Thoughts on “Cosmos”

I just finished watching the first episode of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s revival of the classic Carl Sagan series. Now, on one hand, I’m a fan of the classic “Cosmos.” I’ve liked everything I’ve seen from it. It has a unique way of blending together the big with the small, the old with the new, and the abstract with the concrete. On the other hand, I’ve never actually seen the whole series. While I’ve had it on DVD for years, I’ve only watched maybe half the episodes.

So I came into the new “Cosmos” as an interested party, a fan of the old series, but not an expert. I have a preexisting love for Sagan and Tyson, and less fond feelings for producer Seth MacFarlane and the Fox network in general. But I talked up the show before it aired and made sure to watch it right when it aired.

There was a lot to like about the show. The effects were gorgeous, light years beyond the simple animations and computer effects of the original series. Tyson made complex ideas accessible, and gave a lot of little tastes and hints about huge, mind-blowing ideas, which people could easily find out more about on their own. There’s a lot about the methodology of science, and how our knowledge builds up over time. The “cosmic calendar” metaphor works better than the 24-hour clock metaphor Tyson employed in “Origins.” There’s no sense of apology or embarrassment or uncertainty about basic (but nonetheless controversial) science, like evolution or anthropogenic climate change or the age of the universe or the big bang.

There was a lot to dislike, too. I worried a bit, given Seth MacFarlane’s involvement and the way he’s used “Family Guy” as an unsubtle way to beat viewers over the head with his personal atheism, that “Cosmos” would be similarly blunt on the topic of religion. There’s a time and a place for that sort of thing, but “Cosmos” shouldn’t be it. More time should be spent kindling that ‘religious’ awe for the natural world than explicitly attacking believers. The new “Cosmos” managed to disappoint me in both ways in this regard; on one hand, it had a lengthy (and at least somewhat ahistorical) animated digression on Giordano Bruno, characterizing him as a lone heliocentrist scientist against the oppressive church. I was skimming along with the Wikipedia article on Bruno during the segment, noting places where the storytelling glossed over or twisted facts for the sake of narrative. On one hand, it painted Bruno as a man whose religious ideas drove him toward scientific truth, and whose idea of God was more expansive and awesome than the contemporary orthodoxy; on the other, it made him into a scientific martyr, right down to showing him ascending into the heavens in multiple visions, arms outstretched and knees bent in a crucifixion pose. Later, as Tyson went through the history of human history, specific mention was made of the “births” of Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed, at least two of whom were likely never “born” at any point in history. Somehow the show managed both to bend over to accommodate religion, and to attack the church and give science its own Christ figure.

I realize that the show was limited in scope, and couldn’t go into detail on everything, but I really wish there were even a couple more lines to indicate why some scientists believe in a multiverse or what current research has shown about the origins of life. I hope the latter question will still be addressed in a future installment, but this episode’s brief treatment of it made it sound like it’s still a complete mystery.

To get to the nitpicks, I’ve always thought the Ship of the Imagination was the cheesiest part of the original “Cosmos,” and while the effects here are better, the idea still feels kind of out of place. Tyson has a history of picking at science mistakes in movies like “Titanic” and “Gravity,” so it’s weird to see him helming a show that depicts the asteroid belt and Kuiper belt as such densely-populated regions of space. The amount of commercial interruption was ludicrous, but more ludicrous was the commercial for “Noah” right in the middle, showing off similarly expensive and pretty special effects in service of a much less evidence-based story. The animated segment, in addition to its other flaws, looked like a cross between a five-year-old Flash animation and ten-year-old cel-shaded cartoons, very out of place in the otherwise space-age show.

Overall, I have high hopes that future episodes will have tighter foci and greater depth, but this first installment was a pretty mixed bag.

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Biology is always more complicated than you want to believe

I watched a little bit of a kerfuffle today as self-described “science groupie” Gia Milinovich decided to pontificate1 once again on the subject of sex and gender.

I follow a lot of feminists and trans* activists on Twitter, so I see people arguing against transphobic misunderstandings of biology pretty regularly. There are good responses to this line of argument; I always think back to Natalie Reed’s post on bilaterally gynandromorphic chickens and Skepchick Will’s response to the last time Gia pulled this out.

This time I foolishly decided to slip in a couple of remarks. In particular, I responded to this comment:

Which was so wrong it hurt. I pointed out what’s obvious to anyone who’s done ten minutes of reading on complications of gender, or who’s watched fucking “House,” would have:

Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome is a condition where cells don’t respond to androgen hormones, causing 46,XY individuals to present phenotypically as female, down to a (frequently shallow or undeveloped) vagina, breasts, and in rare cases, a fully-developed uterus and other “usual female mammalian reproductive parts.” Swyer syndrome is even more to the point, as those 46,XY individuals, due to undeveloped streak gonads, will develop into women capable even of pregnancy (through fertilized egg implantation) with only an administration of hormones. No “mutilative” surgeries necessary for XY females in either of those cases.

Unless, of course, this argument is circular, and you define female as “people without XY genotypes.” In which case you’d have to do a genetic test before referring to anyone by their gender, because of the sheer number of conditions (chimerism, mosaicism, Turner syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome, Perrault syndrome, Triple X syndrome, etc.) that exist in humans which make it difficult to judge someone’s sex chromosome makeup by looking at their phenotype alone. Which is the point I hinted at in that second tweet.

The appropriately-named “Dirt” replied to that second tweet with a link to their blog o’ transphobia, presumably as a way of rebutting my points. I glanced over it, and two things became apparent:

  1. This has little if anything to do with what I was talking about.
  2. SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET.

So an old-school fisking was in order! Oh, was it ever.

  • No one is born transgendered.

