Every man thinks he’s Clint Eastwood

Sam Harris has really done it now. He’s stepped into the gun control debate with The Riddle of the Gun, and he’s taking the side of Wayne LaPierre of the NRA. And he’s also making a series of logic-defying assertions that have no credibility at all. I’m not even going to try to work through them all; this subject is clearly a bit of an obsession with him. But throughout, he takes a very personal and rather paranoid view of the world and makes it a justification for individual self-defense, which I think is his big mistake. For instance,

…if a person enters your home for the purpose of harming you, you cannot reasonably expect the police to arrive in time to stop him. This is not the fault of the police—it is a problem of physics.

Hmmm. If I’m on a crowded street, and the person behind me pulls a knife, I can’t expect the police to stop him in time, either — it is a problem of physics.

If the guy in the house across the street has a sniper rifle aimed at my bedroom window, waiting for my silhouette to cross his scope, I can’t expect the police to stop the bullet in time — it is a problem of physics.

If a disgruntled student rolls up to my front door in a tank, I can’t expect the SWAT team from Minneapolis to get all the way here in time — it is a problem of physics.

What I see over and over again in Harris and rabid defenders of gun ownership is something other than just merely seeing guns as a tool: it’s the cult of the rugged individual, the lone cowboy on his own in hostile territory, where the only recourse is to be quick on the draw. What’s the answer to any trouble? Why, you take care of it yourself, usually by killing the troublemaker. It’s a simple, quick solution that doesn’t require any thinking at all.

He takes a complicated problem — that an individual wants to do him great harm (something I have no trouble believing) — and reduces it to a simplistic scenario — the hostile bad guy is in his house, with a gun! — that can only be resolved by his personal decisiveness and training in firing right back at him.

Do I need to point out that in his scenario, he has already lost, no matter how well-trained he is with a firearm? He is having a gunfight in his home, with his family around him. Imagine yourself in your bedroom, pulling a pistol out of a bedside drawer, loading it, and calmly taking a few shots in the direction of the hallway, without the presence of an intruder to complicate and make even more dangerous the situation. This is not an action without consequences and without risk. But this is the preferred nightmare of the gun fanatics.

I prefer a multi-layered defense that relies on the cooperation of a community. I don’t want a gun put in my hands, because by the time the gun would be useful there have been multiple catastrophic failures of the whole system. An intruder should not be in my house. How about better locks, a security system, and regular police patrols in my neighborhood? An intruder should not be heavily armed. How about serious gun control that limits access to guns and monitors those who do have them? The intruder should not be vengefully gloating about the glory of shooting someone. How about changing the culture to stop worshipping gun violence, to stop thinking that killing an enemy resolves a problem rather than amplifying it?

I know already what response that will get: that it’s a starry-eyed optimistic dream. But what they won’t care about is that Harris’s dream of battling an evil-doer to the death with his well-practiced expertise in firing a gun is just as pie-in-the-sky, and that even in its most benign outcome, is still a horror and a nightmare.

This is my dismissal of the whole gun debate: that the answers the gun advocates propose all amplify the problem. The problem is the ready availability of guns and the willingness of self-righteous people (because, really, even the people gunning down school children are steadfast in their confidence that what they are doing is both right and necessary, as much so as the homeowner defending himself against a burglar) to resort to violent action to resolve conflicts. But they don’t bother to recognize that by the time deadly force is needed, it’s too late.

I promised I wouldn’t get sucked into a line-by-line dissection of Harris’s post. Fortunately, Eric MacDonald has exposed many of the logical fallacies in his argument, and Sean Faircloth has the facts and numbers that show his rationale is bogus.

I just want to emphasize that it’s a huge mistake to make the debate about the physics of the ultimate confrontation. The debate should be about how to make those gun-on-gun confrontations less likely.

Matt Dillahunty & Tracie Harris show how to handle a Christian

This is the risk of taking call-ins on an atheist show — you have to deal with some of the most repulsive people in the country, Bible-believin’ Christians. So there they are, arguing the problem of evil with a caller like they do, and the caller makes one of the usual Christian excuses.

“I don’t think that God exists but if we’re talking about the God character in Bible as God is represented, you know, it’s a pretty horrible, jealous, angry being that advocates slavery,” Dillahunty pointed out. “I don’t know why he’s that way. Maybe he’s just a dick.”

