Jesus, the biologist

Oh, joy…yet another bible-walloping lackwit claiming that god hates gay marriage…and this time he claims to have a biological justification.

“You only have 15 percent of the middle who are hypocrites, who think, Jesus is cool, but I don’t agree with how he defined marriage,” Klingenschmitt said. “When Jesus talks about one flesh, he’s really being a scientist, he’s being a biologist. Because he realizes and he’s articulating simple biology, that when a sperm and an egg form together, they match in a zygote and a new DNA is formed and it becomes one new human flesh.”

“[W]e’re not reading our biology textbooks,” the former chaplain added.

“Which were written by Jesus, as you say,” Pakman pointed out. “Jesus was a biologist.”

“Well, he defined marriage between one man and one women, becoming one zygote, becoming one flesh,” Klingenschmitt insisted. “And that’s the only way in the next 100 years that humans are going to be able to procreate. If you get two men together and they mate, they’re not going to have a baby. If you get three women and a dog together, and they all mate together, they’re not going to have a baby.”

Wait, wait there. I can read Matthew 19 just as well as Satan can, and that’s where he claims Jesus is discussing biology. Here’s the relevant passage:

And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,

And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?

Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.

Jesus is talking about the man and woman becoming “one flesh”, not sperm and egg. He also doesn’t mention zygote even once.

He’s not describing fertilization at all. That’s the plot of The Human Centipede!

Yet another case of anti-atheist discrimination in Tacoma

The incredibly talented and pleasant Shelley Segal is going to appear in Tacoma, Washington! You should go, every time I’ve heard her I’ve enjoyed it. Only thing is, the venue that was originally booked suddenly pulled out (at least this one gave advance notice!)

We had originally booked a coffee and ale shop called Anthem in the middle of downtown Tacoma. It was a new venue (for us), the staff was incredibly friendly, and it looked like the perfect all ages venue for a show like this. We discussed doing the event there, and they were on board.

That fell apart this morning, when I received an email from the booking folks. It was a polite, professional email, but the intent was very clear. I’ll quote the relevant part:

This isn’t something that we feel comfortable promoting or hosting because it doesn’t align with what we believe and stand for.

Anthem Beverage & Bistro, Tacoma

Additionally, the CC field included an address at “Eternity Bible College,” something that wasn’t in the original thread. So, we we’ve been booted from the venue, and they wanted us to know why.

Man, Christianity ruins everything, doesn’t it? Strangely the coffeeshop has a statement of vision and values that nowhere mentions obedience to fundagelical bullshit, and instead babbles about “integrity” and “community” and stuff that the atheist community also values…but apparently they’re all talk, no action.

They have a yelp page, but since they did at least give the organizers a little time to find a new venue and didn’t pocket any profits, they aren’t quite as vile as Oklahoma Joe’s. You might drop a note there about their hidden Christian agenda, though.

What you should definitely do, though, is give your custom to Doyle’s Public House, the new venue. You should especially go there this Sunday, 14 April, at 5pm to see Shelley Segal in a free show!

Head and heart, atheists

Talk about sucking all the motivation out of me…I was all primed to write today about this Islamophobia nonsense that is still going around. It seems to be the latest bogus argument against atheism: why, atheists are just all bigots who hate Muslims, the complainers say, instead of actually addressing the fact that religion a) lacks a truthful foundation, b) lacks any method for investigating the accuracy of its claims, and c) uses that lack of evidence to excuse the most odious social behaviors. While there certainly are islamophobic individuals, to claim that this is the primary motivation for New Atheism is simply ridiculous and contrary to everything the major proponents (I refuse to call them “leaders”) of this movement have written.

And then Sam Harris wrote his response to the controversy.

I just give up. And not in a good way, mind…I think he shot himself in the foot again. He has made a set of arguments that completely ignore what the critics have been saying and don’t rebut much of anything at all.

First off, beginning by accusing all of your critics of being bigoted poopyheads for calling you a bigoted poopyhead…not a good move.

A general point about the mechanics of defamation: It is impossible to effectively defend oneself against unethical critics. If nothing else, the law of entropy is on their side, because it will always be easier to make a mess than to clean it up. It is, for instance, easier to call a person a “racist,” a “bigot,” a “misogynist,” etc. than it is for one’s target to prove that he isn’t any of these things. In fact, the very act of defending himself against such accusations quickly becomes debasing. Whether or not the original charges can be made to stick, the victim immediately seems thin-skinned and overly concerned about his reputation. And, rebutted or not, the original charges will be repeated in blogs and comment threads, and many readers will assume that where there’s smoke, there must be fire.

