Making it count

One of the most frustrating aspects of being involved in a social justice movement is coming to grips with the sheer scope of the problem. Social inequalities are grounded, more often than not, in centuries of history and the evolutionary detritus of human cognition. We can point to a handful of successes like the American civil rights movement, but those were foughts that people literally bled and died for, and resulted in a system that almost immediately adapted to restore as much of the racist status quo as was legally permissible. The fact is that the fight for equality is gigantic, and it’s easy to feel as though one person can’t do much to move the massive edifice the dictates the roles of various groups in power dynamics.

Indeed, even if one wasn’t so overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the problem, it’s hard to conceive of what actionable solutions are available. The whole Occupy movement was heavily criticized for even trying to get together and spell out all of the problems. When solutions were offered (and they were offered), their very existence was denied or ignored because it fit into the more easily-digested narrative that we live in a world where people cannot solve big, diffuse problems. Certainly those who are sincerely interested in, say, seeing the end of racism can see few avenues toward true progress: the problem is inside people’s heads. How can we fix the ever-warping landscape of human psychology aside from waiting for the ‘racists’ to die off and hope that the next generation does a better job?

While I agree the task is daunting, there may be one specific lever we can exploit: [Read more...]

My application to BigThink

Some of you may remember the story of Satoshi Kanazawa, a “scientist” and “researcher” who made fame by raising some “tough questions” about the relationship between race, IQ, and health outcomes. He also pondered the evolutionary reasons why black women are just so damn unattractive (hint: it’s because they have so much testosterone – I’m not making that up). There was a predictable backlash against this brave scholar simply for asking “the tough questions”, and he was drummed out of academia, never to be heard from again.

But the career necromancers that are the BigThink editorial board have raised this errant genius from the depths of oblivion and have restored him to prominence on their group blog site:

Without a doubt, Satoshi Kanasawa is a willful, and highly effective, intellectual provocateur.  In his scholarship, he has boldly overstepped traditional academic disciplinary bounds to posit interconnections and relationships between our evolutionary past and psychological present that address questions very few of his colleagues are even asking, let alone attempting to answer.  In daring to ask these questions, Satoshi has made us think more than most.

His passion for endeavoring to think bigger and his deep-seeded contempt for the constraints of orthodoxy have informed a diverse body of scholarship that have turned a scientific light on an array of taboos, sacred assumptions and unquestioned — even unnoticed — realities.  Like all heretics, Satoshi has become a lightning rod for criticisms across the spectrum which has only hardened his resolve to defy convention and expectation.  In his public writing and blogging, he doesn’t posture or hedge to insulate himself from attack; on the contrary, he opts for the most extreme hypotheticals couched in the most sensitive, real-world contexts — he then stands firm and unflinching against the blowback.

Such a brave maverick! Not letting little things like “proper research design” or “understanding the topic” or “restricting your conclusions to the strength of the data” get in the way of preaching bold truths! Fuck your taboos of scientific rigour, squares! Satoshi is here to blow to roof off your narrow-minded “needing to do things correctly”! [Read more...]

White “flight”? Not exactly

This morning we looked at a demographics paper by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity that looked at the phenomenon of suburban diversity, and found that while they tended to have tons of advantages over segregated communities (political balance, integrated schools, economic opportunity, increased cultural tolerance), they were also the least stable in terms of demographics. The data strongly suggested that while racially diverse communities were more likely to resegregate than segregated communities were to integrate, this was not a bidirectional phenomenon: it suggests that people of colour (PoCs) move in to white communities, while white people move out of integrated communities.

The relevant question is why is this happening? Is this truly an example of white people being horrible xenophobes who hate brown people? Is it simple in-group preference wherein people simply prefer to live with people who look like them and/or share a culture? Perhaps it’s a cohort effect whereby white people in suburbs have been there longer as a group, and have therefore had more time to accumulate wealth – wealth they use to afford to live in ‘nicer’ neighbourhoods that PoCs simply can’t afford yet?