“You either have a God who sends child rapists to rape children or you have a God who simply watches it and says, ‘When you’re done, I’m going to punish you,’” Harris agreed. “If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would. That’s the difference between me and your God.”

“First of all, you portray that little girl as someone who’s innocent, she’s just as evil as you,” the caller shot back.

With that comment, Dillahunty disconnected the call.

“Goodbye, you piece of shit!” he exclaimed. “You know what? I was a better Christian than you when I was a Christian, and I still am.”

BAM! That’s how you do it!

Now let’s hear the cries of “Censorship! Free speech!” from the usual crowd.

Problem-solving 101

I have a question for you all. I was reading this article about our terribly violent cultural surroundings, which includes both the Bible and American movies.

Whether history or mythology or some fusion of the two, the Bible stories, when tallied, include an estimated 25 million violent deaths. And yet, like any people, the internal narrative of God’s Chosen Ones is one of yearning for peace and prosperity, the dream of an idyllic past in which the lion lay down with the lamb; an idyllic future in which men will beat their swords into plowshares and the lamb and lion will lie down together again.

The Bible is a collection of stories about nasty genocidal people, with a message of peace that they pay lip service to while slaughtering their foes. American movies are all about brave heroes killing people to protect the good and kind.

So, the question: have you ever in your entire life settled a personal problem with violence? Have you resolved any conflicts by taking out your opposition, just destroying them to remove the obstacle to your life or happiness?

If you did use violence to fix a personal problem, did it work?

Just curious. I can think of only one time that I tried it; I hauled off and punched a grade-school bully in the face. It didn’t change anything, but it did make it worse, because a teacher (one who was a bullying jerk himself) decided to discipline me with a little corporal punishment — an hour of deep knee bends that left me barely able to walk afterwards.

Ever since, though, I’ve experienced nothing where I was tempted to resort to violent action, and nothing where I could believe that violence would help. There’s no situation that can’t be made worse by adding a gun, no opponent who will respond to a normal civic conflict by being cowed by the guy with a baseball bat.

Second question: so why is our media so saturated with bloody-minded simple solutions to problems? Arnold Schwarzenegger blowing up buildings with two-fisted cannons, Liam Neeson smashing heads and knifing evil-doers, superheroes solving every difficulty by applying force…it’s ludicrous that anyone imagines that these are effective answers to anything.

Fishing for meaning in a dictionary of genes

I’ve constricted my anus 100 times, and it isn’t helping! I’m still feeling extremely cranky about this story from the NY Times.

Scientists intend to sequence Adam Lanza’s DNA. They’re looking for genetic markers for mass murder. Why? Because some scientists are stupid.

Some researchers, like Dr. Arthur Beaudet, a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and the chairman of its department of molecular and human genetics, applaud the effort. He believes that the acts committed by men like Mr. Lanza and the gunmen in other rampages in recent years — at Columbine High School and in Aurora, Colo., in Norway, in Tucson and at Virginia Tech — are so far off the charts of normal behavior that there must be genetic changes driving them.

“We can’t afford not to do this research,” Dr. Beaudet said.

There must be genetic changes underlying this specific behavior? There is no reason at all to assume that. Furthermore, this isn’t “off the charts of normal behavior” — there have been 62 mass murder events in the US in the last 30 years. There are witch-burnings going on in Africa right now. European Americans casually exterminated the native population of the Americas, and now pens the remnant population in reservations where they are kept in poverty. We had entire nations worth of people involved in the mass murder of 6 million Jews in the last century. Hey, shall we round up a bunch of Germans and take DNA swabs so we can figure out what there is that’s unique to their genes that allows them to commit genocide? (I better be clear here: I’m being sarcastic. I really don’t think Germans have a biological predilection for racism or murder, any more than any other people.)

I would ask whether there is any reason to assume that this behavior is a heritable trait. Is there a familial history of mass murder? Are we really going to assume that the diverse individuals who have committed these horrific crimes are all related, or all carry some common marker that isn’t found in people who don’t commit murder?