Note the complete lack of any support for this bald assertion. Watch it become a theme.

  • Transition is a medical invention of the 20th century created to “cure” homosexuality
  • Transgenderism can ONLY occur via medical intervention.
  • Lots of things can ONLY occur via medical intervention, such as the normal development of people with Swyer syndrome. So what? Medicine is great!

    Oh, here’s a fun game: any time they talk about “transgenderism” in a medical context, swap in “abortion,” just to see where these talking points are coming from.

  • Hormones used for transition can and do change personality AND sexual attraction. 
  • Hormones used for transition are the same hormones made by gonads. “Used for transition” is an unnecessary phrase here. We’ve all experienced the changes to personality and sexual attraction caused by hormones thanks to something called “puberty.”

  • ALL transition surgeries are UNNECESSARY.
  • Except to the people who need them.

  • ALL transition surgeries are barbaric, permanently mutilating once healthy body parts.
  • So are gauged ears and split tongues and tattoos. If it’s not your body, then why do you care?

  • Havelock Ellis, Magnus Hirschfeld  and Richard von Krafft-Ebing first linked homosexuality with inversion, in the early 20th century.
  • Inverts were males and females who were perceived as being inverted, such as female inverts having a “masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom“. In other words those who didnt subscribe to the Gender Straight Jacket.
  • “Old white male researchers lumped a bunch of superficially-similar groups together as a single pathology.” Not exactly breaking news.

  • It was during this time (1931) that Lili Elbe received and died from the first sex reassignment surgery. Elbe was most likely intersexed, as medical evidence at the time indicated. 
  • Hey, acknowledgement of an intersex condition! Surely this will lead the writer to recognize that sex is more complicated than a binary option completely determined by two chromosomes, right?

    Also, this story of Lili Elbe ignores the earlier case of “Dora R.” and fails to note that Lili Elbe died after her fifth SRS operation likely due to rejecting a transplanted uterus. Hey, doctors in the ’30s couldn’t do something that doctors today still can’t do. Guess there aren’t any trans people.

  • Harry Benjamin who was a friend of and highly influenced by Magnus Hirshfeld, was heavily interested in gay male drag shows where according to HB, “many of the customers appeared in the clothing of the other sex“.
  • Harry Benjamin is the father of transsexualism/transgenderism.
  • Even according to that Wikipedia article, Benjamin’s research on transgender issues largely began when Alfred Kinsey asked him to see/treat a male child who wanted to be female. Kind of pokes some holes in those “no one is born transgendered” and transgender being an invention notions. Moreover, it only takes about five minutes of looking into transgender history to learn about overlaps between the transgender and transvestite communities. When cross-dressing was illegal, it’s no surprise that people with similarly interested in it for different reasons would band together.

  • Viewing psychiatry through a Gender Straight Jacketed lens, Benjamin ignorantly assumed transvestites and gay men to be one and the same. 
  • HB believed gay men to all be effeminate.
  •  Most of Benjamin’s patients were female fetishizers he mistook for homosexuals.
  • No citations are given for these assertions. I like the term “female fetishizers” though, because its attempt to be specific and skewering really make it look like an indictment of objectification and the male gaze.

  • Within the first decade of SRS, female fetishizers created an underground snail mail communication system whereby female fetishizers knew beforehand what to say to HB and later SRS doctors that would enable them to be approved for SRS.
  • Marginalized groups found ways around a system that pathologized and marginalized them. So what?

    Also, try playing the abortion game with that one.

  • The main criteria for early SRS (and today still) is homosexuality or behaviour considered to be homosexual.
  • Our sexist, homophobic society doesn’t exactly spoon-feed people the terms or opportunities to sort out their sexualities and gender identities. There’s a lot of messiness as everyone who doesn’t conform to the socially-accepted standard susses things out, largely on their own. The existence of the Internet has certainly made it easier for people to find resources and vocabularies and support networks, but kids and teens who are uncomfortable with themselves and how their desires and bodies and mental images are changing still need to seek out that information. It’s not surprising that some would try to fit their particular issues into familiar terms or contexts, and the contexts for homosexuality are a lot more prevalent than the ones for transgender.

    Also, what “criteria”? Legal? Medical? “Regulatory organizations are slow to adapt to changing cultural and scientific understanding about marginalized groups” is the breaking news headline right under “White Dudes Oversimplify Minorities.”

  • The majority of transitions remain straight white males who have a twisted cock response to clothing labeled “girls” or “womens“. Males known as Autogynephiles or as I call them, Female Fetishizers. Males who fetishize the patriarchal Male Gaze constructed IDEA “woman/femininity”.
  • Again, no citations. And the sign of a solid scientific paper, “terms I just made up myself.” It’s worth linking to the criticisms section of that article, but it’s also worth looking at Blanchard’s approach as discussed in the opening paragraph. It’s all about sex, and specifically, all about attracting a particular kind of partner or achieving some sexual fantasy. That’s not just insultingly reductive (and characteristic of all manner of other homophobic and misogynist ideas about people–see also: any time a right-winger talks about gay sex or slutty clothes), it erases or eroticizes the experiences of transgender children–you know, like the one that introduced the previous cited researcher to the issue.

    It’d be way easier for Dirt if their cited sources weren’t so contradictory to their attempted points.

  • Female Fetishizers carry out transvestism to the Nth degree in search for greater and greater sexual highs.
  • Sure seems like a lot of money and pain and effort to expend just for pursuit of a sexual fetish. I mean, I know people go to extremes, but really? All transgender people?