If calling Sam Harris a “racist” is a low blow and unfair and difficult to disprove, what about calling people “unethical”? I don’t think Glenn Greenwald is unethical at all; I think he has been a consistent and ethical proponent of liberal and progressive values throughout his career. He has not shown the kind of frothing derangement at confronting atheists that Chris Hedges has shown, for instance. Greenwald objects to things Harris has written, and explains why. Harris does seem thin-skinned. He has said a few things that many others disagree with, me included, and to get upset at principled disagreement on those matters reeks a bit of objecting to any criticism at all.

I don’t think Harris is islamophobic, but I disagree on other things, and for disagreeing with him on racial profiling and agreeing that the atheist movement is not perfect, I got labeled “odious”, “unscrupulous”, a “troll”, and responsible for distorting his views and damaging his reputation. The mechanics of defamation can work both ways, Dr Harris, and you seem to be very capable of it yourself, while simultaneously placing your affronted dignity on a pedestal and being outraged that anyone would question it. Defending your views would look less thin-skinned if you weren’t constantly prefacing your defense with that exasperated sigh that it is so unfair and demeaning that you have to do so.

It’s just more footshooting. And then, for further target practice on distal digits, the third paragraph is a beautifully written, lucid distillation of exactly what annoys many people about Harris. He’s got a real talent for this.

Such defamation is made all the easier if one writes and speaks on extremely controversial topics and with a philosopher’s penchant for describing the corner cases—the ticking time bomb, the perfect weapon, the magic wand, the mind-reading machine, etc.—in search of conceptual clarity. It literally becomes child’s play to find quotations that make the author look morally suspect, even depraved.

Aaargh. That’s the whole problem. Look, Spock is a caricature, not a paragon; retreating behind the fog of philosophical abstraction is precisely the kind of behavior that has given atheists a bad name. When talking about profiling people to improve airport security, forget about the fact that it is targeting human beings for special indignities. When talking about the possibility that torture might work sometimes, forget about the reality of human beings causing and receiving dehumanizing agony. When considering the possibility that Muslim fanatics might get nuclear weapons, argue that we might just be justified in vaporizing millions of human beings to prevent that possibility.

There’s a place for playing philosophical games when thinking about trolleys and vats and logic puzzles, but when it comes down to real world thinking, reducing hugely complex problems to simplified abstractions does not provide clarity at all, only confusion and false conclusions. Right now, this country is facing the consequences (well, a good portion of the country is trying to ignore the consequences) of this kind of robotic pseudophilosophical argument. We had people making rationalizations for all-out warfare against a country that we claimed to be a clear and present danger on the basis of having weapons of mass destruction, that we argued was ruled by a brutal dictator who should be prevented from doing more harm, and on the basis of those widely promoted “corner cases”, we murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians, shattered a country’s infrastructure and opened it up to corporate exploitation, and drained our finances dry pouring more and more cash and blood into a brutal war.

You do not get to make these cold calculations while leaving out the human element — the fact that we atheists, as a people supposedly dedicated to reality and truth and respect for the potential of the human mind, can so callously dismiss personal experience and the lives of the people at the heart of these hypothetic scenarios and thought experiments is precisely the reason their author is so easily made to look “morally suspect, even depraved.”

Harris does a good job of bringing up the fuller context of some of the quotes that he feels have been excerpted to misinterpret him, but he seems incapable of recognizing that what he considers a justification merely compounds the problem. Somehow, the moral calculus only goes one way. We are allowed to contemplate (in a rarefied philosophical way, of course) bombing or torturing or isolating people who have a slim chance of contributing to harm to us, but somehow we never consider that perhaps the people on the other side are making the very same calculation, considering that they are amply justified in bombing or torturing or isolating those privileged Westerners, because we might harm them.

And sadly, they have better empirical evidence of real threat.

Now I’m not excusing terrorist actions. Quite the opposite: I reject them unambiguously and fault them for failing to appreciate the humanity of their opponents. And if I do that, I cannot fail to similarly reject such actions taken to protect my side. No excuse can justify nuking or torturing my people, so no excuse can justify nuking or torturing anyone else…especially considering that the United States has more blood on its hands than any other nation.

