The Great Troll War of 2013

The internet is taking an interesting tack: there’s increasing concern about doing something about trolls. I think it’s a bit of backlash, because really, they’ve gone far, far overboard — the volume of raw hate and stupidity in some of the worst places on the net is appalling — and I also think internet culture is changing as it expands beyond its early population of nerds.

We’re all still trying to figure out what to do about the troll infestations, though. Lindy West has her personal answer: don’t ignore them, feed them ’til their idiocy is a matter of public mockery. And it’s all because the trolls are reaching new lows in their efforts to silence people, especially women.

Cumulatively, the sheer volume of hate that we’re expected to shoulder, in silence, every day, is wearing a lot of people out and shutting down rational discourse. Female bloggers are being hounded off the internet. Teenage girls are being hounded off the earth. There’s no good solution, but we have to do what we can to stop these people—unmask them, shame them, mock them, cement their status as social pariahs—for our own sanity and for those whose armor isn’t so thick (upgrade yo greaves, son).

Unmasking trolls, as we’ve seen, can produce some tangible and satisfying results. And I don’t mean just in a punitive way, I mean in a changing-the-larger-culture kind of way. People need to understand and internalize that online harassment, violent hate speech, rape threats, slut-shaming little girls until they hang themselves, and so on, are express violations of the social contract. They will not be tolerated and they will result in real-life consequences. That’s a long way off, and probably a bit of a pipe dream, but it might be our only hope for cleaning up this shitshow.

Here’s another example of the troll blight: Amanda Berry, the woman who’d been kidnapped and held prisoner in Cleveland for ten years, went to a concert and danced last weekend. Normal people can appreciate how great that must have felt, to be free at last and to be able to just have fun for an evening.

Not the trolls.

On CNN over the weekend, Nelly told Erin Burnett, “What stuck with me most was that she had a smile on her face. That’s one of the most impressive things to me, considering everything she had been through … I thought, wow, that was special.” But Burnett was too busy being amazed that “She looked totally normal.”

Burnett’s concerned astonishment was charitable compared to what the lowest form of opinion generators – Internet commenters – had to say about Berry’s newly reignited social life. “It’s just odd given the years of abuse she suffered. Normally she would not have that kind of trust or comfort. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t make sense,” wrote one concerned ABC News commenter, while another more bluntly decided, “It seems to me she was enjoying it and is gonna use her ordeal to cash in.” Many were concerned that she appeared with a man who stood behind her and warmly put his arm around her and kissed her neck while she was onstage. Or, as some of the ABC commenters decided, he was a “dirt bag hanging all over her,” who “groped” and “pawed” her. A CBS News commenter more generously decided she looked “pretty hot.” And 645 comments later on NBC, Berry had plenty of well-wishers but also comments about her eyebrow piercing, and how she doesn’t look like “a real victim….lol.” And of course, if you want to plumb the absolute bottom of the barrel, there’s YouTube, where Berry is being accused of “milking everything she’s getting.”

You don’t expect much beyond a gaping, misspelled void when you stare into the cold dark place that is Internet comments. But what’s appalling – if not entirely surprising – is realizing that the judging and shaming that rots the soul of online community goes that deep. It goes all the way down to picking on a woman who spent a decade being abused, because she had the nerve to go outside and be happy.

Yeah, it’s time to fight back.

Whoa. A commenter linked to a tumblr where a game developer dumps the hate mail he got after changing the stats on a gun in Call of Duty. You can’t read that without realizing there is a deep sociological problem here.

You know, if I’d known about that behavior back when I had kids at home who were playing those games and others online, there are a few things I would have done. I would not have told them they don’t get to play; nor would I have taken their internet connection away. But I definitely would have sat them down to read that site and I would have told them, “Don’t be that asshole. I would be ashamed if you had such a poor sense of perspective.”

I think that’s where it has to begin. Don’t engage in such behavior yourself, but also tell your friends, your relatives, and the people you encounter in those games that they are being terrible people. Don’t spare your boyfriend or your daughter or your mother, either, it shouldn’t matter how close they are to you…except maybe that the closer they are, the more you should care about their behavior. If you find yourself playing against people who say such things, report them, block them if the game allows you, and just stop playing with them.

You are not more manly when you lose an online game and think you can recoup some honor by threatening to rape your opponent. You are more pathetic.

Skepticon and ethical fundraising

As you’ve probably heard, Skepticon is looking for donations to fund this year’s conference. They’re just hoping you’ll plunk a few dollars into their coffers, and they’ll be happy. I don’t know about these Deep-Fried Freethinkers, though. They’re doing something dangerous.


They’re giving out chocolate dinosaurs in return for donations.

Becoming an atheist made it easier to cut those pernicious chocolate bunny rabbits out of my diet since I don’t do anything for Easter, but chocolate dinosaurs? Irresistible. Completely unfair.

Although they could be a useful tool in the War on Easter. I’ll have to think about that.