I can predict exactly what will be found when they look at Adam Lanza’s DNA. It will be human. There will be tens of thousands of little nucleotide variations from reference standards scattered throughout the genome, because all of us carry these kinds of differences. The scientists will have no idea what 99% of the differences do. They will make dubious associations — for example, they might find a novel nucleotide in a gene that has other variants correlated with schizophrenia — and in the absence of any causal link at all, they’ll publish garbage papers that try to impute a signal to common genetic noise. Some idiot will make noise about screening for an obscure mutation that Lanza carried, just because it’s something different.

I wonder if there are neurologists poking around in his brain, looking for differences, too. It’s the same issue; we don’t understand the majority of the functional consequences of individual variations in connectivity in the brain, and we have a population with large amounts of random variation. So how are you going to recognize what’s special and unique and causal about Lanza’s brain (or Einstein’s brain, or my brain, or yours)?

Fortunately, there are some sensible people out there.

“It is almost inconceivable that there is a common genetic factor” to be found in mass murders, said Dr. Robert C. Green, a geneticist and neurologist at Harvard Medical School. “I think it says more about us that we wish there was something like this. We wish there was an explanation.”

I suspect the explanation is going to be more a consequence of individual experience, although of course biology is going to shape how we respond to circumstance. But to go rifling about in a genome we don’t understand to find a simple cause is ridiculous and futile. Sure, freeze some cells down and store them away; maybe some day we’ll understand more and there will be a legitimate and specific hypothesis that can be tested by examining killers’ genetics…but a fishing expedition is pointless and dumb, and at this state of our understanding, only opens the door to misconceptions and ethics abuses.

It’s a good idea. It’s depressing that it’s necessary.

There’s a funding campaign going on to raise money for DrinkSavvy. It’s a clever idea to address a dismal problem.

What it is is a simple plan to sell drinking straws and cups that contain a material that responds with a color change to the presence of GHB, ketamine, or rohypnol — date rape drugs. I wish I lived in a world where that wasn’t necessary (well, actually, I do live in a world where it isn’t really necessary for my personal safety; I understand though that some of you live in that dangerous world where people might try to drug you to nullify your lack of consent.)

You know, the existence of this product is evidence for the validity of the Schrödinger’s Rapist argument.

How not to be a good person

OK, kids, today I’m offering a simple lesson in basic human decency. I know most of you already know all this — I picked up on it when I was a child — but this is the internet, and a few of its resident have been raised by wolves or read too much Ayn Rand as a teenager, and they’ve lost some really basic principles.

  1. When someone is hurting, don’t spit on them because someone else is hurting more. It’s smart and sensible to invest your time and money wisely, and if you see two people in pain, you get to choose which one you’ll help first, and that’s fine. But it’s counterproductive and destructive to dismiss efforts to help the other person, and it’s particularly repellent if you choose to kick at the people who are helping someone you consider a lesser cause to the extent that you aren’t helping anyone at all.

    There’s a principle in medicine called triage—look it up. It does not mean “stick a knife in the patient you don’t want to help.”

    See? This is so simple. If you see someone donating money to prostate cancer research, don’t berate them because they should donate to breast cancer research instead, because you think it’s a more serious disease. Or vice versa. Both are bad, and it’s good that we have people supporting research into both.

  2. So you’ve decided to help someone — good for you. However, you shouldn’t then advertise your goodness and throw a tantrum if people don’t praise you enough. You especially shouldn’t then retract your offer of assistance because there wasn’t enough love given to you. You aren’t the one in trouble, and the situation isn’t about you at all.

    You see, that makes it obvious to everyone that you weren’t offering to help because you’re a good person: the offer was patently a bribe to win good will for yourself, and when you announce your refusal to help you’re really just trying to extort some flattery out of others. This is not good behavior.

    I hear a version of this all the time: don’t annoy the Christians with that atheism stuff or they might retract their support for science and science education. Well then, they weren’t really good supporters of science in the first place, were they?

I know, you’re all saying that was really obvious to the point of being stupid, but there are people on the internet who don’t understand these basic concepts. Sad, I know, but don’t get cranky if I occasionally reach out to help the ethically benighted in addition to bashing creationists and that sort of thing. There are many good causes we can all fight for.

Sunday Sacrilege: Free speech is not freedom from responsibility

I’ve been struck by the twisty complications of the recent outing of the creepy redditor Violentacrez as Michael Brutsch, a programmer for a financial consulting company, by Adrian Chen of Gawker. I’m particularly interested by the fact that the case has become a focus of concern by defenders of free speech — people who regard free speech as sacred and absolute.

