Dispatches From Enlightenment Now: Sweatshop Feminism

Steven Pinker loves hiding behind other people’s opinions. Remember the bit on voluntary chemical castration in The Blank Slate? Pinker is careful not to say that he’d like to castrate sex offenders explicitly, but by championing the argument and chastising others for not taking it seriously he’s able to promote the idea yet have someone else to blame.

Enlightenment Now is no different; at one point, Steven Pinker brings forward an argument that 19th century sweatshops were empowering for women.

[Read more…]

Dispatches from “Enlightenment Now:” Intellectuals

One of the blog posts I’m working on demands that I give Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now an in-depth skim, and it’s dredging up all sorts of secondary things. I might as well take advantage of that, and spread the misery around.

For instance, are we sure Pinker isn’t a secret far-Right plant?

Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves “progressive” really hate progress. It’s not that they hate the fruits of progress, mind you: most pundits, critics, and their bienpensant readers use computers rather than quills and inkwells, and they prefer to have their surgery with anesthesia rather than without it. It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class — the Enlightenment belief that by understanding the world we can improve the human condition.

Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Penguin, 2018. pg. 43.

His hatred for “intellectuals” is astonishing, especially since the blurb for Enlightenment Now calls him one. Isn’t the whole thesis of the book that we should all become more enlightened, more intellectual? And yet it contains an endless parade of scorn for those who are known for their intelligence.

At various times Western intellectuals have also sung the praises of Ho Chi Minh, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Kim II-sung, Pol Pot, Julius Nyerere, Omar Torrijos, Slobodan Milogevié, and Hugo Chavez.

Why should intellectuals and artists, of all people, kiss up to murderous dictators? One might think that intellectuals would be the first to deconstruct the pretexts of power, and artists to expand the scope of human compassion. (Thankfully, many have done just that.) One explanation, offered by the economist Thomas Sowell and the sociologist Paul Hollander, is professional narcissism. Intellectuals and artists may feel unappreciated in liberal democracies, which allow their citizens to tend to their own needs in markets and civic organizations. Dictators implement theories from the top down, assigning a role to intellectuals that they feel is commensurate with their worth. But tyrannophilia is also fed by a Nietzschean disdain for the common man, who annoyingly prefers schlock to fine art and culture, and by an admiration of the superman who transcends the messy compromises of democracy and heroically implements a vision of the good society.

pg. 451

Though intellectuals are apt to do a spit take when they read a defense of capitalism, its economic benefits are so obvious that they don’t need to be shown with numbers. They can literally be seen from space. A satellite photograph of Korea showing the capitalist South aglow in light and the Communist North a pit of darkness vividly illustrates the contrast in the wealth-generating capability between the two economic systems, holding geography, history, and culture constant. Other matched pairs with an experimental group and a control group lead to the same conclusion: West and East Germany when they were divided by the Iron Curtain; Botswana versus Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe; Chile versus Venezuela under Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro — the latter a once-wealthy, oil-rich country now suffering from widespread hunger and a critical shortage of medical care.

pg. 95

This evidence-based take on the Enlightenment project reveals that it was not a naive hope. The Enlightenment has worked — perhaps the greatest story seldom told. And because this triumph is so unsung, the underlying ideals of reason, science, and humanism are unappreciated as well. Far from being an insipid consensus, these ideals are treated by today’s intellectuals with indifference, skepticism, and sometimes contempt. When properly appreciated, I will suggest, the ideals of the Enlightenment are in fact stirring, inspiring, noble — a reason to live.

pg. 11

In 2016, a majority of Americans named terrorism as the most important issue facing the country, said they were worried that they or a family member would be a victim, and identified ISIS as a threat to the existence or survival of the United States. The fear has addled not just ordinary citizens trying to get a pollster off the phone but public intellectuals, especially cultural pessimists perennially hungry for signs that Western civilization is (as always) on the verge of collapse.

pg. 196

Intellectual culture should strive to counteract our cognitive biases, but all too often it reinforces them.

pg. 53

(The myth, still popular among leftist intellectuals, that IQ doesn’t exist or cannot be reliably measured was refuted decades ago.)

pg. 248

I used to think that Trumpism was pure id, an upwelling of tribalism and authoritarianism from the dark recesses of the psyche. But madmen in authority distill their frenzy from academic scribblers of a few years back, and the phrase “intellectual roots of Trumpism” is not oxymoronic. Trump was endorsed in the 2016 election by 136 “Scholars and Writers for America” in a manifesto called “Statement of Unity.” Some are connected to the Claremont Institute, a think tank that has been called “the academic home of Trumpism.” And Trump has been closely advised by two men, Stephen Bannon and Michael Anton, who are reputed to be widely read and who consider themselves serious intellectuals. Anyone who wants to go beyond personality in understanding authoritarian populism must appreciate the two ideologies behind them, both of them militantly opposed to Enlightenment humanism and each influenced, in different ways, by Nietzsche. One is fascist, the other reactionary — not in the common left-wing sense of “anyone who is more conservative than me,” but in their original, technical senses.

pg. 452

Pinker is apparently unaware of the right-wing think tank machine, which props up shady characters as “intellectuals” in order to advance the interests of wealthy donors. Those 136 “scholars and writers” include Newt Gingrich and Peter Thiel, FYI. The organizer of the manifesto is F.H. Buckley, a member of the Heartland Institute, and said Institute is notorious for promoting climate change denial. Steve Bannon may consider himself an intellectual, but belief is not the same as reality, and Michael Anton is arguably more ridiculous.

