And the Beat Goes On

Essence of Thought has published a timeline of the Rationality Rules affair. If you’re missed any of the last five months, it’ll bring you up to speed.

Cripes, has it been that long already?! I had a look through my archives, and all but two of my posts over the last two months have been focused on Rationality Rules, and even those two were about transphobia. I know, I know, the constant drumbeat is getting a bit repetitive and boring. But there’s a reason for it.

[11:31] Now, some of the walkouts had formed a support group, which I was later added to, and reading through their accounts is truly horrifying. Many discussed the abuse they suffered thanks to Woodford and his audience. There are numerous discussions on how their sleep was impacted, about how they’re having to see psychiatrists and other specialists. I’ve even seen [a post?] discussing suicide in relation to what had occurred. That’s the level of severity we are talking about with this issue: people discussing suicide. That’s the damage Woodford and his supporters have caused this one group, this one organization.

I don’t have any way to verify this part, but some of it tracks with comments I’ve read elsewhere, the claims have remained consistent over time, and it would explain why ACA members seem willing to talk to Essence of Thought despite the ocean between them.

One thing I do know: the odds of anyone holding Rationality Rules responsible are basically zero. Some big names in the atheo-skeptic sphere, such as Matt Dillahunty and AronRa, either agree with RR or don’t care enough to do their homework. The ACA tried to do the right thing, but it appears RR supporters elected themselves into a majority on the ACA’s board, possibly breaking the rules in the process, and promptly started kissing their abuser’s ass.

In order to remove any ambiguity in the following statement, I wish to make clear that the ACA earnestly and sincerely apologizes to Stephen Woodford (Rationality Rules) for vilifying his character and insinuating that he is opposed to the LGBTQIA+ community. The Board of Directors has officially retracted our original statement.

Rationality Rules was so confident nobody would take him to task, his “improved” video contains the same arguments as his “flawed” one. And honestly, he was right; I’ve seen this scenario play out often enough within this community to know that we try to bury our skeletons, that we treat our minorities like shit, that we “skeptics” are just as prone to being blind followers as the religious/woo crowds we critique. And just like all those other times, I cope by writing words until I get sick of the topic. Sometimes, that takes a while.

This is one of those “a while” times. If it helps, I’m actively trying to avoid covering topics other people already have, and elevating the voices of others to break up the monotony.

“Rationality Rules STILL Doesn’t Understand Sports”

Picking apart Rationality Rules’ science has been well covered, both by myself and by others, so it’s refreshing to watch someone take an entirely different approach.

[9:54] They outlawed dunking the basketball, because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won too many championships doing it. In nearly every possible example of a rule change in relation to individuals dominating, it comes only after that individual… well, dominated.

[10:16] In conclusion – to steal an ending as well – sport is not defined by fairness of starting point. If it was, we wouldn’t love sports. Sports are about the adversity, about overcoming the odds. It’s not about bleaching them into a robotic simulation in a computer.

Xevaris’ critique is more about the fundamental character of sport, like what it means to compete, and delves deep into history. It’s worth your time. I also want to point you to it because I cover similar territory in an upcoming post.

I really only have one complaint: there’s no closed-captions! There are plenty of reasons to keep them enabled on your videos, YouTubers.

Rationality Rules is “A Transphobic Hack”

Looks like my initial assessment of Rationality Rules’ second attempt at transgender athletes got it right.

I just want to start this video noting a very simple fact. Whilst Stephen Woodford’s latest video is over 21 minutes long, when I accounted for arguments already refuted, the new content only amounted to just 6:34. What’s more is that said new content contains zero arguments. It’s purely him dishonestly framing his opposition and the example he asks us to keep in mind as he opens his video.

The only two arguments he makes in his video are the bait and switch I dealt in my original response. And an attempt to justify this by shirking the burden of proof, something I dealt with in my response to Woodford’s ‘Mistakes of Many’ video.

Think about that: RR had two months to research counter-arguments and strengthen his stance, and instead chose to ignore all his critics and push the same arguments. The only changes he made were to move the goalposts. As one example, the original video contained these statements:

I’m convinced that, unless quickly rectified, [the inclusion of transgender women] will quickly kill women’s sport.

I don’t want to see the day when women’s athletics is dominated by Y chromosomes, but without a change in policy that is precisely what is going to happen.

He has never acknowledged those statements in any subsequent video, nor apologized for them. By removing them from the public record, though, he makes his stance look more reasoned. Since his opponents haven’t removed their critiques, though, they look like they’re overreacting.

