Monday, January 30, 2012

Rejection Bacteria: Why it's difficult for lonely guys to understand when they are making women feel uncomfortable

There's been something I've wanted to say in the wake of Elevatorgate and all of the reverberations it continues to send through the skeptic blogosphere. I haven't said it for two reasons: One is because I'm not sure exactly how to get the idea across without making it sound like I am defending people whom I really don't wish to defend; and the other reason is because I'm not so sure the point I want to make matters all that much in practice (even though I think it is true and accurate). What people like Watson et al are asking for -- a little bit of thought about how our words and actions can make women feel welcome or unwelcome in the skeptic community, and just a tiny bit of effort trying to skew it towards the "welcoming" side -- is a bona fide good thing and I don't want to hinder that.

I've wanted to say something about the mindset of at least some of the people who are resisting this obviously good change, and why I think, even though their actions have obvious misogynistic consequences, they can be trying their best to be good people and still find it difficult to see this. And thanks to a recent SMBC comic, I think I just figured out how to say it.

This is exactly how a lot of lonely guys feel a lot of the time. (Take it from me; I was one for a loooong time) Unfortunately for everyone involved, young men are even more likely to feel this way if they find themselves in communities where women are significantly underrepresented, since this means they statistically will have fewer opportunities for successes that might help them overcome this crippling fear of Rejection Bacteria -- and of course these are exactly the same communities in which women are already going to tend to feel unwelcome due to being in a distinct minority.

What does all this have to do with Elevatorgate? Here's the thing: When that creepy guy asked you out, he very possibly overcame a crippling fear of Rejection Bacteria in order to do it. He seriously thought a flesh-eating microbe was going to eat his limbs right off his writhing body, but he faced down that fear and approached you anyway. In comparison to Rejection Bacteria, your passing discomfort or brief fear of being raped in an elevator seems incredibly trivial. "How dare you complain about being made to feel unwelcome when I just faced the risk of certain death to ask you on a date?"

Of course, sexual harassment and assault are real, while Rejection Bacteria are not. And so this is not a defense of Elevator Guy or anybody else who is being creepy.

But when you wonder why some of these guys, particularly the single ones, are just Not Getting It, this is at least part of your answer. I don't know if this has any value; perhaps the best way of winning this fight is to just keep speaking out against the behavior we don't want and eventually it will become socially unacceptable and/or people will start to "get it". Sometimes I wonder if it would be better to acknowledge that it can feel very difficult to be a lonely guy in a male-dominated community, to reassure people like this that we understand their challenges -- but that, whatever they might imagine, it's worse to be a woman in a male-dominated community.

I don't know, I don't know if that's helpful or not. The SMBC comic just struck me because, yeah, that's pretty much dead on what it feels like. For whatever that's worth...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Then this happened...

That would be the olecranon process of my proximal ulna. Having surgery on Monday. D'oh.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Free will and hot peppers

Daniel Dennett and Jerry Coyne are hanging around the former's apartment. Dennett goes to the kitchen, pulls a jalapeno from the coldest part of the refrigerator, and takes a bite out of it.

"Hoo boy, that's hot!!" Dennett exclaims.

Jerry impatiently corrects him: "No, Dan, it's not hot, it's spicy. Silly philosophers..."

Only the above little story is not really fair to Jerry. Really the encounter should take place in an alternate universe where, with the exception of food scientists and a handful of enlightened chefs, the vast majority of people believe with all their hearts that the chilled jalapeno really does have a high temperature despite being in the fridge all day, and find the suggestion that it might just be a heat-like sensation to be disturbing to say the least.

Capsacin really does exist, and the compound really does produce a sensation of burning in mammals when it comes in contact with their soft tissue, and it does this by stimulating sensory neurons that are involved in the perception of heat. In other words, even though there is no heat, the sensation of heat is, in a sense, real. Furthermore, the sensation is culinarily useful and it would be a shame if it were dismissed as just some silly illusion.

By way of analogy, I am increasingly of the mindset that what philosophers mean when they refer to compatibilism in the context of free will is very much a real thing; that as our understanding of neuroscience increases we will come to define its mechanisms in as much detail as we now understand the working of capsacin; that those same mechanisms are what is responsible for the sensation of libertarian free will that we all experience; and that the concept is extremely relevant and ought not to be discarded just because it creates an illusory sensation. In many ways, whether (and to what degree) an entity possesses free will in this compatibilist sense is a rather key litmus test as to what rights, etc., ought to be afforded that entity.

(This last point could be a post unto itself, so I'll simply terminate that line of reasoning right away rather than risk going into a several page digression.)

All that said, as a result of Jerry's posts as well comments from folks like Ben Goren, I am increasingly of the mindset that although all the above is true, it is confusing at best to give this phenomenon the label "free will", and at times the motive may even be deliberately obfuscatory.

