Very blue

Sam Harris has recently taken it upon himself to write a speech for Hillary to give, apparently to reassure the neo-cons that she will be sufficiently aggressive in the Middle East to satisfy their blood-thirst. I already think Clinton is too militaristic, so adding Harris’s odious ideas to the mix would make her even more right wing than I can stand. Perhaps David Duke will next write a speech for her on appropriate race relations?

Iris has edited and made additions to his speech to make it a little more humane and sensible (hey, if he is arrogant enough to tell Hillary Clinton what to say, turnabout is fair play). All of her changes and additions are in blue.

It sure takes a lot of blue ink to make Harris palatable. How about if we skip the middle man and make Iris Clinton’s official speechwriter?

Right and wrong

Trav Mamone listened to that debate with David Smalley, and thinks we both made good points. Of course we did! I agree with Smalley on a lot of things, even a majority of things.

Now maybe I’m being too nicey-nice, but I think both Smalley and Myers made valid points. I used to be all “If you disagree with me, I want nothing to do with you,” but the more involved get with the atheist movement, the more I realize we’re a pretty complex group of people. We all have our blind spots, so it’s not unusual for two skeptics to look at the same piece of empirical data and come up with two completely different interpretations. For example, Smalley once said he thought Black Lives Matter protesters blocking the road was “going too far,” but Alix Jules explained to him why that wasn’t the case. At least they had that conversation so that Smalley could understand where Jules was coming from.

He’s quite right that there’s a lot of bickering and misunderstanding going on within atheism. He’s also right that a lot of it can be smoothed over with calm, rational discussion between the two who are in disagreement. I have no problem with any of that. But there are a number of things where I do disagree strongly, and I’m not going to paper those over to be popular and friendly. Here’s where I still think Smalley is dead wrong.

  • Petty disagreements are not killing atheism. This is the human condition. We squabble over everything. Gather a small group of people together to discuss anything, from how to share out chores in the apartment to running the country, and you’ll find arguments and jockeying for advantage and people getting snubbed and others storming out in a huff. It’s routine and to be expected. If you aren’t prepared to focus on the larger goal, and get distracted by the small stuff, you won’t be effective.

    I won’t deny that people get pissed off and do horrible things like “unfriend” each other on Facebook, but to make that the big crisis in atheism when it is only the common small drama of social networking is a mistake, especially not when there are huge, substantial problems that are generating deep divides.

  • What is petty to you might loom large in the mind of someone else. There is a kind of arrogance to seeing two other people fight on social media and deciding that their disagreements are trivial and you, the wise social arbiter, will explain to them that they agree on 98% of everything else, so their dispute is unimportant. We all have ideas that we regard as central to our identity, and no one else gets to deny that. The fact that all human beings breathe the same air 24 hours a day, and that we all have this common requirement, does not negate the fact that I might like peas and broccoli, while you don’t, and doesn’t give me the right to declare that your preferences are unimportant and you had better just set aside your distaste and clear your plate. We share a love of oxygen, how can you not share all of my tastes with me?

  • Making it personal rather than public buries the disagreement. I’ve been around this rodeo too many times, and have heard this as a panacea far too often. “Don’t argue publicly, pick up the phone and call them!” No. There is a small number of people I might enjoy having a phone conversation with on a disagreement, but not many. I would especially not appreciate a phone call with the intent to forestall public expression of disagreement.

    It’s also an overt attempt to convert disagreement over an idea into a personal disagreement with a person. Telling me I can resolve a disagreement by just having a quiet conversation with one person ignores the fact that maybe my concern isn’t with who said it, but that I find the whole expressed concept repugnant.

  • No one does what Smalley suggests! This really irritates the pragmatist in me. I am the target of a lot of hate — in fact, the comments on Smalley’s podcast are largely expressions of frustration and irritation with me — and would you be surprised to learn that none of them have called me up or even emailed me to ask what I was thinking, or to chat one-on-one about our shared humanity? Not one! They just go ahead and publicly express their disagreement without consulting me!

    This is a good thing. I’m trying to imagine the nightmare world that would occur if every Youtube commenter felt a moral obligation to ring me up and have a heartfelt conversation with me before they posted their declaration that I was a cuck fag.

