[#wiscfi liveblog] Faith-Based Pseudo-Science

The WiS2 conference logo.

It’s the first panel of WiS2!! The topic is faith-based pseudoscience and the panelists are Carrie Poppy, Sarah Moglia, Rebecca Watson, and (Surly) Amy Roth. The moderator is Desiree Schell.

The panelists! From left: Carrie Poppy, Sarah Moglia, Rebecca Watson, and Amy Roth.

The panelists! From left: Carrie Poppy, Sarah Moglia, Rebecca Watson, and Amy Roth.

2:05: Panelists are introducing themselves! Rebecca’s talking about Skepchick: “We also have Teen Skepchick, which is just like Skepchick except without the profanity.”

Desiree: We’re not talking about “faith” just in terms of religion, but in terms of belief-based treatment in general. So homeopathy, anti-vax, and all that is included.

2:08: Amy: A really good example of this is homeopathy. Homeopathy “works” on the principle that “like cures like.” So if someone has certain symptoms, you cure them by finding something that would cause the same symptoms in a healthy person–something that might be poison. You dilute it into water or alcohol. And you shake it. “We’re not gonna get into the details of why, that’s just silly.” You continue to dilute it until there’s not even a molecule of the poison left. They take what’s left, which is basically water or alcohol, and they put it into a sugar pill and give it to you.

Amy poisons the water to demonstrate homeopathy.

Amy poisons the water to demonstrate homeopathy.

Amy’s getting volunteers to take the happy sugar pills!

Here’s how it works. You take the alternative medicine, and either you feel better for whatever reason and you assume that it works, or you get worse and you die. Or you eventually go to a real doctor and you forget about the part where the altmed didn’t work.

2:14: Rebecca: Homeopathy started in Germany in the 18th century and came to the U.S. mainly thanks to the same woman who started the Christian Science movement, which doesn’t believe in medicine but rather praying away illness. They do support homeopathy, however. So religion was an integral part of the way homeopathy was popularized in the U.S.

Amy: At the time, blood-letting was the most popular treatment, and homeopathy sure felt better than that!

Carrie: People who practice altmed are often very religious, although when I was religious this sort of thing was very looked down upon.

Rebecca: I grew up Baptist and even meditation was seen as “the work of the devil.” But even that validates it–”it’s evil, but it works.” You’re still saying it works.

Desiree: There are a lot of similarities. Reiki is very similar to faith healing, for instance.

Carrie: Faith healing is a term for anything where you’re not using “medicine” to heal someone–just waving your hands and stuff like that. Reiki requires “certification,” where you go to someone else who’s been “certified” and get trained.

Rebecca: There’s certification for reiki?

2:19: Rebecca: Pretty much every religion has pseudoscience in it. Creationism is a good example. Creationists believe that god made the world within the last 5,000-or-so years. Another example is female genital mutilation; adherents believe that women need to be cut to make them pure and chaste. The Jewish tradition of male circumcision is similar, and has actually spread disease and led to the deaths of infants.

Another example is the war on women. This is also full of pseudoscience, such as the idea that women who are raped can’t get pregnant. This was something actually said by an elected politician ["Not anymore!" -audience member]. Or, women can’t have contraception or abortion because they are equivalent to murder. This has NO basis in science–only in religious belief.

2:24: Sarah: The idea that god “has a plan” for everyone or that “everything happens for a reason” is another example, and a terrible thing to say to someone who has an illness. But it’s often said to sick people and it discourages them from seeking treatment because it leads them to believe that god will help them through it.

Rebecca: The Secret, too, is faith-based pseudoscience. The “Law of Attraction” (a theory, rather, not a law) states that you can get anything you want in the universe if you pretend you have it. If you pretend hard enough, the universe will give it to you! One idea is that you create a “vision board” where you put things that you want. (Rebecca’s would have a unicorn on it.)

This may seem innocuous–just people pretending to have what they don’t have–but the people most attracted to this idea are the people who are most desperate. And what it’s saying is that kids with cancer just aren’t wishing hard enough. It’s victim-blaming.

It’s become like a religion–people treat it like one.

2:28: Desiree: I want to talk about this idea of “what’s the harm.” Do these things have varying levels of harm? Or all they all harmful?

Amy: Is the law of attraction like the Underpants Gnomes? Step one, collect underpants, step two, ???, step three, profit?

[lots of laughs]

Amy: They’re all harmful. If someone does a “detox” diet, they might not kill themselves per se, but you get a positive response from society for doing something that’s actually harmful, and people end up believing that there are toxins in everything and that they can’t trust their doctors and etc. etc.

Sarah: Are they using altmed in conjunction with going to the doctor, or are they doing it instead of going to the doctor? One is more harmful than the other. Also, there are secondary harms–for instance, sharks are killed to make powder that’s supposed to have some sort of effects.

Amy: Some animals are almost extinct because of this.

Carrie: Yes, there are varying levels of harm, but you can’t estimate how someone might have very little harm for you might have much more harm for someone else. When I was pretending to convert to Mormonism, they told me that there’s no such thing as intersex people and that it’s very “clear” which sex you’re supposed to be.

2:33: Rebecca: Chiropractors also use pseudoscience and believe stuff that has no basis in anything.

2:37: Desiree: It seems that both religious and secular pseudoscience targets women. Is that just my biased perception? If not, why is that?

Amy: That’s because according to our gender roles, the woman is the one who’s in charge of the family, and the shopping and healthcare for the family. So a lot of altmed products are marketed towards women and they “empower” women in a sense because they allow women without much money to be able to afford “healthcare” when perhaps they couldn’t afford to go to an actual doctor. You’re doing something active for your child if you’re buying them some sort of medicine.

Sarah: It also has to do with the fact that modern medicine does not treat men and women equally. For instnace, women are more likely to die of heart attacks because doctors don’t take women’s reports of pain seriously. When I had a Crohn’s flareup at 15, doctors were like, “Oh, you’re just being hysterical.” It can get frustrating after seeing doctor after doctor and you might end up going to a naturopath instead, because they spend much more time with each patient than real doctors do. We need to empower women to speak up and tell doctors that they can’t ignore them, and that they need healthcare.

Anemia is a good example. Women often get it and it’s often attributed to women’s periods. But actually, it can be due to a gastrointestinal bleed, which is really serious. Women should be able to speak up and say that no, it’s not just because of their periods.

Rebecca: The concept of “women’s intuition” also has to do with it. People believe that men use logic and reason, while women have this “other way of knowing” that they should be proud of. But the problem with that is when you find empowerment in something that doesn’t exist.

Jenny McCarthy–[audience groans]–advocates against vaccines because she claims they cause autism, even though all the research says otherwise. Jenny has a son, and when he was very young she believed that he was a “magic angel being with psychic powers called a crystal child” and that she was an “indigo child,” which is also a magical being. [WHAT?!?!?!] Apparently being blonde and blue-eyed has something to do with it? (Kinda racist.)

What happened was that Evan (the child) was diagnosed with autism and the crystal child stuff went away. Instead, Jenny began advocating against vaccines because she believed that that’s what caused it–against the advice of her doctor.

How this ties into empowerment is that Jenny called this “being a tiger mom.” She wasn’t going to just sit back and let the experts decide what was right for her son; she was going to take charge because of her “intuition.”

One writer, an About.com editor, has an autistic child and says that some people criticized her for not being more like Jenny and not being like a “tiger mom.” But she did her own research and chose to trust her doctors, and felt less like a woman for doing so. That’s the problem with presenting magical powers as “empowering” for women. That’s why I argue strongly for empowering women through science and education, and encouraging women to be more skeptical and to fight for themselves.

Amy: Jenny McCarthy has managed to indirectly kill a bunch of people. Just last week a baby died of whooping cough because it wasn’t vaccinated. Everyone, when you go home, get yourself a pertussis booster shot and save a baby.

