TAM Friday

First up this morning was a marginal breakfast.  I don’t understand this — why do people put cooked fruit into things that don’t need cooked fruit.  Cooked fruit is not chocolate.  It does not make things better.  It makes them measurably much worse.  Croissants don’t need jelly on the inside.  It’s gross.

George Hrab opened the conference with a brilliant song, the best part of which was the direction to make sure that any questions you direct at a speaker are actually questions, not opinions, speeches, or comments on the speaker.  It was pretty funny.

Michael Shermer was first up and I literally don’t remember what he talked about.  I was not awake and not that interested, so I guess it just didn’t stick.

Then there was a panel, Skepticism and TV.  I got over the fact that *I* wasn’t on the panel, but I have to say it is really hard to look at these panels of old white guys and think that they’ve made the effort to get more than one point of view.  When they found out Adam Savage wasn’t coming, they had the opportunity to try to get a minority or a woman on the panel, and they didn’t.  Which was a shame because everyone on the panel agreed with one another and didn’t have a lot of useful advice on how to get more skepticism on TV.

Here’s the thing, when you don’t have young people talking about what’s going on, you miss stuff.  If you don’t have women, or mothers, or people of color, or people from different socio-economic levels, you don’t hear about whether people are actually being exposed to skepticism on TV.

Did the old white men mention any of the children’s programming out there?  No, not at all.  And that’s probably the place where you see the most skepticism incorporated into fiction storylines.  Look at Dora the Explorer, or any of the other investigative type shows that are aimed at kids.  Those teach critical thinking and why don’t they think that that qualifies as skepticism on TV.  Yes, you watch Bones or whatever and it’s absurd and not related to real critical thinking, but prime time adult television is not the only thing on TV.  There’s more than the Discovery Channel.

They also talked a lot about editing and how to get around being edited in ways they don’t want to be.  I’ll just say that it’s almost impossible to get by a determined editor.  They’re tricksy people.

*deep breath*

Yes, so I took some issues with that panel.

Next up was Lawrence Krauss.  A few months ago, Krauss made some statements in support of his friend who was an admitted rapist of underage girls.  There was a fair amount of backlash, and threats to walk out on him at TAM.  If that happened, I couldn’t tell.  There’s so many people in and out of the room anyway, it wouldn’t have been noticed, but also I think that elevatorgate has so overshadowed this that no one quite cared as much.

He gave a history lesson on Richard Feynman, which was OK, but I wasn’t that interested in a biography.

Then Jamy Ian Swiss led James Randi and two others in a recap of Project Alpha, which was when two magicians pretend to have Uri Gelleresque powers for several years and the lab believed them despite the fact that it was very obvious what they were doing.  Embarrassing for science, but kind of hilarious for magicians.  It shows how lame psychics are.

Eugenie Scott was up next, but I didn’t listen to that talk, I looked at books and walked around.  I wasn’t very interested in Climate Change Denial and I was tired and wanted to move around.  I’m trying to get over feeling guilty for not going to every talk, but it’s uncomfortable to sit all day.

And then it was lunch — I sat with the amazing Greta Christina and several other really cool people.  Elevatorgate was the primary topic, but what I liked that we talked about was how the movement needs to be getting people in disadvantaged circumstances involved.  So many people who are in the movement are there because they are the ones who can afford it.  If you look at where the large populations of black people are, they are also poor places with strong religious communities.  South Carolina and Mississippi have huge percentage of black people in their population, and those are places where being an atheist is not necessarily safe but more importantly, these are places where there are problems facing the community that are so much more pressing than religion.  Teen Pregnancy, education, jail time.  These are problems that the skeptic community should be working on, because we can’t get people to participate if they’re struggling to live.  Let’s get people in better life circumstances so that they can spend time on education and learning to be scientifically literate.  And it’s not just the South, of course, it’s inner city, it’s Detroit, it’s Compton.

Ok, sorry, off the soapbox.

After lunch, it was just pure uninterrupted awesomeness.

