The Shocking Truth SHE Doesn’t Want You To Know About!!!1!

Yesterday, I introduced you to the kinds of laughable conspiracy theories that can result when, like Twitterer Atheismpluscrap, you choose comforting delusions over unpleasant realities.

But man, if you’re going to believe ridiculous things, you might as well go all-in, right? “Atheism plus is a covert religious group trying to discredit atheism by promoting fascist feminism” barely registers on the conspiracy theory wackyometer. Chart of conspiracy theories where craziness is on the x-axis going from less to more crazy as you go left to right, and where importance is on the y-axis, going from less to more important from bottom to top.It’s on the very bottom of this chart, and only slightly toward the right-hand side. So let’s help Atheismpluscrap out a bit by punching up their conspiracy.

It all starts in Atlantis, a perfect society built on MRA principles, where the social recognition of women as inferior emotional sperm-vampires led to the development of a technologically-advanced continent the likes of which have not been seen since. When men are not distracted by the needs of and endless competition for women, there is no need for war or hierarchy. There was no need for stifling government in Atlantis, for the perfect free market directed all things, unsullied by feminine influence.

This is not to say that women were mistreated in Atlantis; quite the contrary. They were well provided-for, never needing to work beyond mating. The lack of a system of marriage or paternity ensured that children would be raised by he community as a whole, without distracting men with the unnatural demands of monogamy and the so-called “nuclear family”–nuclear because it’s radioactive, causing a slow wasting-away death of both individual and society.

Of course this hyper-rational, enlightened culture was atheistic. The concept of gods never even occurred to a society without the feminine invention of “faith,” or knowledge derived from womanly “feelings” and “intuition.”

But then there were the Amazons, a warlike, man-hating, petty matriarchy living on the mainland. The influence of the Amazons on other cultures was what led to the development of most violence and disease in the Mediterranean and Middle East, and they pillaged technological advances from the men of those lands. They spread their philosophies of religion and feminism to indoctrinate women and enslave men to a system of faith-based “tradition,” installing an unachievable male ideal as the head of a system of gods which emphasized the notion that males and females could be equals.

Atlantis had the oceans and its technology to protect it from the toxic influence of fascist feminism, but eventually those barriers were breached, the Amazons wearing away at their defenses until they could no longer stand the assault. Once the women of Atlantis began to believe the comforting myths of the Amazons, they rose up and demanded male enslavement, or male extermination. Some enlightened men escaped, but the knowledge and technology of Atlantis was scattered to the winds, and the island itself was lost forever.

The Amazonian system of religion spread, changing here and there, but always holding men in an emasculating position subordinate to some greater man. This, along with the inventions of sex competition and marriage and paternity, created competition and hierarchy between men, and led to all wars and conflicts, all class stratification and government.

There have been men who stood up to this system, but the system endures, striking them down whenever possible. Abraham Lincoln was a strong red-pill man, who recognized that all men were equal, superior to women, and so the feminazi woman supremacists had him killed by an effeminate thespian. John F. Kennedy was a virile red-pill man, openly flaunting the oppression of marriage and selecting multiple mates as any alpha deserves, so the gynotalitarian femifascists had him killed by a simpering beta who bought into the feminine collectivist lie of Communism. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were fearless red-pill men who openly spoke about putting women in their rightful places, so with the help of manginas like George Harrison and Eric Clapton, they emasculated John with a forced feminazi marriage and killed and replaced Paul with a beta-male double. When John still wouldn’t cooperate, openly promoting the rational standards of world peace and atheism, compelling people to throw off the government shackles and make a new society, they had him killed by a beta who was infatuated with a book about a frustrated, emasculated mangina.

Whenever men have banded together to fight hysteroppresion, women have subverted their organizations. The Illuminati began as an enlightened male attempt to get back to the roots of rationalist male primacy, but was subverted from within by false doctrines about gender equality. Now, it’s another arm of the gynocracy, secretly manipulating subservient beta-males (e.g., Obama) into positions of world power, and opposing the alphas who make it there through sheer force of manliness (e.g., Putin, Clinton). Freemasonry was much the same, beginning as a masculine attempt to exalt manly physical labor and building things, but subverted by female-controlled betas into being obsessed with girly secrets and fashion accessories and hierarchies.

And now atheism has risen up to battle the evils of feminist religion, and it’s strengthened through alliances with Men’s Rights Advocates and libertarianism. Each of the three groups has a pillar of Atlantean social perfection, which is why feminists are so afraid of them. If they aren’t stopped, then Atlantis may rise again, and this time thanks to globalization and the Internet, the whole world would be part of the glorious Atlantean perfection.

With the control of the FemIlluminati, it’s easy to marginalize libertarians, because the few red-pill elected men like Ron Paul can’t get a foothold in the woman-defined system. With the power of Pussy Control over emasculated beta-men, it’s easy to marginalize MRAs as “misognynist” and “sexist” and creep shame them. But atheism isn’t so easy to marginalize, because it’s so obviously correct with its foundations in masculine science and reason. The enlightened red-pill men who reject feminine religion are too rational and intellectual to fall for the other lies of the hegematriachy. So feminists must resort to other methods to strangle the nascent Atlantean perfection before it leaves its crib.

And that method is Atheism Plus, atheism tainted with the lies of feminism and run by subservient lickspittle beta-males like P.Z. Mayers who are controlled by female supremacists and their fanatic religious adherence to feminist dogma. By insinuating themselves into atheism, they plan to subvert it just like 18th-century radfems subverted the Illuminati, by diverting its efforts and energy to hopeless, unrelated causes, and causing internecine strife by imposing a hysterical hierarchy and forcing inter-male competition for atheist female mates. If they succeed, the rational power of atheism will be scuttled, and the resources that remain will be redirected toward supporting the gynocratic rule of the shadow matriarchy, setting back the rebirth of the perfect Atlantean system, perhaps beyond reclamation.

