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.

At least she’s safe from second-hand smoke

Suddenly, all these videos of the Philando Castile shooting are being released after the murder cop got acquitted. This latest one is heartbreaking: it’s video of Castile’s fiancé, handcuffed (WHY? What did she do wrong, besides sit next to an innocent man getting violently slaughtered by a cop?), while her daughter tries to deal with the situation.

Mom, please stop cussing and screaming ’cause I don’t want you to get shooted.

In the earlier video, I noticed how both adults in the car reflexively used “sir” in just about every sentence to the asshole cop — I don’t think they wanted to get shooted either. Our police departments are relying on fear to cow the population, and it shows.

What’s a self-righteous moralizer to do?

Bill Cosby is out, and of course he has a plan for his life: to lecture young men on how to avoid getting caught.

Bill Cosby will organize a series of town hall meetings to help educate young people about problems their misbehavior could create, a spokesman for Cosby said Thursday.
Cosby is eager to get back to work following a deadlocked jury and mistrial in his sexual assault trial, spokesman Andrew Wyatt told Birmingham, Alabama, TV station WBRC.

“We’ll talk to young people. Because this is bigger than Bill Cosby. You know, this, this issue can affect any young person, especially young athletes of today,” Wyatt said. “And they need to know what they’re facing when they’re hanging out and partying, when they’re doing certain things they shouldn’t be doing.

This is exactly what the rapist has been doing for years.

Lecturing isn’t new for Cosby. In recent years, the comedian and actor became known for scolding fellow African-Americans for poor grammar, sloppy dress and not valuing education, critiques that drew fire from some as elitist.

He’s just going to add one more item to his repertoire: how to use a date-rape drug with sophistication.

Remember the good old days of “death panels”?

Those were the days, when Republicans tried to scuttle health care reform by claiming it would be heartless, cruel, bureaucratic, and would kill your grandma. That was their official stance everywhere, that they were paragons of kindness who were concerned about the liberty of citizens, while Democrats were going to callously ration your health care.

At least that pretense has been exposed. The new Republican ‘health care’ plan that isn’t (it’s actually a massive tax cut for rich fuckers that will move money out of the pockets of the poor) has finally been revealed. It features little details like lifetime limits on medical support that the insurance companies love, that doctors and hospitals hate, and that has triggered more protests from disabled people and those with chronic conditions, leading to optics like this: protesters in wheelchairs being hauled away by the police.

This is a bill that is ruthless to the disabled and poor, and, I would add as I look at the ticking clock bringing me closer to retirement, guts Medicaid, so it also hurts old people. Apparently, I’m supposed to trust that my kids will be rich and support me in my dotage.

Obamacare was flawed because it was a compromise bill. But Trumpcare is flawed because it was written by rich motherfuckers who want to intentionally harm the poor, the elderly, the sick, the needy, or, as they prefer to regard them, the undeserving. There is a fairly straightforward solution to the problem of creating a just society:

In the case of healthcare, the answer to this conundrum is simple: fund the healthcare system not through premiums or deductibles, but instead through progressive taxes, such that nobody is liable to pay more for healthcare than they can afford.

Of course, if you are trying not to reduce inequality, but to exacerbate it, this makes little sense: better to bleed Medicaid, transfuse the cash into the pockets of the rich, and call the whole bloodsucking endeavor an exercise in “freedom.”

Republicans are the party of inequality. At least there are no death panels, though, because they’ve decided that they’ll just let everyone who isn’t rich die, no review needed.

The destructive narrowing of internet atheism

Hussein Kesvani writes about how internet atheism sucks. As an internet atheist, I have to agree.

To understand where online atheism is at the moment, you only need to do a quick search on YouTube – the platform that acts as a gateway for most people entering the internet atheist community. Some of the most popular viral videos include “How Feminism Destroyed ‘New Atheism'” by ThunderF00t; “Rape, Feminism, and The Amazing Atheist” by “The Amazing Atheist”, TJ Kirk; and various videos of Milo Yiannopoulos talking about atheism on college campuses.

Spend some time looking at this stuff and you’ll find there are few videos critiquing religion intellectually, or offering support to new atheists. Instead, the videos that seem to resonate most are those that use atheism as a smokescreen to comment on the horrors of female body positivity, of sex dolls “triggering” feminists and, of course, those hooked on British tabloid articles claiming the impending overthrowing of Western civilisation by invading Muslims. It’s the kind of thing you might see your Britain First-following uncle post on Facebook, before calling for all halal butchers to be closed because “they fund ISIS”.

There are of course some youtube atheists who do provide the intellectual critiques they want; try Aron Ra, or Seth Andrews, or The Atheist Experience, or…oh god, I just searched youtube for atheism to remind myself of all the great channels out there, and just got a long horrible list of just the worst people. It really is drowning in hateful noise.

