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.

[guest post] The Tradeoff Between Ambition and Happiness

A fellow blogger has provided me with this guest post about the psychology of ambition and happiness. Enjoy!

Imagine there’s a big project at work and you decide to come in on the weekend. The
length of you stay is entirely up to you, but you’ll get paid overtime for each hour.
After six hours you’re starting to feel like you’ve had enough. It’s time to decide
whether to stay another hour.

Both options have their benefits. Leave and you get to go hang out with friends. Stay
and you make more money. You go over the pros and cons in your head, but because
you have complete freedom over how to spend the next hour the choice comes
down to one thing: are you unhappier about leaving or unhappier about staying?
The decision will be made based on whether you feel, or convince yourself to feel,
unhappy and unsatisfied about only working six hours.

The point of this little scenario is that while many of us don’t consciously make
these specific decisions every day, the course of our lives and our happiness is
altered by how we incrementally reach these decisions over many months or years.
Are you going rip yourself apart over still not getting that promotion, or will you be
satisfied that you’ve reached the professional level you dreamed about when you
were a college student? Will you be happy if everything in life is great except for the
fact that you’re single, or will you be so unsatisfied that you have no choice but to
dedicate yourself to finding a significant other?

Happiness is influenced by a number of things that are out of our control – random
events, brain chemistry, immutable mental schemata developed as a young child – but
we can control some piece of our happiness through the stories we tell ourselves.
We can tell ourselves we’re successful and be happy, or we can tell ourselves we’re
not successful enough, and in doing so motivate greater achievement that ultimately
leads to a higher and more-stable level of happiness.

All of this is to say that it seems as though life involves a significant tradeoff between
ambition and happiness. Ambition requires focusing on what you don’t have.
Happiness requires focusing on what you do have. Yet the best way to truly strive
for more is to make yourself unsatisfied and unhappy with your current state. Thus,
in order to achieve more and push yourself to greater long-term happiness, it is
helpful to destroy short- or medium-term happiness.

The big question is what’s the optimal equilibrium between current life satisfaction
(i.e. happiness) and current life dissatisfaction (i.e. ambition)? The answer to this
question is important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s the driver of
many of the big dilemmas people face in their lives. Should you accept what you’ve
accomplished on the grounds that it will keep you happy forever, or should you
convince yourself to feel unsatisfied on the grounds that one day you will wish you
achieved more? Clearly the answer is different for each person at each point in their

The happiness-ambition tradeoff is also one that society as a whole must grapple
with. It’s probably efficient to stigmatize things like delinquency, ignorance,
and lawlessness, but what if there happens to be a smart upper-middle class kid
whose childhood dream is to become a lowly janitor? If somebody has such great
perspective on life that they are truly happy with becoming an uneducated janitor,
is that something social norms should discourage? Is it wrong for society to try and
rob them of their happiness in order to push them to do something that might have
more social value?

The point of all of this is…well, I’m not quite sure. Hopefully it helped generate some
unique thoughts about what happiness really means and what we can do about it.
And hopefully the next time you’re unhappy about where you are in life, you’ll think
more clearly about the emotions driving your thoughts. Is your level of ambition
really worthwhile given what it’s doing to your happiness? Or alternatively, is
your happiness “legitimate” enough that it’s worth taking your ambition down a

Perhaps with improved metacognition you’ll even find a way to mitigate the
ambition-happiness tradeoff – to somehow increase motivation by making yourself
unsatisfied with what you have, but do it without robbing yourself of present

Eric hails from the D.C. suburbs, though he now spends his days in New York City working to improve/ruin the lives of children by conducting research on the benefits of extending the school day. His blog — Peer-reviewed by My Neurons — is a wondrous hodgepodge of posts that all somehow relate to social science and social policy.

"Legitimate" Rape Does Cause Pregnancy


…and so do all those other kinds of rape.

It amazes me what lengths pro-lifers will go to when trying to justify imposing their version of morality upon the rest of the country.

Senate nominee Todd Akin (R-AR) thinks that, even in the case of rape, abortion shouldn’t be necessary. Why?

“First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare,” Akin told KTVI-TV in an interview posted Sunday. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

And if the female body fails to do its job?

