I have a feeling I’ll just be ignored if I mention this to the administration

Student evaluations suck, mostly.

Imagine that you’re up for a promotion at your job, but before your superior decides whether you deserve it, you have to submit the comments section of an internet article that was written about you for assessment.

Sound a little absurd?

That’s in essence what we ask professors in higher education to do when they submit their teaching evaluations in their tenure and promotion portfolios. At the end of each semester, students are asked to fill out an evaluation of their professor. Typically, they are asked both to rate their professors on an ordinal scale (think 1­–5, 5 being highest) and provide written comments about their experience in the course.

We’ve repeatedly seen studies that show that student evaluations are skewed to favor popularity and attractiveness of the professor (damn, I lose), and this article points out that there is a gender bias as well: male professors tend to get higher ratings than female professors (so that’s how I’ve managed to get along), and that means these evaluations are discriminatory. And therefore illegal. Cool.

Now I said that student evals suck, mostly. They’re sometimes helpful — not the goofy numerical scores, and I ignore comments that whine about how hard the class is — but the productive, thoughtful comments can be very helpful. If a student says “X worked for me, Y didn’t”, I’ll seriously reconsider X and Y.

The last batch of evaluations I got back I just ignored the numerical scores and browsed through the comments for practical concerns. I got one: there’s a lot of grade anxiety out there, and they really wanted the gradebook available online, so they could see exactly where they stand, point by point. OK, I can do that. Not with our existing software, Moodle, in which the gradebook is a confusing nightmare, but we’re switching to new courseware next year, so I’ll look into it.

I guess it’s good that that was the biggest problem they had with the course. But it’s the stupid numbers that the administration will care about.

The Austin bomber is dead

Seems fitting — he blew himself up.

Also, he turns out to have been a Young White Male, which isn’t at all surprising anymore. Now we wait for the revelation: was he mentally ill, or a lone wolf? He couldn’t possibly have been a terrorist.

I will not, however, be surprised at all if the oncoming rummaging through his internet history reveals associations with racist or alt-right groups. Those associations will be minimized, though, if it is discovered that he also played video games.

The whitewashing begins.

Well, isn’t that nice. What a nice quiet boy.

Free speech is a nice sharp sword

I’m liking this article, and the term, on the Free-Speech Grifters. You know who they are: the usual suspects who go into a tizzy of denunciations of the illiberality of people who espouse liberal views; who want to use the First Amendment as a cudgel to silence protests; who constantly, shrilly complain about people who use their free speech to demonstrate against liars and neo-fascists, but are strangely mum on the actual goals of said neo-fascists. It’s all ‘free speech for me and my fellow travelers, but not for libs and progressives and feminists and communists and environmentalists, you guys need to sit down and shut up’. All this in a time when open, vocal protest is fully warranted.

Let’s see the author name-drop a whole lot of popular, influential people I just happen to despise.

On the topic of campus politics and free speech, Andrew Sullivan has written in New York magazine about a half-dozen articles, warning that “the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy.” His colleague Jonathan Chait has written another dozen on PC culture, arguing that “these episodes are the manifestation of a serious ideological challenge to liberalism.” In The New York Times, Bret Stephens regurgitated a speech as an article called “Free Speech and the Necessity of Discomfort,” while David Brooks dedicated a piece to “Understanding Student Mobbists,” for which he spoke to exactly zero students. In ten months, Weiss has racked up three articles on the subject. You would think that these “mobs” on college campuses and Twitter were sending the unwoke to a Soviet-style gulag.