Dragon*Con, you frustrate me

This is the time of year when people start plugging all the Dragon*Con skeptic events, and pre-events, like the Atlanta Star Party. And every year I am dismayed, because there is no way I can attend any of it — it’s the first week of classes. The week I am going slightly mad trying to get organized and get my students focused and get into the rhythm of the semester. There’s no way I can escape at all.

Clearly, the only solution is for Dragon*Con to change their date. Two weeks earlier or two weeks later, I could swing it. They’ll do that for me, won’t they? (“Who?”, I can hear them saying already.)

Creationists are history denialists

My upcoming visit to Houston to join Aron and others in protesting Texas creationism is smoking all kinds of interesting characters out of the woodwork. Meet Dr. David Shormann (the “Dr.” must be his first name, he sure flings the title about), who has apparently been a person of some influence in shaping the Texas Board of Education policy. He’s also a flaming young earth creationist who has drunk deeply of the Answers in Genesis kool-aid, and is very, very angry at the vicious, intolerant atheists who are coming to his city to argue against his nonsense.

The freethoughts activists are protesting the freedom of Americans to trust God’s word as true in every aspect, including historically true. For some reason, they are particularly concerned about dinosaurs. They are upset with how Christians like myself interpret dinosaur history!And historical interpretation is what they are protesting, not testable, repeatable science.

Note the insistence that we differ only in “interpretation” and that history isn’t science, which is the most common argument you’ll get from acolytes of AiG and Ken Ham. His argument against historical sciences is complete nonsense: of course you can test historical inferences, and while you can’t repeat singular events, if you’re studying processes and principles, you certainly can do experiments and repeat them. For instance, the science of taphonomy is all about making observations and doing experiments to test mechanisms of preservation that allow us to then interpret fossils on the basis of a body of scientific evidence (evidence that creationists pointedly ignore).

But for sheer hilarity, you have to savor a creationist’s attempt to understand what biologists are thinking. Here’s Shormann’s argument for humans and dinosaurs living together:

The fossil record shows many things lived at the same time as extinct dinosaurs, including extant (meaning still alive) starfish and coelacanths. Apparently, the so-called freethoughts activists say we’re lying about the human-dino coexistence thing because we have yet to uncover a fossil of a human riding a dinosaur while holding a coelacanth that ate a starfish. Unless this fossil grouping is found, then atheists will claim the Bible is a book of lies and Christians who believe it are liars. Therefore, since freethoughts activists apparently never lie, and possess a perfect understanding of history, we can trust them over God’s word! And if we don’t buy into their belief that freethoughts activists are the source of historical truth instead of God, they will make laws to suppress our skepticism. Of course, I’m joking here, but are the atheists? Unfortunately, I don’t think so.

His first premise is false: there are no species of Mesozoic starfish or coelacanths still extant. Ancient coelacanths were different animals from the ones now dredged up from the sea around Madagascar!

We don’t regard the absence of a particular fossil grouping for evidence that those particular species existed concurrently. What we do have is an understanding that species exist in an environmental context, and that those environments change over time. There is a basic principle called “faunal succession” that was worked out in the 19th century: it was the discovery that fossils weren’t a hodge-podge, but that a particular stratum was associated with a community or whole eco-system of organisms, and that that community would change its constitution over time in the fossil record.

We’ve worked out the big picture of many species’ evolution — we are relying on positive evidence about the distribution of that species in time, not simply its absence. We know, for instance, that hominins evolved over the last few millions of years; we have the molecular evidence that shows the timing of divergence from other apes, we have the fossil evidence that shows their emergence in East Africa, and we can also see in the fossils that hominins of 3 million years ago were different from hominins of 1 million years ago.

Dinosaurs, on the other hand, are a very diverse group that were found in a broad range of time, over almost 200 million years, and we can find many different ecosystems represented — and the Triassic has different fossil assemblages than the Jurassic than the Cretaceous. Again, not a jumble: there’s a pattern to their distribution. And one thing we know is that there was a major faunal transition at the KT boundary, about 65 million years ago.

So we have two (well, many more than two, actually) coherent groups that don’t overlap — and they don’t overlap by more than 70 million years. It’s not simply that we don’t find dinosaurs and humans coexisting, it’s that we have found patterns and contexts for the two groups, whole vast collections of concordant data, that support the idea of a wide temporal difference between them…data that the creationists deny exists.

As for the Bible, it’s a book of self-serving legends and stories that an ancient people used to identify themselves. I wouldn’t consider it a book of lies if people accepted it for what it is: a collection of myths, poetry, metaphor, and garbled history. It’s when they try to promote it as something more, a detailed and perfectly accurate history of the world, in defiance of all of the evidence, that it becomes a tool for spreading lies.

Freethinkers don’t consider themselves perfect. We are open to the evidence, and we’re willing to use all of the evidence, not just the bits that reinforce our preconceptions. Meanwhile, believers like Shormann hide behind the claim that their knowledge is perfect because it comes from a perfect omniscient being — but I say that that has not been demonstrated. The totality of the evidence, including the ever-shifting and contradictory claims of the faithful, shows that their “knowledge” always seems to be an echo of their biases and ignorance.

