Egnorance, political propaganda, and transphobia

I should be linking to others on FtB more often — there’s good stuff here. I just take it for granted that you’re all looking at the groovy stuff on the sidebar, as I am, so I’ll just mention a few things that jumped out at me this morning.

  • What the heck is wrong with neurosurgeons? I know Ben Carson has been making a fool of himself lately, but it’s easy to forget (please do) about Michael Egnor, the dogmatic neurosurgeon laboring to make intelligent design look even more foolish. Egnor is now asserting without evidence that only humans are capable of this intangible thing called “reason”. Wrong.

    Of course, if you understand the theory of evolution, you realize his claim is likely to be utter nonsense. Abstract thinking is not a black-white thing; it’s a range of capabilities that, even among people, we see a huge variation in. Any capability with huge variation is subject to selection, and so it can evolve. Since people are descended from earlier ape-like creatures, it is quite believable that non-human animals would also display the ability for abstract thought, in varying degrees. And they do! Ethologists, who actually study this kind of thing, disagree with Egnor. (Also see baboons and crows, to name just a couple more examples.)

    Hey, I know my cat is cunningly scheming all the time. She’s lying on a futon next to me right now, and she has all kinds of strategems for tricking me into serving her desires.

  • You’ve probably heard that the NY Times has been fluffing Hope Hicks, who has been subpoenaed to testify about her former employer, the Trump administration. According to Maggie Haberman, apparently the decision to comply is an “existential question” which can only be answered with some flattering portrait photography. I have a better answer to that question: ask your lawyer, and do what they say. They’ll tell you that noncompliance isn’t an option. This has been a short answer to a stupid question.
    Unfortunately, that the “newspaper of record” even considers this a worthy question tells us that the NY Times is not on the side of the people.

    The anti-democratic limits on acceptable discourse accepted and propounded by the Times must be opposed. The Times and Haberman and her editors are not worthless. Ignoring the Times is not a principled and logical and effective way to deal with their anti-democratic trolling. Instead, the Times must be countered each and every time they embrace the ideology of an accountability-free elite. We must never forget that the Times isn’t portraying the Trump administration as wise and sympathetic philosophers working to divine the best possible response to problems of Gordian convolution and unsolvability. The upper ranks of the Times (including Haberman and her editors) are portraying the Trump administration as wise and sympathetic philosophers because they, too, believe themselves better off in a world without accountability for the US elite.

    It’s easy to condemn Fox News as a propaganda organ for the Republicans. It’s distressing to see that the NY Times is, too.

  • The latest controversy that is roiling the atheist community is that a YouTuber, Rationality Rules, made a video about transgender athletes that was a seething mass of boiling bullshit — it was wrong on the facts, made up “facts”, cited Joe Rogan as an authority, and made a sweeping (and false) conclusion that women’s sports were about to be overwhelmed by a horde of Y-chromosomes taking hormone replacement therapy so that they could pwn the little ladies and win trophies. It was blatant nonsense, demolished Rationality Rules cultivated perception of being a ‘scientific’ observer, and even he was forced to admit that he got some things wrong, although he’s been slow to confess to specifics. The Atheist Community of Austin, which had recently had him on The Atheist Experience, made a statement repudiating his transphobic comments, and that’s when the shit hit the fan.
    Another deep rift has formed, between the people who can clearly see the glaring transphobia in Rationality Rules’ video, and those who have decided that this must be overlooked and forgiven because, dang, he’s such a good atheist defender of reason.
    Oh, jesus, we’ve been here before. Somehow being right about one thing, the nonexistence of gods, means you must be right about everything, especially if you hold poisonously regressive views.

    Anyway, HJ Hornbeck tries to summarize the chaos (there’s more than one video, an apology video, all kinds of vehement denials everywhere), and he’s right that there is one clear conclusion: Rationality Rules made lots of transphobic statements and assumptions. If you’re arguing against that crystal-clear fact, you ought to turn in your Official Skeptical Atheist card. If you’re arguing that such attitudes are acceptable, please stay on your side of the rift.


  1. raven says

    Egnor is now asserting without evidence that only humans are capable of this intangible thing called “reason”.

    Chimpanzees and some birds can make and use tools and occasionally invent new ones.
    Of course this is nonsense.
    My old cats quickly learned how to open any and all doors.
    They even tried to turn the door knobs but they weren’t quite tall enough.

    This is part of an ancient xian fallacy that humans are somehow special and separate from the rest of the biosphere because we were poofed into existence by a magic sky fairy.
    We are special just like a centipede with 50 legs is special.
    After all, it does have 46 more limbs than a human.