Jennifer Michael Hecht spoke first, and she decided she was going to try to talk about everything that ever happened ever and that she would accomplish this by talking super fast.  She talked a lot about the history of skepticism, which is the focus of her very excellent book Doubt, A History.  She was fantastic.  She talked about the movie The Road to Wellville, and said that a lot of people who go to quacks do it because, essentially, they want the attention.  Though she also implied that women could get a happy ending from a chiropractor.

They had to cut her off before she was finished, and then it was time for PZ, who was hilarious.  Every slide had a picture of either squid or octopi, which I feel is necessary.  He was talking about the biology of aliens.  I think his most interesting point was that there are several highly intelligent animals on earth that are self-aware that we still don’t know how to communicate with, yet we’re seeking out aliens.

He was awesome, and was followed by Pamela Gay, who I didn’t particularly like.  Not that she wasn’t good, she was calling for more funding and emphasis on science.  What I didn’t like was her criticism of the skeptic movement as scattered, as though the emphasis of everyone on the movement should be on science.  The fact of the matter is that not everyone can care a lot about every cause — outrage fatigue.  Science education is important, and I’m for it and happy to support it, but it’s not what I’m particularly interested in.  It’s not the cause that I’m going to spend time on.  That’s not because I’m scattered, it’s because my time is spent elsewhere.  I appreciate her enthusiasm for the cause, but it’s not a very useful criticism.

And then it was time for the best thing I’ve ever seen ever.  I can’t wait for it to be on YouTube, because I want to watch it again.  It was a panel on the future of humans in space.  It was moderated by Phil Plait, and had Bill Nye the Science Guy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Pamela Gay, and Lawrence Krauss.  NdGT started off real quiet and then he jumped in like a ninja and started kicking ass.  He thinks that we don’t spend enough money on science and we should double NASA’s budget and do everything.  The bank bailout was more money than everything we spent on NASA in its fifty year existence.  Lawrence Krauss sort of poo-pooed the idea of humans in space, and Neil deGrasse Tyson bitch slapped him, with major assistance from Bill Nye.

NdGT totally dominated, and I didn’t want it to ever end.  I would say it was impossible to follow, except it was Tyson himself who was following it up, so he was fine.  He is a great speaker — he’s funny, he’s passionate, and he knows what he’s talking about.  Once again, it was simply so amazing that it’s difficult to sum up.  His focus was on stupid things that people believe that aren’t true.  I told Jarrett that Bill Nye and NdGT should be in a buddy cop movie together, he tweeted it, and the Jen McCreight saw that NdGT in his talk was going to go on his Twitter feed and she quickly posted it AND he read it outloud.  Hysterically funny.  I want it to happen.

And when NdGT was finished, that was it for the day.  I went back to my room for a while, came back up while Jennifer Michael Hecht was doing autographs.  I sat in a throne-like chair beside her while she fielded people who wanted her signature on her books.  It was entertaining sitting on that side of the table.  After that, I went down to eat.  Saw Heidi Anderson briefly and then got ready for Penn’s Party.  I hung out with Jen McCreight and some people before the party and then it was time for Donuts and Bacon.

Penn has a band called the No God Band — they’re decent, and the party was essentially a concert for them.  They did a lot of covers and some original songs as well.  I ended up hanging with Jen some more, as well as Hemant and a few others.  I saw Christina Rad briefly, and that was fun.  It was really loud and I was really tired, so I ended up bailing after about an hour and a half.  Then I collapsed in exhaustion because my legs could no longer hold me up.

AND THAT WAS FRIDAY!

Skepticism: Tits or GTFO*?

Originally posted at SheThought.

I hate writing about feminist issues, because every time I do I get accused of being a feminazi or caring more about women than men, or of buying into victim culture, or any number of accusations that come with the territory.  Feminism isn’t generally my main issue, and so I’m always hesitant to distract from all the other things I care about by getting into knock down, drag out fights about why should I care about how women are treated or how they’re portrayed in the media.

Occasionally, of course, I do write something about feminism, because I’m upset enough to ignore the warning lights in my head that say I’m going to have to deal with a lot of BS because of it.  As you might imagine, this post is me ignoring those warning bells.

Skepticism has a woman problem.  It’s been said more than once, it’s been pointed out countless times, and it’s being addressed in a lot of positive ways that should absolutely count in its favor.  I don’t want to dismiss or underplay the fact that there are a lot of men in the movement who care a lot about this issue and are actively working to fix it.

