Notes and Comment Blog

No can say

Oct 17th, 2013 11:29 am | By

Hmm. American Atheists is having a hard time finding a billboard company in Salt Lake City willing to take one of their billboards to run during next year’s convention. This one for instance:

 So it’s taboo, apparently, to say (conspicuously) that you were once a Mormon and are now an atheist.

Well if it’s taboo, how voluntary is the religion then? If you can’t do something as simple (and, admittedly, visible) as announce that you have left a particular religion…is that religion really fully voluntary? It seems to me it’s not. If there’s that much social disapproval, then it’s not.

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

The manosphere in the tv spotlight

Oct 17th, 2013 11:03 am | By

Manboobz tells us that mainstream media in the form of ABC’s 20/20 is airing a long-awaited show on the manosphere tomorrow.

It’s here at last! After numerous delays, the 20/20 story looking at the manosphere — and the part it plays in the online harassment of women — will be running on ABC this Friday, October 18, at 10 PM EST. Among the featured participants: the always charming Paul Elam of A Voice for Men; Anita Sarkeesian, the much-harassed feminist video game critic; and Jaclyn Friedman, the ass-kicking founder of Women, Action & the Media.

Here’s a teaser story on the ABC website which suggests that the 20/20 piece isn’t exactly going to be a triumphant moment in the history of the Men’s Rights Movement.

Yes, it does rather suggest that. Right from the title.

Women Battle Online Anti-Women Hate From the ‘Manosphere’

Deep in the underbelly of the Internet is a hidden corner known as the “Manosphere”— a collection of websites, Facebook pages and chat rooms where men vent their rage and spew anti-women rhetoric.

Protected by the anonymity of the Internet, men feel free to post hateful and violent comments. Posts such as “I really wouldn’t mind shooting a [expletive] dead in the face, they are evil, all of them,” and “Women are the natural enemies of men” are commonplace on sites like “A Voice for Men,” a Manosphere blog run by Paul Elam.

I’ve featured on the front page of that site. It wasn’t the very best moment of my life.

While Elam told “20/20″ that his site does not promote violence or hate toward women, some of his writing appears otherwise. In a post on his website, Elam wrote that women on welfare are “little more than thinly disguised layabouts.”

Elam claimed it’s not anger but satire and social commentary. “What I do is reflect and study what the attitude is in the culture,” he told “20/20.” “I am not creating the problem, I am documenting some of it.”

But experts like Mark Potok, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, believe this rhetoric is problematic. “The Manosphere is an underworld of so-called men’s rights groups and individuals on the Internet, which is just fraught with really hard-line anti-woman misogyny,” Potok told “20/20.”

And when a woman is on the receiving end of this misogyny, the Manosphere is unflinching in its attacks.

“Women who are targeted by these sites get a tidal wave of hate mail with rape threats and death threats,” Jaclyn Friedman, founder of Women, Action & the Media, told “20/20.”

And it’s not the best fun there is. I know there are skeptics who say it is, but they’re mistaken.

Friedman was also the subject of a cyber attack after campaigning on Facebook to remove photos and groups that promoted hate speech toward women.

“I got emails and tweets and posts on Facebook that say, ‘You are disgusting. You are fat. No one would ever want you. You should be raped,” Friedman said.

Friedman said the Manosphere is not satire as Elam claimed, but a space for people to cause damage to women.

“If you look at what they actually do, it’s all hateful rhetoric,” she told “20/20.”

“And it has real impact in the real world.”

It’s good to see major media paying attention.

Update: this show has nothing to do with our colleague Mano Singham. Heh heh.

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

We have met the enemy and you know the rest

Oct 17th, 2013 10:13 am | By

One of the comments on The Troublemaker really stood out for me, because I’ve been thinking the same thing. It’s by one ADHDJ:

There is a huge overlap between skepticism and mansplaining.

I find cowardice in so much of what skeptics spend their time on — writing a 20 page article debunking a photo of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster and believing you did something intellectually valuable, like that makes you some kind of big thinker.  Considering whether or not fairies exist is worthy of great study and serious analysis, but whether some drunk dude acted like a creepy asshole at 3AM is so unlikely as to never merit a thought.

To quote the great Harry Frankfurt, “one of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”  And most of it is pretty easily debunked.  So if you’re fairly smart, lazy, and argumentative, skepticism is very emotional satisfying, as it supplies a constant stream of unequivocally silly bullshit and bullshitters to do battle with, a constant stream of reasons to feel superior.

Call it Cognitive Assonance.  Can you believe people who think the earth isn’t spherical?  (Seriously, there are.)  Good thing there are people like me to point out someone was wrong on the internet!  It leads to this mindset where you are the high arbiter of truth, the world’s designated bullshit-caller.  One can feel like a great intellectual even though you’re doing the equivalent of dunking over your 5 year old cousin on a Nerf hoop.

From this position, anything that makes one uncomfortable (like teh lay-deez and their mysterious lay-dee ways) is a target to be debunked or rebutted, and can be assumed to be wrong about everything.  One starts adopting the language of skepticism to opine about social issues and other things that are not debunkable, but just happen to be your opinion.

