Hawking’s Bets

The awesome, spectacular announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson yesterday was a crowning achievement in physics, and will hopefully lead to awesome new science.

It’ll also lead to less money in Stephen Hawking’s wallet. Hawking bet Michigan University’s Gordon Kane $100 that the Higgs boson wouldn’t be found.

That reminded me a bit of a previous bet Hawking made, regarding black holes and information. Hawking lost that bet too.

I know that correlation doesn’t equal causation, but given this track record, if I were Stephen Hawking, I’d be finding someone to take a bet that they won’t discover a unified field theory in my lifetime.

I mean, it can’t hurt, right?

Lost in the Shuffle

With all the sexist derailment on the harassment policy topic thanks to folks like Thunderf00t, I think there’s a detail being lost in the shuffle. A lot of attention has been given to the notion that publicized harassment policies and clearly-stated rules will help to curb harassment by contributing to a culture that does not tolerate it. Critics usually seize on this part of the process, committing a perfectionist fallacy when they claim that such a policy won’t stop all harassment, so why try; being dismissive of real concerns by saying that publicizing this policy will cause others to fall victim to the availability heuristic1 and think the problem is bigger than it is; and saying that policies don’t need to be publicized, and we should just expect people to know and follow the rules (not sure how that one works, honestly).

The thing about harassment policies is that (properly implemented), they’re not just for the attendees, they’re also for the staff. A good harassment policy includes procedures for staff and volunteers to follow when taking reports of harassment. A good policy would leave no ambiguity in terms of what constitutes a report or how many reports were made at a given event. A good policy would have any investigation done at the time of the report, and not a year or more later.

You’ll note a theme here, as those are all points where TAM in particular is known to have failed with regard to their harassment policy. It’s great that they had one, but there appears to have been too little training or standardization of the policy and its procedures among the staff. It was good that they had a policy, but the policy needs to improve, so the mistakes that have plagued previous years are not repeated.

This is an important and undeniable point that has, I think, been somewhat overlooked. And given what we know for a fact about at least one conference and how it handled harassment reports, I can hardly see how any critic can, in good faith, oppose this point.

But I haven’t seen much good faith from any of the critics, so I suppose it’s a moot point.

1. I realize Carrier isn’t criticizing the notion of having good, well-publicized harassment policies, but others, like Thunderf00t and DJ Grothe have used this heuristic problem as a critique of the process.


Man, this has been a banner year for demonstrating that atheist luminaries have feet of clay. Or, in some cases, manure. Case in point: Thunderf00t, an atheist science-vlogger whose YouTube videos about science, skepticism, atheism, and creationism have long been among my favorites. It’s been awhile since I diligently checked my YouTube feed, but it’s still subscribed to Thunderf00t’s channel. I’ve even used his video showing the difference in combustion speeds of different chemicals in my classroom. But I may be cancelling that subscription in light of the recent (to me, anyway. Some are less surprised) revelation that Thunderf00t is a colossal asshole.

I’m not going to get too deep into his strawmanning, goalpost-shifting, asinine post on Freethoughtblogs. Other people are covering that better. Instead, I’m going to address a little bit of side-assholery that came out this morning, in response to a request by Skepchick blogger Surly Amy. See, Thunderf00t’s post used this photo that Amy had taken for this great post. She asked that Thunderf00t either credit her for the image (TF’s post is strangely lacking in links, citations, or basic research of any kind) or take it down.

Thunderf00t decided to go for the “both” option, and put up this image instead:

Look at all the scare quotes!

Look at all the scare quotes!

First, this is some world-class douchebaggery on display right here. Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the asinine argument presented by his revised image, I want to address the strawman it contains first. It’s not the ‘logic’ that’s copyrighted, it’s the fucking photograph. And there’s no scare-quote “copyright” about it; photographers have the rights to their photos. Ask anyone who’s hired a professional photographer to take pictures at a wedding or other event; you have to get licensure and so forth just to make copies. Posting without attribution? Unquestionably a violation of copyright.