This is not the time to invent elaborate philosophical justifications for abhorrent actions — it is time to unhesitatingly reject them, to express our grief and shame and horror at these options. It is not enough to bloodlessly pretend it’s a philospher’s penchant. We need to consider the human cost, and weight that most heavily.

Harris’s ability to distance himself from everything and view people’s personal pain dispassionately, as he does in all of his responses, is what’s hurting him, and he doesn’t even seem to be able to recognize it. Even when I share his respect for philosophy and science, I cringe at his inability to express a proper appreciation of the humanity of his subjects. I don’t think he’s a robot, but when he dries up and goes all academic and philosophical, he gives an awfully good impression of one, and I think he makes a lot of his arguments from that arid ground of the abstract, rather than the heart of his humanity. I’d pass along a suggestion from another philosopher who was able to see the importance of the individual:

We have to touch people.

Relax, everyone. It’s only a metaphor.

The Telegraph’s environment denier James Delingpole wants us to know he really doesn’t think environmental scientists and journalists should be executed:

Should Michael Mann be given the electric chair for having concocted arguably the most risibly inept, misleading, cherry-picking, worthless and mendacious graph – the Hockey Stick – in the history of junk science?

Should George Monbiot be hanged by the neck for his decade or so’s hysterical promulgation of the great climate change scam and other idiocies too numerous to mention?

Should Tim Flannery be fed to the crocodiles for the role he has played in the fleecing of the Australian taxpayer and the diversion of scarce resources into pointless projects like all the eyewateringly expensive desalination plants built as a result of his doomy prognostications about water shortages caused by catastrophic anthropogenic global warming?

It ought to go without saying that my answer to all these questions is – *regretful sigh* – no. First, as anyone remotely familiar with the zillion words I write every year on this blog and elsewhere, extreme authoritarianism and capital penalties just aren’t my bag. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it would be counterproductive, ugly, excessive and deeply unsatisfying.

So why does he bring it up?

Indeed, it would be nice to think one day that there would be a Climate Nuremberg. But please note, all you slower trolls beneath the bridge, that when I say Climate Nuremberg I use the phrase metaphorically.

A metaphor, let me explain – I can because I read English at Oxford, dontcha know – is like a simile but stronger.

There’s something that tickles the back of my brain about him using a simile to explain a metaphor by comparison to a simile. Why not go the whole way, and say something like “a metaphor is like a simile because each is analogous to an allegory”?

Anyway, Delingpole was engaging in hyperbole in response to criticism of a paywalled piece of his in The Australian, in which he said:

The climate alarmist industry has some very tough questions to answer: preferably in the defendant’s dock in a court of law, before a judge wearing a black cap.

For those of you not well familiar with the intersection of fashion and British jurisprudence, the black cap is a black square of fabric worn by a judge when ordering an execution. (Which hasn’t happened since 1973.)

I almost certainly need not explain what’s completely criminal about Delingpole’s disingenuous hate speech, whether or not he appends the condescending Oxford grad equivalent of a winking emoticon at the end. Technically speaking, Hutu “journalists” referring to Tutsi people as “cockroaches” was also just a metaphor.

It’s hate speech, plain and simple, uttered with the express intent of riling those who agree with Delingpole to suppress science.

Delingpole should be careful what he pretends he isn’t really wishing for. Life on this planet is likely to get very nasty for a large number of people in the next decades. At some point, as Britain suffers the third or fourth or fifth triple digit summer in as many years, and crops fail and people go hungry and the urban aged drop dead when the power goes out, there may well be calls for a “Climate Nuremberg” — and it’s doubtful that prominent denialist writers who call metaphorically for executing scientists and climate change activists will go unsummoned.

Speaking of terribly rude women…

Now Amina has disappeared.

The 19 year old Tunisian Amina who posted a topless photo of herself with the slogan “my body belongs to me, and is not the source of anyone’s honour” has disappeared. Most likely her family have kidnapped her and taken her to an unknown location, (earlier reports mentioned a psychiatric hospital). What’s clear is that they have removed all forms of communication from her so that she can no longer be reached.

Let’s have a discussion now about how impolitely exposing one’s breasts is a disproportionate response to the dudebros. She should have just had a quiet discussion in private with her imam.