This is why the alliance between atheists, MRAs, and libertarians is so vital, and why the feminarchist powers are so keen to silence liberated red-pill alpha-males like Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins and Penn Jillette and The Amazing Atheist. Their natural male power and charisma can’t help but convince people, even semi-rational women, and drive them toward the natural state of humanity, which is the restoration of the Atlantean standard. We need only protect, amplify, and follow these voices, and we can defeat hysteriarchical gynofascist tittytalitarianism forever!

There we go. That’s a ludicrous conspiracy theory. If you’re going to be so unrealistic and unreasonable as to believe in a comforting conspiracy theory, that’s a respectable theory to buy into. Anything else just makes it look like you’re sacrificing reason and evidence and skepticism for nothing.

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On Our Team

I knew someone calling themselves “atheismpluscrap” wasn’t likely to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but some of their stuff got retweeted into my timeline today, and it presented me with amusement, fodder for the “skeptics being profoundly unskeptical” tag, and an opportunity for a teachable moment. So, what the hell, here’s a blog post.

My involvement began when I saw these gems, in response to this tweet by Helenarth (hooray for clever puns!):
atheismpluscrap1
The relevant quotations:

@Helenarth: @atheismpluscrap How can someone be a “fake” atheist? / @ool0n

@atheismpluscrap: @Helenarth they join #AtheismPlus and say they’re atheists in order to discredit atheism. In actual fact they are religious @ool0n

@atheismpluscrap: @ool0n <- proven to be deceitful 40,000 followers for his bot almost overnight. Check how many twts about atheism. He's a theist @Helenarth

@Helenarth: @atheismpluscrap Wait, so not tweeting about atheism = theist? @ool0n

@atheismpluscrap: @Helenarth in a faction called Atheism+ but doesn't tweet about atheism. Has a block list of atheists. Argues with atheists, never theists

That’s where I came in. See, Atheismpluscrap seems to have a misunderstanding about the definition of “atheism,” which is the lack of belief in gods. You’ll notice that nowhere in that definition is there anything about block lists of atheists, arguing with atheists, or arguing with theists. The sole qualification for being an atheist is lacking belief in gods, just as the sole qualification for being a theist is believing in at least one god. This is particularly funny since, in my looking for those tweets to screencap, I found Atheismpluscrap chiding another Twitterer for “hav[ing] trouble with simple word definitions” ([link] [screencap]).

So anyway, I pointed out this little definition problem:

@Doubting_Tom: @atheismpluscrap @helenarth And strangely, none of those traits are necessary to be a theist. In fact, only one trait is.

I’ll admit here that I hadn’t seen the conspiratorial second tweet up there; I was just amused by an atheist trying to prove that they could determine a person’s beliefs through a No True Scotsman argument. So I was a little surprised to see the conspiracy theory come raging forth:

@atheismpluscrap: @Doubting_Tom if he's discrediting atheism by pretending to be an atheist he won't wear a cross, dumb ass

Not entirely sure how you discredit atheism, since it’s just a lack of belief in gods. I suppose you could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that gods exist, but that’s about it.

But what Atheismpluscrap is doing here is something we’ve seen quite a bit of in the atheoskeptisphere, with different variations. The “X isn’t a real atheist, but is a theist trying to make us look bad” argument gets pulled out from time to time. S.E. Cupp is a common target, but really any conservative or religion-friendly atheist is going to get it at some point, and probably some of the bigger assholes too. Basically any atheist that any other atheist might be embarrassed by.

Another common variant is “X is a secret atheist,” which got trotted out about Barack Obama a lot in the early years of his presidency, and got bandied about regarding Mother Teresa when letters about her crisis of faith surfaced. The historical spin on this is “If X were around today, they’d be an atheist,” which we see about most of the Founding Fathers at one point or another.

And in every case, it’s about wishful thinking. It’s all about seeing atheism/skepticism as a team, and wanting to have the right people on your team. We like to think that because we’ve adopted a label and started slinging around the word “community,” that it means we have more in common than just a lack of belief in gods. We like to think that we arrived at the right conclusion for the right reasons, and that the people who agree with us did as well. We like to think that being an atheist is a sign of being super-rational, and like to imagine that other atheists are similarly super-rational. And I suspect a lot of that is because the surge in atheism and the building of an atheist community, over the last several years, comes on the backs of books and campaigns by scientists and philosophers who came to their atheism from positions of scientific skepticism. There’s a lot of overlap between the atheist and skeptic communities, and that overlap creates a lot of impressions which aren’t necessarily true.

And chief among them is the notion that anyone who values reason, logic, science, or skepticism is necessarily an atheist, and vice versa. When we encounter unreasonable atheists, we feel like they’re giving us a bad name and want to make it clear that they don’t represent us, that they’re not on our team. And when we encounter reasonable people who don’t profess atheism, we like to imagine that they’re just keeping it a secret, but they actually are on our team. We like to believe this because it’s comforting and validating.

Unfortunately, like many comforting and validating beliefs, it’s also false.

There are many paths to rejecting the belief in gods, and skepticism is only one of them. Being skeptical about some things doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re skeptical about everything, or that you’re exercising skepticism properly and not dipping into denialism. Being a scientist or science enthusiast doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand things beyond your expertise, or that you’re applying skepticism. And none of those suggest that you’re a worthwhile person to be around.

And anyone who’s paid any attention should be able to rattle off a dozen examples off the top of their head. Bill Maher is an atheist who’s an alt-med proponent and science denialist. Penn & Teller are skeptical atheists who used their show to promote global warming denialism. Linus Pauling was a two-time Nobel laureate who blundered his way into promoting vitamin megadosing pseudoscience. And in terms of assholery, you’ve got the racism and Islamophobia of guys like Dawkins and Harris and Pat Condell, the disgusting misogyny of guys like the Amazing Atheist and Thunderf00t, and plenty of patronizing, smarmy douchebags.

