Russia Has Invaded Ukraine

I had grand plans for yesterday. Then I spotted Twitter reacting to Zelensky’s last-minute plea for peace (here’s a snap translation). I spotted the rumours Russia would start bombing Ukraine at 4AM. I saw the Twitter reaction when Putin declared war on Ukraine, in the middle of a UN Security Council meeting no less. I saw the reaction as Russia launched an invasion on at least three fronts, rolling out tanks and bombing airports all around the country, an hour after the rumoured start time. The goal: regime change and mass executions. Like most of us, I didn’t see the warnings that an invasion was going to happen.

During a recorded speech at the State Duma on Dec. 2021, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultranationalist leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, discussed Putin’s sham proposal to NATO. Zhirinovsky told fellow parliamentarians: “I liked one phrase from what the President said yesterday… he said that we won’t allow our proposal to result only in futile discussions… They either fulfill it, or we’re moving forward with another option… Let it be February 22, 2022 at 4 a.m.” Zhirinovsky added: “The year 2022 is the year of the tiger. It’s a breakthrough, a jump by the Russian tiger…This won’t be a peaceful year, but a year when Russia will become great again and everyone will have to shut up and respect our country.”

I woke to anti-war protests in Russia, and Russian celebrities condemning war, despite heavy pushback. Poland has opened their borders for Ukrainian refuges. Russian troops are trying to capture the Chernobyl nuclear plant have captured the Chernobyl nuclear plant, for dog knows what reason. “Mobile cremation units” now occupy a small part of my brain.

And Ben Shapiro found a way to blame transgender people for it all.

My grand plans for yesterday were scrapped, and replaced with a mad scramble today. I don’t have time to type up my usual thousand-word analysis of it all, so I’ll just leave you with this.

Stay strong, Ukraine.

Stay In Your Lane

Remember this old debate?

Dictionary Atheists disbelieve in gods and dislike religion, but that’s it. The fact that the universe is an uncaring place, that we’re products of chance and necessity rather than benevolence, that we only have each other to help ourselves through this life…none of that matters. So when you say that reason demands equality, when rationality dictates community, when justice ought to be part of the godless agenda, they reflexively throw out that dictionary definition to deny any expectation that there ought to be more to atheism than cussing out gods. They’re intellectual cowards who run away from the full implications of living in a godless universe.

So I get despairing letters from people who once saw atheism as a shining promise, and now see it as a refuge for the same old haters, the same old deniers, the same old reactionaries trying to use their received wisdom as a [tool] to silence new voices and new ideas. And sometimes I feel a little despair, too.

That’s PZ Myers from 2013. This “dictionary atheism” was often invoked whenever one of us wanted to pipe up about social issues. It was a call to stay in our lane.

[CONTENT WARNING: Transphobia]

[Read more…]

The Reviews Are In

And they paint a rather different picture of Shrier’s book.

The author’s incantation of the First Amendment does not sufficiently emphasize her red-blooded passion for true democracy, but for the seductive image of a hermetically sealed and patriarchally sound America, one regressively nostalgic for midcentury convention, order, and heroism. Irreversible Damage is Shrier’s own simpering cry to Make America Great Again. And as far as she is concerned, the beneficiaries of free speech’s historic privileges — shabbily enforced where trans voices have been concerned — can only be cisgender. In this dismal and limiting cognitive space where the First Amendment matters — but Shrier’s access to it matters most — the author can write as she pleases: baselessly and brutishly.

Sarah Fonseca. The Constitutional Conflationists: On Abigail Shrier’s “Irreversible Damage” and the Dangerous Absurdity of Anti-Trans Trolls, Los Angeles Review of Books. January 17th, 2021.

This review in particular had the biggest impact on me. I thought that Shrier’s book was primarily evidence-based, for loose definition of evidence. In reality, it sounds like Shrier’s book is best thought of as a “military action” of the “culture war.” Much as with abortion, the goal is to provide a secular mask to religious arguments. What little evidence Shrier brings is really an afterthought, a light window-dressing to distract from the core arguments. In essence there’s two separate layers of arguments going on here, and by focusing on only one I’m giving the impression that I have no rebuttal to the other.

