Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Wager

I was not at Skepticon, and I'm not acquainted with anyone involved in the incident that a large section of the atheist blogosphere has been talking about. Lots of other people have written about what actually happened, and so I'm not going to rehash it here – I'll put links to some of those posts at the end for those who don't know what I'm talking about. I'm also not going to presume to speak for anyone who was directly involved in this, since I don't know them personally.

One thing I've noticed is that some people are assuming that Rebecca Watson is being overly sensitive about this – because she was uncomfortable at being approached by a man she didn't know in a hotel elevator, and invited up to his room, she was being unreasonably cautious. Some people have pointed to the use of the term "potential sexual assault" as evidence that she and her supporters view all men as potential rapists; in any case, she had no evidence that this man had any intention to do her any harm at all, and so any assumption she might have made about him was ostensibly paranoid and sexist. I disagree with all of this, and after thinking about it a while I think I've thought of a good way of explaining my reasons.

If you're an atheist, chances are you're familiar with the concept of Pasal's Wager. If you're not, the short version of it is that since we can't be certain of whether there's a God or not, it's better to believe that there is one. This is because of the possible consequences of being wrong. If you believe and it turns out you're wrong, then you'll be just as dead as you would have been otherwise, and no worse off. If you don't believe and you're wrong, then God's going to be ticked off by your impertinent skepticism and send you straight to hell. Of course, most atheists know that there are a lot of things wrong with these assumptions – maybe you decide to worship the wrong god. Maybe God values honest skepticism. There's also the fact that believing in God typically does come at a cost, in the form of time and resources spent worshiping him/her/it that could have gone to other things.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Swiss cheese model of gender.

You may have notice that I write a lot of responses to other people's posts here. That's what this blog is for - when I have something to say but can't fit it in the comment field. And today I found a post called "What makes a woman", via some link-clicking that started in a comment thread on queer theory that I was participating in, and the thoughts it provoked kept me busy for quite some time. It's about the OP's own view on what it is that makes someone a woman, and not a man:
I only ever feel like a woman when someone is making me feel like a woman. By catcalling me from across the street or holding a door open and saying “Ladies first” or by treating me like a child because I have a vagina. The rest of the time, when I’m not being coerced into feeling like a woman by the heteropatriarchy, I feel like a human being.
The OP has every right to be considered a human being and not a woman. The thing is, she's contrasting her experience with that of transgender and transsexual women (emphasis in original):
The transwomen say they are women because they define themselves as women, and demand to be treated accordingly.
But I am a woman because society defined me as a woman, and will treat me accordingly even though I would rather be treated like a human being.
I have to say I'm confused - if the OP is only a woman because society said so, then it seems to me that the first six words of the second sentence should have been unnecessary.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

You know what they say about "assume".

I've got my reddit main page set up with both r/politics and r/Republican on my front page, because I like to give my opponents a chance to convince me. And so when I saw a blog post on the "psychology of liberalism", I bit -  maybe I'll learn something, I thought.

Well, the most coherent points I could find in it were that liberals deny reality, refuse to blame anyone for anything, are pacifists to the point of stupidity, and use these attitudes to justify "progress" and "open-mindedness" which leads to all sorts of crazy things like "libertarianism, atheism, weird sex" and "postmodernism".


The problem is that he's got exactly zero data to actually support any of these claims. He's got Pew survey results that indicate the "Millennial" generation is more open to change, and says that this doesn't tell us anything about their intelligence (as if anyone were claiming that it did) and another study on liberalism, atheism, and IQ... and somehow this is supposed to prove that liberals are all thinking backwards.
It takes a long time for the nerdy self-conscious low-self-esteem dropouts of the world to unite and overthrow their betters, but they've had many centuries to do so, and they finally started to really pick up steam around 1945 or so. Ever since then, being strong and doing what's right has had that nasty sting of "well, you could be the new Hitlerstalin" to it, and so smart people have backed off from changing anything beyond their own matching paint tones at home.
Hmmm... waitaminute, who's been making comparisons to Hitler and Stalin lately? Liberals? 

Which brings me to another psychological trait that's actually got some research to back it up its existence - right-wing authoritarianism or RWA. The concept of an "authoritarian" personality was originally proposed and observed in research situations after World War II, and was further refined into the concept of RWA in the 1980s by Dr. Robert Altmeyer. The construct obviously can only tell us about group tendencies, and not about individuals - but the tendencies that come along with RWA have been fairly consistent wherever it's found, and they are fairly disturbing. You'll also notice that Altmeyer was unable to find a liberal/left-wing equivalent of RWA, although he looked for one.