2:45: Desiree: We’ve talked about a number of other issues besides vaccines and homeopathy. What’s your perspective on the fact that we always take on these two subjects? If we were to go somewhere else with our skepticism, where would you want to go?

Sarah: We need to make skepticism more human-focused. Why do so many women believe in pseudoscience? Why are women predominantly affected by this? rather than simply sitting on our high horses. We need to have more compassionate and focus on the people affected rather than on the problems themselves. [applause]

Amy: I know we’re all atheists and agnostics here, but [some] churches do a really good job of empowering women. If a religious woman decides she’s going to give up god, is she going to find something comparable in our community? If you need help with your baby, if you need advice with your relationships, the secular community should provide that.

Rebecca: We should take advantage of the people in our community. We had a Blog Against Disableism Day on Skepchick, which Sarah participated in. People with disabilities don’t necessarily want an able-bodied person lecturing at them about why they should give up pseudoscience. Someone who has struggled with the same issues might do a better job.

Same applies to women. Having women talk about the same issues that male skeptics talk about might also help reach out to women. Likewise for mothers–Elyse Anders has done a great job writing about raising children, whereas I couldn’t do that.

Amy: People think that talking about this stuff will “dilute” skepticism or atheism, but you can have all kinds of groups. There’s room for all of us.

2:52: Carrie: People focus on homeopathy because it’s hilarious. But the most important things you can tackle are the ones that matter to people who matter to you. If your mom sees a chiropractor, read about chiropractic and see why people believe in it and try to look at it from the point of view of your loved one who believes in it.

Rebecca: The war on women’s rights so obviously overlaps with the goals of the skeptic movement. We need to educate people on the science. There are feminist groups involved in this, but I’ve always wanted skeptic/secular groups to get more involved (although some already are).

Sarah: Part of the problem with our movement is that we like to consistently cite studies and data. But that’s hard to relate to someone who isn’t very educated or interested in science. I’m really mad that pseudoscientific people have co-oped the term “holistic,” because there is a lot to say for the idea of caring for a person rather than a disease. It’s really scary to have a serious illness and have someone come into the hospital room and say “What’s your living will?” We really do need to focus on the whole person and promote patient-centered care.

2:57: Desiree: Audience questions!

Rebecca just drank some of Amy’s fake-poisoned water and spat it out. Amy: “Thanks for not doing the spittake in my face.”

Audience question: What can we do to help lost and suffering people from a secular point of view?

Amy: We need to be better at providing social support.

Rebecca: Altmed conferences/fairs attract a huge number of people. Someone needs to step up and be the Oprah of critical thinking, because the current Oprah is not.

Sarah: The problem is we have Bill Maher. Who doesn’t believe in germ theory.

Rebecca: Skepticism does tend to be in-your-face and about telling people, “Your belief is wrong and here’s why.” But there’s another side of it–the compassionate side. It’s always been there but it hasn’t been stressed. It’s the side that says, “We want to save people’s lives. We want to stop people from being taken advantage of.” I’ve always known that we need an Oprah, but it’s not going to be me. I’m too mean.

3:02: Audience question: Harvard recently conducted a study showing that over 50% of patients reported improvement even when they knew that something is a placebo. So what’s the problem?

Rebecca: Everyone go read Trick or Treatment. It’s written by a former homeopathic doctor. It discusses in detail how we know what works, regardless of whether or not we know how it works. It talks about the first controlled experiment, when many sailors would die aboard boats and a doctor on board decided to split the sailors up into four groups. One group got apples, one got salted beef as usual, another got limes, and another got something else. The group given the same stuff died. The group that got apples didn’t get worse. And the group that got limes got better. It might be considered “alternative medicine,” but it works.

When we talk about pseudoscience, we’re not talking about stuff that we don’t know how it works. We’re talking about stuff that’s been shown not to work. That study about placebos suggests that we shouldn’t give placebos without being honest about what they are.

Carrie: I’d have no problem with homeopathy if it said on the carton that it’s placebo.

Amy: Who knows which disease the example from Trick or Treatment discussed? [Scurvy!]

Also: Hawthorne Effect. When people know they’re being watched, they get better. It works with doctors, too–you want to please your doctor so you feel better and report feeling better.

Carrie: My partner and I play that “please the doctor” game all the time.

[laughs, applause]

3:07: Audience question: What do you think about religion taking over instead of getting help for mental health issues?

Rebecca: Scientology is really bad at this. They have a number of sham organizations and one of them is dedicated to ending the practice of psychiatry entirely. And that’s really harmful, because they blame the people with mental illness for not being “clear” and needing more “auditing.”

Carrie: There can be good motivations behind this, because there are a lot of unsolved problems in psychology. But psychologists admit that. That can only be solved with more science, not less.

Rebecca: Outside of the sphere of real mental illness, it can be beneficial to have someone in the community whom you trust and can go to to talk about your problems. I wish there were more secular alternatives to the religious leaders who serve this function. And with religious leaders and psychics it can get out of hand.

Amy: Should we have a skeptics’ confession box at events?

Rebecca: I would like to be the person hearing the confessions because there would be some juicy shit!

3:10: Audience question: Those of us who think that skepticism can be used to address social issues (stop and frisk, immigration, etc.) are accused of mission drift. It seems that the skeptic movement doesn’t want us.

Amy: Start your own group:

Rebecca: It may seem that the larger skeptic movement doesn’t want you, but everyone on this panel wants you! You get to decide which groups you support, which conferences you attend, etc. You can vote with your dollar.

And the people who are already working on this issue can use a healthy dose of skepticism. A few years back the government convened a panel to determine when women should start getting breast cancer screenings. The panel saw that between the ages of 30 and 40, there were a lot of false positives and it was having a negative impact. So they recommended that the age be pushed back to 40.

I first saw this news on a feminist blog, and the blogger was furious because it’s “just a panel of men who have no idea what women go through” and who just want to not worry “poor hysterical women” with false positives. But that’s wrong! The recommendation was based on solid evidence, and luckily a lot of skeptics in the comments corrected that blogger and pointed out the actual evidence that this was based on.

It’s very important for the feminist blogger to see this and adjust her point of view. What then happened was that on another feminist blog, which was concerned with issues of race, noted that the recommendation that was put out was “for the average woman.” But the average woman is white. When Black women get breast cancer, it tends to happen much earlier and be much more aggressive. So Black women shouldn’t necessarily follow those guidelines. So this is a good example of skeptics getting involved in the feminist movement and making it better.

Encourage leaders of groups to get involved in the issues you are about. And if they won’t, start your own blog or group. That’s why we have guest posts at Skepchick, that’s why we have Skepchickon in July.

3:15: Sarah: Maybe some organizations do consider social justice to be mission drift. But the students in this movement are overwhelmingly supportive of making skepticism and secularism about social justice. There are lots of students here, especially student bloggers. [HI!!!] They’ve called us [the Secular Student Alliance] out, asking why our conference is predominantly white. They raised tons of money for Light the Night, which went to cancer research. We have students doing grassroots activism every single day. College is a very formative time in people’s lives–I became an atheist in college. High school and college are the time to reach people; if someone’s been doing pseudoscience for 20 years it’s gotten ingrained, but if you reach people during high school or college, you can change their minds.

Yay students!

3:16: Panel’s over!

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

[blogathon] Does Anyone Deserve to be Stigmatized?

This is the third post in my SSA blogathon! Don’t forget to donate!

Last quarter I took a psychology class called Social Stigma. Social stigma, to quote the great Wikipedia, is:

the extreme disapproval of (or discontent with) a person on socially characteristic grounds that are perceived, and serve to distinguish them, from other members of a society. Stigma may then be affixed to such a person, by the greater society, who differs from their cultural norms.

