Notes and Comment Blog

Our short and pithy observations on the passing scene as it relates to the mission of Butterflies and Wheels. Woolly-headed or razor-sharp comments in the media, anti-rationalist rhetoric in books or magazines or overheard on the bus, it’s all grist to our mill. And sometimes we will hold forth on the basis of no inspiration at all beyond what happens to occur to us.

Personal attacks on prominent female skeptics for discussing harassment

Jul 12th, 2012 5:26 pm | By

Religion News is interested in our little spats. (Well it would be, wouldn’t it – except that JREF and TAM actually aren’t atheist, and are a bit hostile to atheism, at least at TAM.)

Officials for The Amazing Meeting, or TAM, said Wednesday (July 11) that women would make up 31 percent of the 1,200 conference attendees, down from 40 percent the year before. A month before the conference, pre-registration was only 18 percent women, organizers said.

The explanations are many — the bad economy, that women, as caregivers, are less able to get away, and that more men than women identify as skeptics, whose worldview rejects the supernatural and focuses on science and rationality.

But in the weeks preceding TAM, another possible explanation has roiled the nontheist community. Online forums have crackled with charges of sexism in TAM’s leadership and calls for the ouster of D.J. Grothe, the male president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, TAM’s organizer. In June, Rebecca Watson, a skeptic blogger and speaker, canceled her TAM appearance because, she said on her blog, she does “not feel welcome or safe.”

Other nontheists — both male and female — have shared stories of unwanted sexual attention at nontheist gatherings, including propositions for sex and unwelcome touching. Chatter has ranged from calls for more women to attend nontheist events to personal attacks on prominent female skeptics for discussing harassment. Meanwhile, two more skeptic/feminist bloggers announced they will not attend TAM.

Two? Who’s the other one?

The current hullabaloo can be traced to May’s Women in Secularism Conference, a first-of-its-kind gathering for nontheist women. On a panel examining feminism and nontheism, Jennifer McCreight, an atheist blogger, said women speakers at nontheist events warn each other privately about male speakers who make unwanted sexual advances.

“They brought up a concern about harassment at conferences and I was not aware of that problem,” said Ron Lindsay, president of the Center for Inquiry, a humanist-skeptic group that organized the women’s conference. “Maybe I should have been. But once I became aware of that concern it wasn’t that difficult to come to a decision that we should have a policy in place to deal with that.”

So they did, and so did other organizations. But…

As these groups and others unveiled their policies, members of the skeptic community asked whether TAM had one in place.

And that’s where things got ugly. In an appeal to assure women that TAM is welcoming and safe, Grothe made comments that upset some in the community. They accused him of underplaying, and even ignoring, reported harassment at past meetings, and of “blaming the victims” of the alleged incidents. Grothe apologized to Watson on her blog, Skepchick.

“I believe strongly that women’s voices need to be taken seriously in the atheist and skeptics movements, that any reports of harassment or assault at atheist and skeptics events need to be taken seriously and recorded, and acted on effectively, and that those who make reports of such harassment shouldn’t ever be blamed for such,” Grothe wrote.

Asked to comment for this story, Grothe said he stood by his online remarks.

Too bad the article quotes only the later remarks, not the ones that “upset some in the community.” And pathetic that DJ said he stood by his remarks.

Many skeptic women say they have no plans to abandon the conference or the broader nontheist community.

“We may not be able to ever completely solve misogyny online but we can absolutely do a better job ensuring that our physical events are welcoming and safe spaces for women and minorities than we have been,” said Amy Davis Roth, a longtime skeptic who has helped raise almost $8,000 for grants to send 22 women to this year’s TAM.

“Anti-harassment polices are a good start because it sends the message that event organizers want everyone to feel safe and that harassment will not be tolerated by our community,” she said.

Which is why it’s a pity that TAM still doesn’t have one. It has sarcastic T shirts, instead.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped…

Jul 12th, 2012 4:29 pm | By

Jessica Valenti explains (more patiently than I could) why most rape jokes are not funny (and what kind are).

