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.

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…]

Rationality Rules is a Violent Transphobe

I thought I knew how this post would play out. EssenceOfThought has gotten some flack for declaring Stephen Woodford to be a “violent transphobe,” which I didn’t think they deserved. They gave a good defense in one of their videos, starting off with a definition of violence.

You see, violence is defined as the following by the World Health Organization. Quote; “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in, or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.”

EoT points out that controlling someone’s behaviour or social networks by using their finances as leverage can be considered economic violence. They also point out that using legislation to control access to abortion can be considered legislative violence, as it deprives a person of their right to bodily autonomy. And thus, as EoT explains,

When you exclude trans women from women’s sports you’re not simply violating numerous human rights. You’re designating them as not real women, as an invasive force coming to take what doesn’t belong to them. You are cultivating future transphobic violence.

Note the air gap: “cultivating violence” and “violence” are not the same thing, and the definition EoT quoted above places intent front-and-centre. EoT bridges the gap by pointing out they gave Rationality Rules several months to demonstrate he promoted violent policies out of ignorance, rather than with intent. When “he [doubled] down on his violent transphobia,” EoT had sufficient evidence of intent to justify calling him a “violent transphobe.”

At this point I’d shore up their one citation with a few more. This decoupling of physical force and violence is not a new argument in the philosophy and social sciences literature.

Violence often involves physical force, and the association of force with violence is very close: in many contexts the words become synonyms. An obvious instance is the reference to a violent storm, a storm of great force. But in human affairs violence and force, cannot be equated. Force without violence is often used on a person’s body. If a person is in the throes of drowning, the standard Red Cross life-saving techniques specify force which is certainly not violence. To equate an act of rescue with an act of violence would be to lose sight entirely of the significance of the concept. Similarly, surgeons and dentists use force without doing violence.

Violence in human affairs is much more closely connected with the idea of violation than with the idea of force. What is fundamental about violence is that a person is violated. And if one immediately senses the truth of that statement, it must be because a person has certain rights which are undeniably, indissolubly, connected with being a person. One of these is a right to one’s body, to determine what one’s body does and what is done to one’s body — inalienable because without one’s body one would cease to be a person. Apart from a body, what is essential to one’s being a person is dignity. The real dignity of a person does not consist in remaining “dignified”, but rather in the ability to make decisions.

Garver, Newton. “What violence is.” The Nation 209.24 (1968): 819-822.

As a point of departure, let us say that violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations. […]

The first distinction to be made is between physical and psychological violence. The distinction is trite but important mainly because the narrow concept of violence mentioned above concentrates on physical violence only. […] It is useful to distinguish further between ’biological violence’, […] and ’physical violence as such’, which increases the constraint on human movements – as when a person is imprisoned or put in chains, but also when access to transportation is very unevenly distributed, keeping large segments of a population at the same place with mobility a monopoly of the selected few. But that distinction is less important than the basic distinction between violence that works on the body, and violence that works on the soul; where the latter would include lies, brainwashing, indoctrination of various kinds, threats, etc. that serve to decrease mental potentialities. […]

We shall refer to the type of violence where there is an actor that commits the violence as personal or direct, and to violence where there is no such actor as structural or indirect. In both cases individuals maybe killed or mutilated, hit or hurt in both senses of these words, and manipulated by means of stick or carrot strategies. But whereas in the first case these consequences can be traced back to concrete persons as actors, in the second case this is no longer meaningful. There may not be any person who directly harms another person in the structure. The violence is built into the structure and shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances.

Galtung, Johan. “Violence, peace, and peace research.” Journal of peace research 6.3 (1969): 167-191.

This expansive definition of “violence” has been influential, Galtung’s fifty-year-old paper from above has been cited from over 6,000 times according to Google Scholar. “Influential” is not a synonym for “consensus,” however.

