Objectively Biased

Enjoyed that inspirational break? Good, because it’s back to Depresso Land.

Astronomy and planetary science, as the fields concerned with celestial objects and processes, help shift human attention outward. Gazing at the stars is an accessible introduction to science, one that gets many young children dreaming of being an astronaut, astronomer, or planetary scientist one day. […]

At the same time, the accessibility and inclusive atmosphere within science, including astronomy and planetary science, has been called into question. Science syllabi use gendered language that not only can show women as incompetent but also normalizes masculine behaviors, belief systems, and priorities [Bejerano and Bartosh, 2015]. Several studies of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields have found implicit bias, or the bias in judgment resulting from implicit attitudes that operates below cognitive awareness, related to both gender and race limits opportunities in mentorship [Milkman et al., 2015], hiring [Moss-Racusin et al., 2012], and opportunities in the classroom [Eddy et al., 2014, 2015; Grunspan et al., 2016], as well as workplace conflict [Williams et al., 2016] and experiences that map onto stereotypes of scientists’ racial-ethnic identification [Williams et al., 2014, 2016]. Women of color faculty in STEM are also more likely to experience the dominant culture of their disciplines as outsiders, with their views validated less than the dominant group [Rios and Stewart, 2015]. Further, the number of women of color science faculty has recently decreased, even while the number of white women science faculty has increased [Armstrong and Jovanovic, 2015]. These marginalities are further compounded by power differentials, as women of color are more likely to be junior in rank compared to those with majority identities [National Science Foundation (NSF), 2015].[1]

That much was known; left without examination, though was the extent that this sexism hits on a personal level. Now we have a study that covers that, and whoamygawd:

Women were more likely than men to observe remarks that they interpreted as racist, sexist, that one was not feminine or masculine enough, or disparaging someone’s physical abilities or mental abilities (Table 3, see supporting information Table S1 for all analyses). Women were also significantly more likely than men to report that they experienced both verbal and physical harassment because of their gender. When asked if they had ever felt physically unsafe in their current position, more women than men reported that they felt unsafe as a result of their gender (30% versus 2%, p < 0.001). Finally, women were also more likely than men to report skipping at least one class, meeting, fieldwork, or other professional event per month because they felt unsafe (13% versus 3%, p = 0.01). […]

Respondents of color were significantly more likely than white respondents to observe remarks that were racist (from peers and others, p = 0.0001 and 0.023) or homophobic (from supervisors, p < 0.0001, Table 4, see supporting information Table S2 for all analyses). Respondents of color were also significantly more likely than white respondents to report that they experienced both verbal and physical harassment because of their race. When asked if they had ever felt physically unsafe in their current position, more respondents of color reported they felt unsafe as a result of their race (24% versus 1%, p < 0.001). Respondents of color and white respondents reported similar frequencies of skipped classes, meetings, fieldwork, or other professional events per month because they felt unsafe (15% versus 9%, p = 0.08).[1]

There’s more bad news, and thankfully the paper is open-access so you can wallow in it yourself. Suffice to say, not only does this establish sexism and racism is pervasive within astronomy, there’s strong reason to suspect its killing careers.

An even stronger portrait emerges if we include the LGBTQA+ community. This relates to physics, rather than astronomy, but

About 15% of LGBT men, 25% of LGBT women, 30% of gender-nonconforming individuals characterized the overall climate of their department or division as “uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable.” Also, 30% of trans individual regardless of gender identity characterized the overall climate of their department or division as “uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable.” […]

Over 40% of climate survey respondents agreed with the statement, “Employees are expected to not act too gay,” and about 45% disagreed with the statement, “Coworkers are as likely to ask nice, interested questions about same-sex relationships as they are about heterosexual relationships.” […]

More than 20% of climate survey respondents reported experiencing exclusionary behavior in the past year, while about 40% reported observing exclusionary behavior due to gender, gender expression, gender identity, sexual orientation, or sexual identity. These numbers were significantly higher (49% and 60% respectively) for trans respondents. […]

Over one-third of climate survey respondents considered leaving their workplace or school in the past year.[2]

That last line is important; we’re excluding people from working in the sciences for reasons that have nothing to do with competence. This has to change, and as always awareness of the problem is the first step.

[1] Clancy, Kathryn B. H., Katharine M. N. Lee, Erica M. Rodgers, and Christina Richey. “Double Jeopardy in Astronomy and Planetary Science: Women of Color Face Greater Risks of Gendered and Racial Harassment.” Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, n.d., 2017JE005256. doi:10.1002/2017JE005256.

[2] Atherton, T. J., R. S. Barthelemy, W. Deconinck, M. L. Falk, S. Garmon, E. Long, M. Plisch, E. H. Simmons, and K. Reeves. “LGBT Climate in Physics: Building an Inclusive Community.” American Physical Society, College Park, MD, 2016.