Social stigma can result from the perception (rightly or wrongly) of mental illnessphysical disabilities, diseases such as leprosy (see leprosy stigma),[1] illegitimacy,sexual orientationgender identity[2] skin tone, nationalityethnicityreligion (or lack of religion[3][4]) or criminality.

In the first class, the professor ignited a debate by asking the question, “Does anyone deserve to be stigmatized?” As examples, she used neo-Nazis and pedophiles.

We were really divided. The understandable knee-jerk response is that, yes, some people do things that are so terrible that they deserve to be stigmatized. However, I came down on the “no” side for several reasons.

First of all, there’s a difference between condemning someone’s actions and stigmatizing them. Although we may talk about certain actions as being “stigmatized,” the way the phenomenon of stigma operates is that it puts a mark of shame on an entire person, not just on something they did. When someone does a thing that is stigmatized, we don’t just think, “Oh, they’re a good/cool person but I don’t like that they did that.” We think, “This person is bad.” They’re immoral or vulgar or even mentally ill (transvestic fetishism, anyone?).

When a group is stigmatized, they are considered less than human in some ways. Whichever aspect of them is stigmatized becomes the whole of their identity in our eyes, and often this means that even if they change the actions that caused them to fall into that category in the first place, the stigma remains. This is the case for ex-convicts, for instance, who are often denied housing, employment, and other opportunities simply because they used to be criminals, served their time, and are now trying to contribute productively to society.

So, stigma and social disapproval are not the same thing; there are some key distinctions between them that I think may have been lost on some people during that class discussion.

Second, there’s a bit of an idealist in me that wants to teach people why doing bad things is bad rather than just keep them from doing those things for fear of stigmatization. And I get that practically it doesn’t matter, and if the only way to prevent people from doing bad things was to make them afraid of stigma, I’d accept that.

But the thing is, if the only reason you don’t do a bad thing is because you’re afraid that people will judge you, what happens if/when you become reasonably sure that you can do it without getting found out?

Take sexual assault. Being a convicted rapist is actually a very stigmatized identity–it’s just that rapists rarely become convicted rapists. Rape is known to be a Very Bad Thing, but rapists know that they can get away with it if they commit it in certain ways. Despite the stigma, rape is pervasive and rape culture exists.

Third, what we stigmatize does not always correlate well with what is actually harmful to society. Rather, we stigmatize things for knee-jerk emotional reasons, and then we invent post-hoc explanations for why those things are harmful. That’s how you get the panic about gay teachers converting students to homosexuality (has there ever been any evidence for that?), abortion causing mental illness, same-sex couples being unfit to raise children, atheists being immoral, and so on.

We didn’t decide to stigmatize same-sex love, abortion, and atheism because they were harmful to society. We decided they were harmful to society because we were stigmatizing them. And now, even as modern science and research knocks these assumptions of harm down over and over again, bigots still cling to the fantasy that these things are harmful. That should tell you something.

Fourth, wielding psychological manipulation as punishment really, really rubs me the wrong way. The attitude that if someone does something bad they deserve to be cast out and hated and seen as inhuman scares me. I think it’s very normal and understandable to want to punish someone for doing a horrible thing, but, as I wrote after the Steubenville verdict, I’m not sure that that’s the most useful and skeptical response. I feel that our primary concern should be preventing people from doing bad things (both first-time and repeat offenses) and not satisfying our own need for revenge by punishing them.

Stigma is a blunt weapon. By its very definition it transcends the boundaries we try to set for it (i.e. condemn an action) and strongly biases our views of people (i.e. condemn a whole person). That’s why “hate the sin, love the sinner” just doesn’t work. If we are to promote rationality in our society, we should find ways to prevent crime and other anti-social acts without using stigma and cognitive bias as punishment.

~~~

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[blogathon] Top Ten Reasons I Can’t Wait for Women in Secularism 2

The WiS2 conference logo.

This is the second post in my SSA blogathon! Don’t forget to donate! This post comes from a reader’s request.

In less than two weeks, I’ll be off to Washington, DC for the second Women in Secularism conference, to which I get to go primarily thanks to the generosity of an FtB reader who gave out a bunch of grants. Yay!

Check out WiS2′s awesome schedule here.

Here’s why I’m really excited:

10. Cards Against Humanity. It’s not a secular con without it. It’s always the first thing to go into my duffel bag.

9. Washington, DC. I rarely have occasion to travel there, but it’s a beautiful city. Last time I was there it was December, which was slightly unpleasant, but this time it won’t be. Maybe I’ll have a bit of time to just walk around and explore, too.

8. Using my new business cards! I didn’t really give them out at Skeptech because I basically knew everyone there. But I’ll probably find a use for them at WiS2. Check them out, I designed them myself!

7. Seeing Susan Jacoby speak. I laughed out loud numerous times while reading her book The Age of American Unreason recently, and that rarely happens while reading nonfiction. I disagreed with her on some things, primarily relating to technology, but for the most part reading the book made me want to shout “fuck yes” periodically. She’ll be speaking about the history of women in secularism and I’m sure it’ll be similarly awesome.

6. Getting out of Evanston for three days. Every time I do this, I feel refreshed and destressed. There are great things about living at a university campus, and there are not great things about it. I look forward to sleeping in a comfortable bed and without drunk students yelling beneath my window (and now that I’ve said that won’t happen, just watch it happen anyway :P).

5. Friends!  I’ll get to meet a bunch of lovely people with whom I correspond online but have never actually seen in person–Tetyana of Science of Eating Disorders, Ania and Alexander of Scribbles and Rants, and Melody of CFI-DC (who just might be involved in this conference somehow…). I’ll also get to see people I’ve already met: Kate and Andrew, obviously, Sarah Moglia, and tons of other people I’m probably forgetting.

4. Getting to see Stephanie, Greta, Rebecca, and Amanda speak–again. While seeing and meeting new speakers is always exciting, seeing the ones that I already know will be awesome is arguably even better.

3. Blogging! Lots of blogging! I’ll be doing it. I might even liveblog if I can get good enough wifi access. Taking notes/writing about talks is not only helpful for those who end up reading it; it also helps me better remember what I’ve learned, which is often a problem for me since I’m not an auditory learner at all. So sharpening my liveblogging skills will be great.

2. I know I already mentioned Amanda Marcotte, but her talk seems so cool that it warrants its own list item. It’s called “How Feminism Makes Better Skeptics: The Role Rationality Plays in Ending Sexism.” I think this is extremely important because there are so many people who still believe that feminism and skepticism are incompatible. There are also many feminists who take a very anti-skeptical stance to both feminism and other issues, which is why you sometimes see extreme science denialism and adherence to pseudo-religious dogma in the feminist movement. So I’m very curious to see what Amanda has to say about feminism and rationality.

1. Spending a weekend with a bunch of fantastic secular activists. Although I always enjoy the actual talks and panels at conferences, the best part by far is the feeling of being around so many people with whom I can fit in. There’s no other feeling quite like that.

If you’re going to WiS2, let me know and come say hi! :D

~~~

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Criticizing Psychiatry Without Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater

So, I read this article in The Atlantic called “The Real Problems with Psychiatry” and…I’m torn. The article is an interview with this guy Gary Greenberg, a therapist who has previously written a book called Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease and has now followed that up with The Book of Woe: The Making of the DSM-5 and the Unmaking of Psychiatry.

Now, to be clear, I haven’t read either of these books. I might, just to see the full depth of his arguments. But I decided to read the interview anyway and assume that he accurately represented his own claims in it.

Parts of the interview, I think, are really on point. Greenberg discusses the history of the DSM (the manual used to diagnose mental disorders) as a way for psychiatry as a discipline to establish credibility alongside other types of medicine. He criticizes the DSM on the grounds that the mental diagnoses that we currently have may not necessary be the best way to conceptualize mental illness, and he thinks that once we gain a better understanding of the brain we will find that they have little to do with the physical reality of mental illness:

Research on the brain is still in its infancy. Do you think we will ever know enough about the brain to prove that certain psychiatric diagnoses have a direct biological cause?