The skeptic community says that everyone is stupid except for you, and needs the benefit of your munificent belligerence — “what you ________ just don’t understand about science is _____”, etc.  It leads to a conversation that has the same shape as when I talk to my crazy brother about conspiracy theories.  “What the mainstream media don’t want you to understand about flouridation…”  Or my crazy uncle about economics.  “What you tax and spend liberals don’t understand about the laffer curve is…”

It’s fucking toxic.  It’s science that’s been bitten by a radioactive asshole.  It’s people who nominally detest conspiracy theories taking up the very language of conspiratorial certainty, in the name of rationality, to justify their own stupidity.  It’s a way to feel righter than everyone, smarter than everyone, because science, all while not having to challenge your own cultural beliefs or prejudices no matter what.

ADHDJ then responds to being called an anti-skeptic:

What on earth is an anti-skeptic?   I enjoy and in some circumstances see great value of debunking crazy bullshit.  I was a member of CSICOP for several years in the mid 80′s,  I was an active on alt.folklore.urban for a long time, and read many books by Shermer, Randi, Nickell, etc.

I was trying to describe what I’ve seen the movement turn into in the internet age: it’s another venue for Internet Tough Guys to feel smart, while either turning their rhetorical guns on social issues — feminism, “political correctness”, etc. often couched in a completely uncritical embrace of the pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology — or on the easiest targets in the world (faith healing, Bigfoot, etc).

Seeing a movement that’s supposed to be devoted to rationality and critical thinking turn anti-intellectual and authoritarian pisses me off.  I don’t think that makes me an asshole.  Plenty of other stuff does, though, so point taken I guess.  However if you do consider yourself a skeptic, you should give the No True Scotsman bullshit a rest.

So this is internal criticism, not external. It’s the same with criticisms I make here, and many of us make elsewhere on FTB and on social media. I’ve been writing on skeptical-type subjects since B&W started in the fall of 2002 (by the way it had its 11th birthday last month sometime), but by god I have plenty of criticism of “movement” skepticism. It’s what ADHDJ said. For a lot of people it’s just another way to be an asshole.

There are “skeptics” on Twitter right now offering “reasons” to think fat-shaming is a good idea. Yeah.

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

Another spam compliment

Oct 17th, 2013 9:55 am | By

You have to admit.

…this website is genuinely fastidious and the people are actually sharing good thoughts.

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

And the dimple on the baby’s chin and the dew on the rose

Oct 16th, 2013 5:33 pm | By

Oh, please. Oprah.

Winfrey asked Nyad: “You told our producers you’re not a God person, but you’re deeply in awe?”

Nyad replied: “Yeah, I’m not a God person. I’m an atheist”, prompting Winfrey to question: “But you’re in awe?”

Nyad said: “I don’t understand why anyone would find a contradiction in that. I can stand at the beach’s edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist and weep at the beauty of this universe, and be moved by all of humanity. So to me, my definition of God is humanity, and is the love of humanity.”

Winfrey, who has spoken about her Christian faith on television before, replied by telling Nyad that her beliefs did not fit with traditional atheism. “Well I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder, and the mystery, then that is what God is. That is what God is. It’s not the bearded guy in the sky,” she said.

No it is not. Being blown away by a sunset or a starry night or a sunset seen from the beach on a starry night is not what “God” is. Don’t bullshit us. Don’t move the goalposts. Don’t pretend the word “God” doesn’t mean what most people take it to mean but instead means a really good hazelnut gelato. Don’t conscript everyone into God’s army by pretending everything is god. Just don’t.

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


Oct 16th, 2013 5:05 pm | By

The Guardian published the not yet released Ofsted report on Al-Medinah school. It’s grim.

Overall effectiveness: Inadequate.

Achievement of pupils: Inadequate.

Quality of teaching: Inadequate.

Behaviour and safety of pupils: Inadequate.

Leadership and management: Inadequate.

The Guardian sums up:

An Ofsted report, due to be published imminently, declares that the Al-Madinah Islamic  school in Derby is “in chaos” and has “not been adequately monitored or supported”.

The report, which has been leaked to the Guardian, says teachers at the faith school are inexperienced and have not been provided with proper training.

Pupils are given the same work “regardless of their different abilities” and the governing body is “ineffective”, according to the report which was commissioned amid reports of irregularities at the school.

But it’s reform. Reform is good, isn’t it?

Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, said the Ofsted report showed that Michael Gove’s reform programme, in which the new schools are freed from local education authority control and allowed to appoint unqualified teachers if they choose, has become a “dangerous free-for-all”.

Hunt told the Guardian: “What this report exposes is that David Cameron and Michael Gove’s Free School programme has become a dangerous free-for-all: an out of control ideological experiment that has left 400 children losing an entire week of learning.”

The Ofsted report gives the school the lowest “inadequate” ranking in every area, prompting the chief inspector of schools Sir Michael Wilshaw to call for it to be placed in special measures. The inspectors also complain that teachers without proper qualifications have been given key posts.

