Hello, @Timothy_Stanley! I’m tweeting at you!

People are beginning to protest Twitter’s abominable support for speech without responsibility (it’s not “free speech”, let’s call it what it is) in response to recent excesses. When Caroline Criado-Perez campaigned to have famous women represented on banknotes, which sounds like an innocuous and worthwhile effort to make, she was flooded with rape threats and hatred. I suppose it could be a specific detestation of Jane Austen, but more likely it’s simply an aspect of the misogynistic nature of an unfortunately loud part of online culture. And no, I don’t respect the “it’s just a joke” excuse, that pathetic last resort of a common variant of Dunning-Krueger syndrome in which, rather than assuming a competence they don’t have, they believe they actually have a sense of humor because they can get other humorless toads to mistake contempt for jocularity.

But you know what’s as bad as telling women that you’d like to “smash them up the arse” or that women “deserve this type of abuse”? Telling them that Santa Claus God doesn’t exist. Tim Stanley is very upset.

So this gives me an opportunity to flag up a particular kind of abuse that’s annoyed me for a long time: aggressive online atheism. Don’t get me wrong: this is in no way comparable to the terrible sexual abuse that has recently gained headlines.

But that’s not going to stop you from comparing them, Tim!

But it’s still amazing how people feel that they can casually mock the spiritual and emotional convictions of others – including Tweeting directly at believers that God doesn’t exist and they’re either liars or idiots for saying so. One man who does this with gay abandon is Richard Dawkins. Apparently Prof Dawkins is a genius who writes beautifully about chromosomes and cave men. Well, bully for him. But he’s a bully, nonetheless. A recent Tweet that caused a stir: "Don’t ask God to cure cancer & world poverty. He’s too busy finding you a parking space & fixing the weather for your barbecue." Hilarious. Or on Islam: "Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist." Of course, that’s the same New Statesman that invited Dick Dawkins to edit it for a week – so, yeah, its taste is questionable.

That’s the worst you can find, Tim? Really? Those are actually valid points: people do believe in praying to the almighty ruler of the universe for better parking spots or fortuitous weather for their personal entertainment, and they do believe in absurdities like winged horses or transubstantiation or dead gods coming back to life. What you’re asking for is not that people stop bullying you, which they aren’t, but that they close their eyes and pretend that your follies are reasonable and rational.

How dare you?

Those women you are comparing yourself to are asking for safety and respect for their existence as human beings; you are asking that we privilege your idiotic delusions and exempt them from critical thought. You want us to regard your belief in saints and angels and deities as just as much a human right as women’s right to not be raped.

There is no comparison.

You want to silence atheists. That’s the only way to interpret this:

Prof Dawkins is only sending out Tweets rather than Tweeting directly at individuals – which makes him more of a passive aggressive bully than the full on shove-you-head-down-a-toilet variety. But there are plenty of the alpha male atheists around and I’ve had many come knocking at my Twitter feed. I don’t hate them, I don’t want them banned, and they certainly don’t make me want to boycott Twitter. But I would like them, and the Neanderthal Dawkins, to consider the following.

As you admit, Dawkins was not personally harrassing you. He wasn’t addressing anything directly at you — which makes him very easy to ignore. Even the atheists who directly address you*, as I am with this post, are most likely not threatening you with physical abuse, or waging interminable campaigns to hound you off the medium.

You’re also comparing a dismissal of ludicrous religious beliefs with getting your head shoved down a toilet. No, it’s nothing like that. I get told all the time that ideas that I accept and express strongly, such as promoting science and evolution, are not just wrong, but evil — and strangely, confident as I am in the value of science, I always feel that the other guy is repeatedly dunking their head in a toilet of their own making.

But then, I’m not trying to prop up inanity. You are. I can understand you might be a little sensitive about having your affiliations recognized as the foolishness that they are, and you might feel inadequate to actually defend Catholicism or Anglicanism or the Baptist faiths you’ve flitted among…but that’s your failing, not Dawkins’. You aren’t facing an existential or physical threat, you aren’t being intimidated, you aren’t being told that your existence as a human being is in question…you are being challenged intellectually to deal with the implications of ideas that you, by your own words, consider to be essential to your existence.

When you insult my faith you go right to the heart of what makes me me.

Wait, which faith, which you? The you that was brought up Baptist, or the you that converted to Catholicism? If your faith is the heart of who you are, weren’t your religious conversions greater assaults on your identity than Richard Dawkins tweeting something you don’t like?

When you’re trying to convince me in 140 characters of sub-GCSE philosophical abuse that God doesn’t exist, you’re trying to take away the faith that gets me up in the morning, gets me through the day and helps me sleep at night. You’re ridiculing a God without whom I suspect I might not even be alive, and a God that I prayed to when my mother was going through cancer therapy.

I find that ineffably sad. You can’t even get up in the morning without a belief in a nonexistent entity? This will make you envious: atheists get up in the morning and go to sleep at night with no more difficulty than believers. Your god, and even more, belief in your god, are entirely superfluous to functional human existence.