And Now For Something Completely Different

I’ve been a negative Nelly lately, haven’t I? How hate feeds into itself, why Boghossian is wrong, OMG TRUMP… I think it’s time for something more uplifting. Ever since including this link on one of the Boghossian articles, I’ve wanted to promote it to a full post. It’s Michael Kimmel talking about gender equality, and how it benefits men as well as everyone else.

Gender equality is good for countries. It turns out, according to most studies, that those countries that are the most gender equal are also the countries that score highest on the happiness scale. And that’s not just because they’re all in Europe. Even within Europe, those countries that are more gender equal also have the highest levels of happiness.

It is also good for companies. Research by Catalyst and others has shown conclusively that the more gender-equal companies are, the better it is for workers, the happier their labor force is. They have lower job turnover. They have lower levels of attrition. They have an easier time recruiting. They have higher rates of retention, higher job satisfaction, higher rates of productivity. So the question I’m often asked in companies is, “Boy, this gender equality thing, that’s really going to be expensive, huh?” And I say, “Oh no, in fact, what you have to start calculating is how much gender inequality is already costing you. It is extremely expensive.” So it is good for business.

When you know where to look, there’s actually quite a few videos in this genre. For instance, here’s Tony Porter (warning, he gets explicit about sexual assault)…

… we as men are taught to have less value in women, to view them as property and the objects of men. We see that as an equation that equals violence against women. We as men, good men, the large majority of men, we operate on the foundation of this whole collective socialization. We kind of see ourselves separate, but we’re very much a part of it. You see, we have to come to understand that less value, property and objectification is the foundation and the violence can’t happen without it. So we’re very much a part of the solution as well as the problem.

And Jackson Katz (double warning, he focuses on sexual assault)…

… there’s an awful lot of men who care deeply about these issues. I know this, I work with men, and I’ve been working with tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of men for many decades now. It’s scary, when you think about it, how many years. But there’s so many men who care deeply about these issues, but caring deeply is not enough. We need more men with the guts, with the courage, with the strength, with the moral integrity to break our complicit silence and challenge each other and stand with women and not against them.

By the way, we owe it to women. There’s no question about it. But we also owe it to our sons. We also owe it to young men who are growing up all over the world in situations where they didn’t make the choice to be a man in a culture that tells them that manhood is a certain way. They didn’t make the choice. We that have a choice, have an opportunity and a responsibility to them as well.

But my favorite has to be Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you would threaten the man.” If you are the breadwinner in your relationship with a man, you have to pretend that you’re not, especially in public, otherwise you will emasculate him.

But what if we question the premise itself? Why should a woman’s success be a threat to a man? What if we decide to simply dispose of that word, and I don’t think there’s an English word I dislike more than “emasculation.” A Nigerian acquaintance once asked me if I was worried that men would be intimidated by me. I was not worried at all. In fact, it had not occurred to me to be worried because a man who would be intimidated by me is exactly the kind of man I would have no interest in.

It’s easy to feel ground down by the endless parade of sexist bullshit in the news. Outrage and train wrecks tend to steal our gaze, but if you keep mindful and dig a little, you’ll find no shortage of people pushing back. Take inspiration from them, and if the time is right, join them.

The Mechanisation of Hate

Over time, I’ve believed anti-feminism is a cult of sorts. Their use of memes was a deciding factor, but there are other tells. One exploits our instincts as a social species.

In order to encourage those social bonds, we have a need to be loved. This creates a loyalty to a social group, which we repay by advancing the needs of the group. We band together to gather food, fend off predators or other groups, and so on.
But if love forms bonds, couldn’t a lot of love form a really strong bond? Or overcome resistance to forming a bond? This is the rationale behind “love-bombing:” by showering your target with love, you hope to generate a relationship that otherwise wouldn’t happen. The term was even coined by a cult. The flip-side is hate-bombing, or showering someone with hate in the hope of causing emotional distress.

Via PZ, I learned that anti-feminists have a very similar concept: red-pilling.

“Redpill,” for the blissfully unaware, is a slang term in certain alt-right-adjacent internet communities like the men’s rights crew. It refers to that famous Matrix scene where Neo takes the red pill and sees things as they really are. When alt-right dudes use it, they generally mean “convince other white people that we’re better than others,” and many of them are not shy about trying to redpill their friends and families.

“It’s a new label for an old idea,” said Ryan Lenz, who gathers information on hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, and edits their Hatewatch blog.

That Vice article points out some common tactics, like building empathy and using bargaining to expose people to your propaganda. Laci Green appears to be the latest person to fall victim.

