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.

Advertisements

Errant Dog: A Real-Life Allegory

I went to take out the trash this morning, only to find a rather large dog standing in the courtyard outside my little apartment complex. It stood there looking at me as I opened the door, like it was guarding what passes for my front yard.

I closed the door and went back inside.

The complex doesn’t allow pets, and while I know that rule’s been violated at least once before by a neighbor who’s since moved away, I was reasonably sure the dog didn’t belong to the tenants of the other three apartments. I thought that maybe I’d seen the dog before at a house across the street, but I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t see a collar, but I wasn’t going to get close enough to really look.

Don’t get me wrong; I love dogs. I’m very much a dog person, and in my experience dogs love me too. The vast majority of dogs I’ve met have been friendly, cheerful mutts who were perfectly harmless. But I didn’t know this dog, and I knew that not all dogs are harmless. I could have assumed that this dog was, like most dogs, perfectly harmless. But if I turned out to be wrong, I would have been in real danger. Much safer to assume the dog was harmful, despite the lower probability, because turning out to be wrong would have no serious consequence.

I’ve never been attacked by a dog, but I have read about what to do. Obviously I try not to put myself in dangerous situations with dogs; I don’t approach strange dogs or stick my fingers through chain-link fences or anything. But I also know not to run away or make sudden movements around strange dogs, to keep my fingers curled into fists, and if possible, to get on top of something like a car or van to escape. Sometimes when I’m out walking, I scout out cars or other escape routes, just in case. Sometimes when I meet a new dog in a more friendly situation, I still keep my fingers protected as I reach to pet it. Just in case.

I watched the dog for awhile, feeling a little silly as it did normal dog stuff. Once I closed the door, it relaxed. It lay down in the grass. It stood up, walked around in a circle a couple of times, and lay down again. It was a cute dog doing typical cute-dog stuff. And yet I wasn’t going to go outside and chance that it would suddenly do something less cute.

My wife and I kept checking the window, watching the dog on and off for about fifteen minutes, until I finally decided to call the police. It’s not that the dog had done anything, but it certainly could have, and it seemed far better to call for help and have it taken care of before any potential harm had occurred. As it turns out, the police had already been called about a stray dog, and I suspect it was probably the same one.

I again felt kind of silly calling about the dog, but the police took the concern seriously, and an officer was here pretty quickly. The dog ended up running off, but the officer assured me that he was going to try to catch it, and that Animal Control was on their way as well. I saw the officer a few more times over the course of the morning, and I never found out if the dog was ever caught. But at least I didn’t see the dog again.

I feel bad for the dog. I feel bad assuming that it was a bad dog, just because it was in the wrong place, just because it was a big dog defending its new territory. I feel bad that I can’t tell, just from looking, whether or not a dog is likely to attack. I feel bad that I have to assume the worst to ensure my safety. But I’m glad that I can call on people who will take my safety concern seriously and act swiftly to prevent any unfortunate incidents from occurring.

If only every problem were so easily solved.

Housewarming

Welcome to the new digs! It doesn’t look like much yet, but I’ll be playing with the layout and such over the next several days until I get it looking the way I’d like. Hopefully I’ll have a blogroll and stuff up in the near future.

As for other details, if you follow with a feed reader, the new feed should be: http://www.dubitoergosum.net/feed/

You can also click the “follow” link up top, but I’m not totally sure how that works yet.

All the posts and comments moved over from the original site, which redirects here now after a short delay. Comments should be closed on the Blogspot page, and I’ll probably do some other stuff to it to reduce available content.

Please use the comments here to let me know if you’re still around, and to tell me about any broken links, image issues, or other problems on the site.

Thanks!

XKCD tells it truly

I’ve recently been a bit under the weather. After having a cold I couldn’t shake and getting a week or so worth of antibiotics, I was having a host of appetite and gastrointestinal problems, so I went back to the doctor. In the sixteen days that had passed between visits, I’d lost ten pounds.