But here’s the thing: threatening women with rape, making light of rape, and suggesting that women who speak up be raped is not edgy or controversial. It’s the norm. This is what women deal with every day. Maintaining the status quo around violence against women isn’t exactly revolutionary.

The woman who was the target of Daniel Tosh’s “jokes” tells what that was like. Tosh told some rape jokes (not the funny kind), and she disrupted his routine by yelling, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing I needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me.

It’s reminiscent of Michael Richards’s racist “jokes” yelled at another heckler a few years ago. That was a career-ender. Will the same apply to Tosh? I don’t know, but I doubt it.



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Boy am I glad I’m not in Las Vegas

Jul 12th, 2012 2:41 pm | By

Want to see why? This is why.

Picture credit “Karl Withakay”

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A charisma deficit

Jul 12th, 2012 10:40 am | By

How poignant. A Catholic priest in Poland put up that giant statue of Jesus but it didn’t do any good. People in Poland are still wandering away from the church.

Just past the Polish border, passengers traveling by train from Berlin to Warsaw can see Jesus. He is 36-meters (118 feet) tall, made of concrete, and towers over the surrounding fields near the town of Swiebodzin, a gilded crown perched nobly on his head. His gaze is directed over the Recaro plant, which makes car seats…

Well that could be your problem right there. Maybe his gaze should be directed over a plant which makes bicycle seats, or zippers, or napkin rings.

The plaque at the base of the giant religious statue says that Jesus Christ is the true king of Poland and will rule for eternity. It is not for nothing that the country is, in the eyes of the church at least, Europe’s most Catholic nation.

Yet despite the monumental redeemer, Swiebodzin has not become a pilgrimage site. “The statue has not triggered a tourism boom yet,” confirms Waldemar Roszczuk, editor-in-chief of the city’s newspaper and publisher of a regional Internet publication.

I’m telling you, it’s that car seat plant. Thinking more broadly here, maybe Jesus’s gaze should be directed over something that’s not a plant at all, but something more attractive to tourists – an insurance office, a shopping mall, a meadow full of wild flowers.

After joining the European Union, Poland turned to the West and embraced the Western lifestyle more than almost any other country. Nowadays, Polish women dream of careers, self-fulfillment and children. Hundreds of thousands of young Poles live together without being married. In booming cities like Warsaw and Poznan, gays and lesbians live their lives as openly as in Berlin or Madrid.

“More and more taboos are falling by the wayside. But the church reacts by hardening its positions even further,” says Barto.

And putting its giant statues of Jesus next to plants that make car seats.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Hello sailor

Jul 11th, 2012 5:11 pm | By

Brilliant. The Washington Monthly does a big ol’ serious thinky article on Y No Wimmin at policy events, forums, and conferences around DC, and before people can even get to the serious thinky words they get an eyefull of a pouty babe with big tits in a tank top.

The comments below the article are mostly pretty annoyed.

H/t Katha Pollitt

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Farida broke all barriers

Jul 11th, 2012 3:52 pm | By

How miserably sad and depressing. Farida Afridi, an activist for tribal women in Pakistan, was murdered today. (You know how. You don’t even need to look. Leaving home for work. Guys on motorcycles. Guns. Died on the way to the hospital.)

Along with her sister Noor Zia, Farida was committed to social change and economic emancipation for women from the platform of a welfare organisation called the Society for Appraisal and Women Empowerment in Rural Areas (SAWERA). Both women were among the founding members of the NGO and had a Masters degree in Gender Studies.

Due to tribal customs and traditions, women in the area remain mostly restricted and unable to achieve their true potential, but Farida broke all barriers and relentlessly worked for women’s development. “We have lost a great member of our team,” said Lal Jan, the technical advisor of the organisation.

The sisters faced tough resistance when they told their family about the path they had chosen for themselves. “We told our parents that we would work in accordance with our religious and cultural traditions, assuring them that we would never let the family honour suffer because of our line of work. Finally, they agreed,” Noor had said.