This guy's analysis of liberal "psychology", on the other hand, is nothing more than a list of his own assumptions about what liberals must be like, which tells me that he can't have talked to very many liberals.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


You know how I said in my post a while back that insurance companies have a "de facto monopoly"?

Well, I stand corrected.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

They just can't make up their minds can they.

Remember how the Republicans were going on and on about how the Democrat's healthcare plan was too damn long and complicated? Well, now that Obama's condensed it down to an eleven-page summary, it's too short.

Hey GOP-ers, next time you start ranting about "relativism" and how terrible it is? I'm going to mock you,  and there will be pots and kettles involved.

Monday, February 22, 2010

I see your Tarantino and raise you a non-arcane parliamentary tactic.

I saw on my RSS reader yesterday that Harry Reid has finally grown a spine and decided to start fixing up the House and Senate healthcare bills into to one complete bill that's ready to be passed. There were quotes from Republicans saying that this whole reconciliation thing is absolutely not kosher, and some comments from Democrats who were saying the same thing. But it just so happens that both healthcare bills are budget bills, and so passing them with budget reconciliation is completely legit. Also, reconciliation is not an "arcane parliamentary tactic", and in fact the Republicans used it all the damn time

My newsfeeds also told me that the GOP are now waving their arms and  going "ZOMG SEE?! THE HEALTHCARE SUMMIT IS A TRAP!" and after a trip over to Reddit I saw that the conservative blogosphere is doing about the same thing. They've been doing this ever since Obama decided to have a summit, and I think it's hilarious.

You see, it is a trap - but this isn't because of anything Obama did. This meeting is just him going "Okay guys, show what you've got." If they actually had any new ideas this wouldn't be a problem - but they don't, and they know it. All the stuff on their website is already in the Senate bill, and none of it will fix the real problem. Everything that would is something that they now couldn't support even if they wanted to. Meanwhile some people are wising up to the fact that this healthcare reform stuff sounds pretty good once you understand what it does.

And of course there's the public option.  We've now got twenty senators who want it in the final bill, and it just so happens that this particulat component is the part of the bill with the most public support. If the senate Dems can get their shit together and pass the thing already, then not only does everyone get some health insurance... and as a side bonus the GOP will end up looking like a bunch of paranoid idiots when it doesn't bring about the revival of the Soviet Union.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

On the need for standards.

The conservative talking point of labor laws and environmental regulations "kill jobs". This has always struck me as an oversimplification, but until recently I'd never given much thought to exactly how it might be right or wrong.

Well, I found this blog post about minimum wage laws by "The Drage"... and I think I get it now. His argument against them is basically that employees should be able to charge as little as they want for their labor, and that establishing or raising the minimum wage increases unemployment by making employers pay more for the same labor. Emphasis mine:
"How long do you think the company will keep [its workers] employed [following a minimum wage increase] if they're not worth what they're being paid? Well, if they don't perform to their new standard then chances are they will be let go and the company will go find employees who are worth the $7.25 an hour that they are forced to pay. Furthermore, the company's total labor costs will increase. Is it likely that the company will be able to raise prices enough to offset the increase in wages in this economy? Probably not. Therefore, the company will have to find some way to cut costs and the first place they'll likely look is payroll."
Great Scott, I do believe I've found the problem.

Utah likes their women barefoot and pregnant.

Utah Bill Equates Miscarriages With Criminal Homicide. 

You can't even say that the intent here was to keep women from getting illegal abortions - for one thing, they're already illegal. For another, it opens a huge legal can of worms - anything a woman does that could have caused he to miscarry could be classified as "reckless behavior" and get her a life sentence.

This is not about abortion, it's about controlling womens' behavior. I've explained at length how I came to think this, and every time a pro-life group tries pushing through more of their legislation it only gives me more proof.  "Parent notification" laws  are the most specific when describing the consequences of noncompliance - the parts about how to comply are very vague, which makes it obvious what their real purpose is. Fetal personhood laws are worse, because they effectively give fetuses more rights and protections than pregnant women - exactly the kind of thinking that leads to laws like this one in Utah. 

 The fact that these laws allow "exceptions" doesn't make them better. If anything it's even more of a giveaway that this isn't about saving every embryo, it's about letting women get abortions only when the anti-choicers think it's okay.