I don’t think Thunderf00t, someone who’s been on the receiving end of lots of fraudulent copyright claims, is so stupid or ignorant as to think anyone was claiming the “logic” was “copyrighted.” I think he’s an asshole without a leg to stand on, so he makes this asshole strawman dig to make Amy look irrational. Because, you know, she’s a woman who dares to disagree with his uninformed knee-jerk opinion.

Now, as to Thunderf00t’s counter-‘logic’ (look, I can use scare-quotes too! Or do the Brits call them scare-inverted-commas?), I’d like to direct your attention to the subtle change TF00t made in the phrasing. Clearly, “sexism” in the first example is equated with “fire” in the second. So his additional bit of “when there isn’t one [a fire]” suggests that he thinks/claims/demonstrates that there is no sexism.

Except that’s not what he’s claiming, at least, not in the portion of his post that I could stomach reading. It’s all “*THIS REALLY ISN’T A BIG PROBLEM*” and “Put simply if your primary focus is on the conference scene, then in the internet age, it’s probably misplaced” and “If I want to chew on some womans leg in a bar, I don’t want to have to consult the conference handbook to see if this classes as acceptable behavior!”

To put it in Thunderf00t’s metaphor, there’s a group of people “screaming fire” and one asshole saying “That fire’s not even that big! In fact, that fire’s happening in a really small building that only a few people occupy, and most of the people are in this building, so why worry about that fire? In my experience, the fire in that building is among the least hot ever! That fire is no worse than the fires you’d encounter at your average campsite or bonfire! I think you’ll find that most people aren’t arsonists or pyromaniacs. What’s next? Will I have to fill out a form in triplicate if I want to light a cigarette? If someone wants me to light their fireplace, I should be able to do that? And if I want to light a fireplace in someone’s house, I don’t want to have to consult the safety guidelines to see if it classes as acceptable behavior!”

And in the meantime, the building is burning. Granted, the Conferences Building is rather small compared to the Internet Complex, and yet the Internet Complex is ablaze in a towering inferno. In fact, temperature in the YouTube Office Suite, which Thunderf00t occupies, is hot enough to forge steel weapons. Stories keep cropping up, where one person talks about how they were given a hot foot, or how someone waved a lit match at them in an elevator. People are getting e-mails helpfully telling them that they ought to wear suits made of asbestos and carry around big buckets of water. Crowds chase after people with torches. People slinking around with jugs of gasoline and boxes of matches, who keep threatening to set fires, who have recorded histories of describing their interest in fires and posting pictures of fires are dismissed as harmless, that suspicions of such individuals are overblown and unreasonable.

And while Thunderf00t’s in his burning office suite screaming that the fire next door is nothing to worry about, people in both buildings are getting burned.

I’d say that Thunderf00t should find better things to do with his time than stack up giant Jenga towers of anecdotes and accusations and text formatting that would make Gene Ray blush, but he’s obviously got bigger things to worry about.

I mean, he just set himself on fire.

Pascal’s Reporter

[Trigger warnings for rape, misogyny, harassment]

I’ve been following the recent harassment discussion pretty closely, and I feel like I’ve been learning a lot. While the last year or so have given me a serious crash course in feminism, gender politics, and privilege, this last month has shown that I’ve still got a ways to go. Case in point, this comment left by Willow on Ophelia Benson’s post about how threatening e-mails have kept her from going to TAM:

look it’s all ok for people to say she can decide what she wants to do with the threats. NO IT IS NOT!

if you are raped and do not report it and someone else is raped, you are partially responsible for that rape.

In this case, Ophelia has an obligation to report the threat and to share with other women, jerk men do not just attend TAM. They ATTEND lots of skeptic/humanist conferences. NOT outing this guy and reporting him, is like “oh well, I’m safe, good luck to the rest of you women.”

No, as a woman Ophelia has an obligation to her fellow women to keep them safe, and also to make sure these guys don’t “win”. To say “I quit” is to say “you win jerk man that has threatened me” and he has learned “wow threatening women really works well! I will try it more often!”