    Take furries, for instance. There are those who indulge their fetish mostly online. There are those who dress up in animal suits and get together for sexual purposes. There are those who go out in the fursuits in public, trying to live as furries full-time. There are those who get body modification, altering their faces and tongues, getting tattoos, having eyebrow or horn or whisker implants, and otherwise “mutilating once healthy body parts.” You know what there isn’t? A disproportionately high rate of violence against furries compared to other populations. Or if there is, it’s neither studied nor publicized as far as I can tell. It seems that being a furry is a lot less dangerous than being transgender. Despite that, I think you’ll find a lot smaller percentage of furries trying to live full-time or undergo medical interventions than transgender people. Why is that?

    It gets back to the notion that sexuality is a choice: if it were, who would choose discrimination and violence and marginalization? Similarly, if transgender identity is just about some kind of sexual gratification, how many people are really going to weigh the options and decide that getting some jollies off is worth the cost and the pain and the threats of violence and murder?

  • The medical community didnt invest in sex changes until the Kinsey Reports of (1948) and (1953) which concluded at least 10% of the population was homosexual and 37% of males had had a homosexual experience.
  • It’s totally a coincidence that this is also when transgender individuals (pre-surgery!) were achieving some measure of media coverage and were forming organizations. I’m sure Dirt would point the causal arrow in a different direction than I would; Dirt would also neglect to read anything before that linked section of the article, and would handwave away the 30 years of SRS prior to the ’50s as “not investing.”

  • In the early seventies pro consensual pedophilia doctor John Money (notorious for experimenting on the intersexed) coined the term Gender Identity/Gender Roles.  
  • Gender Identity/Gender Roles are socially constructed via patriarchy, NOT organically created in the womb.
  • Money is (in)famous for being the doctor at the center of the case of David Reimer, who was raised as a girl after a botched circumcision, under Money’s direction. But Reimer’s case would really seem to be a blow to Dirt’s hypotheses here. See, Money believed, as Dirt does, that gender identity was an entirely social construct. It therefore followed that if Reimer were raised female, with an apparently female body and female hormones and the like, that Reimer would form a female gender identity. Money reported for years that the case was a successful validation of his belief in the social construction of gender.

    But it wasn’t. According to sexologist Milton Diamond, who worked with Reimer as an adult, the socialization didn’t take, and Reimer stopped identifying as female somewhere around the ages of 9 to 11, and began living as male at 14. As a teen, he was driven into suicidal depression.

    Hm…suicidal depression because your outward gender presentation doesn’t match your self-identification…where have I heard that kind of thing happening before?

    See, if Dirt and Money were right, Reimer should have grown up female with no real trouble2, since that’s how he was socialized, that’s what hormonal instructions his body was receiving. Unless there’s something more inborn or innate about gender, something distinct from hormones and patriarchy. Either gender is social or it’s biological (or, as is more likely the case, it’s a combination of both), but Dirt’s trying to pretend that there’s a sharp divide while trying to have it both ways. In neither way does the case of David Reimer help Dirt’s case.

  • Just as homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973, Gender Identity Disorder was slipped in.
  • If you read the abstract Dirt links here, it actually makes the opposite point:

    Another point of controversy is the claim that the diagnosis of GIDC was introduced into the DSM-III in 1980 as a kind of “backdoor maneuver” to replace homosexuality, which was deleted from the DSM-II in 1973. In this article, we challenge this historical interpretation and provide an alternative account of how the GIDC diagnosis (and transsexualism) became part of psychiatric nosology in the DSM-III. We argue that GIDC was included as a psychiatric diagnosis because it met the generally accepted criteria used by the framers of DSM-III for inclusion (for example, clinical utility, acceptability to clinicians of various theoretical persuasions, and an empirical database to propose explicit diagnostic criteria that could be tested for reliability and validity).

    What is it with pseudoscientists and the inability to read?

  • The Trans Politic was created by straight white males-female fetishizers-using politics to further their pornographic urgers, not so dissimilar to NAMBLA’s political pedophilia via the Gay and Lesbian platform. 
  • Wow, ad hominem much?

  • Transition DOES NOT and CANNOT EVER change a person’s sex.
  • Define “change” and “sex.”

  • Transition is purely a cosmetic and legal “sex change“.
  • Even if it were, so what?

  • Gay males who transition do so out of internalized homophobia, usually within a hyper masculine minority culture amid the larger white culture.
  • Yes, because if there’s one thing we know about the larger homophobic white culture, it’s how non-misogynist and trans-friendly it is.

  • Since gay white male popularity and large media visibility, gay white male transitions have drastically decreased to near nonexistence. 
  • Citation please. Seriously, I spent some time looking for even just a breakdown of transgender prevalence by race, and couldn’t find it. The best I found was an overall summary of LGBT population and an estimate by Los Angeles county of their transgender stats. If these statistics exist, I’d love to see them.

  • In quantity, lesbian transition was largely unheard of until the backlash against feminism rode its Trojan horse-Queer Theory-into academia and then the Lesbian community.
  • Yeah, we’ll ignore the women who lived as men and married women dating back to the early 19th century.

  • A huge phase of feminist backlash is hyper-femininity.
  •  Not until hyper-femininity began reaching new undreamed of heights did dykes begin transitioning in numbers. 
  • As hyper femininity began being hammered upon younger and younger women/girls, Trans Trending among lesbian youth took off.
  • I do not see the thread. Wasn’t there hyper-femininity before feminism? Why isn’t this also due to internalized homophobia?

  • Transitioning children has been rare due to the lack of legal medical grounds to do so.
  • Since the recent publication of the DSM5 which includes transitioning children, the trans kid phenomena has skyrocketed. 
  • “Now that doctors think this treatment might be acceptable, more people are doing it!” What a newspaper this person runs.

  • Trans kids are considered children who do not sport the Gender Straight Jacket.
  • You strung some words together there but it’s a real shame they don’t actually make sense in that arrangement.

