Gotta disagree with you here, thunderf00t

Hi, thunderf00t. I understand that you see Freethought Blogs as unrepresentative of the wider skeptical community in terms of its views on the problem of sexism in said community. That could indeed be the case, by whatever definition you use for FTB and the community at large (who’s included? who’s excluded? are we only counting the bloggers themselves, or also the commenters? and so on) and methods you use to quantify their stances on a given issue. But I don’t think your latest YouTube-based survey succeeds in demonstrating this.

You asked your YouTube subscribers whether they agree more with your initial post on sexual harassment, or with PZ Myers’ response, and requested that they rank their position on the question from 0 to 10 – 0 for full agreement with PZ, and 10 for full agreement with you. Out of 127 respondents, most agreed with you strongly. You took this as evidence that the views of Freethought Blogs in general are “widely unrepresentative of the wider rationalist community” on the issue of sexism.

I don’t believe the results of your poll are actually evidence of that. You claimed that “this puts FTB on a trajectory to be more of a fringe group that is intolerant of non-conformity”. However, the respondents to your video were a self-selected sample. The people who watch your videos tend to be… people who watch your videos. And out of those people, the ones who responded are the ones who take the time to listen all the way through your videos, and decided to leave a comment. This can be expected to skew toward agreement with you.

I would expect similar results in my favor if I polled my subscribers on whether they agreed more with me, or with someone I was currently having a dispute with. My viewers choose to watch my videos because they tend to agree with me, and this would be reflected in the results. While I certainly expect that my viewers are all perfectly rational and able to consider any issue fairly, accurately and even-handedly, this obviously isn’t always the case in reality. I assume the same holds true for your viewers as well.

While your survey does show that some people dissent from PZ’s stance on the issue, this doesn’t actually mean that his views are unrepresentative of the wider skeptical community. It’s possible that they could be, but your poll isn’t particularly strong evidence of this. It also doesn’t mean that the views of your respondents are representative of the skeptical community. FTB could be “fringe” in terms of its collective stance on the issue, but so could your respondents. Your survey doesn’t give us reason to think either of these possibilities is more likely than the other, because there are no grounds to assume that your viewers are representative of the community as a whole, however you choose to define it. And your policy that “The thunderf00t channel is essentially a 100 % free speech zone, with no conformational bias due to blocking/ banning people”, though admirable (and one I share), is simply not enough to ensure this. Even if PZ’s views “are widely unrepresentative of the wider rationalist community”, your latest post doesn’t show this.

Having a live show tonight at 11 PM Eastern

Heather and I will be on BlogTV tonight at 11 PM Eastern time to discuss current events and hang out with our readers for a while. If you haven’t been to BlogTV before, it’s essentially a live stream with a chatroom attached. It tends to be great fun. If you’d like to come see us, you can go to http://www.blogtv.com/people/zjemptv and check it out!

Update: Our show is now concluded. Thanks to the 500+ people who stopped by!

Actually, the recognition of circumcision as child abuse is a long-overdue ethical insight

Following a German court’s ruling that the circumcision of male infants constitutes a violation of child’s right to bodily integrity, The Telegraph’s Brendan O’Neill has mounted a particularly vacuous defense of the practice. As he sees it, “The rebranding of circumcision as ‘child abuse’ echoes the ugly anti-Semitism of medieval Europe” – yet he somehow finds a way to blame this on atheists:

There are many bad things about the modern atheistic assault on religion. But perhaps the worst thing is its rebranding of certain religious practices as “child abuse”. Everything from sending your kid to a Catholic school to having your baby boy circumcised has been redefined by anti-religious campaigners as “abuse”.

Let’s just take a moment to contemplate how remarkable it is that someone can make the entirely fact-free assertion that atheists are “assaulting” religion and that this is a bad thing, and have it published in a major newspaper. As far as introductions go, this has all the grace and composure of a 6th grader’s five-paragraph essay on current events. Apparently this modern atheistic assault on religion has become so extreme that the only other example of it he can find is the occasional labeling of a religious upbringing as “child abuse” – a rhetorical flourish that’s less of a serious accusation, and more of a way to raise questions about the ethics of forcing narrow and rigid dogma on young people. And O’Neill considers this particular offense among “the worst” committed by atheists. Clearly the situation is much more grave than we thought.