Any self-respecting skeptic will likely recognize that it could be (and probably is) some combination of all of these things. The relative strength of each of these forces is going to vary widely due to factors geographic, historical, socioeconomic, academic – there’s a lot of moving parts to the equation. However, the authors point explicitly to a few mechanisms by which racial discrimination (systemic and otherwise) plays a major role in resegregating communities. Get ready to rage. [Read more...]

Absence makes the heart… familiarity breeds…

One fascinating historical narrative from the United States is called “white flight“. Essentially, this was a mass migration of white Americans out of major urban centres, into the suburbs. As with previous mass migrations of white folks in the USA, this was the result of various factors as kind of a ‘push-pull’. The ‘pull’ was the increased affordability of housing thanks in a large part to the GI Bill, as well as massive federal investments in transportation infrastructure and electricification*. The ‘push’ was multifaceted – cities were crowded, dangerous, and dirty – but it would be naive to assume that racial dynamics did not play a major role.

Whatever the causes of white flight, it is worth noting that one of the effects of it is that our whole notion of what the suburbs mean and are is inherently tied up in whiteness. The oft-invoked Rockwellian image of the suburbs is white because that’s who got there first and defined what that meant. And, just as we saw in yesterday’s examination of the impact that racist ideologies from our founders had on generations of immigrants, the ‘whitening’ of the suburbs at the hands of government subsidies have far-reaching effects that outstrip the mere fact of the legislation. The suburbs are white because they got there first, and anyone who comes after and doesn’t comport to that image and behaviour is ‘doing it wrong’.

That being said, shifts in economics, immigration, policy, politics, and the very character of race relations in the United States have made it increasingly possible for people of colour (PoCs) to move into suburban areas, which has led to new possibilities: 1) suburbs that are a mixture of whites and PoCs, or 2) suburbs that are populated predominantly by PoC. A report by the Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School examines this phenomenon and gives us some insight into some fascinating and relevant results. [Read more...]

Special Feature: Crommunist does alternative medicine

Many of you will remember that I attended the Imagine No Religion 2 conference in Kamloops, BC in May of this year. It was my first ever atheist meeting/convention, and I had a really positive experience there. I was asked to me a somewhat last-minute addition to a panel on alternative medicine, based (I imagine) on my background in health sciences, my experience public speaking, and the fact that at least a handful of people would recognize my name.

And so it was that I found myself sitting next to Skeptically Speaking host Desiree Schell, and Dr. Ian Mitchell (a local physician), talking about the wild and wooly world of alt-med. Long-time readers will know how irritated I am by the term “alternative medicine”:

These “alternative medicines” are not alternative in any way – if they work, then they aren’t alternative, they’re just medicine. The other side of the problem is the ones that are truly “alternative” aren’t medicine! They don’t work any better than voodoo or augury or invoking ancestor’s spirits.

I’m also irritated (clearly, as you will see from the video) by the doggerel: “cancer cure” and the associated conspiracy theory that pharmaceutical companies are hiding cancer cures from the public. I tried my level best to apply my own personal brand of smackdown to this odious and ludicrously nonsensical claim, with all the humour and aplomb that I could muster at 9 am after a night of drinking. I also made reference to a couple of things that the local chapter of CFI had done – debunking Deepak Chopra and staging a homeopathy workshop. Both were examples of skeptical activism, or as we coined it, ‘skeptivism’.

The full video from the event is available below the fold. [Read more...]

Well THIS should be interesting

So yeah. Me = HUGE policy dork. I view public policy as an expression of democratic and social values, for good or for ill. The kinds of policy that a group enacts is, generally, reflective of their beliefs and their collective will to solve problems. Do they believe that problems resolve themselves, or do they need specific intervention? Do the needs of minority groups garner more interest than their numbers would suggest, or is it a ‘majority rules’ kind of deal? Do we empower individuals to find their own solutions, or do we envision government as a problem-solving apparatus? I find these questions fascinating.

