Saturday, June 30, 2007

Anti-Gay Discrimination by the Numbers

40 Number of states that have Defense of Marriage Acts
11 Number of states that have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and/or any legal contracts for same-sex couples
41 Number of states that do not permit second-parent adoptions for gay couples
3 Number of states that have laws explicitly prohibiting gay individuals and couples from adopting and/or being foster parents
28 Number of states that do not regularly permit gay adoptions
19 Number of states that do not include sexual orientation in hate crimes legislation
15.5 Percentage of reported hate crimes that are commited against LGBT people
20 Percentage of gay people that have been victims of hate crimes
33 to 50 Percentage of anti-gay hate crimes that are reported
34 States that permit discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation
44 States that permit discrimination in employment based on gender identity
38 States that permit discrimination in housing based on sexual orientation
726 Members of the military discharged for being gay in 2005 (Due to military decision to cut down on anti-gay discharges for duration of war, prewar numbers were substantially higher.)

Friday, June 29, 2007

Atheism and Civil Rights

There’s an interesting discussion going on over at Science Blogs about whether atheism is a civil rights issue. (You can read some of the discussion at Framing Science, Pharyngula, Evolution Blog, and Pure Pedantry.)

My answer is yes and no. That seems self-contradictory, so I'd like to note the difference between a civil rights "issue" in the vague sense and a civil rights movement, which is more concrete. Discrimination of any kind is a violation of civil rights, regardless of whether the discrimination is perpetuated against a member of a minority or a majority. (Discrimination against caucasians is just as much a civil rights issue in that sense as discrimination against African-Americans.) Fighting discrimination is an admirable goal and one to which we should all be committed.

A civil rights movement, on the other hand, is a completely different subject. Civil rights movements are aimed at removing legal impediments to equal rights, including laws that actively promote the violation of civil rights and laws that deny protection of a particular group's civil rights. Civil rights movements are also concerned with ensuring that the law acknowledges the civil rights of a particular group. For African-Americans, women, gays, etc., inequality was/is codified, legal, and enforced by the government.

Under existing local, state, and federal laws as well as standing Supreme Court precedent, discrimination based on religion is a crime. These laws are enforced by the government both to protect religious minorities and to protect the nonreligious minority. Attacking someone based on religion or lack thereof is characterized as a special type of crime, hate crime or "bias-motivated" crime. Hate crimes against atheists are prosecuted under these laws.

Laws and practices which violate the separation of church and state do not specifically target atheists but instead affect all religious minorities and those in the religious majority who oppose them. As these issues are not atheist-specific, the atheist movement does not fall under the definition of a civil rights movement.

Under the majority of existing local, state, and federal laws, discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is legal. In most parts of the country, there is no recourse to the law for those who are denied employment, housing, education, health care, etc. based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In most parts of the country, hate crimes laws do not protect those who are attacked for being gay or transgender. Then, we have to consider the laws that specifically prevent gay people from giving blood, marrying, adopting children, retaining custody of their non-biological children after the death of their partner, retaining visitation rights to their non-biological children after a separation, sponsoring their foreign-born domestic partners for a visa, etc. These laws are gay-specific and do not apply to other groups.

Under existing law, gay people are a separate, unprotected class specifically denied equal protection by force of law. The same can be said of women and racial/ethnic minorities in the recent past. This cannot be said of atheists today. Atheism is therefore not a civil rights issue in the sense of requiring a civil rights movement to ensure the legal acknowledgement and protection of atheists' civil rights.


From Volokh In 2001, for instance, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld an order giving a mother custody partly because she took the child to church more often than the father did, thus providing a better "future religious example."

From Nolo: In MacLagan v. Klein, 123 N.C. App. 557, 473 S.E. 2d 778 (1996), a North Carolina court ruled that, since a young girl had identified as Jewish since age three, exposure to the Methodist religion might interfere with her Jewish identity and adversely affect her emotional well-being. Based on its concern that the girl might suffer harm in the future, the court gave the Jewish father sole control over the child's religious education.

Also from Volokh: Likewise, through the past decades, parents have had their rights limited or denied partly based on their racist views, advocacy of Communism, Nazi sympathies, advocacy of pacifism and disrespect for the flag, advocacy of polygamy, defense of the propriety of homosexuality, defense of adultery, advocacy of (or inadequate condemnation of) nonmarital sex, fundamentalism, teaching of religions that make it hard for children to “fit in the western way of life in this society” or that are “non-mainstream,” and teaching of religious intolerance.

In his full paper "Parent-Child Speech and Child Custody Speech Restrictions", Eugene Volokh cites the following cases:
"Collier v. Collier, 14 Phila. 129, 144, 149 (Pa. Ct. Common Pleas 1985) (giving father only weekend custody, partly because of his fundamentalist lifestyle and attitudes- such as “disapprov[al] of most popular music as ‘satanic’”-which were seen as likely to lead to “serious problems for the children in adolescence”)"
Decree of Dissolution of Marriage, Jones v. Jones, No. 49D01-0305-DR-00898, at 4 (Feb. 13, 2004), available at (directing parents “to take such steps as are needed to shelter [the child] from involvement and observation of these non-mainstream religious beliefs and rituals”) rev’d, 832 N.E.2d 1057,1061 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005)" This case was also in reference to fundamentalist religious beliefs.
Mendez v. Mendez, 527 So. 2d 820, 821, 823 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1987) (Baskin, J., dissenting) (taking view that lower court’s denial of custody to Jehovah’s Witness was based on expert evidence that being raised as Jehovah’s Witness would make it hard for children to “fit in the western way of life in this society”)

Melinda here: It is my opinion, considering this evidence, that religious considerations in child custody are not restricted to atheism and are thus not specifically an atheist rights issue. They are, in my opinion, an unconscionable violation of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.