Whether intentional or not, the engine of the “culture war” is a shift from an empiric epistemology, where evidence is weighed to determine the truth, to a form of cultural authoritarianism where the opinions of authority figures are weighed instead. Hall’s 2018 article is a good example of this. She presents the discussion over the healthcare of transgender youth as a he-said, she-said affair. On one side is Dr. Kelly Winters, who has been part of a WPATH advisory panel, presented academic papers on health care, and been awarded for her promotion of the health of transgender people. On the other is Walt Heyer, a preacher who detransitioned and has been an outspoken critic of affirmative care. It makes no sense to put these two on equal footing if we arrive at the truth via evidence and reason. Preachers and media talking-heads carry quite a bit of cultural authority, however, more than an obscure scientist would. Hence why Hall not only places similar weight on the opinions of both, she mentions Walt Heyer by name but not Dr. Kelly Winters; the former carries more weight than the latter, after all.

That review shifted my entire approach to Shrier’s book and Hall’s writing, and I’m glad I read it before going any further on the subject.

As a physician and a researcher who has dedicated my career to taking care of and understanding transgender youth, I recognized the book as bizarre and full of misinformation. I assumed it wouldn’t gain much traction. I was wrong.

I should have realized the internet has dramatically changed the way politically charged misinformation spreads. Online, it often doesn’t matter what’s actually true. The book, full of irresponsible journalistic practices and outright falsehoods, has taken off.

Dr. Jack Turban. “New Book ‘Irreversible Damage’ Is Full of Misinformation“, Psychology Today. December 6th, 2020.

This other review pointed out something rather important. For instance, you’d think that if you’re writing about transgender youth you’d want to talk to transgender youth, right?

Shrier’s book tells the stories of several young people who came out as transgender to their parents. The book claims that these adolescents and young adults were not actually transgender, but actually just confused. The problem is Shrier didn’t actually interview any of these people she wrote about.

The author’s note points out that she only interviewed their parents, who uniformly did not accept their children’s transgender identities. Many of them were estranged from their kids because the children were so hurt by their parents’ rejection. To actually understand the psychology of these young people, one would need to talk to them, not simply rely on stories from parents with whom they do not speak.

To make things worse, the author’s note explains that Shrier changed details in the book to ensure the transgender people she wrote about would not be able to recognize themselves. In doing so, she ensured they could not provide their side of the story or point out any inaccuracies in her reporting.

It’s ROGD all over again! Ask bigoted people for their opinions on subjects they’re bigoted about, and you’ll get bigoted and distorted answers. Summarize those answers in a scientific paper or an in-depth book, and you give false legitimacy to those bigoted beliefs.

Full disclosure: I didn’t stumble on these reviews on my own. Remember how Novella and Gorski of Science-Based Medicine promised a part two on the healthcare of transgender youth? They delivered, by giving Rose Lovell a guest post to discuss the book. She’s a doctor with relevant clinical experience, and she ended her review by pointing readers to the two reviews I shared above. Unsurprisingly, she reaches similar conclusions:

In total, I simply cannot recommend this book to anyone honestly seeking to understand transgender science and medicine. Shrier has written a book in an attempt to prove her specific point, not to explore the nuances of a complex field. While there may be some legitimate concerns (e.g., that of how to support those who choose not to continue to transition or to detransition), the overall narrative in Shrier’s book is so tainted by biased language and misinformation that it throws into question its own legitimacy. I am also very concerned that this book, and others like it, will continue to be used as a primary source in efforts to prevent transgender youth from accessing desperately needed medical care.

Rose Lovell. “Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: A Wealth of Irreversible Misinformation.” Science-Based Medicine, July 2nd, 2021.

Lovell goes into two arguments of Shrier in depth, then gives a quick gloss over a dozen-ish others. One of those caught my attention:

“Biology is a binary and differences of sex development (DSDs) are vanishingly rare”. False. DSDs are as common as 1 in 5,000 births, and increase to 1 in 200 or 1 in 300 if you include hypospadias and cryptorchidism. Biology is very, very well known to be a spectrum.

Ah, the sex binary. I’ve been on that beat for, what, seven years now? Others agree that sex is not a clear-cut binary.

Consider the multiplicity of features relevant to sex determination: chromosomes, genitalia, gonads, hormone levels, reproductive capacity, and so forth. In order to say that a transsexual after genital reconstruction surgery has under-gone a “sex change,” we must discount other features, including chromosomes, and select genitalia as definitive. But consider a person who has an XY karyotype and is morphologically female due to complete androgen insensitivity syndrome. It’s not clear whether this person is male or female. Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be a factual basis on which to arbitrate the question. But postoperative transsexuality seems exactly analogous. In both cases, there’s no fact of the matter as to what sex or gender the person belongs to.