It’s the free market. Give it time.

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

A useful guide

Oct 16th, 2013 4:35 pm | By

Things that are not good in coffee:

  • olives
  • anchovies
  • cauliflower
  • shrimp
  • pineapple
  • mustard
  • onions
  • smoked salmon
  • pumpkin

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

Not crazy and not alone

Oct 16th, 2013 4:19 pm | By

Hannah Waters has been where Monica Byrne found herself.

At the time of posting a year ago, Monica didn’t call Bora out by name. But she updated her blog post this week with his identity after recent unprofessionalism on Scientific American’s part, seemingly linked to unrealized sexism and racism. Bora didn’t deny what happened.

The reaction on Twitter was one of disbelief and anger from his network of science bloggers and friends. “Science blogosphere, I am tweetless… I can’t even retweet what has left me so stunned.” “Enraged children with a persecution complex are out on a witch hunt, it’ll blow over eventually…” “My closest friend is @boraz. I know him better than almost everyone. I would give my life for him. Thought you should know that.”

At first, I was paralyzed. But when I saw the “protect the herd” mentality among my friends, with some doubting that this behavior even qualified as sexual harassment, I had to speak up. I couldn’t leave Monica ridiculed and alone. Bora has been a friend and mentor for years. He recruited me to blog for Scientific American. And yet, even if she hadn’t named him, I would have recognized him from his behavior because I have gone through it too.

And she goes on to tell the story. Comparatively mild; flirtating and sexual talk rather than groping or plying with wine; but not therefore harmless.

When I first met Bora at a Philadelphia pub in June 2010, I was new to the scene; hardly anyone read my blog. He was enormously enthusiastic and supportive of my efforts to blog about science and, soon thereafter, he began to share my posts. Suddenly, I was getting readers, making friends, and connecting to a community. It was wonderful, and I felt I owed it to him.

That’s one reason it’s not harmless. Guess what happens when the flirting and sexual talk start?

Bora and I were walking in the same direction and chatting, a bit tipsy, when he asked me if I would walk him back to his hotel. I lost my breath for a second. I froze and stuttered, “No, I have to go.”

After a hug goodbye that lasted a second too long, we split ways, my head spinning. Did I imagine that? Was he trying to sleep with me? And then: Am I actually any good at writing, or was he just supporting me because he was sexually interested in me?

I doubted myself, my value to a community in which I had found a home, my worth as a writer. I came home crying to my roommate, so unsure of what this meant for my future, whether all my seeming accomplishments were no more than a ruse.

I’ve carried those thoughts with me ever since.

That’s what happens. And it’s corrosive; it’s terrible. Remember what Claire Ramsey commented on Not again yesterday:

Something on these lines happened to me in my senior year of college in 1972. I thought “my professor thinks I’m smart.” And he thought “What’s in those pants?” I was crushed, confused, ashamed, and plunged into a state of absolutely no confidence. Embarrassed and mortified that I was so stupid and naive. And that goddamn state lasted fifteen fucking years.

Not good.

What makes this so hard to talk about—my experience and Monica’s—is that it may not look like sexual harassment. There was no actual sex or inappropriate touching. Bora wasn’t vulgar toward me, nor did he even directly announce his interest. It was all reading between the lines, which made it easy for me to discount my own experience. Instead, I did my best to ignore my discomfort to avoid conflict, or otherwise convinced myself that I was reading too far into it. How vain! To imagine all men want to have sex with me!

No one should be made to feel this way, no less someone early in her or his career. The nagging self-doubt is enough to turn people away from doing the things they love. Monica wrote that she’s okay, “as science journalism isn’t my principal interest by far.” But imagine how many people have been driven away from their main goal because their experiences don’t align with traditional definitions of harassment. The focus then is not on getting over it; instead, there is the added stress of figuring out whether what you experienced was harassment at all. In that case, maybe that goal doesn’t seem worth the effort.

I’ve made it far enough now that I know my work is valuable on its own. And I’m writing today to let anyone else who has experienced sexual harassment—especially the type of harassment that can be mistaken for acceptable behavior—that you aren’t alone. Whoever did this to you is the one in the wrong. They are the one who did not examine their own power and the effect their “harmless flirting” could have on you.

It’s easy to say that now but, at my most insecure moments, I still come back to this: have I made it this far, not based on my work and worth, but on my value as a sexual object? When am I going to be found out?

I don’t think Bora intended to make me feel this way. In fact, if he knew I were carrying this with me, I’m sure he’d be horrified. But it’s our actions that matter, not our intentions. He did make me feel that way. His actions degraded my self-worth.

I’m not here to dig a grave for Bora. That’s not up to me. It’s up to each person his actions have affected to decide whether or not to forgive him. I am here to let Monica know that she is not crazy, as people on Twitter are saying, and that she is not alone.

Not crazy, not alone.


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

Collaborate for a better world

Oct 16th, 2013 3:44 pm | By

Bora Zivkovic has resigned from the board of Science Online.

