Thunderf00t’s unethical breach of our privacy

If you read any other blog on Freethought Blogs, by now you’ve probably heard of Thunderf00t’s despicable actions. FtB has a private email listserv where we discuss boring technical problems (“My YouTube video isn’t embedding properly!”), ask for feedback or discuss certain topics, promote posts or causes we care about, and talk about cats (or how much they suck, depending on what side you’re on). But we also frequently discuss things that are very private in nature, like what’s going on in our personal life, where we live and work, our medical conditions, gender transitioning, rape, abuse, and (for pseudonymous bloggers) our real identities. We do this in agreement that nothing will leave the list, and there’s a disclaimer at the bottom of every email:

“All emails sent to this list are confidential and private. Revealing information contained in any email sent to the list to anyone not on the list without permission of the author is strictly prohibited.”

Well, Thunderf00t has violated that confidentiality. Now, I was on a different continent with limited internet access when the original Thunderf00t drama went down, so I don’t even want to get into that. But being removed from the network was apparently enough motivation for Thunderf00t to breach our privacy. Ed summarizes what happened:

On August 2, a close friend informed me that a mutual acquaintance of ours had been forwarded messages from that private mailing list by Thunderfoot. A few hours later, I received an email from a longtime commenter on the site telling me that “your email distribution list is not secure. Take the time to verify that only the people who are supposed to be on the list are actually members, as messages have been leaked.” Prompted by those messages, I went into the admin panel of our mailing list software, did some checking and discovered that Thunderfoot had somehow managed to get back on the mailing list after he was removed from it on July 1, when the decision was made to close his blog and remove him from the network. I double checked to make sure that he had been removed from the list at that time and he was (I have email confirmation from the system at the time). I then had our site tech do some digging into the database and he discovered that Thunderfoot had used a security loophole (now fixed) to regain admission to the list only a few minutes after he was removed from it on July 1 and had been receiving all of the email traffic between everyone else from that moment forward, without our knowledge. When that fact was discovered, he was, of course, removed from the list a second time and the settings were changed to close the loophole in our security that allowed him that access; over the next half hour he tried multiple times to get back on the list again but failed.

Jason has the technical details, including logs for evidence, in case you want them. Thunderf00t has confessed to breaching our privacy, but of course he’s trying to spin everything to make himself look like some sort of Wikileaks hero against the Big Bad Evil FtB Bullies. He insists that he doesn’t “doc drop,” even though in that very post he releases private statements from the mailing list. And we already have outside confirmation of people receiving mailing list emails through him. Keep diggin’ that hole!

What’s incredibly ironic is that not even a year ago, Thunderf00t was threatened by Muslims that they would release his private information, including his real name. He blasted them for this violation of privacy and “doc dropping”…which is exactly what he’s doing right now. What a hypocrite.

Greta emphasizes why this violation of privacy is so serious:

There’s a reason these conversations are private. Among other things:

People — especially anonymous and pseudonymous bloggers — reveal private information that could jeopardize their jobs if it were made public.
People — especially anonymous and pseudonymous bloggers — reveal private information that could jeopardize their physical safety if it were made public.
People brainstorm ideas that they later decide are bad ideas, and don’t want to be held to.
People discuss private medical matters and personal family issues, which could hurt both themselves and others if they became public.
People hash out differences of opinion that they don’t want to turn into a giant public debate.
People talk about personal, emotional stuff that they don’t want to share with the entire Internet.

If you have ever said anything privately that you wouldn’t want made public — because you were thinking out loud, because you knew the people you were talking with would understand the context but the general public wouldn’t, because you were mad and said things you didn’t really mean, because you don’t want everyone on the Internet to have your home address and phone number, because some things are just private and you bloody well have the right to decide who to tell them to — then you almost certainly understand exactly how important this is, and what a terrible violation it is, and why. People need to be able to talk freely among their friends and colleagues, without parsing every word for public consumption. People need this — and they have a right to have it. That’s a no-brainer.

But if you want to hear from someone who’s privacy is probably on the line the most, read this post by Natalie Reed. Thunderf00t had previously threatened her with releasing private backchannel information before he… actually started doing it:

Natalie Reed is not my “real name”. I use a different name for “real life”… for employment, for housing, for everything I don’t necessarily want connected to my being out as a transsexual, atheist blogger. There is a huge amount of highly personal, highly stigmatized issues I discuss on this blog, or in other venues under the name Natalie Reed. Transsexuality and transgenderism, my heroin addiction, stories from my life and past, my being a survivor of multiple rapes…I’ve even mentioned my being an incest survivor, an issue that’s incredibly, deeply painful for me. Most of these things I never, ever would have felt able to write about without feeling protected by this name.

It also protects my ability to pursue housing and employment without the threat of being outed as trans, a recovering addict, an atheist and so on by a simple five minute google search. It protects the possibility of my someday choosing to go “stealth” if I ever feel the desire or need, in which I could finally live as just a woman instead of always as a trans woman. It keeps me further removed from my birth name and images of my former self, and the life I led before transition. It protects my physical safetyfrom those who feel the need to enforce their beliefs and feelings about gender through violence. It protects me from the countless rad-fems and HBSers who consistently out or dox trans women, often with the deliberate, explicit intent of exposing them to harassment, discrimination and violence.