Ars Technica weighs in on Adria Richards, and flaunts a double-standard

Here we go again. The Adria Richards story has settled into a couple of common themes, and Ars echoes the conventional wisdom. I’m very disappointed in this lazy editorial.

First, look at this nonsense:

Let’s start by spreading the blame where it’s deserved: on nearly everyone involved. The “Boy’s Club” mentality is thankfully no longer acceptable in tech, but it’s still common—some people have actually described tech to me as “men’s work.”

It’s no longer acceptable, but it’s common? Huh. Somebody didn’t think about what they were writing. We’ll just announce that the problem is nonexistent, while sweeping the reality of the situation aside.

But I’d like to point out something sneakier. Here’s the common message:

“Forking a repo” and “big dongles” must rank somewhere around “0.5: classless brospeak” on the seismic scale of harassing/menacing behavior toward women. While such sexually inappropriate comments are completely unnacceptable in professional settings (to many men as well as women), neither merits firing unless someone had a history of making unwelcome comments.

I think we all agree 100% that no one ought to have been fired over this incident. The major villains here are the two companies that used this event as an excuse to axe a couple of employees.

But notice what else everyone is saying: what the two guys did was trivial and minor, “‘0.5: classless brospeak’ on the seismic scale of harassing/menacing behavior toward women”. Keep that in mind for a moment. That kind of thing has been said a lot.

Yet these two men don’t get all of the blame. One recurring theme on message boards and chat rooms, including our own, is that while Richards had every right to report the behavior of the two men to conference organizers, snapping their photograph and posting it publicly to “Twitter shame” them was a step too far (speaking of a step too far, there are other, more repugnant recurring themes among commenters, too). They’re right; going public was not the only way Richards could get a relatively minor issue addressed. She could have confronted the two men or she could have gone straight to PyCon. Her actions only escalated the situation.

It’s a “relatively minor issue”. OK, let’s go along with that for a moment…let’s say it really was an inconsequential, negligible faux pas by the two guys. But if that’s the case, what is this bullshit?

…snapping their photograph and posting it publicly to “Twitter shame” them was a step too far…

Was it something to be ashamed of, or not? Was it a horrible, embarrassing thing to publicize, or was it a “relatively minor issue”? You don’t get to have it both ways. Either it was too damaging to make public, or it was a slight affront that shouldn’t seriously affect any of the participants — it was a minute impropriety that was perfectly reasonable to mention on a casual, conversational medium like Twitter.

This is what’s really pissing me off right now: the flagrant dishonesty of all these people having the vapors over someone posting a photo on Twitter and saying someone’s behavior was “not cool”. Jesus. Have they ever fucking used Twitter? It’s non-stop chatter — just today I’ve been accused of being a “Nazi” and of being “evil”. Please, Ars Technica, do your tut-tut routine right now over all the naughty people ‘Twitter shaming’ right and left. Please also express your sadness that thousands of tweets are going up right now ‘Twitter shaming’ Adria Richards in far more outrageous terms than “not cool.”

Are people seriously proposing that somehow Twitter should be policed for manners, and we should start wagging our fingers at people who dare to rebuke others via that medium? If so, half my correspondents are going to have to shut up. This is ridiculous. Richards’ comment was minor, was appropriate, and was addressing a real issue in a reasonable way.

And then there’s this:

In a blog post explaining the story in her own words, Richards wrote about how, over the course of the jokes, she moved from “I was going to let it go” to “I realized I had to do something.” The moment of decision came after seeing a picture of a young girl on the main stage who had attended a Young Coders workshop. “She would never have the chance to learn and love programming,” Richards wrote, “because the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so.”

Clearly, this is hyperbole. These two guys weren’t going to prevent anybody from doing anything. Suddenly, a couple off-color jokes represented all the serious forces that can hold women back from tech careers. While denouncing bad behavior certainly has its place, proportion is important—and this approach to these jokes simply makes it harder to have a sincere discussion about misogyny and men’s/women’s issues in the workplace.

It’s only hyperbole if you misinterpret it. No, I doubt Richards thought these two guys were going to run up on the stage and slap awards off the podium and denounce the young girl being recognized. Richards was referring to a culture that considers those kinds of off-color remarks reasonable in a professional setting. Remember, “it’s still common”. That is what inhibits women from participating in these opportunities.

