A Question of Authenticity

So the other day, I had written a post that was supposed to be about the strange dance away from logic that seems to be common on the fringes of the raw, organic food lifestyle (ROFL). What I ended up with however, was an extended detour into the social fascination with the concept of ‘authenticity’. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about here, the sort of ‘authenticity’ that leads people to buy clothing made by hand in the Peruvian mountains by semi-nomadic alpaca herders, because by doing so they were being more ‘authentic’ and less ‘fake’ or ‘consumerist’.

I have no problem with Peru, or mountains, or nomads or alpacas, and I have nothing but good things to say about herders of all kinds. My fascination was with the people who buy their products – or perhaps more specifically, those particular beliefs that spur people on to seek out ever-more ‘alternative’ lifestyles. There’s a scene in the Ben Stiller movie “Zoolander” where Hansel, a model played by Owen Wilson, is describing a particularly vivid memory he has of his wild and adventurous life. He describes  mountain climbing in some far away nation, and recounts the extreme danger that he was in, before revealing that he was in fact remembering a particularly vivid hallucination brought on by the heavy use of peyote. He was confused because, we are told, Hansel’s life is so wild and adventurous – so real, that the fictional mountain climbing adventure could have been something he had actually done. Hansel has put his money and status to good use, by embarking on a campaign of living life authentically. Oh, and while he was remembering this experience, he was baking artisan bread in a wood-fire stone oven located in his industrial-loft apartment. Owen’s character was the embodiment of nearly every trope and cliché associated with the idea of living ‘authentically’. [Read more...]

Sikivu Hutchinson in Vancouver this Saturday

If you’re not reading the Black Skeptics blog, I have just one question.

If you are reading, you’re already well acquainted with the perfect blend of passion, fact, and relentless courage that is the writing of Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson. You may have even seen her in this discussion with Richard Dawkins:

If you’re in the Vancouver area, this Saturday (September 29th) is an opportunity to see Sikivu live, and to meet her. You can imagine how I felt when I first found out:

A man shocked at winning at the Price is Right

So if you’re free on Saturday at 4 pm, head down to UBC Campus to see Dr. Hutchinson speak about humanism, gender politics, and racism:

According to an African proverb, “until the lion learns how to speak the hunter will always be a hero.” In the U.S., the right wing conservative backlash against social justice, abortion, family planning, undocumented immigrant rights, and ethnic studies tells the same old hunter’s tale of American “exceptionalism” under siege.  Much of this propaganda relies on racist stereotypes that criminalize communities of color, demonizes women of color and undermines their right to self-determination.  On the other hand, culturally relevant humanism challenges traditional Western notions of what it means to be human.  By building on the lived experiences, cultural knowledge, and social history of people of color it explicitly rejects colorblindness and myths of meritocracy.  This talk will explore how culturally relevant approaches to humanism can inform feminist pedagogy and youth leadership.

There is a reception happening afterwards, where you will get a chance to meet not only Sikivu, but myself as well (if that’s a draw for you at all).

This event is sponsored by the BC Humanist Association, and more information about the event is available on their website.

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More divisiveness: my conversation with Tauriq Moosa continues

Last week I posted an e-mail correspondence between myself and South African BigThink skeptic blogger Tauriq Moosa. He was kind enough to follow up his e-mail, and I am posting my response here. You will notice that I am quoting from his e-mail without printing it in its entirety. I am hoping to avoid a nightmare of indented quotations. I will provide the full e-mail in another post if there are issues.

Hey T,

Was a busy weekend spent mostly with my lovely ladyfriend, so sorry that this response has taken so long.

I suppose as he’s equated “the movement” with “organisational membership”, the continuing framework that he operates in will be slightly narrowed (ignores those instances where divisive behaviour does occur because they’re not part of “the movement”). I assume this is what you mean?

In the statement of his thesis, Mr. Lindsay posits that the reason why misogyny isn’t divisive within the community is that the major organizations have come out against it. If you keep in mind that the orgs are not representative of the movement, nor do they set its direction, then the entire argument is a non-sequitur. It would be just as effective if he had said “We know that global warming isn’t a threat because the ice cubes in my gin & tonic haven’t melted yet”. It’s a nonsensical conclusion to draw from the premise. [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...]

The eye of the beholder

One common claim that comes up in discussions of social justice issues is the following, predominantly uttered by a member of the majority group:

I am against all kinds of discrimination. In fact, I am never hesitant to call others on their own prejudiced behaviours!