Natalie Reed is my safety net.

The e-mail address I had been using on the FTB list was not under this name. It was under my real one.

So, yeah. Thunderf00t scared me. A lot.

Thankfully I’m not in the same situation as Natalie – I don’t believe I have any personal information I shared on the backchannel that could really damage me. But I care about my fellow bloggers, and I care about Thunderf00t’s severe ethical violations and potentially illegal actions. He is a vile hypocrite who has lost whatever shred of credibility he may have had left. And honestly, it’s just fucking sad. How are you that obsessed with taking down a freaking blog network because you disagree with the fucking no-brainer of having sexual harassment policies that you’re willing to cost innocent people their jobs and safety? How is destroying lives of your atheist allies your priority over combating creationism in the classroom, faith healing, the Religious Right, and homophobia?

Just fucking sad.

GeekGirlCon and other weekend debauchery!

If you’re in Seattle, this weekend is packed with a lot of fun, nerdy, godless, feministy things for you to enjoy.

On Friday the 10th I’ll be joining the Seattle Atheists to see my friend Rebecca Watson give a talk on “How Girls Evolved to Shop, and Other Ways to Insult Women with “Science.”” Tickets are $15 but include dinner. I’ll be trying to convince everyone to go get drinks at the Narwhal afterward, because what can beat fruity drinks in a carnival themed bar filled with pinball and arcade games? Did I mention it was called the Narwhal?

On Saturday and Sunday I’ll be at GeekGirlCon! Here are the two panels I’ll be on with other fabulous ladies:

Saturday, 4:30 PM – 5:20 PM

Misogyny Online – RM205
Moderated Roundtable Discussion

Women who speak out online are often the targets of very nasty misogyny. Harmful, threatening, and degrading comments are all too common when a woman posts opinions in social media outlets or even on their own blogs. This panel will discuss how it happens, why it happens, and how to deal with it. An essential panel for women who have or want a strong Internet presence.

Presented by Jen McCreight, Rebecca Watson, Amy Davis Roth, Sophie Hirschfeld

Sunday, 3:30 PM – 4:20 PM *

Women and Skepticism – RM303
Moderated Roundtable Discussion

What is real and what isn’t? A panel of renowned skeptics will analyze some of the current claims marketed to or directed specifically at women. From psychics to super-antioxidant juices, this panel will show you how you can use the tools of skepticism to protect yourself, your family, and the contents of your wallet from pseudoscience and scams.

Presented by Rebecca Watson, Amanda Marcotte, Desiree Schell, Ericka Johnson, Jennifer McCreight, Cloe Ashton

I’m sure I’ll have absolutely nothing to talk about on that first panel after my last couple of posts.

Will I be seeing any of you there? Make sure to say hello if you spot me!

Deepak Chopra wisdom generator

This site is brilliant:

“It has been said by some that the thoughts and tweets of Deepak Chopra are indistinguishable from a set of profound sounding words put together in a random order, particularly the tweets tagged with “#cosmisconciousness”. This site aims to test that claim! Each “quote” is generated from a list of words that can be found in Deepak Chopra’s Twitter stream randomly stuck together in a sentence.”

Some of my favorite random quotes include:

  • Knowledge requires your own life
  • Quantum physics is the wisdom of boundless knowledge
  • The unexplainable relies on visible creativity
It’s a little frightening how hard it is to distinguish the fake quotes from something Chopra would actually say. If only his publishers knew they could replace him with a random sentence generator.

This is post 47 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

No, I won’t be going to TAM

Time to open up a can of worms!

I’ve been getting sporadic questions about if I’ll be attending TAM this year. No, I won’t. I apologize to any readers who were hoping to see me there! But contrary to what some people believe, it’s not because I think TAM is a cesspool where I’m going to get instantly raped, or that I think inappropriate behavior is more frequent at TAM than at other cons. I’ve never said such things. My decision about TAM was a long process that has gradually changed over time:

  1. After TAM last year, I was determined to come back. I had a great time. I told myself that even if I wasn’t invited back as a speaker, I would save up enough money to go. Travel plus registration can easily go over $1000, but I thought it was worth it to treat myself.
  2. I realized I’d be traveling in Europe soon before TAM. As much as I wanted to go, I was a little wary of taking additional travel time off. But I had so much fun that I told myself I’d just work extra hours to make up for the time.
  3. Greta Christina receives misogynistic vitriol and threats from a TAM attendee…and DJ Grothe, President of JREF, tries to defend the remarks and doesn’t take Greta’s concerns very seriously. I’m really disappointed in how DJ handled the situation, but I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he’s just being a little clueless about this particular incident.
  4. The speaker lineup for TAM is announced. I click the link with glee, but then I’m disappointed. TAM is lacking its usual star power. Sure, there are still great people speaking – but I’ve seen them before, and no one gets me particularly excited. There was no Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye equivalent. But I’m a unique case as a speaker – I go to way more events than most people. By now I’m leaning toward not going, but I hope others will have fun.
  5. The “please have anti-harassment policies at cons” discussion begins, and DJ Grothe blames feminist bloggers like me for TAM’s decrease in female attendees. Not the economy. Not the timing. Not the fact that many people spent their yearly skeptical allowance attending the Reason Rally. Not the speaker line-up. Not his botched PR with Greta. He blamed me and my friends for daring to speak up and say “Hey, we don’t want to be sexually harassed anymore.” This is despite my previous love for TAM, and for the fundraising I did for JREF during boobquake. Why should I pay a four hundred dollar registration fee to fund an organization that’s randomly blaming me for its attendance issues? This is where I decide I’m done.
  6. Though I’ve already made my decision, DJ’s further comments make me certain that I’ve made the right one. Stephanie Zvan has the full summary. DJ says there has never been a report filed for sexual harassment at TAM…which is false. Upskirt photos taken by an individual that JREF was formally warned about? How do you forget that? DJ’s story keeps changing as more stories come to light. He could have staved off this whole PR disaster by initially saying “I’m so sorry you experienced that, I’ll do everything I can to make sure you never experience that again and that TAM is a safe space for all of our attendees.” But nope, he decided to blame those uppity feminist bloggers.
So why am I not going to TAM? Not because of women speaking out about how sexual harassment should be improved. Because of money, because of time, because of personal preferences about speakers…but most of all, because DJ Grothe had repeatedly shown himself to be more concerned about the image of his organization than about the concerns of its female supporters.
I’m not calling for a boycott of TAM – hell, I may go next year if these issues are resolved. But for now, my conference splurge of the year is going to be Skepticon, which has always made me feel welcome.

This is post 25 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Who are your Champions of Reason?

After a long day of studying, I turned to reddit to relax a little before bed. I stumbled upon this artwork in r/atheism titled “Champions of Reason”:

The artist explains:

“This is a depiction of people I intellectually admire. I say admire because it is rather impossible for me to take someone as a hero, looking past their human flaws. But it is their flaws that makes them human, which makes their intelligence all that more admirable. There are many, many others who didn’t make in this art who are just as awesome. They have my appreciation although not on this art.”

I couldn’t help but notice a pattern in the selection of champions. But I didn’t have to say anything; on reddit ADMcD76 already brought it up:

“I like it, but…not a single woman? Not even Ayaan Hirsi Ali?”

guysholliday replies:

“Why does a work of art need to be an equal-opportunity enterprise? He didn’t choose Hawking because he was disabled or Kaku because he’s Asian.”

The artist explains:

“I couldn’t think of one that influenced me as a person of reason, unfortunately.”

I’m fine with the artist choosing whoever he wants. This is supposed to represent people he personally admires, which happen to be all men (and overwhelmingly white). If this was commissioned for a conference or supposed to represent rational thought in general, I’d be a little peeved. But instead of being annoyed, I’m just sad. You can’t think of a single woman who’s influenced you as a person of reason? Not one? Yet again, there are plenty of wonderful female atheists and skeptics out there that so many people just don’t know about. It’s a really shame.

So how about you guys? Who are your champions of reason? Anyone who draws their champions of reason (stick figures acceptable!) get bonus points.

Dealing with badly behaving speakers

At last weekend’s Women in Secularism conference, I accidentally set off a lot of discussion with something I said during a panel. I say “accidentally” because I wasn’t planning on talking about this specific point, nor did I think it would result in such a reaction. I remarked that when I was about to attend my first major atheist/skeptical conference, multiple people independently sent me unsolicited advice about what male speakers to avoid at the con. The same speakers were mentioned by different individuals, with warnings that they often make unwanted and aggressive sexual advances toward young pretty women and that I should not be alone with them.

It certainly made my first big con a little more stressful. But it became more stressful when I realized this was far more pervasive than I thought. As I started getting more involved in these communities, more and more stories came out of the woodwork. Both female friends and strangers confided in me, telling me stories of speakers that talked only to their chest, groped them against their wishes, followed them to their hotel room, or had goals to bag a young hottie at every speaking gig they did. Once after I had publicly criticized someone on my blog, people made sure to warn me that this person had a skeevy record. I had to request friends attending the con to be extra diligent about making sure I wasn’t alone.

The same names kept popping up over time. None are particularly shocking, honestly. They’re all people who have been criticized for public sexist comments that they’ve made. Which does not mean everyone who’s made a sexist comment is also making inappropriate advances – it’s a subset. But women in the movement had formed an unofficial underground network of knowledge, making sure to warn people about who to avoid.

There are obviously problems with this. A commenter at Almost Diamonds summarized it well:

You will, of course, do whatever you want, but I find it very upsetting to be told that, “You should come to our conferences! Of course, some of the people who really have a chunk of power at the conferences (the speakers) are known to treat women badly, and thus might treat you badly. But I won’t tell you who they are, so you’ll just have to hope you don’t encounter them or, if you do encounter them, that they won’t treat you badly. But do come!”

I’ve been to one secular/atheist/freethinker conference, and I was treated badly by a man (not a speaker). As awful as it was, the one of the things that made it bearable was the thought that no one knew this was going to happen and that if they had, they would have acted to support me. To think that I might go through a similar experience with a speaker while knowing that other people knew what was going to happen but felt no need to warn me makes me very angry, and it makes me feel like I’m not safe to go to conferences.