I’d be willing to bet everything that whenever it happens, whatever we find out about the brain and mental suffering is not going to map, at all, onto the DSM categories. Let’s say we can elucidate the entire structure of a given kind of mental suffering. We’re not going to be able to say, “here’s Major Depressive Disorder, and here’s what it looks like in the brain.” If there’s any success, it will involve a whole remapping of the terrain of mental disorders. And psychiatry may very likely take very small findings and trump them up into something they aren’t. But the most honest outcome would be to go back to the old days and just look at symptoms. They might get good at elucidating the circuitry of fear or anxiety or these kinds of things.

I don’t know if he’s right. But I suspect that he might be.

He also makes a great point about the fact that we often assume that anyone who acts against social norms, for instance by committing a terrible crime, must necessarily be mentally ill:

It’s our characteristic way of chalking up what we think is “evil” to what we think of as mental disease. Our gut reaction is always “that was really sick. Those guys in Boston — they were really sick.” But how do we know? Unless you decide in advance that anybody who does anything heinous is sick. This society is very wary of using the term “evil.” But I firmly believe there is such a thing as evil. It’s circular — thinking that anybody who commits suicide is depressed; anybody who goes into a school with a loaded gun and shoots people must have a mental illness.

Greenberg also discusses how mental diagnoses have historically been used to perpetuate injustice, such as the infamous “disorder” of “drapetomania,” which was thought to cause slaves to try to escape their masters, and the fact that homosexuality was once considered a mental illness (and other types of sexual/gender variance still are).

He also talks a lot about how the DSM and its categories are tied in with all sorts of things: scientific research and mental healthcare coverage, for instance:

To get an indication from the FDA, a drug company has to tie its drug to a DSM disorder. You can’t just develop a drug for anxiety. You have to develop the drug for Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Major Depressive Disorder. You can’t just ask for special services for a student who is awkward. You have to get special services for a student with autism. In court, mental illnesses come from the DSM. If you want insurance to pay for your therapy, you have to be diagnosed with a mental illness.

The point about needing a DSM diagnosis in order to receive insurance coverage is really important and cannot be overstated (in fact, I wish he’d given it more than a sentence, but again, he did write books). As someone who plans to eventually practice therapy without necessarily having to formerly diagnose all of my clients, this matters to me a lot, because it may mean that I might have to choose between diagnosing and working only with clients who can afford therapy without insurance coverage (which, at at least $100 per weekly session, would really not be many).

But sometimes Greenberg makes a good point while also making a terrible point:

One of the overlooked ways is that diagnoses can change people’s lives for the better. Asperger’s Syndrome is probably the most successful psychiatric disorder ever in this respect. It created a community. It gave people whose primary symptom was isolation a way to belong and provided resources to those who were diagnosed. It can also have bad effects. A depression diagnosis gives people an identity formed around having a disease that we know doesn’t exist, and how that can divert resources from where they might be needed.

First of all, we don’t “know” that depression “doesn’t exist.” We know–or, more accurately, some of us suspect–that the diagnosis we call “major depression” might not map on very accurately to what’s actually going on in the brains of people who are diagnosed with it. What we call “major depression” is a large cluster of possible symptoms, and since you only have to have some of them in order to be diagnosed, two people with the exact same diagnosis could have almost completely different symptomology. Further, because depression can vary like a spectrum in its severity, the cut-off point for what’s clinical depression and what’s not can be rather arbitrary. It’s not like with other types of illnesses, where either you have a tumor or you don’t, either you have a pathogen in your bloodstream or you don’t.

Second, Greenberg doesn’t seem to extend his analysis of the effects of the Asperger’s diagnosis onto other disorders. There is absolutely a community of people who have (had) depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and so on. Those communities are absolutely valuable. My life would be demonstrably worse without these communities. They haven’t “diverted resources” from anything other than me wallowing in self-pity because I feel like I’m the only person going through these things–which is how I used to feel.

Right after that:

What are the dangers of over-diagnosing a population? Are false positives worse than false negatives?

I believe that false positives, people who are diagnosed because there’s a diagnosis for them and they show up in a doctor’s office, is a much bigger problem. It changes people’s identities, it encourages the use of drugs whose side effects and long-term effects are unknown, and main effects are poorly understood.

Greenberg is correct that false positives are a problem and that diagnosing someone with a mental illness that they do not have can be very harmful. However, his dismissiveness of the problem of false negatives–people who do have mental illnesses but never get diagnosis or treatment–is stunning coming from someone who is a practicing therapist. Untreated mental illnesses are nothing to mess around with. They can lead to death, by suicide or (in the case of eating disorders) otherwise. Even if things never get to that point, they can ruin friendships, relationships, marriages, careers, lives. While I get that Greenberg has an agenda to push here, some acknowledgment of that fact would’ve been very much warranted.

In short, Greenberg seems to make the logical leap that many critics of psychiatry and the DSM do; that is, because there is much to criticize about them and because it’s unclear how valid the DSM diagnoses are, therefore depression is “a disease that we know doesn’t exist” and antidepressants are harmful (that’s a whole other topic, though).

Antidepressants may very well be harmful. Diagnostic labels may also very well be harmful, for some people. But I think the stronger evidence is that untreated mental suffering is harmful, and sometimes therapy just isn’t enough and cannot work quickly enough–for instance, for someone who is severely depressed to the point that they can’t possibly use any of the insights they may gain in therapy, or to the point that they are about to commit suicide.