She can not attend and should not if she feels unsafe. But not posting the threat and who made it? That is not reporting a crime against women. Women don’t do that to women.

My first, knee-jerk reaction to that was that Willow had a point. “Evil triumphs when good [people] do nothing,” and all that. As bad as it was to be the victim of harassment, wouldn’t it be worse to see your harasser go on to other people, knowing you could have done something?

So I was surprised when the commenters rose up with righteous anger at Willow’s suggestion. My knee-jerk first reaction was that they were overreacting, that they were flying off the handle over a reasonable point. It’s easy to say “the rapist is 100% responsible for the rape,” but isn’t reality a little more complicated than that?

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past few years, if there’s one lesson that I keep returning to re: issues that concern the non-privileged, it’s the one that PZ Myers taught over a year ago: learn to shut up and listen. I didn’t post my knee-jerk reaction, in part because I recognize that the “jerk” part is there for a reason.

And so I read the responses, I read Stephanie Zvan’s heartbreaking story and the stories of her commenters, and I put some goddamn thought into the whole situation. And I realized why my knee-jerk reaction was wrong.

One problem with Willow’s position is that it’s something like Pascal’s Wager. Unlike Pascal’s Wager, it presents an actual dilemma: report or don’t report. But like Pascal’s Wager, it makes unsupported assumptions about the risks and benefits of the choice to report.

The dilemma presented in this scenario appears to be this (I’m using rapist per Willow’s example, but it applies equally to harassers):

Risks Benefits
Report Might not be believed Prevent rapist from harming others
Keep the rapists from winning
Fulfill obligation to help other women
Make others aware of the rapist
Don’t Report Allow rapist to freely harm others
Teach rapists that intimidating tactics work
Fail obligation to protect other women
Be partially responsible for all other rapes committed by that rapist
Remain safe (?)

I hope that’s not too much of an exaggeration. The problem is that it ignores several key realities. The first is that reporting carries with it a number of costs on its own. We’ve seen a microcosm of that just recently, with the recent harassment reports and the responses of trolls, MRAs, and misogynists of every stripe to them. We’ve also seen an authority figure treat claims and complaints of harassment dismissively, and show little inclination toward supporting the targets and victims of harassment.

Now imagine that instead of harassing e-mails or creepy guys in bars and crowds, we’re talking about a rapist. And imagine that instead of the president of a particular organization, we’re talking about police officers. Imagine that the rapist isn’t some anonymous Internet asshole, but a friend, family member, or other acquaintance of the survivor, as it is in 2/3 of rape cases. You can block anonymous commenters, you can have security remove the asshole from TAM, but you can’t necessarily escape the taunts and threats and harassment of the accused and their friends and family, who you may have to encounter on a regular basis.

And you’ll probably have to encounter the rapist as well, because only about 1/4 of reported rapes lead to an arrest. Of those, only another 1/4 will spend even one day in jail, and the average convicted rapist will spend only 5 1/2 years in prison.

Which brings us to the other prong of the problem with Willow’s wager: According to at least one study most (63%) of rapists are repeat offenders, averaging 5.8 rapes in a lifetime. While superficially this might support the point of Willow’s wager–if you don’t report, he’ll rape again!–the truth is a little simpler: even if you do report, chances are he’ll rape again. 4.8 more times, in fact. Since many (probably most) rapes go unreported, since 97% of reported rapists never serve jail time, and since that remaining 3% serves an average of 65 months in prison, chances are reporting will not prevent the rapist from committing more rapes.

And so Willow’s Wager rests on two flawed premises: Reporting is not without significant costs, and overwhelmingly does nothing to prevent additional instances of rape. Which is not to say that survivors shouldn’t be encouraged to report–increased rates of reporting are partially credited with the drop in sexual assault rates in the last 20 years or so, but it does mean that one can’t reasonably shame rape survivors for deciding that the risks of reporting outweigh the benefits, and it means that one can’t reasonably blame rape survivors for their rapists’ repeat offenses.

