The unbearable whiteness of TVing

There have been few times in my life where I have had a single-race group of friends. Living when and where I have, there have even been few examples where I was the only person of colour (PoC) in my immediate social circle. Part of it came, to be sure, from the fact that my high school was ludicrously multicultural, and I went to university for the next 6 years of my life before moving to Vancouver, a city with a huge PoC population. Simple probability theory dictates that you can’t really put together a monoracial group without more than a little bit of intentionality behind your friend selection.

Which is why shows like Seinfeld, Friends, and How I Met Your Mother annoy the living shit out of me. Well, to be fair to HIMYM, they eventually cast Kal Penn, so now the only thing that annoys me is the terrible writing. Anyway, these shows somehow manage to be about a group of white people living in one of the most multicultural cities in the world who only have ny kind of meaningful contact with other white people. Sure, PoCs occasionally pop into existence on these shows, but it’s almost always as either one-off characters or as “hilarious” jokes based on stereotype.

Last week I invited you to think about privilege as a pair of coloured goggles that prevented you from being able to see certain parts of the spectrum. Of course, if it were simply the case that privilege caused you to ‘miss out’ on things, it wouldn’t be much of a privilege, would it? Here’s the thing – that kind of selective blindness has consequences: [Read more…]

Changing my tune

Oh neat! It’s time for one of my rare (but fun) retractions!

Last Monday, I put the boots to James Croft for a conversation we had over Twitter. To summarize, I thought that his advocacy for increasing the use of song as part of humanist gatherings was a) offputting, and b) dangerous. A, because there are a lot of people who identify as humanist after fleeing religion, and that adding secular hymns to humanist functions was going to make those people intensely uncomfortable and unwelcome. B, because the function of liturgical music is to make messaging more palatable by bypassing the rational parts of the brain, and that rationality is what makes humanism more than just “religion for atheists”.

James took his time in responding, but when he did, he kicked my ass: [Read more…]

Songs in the key of H(umanism)

As you may know (and should certainly know if you followed my Blogathon Songathon yesterday), one of the many hats I wear is that of musician. I am no great talent, to be sure, but I’ve got some moderate game. I’ve been a musician as long as I can remember – somewhere there exists a photo of me as a 3 year-old sitting on the steps, banging out rhythms on my knees. I started guitar lessons at age 6, singing lessons a couple of years after that, picked up the guitar at age 14, started my first string quartet at 15… I’ve been in the game for a minute.

Which is why I was torn this past weekend when James Croft, a person I otherwise respect for his outspoken defense of humanism, came out in favour of using song as part of humanist gatherings. His position (and I am trying my best not to straw man) is that because narrative and song have such a persuasive power, humanists should involve it as part of our regular discourse. Humanist gatherings should involve group participation in song and storytelling (he actually used the word ‘witnessing’ at one point), because they are useful in building consensus and community, and what he calls a more ’emotive’ humanism.

I attempted to point out that, given the number of humanists who have actively fled religion, the adoption of a quasi-liturgical form to humanist gatherings was pretty likely to spook a lot of people. When I attempted to defend James’ idea of a church-like gathering for atheists who were in need of the kind of stable community and group interaction that churches provide to believers, there were a number of people who responded that, even if they thought the idea had some merit there was absolutely no way they would attend. Any attempt to ‘churchify’ humanism is going to alienate a lot of people.

James’ response was basically “Yeah? So?” [Read more…]

Movie Friday: RCA, Sony, and big black cocks

Name three stereo types…

Animated gif of a young man shaking his head 'no'

No? Not even a little? All right then, let’s move on.

One of the things that stuck out for me when I was studying cognitive psychology is the extent to which our brains are happiest when they have the least amount of work to do. We have a wide variety of mechanisms evolved specifically to let our brains ‘coast’ and do as little work as possible. Stereotypes, whether about people or groups or behaviours (or anything, really) are one very popular and powerful way of classifying information without having to put a lot of thought into it. Of course, the downside of stereotypes is that they often lead us to make erroneous conclusions based on bad information.

Those stereotypes propagate, and we come to see the entire world through the lens of our own lazy ignorance. For example: [Read more…]

Does being an atheist make you more charitable?

So it’s entirely possible that you’ve heard the latest ‘groundbreaking’ finding in the religious/atheist culture war, suggesting that religion is negatively associated with compassionate prosocial behaviour:

“Love thy neighbor” is preached from many a pulpit. But new research from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that the highly religious are less motivated by compassion when helping a stranger than are atheists, agnostics and less religious people.

