I’m With PZ and Jane Doe

I’m on the side that openly denounces misogyny, racism, and rape culture. It disgusts me that this conflict has become necessary in the skeptical and atheist communities.

We’re supposed to be better than the dogmatists who set up the self-fulfilling inequalities in our culture. We’re supposed to strive for high moral standards, not merely settle for being slightly better than the invisible sky monsters and their idolators. We’re supposed to blame perpetrators, not victims. We’re supposed to be sympathetic to the oppressed because we’ve experienced oppression. We’re supposed to be self-aware so that we don’t become oppressors ourselves. We’re supposed to tear down pretty facades to uncover the ugly truths. We’re supposed to disrupt a bad status quo, even if it means rocking peoples’ boats. We’re supposed to judge people by their character and merits, not by their claimed affiliations and labels. We’re supposed to criticize our heroes when they make mistakes.

We’re supposed to look at the merits of an argument instead of dismiss them with convenient ad hominem appeals to popular stereotypes and absurd narratives that were invented to dismiss them. We’re supposed to exercise extra scrutiny when someone claims biology supports cultural stereotypes. We’re supposed to know that our experiences are biased, limited, and not the whole context so that we can listen to other people’s experiences, look at raw data, and examine the logic behind a position with a genuine open mind. We’re supposed to act like skeptics if we call ourselves skeptics. We’re supposed to continue improving ourselves rather than idly pat ourselves on the back just for being atheists.

Good News/Bad News

You may have heard about a woman who recently decided to try living on solar power, tea, and water, instead of food. Good news: She’s stopped. Bad news: She lost about 20% of her weight in the experiment, and she’s rationalizing. One sentence in particular got me annoyed:

“I was just asking a question, but there was just so much negative response that that means the question can’t even be asked,” she said.

This is the sort of tepid excuse I’ve come to expect from a lot of woos regarding scientific questions. They can’t handle adversity like adults, and science is pretty adversarial. You don’t just dismiss criticism for being “negative.” You deal with criticism as rationally as you can, using logic and evidence to answer it. That’s a part of what it means to ask controversial questions. Criticism is supposed to be expected. Brainstorming without criticism is good for generating new ideas, but sooner or later, you need to sort the good ideas from the bad, and that typically means having a two-way conversation with critics. When you speak, you are not entitled to uniform cheering.

A lot of the time, people with the consensus view reacts negatively because the idea in question has been tested and failed or is implausible for well-established reasons. And with ideas like hers, the most likely outcome was that she’d harm herself. I care about people, even if they do stupid things. I criticize precisely because I care and want to dissuade them from harmful action.

Here’s the kicker: If you don’t have answers to criticism, question the value of your idea. You might be the one who’s wrong.

I’m glad she stopped, though I’d prefer if she did so for rational reasons.

The Blunt, Obvious Truths About the Redefinition of Marriage

Today’s post is inspired by Tynk’s comment, over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

As I see it:

Modern hetero marriage: Legitimate because it is between informed, consenting adults.

Same sex marriage: Legitimate because it is between informed, consenting adults.

“Traditional” chattel-based hetero marriage: Illegitimate because it treats women like commodities to be traded or livestock to be tamed, rather than respecting their autonomy of will. It considers their informed consent to be optional, rather than mandatory, and often denies them the right to withdraw consent and leave the relationship. It often overlaps with communities where women have their range of choices in life artificially limited by lack of education (to reduce their ability to be informed) and other cultural barriers to opportunity. It seeks to create weaknesses to provide the husband the power to exploit them for his selfish gain. It gives birth to rape culture and weakens the character of both men and women by lowering society’s standards of maturity. In the civilized world, an adult is supposed to treat his or her spouse as an equal partner, not as property.

Rape: Illegitimate because it is an act performed with blatant disregard for the victim’s consent.

The long defunct NAMBLA: Illegitimate because one member of the relationship is a child, who is considered not competent to consent by default and vulnerable to exploitation. On the related sex angle, this is also the reason it’s called statutory rape.

Child marriages in general: Illegitimate because one member of the relationship is a child, who is considered not competent to consent by default and vulnerable to exploitation. On the related sex angle, this is also the reason it’s called statutory rape.