  • Trans kids if left alone will grow up in most cases to be healthy gay and lesbian adults.
  • Oh I see, the point of that previous point was to define “trans kids” broadly enough so it encompasses all gender-nonconforming individuals, from homosexual all the way out to trans and genderqueer and whatnot. That way, you can bootstrap this claim, since you’ve already defined “trans kids” to include “kids who never actually identify as trans and are actually gay or bi, but have a non-gender-conforming interest in musicals or softball.”

    Also, note “in most cases.”

  • Homophobic parents are transitioning their children rather than have a gay son or lesbian daughter.
  • Because homophobes are so much more accepting of transgender people. And hormones and surgeries are way less expensive than kicking the kid out or shoving them in the closet.

  • Transitioning children IS an overt attempt to eradicate gays and lesbians in their youth.
  • It’s not doing a very good job.

  • Hormone blockers used to “treat” GI-gender in-congruence in children are dangerous and life threatening.
  • Can I just note the hilarity of that link? It links to another post on Dirt’s blog. Can’t bother to even link an independent article about the drugs. From a cursory look, Lupron’s side effects don’t seem very sinister, and pages for trans youth make the counterpoint that they reduce the need for future surgery and reduce the depression and anxiety associated with gender dysphoria. Of course, that requires you to view transgender people as actual people who can make their own decisions and honestly report their experiences and intentions and motivations, and not as men driven by lust to mutilate their bodies for sexual purposes.

    Ugh, I just realized how that rooted that attitude is in seeing women only as objects of sexual pleasure and not as people.

  • Transition is the ONLY treatment for modern MENTAL illness that barbarically removes or rearranges healthy body parts for its cure.
  • I’d like to see the citation for this one.

  • The GID/GI diagnoses requires the patient be suffering from dysphoria (severe uncomfortableness with the body or how the body is viewed by society).
  • Female fetishizers who make up most transitions NEVER suffer from dysphoria.
  • Well, that omits most of the trans* people I follow online then, because I see them discussing feelings of dysphoria fairly frequently.

  • ALL females suffer from varying degrees of dysphoria.
  • Oh, I see. You’ve broadly redefined “dysphoria” too–or, more accurately, equivocated between “dysphoria” (the opposite of euphoria) and “gender dysphoria,” which is the component of GID diagnosis. Note that Dirt doesn’t link to the Wikipedia page on gender dysphoria, despite liberally linking to Wikipedia in other points. This may be because the opening paragraph states:

    Evidence suggests that people who identify with a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth may do so not just due to psychological or behavioral causes, but also biological ones related to their genetics, the makeup of their brains, or prenatal exposure to hormones.

    Complete with a little superscripted link to an actual peer-reviewed medical journal article on the subject. Curse that evidence, always getting in the way of bigotry and pseudoscience.

  • Yet lesbians remain the prime females receiving transition as a cure for their dysphoria.
  • Children do not suffer from dysphoria, yet those suspected of being gay or lesbian are being labeled trans and transitioned.
  • We’ll ignore all those children cited in your links who experienced gender dysphoria. Also, this.

  • Transition has NEVER cured anyone of their dysphoria.
  • Dysphoria relief from transition is temporary.
  • Dysphoria increases over time post transition.
  • These seem like testable hypotheses. Perhaps it would be good to find and link to studies which evaluated them.

  • Outside of transition, no therapy has been used to ease dysphoria or attempt to cure it.
  • From that Wikipedia article on Gender Identity Disorder again: “Until the 1970s, psychotherapy was the primary treatment for GID. Psychotherapy is any therapeutic interaction that aims to treat a psychological problem. Though some clinicians still use only psychotherapy to treat GID, it is now typically used in addition to biological interventions as treatment for GID.”

    Man, if only Dirt had read that article, they wouldn’t have looked quite so silly.

  • Transition drugs have no serious long term studies and have caused cancer and other complications in trans persons.
  • Considering that “transition drugs” are basically the same hormones prescribed for other types of hormone therapy, this claim is flat-out ludicrous. Yes, there are links between certain hormones and certain kinds of cancer, but not just in trans people (for instance, breast cancer in postmenopausal women undergoing HRT). Some links of note: 1, 2.

  • Once the trans person passes as the opposite sex, there is a perpetual mental fear and stress of being found out.
  • All the troubles that lead the trans person to transition do not magically go away post transition, in fact many more new troubles arise.
  • Certainly none of that is impacted by people believing that transition is done purely for sexual gratification and that trans* organizations are just like NAMBLA.

  • Cis is an organic chemistry term trans persons use misogynistically to attack primarily feminist and separate themselves from non transitioners.
  • “Cis” is a term from chemistry, meaning the opposite of trans (similar to “straight” as the opposite of “queer”). How it’s “misogynistic” is an exercise best left for the reader to decide.

  • Because the trans identity is self created, i.e weak, trans persons cannot fathom critical analysis of any kind.
  • Maybe because the critical analysis is all transphobic pseudoscientific bullshit like what you’ve spewed?

  • No one labeling themselves trans is a feminist.
  • Define “feminist.”

  • The foundation for transition is misogyny, and misogyny is the foundation for homophobia.
  • There’s some truth to the last half of that. But there’s a lot more misogyny in boiling women down to objects of sex and a pair of chromosomes or a particular anatomy than there is in transitioning.

  • Transphobia does not exist.
  • Maybe if you repeat that enough times, it’ll come true.

  • Trans persons attacked or murdered are done so because of homophobia and the foundation of homophobia-misogyny. 
  • I suspect there’s a lot of truth to that, too. But here you are, attacking trans people. Which are you, a homophobe or a misogynist?

