Thursday, February 21, 2013

Turgid Dramaturgy

There is a tendency to refer to the ongoing Great Atheist Schism as "drama". A lot of bloggers and vloggers, including some I have a great deal of respect for, have made it clear that they view the drama as a distraction from what they really want to talk about, and can't wait for the day when the damn thing just goes away.

I can readily sympathize with this viewpoint, and it's one I myself held at first. Atheism-plus, for all its grandiloquent claims about making the world safe for social justice, doesn't hold to any consistent or even coherent philosophy - it's really just a high-school clique which regards anyone in the out-group as an evil rapey poopyhead or brainwashed gender traitor.

On the other hand, we can't ignore the danger that Atheism-plus poses. It's a small and increasingly self-isolated fringe, as it mouth-foamingly stifles all dissent in any forum it's able to control. But its leadership is made up primarily of professional bloggers and speakers (rather than scientists, doctors, educators etc. - you know, people who are actually contributing something of substance to society), which means:
  • It has a lot of time on its hands;
  • It has contacts in the wider media. People like PZ Myers, Greta Christina and Adam Lee can write a piece fluffing Atheism-plus and demonizing its critics, pick up the phone, and have their propaganda gracing Alternet, HuffPo or even USA Today.
This means that in so far as people in the outside world have taken any notice of the schism, they are only seeing one side of the story. They learn that Atheism-plus is "growing explosively" and yet is under fierce concerted attack from the "privileged old white heterosexual males" who seek to defend their exalted and exclusive position at all costs.

Atheism-plus also dominates the conference circuit, shutting out new speakers and ensuring a cushy source of income and publicity for the same tired old faces over and over again (in the name of diversity, of course) - Myers, Christina, Ophelia Benson and especially that talentless self-serving hack, Rebecca Watson, the Sarah Palin of skepticism. It also gives them a megaphone to continue their slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners agenda of recklessly alienating allies and throwing them under the bus - Richard Dawkins, Harriet Hall, Michael Shermer, all must be destroyed in the great crusade. Who cares how many women are needlessly scared away from conferences and how many people withdraw to the sidelines, taking their talents and energy with them, because they're sick to death of the juvenile and never-ending histrionics.

So there are good practical reasons for speaking out against Atheism-plus and its stupidly destructive antics. But there is also a more fundamental one. As skeptics and freethinkers, we are committed to opposing dogma and groupthink, and subjecting factual claims to the tests of evidence and reason. History gives us unlimited examples of how dangerous an unchecked militant ideology, whether religion-based or not, can be. The fact that such an ideology is taking shape before our very eyes, and from within our own ranks, makes it all the more important to nip it in the bud.

Not that I think Atheism-plus will ever be another Nazi Party or organized religion. But it makes all atheists look bad, cements their reputation in the larger community as rabid obnoxious extremists, fractures our community, and distracts us at a time when we are under a growing threat of theocratic resurgence in the US and many other countries.

Bottom line: there is a lot of drama and soap opera in Atheism-plus, and at some level it's possible to sit back and enjoy its entertainment value. I'm pretty sure it will collapse under the weight of its own butt-hurt, sooner or later. But let's not be complacent about the damage it can do in the meantime.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

jQuery magic

There is a certain group on Reddit - I'll give you one guess as to which one - that doesn't want you to vote posts or comments up or down unless you are a registered member of "the community". Since this goes against the whole philosophy of Reddit - and since their security is a joke - I decided to post the following information.

I was originally going to post on Reddit itself in a different group, but I decided that this might be considered a little too provocative. So I will just leave this stuff here for your education - I take no responsibility for whether you decide to act on it or not. You're a big boy or girl, and responsible for your own actions. Consider this a lesson in jQuery, the Javascript-based library which Reddit uses.

Even when you don't see the up and down arrows, they are still there, just hidden. But they can still be "clicked". If you want to vote up every comment on a post, or every post on a subreddit page, you can enter the following in your browser's address bar:


Conversely, if you want to vote everything down:


You can even create a bookmark with one of the above "URLs" so you only have to type it once. If you see big red scary notices after voting, you can ignore them.