It’s tempting to think that they’re not really atheists, but what reason do we have to doubt that? There’s nothing about being an atheist that keeps you from believing all manner of ridiculous things, just ask the Raelians. We have to come to grips that not everyone who agrees with us on one thing will agree on other things, and that not everyone comes to beliefs through reason and logic. The scary thing is that it suggests that maybe we’re not as reasonable as we think we are.

Rather than face that discomfort, however, folks like Atheismpluscrap follow the train of logic that results from it: if they’re not really atheists, they must be theists. If they’re actually theists, why do they call themselves atheists? It must be to make atheists look bad.

Because apparently that’s something that theists are worried about, despite the fact that many of them seem to think atheists are all just amoral hedonists. And the way they choose to make atheists look bad is by…setting up a block bot to serve a particular subset of atheists, and arguing with some atheists on Twitter. So no, that block bot can’t be for a subset of atheists. In fact, all of Atheism Plus must be some kind of religion trying to infiltrate atheism and bring it down from the inside. And they’ll do that by promoting feminism and social justice issues. Because…profit?

Like any conspiracy theory, it falls apart when you consider motivations and scope and Occam’s Razor. The most parsimonious explanation is that these are simply other people who lack belief in god but disagree with you on other points. I don’t deny that The Amazing Atheist probably is, in fact, an atheist. I think he’s also a giant frothing asshole and the only amazing thing about him is his bigotry and ego. There’s not really a contradiction there, much though one might wish there were.

I flippantly pointed this out to Atheismpluscrap:

@Doubting_Tom: @atheismpluscrap @Helenarth "Discrediting atheism"? That's some conspiracy theory you've got there, chief. Ever hear of Occam's Razor?

Atheismpluscrap responded by asking “ru in a+ ?” as if it had any bearing on whether or not his conspiracy theory had any validity. They liked my next tweet, which lampooned the conversation:

@Doubting_Tom: So-called atheist throwing out No True Scotsman arguments is worried about fakers discrediting atheism. Almost ironic.

I wished in that moment that they’d had the word “skeptic” in their ‘nym, since it would have made the irony less Morissettian. But Atheismpluscrap apparently lacked the reading comprehension to get that I was making fun of them:
Atheismpluscrap4

@atheismpluscrap: @Doubting_Tom I agree with you. I’m glad you too have rumbled A+. Welcome aboard

It’s the same cognitive error there: Atheismpluscrap agreed with what I said, so they assumed I must also be against Atheism Plus and on-board with their conspiracy ravings. I suspect at that point was when they bothered to have a look at my timeline, because their next tweet was this:
Atheismpluscrap5

@atheismpluscrap: @Doubting_Tom 21721 tweets 399 followers. Mmmmm. Maybe social interaction isn’t for you? #Boring #incoherent #AtheismPlus

As arguments go, it’s a swing and a miss. How many tweets I’ve written and how many followers I have has no real bearing on whether or not Atheismpluscrap’s conspiracy theories are reasonable, nor does it have any bearing on the truth of any of my comments. It’s a bog-standard argument from popularity fallacy, and the sort of thing that, as a skeptic and atheist, I’m embarrassed to see from another atheist.

But I don’t doubt that Atheismpluscrap is an atheist–even though by their standards, I should. After all, Atheismpluscrap argues with atheists, tweets obsessively about atheism plus, and even compliments theists! By their own reasoning, we should assume that Atheismpluscrap is a mole out to make atheists look bad by slinging around words like “fascism” and “cunt” in order to make atheists look hateful and stupid.

But Atheismpluscrap is not good at reasoning, which is why we don’t come to that conclusion. Instead, we use the principle of parsimony to accept their word regarding religious belief, and recognize that there’s nothing preventing an atheist from being that kind of hateful twit. Atheismpluscrap is on Team Atheist, embarrassing though that may be, and that’s something everyone else on Team Atheist has to deal with.

Why, it’s almost enough for a group of team members to split off and form their own team.

Credulous Books by Skeptics

I’ve been doing some reading here and there, first to prepare for our awesome GenCon presentations, and then to get ready for the upcoming academic year. And in each case, some of the reading I’ve been doing has forced my palm to meet my face.

First, as part of the last surge of brainstorming-and-research phase for our presentation on conspiracy theories, I read chapters from The Skeptic’s Guide to Conspiracy Theories. It’s an entertaining book, written as a critical examination of conspiracy nuttery with “penned-in” annotations by a conspiracy theorist caricature, or possibly just Alex Jones. Where the book really lost me, though, was in the chapter on the JFK assassination. In it, the author claims that the “magic bullet” theory–that a single bullet hit Kennedy, zig-zagged through the air, then hit Connally in at least two places, emerging almost unscathed–is an aspect of the official story. He also notes a litany of “suspicious” deaths that occurred to people peripherally involved with the assassination, and based on these traits assigned the JFK assassination conspiracy theory a fairly high degree of plausibility.

Now, I’ll admit that as far as conspiracy theories go, the JFK assassination is firmly ensconced on the more plausible end of the spectrum. In fact, Don and I put together this graphic of conspiracy theories that we didn’t get to use in the talk, and you can see that we were generally pretty favorable to the JFK assassination buffs.
Legend to be printed in a future post.
See, JFK is right there in the “pretty darn significant” and “only somewhat batshit insane” section of the graph. And even that’s largely because the secret has somehow been kept for over fifty years, and the conspiracies get pretty crazy pretty quickly. But it’s not hard to imagine, what with his Communist sympathies, that maybe Oswald was put up to it, or that Jack Ruby was working for the mob, or something along those lines.

That being said, the whole “magic bullet” thing smacks of not doing the research. The “magic bullet” is not a feature of the official story, but an anomaly seized-upon by the conspiracy theorists, based entirely on a misunderstanding of how Kennedy and Connally were seated in the car. When you account for the actual seating arrangement, with Connally sitting somewhat inboard and Kennedy elevated, the path of the “magic bullet” suddenly becomes a fairly straight-line path expected by an average bullet. And, of course, the “unscathed” bit is based on one misleading photo of the bullet; other photos show that it was all smushed in on one side and kind of twisted.