  2. Sean Boyd says

    My parents had a couple of puppies they got from a friend. We named them Muttly and Scotty. Muttly was hyper and prone to run off barking at the slighest provocation. Scotty was a much quieter dog, with two other traits I noticed: he was a bit lazy, and he loved eating. The laziness manifested itself, in other ways, in him propping his leg up on whatever he was urinating on…he’d learned it was less effort that way, I guess.

    The eating, though, is what made me wonder (this was over 30 years ago) what thinking was like for dogs. He and Muttly were eating their dinner. Scotty had finished eating when, very uncharacteristically, he started barking and moving towards the kitchen door, which was open. Muttly, completely in character, wents nuts and bolted out into the yard like a bat out of hell, barking all the way. As soon as Muttly passed Scotty, Scotty stopped, turned, returned to where Muttly had been picking at his food, and finished up Muttly’s dinner as well. I was laughing too hard to stop him, and it was hard for me to see this as Scotty reasoning out that he’d just earned himself seconds.

  3. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    As far as Rationality Rules: I’ve been following the interaction between him and Essence of Thought, a trans atheist YouTuber who is really careful, erudite and radical all at the same time. I hope folks subscribe to EoT, she is great! Anyways, EoT ate Rationality Rules for breakfast.

  4. says

    I agree about EoT. Unfortunately, right now they are the target of a hate campaign by Rationality Rules’ zealous defenders.

  5. says

    Cross posted from the Political Madness All the Time thread.

    From Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in relation to media coverage of the subpoenas requiring Hope Hicks to testify before congressional committees:

    What gets me is news breaks that this woman is weighing committing a crime before Congress & it’s getting framed by the NYT as some Lifetime drama called “Hope’s Choice.”
    This is a fmr admin official considering participating in a coverup led by the President.
    Treat her equally. […] when Hope Hicks considers not complying w a subpoena, it’s glamour shot time.

    From Soledad O’Brien:

    This is a good example of bias in the @nytimes: a picture of a person who is considering not complying with a subpoena is basically a glam shot, and it’s framed as a thoughtful, perfectly equal choice.

    From Jamil Smith:

    There is nothing for Hope Hicks to “decide.” She got a subpoena from Congress. Were she not white, wealthy, and connected, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. She would appear, or she would face the threat of prison like the rest of us. As she should.

    From Imani Gandy:

    I totally get Hope Hicks’ dilemma. Right now I’m facing the existential question “should I rob a bank?”

    I’m ready for my glam shot now if I could just get this fake eyelash glue right dagnabbit

  6. kome says

    The trans-phobia attitude in the context of sports is particularly strange to me. Do transphobes really think that men are so profoundly and utterly insecure and in constant need of being validated as the best in the world that they’d undergo hormonal therapy to change their physiology and undergo societal ostracism, condemnation, and violence just for a chance to win (and I say chance to win because trans athletes have been competing in sports for quite a few years now and the gold medals and world records are not even close to predominantly held by trans individuals)?

    I mean, straight cis white men are incredibly insecure about everything, but their typical MO for establishing their dominance is to just pretend they’re already the bestest best bests who ever bested, and actively keep everyone else out so they never have to actually prove they have the value they claim to have.

  7. microraptor says

    kome @10: I don’t think they actually believe it. I think they’re just using it as a convenient new dog whistle. They don’t actually care about fairness in women’s sports, they don’t even care about women’s sports to begin with. It’s just a convenient way of tricking people into agreeing with their hate.

  8. kome says

    @11 microraptor:
    Oh, I fully agree. Like with transphobic bathroom bills and the like. It’s a surface-level argument that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in any rational or empirical sense. I just think it’s sometimes worthwhile to see what necessarily is entailed by such a stupid argument, to help highlight just how stupid the argument is.

    Kinda like a lot of anti-feminist and racist arguments, lurking slightly below the surface of every one of their arguments is an assumption about just how awful and pathetic men or white people really are that must be true in order for the surface-level argument to have anything resembling validity.

  9. lotharloo says

    The rationality rules video popped on my youtube recommendation out of nowhere and I had no idea who the hell he was. But I watched it anyways and the video was stupid as fuck and also weaksauce on logic. However, since then he has made a statement that where he said his views has changed and that he had made ignorant arguments and he is working on a video to clarify things. If he backs off, that is to his credit. The EoT response video was excellent though, even though it does not have the “polish” of the rationality rules videos.

  10. zetopan says

    The irony of Michael Egnor, who is totally incapable of using critical reasoning, claiming that only humans can reason will forever be lost on the entire ID crowd. Are humans also the only species
    that are addicted to trying to rationalize irrationalism in the manner of professional religionists?