American Atheists has an interesting explanation of how the Supreme Court and federal courts have extended the legal definition of "religion" to include atheism, secular humanism, etc. and have applied freedom of religion to them as well.

Rieux, in the comments, cites a recent Supreme Court decision as being "against atheist," however, this is a highly questionable interpretation. The Supreme Court's majority opinion in Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation was that the atheist group that initiated the challenge to Bush's faith-based office did not have legal standing.

From The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:

"It has long been established ... that the payment of taxes is generally not enough to establish standing to challenge an action taken by the federal government," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy.

"If every federal taxpayer could sue to challenge any government expenditure, the federal courts would cease to function as courts of law and would be cast in the role of general complaint bureaus," Alito wrote.

This decision to deny standing was not based on the fact that the group was an atheist group, only on the fact that they were taxpayers, who cannot challenge federal decisions based solely on their role as taxpayers.

This decision becomes even less an atheist issue when one considers the groups that filed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of the Freedom from Religion Foundation:
American Civil Liberties Union
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty
People for the American Way Foundation
Anti-Defamation League
Center for Inquiry
American Jewish Congress
American Atheists
Center for Secular Humanism

Of these organizations, two are Jewish, one is Christian, three are neutral and only four (including FFRF) are atheist. Yes, atheists are discriminated against for their beliefs, but so are Wiccans, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, fundamentalists (in some areas), etc. Trying to make the separation of church and state and religious freedom "atheist" issues is an insult to the tens of millions of American citizens of all religions and none who fight to protect our way of life from the encroachments of the the current government.

UPDATE 2: Thanks to an anonymous comment and a little googling, I discovered that the "Center for Inquiry" was incorrectly listed as the "Center for Free Inquiry" on the Freedom from Religion Foundations's website and thus, on this blog. I also discovered that the Center for Secular Humanism filed jointly with the Center for Inquiry. I corrected the link for CFI, added a link for CSH, and updated the numbers in the final paragraph. However, we still have only 4 atheist organizations out of the 10 involved. So, my point stands.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Man Behind the Curtain

My reading schedule for the last year or so has been confined to replicating and updating the two years of research I lost due to Katrina. So, I've missed out on some of the "major" works outside the reach of the book I'm writing, which is on the intersections between science and political, cultural, and social debates. So interesting you could die, right? Anyway, I finally decided to pick up some of the works I've missed, like Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation.

I've read much of Sam Harris' other work, including his column at Huffington post, and various interviews. My impression has generally been that he's an extremist, not because he's opposed to religion but in how he's opposed to it. In other words, the fact that he would say something like this, "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." That should speak for itself.

Anyway, as I'm just starting Letter to a Christian Nation, I won't do a full review here yet. However, I have to admit I broke into uproarious laughter after the first 50 pages or so. Why? The man behind the curtain, pretending to be the great wizard of atheism, is a moron. In just the first 50 pages, there are so many factual and logical errors and Harris misses the point of so many simple concepts that I can only assume he has some kind of mental deficiency. Perhaps, the rest of the book will change my mind, but so far I am amazed at his ability to gain entrance into the world of the "public intellectual."

Why was this so funny? After all, the worsening anemia of public discourse has disastrous implications. It's funny, because this popped into my head: "Don't hate the player. Hate the game." So, I have a bizarre sense of humor. Sue me.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

History of Science

Wikipedia has a good entry on the history of science. A quick read through demonstrates why Lewis Wolpert's concentration on the Greeks as the progenitors of science is a bit too Eurocentric. Consider the scientists of the Muslim world, whom Wolpert cursorily dismisses as possibly having some contribution to science:

While emphasizing the contribution of Chistian society to science, the contributions of Islam must also be recognized. Islamic scholars also continued the Greek tradition, and it may not be irrelevant that Islam offers a unifying perspective of knowledge and considers the pursuit of knowledge to be a virtue. It could of course, not have been Christianity alone that was responsible for the flowering of science in the West in the sixteeth century. (Wolpert, The Unnatural Nature of Science, p. 51)

Muslim scientists placed far greater emphasis on experiment than had the Greeks. This led to the modern scientific method being developed in the Muslim world, where significant progress in methodology was made, beginning with the experiments of Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) on optics from circa 1000, in his Book of Optics.[2] The most important development of the scientific method was the use of experiments to distinguish between competing scientific theories set within a generally empirical orientation, which began among Muslim scientists. Ibn al-Haytham is also regarded as the "father of optics", especially for his empirical proof of the intromission theory of light. Some have also described Ibn al-Haytham as the "first scientist" for his development of the modern scientific method.[22] (Wikipedia)

Wolpert focused solely on the Muslims' continuance of Greek tradition, but it is only the Muslims' break with Greek tradition (in introducing repeatable experiments and a concrete methodology)that made science as we know it possible. In adddition, we must ask, "Where would science be without the Arab inventions of algorithms, algebra, decimal point notation and chemistry?" Considering the role of Muslims in introducing 12th century Europe to modern science and the preserved works of the Greeks as well as their substantial lead in formulating heliocentric models of the universe, we can only assume that (Wolpert's theories aside) Islam's role in the Scientific Revolution of the 16th century was far greater than that of Christianity.

Remember, the heliocentric model of Copernicus gave birth to the Scientific Revolution. Can we assume that he was not influenced by earlier models proposed by Muslim astronomers, whose works were a vital part of Europe's scientific canon? I don't think so.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Review: The Unnatural Nature of Science

In The Unnatural Nature of Science, Lewis Wolpert purports to explain (according to the book jacket) "the fundamental difference between science and technology, and between artistic and scientific creativity...why psychoanalysis is not properly scientific, why computers cannot do science, why science and religion are incompatible, and why philosphy and sociology have told us little about the true nature of science." Unfortunately, he does none of these things very well and, in fact, doesn't do some of them at all.

