing,” you probably know what I’m talking about…especially if there were scientists involved in the discussion, as scientists are notorious for not giving a damn about how their revelations are perceived.  That’s not their job– they do the work and report the results.  How you think about the results is your problem.

I’m sympathetic to that position, but it’s also terribly naive when it comes to communicating to the public.  People, including scientists, are susceptible to scores of biases and information filters they’ve never even heard of.  Studying these biases and filters is fascinating and I’ll never tire of it, but thinking that it will somehow cure you of having them yourself is a little like thinking that if Data from Star Trek: TNG learned enough about emotions, he could somehow acquire them.***  Your nature won’t allow that to happen– the best that will happen is that occasionally you will be able to catch yourself exercising a bias and make some effort to correct it, or feel the discomfort of cognitive dissonance at times when it would otherwise have passed you by and allowed you to comfortably maintain mutually exclusive views in peace.  People react differently to the same information depending on the source, language, time of day or year, and so on.  Context matters.  If you have a specific message you want to get across, paying attention to the context in which you express it is essential, and it doesn’t require dishonesty either to yourself or to your audience despite what is claimed by those who refuse to pay such attention. 

Sometimes, by contrast, being a dick involves dishonesty.  Or at least, it involves misrepresenting the truth when you really should know better, such as saying that people are religious or have different political beliefs than you because they are idiots.  Gah.  People who actually do think that don’t need a lesson on framing or strategy; they just need to look around once in a while.  Francis Collins is religious, Ken Miller is religious, Justin Barrett is religious….these people are not morons.  Every member of my immediate family, which includes four people with the title “Dr.”, are religious.  They are not morons.  Nor are they insane, or evil, or any of those facile explanations so often used by a different kind of “new atheist.”****  Such is the language of people who are eager to embrace an “us vs. them” mentality and have no interest in promoting understanding– having an opponent, and feeling like you’ve trounced them, is so much more satisfying.

And it’s so much more understandable in a country like America, which cherishes freedom of speech and has the luxury of mass communication but also includes a number of people convinced that they live in a Christian nation whose laws should reflect those in the Bible (the one in their heads at least).  Copenhagen was an interesting location at which to hold an international atheist conference this year, given that Denmark is generally acknowledged to be one of the most secular countries on the planet.  This country, in which I spent three years working on my PhD, has an official state religion– the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark.  By law, its monarch (currently Margrethe II) is required to be a member of that church.  But like the U.K. which has its own established church, there is little inclination in the country’s government to pay lip service to religious beliefs themselves or to compel the people via legislation to do so by word or deed.  Hence there is a large population of nonbelievers who nevertheless should probably not be considered atheists at all,***** let alone angry ones.  When the conference was announced, a Danish friend of mine commented on Facebook that (I paraphrase) while he doesn’t believe in a god, he finds the idea of gathering specifically for atheists mystifying and unnecessary at best and downright obnoxious at worst.  I can entirely understand that sentiment from his perspective, but from mine it’s very different.  People who perceive themselves as oppressed, rightly or wrongly, will attack the ideology of the perceived oppressors vociferously and actively.  An atheist group in Denmark, in spite of (or perhaps because of?  I pondered this in England too) its state religion, is about as subversive as opting to have chicken rather than beef at a barbeque.  It’s not that European countries don’t have their own very heated conflicts about religion– they obviously do, as the Muhammad cartoon controversy reveals to this day– it’s just that the right to be a secular person is not nearly as much in question as it is in the U.S., and that can throw anyone who has such desires into defensive mode.  I just wish that didn’t translate into the kind of culture war we’re seeing now.

All of this is at the top of my mind at the moment because next week I’m off to Missouri to attend Skepticon 3, which might as well be called Atheistcon judging by its schedule.  That in itself does not bother me– I’m really looking forward to it, actually– but I’ve never been to a skeptical or atheist conference in the U.S. and am not quite sure what I signed up for at this point.

* Daniel’s the guy who produces the Junior Skeptic feature in Skeptic magazine and recently published his first book, Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be, an evolution primer for kids.  It’s a beautiful book and well-written, worth checking out even if you’re well past your years of being “junior” anything.  

** If you’re one of those who– like I used to– think that Twitter is just a place for people to compare what they had for breakfast and write in abysmal grammar about who they hooked up with last night and what they watched on TV…..you’re wrong.  Or at least you’re following the wrong people. 

 *** Yes, Trekkers, I know…..Data did exercise emotion on several occasions on the show.  I also know the problems inherent in postulating a consciousness, even an artificial one, that tries to function without emotion.  Do not try to think this example through past the intended meaning. 

****People apply the term “New Atheists” to those like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.  They should be applying it to people who have recently concluded that they are atheists, especially in America, because it would be a much clearer usage.  People who think Dawkins is strident should talk to a 22-year-old in a chat room who refers to the “holey babble” and all religious people as “god-botherers.” It’s a phase….at least for most.  

***** I don’t share the definition of “atheist” Phil Zuckerman uses.  To me the label for a person who won’t necessarily say they believe in a god but nevertheless believes in “something” (as did the majority of interviewees described by Phil in a talk he gave to us in Aarhus, as I recall) is not properly “atheist.”

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