Sharp lines

Greta asks where you’d draw the line.

Is there any line that someone could cross that would make you unwilling to support them or work with them? Is there any line that someone could cross that would make you not link to their videos, not share their blog posts, not upvote them, not post admiring comments about them in public forums, not buy or promote their books? Will you really support the work of absolutely anyone, regardless of how vile their behavior has been, as long as they say one thing you happen to agree with?

Would you support the work of an avowed racist, who has publicly and unapologetically stated their opinion that black people are not fully human? Would you support the work of an avowed homophobe, who has publicly and unapologetically stated their opinion that LGBT people are mentally ill and should be locked into mental hospitals?

OK, atheists, think about it. Have you been outraged at the Catholic Church’s cover up of pedophiles, criminal behavior in orphanages or hospitals, or been horrified at their inhuman rejection of family planning in the third world? Have you ever thought to yourself that it was unbelievable that people actually remained in the church and even made excuses for that behavior? If you’re saying that all behavior must be tolerated in the name of the Big Tent, if you’ve been arguing that it’s just one little foible but that these cheerful misogynists have done good work otherwise, if you’re reluctant to call out the ugliness because it might besmirch the good name of atheism, go look in a mirror and say hello to the same damn thing as any Catholic apologist.

Atheists already have a PR problem, in that the stereotype is that we’re all amoral, horrible people. The only corrective is to make it clear that we stand for something more than just making fun of god — and everyone knows this. Atheists like to stand up for science (I approve), but some atheists freak out if we also use atheism as a rational justification for equality (I don’t even understand that). Neither science nor atheism dictate what you must do, but they are frameworks for seeing the universe free of the superstitious fog of human delusions, so that human beings can better pursue human virtues. All human beings. Not just the ones in your ethnic group or your socioeconomic class.

About that ‘big tent’ every movement aims to provide…atheism is a small tent. It was worse 15-20 years ago, when I’d attend atheist meetings and find myself the youngest guy there, but still fitting in as a white male academic. It’s definitely gotten better. But honestly, rather than simply expanding the tent, what I see is resistance, defensiveness, and a hardening of sexist and racist attitudes. And further, I see movement leaders acquiescing or glossing over these flaws because they fear antagonizing people already under the tent, rather than seeing that these same reactionary neophobes (or worse, disruptive trolls) are a major hindrance to further growth. And you have to be willing to adapt.

When you a non-white or non-male person joins your movement, like Sikivu Hutchinson, or Rebecca Watson, or Anthony Pinn, or Heina Dadabhoy, or Jamila Bey, or when LGBTQ atheists like Zinnia Jones or Chris Stedman join, they are not there to bring you cookies. They are not there to reassure you that straight white men are A-OK in their book. They are not there to allow you to check off an entry in your diversity bucket list. They are there to represent their interests, to criticize, to shape the movement to better fill the needs of more diverse people. You can disagree and criticize right back, because that’s what atheists do, but you must take them seriously, and you must try to change yourself, because that’s the only way we can grow this movement.

That’s our choice. We can either make atheism mean something, with substantial ideas that improve people’s lives — and science is one thing that does, but is only going to appeal to a niche audience — or we can fade out and die away, like any of the other tightly focused movements that sprang up in this land of a thousand religions and a thousand self-help movements. Diversify or die. Adaptation or extinction. Your choice.

I’m not making the choice that says we ignore the hidebound dogmatists and stiflingly loud haters in our midst. I’ve got lines that I won’t cross.

So is that the new plan, Israel?

I’m now even more disgusted. Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University made a statement about the ‘realities’ of their conflict.

“You have to understand the culture in which we live,” said Kedar. “The only thing that deters [Hamas leaders] is a threat to the connection between their heads and their shoulders.” When presenter Yossi Hadar asked if that “could filter down” the organization’s ranks, Kedar replied: “No, because lower down the considerations are entirely different. Terrorists like those who kidnapped the children and killed them — the only thing that deters them is if they know that their sister or their mother will be raped in the event that they are caught. What can you do, that’s the culture in which we live.”

When Hadar said, “We can’t take such steps, of course,” Kedar continued: “I’m not talking about what we should or shouldn’t do. I’m talking about the facts. The only thing that deters a suicide bomber is the knowledge that if he pulls the trigger or blows himself up, his sister will be raped. That’s all. That’s the only thing that will bring him back home, in order to preserve his sister’s honor.”

He isn’t actually saying they should start raping Palestinian women, but he just threw it out there as the only way to stop suicide bombers. It’s an actively evil proposition, and it doesn’t even make sense. Would raping their mothers and sisters suddenly reconcile Palestinians to Israeli occupation and oppression? There’s not much knowledge of human behavior there.