First, the language and organization are atrocious. Wolpert seems intent on breaking all of the rules of good communication and good argument. He never uses a simple word when a complex one will do, rarely defines his terms (For example, he will argue that one theory provides a more satisfactory explanation than another but never defines what makes an explanation satisfactory.), will contradict himself from one sentence to the next, and jumps from one topic to the next and back again with no apparent rhyme or reason.

Consider this passage: Aristotle asked whether all the parts of the embryo come into existence together, or are they formed in succession, like the knitting of a net? He thus defined the preformation/epigenesis debate which was to continue for 2,000 years. Having opened chickens' eggs at different times, he argued in favor of the knitting analogy and thus for epigenesis - that is, the gradual generation of embryonic structures. But his rejection of preformation - that everything was preformed in miniature from the beginning - was based on philosophical arguments, not on observation.

We'll ignore the fact that that first sentence should have ended with a period. Wolpert shows how Aristotle used observation to come to the idea of epigenesis, but claims that he rejected the opposite, preformation, based on philosophical arguments (none of which Wolpert ever explores or even mentions). Since a thing can't be A and not A at the same time, wouldn't observational evidence for A be observational evidence against not A?

Strangely, Wolpert calls Aristotle's conclusions an "inspired guess" that was "correct for the wrong reasons," an argument that seems to be based on Aristotle's inability to provide a mechanism for epigenesis, an argument that he also applies to future scientists in their attempts to solve the epigenesis/preformation debate. Wolpert applies this standard inconsistently as he does not similarly condemn Newton's theory of gravitation for its lack of a mechanism to explain gravity nor Darwin's original theory of evolution for its lack of mechanisms to explain mutations and inheritance. In fact, he praises them for trudging on despite these limitations.

But let's get back to the points of the book. Although I must admit ignorance on the fine distinctions between science and technology, I'd like to make a few brief comments. First, I am confused by the insistence on declaring applied science to be not science. Secondly, I have a distinct problem with Wolpert's appeal to the Ancient Greeks' rejection of "applied science" since this rejection was based not on reason but on gender and class distinctions. Productive labor of any sort was deemed beneath men of a certain class and was relegated to women, servants, peasants and slaves. Third, Wolpert downplays the contributions of non-European societies to the birth of science and ignores the fact that much of the success of Greek society came from its importation of ideas from other cultures. Much of Greek art, architecture, philosophy and even religion was imported from Egypt, India, Babylon, etc. (all societies Wolpert insists are irrelevant to the development of science). In tone and content, Wolpert's arguments come off as Eurocentric and even anti-semitic. (Wolpert's only reference to Jews is to argue that the Greeks "unlike the Jews" were not "constrained" in their thinking by dogma.)

Wolpert's arguments on the differences between artistic creativity and science are, unfortunately, based on unquestioned stereotypes and willful ignorance of how the arts and artists actually function. I checked the book's references and not a single one seems to have anything to do with the practices of the artistic community.

Perhaps that is why he makes foolish statements like:
Compare all this with the arts: for painters, novelists and poets, the original creation is all important. The artist does not contribute to a common enterprise; the artist's work is not assimilated into a larger body and its essence is its individuality.
For all these reasons, the strategy that scientists adopt in relation to their work and their colleagues is very different from that of artists. Artists are not subject to the criteria of validation and falsification that are central to the social activity of scientists. Artists may plagiarize, but they cannot falsify in the same sense as scientists can: they cannot cheat.

Wolpert also argues that the career goals of the artist are fame and wealth whereas the goals of the scientist are merely the esteem of peers, a few awards, funding for their work and some small economic reward for themselves. Add to that his implications that artistic creativity comes "out of the blue" while scientific creativity is based on years of study.

Obviously, Wolpert is completely ignorant of the arts. There's a reason why "starving artist" is a cliche while "starving scientist" is not. Most artists will die unknown and broke, including artists who, like Rembrandt, achieve eternal fame after their deaths. Most artists study theory and technique for many years before "discovering" new forms or making any substantial contribution to the arts. Most artists spend their lives vying for peer validation, good reviews, awards, funding, and the recognition that they have made a substantial contribution to some artistic movement or other. Many will cheat, misrepresenting themselvs and their work to get rewards. (I'm reminded of one thirty-something-year-old screenwriter who posed as a teenager, which gained her acclaim for the sophistication of her work until her true age was discovered.) Collaboration, discovery, hard work, social commitment, the willingness to work in obscurity etc. are vital to the arts no less than they are vital to science.

If only Wolpert had stopped at misrepresenting the arts. Instead, he decides to add to his intellectual dishonesty by constructing a straw man of the social sciences. Wolpert states that he is going to explore how the social sciences can at best be described as "primitive" sciences by carefully examining a single example. What example does he choose? Psychoanalytic theory. I don't think I need to explain why psychoanalytic theory is not an adequate representation of the social sciences, which include history, economics, anthropology, information science, law, linguistics, psychology and sociology.

In all, it seems that Wolpert began his project not with questions but with "answers." He does not ask if science is truly unique and deserving of privileged status, but asserts it and then cherry picks his "evidence" to support his argument. He therefore gave little consideration to the valid similarities that can be drawn between science and other human enterprises, often arguing on flimsy or nonexistent evidence that criticisms of science's supposed uniqueness should be ignored or that they are irrelevant to science.

Perhaps it is a cheap shot, but Wolpert's arguments remind me of those that argue that religion can only be understood by a "true believer", that it should be uniquely exempt from external criticisms, and that any negative applications of religion should be blamed solely on those who carry out the acts while all of the positive applications are proof of religon's inherently good nature. These arguments carry the whiff of hypocrisy when one considers that Wolpert, like most scientists, condemns those who apply them to religon.