Arranged marriages: Illegitimate because they’re not based on the consent of the members involved, but the imposition of those who wield power over them. Made worse when it’s between children.

Bestiality: Illegitimate because non-sapient animals aren’t competent to give consent. They lack the intellectual capacity to understand marriage.

Eugenics-based marriage: Illegitimate because it puts the state in control of the most private parts of people’s lives without regard to their informed consent. It’s also stupid because it’s typically reliant on pseudoscientific ideas about “purity” or “perfection” when all the evidence of biological evolution pretty much tells us there is no such thing.

Marriage by divine dictation: Illegitimate because it arbitrarily puts an unevidenced being’s alleged will above that of the involved members, typically through duress like other arranged marriages.

Single & Loving It

One issue that’s starting to come up a little more often for me is marriage. Not in my personal life, but in my net life. Ed Brayton over on Dispatches occasionally responds to fundies and the like who whine about people who don’t immediately marry, and I occasionally run into trolls who implicitly or explicitly argue that being unmarried means you’re an unlovable loser who doesn’t matter and doesn’t contribute to society.

I’m on the borderline between hetero and asexual. I could be an asexual who’s hetero-curious or a hetero with a naturally low libido. I’m not sure which way to split the hair. Add in the social issues that come with Asperger’s for extra fun. Whatever it is, I’m just not strongly inclined to go looking for Ms. Right, though I don’t rule out the possibility that I might stumble on her. I’m glad I have understanding parents who haven’t been pushing me to get married. It’s not something I would want to force. I think marriage is supposed to be about genuine love and respect, not a forced duty to someone else’s wishes. Society’s drive for white picket fences and 2.5 children be damned, this is about what individuals want in their lives.

If you want to be married and have kids, go ahead and do that, but do it because it’s what you want and let me do what I want without being shamed for who I am. I do have a romantic side, but it’s like that idea of being “in love with love.” I think people who love each other should be free to celebrate their love. I like the idea of a couple who love each other making it work against the odds, and I’d be glad to help them. That’s one big reason why I’m pro-LGBT rights. Why should the heteros be privileged?

By the way, I think we should consider adding an A to LGBT. I think I might try doing that and see how well it goes. I had it relatively easy, but I still see some discriminatory attitudes against asexuals. One of the big ones I see is the assumption that relative disinterest in the opposite sex means homosexuality, which lets us have our turn at being targets for the same bigots.

One thing that really hurts are the people who cheapen marriage by making it about reproduction. First, our planet is suffering from human overpopulation. Reproduction isn’t an absolute duty because of that. Having a proportion of non-reproducing individuals seems like the most civilized way to lower the population, especially if they’re already disinclined towards reproductive forms of sex. Second, we’re k-type reproducers. We have relatively few offspring, but invest heavily into making those offspring successful. There’s more to the reproductive success of a species than simply popping out more babies. Non-reproducers like me can still contribute to the human infrastructure we call civilization for the next generation’s benefit.

Some trolls pull out the “if everyone did it” canard, which is quite moot. We aren’t trying to talk hetero couples out of having kids. We aren’t claiming there is One True Way to Live like these trolls are. Humans are naturally diverse and in large societies we naturally end up specializing. If everyone was a farmer, we’d have no scientists, no factory workers, no doctors, and so on. So what? No one’s proposing that everyone be a farmer. I’m not proposing that everyone should be a bachelor. And in this case, it’s not like a profession. You can change your profession. You can discover that you like a different line of work you hadn’t considered. You can get bored with your current profession. Sexual orientation isn’t so easy to change. As I see it, heterosexuality is the most common orientation, and it’s not going to die out just because we let same-sex or transgender couples marry or let asexuals stay single. We just want people to recognize that the other options are acceptable and they shouldn’t be stigmatized. They’re not objectively better or worse, just different, and it’s up to the individual to decide what best fits him.