Now, having repeatedly fallen off the wagon with respect to my calorie-counting and exercise regimen, I was surprised to learn that I’d lost any weight at all, let alone what I knew was an unhealthy amount. Needless to say, my doctor was concerned. He ran some tests, and among the things he said he’d be looking for was the bacteria H. pylori.

I recognized the name immediately, though I wasn’t sure of the connection until he elaborated that H. pylori is associated with peptic ulcers. My initial thought on making that connection was “Cool! I might be infected with H. pylori!” I proceeded to tell my doctor about the Nobel Prize that resulted from the discovery of H. pylori and its association with peptic ulcers (previously thought to be caused by stress and spicy food). Taking a page from comic books, and apparently just to prove a point, researcher Barry Marshall experimented on himself with the bacterial culture, giving himself gastritis, then demonstrated that antibiotics could treat it. Certainly it was a small sample size, but confirmation earned Marshall and partner Robin Warren the 2005 Nobel Prize in medicine, and I suspect the 2005 Nobel Prize in utter badassery as well.

So the thought of being connected, even tangentially, to such an overwhelmingly hardcore demonstration of science excited me, despite the stomach aches.

Or, as explained by the illustrious Randall Munroe:

My Problem with Movements

I started this blog in part because I like to comment on and make fun of stupidity. It’s a shame that most of the stupidity I encounter right now comes from other skeptics. And it all seems to keep coming back to this idea of the “skeptical movement.”

Skepticism is not something I joined. Skepticism is something I use. I apply skepticism to the claims I encounter in my life. It’s a set of cognitive tools that I use to evaluate reality and the claims people make regarding it. Being someone who uses this set of tools makes me a skeptic, and so I share a label and a viewpoint with some other people. Because people are social animals, we gather around any commonality, no matter how small or arbitrary.

And that’s fine, when we’re forming clubs and conferences and message boards and shit. I like going to skeptical events and hanging out with skeptical people and talking about skeptical topics and reading skeptical books and generally promoting skepticism.

The problem is when people assume that, because we share this one thing, we must therefore have other things in common. Truth be told, these assumptions can often be accurate, but it’s a matter of correlation, not necessarily causation. Yes, my skepticism caused me to be an atheist, and while a lot of skeptics are atheists and a lot of atheists are skeptics, there are quite a few people who don’t fit in that shaded area of the Venn diagram. The same can be said for every interest: some skeptics are comic fans, lots of comic fans are sci-fi fans, lots of sci-fi fans love “Doctor Who.” But each of those things represents a different circle on a big Venn diagram chart, and you can’t just assume that all skeptics love “Doctor Who.” This can be a source of conflict and annoyance and hurt feelings; people tend to assume that other people are like them–especially people they like and/or admire–and it can be deflating to find out otherwise. Watch The Atheist Experience for a month or two, and you’ll see this kind of thing in action: some atheists assume that because we’ve all come to the same conclusion on the existence of God, then we must all have the same views on morality/aliens/conspiracy theories/politics/ghosts/drugs/etc. It’s just not something you can assume based on having one thing in common.

This problem is just as pronounced even when it comes to things that are directly related to the shared viewpoint. Just because I agree with other skeptics on the importance of skepticism doesn’t necessarily mean that our priorities or goals or methods are the same. As I’ve ranted before, I tend to think that we ought to live and let live, when it comes to each other’s methods. I think there’s room for a variety of approaches to spreading skepticism, from Joe Nickell-style serious investigations to academic debates to “Get in the fookin’ sack” humor to The Pope Song.