Liberals in Exile is PG-rated

Online Dating

Mingle2 - Online Dating

I guess they didn't notice the word f*cking! Who knew I was slipping it past the censors?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Science and Journalism

There's quite the big hullabaloo going on amongst science bloggers as to the usefulness of journalistic types, our ability to convey science accurately, and whether we should all just be given the proverbial finger. Evolving Thoughts and A Blog Around the Clock have posts that come really close to the source of the problem. (A Blog Around the Clock also has a great list of links to other science blogs covering the topic.) As a journalist who writes about science, I'd like to weigh in on this.

First, as Coturnix of ABAC notes, "to educate" and "to inform" are two very different things. In general, we journalists consider it our duty to inform the public not to educate them. What's the difference?

Teachers educate. They mold the knowledge, opinions, and critical thinking skills of their students. They give them guidance not only on what to think but how to think, providing them with the skills to acquire and apply information. With the exception of pundits, columnists and analysts, journalists merely present information, ideally with no hint as to how this information "should" be interpreted.

Unfortunately, our imperfect attempts at "just the facts" objectivity and balance can create a skewed view of the world. They often lead to an episodic form of reporting that strips information away from its context, simplifies complex realities into false dichotomies (giving two sides to stories that might have 5 different sides or even more), and treats vastly unequal propositions as if they were equal (balance is good for covering the subjective realms but often bad for imparting objective fact).

This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that mainstream journalists are expected to write with a relatively uneducated populace in mind, expecting that the average reader will have no more than a high school education. Yet, on the other hand, we sometimes write about topics that can only be fully understood and contextualized by someone with a strong educational background, topics like science. Catch 22? Rock and a hard place? You decide.

Adding an additional level of difficulty, we have the dreaded deadline and all the other practical considerations that affect how we cover a particular story. Depending on the nature of the medium (newspaper, magazine, TV, radio) and the specific outlet, journalists may have as little as a few hours to as much as a year to work on a single story. They may be fully responsible for background research, interviewing and writing or they may work with a team. They may have to fit all of the information they've gathered into 200 words or 1,500 or 5,000 (10 seconds or 10 minutes or two hours in TV and radio).

Next, my scientist friends must consider that not all journalists who write about science are science journalists. The person who calls for an interview may be a general assignment reporter, a reporter who normally focuses on another topic, a reporter who is merely interested in science, a reporter with a science degree, a graduate of an actual science journalism program, etc. (Science journalism programs are relatively new and will hopefully improve science coverage as graduates of these programs go on to be reporters, writers and editors.)

Unfortunately, editors don't or sometimes can't ensure that every reporter has a background in the topics they'll cover or that they themselves are "right" for editing material on particular topics. Unless an outlet is big enough to have "specialists" on staff, any old journalist will have to do for covering whatever comes up. Few reporters will risk their careers by refusing assignments, an act that could get one quickly removed from the staff or freelance pool.

In the complex relationship between journalist and editor, you often have a situation where one knows science and the other doesn't, but the editor will always call the shots. Amongst the editor's many concerns (like length, impact, proximity, organization, etc.), accuracy of content may get lost, especially when the editor is dealing with an unfamiliar topic. Few editors have the option of passing a story on an unfamiliar topic to someone else.

Ultimately, despite our best efforts and sometimes because of them, "the best available version of the truth" is an elusive prey. So, what can scientists do about it if they want to see more and better science coverage? Here's my advice in as brief a format as possible.

*Familiarize yourself with the reporter who'll be interviewing you. Make sure you ask questions about the reporter's background, the publication or outlet, the length of the story, the deadline, etc.
*Tailor your answers accordingly. Cover the major points for a brief story in a local paper. Get more detailed for a longer piece for a major magazine. Provide simple explanations for a mainstream publication or a journalist with a limited science background. Provide more complex explanations for a science publication or a journalist with a science background.
*Provide framing. If it comes between quoting a really good metaphor or analogy that you provided or trying to make one up themselves, most journalists will use yours. This will avoid the "simplification problem" that often leads to inaccurate or inappropriate explanations.
*Provide context. Why is it important? How much weight should this new information have? How does it fit with general knowledge about science or the current theories in the field?
*Provide alternate sources. Is there background information available for the reporter to consider so that they can get a fuller picture of the information you're providing? Is there someone in your field whom you think expresses this much better than you can?
*Where possible, develop a relationship with the science editor (or whichever editor generally gets assigned science stories) at the publications that request interviews with you most frequently.
*Make sure to provide feedback on science coverage without insulting journalists' professional sensibilities. Accusing most mainstream journalists or editors of overt bias will shut them down. Assume that it was unintentional and give them advice that may help them avoid the problem in the future.
*Give us a break once in a while. If you expect perfection from journalists, you'll be disappointed, just as we would be if we expected perfection from scientists.

UPDATE: I just got a chance to skim a few more of the posts on this topic and came across the argument that we should just let the scientists write the articles, working with an editor. With all due respect, most but not all scientists would be completely out of their league preparing an article (or video) on deadline for a mainstream publication with a specific word (or time) limit. Even the best editor has to have a reasonably well-written first draft. At minimum, an editor needs a writer familiar with proper style, organization, sourcing, interviewing techniques, etc.

I've been an editor and I can't imagine what it would be like having to educate someone in the requirements of journalism and the art of communication while also trying to get a finished product ready for publication on deadline. To be honest, I really wouldn't have time to hide the bodies of the pseudo-journalists who would die slow and painful deaths if they turned in some of the stuff I've seen from "amateurs" and actually expected me to publish it.