Why Fallacies are Stupid

Recently, Mariah at Post-Abe wrote a post challenging Hicksians to defend Hicks. She explicitly discouraged them from using logical fallacies, going so far as to include a link to a chart displaying a lot of the popular ones. That’s when things get silly. Someone named Flipside decides to comment on the matter:

Mariah–how fair, let alone rational, is it to invite a “defense of Esther Hicks”, which you say you will be “…glad to hear”, and then, before anyone has even offered anything at all, you limit said defense with “no logical fallacies”? Wow! And I don’t see any responses. What a shock!!

It’s hard to find words to describe how amazingly oblivious that comment is. Being rational pretty much means minimizing the use of logical fallacies, as does being fair in an argument. If this were a saner world, discouragements like Mariah’s wouldn’t even need to be typed, but apparently some people are so out of touch with reality and/or so shameless in their deceit, they’d object to such reminders. They generally aren’t so explicit about it, though.

In logic, a valid argument is one where if the premises are true, the conclusion will be true. A fallacy is an invalid argument because the premises can be true but the conclusion can be false. There’s some fuzziness with the real world, since there’s uncertainty, but on that level, there are “cogent” arguments, where correct premises will lead to the conclusion most likely being true. Fallacies undermine the cogency of an argument for the same reasons. In many cases, the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises at all. There’s no connection between P and Q. It’s a non-sequitur. Hence, rational people will favor valid or cogent (non-fallacious) arguments to reach conclusions and reject fallacious arguments.

Using logical fallacies is inherently unfair. It’s also like in math class when you don’t get any points on a question because you didn’t show your work. If you skip the process, the teacher is justified in suspecting you just stole the answer instead of actually working the problem. If you rely on logical fallacies, we’re justified in suspecting that your assertions are baseless and that your conclusions are likely to be wrong. People with a sense of fair play (and the requisite critical thinking skills) will call out fallacies because they’re a way to cheat your way to the illusion of a correct answer and a way to cheat your way past some people’s critical thinking abilities to convince them of the accuracy of an unsupported conclusion. Humans have cognitive biases that distort our thinking towards irrationality. Fallacies are often employed by propagandists and other deceivers precisely because they unfairly exploit our irrational tendencies.

The non-sequitur type fallacies are probably the best reason why Mariah moderates her comments. As much as I like to roast trolls at times, it’s often pointless because they simply won’t learn what they’re doing wrong, and many readers will just roll their eyes as they try to dominate the topic while everyone else tries to convince the troll that he’s wrong on a seemingly obvious and fundamental level. The trolls will just spin their wheels and double down on their insanity without actually contributing anything meaningful to the discussion, forcing the others to either dwell on a PRATT (Point Refuted A Thousand Times) or let the troll get the last word in and have the illusion of victory and unearned self-esteem. It can be quite draining and distract from thoughtful comments that might get skipped over as a result of the troll’s inability to learn basic logic.

It really sickens me that society has been lax in combating fallacious modes of thought. Many so-called “journalists” will happily let people say pretty much any absurd thing unchallenged and unquestioned in the name of “balance” against rational positions, rather than do the critical thinking, research, and investigation involved in their job. Politicians happily employ fallacies in the form of propaganda. Religions demand special exemptions from rational scrutiny. I often wonder if the problem’s getting worse, and/or if I’m becoming more aware of it.

Now, to some popular fallacies, why they’re stupid, and why you should naturally feel ashamed of yourself if you rely on them.

Ad hominem: Attacking the arguer instead of his arguments. It’s one of the big favorites, and it’s worth pointing out that insults are not necessarily ad hominems. “Your argument is wrong because X, Y, and Z, and you’re an idiot because you didn’t realize that” is not a fallacious ad hominem. The ‘idiot’ part is a largely pointless (though sometimes stress-relieving) side conclusion. It does not affect the refutation it’s packaged with. “Your argument is wrong because you live in your mom’s basement” is fallacious. Before you try to badly mimic a critical thinker and sling the phrase around as if it were a magical totem, think. Oh, and welcome to the internet. If you can’t take a few side insults along with the meat of the argument, you’re probably not mature enough to be arguing with adults. This goes double if you’re going to waste the other commentator’s time by whining about the tone and nothing else, trying to halt serious discussion while you go on about your overly delicate feelings. Grow up. If you want to change our minds, do the mature thing and address the meat of the argument before doing any pointless stuff. Or how about doing one better and not doing the pointless part at all? If you’re civil, that will more likely encourage civil tone.

