#DearJohn Boehner: how do you reconcile these statements with your actions?

I am a Canadian, so politically unsophisticated and unwise in the ways of the world. Tell me, dear readers. How does one reconcile this:

His promises on behalf of the new House majority — reducing the size of government, creating jobs and fundamentally altering the way the Congress conducts its business — are mostly as lofty as they are unspecific, and his efforts to legislate them into reality must be done with ambitious upstarts within his own party and a fresh crop of Tea Partiers, some of whom seem to believe that it is they, not he, now running the show..

And this:

“The American people have humbled us. They have refreshed our memories to just how temporary the privilege of serving is. They have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them,’ Boehner said waving the symbol of his new office. “That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully knowing that I am but its caretaker. After all, this is the people’s house.”
[,.,]
“I wish them great success in achieving the kinds of reforms and policies the last election was all about,” McConnell added. As for the Senate’s Republican minority, he said, “We will press the majority to do the things the American people clearly want us to do.”

…with Boehner’s House Resolution number three (the third resolution written for this new House)? Wherein, in an effort to reduce the amount of abortions being prescribed by doctors, rape is redefined to include only forceable rape?

For years, federal laws restricting the use of government funds to pay for abortions have included exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. (Another exemption covers pregnancies that could endanger the life of the woman.) But the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” a bill with 173 mostly Republican co-sponsors that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dubbed a top priority in the new Congress, contains a provision that would rewrite the rules to limit drastically the definition of rape and incest in these cases.

With this legislation, which was introduced last week by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to “forcible rape.” This would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape, many of which are non-forcible. For example: If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion. (Smith’s spokesman did not respond to a call and an email requesting comment.)

Considering that 71% of the people of the US are opposed to this bill (and that’s just the survey — you should see the outrage on Twitter on the #dearjohn hashtag), you’d think it’s a political non-starter. So how do you reconcile all these disparate claims and goals and actual action?

If the Republicans want to pass a bill to make it harder for rape victims to get justice, that’s probably a vote that can be used against them later, right? One can hope. I mean, it’s gotta be political poison to endorse a bill that essentially tells rape victims that their rape just wasn’t enough punishment. Right? RIGHT?

Reproductive rights are human rights. If you’re forced to carry a baby to term, or worse, die during childbirth, just because some politician has decided you must just be a slut, then the system is broken. The myth that people are using rape laws as loopholes to get abortions so they can be promiscuous without repercussions is JUST A MYTH. I don’t know how ideas like this have gained as much traction as they have.

Why some myths died out, explained by Robot Chicken

Remember, the Bible did mention unicorns a bunch of times. Even said “God’s as strong as a unicorn” once.

Oh, but apologists have a way to explain it away, which Jack Scanlan covered over at Homologous Legs. All you have to do is completely redefine what the word “unicorn” means. And ignore that there’s still no evidence for the redefined version.

Doing your part for the ladies of the science blogosphere.

Funny thing happened to me when I was in mom’s womb. I grew a penis. Yeah. I know. Hell of a gift in the grand scheme of things because by virtue of my swinging pipe, it turns out I get a whole lot more say in this world than I’m due. By virtue of some dangly bits I will get better jobs, get more respect, and have a better chance at being heard when I have something to say. I didn’t ask for the hand I was dealt — that’s entirely near-random genetic stuff that I just don’t have the head for.

And yet there are some very excellent science bloggers out there who do have the head for things like genetics and other squishy scientific topics like that — stuff that I can’t fathom, being a mere computer geek and layman. And not just the squishy science, but the math-y science, like particle or astrophysics. By virtue of not having hit the lucky genetic combination, though, they seem to only gain attention when they’re talking about how they’re not getting enough attention. Gender disparity, and gender politics, are the quickest paths to being heard by female science writers it seems. This is a disgrace, because these women know science better than I do — better by far.

