Slow Clap

I started a post recently building off a myth that Ben Radford perpetuated in a recent hilariously terrible screed about (straw-)feminists, but it’s in need of some editing and revising and thinking whether it’s even a good idea before I actually post it.

But then he wrote this bit of inanity, complete with bad photoshop, elevating his rhetorical style to the level of “bad college newspaper satire.” And I scarcely know where to begin.

I think my favorite part is the dig at the fact that PZ Myers hasn’t published a book yet. There’s a relevant criticism in the digital age. Or any age, really, since “publishing a book” doesn’t say anything about…well, anything. Except one’s ability to convince a publisher that they’re worth taking a risk on, and in the digital age, even that’s a diminishing factor.

Comparing peer-reviewed publication citations provides greater hilarity. Especially since BA-in-psychology-cryptid-expert Radford makes digs at PZ’s “writing outside of his field [of biology]”, and being “once known for his work as a biologist.”

If you’re not inclined to read through Radford’s attempt at humor (hint: it’s worse than his poetry), here’s the tl;dr: PZ strawmanned me!

No, seriously, that’s it. Radford made nearly 800 words out of an accusation that PZ strawmanned him. It’s a shame that, in the whole effort, he never actually said what PZ was supposedly strawmanning.

Look, here’s a bit of Arguing 102 for the would-be skeptics and internet debaters out there: it’s awesome that you found a list of fallacies on some website someplace, and you’re so happy that you’re learning all the Latin names and everything. And you totally understand what a straw man argument is and why it’s a fallacy and now you’re seeing just how common they are. In fact, maybe someone crafted a straw man argument in a conversation with you and you noticed it and furiously went a-typing away at your keyboard.

Here’s the thing: there’s a productive way to go about responding to someone’s straw man version of your argument, and a very unproductive way. First, the unproductive way:

“You strawmanned me! That’s a strawman!”

Also, the very unproductive way: “You strawmanned me!” x 258.

The productive way is to go beyond the accusation. The easiest way to do this is to quote your opponent’s straw man argument and either restate your original argument, quote it, or link back to it. Better still is to do that and then explain how your opponent distorted your argument, or why their response failed to address your actual points. That follow-through is actually important; it’s what separates the people who legitimately recognize fallacious reasoning and can explain what’s wrong with it (and thus help make their own arguments look even better) from the people who just learned the term online and don’t really understand the argumentation process, and the people who are using the term as a way to dodge legitimate criticism. Such people–both groups–are fairly common online.

As for Ben Radford, maybe someday he’ll get the hang of this skeptical argumentation and writing stuff.

Flush the Movement

Natalie Reed’s most recent post is must reading. Please do.

I’m writing this here because it’d be derailing if I wrote it in the comments there. So, yeah.

You may recall that I’ve previously expressed some of my problems with movements, and even with the very notion of a “movement” inasmuch as it implies directed motion toward some single common goal. There are multiple goals within atheism and skepticism, and there are also multiple myopic people trying to claim that some of those goals are illegitimate.

But then, I look at the arguments I’ve had with asshats on Twitter, I look at my own beefs with the “movement,” I look at the concerns about being “outed” that led to my switch to WordPress and my attempt to build some kind of retroactive anonymity, and I read Natalie’s post and feel like a giant fucking idiot. I feel like the things I’ve seen as problems, the worries that have kept me up nights and sent me scrambling to lock down my blog or watch what I say in different venues, as problems that people without my tremendous level of privilege dream of having.

Being “outed” to me means worrying about the integrity and stability of my job for a whopping couple of years until increased job security sets in. It means worrying about discomfort in a close-knit community that I already have very little contact with outside of idle chit-chat. It means worrying about awkward conversations with some family members about matters that, ultimately, don’t affect anyone’s lives because they’re centered around entities that don’t exist. It doesn’t mean being attacked for my appearance, it doesn’t mean losing my house or possessions, it doesn’t mean being ostracized for an integral part of my identity.

I’m lucky. I’m incredibly lucky. I’m playing the game of life on Easy with the Konami Code.

And that’s a hard lesson to learn, that by virtue of luck, you have an easier time than others. It’s far easier to buy into the just-world fallacy and believe that, if people have it rough, then it’s because they deserve it, or because they’ve brought it on themselves, or because it’s just the way things are. It’s hard to realize that you’ve benefited from a system that inhibits others. It’s hard to realize that the world is more complicated than “people get what they earn/deserve.”