It’s all well and good to advise “networking behind the scenes,” but I don’t have a fucking network, and that’s part of the reason I feel like going to conferences might be good for me. But if I have to network behind the scenes to be safe at conferences, then I have to already have what I’m looking for to be safe.

Maybe I’m being selfish about this. Maybe I’m too angry. But I’ve been abused enough in my life. I am not about to set myself up to be abused again, and it makes my eyes tear up and my throat constrict to think that going to these conferences means going to interact with people who everyone else may know is abusive but won’t warn me because I don’t have connections.

This commenter has every right to be angry. I’m angry at myself for being part of the problem – for being someone with this knowledge who has no clue what to do with it.

“Why don’t you just publish a list of names?” you ask. If only it were that easy. Imagine what would happen if I published a list of names based on hearsay alone. I don’t have video evidence. I don’t even have personal experience – people now know I’m a loud mouth blogger, which makes me a terrible target. Even though I trust my friends to be truthful, and patterns of bad behavior make the hearsay convincing, it’s an easy target for skeptics. There’d be a flood of accusations that people are lying or oversensitive.

Not only that, but I fear the consequences. Look at what happened to Rebecca Watson when she simply said “guys, don’t do that” about an anonymous conference attendee. Imagine the shitstorm if there were public accusations of sexual misconduct of some very famous speakers. I’m not ready for the flood of rape and death threats. I’m not ready to be blacklisted and have my atheist “career” ruined by people more powerful and influential than me. I’m not ready to be sued for libel or slander. I’m not ready for the SSA or other organizations I’m affiliated with to also be harmed by association. And that’s exactly how all of these other women feel – hence the silence (See Stephanie Zvan’s lovely FAQ for this situation).

It’s a terrible Catch 22.

And I frankly don’t know how to navigate this minefield. I’m a scientist by day, with atheism and feminism as my hobbies. I’m not an HR specialist. I’m out of my element.

But because of my random comment, progress is already being made. For one, I didn’t realize so many people were oblivious to these problems. I thought because I was so quickly brought into The Know, this had to be something everyone in the movement was aware of. But it wasn’t. After I made my comment, dozens of people kept asking me for the names on The List (which I didn’t give – see my previous points). I was independently approached by multiple big names at the conference who wanted to help and learn what they could do to make their conferences safer.

Stephanie Zvan has given an excellent suggestion: Our conferences need to start adopting anti-harassment policies with guidelines of how to handle harassment that are clearly known to everyone, including speakers. It’s not a cure-all, but as Stephanie says:

“The problem with speakers didn’t develop overnight, and given the difficulties in dealing with them, they’re not going to disappear overnight. However, not only does having formal policies in place help protect your guests while this is being sorted out, but they provide a means of collecting and tracking this misbehavior. It’s much simpler to push back against pressure to include a speaker with formal tracking. It’s much simpler to share information with, “We had X number of violations of policy reported to us, and we have the records to back that up,” rather than, “So-and-so did such-and-such according to some person I can’t name.””

And her blog post is already having results. Groups are pledging to adopt this policy, including American Atheists and the Secular Student Alliance (which had an anti-harassment policy last year but will make it more prominent). I encourage you to ask other major atheist and secular organizations to adopt similar policies with a link to Stephanie’s post. Because an easy first step is to put pressure on organizations to address this problem. EDIT: Freethought Festival and the Minnesota Atheist Convention have also pledged to adopt a policy.

Obviously more needs to be done. An idea that has been floated is to create a list of speakers who will not attend events unless there’s a strict anti-harassment policy with them. I would happily sign up for this list, and maybe if enough big names did as well, it would put pressure on organizations to accept.

An idea is to make conference organizers and speakers agree to not partake in sexual activity with attendees at their events. The SSA already has this policy, which I’ve received as a member of their Speakers Bureau. If you’re a conference organizer or a speaker, you are in a position of power. If you are making advances toward someone, you are abusing that position of power. Full stop. Speakers and conference organizers should not be looking to get laid at conferences because they are there in a professional setting, even if attendees are there for more entertainment reasons. Even if things seem consensual, that power differential makes things inherently unbalanced. Women are already socialized to not directly say no – it’s even more difficult to do so when power differentials are involved.

And I say this as a sex positive person. There’s a time and a place for flirtation and mating rituals, and when you’re a speaker, a con is neither the time nor place. I understand if attendees want to flirt and hook up with each other, since the event is not necessarily a professional setting for them (but please do your flirting during at the pub and not in the middle of a lecture, and please take no for an answer). But in my opinion, this just shouldn’t acceptable for speakers.

Again, this isn’t my area of expertise. What do you think we can do to deal with badly behaving big names? Is the anti-harassment policy enough? Do you like the idea of a list of speakers who want anti-harassment policies in place? What can we do to solve this problem?

The Women in Secularism conference ROCKED

In the months leading up to CFI’s Women in Secularism conference, I admit I had my worries. I was worried attendance would be low because men wouldn’t be interested. I was worried it might be the same feminist talk over and over again. I was worried that any perceived failure would be trumpeted by the sexist atheists and skeptics as proof that women just aren’t as good at speaking, don’t know anything about secularism, and don’t have issues that are relevant to secularism.