I know, I know, you could argue that Pinker’s focusing just on the “literary intellectuals” as per C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures.” Sorry, that’s not plausible. Notice the lack of any qualifiers for some of these quotes, as well; Pinker is including a significant majority of all intellectuals in his tirades, at minimum.

[feels a tap on his shoulder]

Er, uh what-

What makes one person more intellectually able than another? Can the entire distribution of human intelligence be accounted for by just one general factor? Is intelligence supported by a single neural system? Here, we provide a perspective on human intelligence that takes into account how general abilities or ‘‘factors’’ reflect the functional organization of the brain. By comparing factor models of individual differences in performance with factor models of brain functional organization, we demonstrate that different components of intelligence have their analogs in distinct brain networks. Using simulations based on neuroimaging data, we show that the higher-order factor ‘‘g’’ is accounted for by cognitive tasks corecruiting multiple networks. Finally, we confirm the independence of these components of intelligence by dissociating them using questionnaire variables. We propose that intelligence is an emergent property of anatomically distinct cognitive systems, each of which has its own capacity.

Hampshire, Adam, et al. “Fractionating human intelligence.” Neuron 76.6 (2012): 1225-1237.

Whoa whoa whoa, what’s a study that refutes the idea of a single-factor measure of intelligence doing here?! Shoo! Go away, you’re off topic!

[hears something scamper away]

That’s better.

Howard Gardner’s brilliant conception of individual competence has changed the face of education in the twenty-three years since the publication of his classic work, Frames of Mind. Since then thousands of educators, parents, and researchers have explored the practical implications and applications of Multiple Intelligences theory–the powerful notion that there are separate human capacities, ranging from musical intelligence to the intelligence involved in self-understanding. The first decade of research on MI theory and practice was reported in the 1993 edition of Multiple Intelligences. This new edition covers all developments since then and stands as the most thorough and up-to-date account of MI available anywhere. Completely revised throughout, it features new material on global applications and on MI in the workplace, an assessment of MI practice in the current conservative educational climate, new evidence about brain functioning, and much more.

Gardner, Howard E. Multiple intelligences: New horizons in theory and practice. Basic books, 2008.

THAT’S IT!! I’m ending this blog post right now!

The Two Cultures, as per C. P. Snow

I’d never heard of C.P. Snow until Steven Pinker brought him up, but apparently he’s quite the deal. Much of it stems from a lecture Snow gave nearly sixty years ago. It’s been discussed and debated (funny meeting you here, Lawrence Krauss) to the point that I, several generations and one ocean away, can grab a reprint of the original with an intro about as long as the lecture itself.

Snow’s core idea is this: two types of intellectuals, scientists and elite authors, don’t talk with one another and are largely ignorant of each other’s work. His quote about elite authors being ignorant of physics is plastered everywhere, so I’d like to instead repeat what he said about scientists being ignorant of literature:

As one would expect, some of the very best scientists had and have plenty of energy and interest to spare, and we came across several who had read everything that literary people talk about. But that’s very rare. Most of the rest, when one tried to probe for what books they had read, would modestly confess “Well, I’ve tried a bit of Dickens”, rather as though Dickens were an extraordinarily esoteric, tangled and dubiously rewarding writer, something like Ranier Maria Rilke. In fact that is exactly how they do regard him: we thought that discovery, that Dickens had been transformed into the type-specimen of literary incomprehensibility, was one of the oddest results of the whole exercise. […]

Remember, these are very intelligent men. Their culture is in many ways an exacting and admirable one. It doesn’t contain much art, with the exception, and important exception, of music. Verbal exchange, insistent argument. Long-playing records. Colour photography. The ear, to some extent the eye. Books, very little, though perhaps not many would go so far as one hero, who perhaps I should admit was further down the scientific ladder than the people I’ve been talking about – who, when asked what books he read, replied firmly and confidently: “Books? I prefer to use my books as tools.” It was very hard not to let the mind wander – what sort of tool would a book make? Perhaps a hammer? A primitive digging instrument?

[Snow, Charles P. “The two cultures.” (1959): pg. 6-7]

To be honest, I have a hard time comprehending why the argument exists. If I were to transpose it to my place and time, it would be like complaining that Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje are shockingly ignorant of basic physics, while if you were to quiz famous Canadian scientists about Canadian literature you’d eventually drag out a few mentions of Farley Mowat. I… don’t see the problem? Yes, it would be great if more people knew more things, but if you want to push the frontiers of knowledge you’ve got to focus on the specifics. Given that your time is (likely) finite, that means sacrificing some general knowledge. It would be quite ridiculous to ask someone in one speciality to explain something specific to another.

If we forget the scientific culture, then the rest of western intellectuals have never tried, wanted, or been able to understand the industrial revolution, much less accept it. Intellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites. [pg. 11-12]

The academics had nothing to do with the industrial revolution; as Corrie, the old Master of Jesus, said about trains running into Cambridge on Sunday, `It is equally displeasing to God and to myself’. So far as there was any thinking in nineteenth-century industry, it was left to cranks and clever workmen. American social historians have told me that much the same was true of the
U.S. The industrial revolution, which began developing in New England fifty years or so later than ours, apparently received very little educated talent, either then or later in the nineteenth century. [pg. 12]

… do we understand how they have happened? Have we begun to comprehend even the old industrial revolution? Much less the new scientific revolution in which we stand? There never was any thing more necessary to comprehend. [pg. 14]

Yep, that’s Snow trashing authors of high fiction for not having an understanding of the Industrial Revolution. It’s not an isolated case, either; Snow also criticises Cambridge art graduates for not being aware of “the human organisation” behind buttons [pg. 15]. He might as well have spent several paragraphs yelling at physicists for being unable to explain why Houlden Caulfield wanted to be a gas station attendant, he’s that far from reality.