What usually follows is the word ‘but’, and then some explanation of how ze is the real victim of discrimination because people keep telling hir to check hir privilege, often with accusations of being bigoted* or something of that nature. The reasoning, I imagine, goes something like this:

I believe myself to be opposed to discrimination
I behave in a way that is consistent with someone who is opposed to discrimination
Therefore your accusations of my prejudice are misplaced

I can certainly appreciate how much it sucks to have someone call you a bigot when all you’re trying to do is express reasonable skepticism about something. This is especially true when you are a passionate defender of the very people making the accusation. From an outsider’s perspective, it can certainly seem as though the name-calling is completely offside – they should recognize that you are an ally and you are doing your best.

Maybe the following expansion of the above syllogism can help flesh out why this attitude is problematic and will lead you into more trouble: [Read more...]

Skepticism and Social Justice

One of the arguments that I often hear from skeptics and the skeptical community is that while skepticism is a powerful tool for analyzing truth claims or the efficacy of medical modalities, it is poorly suited to examining issues of social policy or politics. Examining claims about the efficacy of homeopathy is relatively easy (it doesn’t work) but, the argument goes, it is far more difficult for skeptics to draw any conclusions about specific policy goals or initiatives. How ought skeptics to examine abortion? What about capital punishment? Should skeptics have anything to say about political platforms?

This argument isn’t unique to skepticism either. As Jen McCreight and others have pointed out, the same sorts of assertions are often made by so-called ‘dictionary atheists’ who argue that atheism is only ever about not believing in god, and that topics like feminism or social justice lie far outside atheism’s bailiwick.  Why should atheists or skeptics concern themselves with the issues of feminism; why should skeptics look at economics or jurisprudence? Why shouldn’t skeptics stay holed up in the ‘hard’ sciences and leave issues of social policy and social justice to the sociologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists?

Because those issues matter; that’s why those of us who call ourselves skeptics ought to become involved. Well, that and the fact that many of us in the skeptical movement are anthropologists, sociologists, economists, or political scientists. Is homeopathy harmful? Obviously; it encourages people to abandon tested and proven medical treatments in favour of eating candy. But you know what else is harmful? How about lopsided justice systems that impose harsher penalties on some segments of the population based on their skin colour or heritage. How about political campaigns that aim to strip women of the right to seek abortions – even in cases of rape or incest? How about relying on economic models that benefit the ultra-wealthy at the expense of the poorest members of society – or models that reject empirical research or statistical modelling?

Sure, my questions are built on fundamental social biases – I believe that women ought to be able to control their own bodies and their own destinies; I believe that even the poorest members of our society deserve to be treated fairly and ought to be able to obtain help from those of us with the means to do so (yes, I like the idea of taxation to pay for social safety nets). I believe that people ought to be protected from predatory business practices that prey on the uninformed and ignorant. We all have these sorts of underlying biases, and we should be debating them too – that’s sort of the whole point of skepticism, isn’t it?

Skeptical inquiry alone may not be able to tell us if, for example, capital punishment for violent crimes is a good thing (‘good’ in the moral sense – should we put people to death for killing other people?), but it can allow us to examine the claims that it is a successful deterrent (it isn’t). Similarly, skeptical inquiry can help us determine the extent to which comprehensive sex education has helped to lower teen pregnancy rates in Canada (it has). Once we know the answer to these questions, we have gone a long way towards answering the follow-up question: what steps should we take now? If the stated aim of the ‘War on Drugs’ was to reduce the consumption of illegal substances and therefore dry up the market for them, then we can demonstrate, empirically, that it was a failure. Is it reasonable to continue funding a failed policy? No? Then is the United States still doing it?  Skeptical inquiry gives us the tools required to tug at the threads of social policy, and by doing so, we can follow those threads all through the social fabric in order to see what other policies and initiatives they are bound to.

I think that at least part of the reason why there are relatively few prominent social scientist skeptics is perhaps because of the worn out cliché that the social sciences are ‘subjective’ or that “there really isn’t a right or wrong way of looking at ‘X’”. A large part of the reason for the existence of this cliché probably has something to do with how the social sciences and traditional sciences have interacted over the last few decades. There was a lot of fallout from the ‘science wars’ of the 1990s; the ‘Sokal Affair’ and similar conflicts certainly helped to foster the growing rift between the sciences and the social sciences. In some universities, it isn’t uncommon for the social sciences and the traditional sciences to not talk to each other. Some of this is certainly related to funding; money is a finite resource, and there are often strong disagreements over where it should be spent. But there is also the problem of language; in a very real sense, these disciplines all speak different languages and sometimes words mean different things to different people. It takes time and effort sometimes for each party to understand the other, and in academia, time is often in very short supply.

Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that for the most part the luminaries of the skeptical movement remain firmly ensconced in the sciences, while other fields of inquiry remain overlooked. And they shouldn’t be. Homeopathy is harmful, sure. But so was the repeal of Glass-Steagall. So is institutionalized racism, or discrimination against members of the LGBT communities. So is the perpetuation of toxic patterns of masculinity.