My worries were unfounded.

I can’t stress enough how wonderful I thought WIS was. It was one of the most fun, enlightening, informational, and moving conferences I’ve been to. The material was so refreshing. As Paul Fidalgo said in The Morning Heresy, “This was no egg-headed snoozer, this was no reiteration of why we like Darwin so much (not that there’s anything wrong with those).” We didn’t just repeat the 3827 arguments against God’s existence.

I want to end on a positive note, so let me briefly comment on some things that weren’t so great (other than both of my panels being at ~9am, which is cruel for a grad student from the west coast). For one thing, the audience was a little small for a speaker lineup of this calibre. Part of the overall lower turnout was due to the temporal and physical proximity of the Reason Rally and the fact that graduations and finals were going on. But part of it was the dearth of men. While it was weird and refreshing to look out at an audience that was a majority women, I wish more men would have realized these issues affect them too. The men who did come kept telling me what a great time they were having – it definitely wasn’t a women-only conference.

As for content, there were only a couple of things I didn’t like. It really bugged me how Liz Cornwell of the Richard Dawkins Foundation kept stating how genetics and evolution explain how religiosity came to be. It’s an interesting hypothesis, but she presented it as undisputed fact and didn’t cite any studies. I mean, we hardly known the genetics behind highly heritable traits like height – I know of no good evidence for the “genetics” of religion. Alas, I wasn’t on the panel and my question didn’t get picked for the Q&A, so I couldn’t ask for a clarification or citation.

My other complaint is Edwina Rogers’ lackluster talk. I should be glad that only 15 minutes of an entire conference was lackluster, but I was disappointed. I was hoping she would use those 15 minutes to give a passionate talk about her motivations to join the secular movement, focusing on women’s issues – I thought maybe she could save a little face from the weeks of botched interviews. Instead she gave a canned “Intro to the SCA” talk that I’ve seen Sean Faircloth do before. It was a 15 minute advertisement that had little do with women in secularism (other than a couple of bullet points on the end), and she basically read off the list and lacked the passion and charisma that Faircloth had. Then she rushed out to leave for another conference so there was no Q&A or even time to say hello. Bah.

But now that’s out of the way, I want to stress why I had such a blast:

1. Moving beyond Feminism 101. When I’m invited to speak at conferences, I’m often the only woman or one of few. And as our movement begins to recognize the importance of addressing diversity, sexism, and women’s issues, they usually request that I talk about it. Which I’m happy to do – I think it’s very important! But when I (or another female speaker in my boat) am giving a talk to a general audience, we often have to spend our hour on stage walking through basic concepts about feminism, sexism, and privilege. Because everyone at WIS had that same background, and because we had a whole conference instead of an hour to talk about it, we got to talk about so much more interesting stuff. It also meant the questions in the Q&A were wonderfully thoughtful, instead of the same infuriating uninformed arguments we’ve debunked 37618295 times before.

CFI will be putting the talks online (yay!). If you can’t wait until then, you can satisfy your curiosity in a number of places. The Skeptical Seeker has a great summary of the main ideas presented at WIS. If you want a more detailed summary, check out the detailed liveblogging coverage of Ashley F. Miller (123456) and Ophelia Benson (1234567). If you want a highlight of the main concepts and great one-liners, peruse through #wiscfi on twitter.

2. Discovering new role-models. It’s funny. When I talk about diversity, I always mention how there are all these wonderful female atheists out there doing wonderful things, but we’re just unaware about it because they don’t get promoted as much. Hell, I keep a list of them (that sorely needs an update, I know) precisely for that reason. And I saw that in action:

  • While I knew of Susan Jacoby, I had never seen her speak. She’s now my hero. Not only did she manage to keep us awake with the dreaded 8:30am time slot, but she was hilarious, incisive, and strong. I’ll post her talk when it’s online, since my summary can’t do it justice.
  • Bernice Sandler was wonderful, and her talk should be required listening for anyone who has to run a department, or committee, or classroom, or…hell, anyone who has to interact with groups of people. She talked about the little differences in how people treat men and women – how women are interrupted more, more likely to have their ideas attributed to others, more likely to be called a bitch instead of aggressive, etc. You can see the full list on her website. She also gave practical advice on how to counter these things, and I’ll be sure to share the video.
  • Wafa Sultan. Wow. I’ve never seen such a powerful, moving talk at any previous conference. I quickly realized my goal would be to not cry, which I promptly failed. She talked about the abuses she and her friends, family, and patients faced under Islamic rule. “Just walking early in the morning to Starbucks without being called a whore…that is freedom.” You can probably guess by now, but yeah, I’m gluing your eyeballs open and making you watch the video.

3. The stereotype-breaking. We embraced the term “promiscuous assembly.” We joked about baby eating and Jamila Bey’s “Show me on the doll where Jesus touched you” shirt. Even people with softer voices like Annie Laurie Gaylor and Margaret Downey were anything but soft-spoken – they were just as fierce critics of religion as Hitchens or Dawkins. We’re not all demure gentile ladies, or humorless killjoy feminists. We are human.