So that soured me on Cook’s book; if he could miss that bit of research–something that’s easily found in any number of sources, from TV specials to Vincent Bugliosi’s encyclopedia of the JFK assassination, Reclaiming History, then what else might he have missed? I own the book, so I suspect that I’ll come back to it eventually–everyone makes mistakes after all–but it was a little disheartening to see a book with “skeptic” right there in the title, and one of the few readily available skeptical guides on conspiracy theories, make such an appeal to credulity.

Fast-forward a few days, and my wife was looking to round out an Amazon order to get the free shipping. A book called Amazing…But False! had been floating around my “saved items” section of the Amazon cart for a year or three, and had recently dropped below $7. It seemed like exactly what I’d need for examples to stimulate critical thinking skills–there’s a foreword by James Randi!–and so forth, so I had her add it.

The book arrived today, and I started flipping through, reading items here and there. Most of them have been pretty good, although a lot of them were already pretty familiar. I was intrigued by one teased on the back of the book–“All Crop Circles are Hoaxes”–but it was presented there under the “True or False” header. The article was a whole lot less ambiguous, unfortunately. Author David Diefendorf gives a decent overview of the crop circle phenomenon, but cites “some experts” claiming they’ve been around for hundreds of years, and goes on to make a distinction between “true crop circles” and hoaxes. “There is a long list of characteristics that make it unlikely if not impossible for the ‘natural’ crop circles to have been fabricated by humans,” he says, then lists eight bullet-pointed traits of “genuine” crop circles that seem an awful lot like credulously repeating believers’ anomaly-hunting. Among the reasons are that “the leaves and stems of the plants manipulated in genuine crop circles are woven together in a fashion so intricate as to be impossible for pranksters to duplicate” and “of the legions of crop circles scattered all over the world, many are far too complex in design to have been fabricated by pranksters.” Most of them are like that: anomalies that make it “impossible” for any human to have crafted them. As St. Peter said, “You’re right, no human being could stack books like this.”

It’s disheartening to see such a failure of skepticism in the face of typical woo-woo tactics, but it’s especially galling in a book endorsed by James Randi.

I guess the takeaway is the same one that one should get from Snopes’s “Lost Legends” page: you can’t believe everything you read, even from otherwise skeptical sources. Unfortunately, it puts me in the position of having to independently research every entry before I present it to anyone else.

Sarah Palin is Fucking Retarded

I’ve mentioned before that when I was a kid, riding in the car with my parents, they were almost always listening to talk radio. And talk radio, as you probably know, is almost always conservative. My dad listened to Rush Limbaugh, which didn’t leave much of an impression on me (I remember the theme song and some parodies, and a bit about how left-handed people were breastfed too much, which I later realized must have actually been about left-wingers). I rode with my mom more frequently, so I remember more of the frequent shows. One, the only one I ever actually enjoyed, was Dr. Dean Edell’s show. He’s an actual medical doctor who talks straight and gives good advice and is generally awesome. The other was Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

I listened to a lot of Dr. Laura as a kid. I remember all of the “I am my kid’s mom/dad” calls; I remember all her advice that sometimes seemed reasonable and spot-on and other times seemed ridiculous and reality-challenged. I know that she’s a doctor of physiology, not anything relevant to giving advice, she’s not much of a fan of “shacking up” or divorce (some irony there) or gay people, she generally sides against men (unless she thinks the woman in a situation is somehow impure) and that she’s generally pretty prudish and puritanical for someone who has some topless pictures floating around. Finding the letter to Dr. Laura that circulated around the Internet several years back and was adapted into a West Wing scene was a major step in getting over my homophobia (and, frankly, my religion, since prior to that my main use for the Bible was condemning homosexuality).

So, when Dr. Laura had her latest bigoted flame-out recently, I can’t say I was either surprised or disappointed. In fact, the only potentially surprising thing is that this particular instance was racism instead of homophobia.

For those who have somehow avoided the latest non-story in the news cycle, here’s the scoop: On August 10th, Schlessinger took a call from a black woman named Jade who was offended by racially insensitive comments made by her white husband’s family, which her husband remained silent about. Here’s the full call:
http://cloudfront.mediamatters.org/static/flash/player.swf
So, Schlessinger’s immediate reaction was to suggest that Jade was just being hypersensitive, so she asked for an example. The caller said they had a neighbor who comes over and says things like “how do you black people like doin’ this” and so forth. Schlessinger immediately says that she doesn’t think such comments are racist.

Let me pause here and suggest that “you people” is probably the most bigotry-infused phrase in the English language. It suggests that the person you’re talking to is not an individual, but a member of some larger collective who are all the same–as the rest of this neighbor’s relayed comment suggests he thinks. “You black people” don’t all like the same things or do things the same way, because they’re individuals. The whole edifice of bigotry is built on treating people like they’re not individual people.

Schlessinger continues, suggesting that a lot of black people voted for Barack Obama just because he was half-black, not because of his politics (Dear Dr. Laura: without contradicting yourself, please explain how Obama defeated Alan Keyes in his 2004 Senate race). “It was a black thing. You gotta know that. That’s not a surprise.” She then proceeded to make a “white men can’t jump” joke regarding her black bodyguard, and the caller asked “what about the n-word?” Schlessinger then says that “black guys use the word all the time.” And then Schlessinger, who is not a black guy, says it three times. She trots out the usual racist faux-confusion regarding the word: “I don’t get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing; but when black people say it, it’s affectionate. It’s very confusing.”