In late May, seemingly out of the blue, Green dramatically shifted her tone on harassment. Where once she supported the abused, she suddenly began questioning why there’s “more than two genders” and arguing that “both sides of the argument are valid” for everything from racism to transphobia to misogyny. In a stunning example of her newfound hypocrisy, she called feminist YouTuber and fellow member of her anti-harassment Facebook group Kat Blaque a “sociopath,” […]

In a series of videos, Green revealed that her shift was a result of “red pilling,” the term for a twisted Matrix-inspired recruitment process coined by men’s rights advocates, pick-up artists, and the “alt right.” The process involves a recruiter who attempts to position white supremacists as oppressed truth tellers while spinning phony racial and gender science as “free speech” that’s being trampled on by feminists and the political left.

The parallels between religious cults and the anti-feminist movement are chilling; I didn’t even realise there was a flip-side to love-bombing until I thought of examples drawn from anti-feminism. But there’s an ingredient we can add which makes things oh-so-much worse.

You can see the outlines of it in message boards like 4chan: someone announces a target, and other commenters swarm that person with love or hate. This is the early steps of the mechanisation of hate, in this case the automation of love/hate-bombing, and it’s gotten very sophisticated. The next logical step would be to get money involved in the process, and that’s already happened.

When Green created her anti-harassment Facebook group, it was largely in response to the rising trend of “response videos,” YouTube videos created by trolls who have devoted their lives to attacking feminist content. Creators of these videos often claim that their content does not itself constitute harassment, while simultaneously ignoring the actions of their followers, who frequently bombard their targets with an overwhelming number of slurs and violent messages. […]

Troublingly, up until recently, such videos were not only supported by YouTube, but incentivized. Because response videos are so easy to make, it was easy for reactionary YouTubers to churn out a lot of content, which YouTube then prioritized in an algorithm that favored prolific output, high view counts, and abundant comments — even if those comments were toxic. Gaming the very closely held secret of the YouTube algorithm became a de facto path to internet stardom, and the format was perfect for response-video creators.

This puts a dollar tag on hate. It’s no longer just about promoting your group or winning new members, you can actually make a good living off of hating on feminism. This is yet another parallel to religion, especially Christianity, which has always used various means to extract funds from its supporters to line the pockets of its preachers. It feeds into a self-feeding cycle of hate, where preachers clamber to earn the cash of followers by whipping up their hatred.

There is no easy way to defeat this, as it relies on deeply embedded parts of our psyche. Speaking up about it and educating people is probably the best tactic in the short-term, while in the long-term we work on dismantling or altering systems which promote it.

The Intersection of Intersex and Trans*

Shiv blogged about a fascinating article on TransAdvocate. The title gives you a good preview: “An intersex perspective on the trans, intersex and TERF communities.” It seems some intersex people are drawn to “gender critical” feminism; on the surface, they argue against surgery and claim to push back against the notion of binary gender.

But, when you get into the details,

intersex advocates and “gender critical feminists” have very different end positions on medical interventions into the sexed body. Intersex advocates believe that no intervention should be forced–but also that once an intersex person is old enough to give full informed consent, that hormonal, surgical, or others interventions should be performed if that’s what the individual truly wants. Many, many, many intersex people do choose interventions of their own free will. …  Intersex people often seek hormone replacement therapy to masculinize or feminize their bodies, or surgeries to move their urethras to allow neater or standing urination, or any of a wide number of other interventions. And intersex advocates support all of these choices. We just wish them to be free choices, not forced by doctors or parents or social shaming.

Gender-critical feminists, on the other hand, turn out to hold a very different position: that all interventions into the sexed body are mutilations, not just those imposed without consent. Just as it is a mutilation to surgically alter the innocent bodies of intersex babies, they say, it is a pointless self-mutilation for an adult to choose to have their sexed body medically altered, because sex cannot be changed. …  The only healthy and feminist response to unhappiness with one’s body presented is to learn to accept it as it is. For intersex people, this just replaces the rigid regime of forcing medical interventions with a rigid regime of withholding them. Switching one constraint on intersex people for another isn’t the motivation for this gender critical position–I don’t know if they are even aware that intersex people desire some medical interventions. The main purpose of their argument that one must accept the natural body is to tell trans people that they must give up on the “delusion” that one can be born with a penis but really be a woman, or born with a vagina but really be a man, or born a human being and really be a member of some alternative sex.

This is but one of the many insights Cary Costello’s article offers. At one point, I summarised early TERFs as “lesbians squicking out over potential penis.” It was unabashedly superficial, but I’m not the only one to notice the fixation on genitals.