4. Meeting wonderful people. I always love seeing my atheist friends. Greta Christina, her wife Ingrid, Jamila Bey, Debbie Goddard, Ophelia Benson, Jessica Ahlquist, Ashley F. Miller, Stephanie Zvan, Brianne Bilyeu, Rebecca Watson…I wish I could have drinks and dinner with these people every week. But I also love meeting all the new people. And no, I don’t just mean hobnobbing with speakers (though I was so happy Wafa Sultan sat next to me at dinner and we got to chat a lot). I love meeting the random blog readers and Secular Student Alliance members. I feel honored getting personal feedback, but I love it even more when I meet someone who is just overjoyed about the conference in general. I met so many women who had never gotten involved in secularism before, but this conference had them hooked. “Finally!” one told me. Finally indeed.

I’m sure I’ll continue to think about wonderful things from the weekend, but I only have one more thing to say: I hope there’s a Women in Secularism 2.

I’m on a boat

A skeptical boat, that is.

This is the cover of The Humanist for their story “Getting Real: A Look at the New Skepticism.” It’s a large article featuring a number of different types of skeptical activism, and I made my way onto the boat because there are a couple of paragraphs about boobquake.

…Yeah, all white people, three women. I’m not going to say anything else other than I love this comment at Friendly Atheist:

“All the other women are in the lower level having a beer and discussing their tactics for world domination. Give them a break for Pete’s sake.”

Guest Post: Skeptical dog training

The following is a guest post by Julie Lada, a veterinary student and skeptic who blogs at My DVM Vacation.

Dog training is a hot button issue right now. Dozens of TV, magazine and book personalities are dying to tell you the best way to get your dog to stop jumping up on your guests or going through your trash. In some ways, that is a great thing. Traditionally, dog training consisted of a rolled up newspaper. Getting the issue of dog behavior and training into the public awareness is a huge step for behaviorists and people who are passionate about pet welfare. However, as usual, anytime a topic becomes popular and a profit can be made off of claiming to be an expert, you get bad ideas and bad information being promoted just as heavily as the good. Television shows in particular focus on which host is the most charismatic rather than the most knowledgeable or accurate.

Part of the challenge for me personally, being a vet student and passionate animal behavior geek as well as a skeptic, is the pervasiveness of bad ideas in my field of study. From acupuncture and homeopathy being commonly accepted practices within veterinary medicine to witnessing a colleague perform an “alpha roll” right in front of me, it’s a daily struggle to balance my desire to address these issues with the need to still maintain good relationships and not become known as the token naysayer.

Dog training is one of those topics that must be handled with a delicate touch. A method isn’t purely a method anymore when you’re talking about its application toward an animal that a person feels a strong emotional connection with. The method becomes the person employing it, and its effectiveness becomes intrinsically tied to their value as a pet owner. Like it or not, as any trainer or behaviorist will tell you, the moment you say something like, “Dominance-based training is not as effective as we previously thought and can actually have detrimental effects on an animal” it becomes translated by the person you’re talking to as, “You’re a bad owner and you abuse your dog.”

The problem with any topic in medicine is that bad arguments can be made to sound very persuasive and convincing by using the lingo. The argument behind dominance-based training methods is an excellent example of this (BARF diets are another good example). Advocates such as Cesar Millan point to wolf pack hierarchy models as an example of “natural” applications of dominance-based behavioral conditioning. They tell dog owners to be their dog’s “alpha” by using techniques employed by wolves such as throat holds and alpha rolls. They also attempt to shame owners by telling them that disobedience is a form of dominance which proves that their dog doesn’t respect their status as “pack leader.” The appeal to nature fallacy is something we skeptics are well aware of but it is unfortunately remarkably persuasive with the general public.

A huge, glaring problem with the dominance hierarchy argument is that it makes the assumption that behavior models which we have obtained based on the study of captive wolf packs are reflective of natural behavior in the wild. This is patently false. Firstly, the dominance-based hierarchy suggested by Millan only occurs in captive wolf packs. Wolf packs in the wild consist of genetically related members with the breeding pair being the “alphas.” The frequent displays of aggression and dominance seen in captivity do not occur in a natural setting. Secondly, feral dog “packs” – the aggregates formed by stray dogs – do not display this hierarchy model, so even if it were true of wolves in the wild this model does not appear applicable for domestic canines. (Mech, 1999; Taylor & Francis, 2004)

And then there’s the problem with the word “dominance” itself. Common usage would lead most people to believe that dominance is a personality trait; something a dog just is. A common thing we hear from our clients is, “She’s just so dominant!” Or claim that their dog is trying to be dominant over them. Dominance has a very specific meaning within the context of animal behavior and it isn’t something an animal just is. This is a common misunderstanding and something I’ve even seen my colleagues use. Dr. Sophia Yin, a DVM with a Master’s in animal behavior and a widely renowned expert in dog behavior does a pretty good job of summing it up here. She has written extensively on the topics of dominance, aggression and training and I highly encourage anyone with a dog to spend several hours reading her articles. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior reinforces Dr. Yin’s position with their official statement on dominance theory:

“Dominance is defined as a relationship between individual animals that is established by force/aggression and submission, to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates (Bernstein 1981; Drews 1993)… In our relationship with our pets, priority access to resources is not the major concern. The majority of behaviors owners want to modify, such as excessive vocalization, unruly greetings, and failure to come when called, are not related to valued resources and may not even involve aggression. Rather, these behaviors occur because they have been inadvertently rewarded and because alternate appropriate behaviors have not been trained instead.”