Regardless, his distaste for the so-called “New Atheists” has no bearing whatsoever on the ethical status of infant male circumcision. Whatever “anti-religious campaigners” have called it, this doesn’t change whether it’s actually right or wrong. It’s disingenuous for O’Neill to treat this situation as little more than a chance to express his personal grudge against atheists. What few arguments he has for allowing circumcision are unconvincing, if not outright incoherent:

This is an alarming attack on freedom of religion and on parents’ rights to initiate their children into their faith. The court case centred around a four-year-old Muslim boy who was given a very bad circumcision, but the precedent set by the case will of course affect Jews as well as Muslims. And as Germany’s Central Council of Jews rightly said, the court’s ruling is “an egregious and insensitive measure”, which represents “an unprecedented and dramatic intervention in religious communities’ right of determination”.

How can “freedom of religion” possibly be construed to extend so far that it allows religious people to remove parts of other people’s bodies without their consent and for no medical reason? Tattooing results in even less impairment than removal of the foreskin, yet parents who apply tattoos to their children have often faced charges. Are we to believe that the mere fact that some people might believe something as part of their religion is enough to make this completely acceptable? And if so, what are the limits to this?

When religion is used to justify something that would otherwise be considered wholly unacceptable, it’s nothing but an excuse for the inexcusable. Treating religion as the only reason you need to remove body parts from others is really no reason at all beyond “we want to”. How could someone else’s religion be so important that it makes this okay?

And how exactly does circumcision function to “initiate their children into their faith”? Having your foreskin removed is not something that automatically initiates you into any religion. It’s not like cutting it off implants some kind of permanent Judaism/Islam module in the child’s brain – otherwise there would be a lot more Jewish Muslims in America. Nor is circumcision practiced exclusively by religious people or as a way to mark a child as a member of a religion.

Such a doctrine is utterly ignorant anyway, because the presence or absence of a foreskin has no relation to what someone professes to believe (and reducing a person to nothing but a vector for your preferred ideology is intensely disrespectful of their agency). When you leave the religion that was responsible for your circumcision, that part doesn’t grow back! It’s asinine to focus on the importance of freedom of religion, while not caring at all about the freedom not to have parts of your genitals removed at will by others – especially when you’ve just argued that the state of the foreskin is a part of religious identification and expression. If it’s really that important, then what about the child’s freedom of religion?

Oh, but it doesn’t end there:

But in truth it echoes centuries’ worth of nasty anti-circumcision posturing by people who hate certain religious faiths. In Medieval Europe, as pointed out in the book The Covenant of Circumcision, Jew-baiters often depicted circumcision as “cruel and grotesque”. The “barbarous and cruel Jews” were slated for callously snipping off their own boys’ foreskins and for secretly desiring to do the same to Christian boys, too. These “merciless” creatures were described by one English writer as “foreskinne-clippers”. The modern atheist’s description of circumcision as “child abuse”, though used to attack both Jewish and Muslim communities, is only an updated, more PC version of the old anti-Semites’ description of it as “cruel and grotesque”.

To O’Neill, it’s practically impossible that circumcision actually could be a violation of the child’s rights – such a finding must be motivated by anti-Semitism rather than sound judicial and ethical reasoning. I suppose it hasn’t occurred to him that using the existence of anti-Semitism as an excuse to ignore any arguments against circumcision isn’t particularly respectful of the Jewish people either.

Just because circumcision is a Jewish practice doesn’t mean a ban on circumcision is specifically targeting Jewish people, and just because a history of ugly anti-Jewish prejudice exists does not mean that circumcision can’t be wrong – yes, even if opposition to circumcision has played a role in anti-Semitism. Hitler can say it’s sunny out, but that doesn’t mean it’s raining. Ted Kaczynski can believe in global warming, but that doesn’t mean anthropogenic climate change must not exist. O’Neill can question the motivations behind this finding until the cows come home, but any historical association with prejudice it may have doesn’t justify his refusal to engage with its actual points. If considering all infant male circumcisions unethical – not just those conducted by Jewish people – is “only an updated, more PC version” of anti-Semitism, then not hating Jews is apparently the new hating Jews.