Nearly all inquiries concerning the phenomenon of violence demonstrate that violence not only takes on many forms and possesses very different characteristics, but also that the current range of definitions is considerable and creates ample controversies concerning the question what violence is and how it ought to be defined (…). Since there are so many different kinds of violence (…) and since violence is studied from different actor perspectives (i.e. perpetrator, victim, third party, neutral observer), existing literature displays a wide variety of definitions based on different theoretical and, sometimes even incommensurable domain assumptions (e.g. about human nature, social order and history). In short, the concept of ‘violence’ is notoriously difficult to define because as a phenomenon it is multifaceted, socially constructed and highly ambivalent. […]

Violence is socially constructed because who and what is considered as violent varies according to specific socio-cultural and historical conditions. While legal scholars may require narrow definitions for punishable acts, the phenomenon of violence is invariably more complex in social reality. Not only do views about violence differ, but feelings regarding physical violence also change under the influence of social and cultural developments. The meanings that participants in a violent episode give to their own and other’s actions and experiences vary and can be crucial for deciding what is and what is not considered as violence since there is no simple relationship between the apparent severity of an attack and the impact that it has upon the victim. For example, in some cases, verbal aggression may prove to be more debilitating than physical attack.

De Haan, Willem. “Violence as an essentially contested concept.” Violence in Europe. Springer, New York, NY, 2008. 27-40.

A major objection to this inclusive definition of violence is that it makes everything violence, creating confusion instead of clarity. One example:

If violence is violating a person or a person’s rights, then every social wrong is a violent one, every crime against another a violent crime, every sin against one’s neighbor an act of violence. If violence is whatever violates a person and his rights of body, dignity, or autonomy, then lying to or about another, embezzling, locking one out of his house, insulting, and gossiping are all violent acts.

Betz, Joseph. “Violence: Garver’s definition and a Deweyan correction.” Ethics 87.4 (1977): 339-351.

The problem with this objection is that it assumes violence is binary: things are either violent, or they are not. Almost nothing in life falls in a binary, sex included, so a much more plausible model for violence is a continuum. I’m convinced that even the people who buy into a violence binary also accept that violence falls on a continuum, as I have yet to hear anyone argue that murder and wet willies are equally bad. Thus eliminating the binary and declaring all violence to fall on a continuum is a simpler theory, and by Occam’s razor should be favoured until contrary evidence comes along.

The other major objection is that while not every human society agrees on what constitutes violence, all of them agree that physical violence is violence. Sometimes this objection can be quite subtle:

Albeit rare, there are cases of violence occurring without rights being violated. This point has been made by Audi (1971, p. 59): ‘[while] in the most usual cases violence involves the violation of some moral right …there are also cases, like wrestling and boxing, in which even paradigmatic violence can occur without the violation of any moral right’.

Bufacchi, Vittorio. “Two concepts of violence.” Political Studies Review 3.2 (2005): 193-204.

That quote only works if you think wrestling is paradigmatic, something everyone agrees counts as violence. Wrestling fans would disagree, and either point to the hardcore training and co-operation involved or the efforts made to prevent injury, depending on which fandom you were querying. Societies definitely disagree on what physical acts count as violence, and even within a single country physical acts that are considered horrifically immoral to many today were perfectly acceptable to many a century ago. This pragmatic argument can also be turned on its head, by pointing out that if violence is binary then we wouldn’t expect a correlation between (for example) hostile views of women and violence towards women. If a violence continuum exists, however, such a correlation must exist.

Studies using Glick and Fiske’s (1996) Ambivalent Sexism Inventory, which contains different subscales for benevolent and hostile sexism, support this idea. Studies have found that greater endorsement of hostile sexism predicted more positive attitudes toward violence against a female partner (Forbes, Jobe, White, Bloesch, & Adams-Curtis, 2005; Sakalli, 2001). Other studies of IPV among college samples have found that men with more hostile sexist attitudes were more likely to have committed verbal aggression (Forbes et. al., 2004) and sexual coercion (Forbes & Adams-Curtis, 2001; Forbes et al., 2004).

Allen, Christopher T., Suzanne C. Swan, and Chitra Raghavan. “Gender symmetry, sexism, and intimate partner violence.” Journal of interpersonal violence 24.11 (2009): 1816-1834.