Another part about public policy that I think is really important (but doesn’t get the level of attention I think it deserves) is this: does the policy work? It is all well and good to spend public funds or pass a law or build a program, but if you fail to measure whether or not you’re actually solving the problem you’ve set out to tackle, it quickly turns from government “expenditure” into government “waste”. It is partially (but primarily) for this reason that I went into the career path I’m in now.

With that in mind, I am really excited to see the outcome of this policy: [Read more...]

Cool stuff is happening!

There are two very nifty things happening this week that may be relevant to your interests.

Edwin appears in Meatspace

Co-blogger Edwin is giving a talk entitled “Digital Hatred: White Supremacy in the Information Age” this Friday night at the Oakridge Library in Vancouver (41st and Cambie):

The Internet has been something of a double edged sword for most of its existence. While offering people all over the world access to information they might never have seen otherwise, modern communications technology also proved to be a boon to racist organizations desperate to get their message out. To a great extent, their attempts have been successful; there are now more than 1000 known hate groups present in the United States, and their numbers continue to grow. These groups are religious, secular, white supremacist, black supremacist, anti-Semitic, anti-government, and many other flavours besides, with the vast majority hewing to one form of explicit (and violent) white supremacy or another. How has their message been adapted to fit into the digital age? How do they recruit? Who are their leaders, and who joins their causes? How does one counter an idea that can spread around the world in the blink of an eye? How can a person recognize racist speech – especially when it has been specifically tailored to appear non-racist?

If you’ve never heard Edwin speak before, you should know he’s an almost ludicrously eloquent and engaging speaker, and is abundantly knowledgable about this topic (as well as many others). The event is free and can be easily accessed by public transit, so if you’re looking for an opportunity to interact with some other Vancouver skeptics with an interest in social justice topics, this is your chance. I will be in attendance at the beginning of the event (my band has a gig that night so I will have to sneak out early), so keep an eye out for me.

Register either at the meetup.com page, or on Facebook.

Bad Science Watch launches WiFi project

You might remember that some colleagues/friends of mine have launched a new Canadian scientific skepticism activism organization called Bad Science Watch. In addition to their inaugural project looking at the federal government’s policies towards homeopathic “medicine”, they’ve released this today:

Bad Science Watch has announced the launch of a critical investigation of the state of anti-WiFi activism in Canada. The independent non-profit plans to document the motivations, funding sources, agendas, and any conflicts of interest for those groups and individuals promoting misinformation about wireless networking technology (WiFi). These activists claim WiFi and related technologies can cause a variety of adverse health effects, and are attempting to convince city councils, libraries, and school districts across the country to remove or restrict the deployment of WiFi networks.

“While many of these activists are well-meaning yet misinformed, others are profiting from the uncertainty and doubt that has been manufactured.” said Jamie Williams, Executive Director of Bad Science Watch. “Some of the most prominent anti-WiFi scaremongers are tied to the sale and promotion of bogus products to ‘block’ WiFi, or promote sham medical diagnoses and treatments for false illnesses.”

Many activists blame WiFi’s low level radio signals for a broad variety of medical problems, from mild headaches and fatigue to chest pain and heart palpitations. When someone using or living near WiFi networks experiences these or other symptoms, they are told they have ‘Electromagnetic-Hypersensitivity’, or EHS. The existence of EHS is not supported by rigorous science, and has not been accepted by the medical and scientific community as a real condition. This distraction can lead to greater anxiety for parents who are worried about the well-being of their children, and may instead serve to delay the diagnosis of more serious and treatable medical problems like anxiety disorders or heart defects.

Bad Science Watch will use the findings of this investigation as a starting point to counter misinformation in the public sphere, and represent sound science to public officials who are confronted every day with requests to act on it.

Individuals who would like to support this and similar projects are invited to visit www.badsciencewatch.ca, subscribe to the mailing list, and make a donation to Bad Science Watch.