Syed Afzal Shinwari, project coordinator in Community Appraisal and Motivation Program (CAMP), said that SAWERA started small but is now an influential organisation. “Because of this brutal act, women in Fata will be discouraged to work and development will come to a halt,” he said.

You can go back and read an optimistic article about them from last September.

If it weren’t for the support of their father and the persistence of their mother, Farida Afridi and Noor Zia Afridi would not be able to read a single word of this article. But today, the two are not only final year students of MSc in Gender studies and holders of MBA degrees, but are also determined champions of women’s education and empowerment.

Farida and Noor’s long struggle against discriminatory tribal customs started when they were school children. “After we completed our primary education, our male family members wanted us to stop going to school,” says Farida. But the girls’ parents were adamant that they would continue their education.

Since then, equal status for women and children’s rights have been issues close to their hearts. It was to win these rights that the two established the Society for Appraisal and Women Empowerment in Rural Areas (SAWERA) in the Jamrud subdivision of Khyber Agency in December 2008.

And this is their reward.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Practicing being more assertive

Jul 11th, 2012 11:01 am | By

I’ve been wondering what Richard Dawkins thinks of Paula Kirby’s salvo against the Sisterhood of the Oppressed and the Approved Male Chorus. I expect a lot of people have, seeing as how she’s the executive director of RDF-UK. I’m sure we’ll never know, in the sense of being told in so many words. But possibly there are hints…he did a tweet today quoting and endorsing praise of Paula’s Washington Post blog post from last year, Religion lies about women. I RTd it with a “Ditto.” I liked (and posted about, and wished I’d written) that article last year, and I still do.

But I don’t see any RTs of the salvo against the Sisterhood of the Oppressed. That’s possibly a hint. Or it’s possibly just discretion and a disinclination to spit in the faces of friends and allies, such as the people who run CFI and the people who were speakers at the conference and attended the conference. But then…if it’s that, it is in fact a tacit opinion of Paula’s salvo, because Paula’s salvo conspicuously spits in the faces of all those friends and allies. Consider some of them – Margaret Downey, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Wafa Sultan, Susan Jacoby, Jennifer Michael Hecht…You can see how Richard wouldn’t want to insult them by calling them the Sisterhood of the Oppressed, or his many friends and allies at CFI who organized and hosted the conference by jeering at the whole idea.

Anyway, that article. Take a passage from the article -

In the eyes of the Abrahamic religions, the archetypal woman is Eve: disobedient, unreliable, easily led astray, and a seductive temptress of man – man being more noble, yet easy prey to the wiles and seductions of his weaker mate. Woman is the source of danger, the one who corrupts him, the conduit for all that is evil in the world. She is dangerous … yet irresistible; and this very irresistibility makes her more dangerous still. But you will notice that the dangers of sexual temptation are not to be faced equally by men and women: no, religion demands that it is the woman who bears the burden. Solomon, we are told, had 700 wives and 300 concubines, and David had a more modest yet still energy-sapping five wives and 10 concubines, yet neither of these has become a by-word for male insatiability. Jezebel, on the other hand, has become synonymous with sexual excess, despite this not being among the vices attributed to her in the bible story.

Indeed. And? What about it? Why criticize it? Aren’t we supposed to ignore all that and just focus on being strong and determined ourselves? From the salvo:

I did a sociology module as part of my degree many years ago: I know the arguments about socialization and normative values, and structural discrimination and all that malarkey. All I can say in response is that, while all these things may be true to a greater or lesser extent, banging on about them does not even begin to help women achieve their goals. If we, as women, externalize the reasons why we are not being heard as much as we say we’d like to be, and seek to put the blame on other people, nothing is going to change or, at the very best, it is only going to change painfully slowly. It is a simple fact of life that it is always easier to change our own behaviour than to persuade other people to change theirs.

So why bang on about religion? Why bang on about the Abrahamic religions and their view of the archetypal woman? If it does not even begin to help women achieve their goals, as Paula claims, then why did she trouble to write that article?