No, it’s not very confusing. The “n-word” has a lot of baggage, because for so long it was used by white people to disparage black people. It’s a symbol of black oppression. The movement among blacks to use the word themselves has been a reclaiming of that symbol, a way of demonstrating that the word doesn’t have the power to keep them down, that they can rob it of its oppressive connotations. But we are not yet to the point where a white person can throw it around without invoking those negative connotations. White people still have a privileged position, and racism–institutional, personal, casual, and political–still affects blacks. When that’s no longer the case, maybe the term will become harmless enough that white people can just throw it around.

Moreover, that some black people use the word does not suggest that all black people are comfortable with the word being used. Making that assumption is, once again, seeing black people as some kind of hive mind where they all think the same because they all have similar amounts of melanin in their skin. Which is racism.

After a commercial break, Schlessinger continues talking over Jade in order to trot out her false equivalency canard, complain about how racism should be over because we elected a black guy, and to accuse Jade of having a chip on her shoulder. After saying the n-word four more times, she then complains that she can’t finish a sentence, something she’s failed to allow her caller to do repeatedly–note that she hasn’t addressed the original fucking question yet at all, she’s just used the caller as a springboard to complain about how black people can’t just sit down and shut up and be happy that they got one of their own into the White House.

Ah, yes, Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where a black guy is President, and that’ll be enough.”

Schlessinger then tells Jade not to take her out of context, not to “NAACP” her (whatever the fuck that means), and hangs up. She then says “if you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race.”

She then goes off on how, if you belong to a minority, people are going to ask you what that minority thinks about things. Being a woman who converted to Judaism, I would think that Schlessinger would have some kind of handle on the problem with that kind of thinking, but about the closest she comes to understanding it is “Of course there isn’t a one-think per se. But in general there’s ‘think.'” Okay, perhaps that’s true with, say, a religion, which has doctrines and dogmas that everyone is supposed to believe–not all Catholics will share the same position on any given issue, but there may indeed be an “official Catholic position” on that issue–but it’s not even slightly true when you’re talking about race or gender or other inborn traits. There is no black dogma. There is no doctrine of womanhood. There is no reason to expect that all, or even a majority, of people in non-religious minorities will think the same thing about any topic. And the assumption that they would is bigotry.

Schlessinger proceeds to say the n-word four more times, then attempts to excuse it by saying that it’s okay because she didn’t call anyone that. She was just using the word as a word, nothing wrong with that at all. I can think of a particular k-word and c-word that I might throw around, and I’m sure someone like Laura Schlessinger would have absolutely no problem with that.

Her rant meanders on into conspiracy mongering and more complaining about how Obama’s election should mean that all black people need to shut up about racism, not in so many words.

So, Schlessinger took a bunch of flak for her remarks and gave a typical notpology the next day. As they did in 2000 after her homophobic screeds, some people suggested boycotting her sponsors, and specifically called for the sponsors to demonstrate whether or not they endorsed her statements. At least one, General Motors, dropped her show in the aftermath. Schlessinger then announced on Larry King’s show a few days later that she was going to quit radio. Her reason?

SCHLESSINGER: The reason is: I want to regain my First Amendment rights. I want to be able to say what’s on my mind, and in my heart, what I think is helpful and useful without somebody getting angry, some special interest group deciding this is a time to silence a voice of dissent, and attack affiliates and attack sponsors.

[…]

SCHLESSINGER: You know, when I started in radio, if you said something somebody didn’t agree with and they didn’t like, they argued with you. Now, they try to silence you. They try to wipe out your ability to earn a living and to have your job. They go after affiliates. They send threats to sponsors.

KING: That’s their right, too.

SCHLESSINGER: Yes, but I don’t hatch the right to say what I need to say. My First Amendment rights have been usurped by angry, hateful groups who don’t want to debate. They want to eliminate.

Ah, yes, her First Amendment rights have been violated, so she’s going to quit. I’m a big fan of the First Amendment, and that’s why I know what it says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Also, certain people are entitled to a national radio talk show, and the people have no right to hold those people accountable for their speech.” Those Founding Fathers, always looking ahead.

The First Amendment is pretty damn clear on how it applies. It’s very straightforward, and yet conservatives in particular seem to have a lot of trouble understanding what it means. It says that government isn’t allowed to make laws impinging on free speech. Nowhere in this debacle has government done anything. Schlessinger’s rights remain intact. What she wants, and what she can’t have, is for her speech rights to trump other people’s speech rights. She wants to be able to speak without consequence, but the beautiful brilliance of the First Amendment is that it guarantees everyone the same right to speak freely. Moreover, it gives everyone the right to assemble and speak freely, including speaking to the sponsors of radio talk shows. Schlessinger is entitled to speak her mind; what she is not entitled to is a platform from which to do that. She has that platform only so long as her sponsors continue paying for it. If the sponsors decide that she’s no longer profitable, whether it’s because she’s become irrelevant or because her association with them is bad PR, then it’s well within their right to stop giving her money. And the sponsors wouldn’t know she was bad PR if the public wasn’t relating their bad feelings to them.

So, what Schlessinger really has a problem with is free speech, free assembly, and the free market. Why do conservatives hate our freedoms?

But honestly, I never would have commented on this idiocy if noted Constitutional scholar Sarah Palin hadn’t chimed in:
I tried reading her Facebook essay, but I just couldn't do it.
Volumes could be written about the insensitive idiocy it’d take to use the words “reload” and “shackles” in the context of white-on-black racism. But I’m going to ignore that to hit on the Constitutional point. Activists trying to hold Schlessinger responsible for what she says are not “Constitutional obstructionists,” and at no point in this did Schlessinger’s First Amendment rights cease “2exist.” In fact, given how much exposure she’s had because of this, she’s been able to exercise those rights more often and to a wider audience than she has in about a decade.

Keep in mind that this woman was the Governor of a state for a short time, and was fairly close to being Vice President of the United States. And she doesn’t understand the most basic points of the First Amendment.