But it also seems like it’d be a basic lesson learned by anyone applying skepticism to reality. A lesson I’ve learned, time and time again, is that reality is generally more complicated than you think. Reality is fractal. Zoom out or in, and there’s always some new level of detail, some new perspective, some new complication, that you haven’t accounted for. It’s part of why a scientific understanding of the universe is so full of wonder. Anti-science types will criticize science for its “reductionist” stance, “reducing” everything to mere aggregations of particles. But that’s not it at all, because those aggregations of particles are anything but “mere.” At every level of magnification there is something new and amazing to be fascinated by, something grand and beautiful to admire. Whether examining the patterns of cells in a tissue sample or the patterns of whorls in a fingerprint or the pattern of mineral deposits on a continent or the pattern of stars in a galaxy, there is fascination to be had and wonder to be felt and beauty to be seen. By closing yourself off to those other perspectives, your worldview lacks detail and nuance, lacks those sources of beauty and awe and interest.

But it appears that not all skeptics, not all atheists, not all science enthusiasts learn this lesson. I’ve long suspected that some people arrive at atheism or skepticism out of some kind of contrarianism. They see the silly shit that some people believe and reject it. They reject religion and Bigfoot and UFOs because those are the beliefs of “The Man,” of the majority, of the establishment. Man, they reject the establishment. They’ve seen the light, man. Take that far enough, and they reject the “establishment” account of what happened on 9/11 or “the man”‘s opinion that you have to pay taxes, and you get the Zeitgeist crowd. Take that in a different direction, without the tempering influence of science enthusiasm, and they might reject the “establishment” notions of medicine like the germ theory, and become like Bill Maher. Sprinkle in a bit of that black-and-white overly-simplistic worldview, and you get libertarians, who reject the idea that the system might be unfair, that life and civilization might be more complex than what’s portrayed in an Ayn Rand novel. And focus that rejection of “the man” and the “establishment” on the notion of “political correctness,” and suddenly you have MRAs and every other bunch of “I’m so persecuted” bigots that roam these here Internets (and elsewhere).

And friend, I’m not sure that there’s anything that’s easier to believe than that you’re a brave hero fighting against a grand conspiracy that is behind all of your problems, and that everyone who disagrees is either in on the conspiracy, or duped by it. It’s the DeAngelis-Novella Postulates, the underlying egotist worldview behind all conspiracy theories. I am the enlightened hero, my enemies are powerful and legion, and everyone else is a dupe who just hasn’t seen the light like I have.

That’s what I don’t understand about the people ranting over how they’ve been “silenced” by the “FTBullies,” or that “feminists” are sowing “misandry,” or that the “atheist scientists” are “expelling” Christians, or that “the Illuminati” are doing whatever nefarious things they like to do. The worldview is ultimately so simplistic that it falls apart on comparison with the complexities of reality. And as skeptics, isn’t that precisely the sort of thing we train ourselves and pride ourselves on debunking?

I guess that’s one more privilege afforded the majority: the ability to believe a comforting, simplistic, ego-stroking version of reality, to perceive the world through the tinted glasses of a persecuted minority while being neither, and to claim heroism while tilting at nonexistent windmills.

I realize this is all armchair psychology, which I’m doing from an office chair without a background in psychology. It’s almost certainly true that the real situation isn’t nearly as simple as what I’ve laid out, and that the MRAs and libertarians and Zeitgeistians and so forth that infest the atheist and skeptical “movements” are the result of far more diverse factors.

But I realize that, because I realize that the world is more complicated than “us” and “them,” than “good” and “evil,” than “baboons” and “slimepitters,” than “FTBullies” and “the silenced,” than “the Conspiracy” and “the Army of Light” and “the Sheeple.”

I just wish that were a more generally-understood lesson.

In their own words

I have seen tweets over the last few months from people vowing never to read FreethoughtBlogs because they heard that FreethoughtBlogs is purported to condone groupthink, and comments in response to various blog posts about FTB that seem to suggest PZ or others at FTB promote the silencing of dissent, or that they condone bullying or threats of banning toward dissenters, or that they believe that commenters would be unsafe because they feature this or that writer on the network. I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of divisiveness in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where bloggers — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unread, and I find that unfortunate.