Well, you know what I think of the sacred.

[Read more…]

The Amazing Atheist reveals his lack of humanity again

I’m sure you’ve all heard the tragic story of Amanda Todd, the teenage girl who killed herself after prolonged bullying. Normal human beings will read about her and be near tears; she was broken by callous sexual predators, her life made miserable, and she finally gave up on it.

The Amazing Atheist is not a normal human being.

Instead, The Amazing Atheist raged at the fact that this young woman was getting attention when other people have died, too. She was a well-off Western girl with plenty of privileges, so how dare we consider her story particularly tragic? There are so many other people who are worse off than she was!

Well, you know, we have a couple of choices in our lives.

We could, for instance, search the world for that one person who is in the worst circumstances of anyone; the person who is suffering the very most right now. We can do this while turning up our nose at each other afflicted individual who isn’t hurting enough for our standards; why, you’re a quadriplegic dying in a ditch? But you don’t have shingles! And both your eyes are intact! I’m sure we can find someone worse off than you. And then when we find that ultimate person in pain, we can promise to do everything we can to help them.

But I’ve noticed that people who make that kind of argument aren’t actually offering to help anyone. Their perversely inverted, demanding standards are really an excuse to turn away from the miserable they consider undeserving, to justify refusing to help…because that ultimate sufferer will never be found.

But you do have a choice. The other thing you could do is recognize deep pain in others and do what you can to help them. If one person had sincerely and honestly turned to Todd when she was being abused, and offered to help, maybe she’d still be here, and the world would be a slightly better place.

She wasn’t asking for much.

The Amazing Atheist begrudges her that much.

I don’t see any difference between him and the bullies who beat her up and mocked her on facebook and poured scorn on her in school.

And some people wonder why there is a growing rift in the atheist movement. All you have to do is look at people like the Amazing Atheist to see that some atheists, people who are convinced that there is nothing beyond ourselves, that we are dependent entirely on our fellow human beings and nothing more, lack that humanity that is our only source of unity and our only true reason for living.

Don’t be surprised that some of us want nothing to do with such sociopaths.

SRS has more targets

ShitRedditSays, the subreddit that exposes the worst of Reddit, is going on the warpath. They’ve published a long list of sick subreddits and are asking that the news be spread far and wide. Here’s an example of the kind of subreddit they dislike:

Reddit also has subreddits which publish images of women’s and underage girls’ private areas, including "upskirt" and "downblouse" pictures, without the knowledge or consent of their subjects. The users of these subreddits trade tips on how to stalk and photograph women and minors and encourage each other to go out and take more such pictures.

I know exactly how people will fight back on this one. They will claim that it’s a bunch of prudes who don’t like sex who are trying to shut down the more risqué discussions. But it’s not about sex.

They already cite reddit management that makes the argument that it’s all about free speech. But the objections have nothing to do with free speech.

It’s about consent.

Look through their long list of nasty subreddits, and that’s the theme running through them: these are forums dedicated to obtaining revealing images of minors, of people in private situations, of people being raped or beat up, and making them public. Or dedicated to teaching people how to violate others. It shouldn’t be about taking down things some people find offensive, it should be about demanding responsibility and requiring permission before publishing photographs of someone’s breasts (oh, hi, Kate Middleton!) and making special efforts to shelter people who can’t give informed consent, like children.

That’s what makes the people who participate in those subgroups creepy. It’s not that they like to talk about sex, or that they’re defenders of free speech…it’s that they don’t give a damn about privacy or autonomy.

The Primate of All Ireland speaks

I don’t follow the who’s who of the Catholic hierarchy; when I hear the phrase “Primate of All Ireland”, I think of Ussher, the fellow who notoriously calculated the age of the earth using a combination of crude genealogy and numerology. He’s gone down in history for getting it all wrong; so will this one.

While I felt that Ireland as a whole had begun to progress, Cardinal Sean Brady recently issued a statement declaring that any attempt made by the government of Ireland to legislate for abortion due to a judgement made by the European Court of Human Rights would be; “vigorously and comprehensively opposed by many”.

This is nothing new. The Catholic church has always taken a strong stand against human rights.