I have to admit that this is one of my pet peeves. The "anyone can do it" attitude many people have towards journalism and writing in particular is offensive to say the least. If anyone could do it, I could have skipped the six years of college and grad school and all the courses in media law, media history, communications theory, news reporting, newspaper writing, magazine writing, feature writing, cultural reporting, editing, etc. (not to mention the years of experience and decade or so of honing my craft).

If you think anyone could do it, I advise you to spend more time in the blogosphere reading the drivel turned out by most self-styled citizen journalists. Or try understanding most of the material written by scientists or historians or lawyers or accountants or economists. (I personally love science and read many science publications and blogs, but I'm also fully aware that I understand much of what I read because I have a strong science background not because the material is written in an approachable style.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

New York Mag Flubs It

Okay, so I watched America's Got Talent last night. I was bored. Despite talking on the phone, eating dinner, etc. during the show, I still know that the lovely drag queen in this New York Magazine photo is NOT Boy Shakira. Tsk Tsk Tsk.

Updated: I've sent a comment to the magazine about it. Let's see if they actually correct themselves.

Mistakes Were Made

Newsweek has an interesting piece on cognitive dissonance. As much as many people have used cognitive dissonance theories to attack people or ideas they don't like, we should remember that it is a universal human trait. We all do it. What I find amusing is the people who pat themselves on the back for resolving cognitive dissonance as if this is some kind of achievement rather than a basic psychological trait common to all humans, one which can often have disastrous consequences.

I wish I had the time to track down some links at the moment, but I don't. Perhaps later.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Science of Gaydar

So, how is it that one gay person can recognize another gay person on the street? David France of New York Magazine has a strong piece on the science of gaydar and the biological origins of homosexuality. Unfortunately, France, like many, plays down the evidence for biological lesbianism.

France is correct that there are far fewer studies of lesbians than gay men for a variety of reasons (including the fact that many scientists hang on to Victorian era attitudes about female sexuality). However, recent studies have strengthened the case for the biological origins of lesbianism, including studies that show differences in how lesbians hear and how we react to human scents.

It Just Makes Me Sick...

New York Magazine has the low down on American medical care from the doctors themselves. Truly frightening, but I have to say as someone who's dealt with doctors a lot over the last few years, not suprising at all.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Back to Abu Ghraib

The New Yorker has a long, detailed and disturbing report on Abu Ghraib and the Bush administration's role in the systemic problems that led to the abuse there and at installations throughout the world.

Spam, Glorious Spam!

All you never wanted to know about those nasty e-mails that insult your "pen1s" size, sexual ability, weight, financial smarts, etc.

Wealth Inequality and Slavery

Barbara Ehrenreich has an interesting post on the new bottom rung of the American ladder: slavery.

Although Ms. Ehrenreich only mentions one case of actual slavery, the CIA estimates that 50,000 people are sold into slavery in the United States every year from Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Africa. This does not include the number of people held as slaves abroad for the benefit of American corporations like Unocal.

For more information, please see and The American Anti-Slavery Group.

The Science of the Obvious

PopSci has a great piece on scientific research into things most of us consider quite obvious, including the well-known fact that dating with your beer goggles on may not be the best idea.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Just an Idea...

I'm working on an idea, so this is just a rough sketch. But I think that a great deal of the power and durability of conspiracy theories comes from the plausibility of individual elements and their relationship to real events. I'm not making any claim for the truth of these theories, only putting forward a possible explanation of why they are convincing to so many. I'll give a few examples:

JFK's assassination

The major part of the conspiracy theory surrounding JFK's assassination revolves around the plausibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the president of the United States as a means to achieving political and economic ends.

We need not assume any hypotheticals in this case for a little known historical fact is that prominent wealthy citizens did in fact conspire to overthrow Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a fascist military coup. This conspiracy (like the alleged plot against JFK) was based on dissatisfaction with the president's efforts against communism. We also know that both government and media suppressed information about the conspiracy. On the government's part, this may have been based partly on a belief that the fact that the coup plot had been revealed would prevent the president's enemies from carrying out any future coup attempts.

The contradictions within publicly available evidence on the JFK assassination (many due to mere human error), the Justice Department's refusal to reinvestigate despite a court order, and recent findings by FBI ballistics experts contribute to the "plausability" of a conspiracy to assassinate JFK. This is not to say that the story is true, only that its relationship to known facts makes it convincing to many.

UFO's and Alien Visitations

There are many plausible elements here. We know that extraterrestrial life is possible and perhaps even probable. We know that space travel is possible and that, while we are limited by our current technology and knowledge of physics, an alien civilization may not be. We know (due to France's decision to release all of its files)that 25% of UFO sightings have been deemed "class D" or unidentifiable despite physical evidence and multiple reliable witnesses. We know that the government has maintained secrets for decades and continues to do so. Many of these secrets have been substantial, including the Verona project that broke the Soviet code and found evidence of Soviet spies in the highest echelons of the U.S. government.

Because of the events surrounding the now famous "War of the Worlds" incident, we know that the government would have reason to fear a public panic if proof of alien visitations were revealed. Some skeptics have pointed out that very few people panicked due to Orson Wells' legendary broadcast of a "martian invasion." They are correct but arguing from the wrong data. Most who heard that broadcast knew it was a fictional radio program, so they would obviously not have panicked, just as we today would not run screaming from our homes after an episode of the X Files. Those who believed it was real panicked. This is the relevant part, after all, since a government announcement that aliens are visiting us would definitely be taken as the truth.

As for the anal probings and tracking devices supposedly implanted in "abductees," this too relates to a plausible if highly unlikely scenario. Knowledge of actual scientific experimentation from recent history offers an "analogy." We humans "tag and release" animals so that we may study them. We've also carried out brutal, painful experiments on other humans, those we deemed "inferior." Is it any wonder that people think that some highly superior alien race may commit such acts? Wouldn't "they" view us as inferior or perhaps even as animals?