Since its earliest days, ScienceOnline has sought to gather, grow and support a community of diverse faces, experiences and voices who share a desire to celebrate science, improve our communication skills and collaborate for a better world.

Bora Zivkovic, a cofounder and member of the ScienceOnline board of directors, has been an integral and vital leader in this community. Recent events, though, have identified actions on Bora’s part that are not consistent with the ScienceOnline values he himself vigorously promoted. Bora has taken steps to address these issues, and we look forward to any further clarity and resolution he might offer.

Our lives are full of overlapping communities – personal and professional. While several of us on this Board are good friends with Bora and his family, we must not allow this to affect our responsibility to manage the ScienceOnline organization and uphold the community values that each of us is committed to protecting.

Props to all of them for dealing with it as opposed to attacking the messengers. It would be nice if everyone did that.

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

Munching in Seattle

Oct 16th, 2013 3:12 pm | By

Ha! Explanation found. Howdidweeverlivewithoutgoogle.

I went for a long walk yesterday, down the hill, into Elliott Bay park, along the waterfront to Pioneer Square. During the along the waterfront phase I looked up to my left at the steep hillside between the shoreline and downtown Seattle – and stopped in amazement because it was full of goats. Goats, I tell you! Goats in downtown Seattle, goats in an urban landscape. They were all browsing away, as goats do. Huh. Obviously they were there to weed the slope, but I wanted to know more.

So I found more. From King-5 News last June:

Farhan Syed spends his free time at the office these days looking out the window with his co-workers.

“We are men who watch goats,” said Sayed, who works for a software company in downtown Seattle.

120 goats are at work on the hillside below the Alaskan Way Viaduct outside Sayed’s window. The goats are under the supervision of Head Goat Wrangler Tammy Dunakin, who also owns the Rent-A-Ruminant company.

Dunakin said the Seattle Department of Transportation hired her and her goats to clear a site that is too steep and dangerous for humans and their equipment.

No noisy polluting weed-eaters, no herbicides – just a hillside dotted with sweet goats.

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

Rudely introduced

Oct 16th, 2013 11:17 am | By

Another one of those times when a look at the stats turns up an interesting link I wouldn’t have seen otherwise: B. Spencer at Lawyers Guns Money on The Troublemaker.

Often when I post about Rebecca Watson, I am helpfully reminded by someone that she is a lightning rod, a troublemaker, looking to stir shit in the skeptic world. From what I have read of her Skepchick blog, this just doesn’t ring true to me. What I’ve been able to gather from following her for a year or so is that she was just a young woman and a skeptic who was rudely introduced to sexism and misogyny in the skeptic world and responded to that by talking about it–loudly and often–instead of shutting up.

I think it’s the loudly and often part that gives Ms. Watson her bad rap (with idiots). And, indeed, if you do read her blog you’ll notice a pretty sizable chunk of her posts deal with misogyny in the skeptic world. But to me this makes a tremendous amount of sense. I think that after Elevatorgate, it would have been bizarre if skeptic-related feminism had not become a big part of her shtick. I mean, the reaction to her gentle admonition was just freaking insane. I can’t imagine this event and its aftermath not influencing the way she viewed the skeptic world greatly–of course she became more attuned to sexism!

Yes. And of course so did many of us. I had a head start, having become more attuned to sexism before Rebecca was even born, but still there are always lows and peaks. In other words becoming more attuned to sexism wasn’t a new experience for me (but rather a drearily familiar one), but all the same the summer of 2011 caused a huge uptick, and there have been many new peaks since then. The freaking insane shit that has been going on for more than two years is more than enough to explain that. It’s supererogatory in the explanation department.

And I think that it’s at this point we get into a rolling stone gathering moss situation: Rebecca Watson blogs about sexism. She is criticized for that–often in a way that proves the need for her vigilance– and she speaks up again. And because she keeps speaking–for legitimate reasons–she becomes “the troublemaker.” Bullshit.


Many of the comments are interesting too.

BSpencer adds:

I started reading her because of Elevatorgate and was utterly charmed. In addition to the fine work she does for women in the skeptic community, she’s really, really funny. *jealous*

Elly replies

And – in part – that’s also why the reaction to RW has been so over-the-top. Without naming names, it seemed pretty plain (to me, at any rate) that certain people viewed her as an upstart… someone who was taking attention away from more credentialed (and therefore more “serious”) voices.

So yeah, jealousy. Organized skepticism features a lot of academic types; some of whom seemed to resent the popularity of a non-academic (particularly one who wasn’t properly deferential to their authoritah); and used the opportunity provided by “Elevatorgate” to take her down a notch.

Personally, this only made me admire Rebecca even more, for her ability to maintain her “cool” and stay focused under some truly depressing circumstances.