  • Transition flourished because female fetishizers for decades have used the gay and lesbian political platform to advance their fetishes and inline with the leaders of the straight white homophobic medical community, hampered and out right destroyed gay and lesbian advancement and lives.
  • Now might be a good time to note the central roles that transwomen like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha Johnson played in the Stonewall Riots and otherwise agitating for LGBT rights. Yep, those “female fetishizers” right there, holding back the gay community.

  • Transition never ends, high dosing of hormones must continue the life of the trans person.
  • This is also true of many non-trans people. Again, talk to a postmenopausal woman or man with low testosterone sometime.

    To feminist reading this, if there is something you feel needs to be added, email or comment me.

    You really ought to add some facts, and remove all the rank bullshit.


    1. Even if we ignore all the complications of biological sex, this leaves a lot of women out of Gia’s category of women: the childless, the infertile, the prepubescent, the post-menopausal, women who have had hysterectomies or infibulations or oophorectomies, or whose sex organs incompletely developed. Gia’s womanhood is an exclusive , essentialist womanhood even before you discuss intersex or trans* conditions.

    2. Of course, given Reimer’s allegations about Money’s abusive treatments, he was probably going to develop complexes regardless. It’s just interesting to watch Dirt try to smear the trans community with Money’s unethical practices when his opinion of gender is the same as Dirt’s. If anyone’s smeared, it’s the “just a social construct” folks.

    What kind of diversity?

    Vjack has a post up on Atheist Revolution discussing his problems with Atheism+. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about it; I think he’s wrong, I think his posts on this and related subjects have been full of telling elisions and bad arguments. I’m personally disappointed that someone I respected and agreed with in the past has devoted so much of his recent blogging to this apparent vendetta. I generally don’t understand the pushback and opposition to the various proposed and enacted social justice initiatives, but it’s more striking when it’s from people I like (see also my quarrel with Toxicpath). But that’s enough of the personal stuff. The point here is simply responding to a couple of statements from that long-ish post.

    On Values

    In suggesting that we share common goals, I am being descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is, I am suggesting that virtually all atheist do in fact have some common goals and not that we should adopt some set of goals that we do not currently share.

    I get where Vjack is coming from here, but he’s arguing against two contradictory strawmen. The implication in this statement (made explicit in the subsequent paragraph) is that Atheism+ is a movement saying that atheists should adopt social justice values, which they currently have not adopted.

    This is flatly wrong, and that’s pretty clear from the few prominent posts on the subject. The fact is that a lot of atheists already do share these social justice values, just as most atheists share the values that Vjack presumed for the first sentence, which I suspect would be similar to the incomplete list I compiled yesterday. The percentage of atheists who share social justice values is clearly not as large as the percentage who value science, for instance, but it’s still a preexisting category. “Atheism+” is the label that arose and took off from a discussion of like-minded atheists who already valued social justice to describe themselves.

    Imagine that the libertarian wing of atheism–something that’s already in existence and has been clearly visible for some time–wanted to set themselves apart, so they could discuss libertarian issues without having to deal with the constant harping of liberal atheists, and so they could work to enact policies that supported their libertarian ideals, which is not something that the entirety of the atheist movement would be for. Would we begrudge them the ability to label themselves with something catchier than “libertarian atheists” (hey libertarian atheists: “Athei$m.” You can have that one for free) and unite to work toward particular goals that align with both their libertarian and atheist viewpoints?

    I imagine some would. I wouldn’t. The less I have to deal with libertarians, the happier I generally am. It’d be a win-win situation.

    So Vjack is wrong in suggesting that “Atheism+” is somehow, by its nature, prescriptive. It’s describing a movement and a group that’s been forming for a good long time, even if that movement isn’t “all atheists.” But I think he’s also wrong with seeing prescriptiveness as a problem. There’s nothing wrong or problematic in arguing that a particular group should care about a particular issue, or take action in a particular instance. It’s something that the atheist movement is generally familiar with. We hardly need any prodding to be spurred to action to support a high school atheist in a free speech battle or to speak out against tyrannical theocratic regimes, because those things are obviously in-line with our shared values. But, you know, take a look at the “Bullshit” episodes on secondhand smoke or the Americans with Disabilities Act or Cheerleading. Granted, they’re not directed primarily and solely at atheists, but they’re clear examples of some skeptically-minded folks saying to others “hey, these are issues that are important, which you should care about (and adopt our position on).” They’re making an argument that people who are like-minded on one set of positions and values (existence of gods, importance of science, promotion of reality-based policy) should also be like-minded on other positions and values (corporate liberty, opposing government intrusion, libertarianism).

    They’re making an argument, which others are free to accept or reject. There’s no magical barrier between one set of values that some atheists share and any other set of values that some atheists share. If I hold libertarian or liberal or feminist or vegetarian or Objectivist values for the same basic reasons that I hold skeptical and scientific values, then of course I’m going to argue that others who hold one set of values should hold the other. “Hey, we both care about [THING A], and I care about [THING B] for the same reason I care about [THING A]. Since you agree with me about [THING A], you should also agree with me about [THING B].” Making the argument is not a problem, because there’s always the opportunity for a counterargument. And if a movement can handle guys like Bill Maher promoting anti-medical quackery and Penn Jilette promoting anti-government ideology and the legions of AGW deniers promoting anti-climate science demagoguery, all under the heading of “I’m anti-medicine/anti-government/anti-AGW for the same reason I’m anti-religion, because I’m a skeptic,” then I don’t see how it can’t handle feminists and social justice folks doing the same, even if you believe that those people are wrong/irrational/unskeptical/whatever.

    On Diversity

    I have always thought our movement was strong because of our diversity and not in spite of it. I value big tent atheism, and what I mean by that is a large movement with great diversity in which people work together to accomplish the few goals we truly share.