“Let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work, or something,” Akin said. “I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

So…a couple things here.

What is “legitimate rape”? Akin didn’t explain, but based on what I hear from those on his side of the aisle, I can assume that a “legitimate rape” goes something like this: a young woman is walking alone down a dark street, wearing jeans and a baggy sweatshirt. It’s not a dangerous neighborhood, because no woman would go to a dangerous neighborhood alone unless she wants to get raped. She is out because she has important things to take care of, not because she was out having fun or anything like that. She is attractive–but not too attractive–and thin, straight, and white, because fat women, queer women, and women of color can’t possibly be raped and/or should be happy if they are. She is a virgin, or at least has only had sex with her husband or with a serious boyfriend. She’s not that type of girl who sleeps around, that is.

Then a man literally jumps out of the bushes and rapes her without warning, even though she screams for help and tries to fight back.

That is a legitimate rape, and in this situation, her body would “shut down” her fertility, or something like that.

As for whether or not this epic pregnancy-avoidance mechanism actually exists, I haven’t seen any evidence for it in the scientific literature (which, by the way, is the only kind that matters here). And since Akin’s the one who brought it up, the burden of proof is on him. I’m not sure which “doctors” he’s been speaking with, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they happen to be barred from practicing medicine in several states.

To me, this points to a need for more and better sex education in schools–before kids grow up, get a degree in divinity, and make a career out of spouting this kind of rubbish and ruining people’s lives with it. Akin is far from the only pro-lifer to think that rape (excuse me, “legitimate” rape) can’t cause pregnancy, as this anti-abortion website proves. (I don’t want to bog down this post with lengthy quotes, but search that page for “sophisticated mix of hormones” and try not to laugh.)

So, moving on to Akin’s statement about what happens if “that didn’t work, or something.” Akin seems to view abortion as a punishment or an “attack” on the child for having the chutzpah to get conceived. It’s not. First of all, you can’t punish something that isn’t alive. Second, it’s interesting that Akin would apparently not consider forcing a living, conscious woman to continue a pregnancy that resulted from rape to be “punishment.” Sure seems like it to me! And, unfortunately, research shows that about 32,000 pregnancies result from rape each year.

Obviously, Akin has “apologized” for his statement. In his apology, he said that abortion “is a very emotionally charged issue” and that his statement “does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year.” He then reconfirmed his pro-life stance, dissed on the Democrats for trying to expand the government in these trying economic times, and notably, said nothing about whether or not the female body can “shut down” pregnancy in the case of “legitimate rape.”

Akin’s comments about rape and pregnancy are laughable, but they should not merely be laughed at. For one thing, he is far from alone in holding this ludicrous belief, and his advocacy against reproductive rights does not end  here. Akin has also supported a complete ban on emergency contraception, and he cosponsored a bill that would’ve restricted funding for abortions to pregnancies that occurred as a result of “forcible” rape (you know, as opposed to the kind where she was asking for it).

Furthermore, as Ilyse Hogue points out at The Nation, comments like Akin’s can have significant political consequences. She notes that for the past few years, the Republicans have employed a strategy in which a politician voices an extreme far-right opinion and gets media coverage for it, allowing the opinion to percolate. Then, less extreme Republicans gradually adapt that stance and it becomes part of the Republican platform.

I would imagine that statements like these can also shift the goalposts in a slightly different way. When a far-right Republican makes such a statement, he/she often receives deserved opprobrium from both liberals and conservatives, and thus allows the more “reasonable” conservatives to reframe their own opinions as valid and acceptable. In this case, for instance, the more “reasonable” conservatives may denounce Akin’s statement and say something like, “Akin’s ridiculous; of course abortion should be legal in all cases of rape.” Key words: in all cases of rape. Not if the woman just doesn’t want to be pregnant. To moderates who lean conservative, then, this viewpoint now starts to seem much more reasonable, because it’s being compared with Akin’s.