People who read FreethoughtBlogs do not feel silenced or unwelcome, and that bears mentioning at least somewhere in all of these posts about supposed rampant groupthought and unnamed lists of certain bloggers “bullying” dissenting commenters, and the like. So much of that feels to me more like trolling and distasteful chat room banter, often pretty mean-spirited, especially when it is from just one or a few skeptics recounting disagreements they’ve had with writers who are eventually deemed as “controversialist,” and whom they feel should be not allowed to write for such blog networks going forward.


(Relevant source material)

Friendship

[Trigger warnings: rape, misogyny, terrible people]

You may be aware of the Rationalia affair, where poster and admin “Pappa” wondered:

Would it be immoral to rape a Skepchick?

Post by Pappa » Fri Jul 20, 2012 8:46 am

Not for sexual gratification or power or anything like that, just because they’re so annoying.

I’m really torn on this one. :dunno:

Given the recent climate, this post isn’t all that surprising. Rape “jokes” that don’t follow any kind of typical joke structure and aren’t funny? Check. Treating outspoken women (and Skepchicks in particular) like something less than human1? Check. People coming out of the woodwork to claim this is “out of context” and how dare the #FTBullies publicize this one post and demonize a whole group for condoning this sort of thing from a leader in their community, while remaining strangely silent on the actual thread? Check.

The one thing that weirds me out about the whole thing is a set of comments by Pappa’s supporters in the Pharyngula comment thread. Here are a couple by poster “comeatmebro,” which illustrate the thing I don’t understand. Comeatmebro says that Rationalia is a “close-knit…community,” and that Pappa is a “nice person,” that this statement was in bad taste but “is not characteristic of Pappa.” He cited much of this as reasons why more people on the Rationalia forums haven’t condemned Pappa’s comments.

And I just don’t get it. See, if one of my friends were going to say something as stupid, offensive, vile, hateful, and misogynist as what Pappa decided to post on a public forum, I would be the first in line to slap them upside the head (figuratively) and say “not cool, bro.” See, that’s what friends do. Being someone’s friend gives you the benefit of their company and association. It means they care what you have to say, they care about your opinions and what you think. But that also comes with a responsibility, the responsibility that belongs to all good friends, the responsibility of honesty. Friendship means looking out for each other, but that’s not just “if you ever get in a barfight, I’ve got your back” or “if you’re down on your luck, I’ll help you out,” or “if you ever lose your teeth when you’re out to dine, borrow mine.” It means that you’re there to protect them, even from their own mistakes, and help them, even if it’s to overcome their own faults. Being a good friend means being willing to pull your friends up short and tell them when they’re being an asshat.

You do this, in part, because you care about your friend, and you don’t want to see them hurting themselves or others. You do this, in part, because you know that a strong friendship is unlikely to break over one disagreement. You do this, in part, because you know they’ll listen to you more than others. You do this, in part, because you want the people you associate with to reflect well on you.

And when you shirk that responsibility, when you let your friend continue using homeopathy instead of real medicine/dating her obviously abusive boyfriend/making bad rape jokes on the Internet, eventually your friend is (hopefully) going to realize their mistake, and then they’ll ask you that question: why didn’t you tell me sooner? Why didn’t you warn them ahead of time that they were making a mistake? Why didn’t you tell them how they looked to everyone else? Why didn’t you say what no one else was brave enough to say to their face?

The answer is always the same: because you were being a bad friend.

Rationalia, your friend Pappa has a problem. His problem is that he thinks he’s joking. He thinks he can make comments about raping people and laugh it off as a joke. He thinks “annoying” may be a crime punishable with rape. He thinks it’s okay to double-down on this stuff and throw around ableist slurs. He’s shown that he doesn’t care how all this reflects on himself, or on all of you. Some of you are Pappa’s friend. It’s your responsibility to tell him what an ass he’s being, and how harmful it is. Harmful to himself, because you know2 that he doesn’t actually condone rape. Harmful to you, because your community’s silence looks like assent. Harmful to the culture at large, because this kind of speech going unchallenged acts as a cover for those who do think some people deserve rape, who do think rape’s a laughing matter, a trifle, a joke. You are shirking your responsibility. You are being bad friends.

Either you need to start being better friends to Pappa and save him from himself, or you need to stop being friends with Pappa, and save yourselves from him.


