The only abortion argument that counts

We can make all the philosophical and scientific arguments that anyone might want, but ultimately what it all reduces to is a simple question: do women have autonomous control of their bodies or not? Even if I thought embryos were conscious, aware beings writing poetry in the womb (I don’t, and they’re not), I’d have to bow out of any say in the decision the woman bearing responsibility has to make.

For the sake of your sanity, do not read the comments. The Catholics have descended upon it.

Lawyers and atheists

We both have something in common — we both tend to get vilified regularly, although I have to admit, lawyers have it worse — there isn’t a whole category of atheist jokes where the punch line is always something about how they have to die horribly. So I feel it’s only fair to acknowledge that we do need lawyers, and they deserve some credit.

So today I got letter from an ebullient lawyer and regular reader who wanted to tell a tale of triumphant justice. And I thought you might enjoy it, too. The names and details have been changed and obscured to protect the innocent.

Also, it’s about a dreadful rape case, and it does discuss some of the horrific consequences, so some of you may want to avoid it. Let me reassure you, though…it has a happy ending!

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The war of the smug

Michael Nugent is a humane and intelligent fellow, and he’s distressed by the rifts that have formed in the atheist community. So he’s written a good set of guidelines for how atheists and skeptics should interact. I have a small problem with one of his suggestions, but otherwise, it’s an excellent and idealistic plan…and unfortunately, one that has already struck the shoals of rabid misogyny.

As he notes, we’ve got a problem with people who are furious that atheists dare to consider sexism and racism to be serious issues that we should deal with now. He takes the side that I knew he would, that these are problems we should address, because secular thinkers should be best equipped to deal with them.

As skeptics we should objectively examine the impacts of social discrimination, and identify the best ways to promote diversity and inclusiveness. By definition, prejudice depends on not having all relevant information, and as skeptics we are ideally suited to develop and promote arguments for inclusiveness and human rights, based on the evidence of the benefits to individuals and society. We could use this research to tackle the emotional and irrational thinking behind racism, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudices and discriminations. It’s at least as interesting a topic as many we discuss, and a more useful topic than most.

I am fully in agreement. This is the necessary job of this generation of atheists and skeptics, to extend our principles to embrace topics of wider social import. Michael is on our side; unfortunately, you can already see the rifts widening. The very first comment on his article is from someone raving about me and my (?) “horde of five-minute-hate skepchicks”, who then goes on to make up a bunch of lies about the recent disagreement with Rationalia. And of course a known slimepit denizen immediately chimes in. So one obstacle is that a contingent has dug in with illiberal, anti-social justice values, and they are quick to howl at any suggestion that they are less than flawless champions of truth and freedom.

Yes, there is a problem here. And the problem lies in people who are affronted at any extension of atheist values to embrace other social values. Which is why I have some reservations about Michael’s first suggestion, that we have to stay focused on atheism and skepticism. Those ideas should be omnipresent, they should inform what we do, but they need to be a foundation, not a final end result.

We’re in the midst of a little civil war, a war with the smug. For so long, it was an accomplishment to be an atheist — we had rejected the dogma of the majority. It’s really something important. And now we’re growing, and we gather in greater and greater numbers, and while it’s great to find ourselves in large groups of people where we don’t have to be defensive about our disbelief, it also becomes obvious that it is not enough. We are all people who have taken that first step towards real intellectual freedom, and some of us like to just stand in wonderment and demand applause for that one step…while others of us are saying, “good, now we can march forward.” And of course that opens up rifts between us, and of course the smug are sitting there incredulous, resentful that we aren’t content just to applaud those who made that first effort, and laud them as heroes. They want a cookie right now just for being atheists.

So on one side we have smug jerks who hate the idea of being progressive, but on the other, on my side, we’re quite ready to cut the troglodytes loose, and we’re quite ready to move on without them. We see the rift forming, and we actually see it as a good thing; as Natalie Reed said on twitter:

I don’t WANT to be allies with ppl who need to be dragged, kicking & screaming, into treating me like a human.