Ignorance is Bliss

Crommunist has a fantastic post up discussing some more of the recent sexism dust-up, centering around some Twitter comments and insults made regarding Rebecca Watson, who I’ll reiterate is awesome. In particular were some comments made by an ignorant twit named Ian Adelstein, who is like a Misogyny Bingo Card unto himself. I just looked over there and found ‘some of my best friends are feminists,’ which is kind of like Rick Santorum’s gay friends and all the good Daleks.

But the best part is the hole this dickbag has dug over his use of the phrase “uppity cunt.” He apologized up and down for his use of the c-word, but the idea that a word like “uppity” might be insensitive or offensive? Perish the thought! Some choice quotes:

“@Samuel_Erkison damn. I had no idea! Thanks! I just thought it meant arrogant. Sorry @jamiekilstein and Rebecca Watson.” (link)

Which was a graceful admission of ignorance and apparent apology. I give him an 8.5, taking points away because he didn’t @-reply to Rebecca.

If only he’d stuck the landing:

@Chris___B yea the uppity thing blew my mind. Had no idea that word was offensive now too. (link)

“Now,” of course, means “for the last 130 years.” Continuing…

@Chris___B baggage for some people. The dictionary doesn’t even define uppity as offensive. (link)

Did you know that dictionaries are meant to provide detailed connotation information, including dictating whether or not a word is offensive? I mean, Dictionary.com describes that it was “originally used by blacks of other blacks felt to be too self-assertive (first recorded use is in “Uncle Remus”),” and the first result on a Google search for the word brings up Urban Dictionary, which gives definitions like “Taking liberties or assuming airs beyond one’s place in a social heirarchy. Assuming equality with someone higher up the social ladder” and “Word used by racist old white Southerners to refer to any black person who looks them in the eye. Usually followed by nigger.” But no, the word is just a synonym for “arrogant,” nothing more. We certainly won’t get into the fourth link produced by a Google search.

@Chris___B b/c of the thesaurus. They are used interchangeably to most, besides liberal d bags. Go vote for Obama, pussy. (link)

“Yep, only liberal d-bags like Joel Chandler Harris and the Online Etymology Dictionary think the word might mean more than “arrogant.” Go vote for Obama, you pussy! Also, I’m totally not a racist or misogynist. And more liberal than you!”

This is, obviously, a brilliant move for the bigots out there who want to avoid the nasty social implications of their bigotry. Let me offer a few more, which you can use at your leisure:

  • “When I said she should ‘know her place,’ I just meant it’s important to know how to get back home!”
  • “Right, a ‘woman driver’! A woman who drives! Look it up in the dictionary!”
  • “When I called you a pussy, I just meant you were like a scaredy-cat! Most people use it interchangeably!”
  • “I didn’t say you couldn’t make yourself a sandwich too! And where else would you do it but the kitchen?”
  • “I didn’t know ‘fembot’ was offensive! I just meant that you’re hot and have guns for nipples!”
  • “Guys can be sluts too! Plus, women use the word, so it’s okay!”
  • “When I said that she sleeps with men to pay your rent, I just meant that she sublets her small apartment to a male tenant, and they have similar schedules! Apparently to liberals, ‘sleep’ means ‘have sex with,’ now.”

But it doesn’t have to stop with women!

  • “The thesaurus says ‘chink’ is a synonym for ‘weakness,’ and that’s all I meant.”
  • “What? He was doing hard work in the hot sun! Of course his back is going to get wet!”.
  • “Oh my god, now you liberal politically correct word-police want to make ‘boy’ an offensive word? He’s a boy, isn’t he? It’s a synonym for ‘male’! You’re the one bringing his race into it!”
  • “Duh, ‘faggot’ just means ‘a bundle of sticks,’ moron. Look it up. All it means is that I want to set you on fire.”

There you go, bigots! Let your ignorance be your force-field, and you can shield yourself from all consequences!