And yes, that’s where O’Neill is taking this:

History tells us that the rebranding of religious practices as child abuse can have terrible consequences. Many anti-Jewish pogroms in the past were justified on the basis that Jews abused children.

I hope O’Neill is aware of who was responsible for most of these pogroms. Hint: it wasn’t the work of “New Atheists”. If he’s seriously trying to claim that infant male circumcision must be allowed in order to prevent some future explosion of anti-Semitic violence resulting from its prohibition, he’s going to need a lot more evidence than that to justify removing foreskins as a peacekeeping measure. As is, he’s only reiterated the confluence of unexamined tradition and unwarranted respect for religion that have so often enabled much of society to look the other way on this issue – a moral question with an answer that would otherwise be clear as day.

Filling in each other’s blanks: The importance of listening

Why do we talk to people? Why do we bother to watch other people’s videos and read each other’s blogs? Why do we keep up with our friends, find new people to follow on Facebook, and converse with others in comment sections? Why do we take the time to connect with people? Certainly we may enjoy their company and find pleasure in talking to them, but we also do it as a way of making ourselves more complete as individuals. We learn things from other people, because they provide us with information that we might have missed.

Most of us make an effort to engage in reasoned and logical thought to the best of our ability, but our personal best is surely not the best. None of us is a self-contained generator of perfectly accurate knowledge. An individual person isn’t able to devise theories, models, explanations and predictions which are forever unassailable. We use the facts and the mental prowess that are available to us, but every one of us is inevitably lacking in certain respects. A single person doesn’t know everything, and in our personal understanding of a given situation, there may be aspects that we’ve neglected to account for.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously described “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”. In the case of a known unknown, we know that there is an open question that needs to be resolved, but we may not have the information necessary to answer it. An unknown unknown, however, is an issue that we aren’t even aware of. We don’t know enough to know that the question exists. The matter of what its answer may be is something that’s entirely overlooked, because we aren’t aware that there is an answer or that an answer is needed. With known unknowns, we at least know what kind of answer we need to look for. But with unknown unknowns, we have no idea of what it is we’re looking for, or even that we should be looking for anything.

This is where other people come in. We may have our own unknown unknowns – facts that we weren’t aware of, or lines of reasoning that we failed to imagine or properly work through. Other people can provide these to us, essentially filling in our blank spots. Our own thought processes might be compromised by a less than thorough grasp of everything that’s related to the topic at hand, and others may have a better understanding of this than we do. We can only take into account what we know to take into account, whereas other people can tell us about things we hadn’t even considered.

This is the defining feature I’ve found in the people I talk to and whose work I keep up with. They have insights that are obvious in retrospect, but I still couldn’t have come up with them on my own. They contribute to my understanding of things in ways that I might not have stumbled across if I had only kept to myself.

That’s what makes it so important to listen to people who have had experiences that you haven’t. For instance, some men doubt the very possibility that sexual harassment at atheist and skeptic conferences is a serious issue, because they haven’t personally witnessed it or been subjected to it. The experience of feeling threatened by the behavior of men in such a context may be completely alien to them. But when several high-profile atheist women tell you that this is indeed a problem that isn’t being adequately addressed, your own unfamiliarity in this area is no reason to disregard their familiarity. Listening to them will provide you with a better understanding of the situation than ignoring them. They have exactly what you need to fill in one of your blank spots.

Similarly, when the Center for Inquiry’s Ontario branch proposed dressing in drag to support transgender people, they genuinely didn’t understand why this would be offensive. But because they were willing to listen to everyone who explained why this was a bad idea, they eventually came to realize that they shouldn’t go ahead with this.

Ultimately, this is just a very detailed way of saying that we can benefit by learning from each other, but it seems that far too many people are either unaware of this, or don’t care to listen to anyone but themselves. It shouldn’t be difficult to recognize that other people can have useful and relevant contributions as well, and your personal view of a situation isn’t necessarily the final word on it. We each have an incomplete picture of how things work, but by putting each of our respective pieces together, we can build a more thorough understanding of reality.

Audio novelty of the day

Someone assembled a mix of 18 songs by Pendulum, introducing them one by one until all of them are playing at once. The resulting mashup turned out to be only mildly chaotic, as the songs match each other remarkably well. The same effect appears to a lesser degree in various songs by Skrillex.