The topic came up at Science Online, and reverberated through the blogosphere for the past week, til I decided to chime in. By virtue of my swinging pipe, I will probably be fairly well read on this topic. It is only through acute self-awareness — awareness that I do not deserve this audience on this topic — that I humbly point you to some amazing women writers that don’t get mentioned in the list of favorite science authors any time someone tries to rattle off an informal “top ten” list of their favorites. The fact that Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, Phil Plait, and other male writers always top those short lists when there are equally good female writers is lamentable, but ultimately fixable through better exposure.

Not the kind of exposure they tend to get, though. Christie Wilcox of Observations of a Nerd recently had a fan approach her on Facebook gushing over… you guessed it… her appearance. The fan said, and I quote: “You are GORGEOUS, and your tits look absolutely incredible.” Nothing about her science writing — you know, the stuff that made him an admirer — and nothing like the kind of civility you’re expected to give a perfect stranger. So, she wrote a blog post declaring war on the blogosphere. Well, sort of. She expressed her unwillingness to be cowed out of the conversation, and her support of anyone facing these same issues.

The trolls that show up in comments for supporting arguments beat the same drum everywhere you see them. Oh my, the trolls. They are a priceless bunch. On David Dobbs’ “STFU” post, the trolls are the main attraction. The ones that claim that a woman must be intentionally making themselves pieces of meat should someone notice that they have breasts. The ones that claim that they are “bear-baiting” by daring to wear makeup at work, then complaining when they get attention for being attractive. The ones that paradoxically claim that women are doing this to get noticed, while at the same time admitting that women that do not dress attractively do not get ahead in their careers. You create the environment where only attractively attired women get any attention, then you try to shame women for daring to complain that the environment is the real issue.

There are a lot of writers who need to be heard on this topic. SciCurious has declared that she’s going to do what she can to self-promote, and to make sure that that self-promotion is about her science writing no matter how others might construe it. This is a tactic that has worked once for Rebecca Skloot, whose incredibly popular and (so far as I’ve managed to read) thoroughly excellent book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has won her awards and accolades beyond many male science writers, even while she is never mentioned as a science writer in people’s “top tens”. Sci also discusses the use of sex to sell science, and the advantages and disadvantages thereof. Meanwhile, she’s ACTUALLY “busting, busting up the stereotypes”. Unlike the Science Cheerleaders, whose advocacy of science is at best the repeated refrain of “GO SCIENCE!”. No science to be seen there.

Kate Clancy highlights the ‘friend bias’ of cliquishness in the blogosphere, and another where women can say something which is ignored until a man comes along and says the very same thing. These are important trends to note, and to counteract as much as possible — if you see someone ignoring that a woman made the exact same point three comments prior, damn well point it out. If you see that certain commenters latch onto conversation with men, while wholly ignoring pointed and excellent questions from women, damn well point it out.

And Stephanie Zvan identifies the real issue: people simply aren’t engaging with women on their science. Yes, Our Lady of Perpetual Win lives up to her deified moniker, as usual. Not only is it problematic that people are ignoring the work women do in science (much less conversations about science), but it’s also problematic when the only time people regularly retweet, share, or link women into the discussion is when it’s about gender politics. Why is it always about gender politics? Why can’t it be about science?

I’m going to continue my usual effort to promote good science and spread the word regardless of who’s writing it (and the Ed Yong link I posted above is specifically a list of good science that happens to have been written by women). This isn’t a call for “equal opportunity” measures. It is a demand that women not be overlooked for their science work. With my own job taking so much of my time lately, I’ve had difficulty doing as much sharing of science links on Twitter as I might like. I’m going to intentionally devote more time to that practice. I’ve come to follow on Twitter a rather disproportionate number of female science writers in the wake of Science Online 2011, so I expect my promotion of scientific articles will also be rather disproportionately from females. At least, I’m hoping so. Otherwise I’m not really doing my part, am I?