Shormann goes on into ever more ridiculous claims — here’s his judgment on biology textbooks.

Also, in the 21st century, high school and college biology textbooks are becoming bloated monsters. Something has to go to make room for teaching 21st Century advances in biology, including epigenetics and bioinformatics. Many chapters have way too many pages devoted to speculative historical claims about origins, dogmatically asserting only one interpretation (evolutionism). A pro-science person would want to reduce or remove the history to make room for 21st Century science. An anti-science person would reject the 21st Century science in favor of page after page about origins. Ask the atheist which they would choose to include in an already oversized biology textbook, new science or history? If they would rather keep the history, then they are anti-science, which contradicts their claims of being pro-science.

Yes, the biology texts are huge…but that’s because we have so much information to share. I am amused, though, that he wants to throw out evolution to make room for bioinformatics. Bioinformatics makes no sense at all without evolution — I can’t even imagine the subject being taught without an understanding of the concept that genes and genomes change over time. In epigenetics, the primary focus is going to be on developmental change, but even there — does he realize that human epigenetics is analyzed in the context of experimental information done in mice and other animals?

That closing babble is pretty damned offensive, too. Everything is the way it is because of how it got that way: you can’t do biology by treating it as static and fixed. Everything in biology is a dynamic process. Denying history is denying science.

The anthropological perspective

Evolutionary psychologists are quite able to point to a few papers that are credible, interesting, and do the kind of comparative work that puts them in realm of doing real evolutionary science…but they always seem to be not evolutionary psychology, but more firmly grounded in ecological genetics or anthropology. I know! We should listen to some anthropologists! And behold, they’ve already been making anthropological critiques of evo psych.

Bradley Manning Not Guilty Of ‘Aiding The Enemy’

Bradley Manning is facing a whole laundry list of charges, but on the main one of aiding the enemy, Manning has been found not guilty. He’s still going to do a lot of jail time, rather than receiving a medal, though, and that’s another dark blot on American history.

Zinnia Jones has more on Manning the person.

Juan Cole reminds us that Manning was tortured, and compares him to Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian who immolated himself in protest.

Manning, like Bouazizi, is young. He also faced, with all his youth and inexperience and impatience, a political situation that was the result of criminality. Dick Cheney and John Yoo and Karl Rove and George W. Bush were responsible for creating a public image of government lawlessness that encouraged whistle blowing. They went to war against Iraq on false pretenses and in contravention of international law. They themselves tried to leak the identity of Valerie Plame, a covert CIA operative, to the press. They set up Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and Bagram as black torture facilities. They lied repeatedly to the American people (there was no looting in Iraq, no guerrilla war in Iraq, no civil war in Iraq, no torture practiced by the US in Iraq, no more than 30,000 civilian dead in Iraq, no need for more armored vehicles for our troops in Iraq).

The political situation Manning faced was also unyielding. Long after the American public turned against Washington’s Forever Wars, they are still being pursued, and are killing thousands of innocent civilians for war goals that range from the highly unlikely to the utterly phantasmagoric. Manning’s leak was an act of desperation no different in intent from Bouazizi’s self-immolation. He intended to protest, by putting himself on the line. He wrote in chat room, “god knows what happens now — hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms — if not & we’re doomed.” He did not intend to get caught, but he must have known the risks. His was a cyberspace form of self-immolation, a career-ending, decisively life-changing act that, however foolhardy or possibly illegal, was certainly courageous.

Manning is going to jail. Cheney, Yoo, Rove, and Bush walk free.

Knowledge is not a business

This summary of the corruption of higher ed strikes a chord with me.

In their Fall 2012 article in Dissent, Aaron Bady and Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal reveal what higher education used to mean and how it was systematically destroyed. Bady and Konczal transport us to 1950s-’60s California, where bipartisan support for a University of California system built the state into a land of prosperity and innovation, a burgeoning middle class sent its children to college for free, and progressive Republicans happily funded education to support inclusion and social mobility for California’s next generation. In 1960, the Donahoe Act, or the Master Plan for Higher Education, represented California’s commitment to educate anyone who wanted to be educated. Despite the concurrent trends of racism, sexism, and American imperialism that pervaded that era, California’s higher education system was a golden example of what America could achieve.

So what happened? Where did it go? In 1966, Ronald Reagan was elected Governor of California and began dismantling the promising work of the past 20 years. Previously, admission had been free, except for a few relatively small fees, but the Reagan government lifted regulations on how much schools could charge in fees, allowing costs to skyrocket. Also, incentives were created for colleges to accept out-of-state students, who would pay higher fees. Both of these strategies shifted the financial responsibility for higher education onto students rather than the state. The process of culturally redefining higher education as not a right, or a public good, but an investment, subject to the whims of the marketplace and corporate capitalism, had begun.

Oh, also…goddamn you, Ronald Reagan, I wish there were a hell so you’d be burning in it.