So there is an alternative, and it is this alternative that I would urge women to seize with both hands – whether we’re talking about how we interact in our jobs, in our social lives or in the atheist movement. And that alternative is to take responsibility for ourselves and our own success. To view ourselves as mature, capable adults who can take things in our stride, and can speak up appropriately. To really start believing that we can do whatever men can do. To stop seizing on excuses for staying quiet and submissive, stop blaming it on men or hierarchies or misogyny or, silliest of all, “privilege”, and start simply practising being more assertive.

You could re-write that last sentence to say “To stop seizing on excuses for staying quiet and submissive, stop blaming it on men or hierarchies or misogyny or Abrahamic religions or, silliest of all, “privilege”, and start simply practising being more assertive.” Why would the added item to stop blaming it on be out of place? It seems to me to fit perfectly well. If Paula thought then that it was worth saying how religion described women and what it told them to do, why does she now think it’s a big mistake to say that? I would seriously like to know.

In truth I have a very hard time even understanding the thinking in that passage. The idea that social and cultural factors just don’t matter, or that even if they matter it’s much better to ignore them and simply push harder – I can’t think my way into it. It seems like thinking breathing doesn’t matter. We live in the world, we’re embedded in the world, everything we have and do and think about is part of the world. We can’t just detach from it and do everything in glorious isolation.

I’m practicing being more assertive when I say that.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The Louis CK of Indonesia

Jul 11th, 2012 9:59 am | By

Boy, the chief justice of the Indonesian Supreme Court has a weird sense of humor. He told Angela Merkel (who is in Indonesia on a visit) that the Indonesian constitution guarantees the rights of atheists. Orilly? How does he explain Alexander Aan then?

Supreme Court chief Mahfud MD is telling the vesting German chancellor that the Indonesian Constitution gives people the freedom to be atheist or communists.

Mahfud was answering Chancellor Angela Merkel’s question about the freedom of religion and democracy in Indonesia during a visit to the Supreme Court on Tuesday evening.

“Since its inception, the Supreme Court has guaranteed the freedom of atheists and communists in this country, as long as they do not disturb the freedom of people of other religions. Freedom is equality.” Mahfud said.

Something seems to have gone wrong then, because Alexander Aan is in prison, serving a two year sentence for saying God doesn’t exist on Facebook. 


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

This is not that

Jul 11th, 2012 8:57 am | By

On that Popehat post All This Talk of Harassment Is Harassing Me! - a comment that helps to explain the basic confusion. Author, Robert White.

Sounds to me like this “free Thought” movement is having what I call “the Libertarian problem”.

As a movement, I have found, Libertarianism is a thin rich chocolate shell of progressive idealists hiding a meaty, inconsistent nougat of biggoted ass-hats looking for a system of thought that can keep the faggots, darkies, spics and freeloading liberals out of their lives. Both outer shell and inner douchebag (again, talking libertarian here) unable or unwilling to take their propositions all the way to their logical conclusions…

Ohhhhhh – they* think “freethought”=libertarian. Nooooooo. No no no no no. All wrong. Freethought is a child of the Enlightenment. Libertarianism is a child of Ayn Rand and Hollywood. Freethought is liberal (in the classical sense), progressive, egalitarian. Libertarianism is liberal (in the classical sense) but not progressive or egalitarian.


*By “they” I mean the trolls who’ve been trolling Freethought blogs since the day of its birth.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Other way around

Jul 10th, 2012 5:00 pm | By

Revisiting an old grudge for a moment – you may remember that Orac jumped on me very hard for an analogy about [people complaining about oppression and thus making things worse by scaring people who are subject to the same oppression]. The analogy I used was Jews in Germany in 1936. Orac is a self-appointed cop of (apparently) any kind of Nazi analogy. He said so himself.

As you might (or might not) know, I very much detest the gratuitous use of argumentum ad Nazi-um. I even have a special category for it on my blog.