But participating in discussions with gender crits, it quickly becomes apparent that they are indeed transphobic–and apparently obsessed with penises. They talk about them constantly, and presume that all trans women have them (because they say even a trans woman who has genital reconstructive surgery now simply possesses an “inverted penis”). And penises are always presented as dangerous–“natal [cis] girls” might see them in locker rooms and be traumatized, trans-protective laws would mean no woman could ever be sure the person in the next stall didn’t have a penis, and thus pose a threat to her. This obsession with other people’s genitals and validation of the idea that people should be upset by those with the “wrong ones” runs completely counter to the interests of intersex people. …  In painting trans women’s bodies as deceptive, dangerous and disgusting, transphobic feminists paint those born sex variant with the same brush.

But I didn’t point you to the article just because it pokes holes in TERF ideology; there are excellent observations about the overlap between the trans* and intersex communities, with suggestions for improvement. No spoilers, though, you’ll have to read those for yourself. Cary Costello’s article deserves a second shout-out.

Intelligence and Race, in sub-populations

I’ve read a fair number of papers covering race and genes. In fact, before I go farther, here’s a bibliography:

In this article, the authors argue that the overwhelming portion of the literature on intelligence, race, and genetics is based on folk taxonomies rather than scientific analysis. They suggest that because theorists of intelligence disagree as to what it is, any consideration of its relationships to other constructs must be tentative at best. They further argue that race is a social construction with no scientific definition. Thus, studies of the relationship between race and other constructs may serve social ends but cannot serve scientific ends. No gene has yet been conclusively linked to intelligence, so attempts to provide a compelling genetic link of race to intelligence are not feasible at this time. The authors also show that heritability, a behavior-genetic concept, is inadequate in regard to providing such a link.

Sternberg, Robert J., Elena L. Grigorenko, and Kenneth K. Kidd. “Intelligence, race, and genetics.” American Psychologist 60.1 (2005): 46.

The literature on candidate gene associations is full of reports that have not stood up to rigorous replication. This is the case both for straightforward main effects and for candidate gene-by-environment interactions (Duncan and Keller 2011). As a result, the psychiatric and behavior genetics literature has become confusing and it now seems likely that many of the published findings of the last decade are wrong or misleading and have not contributed to real advances in knowledge. The reasons for this are complex, but include the likelihood that effect sizes of individual polymorphisms are small, that studies have therefore been underpowered, and that multiple hypotheses and methods of analysis have been explored; these conditions will result in an unacceptably high proportion of false findings (Ioannidis 2005).

Hewitt, John K. “Editorial Policy on Candidate Gene Association and Candidate Gene-by-Environment Interaction Studies of Complex Traits.” Behavior Genetics 42, no. 1 (January 1, 2012): 1–2. doi:10.1007/s10519-011-9504-z.

[Read more…]

Saving the World, One Silly Dance at a Time

I think I get Bill Nye’s plan.

Currently he’s caping around Netflix, promising to “save the world.” One of the two episodes I watched was on nutrition, and it was unceasingly awful. Over and over again, he hammered home the point that fad diets were useless: problem is, he didn’t explain why. He didn’t bring up the shady practices and lousy science, he didn’t give a lecture on human physiology; he did burn food with a blowtorch, interview a cave person, and host a deliberately awkward school play over nutrition. His “expert panel” consisted of a comedian, a personal trainer, and a psychologist. As someone who prefers the process and facts, I was left deeply unsatisfied. How exactly was this saving the world?

In this paper, we report the results of two rounds of experiments investigating the extent to which corrective information embedded in realistic news reports succeeds in reducing prominent misperceptions about contemporary politics. In each of the four experiments, which were conducted in fall 2005 and spring 2006, ideological subgroups failed to update their beliefs when presented with corrective information that runs counter to their predispositions. Indeed, in several cases, we find that corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects.[1]

Enter the Backfire Effect. I’m not yet convinced it exists, thanks to the current replication crisis, but I do know it is widely believed in the skeptic circles Nye is familiar with. Let’s say it does exist; how then do we dispel myths?

A common explanation for the Backfire Effect is competing arguments.[2] The idea is that when someone hears a refutation of a myth they hold dear, they work hard to swat it down. In doing so, they bring up their prior knowledge and remind themselves of its strength. Weighing the (supposedly) defused refutation and the (supposedly) iron-clad evidence for the myth in their minds, people chalk in more evidence in favor of the myth. In hindsight, they’ll remember the evidence in favor of the myth rather than the evidence opposed.

If true, then one approach is to avoid bringing evidence against the myth, as that will cause people to work less to refute it and thus dredge up less counter-argument. Never bring up evidence in favor of it either, as you’ll remind people it exists. In fact, why bring up evidence at all when you can use peer pressure and mockery to exploit our social tendencies? Another two approaches are repetition and entertainment; make sure people remember your talking points, instead of the evidence against them.