I shouldn’t have to note that Dictionaries are not the arbiters of offense and that intent isn’t some magic get-out-of-saying-offensive-shit-free card, but apparently I do. Words mean more than their dictionary definitions. If you call someone a goose-stepping brownshirt, you’re not saying that they walk like a bird and dress in earth tones. Anyone who would disagree with that either has their head so far up their ass that they’re chewing on polyps, or is too dumb to function.

The First Rule of Elevators

If you just keep pressing buttons, you’re never going to get to where you want to be.

Way back on June 20th, 2011, Rebecca Watson posted a YouTube video about some recent experiences she’d had with Mythbusters, robots, oh and a guy propositioning her in an elevator.

Almost a full year later (I suppose the next 19 days may change something dramatically), you can still find MRAs and misogynists harping about the incident, as if it were the first and only instance in history in which a woman felt somewhat unsafe or harassed or targeted at a gathering because of her sex. I didn’t have to do a “Ctrl+F” for long on a recent post to find someone using the incident to dismiss harassment, concerns about harassment, and conversations about sexism across the board.

It’s not hard to see why the sexists have latched onto the issue: it was a prominent incident, it kicked off a lot of the conversation, and it was a situation where a woman deigned to tell men that a woman’s opinion and personal choices were at least as valid as a man’s desire to get laid. Even Dick to the Dawk to the P-h-D joined in–and on the side of the MRAs! So now, every time the sexism conversation comes up, some exasperated MRA will summon the ancient spirit of Elevatorgate as their Guardian Force. Perhaps they think that drawing the connection will show that all women’s complaints are just as overblown and out-of-proportion and silly and dismissible as they clearly think Rebecca’s was. Perhaps it’s more sinister, a way of saying “remember Elevatorgate? Remember what we did to Rebecca Watson? You don’t want to bring that shitstorm down on your head, so you’d better shut up if you know what’s good for you.”

Unfortunately for the MRAs, all the damage dealt by the Elevatorgate spirit is self-inflicted. I realize that the MRAs and misogynists have blown up the incident into Rebecca Watson cruelly bullying a well-meaning, awkward young man–maybe a child?–who just wanted to drink coffee with a famous skeptic in his hotel room at 4 AM and had no other intentions, by saying that he attempted to rape her, and then calling for a blanket ban on all sex with men everywhere, as well as a boycott of books by Dawkins, who was gallant enough to stand up for the real problems women face and wasn’t blinded into acquiescence by Rebecca’s celebrity.

But to anyone with a reasoning brain that doesn’t suddenly fly into rage-mode when it hears Rebecca’s name or when someone talks about women’s issues, what happened is that a guy ignored her explicitly-expressed wishes, followed her into a confined space, and propositioned her. She then said “guys, don’t do that.”

And for her troubles, she’s become the target of going-on-a-year’s worth of constant abuse from a variety of corners, in the form of name-calling, threats, and what do you know, plans to assault her at TAM.

For the MRAs who haven’t figured out the problem with this yet, if you want to diminish and dismiss women’s concerns about sexism and misogyny in the skeptical movement, the precise wrong way to do it is to continue attacking someone for saying “guys, don’t do that” a year ago. Every time a misogynist resurrects the spectre of Elevatorgate, they’re reminding the reasonable people out there that a woman can’t say something as simple, calm, and reasonable as “maybe don’t corner women and proposition them right after they said they didn’t like being hit on and were going to bed” without receiving over-the-top abuse for a year.

Which is the primary reason that anyone else brings up Elevatorgate: not because of the actual incident, not even because of Rebecca’s discussion of the incident, but because of the response to the incident, that dozens if not hundreds of people came out of the woodwork to offer rape threats and slurs and abuse in response to a reasonable request to treat women like people with agency first, and sex objects second. The actual incident wasn’t evidence of a problem with sexism and misogyny within the skeptical and atheist movements, but the response to the incident showed that the problem was big, sensitive, and prone to exploding at the slightest provocation. And as it turns out, a lot of guys seem to have that problem.