The social sciences are every bit as important as the traditional sciences for skeptical inquiry, and social justice is just as important a topic as medical claims or creationism. As skeptics, we need to realize this and begin turning our attention to these often-overlooked areas.* Just as the atheist movement has begun to talk about issues of social justice, the skeptical movement needs to loudly begin doing the same – skepticism+**, if you will. Why not? We’re a big movement now, and we should be able to tackle many different topics at once. Surely we can walk and chew bubble-gum at the same time?

PS: I feel that it’s necessary to point out that I could be entirely wrong about there being a lack of focus on social justice in the skeptical movement. I just haven’t really seen it outside of some blogs and a podcast or two. I’d love to see it at TAM; I’d love to see it at NECSS CON. I’d love to hear more about it on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.

* This is not to minimize or ignore the fantastic work done by people like the Skepchicks. They’ve been leading the charge against sexism and harassment within the movement. I’m saying that they need backup and support; they cannot do it alone, and they shouldn’t have to.

** While I understand that many people within atheist communities are also skeptics, the two terms are not synonymous, nor are the communities the same. I’m sure that most of you reading this already know this, but I’m pedantic and I feel the need to point it out anyway.

Today’s word-boner: Ta-Nehisi Coates

One of the great tragedies of my life is that while I love language, I can barely find enough time to write as much as I want, let alone read. There are writers out there like Teju Cole, Amanda Marcotte, Jamelle Bouie, Sikivu Hutchinson, Touré, Greta Christina, Tim Wise, and countless others whose ability to work the language makes me feel like a rank amateur, scribbling with my own feces on the wall of a cave*. From time to time though, I manage to get myself organized enough (or, more often, I decide to let another aspect of my life slide enough) to read the latest offering from my favourite writers, but more often I watch yet another masterwork sail past me, like I was a goldfish intently watching Shark Week.

Happily, today was one of those days when I managed to scrape together a few minutes, and I was rewarded handsomely:

But it would be wrong to attribute the burgeoning support for Zimmerman to the blunders of Spike Lee or an NBC producer. Before President Obama spoke, the death of Trayvon Martin was generally regarded as a national tragedy. After Obama spoke, Martin became material for an Internet vendor flogging paper gun-range targets that mimicked his hoodie and his bag of Skittles. (The vendor sold out within a week.) Before the president spoke, George Zimmerman was arguably the most reviled man in America. After the president spoke, Zimmerman became the patron saint of those who believe that an apt history of racism begins with Tawana Brawley and ends with the Duke lacrosse team.

The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such. [Read more...]

Atheism Plus? Sounds awesome!


I’d like to begin by stating that I’m in full agreement with Jen McCreight’s general sentiment in her recent essay: “We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.” 100% agreement, no reservations.

While the so-called New Atheists (or Gnu Atheists, or whatever) have brought great public attention to religious issues in the the bastion of Christianity that is the US, they have been, in my opinion, largely a step back when it comes to… Well, things that matter.

Now before you leap down to the comment section, bear with me a second. Let me elaborate.

[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...]

Movie Friday: Picking cotton on a racist field trip

On Wednesday my girlfriend and I went to a live comedy show at a place called Falconetti’s in Vancouver. The comedian was talking about babysitting his nephew (who is of Chinese descent) and hearing his wife sing to the toddler the kid’s song “I’ve been working on the railroad“, and expressing his comical shock and dismay at the idea of singing a song about railroad construction to a Chinese child in British Columbia*.

It reminded me of a summer job I had at Toronto’s Wild Water Kingdom where the inside parks (clean-up) staff was almost entirely black. We were working during the pre-season on resurfacing the stage, a job that we were nowhere near properly-trained or equipped to perform, when the park owner decided to try out some new “island” music. One of the songs that came on was “Pick a Bale of Cotton**”. I looked around and realized I was part of an all-black work gang, doing work that usually requires skilled workers, for which we were being paid minimum wage.

I made the owner throw out the CD.

I’m not the only one who’s had this experience:

While the story is funny, it does highlight the fact that racism often happens in an entirely accidental way, borne of lazy thinking and a lack of perspective. Understanding racism therefore requires the engagement of an active and informed mind, much like we hope to do in the skeptical and atheist world. We want people to be thinking about stuff rather than just patting themselves on the back for all the times they happened not to do something racist.

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*Although the joke misses the mark a bit, since “working on the railroad” actually means working as a porter. The song has racist connotations, but for black kids more so than Chinese ones (the Wikipedia article has the original lyrics – bonus points for noticing where it was originally published).

**Interestingly, I recognized this song from singing it in choir as a kid, at my nearly-all-white school. I didn’t understand what it meant then. If I heard it today, I’d throw some shit.