And a bit later adds:

Lemme put it this way: that’s my opinion. But to me, it’s the only “rational” explanation for the unhinged reactions on the part of women like Abbie Smith, who gleefully and openly reveled in Rebecca’s situation. As I recall, she even had a dedicated thread on her blog at Scienceblogs, devoted to abusing Rebecca (and her supporters) – when National Geographic took over Sb management, she was forced to delete it. But at the time, it left me gaping in shock: I couldn’t believe (and still have trouble believing) that an up-and-coming young professional woman would engage in such blatantly unprofessional behavior.

Some of Smith’s bile is copied here: Her characterization of Rebecca as a “leech” and “loser” demonstrate that her animus is unrelated to Elevatorgate, per se. If someone has an explanation for this level of hate other than jealousy, I’m willing to hear it.

That link will be why I saw this post and the comments. Speaking of Abbie Smith (aka ERV) and Someone is mean on the internet, Stephanie has a report on that front.

Just in case anyone was wondering why I put off mentioning that migraines and treating them wereaffecting my finances, just chalk it up to being one of those little effects of being constantly watched. When I do talk about anything being a problem for me, this is what I get. (Warning: slime pit link.)

Badger3k: In other news, Steffy is begging for money, and Avicenna is saying something against Thunderf00t (not sure what, couldn’t waste the minutes it would take to read his drivel). Ophie finds rape culture where most of us would find a kid connected to a politician gets out of trouble. Not sure about the rest of the article, but going to the “house they used to live in was burned down in mysterious circumstances) to suggest the townspeople burned it down in retaliation for reporting the rapes is a bit much (so far, it could change if I ever think it’s worth looking into).

BarnOwl: Peezus Christ on a crutch … they’re all medically “special,” “unusual,” and “rare.” What are the chances that they all have (sometimes multiple) rare chronic conditions, unique drug reactions, unusual allergies and autoimmune disorders, etc. etc. And their special medical conditions require that they quit their jobs to get healthy again, and that means cyber-begging with their piteous stories. I’ve had a few co-workers who develop special chronic conditions and “disabilities” that require reduced working hours and duties for accommodation, yet somehow magically they’re always healthy enough and have plenty of spoons to travel to Europe or Australia or ski resorts in the US and Canada to attend fun meetings and conferences.

Fuck that shit.

ERV: I noticed with the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome folks– It was incredible how active they were able to be online, despite their ‘inability’ to work. Dozens of Tweets a day, active on Facebook and special-interest forums, and look at Svan, able to organize posts full of meticulously screen-capped, uploaded, and organized Tweets from others, with commentary.

But work, no, work is simply too much for her to handle.

Also, ask my partner about my migraines. Ask. Ask how theyve been the past couple of months. You know what I cut back on instead of work? Blogging.

What a fucking loser.



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

Guest post: the real reason explanatory frameworks matter

Oct 16th, 2013 10:13 am | By

Originally a comment by Chris Lawson on Folk remedies with lashings of meridian.

With due respect, I am becoming increasingly frustrated at seeing this argument trotted out repeatedly against acupuncture. I’m just about the strongest possible advocate for evidence-based medicine you can find and I think the vast majority of “alternative” medicine is bunkum, often dangerously so, but this particular argument has broken legs and ought to be taken out the back of the stables and put out of its misery.

What is true: there is a lot of published evidence favouring acupuncture, but most of it is very poor quality. The traditional Chinese theory behind acupuncture — that of Qi and meridians — is utterly wrong. We know this because (1) there are no known anatomical structures that follow the distribution of meridians, (2) even if some future scientist astonishes us by finding the appropriate structures, they certainly won’t be physically capable of moving air (which is what Qi means; modern quasi-scientific “spirit” or “energy” apologetics can be ignored) around the body, and (3) there are now several studies showing that sham acupuncture, that is random needling, is exactly as effective as traditional acupuncture, thus demonstrating that the traditional meridians have nothing to do with the medicinal effect of acupuncture. And yes, Chinese medical practitioners ought to be ashamed of themselves for sticking to a patently untrue theory. And yes, Asma’s pseudoscientific defence of Chinese medical theory deserves to be pilloried (and I’m pleased that Pigliucci and Boudry took it on). This much I agree with.

But…there is a big gaping hole at the center of this particular epistemic argument. Where Pigliucci and Boudry go wrong is in assuming that the explanatory framework is what makes a treatment evidence-based. It’s not. What makes medicine evidence-based is the strength of the evidence for a positive benefit. Counter-intuitively, I try to teach my medical students that they should be *distrustful* of theoretical explanations for why they should use a treatment. This kind of explanation is strongly favoured by pharmaceutical company marketing departments because they know full well that providing an explanation for why something works makes people more likely to believe they work. This line of thinking (not always due to pharmcos) has led to medical disasters in the past, including the use of flecainide routinely post-MI which probably caused upwards of 50,000 avoidable deaths per year in the US while it was in favour…purely because cardiologists thought they understood its mechanism of action well enough in prevent arrhythmias. In reality, when they tested it against the outcome that mattered, not arrhythmia frequency but deaths, flecainide was killing about 5% of the people it was given to post-infarct.