Michael has stepped into the no-man’s land between the raging forces, and it’s a gallant effort. But judging by the comments already on his article, he hasn’t convinced the smug anti-progressives that maybe they should embrace a wider scope for atheism, and he really hasn’t tried yet to convince the people on the other side that maybe the angry sexists and racists and sneering self-satisfied libertarians are worth bringing on board. I’m inclined to say they’re not, until they grow up and change.

But let me say here: Michael Nugent has put up a plea for civil discussion on these matters. Try it. If you comment over there, be polite to the smug reactionaries already commenting; and here on this thread, too, try to avoid being too vicious, as much as you feel the other guys deserve it. Address his suggestions in the same spirit he made them.

Academic freedom isn’t always honored in the breach

This is a rather chilling story of academic freedom getting trampled. A whole pile of documentation is available at that link, I’ll try to simplify it down a lot.

UC Davis was sponsoring a public seminar on prostate cancer; specifically, they were actively promoting the prostate specific antigen (PSA) test. One professor, Michael Wilkes, objected — the PSA test is now discouraged as worse than useless. Wilkes is a specialist in prostate cancer; he knew this. Heck, I knew this, and my local MD knows this. He explained to the department that was sponsoring the seminar that it was wrong, and he also published an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle that does a very good job of explaining why tests with lots of false positives and false negatives are no good.

UC Davis just announced a seminar for the public on “men’s health.” That title notwithstanding, the program appears to be entirely about prostate cancer and in particular about the prostate specific antigen screening test. Prostate cancer can be devastating, and the PSA is intended to find cancer early – in time to do something about it.

If only it were that simple. Research has shown that there are steps people can take to improve the quality and length of their lives, even before they’re having any symptoms. (That’s what “screening” for disease is.)

Unfortunately, though, the devil’s in the details, and many possible screening programs turn out not to do any good – and in fact some tests like PSA cause harm. That’s why virtually all expert public health panels do not recommend the PSA test.

A blood test that isn’t accurate can fail to find disease that’s present, leading to false reassurance. It can also report disease when it’s not really there, leading to unnecessary use of other tests (like biopsy) that are not so benign. Perhaps most concerning, the PSA test frequently identifies something that qualifies as cancer under a microscope but acts nothing like cancer in real life. That is to say, the large majority of PSA-discovered “cancers” would never cause any problem whatsoever if they went undetected.

But because doctors can’t tell whether one of these “cancers” is benign (as it usually is), or might occasionally be one of the bad actors, finding something through screening invariably leads to treating it.

Most of the men so treated would have been just fine if they never knew about the cancer. But when they’re treated (whether with surgery, radiation or chemotherapy), the majority suffer really life- affecting effects, such as impotence and/or incontinence. That’s why both of the two very large trials of PSA screening published in 2009 found no (or at most a tiny) benefit, but a great deal of harm.

Wilkes was doing exactly what a responsible scientist ought to do, correcting public misinformation about his field of expertise.

Unfortunately, a dean, an associate dean, and the Health System counsel at UC Davis were very upset that a professor was criticizing a public health program that they were putting on. Never mind that they were dispensing unsound health information; he was dissing their turf. Among other things, they responded by threatening Wilkes academic appointment and and taking away his lab space.

The good news in the end, though, is that the UC Davis Committee on Academic Freedom and Responsibility has come through; reviewing the case, they’ve determined that Wilkins’ academic freedom was violated and slapped down the various administrators who’d punished him for being a responsible public scholar.

I’m wondering, though, how often these kinds of cases come up and the scholarly responsibilities are squelched. For a lot of people, these are tough decisions: their livelihood can be threatened and their ability to do the work they love compromised. I’m incredibly fortunate in my case to have tenure at a university that so far has demonstrated a commendable commitment to academic freedom — I can publicly declare that my university’s Center for Spirituality and Healing is a colossal boondoggle and complete betrayal of reason and responsibility, and my job is still safe.

But then, I know of other cases. I have a colleague at another university who learned that they were offering seminars that were far worse than what UC Davis was doing — we’re talking New Age bullshit by a con artist who is promising to teach magic powers — and so wrote a polite letter to the individuals in charge of the program. The response was a complete blow-off, an endorsement of the charlatan, and a gentle suggestion that my colleague’s nose ought to stay out of this affair, or risk being an unemployed appendage. I am itching to scream bloody outrage at this nonsense, but I can’t…it’s not my job that would be on the line.