Bill Nye did all of that.

He’s not trying to engage people like me, who already know fad diets are bogus, he’s trying to convince the people who think fad diets are legit. By tackling the harder problem he is indeed trying to save the world, by carefully refuting the myths people hold. This is not science or the discovery of novel truths, it’s the spread of those truths to the masses and the battle against misinformation.

Alas, some people didn’t get the memo. Like Jerry Coyne.

It’s no secret that I am not a big fan of Bill Nye, regarding him as a buffoon who will engage in any shenanigans that keep him in the public eye and help him retain the fame he desires—fame accrued as “The Science Guy”.

Spoken like someone who’s never read Bill Nye’s CV. I’m sure the current CEO of The Planetary Society, who’s designed sundials for Mars landers and took Obama to the Florida Everglades to discuss climate change and education, is consumed by a need for fame.

Well, Nye has a new show humbly called “Bill Nye Saves the World“, which apparently still has the goal of promoting science. Here’s a new video from the show. Featuring comedian and actor Rachel Bloom singing “My vagina has its own voice,” it’s an arrant travesty.

Or a memorable way to drive home the point that how you have sex doesn’t matter, nor what body parts you use or how they’re shaped. One that will be shared far and wide by people who argue the contrary, who seem genuinely frightened of what Nye is saying.

Now this may be social justice stuff, but it ain’t science …

Social justice is the promotion of a fair and just society. It is universal health care, progressive taxation, international trade policy, and discounted tuition. It is eliminating discrimination based on sex or race. If you consider mass misinformation as a social injustice, then yes, educating people on the best science is a form of social justice, but that’s a more tenuous form than guaranteed minimum income programs.

And yes, studying sex is science. Coyne himself agrees on this.

I think the size dimorphism of humans is more likely a result of male “battling” for dominance and access to females than simply female preference for large males, though of course both factors can be involved. […]

I also adduced four other bits of evidence predicted by the sexual selection hypothesis, which you can see at my earlier post. Those predictions were made before the data were collected, and they were confirmed.

That’s got all the basic trappings of science: hypotheses, evidence, and a methodology for combining the two. Next, we have to establish if the scientific consensus is that sex is a spectrum instead of a binary.

The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that. […]

Since the 1990s, researchers have identified more than 25 genes involved in DSDs [differences of sex development], and next-generation DNA sequencing in the past few years has uncovered a wide range of variations in these genes that have mild effects on individuals, rather than causing DSDs. “Biologically, it’s a spectrum,” says [Eric] Vilain, [a clinician and the director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles].[3]

The influence of the XX/XY model of chromosomal sex has been profound over the last century, but it’s founded on faulty premises and responsible for encouraging reductive, essentialist thinking. While the scientific world has moved on, its popular appeal remains.[4]

Sex determination exists on a spectrum, with genitals, chromosomes, gonads, and hormones all playing a role. Most fit into the male or female category, but about one in a hundred may fall in between.[5]

Easy peasy. Even Adam Savage is aware that science promotes a sex spectrum. But Coyne offers up a weak counter-argument against the scientific consensus.

… not even if you construe it as promoting a “spectrum of sexuality,” which is misleading because most people bunch at either end of the “spectrum.”

Riiiiiiight, so we should ditch the idea of a spectrum because people don’t fall along it in a uniform fashion. Does this mean I can declare all prime numbers to be odd? Most of them are, after all. Or maybe we should dispense with the visual spectrum, since our eyes tend to lump colours into discrete categories?

As always, I wonder what Coyne thinks of people who don’t fall into the binary. Are they “defects” in need of “correction?” Should we trim the clitoris of a newborn baby if it is longer than we feel comfortable with? Should a baby with a micropenis have it lengthened? I know Coyne is vocal over the mutilation of genitals for religious reasons, so I’m curious if he’s fine with “correcting” them for social ones.

On April 18, 2006, when M was 16 months old, Dr. Ian Aaronson operated on him at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). He reduced M’s penis to look more like a clitoris, cut up his scrotum to form labia, and removed his internal testicle tissue. Two other specialists also treated M: Dr. Yaw Appiagyei-Dankah, who worked at MUSC, and Dr. James Amrhein from Greenville Hospital.

In a letter to M’s pediatrician, Dr. Amrhein wrote that initially, M’s condition was “confusing.” He had been identified as a boy at birth because of his “rather large” penis. Routine blood tests showed his testosterone levels were extremely elevated. However, he had a small vaginal opening beneath his penis and both ovarian and testicular tissue. “Surgical correction” was necessary, the doctors noted in medical records. [6]

Let’s do the math: roughly 1 in 2,000 children are born with an ambiguous sex. Surgical “correction” has been a common response since the 1950’s. Between 1960 and 2009, about 175 million Americans were born. If all those figures are accurate, roughly 87,000 Americans had their genitals “corrected” by doctors to fit into the binary.