We need to ban Minnesotans

Clearly, residents of this state are the problem. Look what this wretched Minnesotan did.

A Minnesota man who admitted shooting a 17-year-old girl multiple times because she asked him to stop trespassing on his riding lawnmower has been charged with attempted first-degree murder.

According to a criminal complaint obtained by The Associated Press, 40-year-old Chad Pickering shot the 17-year-old girl in the chest, right thigh and left ankle while she was standing on the deck of her Bemidji home on Monday night.

“The victim herself was able to describe what had happened and talk to us and tell us that she’d simply been shot when she stepped out of her house to check on her dogs,” Sheriff Phil Hodapp explained to WCCO.

The teen told investigators that she had asked Pickering not to ride his lawnmower through her yard. She also said that he often carried a pistol with him on the lawnmower.

That’s just the way Minnesotans are…

Oh, wait. Wrong word. Not Minnesotans, but rather assholes with guns.

Is Ted Nugent still a darling of the Republican party?

I knew Ted Nugent was a nasty piece of work, but this…can he possibly be a bit more blatantly racist? He’s had a couple of shows cancelled at Indian casinos — first by the Coeur d’Alene tribe in Idaho, and most recently by the Puyallups in Washington — and I guess it made Nugent a mite testy.

“The Coeur d’Alene Tribe has always been about human rights — for decades, we have worked individually and as a Tribe to make sure that each and every person is treated equally and with respect and dignity,” said a statement from the tribe.

A spokesperson for the casino said that the company didn’t want to provide a platform for the “racist attitudes and views that Ted Nugent espouses.”

Nugent responded to the cancelation by calling the Coeur d’Alene Tribe unclean vermin.

By all indicators, I don’t think they actually qualify as people, but there has always been a lunatic fringe of hateful, rotten, dishonest people that hate happy, successful people, he continued. I believe raising hell and demanding accountability from our elected employees is Job One for every American. I am simply doing my job.

Brilliant: fired for racist remarks, so he calls the whole tribe “vermin” and questioning their status as humans, perfectly confirming the accusation.

A nice quote from Harry Harrison

Via Daz:

Stated very simply, I face reality and admit that not only isn’t there anyone at home upstairs, there isn’t even any upstairs. I have one life and I intend to make the most of it. Therefore it follows naturally that if I firmly believe this, why then I cannot deprive another person of their turn at existence. Only the very self-assured political and religious zealots kill people in order to save them.

It takes a real shallow thinker to claim that atheism has no consequences. It actually says that there is no escaping the consequences — you aren’t going to get a lollipop in heaven if you say the right words on your deathbed. You have one life and you have to live with it, and then you die, and there are no take-backs or resurrections or rewards or punishments.

Ouch, anti-feminists, you made me sad

The latest noise the MRAs have been pouring into my mailbox has actually been effective in their goals: I find it very depressing. If your intent is to fill me with despair, you win!

First, some background. Y’all have heard of Cathy Young, right? She’s one of those anti-feminists who claims to be a True Feminist™, like Christina Hoff Summers. She’s one of those people who seems to hate the idea of consent, and spends most of her time writing about evil, man-hating feminists — she’s one of the sources of mischaracterization of feminism, of the sort that misogynists love to regurgitate.

Barry Deutsch takes her to task on her weird definitions of feminism.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines an anti-feminist as “One opposed to women or to feminism.” Cathy doesn’t oppose women, but you’d have to impossibly distort her work to argue that she doesn’t oppose feminism; virtually all her writings on feminism are attacks on feminists and feminism. The OED offers a second definition: “a person (usu. a man) who is hostile to sexual equality or to the advocacy of women’s rights.” Cathy isn’t hostile to equality (and she’s not a man!), but her writing clearly is “hostile to… the advocacy of women’s rights.” She thinks women already have virtually all the rights they need, and therefore further advocacy is unnecessary.

In the introduction to her book Ceasefire!, Cathy concedes that in one area – the family/work balance – women might still have a legitimate complaint. But virtually all other concerns that justify a “case for continued feminist activism,” she dismisses as illegitimate. There’s a big difference between criticizing some feminist views, and denying that there’s a legitimate need for a women’s movement at all. How can anyone who doesn’t see a need for a movement for women’s equality, be a feminist?

Deutsch also wonders about this myth of man-hating feminism, which Young tends to favor.

But this brings up something I’ve wondered about for quite a while. When I read MRAs, as well as “conservative feminists” like Christina Hoff Sommers, a narrative history of feminism tends to emerge, which goes something like this: Once upon a time there were the suffragettes, who were libertarian or conservative and they were Good. Then came the second wave feminists in the 60s and 70s, who fought for equal pay and the like, and they were Good. But in the 1980s came the Evil “gender feminists” or “victim feminists,” who turned feminism into man-hating victimology, and feminism has been Bad ever since.