Which gets us to the real consequences of Snow’s divide, and how he proposes heading them off at the pass.

To say we have to educate ourselves or perish, is a little more melodramatic than the facts warrant. To say, we have to educate ourselves or watch a steep decline in our own lifetime, is about right. We can’t do it, I am now convinced, without breaking the existing pattern. I know how difficult this is. It goes against the emotional grain of nearly all of us. In many ways, it goes against my own, standing uneasily with one foot in a dead or dying world and the other in a world that at all costs we must see born. I wish I could be certain that we shall have the courage of what our minds tell us. [pg. 20]

This disparity between the rich and the poor has been noticed. It has been noticed, most acutely and not unnaturally, by the poor. Just because they have noticed it, it won’t last for long. Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won’t. Once the trick of getting rich is known, as it now is, the world can’t survive half rich and half poor. It’s just not on.

The West has got to help in this transformation. The trouble is, the West with its divided culture finds it hard to grasp just how big, and above all just how fast, the transformation must be. [pg. 21-22]

So we need to educate scientists about the works of elite authors, and those authors about the work of scientists… because otherwise Britain will become impoverished, and/or we’d end poverty faster?! That doesn’t square up with the data. Let’s look at what the government of Namibia, a well-off African country, thinks will help end poverty.

  • Improving access to Community Skills Development Centres (Cosdecs) in remote areas and aligning the curriculum with that of the Vocational Training Centres.
  • To improve career options and full integration into the modern economy, there is need to introduce vocational subjects at upper primary and junior secondary levels. This will facilitate access to vocational education and labour market readiness by the youth.
  • Improving productivity of the subsistence agriculture by encouraging the use of both traditional and modern fertiliser and by providing information on modern farming methods.
  • The dismantling of the “Red Line” seems to hold some promise for livestock farmers in the North who were previously prevented access to markets outside of the northern regions.
  • Consider establishing a third economic hub for Namibia to relief Khomas and Erongo from migration pressure. With abundant water resources, a fertile land and being along the Trans Zambezi Corridor, Kavango East is a good candidate for an agricultural capital and a logistic growth point.
  • Given persistent drop-out rates especially in remote rural areas, there is need for increased access to secondary education by addressing both the distance and the quality of education.
  • Educate youth on the danger of adolescence pregnancy both in terms of exclusion from the modern economy and health implications.
  • Given the established relationship between access to services, poverty and economic inclusion, there is need for government to strive towards a regional balanced provision of access to safe drinking water, sanitation, electricity and housing. [pg. 58-59]

I don’t see any references to science in there, nor any to Neshani Andreas or Joseph Diescho. Britain’s the same story. But who knows, maybe an author/chemist who thought world poverty would end by the year 2000 has a better understanding of poverty than government agencies and century-old NGOs tasked with improving social conditions.

There’s a greater problem here, too. Let’s detour to something Donald Trump said:

Trump: “The Democrats don’t care about our military. They don’t.” He says that is also true of the border and crime

How would we prove that Democrats don’t care about the military, the US border, or crime? The easiest approach would be to look at their national platform and see it those things are listed there (they’re not, I checked). A much harder one would be to parse their actions instead. If we can find a single Democrat who does care about crime, then we’ve refuted the claim in the deductive sense.

But there’s still an inductive way to keep it alive: if “enough” Democrats don’t care about those things, then Trump can argue he meant the statements informally and thus it’s still true-ish. That’s a helluva lot of work, and since the burden is on the person making the claim it’s not my job to run around gathering data for Trump’s argument. If I’m sympathetic to Trump’s views or pride myself in being intellectually “fair,” however, there’s a good chance I’d do some of his homework anyway.

Lurking behind all of the logical stuff, however, is an emotional component. The US-Mexico border, the military, and crime all stir strong emotions in his audience; by positioning his opponents as being opposed to “positive” things, at the same time implying that he’s in favour of them, Trump’s angering his audience and motivating them to being less charitable towards his opponents.

That’s the language of hate: emotionally charged false statements about a minority, to be glib. It’s all the more reason to be careful when talking about groups.

The non-scientists have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of man’s condition. On the other hand, the scientists believe that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother men,
in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment. And so on. Anyone with a mild talent for invective could produce plenty of this kind of subterranean back-chat. [pg. 3]

If you side with either scientists or elite authors, this is emotionally charged language. At the same time, I have no idea how you’d even begin to prove half of that. Snow’s defence consists of quoting Adam Rutherford and T.S. Elliot, all the rest comes from his experiences with “intimate friends among both scientists and writers” and “living among these groups and much more.” [pg. 1] Nonetheless, that small sample set is enough for Snow to assert “this is a problem of the entire West.” [pg. 2] Calling scientists or elite authors a minority is a stretch, but the net result is similar: increased polarisation between the two groups, and the promotion of harmful myths.

Yes, Snow would go on propose a “third culture” which would bridge the gap, but if the gap doesn’t exist in the first place this amounts to selling you a cure after convincing you you’re sick.

What’s worse is that if you’re operating in a fact-deficient environment, you’ve got tremendous flexibility to tweak things to your liking. Is J.K. Rowling a “literary intellectual?” She doesn’t fit into the highbrow culture Snow was talking about, but she is a well-known and influential author who isn’t afraid to let her opinions be known (for better or worse). Doesn’t that make her a decision maker, worthy of inclusion? And if we’ve opened the door for non-elite authors, why not add other people from the humanities? Or social scientists?