  • Sometimes, reconciliation is not a desirable goal. I do not really want to sit down over a beer with a racist or a homophobe. Nope, sometimes you just have to say “Your values are opposed to my values, and I do not want to associate with you.” I am also uninterested in accomplishing minor concessions. I’ve gone ’round and ’round with creationists, for instance, and you can sometimes get them to admit one argument is bad. Here for instance, is Creationist Ministries International’s page on creationist arguments that creationists should not use. Don’t use the “Darwin recanted on his deathbed” claim, for example; even Answers in Genesis says to avoid the “why are there still monkeys?” argument. These are tactical retreats, nothing more. They have not changed their core values at all, but are merely conceding that these few arguments are not effective in advancing their position.

    So when Smalley triumphantly points out that he got a homophobe to admit that one piece of “evidence” was incorrect, I am unimpressed. Maybe if you could get one person to do that a thousand times, it would lead them to question their underlying assumptions, but I’ve yet to see it happen. I have many times gotten creationists to grudgingly give up on specific lies, but still insist that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

  • One weird minor issue: a lot of the comments focus on just one thing. Myers said that that photo of Ellen riding Usain Bolt was racist! How dare he?

    This is also something I’ve seen way too much of. We white people are really good at getting indignant over being called racist, but racism itself? Meh, not as important a problem. Get over it, people! We’re all racist, we all profit from racist policies and our racist history, so the least you can do is be a tiny bit conscious of the implicit (and often overt) racism we’re swimming in.

Here’s the deal. If you’re going to talk about what’s killing atheism, you better be prepared to give substantial reasons, and not fall back on a lot of decade-old debunked nonsense (the only thing he was missing is “you’re doing it for the clicks!”), and the core of your argument better not be something as superficial as “we’re not polite enough to each other”, a claim that could be made for every movement and organization in the history of humankind.

I myself have argued that atheism has serious structural problems. It’s even a highlighted quote on Conservapædia!

The atheist PZ Myers declared on September 27, 2014, “I will make a prediction, right here and now…. The number of people identifying as atheists will stagnate or even shrink…“[

So gord knows, it’s not as if I’m upset that someone has pointed out a problem in the movement. What bugs me is that the concern is so irrelevant and displaces activism to correct the real problems.

If you’re wondering about the context of that quote on Conservapædia, here’s the original full post. What I find interesting is that it’s another example of the Strategic Ellipsis, that habit of creationists of snipping out the bits of a quote that directly oppose their views.

I will make a prediction, right here and now. The number of people identifying as “nones” will grow in this country in coming years, because we’re on the right side of history, and because organized religion is happily in the process of destroying itself with regressive social attitudes, scandals, and their bizarre focus on other-worldly issues that don’t help people. The number of people identifying as atheists will stagnate or even shrink, because organized atheism is happily in the process of destroying itself with regressive social attitudes, scandals, and their bizarre focus on irrelevant metaphysical differences that don’t help people.

I can’t say that’s a bad thing. The name of atheism has been burdened with unfair and inaccurate stigma for a great many years, and we’re now drifting into an era in which atheism will be burdened with a totally fair and accurate stigma.

But don’t worry! David Smalley will make sure we’re polite and sociable about our problems, as we sink into irrelevancy.

Now it’s the entomologists, too?

This story is so stale I ought to just scribble up some boilerplate and change the name of the discipline every time a new case comes to light. Now it’s an entomology professor behaving badly.

In February, two months after being charged with sexual assault and harassment against two students in his department, James Harwood resigned from his position as an associate professor of entomology without stated cause.

According to 122 pages of investigation documents that were leaked to the student paper, the independently run Kentucky Kernel, Harwood violated school sexual assault policies by “fondling” the two students at two conferences in 2012 and 2013. He was also found to have sexually harassed the students in each case. Three other students did not file formal complaints but testified to the investigator about other alleged incidents of sexual misconduct as recently as 2015.

In a completely expected twist, the University of Kentucky has also been working to keep the information about James Harwood quiet.

The investigation, which concluded in December, was initially kept secret. The investigator recommended that Harwood’s “employment with the University be terminated and his tenure as a faculty member be revoked.” But Harwood’s subsequent agreement with the university allowed him to resign instead of going through the lengthy process of a disciplinary hearing. This also means that the investigation won’t be disclosed if he applies to new jobs.

Well, so much for keeping his harassment history under wraps — now everyone knows. And that’s good.

So they might as well drop the lawsuit against their own student newspaper, right?

Even Rush Limbaugh is aware that people are laughing at him

His latest conspiracy theory: the Left is infiltrating farming with lesbians. I know, that’s ridiculous, and I must be getting this from one of those fake news sites, or the Onion, or something. So I had to triple and quadruple and septuple check that this wasn’t some made-up story. But I knew it had to be true when that unimpeachable source, World Net Daily, confirmed it. Here’s a bit from his radio program.