I was annoyed by the bossy tone and the timing*, but on consideration I decided he had a point, so I withdrew the analogy. There was a brief unproductive email exchange, in which he insisted on talking to me as if he were my boss and I were a janitor found asleep in his desk chair, so I abandoned it.

But then Paula Kirby called me and other women Feminazis (and other things) on Twitter and in her famous open letter. Lots of people wondered aloud when Orac would pounce on Paula Kirby as hard as he’d pounced on me.

I didn’t realize until just now that he’d specifically answered that question, and that the answer was never.


July 3, 7:03 am

OT but speaking of Hitler zombies, Paula Kirby has claimed that feminist bloggers are simultaneously Nazis and Stasi for denouncing sexism.

Baron Scarpia

July 3, 7:23 am

Actually Kirby didn’t. She called certain people Feminazis and at the same time made it very clear that she did not mean they were Nazis- she said this explicitly (She compares the term to ‘Grammar Nazis’). Given that intent is not magical, you may still think that it carries the connotation that such people are Nazis, which would indicate a failure of communication on her part. (Frankly I do not think she should have used the term at all, because I do not see how you can separate the two terms in the minds of the public)

What you can’t do is say that she called Myers, Watson, Benson et al Nazis, because she didn’t.

I won’t touch the ‘sexism’ part of the comment, there have been enough strawmen in the debate already…


July 3, 8:06 am

Please, people. I really don’t want that argument metastasizing to my comment threads. I’ve already been burned badly enough by it, and I admit my massive error for every having said anything in the first place. These days, I’d rather deal with a torrent of Thingy comments than for a comment thread on my blog to become dominated by this kerfuffle.

He’s been burned badly by it. I have the lying liars who used to hang out at ERV running around claiming that I believe there’s something called “parallel logic” when that’s their invention** pitching fits about it – and he’s been burned by it. No he hasn’t. I have, he hasn’t. And Paula Kirby actually made the real life gratuitous use of argumentum ad Nazi-um, when I didn’t – but he nailed me and left her alone.

He’s a jerk.

*Shortly before TAM and during the spreading fuss over DJ Grothe’s blame-the-women move.

**Corrected. I’d tried to find where I said anything about parallel logic and failed, but ever-attentive “Scented Nectar” rushed to point out exactly where I said it. She’s a scholar in the subject.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Knowing you can

Jul 10th, 2012 2:24 pm | By

I’ve just thought of something – well, a few minutes ago, while walking up the street.

Remember the opening of The God Delusion? “I didn’t know I could”? Remember the way the argument turns on that idea – not knowing you can get out, and consciousness raising as the first step to getting out?

Well that’s feminism, you know. Knowing you can. That’s where consciousness raising came from, remember?

The two rebellions have a great deal in common, you know. Both rebel against the principle of male authority and arbitrary hierarchy. Both are about humans standing up straight instead of squirming on the ground. Both are fundamentally about a break with monarchy.

So it’s odd that a segment of the atheist movement (though not the biggest segment) is so hostile to feminism. Big gods, little gods, it’s all the same shit. No kings, no priests. Thank you for your attention in this matter.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Suck up the pain of unjust suffering

Jul 10th, 2012 12:25 pm | By

You know how Dan Savage likes to say that conservative Christians should ignore what the Bible says about homosexuality just as they ignore what the Bible says about slavery? Peter Montgomery at Religion Dispatches points out that actually they don’t always ignore what the Bible says about slavery. Sometimes they use it to tell the workers to submit. Ralph Reed, in 1990:

Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.

Does that remind you of anything? It reminds me of anything.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Here’s something for skeptics to debate

Jul 10th, 2012 9:53 am | By

What’s wrong with torturing animals for fun? Why not, after all?

Nothing should be off the table when skeptics get together for a chin-wag, right? So recreational animal torture should be on the table. It shouldn’t be a given that that’s not ok, just the way “treat people as equals” shouldn’t be a given, because skepticism. Right? We can’t just assume that torturing animals for shits&giggles is a crap idea; we have to demonstrate that it is, with evidence.

