Hangout with Dr Sarah

Another hangout today? Yes! I’ll finding out what Dr Sarah of the Geeky Humanist is up to at 4pm Central time. Sarah is…

a 45-year-old GP living in England with one husband and two children. I’m a skeptic, a humanist, a feminist, and an atheist, and I love debunking myths when I can find the time to do so. I also love reading, and I’m a big fan of fantasy: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (most of his non-Discworld books actually aren’t all that), Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, Diane Duane’s Young Wizard series, Mercedes Lackey’s 500 Kingdoms and most of her Valdemar books, and probably several others.

We might end up talking about fantasy novels. Leave questions here or on the youtube video if those subjects strike your interest. As usual, other freethoughtbloggers might drift in, too.

Hangout with Siggy

I’m going to be hanging out with Siggy of A Trivial Knot today at noon Central time. Here’s Siggy’s blurb:

Siggy is a physics grad student in the US. He writes about math, philosophy, social criticism, and origami. He is an ace activist best known for running The Asexual Agenda, and for analyzing ace community demographics.

If any of those topics interest you, show up at noon, leave questions here, or on the youtube chat board.

Also, I open up entry to the hangout to everyone on the FtB backchannel, so we might have a surprise guest or two. You never know.

Who should you fear?

Everyone talks about radical Islamists, and they definitely are terrible awful violent people (but remember, please: radical Islamist ≠ Muslim). But there are other ideologies to fear, like far right white nationalists and animal rights extremists. Acknowledging that they’re all bad, and that murdering people in the name of your cult belief is always wrong, which one is worse? David Neiwert has done the research.

  • From January 2008 to the end of 2016, we identified 63 cases of Islamist domestic terrorism, meaning incidents motivated by a theocratic political ideology espoused by such groups as the Islamic State. The vast majority of these (76 percent) were foiled plots, meaning no attack took place.
  • During the same period, we found that right-wing extremists were behind nearly twice as many incidents: 115. Just over a third of these incidents (35 percent) were foiled plots. The majority were acts of terrorist violence that involved deaths, injuries or damaged property.
  • Right-wing extremist terrorism was more often deadly: Nearly a third of incidents involved fatalities, for a total of 79 deaths, while 13 percent of Islamist cases caused fatalities. (The total deaths associated with Islamist incidents were higher, however, reaching 90, largely due to the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood in Texas.)
  • Incidents related to left-wing ideologies, including ecoterrorism and animal rights, were comparatively rare, with 19 incidents causing seven fatalities – making the shooting attack on Republican members of Congress earlier this month somewhat of an anomaly.
  • Nearly half (48 percent) of Islamist incidents in our database were sting operations, more than four times the rate for far-right (12 percent) or far-left (10.5 percent) incidents.

Lotta words and numbers there. Maybe a graph will help.

As I would have expected, the greater danger to the public is homegrown blue-eyed narrowly patriotic nativist assholes, of the kind who get normalized and treated relatively gently by the internet and media. You can kneel at the feet of alt-right idols and worship them, and everyone looks the other way; try to do that with the local imam, and you’ll find yourself in an FBI file and with tabloids breathing down your neck.

Take a look at who gets labeled as terrorists.

That’s striking. The bigger threat largely gets a pass from law enforcement, possibly because so many LEOs tend to be terroristic right wing ideologues themselves, if recent murders of citizens are any testimony. Maybe that will change, though, as it begins to sink in that far-right patriot movements are out to kill anyone who defends the government.

By now, the steady drumbeat of terror plots and attacks from the far right has begun to attract renewed attention, among them incidents involving the “sovereign citizens” movement, white supremacists, Patriot and militia movements, and anti-abortion fanatics, including some radical Christians. Their targets are police and military, Sikhs and Muslims, African Americans and Jews, power grids and transit hubs, abortion clinics and black churches and immigrant communities.

It’s a long read, but substantive and evidence-based. Read it and worry.

This is why I’m not a nuclear physicist

It’s just too scary, and radioactive materials are just too weird.

The metal rods in the top photo are plutonium. Rods can roll. These rods could roll closer to each other and perhaps produce the kind of runaway neutron reaction that killed Slotin and Daghlian. Putting a hand in to separate them could make the reaction worse because the water in a human body reflects the neutrons.
I had formal safety training, informal discussions with more experienced people, and made it a point to internalize rules of thumb. Keep pieces of plutonium separate. Abide by glovebox limitations; every glovebox has a sign with the limits of plutonium allowed in it. For solutions, keep them dilute and in flat containers. Flat/thin is safer; the closer a shape is to spherical, the less material is needed to go critical. IIRC, there were racks to put rods in if you were working with that shape of metal, so that they didn’t accidentally roll together.