Now, we have no way of getting accurate numbers here. No-one tracks the number of intersex children born (how can we, when we can’t even define “intersex?”), doctors rarely if ever publicly discussed the practice (so as to preserve the social taboo), and they usually told parents to never discuss these surgeries with their kids (and sometimes never informed the parents at all). But even with the fuzzy math it’s obvious that our society’s binary view of sex carries a terrible cost.

Try telling that to Coyne, though.

I’m not sure what this is doing on a science show. It’s not even funny, […]

Defend this travesty if you want, but I’ll never admit it promotes anything but ideology.

The irony is that Coyne is fine with the science of sex within the context of Evolutionary Psychology, he’s fine with social justice when it comes to separation of church and state, and he’s fine with eliminating unnecessary surgeries prompted by religion. Shift the context slightly and suddenly these topics are “ideologies” that he can safely ignore, even if the variations are well grounded in science and of benefit to everyone.

Lighten up, Coyne, and try talking to a vagina. You might learn something from the experience.


[1] Nyhan, Brendan, and Jason Reifler. “When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions.” Political Behavior 32.2 (2010): 303-330.

[2] Trevors, Gregory J., et al. “Identity and epistemic emotions during knowledge revision: A potential account for the backfire effect.” Discourse Processes 53.5-6 (2016): 339-370.
[3] Ainsworth, Claire. “Sex Redefined.” Nature 518, no. 7539 (February 18, 2015): 288–91. doi:10.1038/518288a.
[4] Ian Steadman. “Sex Isn’t Chromosomes: The Story of a Century of Misconceptions about X & Y.” New Statesman, February 23, 2015.
[5] http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/01/how-science-helps-us-understand-gender-identity/

Ignorance and Social Justice

“Why are you a feminist?”

Because it lets me sleep at night. Think about it: let’s say it’s true that over half the human population is burdened with a systematic disadvantage compared to the rest. Having learned of that, can you honestly shrug your shoulders and ignore the problem? I certainly can’t, so I’ll do what little I can to correct this injustice.

You may not agree, which is fine. But the corrolary of this view is that you cannot be opposed to feminism without also misunderstanding it. This sets up a prediction we can test: people who oppose feminism and other forms of social justice must be ignorant of it, must invoke straw-people, and must be resistant to learning or understanding it, if my stance has some truth to it.

The evidence suggests it has more than a little.

For instance, after offering to debate Martin Hughes, TJ Kirk cowardly backed out. Stephanie Zvan has an excellent blog post up pointing out that this is a common theme: people opposed to social justice aren’t keen on actually debating the subject.

That’s the real function of “You don’t want to debate” in this context. It isn’t to get you to debate. It’s there to say there’s something wrong with you. That’s why the offer disappears once you drag the argument into the reality of terms and conditions and making sure no one profits from the debate. It wasn’t real to begin with.

To do well in a debate, you really have to know the other side in depth. If you do that homework, though, you might learn the other side’s arguments are correct. So if you are hoping to sleep well at night, you don’t debates. I popped into the comment section to point out an exception to this:

Some of the hardcore haters would disagree, and say they’re perfectly fine with a debate. They have a very peculiar definition of “debate” in mind, though, where both sides shout slogans into the night without critically appraising their merits. It’s an extension of what I’ve called the “treadmill of lies:” By endlessly cycling from myth to lie, they avoid having to consider any one in detail and thus can convince themselves they’re just a bunch of skeptical satirists.

When this actually happens during a debate, we call it a “Gish Gallop.” This technique is a big problem with traditional, in-person debates, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that TJ Kirk was pushing for this format instead of a more leisurely exchange of blog posts. He knew he had nothing but slogans against Hughes’ arguments, and he knew those wouldn’t convince anyone but those already convinced. Unless there was some sort of reward involved, like cash or a raised profile, there was no point in “debating” Hughes.

I go into a little more detail on the treadmill here. But as luck would have it, this data point was followed by yet another. Possibly in response to the controversy kicked off by Kirk, a number of atheist YouTubers joined with him to fire back a challenge: “QUESTIONS WHITE MEN HAVE FOR SJWs!

Others in the atheo/skeptic community have been responding back, in between bouts of muffled laughter and obvious eyerolls. I’ll add my two cents at some point, but for now I’d like to point out a common theme in the questions.