You sit in there and laugh. Okay, go ahead and laugh at it, but I’m telling you what they’re doing. They are trying to bust up one of the last geographically conservative regions in the country; that’s rural America. Rural America happens to be largely conservative. Rural America is made up of self-reliant, rugged individualist types. They happen to be big believers in the Second Amendment. So here comes the Obama Regime with a bunch of federal money and they’re waving it around, and all you gotta do to get it is be a lesbian and want to be a farmer and they’ll set you up. I’m like you; I never before in my life knew that lesbians wanted to be farmers. I never knew that lesbians wanted to get behind the horse and the plow and start burrowing.

Horse and plow? Burrowing? The lesbian farmers are all looking at you funny for just that, Rush.

I have some information for Rush: Lesbians are people. Some of them might want to farm. Some of them live in rural America. Some of them might want to be scientists, or zookeepers, or bankers, or mothers.

Also, it’s not nice to assume that everyone in rural America is as bigoted as you are, Rush.

A low standard for miracles

Lyle Jeffs, of the infamous polygamous Jeffs clan, has disappeared from house arrest. His lawyer has an explanation.

As this Court is well aware, Mr. Jeffs is currently not available to inform his counsel whether or not he agrees to the Continuance, she wrote. Whether his absence is based on absconding, as oft alleged by the Government in their filings, or whether he was taken and secreted against his will, or whether he experienced the miracle of rapture is unknown to counsel.

I’ve got to remember this excuse.

“Hello, officer. Oh, a bank was robbed in town? How sad.”

“That big pile of money I was rolling around in? No, that’s not from the bank. That was immanentized into existence by the divine will of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. He loves me very much.”

“Yes, my face might be on the security cameras, but that’s because the FSM is such a jolly prankster — He probably put it there for a laugh.”

“Bye! Hope you catch the robber!”

At least now I’ve got the name of a lawyer, Kathryn Nester, who will be happy to back up my defense.

Everyone loves Volvox

This past weekend, I was off at Lake Itasca with a group of new biology students, and one of the things they did was collect plankton and bring them back to the lab where we took micrographs of what they found — lots of algae and crustaceans and rotifers, etc., etc. But we also saw some colonial protists, and one of the things I saw the students excitedly discuss was Volvox. It’s always nice when I can just sit down and shut up and the students are enthusiastically explaining to each other how biology works.

So, anyway, I think I know a few more people who are in the market for the swag mentioned by Matthew Herron.


What Zika does to fetal brains

It’s not pretty. The NY Times has published images of babies born with Zika-induced microcephaly, and whoa, but that virus really does a number on the developing cortex. Scientists are beginning to figure out how it’s disrupting development, and now there’s concern that even superficially unaffected children might have late-occurring deficits.

Dr. Levine said the images suggest that Zika is like a formidable enemy able to do damage in three ways: keeping parts of the brain from forming normally, obstructing areas of the brain, and destroying parts of the brain after they form.

With such a vicious and unpredictable virus, “it’s key to realize that Zika is more than microcephaly, that there’s a number of other abnormalities as they’ve shown in this paper, and its effects are going to be even more broad,” said Dr. Spong, whose agency has begun a study of what will ultimately be 10,000 babies born in Zika epidemic areas including Brazil and Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, here in the US, our useless congress is frozen in stupidity, unable to act. Why? Because this problem requires management and screening by family planning groups, and all the Republicans can see is that funding rational responses to Zika will require the assistance of organizations like Planned Parenthood, and that one of the necessary options for affected women should be termination of the pregnancy. The research in Brazil is, in part, trying to find unambiguous criteria for diagnosing affected fetuses in utero, to eliminate false positives and to allow families to respond appropriately to the afflictions.

But we’ve got nitwits like Marco Rubio here.

Obviously, microcephaly is a terrible prenatal condition that kids are born with. And when they are, it’s a lifetime of difficulties. So I get it.

I’m not pretending to you that that’s an easy question you asked me. But I’m pro-life. And I’m strongly pro-life. I believe all human life should be protected by our law, irrespective of the circumstances or condition of that life.

No, it is an easy question. When you’ve got a fetus with a brain that’s been destroyed by a virus, you give the woman you plan to burden with the responsibility of caring it for the rest of its broken, diminished “life” the choice of what to do.

Some women will find that choice difficult, and I can respect that; others will find it easy. What’s wrong is that Rubio has to struggle with the question of whether women should have autonomy.