The flip-side is also important: there are many treatments in Western medicine that have poorly-understood mechanisms of action. Paracetamol (acetaminophen to Americans) is a case in point: a very effective analgesic sold by the millions of doses every day around the world, with a still only partially-unravelled mechanism. Even more surprising, we don’t really understand how general anaesthetics work.

Anyone who says “this is scientific because we understand how it works” is missing the point. Explanatory frameworks are important not because they prove what works (otherwise we’d still be treating ancient Greek humours), and even wrong theories can be useful (we can use Newtonian physics and ignore special relativity for most daily applications), but they’re important because they help us work out fruitful avenues for future research. There is an infinite number of possible experiments that can be performed. Explanatory frameworks help us direct our energies towards experiments that are likely to give us interesting answers. And in medicine, they help us weigh up risks and benefits when we don’t have as much evidence as we would like (which is often). That’s the real problem with meridians and Qi. It’s not just that the theory is wrong, it’s that the theory is so broken that it’s useless for designing future experiments or for deciding whether to use acupuncture for a given patient.

And follow-up comment:

Oh, and contra Pigliucci and Boudry, the mechanism of aspirin is not nearly as well understood as they present it. It’s certainly true that aspirin alters cyclo-oxygenase metabolism and that probably explains its anti-pyretic and analgesic action, but we still don’t understand why it can trigger the very nasty Reye’s syndrome, don’t know how important its effect on DNA transcription is, don’t know why some people develop allergic reactions to aspirin and others don’t, and so on. When I read their piece on how well we understand aspirin, it reminds me of A. A. Michelson’s 1894 opinion that science was so well known it was going to be about the “sixth place of decimals” from then on.

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

Not again

Oct 15th, 2013 5:47 pm | By

Oh good god. Another one.

Read this, from last year: This happened, by Monica Byrne.

When you do the first thing you’ll see is the update today, naming the guy in question.

UPDATE, 10/14/13: The man is Bora Zivkovic, Blogs Editor for Scientific American. There’s no reason for me anymore not to name him publicly, which I’d long wanted to do anyway. Reading about this incident is what reminded me (independent of whether or not he had anything to do with that post’s original deletion, which I don’t know).

So you know what’s coming.

A month ago I met with a prominent science editor and blogger. He’d friended me on Facebook, and given his high profile, I was delighted, thinking he was interested in my writing.

But guess what, it turned out he was interested in getting in her pants. Silly women, always thinking people are interested in their writing.

He began describing his own experience of going to a strip club. Then he described himself as “a very sexual person.” Then he told me about his wife’s sexual and mental health history. Then he began telling me about his dissatisfaction with his current sex life with his wife. Then he reminded me that he was “a very sexual person.” Then he told me, in an awful lot of detail, about how he almost had an affair with a younger woman he’d been seeing at conferences—how they’d met, how it escalated, how “close they’d come.”

Fabulous! She’s there to talk about writing and science and blogs, and he’s there to talk about what a sexual person he is.

Afterwards, on reflection, she wrote to him.

Since meeting, I’ve felt a lot of reluctance about pitching to you, and I wanted to let you know why. I felt very uncomfortable during our meeting last week. The talk veered towards sex because you led it there—first describing yourself as a “very sexual person,” and then going on to describe your wife’s sexual history (which I can’t imagine she’d want me to know), the state of your present sex life, and the near-affair you had with a younger woman. I thought all of these topics were incredibly inappropriate to discuss with someone you’d just met, especially one who was interested in working together in a professional capacity and had initiated the meeting as such. Why didn’t I say anything in the moment? Because I wanted to write for [redacted], and you held power insofar as whether or not that would happen (and still do). I was particularly upset that, despite other indications that you’re aware of the difficulties women face in terms of harassment, that you didn’t seem to be aware that your behavior towards me was part of that same problem. So I’m letting you know. 

That’s the part that makes me furious – she wanted to write for SciAm blogs and he held the power and he used it to get what he wanted regardless of how painful that would be for her. “Oh, write for the blog? Hahahaha no, honey, I just want to fuck you.”

Guys, don’t do that.

Don’t do that.

He apologized, sort of.

I did appreciate the note, to some degree. Especially the clear admission that he did something wrong.

But, surprise, this is far from the first time I’ve been on the receiving end of sexual harassment from an older man in a position of power, and in my experience, offenders are often serial offenders. Apparently abject apologies, and claims that “you’re the only one,” “these are special circumstances” or “this is the only time this has happened,” have often proven hollow after further investigation. Recently there’ve been blowups in the spec lit community, the atheist community, and now the theatre community over behavior like this. In many cases, it seems clear that the harasser in question is a known serial harasser, long tolerated by his community because of his status or reputation.

Yeah. Can we stop doing that soon?


H/t Kausik.

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

Folk remedies with lashings of meridian

Oct 15th, 2013 5:09 pm | By

Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry on why pseudoscience is dangerous. (I’m reading their edited collection The Philosophy of Pseudoscience.)