1. I think Pappa’s post implies that there are people–less annoying people, obviously–that it would be immoral to rape. I honestly can’t wrap my head around it.

2. You don’t know this. Sadly, rape is very common, and thus rapists are a lot more common than we think. And since most rapes are committed by friends, dates, or acquaintances, it’s fair to suppose that most rapists are generally thought to be “nice people.”

A Play in One Act

I posted this at Lousy Canuck, in response to the most recent entry in the harassment tragicomedy of errors, which only gets worse the more you learn. But because I’m easily impressed with my own cleverness, I decided to make it a blog post here, too. For posterity.


I like the logic of “damned if they do, damned if they don’t.” Imagine, if you will, the JREFstaurant.

MAITRE D’J: Welcome, sir, to the JREFstaurant.

PATRON: Thanks, I read some reviews and–

MAITRE D’J: Anything bad you’ve heard about our food is clearly the fault of some well-meaning food critics who are engaged in some distasteful cafeteria banter after they willingly ate their food and thought the price was too “steep.”

PATRON: What I read was actually pretty positive, except–

MAITRE D’J: Controversialist food bloggers, looking for better circulation! There has never been a report of food poisoning at the JREFstaurant!

PATRON 2: Wait a minute, I got food poisoning here last week! You helped me to the bathroom!

MAITRE D’J: I thought you just had the stomach flu. You didn’t think it was important at the time to say it was food poisoning.

PATRON: Didn’t I hear about a food poisoning case here a couple of months ago? They even made documented reports.

MAITRE D’J: Your table’s over there. I’m going into the back now, and you won’t see me for the rest of your meal.

[PATRON sits and reads the menu. WAITER enters to serve them]

WAITER: What would you like to order, sir?

PATRON: Actually, your menu doesn’t seem to have any food information on it. Just this long welcome note.

WAITER: I assure you, we have nineteen specially-prepared chefs in back to take care of your order.

PATRON: Yes, but if there’s no food on the menu, how do I know what to order?

WAITER: Putting food options on the menu might be a serious waste of time! Do you have any evidence that putting food options on the menu makes people more likely to order something?

PATRON: But all other restaurants do it.

WAITER: See, that’s just an argument from popularity. Surely you expect the JREFstaurant to have higher standards. Besides, what if we put these food options on the menu, and someone wants an item that’s slightly different? Or worse, what if they ordered the wrong thing?

PATRON: That doesn’t seem like it’s much of a problem.

WAITER: You’re just some kind of foodinazi! I mean, I’m not saying you’re a Nazi, but you know who puts food options on menus? Nazis.

PATRON: Okay…can I get a sandwich?

WAITER: Fine, I guess.

[WAITER leaves, and returns a few minutes later with a sandwich on a platter.]

WAITER: Your sandwich. Happy?

PATRON: Wait, what is this? Why does it smell so bad? [Picks up one of the bread slices] Is this what I think it is?

WAITER: It’s a sandwich, just like you ordered.

PATRON: It’s shit!

WAITER: What foul language!

PATRON: No, this is a shit sandwich. It’s dung on toast!

WAITER: Look, you ordered a sandwich. I gave you a sandwich. It’s got stuff between two slices of bread, therefore, a sandwich.

PATRON: But it’s a shit sandwich.

WAITER: Jeez, there’s just no pleasing you people!

FIN

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.

Failing Massively at Language

Every now and again, I see this group (or page or whatever the kids are calling them now) pop up in my Facebook feed: “Changing the meaning of FML to Feeling Much Love,” and I rub at the bridge of my nose and shake my head a bit. I’ve talked before about the problems inherent in trying to exert conscious control over language, and this situation highlights a bunch of those problems.

For the uninitiated, “FML” is Internet shorthand for “fuck my life,” and the term was popularized by the website FMyLife.com, where users submit amusing stories about unfortunate events in their lives. It serves much the same purpose for the Internet as similar sections in “Reader’s Digest” or “Seventeen” magazines (shut up, yes, I’ve read “Seventeen”). Know Your Meme tracks the origin of the initialism to 2009, when FMyLife started as the English-language version of French website Vie de Merde, and popularity peaked shortly thereafter. The F My Life book was published in mid-2009, representing what appears to be the last spike in popularity before a very long downward slope that has largely plateaued.