I hope that one day we’ll have all the answers we need to minimize both false negatives and false positives. But for now, we don’t, and I worry that attitudes like Greenberg’s may prevent people from getting the help they urgently need, as much as they may simultaneously promote vital criticism and analysis of psychiatry and the DSM.

~~~

Note: I didn’t fact-check everything Greenberg said in the interview because I’m hoping that The Atlantic employs fact-checkers. But if you have counter-evidence for anything in that article, even parts I didn’t quote here, please let me know.

SkepTech Impressions

This weekend I was at SkepTech, from which I’m just now recovering (very little sleep or good nutrition happened this weekend). I had a fantastic time.

As a disclaimer, most of the SkepTech organizers are good friends of mine, so perhaps I’m biased to some extent in seeing the conference positively. In any case, I loved it. I thought it was extremely well-organized for a free, student-run conference in its first year. There was a good mix of established and indie speakers. The venue was well-chosen. The atmosphere was vibrant, curious, and a little geeky. In that sense it reminded me a lot of Skepticon, of which I was also a huge fan.

A snazzy homosexual Jew goat.

Best slide of the con, courtesy of Jesse Galef.

On a personal note, seeing my friends was absolutely amazing. The fact that most of the people I love don’t live anywhere near me is kind of always a thorn in my side, but I’m incredibly lucky that every once in a while I get to spend a whole weekend learning and having fun with them. Hanging out with so many fantastic writers–Jason, PZ, Greta, Stephanie, JT, Brianne, and others–was also really great. The quality of the conversations and debates I had this weekend made coming home a sort of culture shock.

I didn’t meet as many people as I would’ve hoped, but part of that was that I already knew so many of the people there, and it’s kind of a tough sell to make yourself go and introduce yourself to new people when there are so many fucking awesome people you already know.

Anyway, a few specific things I liked:

  • The Twitter wall. The organizers had a laptop with Tweetdeck hooked up to a smaller screen off to the side of the main screen, which displayed both the official SkepTech account feed and the hashtag feed. Although some might argue (legitimately) that this is distracting, I found it a huge help in several ways. It boosted a feeling of community; instead of looking at their phones people could look at the screen. It was also interesting to watch it while I was speaking on my panels because I got to see what the audience was reacting to the most out of what I was saying. Furthermore, I often have difficulty following lectures (let’s just say I’m not an auditory learner), and when I spaced out for a few seconds, I could just check the Twitter wall and catch up on what I missed. The organizers were also really adept at using this well; when a few trolls started spamming the hashtag to say crap about SkepTech (ironically, this happened right during the talk on how to use social media effectively), the organizers quickly hid the spammers on their account so that we wouldn’t see them in the feed. (To clarify, though, you can’t actually ban/block someone from using a hashtag. You can only hide them from your own account, so if you’re using that account to display a Twitter feed for an audience, the audience won’t see them either.)
  • The hangout zones. You could tell there were a few introverts involved in the planning of this conference because outside of the auditorium and behind the tabling area, there was a huge space full of comfy chairs and couches where you could go to get away from people for a while, labeled “Safe Space Hangout Zone.” I saw plenty of people taking advantage of it throughout the conference. (Personally, my introversion kind of turns off when I’m at a con, but I still used it a few times when I needed to deal with some personal stuff.)
  • SkepTechs in the Pub. After Saturday’s talks, we all went out to a nearby pub to hang out, which was planned by the organizers beforehand. Although there was a little bit of a snafu with people under 21 nearly getting kicked out (not good for a student conference), they ended up being allowed to stay. We had plenty of space to sit and people mingled and there was an amazing Les Mis sing-off between JT and my friend Jesse. Good times were had by (hopefully) all.
  • The harassment policy. Yup, there was a pretty detailed harassment policy. As a result I felt like my comfort and safety were being taken seriously by the organizers and that I would have someone to go to if things went wrong. But they didn’t. In fact, I’ll just state for the record that the harassment policy did absolutely nothing to prevent all kinds of after-hours fun that occurred, and I’ll leave it at that. :)

And a few specific things that could be improved:

  • Dinner/lunch breaks. They were only an hour long each, which meant that you could either go to a chain restaurant, eat really quickly, or miss the talks immediately after the breaks. I opted for the latter, which I regret, but eating properly is really important to me. Although longer breaks would mean fewer talks, I think that would be a worthwhile trade-off in the future. That way nobody needs to choose between missing a great talk and eating poorly (or not at all).
  • Starting/ending on time and leaving room for questions. Although the conference generally ran by the schedule, there was a talk or two that actually started a full ten minutes early, and a few that started and/or finished late. There also didn’t seem to be any consistency in terms of leaving room for questions. Some speakers got tons of time to answer questions from the audience, and some didn’t get any. One of my panels took a single question from the audience and the other took none. This is unfortunate because getting to ask questions helps audience members be more engaged (not to mention learn more), so in the future I’d suggest asking speakers to plan on leaving a certain amount of time for questions.
  • Moar people! For a first-year conference, the attendance was great. I don’t know exactly how many people were there because I am not one of the organizers and I cannot count. But there were quite a few. That said, there was a lot more space that could’ve been filled, and I also think that the conference could’ve been promoted a bit better. I’m sure that next year will bring a larger audience regardless.
  • Diversity. Yeah, yeah, I know. We’re always harping about diversity. Of the 14 speakers (not including the people who were only panelists), only three were women and one was a person of color. (To be fair, there was supposed to be one more woman speaker, but she ended up being unable to attend.) As I said, I think the organizers did a fantastic job of getting some really great speakers, and it’s only their first year. But going forward, I hope there will be more attention paid to promoting inclusivity, and that the speakers of color that they do bring will get to speak about something other than race. Otherwise it’s a little like, “Yo, come tell us how to fix our shit.”
  • The Minnesota weather. Because fuck that.
A lovely self-portrait of Zach Weinersmith.

Zach Weinersmith of SMBC Comics drew me this pretty picture!

My favorite talks:

  • Stephanie was awesome in her talk on psychometrics. It really got me thinking about the gendered ways in which we define and diagnose mental disorders. Blog post TBA.
  • Brendan Murphy talked about the neuropsychology of quitting and included a few tidbits on how to support people who are considering quitting a goal or project (here’s a hint: don’t implore them to “just keep trying”!).
  • JT talked about “hacktivism” and gave examples of things he’s done as an activist, including trolling Brother Jed. I think the best advice JT gave is to have fun with your activism–it encourages people to join and breaks down stereotypes about atheists (and, really, any other kind of activists).
  • My two panels–one on sex in cyberspace and one on meatspace vs. online activism–were super fun.
  • Ben Blanchard’s talk on using social media effectively was extremely useful. You might get a bit of a laugh out of it. :)

Anyway, tl;dr, conference was super fun and well-organized, and I can’t wait to come back next year. If you live in Minnesota or nearby, you should too!

Busting Myths About Feminism With SCIENCE!

Well, Monday’s April Fool’s joke left such a bad taste in my mouth that I was compelled to hurry up and write this post, which I’ve wanted to write for a while.

Feminist activists are invariably compelled to respond to silly, derailing claims about feminists’ supposed appearance, personalities, sex lives, attitudes towards men. You know the ones. Feminists are ugly. Feminists are angry and bitter. Feminists just hate men. Feminists just need a good lay.

These claims are extremely effective as derailing methods because they compel feminists to respond to these ridiculous, unsubstantiated claims (since they’re personal attacks, basically) rather than the important issues that actually matter.

There are several ways to respond to these comments. One is to simply ignore them. (I immediately delete all such comments from this blog because I don’t consider it productive or worth my time to respond to them.)

Another is to attempt to provide anecdotal evidence to the contrary–”Actually, I’m in a happy relationship with a man.” “Actually, I do shave my legs.” This might be the inspiration for those “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts and stickers. This response is tempting–it was a personal attack, after all–but I don’t think it’s ultimately effective. It’s too easy for the derailer to claim you’re lying or that you’re an exception, and besides, the entire conversation has now been shifted to what they want to discuss–your attractiveness or lack thereof.

A third response is to question the question the assumptions latent in the claim. Who cares if we’re not as “attractive”? So what if feminists don’t shave their legs? Is that a problem? I think this is a more effective response than the previous one because it forces the derailer to justify their claims. However, it may also promote inaccurate stereotypes because, well, it sounds like a concession.

The fourth response is my favorite: “Citations or GTFO.” Tell them to prove it. And for good measure, you can cite evidence yourself, because thanks to science, there’s good reason to believe that the crap people say about feminists is simply false. Let’s examine two papers.

Paper 1: Do feminists hate men?!

Did you know that there’s a psychological measure called the Ambivalence toward Men Inventory (AMI)? Well, now you do. Anderson, Kanner, and Elsayegh (2009) administered it to a sample of nearly 500 college students to see if there’s any truth to the constantly-trotted-out stereotype that feminists hate men.