The enthusiasm to defend those triggering libs makes the Free Speech Grifters uniquely susceptible to right-wing propagandists. In her last op-ed, Weiss featured an obvious parody Antifa Twitter account, run by alt-right trolls, and YouTuber Dave Rubin fell for the same gag. In 2016, Sommers unwittingly did a full hour on a Swedish white-supremacy podcast. And the same year, in a since-deleted tweet, she announced she would be “defending free speech and reason” with Milo Yiannopoulos, who was recently outed by BuzzFeed for working with white nationalists to smuggle their ideas into the mainstream. He also appeared alongside Maher, railing about free speech, on Real Time. This isn’t all complete ignorance. Columbia University College Republicans invited Tommy Robinson of the far-right English Defense League, while the new Canadian free-speech club Laurier Society for Open Inquiry announced white nationalist Faith Goldy as its first speaker. In the National Review, Elliot Kaufman chided fellow campus conservatives for purposely giving the alt-right a platform in an effort to bait the left into doing something “silly and destructive,” so that they could play “martyrs for free speech on campus” and draw media coverage. “The left-wing riots were not the price or downside of inviting Yiannopoulos,” he wrote. “They were the attraction.”

What’s really amusing is how most of those named like to claim in public that they are soooo liberal and open-minded and prepared to give all sides equal support, yet somehow consistently only side with far-right extremists and centrists, and then misrepresent the left as a reason to dismiss them. Don’t be fooled. The Free Speech Grifters aren’t really about free speech, except as a noble-sounding excuse for their deeply regressive views. I would make two points in response to them.

  • First point: They tend to exaggerate the threat to fundamental liberties of protests. No one goes out to protest free speech: they use their freedom of speech to speak out against oppression and crimes against humanity. The left loves free speech — it’s a tool to use against the corruption and criminality that has taken over our country. Over and over again, we find that universities are hotbeds of liberalism and free speech values, simultaneously.

    But the alarmist case put forward by civil libertarians — that, as the American university has become more open to people of color and women, conservative perspectives have been censored — is empirically false. Poll after poll shows that universities are incredibly tolerant of divergent perspectives, much more so than arguably any other major institution in American culture. A recent survey of college students conducted by FIRE (the very group that has done the most to raise the alarm) indicates that the vast majority of students, including conservatives, feel relatively uninhibited in expressing their views. In response to a question about the appropriate reaction to a speaker who holds repugnant political views, only 2 percent chose “make noise during the speaker’s event so he/she can’t be heard,” and just 1 percent chose “use violent or disruptive actions to prevent the event from occurring.” Generally speaking, American attitudes regarding free speech have held steady, suggesting that college radicals are not altering national opinions of the First Amendment.

    In short, outrage about threats to free speech is overblown. It’s also ahistorical: The college campus — where young people, finding their place in the world, discover that the social order is not as it should be — has always been a breeding ground for protest. Sometimes these student actions displease the self-important graybeards who believe it is their job to police student behavior. Whenever there is student protest, there will be those who see it as a threat to American norms. (Gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan won the support of a majority of California voters in the 1960s by calling student protests “contrary to our standards of human behavior.”) And sometimes the demonstrations are uncivil and illiberal. But the long view shows us that campus-level revolts are not a threat to liberal values like free speech.

    But why would the Dave Rubins and Bill Mahers and CH Sommers of the world want to exaggerate “outrage about threats to free speech”? Because free speech is only a stalking horse to them, allowing them to slide oppressive talking points into the discourse under the banner of something the majority already favors.

  • Second point: the protests have been working. The right has to be feeling a bit of panic, because while they were all over the news and getting a lot of PR, their tactics haven’t been successful at all, and instead have inspired a strong backlash. They would love to stomp down the protests that give some individuals notoriety and press attention, but in the long run that attention is going to lead to their downfall. Milo Yiannopoulos, anyone? But also, the alt-right can’t handle the pressure.

    It’s a good time to offer an observation: on the terms it set itself, antifascist organizing in the United States has worked.

    Consider the failure of Spencer’s long-planned address at Michigan State University. Though it was spring break, students and organized antifascist groups showed up to protest, and Spencer gave his pitch for a white ethnostate to an almost empty auditorium. He issued 150 tickets, but only managed to get 20 people along. Spencer himself blamed the protesters for the event’s failure, just as he is blaming them for his movement’s declining ability to muster any numbers in public.