Daghlian and Slotin? I made the mistake of looking them up and finding out about the Demon Core.

My version of safety rules is don’t eat sandwiches in the lab, don’t drink the mystery fluid in that test tube, wear latex gloves when playing with the nasties, the lab alcohol is not for parties, and wash your hands every once in a while. “Don’t let these two tubes touch each other, or invisible rays will instantly flash out and kill everyone in the room in slow grisly painful ways” isn’t part of the set of instructions I have to give students.

Special snowflakes on parade

Anita Sarkeesian was at a convention of youtubers this week, which sounds like a kind of hell. It’s not that I don’t think there is worthy content on youtube — this event was founded by Hank and John Green, who do good work — but that you just know it was also going to draw in the worst people on the internet. It’s an audience I would not want to hang with, and they wouldn’t want anything to do with me.

True to form, the worst people on the internet showed up to Sarkeesian’s panel, which was on the harassment women receive. They smugly took over the first couple of rows of seats, and even proudly posted videos of themselves filling the front row. Oh, boy, an opportunity for real-life harassment!

Sarkeesian fired back, and good for her.

If you google my name on YouTube you get shitheads like this dude who are making these dumbass videos that just say the same shit over and over again. And like I hate to give you attention because you’re a garbage human. Whatever dude.

But the fact that these dudes are making endless videos going after every feminist over and over and over again I think is a part of the issue. Why do we have these conversations? We don’t just get to be online. We don’t just get to participate like everyone else.

The dude she specifically pointed at in this criticism was Carl Benjamin, who goes by the pretentious pseudonym Sargon of Akkad, who actually is a garbage human, one of the army of the worst people on the internet who rants constantly against feminism, against the “regressive left”, and who thinks any of those women who complain about non-stop harassment are “professional victims”.

Which makes it particularly interesting now that if you follow Sarkeesian’s suggestion and google her name on YouTube you will find hundreds of videos proclaiming the martyrdom of Carl Benjamin. Why, he was just sitting there innocently to respectfully listen to Anita Sarkeesian, and she bullied and humiliated and harassed him, for no reason at all! He can’t be a garbage human, because he just popped into existence for that panel, and has no history of any kind, and no reason that Sarkeesian might have singled him out.

Now, suddenly, Benjamin has decided that he is a “victim of abuse”.

And that he was publicly humiliated and harassed by Anita Sarkeesian, and that he is “triggered”.

Yeah, right, and now all of his followers are realizing that harassment is a real problem, so they’ll stop doing it themselves. The level of hypocritical bullshit from the worst people on the internet has suddenly jinked skyward. Benjamin has actually had the oblivious gall to ask the conference organizers to block her from sitting on another panel today because she called him a name. Who would have thought the man who wrote a petition to get universities to stop teaching courses on social justice could be so censorious?

Well, I am delicious, so I guess I could hardly blame her

Not for sensitive stomachs, but if you’re interested in what your pet will do if you happen to up and die on ’em, here’s a survey of post mortem scavenging by pets.

I am not at all surprised about the cats.

Cats get a bad rap for being the most eager to eat their owners, and anecdotally, some emergency responders say it’s pretty common. When it happens, cats tend to go for the face, especially soft parts such as the nose and lips, says forensic anthropologist Carolyn Rando of University College London.

“It doesn’t surprise me, as a cat owner,” she says. “If you’re sleeping, they tend to swat your face to wake you up.”

See? No one is surprised about cats wanting to eat your face off. Which is why I’m going to replace our cat with a goldfish.

Friday Cephalopod: The good news about global warming

We’re making the planet a better place for cephalopods. It also helps that humans are busily destroying teleost populations.

David Wiltshire

P.S. There’s a video at the link titled “8 reasons octopuses rule the oceans”. Don’t bother with it. It is 8 incredibly idiotic reasons that have nothing to do with their success. I felt stupider after watching it.

Ataturk is spinning in his grave

Or he would be, if he weren’t an inanimate corpse that had ceased to be. Erdogan is continuing his corruption of Turkish culture, opposing both secularism and — the usual target — the teaching of evolution.

Evolution will no longer be taught in Turkish schools, a senior education official has said, in a move likely to raise the ire of the country’s secular opposition.

Alpaslan Durmuş, who chairs the board of education, said evolution was debatable, controversial and too complicated for students.

“We believe that these subjects are beyond their [students] comprehension,” said Durmuş in a video published on the education ministry’s website.