  11. Hj Hornbeck says

    microraptor @11:

    I don’t think they actually believe it. I think they’re just using it as a convenient new dog whistle.

    kome @12:

    Oh, I fully agree. Like with transphobic bathroom bills and the like. It’s a surface-level argument that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in any rational or empirical sense.

    I’m in the same camp as you two, and I expect you’ll hear the athletics talking point used a lot more in future.

    lotharloo @13:

    However, since then he has made a statement that where he said his views has changed and that he had made ignorant arguments and he is working on a video to clarify things. If he backs off, that is to his credit.

    He’s just posted that video, so you can decide for yourself.

  12. lotharloo says

    @Hj Hornbeck:
    Meh, I guess it’s better than what I expected. He is still a bit too defensive and makes a big deal out of “malice that has been attributed to him” but he also he apologized, delisted the previous video and he said he donated the ad revenue to a trans charity. I did only watch will half point though.

  13. whisperit says

    On human exceptionalism, I’ve read a nuimber of authors coming from a philosophical or animals rights perspective that I’ve found disappointingly light on research evidence. But Frans de Waals’ recent books are a brilliant antidote, based as they are on his own long history as a primatologist. No doubt everyone here is familiar with the TED talks and clips showing primates’ enthusiasm for ‘fairness’, but if you haven’t already read them, I would enthusiastically recommend his recent “Mama’s Last Hug’ on animal emotion.It makes a cast iron case demonstrating that our common ancestry extends beyond the physical.

  14. Daniel says

    Please do look at EssebceOfThought’s responses. They have been tracking the events in detail and explain why Rationality Rule’s “apology” is more of an non-apology in the context of his wider behavior surrounding this issue. If you just watch is apology it may seem like he “gets it”, which is contradicted by many of his other actions.

    Related to this: As I understand it there has been a walk-out at the ACA over this issue, after they retracted their initial support for trans people. You may want to keep an eye on their page here of FtB, to make sure they uphold FtB values going forward.

  15. Daniel says

    @17. whisperit
    I don’t know what animal rights you’ve been reading earlier, but the cast iron evidence has existed in ethology for ages. I’m glad you’ve found something that speaks to you. But I find it literally incredible that there are people who can, for example, get to know a dog/cat/pig/dog/etc. and doubt that they have emotions similar to ours and have an ability to figure out stuff about the world. Like… are there actually people who believe that?

    I mean, even the most ardent anti-vegans generally the need to insist that animals are “treated well” in the industry. Which of course is complete hogwash, but the need to tell that lie indicates that even they know that many non-human animals can and do suffer. As an animal rights activist I’ve never had to actively “defend” that position, since it can be taken as fact beyond dispute that “everyone” already is onboard with.

    Or what exactly is it we’re talking about?

    In my experience, what people tend to argue over (in ethology and beyond), is the different abilities of organisms that are significantly different from us in terms of emotional expression. For example fish and different invertebrates. But even there, people have found creative ways to torture fish and show that they can they can make them suffer. For example:

  16. kome says

    Um… how does one person winning a title demonstrate that an entire group of people have any advantage over any other entire group of people?

    Trans people represent, at a rather high estimate, just about 1% of the population. When trans athletes start consistently and regularly getting more than, say, 3% of all gold medals, world records, and championship titles, then maybe we can revisit the conversation about possible advantages. Until then, some records here and there are what we would EXPECT under the null hypothesis that there is no inherent advantage of trans people over cis people in athletic competition.

  17. starfleetdude says


    It’s not about the entire group of people, but about the group(s) competing as athletes. For one, it’s certainly not about trans-men, who because of their sex being female have no advantage over male athletes after they transition. This case of the trans-woman who just a few years ago was competing as a male at a fairly high level in NCAA Division II track and field events – even if you’re rated in the 300s you’re still vastly better than the general population – is one that mirrors the fact that male athletes do outperform female athletes, which is why there are two separate classes of competition based on sex in the first place. As for waiting for more evidence to come in, we already know that males have physiological advantages over females when it comes to speed and strength. So the question more properly is whether or not this natural male advantage can be negated by transitioning.

  18. says


    So the question more properly is whether or not this natural male advantage can be negated by transitioning.

    Is it? Is that really the only question?

    But let’s for a moment assume that it is the only question: do you have any research showing that elite athletes who transition have a competitive advantage over elite who do not transition. The last time we went round about this, you didn’t. My guess is that you still don’t.