But beyond the implausibility of the theory behind the use of dominance and physically aversive stimuli in dog training, as well as the misuse of the term “dominance”, there is the added factor that it just doesn’t have a wide range of practical use. Meaning in the majority of cases, it doesn’t work. Several recent studies have confirmed that dominance/positive punishment training methods have a number of negative effects on dogs (including physical injury and death in cases of choke chains and prong collars being used incorrectly) and can actually impair learning ability. These methods also cause fear and escalate aggression in terms of frequency, magnitude and situational aggression – meaning a dog that wasn’t previously aggressive becomes aggressive, or a conditionally aggressive dog begins to display aggression in situations where it previously did not (Husson et al, 2009; Hiby et al, 2004; AVSAB, 2008). This is particularly worrisome for vets and shelter workers. An owner employing dominance-based techniques toward their dog who is aggressive toward other dogs can actually cause that dog to not only be more aggressive toward other dogs, due to the added negative association with pain and fear, but also cause the dog to redirect its aggression toward its owner. In which case the problem goes from being something that could possibly be solved via proper training to what is a probable euthanasia case.

Positive reinforcement techniques such as clicker training are gaining in momentum, and it’s got behaviorists cheering in the streets (or rather, their offices). These techniques avoid the negative associations with pain and fear seen with dominance-based techniques and thus the ramping-up effect on aggression.

Finally, I know that this is a contentious topic and no doubt the comments will be full of anecdotes from those who have used Cesar Millan’s or other dominance-based techniques successfully. A few words on that.

First of all, there are always outliers. I saw something recently that I quite liked and determined to borrow that said that between 80-90% of smokers will develop lung cancer, which means that 10-20 out of every 100 smokers will not develop lung cancer. So you will often hear claims such as, “My father smoked two packs a day for forty years and died in his sleep at 85 years old!” And while true, it does not disprove the fact that overall smoking is highly associated with lung cancer.

Also consider that the effect of fear on the cessation of all forms of behavior is fairly well documented. Simply put, a fearful animal will stop doing anything, including what you wanted them to stop doing. A dog that is fearful of inviting a painful stimulus can appear to an owner to be “cured” of the unwanted behavior. In fact, the underlying issue of why this dog was exhibiting the unwanted behavior is still unaddressed. A dog that is fear aggressive toward strangers, for example, is still terrified of strangers but simply stops reacting. Don’t confuse this with being a happy, healthy, well-adjusted dog. An animal that has stopping displaying observable fear signals is still fearful, and the use of punishment can contribute to a more unpredictable animal that will give no warning before attacking (AVSAB, 2007)

Just to sum things up on a personal note… A couple of years ago while in undergrad, I was finishing up a meeting with my animal behavior professor and Millan’s name came up. He told me, “You know, every conference I go to, at some point we behavior types get together for drinks and he always comes up. We take turns bashing him over martinis.” So the next time you’re tempted to watch his show or buy one of his books, do so knowing that Millan is the Ray Comfort of the canine behavior world. And dominance theory is the Crocoduck.

The genetic “proof” for ancient aliens

I have a new, horrible obsession – the History Channel’s show Ancient Aliens.

On Saturday I found myself drinking with a group of my boyfriend Sean’s friends, when one of them announced that we must play an Ancient Aliens drinking game. I had no idea what the show was, but became intrigued when they started discussing the rules of when to take a drink:

  • Whenever someone being interviewed has no relevant credentials like a PhD
  • Whenever someone says the phrase “Some scientists say”
  • Whenever someone says the phrase “ancient astronaut theorists”
  • Whenever an ancient manuscript is displayed
  • Whenever there’s a terrible CGI reenactment
  • Whenever Giorgio starts talking

Me: Who’s Giorgio?
Them: Oh, you’ll know who Giorgio is soon enough.

This is Giorgio, by the way:

…That’s all I’m going to say.

They decided to reduce the list so we would wouldn’t get alcohol poisoning. But I found myself following my own rule of “drink whenever someone says something that blatantly defies logic or is a total non sequitur.” Which meant I was pretty much constantly drinking for an hour and a half. Especially when you’re jumping from pyramids, dragon drawings, Tesla coils, and the Bible all being proof of aliens (just to name a few).

For those of you who’ve never seen the show…I’m not quite sure how to summarize it. The footage looks professionally done since it’s on the History Channel, and some of the shots of the ancient artifacts are cool to see. But if I had to summarize the major theme, it would either be “Brown people never could have done <insert amazing feat here> because they were too lazy and/or stupid, therefore aliens had to help them.” I think my favorite mindblowing moment was when Giorgio explained that:

  • People worship “Gods”
  • But people only believe in things they have evidence for
  • They had written/drawn evidence for these “Gods”
  • Written/drawn evidence is always realistic and never abstract, imaginative, or metaphorical
  • But “Gods” don’t actually exist
  • Therefore they were actually aliens

Oh, Giorgio. How I wish point #2 was true.