How does this work? $('.up') gives you a list of all page elements that are members of the "up" class, i.e. the upvote arrows. And $('.down') is - you guessed it - the downvote arrows. Adding "click()" triggers the click event handler of each element in the list, resulting in the desired votes being cast.

Thus endeth the lesson. Go forth and have fun!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Tweeting about Sexism

Last night I had an interesting twitter conversation with @RatiaVox. I tried to storify it for this post, but for some reason Storify makes it hard for you to search for your own tweets. Anyway, I will try to summarize the conversation.

It started when I wrote:

After some back and forth over how big the wage gap actually is, RatiaVox wrote:

I didn't mean that last tweet to be as sarcastic is it probably sounds. We are running into the limitations of Twitter here - it's often hard to express yourself unambiguously in 140 characters. Here's what I'm trying to get at. I fully support the principle of equal pay for equal work. But in practice, there is always going to statistical fluctuations (probably larger than 1%), and there are going to be factors that are not necessarily connected with overt sexism.

For example, statistically speaking, women and men give work and family different priorities. The man is expected to be the breadwinner and bring home the bacon at all costs, while the woman is expected to be the carer and nurturer at the cost of her career. But it's not simply a question of gender roles imposed from outside - individual preferences are also important. Some women simply prefer to be the carer rather than the breadwinner. Some men would be quite happy to stay at home with the kids while the woman supports the family.

But because of societal expectations, it seems to me that women often have more flexibility than men when it comes to setting trade-offs between family and career. It would be nice if everyone's individual preferences could be accomodated as far as possible. Nobody, man or woman, should be shamed for his/her choice, whether it is to put family first or career first, or any intermediate balance between the two. I think giving more flexibility and support to everyone for their individual choices would help to reduce the wage gap.

Here's another factor, which I didn't get a chance to bring up last night. In many white-collar jobs, when you get an offer, you are expected to negotiate your compensation package, and how well you do is a huge factor in the variation in salaries. Now, I can see how women might be statistically less likely to push hard for a higher salary, and end up with less.

Again, it's about societal attitudes. Sad to say, when a woman is assertive in the same way as a man, she tends to be seen as pushy and bitchy. Society tends to encourage men but discourage women from standing up for themselves. It's unfair to women, of course. But how can you fix it? There is no single person you can point to as being to blame, no law you can pass to fix the problem overnight.

Yet another factor is that (once again, statistically speaking) there are certain jobs that women are less attracted to than men. Some examples include jobs that are dangerous, or require physical strength. And some workplaces just aren't welcoming to women:
And as long as women rather than men give birth, there will be an impact on wages that is very hard to equalize.

I hope it's clear that I'm not seeking to justify inequality, but to understand the factors that give rise to it - actual misogyny is only one. Economies are messy, chaotic systems, and even in a centralized command-and-control economy, let alone a capitalist one, it would be very hard to engineer inequality out of existence. How far do you go before it becomes unjust and heavy-handed? My own viewpoint is that you should fight to give every individual equal opportunity, regardless of gender, and keep monitoring the statistics, but don't assume that statistical inequality can only be the result of deliberate ill-will. Some of it is due to biological differences, some to individual choices, and some is due to societal attitudes which are deeply ingrained, and hard (and slow) to change - which of course isn't an excuse for not trying. Just realize that there aren't always easy answers and quick fixes.

One thing I changed my mind about as a result of this conversation is my initial assertion that there is no institutionalized misogyny in the US. I was thinking too narrowly in terms of workplace discrimination, which now has laws against it that are quite vigorously enforced. There are other factors such as divorce courts and discrepancies in sentencing for crimes, where (it seems to me) the deck may if anything be stacked against men, but which I won't go into now. But as RatiaVox rightly reminded me, abortion rights are under siege and there is a great deal of work to be done in terms of women's health rights.
There are powerful people in this country who harbor misogynistic attitudes and are using their power to give their attitudes the force of law. When you're a woman and you know that the government can step in and basically take control of your body, forcing you to give birth regardless of your wishes or circumstances, it certainly looks like institutionalized misogyny. My only reservation is that I don't think it's a monolithic situation of all men vs. all women. I know nobody claimed that, but that's the image which the term "institutionalized misogyny", rightly or wrongly, tends to conjure up in my mind.