    Had I been drinking, I probably would have ruined my smartphone when I read that first sentence. I agree, movement atheism has a lot of diversity, even of the kind that Vjack cites. But the idea that the community somehow only or generally or mostly works together to accomplish the few goals we truly share, that “Atheism+” is somehow an outlier in working together on goals that are only shared by a subset of atheists, is ludicrous. Some atheists have the goal of building bridges with theists to work on shared goals, others see that as a waste of time or worse. Some atheists have the goal of making all discourse civil and professional and non-dickish, others value blunt and acerbic speech. These groups have existed, and have been trying to unite like-minded atheists toward one or another goal, and creating DEEEEEP RIIIIIFTS in the movement/community for years. We generally work together on goals like fighting school prayer and supporting science, but there’s always been factions of atheists pulling in different directions and sniping at their opponents.

    But there’s a bigger thing going on here, and it’s one that was laid out pretty clearly by Greta Christina. The question is what kind of diversity do you want? Do you want diversity of opinion, or diversity of background?

    To some degree, you can have both. You can have libertarians and liberals and authoritarians, just as you can have blacks and whites and browns and so forth. But there comes a point where you have to make various choices, because encouraging, supporting, defending, or being explicitly inclusive of some opinions will necessarily make people from certain backgrounds feel excluded or dismissed, and vice-versa. As Greta Christina said, you can’t include both women and people who think women are inherently irrational. You can’t include both trans* people and people who think that trans* people are just self-deluded or insane. One way or another, someone’s going to leave.

    Again, we’ve seen this recently with organized skepticism. Various leaders in the organized skeptical community have wanted to preserve a diversity of opinions on the god hypothesis by welcoming (and coddling) believers, which has left atheists feeling snubbed and delegitimized. In trying to accommodate one group, they’ve alienated another. TAM made their choice, that they’d rather have the Hal Bidlacks and Pamela Gays than the Christopher Hitchenses. We’ve seen it go the other way as well, such as when Orac declared his end with organized atheism after Richard Dawkins supported Bill Maher’s receipt of that science award. Dawkins said he found embracing a diverse group of atheists more important than promoting medicine, and so he lost the support of at least one medical practitioner.

    Of course, it’s not quite that clear-cut, is it? It’s not like Hal Bidlack said at TAM “atheists aren’t welcome,” and it’s not like Vjack has said “feminists aren’t welcome.” What they’ve both said is that those groups are welcome under certain conditions. Atheists were welcome at TAM so long as they didn’t attack believers for their beliefs. Atheists are welcome to have their conferences about the god hypothesis, so long as they don’t do it under the heading of “skepticism.” Similarly, Vjack doesn’t have a problem with feminists, so long as they adhere to his standards of who should be considered a bigot. The rest of the social justice opponents seem to agree: so long as women are like Paula Kirby or Abbie Smith or Mallorie Nasrallah and don’t think harassment is that big a deal, or don’t ask people to change their practices, they can stick around. Heck, they’ll be celebrated. But man, suggest that it’s wrong to make rape jokes to a minor or hand an unsolicited nude photo to a speaker or that guys be more aware of appropriate times to ask women out, and then they’re unreasonable, irrational, unskeptical, shrill, militant, radical, feminazi, femistasi, c***s and t***s.

    Diversity is okay–it’s great! it’s desirable! it makes us strong!–so long as it’s on our terms.

    And you know what? That’s okay. If they want to prize diverse opinions over diverse backgrounds, that’s fine. But then they really can’t be surprised when the people who feel excluded by the side they’ve chosen (explicitly or through inaction) go off and do their own thing.

    Personally, I prize diverse backgrounds. Somite argued that gender (and by extension, other background factors) didn’t determine ideas or facts. Would that that were the case. Societies around the world do not treat people of different backgrounds (gender, social class, skin color, neurology, disability status, etc.) the same way, and so those people develop different perspectives on the world. Those perspectives do not change what is objectively true or real, but they do affect which aspects of reality people are concerned about and focused on. Would an all-male group of skeptics and atheists ever consider the pseudoscience behind douching or various cosmetics? How highly would they prioritize those things? Would a group of non-parent skeptics and atheists consider the claims about the effects of breastfeeding or water birth or teaching about Santa Claus? How much effort would they expend on those topics as opposed to acupuncture and angels? White American ex-Christian atheists have certainly addressed the Muslim claim about the 72 heavenly virgins, but do they have the same depth of analysis on the subject as Heina Dadabhoy did? Would they provide the same emphases?

    People from different backgrounds provide perspectives and priorities that a more homogenous group wouldn’t consider. And I think that’s important, I think that’s valuable. I think seeing problems or claims from different perspectives is an important tool in evaluating them, and an important tool in arguing about them. Just given the god hypothesis, some people might be more swayed by a moral argument (like the Euthyphro dilemma, or “Why Won’t God Heal Amputees”) than an evidentiary one, and vice versa. Having both those arguments in your toolset is more useful than only having one. But I also think that the perspectives of people who come from different backgrounds can also help shape and change what we find important. If all atheism were run by folks from mostly-godless European countries, then we’d probably see a lot more Alain de Bottons and a lot fewer Matt Dillahunties–and if the majority of atheists shared Alexander Aan’s perspective, then the movement would be different in a lot of other ways. Our backgrounds and experiences shape who we are, what we care about, and what we spend our time and effort on. Failing to consider the perspectives of others means we make those choices with less information, and may expend our efforts in less-than-worthwhile directions.