Something about the show hooked me in its terribleness. My emotional reaction was actually very similar to the time when I visited the Creation Museum. Yes, I was mad at how they were twisting science, using terrible logic, and spreading blatant lies. But the absurdity of it all was oddly amusing. By the end you find yourself playing along, like you’re watching a fantasy novel… and not something people actually believe.

Also, being heavily inebriated helps.

So Sean and I plowed forward to episode two, since the first two seasons are conveniently available on Netflix. Our “game” was to guess what sort of bizzaro conspiracy theory the show would provide to explain a phenomena they were hyping before the show made the reveal. Sean was a little too excited when he correctly guessed the “Humans and aliens had sex and interbred” plotline. To which I replied, “But they’re an alien. Humans can’t even breed with chimps. Humans would have to actually be aliens seeded here or something for interbreeding to be possible.”

And then that’s exactly what the show said, and I nearly peed my pants laughing.

But the real kicker came when the show brought up the human genome. Sean and I both study genomics and evolution, so we exchanged a wary look. I’ll let you see it for yourself. The clip begins at 7:34 in the first video, and continues until 3:03 in the next.

http://youtu.be/aK687ZHtijY

http://youtu.be/_ncym6es7x0

In case you can’t watch the video or had trouble following that pristine argument, let me summarize:

  • Geneticists discovered the gene HAR1, which is unique to humans and plays a critical role in the development of the human brain.
  • Did it develop through evolution? Francis Crick says human genes couldn’t have evolved because there’s not enough time for DNA to evolve by accident. He said it would be as improbable as a hurricane going through a junkyard making a Boeing 747.
  • Since it couldn’t have evolved, the aliens performed a targeted mutation in HAR1 to make us “human.”
  • We only understand 5% of the genome. If you wanted to record an eternal message that could be decoded by a creature that eventually evolved enough intelligence to decode it, you shouldn’t put it in a monument or text that can be destroyed…put it in the DNA! OMFG THAT’S WHAT JUNK DNA IS! SECRET MESSAGES!

And now, for a quick debunking:

  • HAR1 is present in all mammals and birds, not just humans. But in all non-human species, the sequence is effectively the same, or conserved. The human copy in particular has a number of differences compared to other species, so we consider the human copy of HAR1 divergent. This is not at all the only human gene to be divergent. And all species have uniquely divergent genes – that’s precisely what makes things different species. But no one is arguing that marmosets or fig trees or syphilis are actually aliens with special alien genes inserted into them. Well, maybe people are arguing that. There’s four seasons of this crap, and I’m only on episode 3 of season one. Maybe the syphilis aliens are right after the episode titled Aliens and the Third Reich (I shit you not).
  • Francis Crick has always been a strong supporter of evolution and has spoken passionately about how evolution shaped his scientific investigation. He was one of the Noble laureates who advised US courts bogged down by creationists that “Creation-science’ simply has no place in the public-school science classroom.” He also was an advocate for making Darwin Day a British national holiday. While he was initially doubtful of the origin of the genetic code and wondered if panspermia could be the answer, he later published a retrospective article where he and his colleague “noted that they had been overly pessimistic about the chances of abiogenesis on Earth when they had assumed that some kind of self-replicating protein system was the molecular origin of life.” So, um, no.
  • Francis Crick did not come up with that 747 argument – Fred Hoyle did. That’s why it’s called Hoyle’s fallacy. It’s already debunked a bajillion times by biologists – Dawkins wrote two books about it – so I won’t waste time trouncing it here.
  • Whatever alien thought junk DNA would be a great place for an eternal message is a dumbass. Because junk DNA doesn’t code for a protein or have some sort of regulatory role, it’s what geneticists refer to as “neutrally evolving.” It means it’s at liberty to gather mutations because they don’t have any major effect that would weed them out via natural selection. This is especially true when the show’s premise is that the message was placed there eons ago, and had tons of time to accumulate changes. It also doesn’t explain why chimps share a lot of junk DNA with us, or why a huge proportion of junk DNA are remnants of ancient viruses. I’m sure Giorgio would say that those aliens were trying to throw us off the scent by making it seem like our genomes had evolved through natural processes.
  • They never address the fact that the hypotheses they present throughout the show aren’t even internally consistent. At one point they say all life on earth was put there by aliens, and it evolved naturally. Then they say we ARE the aliens. So what, were the aliens unicellular organisms? How can we interbreed – like they say we do – if we’re that distantly related?! But then they say the proof that we’re aliens is that we look like the aliens…so how about those billions of years of evolution?

In poking around the internet about this show, I discovered that Giorgio had a twitter account, which included this gem:

Lizard people? Total nonsense. Aliens? Of course, duhhhhh.

Oh, History Channel. How the mighty have fallen. I remember when I was little and I’d watch you with my history-buff dad, and learn all sorts of cool things about Egypt and Rome and WWII. But now I watch you to point and laugh.