First, a quick background on the types of sexism being studied. Although many people believe that sexism necessarily involves hostile attitudes (i.e. “Women are vain and shallow”; “Men suck at understanding feelings”), attitudes like these are just one component of sexism. The other is benevolent sexism, which may seem positive based on its name, but really isn’t. Benevolent attitudes is stuff like, “Women need men to protect them,” and “Men need women to take care of them in the home.” The AMI is designed to measure both components, HM (hostility toward men) and BM (benevolence toward men). Keep in mind, again, that “benevolence toward men” doesn’t necessarily mean liking men. It means holding attitudes toward men that seem kind or affectionate on the surface, but actually support traditional gender roles. Finally, ambivalent sexism is the concurrent support for both of these seemingly contradictory sets of beliefs.

So, the participants in the study were a large, ethnically diverse sample of college students. The majority (66%) were women. The participants completed the AMI and were then asked to define feminism and state whether or not they considered themselves feminists (“unsure” was also an option). Those participants who provided a definition of feminism that did not include “any reference to equal rights for women, the acknowledgement of inequality between women and men, [or] the need for social change on behalf of women” were excluded from the main analysis of the study. (For instance, a few people defined feminism strictly as being “ladylike” or “hating men,” without any reference to gender equality. I presume that the researchers assumed that these participants simply didn’t know what feminism is and should therefore be excluded from the analysis.)

In general, men reported more BM than women, and women reported more HM than men. This is consistent with earlier research. But when it came to feminists specifically–you already know where this is going, right?–feminists scored less on hostility toward men than did non-feminists. And it’s not because of the feminist guys in the sample, either: “The presence of feminist men alone cannot explain the relatively low levels of hostility toward men in the Feminist category because there was no significant Gender × Feminist Identification interaction on hostility toward men.”

So, not only do feminists not “hate men” any more than non-feminists do; in fact, they hate them less.

Caveats about this study:

  • It turned out that a relatively small percentage of the sample identified as feminist (14%). This, combined with the fact that many people gave shoddy definitions of feminism, caused the researchers to collapse the ethnic categories into just two: white people and people of color. Obviously, this is not ideal.
  • On a related note, because the sample was so diverse (83% of the final sample were people of color), it’s also important to note that, historically, feminism has been a white, middle-class movement. People of color are therefore less likely to identify with it, and that might be why there were so few self-identified feminists in this sample.
  • Also, the participants were all college students. That brings with itself all sorts of problems with generalizing to a larger population, but also, the researchers suggest that younger people are less likely to identify as feminists, so there’s also that.

There are many reasons why the stereotype of feminists as man-haters might persist. First of all, as both this paper and the next one note, there has been a concerted effort to discredit feminism in the media and in the political arena. Second–and this is just a personal thought–I think many people, especially men, have a serious misunderstanding of what the term “patriarchy” means. It does not mean “men are bad and evil and want to oppress women.” It means, “a societal system that, in general, privileges men over women.” Both men and women, of course, are complicit in this system, and that doesn’t mean that men as a group intentionally make it so. (Although some probably do.)

But men hear feminists talking about patriarchy and think that it’s secret feminist-speak for MEN ARE BAD AND EVIL AND I HATE THEIR PENISES and so the stereotypes persist.

Paper 2: Do feminists have crappy relationships?!

Noting that “past research suggests that women and men alike perceive feminism and romance to be in conflict,” Rudman and Phelan (2007) set out to address this question by surveying both college undergraduates and older adults about their romantic relationships. In the first study, they used several hundred heterosexual undergraduates, both male and female, who were currently in a relationship, about the extent to which they and their partners are feminists and how favorably both they and their partners view feminists. The participants also completed a 12-item questionnaire that assessed the health of their relationships; two example questions are “How often do you and your partner laugh together?” and “Do you confide your deepest feelings to your mate?” For each item, participants responded using a 6-point scale. (By the way, since I have access to the full paper and you probably don’t, feel free to ask for details, such as what all 12 questions were, in the comments if you’re curious. I didn’t want to bog down the post with details like that.)

Predictably, women were on average more feminist than men, and the extent to which participants reported that their partners are feminists correlated with their own level of feminism. Overall, there was no correlation, positive or negative, between participants’ feminism and the quality of their relationship. However, women who reported that their male partners were feminists seemed to have better-quality relationships. The authors note, “Because self and partner’s feminism were strongly related, feminism may indirectly promote relationship health, through the selection of like-minded partners.”

Meanwhile, although men who were dating feminists reported more disagreement about issues of equality in the relationship, feminist men reported less disagreement about such issues. It’s important to note, though, that there was still no significant correlation overall between a person’s feminism and the quality of their relationship (as measured by the questionnaire).

In their second study, Rudman and Phelan employed an online survey of older adults, theorizing that perhaps people who grew up during the second wave of feminism would have a different take on relationships, or that older adults would have become jaded in their relationships. They replicated the first study almost exactly, but they added a few questions to the relationship questionnaire, including several about sexual satisfaction. Again, women’s feminism was not related to their relationship health, but their partner’s feminism was positively correlated with relationship health, including the new measures on sexual satisfaction.

To make a long story short, here are Rudman and Phelan’s conclusions:

  1. There was no evidence that, for women, being a feminist is incompatible with being in a romantic relationship (with a man).
  2. The greater the extent to which women reported that their male partners are feminists, the greater their reported relationship satisfaction.
  3. For men, both being a feminist and having a feminist female partner was correlated positively with certain measures of relationship quality.

Now, some caveats:

  • As always with self-report measures, bias may be an issue. Many people may feel a certain amount of pressure to respond positively about their partners and relationships. However, I can’t think of a compelling reason why feminists would feel this pressure more than non-feminists, especially in light of the stereotype that feminists just want to complain about stuff.
  • This doesn’t mean that being a feminist makes your relationships better, or that having a feminist partner makes them better. It could just mean that people tend to select partners who resemble them in various ways, including politically, and that this leads to better relationships. But even then, the stereotype that feminists suck at dating is given no support by this research.
  • One limitation is that the study had participants report their perceptions of their partners’ level of feminism. A better design would be bringing both partners into the lab and having them report their own level of feminism (as well as that of their partner, perhaps, to see if there are disagreements). If you’re dating someone with whom you disagree strongly, you may feel tempted to minimize those differences in your mind in order to alleviate the cognitive dissonance that can result from being very close to someone with whom you disagree strongly.

The researchers conclude:

The fact that feminists are unfairly stereotyped suggests a political motive underlying negative beliefs. Whenever women challenge male dominance, they are likely to be targeted for abuse, and particularly along sexual dimen- sions, perhaps to discourage other women from embracing feminism and collective power (Faludi 1991). Because this strategy appears to be effective (Rudman and Fairchild 2007), it will be important for future research to examine whether educating people might alleviate their concerns that the Women’s Movement has disrupted heterosexual relations. Far from supporting beliefs that feminism and romance are “oil and water,” we found that having a feminist partner was healthy for both women’sand men’s intimate relationships. Contrary to popular beliefs, feminism may improve the quality of relationships, as opposed to undermining them.

Here’s my take on feminism and compatibility between partners: if there’s something you really really dislike about your partner’s political views (or any other kind of views), you may have trouble making a relationship work. That’s just the reality. Blaming this on your partner’s views may be tempting, but it also sort of misses the point. We all have qualities we look for in a partner, some of which are absolutely necessary while others are not. I could never date a conservative or an anti-feminist, but I don’t claim that this is because conservatives and anti-feminists are undateable or can’t be good partners. It’s just because I don’t want to date them.

Similarly, if you hate feminism, don’t date a feminist. Every non-feminist guy I’ve met has a story about That One Meanie Feminist Who Got All Pissy When He Tried To Pay For Her Dinner Like A Real Man, and while I clearly make fun of these guys, I also sympathize with how uncomfortable and frustrating it is to try to date someone whose worldview just keeps clashing with yours in every conceivable way.

So don’t do it. Someone who’s better for you will come along.

And all of us feminists can just happily date each other.

Oh, and while we’re talking about myths, here’s an easy one to bust that requires no research papers. It’s amazing, by the way, how many self-described skeptics just adore Snopes but have never managed to find their way to this page.