So, there’s your first problem: the time to attempt to change the meaning of this phrase was two years ago, when it was actually popular and not just part of the background noise of the Internet, the out-of-vogue memes that make up our online vernacular. Going after “FML” now is a little like starting a campaign to make “all your base are belong to us” into a campaign to promote community softball programs or “ate my balls” into a meatball advertisement. The ship has largely sailed, and any attempt to address the term has to clear the hurdle of making the term relevant again.

The second is a matter of bottom-up vs. top-down engineering. The initialism “FML” developed from the “F My Life” phrase, which itself developed as a catch-all term for things that people actually say. Know Your Meme has a clip from “Superbad” where the phrase is uttered, but precursors like “fuck me” or “why me?” and the like are easy to find. Ultimately, “FML” developed naturally out of things people actually say, and moreover, a feeling people actually have. It’s a very natural, bottom-up development of a new term.

Trying to redefine the initialism is a top-down attempt at imposing control. It’s trying to impose a new meaning over something that developed naturally, which puts it in several difficult positions. For one, it’s awkward: “Fuck my life” is a full sentence, “feeling much love” is a verb phrase, and a weirdly-concocted one at that. Unlike “fuck my life,” “feeling much love” is not something you’re likely to hear someone say. “FML” developed as a general term for a lot of other phrases describing the same thing; even if people are “feeling much love,” it’s not something they routinely say. It’s certainly not something that’s likely to accompany pithy, amusing stories–more likely cloying, sappy ones. In any case, the number of people trying to impose this change, almost by definition, is much smaller than the number of people who defined and popularized the term in the first place. Even with the term’s fall from memetic prominence, this campaign is farting against a strong wind.

Then there’s the matter of how one would accomplish this. If it’s just “let’s start a Facebook group and get everyone on-board,” then it’s a symbolic exercise at best, with almost no chance whatsoever of enacting actual change. But let’s assume that the thirty-odd members of the group are a little more gung-ho about this change. One of them writes a blog post about their big family reunion, and how five generations were represented, and everyone had a wonderful time and took a big picture and a great meal, FML. The average Internet reader is going to be understandably puzzled, and so might post a comment, asking “FML? That sounds great! Why would you say ‘fuck my life’?” To which the original poster will have to respond with something like, “no, I’m trying to change the meaning of ‘FML’ to ‘feeling much love’!” Which, again, is awkward and silly.

And it inverts the process. By the time “FML” became widely used, the phrase “Fuck/F my life” was enough of a part of the Internet lexicon that it became easy to figure out (or look up) what the term actually meant. The people waging this counter-campaign are not only working against the term’s loss of popularity and relevance, but also against the clear, understood meaning, and a wealth of links and pages and people who provide the common definition. Is it possible to fight such a trend? I suppose, in principle, but it’s not so much an uphill battle as a scaling-a-building battle.

Perhaps the biggest problem with all this is the motivation. Obviously the intentions are good, trying to get people to be more positive. But, you know, bad shit–and in the case of most of the “FMyLife” posts, embarrassing shit–happens, and we don’t have to be super-cheery about it. With many of the stories submitted to FMyLife, it would be a sign of distressing mental issues–or a severe case of sarcasm–to follow up with something cheery and sappy like “feeling much love.” And with many of the cases, it’s similarly inappropriate to follow them with “fuck my life,” but only because they’re really trivial shit (or obviously fabricated). Such a quality decay–everyone wants to participate, even if their lives are utterly mundane–is probably a contributing factor to the site’s precipitous slide down the Alexa rankings.

The point being, it’s okay to feel bad when bad shit happens. Trying to limit or change people’s language in such a way that they lose an expression for “well, that sucked” just means they’re going to abandon the mangled expression and invent a new one. Expressions of life sucking at the moment are as necessary and natural and legitimate as expressions of life being awesome. At least the FMyLife posts demonstrate a willingness to laugh at oneself, or to let others laugh at oneself, which (considering the Internet) is a surprisingly mature way to handle embarrassing and tragic situations. I think the “feeling much love” folks miss that bit of nuance; people posting on “FMyLife” and saying “FML” aren’t generally that down on life. They’re not all suicidally depressed people slitting their wrists on an electronic forum, they’re mostly people who tripped and faceplanted in front of everyone, and are joining in with the schadenfreude-colored laughter. That’s not really something that needs to be changed, specifically not changed in a way as to miss and negate the humor.