Obviously, there are those who disagree, or I wouldn’t keep beating this dead horse. The problem is the same as the one I mentioned above: the people who say things like “you’re not helping” are making some key assumptions about what the rest of us want to accomplish. Some people explicitly want to make skepticism into a serious academic discipline, some seem to think we’ll change more minds and convert more skeptics by being nice and polite all the time. I have my own opinions on the reasonableness of those goals, but that’s really not the point. The point is that those aren’t my goals. I do skeptical commentary because I’m passionate about it, and because I generally find it fun. I like making snarky comments about apologetic e-mail forwards and tearing alt-med idiots a new one and even doing a bit of serious skeptical investigation. I’m perfectly happy with keeping skeptical activism a fun hobby, and I’m bothered by people who want to make the entire enterprise as fun as writing a term paper. And that’s really just the tip of it. Shockingly enough, my purpose is not always to convert or educate. Sometimes my purpose is to entertain, sometimes it’s to vent, and sometimes it’s for my own amusement. I’m a little tired of “for the lulz” being denigrated as a reason to do stuff.

Even if your goals are changing minds, educating, and spreading awareness, it makes sense to have a multiplicity of methods and styles and techniques. Different people have different interests and are convinced by different things; context and audience are significant factors in determining what methods are appropriate. There is no one size that fits all situations or people. Frankly, that’s Education 101. Different people learn differently, and sometimes it takes time and multiple exposures and different pedagogical techniques to get new information to stick in people’s heads. And that’s assuming they’re receptive to the information in the first place, and outside of a classroom, there aren’t many people who appreciate being lectured to. And again, that’s assuming that education is your primary goal, which isn’t necessarily the case for everyone in every situation.

And that’s the problem with a “movement.” The term “movement” carries some baggage; it implies motion toward something, or at least in some shared direction. Skeptics don’t share such a direction in general, much though the tone police would like to impose one. My goals are not everyone’s goals, and it’s condescending and presumptuous for other skeptics, from the lying asshat behind the “You’re Not Helping” blog to bigger names like Daniel Loxton and even Phil Plait, to tell me that I’m not falling in line with their goals and priorities. I’m perfectly capable of setting my own goals and deciding what tactics and methods best suit them, thank you very much, and so are most people.

If I’m part of a movement, it’s because there are a lot of people individually drifting in the same general direction, but a few self-appointed shepherds have decided that they know the one right way to go. They’re quite happy to lead everyone around, and if some of the flock gets lost along the way, that’ll just improve the quality of what’s left. I’m sorry, but that’s poor shepherding, and I’m no one’s fucking sheep.

Auld Auld Auld Auld Auld Auld Auld Auld Lang Syne

So, clear your calendars. Um, your Mayan Long Count Calendars, that is. Don’t make any plans for December 21, 2012, because you’re all coming over to my residence for the world’s best New B’ak’tun’s Eve party ever!

I know it’s early, but with something like this, it’s good to have a plan. After all, something like this only comes around once every 394 1/4 years. Some of the details are still up in the air, of course, like the location and the amount of people I can fit there, but we’ll hammer those out as they become clearer. I still have to run this by the wife-to-be, of course–we’ll be celebrating our two-year wedding anniversary just a couple of days before, and there’s the various Winter holidays the week after, but I think that Friday night would be a fantastic time for a big new b’ak’tun bash. Here’s the invitation so far:

Who: You! Plus one or so.
What: Ringing in B’ak’tun 13.0.0.0.0!
Where: To be determined
When: December 21, 2012, 8-ish
Why: To eat, drink, and be merry!
How: BYOB, snacks and some drinks will be provided. Movies and video games likely (Rock Band 3?), pizza and root beer floats even likelier. 100% chance of fun! Slight possibility of armageddon (dogs & cats living together, etc.).

Please RSVP by December 7th, 2012.

We’ll get together, watch the big stone slab drop (fun fact: Dick Clark was there at the last new b’ak’tun!), toss some streamers, make some noise, and generally have a great time. I expect to see you all there, and I’ll make sure to keep you posted as details change.

An interesting experiment

A friend of mine and fellow vocal atheist has started up a new blog as a sort of religious exchange program. He agreed to read the Bible if his friend agreed to read The Blind Watchmaker. Both are blogging about it, and I’m interested in how it all turns out. There’s not much there yet, but I know that steady comments and regular readers are a pretty good impetus to keep writing, so please go check it out:

Understanding the Christian
And the Christian counter-blog is at:

Understanding the Skeptic
Enjoy!