Atheist celebrity culture: you’re swimming in it

There have always been several gaps between new atheists’ self-image and reality. One gap that I have often expressed frustration with, is atheists denying that any atheist movement exists. You could argue the details about what it means to have a “movement”, but I heard such comments coming from people participating in atheist student groups in the heyday of new atheism.  It’s a stubborn refusal to engage in self-understanding, a denial that there is any self to understand.

But today I want to talk about another gap. Atheists see themselves as having no heroes or leaders, and yet atheist celebrities are everywhere you look. This is a point that often comes up whenever an atheist celebrity falls from grace:

“Skeptics and atheists like to think they are above human foibles like celebrity worship,” Rebecca Watson, a prominent feminist skeptic, told BuzzFeed News. “In a way, that makes them particularly susceptible to being abused by their heroes. I think we see that over and over again.”

This is a problem composed of two opposites: (a) atheists see celebrity worship as a human foible that they have escaped, and (b) atheists are more susceptible to celebrity worship. And there are two opposite responses to the problem: (a) the tendency towards celebrities should be acknowledged, or (b) we must strengthen our resistance to celebrities.

The danger is that in focusing on just one response, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the other half of the problem. For FTB in particular, the danger is that we look at the downfall of our heroes and say to ourselves, “we’re moving beyond heroes”–without actually moving beyond heroes. By placing ourselves above celebrity worship, we may be replicating the original problem.

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On work hours in academia

Since I’m looking for jobs, I need a little elevator speech for why I chose to leave academia. “The attitude in academia, is that you’re doing extremely important work, and it’s the passion of your life, and therefore you should be willing to accept terrible work conditions. I would rather have a less glamorous job about actually helping people in my immediate surroundings, instead of slaving towards a distant ideal.” How’s that sound? Eh, maybe.

Poor working conditions are hard to quantify, but one thing we can quantify are the work hours. How many hours do academics work? If the titles of news articles are to be believed, you do not need to work 80 hours a week. The title is hilarious because it suggests some people really do work 80 hours, but it’s just unnecessary. But yes, people tend to overestimate their work hours, and studies suggest that it’s really 50-60 hours a week on average for faculty. But how’s that for an absurd standard? Instead of arguing that we should be working only 40 hours like a normal job, people instead have to argue that the 80-hour week is a myth–or at the very least, unnecessary. This also tells me that even when people work 50-60 hours, they feel like they’re working 80, that everyone around them is working 80, and/or that their colleagues and students should be working 80.

Even when academics argue for a 40 hour work week, the main argument is that you can be just as productive in shorter hours. I appreciate that this is the argument people need to make. But now that I’m on the outside, I can finally say, fuck y’all. Forget productivity. How about being humane to your workers? I don’t know that much about the history of labor rights, but my understanding is that the 40-hour work week was a greater step forward for humanity than any of that stuff I did with superconductors.

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On blogging networks

As many readers know, I run a group blog, The Asexual Agenda (TAA). Other readers might be aware that I’m on this blogging network called Freethought Blogs (FTB). Still other readers may be aware of other blogging networks like The Orbit, or Skepchick. Have you ever wondered how these blog networks are organized?

This is something that interests me, as a group blog admin. But perhaps nobody else is interested, because I hardly ever see anyone else talk about it. Or perhaps people don’t talk about it because the information is too sensitive. You don’t want to give away information that is potentially embarrassing to other people on the network. Many blogging networks may even have formal rules against disclosing certain information. I myself am limited in what I can say. But there’s some stuff that is public knowledge, at least in principle, so I’ll talk about that.

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Skeptical content creation

As I mentioned in my bloggiversary post, good skeptical content creation is hard. In order to debunk something, and do a good job of it, you have to do research. You have to do a lot of research, even if it’s something ridiculous, like 9/11 conspiracies or bigfoot. Talking about a conspiracy theory is an invitation for conspiracy theorists to start arguing with you, and they tend to be pretty familiar with the topic, because it’s their topic. In contrast, the skeptic needs to spread themself thin, because there’s just so much bunk in the world.

That was fine decades ago, when “skepticism” basically referred to a committee of experts who dedicated their time to it. It doesn’t work so well today, when most content creators are hobbyists, or at least start out as hobbyists. My experience as a new blogger was that research was sometimes fun, but it got tiring really fast, and I didn’t have the readership to justify putting a lot of work into it. And rigorous research doesn’t get rewarded, because it’s not necessarily entertaining. Furthermore, “research” would mostly consist of me repeating things I had learned from basic resources, and what’s the point of that?