But curiously enough, when reading Sommers and others, it quickly becomes apparent that most of their examples are from 60s and 70s feminism. And so Sommers makes a big deal of the word “ovulars,” a term from the 1960s that no one but Sommers herself uses nowadays. Dworkin, Young’s example, peaked in influence and prominence in the 70s, became a hugely controversial figure within feminism in the 80s, and pretty much faded from prominence after that. Most of the feminists I see quoted as proof of how awful and man-hating feminists are (Robin Morgan, Germaine Greer , Marilyn French, etc) came into prominence in the 60s and 70s.

Are we all up to speed, then? If you’ve ever heard MRAs pontificate sagely about how they are “equity feminists” but not “gender feminists”, terms that Sommers popularized, or accuse feminists of hating men, or of being professional victims, you’ve been hearing the echoes of conservative anti-feminists like Cathy Young. Their claims are nonsense, but they resonate well with the men who like their sexism endorsed.

That’s familiar. It’s a bit sad. But here’s the article I find most discouraging, an old review of one of Cathy Young’s books…a very positive review.

"Girls are not silenced or ignored in the classroom," Young writes. "Medicine has not neglected women’s health. Abuse by men is not the leading cause of injury to American women; the courts do not treat violence toward women more leniently than violence toward men. Gender disparities in pay and job status are not merely a consequence of sex discrimination. The ’80s were not a "backlash decade’ but a time of steady progress for women and, generally, of strong support for women’s advancement."

Young spends much of the book proving these assertions in a way that makes you want to cheer aloud. Finally someone has shed light (and reality) on all those bogus and overstated women-as-victims-of-patriarchy claims.

One just has to sigh at the misrepresentations and dishonesty. But this is what really gives me little hope: that article is by Robyn A. Blumner. This Robyn Blumner.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science U.S. today announced that Robyn Blumner has been named Executive Director, effective February 5, 2014. Blumner will replace the interim Director, Edwina Rogers, who also serves as the Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America. 

Blumner is a longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Tampa Bay Times in Florida. She has an extensive background as a public advocate for church-state separation, the rights of atheists and other nontheists, a spectrum of civil liberties and civil rights causes, economic and racial justice and other progressive causes. Her nonprofit experience includes having led two statewide affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I am delighted to have Robyn Blumner leading the Foundation in the U.S,” said Richard Dawkins. “Her published writings show her to be a strong, unapologetic atheist with the vision to pursue the imaginative aims of the Foundation, while her legal background and non-profit experience equip her to put them into practice.”

You win, MRAs, misogynists, and other pig-like beings, you win. I’m going to curl up in a corner somewhere and weep for a while. Go celebrate.

But I’ll feel better later, and get back to fighting.

Democrat behaving badly

The appointed Democratic senator from Montana, John Walsh, has a master’s degree from the United States Army War College. But does he deserve it?

An examination of the 14-page paper, titled “The Case for Democracy as a Long Term National Strategy” and posted online by The Times, revealed that about a third of Mr. Walsh’s 2007 paper consisted of verbatim language and extremely similar passages to other sources, without any kind of attribution.

“Another third is attributed to sources through footnotes but uses other authors’ exact — or almost exact — language without quotation marks,” The Times said.

That first clause made me pause…you can get a master’s by writing a 14-page paper? My undergraduate students write far more than that every semester. Thanks, War College, for cheapening the value of a degree so much!

Even if two thirds of the essay weren’t plagiarized (really, he wrote about 4½ pages to get his degree?), I’d say that isn’t graduate level work.

The squirreliest thing I’ve seen all day

The NRA is just plain nuts.

This guy starts out by telling us how the government sets education policy, access to public parks, labor policies to protect minorities, and then springs his case on us: we should treat guns the same way. We need guns. We ought to treat them like food, shelter, education, and voting — wonderful things that the government ought to subsidize. So later he even suggests that the government ought to provide free shooting ranges, and a yearly allotment of free ammunition.

Further, progress through the school system ought to require gun training. Why? Because we need guns.

No, we don’t. We need jobs, we need shelter, we need education, we need food, we need clean water, but hell no, we don’t need guns. He says that our gun policy is designed around the assumption that we need to protect people from guns, that guns are bad or dangerous…exactly right. I want to be protected from guns. I’d rather not have to worry about some freak with an automatic rifle when I walk to the grocery store; guns are bad, since they’re tools for killing people; and oh man, guns are dangerous.

But this fool says, What if instead of gun-free zones, we had gun-required zones. No thank you.

He also says,

Sound crazy? Think about it.