This also means that one of the harshest critics of C. P. Snow is C. P. Snow.

I have been argued with by non-scientists of strong down-to-earth interests. Their view is that it is an over-simplification, and that
if one is going to talk in these terms there ought to be at least three cultures. They argue that, though they are not scientists themselves, they would share a good deal of the scientific feeling. They would have as little use-perhaps, since they knew more about it, even less use-for the recent literary culture as the scientists themselves. …

I respect those arguments. The number 2 is a very dangerous number: that is why the dialectic is a dangerous process. Attempts to divide anything into two ought to be regarded with much suspicion. I have thought a long time about going in for further refinements: but in the end I have decided against. I was searching for something a little more than a dashing metaphor, a good deal less than a cultural map: and for those purposes the two cultures is about right, and subtilising any more would bring more disadvantages than it’s worth. [pg. 5]

He’s aware that some people regard “the two cultures” as an oversimplification, he recognises the problem with dividing people in two, and his response amounts to “well, I’m still right.” He’s working with such a deficiency of facts that he can undercut his own arguments and still keep making them as if no counter-argument existed.

I think it is only fair to say that most pure scientists have themselves been devastatingly ignorant of productive industry, and many still are. It is permissible to lump pure and applied scientists into the same scientific culture, but the gaps are wide. Pure scientists and engineers often totally misunderstand each other. Their behaviour tends to be very different: engineers have to live their lives in an organised community, and however odd they are underneath they manage to present a disciplined face to the world. Not so pure scientists. [pg. 16]

Snow makes a strong case for a third culture here, something he earlier said “would bring more disadvantages than it’s worth!” He’s seeing gaps and division everywhere, and defining things so narrowly that he can rattle off five counter-examples then immediately dismiss them (emphasis mine).

Almost everywhere, though, intellectual persons didn’t comprehend what was happening. Certainly the writers didn’t. Plenty of them shuddered away, as though the right course for a man of feeling was to contract out; some, like Ruskin and William Morris and Thoreau and Emerson and Lawrence, tried various kinds of fancies which were not in effect more than screams of horror. It
is hard to think of a writer of high class who really stretched his imaginative sympathy, who could see at once the hideous back-streets, the smoking chimneys, the internal price—and also the prospects of life that were opening out for the poor, the intimations, up to now unknown except to the lucky, which were just coming within reach of the remaining 99.0 per cent of his brother men.

Snow himself mentions Charles Dickens earlier in the lecture, a perfect fit for the label of “a writer of high class who really stretched his imaginative sympathy.” And yet here, he has difficulty remembering that author’s existence.

It’s oddly reminiscent of modern conservative writing: long-winded, self-important, and with only a fleeting connection to the facts. No wonder his ideas keep getting resurrected by them, they can be warped and distorted to suit your current needs.

Go Local

Alas, Adam Lee beat me to this one, but it’s important enough to put on repeat.

For nearly two days, I had a strong flickering of hope. Buzzfeed’s article about Laurence Krauss came out, I was assessing the level of pushback, and I wasn’t seeing much of anything. Reddit threads were mixed, for instance. I went to the Friendly Atheist comment section expecting a cesspit, and was pleasantly surprised to see a mere stinkhole. Seeing a few diehard anti-SJW’s kick up a fuss is annoying, but it’s vastly preferable to a sea of neutral-ish randos. We’ve come a long way from the Grenade.

Then Sam Harris and Matt Dillahunty shit the bed, and CFI took over a week to suspend their relationship with Krauss (good) while stressing they follow their code of conduct (not buying that), and my hope that big organizations would make significant changes died.

But I was still left with a blog post, one that’s evergreen to these controversies. Each time a scandal pops up, I keep seeing people throwing up their hands and quitting the skeptic/atheist movement. While I have a lot of sympathy for the sentiment, and have even muted my own participation due to all the bullshit, I’d like to pitch the opposite idea: these controversies are precisely when you should be more involved.

Yeah, I know, you’d rather complain about the state of the movement, or claim there is no atheist movement because we’re too fractured. Problem is, by that metric there’s no feminist movement either: if you think atheism is fractured, look up the sex wars or the battle over radical feminism or the New Feminist movement or the debate between suffragists and suffragettes and so on and so on and so on. Gather more than one passionate idealist in a room, and they’ll quickly disagree on how to make those ideals come true no matter what the ideal or how many idealists you have. That’s the name of the game for any movement, progressive or otherwise.

You, as an atheist/skeptic, may not feel like you’re part of a movement because you’re not doing activism. That’s fine! But an atheist/skeptic movement still exists, whether you participate or not. Other people are still agitating on your behalf, and will be your representatives on the public stage. Because of that, these people are going to be considered the standard you are measured against. Hate to say it, but Laurence Krauss was right: Buzzfeed’s article is a smear on the atheist movement, because to most outsiders the movement consists of Krauss, Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, David Smalley, Jerry Coyne, Sargon of Akkad, the Amazing Atheist, and so on. Shit on them, and by extension all atheists are shat upon.

This applies to organizations, too. The CFI board have been a rolling dumpster fire for years now, but why have they been? Big organizations have big bureaucracy, insulating the organizers from the grassroots and driving them to look for big investors who typically skew conservative. This makes them slow to respond and tough to influence from the outside.

Local groups are the opposite. It’s a lot easier to sway them in your direction, though admittedly this cuts both ways. Even if your local group is a Chernobyl, though, you can always route around them and start up your own. Best of all, CFI is gonna take a petition to clean up their act from Wichita Freethinkers a lot more seriously than one from Jane C. Rando; if you start small, you can work your way up and gain more leverage than you ever would if you walked away or stayed silent.