But the real irony is in her obvious hypocrisy. After a tiff with David Letterman over some jokes that she found “offensive” and “contribut[ing] to some of the problems we have in society,” she took umbrage with Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. See, Rahm called the plans of a group of liberals “fucking retarded,” and Palin’s youngest son has Down Syndrome. She said that Emanuel’s remarks were “unacceptable” and “heartbreaking” and called for the President to “eliminate” him (presumably by firing, and not firing squad). In fact, in the full quote, Palin even draws a parallel to another kind of situation that we would find appalling:

Just as we’d be appalled if any public figure of Rahm’s stature ever used the “N-word” or other such inappropriate language, Rahm’s slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities – and the people who love them – is unacceptable, and it’s heartbreaking.

Yes, surely if a public figure as famous as a one-time Illinois Congressman and White House Chief of Staff, someone with the combined fame of Danny Davis and Evelyn Lieberman, used the “N-word,” we would all be terribly appalled! Why, we’d probably even ask for them to be fired!

Or not. Instead we’d defend them, call them “powerful” and “effective,” and chastize those who criticize them and call for their termination. Clearly, former Governor Palin’s views have changed on the subject, and that’s understandable. We all change our minds now and again. So I’m sure, Mrs. Palin being a person of consistent, steadfast values, that she would have no problem with people throwing around those terms which she once found “appalling.”

So throw off the shackles, America, and show just how powerful and effective you are in defying the Constitutional obstructionists in our mollycoddled society. Say it loud and proud, knowing that the former Governor of Alaska supports your Constitutionally-secured right to say that Sarah Palin is fucking retarded!

Woo Triage

I commented on the recent thing at the Universe blog, but I think the author’s comments in the section where my post never quite materialized warrant some additional commentary, spinning off into something a little more in-depth. I have two fairly distinct things to say with regard to the matter, so in the interest of actually finishing a post in a timely fashion, I’m writing this as a two-post series. Let’s begin!

First, the sour grapes:

I don’t want to seem like I’m backtracking (and I’m very sorry to have typecast Skeptics as fuddy-duddies), but it seems I’ve made too broad an argument about something specific. […] I hate to say that the authoritarian, joyless zeal with which you’ve taken to shredding my point of view is, in effect, exactly what I’m talking about.

Yeah, far be it from a group that you’ve painted negatively with a common, obnoxious, tiresome stereotype to respond to that stereotype with some degree of authority (i.e., being relatively sure of what we’re talking about) and without joy. I suppose we should append a little smiley emoticon every time we sigh, roll our eyes, and start drafting the usual response to inane comments like ‘you just want to tear things down’ and ‘what’s the harm of UFO belief’. What if I said that women make terrible scientists and science fiction authors because they’re too emotional and romantic and not analytical enough? Or that a woman can’t be President because she’ll make the White House pink and bomb someone every 28 days? I wonder if debunking those common, inane canards would make you particularly joyful.

:D

Of course, I tried really hard to infuse my response with joy and humility and giving-the-benefit-of-the-doubt (it’s hard to noun that verb), but it never got out of moderation. Further, the first video in your post–the one which sparks your criticism of skeptics–is apparently presented to criticize Bill Nye the Science Guy. Because as everyone knows, no one is more joyless or authoritarian a mere “debunker” as Bill Nye the Science Guy. And maybe it’s just that my heart is shriveled to a third of its normal size due to years of cynical debunking, but I thought Treppenwitz and Skeptical Ginger also tried to inject some joy and humility into their posts. But I suppose it’s easier to broadly dismiss anything that doesn’t fit your preconceived bias than to concede any point. “I’m sorry for what I said, but this proves that what I said was right” is not an apology.

:D

On to the more substantive points:

In any case, I’m not speaking to any political form of pseudoscience — excuse me, in my bubble, I forget this is a charged subject. Anti global warming “science,” the dinosaurs-and-humans-together stuff, health quackery: clearly a worthy cause for debunking of all kinds.

I guess this may be a place where the sort of hardcore skepticism we typically engage in can seem unwarranted and off-putting. If you divide the woo-world into “harmful woo” and “harmless woo,” then using the same approach for both sets might indeed seem over-the-top.

But skeptics on the whole, I think, don’t make that distinction–at least, not with regard to arguing against it. It’s the same question/criticism that atheists face: why go after the liberal religious people when they’re mostly on our side? In both situations, the answer is basically the same. A person’s beliefs do not exist in a vacuum. The beliefs we hold–and the way we arrived at those beliefs–affect the other things we’re willing to accept and the actions we take. If people could just hold compartmentalized beliefs that had no real effects, then we’d have no real impetus to argue against them.

But that’s not the case. You needn’t look any farther than, say, Mike Adams to see how irrational beliefs beget irrational beliefs. I don’t know enough about Mike to know what beliefs or system for accepting beliefs kicked the whole thing off, but if I had to guess I’d say that his belief in the healing power of alternative medicine led to his rejection of science-based medicine, which led to his distrust of the pharmeceutical industry, which led to his distrust of the government, which is why he thinks 9/11 was an inside job. On one hand, it’s hard to see how “these herbs made my cold go away” can lead to “WTC 7 must have been a controlled demolition,” but the intermediate steps are incremental.

Mike’s an extreme example, sure. And I freely admit that my impression here is based on anecdotes rather than data. But I imagine it’d be the experience of most skeptics that crank magnetism is a strong force indeed: religious fundamentalists seem more likely to believe in possession and witchcraft, newage crystal enthusiasts seem more likely to believe in alternative energy medicine and psychics, and so forth. I’d be interested in seeing a rigorous study done, but I’m not aware of any.

See, it’s not that people just have some irrational belief, it’s that the irrational belief is emblematic of larger potential problems. People have standards for what beliefs they’re willing to accept and what ideas they’re willing to entertain. For skeptics, these standards are set by science and evidence; for believers of various stripes, the standards are set by the tenets of their religious beliefs or the details of their conspiracy narratives, and so forth. The beliefs–and thus, the standards which inform those beliefs–inform how the people who hold them will act, think, worry, vote, and otherwise affect other people around them.