Add in his now-usual tactic of dishonest editing to make his opponents’ views appear weaker than they are, and the new tactic of relying on talking points from religious far-Right organizations that joke about transgender people suffering painful deaths, and Rationality Rules’ replacement video is actually worse than the original!

How could he do something like this? Easy.

[48:55] How much damage does Woodford have to do to both trans people and the secular community before those who have been sitting on their hands, claiming we need to just give him time, finally take a stand? So rather than me ending by asking you questions, I’d like to offer a request. Start questioning the various content creators in the secular community as to why they still remain silent on the subject.

Because the only way we’re going to fix the secular community is if we actually begin holding its members accountable. People have asked me to consider how my attempts to hold Woodford accountable look to outsiders. Well can you?. How can we judge religious institutions for failing to tackle internal issues, whilst we see a coordinated effort to police marginalised voices in the secular community? My actions are not what makes the secular community look bad.

Rationality Rules knows he will not be held accountable for his dishonesty and harm. The Atheist Community of Austin tried to do a mild accounting, but was forced to back off due to public backlash from the community and a few high-profile members like Matt Dillahunty and AronRa who reflexively backed RR. And among high-profile groups and individuals, that’s it.

The message of the atheist/skeptic community is loud and clear: they will give your dishonesty and bigotry a pass if you’re popular enough and give the superficial appearance of caring about rational discourse. If you’re wondering why I continue to devote so much of my spare time to critiquing RR’s videos, it’s because I strongly disagree with the consensus of my community and I want it to change.

I should confess, however, that if you’d asked my the “why?” question a few weeks ago, I would have instead said that I dislike it when someone promotes misinformation, doubly dislike it when that person uses their rhetorical skills to make it tougher to respond, and triply dislike it when that person shares a community with me. My own thoughts have evolved thanks to Peter/Ethel of EssenceOfThought, and the time and effort they’ve put into critiquing RR. The quotes I’ve pulled from their latest video really don’t do it justice, I strongly recommend you watch the full thing.

And while doing so, think about how you’d like this community to behave.

[HJH 2019-06-23: Added a link to Matt Dillahunty’s tweet.]

[HJH 2019-06-23: Also added a link to EssenceOfThought’s summary of what happened to the ACA immediately after publishing their original statement.]

Rationality Rules is an Oblivious Transphobe

I have some regrets about my last post on Rationality Rules. I banged it out in just a few hours, while I was in the early stages of a nasty cold, and as I result I didn’t lay out all my arguments as clearly as I’d liked. I should have more clearly stated that his behavior was more in line with how a transphobe would react to the situation than someone who wasn’t transphobic. Now that I’ve had the benefit of time and RR’s long-teased follow-up video, I’ve had more time to reflect. As a result, I’ve refined my view of RR.

This new stance might not seem that charitable. After all, we’re talking about a video where RR says:

[1:58] I painted a picture of trans women essentially “stealing” competitions from non-trans women, and you’re absolutely right. I really dropped the ball here, and I will do my utmost best not to make this mistake again. In fact, going forward I’ll be very conscious of my narrative and language altogether, as such a sensitive topic requires nothing less. Truly, I should’ve known better. [2:20]

[9:23] … I absolutely recognise that my honest mistakes caused real harm, and for that I am sincerely sorry. The original video is now delisted and I’ve donated all of the ad revenue that it made to the transgender charity Sparkle. I know that it’ll never make up for the harm that I’ve caused, and that many of you will never consider me an ally again, I understand. [9:47]

He explicitly says a trans woman is a woman, too, at around the 1:40 mark. So why the harsh interpretation? [Read more…]

Ugh, Not Again

P-values are back in the news. Nature published an article, signed by 800 scientists, calling for an end to the concept of “statistical significance.” It ruffled my feathers, even though I agreed with its central thesis.

The trouble is human and cognitive more than it is statistical: bucketing results into ‘statistically significant’ and ‘statistically non-significant’ makes people think that the items assigned in that way are categorically different. The same problems are likely to arise under any proposed statistical alternative that involves dichotomization, whether frequentist, Bayesian or otherwise.

Unfortunately, the false belief that crossing the threshold of statistical significance is enough to show that a result is ‘real’ has led scientists and journal editors to privilege such results, thereby distorting the literature. Statistically significant estimates are biased upwards in magnitude and potentially to a large degree, whereas statistically non-significant estimates are biased downwards in magnitude. Consequently, any discussion that focuses on estimates chosen for their significance will be biased. On top of this, the rigid focus on statistical significance encourages researchers to choose data and methods that yield statistical significance for some desired (or simply publishable) result, or that yield statistical non-significance for an undesired result, such as potential side effects of drugs — thereby invalidating conclusions.