So tell me…who else is experiencing quackery and bullshit peddled through their place of employment, and can’t speak out because your administration is staffed by pandering ignoramuses? Dish, please. Anonymity will be respected.

Anyone know any Amalekites?

Hey, did you know that the schools have the job of teaching our children morality now? They’re having a tough enough time teaching reading and math, but now we’re supposed to add right and wrong. It’s nice in principle, but now there’s another problem: the powers that be believe the right way to do this is to teach them Christianity, a notion which opens the door to the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) and their Good News Clubs. Look at one of the examples of moral thinking they teach in schools.

The CEF has been teaching the story of the Amalekites at least since 1973. In its earlier curriculum materials, CEF was euphemistic about the bloodshed, saying simply that "the Amalekites were completely defeated." In the most recent version of the curriculum, however, the group is quite eager to drive the message home to its elementary school students. The first thing the curriculum makes clear is that if God gives instructions to kill a group of people, you must kill every last one:

"You are to go and completely destroy the Amalekites (AM-uh-leck-ites) – people, animals, every living thing. Nothing shall be left."

"That was pretty clear, wasn’t it?"the manual tells the teachers to say to the kids.

Even more important, the Good News Club wants the children to know, the Amalakites were targeted for destruction on account of their religion, or lack of it. The instruction manual reads:

"The Amalekites had heard about Israel’s true and living God many years before, but they refused to believe in him. The Amalekites refused to believe in God and God had promised punishment."

The instruction manual goes on to champion obedience in all things. In fact, pretty much every lesson that the Good News Club gives involves reminding children that they must, at all costs, obey. If God tells you to kill nonbelievers, he really wants you to kill them all. No questions asked, no exceptions allowed.

Asking if Saul would "pass the test" of obedience, the text points to Saul’s failure to annihilate every last Amalekite, posing the rhetorical question:

"If you are asked to do something, how much of it do you need to do before you can say, ‘I did it!’?"

"If only Saul had been willing to seek God for strength to obey!" the lesson concludes.

Oh, yes, we now have after-school programs to tell the children that not only is it OK to kill people if god tells you to, but that having different religious beliefs is sufficient cause to justify mass murder, and that the only mistake you might make is in being insufficiently thorough in executing your foes.

We can thank the Supreme Court for this state of affairs, in a decision that said schools could not discriminate against organizations they lease their facilities to after hours (a lie; watch what would happen if the KKK tried to organize a White Supremacy Club in the schools), and worse, that teaching bible stories was a good way to instruct children in morals.

In the majority opinion that opened the door to Good News Clubs, supreme court Justice Clarence Thomas reasoned that the activities of the CEF were not really religious, after all. He said that they could be characterized, for legal purposes, “as the teaching of morals and character development from a particular viewpoint”.

I don’t expect the Supreme Court, much less Clarence Thomas, to be capable of deciding what is a proper moral lesson for my kids. I also think it’s quite clear to everyone that the Bible is a highly unethical text — it’s all about justifying evil in the name of tribal self-interest.

(via Ophelia)

The “objective morality” gotcha

There is a common line of attack Christians use in debates with atheists, and I genuinely detest it. It’s to ask the question, “where do your morals come from?” I detest it because it is not a sincere question at all — they don’t care about your answer, they’re just trying to get you to say that you do not accept the authority of a deity, so that they can then declare that you are an evil person because you do not derive your morals from the same source they do, and therefore you are amoral. It is, of course, false to declare that someone with a different morality than yours is amoral, but that doesn’t stop those sleazebags.

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A pretty fantasy

I like the sentiment, but…

Jesus probably didn’t exist, and if he can be said to be modeled after some first century Jewish rabbi, he would almost certainly have been virulently concerned with controlling people’s sexual lives…and would have regarded homosexuality as an abomination. Also, there’s no afterlife, so he isn’t lounging about in heaven moaning about our bad behavior on earth. Also, Freddie Mercury is, regrettably, dead and no longer exists: no afterlife, remember.

This has been a clarification from your friendly godless party-pooper.

But otherwise, yeah, nice.