The same thinking applies to the “big names” of atheism. Avoid’m, call them out when they’re wrong, make it loud and clear that they’re not the only game in town. Instead, try to promote locals who have relevant expertise; their speaker fees will be a lot cheaper, if only because of the travel cost, there’s more variety, and that variety leads to more in-depth conversations. Conversely, think about becoming a speaker or activist yourself. Yes, it stinks that speaker lists tend to be dominated by the big orgs, but if you record yourself giving a lecture and shop it around to local groups, you might get a few takers. A lot of middle-level speakers already do this, to some extent, so why not join in the fun?

Not in the mood to join an org or exercise your vocal skills? You’ve still got a strong lever in your hands: money! Five bucks means a lot less to CFI than it does to the Black Freethinkers of Minnesota. Chipping in funds locally will go a lot further to holding events and bringing in speakers, and gives you a disproportionate voice in how things are run. Alternatively, find an activist who’s trying to make the community a better place and toss some cash their way. It’s the easiest, most effective option on this list, yet our bias to “doing something” blinds us to that.

The assholery in the skeptic/atheist community may be difficult to eliminate, but it’s easier than you think to marginalize.

Now, just to make sure this point isn’t lost: if you feel the need to step away, you have my full sympathies. No-one should be forced to be an activist, and self care is not selfish. If you do have the strength, though, consider channeling your anger and frustration into pushing back.

Need more specific guidance? Tell you what, I’ll de-evergreen this post and name some specific people and organizations that I think are worth listening to, inviting, helping, or paying. Besides, it’ll be something to point and laugh at when Monette’s outed as three kids in a trench-coat.


Freethought Blogs, The Orbit, and Skepticon: Oh hey, did you know that those three organizations and a few individuals are being sued by Richard Carrier? He’s grumpy they talked about his bad behaviour, apparently, and the legal fees are leeching away funds that could be used for other things. If you like what they do, toss some cash into their respective fundraisers. I know you’re sold on FtB if you’re reading this, but The Orbit also has cool bloggers too like Stephanie Zvan and Miri and Tony Thompson and Ania Onion Bula. I’ve been to Skepticon, and can vouch for their excellence. Oh, and they’re free to attend despite their massive size!

Secular Woman: This group loves to be a thorn in the side of the big orgs, most recently getting kicked out of the club for complaining too much. I’ve been an on-and-off member for years, attended their last conference, and been quite happy with their work. Attend their next conference or become a member, you know you want to.


Honestly, you could do a lot worse than writing down the names of everyone participating in OrbitCon: Valerie Aurora, Jennifer Beahan, Brianne Bilyeu, William Brinkman, Chrisiosity, Greta Christina, Heina Dadabhoy, Eiynah, Debbie Goddard, Alyssa Gonzalez, Olivia James, Alix Jules, Lauren Lane, Trav Mamone, Marissa Alexa McCool, Monette Richards, Ari Stillman, Steve Shives, Mandisa Thomas, Kristi Winters, Callie Wright, Jessica Xiao. If these people are willing to set aside some time to chat online to a general audience, there’s a good chance they’d be willing to Skype into your group for a lecture.

I’d also like to add Sikivu Hutchinson, Lilandra Ra, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Alex Gabriel, James Croft, Marcus Ranum, and Crip Dyke. I could keep going, but I should really get this post out the door before the next controversy arrives. In the meantime, you know what to do.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Was it three years ago? Almost to the day, from the looks of it.

Biomedical research, then, promises vast increases in life, health, and flourishing. Just imagine how much happier you would be if a prematurely deceased loved one were alive, or a debilitated one were vigorous — and multiply that good by several billion, in perpetuity. Given this potential bonanza, the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.

Get out of the way.

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future.

That was Steven Pinker arguing that biomedical research is too ethical. Follow that link and you’ll see my counter-example: the Tuskegee syphilis study. It is a literal textbook example of what not to do in science. Pinker didn’t mention it back then, but it was inevitable he’d have to deal with it at some time. Thanks to PZ, I now know he has.

At a recent conference, another colleague summed up what she thought was a mixed legacy of science: vaccines for smallpox on the one hand; the Tuskegee syphilis study on the other. In that affair, another bloody shirt ind the standard narrative about the evils of science, public health researchers, beginning in 1932, tracked the progression of untreated latent syphilis in a sample of impoverished African Americans for four decades. The study was patently unethical by today’s standards, though it’s often misreported to pile up the indictment. The researchers, many of them African American or advocates of African American health and well-being, did not infect the participants as many people believe (a misconception that has led to the widespread conspiracy theory that AIDS was invented in US government labs to control the black population). And when the study began, it may even have been defensible by the standards of the day: treatments for syphilis (mainly arsenic) were toxic and ineffective; when antibiotics became available later, their safety and efficacy in treating syphilis were unknown; and latent syphilis was known to often resolve itself without treatment. But the point is that the entire equation is morally obtuse, showing the power of Second Culture talking points to scramble a sense of proportionality. My colleague’s comparison assumed that the Tuskegee study was an unavoidable part of scientific practice as opposed to a universally deplored breach, and it equated a one-time failure to prevent harm to a few dozen people with the prevention of hundreds of millions of deaths per century in perpetuity.

What horse shit.