And the effects range from the trivial (Bigfoot enthusiasts buying books on Cryptozoology, Spiritualists buying Ouija Boards) to the wantonly destructive (parents killing their children through religious-based medical neglect, governments condemning people to death through HIV/AIDS denial). No one denies that, which is why you’re more likely to find outrage over Jenny McCarthy than Jeff Meldrum.

But how much does a belief or belief system have to impinge on other people’s rights and well-being before it warrants debunking? Does it need to be death, as in the case of antivaxxers and HIV/AIDS denialists? Does it need to be widespread impending catastrophe, in the case of climate change denialists and GMO fearmongerS? You see no problem, apparently, with the New-Agers and the cryptozoologists; is it similarly unproblematic when legislators waste time and resources on protecting Bigfoot or investigating remote viewing? How much of my tax money has to go to pseudoscience and quackery before I have legitimate cause to be upset?

One of my biggest problems with all kinds of woo-woo is that it has this tendency to completely invert people’s priorities by providing them with imaginary worries and concerns that supersede real worries and concerns. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists become more concerned with remaining pure and sinless than with treating their life-threatening diseases; religious fundamentalists become more concerned with the coming Apocalypse than with helping create peace in the Middle East or fight climate change; conspiracy nuts become so fearful and distrustful of the secret plots of their governments that they overlook real harm that the governments are doing under the light of day. One of the best examples I can provide personally comes from Debra, the conspiracy theorist whose belief in a vague Satanic Illuminati plot to kill most of humanity and enslave the rest, led her to stockpile canned goods, panic over being potentially followed by Men in Black, and seek out truth in comic books and satirical videos. Meanwhile, she had a fairly young son, and had altered her plans of travel and family vacations and entertainment so that she could instead spend the money on supplies for when things got bad.

On one hand, the only people she’s harming are herself and her family, so why should I care? It’s her money, and she can do with it as she pleases, and it’s really no skin off my nose. What purpose is served by arguing against her beliefs if they don’t harm me?

And on the more relevant hand, why wouldn’t I care? Here’s a relatively normal, relatively healthy woman whose irrational beliefs have caused her to make major alterations to her life in order to prepare for a coming catastrophe that will never actually come. In doing so, she misses out on time with her family and causes herself all manner of considerable, completely unnecessary fear and worry. What kept hitting me, over and over in the conversation with Debra, was how tragic her story was. I felt really sad for her, and angry at the Alex Joneses and Jim Marrses who had actively harmed her life by spreading these false beliefs. I argued with her not so I could prove that I was right, but so that I could convince her to seek professional help and maybe have more time to spend with her son than with the phantom enforcers of the Illuminati. I argued with her not because her beliefs harmed me, but because they harmed her.

This is why we argue against even harmless woo: because it so rarely is. Even if it isn’t influencing legislation or policy, even if it’s not killing people or speeding along environmental catastrophe, it’s still affecting people’s lives and doing so in a negative fashion. I “debunk” because I think people’s lives are generally better if they’re employing critical thinking and scientific reasoning. I “debunk” so that I can help people stop living and thinking according to the dictates of fictional narratives and start living in the real world. “Debunking,” as I said in my comment, is a first step–and a necessary one–in the general process of education. And education, as far as I’m concerned, rarely needs justification.

:)

Birds of a Feather

So, by now you’ve all heard about the guys who brought guns, including an assault rifle, to a public event held by the President, ostensibly to exercise their right to bear arms. I could quibble about spheres of appropriateness–seems like bringing guns to a political event with the President could be curtailed quite justifiably under the law–but I don’t have to. Apparently, part of the event was staged by (surprise, surprise) some guy who supported and defended an anti-government militia in the ’90s. He’s a 9/11 conspiracist, thinks Waco was some kind of government fabrication, and designed the cuckoobananas “Ron Paul rEVOLution” logo. So, you know, an all-around nut.

Well, I managed to catch a bit of video from that event, and happened to notice a big banner in the back reading “VACCINES = POISON.” It’s interesting to see how insanity is apparently magnetic. It’s a nice reminder that irrational beliefs often tend to beget more irrational beliefs. There are many different pathways that one can take to any belief, but when the belief is unsupported by facts, evidence, or reason, it seems like the paths are much more numerous and intertwined. Most antivaxxers seem to have arrived at that point through fearmongering and arguments from ignorance and false authority, but some arrive there through acceptance of anti-science or anti-medicine positions, others arrive there through conspiracy theories and anti-government ideologies, others still arrive through religious convictions.

Following reason, science, and evidence is difficult, but it leads you on paths that converge asymptotically on stable answers. Following pseudoscience and unreason can take you absolutely anywhere, and the vast majority of the destinations are completely wrong.

But I guess at least you’ll have company there.

Conspiritorial Thinkings

It's times like this that I wish Futurama video clips were more readily available.I’m working on a project for an independent study, and I’m writing a bit on conspiracy theories. For some reason, though it’s a rich mine for exercising skepticism, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of overlap between the scientific/skeptical blogs I usually frequent and the good conspiracy debunking sites. I’m curious as to why that is, though I suspect that it’s because debunking some of the more popular conspiracy theories requires (or at least benefits from) detailed knowledge of information that falls outside the purview of most science bloggers.

So the science blogs often stick with what they know: Phil Plait tackles the Moon Hoax theorists and UFO folks, PZ goes after the “Big Science” nuttiness, Orac tackles the “Big Pharma” nuts, antivaccination activists, and Holocaust deniers, and so forth. We go after what’s falls near or within our particular expertise, and that’s understandable.

But what of the stuff that falls outside our collective scientific expertise? What of the Kennedy assassination, or the Illuminati, or the death of Paul McCartney? Sure, there are historians and so forth to tackle those, but it seems like the skeptical community could do a bit more to promote reason in those categories.