It’s also oppressive noise. One thing I’ve noticed about the rational, conscious side of the youtube atheists community is that they tend to avoid calling out the bad actors on the other side — this is not necessarily a bad thing, if you’ve got an intellectual focus it is a huge distraction to have to slap down the horde of rotten atheists in addition to the hordes of rotten theists — but it does mean that there isn’t a lot of vocal opposition to the corruption of youtube atheism. It also doesn’t help that when someone like Steve Shives does directly attack the regressive atheists, he gets a ton of demented alt-right squirrels throwing 90 minute long raging monologues by talking kangaroos or suits of armor or chattering cow skulls.

The thing is that we need to do more than just declare how stupid believers are while shackling atheism to the likes of anti-feminism, racism, alt-right imperialism, and libertarian economic bullshit. We have to remember that our audience is more than our fellow smug unbelievers happily slapping each others’ backs at how clever we are. We have to also provide an intellectual and social home to people who are searching for answers.

“The majority of ex-Muslims leave Islam because they have issues to do with theology. There is a fear of being cast out by your community, but the process of leaving Islam is basically the same as anyone leaving a religion. Yet, the online atheist community – whose spokespeople are apparently white straight guys – make these videos talking about Muslim barbarians raping white women, or imposing sharia law on schools and cinemas. They don’t realise that they’re implicitly talking about our families, friends, the people we still care about.”

Those people, and people like them. Do you think black atheists want to share a space with people who argue for scientific racism? Or that women atheists find it pleasant to be told to go make a sandwich? We’re doomed if the only people favored by atheists are arrogant white dudes. Like me.

Support the International Humanists and Ethical Union

The IHEU is launching a fundraising campaign to help humanists at risk around the world.

Over the last 5 years, the IHEU has led the way in providing advocacy and support for humanists at risk around the world.

The IHEU is at the forefront of identifying and raising awareness of a disturbing new trend:

— growing violence and discrimination targeted at non-religious individuals and groups around the world.

We want to continue highlighting and campaigning on this topic and defending individual humanists at risk. And we need your help.

They’ve been working to end blasphemy laws, which are used to selectively oppress humanists, and they’ve been assisting threatened individuals in relocating. This is a very good group, and they deserve all of your support.

Mystery structure explained!

That strange tissue I showed in a previous post is…the chorion of the embryonic zebrafish. It’s homologous to a structure called the zona pellucida in mammals, and it’s also made of the same stuff: a collection of highly conserved glycoproteins called ZP (for zona pellucida proteins) that form a tight extracellular matrix around the egg. There are four groups of related proteins creatively called ZPA, ZPB, ZPC, and ZPX, and most are found in fish, frogs, birds, reptiles, mammals — so they really are universal.

One distinction is that only mammalian ZPs/chorions have the property of sperm recognition — in other groups the chorion acts explicitly as a barrier to sperm entry. Fish have a tiny funnel-shaped hole in their chorions called the micropyle at the animal pole, which is just big enough to allow a single sperm to enter, reducing the likelihood of polyspermy.

What’s also cool about the chorion is that it inflates and self-assembles. It lifts off the surface of the egg at fertilization and expands, and further, enzymes are released from cortical granules in the egg to harden and toughen the coat. Basically when the egg is fertilized it quickly blows up a fluid-filled bubble around itself.

In zebrafish, the chorion is thin and transparent, and relatively easy to tear and remove. Other fish species may differ; the first time I tried removing the chorion from medaka, it was like trying to rip through tough leather after after being used to peeling away soft toilet paper. Chorions may also be decorated with threads or spiky processes, especially in demersal (sinking) eggs that need to stick to rocks or grasses at the bottom of a stream. Zebrafish are rather mundane and plain in comparison.

There are complicated things going on in the chorion: it’s a barrier and a filter. It blocks some toxic or teratogenic agents — there are some substances, like steroid-like plant alkaloids (cyclopamine, jervine) that are much more potent if you remove or even just tear a small hole in the chorion.

So about that photo: you are looking at a very thin sheet of a glycoprotein matrix that forms a kind of eggshell around the embryo. Most of the time I just rip it off and throw it away, but in this case I was scanning embryos and left it on, and as always, it struck me as lovely and intricately patterned.


Bonsignorio D., et al., 1996. Structure and macromolecular composition of the zebrafish egg chorion. Zygote, 4(02), pp.101-108.

Iwamatsu T et al. 1995. Changes in chorion proteins induced by the exudate released from the egg cortex at the time of fertilization in the teleost, Oryzias latipes. Development, Growth & Differentiation, 37: 747–759.

Murata K et al. 2014. Identification of the Origin and Localization of Chorion (Egg Envelope) Proteins in an Ancient Fish, the White Sturgeon, Acipenser transmontanus. Biol Reprod 90(6): 132.

Rizzo E et al. Oocyte surface in four teleost fish species postspawning and fertilization. 1998. Braz. arch. biol. technol., Curitiba , 41(1):37-48.