“Put gays to death” may have been a hack. This isn’t.

The Minnesota for Marriage campaign is claiming that their message on Facebook saying gays should be “put to death” was the result of a hack, but whether or not that’s the case, their messaging elsewhere has been just as hostile and ridiculous. On the Minnesota Pastors for Marriage site, which is linked from Minnesota for Marriage and run by the Minnesota Family Council, several sermons openly and shamelessly describe gay people as the enemy of God himself.

Jim Garlow claims that “Satan is obsessed in destroying marriage, the coming together” of “male and female”. Kenyn Cureton absurdly compares the rise of gay marriage to “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” demolishing a house, and describes homosexuality as “open rebellion against the divine pattern” and a “deceptive perversion”. He later parallels studies by gay researchers to “Joseph Goebel’s Nazi philosophy of propaganda” and says gays are “lost people trapped in Satan’s snare” who “find themselves as slaves” for trying to “achieve freedom from the so-called shackles of biblical morality and traditional institutions”. And John Piper states that “the first way to honor marriage in our day is not to confuse it with the abomination of homosexual or lesbian partnerships.”

So of course Minnesota for Marriage doesn’t want us put to death – they “strongly believe that people are entitled to love whomever they choose”, after all. They just think our love is an abomination and a perversion, and we’re “slaves to sin”, lost, rebelling against God, dupes of Satan, and a lot like Nazis. This is coming from their own website.

By the way, the Minnesota Family Council previously hosted documents accusing gay people of pedophilia, bestiality, and “ingesting urine and feces”.

Minnesota anti-gay-marriage campaign goes full Leviticus

See update below.

Professional homophobes just can’t stop getting themselves in trouble with Leviticus 20:13, the infamous Old Testament verse that prescribes the death penalty for gay sex. For some reason, they can’t avoid citing a passage that almost literally says “death to gays”, with no regard for the fact that this would be quite an ineffective public face for their movement if they have any interest in attracting wider support from everyday citizens.

The latest ones to step in it? Minnesota for Marriage, Minnesota’s official campaign to double-ban gay marriage, which is already prohibited. Nine hours ago, they posted this on their Facebook page:

“If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

~Leviticus 20:13

Jeremy Hooper later captured them telling other users “read your Bible” and “No one can deny the Word of God”, before deleting their own comments some time afterward.

This is a rather puzzling move for a campaign that’s supposedly for a constitutional amendment against marriage equality. Where does killing gays enter into that? Is their current campaign just one part of a broader initiative? If they’re going to go around saying gay people should be “put to death” as though the Bible should have some bearing on civil law, I think they need to explain exactly what it is they’re getting at. Until then, make sure everyone knows: Minnesota for Marriage said gay people should be put to death.

Minnesota for Marriage said gay people should be put to death.

Minnesota for Marriage said gay people should be put to death.

So let’s demand some answers.

(via Jeremy Hooper/Good As You)

Update: Minnesota for Marriage now claims that they were the victim of a hacking:

Good Morning – Last night our Deputy Campaign Manager, Andy Parrish’s personal email, Facebook, and Twitter accounts were hacked by an individual who posted the Leviticus verse below. We are currently working with Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and Apple to see who hacked Andy’s account and who posted this message. Clearly we would never advocate for anyone to be put to death – We strongly believe that people are entitled to love whomever they choose, but they are not entitled to redefine marriage for all of society.

However, the Leviticus message is still on their Facebook page at this time. It wouldn’t be surprising if this was just a case of regret. Claiming gays should be put to death is not a new or unexpected thing coming from Christian homophobes.

Clarify something for me, Texas GOP

The Texas Republican Party’s 2012 platform reads:

We support the definition of marriage as a God-ordained, legal and moral commitment only between a natural man and a natural woman, which is the foundational unit of a healthy society, and we oppose the assault on marriage by judicial activists.

This may seem pretty straightforward, in that their obvious intention was “no gays allowed”, but it’s actually not that simple. What defines a “natural man” and a “natural woman” for the purposes of marriage? Everyone is “natural”, after all, but as far as these things go, this is one of the slights that’s so common it barely stings anymore. Do they mean someone who was assigned male, or female, at birth? Or do they mean cis men and cis women only?