Bettcher, Talia Mae. “Trapped in the wrong theory: Rethinking trans oppression and resistance.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 39.2 (2014): 383-406.

It’s telling that Shrier asserts that sex is binary, even though it isn’t necessary to make her case. It underlines that her true focus is not the health of transgender children, but a cultural rollback to a more patriarchal time. Listen to her in other interviews, and she’ll make arguments about the damaging nature of smart phones and the internet, how LGBT terminology is confusing, and that parents should have primacy over decisions relating to children. Transgender children are being used as a wedge for a grander cultural project, much as opposing abortion is used as a wedge for opposing contraception. This is what the aforementioned engine is pushing.

I’m rambling a bit, though. I found all three reviews quite interesting, and can recommend them if you’d like to read more.

When Neutrality Isn’t

The details are a bit tough to track, so here’s a timeline.

June 15th, 2021: Harriet Hall publishes a book review of “Irreversible Damage” to Science-Based Medicine.
June 17th: That book review is removed by Steven Novella and David Gorski, as “we felt there were too many issues with the treatment of the relevant science, and leaving the article up would not be appropriate given the standards of SBM [Science-Based Medicine].”
June 17th: The book review is reprinted by Michael Shermer on Skeptic.com, with an editor’s note that reads in part:

While we have long admired the excellent work by the contributors at Science-Based Medicine on issues like vaccines and quack alternative medicine claims, they have long openly displayed a far-left progressive political bias that has compromised their otherwise stellar reputation as a trustworthy source. In science, facts cannot be bent or silenced by politics, however well intentioned, for nature cannot be fooled.

After June 17th: That paragraph of the editor’s note is removed, presumably by Shermer himself.

I’ll have a lot more to say on this, if my drafts are any indication, but first I want to circle back to the editor’s note by Novella and Gorski. Note that while they claim there are many issues with the science Hall presents, they don’t go into detail. In fact, what I quoted is all they have to say on the subject. In contrast, they spend several paragraphs defending their neutrality. A sample:

Already there are false accusations that this move was motivated by pressure from readers. This is not the case. SBM had and never will cave to outside pressure. We have endured a great extent of such pressure, including the threat of lawsuits and actual litigation.

If you’ve been part of the atheist/skeptic movement for a while, this is no surprise. Novella in particular has tried very hard to be politically neutral and “above the drama” when any major controversy comes up. The problem, as I’ve pointed out before, is that neutrality favours the status quo and the status quo is sexist. That a desire to avoid drama is easily exploited, as if bigots deliberately cause drama it grants them more control over the commentary.

We will leave the comments open for now and encourage full, open, and respectful discussion of the topic by anyone interested.

If you haven’t had your head clouded by a neutrality fetish, you know exactly how “respectful” the discussion has been. Transphobes have been recycling all the tired arguments about sports I’ve covered in depth before. They’re receiving a lot of pushback, thankfully, but transgender people and their allies should never be forced to defend their humanity.

Kudos to Novella and Gorski for retracting that book review, which was the right thing to do. But all they’ve done is turn a body blow into a slap in the face. They knew the science behind this review was dodgy, but kept silent on why to avoid stirring up drama, and in the process let the bigots fill the silence with their own spin.

This apologia for censorship is dishonest. Notice that the authors, Novella and Gorski, can’t be bothered to condescend to explain exactly what it is about the book review that made its deletion necessary as a matter of “quality control.” For some reason, it was impossible to allow discussion of the review and the book. The claim that the action had nothing to do with the bleats of the censors urging suppression of the discussion is not plausible.

Turning off comments is just a click of a button, and would have avoided the inevitable transphobic shit-show. Instead, they let it happen in the name of a “full, open, and respectful discussion” they must have known wouldn’t actually occur. Rather than help transgender people, they’ve left them and their allies to mop up the mess while only putting in a token effort to assist.

Guys, don’t do this.

The View from The Street

Whenever mass protests arise, I’m always indebted to the people and protestors who stand right in the thick of it. Hunter Walker, for instance, gave me quite a bit of insight into the Washington, DC. protests. For the Portland, Oregon protests, I got lucky and someone on this very network has been covering them.