To persuade the community to support the experiment, one of the original doctors admitted it “was necessary to carry on this study under the guise of a demonstration and provide treatment.” At first, the men were prescribed the syphilis remedies of the day — bismuth, neoarsphenamine, and mercury — but in such small amounts that only 3 percent showed any improvement. These token doses of medicine were good public relations and did not interfere with the true aims of the study. Eventually, all syphilis treatment was replaced with “pink medicine” — aspirin. To ensure that the men would show up for a painful and potentially dangerous spinal tap, the PHS doctors misled them with a letter full of promotional hype: “Last Chance for Special Free Treatment.” The fact that autopsies would eventually be required was also concealed. As a doctor explained, “If the colored population becomes aware that accepting free hospital care means a post-mortem, every darky will leave Macon County…”

  • “it equated a one-time failure to prevent harm to a few dozen people”: In reality, according to that last source, “28 of the men had died directly of syphilis, 100 were dead of related complications, 40 of their wives had been infected, and 19 of their children had been born with congenital syphilis.” As of August last year, 12 former children were still receiving financial compensation.
  • “the prevention of hundreds of millions of deaths per century in perpetuity”: In reality, the Tuskegee study wasn’t the only scientific study looking at syphilis. Nor even the first. Syphilis was discovered in 1494, named in 1530, the causative organism was found in 1905, and the first treatments were developed in 1910. The science was dubious at best:

The study was invalid from the very beginning, for many of the men had at one time or another received some (though probably inadequate) courses of arsenic, bismuth and mercury, the drugs of choice until the discovery of penicillin, and they could not be considered untreated. Much later, when penicillin and other powerful antibiotics became available, the study directors tried to prevent any physician in the area from treating the subjects – in direct opposition to the Henderson Act of 1943, which required treatment of venereal diseases.

A classic study of untreated syphilis had been completed years earlier in Oslo. Why try to repeat it? Because the physicians who initiated the Tuskegee study were determined to prove that syphilis was ”different” in blacks. In a series of internal reviews, the last done as recently as 1969, the directors spoke of a ”moral obligation” to continue the study. From the very beginning, no mention was made of a moral obligation to treat the sick.

Pinker’s response to the Tuskegee study is to re-write history to suit his narrative, again. No wonder he isn’t a fan of ethics.

EvoPsych and Scientific Racism

I’m not a fan of EvoPsych. It manages the feat of misunderstanding both evolution and psychology, its researchers are prone to wild misrepresentation of fields they clearly don’t understand, and it has all the trappings of a pseudo-science. Nonetheless, I’ve always thought they had enough sense to avoid promoting scientific racism, at least openly.

[CONTENT WARNING: Some of them don’t.]

[Read more…]

This Rings A Bell

Heavyweight tech investor and FDA-critic Peter Thiel is among conservative funders and American researchers backing an offshore herpes vaccine trial that blatantly flouts US safety regulations, according to a Monday report by Kaiser Health News.

The vaccine—a live but weakened herpes virus—was first tested in a 17-person trial on the Caribbean Island of St. Kitts without federal oversight or the standard human safety requirement of an institutional review board (IRB) approval. Biomedical researchers and experts have sharply rebuked the lack of safety oversight and slammed the poor quality of the data collected, which has been rejected from scientific publication. However, investors and those running the trial say it is a direct challenge to what they see as innovation-stifling regulations by the Food and Drug Administration.

It was around that point in Beth Mole’s article for Ars Technica that I got a sense of deja-vu. A quick Google search confirmed it was more than a feeling:

Biomedical research, then, promises vast increases in life, health, and flourishing. Just imagine how much happier you would be if a prematurely deceased loved one were alive, or a debilitated one were vigorous — and multiply that good by several billion, in perpetuity. Given this potential bonanza, the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.

Get out of the way.

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future.

That was an ill-informed opinion of Steven Pinker from two years ago. I took it to task back then, but I wonder if Pinker has changed his mind in the intervening years. I checked his Twitter feed, and came away empty. Stick a pin in that one, it may become interesting.

So You Wanna Falsify Gender Studies?

How would a skeptic determine whether or not an area of study was legit? The obvious route would be to study up on the core premises of that field, recording citations as you go; map out how they are connected to one another and supported by the evidence, looking for weak spots; then write a series of articles sharing those findings.

What they wouldn’t do is generate a fake paper purporting to be from that field of study but deliberately mangling the terminology, submit it to a low-ranked and obscure journal for peer review, have it rejected from that journal, based on feedback then submit it to an second journal that was semi-shady and even more obscure, have it published, then parade that around as if it meant something.

Alas, it seems the Skeptic movement has no idea how basic skepticism works. Self-proclaimed “skeptics” Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay took the second route, and were cheered on by Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Steven Pinker, and other people calling themselves skeptics. A million other people have pointed and laughed at them, so I won’t bother joining in.

But no-one seems to have brought up the first route. Let’s do a sketch of actual skepticism, then, and see how well gender studies holds up.

What’s Claimed?

Right off the bat, we hit a problem: most researchers or advocates in gender studies do not have a consensus sex or gender model.

The Genderbread Person, version 3.3. From http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2015/03/the-genderbread-person-v3/

This is one of the more popular explainers for gender floating out on the web. Rather than focus on the details, however, I’d like you to note this graphic is labeled “version 3.3”. In other words, Sam Killermann has tweaked and revised it three times over. It also conflicts with the Gender Unicorn, which has a categorical approach to “biological sex” and adds “other genders,” and it no longer embraces the idea of a spectrum thus contradicting a lot of other models. Confront Killermann on this, and I bet they’d shrug their shoulders and start crafting another model.

The model isn’t all that important. Instead, gender studies has reached a consensus on an axiom and a corollary: the two-sex, two-gender model is an oversimplification, and that sex/gender are complicated. Hence why models of sex or gender continually fail, the complexity almost guarantees exceptions to your rules.