~~~

Anderson, K., Kanner, M., & Elsayegh, N. (2009). Are feminists man haters? Feminists’ and nonfeminists’ attitudes toward men. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33(2), 216–224. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2009.01491.x

Rudman, L. A., & Phelan, J. E. (2007). The interpersonal power of feminism: Is feminism good for romantic relationships? Sex Roles, 57(11-12), 787–799. doi:10.1007/s11199-007-9319-9

Viewing History Skeptically: On Shifting Cultural Assumptions and Attitudes

I’ve been reading Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Lillian Faderman’s sweeping social history of lesbians in 20th century America (this is the sort of thing I do for fun). At the beginning of the chapter on World War II, Faderman makes this insight:

If there is one major point to be made in a social history such as this one, it is that perceptions of emotional or social desires, formations of sexual categories, and attitudes concerning “mental health” are constantly shifting–not through the discovery of objectively conceived truths, as we generally assume, but rather through social forces that have little to do with the essentiality of emotions or sex or mental health. Affectional preferences, ambitions, and even sexual experiences that that are within the realm of the socially acceptable during one era may be considered sick or dangerous or antisocial during another–and in a brief space of time attitudes may shift once again, and yet again.

This is probably the single most important thing I’ve learned through studying history and sociology in college. For many reasons that I’ll get into in a moment, many people assume that the cultural attitudes and categories they’re familiar with are that way “for a reason”: that is, a reason that can be logically explicated. This requires a certain amount of reverse engineering–we note our attitudes and then find reasons to justify them, not the other way around. We don’t want gay couples raising kids because that’s bad for the kids. We don’t want women getting abortions because fetuses are human beings. We don’t want women to breastfeed in public because it’s inappropriate to reveal one’s breasts. We don’t want women to be in sexual/romantic relationships with other women because that’s unhealthy and wrong. That last idea is the one Faderman addresses in the next paragraph (emphasis mine):

The period of World War II and the years immediately after illustrate such astonishingly rapid shifts. Lesbians were, as has just been seen [in the previous chapter], considered monstrosities in the 1930s–an era when America needed fewer workers and more women who would seek contentment making individual men happy, so that social anger could be personally mitigated instead of spilling over into social revolt. In this context, the lesbian (a woman who needed to work and had no interest in making a man happy) was an anti-social being. During the war years that followed, when women had to learn to do without men, who were being sent off to fight and maybe die for their country, and when female labor–in the factories, in the military, everywhere–was vital to the functioning of America, female independence and love between women were understood and undisturbed and even protected. After the war, when the surviving men returned to their jobs and the homes that women needed to make for them so that the country could return to “normalcy,” love between women and female independence were suddenly manifestations of illness, and a woman who dared proclaim herself a lesbian was considered a borderline psychotic. Nothing need have changed in the quality of a woman’s desires for her to have metamorphosed socially from a monster to a hero to a sicko.

“Nothing need have changed in the quality of woman’s desires”–and neither did lesbianism need a PR campaign–in order for love between women to gain acceptance during the war. All that needed to happen was for lesbianism to become “useful” to mainstream American goals, such as manufacturing sufficient military supplies while all the male factory workers were off at war. And since having a male partner simply wasn’t an option for a lot of young women, the idea that one might want a female lover suddenly didn’t seem so farfetched. And so, what was monstrous and anti-social just a few years before suddenly became “normal” or even good–until the nation’s needs changed once again.

Once I got to college and learned to think this way, I quickly abandoned my socially conservative beliefs and got much better at doing something I’d always tried to do, even as a child–questioning everything. I also started seeing this phenomenon all over the place–in the labels we use for sexual orientation, in the assumptions we make about the nature of women’s sexuality, in the  way we define what it means to be racially white.

Unfortunately, though, the way history is usually taught to kids and teens isn’t conducive to teaching them to be skeptical of cultural assumptions. (That, perhaps, is no accident.) The history I learned in middle and high school was mostly the history of people and events, not of ideas. In Year X, a Famous Person did an Important Thing. In Year Y, a war broke out between Country A and Country B.

When we did learn about the history of ideas, beliefs, and cultural assumptions, it was always taught as a constant, steady march of progress from Bad Ideas to Better Ideas. For instance, once upon a time, we thought women and blacks aren’t people. Now we realize they’re people just like us! Yay! Once upon a time we locked up people who were mentally ill in miserable, prison-like asylums, but now we have Science to help them instead!

Of course, it’s good that women and Black people are recognized as human beings now, and we (usually) don’t lock up mentally ill people in miserable, prison-like asylums. But 1) that doesn’t mean everything is just peachy now for women, Black people, and mentally ill people, and 2) not all evolutions of ideas are so positive.

This view of history precludes the idea that perhaps certain aspects of human life and society were actually better in certain ways in the past than they are now–or, at least, that they weren’t necessarily worse. And while very recent history is still fresh in the minds of people who may be wont to reminisce about the good ol’ days when there weren’t all these silly gadgets taking up everyone’s time and wives still obeyed their husbands, nobody seems to particularly miss the days when a man could, under certain circumstances, have sex with other men without being considered “homosexual,” or when people believed that in order for a woman to get pregnant, she had to actually enjoy sex and have an orgasm.

Societal factors, not objective physical “reality,” create social categories and definitions. I believe that understanding this is integral to a skeptical view of the world.

In a followup post (hopefully*), I’ll talk about some specific examples of these shifting cultural attitudes, such as the invention of homosexuality and the definition of “normal” female sexuality.

*By this I mean that you should pester me until I write the followup post, or else I’ll just keep procrastinating and probably never do it.

Come to Skeptech on April 5-7!

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m going to a new student conference in at the University of Minnesota this April. It’s called Skeptech and it’s being organized by Campus Atheists, Humanists, and Skeptics (CASH) at the U of M and the Secular Student Alliance at St. Cloud State University.

The lineup of speakers is fantastic and includes PZ Myers, Greta Christina, JT Eberhard, Stephanie Zvan, Jen McCreight, Hemant Mehta, and Zach Weinersmith, the author of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (among many other really cool people).

There will also be a bunch of panels, two of which I’ll be speaking on! The first one is called “Sex in Cyberspace: Porn, OkCupid and the Internet“:

Dating online can be confusing. Grindr, okcupid, craigslist, and other media apps are all different ways technology has merged with sex and dating culture. How has this changed the way we hook up, the way we present ourselves, and how we relate to other potential partners? And what about porn—how can we be ethical consumers? And is online consent any different that “real life” consent?

The second is called “Real World vs. Cyberspace Activism“:

The panel will focus on a problem every activist has—how do we delegate time? Is it better to blog and be active online, or to spend more time volunteering in-person? How are the two approaches different or similar? Which is ultimately more effective? The point of this panel is to recognize the pros/cons of cyberspace and meatspace activism, and to figure out how we balance the two (if balancing them is even the correct response to begin with).

The organizers definitely managed to give me two subjects I have a lot of Feelings and Opinions about. I’m one of those people who’s endlessly frustrated by the way flirting and dating work online, and yet I somehow managed to meet my partner over Facebook (it’s a funny story). I think that the internet can be very empowering, particularly for people whose sexualities have traditionally been stigmatized and marginalized, but we also bring some of the worst parts of “the real world” with us when we go online.

As for the second panel, I find that I’m often having to defend the idea of online activism (it’s not all “slacktivism,” I promise!), but some of the most important activisty things I’ve done have happened mostly offline. I think that the internet can facilitate real-world action in ways that we take for granted sometimes, and I also think that it provides a space for activism for those who face serious social consequences for doing it out in the “real world.”

Anyway, that’s all I’m going to say for now lest I give away everything I’m going to talk about at the panel, but if you have any thoughts on either of these subjects, go ahead and share them in the comments.

And, most importantly, consider coming to Skeptech if you can! Registration is free. :)

Skepticon and the Need for an Atheist Community

(Or, In Which I Rant Lovingly About Skepticon)

I haven’t written for a few days because I was off at Skepticon, which is the largest student-run atheist/skeptical conference in the U.S. It was amazing.

Spending a weekend with a combination of some of my best friends, a few of my greatest Internet Heroes, and a ton of cool people I didn’t know yet got me thinking about the concept of atheist communities–specifically, why we need them.

The idea of an atheist “movement” or atheist “communities” catches a lot of flak for various reasons. Some people are opposed to the idea that atheism should mean anything other than sitting on your butt at home on Sunday morning and not believing in any gods. That’s fine. For many of us, though, atheism informs and inspires what we do with the rest of our lives, and it’s unfair to deny the validity of that.