Nothing wrong there. While I’ve mentioned some Bayesian buckets, I tucked away a one-sentence counter-argument in an aside over here. Any artificial significant/non-significant boundary is going to promote the distortions they mention here. What got me writing this post was their recommendations.

What will retiring statistical significance look like? We hope that methods sections and data tabulation will be more detailed and nuanced. Authors will emphasize their estimates and the uncertainty in them — for example, by explicitly discussing the lower and upper limits of their intervals. They will not rely on significance tests. When P values are reported, they will be given with sensible precision (for example, P = 0.021 or P = 0.13) — without adornments such as stars or letters to denote statistical significance and not as binary inequalities (P  < 0.05 or P > 0.05). Decisions to interpret or to publish results will not be based on statistical thresholds. People will spend less time with statistical software, and more time thinking.

This basically amounts to nothing. Journal editors still have to decide what to print, and if there is no strong alternative they’ll switch from an arbitrary cutoff of p < 0.05 to an ad-hoc arbitrary cutoff. In the meantime, they’re leaving flawed statistical procedures in place. P-values exaggerate the strength of the evidence, as I and others have argued. Confidence intervals are not an improvement, either. As I put it:

For one thing, if you’re a frequentist it’s a category error to state the odds of a hypothesis being true, or that some data makes a hypothesis more likely, or even that you’re testing the truth-hood of a hypothesis. […]

How does this intersect with confidence intervals? If it’s an invalid move to hypothesise[sic] “the population mean is Y,” it must also be invalid to say “there’s a 95% chance the population mean is between X and Z.” That’s attaching a probability to a hypothesis, and therefore a no-no! Instead, what a frequentist confidence interval is really telling you is “assuming this data is a representative sample, if I repeat my experimental procedure an infinite number of times then I’ll calculate a sample mean between X and Z 95% of the time.” A confidence interval says nothing about the test statistic, at least not directly.

In frequentism, the parameter is fixed and the data varies. It doesn’t make sense to consider other parameters, that’s a Bayesian move. And yet the authors propose exactly that!

We must learn to embrace uncertainty. One practical way to do so is to rename confidence intervals as ‘compatibility intervals’ and interpret them in a way that avoids overconfidence. Specifically, we recommend that authors describe the practical implications of all values inside the interval, especially the observed effect (or point estimate) and the limits. In doing so, they should remember that all the values between the interval’s limits are reasonably compatible with the data, given the statistical assumptions used to compute the interval. Therefore, singling out one particular value (such as the null value) in the interval as ‘shown’ makes no sense.

Much of what the authors proposed would be fixed by switching to Bayesian statistics. Their own suggestions invoke Bayesian ideas without realizing it. Yet they go out of their way to say nothing’s wrong with p-values or confidence intervals, despite evidence to the contrary. Their proposal is destined to fail, yet it got more support than the arguably-superior p < 0.005 proposal.

Maddening. Maybe it’s time I got out my poison pen and added my two cents to the scientific record.

Happy Emmy Noether Day!

Whenever anyone asks me for my favorite scientist, her name comes first.

At a time when women were considered intellectually inferior to men, Noether (pronounced NUR-ter) won the admiration of her male colleagues. She resolved a nagging puzzle in Albert Einstein’s newfound theory of gravity, the general theory of relativity. And in the process, she proved a revolutionary mathematical theorem that changed the way physicists study the universe.

It’s been a century since the July 23, 1918, unveiling of Noether’s famous theorem. Yet its importance persists today. “That theorem has been a guiding star to 20th and 21st century physics,” says theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek of MIT. […]

Although most people have never heard of Noether, physicists sing her theorem’s praises. The theorem is “pervasive in everything we do,” says theoretical physicist Ruth Gregory of Durham University in England. Gregory, who has lectured on the importance of Noether’s work, studies gravity, a field in which Noether’s legacy looms large.

And as luck would have it, today was the day she was born. So read up on why she’s such a critical figure, and use it as an excuse to remember other important women in science.

Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria

Remember that old thing? No? OK, quick summary:

Parental reports (on social media) of friend clusters exhibiting signs of gender dysphoria and increased exposure to social media/internet preceding a child’s announcement of a transgender identity raise the possibility of social and peer influences.

Littman L (2018) Parent reports of adolescents and young adults perceived to show signs of a rapid onset of gender dysphoria. PLoS ONE 13(8): e0202330.

In short, maybe social media is making the kids transgender? This seems like something someone should study, and someone did!

Poorly. [Read more…]