Some skeptics have argued that any alien civilization sufficiently technologically advanced to visit earth would be culturally advanced enough to avoid such barbaric behavior. Unfortunately, we have no information that would allow us to claim a relationship between technological and cultural advancement on an alien world. We do know that technological advancement on our world has accompanied behavior that is far from culturally advanced. In the 20th century, one of the most technologically advanced civilizations in the history of our world brutally murdered 12 million people in the Holocaust, invaded dozens of nations in an attempt to rule the world, and carried out various atrocities against its weakest citizens, including the mentally ill and handicapped.

I believe that such theories (whatever their truth value) are convincing to people not because these people are delusional (although some of them surely are) but because these theories contain plausible elements that are highly convincing in conjunction with one another. These elements would obviously be bolstered by some emotional/psychological factors, however, they are not unique in that regard.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Thank You, Mr. Wizard

Don Herbert aka Mr. Wizard has passed away. His contributions to the scientific imaginations of generations of children remain as a tribute to his life.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

With Us or Against Us?

A long time ago on a site far, far away, I began a series on the forms of extremism present on the left. We all know what happened with that, but the important point here is that one of the forms I was going to discuss was the more extreme stances taken by some members of the feminist community.

Of course, before I “go off” on what some may interpret as a broad attack on feminism, let me point out that I’m a proud member of the feminist movement and have been active in a variety of feminist groups and causes. What I’m attacking here is not feminism but an attitude held by a small but vocal minority of my “sisters” who insist on parroting the “with us or against us” rhetoric best suited for ignorant, cowboy presidents.

Rob Knop of Galactic Interactions has a great post that illustrates the problems with this rhetoric, not the least of which is that it discourages many men from fully participating in the feminist cause. Rob has been an ally of women in science, often using his blog as a platform to bring attention to the problems of discrimination that affect women in a male-dominated field.

However, the attitude amongst many feminists is that this is not enough, that no matter one’s personal circumstances, you are either willing to risk everything and do anything for the cause or you’re part of the problem. Strangely, if a woman is a victim of or witness to discrimination, we carefully consider her personal circumstances before condemning her for not fighting hard enough. There is sympathy for her plight.

Men in the same situation do not get the same consideration. They have to be balls out for the cause, taking every imaginable risk without complaint, or they’re “part of the problem,” especially since they are the supposed recipients of privilege purchased at the cost of discrimination. Unfortunately, this makes people like Rob, who haven’t chosen privilege and are going out of there way to surrender it, feel like giving up.

Some of you will probably say that people like Rob should just bite the bullet and stop whining. I couldn’t disagree more. Taking guff from the powers that be should be expected when one fights against the status quo. Each person should determine how much he can risk and adjust his activism accordingly. No one should have to accept being treated like dirt by the very people for whom they risk so much. No one should have his “duty to the cause” dictated to him without consideration for his personal circumstances and individual capacity. No man should be held to a higher standard than that which we set for women. (This is supposed to be about gender equality, right?)

Finally, let us all remember a few very important facts before we go off half-cocked with the heavy rhetoric. Men are not equally privileged anymore than women are equally oppressed. Even some white men have reason to claim victimhood due to their own private experiences. Some of them can claim victimhood for suffering endured in the struggle for equality that will benefit others more than it will benefit them. Some women benefit from a patriarchal class structure that offers them power over others, like racial minorities and the poor. We women can also claim the privilege of being exempted from selective service registration and the draft. Sadly, I haven’t heard many women making a ruckus to get rid of that particular privilege.

Surrendering privilege, however limited, is a tremendous task and perhaps, a far greater thing than fighting to eradicate our own oppression. I, for one, hope to offer men all that I ask for myself: equal rights, equal responsibility and equal dignity regardless of gender. I hope to surrender the privilege granted me due to my gender in addition to gaining the rights and freedoms denied me due to my gender. I have the utmost respect and gratitude for men like Rob who fight in our name, whatever the limitations of their abilities and capacities, whatever their particular form of activism may be. Of course, I’m a man-loving militant lesbian feminist, so what do I know?

The EPA Joins the Rush to Abandon Scientific Ethics

Liz Borkowski of The Pump Handle and George Washington University's School of Public Health and Health Services has an interesting post on the EPA's abandonment of ethical guidelines regulating the use of human test subjects, including both the Nuremberg Code and the Helsinki Declaration. The implications of these decisions are truly frightening.

Monday, June 11, 2007

And You Thought Paris Hilton Was Bad?

Timothy Rouse, 19 (and who had been charged with assaulting an elderly person), was matter-of-factly released from the Kentucky Correctional and Psychiatric Center in LaGrange in April after jailers accepted as official a crudely written, ungrammatical fax ordering him freed, supposedly from the state supreme court but whose originating line clearly showed a local grocery store. Furthermore, it took the jailers two weeks to realize they had been scammed. (Fortunately, Rouse was easily re-arrested at his mother's house.) [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation-AP, 4-21-07]
(courtesy of News of the Weird)

The Gay Bomb's Out, But How About This?

Apparently, Cypriot sex toy dealers will not be carrying the Love Bug 2 as it interferes with army radio transmissions. Perhaps the Pentagon should consider the sex toy bomb?

Earlier this year, Britain's Ann Summers sex-product company announced it would stop selling its remote-controlled Love Bug 2 personal vibrator in Cyprus after Cypriot military officials complained that the device's signals were interfering with army radio transmissions. [The Guardian (London), 5-6-07]
(via News of the Weird)

Just so ya know...

I've gotten rid of word verification for commenting, hopefully for good unless I get a spam avalanche. Word verification is the work of the devil!!!!!!