    And that non-event was not an outlier. The same weekend, a planned alt-right conference in Detroit fell apart after venues pulled out under public pressure and one of the organizers, lawyer Kyle Bristow, announced he was leaving the movement. Various “March 4 Trump” events around the country, featuring alt-right contingents, were also small, and met with significant counterprotests.

    Other events in the latter half of last year were also poorly executed and sparsely attended. On a recent podcast, Spencer said the movement was “in a dark place”. And it has been put there by those determined to oppose it.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say we’re winning — the right has managed to scramble their way into power, and are busily knocking apart the physical and cultural infrastructure of the United States to keep their electorate, the poor and ignorant, on their side — but what the evidence does say is…DON’T STOP. Keep hammering on the right. Protest. March in the streets. The alt-right are actually weak and not as bright as they think, so those tactics of vocally speaking out (you know, free speech) actually work, because what we’re fighting for is right.

There are embers of optimism glowing in the ashes. Keep fanning them into flame.

That’s quite the just-so story you’re selling, Atlantic

Are your eyes in need of a little rolling exercise? Get ready to read The Evolutionary Case for Great Fiction. Here’s how it begins:

Picture this: It’s 45,000 years ago and a small Pleistocene clan is gathered by a campfire. The night is bone cold and black and someone—let’s call him Ernest—begins telling a story.

Lips waxy with boar grease, Ernest boasts of his morning hunt. He details the wind in the grass, the thick clouds overhead, the long plaintive wail of the boar as his spear swiftly entered its heart.

The clan is riveted.

Among them sits a moody, brilliant devotee of campfire stories. Every now and then she pipes up to praise or decimate a tale. Tonight she says, “Excellent work. Unsurpassed.” Ernest breathes a sigh of relief.

Let’s call the girl Michiko.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ridge, there’s another tribe, where John is telling his hunting story. Except he sucks, and the story falls flat, and everyone shrugs and goes to bed.

And then, later, John’s tribe goes extinct. The end.

That’s it. No evidence, no data, no actual measurements of any survival benefit to storytelling, one invented number (is there a benefit to good storytelling? “If it increases your offspring by only 1%—yes”), and the author comes to the conclusion that good stories enhances survival and makes the talespinner sexy (well, an author would say that, wouldn’t they?)

It is literally a just-so story, and nothing more. Nothing. It’s someone sitting at a keyboard fantasizing about how important their writing skills are on an evolutionary scale, and inventing a series of rationalizations.

It’s terrible.

I guess I’m going to have to predict the imminent extinction of every member of the tribe who writes for the Atlantic, if this story were true.

By the way, after being named, Michiko doesn’t appear in the story any more. The first critic, and she doesn’t even make it to the next page.

Join the Outrage Brigade today!

Are you one of those people who, when your sense of justice is offended, simply sit quiet and avoid rocking the boat? Do you always defer to authority, even when they’re clearly wrong? Are you one of those people who enjoy pointing and screeching at outsiders doing things against your sensibilities, but when a member of your in-group does exactly the same thing, you look away? Do you judge whether someone is right by how popular they are?

Then go away. You don’t get to join the Outrage Brigade, and you haven’t earned this nifty sticker, which you can get by donating to Secular Women Work.

I am a proud member of the Outrage Brigade, but don’t accept my say-so. Join because you feel the rage in your bones.

I look forward to Jordan Peterson’s inevitable decline into dishonorable obscurity

Partly because I’m growing tired of the frequent puncturings of his obvious lunacy, even the well-written ones, because he and his fanboys just keep blithering on. The latest, though, by Pankaj Mishra in the New York Review of Books, seems to have had some effect — Peterson is raging on Twitter and threatening to slap him. You know, that “underlying threat of physicality” that Peterson believes to be a necessary part of our social interactions.

I sympathize. If I met Mishra, I’d have to get physical too, and shake his hand.