There is no question that some folk remedies do work. The active ingredient of aspirin, for example, is derived from willow bark, which had been known to have beneficial effects since the time of Hippocrates. There is also no mystery about how this happens: people have more or less randomly tried solutions to their health problems for millennia, sometimes stumbling upon something useful. What makes the use of aspirin “scientific,” however, is that we have validated its effectiveness through properly controlled trials, isolated the active ingredient, and understood the biochemical pathways through which it has its effects (it suppresses the production of prostaglandins and thromboxanes by way of interference with the enzyme cyclooxygenase, just in case you were curious).

Asma’s example of Chinese medicine’s claims about the existence of “Qi” energy, channeled through the human body by way of “meridians,” though, is a different matter. This sounds scientific, because it uses arcane jargon that gives the impression of articulating explanatory principles. But there is no way to test the existence of Qi and associated meridians, or to establish a viable research program based on those concepts, for the simple reason that talk of Qi and meridians only looks substantive, but it isn’t even in the ballpark of an empirically verifiable theory.

Well maybe just by talking about Qi and meridians, people make them effective. In a meridian Qi-esque kind of way.

I kid. I don’t believe in the magical powers of jargon. Jargon deployed that way makes me want to smack things.

In terms of empirical results, there are strong indications that acupuncture is effective for reducing chronic pain and nausea, but sham therapy, where needles are applied at random places, or are not even pierced through the skin, turn out to be equally effective…

Placebo effect, in other words. Speaking of placebo effect, wouldn’t you think it wouldn’t work if you know it’s a placebo? I use diphenhydramine as a sleeping pill often, and the other day I Googled it out of curiosity, and found that its effect wears off after three days and then it’s just a placebo. Ok, except it didn’t make any difference knowing that. I loudly announce that I’m taking a placebo now, just so that everyone including the pink pill will know I know it’s a placebo – but I go to sleep anyway. Very weird.

Philosophers of science have long recognized that there is nothing wrong with positing unobservable entities per se, it’s a question of what work such entities actually do within a given theoretical-empirical framework. Qi and meridians don’t seem to do any, and that doesn’t seem to bother supporters and practitioners of Chinese medicine. But it ought to.

But meridian is such a pretty name.

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

Guest post: only an a-rational compassion

Oct 15th, 2013 12:24 pm | By

Guest post by Eamon Knight, originally a comment on Why should I?

On meta-ethics, I lean toward Error Theory (this week, anyway), and regard skepticism as a primarily epistemic stance. My usual approach to justifying moral behaviour is to note that it is in my rational self-interest to live in a society where I will receive cooperation from others, fair treatment, and some assistance when I stumble.

But as you note, this only gets us so far. My self-interest is conditioned by my middle-class status in society. For example: since I believe my chances of winding up as a mentally ill, drug-addicted street person are small, I might, if I’m being strictly rational, be reluctant to contribute (whether through private charity or the public purse)  to rescue and rehab services for such people. It’s a net negative to my personal utility. It’s only an a-rational compassion that makes me want those services to be available.

Similarly, if some very powerful person decides to screw me over to their own advantage (even if it’s just for sadistic jollies), I can’t really appeal to their self-interest — I have nothing they need. The best I can do is to band together with other less-powerful people and say: Try that shit on any of us, and we collectively will kick your ass (when institutionalized, this is known as Human Rights and the Rule Of Law). But that’s really only modifying the powerful person’s self-interest-calculus by introducing a threat. It doesn’t fall out logically from the premises.

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

If it looks like the Angelus

Oct 15th, 2013 11:31 am | By

Wonderful Jane Donnelly of Atheist Ireland saying why the RTE shouldn’t have a daily call to prayer, aka The Angelus.

Jane’s a pistol.

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

The laundries housed “fallen” girls and women

Oct 15th, 2013 9:48 am | By

Something I missed last July – Bill Donohue aka “The Catholic League” explains how wonderful Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries were, contrary to all the “myths” about them.

One contemporary example of prejudice is the popular perception of the nuns who ran Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries.

From the mid-eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century, the laundries housed “fallen” girls and women in England and Ireland. Though they did not initiate the facilities, most of the operations were carried out by the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy, Good Shepherd Sisters, and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity. The first “Magdalene Home” was established in England in 1758; Ireland followed in 1765 (the first asylum being a Protestant-run entity).

Notice the breezy way he accepts the category “fallen” – in scare quotes, to be sure, but not distanced or questioned in any other way. He doesn’t pause to explain that this refers to girls and women who had sex, and singles them out as “fallen” while completely ignoring their male colleagues in the enterprise of having sex. Notice also the benign “housed” when what he means is “imprisoned.”

The popular perception of the laundries is entirely negative, owing in large part to fictionalized portrayals in the movies. The conventional wisdom has also been shaped by writers who have come to believe the worst about the Catholic Church, and by activists who have their own agenda. So strong is the prejudice that even when evidence to the contrary is presented, the bias continues.

No citations for any of that, of course. No mention of the survivors, and their testimony about what the laundries were like, unless that’s what he means by “writers” – women who were actually there and know firsthand what it was like.