Others note the toxicity that certain parts of the atheist “movement” have–whether it’s Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, or outright bullying and harassment. Yes, these things happen in our community. But they’re not exclusive to our community. (Of course, I likewise disagree with the apologists who insist that because they’re not exclusive to our community, we should stop making a fuss about them. No, wrong. We should never stop making a fuss about them, because that’s exactly how we get rid of them.)

In other words, claiming that an atheist community is useless or counterproductive because of the nasty elements that it (still) contains misses the point. All communities contain nasty elements. The solution isn’t to disband the communities, but to kick those nasty elements out.

I wouldn’t blame anyone who chooses not to participate in our community because of that, of course. It’s up to you what you’re able and willing to deal with. Personally, I’ve found that the benefits of belonging to this community far outweigh the drawbacks, but that’s just me. And besides, for many years, I was one of those people who called myself “agnostic” (not realizing, of course, that almost all atheists are also agnostics) and shied away from atheist clubs and events. I had my reasons. Now I don’t.

Besides that, people who claim that there’s no point in having an atheist community don’t realize what it’s like to be newly deconverted or living in an area where atheism is heavily stigmatized. I met people at Skepticon who literally can’t be themselves anywhere but there (or on the internet, with pseudonyms). Doesn’t that matter?

Atheist communities can be both productive and fun, when done right. So what was it that was so special about Skepticon?

It was that I walked in and felt like I had come home.

Suddenly I was surrounded by people who really like the fact that I’m always ranting about psychology or social justice or whatever. I had so many interesting discussions all throughout the weekend, in many cases disagreeing with people. Tons of people wore Surly-Ramics (these amazing pieces of ceramic jewelry that an artist named Surly Amy makes to promote science and skepticism), and we compared ours.

Me, at home at last with my ridiculously political laptop. (Credit: Ellen Lundgren)

For this entire weekend, I didn’t have to apologize for caring. I didn’t have to say, “Sorry I’m being all serious, but…” I didn’t have to say, “I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being religious, it’s just that…” I felt like I was among hundreds of like-minded folks.

Some will say that this makes Skepticon like a “circlejerk” of sorts and that wanting to associate with people who are like you is wrong. I disagree. You don’t typically learn from circlejerks, and I learned a lot. And while it’s a bit immature to always avoid people you disagree with, there’s nothing wrong with escaping to your own “tribe” for a weekend. Constantly having to argue and defend your opinions can be exhausting. For me, Skepticon was like a vacation. An educational one.

Besides, there was plenty of disagreement at Skepticon. It just wasn’t about 1) the nonexistence of god, 2) the value of skepticism, or 3) the fucking awesomeness of science.

There were protesters outside the expo center. They were pretty nice as protesters go. One of them had a sign–I wish I remembered what it said verbatim–and it said something like, “Why such a big fuss over nothing?”

This is one of the biggest myths I hear about atheism, and it’s a myth stemming from the belief that god is all there is to live for. If there’s no god, there must be “nothing.” Nothing worth celebrating, nothing worth getting together for, nothing worth having conferences about, nothing worth getting up at 5 AM to drive 9 hours for. Nothing worth fighting for, nothing worth blogging about, nothing worth dying for. Nothing worth letting your kids stay up past their bedtime so you can teach them about it as they look on in wonder.

The thing is, Skepticon wasn’t just about atheism. Some of the talks were entirely about science and/or skepticism, like the workshop my friend Ben gave about pseudoscience, the talk PZ Myers gave about evolution (which I understood very little of; sorry PZ, you still rock), the talk about the Higgs boson, Rebecca Watson’s amazing talk on how evolutionary psychology is misused to promote sexist bullshit (which had us all squirming in our seats with laughter while simultaneously shaking our heads), and Jennifer Oulette’s talk about positive effects of hallucinogenic drugs and how our outdated national drug policy prevents further research on them.

Why does this matter? It’s not that theists can’t be good scientists or that they can’t promote skepticism and scientific literacy. It’s more that science takes on such an important status in the atheist community that celebrating it is par for the course. Walk into an atheist convention and you’ll see geeky t-shirts and hear references to xkcd and encounter people with PhDs in all sorts of cool scientific fields. My atheist friends and I once hung out over video chat and watched a live stream of Curiosity landing on Mars. When atheists talk about stuff, we’re rarely talking about “nothing” (or, rather, god’s nonexistence). We often talk about science, and science is absolutely worth celebrating.

Skepticon attendees counter-protesting. (Credit: Ellen Lundgren)

As for the more explicitly atheism-themed talks, theists might be surprised to know that nobody stood there repeating evidence for god’s nonexistence over and over. Greta Christina talked about how her atheism helped her cope with her father’s death and with cancer. She also mentioned how the atheist community donated so much money in the wake of her diagnosis that she was able to stop worrying about how to afford taking time off from speaking and traveling to recover. Hemant Mehta talked about supporting teenage atheists who are discriminated against in high schools. Darrell Ray discussed how religious ideas about sexuality have permeated even secular discourse, and how we can let go of them and stop feeling shame about our bodies and sex lives.

Oh, and JT Eberhard addressed common Christian arguments against atheism, finishing his talk with “But how do you know love exists?” JT knows love exists because we see evidence for it in how we act with one another, and in how he feels about his girlfriend. And then he proposed to her in front of the whole audience.

These are some of the things we talk about when we get together.

Skepticon is free, and its organizers are committed to keeping it that way. The money for it comes from donations and sponsorships. Just a few days before this year’s Skepticon, the organizers found out that due to an unexpectedly expensive contract, the fundraising had fallen very short. They posted a message asking the community for help.

And we gave them $6,000 in two days.

There is so much work ahead of us in improving our community–making it more accessible, more diverse, more friendly to women, more safe. But even as it is now, it amazes me, and I’m so happy to be here.

The new Surly I got this weekend to remind me to keep doing what’s important.

[guest post] Hurricane Sandy, Climate Reality, Political Absenteeism

In purely economic terms, Hurricane Sandy will cost the United States $20 billion. And although a little less than half of that cash is insured, it cannot come close to accounting for the millions who have been devastated by the storm, the flooded streets, the damage to some of our most treasured landmarks, and the 16 human beings who lost their lives to the “one-in-ageneration” storm.

The science is clear. Climate change produces wetter, more intense, and more frequent tropical storms. Drawing a conclusive causal link between climate change and Hurricane Sandy is nearly impossible, but if there exists a wake up call, this surely is it.

We watched from afar this summer while our drought-stricken farmers struggled to produce crops in the erratically dry midwest. We sleepily, passively enjoyed last winter’s unusually comfortable weather. All of these patterns are symptoms of climate change. And not once has Mitt Romney or Barack Obama returned to the issue of climate in this election cycle.

At the RNC, Romney had not the poise to merely disagree with Obama’s policy on climate. Instead, he had the arrogance to proclaim, “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans…” (cue eruption of laughter)… “And to heal the planet…” (cue a little less laughter).

Climate change has been discussed in every presidential election since 1988. But at this critical time in international negotiations, at the time when our nation’s fields and cities are experiencing the beginning of these monumental changes in our climate system, we have retreated to vacuous economic rhetoric and irresponsible jokes.

Romney promised to help us and our families, as though somehow we were not dependent on a habitable planet and a stable climate. If our leaders take seriously the safety of our families, now and in the future, we must all be prepared to act now. “We owe it to our children and grandchildren.”

Rising water rushes into an underground parking garage (Getty Images)

Water floods Ground Zero (John Minchillo / AP)

Corn damaged by drought last summer (Jim Lo Scalzo, European Pressphoto Agency)

Mark Silberg is a third year undergrad at Northwestern studying philosophy, among other things. He strongly believes that corporations are people, and that, like all people, they have moral responsibility.