3. Do you want women to be equal or do you want women to be a protected class? You can’t have both.

Protected class: “A group of people with a common characteristic who are legally protected from employment discrimination on the basis of that characteristic. Protected classes are created by both federal and state law. … Federal protected classes include: Race. Color. Religion or creed. National origin or ancestry. Sex.

4. What are you afraid will happen when you leave your “safe space”?

A Safe Space is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability.

5. How can you possibly justify the idea that it’s somehow racist to disagree with black lives matter?

When we say Black Lives Matter, we are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state.  We are talking about the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity.

6. Are you aware the present is not the past? Are you familiar with the concept of linear time? Because you seem incredibly comfortable traveling back through time by talking about how bad things were for women, or black people, or whomever. And then by using some form of SJW magic, you then claim or imply that those problems in the past exist today. Are you aware that this trick that you’re doing is not working? Why do you think that would work?

Results: In the United States, an estimated 19.3% of women and 1.7% of men have been raped during their lifetimes; an estimated 1.6% of women reported that they were raped in the 12 months preceding the survey. The case count for men reporting rape in the preceding 12 months was too small to produce a statistically reliable prevalence estimate. An estimated 43.9% of women and 23.4% of men experienced other forms of sexual violence during their lifetimes, including being made to penetrate, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, and noncontact unwanted sexual experiences. The percentages of women and men who experienced these other forms of sexual violence victimization in the 12 months preceding the survey were an estimated 5.5% and 5.1%, respectively.

8. Did you know there are 13% more women in college right now than men? So if the whole goal of feminism is “equality,” shouldn’t we have some men-only scholarships in order to equal everything out?

The strength of this unconscious bias is quite astonishing – even for a relatively objective measure such as promptness, students rated a “female” professor 3.55 out of 5 and a “male” professor 4.35, despite the fact that they handed work back at the same time.

The implications are serious. In the competitive world of academia, student evaluations are often used as a tool in the process of hiring and promotion. That the evaluations may be biased against female professors is particularly problematic in light of existing gender imbalance, particularly at the highest echelons of academia. According to the American Association of University Professors, in 2012, 62% of men in academia in the US were tenured compared to only 44% of women, while women were far more likely to be in non-tenure track positions than men (32% of women in academia compared to just 19% of men).

When there are answers to the questions those YouTubers fired off, it only takes a few minutes of Googling to get an answer. Want scientific studies? They’ve been done by the hundreds, on nearly all the topics pushed by “social justice warriors.” Decades of research have been done, untold thousands of words have been spilled, and yet these people opposed to social justice are completely ignorant of it all. Had they put in the time to educate themselves, like some others have, they’d become social justice warriors too.

But as Zvan would have predicted, some of those questions aren’t actually questions.

7. Why do you think that you can spend your entire life in a state of perpetual emotional immaturity? Do you actually imagine that you’ll be able to stretch out your adolescence for your entire existence?

10. What do you hope to gain by bringing back racial segregation?

12. Why do you think every cis white male is born racist?

14. Would you rather be right, or popular? It seems like your primary objective is to score social points and get public validation.

These questions were never meant to be answered, they’re just empty talking points that form the treadmill’s belt. They’re meant to protect you from educating yourself, from breaking the wall of ignorance.

Because you might not sleep well, once you find out what’s on the other side.

When Secularism Is A Lie

In 1990, Gregg Cunningham thought the anti-choice movement was losing the battle for reproductive rights. In response, he formed the Center for Bioethical Reform, then spent years brainstorming how he could reinvent the movement. His answer: secularize it. This allowed anti-choice messaging to dodge past religious disagreement over abortion (Christian denominations are evenly divided over support for abortion) by pretending to be above it all, and get into places a religious approach was barred from entering.

… this is very carefully targeted. When we do this on a university campus there is actually an enormous amount of preparation, and we do a great deal of follow-up. We start pro-life organizations on the campus where none had existed previously, we greatly strengthen currently existing pro-life groups by increasing the size of their membership, by donating to them all kinds of educational resources they can use, we help recruit students to volunteer at the local crisis pregnancy centers. We do a myriad of things of that sort. The same is true of churches. […]

The Genocide Awareness Project is one of a myriad of projects which we are doing, but they are all aimed at the same thing: how can we engage a reluctant culture and educate it over its own objections? It all starts with a willingness to take the heat. We lack moral authority if we are not willing to take the heat.

It signaled that lies and half-truths were perfectly acceptable, since Cunningham’s organization was secular in name only.

We are a secular organization, we’re not a Christian organization, but we are an organization comprised of Christians, and the thing that motivates us personally is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

While Cunningham is an extremist, his ideas have been very influential. The moderates in the anti-choice movement have since noted the failure of religious arguments, and have embraced trojan secularism. Emphasis mine:

the strenuous efforts of abolitionists have yielded very little in terms of measurable progress in reducing abortion, so it’s time to try a more fruitful strategy.