I suppose you could make this shit up.

NYT, "A Small Price for a Large Benefit":
FORECASTS involving climate change are highly uncertain, denialists assert — a point that climate researchers themselves readily concede. The denialists view the uncertainty as strengthening their case for inaction, yet a careful weighing of the relevant costs and benefits supports taking exactly the opposite course.
Emphasis mine. This is really the only reason that I can see why the IPCC "Climategate" e-mails are causing such a stir - even without them, a lot of other researchers have come up with a lot of other evidence for climate change independently of one another. But deniers take every tiny suggestion of inconsistency as damning evidence. This perplexes me because, as the author of this article explains, taking action isn't going to cost that much.

The actions we're trying to take have obvious benefits even if you don't care about anyone's carbon footprint. Oil wells renew so slowly that they might as well be a nonrenewable resource; we have to import a lot of it to meet out needs, and the process of refining it into a usable form adds to its cost. Coal also renews very slowly, and mining it is extremely labor intensive and dangerous, not to mention highly damaging to our national landscape. And using our energy sources more efficiently means we spend less money on it in the long run, and have more money for other things. So switching over to renewable energy sources - even if climate change turns out to be less serious than expected - seems like a pretty good idea to me.

Well the climate deniers - the "skeptics" - seem to think that these are bad ideas, and that we shouldn't bother pursuing them because global climate change might not even be real. And in fact the implication (or in some cases, the statement) that accompanies the outrage over the "Climategate" e-mails and other "counterevidence" they find is that anthropogenic climate change is all a hoax. I guess that might be possible - maybe not likely, but for the sake of argument let's assume for a moment that someone really is making all this up.


I mean, if this is a hoax then it's a pretty elaborate one, because nearly every single professional scientific organization in the world and 97% of publishing climate scientists are in on it by now, not to mention individual national governments, political parties, and a good portion the media. No one would go to all that trouble just for shits and grins - so what's the benefit and who gets it? "Profit" isn't going to cut it here, because there are plenty of ways to make a profit that don't involve orchestrating a massive global conspiracy. If any of the "skeptics" out there have ideas on this then I'd be very interested to hear them, because I can't think of any.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

...and which principles would those be?

I hear that a bunch of conservatives sign this Mount Vernon Statement thing which seems to be a 21st century conservative credo. And as I'm reading it, all I can think is "...mmmyep." You can read it, but it's absolutely nothing new.

What I'm now wondering  about is the entire concept of "conservative principles". Maybe I'm being cynical, but I think the best thing you can say about this is that it's ironic. This is not to say that progressives are never unprincipled or hypocritical, but among conservatives it's like a competitive sport.

There's the whole "limited government thing. They absolutely oppose anything that looks like unnecessary federal spending, except the spending they ask for. They oppose all needless government interference in people's lives, except when it suits their arbitrary morals. They are against any expansion of federal power, unless it's to enforce those morals. They think all life is sacred, especially life of the embryonic and fetal variety  - but not if you're a pregnant woman with no insurance.

Because they're fiscally conservative too, right? That's why they support tax cuts and oppose healthcare reform and unions. That stuff leads to socialism, which is like what they have in Soviet Russia. Or Canada. 

And they want to lower taxes, right? They would totally get rid of income taxes except that would never work, so you know what they're going to do instead? Give a whole bunch of tax cuts to rich people, because, um... the Laffer curve says it's a good idea!

Well anyway, the conservatives would have you know that all the liberals want to do is be soft on communism terrorism. Because it's not like Bill Clinton spent a metric fuckton of money on counterterrorism or put a whole bunch of terrorists in prison or anything. And Obama? He's just as bad as Clinton (if by "bad" you mean "awesome". )

Oooooh, but did you know that Obama did drugs when he was younger? Republicans would never do drugs... okay, except that one time. See, what you don't understand is that "drugs are bad" means "for poor people".  Also "unless you're white."

But don't you dare call them racist, because they're totally not racist. They only defend people's right to continue displaying the Confederate flag because those people have a right to express pride their heritage; it says so in the First Amendment! But if you want to exercise your First Amendment rights by burning the flag or being "hostile" towards religion, well you're just a goddamn hippie.

ETA: Ezra Klein wrote a short but good post about how the Republicans conflate their political position with their philosophy - which explains why their "philosophy" changes whenever it suits them.