Even without having the requisite historical knowledge, there are things we can tackle about conspiracies in general–the same kinds of fallacies and errors in thought that we deal with in other areas. For instance:

  • Arguments from ignorance/personal incredulity: Like various arguments for dualism, creationism, and other woo, much of what I’ve heard from conspiracy theorists rests on things that are “impossible”–it’s impossible to travel safely through the Van Allen Belt, Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t have fired three shots from his rifle in such a short time, airplane crashes couldn’t possibly cause the twin towers to fall the way they did, and so on. We’re rarely told how this standard of possibility was developed, and it often boils down to “well, it’d be really hard to believe that,” which is not any kind of evidence. Regardless, the claim that a thing is impossible requires some justification of its own, and even such a demonstration would not be evidence for an alternative hypothesis.
  • Elevation of Eyewitness Evidence: This is the conspiracy equivalent of the premium that alties and antivaxers put on anecdotal evidence. If someone claims to have seen strange, impossibly fast, lighted triangular ships in the sky, then we must take their claims at face value and count them as evidence for alien spacecraft. If someone claims that they heard explosions at Ground Zero, then it’s clear evidence that 9/11 was a staged demolition. No attention whatsoever is given to human error; to the conspiracy theorist, eyewitnesses are apparently immune to faulty or false memories, optical illusions, pareidolia, and being mistaken. No attention is given to the witness’s expertise–if the layman says he saw molten steel at the bottom of a pit at Ground Zero, then it certainly must have been steel and not any of a number of other metals or other substances found in office buildings with lower melting points, it must have been steel. Conspiracy theorists often attach a perfection to the testimony of eyewitnesses that is not warranted when you consider the realities of memory and perception. This basic truth is known to the police and others in law enforcement, yet somehow the myth of the unimpeachable witness persists in conspiracy theories.
  • Cherry-picking: Which leads directly to the next point, cherry-picking the data. Conspiracy theorists tend to latch onto the one bit of evidence that supports their conjecture, even if the vast majority of similar evidence opposes them. If hundreds of eyewitnesses said they saw a passenger jet hit the Pentagon, and a handful say they saw a smaller plane, the conspiracy theorists will often ignore the vast majority in favor of the dissenting view. As with the point about eyewitness testimony, expertise doesn’t even come into consideration; the majority could consist primarily of air traffic controllers, pilots, and military personnel who were all close to the incident, while the minority could be civilians who were parked blocks away, but such considerations never enter into the picture. The same standards apply to expert testimony and other evidence: ninety-nine percent of the scientific community may agree that thimerosal does not play a role in causing autism; the conspiracy theorists will find the one doctor or dentist or undergraduate in biology who claims that it does, and will ignore all the dissenting evidence.
  • Argument by Question: Something I often come across when arguing with or otherwise encountering conspiracy theorists is the claim that there are “unanswered questions” or that they aren’t proposing an alternate theory, they’re “just asking questions.” A 9/11 nut who I’ve repeatedly debated took this tactic repeatedly, and I heard Joe Rogan pull it in a moon hoax debate with Phil Plait. The theorist will ask a variety of leading, loaded questions designed to imply a particular alternate narrative, then will act as if pointing out apparent anomalies with and questioning the “official” story is sufficient to support their alternative. It’s very similar to the tactics of Creationists–attempt to poke holes in the existing theory, then act as though doing so supports your particular alternative (a false dilemma). This becomes a burden of proof issue (see below), since their theory would still require positive evidence to support it, even if the “official” theory were completely discredited.
    This tactic has the additional benefit of providing a handy excuse for not defending their theory against criticism or questions. The conspiracist can step back and say “I’m just asking questions/playing devil’s advocate.” Naturally, the point of playing devil’s advocate is to propose a counterargument, which does require support. Otherwise, you’re not doing any good by playing devil’s advocate.
  • Burden of proof: Conspiracists generally do not recognize that their alternative position requires its own proof. Furthermore, they employ uneven standards of evidence. If one is to propose that there was a second gunman on the grassy knoll, then one must provide some evidence for that claim. Evidence that Oswald was the sole gunman, from the bullets to the computer simulations, can be largely handwaved away, since it would have been “impossible” for him to fire so many shots and leave the book depository in such a short time, and it would have been “impossible” for the bullet to take its trajectory through Kennedy and Connelly. Clearly this is damning for the “official” story. Meanwhile, the “evidence” to support the second gunman comes in the form of a sound on the Zapruder tape that may have been a gunshot, or may have been an echo, or may have been a car backfiring, or may have been a flaw in the audio, and an alleged eyewitness report after the fact. On this shaky foundation, the conspiracists invent a person, another gun, and thereafter, an assassination plot with roots deep in the heart of the federal government.
    It’s generally easy to see that these large conspiracies eventually become unwieldy, requiring more and more people and more and more planning and more and more sheer luck to work as the ad hoc hypotheses add up; what conspiracists often fail to understand, though, is that these stories then require more and more positive and specific evidence to support them.
  • Ad hoc hypotheses: I think, when people think about conspiracy kooks, this is what really comes to mind: rationalizing away any evidence or alternate explanations. I don’t know how many conspiracists include this sort of thing as a part of their theories; it seems more of a defensive element, brought about by desperation and attempts to shore up a narrative that is ultimately full of holes. Evidence for the “official” story was planted, fabricated, or otherwise faked; eyewitnesses and experts who contradict the conspiracy story are “in on it” or “paid off” or otherwise impeached. Ad hocking ultimately ends up bloating the conspiracy story and making it appear less like a legitimate alternative and more like a paranoid hodgepodge.

There’s more, I’m sure, and I have a feeling that I’ll revisit this topic. This started out as a request for links to good sites giving debunkings (general or specific) of various conspiracy theories, and somehow it ended up getting a little out of hand.
That being said, anyone know any good sites debunking general or specific conspiracy theories? I’m familiar with all the 9/11 debunking sites, but outside of that giant Bugliosi book, for instance, I’m not sure where I’d go for reliable information on the Kennedy assassination. Any advice?