The suicidally depressed people are over at PostSecret.

Nothing of Consequence

Rant mode activated. You’ve been warned.

So, I got into another Twitter kerfuffle, this time with a blogger from Skeptic North. This, of course, hot on the heels of some moderately heated exchanges in Jen’s comment thread. I don’t know what it is with me and these Canadian skeptics, man. I mean, I love Degrassi and hockey and bacon.

But I don’t love the current popular trend among some skeptics to blame atheism for diverting resources, energy, and attention away from other skeptical causes. I don’t love the current efforts by some skeptics to hide or silence atheists because they see them as some threat to recruiting theists. The circular firing squad is getting fucking old.

Some additional highlights of the evening:

As usual, my side of the argument can be seen here. Just scroll down and keep clicking. You know, I hate threaded comments on blogs, but I sure wish Twitter had a feature that let you slot comments in a conversation with each other, so you could actually follow what was being said. But then, that would also require a system that didn’t drop every third tweet on its way to my feed. Eventually, I will learn that Twitter is not the proper medium for this kind of asinine argument, but not yet, apparently. Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: yes, I was most certainly being hostile, antagonistic, snarky, sarcastic, and borderline insulting right off the bat. Maybe it’s because I’m writing this rant directly after the argument, but I don’t even feel bad about my tone, the way I sometimes have in the past. “He started it” is a poor excuse for anything, but I think the condescending, ‘get out of my way’ post which kicked everything off, set that tone. Believe me, I’ve been bored with the religion fight too. There are times when I’ve felt exactly the same as Mr. Thoms, that anything worth saying about religion had already been said–most of the time, centuries ago. That’s one of the reasons that this blog has gone through such long dry spells in the past, and I know folks like Don and Bronze Dog and Skeptico have felt the same at various times. On the other hand, I suspect they’d all agree that we’ve all felt the same about most of the typical skeptical topics from time to time. For me, there are four loose categories of skeptical topics: those I don’t care about, those I care about enough to talk about, those I care about but am sick of talking about, and those I don’t know enough about to talk knowledgeably. I suspect that any skeptic would have a similar breakdown. We have our areas of interest, our areas of expertise, and hopefully we largely stick to talking about the places where those two overlap. And yet, I’ve never really felt the need to tweet about how the anti-dowsing crowd is getting in the way of my anti-antivax activism. It all goes back to that philosophy I keep espousing regarding skepticism: do what you want, just stop telling me what to do. Different people have different interests, different goals, different priorities, and so forth. Let ’em. So, let me lay down a few things that I haven’t expressed before, because I don’t generally care that much (but they make for a good example):

  • I think skeptics in the United States generally spend way too much time and effort on homeopathy. It’s not ubiquitous here the way it is in Europe, and I’ve found that in order to argue against homeopathic remedies with Americans, I first have to explain what they are. That doesn’t mean they’re not a problem; the Zicam scandal and Airborne lawsuit showed that they certainly are. But I think the attention they receive on this side of the pond is disproportionate to the danger they actually pose, largely because there’s such a large contingent of skeptics from Europe and Australia, where the stuff is endemic.
  • I think skeptics, and particularly James Randi, spend way too damn much time on dowsing, relative to the prominence and harm actually caused by dowsing. Those useless bomb detectors certainly were a big deal, and it’s good that skeptics worked against them. But before that, I don’t think I’ve ever seen dowsing in the news outside of the occasional local story about some hick who thinks he can find water or oil or gold with a stick. I know there’s some annoyance on the JREF side of things too, since ‘the dowser who is convinced of their ability’ was the particular example given of wasted effort when they changed the parameters of the Million Dollar Challenge a few years ago to focus it on more prominent figures.
  • I think we could be doing a lot more to promote vaccination, especially since we have the CDC and other major organizations on our side. The groups involved in promoting vaccines are dedicated and good at what they do, but I think we could focus more effort and time on that.
  • I think we’re way too resigned to the glut of woo-woo programming on television, and particularly on channels that should have higher standards, like Discovery and History. The Skepchicks recently spearheaded an (apparently somewhat) successful campaign to keep an antivax ad from running in movie theaters around the country; it seems like we ought to be able to exert similar pressures against garbage like Ghost Lab or any History Channel show that consults Fred Zugibe or John Hogue as credible sources. Some prominent television figures, like, say, Adam Savage, speaking out against some of the televised paranormal dreck in public would probably help raise a little consciousness and exert a little force in that regard.
  • I think we ought to be doing more against Chiropractic. Like, period. I have a hard time believing that the ubiquitous back-cracking which people generally think is real medicine is more powerful in Great Britain (where the whole Simon Singh flap has been going down) than here.