The Force Goes to Harvard

Apparently, Harvard's traditional graduation day Latin salutatory was a tribute to Star Wars or Bellis Stellaria.
Interesting it is. Fun it would be to see video. Hmmm... Available video is. Enjoy.

The Iceman Cometh!

Science Buzz has a very funny post on Otzi the Iceman, who was apparently a badass.

UPDATE: More on Otzi the Iceman from (courtesy of CFeagans of Hot Cup of Joe.)

The Gay Bomb?

Apparently, the military considered a "gay bomb" that would turn enemy soldiers into rampant homosexuals. There are just too many snarky things that could be written. I don't know where to start.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Stereotypes Bite the Dust

Remember how education is supposed to "cure" religion? Apparently not. It seems that the educated are more likely to maintain their religious affiliations.

Remember how religion promotes baby-making and secularization promotes small families? It may be the other way around. Baby-making may promote religion while decreases in baby-making promote secularism. I'd like to point out that Mary Eberstadt gets a LOT of things wrong, including the fact that the American Pediatric Association has decided that children raised in families with two gay parents are just as well-adjusted as those raised in more "traditional" families.

However, her discussion of the relationships between religion and reproduction fall in line with other studies that have shown a decline in rates of atheism and increase in religious observance after age 30, with 12% of those under 30 and only 6% over 30 self-describing as atheists. Most studies have correlated this change with child-bearing and family formation.

One such study was conducted by William Sims Bainbridge of The Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. Since reading Dr. Bainbridge's study requires registration, I'll quote Statguy from Magic Statistics here:

Dr Bainbridge outlines an argument based on compensator theory that atheists, compared to religious believers, have fewer and weaker social obligations. He finds atheism to be more common among men than among women, and more common among single or cohabitating persons than among married or divorced persons. Atheism is also more common among those with no children under 18 than among those with one child, and much more common than among parents of two or more children. A very strong negative correlation was found between the proportion of a country's population professing atheism and the fertility rate. The higher the percentage of atheists in the population, the lower the nation’s fertility rate.


One particularly interesting aspect of Dr Bainbridge’s study is that he incorporated the recent fertility collapse in advanced industrialised societies into his provisional theory of atheism.

The relevance of the fertility collapse to secondary compensation is that a failure to reproduce means fewer social relationships carrying family obligations. This tendency could be magnified in societies with a welfare state or where at least many of the former nurturance obligations people have had with each other are taken over by the state or by such things as health maintenance organizations, extensive public education, and the mass entertainment industry. To reduce secondary compensation, the state does not need to fulfill the obligations it takes on; it merely needs to take those obligations away from its citizens. I am suggesting the possibility of a pernicious feedback loop, in which a decline of religion leads to reduced fertility, which in turn reduces the secondary compensation that is at least partly responsible for religion’s strength.

If this view is correct, this would appear to be how atheism grows: As the state has taken away social welfare functions formerly performed by such smaller social groups as families and churches, inter-personal social obligations have declined; then religious allegiance declines and atheism grows, followed by a decline in fertility, leading to further decrease in social obligations and religion and increased atheism. Pernicious feedback loop indeed.

Large randomized studies of atheism is difficult, so these findings may not be 100% reliable. However, this preliminary information may indicate serious problems with current theories.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Penis Fencing

It's not quite what it sounds like, but penis fencing is one of those things that makes me grateful to be a human.

Imagine the unusual mating habits nature could have saddled us with and you have to breathe a sign of relief. Could you imagine if we had to spread our urine and feces around like the hippo or vomit like white-fronted parrots? Aren't you guys happy that your genitals don't explode like the honey bee's or that you don't have to drink your girl's urine like the giraffe? Of course, I'm guessing the retractable, prehensile penis sounds kind of cool to some of you.

Strangely enough though, many human behaviors (some considered a bit freaky amongst most humans) are replicated in the animal kingdom: love songs, dancing, "buying" dinner, giving your girl a "rock" or flowers, golden showers, homosexuality, threesomes, testosterone-fueled competition, masturbation, rape, orgies, necrophilia, nyphomania, peeping toms, prostitution, paid peep shows, etc. Well, maybe we're not so superior after all.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Happy B-Day, Ace!

Dear Ace, I realize I'm late. Aunt Melinda had a bit of a bad day on your birthday. But I thought I'd celebrate anyway with a blast from the past. One year ago yesterday, I wrote this. I've updated it to show you how far we've come.

I'd like to officially welcome Andrew "Ace" Spiehler IV aka Spiehler of Borg to planet earth. Ace, your parents and all of their nerdy friends have waited a very long time for you, so coming early was a great surprise. (Just don't do it again, young man, or you'll be going to your alcove with no nutritional supplements!) I can't wait to meet you, but it'll probably be a while before that happens what with my being on the other side of the country and all. (Unfortunately, my transwarp drive is on the fritz. Damn Janeway!) So, I'll just give you a few sage pieces of advice from someone older than both of your parental units.

No, we haven’t met yet, but it has been awesome to watch you grow up in pictures. Anyway, I’m the one who sent you the bestest present ever, an autographed copy of “It All Began with a Bean” by Katie McKy. I think you’ll get a lot of laughs out of that one once you understand what a fart is.

1. Always comply with directives issued by your parental units. They may seem irrelevant and inefficient at times, not to mention a bit dorky, but they have your best interests at heart and wouldn't steer you wrong.

One year later and your parental units are still a bit dorky and definitely inefficient, but they’re pretty relevant if you give them a fair shot.

2. When your maternal unit insists on doing embarassing things to you in public, just remember that you'll get your chance for revenge when you're about 16 or so. (Trust me. I know your maternal unit and embarassment awaits.)