Their platform document (PDF) makes no explicit reference to trans people. Given their insistence that “natural” men and women are the only ones eligible for marriage, how do they feel about trans people getting married? Do they support allowing trans people to change their legal gender? If not, are they comfortable with the idea of same-sex couples where one partner is trans being allowed to marry, since they’re still legally considered a “natural” man or woman? And where does this leave intersex people?

Does the Texas Republican Party even know what “intersex” means? Or “cisgender”, for that matter?

Lazy pseudo-criticism of abortion

In an op-ed for the New York Times, former news anchor Campbell Brown has some advice for Planned Parenthood:

Once again, Planned Parenthood is potentially making an enemy of someone who has failed to pass its purity test. It’s gotten to the point where, in this election cycle, the group’s political arm (while proudly claiming to be nonpartisan) has not endorsed or directly given money to a single Republican. As a person who believes abortions should be safe, legal and rare, I support many of Planned Parenthood’s goals. But the militancy must go. Demanding a perfect record from candidates it supports has already left Planned Parenthood marginalized. So does an attitude that doesn’t ever seem to take into account that abortion is a morally complicated matter or that those on the anti-abortion side are often decent and well-intentioned people.

Putting aside Brown’s ideas about what would be the most pragmatic way for Planned Parenthood to build political support, the claim that they need to “take into account that abortion is a morally complicated matter” is puzzling, to say the least. Descriptively speaking, yes, it’s “morally complicated” – lots of people have different and conflicting views on abortion. What else is new? Normatively speaking, “abortion” as a whole is certainly morally complicated, but only because it encompasses a wide variety of acts.

Among these, some appear to be morally questionable, such as late-term abortion of viable fetuses when no one’s health is at risk. But others, such as earlier-term abortions for any reason, are generally considered acceptable by almost everyone – even the most vocal opponents of elective abortion. While many of them will say that the tiniest embryo is no different from a newborn, they definitely don’t act like they believe millions of children are being slaughtered at abortion clinics every year. At most, their church’s youth group will go on a road trip to the capital once a year and put duct tape on their mouths to protest what they purportedly believe is tantamount to another Holocaust. Doesn’t that just scream sincerity?

Those who do act on this belief, and kill or injure real people in the process, are universally condemned by the wider anti-abortion movement. Paul Jennings Hill fell on the wrong side of this question when he killed a doctor and his bodyguard, but he had quite a bit to say to those who call abortion murder while doing very little to stop it. Consider that if Dr. George Tiller had instead been a serial murderer of children and was shot by an ordinary citizen to prevent him from killing his next victim, people who oppose abortion likely wouldn’t see anything objectionable about this. They would not protest that he should only have been stopped through “peaceful, legal means”. Many of them characterize the actions of abortion doctors as murder, but are unwilling to follow this principle to its uncomfortable conclusion. The belief that abortion is a kind of murder does not accord with or explain their behavior. (The desire to control women does.)

So let’s not be fooled by the idea that abortion is “morally complicated”. Almost all of the time, it’s really not, and just because people may disagree about it, that doesn’t mean their arguments are equally compelling or that the ethical acceptability of abortion is actually unclear. Merely having lengthy and intricate debates about it does not make it complicated. Casting aspersions on abortion by simply making reference to its supposed moral complexity, while failing to explore, explain or endorse any specific arguments about it, is just a way of dodging accountability for your insinuation that abortion is unethical.

But regardless of the moral status of abortion, what does Brown expect Planned Parenthood to do about this? They aren’t in the philosophy business. Patients don’t go there for a crash course in applied ethics or a sermon on moral theology. They provide medical services, and that’s why people come to them. To whose advantage is it for Planned Parenthood themselves to state openly that the abortion services they provide may be immoral? Certainly not Planned Parenthood. But for the country’s largest abortion provider to describe its own work as morally ambiguous is exactly what the anti-abortion movement wants.

The purpose of Planned Parenthood is to offer reproductive health services, and to maintain its viability as an organization so it can continue to fulfill that mission. If a certain strategy helps or hinders them, then it should be examined, but Brown has given no explanation of how recognizing the alleged moral complications of abortion would advance Planned Parenthood’s goals. And however decent they may be, how have the “good intentions” of abortion opponents ever assisted Planned Parenthood in any meaningful way?