    Moreover, there’s the P.R. angle. Like it or not, people are primed to listen to and agree with people who share their backgrounds, who come from the same place they do, who speak their language. Alain de Botton’s atheist-church arguments might play well in Europe where churches are mostly toothless, but it was roundly dismissed and ridiculed in god-soaked America. And I suspect that Reg Finley is going to play better at a black church in Tuskegee than a white doctor, as an example. The more people of different backgrounds, different places, different perspectives, we have, the more “languages” we can speak, the more people we can speak to and reach. If the whole movement looks like an old white boys’ club, it’s going to speak less strongly to people who don’t fit into those categories. You can call it irrational, I call it ethos.

    So I’d prize diversity of background, which provides different perspectives and opinions and prioirties, over diversity of opinion, for the most part. Given the choice between an ex-Muslim atheist and a white supremacist atheist, I’m going to go for the former every time. I think we gain more than we lose by excluding the bigots. Is that divisive? Hell yes. But “divisiveness” is not in and of itself, a bad thing. Movement atheism has divided itself from secular Intelligent Design proponents like the Raelians and largely-secular cults like Scientology, and I think it’s benefited as a result.

    And if what it takes for the social-justice-concerned atheists to move forward and work on those topics without being weighed down by the rape-jokers and c***-kickers and “only on my terms” diversity enthusiasts is to relabel themselves and widen an already-extant rift, then so be it. We’ll be divisive, and you can do whatever. The rest of us will work together on the goals we truly share, and you can comfortably sit back and call us irrational nazis and baboons.

    What’s atheism got to do with it?

    For most possible values of “it,” nothing.

    I got into a Twitter argument with Somite yesterday after he cited a trio of old/dead white cisgendered anglophone men as a reason that Atheism+ might be unnecessary. The conversation went in a few different directions, but kept coming around to Somite saying various things were “unrelated to atheism.”

    And he’s right. Atheism–dictionary atheism, anyway–is a single position with respect to a single claim. The claim is “god exists;” the position is “I don’t accept that.”

    And that’s it.

    Now, I happen to think that said position is the one that people would arrive at necessarily if applying skeptical and scientific methods to the god-existence claim. But it’s trivially obvious that that’s not the only path to atheism. Some people arrive at that position through wholly irrational processes, like the Raelians. There’s nothing inherent in atheism that implies rationality or skepticism. There’s nothing about atheism that implies an appreciation of science–just look at Bill Maher. There’s nothing about atheism that implies a rejection of other supernatural beliefs and claims; the most recent Atheist Experience episode had a secular reincarnationist, for instance. There’s nothing about atheism that suggests that one should argue with religious believers or try to deconvert religionists. There’s nothing about atheism that says an atheist should be out and vocal about it. There’s nothing about atheism that implies the necessity to fight for free speech and religious freedom, or to try to dismantle religious privilege. Nothing about atheism suggested supporting Damon Fowler or Jessica Ahlquist. Nothing about atheism suggests the need for something like the Out Campaign or the Clergy Project. There’s nothing about atheism that implies any course of action–it’s why the whole “Stalin’s atrocities were motivated by his atheism” argument falls apart so easily. Atheism is a single position on a single claim, it gives no instruction, implies no values.

    So, yes, there’s very little that’s actually “related to atheism.” And yet, The God Delusion is a pretty sizable book. And it’s certainly not the only book about atheism on the market. I suspect that there’s more to George H. Smith’s Atheism than just 355 pages of “I don’t believe in gods.” But how? How is any of that content related to atheism?

    The answer is that atheism as a movement has never been just about atheism. Movement atheism has been composed primarily of people with similar values and positions on a number of topics. Movement atheism has been largely pro-science, skeptical, pro-religious freedom, pro-free speech, and anti-religion. Movement atheism has typically valued education to the point of fighting for proper science education and against religious encroachments into secular classrooms. Movement atheism has typically valued atheists as people, and fought against tyrannical anti-blasphemy laws and repressive theocracies, for the benefit of atheists under those kinds of oppression. Movement atheism has been concerned with dismantling religious privilege so that questioning religion and coming out as atheist is more acceptable in heavily religious cultures, and providing a framework and support network for atheists who face discrimination or other obstacles as they go public. Movement atheism has always been a group of people who share certain values working to promote those values, and adopting the label “atheism” in part because of its stigma, and in part because it’s a major focal point and common thread uniting the various people involved. We all share atheism, and by and large, we also share a common set of values.

    Movement atheism has always been atheism plus.

    So is “Atheism+” necessary? I’d say so, if only because it’s a label for something that’s already existed for some time now. For years, some of these atheists who share values like skepticism and education and promoting science and improving life for atheists and so on and so forth, have also realized that they share social justice values. For many of us, these values spring from the same place as our atheism–from skeptical inquiry, empathy, and valuing human rights. We’ve noticed that, unlike values like promoting science and free speech and fighting religious tyranny, suggesting that these values are things atheists should be concerned with and fight for has been much more controversial. There’ve been a lot of people pushing back against the crusaders for social justice, and one of the arguments they fall back on is that these social justice topics are “unrelated to atheism.”

    They’re right, so long as by “atheism” they mean “dictionary atheism” and not “movement atheism.” Fighting school prayer has nothing to do with dictionary atheism, but I never saw these people speaking up against the campaign to support Jessica Ahlquist, or suggesting that that’s not something “atheism” should be concerned with. The place where they’ve decided to draw the line is telling, I think.

    But that’s really neither here nor there. They can have their line in the sand, they can have their opposition to social justice (or do it their way), and the folks under the “Atheism+” umbrella will work on it in our way, undeterred and un-derailed by the “that’s unrelated to atheism” arguments. Fine, great, it’s related to “Atheism+.”