Over at The AtlanticTa-Nehisi Coates has a great analysis of Akin’s comments using the concept of privilege:

I think what’s interesting here is the assumed power. I have the right to objectively define pregnancy from rape as rare. I have the right to determine separate legitimate rape from all those instances when you were in need of encouragement, wearing a red dress or otherwise asking for it. I have the right to manufacture scientific theories about your body — theories which reinforce my power. If the body doesn’t “shut that whole thing down” then clearly you weren’t raped, and there’s no need to talk about an abortion. And even if I am wrong on every count, I still have the right to dictate the terms of your body and the remaining days of your life.

In other words, Akin can literally tell you whether or not a woman was “legitimately” raped based on whether or not she gets pregnant. Not because of any scientific evidence, not because of anything the woman herself claimed or testified, but simply because that’s how he would like it to be.

He can do this despite the fact that he currently sits on the House Science and Technology Committee.

That, right there, is the punchline, which actually isn’t funny at all.

P.S. Sign the petition to have Akin removed from the science committee, and to stop lying about rape.

More responses:

[Guest Post] The Importance of Skepticism and Critical Thinking in American Society

This post was written by a fellow skeptic and student of psychology, Matthew Facciani.

At best, a lack of skepticism and critical thinking in our society will leave humanity uneducated, insipid animals. At worst, it will be the cause of our ultimate demise.

To begin, I would argue that critical thinking (disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence) is related to and facilitates the process of skepticism (the method of suspended judgment or systematic doubt). In order to be skeptical, you must be able to systematically pick apart problems with the concept or idea. By utilizing critical thinking in one’s skepticism, we can challenge fixed beliefs and continue to advance our society with scientific, artistic, social, and other pursuits. Additionally, employers strongly value critical thinking in their potential employees and critical thinking skills are positively correlated with GPA.

Despite the obvious importance of advancing mankind, some individuals are actually opposed to teaching this kind of thinking. The Republican Party of Texas’ Official Platform explicitly stated they were against the teaching of critical thinking in public school classrooms (quoted from their platform: “We oppose the teaching of… critical thinking skills”). It is astonishing that these elected politicians would even consider such a position, let alone have it in their official platform.

This certainly reflects a problem in American society with regards to the values of critical thinking and skepticism. In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan discusses the problem with not valuing these types of thinking in our society. He mentions that even people who may want to study science can be overwhelmed by pseudoscience, and science is “often filtered out” before it reaches us.

The fact that scientists like Sagan are critical of our scientific inadequacies would not mean much if it not for the data that backs up their statements. Americans have embarrassingly low scores in worldwide comparisons of scientific literacy, science, and math. Skepticism and critical thinking are simply not valued in American society, and the data supports it.

Because skepticism and critical thinking are not cultivated in American society, many Americans cannot tell when they encounter something that is pseudoscience (such as homeopathy or astrology). Someone may want to learn about scientific research, but due to our society’s scientific climate, people are inundated with pseudoscientific claims. Furthermore, with the advent of the internet, there is so much information about everything so you can find arguments for any position–with sound evidence or without.

However, a keen understanding of science makes it easy to determine which claims have a substantial amount of evidence. For example, climate change has been documented as a real and problematic phenomenon by many, many researchers. But a few vocal people have found “evidence” against climate change that makes people think twice–as they should when presented with conflicting data. However, any scientifically literate person should be able to see that the overwhelming evidence is that climate change is a real phenomenon and the few studies against it are outliers, poorly done, or cherry-pick data based on their biases.

These biases also impact how people deal with scientific claims in general. People may blindly follow someone who they think is in charge or an expert without analyzing things for themselves (see Milgram’s obedience study). People also see others following these “experts” and are likely to try to conform (see Asch conformity studies). When many people are already blindly following perceived authority figures, it is likely to continue because people do not want to be nonconformists, and the cycle continues. It takes more of a psychological effort to research things for oneself as it is, but couple this with a cultural environment that does not foster critical thinking, skepticism, or science, and we have a legitimate problem.

Furthermore, science in general is often misrepresented in the media. My own field of psychology is often decimated by its public representation and perception. I am technically getting a PhD in experimental psychology, but if I say the word “psychology” to an average person on the street, they think I will psychoanalyze them on a couch, read their mind (though, ironically, my research is actually like mind reading in a scientific sense), or engage in some other pseudoscientific method they saw on television. So I often tell people I study neuroscience because it has less stigma compared to psychology–though people are less likely to know what neuroscience even is!