So my advice to the MRAs is to let sleeping elevators lie. Stop calling on the ghost of Elevatorgate. It doesn’t help your case, and only really serves to remind everyone else that you’re aligned with a vitriolic, reactionary, frothy-at-the-mouth group of people who are all too willing to spew bile and threaten violence at people on the Internet. If you want to help your cause, find new ways to ignore and dismiss the concerns of women.

Or, you know, listen to and address them. But that would never work.

Why I don’t go to TAM

There’s been a lot of well-deserved drama in the Skeptosphere lately, mostly because JREF president D.J. Grothe has gone and stuck his foot in his mouth again regarding women and sexism in the skeptical community. Better blogs have the fuller story, so I won’t get into it. But I thought I might get into the reason that I’ve never been to a TAM and am likely never to go. After all, I’m a straight white cis middle-class dude: by virtue of my magical penis, I need never worry about being groped, fondled, dismissed for “misinforming” skeptics about my “sexual exploits” with “skeezy” people, or otherwise treated like women typically seem to be within and without the skeptical community.

No, the reason I’ve never been is simple: it’s too goddamn expensive.

We can leave aside the cost of a plane trip and a hotel, and the costs of food and so forth in Las Vegas. Four days of TAM cost $475, or $425 if I renew my JREF registration (which, thanks to the president, is looking like a less and less likely proposition). I come from a background of comic book and sci-fi conventions, and so that informs my assessment of typical convention stuff. Maybe if I attended other sorts of conventions instead, like TED or professional conferences, my opinion would be different. As it stands, if I wanted to get a four-day pass to the world’s biggest annual comic convention, I’d be shelling out less than half of what I’d pay for TAM ($150). When I attend conventions typically, I drop less than $80 on the ticket, leaving plenty of money for other stuff. And I just do not understand what makes TAM so different from Comic-Con or Dragon*Con ($105) that requires such a markup. Is it because TAM, unlike other conventions, is held in a casino? You’d think that would drive down the costs. Is it because TAM has so many speakers that charge exorbitant honoraria to speak? I suspect that’s part of it. Is it because TAM doesn’t have vendors selling books and the like? I honestly don’t know, having not been to one. But boy, that seems like a major oversight; I have to imagine that tables selling skeptical books (for people to potentially get signed) would make a stunning profit at TAM, and if said vendors paid for the floorspace, it would drive the cost down, right?

But I really don’t know. And while a few years ago, I might have made a point to save up for some TAM down the line, these days I’m far more likely to focus my attention on something like Skepticon or CONvergence, which are both closer to me and more cost-effective. It’s a bummer that I probably wouldn’t meet the Mythbusters or even Penn & Teller, but between the attitude of D.J. Grothe toward very real problems in the community, some of my (and my friends’) experiences with various douchebag luminaries in the community, the coddling of religious views and attacks against people who actually apply skepticism to religion, and the various boundary issues of members of this community on the whole, I don’t have any inclination to bother.

Speaking of those boundary issues, it’s not just women who have to deal with them–they just have to deal with more and worse. I won’t relate the story of one friend, but I know someone who had an experience with a moderately prominent skeptic which is still a source of discussion and revealed one of the movement’s nice guys to be a pretty awful person. I myself had some asshat in the comments at Blag Hag track down my Facebook account so he could harangue me outside the comments about how he’d responded to me, and what a jerk I was for insinuating that he was sexist. And I’m a nobody, occasionally commenting on blogs I like, and this was a startling but ultimately shallow breach of privacy and netiquette–I can scarcely imagine what bigger bloggers like Rebecca Watson or Jen McCreight go through on a daily basis.

Except I don’t have to imagine it, because it’s all right there on the web. Every time the topic comes up, out flood the MRAs and apologists, whining about the topic, shouting down any discussion, denying that there’s a problem, calling out the “ugly” “fembots,” and this time around, siding entirely with D.J. Grothe. It might be guilt by association, but perhaps the JREF president should consider just which people are jumping to his defense, and whether or not that might speak louder than women commenting on the real problems in the community.