    There is one last point that I want to hit, and I hit it (clumsily, as usual when Twitter’s involved) last night as well. It’s true that none of the stuff I’ve talked about has anything to do with atheism. And it’s also true that “atheism” shouldn’t be concerned with issues of social justice or religious freedom or whatever. It can’t be. “Atheism” is a concept–as I said, a position. It does not have the capacity for concern. But atheists–who are people–do. And this is where the Out Campaign and Science-Based Parenting and the Clergy Project and Iron Chariots all come from. Atheists are more complex than just “I don’t believe in gods.” Part of it comes from empathy and rational self-interest–we recognize that our freedom of conscience and freedom to refuse to practice a belief system is contingent upon laws and governments, so we fight against those laws and governments who would restrict that freedom. Part of it comes from living in religious cultures–we recognize that some people face difficulties when they come out as atheists or living among the religious, and so we raise money for them, create support networks and discussion forums for them, and come out ourselves to remove the stigma. Part of it comes from the values that led us to atheism, like skepticism and education and science and so forth–we fight for good science and argue against the unsupportable claims of religions. Movement atheism has been, from the very start, only in small part about dictionary atheism, because dictionary atheism is only a small thing. The conferences, the speeches, the books, the movies and videos and blogs and podcasts, have all been about what interests and concerns atheists, not atheism.

    And “Atheism+” is about recognizing that there are more things that should concern atheists if they want to continue fighting battles–and possibly winning–for the values they share. Some people disagree, and they’re welcome to do so. There are people–atheists–who’ve disagreed with various of the values of movement atheism, from science promotion to skepticism to whatever. Some of them came along despite the differences, others were left out of the movement. And they were welcome to do so as well.

    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:

    Bumper Crop

    “Simple Living Saves Lives.”

    So proclaimed the window sticker I saw on a car today, the words written around an old-school windmill. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the naturalistic fallacy stated so succinctly and so wrongly.

    Yes, Simple Living Saves Lives. Unless you’re an infant. Or a premature birth. Or deformed. Or exposed to common viruses and bacteria as a child. Or injured in accidents with “simple” technology. Or injured by animals. Or ingesting parasites from insufficiently sanitized food and cooking utensils. Or infected through unsanitary living conditions. Or infected with one of many dangerous STIs from insufficiently-protected/informed sexual encounters. Or pregnant. Or infected with a disease that’s only treatable by modern medicine. Or requiring modern surgery. Or a cancer patient. Or a person with a heart condition. Or someone with a propensity for strokes. Or an elderly person. Or a myriad of other things that endanger people’s lives, and that are only correctable through modern, “complicated” living.

    The sentiment is na├»ve pastoral nonsense, and what’s more, we’ve known it for at least four hundred years. Sure, technology causes new problems, but the whole reason we have it in the first place is because it solves problems as well. Pastoralists forget that, which means they also implicitly forget an important part of that: in the past, we still had problems.

    So, yes, there are lives that would have been saved if we all still lived in agrarian societies with limited technology. You wouldn’t see people dying due to radiation poisoning or plane crashes or air pollution due to car exhausts. But you’d probably see a lot more people dying of heatstroke or injuries from domesticated animals or ergot poisoning. The increasing world population, the increasing number of healthy elderly and the decreasing infant and child mortality rate in the developed world are testaments to the point that the complexities of modern life save more lives than they end.

    And no lives are saved by forgetting history and idealizing the past.

    Losin’ it

    Kind of makes me miss Fuddrucker's.I’m overweight. I’ve had a couple of recent epiphanies regarding that fact, and I haven’t been comfortable with how I look (or what size pants I have to buy) for quite a long time. Finally, I’ve decided to do something about it, and I wish I’d made the decision–or rather, the commitment–earlier. So I’ve looked up some decent science-based nutrition sites, followed Greta Christina’s advice, and downloaded a couple of calorie-counting apps. I also walked close to three miles today on a whim (it’s shocking how short a trip that actually is), even though the exercise plan I developed on DailyBurn doesn’t have me exercising on Mondays.

    I’ve thrown myself into this pretty wholeheartedly, and I’m fairly confident that I’ll be successful. I owe that confidence to my skeptical, scientific mindset. First, I’m going to be seeking out solutions and practices supported by evidence. That’s going to require the second thing: lots of research. I’ve already been hitting the websites of some of my favorite restaurants for nutrition information, and I’ve gotten calorie recommendations from three or four different sources (haven’t talked to a doctor yet, but that’s on my agenda). Finally, I’ll be collecting and recording data regularly and diligently, so I have some objective idea of how well I’m doing. I’ve set reasonable goals and I have a reasonable attitude about what I can (and am likely to) achieve, and I’m not starting on a crash diet that I know won’t work in the long term.

    Unfortunately, I have already hit a couple of stumbling blocks. First, the estimates for my healthy weight are all over the damn map (I can’t imagine what I’d look like at 6′ and 138 lbs, but I suspect I wouldn’t have all my limbs), which means the numbers I’ve gotten for a daily calorie intake are similarly widespread. I’ve settled on the DailyBurn recommendation of 2458-2708, though I think I’d like to keep it closer to 2200, which was the ballpark of another program’s estimate. So far it seems more than doable.

    The other big problem I’ve hit is a lack of data. Sure, I can find nutrition information for a huge number of things, but the milkshake I got tonight to round out my calorie count (and in hopes of increasing my protein intake)? Not a nutrition pamphlet in sight. I used a reasonable facsimile in my count, but I think the solution is going to have to be avoiding some of those little mom-and-pop places with food of unknown value. I hate this whole dearth of information thing, and I really hate guessing–it goes against my instincts.

    I don’t have any kind of conclusion (talk to me in a few months). I’m just sharing one more way that a healthy skeptical, rational attitude can help you out, and hoping that anyone with more/better information, estimates, and so forth can share their findings as well. Yay science!