Closer examination, however, reveals Peterson’s ageless insights as a typical, if not archetypal, product of our own times: right-wing pieties seductively mythologized for our current lost generations.

Peterson himself credits his intellectual awakening to the Cold War, when he began to ponder deeply such “evils associated with belief” as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, and became a close reader of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. This is a common intellectual trajectory among Western right-wingers who swear by Solzhenitsyn and tend to imply that belief in egalitarianism leads straight to the guillotine or the Gulag. A recent example is the English polemicist Douglas Murray who deplores the attraction of the young to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and wishes that the idea of equality was “tainted by an ideological ordure equivalent to that heaped on the concept of borders.” Peterson confirms his membership of this far-right sect by never identifying the evils caused by belief in profit, or Mammon: slavery, genocide, and imperialism.

Reactionary white men will surely be thrilled by Peterson’s loathing for “social justice warriors” and his claim that divorce laws should not have been liberalized in the 1960s. Those embattled against political correctness on university campuses will heartily endorse Peterson’s claim that “there are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men.” Islamophobes will take heart from his speculation that “feminists avoid criticizing Islam because they unconsciously long for masculine dominance.” Libertarians will cheer Peterson’s glorification of the individual striver, and his stern message to the left-behinds (“Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark.”). The demagogues of our age don’t read much; but, as they ruthlessly crack down on refugees and immigrants, they can derive much philosophical backup from Peterson’s sub-chapter headings: “Compassion as a vice” and “Toughen up, you weasel.”

Peterson’s response:

Yeah, if those quotes were attributed to me, I’d be pissed off, too.

There is such a thing as a stupid question

Here’s click-baity title it’s hard to resist: Science Still Can’t Explain This Biological Mystery, But Scientists Like to Pretend Otherwise. Oooh. What is that “biological mystery”? I want to know!

It’s a bad sign, though, when the author has to strain to stave off criticism before he gets around to spilling the beans.

Those of us who embrace science are growing increasingly impatient with religious and spiritual traditions. To us, absolute faith in claims scribed by backwards people thousands of years ago is delusional. We think it’s time for the faithful to get over themselves. The culture wars will end when it finally does. We’re waiting, though not patiently, because much is at stake.

Much is indeed at stake, but we’re actually waiting for the scientific to get over themselves. I say this as an atheist fully committed to science as the best method yet for discovering the nature of reality.

“I’m an atheist, so you know you can trust me” (oops, no, I can’t), “now you scientists better address my demands!” OK, I know who needs to get over themselves, and it isn’t the scientists here.

But finally, what is the mystery?

Between science and faith, I think faith is te more honest about what the scientific community seems perversely averse to explaining: Organisms: what they are and how they emerge from chemistry. Scientists explain organisms away or simply assume them without explaining them. At least the faithful recognize that life’s purposefulness needs explaining, even though their explanation is no explanation at all.

Organisms? One broad, very general word, and we have to explain it to him? Try this. Go up to a plumber, and say “Pipes. Pipes are a mystery. You can’t explain them to me.” Or a refrigerator repairman: “I am confused by cold. Explain it. I think religion is more honest than physics in describing temperature.” What can you say? And he does go on and on trying to emphasize his ignorance — he’s not much different from Bill O’Reilly saying, “Tide goes in, tide goes out, you can’t explain that.” He even has his very own quaint definition of what an organism is.

Unlike inanimate things, organisms engage in functional, fitted effort. Effort is purposeful work, an organism trying to achieve what is functional – of value to it, fitted or representative of its circumstances. Effort value and representation only make sense with respect to organisms. Organisms try to benefit themselves given their environment. Inanimate things don’t.

I’m just going to have to short-circuit this whole argument. The author, Jeremy Sherman, has simply reified the word “organism” to mean something discrete and unitary — it’s a thing that functions. That’s not very useful, especially since he’s setting it up as thing that cannot have a predecessor.

