Do you want to be like El Salvador?

El Salvador has an absolute prohibition on all abortions — they can’t even be done to save the life of the mother (it’s a very Catholic country, are you surprised?) Now a situation has made the news that exposes the villainy of that policy.

A young woman named Beatriz is petitioning El Salvador’s supreme court to be allowed to get an abortion. Why? There’s a couple of really good reasons.

The four-month fetus is acephalic — no brain has formed. It’s doomed. It will never be viable. At best, it will be born, live a few days as a vegetable on life support, and die.

The mother is suffering from complications from lupus and kidney disease. The fetus won’t even get to the point of being born — the mother will be killed by this pregnancy first.

The heartless, amoral, religiously-based rules of that society are condemning this woman to death. In addition, if any doctor honors their Hippocratic oath and helps her live, they can be prosecuted and sentenced to long terms in prison for it.

Beatriz has been refused a necessary and simple medical procedure because the demented fuckwits of the Catholic Church have prioritized dogma over human life. She has to beg authorities, right up to the highest levels of government, for the right to live.

All because some old assholes believe god has told them that the dying lump of meat in her belly is more precious than a woman’s life.

No more Dan Markingsons

A few weeks ago I gave a talk in Seattle in which I pointed out that science is not sufficient to define moral behavior. A substantial part of that talk was a catalog of atrocities, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. I said that in purely scientific terms, that was a good experiment; if the subjects had been mice, for instance, setting aside an untreated control group to study the progression of the disease would have been considered an essential part of smart experimental design. One could still argue that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…if one were willing to distance oneself from the humanity of the subjects.

Yes, one can always retreat to the excuse that these were cases of bad science, where the scientists violated the rules of their own profession. But where do the ethical guidelines come from? Not science.


I missed a trick, though. I talked mainly about old cases, when there’s a clear case of the conflict between ethics and science playing out right now, right at my home university: the case of Dan Markingson, the young man who was enrolled in an experimental pharmaceutical study and kept there, even as his mental illness worsened, and who eventually committed suicide.

There’s a new article by a bioethicist on this case.


The research abuse in this case is so stunning that when I first learned about it I could scarcely imagine it happening anywhere, much less at the university where I work. In late 2003, psychiatric researchers at the University of Minnesota recruited a mentally ill young man named Dan Markingson into a profitable, industry-funded research study of antipsychotic drugs. The researchers signed him up over the objections of his mother, Mary Weiss, who did not want him in the study, and despite the fact that he could not give proper informed consent. Dan was acutely psychotic, plagued by delusions about demons, and he had repeatedly been judged incapable of making his own medical decisions. Even worse, he had been placed under an involuntary commitment order that legally compelled him to obey the recommendations of the psychiatrist who recruited him into the study.

For months, Mary tried desperately to get Dan out of the study, warning that he was getting worse and that he was in danger of committing suicide. But her warnings were ignored. On April 23, 2004, she left a voice message with the study coordinator, asking, “Do we have to wait for him to kill himself or someone else before anyone does anything?” Three weeks later, Dan committed suicide in the most violent way imaginable. His body was discovered in the shower of a halfway house, his throat slit so severely that he was nearly decapitated, along with a note that said, “I went through this experience smiling.”

You know, I’ve been impressed with my university on many occasions: their commitment to academic freedom has been exemplary, my interactions with the university’s lawyers (I’ve had a few of them…) has always left me satisfied that they are fair and pragmatic. But this is a failure not just of the scientists involved, but the administration of the university. It’s an embarrassment.

Yet for three years the University of Minnesota has managed to bluster and stonewall its way through all the criticism, insisting that it has already been exonerated. Even when the state Legislature passed “Dan’s Law” in 2009, banning psychiatrists from recruiting mentally ill patients under an involuntary commitment order into drug studies, the university continued to insist it had done nothing wrong.

I suspect that the stonewalling is out of fear of opening the door to legal action against a university that is already struggling with constantly dwindling support from the legislature. But it’s necessary that they confront this issue and deal with it honestly — it’s the only way to restore confidence with UM’s ethical culture, and it’s the only way to make sure there are no future Dan Markingsons.

And it’s that last bit that is the important concern.

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.