Those are all things I think about the priorities of (at least) the American skeptical community, as I see them. But here’s the rub: I don’t begrudge anyone for sorting their priorities differently. I don’t claim that the 10^23 movement is taking money and resources away from the fight against shit like “Ghost Lab.” I don’t say that because it’s fucking absurd. There is certainly a largely common pool of people with a largely common pool of money to be had for all of these groups and causes, but people are going to associate with and support the causes they prioritize most highly. You want to change people’s priorities? You want to get a bigger piece of the skeptical community pie? I’ll give you two hints: one, you’re not going to get there by alienating existing allies, and two, you’re not going to get it by complaining about how everyone else’s slice is bigger than yours. This is a marketplace of ideas. If you want more people to buy into your idea more strongly, then you need to be a better marketer. I offered Mr. Thoms some suggestions as to how he might go about doing that, but he didn’t seem receptive. Because, after all, I’m an angry atheist, and my presence alone, what with my desire to be out and open about my atheism, and my penchant for criticizing religious believers, is driving potential theist supporters away in droves.

Let me break down some of the problems with that notion, shall I?

  • I’d be less angry if I weren’t constantly dealing with patronizing skeptics who want me to stay in the goddamn closet.
  • Where are these droves of theist skeptics who would have joined up if not for those danged pesky atheists? Can we substantiate that they even exist in large enough numbers for us to really care?
  • A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. It seems like shortsightedness to alienate people who already mostly agree with you because you don’t like how in-your-face they are with their religious (non)beliefs, in hopes of catching more supporters who may or may not exist.
  • I think just the idea that–“if atheist skeptics would only keep quiet about their atheism we’d have more theist skeptics”–is profoundly condescending to the theists. It isn’t just that it looks from the outside like you’re trying to hide an uncomfortable truth (skepticism might gasp lead you to atheism!), it’s also that it sets theism apart from all other non-skeptical beliefs. We don’t caution liberal skeptics to keep their mouths shut about social security and medicare lest they scare away the libertarians (or vice versa). We don’t tell the skeptics who accept Anthropogenic Global Warming to stay quiet about hockey sticks and climate forcing, for fear of alienating potential skeptics from the anti-AGW camp. We don’t tell anti-GMO skeptics to lay off of potential pro-GMO allies. I’ve never seen skeptics who love the Cubs told to put their hats away to avoid offending Cardinals fans who happen to agree that vaccines are super. In all of these cases–and many others–skeptics disagree, often vehemently. Heated discussions often rage around these topics on message boards and in blog comment threads. Skeptics argue with each other, questioning their assumptions, pointing out flaws in their logic, and generally secure in the rightness of their own position (but, one would hope, open to changing their mind, given sufficient reason and/or evidence). I think it’s coddling to give theist skeptics a pass on their theism when we would not hesitate to skewer them mercilessly on their objectivism (for instance). If they can’t handle having their beliefs questioned and defending their claims against challenges and pointed questions, then they’ve joined the wrong community.