While I have your ear, here’s a blog that has only one post on it yet, though it has all the promise of a newborn. Our Science is a new blog on Nature.com written by a 9th grader named Naseem, an attendee of Scio11, who promises to cover topics like the 2012 doomsday predictions, the recent “aflockalypse”, and why you should consider a career in science. She is catching people’s attention early, and if she’s as good a writer as she seems in the first post, I have every anticipation this will be a breakout skeptical and science-populism blog for the new year. If nothing else, it will be a testament to humanity to watch a 9th grader’s love for science grow as she explores it.

Her gender, mind you, is entirely a circumstance of sorta-random genetics.

Morality, semantics, and presuppositional apologetics

Remember the big apologetics war Peter and I waged, where he fired the first salvo in the wrong direction, and called me Justin to boot? George is still waging it, though Peter’s end of the argument has gotten stale rather quickly — and not just because he’s been sitting on George’s reply for over a week. His argument amounts to a false dichotomy — either morality is objective (and therefore God exists as the “law-giver”), or it is subjective (and therefore anyone can choose to do anything they want if they think it’s good). And this dichotomy depends on some semantics about those two words.

If you know me well enough, you know I have little patience for philosophy as I find it to be self-important fluffery, using logic to prove things without any evidence, misused by theists to the point where my impatience grows into disdain. Philosophy has largely been superceded by empirical scientific discovery in every area of studying reality. However, it still has a place — and a valuable one, one I cannot begrudge its practitioners. Meta-ethics, for instance, can’t rightly be refined by a scientific process, even while we discover how the brain shapes our personal ethics through the same scientific process. Without philosophers defining objective moral frameworks around which we can better serve humanity, our moral codes would never evolve — it is therefore the engine for evolution for our societal morality.

Daniel Fincke of Camels With Hammers was dragged into the debate between Peter, George and I at George’s behest, and his first salvo wasn’t against Peter — it was against George and my use of the words “objective” and “subjective”. Evidently, philosophy has a whole lexicon for a varied shade of positions about morality, and “subjective” morality actually has two definitions — one that is in line with Peter’s definition, and another that involves a law-giver (e.g., The Supreme Court, for instance) that can make things good or bad by fiat. Neither of these fit with the definition I was using — merely, that there is no external, inviolate, unchanging objective law. I was using “subjective” as the opposite of “objective”. On the spectrum, “objective” covers the extreme leftmost corner, and “subjective” covers everything else. As it turns out, this definition is far too broad, regardless of what we’re arguing.

I posted the following on Daniel’s blog:

Not to resurrect a dead horse to beat on it some more, but I do feel the need to clarify, and I was under many time constraints over the past week while travelling, so I really couldn’t properly attempt to defend my layman’s understanding of philosophy. This is not an attempt at arguing with you, for the record, only of explaining my position in such a way that we are not talking at cross purposes as much as we seem to have recently.

I would agree that, given the definitions of terms you’ve given in this post, I am also a naturalist and a contextualist. However, I limit my understanding of “objective, natural values” to the context of human beings, insofar as morals do not exist outside the scope of humanity. Morals are a framework by which humans decide what action benefits themselves and their society most; and I strongly suspect we’ve created them because humans are natural classifiers — we will not simply accept any aspect of our humanity without first having “punched, stamped, filed, briefed, debriefed or numbered” it. We’ve evolved as social animals, who work better together than apart as a species, and therefore require rules that we enculturate in our offspring in order to keep individuals from damaging or otherwise breaking the cohesiveness of the societal unit. Our empathy as human beings pretty much ensures that we have to take others’ feelings into consideration; the fact that empathy can be removed by lobotomy indicates to me that morals are entirely brain-dependent.

I make the caveat about it applying only to humans because I steadfastly deny that the existence of morality (such as it is, since it does not exist manifestly without humans) proves anything about a divine creator or “law-giver”, which is the general tactic of the presuppositional apologist. If my declaration that morals are subjective is anything, it is an inartful declaration that morals do not exist separately from humans, and are therefore contingent on them. It is also a declaration that one needs to make a specific objective moral frame the guideline for building one’s system of morals, and that societies’ laws are a zeitgeist-dependent approximation of them.