Most other sciences deal with these issues, as well. The average American is simply not inclined to research or understand scientific concepts because skepticism and critical thinking are not valued in our society. Listening to what people say on television is often good enough for most people. It may not directly impact one person who doesn’t know what an experimental psychologist actually does, but that mindset of incessantly accepting information without challenging it can have catastrophic consequences. We are left with a critical mass of people who do not challenge information presented to them. They blindly follow what perceived authority figures tell them without a second thought.

Critical thinking allows people to dissect and analyze information, and skepticism prompts them to question the information that’s being presented to them first. So I ask, I plead, whoever is reading this–please stand up for the importance of skepticism and critical thinking. Write to your local politicians telling them about it. Do not let someone say something mindless and unfounded without challenging them. We need to foster an environment in which people feel comfortable challenging ideas and concepts. Once this happens, many more people will be thinking critically about our society’s problems and greater progress will occur.

Matthew Facciani is a 2nd year PhD student studying cognitive neuroscience at the University of South Carolina. He completed his undergraduate education at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, receiving a B.A. in Psychology with honors. Facciani is also a secular activist, but advocates for any group that is oppressed or treated unfairly.

Is Homosexuality "Unnatural"?

Spoiler alert: no.

First, let’s define “natural.” Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say:

  • “being in accordance with or determined by nature”
  • “having a specified character by nature”
  • “occurring in conformity with the ordinary course of nature : not marvelous or supernatural”
  • “existing in or produced by nature : not artificial”

For something to be “unnatural,” then, it would have to be the opposite of these things.

And now here are some facts about homosexuality:

  • Same-sex attraction exists among humans all over the world.
  • Although there’s no such thing as the “Gay Gene,” plenty of research has suggested that ties do exist between genetics and sexual orientation.
  • While some research has shown that one’s environment can influence their sexual orientation–for instance, a study showed that gay men report less positive interactions with their fathers than straight men–such factors aren’t exactly up to the individual to choose. (Also, one can’t really determine causation in cases like that.)
  • In general, psychological authorities agree that homosexuality is caused by an interaction of countless factors, usually develops in early childhood, and is not a choice.
  • There is no evidence that sexual orientation can be forcibly changed through “conversion therapy” or any other methods. (However, one’s orientation may be fluid and can sometimes change on its own over time, just like other types of sexual preference.)
  • Even animals can be gay! Homosexual behavior has been documented in tons of different animal species, such as penguins, pigeons, vultures, elephants, giraffes, dolphins, lizards, sheep, and, curiously, fruit flies and bedbugs. Bonobos, meanwhile, are almost entirely bisexual.

Compare this list to the definitions of “natural” above. Could it be that homosexuality is just a part of nature?

Some people like to claim that because homosexuality is “unnatural” because it’s maladaptive in terms of evolution–after all, how are you supposed to pass on your genes if you can’t have biological offspring?

First of all, for various reasons that I may elaborate in a future post, I don’t believe we need to let evolutionary concerns dictate our behavior. Second, there are plenty of other conditions that people are born with that aren’t evolutionarily adaptive–albinism, for instance. Nobody goes around railing about how albino people are “unnatural.” (Except perhaps in parts of Africa, where the condition is heavily stigmatized. But it goes without saying that what happens to albino people in some cultures is deplorable.)

That’s not even to mention the fact that, last I checked, it’s not anybody’s business whether or not particular individuals want to pass their genes on to the next generation or not.

The reason I’m writing about all of this is because homosexuality’s supposed “unnaturalness” is a common justification given by bigots for why they oppose gay rights. (For some examples, see here, here, and here.) As usual, however, their arguments have nothing to do with the meaning of the word “natural” or with current research on homosexuality. (At least among Christians, the idea that homosexuality is “unnatural” comes from bible verses such as Leviticus 18:22, which refers to same-sex relations as an “abomination.” There’s a vague line of reasoning if I ever heard one.)

Therefore, I wish they’d just give the real reason they don’t support gay rights–that they don’t like gay people, don’t wish to examine why they feel this way, and would rather the LGBT community just shut up and stop making their lives so difficult.