Well, gosh, if we remove everything that is complicated from education, you’ll just end up with simple adults. Simple adults who get everything wrong.

I’m just waiting now for our president to treat this as an inspiration.

Sociology is hard

I’m constantly spammed by the Weatherspoon Institute, one of those right-wing think tanks that is, as part of its mission, adamantly opposed to homosexuality, marriage equality, etc., and they’re notorious for having funded and guided the infamous Regnerus study that claimed that children raised by gay parents were at greater risk for all kinds of social ills.

It’s not my favorite organization. I didn’t personally subscribe to their newsletter, it’s just one of many that people who don’t like me sign me up for, thinking I’ll be horrified and offended by it, when actually I find it interestingly bad and sometimes browse to find weird stuff. Message to people who do that kind of thing: it doesn’t work. Would you believe that seeing the hate some people have for gay and lesbian people makes me sympathize with the homosexual population more?

Anyway, a recent newsletter highlighted this article, Why are so many lesbians getting pregnant?. I thought that was actually an interesting question. I’d like to know! It was also an interesting read because so much of it was discombobulating — that author would make some statement, I’d actually agree with it (or not), but then he’d make some mental leap in interpreting it that left me baffled. Like this claim at the very beginning:

One’s sexual orientation is supposed to be locked in and unchangeable, like sex, race, or ethnicity.

It is? Who says? Keep in mind this article is talking about teenagers and sex; I suspect sexual orientation has a fair bit of flexibility, at least if you’re not brought up in a family or peer group that imposes severe costs on deviation from expected behaviors. I can believe that there are distinct biases in individual preferences from an early age, but that they’re also shaped by experience. Witherspoonians seem to be trying to argue that their critics are complete gender absolutists, while they are open-minded about the fluidity of sexual response, probably because they’re the kind of people who want to promote a “gay cure”. I think. There are many hidden premises in this article that I don’t share.

Then the very next sentence confuses me.

But high pregnancy rates among lesbians confound that narrative.

Why does it confuse the narrative? Does the author think sexual orientation and pregnancy are in lockstep? That lesbians should be incapable of pregnancy? That pregnancy is always a matter of choice and preference? So many assumptions implied by that little sentence.

But then he’s going to deploy logic. Too often this is a dangerous sign, as it proves to be in this case, that the author doesn’t understand logic, except to know it’s a good thing.

It makes for an illogical syllogism.

Premise A: Lesbians are sexually attracted to women only.

Premise B: Women cannot impregnate women.

Conclusion: Lesbians have higher pregnancy rates than non-lesbian women.

It’s contrary to all reason, but it’s true. Lesbians have significantly higher pregnancy rates than their heterosexual peers.

Hang on there, guy. You’ve somehow linked “sexual attraction” and “pregnancy rates” as if one is a logical consequence of the other. You know they obviously aren’t, right?

This smacks of the common argument that evolution implies that homosexuality cannot exist, because gay people would be unable to breed or spread their gay genes, except that it’s in reverse. It’s got the same logical flaw, though, the assumption that sexual orientation, a product of the brain, is inflexibly linked to biological reproduction, a product of the gonads.

The logic is also flawed by sloppy definitions all around. What is a “lesbian”? Is it any woman who prefers the company of other women? A woman who only ever has sex with other women? Does a lesbian who is raped immediately stop being a lesbian? And how about defining “woman”? He seems to think of women as a pair of functioning ovaries, but again with the disconnect between gonads and brains — what about women who have functioning testes?

(We will pause for a moment to give those, even those of a liberal bent, who seem to be incapable of dissociating minds from genitalia, time to wipe up the saliva they just spluttered all over their computers.)

Are you back now? OK. Another thing about that syllogism — we can rework it in lots of different ways. Another interpretation might be that teenage women who get pregnant develop an aversion to men that makes lesbianism a much more appealing label. Or that this should be a discussion about unwanted pregnancies, rather than sexual orientation, and it’s mangling causally unrelated issues to routinely associate desire with reproduction.

I’m trying to puzzle out what point the author is trying to make, though. There are interesting observations in here, but they seem to avoid testing alternative interpretations.

Multiple studies with samples drawn from various nations find that sexual-minority youth aged fourteen to nineteen have pregnancy rates two to seven times greater than their heterosexual peers. Their pregnancy rates continue to rise, even though the overall teen pregnancy rate is declining in the United States.

So I actually read the paper cited to support the “two to seven times” data. Seems kosher. But the important point is glossed over by our Witherspoonian.