At least in a functioning democracy. Some laws simply exist to ensure the ruling class remains the ruling class. Some laws exist as a sword of Damocles hanging over each citizen’s head, intended to serve the government in damning anyone at their discretion — much in the same way that every person on the planet is a sinner if the standard is the Bible, given how it was written to damn every person for at least one thing, and if not for anything endemic to humanity, then through “original sin”.

Jason’s emotivist-like discussion of “disliking” pedophilia—rather than condemning it explicitly on objective grounds—has not yet convinced me that his views rule out subjectivist relativist dimensions.

Also, I believe the “dislike” construction [referring to the blockquoted objection above] was paralleling one of Peter’s assertions that atheists have no reason to believe pedophilia is “wrong” without a law-giver. If this isn’t the case, then obviously, emotivist language was not the best construction, and I am not the most polished at arguing philosophical or meta-ethical questions. I was using the layman’s understanding of “objective” — “unchanging, uniform under all circumstances” — and “subjective” as the opposite. I expressly deny the false dichotomy Peter presents, that morals either were given to you by God or they differ from person to person and therefore give cover to a pedophile. The fact that you have so many words for so many positions on a spectrum I didn’t even know was fleshed out by philosophers shows me that philosophy has a place in discussing man-made concepts like morality. I am a very practical soul: a naturalist (there is no supernatural) and monist (there is only one kind of “stuff”, matter), and a determinist (every molecule does exactly what it’s supposed to, and doesn’t break any laws of nature to do something uncaused), and barring any advances in the field of quantum physics, I strongly believe free will is an illusion — one I’m willing to suspend disbelief and enjoy.

Because I strongly believe there is an objective truth to the universe, and science is the best way to find it, I generally find questions of subjectivity (by which in this case I mean anything to do with humans and their understanding of one another and of ethics or other man-made constructions) to be side-bars to the greater quest of discovering this universe. I prefer science to philosophy, but only because I find philosophical arguments to generally be an unending ouroboros of painful discussion about semantics. I don’t mean “semantical quibbling”, I mean “semantics”. As in, “meanings of words.” The “quibbling” part comes in when — and only when — one tries to make their position clear despite misusing a word, and the bulk of argument following involves the misuse of the word rather than the position they attempted to make clear.

And if anything in this diatribe uses incorrect words, I welcome you to correct them, but not to assume that my use of them means my position is anything but what I’ve laid out. If you’re unsure, please do ask.

On reflection, I also need to point out that my exact quote about “disliking” pedophilia:

Atheists dislike the idea of pedophilia because children are vulnerable, and it is in human nature to protect vulnerable members of our species. They are not sexually mature enough to make an informed consenting decision, and therefore they are not “consenting adults”, and therefore do not count as someone you can “have sex with and enjoy it because sex is fun”.

Note that the second clause of the first sentence, through to the end of the quote, is an objective framework: children are vulnerable, and humans will protect them because otherwise our species would die off. It is also a recognition that sexual predation on children would tangibly harm them because they are not informed or sexually mature, and therefore would be psychologically damaged by the act. Protecting children is an objective framework that is arguably the easiest one to get everyone to agree with.

Why then Peter can use this as a rhetorical club and get away with it, while I get accused of not sufficiently providing objective reasons why pedophilia is bad, is beyond me. And you wonder why I dislike semantics. No matter which way I try to argue, people on both sides of the argument will beat me up using semantics as their club.

I’ll change my lexicon. I have no problems doing so. I just seriously dislike it when people take me out of my provided context to argue word-choices, when the context I provided refines the definition of the words I’m using. I mean, hell, when people (including Daniel) tell me I’m taking stuff out of context, misunderstanding stuff because the surrounding text is missing, I correct it — even when the omission is not my own fault. So I’m using the wrong words… big deal. My meaning should be manifestly clear, and if it isn’t, a quick question about them never killed anyone.

Precession’d!