1. yes, we’ve always had a few asshats in the crowd doing asshat-y things like throwing fireworks.

2. We actually didn’t have any of that last night, to the point where there was not even a single instance of coordinated banging on the fence to make noise (and not to damage the fence). Like, this shit was peaceful. 100% peaceful. No excuses peaceful. I was actually surprised we could get more than 1500 people down there for a protest like this, with real, legitimate grievances that would anger any caring heart, and have no one engaging in any of the behaviors that they’ve used to justify past attacks. No one at all. I was so fucking proud of us before the tear gas flew and chaos came down. This shit wasn’t even 1% on the protesters. This shit was all on the feds. All of it.

and,
3. Holy fuck, those assaults last night were BAD. Really bad. Mega bad. Even, if you’ll pardon the pun, MAGA BAD.

Crip Dyke has been on the case, which is amazing when you realize her ‘nym is quite literal.

And now we’re back where we started, with me telling you about the decision I had to make to stay and possibly be pushed away from the car, and because of my slower ability to flee inevitably coming into contact with cops that I **know** assault crutch users as if they were armed. If I fell, would I even be able to get up? Especially if the club was aimed at an arm or wrist?

I talk with BFF and she’s scared. We haven’t been together, but she has her own scary stories about how aggressive the cops have been tonight. She convinces me to get in the car. We’re sitting. We’re talking. We make the decision. We leave.

I felt bad retreating with others still facing the Feds’ rage, but it was the right decision.

Tonight was so bad.

If you’re listening to me, if you’ve been listening to me the past 11 days, I’m telling you, however bad the other nights have been, however much you thought those nights sounded scary, they weren’t tonight. Tonight was its own thing, a category to itself.

She has an extensive series on the protests, in fact. You can learn that expired tear gas was fired, watch as she ponders discomfort, cringe as she reveals the Feds were poisoning the air, enjoy a few flowers, witness a police-induced stampede, dream about glitter, observe people getting tear gassed without warning, sigh as people fall short, see the change that happens when Portland gets national press coverage or when the Mayor is nearby, listen to a detailed account of police violence, rewind back to when she was first tear-gassed as well as a first set of photos from the protests. It’s well worth your time.

I know it may not seem that way. Click on the first link to her blog, and you’ll see I’m only getting around to sharing these links a month after they were written. Why on Earth would I link to stale news, surely the protests stopped when the Feds pulled out?

The worst nights follow the same script: A large group takes to the streets calling for an end to police violence and systemic racism. A small fraction commits low-level crimes — often lighting small fires, graffiti-ing buildings and throwing fireworks or water bottles at officers. The police respond with force against the entire crowd.

Over the last month, demonstrators have been battered with batons as they left protests. Police have charged at crowds until they’re pushed deep into residential neighborhoods. Journalists have been shoved and arrested. Tear gas, while used more sparingly than in the early days of the protests, is threatened near nightly. And police regularly shut down protests by declaring them riots. That happened twice over the weekend, though police declined to intervene as far-right activists, some brandishing firearms, brawled with counter-protesters for hours on Saturday afternoon. […]

The mayor recognizes the problem with these scenes that play out on the streets of his city every night: non-violent protesters facing force as police respond to the misbehavior of a few. He just hasn’t found the answer.

“the weekend” referred to above is the weekend of August 22nd. The protests didn’t stop, we just stopped paying attention to them when the level of violence dropped to an “acceptable” level. As I type this, lawsuits are being launched against the US federal government over their behaviour in Portland. The events Crip Dyke documented continue to have resonance, and are due to be replicated elsewhere.

In fact it’ll probably happen this week. Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by the police of Kenosha, Wisconsin, as his three children watched on in horror. On day three of the protests against the incident, a gunman opened fire on peaceful protestors, killing two and wounding a third. By now, you shouldn’t be shocked at what happened next.

The apparent shooter, meanwhile, was seen on video walking away from the scene — his AR-style rifle clearly visible, his hands above his head. But Kenosha police who were responding to the reports of gunfire showed no interest in arresting or even questioning the man. Instead, they asked him for directions. “Is someone injured, straight ahead?” an officer asks him via loudspeaker. “Get out of the road,” said another.

He even approached an idling police car, going up close to the window, but then appeared to change his mind and walked away.