I have my own beliefs about the sanctity and rights of an unborn baby, but I don’t think we’ll change many minds by arguing about that. The proliferation of 3D ultrasound machines, new research about fetal awareness and pain, and the increasing viability of extremely premature babies will continue to make an impression on some people, but for those who are heavily invested in the moral neutrality of abortion on demand, and who see the concession of any status to the fetus as in direct conflict with the rights of the mother, this won’t make a lot of difference.

We need more discussion, then, of abortion as a women’s issue. Abortion damages women. It does them physical and psychological harm, which is multiplied by the fact that very few women seeking abortions give their informed consent (meaning consent even after being advised of the risks.) Those of us who take such things seriously tend to agree that it does them spiritual harm. More broadly, a culture in which abortion is seen as essentially harmless wreaks profound changes to our collective understanding of motherhood, sexuality, the obligations of mothers and fathers to each other and their children, and adulthood.

It’s been embraced so much by extremists and moderates alike, Kelly Gordon found that only 1.9% of anti-choice messages contained a religious element.[1]

The latest variation of this that I’ve heard of this comes from Crisis Pregnancy Centres. Cunningham called them “Ministries,” which is more accurate than I realized.

In a conference room at the Embassy Suites in Charleston, South Carolina, Laurie Steinfeld stood behind a podium speaking to an audience of about 50 people. Steinfeld is a counselor at a pregnancy center in Mission Hills, California, and she was leading a session at the annual Heartbeat International conference, a gathering of roughly 1,000 crisis pregnancy center staff and anti-abortion leaders from across the country. Her talk focused on how to help women seeking abortions understand Jesus’s plan for them and their babies, and she described how her center’s signage attracts women.

“Right across the street from us is Planned Parenthood,” she said. “We’re across the street and it [their sign] says ‘Pregnancy Counseling Center,’ but these girls aren’t — they just look and see ‘Pregnancy’ and think, Oh, that’s it! So some of them coming in thinking they’re going to their abortion appointments.” […]

In her workshop, “How to Reach and Inspire the Heart of a Client,” Steinfeld told her audience about her mission to convert clients: “If you hear nothing today, I want you to hear this one thing,” she said. “We might be the very first face of Christ that these girls ever see.”

When someone’s salvation is on the line, anything is justified. Exploiting the desperation of someone in order to bring them into a relationship with Christ is completely justified, so long as you don’t use the word “exploit.”

Multiple women told me it was their job to protect women from abortion as “an adult tells a child not to touch a hot stove.” Another oft-repeated catchphrase was, “Save the mother, save the baby,” shorthand for many pregnancy center workers’ belief that the most effective way to prevent abortion is to convert women. In keeping with Evangelicalism’s central tenets, many pregnancy center staff believe that those living “without Christ”— including Christians having premarital sex — must accept Christ to be born again, redeem their sins, and escape spiritual pain. Carrying a pregnancy to term “redeems” a “broken” woman, multiple staff people told me.

And here again, we find they deliberately avoid the “G” or “J” words until they’ve sealed a connection.

The website for Heartbeat International’s call center, Option Line, offers to connect women with a pregnancy center that “provides many services for free.” It encourages women who are curious about emergency contraception to call its hotline to speak to a representative about “information on all your options.” On the Option Line website, there is no mention of Christ, no religious imagery, no talk of being saved. But visit the website of Heartbeat itself and you’ll find very different language. “Heartbeat International does promote God’s Plan for our sexuality: marriage between one man and one woman, sexual intimacy, children, unconditional/unselfish love, and relationship with God must go together,” it says. […]

In her session, “Do I Really Need Two Sites?” Chenoweth explained that, yes, in fact, pregnancy centers do. She recommended that centers operate one that describes an anti-abortion mission to secure donors and another that lists medical information to attract women seeking contraception, counseling, or abortion. […]

Johnson … emphasized that waiting rooms should feel like “professional environments” instead of “grandma’s house,” and discouraged crucifixes, fake flowers, and mauve paint before showing slides of Planned Parenthood waiting rooms and encouraging staff to make their centers look just as “beautiful and up-to-date,” especially if they have a “medical model,” meaning they offer sonograms and other medical services. Johnson also said pregnancy center staff should mirror Planned Parenthood’s language.

Lies are an integral part of the anti-choice movement. Lies about what abortion does to you, and lies about what they stand for and believe in. Anyone hoping to promote secularism and humanist values should be wary of religion in secular clothing.

 

[1] Gordon, Kelly. “‘Think About the Women!’: The New Anti-Abortion Discourse in English Canada,” 2011. pg. 42.