At this point in the post, though, I was supposed to pump the breaks a little. People have certain ideas in mind when you say “violence,” I’d say, and would likely equivocate between physical and non-physical violence. This would poison the well. Of course you can’t change language or create awareness by sitting on your hands, so EssenceOfThought were 100% in the right in arguing Rationality Rules was a violent transphobe, but at the same time I wasn’t willing to join in. I needed more time to think about it. After finishing that paragraph, I’d title this post “Rationality Rules is a ‘Violent’ Transphobe” and punch the Publish button.

But now that I’ve finished gathering my sources and writing this post, I have had time to think about it. I cannot find a good reason to reject the violence-as-intentional-rights-violation definition, in particular I cannot come up with a superior alternative. Rationality Rules argues that the rights of some transgender people should be restricted, via special pleading. As I point out at that link, Stephen Woodford is aware of the argument from human rights, so he cannot claim his restriction is being done out of ignorance. That gives us proof of intent.

So no quote marks are necessary: I too believe Rationality Rules is a violent transphobe, for the definitions and reasons above.

The Crossroads

Apparently I know the solar system very well?

I attended a lecture on Carl Sagan, hosted by the Atheist Society of Calgary, and part of the event was a trivia challenge. While I wasn’t the only person at my table offering answers, my answers seemed to be the ones most consistently endorsed by the group. Assisted by some technical issues, our team wound up with a massive lead over the second-place finisher. The organizer from ASC surprised us all by saying everyone at our table could pick up a free T-shirt. I wasn’t terribly keen on wearing their logo, but I wandered over to the merch table anyway.

Sitting among the other designs was one that stopped me cold.

[Read more…]

Rationality Rules is an Abusive Transphobe

Abuse comes in more forms than many people realize. Take financial abuse, where someone uses economic leverage to control you, or reproductive coercion, or this behaviour.

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where the abuser intentionally manipulates the physical environment or mental state of the abusee, and then deflects responsibility by provoking the abusee to think that the changes reside in their imagination, thus constituting a weakened perception of reality (Akhtar, 2009; Barton & Whitehead, 1969; Dorpat, 1996; Smith & Sinanan, 1972). By repeatedly and convincingly offering explanations that depict the victim as unstable, the abuser can control the victim’s perception of reality while maintaining a position of truth-holder and authority.

Roberts, Tuesda, and Dorinda J. Carter Andrews. “A Critical Race Analysis of the Gaslighting against African American Teachers.” Contesting the Myth of a” Post Racial Era”: The Continued Significance of Race in US Education, 2013, 69–94.

A small but growing amount of the scientific literature considers gaslighting a form of abuse. It’s also worth knowing about a close cousin of gaslighting known as “DARVO.”

DARVO refers to a reaction perpetrators of wrong doing, particularly sexual offenders, may display in response to being held accountable for their behavior. DARVO stands for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” The perpetrator or offender may Deny the behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender such that the perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true victim — or the whistle blower — into an alleged offender. This occurs, for instance, when an actually guilty perpetrator assumes the role of “falsely accused” and attacks the accuser’s credibility and blames the accuser of being the perpetrator of a false accusation. […]

In a 2017 peer-reviewed open-access research study, Perpetrator Responses to Victim Confrontation: DARVO and Victim Self-Blame, Harsey, Zurbriggen, & Freyd reported that: “(1) DARVO was commonly used by individuals who were confronted; (2) women were more likely to be exposed to DARVO than men during confrontations; (3) the three components of DARVO were positively correlated, supporting the theoretical construction of DARVO; and (4) higher levels of exposure to DARVO during a confrontation were associated with increased perceptions of self-blame among the confronters. These results provide evidence for the existence of DARVO as a perpetrator strategy and establish a relationship between DARVO exposure and feelings of self-blame.

If DARVO seems vaguely familiar, that’s because it’s a popular tactic in the far-Right. Brett Kavanaugh used it during his Congressional hearing, this YouTuber encountered it quite a bit among the Proud Boys, and even RationalWiki’s explanation of it invokes the Christian far-Right. DARVO may be common among sexual abusers, but it’s important to stress that it’s not exclusive to them. It’s best to think of this solely as an abusive tactic to evade scrutiny, without that extra baggage. [Read more…]