OK. I thought about it. It’s utterly insane. The NRA is a festering cesspool of batshit lunacy.

They don’t understand allometry!

I think the engineers are just trying to wind me up, again. Joe Felsenstein tackles a paper published in an applied physics journal that redefines evolution and tries to claim that changes in aircraft design are a good model for evolution. It’s a terrible premise, but also, the execution is awful.

But permit me a curmudgeonly point: This paper would have been rejected in any evolutionary biology journal. Most of its central citations to biological allometry are to 1980s papers on allometry that failed to take the the phylogeny of the organisms into account. The points plotted in those old papers are thus not independently sampled, a requirement of the statistics used. (More precisely, their error residuals are correlated). Furthermore, cultural artifacts such as airplanes do not necessarily have a phylogeny, as they can borrow features from each other in massive “horizontal meme transfer”. In either case, phylogeny or genealogical network, statistical analysis requires us to understand whether the points plotted are independent.

The paper has impressive graphs that seem to show trends. But looking more closely we notice that neither axis is actually time. If I interpreted the graphs as trends, I would conclude that birds are getting bigger and bigger, and that nobody is introducing new models of small airplanes.

And they really do redefine evolution.

Evolution means a flow organization (design) that changes over time.

I’m going to redefine bridge construction as gluing together lots of matchsticks. Hire me, everyone, to help fix your infrastructure problems! I can probably underbid everyone!

But it’s just kind of amazing that they’ve defined evolution without any mention of populations or shifting allele frequencies or any of the processes (which don’t include design) that lead to changes in genotype, or even a recognition of how these processes derive from a core unity and lead to diversity. Design done did it.

My big gripe is that they got this paper published that is all about allometry with scarcely any understanding of the concept. Here’s the abstract of The evolution of airplanes.

The prevailing view is that we cannot witness biological evolution because it occurred on a time scale immensely greater than our lifetime. Here, we show that we can witness evolution in our lifetime by watching the evolution of the flying human-and-machine species: the airplane. We document this evolution, and we also predict it based on a physics principle: the constructal law. We show that the airplanes must obey theoretical allometric rules that unite them with the birds and other animals. For example, the larger airplanes are faster, more efficient as vehicles, and have greater range. The engine mass is proportional to the body size: this scaling is analogous to animal design, where the mass of the motive organs (muscle, heart, lung) is proportional to the body size. Large or small, airplanes exhibit a proportionality between wing span and fuselage length, and between fuel load and body size. The animal-design counterparts of these features are evident. The view that emerges is that the evolution phenomenon is broader than biological evolution. The evolution of technology, river basins, and animal design is one phenomenon, and it belongs in physics.

Isn’t it cute how they claim biology as a small subset of physics? Blech.

But they only address a very narrow part of allometry. There is a functional constraint on form: you won’t survive if you have a human-sized body and a mouse-sized heart; if you scale the diameter of your legs linearly with your height, you won’t be able to walk; for a given metabolic rate and mass, you need a certain amount of respiratory surface area. That’s interesting stuff to a physiologist, but it’s also purely defined by necessity.

A developmental biologist might be more interested in how the relative sizes of different body parts change over time. Again, relative growth rates of different parts of your body are not linearly related; imagine being six feet tall with the same proportions as a baby. There are regulatory constraints on development that impose different rates in different areas.

But these guys are talking about evolution and allometry…and they treat it as a simple function of physics, where you need an engine of size X to propel a plane of size Y. Then how come every animal of the same size don’t look identical? Why doesn’t every passenger plane that carries a certain number of customers look the same (well, they do kind of blur together for me, but I’m sure any aerospace aficionado can tell me about all the differences between Boeing and Airbus. But many of these differences in animals are a result of inherited patterns, and phylogeny is essential to understand them.

For example, here’s a plot of brain mass relative to body mass (yeah, ugh, “lower” and “higher” vertebrates; let’s call them anamniotes and amniotes instead).

eq

Notice that there are two lines drawn. Both show an upward trend, with a slope that’s proportional to the 2/3 power of the body size (that N2/3 shows up a lot in allometric growth plots). But given a fish (an anamniote, or “lower” vertebrate) and a mammal (an amniote, or “higher”) of exactly the same body mass, the mammal will have a relatively and absolutely much larger brain.

Explain that, engineer, with nothing but algebra and no concern about phylogenetic relationships. It takes more to understand evolution than physics alone, and you have to take into account history, environment, inherited properties, selection, and chance as important parameters.

Oh, well, I’ve learned that physics must be really simple. I can design a plane from the ground up if I simply postulate a spherical 747. Ha ha, all those fools getting engineering degrees when they could just bring in a clever biologist to solve all their trivial little problems.