Straw Man: A favorite of politicians as well as woos. The popular metaphor is the image of two combatants; one combatant hastily constructs a straw effigy of his opponent, commences to pummel the straw man into oblivion without touching his real opponent, and then declares victory. Simply put, this is about attacking an argument your opponent never made or attacking a position he never asserted. It makes you look closed-minded because you don’t want to deal with reality. It tells people you’d rather play softball with figments of your imagination than challenge yourself. Oh, and asking a question about someone’s position isn’t a straw man, it’s a question. So many trolls seem to assume that we just know what they believe and that every request for clarification is actually intentional, malicious disinformation. If you don’t know what a person’s position is, ask and listen. Then you can start constructing criticisms based on what they actually say, not merely rehearse a script.

Argumentum ad Populum / Appeal to popularity: Just because a lot of people believe something doesn’t make it true. Epistemology isn’t American Idol. Truth isn’t determined by popular vote or by fashion. The world wasn’t flat until scientists convinced enough people it was round. What’s sick is that I’ve seen trolls use this fallacy and then call skeptics sheep when they start pointing out their fallacies as a result of thinking about it. Of course, there’s something of a hipster reversal of this fallacy, where a troll assumes that popular or consensus ideas must be wrong because they’re popular or consensus and that we must bow down to how superior and independent-thinking he is for subscribing to the most obscure belief we’ve never heard of, even if it is completely baseless.

Appeal to Authority: Here’s a tricky one that trolls never learn the nuance about. If you’re under a time crunch, it’s okay to accept the word of a recognized expert. If I’m severely injured and rapidly losing blood, I’ll trust the paramedics and doctors to do their job. If there’s no time crunch, however, the appeal can become fallacious because it becomes unnecessary. In your typical blog conversation, there’s no pressing deadline, so we don’t have to bow down before an alleged expert’s assertions. That’s when we get into the nitty-gritty details. The real authority is in the diligence of the experiments and observations and the logic behind interpreting the results, not the guy with the most letters after his name. We don’t treat anyone as an absolute authority or divine, infallible prophet. Ironically, I find a lot of trolls who try to assert that skeptics use this fallacy are more often projecting their own authoritarian tendencies, since they’ll often offer up an alternative expert, complain when we dare to question his magnificence, and go on to pretend the whole thing is a clash of two titans of light and darkness, not about logic or the steady accumulation of quality evidence by an entire world full of scientists.

It’s frustrating knowing that so many people out there don’t understand the basics of how to argue, and prefer to rely on cheats and volume to get their way. So many are raised in segments of society that coddle ideas and shelter people instead of striving for something better.

Settling for Second Worst

That phrase popped into my head just now to describe an argument that’s popular with religious fundamentalists, misogynists, and other assorted trolls.

One example that’s been in my blogosphere is Amanda Todd, and how a guy calling himself The Amazing Atheist demonstrates that you don’t have to be religious to be an asshole. Amanda was driven to suicide by an online stalker, but apparently we shouldn’t feel sorrow because she had it better than women in radical Islamic countries.

A similar attitude from the opposite direction is an argument from Gary Bauer that feminists should pipe down because they’re better off than Malala, who was shot by the Taliban for advocating women’s education. In another example, a number of bloggers were criticizing an unconstitutional heavily Christian school district, and a troll came in to ask if we’d prefer the school to be heavily Islamic, as if there were only two choices.

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The Happiness Patrol

PZ posted a brief snippet on a “Day of Agreement” sham that’s apparently going on today, which I suspect is supposed to put up a facade of harmony and browbeat us dissenters into cooperating with the majority. It reminded me of a brief thing that went on in a town I used to live in. I don’t remember if they actually called themselves “The Happiness Patrol,” but I was pretty disgusted with the idea, and yes, as a kid, I had seen that episode. Thankfully, I never encountered the patrol personally, but apparently their tactics included subjecting killjoys like us to drive-by smilings. Probably very annoying to experience, but otherwise pretty harmless.

Then I ended up having a nightmare of a daydream: What if they ran around giving us killjoys hugs against our wishes?

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