I can’t believe I missed these lulz as they were happening. Well, I can, as I was way too busy having an absolute blast hanging out with some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met over the past week and a half, between Science Online and the drastically insufficient time Jodi and I spent with Ben and Stephanie Zvan. Anyway, I’m sure you won’t mind if I dogpile on this topic just a smidge later than everyone else has. And hell, I needed SOMETHING to write on the plane ride home — this is as good a topic to snicker derisively on the sidelines about as any, no?

The Bad Astronomer Phil Plait's favorite astrology image. One of my favorite images too, now that I have my hat in the astrology fight.

Recently, astrologers had their noses tweaked when a news reporter explained the precession of the equinoxes, and for some wholly unfathomable reason that phenomenon gained media traction enough to dominate quite a few news cycles. This isn’t exactly news, though — it’s a phenomenon known to astronomers for centuries now. As our corner of the cosmic ballet cycles on, our solar system is slowly shifting through our galaxy in such a way that the zodiacal signs assigned to people for being born between certain dates are no longer the same signs that one might see if they were to view the actual sunrise on a given day. The signs are, and have always been, merely a metric of what constellation the sun happened to “pass through” on that particular date. Generally, the only valuable data you can get from knowing someone’s sign, is what time of year they were born — and in days of yore, this might have been exceptionally useful, for instance knowing that certain times of year different levels of food availability or different climate difficulties, and thus certain “signs” were statistically more likely to survive through infancy. However, what times of year the sign is supposed to correspond with, change on a fairly regular schedule — about every thousand years, the equinoxes will have precessed one full sign.
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Symphony of Science: The Big Beginning

While I still have not seen a Symphony of Science that tops Glorious Dawn, and I strongly doubt that one is forthcoming, this is still well worth a listen. Just finished Hawking/Mlodinow’s The Grand Design, and I’m fully intending on writing up a review and layman’s discussion of M-Theory, once I’m back home and have more time to explicitly “waste” on you folks.

I kid, I kid.

Gamera’s insides are friends to children too!

Sorry, more filler for today. Not likely to blog properly at least until Monday night, where I have only so much time to squeeze in on the remainder of my vacation for sitting and writing something of any substance. Hope to write some anecdotes from Science Online as soon as possible, but I don’t want to half-ass the writing about it. Also have a bunch of topics I’d like to expound on, and a post-mortem on the fallout after Peter’s presuppositional arguments and a Real Philosopher(tm)’s take on how we did.

For the moment, you’ll have to make do with this awesome set of illustrations of Gamera and his foes. @Bug_Girl gets the hat tip for it. They’re very science-ish! If only I could read Japanese.

Tales from #scio11: Noisy Python

Nicole Gugliucci, the Noisy Astronomer (who blogs at Discovery Blogs and noisyastronomer.com, and tweets at @NoisyAstronomer), is all kinds of awesome. During a conversation where Pharyngula came up, she made reference to the Monty Python image PZ uses to refer to creationists. And she did it not using words, but by actually making the motion. Naturally, I needed to catch it on film for posterity.

Never has the goon been cuter.

You’ve got to be carefully taught

The post from yesterday with the Rodgers and Hammerstein song was, surprisingly, not taken down due to infringement on the copyright owners for the musical South Pacific, nor of the performers of the song that was used in any way. Instead, it was taken down by Channel 1 Images, who claimed copyright on a specific photo of a Tea Party rally. The Fair Use doctrine explicitly allows using images for political commentary or for educational or criticism purposes. It seems to me the use of the image of the Tea Party rally in question expressly falls under that jurisdiction, and the takedown notice was extremely likely to have been an abuse of the DMCA to quash dissenting political opinion.

Which is understandable, because it’s pretty damning how endemic to the politics of the right-wing the eliminationist and isolationist rhetoric actually is. I strongly doubt the earnestness of anyone who comes out of listening to this Youtube video thinking the current far-right-wing nutbags, who dominate every news cycle for the past several years, is anything but a product of careful teaching and extraordinary effort.

Luckily the video’s author nicolesandler recompiled it, replacing the image in question, stating that she does not believe the takedown notice was in any way merited. To her I say: you and me both.