It’s a good week to be a skeptic in Vancouver! Please consider making contact with us and letting us know you’re out there!

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Two philosophers walk into a bar…

This is primarily a response to commenters asking for my own opinion on the origin of the universe.  If this is not your bag, I beg your patience, and suggest you skip on to Crommunist’s and Edwin’s most excellent discussions.

This is written in two parts. First, I’m going to outline the general philosophical discussion on the origin of the universe. This is going to be long. Following that, I’ll express an opinion.

I’m going to begin with Aristotle, and to begin with the three classical laws of logic. You may, of course, disagree with these laws, or disagree that they apply, or whatever the hell you want. That’s fine. Not all Philosophers are committed to these laws. I am, however, not a logician. These rules are the logic that underpins the rest of this essay. I’ll then outline his original position, and how that position has been generalised (and wielded by the religious).

Following that: Kant. Some of you may be giving up on this already. I’d encourage you to bear with me, as I’m going to keep it simple. (Meanwhile, a Philosophy Professor at my Alma Mater will be dying of laughter that I’m going to try to explain Kant to people, should he get wind of this)

Finally, my position will follow, and I’ll rephrase/rehash Krauss’s error in the context of Aristotle and Kant. If all that sounds like a good time, keep reading. I can totally understand if it doesn’t.

[Read more...]

I can’t believe I actually have to answer this question

Greta Christina has put up the Bat Signal:

But it’s also a ridiculous question because the reality of racism is extremely well-established, with study after study after study. Charging into a conversation about racism and saying, “Give me scientific evidence that it exists!” is about as absurd as charging into a conversation about vaccinations and saying, “Give me scientific evidence that vaccinations even work!” It’s one of the reasons that, in the Race and Inclusivity — A To-Do List post I put on my blog, “Get your “Race and Racism 101″ on Google or at the library. Don’t expect people of color who come to your group or event to bring you up to speed” was on the list. It’s incredibly frustrating to have to re-introduce ground-level concepts to people who are jumping into the conversation but haven’t bothered to do their homework. (And since atheists are a subset of our society at large, it would be an extraordinary claim indeed to assume that atheists are somehow miraculously free of this racism.)

However, I’m swamped today, and I really don’t have time to do Google-Fu, and email all my friends and colleagues who have sociology and psychology studies at their fingertips, and otherwise spend the entire day lining up links to the countless studies demonstrating the reality of racism. So I’m going to crowd-source it. People here who do have sociology and psychology studies at your fingertips… can you please provide links to scientific studies on racism? Thank you.

So I’m going to help out, because I like Greta.

I’m a little annoyed that Emil Karlsson, for whom this list is being assembled, hasn’t bothered to put any effort whatsoever into looking into the question before deciding that it’s all a bunch of hooey that needs to be proven to his own satisfaction before he’ll accept that the problem is a problem (and I wonder if he would stand up on that soapbox and demand the same kind of evidence to substantiate discrimination facing atheists). That being said, I just so happen to run a blog that talks specifically about racism. So Mr. Karlsson, and others who are hyper-skeptical about the existence of racism, hopefully some of this will filter through. [Read more...]

The new hotness: Bad Science Watch

My skeptical teeth were cut on religious claims – I got into the skeptical blogosphere (and learned the resulting jargon and necessary facts) as a direct result of my wrangling with my own newly-recognized atheism. I rather quickly and seamlessly migrated from there to my discussions of race and social justice, but there was a serious in-between time when I spent a lot of time learning the ways of skep-fu in the alt-med school. I am, in that sense, a pretty bad skeptic because despite getting my start there, I spend comparatively little time talking about the ‘hard science’ stuff that is probably most closely suited to my professional training.

Mea culpa, folks. I don’t have an agenda with this site – I just kinda write what I feel.

Luckily, I have a few colleagues/friends here in Vancouver who are on it big time: [Read more...]