We’re living in a world where those off-color jokes are dismissed as “classless brospeak”, not worth making a fuss over, while someone tweeting a picture of someone engaging in “classless brospeak” is a disproportionate response, and “makes it harder to have a sincere discussion about misogyny and men’s/women’s issues in the workplace”.

But unwanted sexual innuendo doesn’t? Both men and women make jokes about sex, of course, and there’s a tricky line to be drawn between what’s appropriate and what isn’t, but one of the things I’m seeing all over the place is that in the conversation about where to draw the line, women are expected to shut up; that when they do speak up, however mildly, and say “not cool” or “guys, don’t do that”, boom, the guyverse explodes and denounces the damned uppity woman in either the most furious and violent terms possible, or with polite little suggestions that maybe they should be quieter next time.

But you know, the latter is almost as bad as the former. It’s the privilege of the majority to use politeness to maintain the status quo, while it’s a necessity for the minority to assert the right to offend.

Science makes you good! (Sometimes.)

You’ve probably heard this explanation for the virtue of religion: that even if god doesn’t exist, belief in god (or some other monitoring authority) makes people behave more morally. There have been many experiments that have actually shown that people are nicer or more generous when exposed to religious concepts, such as this one by Norenzayan and Shariff.

In one of their own studies, they primed half the participants with a spirituality-themed word jumble (including the words divine and God) and gave the other half the same task with nonspiritual words. Then, they gave all the participants $10 each and told them that they could either keep it or share their cash reward with another (anonymous) subject. Ultimately, the spiritual-jumble group parted with more than twice as much money as the control. Norenzayan and Shariff suggest that this lopsided outcome is the result of an evolutionary imperative to care about one’s reputation. If you think about God, you believe someone is watching. This argument is bolstered by other research that they review showing that people are more generous and less likely to cheat when others are around. More surprisingly, people also behave better when exposed to posters with eyes on them.

One explanation is that simply alerting people to the possibility of surveillance makes them more careful. God is just the most popular boogeyman.

But here’s an interesting twist on the Norenzayan and Shariff study, with very similar protocols. Ma-Kellams and Blascovich also had subjects do a word scramble before sharing a money reward, and also had them make moral judgments after reading a story about date rape, and assessed their opinion on a certain controversial subject.

The twist: the word scramble contained science terms (“logical,” “hypothesis,” “laboratory,” “scientists,” “theory”), and the controversial subject was science.

I think you can guess where this is going. Thinking about science makes you more moral!

Across the four studies presented here, we demonstrated the morally normative effects of thinking about science. Priming lay notions of science leads individuals to endorse more stringent moral norms (Studies 1, 2), report greater prosocial intentions (Study 3), and exhibit more morally normative behavior (Study 4). The moralizing effects of science were observed both by using naturalistic measures of exposure to science (e.g., field of study) as well as laboratory manipulations of thought-accessibility, and emerged across a broad array of domains, including interpersonal violations (Study 1), academic dishonesty (Studies 2), prosocial behaviors (Study 3), and economic exploitation (Study 4).

It is important to note that the primes used across all studies activated broad, general, lay notions of science rather than specific scientific findings. The key words used the science primes (logical, hypothesis, laboratory, scientists, and theory) were likely associated with semantic notions of rationality, impartiality and progress–notions that are a part of the broader moral view of science as a way of building a mutually beneficial society in which rational tools are used to improve the human condition.

Another important caveat is that it’s a typical psychology study, using a small pool of undergraduates at the University of California Santa Barbara, so they’re actually tapping into very narrow cultural norms. A group of students who were familiar with the Tuskegee syphilis study, to name just one exception, might respond to priming with science words very differently, while people from a less science-dependent culture might find the exercise meaningless.

But still, I don’t think those keywords would prompt concerns about being monitored and compelling people to police their behavior more carefully — they might instead switch people into slightly different modes of thought, where, as the authors suggest, different values are emphasized more. And maybe that’s what culture is actually doing: it’s reinforcing desirable associations in people’s minds to subtly shape their behavior. Clearly, though, we don’t need religion to do that. As a vehicle for positive values, anything can work: religion, football, stamp collecting, Pokemon, comedy, technology, television, or science (similarly, I think it’s also obvious that those media can also be vehicles for destructive values).

If you’re going to make anything an agent of virtue, though, it would help if it had the advantage of being fundamentally true in the first place…which is where religion falls down hard. If one of the values we want to enhance is honesty, for instance, you can’t do it with a medium that is a tissue of lies.