Over half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended – that is, they are mistimed (occurring earlier than the woman wanted) or unwanted (not wanted at any time). In addition to derailing life plans, these pregnancies are commonly linked to a variety of negative health and well-being indicators for women and their children, including lower levels of prenatal care and breastfeeding; and higher levels of premature delivery, low birth weight, child abuse, intimate partner violence, and maternal depression and anxiety (accounting for background characteristics).

Over half of all pregnancies are unintended or unwanted — that is for all women of all ages. It’s almost certainly much higher for teen pregnancies. This sounds like the basis for arguing for a greater expansion of abortion rights and sex education than it is for some peculiar conservative reaction against homosexuality. It also makes a complete hash of those fallacious arguments that certain sexual behaviors are “natural” or “right” for human beings — a heck of a lot of heterosexual behaviors seem to be undesirable and unpleasant for at least one of the people involved.

But wait until you see his conclusion.

Lesbianism and gayness are more different than they are similar in very fundamental ways. The gay male is more likely to stay in one lane for life, even while his sexual desire is generally more aggressive and he seeks greater diversity in partners than do women. However, judging by the pregnancy-risk data, younger men who identify as homosexual appear to be much more fluid in their actions than has been previously assumed. Does this mean that male same-sex attraction is more developmental than it is fixed? We don’t know.

But it’s a question worth researching. This has important policy implications for today. When we establish certain rights and accessibilities based on one’s sexual orientation and identity—and thus the punishment and severe public shaming of those who violate them—we are operating on ground that is more subjective than many would like us to believe.

I say hold on to your horses for that first paragraph: it assumes considerable uniformity in how gays and lesbians behave, erases a lot of individual preferences, and ignores the contributions of a culture that generally condemns all homosexual behavior. Those aren’t necessarily human universals, but rather a consequence of complex interactions between society and psychology.

But then that last bit that I highlighted — I agree 100%! We should not restrict rights to individuals on the basis of sexual identity. Gay and lesbian couples should have all of the same rights and privileges as heterosexual couples, without question.

But here is where I get hopelessly confused. The author of that commendable statement is Glenn Stanton, who works for…Focus on the Family Patriarchy. GLAAD has a page of quotes from Stanton. He opposes same sex marriage because it not only redefines marriage wholesale for everyone, but it actually deconstructs humanity itself. I don’t know how he reconciles that with his view above that using sexual orientation to establish rights is inherently subjective.

But even worse, he said “it was shameful, manipulative, and not good parenting for two dads to allow their daughter to make a video defending her family”. So non-traditional families don’t even have the right to defend their choices?

And of course he’s a fundamentalist/evangelical Christian.

All sexual sin is wrong because it fails to mirror the Trinitarian image, but homosexuality does more than fail. It’s a particularly evil lie of Satan because he knows that it overthrows the very image of the Trinitarian God in creation, revealed in the union of male and female.

I now have the feeling that I’m missing some secret coded message in that admirable final sentence from his article, because it doesn’t jibe at all with his ideological stance elsewhere, the position of his organization, or the typical sectarian views of his Christian cult.

I’m confused so much now, because I’m a biologist and this sociology/psychology stuff is so dang complicated and messy and hard. But at least one thing I got out of it was one useful datum I can bring up when people make that stupid “homosexuality can’t evolve” argument.

Krugman looks at Trumpcare

Krugman calculates who should favor this bill.

So, is this bill good for you? Yes, if you meet the following criteria:

1.Your income is more than $200,000 a year
2.You have a job that comes with good health insurance
3.You can’t imagine any circumstances under which you lose that job or income
4.You don’t have any family members or friends who don’t meet those criteria
5.You have zero empathy for anyone else

Let’s see. Do I qualify?

  1. Nope. Not even close.

  2. Yes! Except, of course, that I work in education, which the Trump administration wants to destroy.

  3. Nope. I’ll definitely lose this job inside a decade, when I retire. Or, to look on the bright side, when I die.

  4. Nope. Three kids who are just starting early adulthood.

  5. No, although I suppose I could work on it. I’ve already lost all empathy for Trump voters.

I guess I should be 80% against the bill by those criteria. It’s more like 800%, though.

But we do know the script the Republicans are following.

The set of people who can check all these boxes is not a winning political coalition. But Republican leaders believe that their voters are tribal enough, sufficiently walled off from information, that they’ll ignore the attack on their lives and keep voting R – indeed, that as they lose health care, get hit with crushing out-of-pocket bills, see their friends and neighbors face ruin, they’ll blame it on Democrats.

I wish I were sure that this belief was false.