There is no god and never has been, so the fact that you’re alive now again demonstrates the irrelevance of your belief.

When your mother was sick with cancer (my sympathies, that’s a pain I’d wish on no one), was it your prayers or modern medicine that helped her? Before you answer, consider that the experiment has been done: we’ve had thousands of years in which people had nothing but prayer to turn to in response to cancer, no medicine at all, and it didn’t help.

You’re knocking a Church that provides me with compassion and friendship without asking for anything in return – perhaps the greatest, most wonderful discovery of my adult life. You see, people don’t generally believe in God for reasons of convenience or intellectual laziness. It’s usually fulfilling a deep need – filling a soul with love that might otherwise be quite empty and alone. In short, when you try to destroy someone’s faith you’re not being a brilliant logician. You’re being a jerk.

Errm, the church asks nothing in return? There’s no collection plate that gets passed around at your services? How do they pay for their building, maintain the services of priests, and otherwise function?

You’re a Catholic. Have you ever looked at the opulence of the Vatican and wondered where all that material wealth came from?

I’m an atheist. I know that a human being doesn’t need a god to be fulfilled, happy, and productive. So when I see someone trying to destroy another’s faith, I see a helpful act — an effort to remove a parasite that is afflicting a person’s life. It’s a good thing. Think of it as chemotherapy for the soul.

You’d be a better person without that nonsense polluting your brain, Tim. Not necessarily a good person, because there’s still much more to be done than simply shedding superstition to be truly good, but it might help.

If nothing else, it would remove the insecurity of holding stupid ideas, and it might also help you get rid of that very Christian ‘sin’ of self-martyrdom — it’s rather tacky to see women getting threatened with rape and rushing to put up your own personal cross, you know.

*You don’t have to remind me that there are atheists who ar capable of such uncivilized behavior — I’ve been targeted by some myself. If you are the target of such a campaign, then of course you would have legitimate grounds for complaint…but as you know, Richard Dawkins has done no such thing.

Not my best day

I might be cranky today. Little sleep last night — a bad back ache is keeping me groggily awake. And today is the day the custodians shut me out of my lab so they can strip and wax the floors, an extremely annoying yearly ritual.

If you run into me on the street, don’t say hello, I might bite.

Ian Murphy is going to jail…

…for videotaping a policeman and interviewing National Organization for Marriage wackaloons with a dildo. His appeal has been denied so he’s expected to turn himself in to serve the remainder of his sentence…a few weeks.

What has happened to American journalism? A reporter gets arrested for mocking some walking talking dildos with a small plastic version, yet the apologists wanking on the opinion pages of the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal, performing for the pleasures of the bankers and other bloated pigs who’ve been fucking over the country, get off free. As long as we’re arresting journalists, there are a few articles by Friedman and Brooks that are true crimes…and hey, shouldn’t Arianna Huffington be doing hard time for poisoning the left wing press and turning it into a joke?

Shorter Ian Murphy.


What? Something might be worth watching on broadcast television tonight?

Watch Neurotypical – Trailer on PBS. See more from POV.

I checked, it’s on my local PBS channel at 9pm tonight (it’s faring far better than the programs about evolution, which typically get shunted off to 2am). I may have to figure out how to work the tuner on my television again. There are these numbers on the remote…I guess I push them.

Ashley speaks out

Ashley Paramore reveals an absolutely horrible event that happened to her at a con, dealing with it with aplomb.

TAM handled it well, and the youtube commentariat seem mostly stunned — they don’t seem to be able to marshal their usual denials and whines, although there are a few hyperskeptics lurking there. But the person dealing with it best is Ashley herself, making the effort to speak out for everyone who has been put in these ugly situations.

(via Jen.)

But weren’t their brains “pretty much normal”?

Brains develop; they go through a process of change and refinement that is dependent on interactions with the environment. As ought to be obvious, then, brains are going to be exquisitely sensitive to their inputs. This state suggests all kinds of interesting experiments we’d like to perform on human fetuses and infants — except that good scientists also pay heed to ethical constraints. Other social institutions may lack such inhibitions, though, and go out and do the experiments for us: witness the case of Romanian orphanages.

Romania has had orphanages for centuries. But its orphan crisis began in 1965, when the communist Nicolae Ceaușescu took over as the country’s leader. Over the course of his 24-year rule, Ceaușescu deliberately cultivated the orphan population in hopes of creating loyalty to — and dependency on — the state. In 1966, he made abortion illegal for the vast majority of women. He later imposed taxes on families with fewer than five children and even sent out medically trained government agents — ‘The Menstrual Police’ — to examine women who weren’t producing their quota. But Ceaușescu’s draconian economic policies meant that most families were too poor to support multiple children. So, without other options, thousands of parents left their babies in government-run orphanages.