On his way to minimizing the laundries he pauses to minimize the industrial “schools” too.

Media commentary about the laundries eventually led to an investigation about the treatment of wayward youth in every Irish institution. In 2009, Ireland’s Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse published its findings; it became known as the Ryan Report (after the chairman of the Commission, Justice Seán Ryan).

News stories about the Ryan Report quickly emerged maintaining that abuse was rampant in these institutions. Upon closer inspection, however, we learn that the Ryan Commission listed four types of abuse: physical, sexual, neglect and emotional. Most of the evidence showed there were no serious violations. For example, physical abuse included “being kicked”; sexual abuse was considered “kissing,” “non-contact including voyeurism” and “inappropriate sexual talk”; neglect included “inadequate heating”; and “lack of attachment and affection” was deemed emotional abuse.

Even by today’s standards in the West, these conditions are hardly draconian; in the past they were considered pedestrian. And consider the timeline: fully 82 percent of the incidents reported took place before 1970. As the New York Times noted, “many of them [are] now more than 70 years old.” Keep in mind that corporal punishment was not uncommon in many homes (and in many parts of the world), never mind in facilities that housed troubled persons.

Note that first sentence – note the phrase”wayward youth” for the children locked up in those industrial not-schools. Many of those children were simply the children of parents who didn’t have enough money; many more were simply the children of mothers who weren’t married. Then go on to notice his callous relativism about what went on in the schools, and feel sick.

He tries to argue that the women in the laundries were free to leave.

The majority of women either left on their own, went home, were reclaimed by a family member, or left for employment. Only 7.1 percent were dismissed or “sent away,” and less than two percent ran away. One might have thought that if Mullan’s depiction were accurate, a lot more than 1.9 percent would have run for the hills. That so few did is further testimony of the bogus portrayal he offered.

Say what? You’d think more would have run away? They were prevented from running away – that’s the whole point. They weren’t “sheltered” as he tries to maintain, they were locked up. The fact that few succeeded in escaping is not evidence that they were not locked up. (He slips by saying “ran away” at all. You don’t run away unless you’re not free to walk away.)

He’s a callous unfeeling church-protecting shit, Donohue is.

Physical abuse was uncommon. “A large majority of the women who shared their stories with the Committee said that they had neither experienced nor seen girls or women suffer physical abuse in the Magdalen Laundries,” the Report notes. But they did say that in their time in an industrial reformatory school there were instances of brutality.  As for the laundries, a typical complaint was, “I don’t ever remember anyone being beaten but we did have to work very hard.” Another common criticism went like this: “No they never hit you in the laundry. They never hit me, but the nun looked down on me ‘cause I had no father.”

Clearly he wants us to roll our eyes at what a trivial complaint this is. Fuck that. It is not trivial. Priest-ridden Ireland’s way of looking down on people for reasons of that kind was cruel and corrosive, and not a thing to be minimized. Marie-Thérèse has told us a great deal about what that was like, and it’s scorching.

Donohue is a very bad man.

H/t Lola Heavey.

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

Why should I?

Oct 14th, 2013 5:30 pm | By

One of the reasons skepticism can’t get you there is the fact that it’s always possible to ask questions like, “Why should I care?”

There are answers to questions like that, but skepticism isn’t the source of the answers. Skepticism will just keep asking why we should care. Skepticism won’t necessarily accept the answers. There are no skepticism-defeating answers to questions like that. There’s no “proof” that humans should look after each other.

That’s why some of us are getting so fed up with skepticism. There are people who think it’s the universal tool, that it’s the right way to approach all questions, that if it’s still asking questions then somebody is pulling a fast one.

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

One thought too many

Oct 14th, 2013 4:18 pm | By

Or, stupid thought for the day, or, your moral reasoning machine is broken.

Another tweet, less interesting than the one I quoted earlier today.

I rarely use it myself but I see a liberal use of the word cunt to be a healthy reaction to those who seek to ban the word.

Of course you do. Bullies always do think that. If your younger sister told you to stop pinching her, you pinched harder, because that’s a healthy reaction to those who seek to ban pinching. If that skinny kid in glasses complained when you punched her in the playground, you kicked her for good measure, because that’s a healthy reaction to those who seek to ban punching. If your mother told you to stop calling her a bitch, you called her a cunt for good measure, because that’s a healthy reaction to those who seek to ban sexist name-calling.

Actually I too think liberal use of the word cunt, in the right context by the right people, is a healthy reaction to people who use it as an epithet to degrade and belittle women or to insult men by comparing them to women’s genitalia. Kate Smurthwaite convinced me of that when I saw her perform in Dublin. But “liberal use” as an epithet by bullies is another matter.

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


Oct 14th, 2013 12:22 pm | By

Speaking of the CFI Summit, anybody here going to be there? It’s October 24-27, in Tacoma, Washington, which is about 40 miles south of Seattle, on Puget Sound like Seattle, with a much better view of Mount Rainier than Seattle.

It has the Chihuly Bridge of Glass.

The schedule for the conference.

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