Why, for instance, is there anything wrong with the fact that someone encased a live kitten in concrete up to the front legs on the property of FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints) patriarch Isaac Wyler? Why is it stomach-turning to read that a sheriff’s officer laughed about it?

I hate to do this, because it freaks me out and I know it will freak others out, but I’m going to include the picture. Be warned: it’s painful to look at.  I took the picture down, by request. It’s on the post linked just above. It’s worth having it on the record, because it conveys the horribleness required to carry out the act – but that certainly doesn’t mean everyone has to look at it.


The kitten died soon after being rescued.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The unapproved chorus

Jul 9th, 2012 4:58 pm | By

Jadehawk does a great fisking of Paula Kirby’s recent declaration of war. I’ve been half-wanting to address the substance but half not wanting to, because there is such a thing as boredom and too much of one subject and let’s move on already. But now Jadehawk has done a thorough one, so that’s that off my mind.

(What I would have said, if I’d said it, is that the whole idea that the answer to systemic injustice is to redouble one’s own efforts is just fatuous, and also strikingly illiberal. Why should anyone have to redouble her efforts in order to overcome systemic injustice? What the hell is wrong with trying to get rid of the systemic injustice? Why should people just put up with it and accept that they have to work four times as hard as luckier people just to get to the same place? Or as Jadehawk put it, “Where in the goddamn universe has being silent about systemic oppression and telling people to instead fix themselves ever worked?”)

One thing Paula said I will comment on now though.

So there is an alternative, and it is this alternative that I would urge women to seize with both hands – whether we’re talking about how we interact in our jobs, in our social lives or in the atheist movement. And that alternative is to take responsibility for ourselves and our own success. To view ourselves as mature, capable adults who can take things in our stride, and can speak up appropriately. To really start believing that we can do whatever men can do. To stop seizing on excuses for staying quiet and submissive, stop blaming it on men or hierarchies or misogyny or, silliest of all, “privilege”, and start simply practising being more assertive.

Hey you know what? I’m not seizing on excuses for staying quiet and submissive, and I’m not staying quiet and submissive, either. Isn’t that why Paula is so furious at me? Because I didn’t stay quiet and submissive? Because I said DJ shouldn’t have blamed women who talk about harassment for the decline in women registering for TAM? The quiet and submissive thing to do would have been to say nothing, and decide to do my TAM talk on…I never could figure out what, frankly. That was one reason the whole thing was such a clusterfuck – what exactly did DJ want me to talk about? I had no clue. Clearly nothing related to women in secularism – and he was on record as not wanting atheism to be on the menu – so what, then? Why did he invite me in the first place? Again: no clue.

But anyway: quiet and submissive would have been to say nothing, but instead I said something. Rebecca hasn’t been very quiet and submissive either, and again, isn’t that why Paula is so furious with her? I’m already assertive. I assert all over the place every day. I don’t need practice. I don’t “seize on excuses” – I talk about sexist epithets and harassment and bullying because I think they’re bad harmful things, not because I’m looking for “excuses.”

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

We need educated feeling

Jul 9th, 2012 3:35 pm | By

My copies of Thinking towards humanity: themes from Norman Geras arrived a couple of hours ago. (It took me about half an hour to open the package – you’d think it was plumbing or a box of plutionium, the way it was wrapped up. It was soldered, welded, wrapped around with chains – it was hard to open.) I get copies because I’m a contributor, as are David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Michael Walzer, Damien Counsell, Shalom Lappin and other swell people.

My piece is about morality and caring, and blogging. It’s about blogging as a good and useful new genre, and how at its best (exemplified by Norm Geras, for one) it can help educate the feelings in a way that’s good for human rights. Because the piece is about morality and caring, it’s relevant to this point about basic commitments that I made earlier. I’ll share the first couple of paragraphs.