    MOREOVER, you ignore the fact that elite athletes pick the sport that best suits their body types. The women who compete in the Olympic biathlon are freaking INCREDIBLE athletes, but there’s not one of them that could compete in Olympic gymnastics. With transition happening after skeletal growth, things like arm length and height won’t change. This means that if you have the muscle fibers that work best in a fast-paced game like basketball, you lucked out. You can still use your height, though it’s unlikely that you have any advantage over women of similar height (again, if you have evidence feel free to actually bring it). However, if you have the right genes to compete as a gymnast, you’ll never get your chance since women’s olympic gymnastic careers are over by age 20. What this means is that advantage post-transition, even if it exists, is very much a sport-by-sport quality. Proof that an advantage exists in the giant slalom is unlikely to say anything about whether an advantage exists figure skating or weight lifting or judo.

    The “natural male advantage” isn’t one.

    There are statistical advantages to the class of male persons in some sports, but there are statistical disadvantages in others. Thus even if you were right about the question, you’d have to consider sports individually, which you don’t. You argue against reality when you argue that there is a single “natural male advantage”, and you argue from anecdote, which is to say irrationally, when you argue that individual champions prove that elite MtF athletes gain a post-transition competitive advantage. The best that an argument from anecdote can do is prove that there exists a phenomenon that we can then decide to study, if it’s important. So having proved that elite trans athletes exist and sometimes win, you still have nothing like proof of any “natural male advantage” that determines outcome when trans* athletes compete.

    So bring your proof …

    … except it doesn’t fucking matter, does it? Because we know that whether or not natural male advantage can be negated by transitioning, that’s not the fundamental question. How do we know that?

    For one, it’s certainly not about trans-men, who because of their sex being female have no advantage over male athletes after they transition.

    Why isn’t it about trans* men? Why aren’t you concerned about non-trans men having an unfair competitive advantage over trans* men?

    You don’t give a fuck about fairness. You give a fuck about hating on trans people. When trans* people have it good, bash ’em down. When trans people have it bad, you don’t give the first fuck, because that’s just life, innit?

    When you start caring about the competitive advantage non-trans men have over trans* men, I’ll start thinking you’re not a troll.

  19. kome says


    Your response is, frankly, incoherent. First, you are simultaneously saying that it’s not about groups of people but it’s about groups of people. Like, that doesn’t make any sense.

    Secondly, of course it’s not about any perceived threat that trans-men pose because the entire narrative is framed around how weak women are relative to men. Trans men do not pose any threat to that narrative. It’s not about fairness or competition or anything. If it was about actual fairness, then the argument should also just as vehemently be against trans men because their competing in men’s sports would be unfair to them. The fact that the issue is never framed around what’s fair with regards to trans men competing in athletics is demonstrative of how little the conversation is about concepts of fairness. Further, the “fairness” nonsense argument completely ignores the diversity within a given group unfairly advantages some individuals over others. It’s unfair to expect LeBron James and Isaiah Thomas to have any sort of fair basketball competition against each other when James is 11 inches taller than Thomas. And we know for a fact (a) height is a serious advantage in basketball and (b) height has very strong genetic components. So…….. yea. By keeping the focus entirely on trans women, it allows for what can only be a pretentious and facile argument to mask the root argument, which can only be reification of the perception of women as essentially inferior to men.

    Third, your response to the question of evidence is non sequitur. Trans athletes have been competing for over a decade and a half now at all level of sports in many parts of the world. They do not appear to be winning the top honors in any given event at a rate that is disproportionate to their prevalence in the population. You are asserting a general claim about group-level differences (none of which have any bearing on predicting any given individual’s capability, by the by; see the above analogy to James and Thomas in basketball) as evidence of a specific claim for which we have over a decade’s worth of contradictory evidence (i.e. the lack of disproportionate top honors for trans athletes).

    Fourth, your JAQing off about whether your alleged advantage that men have over women can be negated is in direct contradiction to your earlier comment that a trans athlete winning a title is evidence that trans people have unfair advantages in athletics. What is shows is that you’re simply arguing in bad faith.

    You’re ignoring evidence because it’s convenient to the rhetoric you’re trying to convince yourself is true to justify a belief you’ve already developed before you gave any real thought to the issue, seemingly oblivious to how your rhetoric is internally incoherent on top of being empirically unsubstantiated.

  20. lotharloo says

    Also, there are a lot of factors that go into success at competitive sports other than physical: having the will and tenacity to constantly practice, to mentally overcome setbacks, to have the other aspects of life under control and so on. It is likely that a person who could manage these as a man and succeed, can do the same as s woman too.