The awful Cathrynn Brown who was in the news recently is one of many women trying to legislate backward anti-woman attitudes. Conversely there are many men fighting alongside women for their rights, and I would hope to be counted as one. It seems to me that the growth of the internet and the decline of religion is our best hope in the long run for overcoming conservative and theocratic attitudes which hold women back.

I want to give kudos to RatiaVox for never calling me personally a misogynist, and for being genuinely interested in understanding my viewpoint rather than strawmanning me. I'm interested in men's rights issues but I don't label myself an MRA - I'd rather be known as a humanist that a feminist or masculinist. (Quite frankly the overt misogyny of some guys in the men's rights boards turns me off - it seems like the opposite side of the coin relative to some of the more misandric feminists.) But it's good that a feminist and a guy like me can have an amicable and productive discussion on hot button issues.

Thanks again to RatiaVox for an interesting and enjoyable conversation!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Are you now or have you ever been a Bigfoot Skeptic?

When PZ Myers decried Bigfoot Skeptics, who was he talking about? Well, I don't know if he's had any interactions with Sharon Hill, but he may well have been getting in a kick at her in a gutless, passive-aggressive way.

Sharon Hill (pictured above) is a geologist for the state of Pennsylvania, and she is also well known and highly respected as a skeptical researcher and editor of Doubtful News. She actually is a Bigfoot Skeptic, having investigated and debunked a number of Bigfoot claims. The interesting thing, though, is that she is respected by some Bigfoot believers, and has even been invited to guest-post on a pro-Bigfoot blog.

How did Sharon win the respect of people who radically disagree with her? Not by dismissing their claims out of hand and calling them idiots. Instead, she engages with them, and says: "Look, guys, you're making a scientific claim. Here is what you need to do to support your claim, because the onus is on you to substantiate your claim, not on me to believe it." She treats her opponents as human beings, and disagreements as teachable moments, without compromising her scientific integrity.

The result is that some Bigfoot believers have paid tribute to Sharon for being fair and thorough. It's a far cry from the Atheism-plus/FTB/Skepchick slash-and-burn take-no-prisoners approach, and who knows, it may be more effective in getting believers in the paranormal to question their assumptions.

Some time ago, Surly Amy of T-shirt-gate notoriety picked a fight with Sharon for the crime of following someone on Twitter of whom Amy didn't approve. History does not record whether Amy burst into tears on seeing that Followcrime was in progress, but I'm pretty sure Sharon has been on the A÷ shit list since then - some people have said they would boycott any conference where she was a speaker.

The latest talking point among the plussers - along with "freeze peach", "teal deer" and "LOL even my stupid spellchecker knows that misandry isn't a thing" - is the idea that it's trivial and a waste of time to be skeptical about things like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, and skeptics should instead devote their time and energy to the really big issues like "Teh Patriarchy", "male privilege", "rape culture" etc. etc.

It's sort of like saying that being invited for coffee in an elevator is trivial compared to female genital mutilation (FGM) - except I seem to recall the plussers being on the other side of the argument that time!

The reality of course is that no subject is off-limits to skepticism, however big or small, if someone has the time and commitment to follow it up. If a Bigfoot enthusiast can be persuaded to take a more skeptical view and realize that the evidence just doesn't stand up, perhaps the same attitude will carry over to UFO's and other paranormal beliefs, and in any case it's a victory worth celebrating!

At the other end of the scale, it's perfectly valid to take a skeptical approach to social issues, and demand evidence for some factual claim before you believe it. This certainly applies to gender roles in society, but it applies equally well to dogmatic statements about some supposedly all-powerful, all-pervasive but invisible conspiracy to oppress and exploit women.

I would applaud the plussers for taking a skeptical, empirical, evidence-based approach to social issues, as long as they realized that (a) no skeptical organization should be forced to change its area of interest to conform to the Atheism-plus agenda, and (b) when it comes to questions of "ought" rather than "is", there are things reasonable people can disagree about.

Unfortunately, A÷ is "skeptical" about as much as "creation science" is a science - the real goal, I suspect, is to hijack skeptical organizations to push an agenda of victim-feminist dogma, skepticism be damned!

Long may Sharon Hill, and anyone else who's interested, continue to be Bigfoot Skeptics. If they win one person over, that's more than Atheism÷ has accomplished in its entire existence!