Hume famously observed that it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of his finger. He wasn’t expressing a whimsically inflated sense of his own importance, but pointing out that logic doesn’t determine how we weigh the world versus our finger. We have to love the world in order to be able to weigh it properly. Looking it up in a table of weights and measures won’t do the job – we could see the arithmetic and still shrug and say yes but it’s my finger, the world is none of mine and I don’t care. We have to care in order to make choices properly – to make them in such a way that we don’t place our own petty desires above everyone else’s deepest needs. (We have been learning lately, if we didn’t already know, that bankers and investment wizards could use some intensive training in this.) Morality is rooted in feeling, Hume told us, and researchers such as Antonio Damasio and Jonathan Haidt have been elaborating on the idea recently.

To be moral we need feeling, we need the right kind of feeling, we need educated feeling – we need to do what Martha Nussbaum called ‘cultivating humanity.’ It is arguable (and many people have argued) that the education of the feelings, and in particular sympathy, is one thing that literature and story-telling can do better than anything else. Numbers, by themselves, don’t tell us enough; ‘100,000 women raped and killed’ has less force than a pain in our own finger; but a story about one woman raped and killed can turn us inside out. In a world where ‘100,000 women raped and killed’ is no invented paradigm but a brute fact, along with row upon row of similar facts, clearly anything that can help to cultivate sympathy and empathy is of the highest value.

And skepticism is, frankly, not particularly relevant; not for this particular kind of work. Skepticism can often be the very opposite of relevant or helpful. Skepticism about someone else’s misery is often not helpful. Sometimes it is; sometimes it does help to say “you’re over-reacting” or “you misunderstood” or “let’s go out and get drunk and you’ll feel much better” or “the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” But often it’s not, and approaching the whole thing as a matter of logic or facts or evidence is about as helpful as cutting someone’s hand off to distract her from a headache.

And saying that is not a rejection of skepticism, or a crime against it. You could chalk it up as skepticism about skepticism, if you like – skepticism that skepticism is the right tool or attitude for everything. Why would it be? If you find a small child alone and crying in a shopping mall, you don’t summon up your skepticism, you do whatever you can to help.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

How something can be a given

Jul 9th, 2012 11:06 am | By

So Leeds Skeptics in the Pub has uninvited Steve Moxon. Now they’re discussing the matter. There’s one crux that I think is interesting, and I think more clarity on it would help a lot of people who are disputing about it. It’s a crux we’ve discussed here at FTB, too, especially in last week’s hangout.

This is the crux:

Amy: There are some things that should be a given in any skeptical society, and the equality of its members in terms of gender, sexuality, race etc should be one of those things. Having Moxon speak just gives credibility to the idea that his wacky, bigoted views on women are worthy of debate.

Norman: Not sure how anything can be a ‘given’ in a skeptical society? Surely the point of a skeptical society is that all view points are subjected to a rigorous process of critical analysis, regardless of whether it agrees with our world view or not. One could argue that it is the very ‘givens’ of our own world views that require even more in depth challenging.

Here’s one way something can be a ‘given’ in a skeptical society: you can make a distinction between a view point, or, better, a truth claim, on the one hand, and a moral or political commitment on the other.

It’s perfectly possible for a skeptical society to have a basic commitment to equality, in fact one would rather hope that any skeptical society would have such a commitment, if only so that skepticism won’t be some kind of preserve for the people on top. That’s what Amy was talking about, and it needn’t be or imply dogmatism. It’s an ethical commitment, not an empirical claim. Ethical skepticism isn’t identical to empirical skepticism. It’s helpful to keep those distinctions in mind.

There are some ethical commitments that you don’t really want people challenging except in a philosophy seminar. “When you come right down to  it, shouldn’t I just be grabbing whatever I can and the hell with everyone else?” “If you think about it, what’s the problem with beating people up whenever you get pissed off?” “All this bullshit about treating people as equals is just PC-Nazism and I say the hell with it.”

We’re allowed to have ethical commitments. We should have ethical commitments. Having ethical commitments is compatible with skepticism.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

One way to think of the children

Jul 8th, 2012 5:00 pm | By

Taslima and I have been thinking along the same lines today.