In three experiments, social scientists found that compassion consistently drove less religious people to be more generous. For highly religious people, however, compassion was largely unrelated to how generous they were, according to the findings which are published in the most recent online issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

I don’t think anyone who’s been reading this blog for longer than, say, two weeks would have any trouble pinning down where I am on the believer/non-believer scale: I am doing pull-ups from the far side of the non-believer scale, encouraging others to jump off as I dangle over the edge. I am, in fact, an unapologetic anti-theist – I think that religious faith is an inherently harmful byproduct of bad brains and lack of intellectual curiosity. That being said, I am reflexively skeptical of any scientific finding that seems too good to be true. This is definitely one of them.

So, as I have before, I am taking my super skepty powers to the paper (frustratingly behind a paywall) to see if I can spot any errors. [Read more…]

Cognition, conservatism, and “common sense”

If there is one phrase I would like for people to stop using, at least in approving tones, it’s “common sense”. What I’m sure is meant by the term, when used to praise someone’s rationality, is that someone exercising good “common sense” is making a decision based on good, clear thinking as opposed to convoluted and self-contradictory premises. The problem is that the world is often a complicated place that requires convoluted, or at least non-obvious thinking. Too often, “common sense” simply means adherence to stereotypes and cultural memes in the place of evidence-based reasoning. As I’ve said before, the moment that someone makes an appeal to “common sense” is the moment that I stop listening to them.

One of the things I have noticed is how frequently arguments based in “common sense” are used to defend positions based in conservative ideology. I lived in Ontario during the back-to-back reign of premier Mike Harris – an era known by the political monicker “the Common Sense Revolution”. Of course the idea of a conservative revolution boggles the mind, but we’ll deal with counter-intuitive political branding another time. What I remember is that these supposedly revolutionary ideas involves crippling cuts to the public sector (particularly nurses and teachers), expansion of the private sector and a poisonous political climate.

Now, it is entirely possible that, because of my own unabashed liberalism and the very human tendency toward confirmation bias, my association between political conservatism and arguments from “common sense” is merely my brain selectively pairing things I think are stupid. After all, I have heard people from all walks of life, my own liberal father included, talk about “common sense”. A new study, however, suggests that there may be some evidence to support my broad-brush generalization: [Read more…]

Good for the goose, bad for the gander

So this morning we looked at the ways in which our judicial system is seemingly set up to disappoint those in greatest need of justice, particularly black people. Our racist biases (which, I believe, we are all subject to regardless of how “non-racist” we like to fancy ourselves) find the cracks in our institutional frameworks, causing disproportionate destruction to those groups against which we have the strongest antipathy. It is completely insignificant to protest that we don’t mean to be, or that we don’t feel racist – it’s the outcome by which we have to judge actions. The only time that intent matters is when we’re trying to figure out how to fix the problem – not in how we label it.

The first half of understanding this particular issue is recognition that the system itself has structural elements that, by assuming that everyone walks into the halls of justice as equals, perpetuates societal inequalities. The other side of the coin, as far as this argument goes, is that individual actors within the system make judgments that reveal internal discriminatory biases. When we make judgments about others, those judgments are informed by processes that are both conscious and unconscious. The issue, of course, is that while we can moderate the way our conscious mind works, we do not have the same level of control over, to put a fine point on it, the parts of our brains we don’t control.

Once again, this leads us into trouble: [Read more…]

Ethics, wealth, privilege – pulling it all together

Looking back at this morning’s post, it may have seemed a bit atypical for me to highlight a study that has nothing to do with politics, religion, racism, or any of the other usual suspects for this blog. In the early days of the Manifesto I realized that it was important to have a focus – in order to build a ‘brand’ one must be associated with an idea (or even a handful). Over the past couple of years this ‘focus’ has been rather malleable – shifting as my own personal interests do. However, insofar as this blog is an attempt to unify my own thoughts and ideas and provide myself (and you) with some insight into how my thought process works when synthesizing new information.

When I first read the fact that there was a study that demonstrates that rich people are jerks, I was prepared to laugh it off as just one of those interesting, quirky psychological discoveries. But as the days passed, I realized that there was quite a bit more depth to it. Many of you (hopefully) remember my series on System Justification Theory where we explored the theoretical underpinnings of why people who are relatively lower status may embrace behaviours and attitudes that work to the advantage of the outgroup rather than selfishly. Since we are talking about power and status, there is an opportunity to explore the extent to which greed increases someone’s system justifying behaviour. Are low-status people who have positive attitudes about greed approve when high-status people subvert the rules? Are they more motivated to excuse unethical behaviour by those in power? If such a correlation exists, could it possibly explain why someone like Newt Gingrich still has political support among evangelicals despite his rampant infidelity?

Does this overlap between greed and SJT explain perhaps the backlash against the #Occupy movement – why Romney’s characterization of the justifiable anger against the excesses of the financial elite as ‘jealousy’ resonates with voters who are getting screwed by the same elites? How does this potential psychological phenomenon affect the way people interpret news like this:

But many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. The mobility gap has been widely discussed in academic circles, but a sour season of mass unemployment and street protests has moved the discussion toward center stage.