There’s a strong parallel here to agnostic atheism’s “lack of belief” posture, as this flips the burden of proof. Critiquing the consensus of gender studies means asserting a positive statement, that the binarist model is correct, while the defense merely needs to swat down those arguments without advancing any of its own.

Nothing Fails Like Binarism

A single counter-example is sufficient to refute a universal rule. To take a classic example, I can show “all swans are white” is a false statement by finding a single black swan. If someone came along and said “well yeah, but most swans are white, so we can still say that all swans are white,” you’d think of them as delusional or in denial.

Well, I can point to four people who do not fit into the two-sex two-gender model. Ergo, that model cannot be true in all cases, and the critique of gender studies fails after a thirty second Google search.

When most people are confronted with this, they invoke a three-sex model (male, female, and “other/defective”) but call it two-sex in order to preserve their delusion. That so few people notice the contradiction is a testament to how hard the binary model is hammered into us.

But Where’s the SCIENCE?!

Another popular dodge is to argue that merely saying you don’t fit into the binary isn’t enough; if it wasn’t in peer-reviewed research, it can’t be true. This is no less silly. Do I need to publish a paper about the continent of Africa to say it exists? Or my computer? If you doubt me, browse Retraction Watch for a spell.

Once you’ve come back, go look at the peer-reviewed research which suggests gender is more complicated than a simple binary.

At times, the prevailing answers were almost as simple as Gray’s suggestion that the sexes come from different planets. At other times, and increasingly so today, the answers concerning the why of men’s and women’s experiences and actions have involved complex multifaceted frameworks.

Ashmore, Richard D., and Andrea D. Sewell. “Sex/Gender and the Individual.” In Advanced Personality, edited by David F. Barone, Michel Hersen, and Vincent B. Van Hasselt, 377–408. The Plenum Series in Social/Clinical Psychology. Springer US, 1998. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-8580-4_16.

Correlational findings with the three scales (self-ratings) suggest that sex-specific behaviors tend to be mutually exclusive while male- and female-valued behaviors form a dualism and are actually positively rather than negatively correlated. Additional analyses showed that individuals with nontraditional sex role attitudes or personality trait organization (especially cross-sex typing) were somewhat less conventionally sex typed in their behaviors and interests than were those with traditional attitudes or sex-typed personality traits. However, these relationships tended to be small, suggesting a general independence of sex role traits, attitudes, and behaviors.

Orlofsky, Jacob L. “Relationship between Sex Role Attitudes and Personality Traits and the Sex Role Behavior Scale-1: A New Measure of Masculine and Feminine Role Behaviors and Interests.” Journal of Personality 40, no. 5 (May 1981): 927–40.

Women’s scores on the BSRI-M and PAQ-M (masculine) scales have increased steadily over time (r’s = .74 and .43, respectively). Women’s BSRI-F and PAQ-F (feminine) scale  scores do not correlate with year. Men’s BSRI-M scores show a weaker positive relationship with year of administration (r = .47). The effect size for sex differences on the BSRI-M has also changed over time, showing a significant decrease over the twenty-year period. The results suggest that cultural change and environment may affect individual personalities; these changes in BSRI and PAQ means demonstrate women’s increased endorsement of masculine-stereotyped traits and men’s continued nonendorsement of feminine-stereotyped traits.

Twenge, Jean M. “Changes in Masculine and Feminine Traits over Time: A Meta-Analysis.” Sex Roles 36, no. 5–6 (March 1, 1997): 305–25. doi:10.1007/BF02766650.

Male (n = 95) and female (n = 221) college students were given 2 measures of gender-related personality traits, the Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI) and the Personal Attributes Questionnaire, and 3 measures of sex role attitudes. Correlations between the personality and the attitude measures were traced to responses to the pair of negatively correlated BSRI items, masculine and feminine, thus confirming a multifactorial approach to gender, as opposed to a unifactorial gender schema theory.

Spence, Janet T. “Gender-Related Traits and Gender Ideology: Evidence for a Multifactorial Theory.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64, no. 4 (1993): 624.

Oh sorry, you didn’t know that gender studies has been a science for over four decades? You thought it was just an invention of Tumblr, rather than a mad scramble by scientists to catch up with philosophers? Tsk, that’s what you get for pretending to be a skeptic instead of doing your homework.

I Hate Reading

One final objection is that field-specific jargon is hard to understand. Boghossian and Lindsay seem to think it follows that the jargon is therefore meaningless bafflegab. I’d hate to see what they’d think of a modern physics paper; jargon offers precise definitions and less typing to communicate your ideas, and while it can quickly become opaque to lay people jargon is a necessity for serious science.

But let’s roll with the punch, and look outside of journals for evidence that’s aimed at a lay reader.

In Sexing the Body, Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality Fausto-Sterling attempts to answer two questions: How is knowledge about the body gendered? And, how gender and sexuality become somatic facts? In other words, she passionately and with impressive intellectual clarity demonstrates how in regards to human sexuality the social becomes material. She takes a broad, interdisciplinary perspective in examining this process of gender embodiment. Her goal is to demonstrate not only how the categories (men/women) humans use to describe other humans become embodied in those to whom they refer, but also how these categories are not reflect ed in reality. She argues that labeling someone a man or a woman is solely a social decision. «We may use scientific knowledge to help us make the decision, but only our beliefs about gender – not science – can define our sex» (p. 3) and consistently throughout the book she shows how gender beliefs affect what kinds of knowledge are produced about sex, sexual behaviors, and ultimately gender.