In a world where people so desperately want to believe there is warmth in even the coldest jalapeno, referring to them as "hot peppers" -- even if us sophisticated foodies understand that we are simply referring to the presence of capsacin rather than some mystical ability to maintain a high temperature -- is going to be received by the vast majority of laypeople as a confirmation of what they already wish was true.

So after much deliberation, I think Jerry is right: We ought to call them spicy peppers, and we ought to start calling compatibilism by a name other than "free will".

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Another way to tell pseudoscience from ordinary bad science

Whether it's deserved or not, the general consensus on NASA's revelation of arsenic-based life seems to be largely negative, i.e. that the research was poor or tentative at best, and did not warrant the kind of hoopla the organization made over it; and Felisa Wolfe-Simon has taken a rather remarkable drubbing -- to the point where I've even seen some who condemn the research question whether her treatment has really been fair.

The NASA team didn't always respond in the best possible way, e.g. their rather odd comment that all dialogue had to be conducted via peer-reviewed journals, coming immediately on the heals of a rather splashy press conference they had just held. But one thing they never did was try to sue their critics.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

This is what Cee Lo really should have sang

If Cee Lo wanted to turn John Lennon's provocative and sharply challenging song into a warm fuzzy group hug, why didn't he go whole hog? Here's what he should have sung:

Imagine dogs go to heaven
And kitties too, why not?
Hell is only for Hitler
Any maybe for Pol Pot

Imagine all the people not thinking much today

Imagine we helped some countries
Marginally improve
Nothing too hard or controversial
(Don't knock their religion, dude!)

Imagine all the people with UN troops keeping the peace

You, you may say I'm a coward
But I'm just an average joe
I hope some day you'll just give up
And we'll preserve the status quo

Imagine more possessions
For those of us who lack
We'll keep the greed, just not the hunger
And a progressive income tax

Imagine all the people with slightly less income inequality

You, you may say I'm a coward
But I'm just an average joe
I hope some day you'll just give up
And we'll preserve the status quo

Why Cee Lo's word change to Imagine is really crappy

I was not the only one to notice that Cee Lo Green, when performing John Lennon's Imagine just before the ball drop last night, changed the words to the second verse. Specifically, "no religion too" was changed to "and all religion's true."

This sounds innocuous enough, but it's actually really crappy for three reasons.

1) It completely misses the point of the song. I have no problem with singers changing around the song they are covering. Hell, I do it in my band. I don't even necessarily have a problem with changing it around in a way that changes the meaning (my band used to do a version of Why Don't You Do Right that completely changed up the perspective).

But what I do have a problem is subtly changing the meaning and trying to pass it off as if it's still the same as the original. I think it's clear that Cee Lo felt those words still conveyed the message of the song. But they don't.

This is not because Imagine is an anti-religious song; it's because the entire point of the song is to challenge the very idea that we need these institutions in the first place. As a reminder, the verse that Cee Lo mangled begins like this:

Imagine there's no country
It isn't hard to do

It doesn't say, "Imagine we fixed our country." It dares the listener to imagine there is no country to begin with. It compels us to "imagine" a world that is radically different in ways that most of us -- myself included -- take for granted.

Cee Lo's sanitized softball version greatly diminishes that challenge. Instead of asking the listener to question their most basic assumptions about how a society can work, instead it just lets us close our eyes and think of puppies and happy things. Boo.

2) We know people would have been offended if he hadn't changed the words; why aren't they offended anyway? I'm sorry, but I can't imagine that the same folks who would be apt to write angry letters over the "no religion" line would be particularly cool about me saying, "Hey, the United States shouldn't even exist." And yet, that's exactly what the first part of that verse says, isn't it?

The thing is, when it comes to "Imagine there's no country", most people "get it". They understand their assumptions are being deliberately challenged, and even if they disagree, they don't take it as a personal affront.

But as we well know, the hot button of religion has a tendency to blind people to things like this. Instead of being provoked to think deeply, they are provoked to angry shouting. And that's just crappy.

3) "All religion's true" sounds like a nice sentiment -- until you think about it for five seconds. And I got just three words for ya on that topic: Westboro Baptist Church.

Of course I know it's not supposed to be literally saying that, it's just supposed to be a bit of ecumenical mushy-headedness. But this is exactly the kind of thinking that gives intolerance a free pass, as long as it's not too extreme, and you couch it in terms of faith.

The Phelpses may be a pithy counter-example, but of course we know Cee Lo didn't mean them. Yet what about those whose faith drives them to vote against marriage equality? What about Muslims in some parts of the world engaging in female genital mutilation? What about the Catholic church (and many others) not allowing women in leadership roles? Did Cee Lo implicitly mean to exclude all of those beliefs too? It seems unlikely.

It might seem like a warm fuzzy group hug, but there's a nasty side to making such a blanket statement.

Anyway, lots of outrage against Cee Lo on Twitter. No surprise. I knew he was going to change the words... As soon as he started singing, I said, "There's no way he'll do the 'no religion' line." And I was right. Sigh.