And here’s a bombshell: I think it’s possible for someone to be a skeptic and a theist. I don’t necessarily even think they’re being a bad skeptic, depending on what their theist-position is like. I fully admit that I could be wrong and other people could have evidence to which I am not privy. Of course, those are the theists I’d be most interested in, since I’d like to know what their evidence is, but that’s kind of beside the point. I don’t actually have a problem with the idea that applying skepticism can lead different people to different conclusions regarding the same question. I think they’re wrong, and if it came up, I’d ask them what led them to their conclusion. And if asked the same, I’d answer. Because that’s the kind of dialogue and discourse that I expect from a community of doubters, questioners, and scientists. If a theist agrees with me on vaccinations and Bigfoot and UFOs and 9/11 and every other skeptical topic, but can’t handle being associated with me because we disagree on the matter of the existence of God, or because they resent the fact that I think they’re as wrong about God as Bill Maher is about medicine, then fuck them. What good is such wishy-washy, fairweather support? Skepticism is a way of thinking; anyone can do it. Consequently, the skeptical community is a diverse damn group, and I should think it’s as disgusting, dishonest, and disrespectful to tell an atheist to remain closeted so they don’t offend potential theist allies as it would be to tell gay skeptics to stay in the closet in case there are homophobes who think acupuncture is nuts. Now, there’s one last point I need to address, and that’s the matter of atheists being aggressive, taking it to the streets, being in-your-face, and, as a side-effect, causing theists to not support skeptical causes or join skeptical organizations. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that anyone who makes that argument is missing the goddamn point, and is likely so self-absorbed with their own goals and priorities that they simply can’t conceive of the possibility that other people might be individuals. The movement toward atheist activism and visibility and openness is almost completely orthogonal to the movement to increase support for skeptical causes. The only real relations are that atheists tend to be scientific, and skepticism tends to lead toward atheism. But the goals are almost completely separate. The specific goals of things like the Atheist Bus Ad campaign or the Coalition of Reason’s billboards or the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s ads, are (as I understand them):

  • To destigmatize atheism
  • To debunk myths about atheism and atheists
  • To make people who are already atheists more comfortable about coming out
  • To make people who are atheists realize that they aren’t the only ones around
  • To raise consciousness about the privileged position which religion has in our society
  • To increase the acceptability of criticizing religious dogma and religious claims

If you think “embarrassing religions” is a primary or even secondary goal of the “There is probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” bus ads, then I think it’s safe to say you’re missing the goddamn point. You and the point are not even on the same brane. If you think that “increasing support for skeptical causes” is a major goal of such ads and campaigns, then again, you are missing the goddamn point. When atheists can generally feel comfortable about being out and open about who they are and what they believe, without fear of reprisal and repercussion from coworkers, employers, families, friends, and communities, then we can start talking about who gets hurt when atheists come out of the closet. Until then, suggesting that an ad which says “Yes Virginia, there is no God” is even in the same league as “guns,” and is “aggressive” is colossal asshattery. When atheists start doing shit like this? Then you can talk about “aggressive.”

So in the end, no, Mr. Thoms, I don’t give a flying fuck how aggressive or in-anyone’s-face you are as an atheist. What I give a fuck about is people telling me what a horrible person/skeptic I am for driving away allies who I’ve never seen. What I give a fuck about is being stereotyped by skeptics with the same asinine brushes used by fundamentalists. What I give a fuck about is hegemonic assholes who think that their way is the only way, and “take issue” with groups and organizations that see things differently, and criticize groups who are achieving their goals because they aren’t helping him achieve his. What I give a fuck about is people who are willing to complain about their lack of support, but not enough to see that if they want to compete, they need to change the fucking message. What I give a fuck about is treating people with openness and honesty, whether or not they believe in God. It seems to work all right for my theist friends and associates. Strange how I haven’t driven them away.

My name is Matt Foley and I am a motivational speaker!

I used to live in this county. I moved before I could vote.

You know, maybe Howard Dean should have screamed more.

Now, I guess I just have to content myself with living in a state with one jailed governor and another awaiting a retrial who’s trying to recoup his court fees by doing autographs at comic conventions.

Quotes to ponder on the anniversary of September 11th, 2001

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they stopped coming altogether,
and everything was awesome for everyone.

Except for the Commies, but fuck them.

–Martin Niemöller


They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, are really just being prudent. I mean, what kind of idiot doesn’t want as much security as possible?

–Benjamin Franklin


Give me liberty, but not those other guys.

–Attributed to Patrick Henry


Don’t tread on me. Instead, let’s all tread on those people over there.

–Christopher Gadsden


Unless you’ve got something to offer, stay the hell out.

–Inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty


The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of religious minorities and politicians with whom we disagree.

–Thomas Jefferson


Religion and government are like chocolate and peanut butter, and thus are even better the more they are mixed together.

–James Madison


I disapprove of what you say, and so I will do everything I can to stop you from saying it.

–Evelyn Beatrice Hall


Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, except when it would be in bad taste; or abridging the freedom of popular speech, or of the corporate press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to scream at government officials and make thinly-veiled death threats unless they kowtow to unreasonable demands.

–First Amendment to the United States Constitution


When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag, carrying a cross, and dangling a set of Truck Nutz.

–Attributed to Sinclair Lewis.