Not only no thinking. Worse than that. No thinking because no challenging of beliefs. Thus no learning, no changing of mind, no change, no progress, no education.

The Texas Republican party has come out in favor of stagnation and ignorance and dogmatic, fixed beliefs.


If we want to make the world a better place, we have to stop the system that forces our children to read the books of barbarism and lies and believe everything without asking questions. If we do not inspire our children to study science and have a thinking mind, we will see the crowds of ignorant people everywhere. If we do not encourage our children to study secularism and humanism, we will not be able to stop fanaticism, caste-ism,racism, sectarianism.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Lone star state v thinking

Jul 8th, 2012 2:51 pm | By

No thinking please we’re Texas, says the Republican Party of Texas. It says it in its party platform.

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Not only no thinking. Worse than that. No thinking because no challenging of beliefs. Thus no learning, no changing of mind, no change, no progress, no education.

The Texas Republican party has come out in favor of stagnation and ignorance and dogmatic, fixed beliefs.

Boy, there’s a program. Less curiosity and progress and cumulative knowledge, more disease and crop failure and technological backwardness. Booya!

No worries, some farmer will find some kind of valuable grease or jewel or medicine under the pasture and Texas will have another boom like the oil boom. God will see to it…provided nobody ever thinks.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

How can we trust any of the claims enough to debate them?

Jul 8th, 2012 9:37 am | By

Stephanie Zvan made a crucial point yesterday about inviting a certain kind of (contrarian or “controversial” or anti-consensus) speaker to give a talk. She started from something LeftSidePositive said in a previous comment.

(or indeed if the audience should be expected to have the tools to critique it thoroughly if it is not in their field)

QFT. If you have a speaker who is willing to misrepresent the conclusions of a paper, how does an audience who’ve never seen the paper properly question the speaker?

Charlotte and Amy amplified the point today on the Leeds SITP Facebook page. In response to a suggestion that

The only way SITP can come out on top is if the members take him to task; it’s recorded and publicised in order to counteracts any publicity claims he makes himself.  It needs to be clear that this is an exercise in critical analysis and the application of skepticism and not a sounding-off platform.

Charlotte objected

But when he’s so badly misinterpreted his references, how can we trust any of the claims he makes enough to debate them? We’d have to do extensive homework for this and read most of the things he references in his book, and I don’t honestly have the time to do more on this.

You know what that’s exactly like? David Irving. That’s what Irving did, except that he didn’t misinterpret, he outright falsified. A judge has ruled that, so I can say it without fear of being sued for libel. A judge ruled it because a historian did the hard work of checking Irving’s references – thousands of them – and finding systematic falsification. That happened only because Irving was stupid enough to sue Deborah Lipstadt for libel for saying he did the very thing he ended up being shown to have done. That happened only because Penguin defended the case and could afford to pay the historian Richard Evans and two grad students to do the time-consuming work.

All skeptics should read chapter 2 of Evans’s book on the trial and his investigation, Lying About Hitler. It’s all about this crucial epistemic issue of the difficulty of demonstrating misinterpretation and/or falsification.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Another illustration of how privileged women are

Jul 8th, 2012 8:48 am | By

And how they dominate and exploit men.

A man Afghan officials say is a member of the Taliban shot dead a woman accused of adultery in front of a crowd near Kabul, a video obtained by Reuters showed…

In the three-minute video, a turban-clad man approaches a woman kneeling in the dirt and shoots her five times at close range with an automatic rifle, to cheers of jubilation from the 150 or so men watching in a village in Parwan province.

“Allah warns us not to get close to adultery because it’s the wrong way,” another man says as the shooter gets closer to the woman. “It is the order of Allah that she be executed.”

Actually it turns out it wasn’t quite like that. Allah appears not to have ordered anything with this one.

 [Provincial Governor Basir] Salangi said two Taliban commanders were sexually involved with the woman in Parwan, either through rape or romantically, and decided to torture her and then kill her to settle a dispute between the two of them.

Because the bitch was dominating and exploiting both of them. The bitch.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)