By Christmas day in 1989, when revolutionaries executed Ceaușescu and his wife by firing squad, an estimated 170,000 children were living in more than 700 state orphanages. As the regime crumbled, journalists and humanitarians swept in. In most institutions, children were getting adequate food, hygiene and medical care, but had woefully few interactions with adults, leading to severe behavioural and emotional problems. A handful of orphanages were utterly abhorrent, depriving children of their basic needs. Soon photos of dirty, handicapped orphans lying in their own excrement were showing up in newspapers across the world.

Efforts to correct this situation were hampered by the mythology of the government that the deplorable state of these childrens was not caused by institutionalization, but that the ill, weak, mentally retarded children were placed there because of their prior condition. This wasn’t just an opportunity to explore the effects of early socialization on children’s development, but also an ethical obligation to determine the causes of their problems.

This is how the Bucharest Early Intervention Project was launched, a study that tries to examine how social neglect affects children placed in Romanian state orphanages. The answers were obvious, despite state denials: we’ve known for years, at least since the work on Harlow’s monkeys, that the primate brain needs extensive interaction with responsive and caring conspecifics to mature properly. And that’s what they’re finding: these poor desperate children have been damaged and are suffering thanks to long-term policies of social impoverishment.

What they found was unsurprising: children’s brains can be harmed by growing up in the harrowing setting of a state orphanage (read the full story to get the picture of just how awful these particular orphanages could be):

In the Hilton Hotel in Bucharest, with representatives from several Romanian ministries and the US ambassador in attendance, the researchers reported that, as expected, the 136 children who started in institutions tended to have diminished growth and intellectual ability compared with controls who had never lived outside of a family. But there was a surprising silver lining. Children who had been placed in foster care before the age of two years showed significant gains in IQ, motor skills, and psychological development compared with those who stayed in the orphanages.

Oh, and were their brains “pretty much normal”? Nope. You have to be very careful interpreting MRI data, but they got some dismaying results.

As the children got older, the researchers gave them brain scans (renting out time with a private clinic’s MRI machine, one of only a handful in the country). These scans showed that, at around the age of eight, the children who grew up in institutions have less white matter, the tissue that links up different brain regions, compared with those in foster care. The researchers looked at the children’s genomes, too, and found that those who lived the longest in orphanages tend to have the shortest telomeres, the caps on the end of chromosomes that are related to lifespan.

It’s a depressing story, not just because the fate of these children is so sad, but because the availability of strong scientific data that explains what needs to be done to correct the problem seems to be affecting government social policy very, very slowly or not at all.

That didn’t hurt as much as I thought

Salon has another article on those sexist atheists, and I braced myself for yet another garbage dump — they’ve been on an anti-atheist jag for a while. But this one wasn’t so bad — it actually brought up the issues we’re struggling with in the atheist movement, and made it clear that there is a an effort to correct it, or at least didn’t condemn atheism.

It list 5 real problems we face.

  1. Lack of community support within atheism, which religion is well-practiced at providing. More women are in economic peril and can appreciate the safety net church provides.

  2. Endemic sexism, not just within atheism, but everywhere. And as we’ve been learning, labeling yourself a rationalist and embracing atheism is perfectly compatible with otherwise acting like a privileged pig.

  3. Media bias: the media treat men’s voices as more authoritative than women’s.

  4. This is related to #2, but it’s a common trend in social movements that men gravitate towards taking power.

  5. Fighting against sexism in atheism may take a back seat to fighting against sexual predators, sexual discrimination, or for reproductive rights.

I can agree with that list, and am always happy to accept valid criticisms of the paths we’re taking. Now let’s go fix them.

A classic example of an evolutionary psychologist unable to read

My experience has been that the only way evolutionary psychologists know how to deal with criticism is by flagrant denial.

Recently, I discussed some remarks by PZ Myers, who might be called – though I’m sure he would object – a creationist of the mind. (This term isn’t original with me. Anyone know who coined it?) By this I refer to the view that the theory of evolution by natural selection ought to be used to inform the study of the traits and behaviors of every living thing on the planet except the bits of the human mind that cause behavior, especially social behavior. Again, I’m not saying he’s literally a creationist; I’m saying that there are some who are very comfortable insisting that evolutionary ideas inform biology in all other domains except the human mind.

Ho-hum. I am quite confident that the mind evolved, that it is the product of natural processes, and that it would be profitable to our understanding to explore it scientifically. And I do believe I’ve said it quite a few times.

Does Robert Kurzban understand that there’s more to the theory of evolution than natural selection?

Just when you thought it might be safe to use the elevator again…

Along comes the Playboy ethos.

What strikes me about this kind of advertising is the complete absence of empathy for the woman: she’s a fantasy object, and the man is the one doing all the fantasizing about the woman as a meat puppet. Yeah, it’s advertising targeted specifically for men, but only a certain kind of man: men who don’t like autonomous women.

I hope that’s a shrinking share of the market, but it’s ads like this that help keep it alive.