Brent Ford, 24, a photographer, witnessed the entire scene. “He had his hands up and they told him to get out of there, even though everyone was yelling that he was the shooter,” Ford told VICE News. “The police didn’t seem to hear or care what the crowd was saying.”

Yep, the police protected a murderer. After all, he was one of their own.

His connections to law enforcement, however, go beyond his vocal support of police on social media. In a statement to BuzzFeed News on Wednesday, the Grayslake Police Department confirmed that [the shooter] was a former member of the Lindenhurst, Grayslake, Hainesville Police Department’s Public Safety Cadet Program. According to a description that was recently removed from the department’s official website, the program “offers boys and girls the opportunity to explore a career in law enforcement” through “hands-on career activities,” such as riding along with officers on patrol and firearms training.

Along with the page describing the Public Safety Cadet Program, the organization’s official Facebook account was deleted after images from 2018 of a boy in a police uniform [resembling the shooter] began to circulate online.

Before he killed two people, he was apparently being thanked by the police for being there. Even as first-degree murder charges were announced against him, his actions were being obfuscated in order to make them easier to defend. And while I’m not aware of any Republican amounting an explicit defense, this is a party that celebrated two white people who brandished weapons against peaceful protesters, headed by a person who views all protestors as terrorists and fantasizes about torturing people he hates. They have innocent blood on their hands, and they’re likely to get a fresh coat of it.

We will NOT stand for looting, arson, violence, and lawlessness on American streets. My team just got off the phone with Governor Evers who agreed to accept federal assistance (Portland should do the same!) TODAY, I will be sending federal law enforcement and the National Guard to Kenosha, WI to restore LAW and ORDER!

Portland could easily become the new normal in the US. This makes Crip Dyke’s series all the more vital to read.

The Expanding Colony

I owe you an update to the fundraiser, but alas I instead got addicted to watching Twitter feeds for protest info. So let’s do this instead.

The thesis of Chris Hayes’ last book was that there were two police systems in the USA: that of “The Nation,” which behaves much as you’d expect, and that of “The Colony,” which is aimed at subjugating a subset of the populace through terror and pain. Citizens of “The Nation” don’t usually see what citizens of “The Colony” see, those visions are hidden both by design and a willful blindness. In the USA, for instance, police killed 1,028 people in the last year. Most are never heard of, like Steven Taylor or Breonna Taylor, both because of the sheer number of times it happens and because we’re taught to think of these deaths as “justified.” Aggressively swing a baseball bat in a Wal-Mart? That justifies the death penalty, without trial. Suspected of having drugs and next to someone firing at the police? Death penalty, no trial. Citizens of The Nation grasp what’s happening on an intuitive level, but because they rarely face reality this knowledge is allowed to slip to the back of their minds.

Every once in a while, though, The Nation gets a glimpse of what The Colony has to live with. Being forced to confront reality can lead to changes, but often those changes are incremental or incomplete, and The Nation comes up with excuses to turn its head away again. Looting and rioting? How dare these villains break the law! If only they followed the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. [Read more…]

What’s the Message, Here?

The average age of death from COVID in Alberta is 83, and I remind the House that the average life expectancy in the province is age 82. – Premier Jason Kenney, May 27th 2020.

That really caught my ear, when it came across the local news. What the hell is our Premier saying, that the elderly are expendable? It was so outrageous, I wanted to dig into it further and get the full context. The original news report I heard only had that one sentence, though, so I did a bit of research. I couldn’t find an unedited clip of his speech, but I did find a clip with one extra sentence in place.

Mr. Speaker, it is critical as we move forward, that we focus our efforts on the most vulnerable; on the elderly, and the immuno-compromised. The average age of death from COVID in Alberta is 83, and I remind the House that the average life expectancy in the province is age 82. – also Premier Jason Kenney, May 27th 2020.

That radically changes the meaning, doesn’t it? Still, I have to point out I’m getting mixed messages here. [Read more…]

4.5 Questions for Alberta Health

One of the ways I’m coping with this pandemic is studying it. Over the span of months I built up a list of questions specific to the situation in Alberta, so I figured I’d fire them off to the PR contact listed in one of the Alberta Government’s press releases.

That was a week ago. I haven’t even received an automated reply. I think it’s time to escalate this to the public sphere, as it might give those who can bend the government’s ear some idea of what they’re reluctant to answer. [Read more…]