Gober, Greta. “Sexing the Body Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality.” Humana.Mente Journal of Philosophical Studies, 2012, Vol. 22, 175–187

Making Sex is an ambitious investigation of Western scientific conceptions of sexual difference. A historian by profession, Laqueur locates the major conceptual divide in the late eighteenth century when, as he puts it, “a biology of cosmic hierarchy gave way to a biology of incommensurability, anchored in the body, in which the relationship of men to women, like that of apples to oranges, was not given as one of equality or inequality but rather of difference” (207). He claims that the ancients and their immediate heirs—unlike us—saw sexual difference as a set of relatively unimportant differences of degree within “the one-sex body.” According to this model, female sexual organs were perfectly homologous to male ones, only inside out; and bodily fluids—semen, blood, milk—were mostly “fungible” and composed of the same basic matter. The model didn’t imply equality; woman was a lesser man, just not a thing wholly different in kind.

Altman, Meryl, and Keith Nightenhelser. “Making Sex (Review).” Postmodern Culture 2, no. 3 (January 5, 1992). doi:10.1353/pmc.1992.0027.

In Delusions of Gender the psychologist Cordelia Fine exposes the bad science, the ridiculous arguments and the persistent biases that blind us to the ways we ourselves enforce the gender stereotypes we think we are trying to overcome. […]

Most studies about people’s ways of thinking and behaving find no differences between men and women, but these fail to spark the interest of publishers and languish in the file drawer. The oversimplified models of gender and genes that then prevail allow gender culture to be passed down from generation to generation, as though it were all in the genes. Gender, however, is in the mind, fixed in place by the way we store information.

Mental schema organise complex experiences into types of things so that we can process data efficiently, allowing us, for example, to recognise something as a chair without having to notice every detail. This efficiency comes at a cost, because when we automatically categorise experience we fail to question our assumptions. Fine draws together research that shows people who pride themselves on their lack of bias persist in making stereotypical associations just below the threshold of consciousness.

Everyone works together to re-inforce social and cultural environments that soft-wire the circuits of the brain as male or female, so that we have no idea what men and women might become if we were truly free from bias.

Apter, Terri. “Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences by Cordelia Fine.” The Guardian, October 11, 2010, sec. Books.

Have At ‘r, “Skeptics”

You want to refute the field of gender studies? I’ve just sketched out the challenges you face on a philosophical level, and pointed you to the studies and books you need to refute. Have fun! If you need me I’ll be over here, laughing.

[HJH 2017-05-21: Added more links, minor grammar tweaks.]

[HJH 2017-05-22: Missed Steven Pinker’s Tweet. Also, this Skeptic fail may have gone mainstream:

Boghossian and Lindsay likely did damage to the cultural movements that they have helped to build, namely “new atheism” and the skeptic community. As far as I can tell, neither of them knows much about gender studies, despite their confident and even haughty claims about the deep theoretical flaws of that discipline. As a skeptic myself, I am cautious about the constellation of cognitive biases to which our evolved brains are perpetually susceptible, including motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, disconfirmation bias, overconfidence and belief perseverance. That is partly why, as a general rule, if one wants to criticize a topic X, one should at the very least know enough about X to convince true experts in the relevant field that one is competent about X. This gets at what Brian Caplan calls the “ideological Turing test.” If you can’t pass this test, there’s a good chance you don’t know enough about the topic to offer a serious, one might even say cogent, critique.

Boghossian and Lindsay pretty clearly don’t pass that test. Their main claim to relevant knowledge in gender studies seems to be citations from Wikipedia and mockingly retweeting abstracts that they, as non-experts, find funny — which is rather like Sarah Palin’s mocking of scientists for studying fruit flies or claiming that Obamacare would entail “death panels.” This kind of unscholarly engagement has rather predictably led to a sizable backlash from serious scholars on social media who have noted that the skeptic community can sometimes be anything but skeptical about its own ignorance and ideological commitments.

When the scientists you claim to worship are saying your behavior is unscientific, maaaaybe you should take a hard look at yourself.]

The Sinmantyx Posts

It started off somewhere around here.

Richard Dawkins: you’re wrong. Deeply, profoundly, fundamentally wrong. Your understanding of feminism is flawed and misinformed, and further, you keep returning to the same poisonous wells of misinformation. It’s like watching creationists try to rebut evolution by citing Kent Hovind; do you not understand that that is not a trustworthy source? It’s a form of motivated reasoning, in which you keep returning to those who provide the comfortable reassurances that your biases are actually correct, rather than challenging yourself with new perspectives.

Just for your information, Christina Hoff Sommers is an anti-feminist. She’s spent her entire career inventing false distinctions and spinning fairy tales about feminism.

In the span of a month, big names in the atheo-skeptic community like Dawkins, Sam Harris, and DJ Groethe lined up to endorse Christina Hoff Sommers as a feminist. At about the same time, Ayaan Hirsi Ali declared “We must reclaim and retake feminism from our fellow idiotic women,” and the same people cheered her on. Acquaintances of mine who should have known better defended Sommers and Ali, and I found myself arguing against brick walls. Enraged that I was surrounded by the blind, I did what I always do in these situations.

I researched. I wrote.

The results were modest and never widely circulated, but it caught the eye of M.A. Melby. She offered me a guest post at her blog, and I promised to append more to what I had written. And append I did.

After that was said and done, Melby left me a set of keys and said I could get comfortable. I was officially a co-blogger. I started pumping out blog posts, and never really looked back. Well, almost; out of all that I wrote over at Sinmantyx, that first Christina Hoff Sommers piece has consistently been the most popular.
I’ll do the same thing here as with my Sinmantyx statistics posts, keep the originals intact and in-place and create an archive over here.