To a biologist, an organism is an integrated complex of replicating chemical reactions. It’s chemistry. The search for some vital distinction between chemistry and biology is over, there isn’t one, and they simply grade into one another. Sherman is erecting an imaginary wall and telling us we can’t get past it, but all the scientists are looking at him and wondering why they should take this challenge at all seriously — show us that there is a wall, don’t ask us to prove your fantasy is non-existent.

So look at viruses. Just chemistry, right? A bit of nucleic acid, a protein and carbohydrate coat. But they replicate, are functional, and are “fit” (I’m not sure that the “fitted” Sherman is talking about is at all similar to the “fitness” a biologist would discuss) in that some viruses are better at replicating than others. We can replicate RNA with just a nucleic acid strand, an enzyme, and a few cofactors.

Sherman nags that scientists have to get over themselves and come up with an explanation that satisfies him. The thing is, though, that lots of scientists are working on origin of life research, and are asking more sensible questions than “Organisms? WTF?”.

Seriously. Mr Sherman needs to get over himself and try reading any of the wealth of books on the subject. It’s not as if there is a shortage of scientists writing in an informed way about the origin of life comprehensibly for the public.

“Shameless” implies that there is something to be ashamed of

This story bugs me: it argues that Stormy Daniels is just like Donald Trump in shamelessness. I can agree that her tactics are interesting and she has a good chance of smacking Trump upside the head, but implicit in the story is the idea that she ought to be ashamed, and her refusal puts her in the same plane as Trump. So the story contrasts her with the respectable women who have accused the president of harassment.

Many of the women alleging that Trump victimized them (which Daniels, by the way, does not) have proceeded by insisting on their own respectability: They want nothing from him; they simply spoke up because they’d been harassed or assaulted by a presidential candidate, and they wanted to do the right thing. The Trump campaign’s response was to characterize his accusers as attention-hungry profit-seekers. In one case, he implied that she was too ugly to harass.

OK, but why shouldn’t they have insisted on their respectability? They did nothing wrong. The only thing that prevented them from being effective is the complicity of the media, who have been very willing to downplay women’s concerns. Those characterizations by the Trump campaign should have been a whole big story on their own, and should have brought him down. They weren’t, and they didn’t.

But Stormy Daniels is “different” than other women. She’s shameless.

Stormy Daniels is immune to these attacks. Just as Trump bragged about not paying a dime in taxes — “that makes me smart,” he said during one presidential debate — Daniels is open about her desire to profit. Why wouldn’t she? She says she has a story to sell, and she’s 100 percent open about her desire to sell it. She’s the only person in this story as shameless as the president himself. And the White House is reeling as a result.

It’s a truism at this point that Trump benefited from a tiresome double standard. The reality TV star entered an electoral landscape filled with intelligent and image-conscious suits who understood respectability as the sine qua non of political viability. Trump refused to be respectable. He embraced his image as a corny, narcissistic, overtanned procurer of women’s bodies, and twirled and winked at the mountain of crimes and improprieties he stood accused of. It worked: No single charge could stick for very long. Particularly — and this is the nub — because he didn’t seem to mind. For a scandal to stick to someone, they have to worry about it. Trump may talk endlessly about people “laughing” at the United States, but when it comes to his own image, he has the lifelong rich man’s imperviousness to the opinions of the poor. That has protected him from scandal. His narcissism only extends to those he sees as equals or superiors; everyone else is expendable.

Every point there is correct, but it’s just the bias that bothers me. Daniels is open and honest about her career as a sex worker, and she should be. She has nothing to be ashamed of — she hasn’t lied and swindled and trampled over others (I assume — I suppose she could be the Donald Trump of the porn industry, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest it). To claim that she is shameless implies that she has something to be ashamed of, which assumes that sex work is automatically disgraceful.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, is a corrupt liar who is doing his damnedest to wreck the country, and is engaged in shameful behavior — he is harming people, and harming the nation, which Daniels is not doing. This is not about shamelessness, it’s about honesty, and in that regard Daniels and Trump are completely different.