See. I warned you. You may not realize this yet, but there’s a picture of you pooping available on the internet for millions of people to see. You can forget working in the public eye. Or not getting a weird poop-related nickname in high school. Don’t worry. Just 15 years to go before you get your revenge.

3. Yes, your parental units' friends are really weird and would definitely not make efficient drones, however, if you observe closely, you'll see they know many things worth assimilating.

This is still true. Your parental units and their friends are quite good at frying things. Fried Snickers bars, cookies, ice cream, and even pickles are far from irrelevant. Just make sure your parental units or their nerdy friends do the frying until you’re ready for your own cube.

4. Always share your recreational equipment, known as toys to the unassimilated, with your friends and your parental units' friends. Yes, I realize that we were supposed to leave the maturation chamber a long time ago, but sometimes even adult drones require fun.

Still good advice. We haven’t quite become the efficient adult drones you’d expect at our ages.

5. Emotions are often inefficient, but they are never irrelevant. Never miss a chance to feel.

Also, now that you’re picking up on humor, never miss a chance to make your parental units laugh so hard that milk squirts out of their noses. That’s a very efficient way to get embarassing pictures that you can post on your blog as revenge for the poop face picture.

6. Flux = vA Your paternal unit can probably tell you what this means. Your maternal unit will explain why it's funny.

Just to remind your parental units, since they didn’t get it the first time. Flux = vA is the equation for measuring the rate of expulsion of a fluid, where v is the fluid’s velocity and A is the size of the aperture. Get it? It’s still very funny.

Welcome to the collective, Spiehler of Borg. Your distinctiveness is a very welcome addition to our own.

And it has been.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Sorry, It's Just Funny.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Warning: Science Ahead

A Blog Around the Clock has linked to my criticism of Bloom and Weisberg's "Why Do Some People Resist Science?" This led (in the comments) to what I consider a challenge to my brief argument against promiscuous teleology. As regular readers know, I do not consider much of what is posted here to be complete works in themselves, but instead rough drafts of a sort of more complete works, including both published and currently unpublished materials. So, in responding to the challenge, I'd like to give a more complete response to the theory of promiscuous teleology.

The theory of promiscuous telology came about through studies of children in the U.S. and Britain, who were asked to choose between naturalistic and teleological causes for a variety of objects. In both countries, children chose teleological causes i.e. rocks are pointy so that animals can scratch themselves; however, the tendency seemed weaker in British children. The results were interpreted as evidence of an intuitive tendency towards creationism.

Let's begin with the nature of the studies. These kinds of cross-cultural comparisons are questionable for a number of reasons, but I'll stick to what's relevant.

The creators of the study chose the U.S. and Britain because of differences in religiosity between the two countries, believing that this difference was significant enough to determine the difference between nature and nurture. Unfortunately, this assumption was highly flawed.

First, the term "religiosity" and the characteristics to which it refers are fuzzy and subjective. The term would have different connotations for different individuals and societies. Religiosity could refer to regular practice, acceptance of an organized religious doctrine, the depth of one's feelings about religious objects/entities/concepts, etc.

Second, religious affiliations in the UK and the US are very similar, with both being predominantly Christian countries. In the UK, 71.1% identify as Christian. In the U.S., 77% identify as Christian. The remaining parts of the two populations identify with diverse theistic, nontheistic, atheistic, and pantheistic religions and ideologies. Many who consider themselves non-religious retain belief but not organized practice or affiliation with a particular organized religion. Only a very small percentage self-identify as atheists.

We can assume then that the majority of children in both socities have been exposed to ideas about creation, purpose, meaning etc. This could take the form of formal education (Sunday school) or informal instruction (stories told by parents or exposure to religious movies, story books, etc.).

We must also consider the effects of language on thought. Acquiring a particular language also means acquiring a set of concepts about the world and losing any native concepts which cannot be expressed within that language. The English language (the majority language of both countries) and most European languages reflect/create thoughts about cause and effect. "Why" questions have a "because" answer. This relates not only to religion/teleology but also to science/naturalism. Both concern how things came into being, the reason or purpose for their existence. Unfortunately, reason/purpose are so intimately linked in the English language that it would be difficult for a child to distinguish between the two. Compare this to the language of the Piraha where distant causes cannot be discussed, so the concept of distant causes cannot be understood.

It is also interesting to note that while storytelling is a common human tradition, a very strong one in both the UK and U.S., it doesn't exist in the Piraha culture. Does the concept of "making stuff up" partially explain our children's tendencies to create a story about scratching rocks made for animals? How about the adult tendency to tell children made-up stories to explain concepts with which a child is not considered suitably mature enough to cope? It is quite common, after all, for children in Western societies to create stories for themselves, especially when they lack information. It is also quite common for us to tell our children cute little stories about the stork rather than explaining that mommy and daddy had sex.

The Piraha and others like them also pose a challenge to the concept of promiscuous teleology. If this tendency is a human universal, why does it not exist in all human cultures? How do we explain the Piraha's complete lack of creationist concepts or complete lack of concern about how things come into being or why they exist? How do we explain the existence of religions like Jainism that explicitly reject the concept of a created universe in favor of "an eternal universe governed by natural laws and the interplay of its attributes (gunas) and matter (dravya)"? How do we then explain atheism?

A rational examination would require that we explain teleology by comparing it to its absence. In other words, you can't just compare two societies that have strong teleological elements in language and culture. You must also consider societies that lack or reject most or all teleological reasoning/language/storytelling. Do children in these societies provide teleological responses? Any rational assessment must answer that question.

The theory of promiscuous teleology seems to contradict the evidence of non-teleological languages, cultures and religions. It ignores a variety of possible cultural and linguistic factors and alternative explanations. It is also derived from a highly flawed and irrational methodology and depends upon fuzzy, subjective, and potentially irrelevant distinctions. Scientifically and logically, it is invalid.