That said, the amount of privilege and harassment I see coming from a number of the powerful men in the movement is really distressing.  The assumption that young women are taking advantage of older men or that men have the automatic right to presume sexual interest and the right to sexually harass young women is a problem, and it’s a problem within this movement, not just outside of it.

This problem came up today, because Lawrence Krauss, a respected scientist and one of the featured speakers at TAM9, defended his buddy Jeffrey Epstein, a man who plead guilty to hiring underage girls, some as young as 13,  to have sex with him.  Krauss is skeptical of the claims because he always thought the girls around Epstein were 19-23 and apparently thinks it’s ok to have sex with a 13 year old so long as you think she’s 18.  He also doesn’t seem to understand that a 13 year old having sex with a powerful, rich man has been coerced into it, no matter what.  Ignorance is no excuse there, it’s rape and it’s taking advantage of a child.

He is also skeptical of the claims made by the prosecution, despite the fact that Epstein plead guilty and they did an 11-month sting operation documenting his activity.  And they have his, apparently horrific, diary.

It gets worse.

DJ Grothe, on the Skepchick article about this, comments , saying basically that he doesn’t know anything about the situation, but he lied about his age when he was under 18 so that he could get laid, so maybe underage prostitution isn’t that bad.  I appreciate that he’s not saying that sex with a 13 year old is OK, he specifically says it isn’t, but since that’s what actually happened, I’m really not sure why he felt the need to defend Krauss.  Nor do I understand how he is also missing the power play aspect of this.  Epstein took underage women who were not prostitutes and coerced them into sexual acts, using money and power.  This is not acceptable behavior, even if you’re OK with prostitution and 16-year-olds having sex.

This isn’t a question of the legality of prostitution or what the age of consent should be.  This is a question about abuse of power, non-consensual sex and sex trafficking of minors.

I wish I could tell you that this blindness to abuse of privilege and power existed only in response to this one issue, but it permeates the skeptic movement.  Many of the men in this movement are guilty of abusing their power to take advantage of the women in the movement or to hurt them when they won’t agree to sex, or turning a blind eye to the behavior or other men who are guilty of similar behavior.

If I could tell you all the horror stories I’ve heard, all the individuals who have been mistreated, insulted, taken advantage of by men in this movement, you’d be shocked.  If I told you the number of men I’ve been told that I need to be careful around because they have a “problem with young women”, you might not believe me.  Unless you’re a woman, and then you’ve probably heard some of it yourself.

I believe these stories because I’ve been at the receiving end of some egregious behavior and I’ve seen a lot of it with my own eyes.  The women in the movement ignore it because it’s less important to us than our desire to be part of a community that matters to us.  Hell, I don’t even feel comfortable talking about it because I know it’s going to make me unpopular, I don’t want to list anyone’s name because I just don’t feel comfortable with the backlash that would come with it.  I can’t bring myself to do it and I feel absolutely ashamed for that.

When a powerful scientist asks a young women who is trying to be taken seriously in the sciences if she’d like to be his next mistress after meeting her once,  that’s an abuse of power.  When a powerful man implies he’ll help a woman out if he sleeps with her, that’s an abuse of power.  When a powerful man implies he will blackball a woman if she doesn’t sleep with him, that’s an abuse of power.  When a powerful man dismisses or insults a woman because she doesn’t want to sleep with him, that’s an abuse of power.  There’s a word for coercing women into having sex.

I doubt this will be read by powerful men in the movement, but if it is, I just want to say that you have a responsibility to set an example as to how women should be treated and where their value should come from.  If you think women are only sex objects and you only care about the young, pretty ones who don’t seem too frigid, how on earth are we going to be taken seriously by everyone else?

Why is it that when I go to conferences I have to be hyper-vigilent to the behavior of men whose opinions I respect?

*http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=tits+of+gtfo

EDIT: I would like to say a special thanks to the men who have reached out to me, male support on these issues helps make sure we know it’s everyone’s problem, not just a woman problem, and also reminds women that there are a lot of guys who’ve got our backs.