One reason for the mobility gap may be the depth of American poverty, which leaves poor children starting especially far behind. Another may be the unusually large premiums that American employers pay for college degrees. Since children generally follow their parents’ educational trajectory, that premium increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling.

What implications would understanding a climate of greed and the ethical lassitude that accompanies it have when we add system justifying into the mix? If we can find ways to convince people that greed isn’t good (contra Gordon Gekko), will we see an adjustment in the amount of support for social programs that level the playing field? Will politicians who adopt an ‘investment’ model rather than a ‘free market’ model gain more traction?

Many of you may have read this resignation letter from a (former) Goldman Sachs executive:

Today is my last day at Goldman Sachs. After almost 12 years at the firm — first as a summer intern while at Stanford, then in New York for 10 years, and now in London — I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.


When the history books are written about Goldman Sachs, they may reflect that the current chief executive officer, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and the president, Gary D. Cohn, lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.

How does this reaction to corporate greed connect to Goldman’s unethical practices (as detailed in the letter)? Is it always the case that the extremely wealthy will become avariciously unethical, or is it greed that separates a Lloyd Blankfein from a Warren Buffett? Many praised Greg Smith (the letter’s author) for showing a level of morality that one does not commonly see among the very rich. Is that ‘morality’ borne of an organically superior sense of right and wrong, or simply a less favourable view of greed?

System justification produces unfavourable attitudes that fall along racial and gender lines, and operates implicitly (subconsciously). If greed is mixed in to the system justifying process, does that contribute to the atmosphere that results in fewer women and minorities being promoted to executive positions? Do the double standards that make identical actions look ‘assertive’ in men and ‘bitchy’ in women come from a subconscious approval of a culture of greed? Would encouraging people to think of greed unfavourably create a more demographically balanced environment? Can this help to explain why economically ‘left’ groups tend to be more inclusive of minorities than economically ‘right’ ones?

Finally, how do we moderate approval of greed? Does merely exposing greed make people think unfavourably of it, or do we have to focus our attention on the downsides? How can we separate (unhealthy) greed from (healthy) competitiveness? Are they two sides of the same coin, or is there a way to encourage innovation and discovery without having to accept the phenomenon of people pulling each other down rather than pulling themselves up? Do we as skeptics have a role to play in unpacking the subconscious baggage of greed, or is that a job for educators and public figures? Is greed biological or sociological – do we see parallel behaviours in animal species?

These are big questions, and I certainly don’t have answers for them. However, the more I look around, the more I see that things are connected.

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Morality? Oh THAT’S rich…

Now I have no idea how many people actually believe this, and maybe I’m late to the party, but it seems that the criminal justice system is set up in such a way that people on the lowest socioeconomic rungs bear the brunt of the punishment. Sure, part of it is the fact that the very wealthy can afford lawyers and have more familial strings to pull to reduce the charge. But that stuff is extra-judicial. That’s not the way the justice system is set up – that’s the way the entire political/economic/social system is set up. It’s rigged for the rich – everyone knows that.

But the criminal justice system itself – the way the laws are enforced, what we think of when we conjure an image of ‘crime’, the kinds of cases we prosecute and the way we go about executing ‘justice’ – these all seem to be in the business of punishing the poor. Steal $50 from someone on the street and you’re a monster – steal several trillion and you’re appointed to the president’s economic council. We actually have the gall to distinguish between ‘crime’ and ‘white collar crime’, as though one is the nicer version of the other.

Now there are a number of potential explanations for this, but certainly one of them is that poor people are just less trustworthy. I was offered that hypothesis straight-faced by someone at Skeptics in the Pub a couple of months ago – poor people are poor because they’re immoral and lack the decency to work their way out of poverty. The wealthy are less criminal because they’re more moral, right? Yeah, looks like the opposite is true: [Read more…]

Stupidity, conservatism, and racism: more than meets the eye

So this morning I scrutinized a study by Hodson and Busseri that purports to show that the link between low cognitive ability and prejudice is moderated largely by political ideology; namely, that stupidity makes you conservative, and conservativism makes you racist. They conducted two experiments to test their model, and the results of their study supported the hypothesis. Hooray! More science with which to thrash conservatives, right?

Well, as you may have guessed from the title of this piece, the results of this study may be a bit Decepticon deceptive.

Racist Starscream sez: I'm not Racist, I just think Autobots need to be taught to value work instead of energon stamps

Okay, enough of that. Welllll… maybe just one more:

Racist Starscream sez: I'm not racist, I very clearly said that I hate "Auto-blah"

Starscream 2012!

As much fun as it would be to simply say “case closed, conservatives are racist cuz ur dum”, it would be decidedly un-skeptical. There were a number of things that jumped out at me about this paper, and I’m going to try and detail where I think the authors over-step their conclusions. [Read more…]