There are ways around this problem, but I don’t think they were very healthy for the movement. One method is to gloss over the lack of rigor with humor and mockery. Another method is to get by with a few general principles of reasoning, the stuff we call “critical thinking”. I took the latter approach, so I will talk about that.

The trouble with fallacies

Critical thinking in the skeptical movement was an odd beast. What exactly is it? How do you practice it? Can you name any principles of critical thinking?

Some of the most recognizable principles are the logical fallacies. You know, ad hominem, begging the question, argument from authority, etc. Many people such as myself gravitated towards logical fallacies, because it’s fun to learn about all of them and read silly examples of them. I liked to write about them too.
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Why are physics talks so bad?

As I get closer to the end of my PhD, I wanted to talk about why grad school sucks so much. For my first complaint, let’s talk about physics talks. I’m not referring to popular stuff like Stephen Hawking’s TED Talk or whatever. I’m referring to talks given by physicists to other physicists in their field.

By design, a physics talk starts out with a broadly accessible introduction, and dives into technical details that only two people in the audience understand. This is followed by a Q&A where those two people ask (apparently) extremely intelligent questions, and everyone else silently feels stupid as they listen to arguments over arcane details.

When I started out my PhD, approximately 0% of physics talks made sense. I thought that maybe when I got further into my PhD I would understand much more. Nope! Now, maybe 10% of talks make sense. And even that high rate comes from knowing when to avoid going to a talk in the first place.

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Call-out culture: a meta-meta-commentary

A couple years ago, I made this linkspam on call-out culture. “Call-out culture” refers to a pattern in social justice activist spaces of jumping on, and piling upon other activists who are perceived to have made a mistake. It’s an issue when it turns into bullying, or when it just scares people away from communities that they need.

This is a really difficult problem to address, and to be honest, I think I am uniquely unsuited to address it. I don’t have personal experience calling people out, or being called out, or at least not in any way that meaningfully impacted me. I am not a very anxious person, and it is very difficult to scare me or burn me out. My interest in this topic is purely based on compassion, and an interest in the meta. So for several years, I’ve wanted to say something, but couldn’t figure out what to say.

After thinking about it a lot, here’s what I want to say: Most articles on call-out culture are bad. That’s right, I collected a bunch of links in a linkspam, and I think most of those links are bad. I mean, they’re good. But they’re also bad, especially after reading several of them. They often fail to say anything novel or meaningful. And the bottom line is that they’re not having the impact they need to have.

The coopter threat

Just the other day, I read a new article that seemed to epitomize the “call-out culture article”: Righteous Callings: Being a Good Leftist, Orthodoxy, and the Social Justice Crisis of Faith. It’s by Kai Cheng, a former writer at Everyday Feminism. And it follows a particular structure. First, the author establishes “insider status”, making it clear that she is a certified social justice activist critiquing her own culture. Then a list of grievances. And in the conclusion, a rebuke of those who would coopt this criticism to reject social justice entirely.

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Can we dispose of the four horsemen?

A comic panel showing the four horsemen on horses. Dawkins: We held a calm, rational debate and came to the consensus that we should initiate doomsday!! For we are the four horsemen of the atheist apocalypse! The world as you know it ends this day!

Source: Virus Comix. This is from circa 2008, and you can judge for yourself how well it has aged.

“The Four Horsemen of Atheism” is first and foremost, a marketing term. The term was coined almost exactly a decade ago, in 2007, in order for the horsemen to sell recordings of themselves.  From there, the term had runaway success.

It appears that the reason that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens were chosen (instead of other well-known atheists) is that they were all best-selling authors of atheist books in 2007. It also arose from media coverage, such as the famous 2006 Wired article, which coined the term “New Atheists”, and interviewed Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. (Hitchens hadn’t published his book until 2007.)

But for me, it was never the books which were important, it was the blogs. I started reading Pharyngula in late 2006. I only ever read one of the books, and I read it in 2008 and didn’t care for it. To me, it has always seemed odd how much we venerate book authors. There are other media outside of books, after all! What about bloggers, journalists, youtubers, podcasters, and artists? Or for that matter, any more recent authors?

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