the agency of digital amplifiers

March 26, 2013 3 comments

A friend of mine has a calm, concise, and well-contextualized overview of the latest besuffixed pseudocontroversy in the ongoing Internet sexism wars. Coming into this not from the programmer or even gamer culture but from amidst the -ism schism within the secular/atheist/skeptic communities, i see only a couple of opportunities to weigh in.

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Categories: Uncategorized

misconceptions about polyamory: mononormativity

March 24, 2013 Leave a comment

I’m preparing a presentation on the misconceptions surrounding polyamory, which honestly requires some care to prevent from cascading into a series of presentations. The natural place to start is the cultural misconception that such a practice, orientation, lifestyle, or philosophy of intimate relationships does not exist at all, or exists only in relation to a monogamous baseline, for this mononormative quality of our culture is the genesis for many (and the catalyst for all) of the misconceptions that follow—including those internal to the internal poly dialogue.

The most obvious variety (strategy, if you will) of marginalization is erasure. The relative invisibility of poly people and of polyamory as a type of relationship testifies to the youth of our collective culture and identity, and certainly of our movement. For the most part, responsible non-monogamous relationships play no role in popular narratives and do not even factor into the general awareness. This exchange from “The Mask” provides a nice illustration:

Peggy: You’re Mr. Nice Guy?
Stanley: Yes!
Peggy: Oh, Stanley, do you realize how much mail we got about that letter? I mean, there are literally hundreds of women out there looking for a guy just like you.
Stanley: Really?
Peggy: Yeah. Do you know how hard it is to find a decent man in this town? Most of them think monogamy is some kind of wood.

In the (in this respect, pretty accurate) universe of the story, monogamy is so equated with ethical relationship practices that the word itself goes largely unrecognized.* Monogamy has certainly come into question in the decades since dialogue like this went essentially unchallenged, and in light of the increasing recognition of open and “monogamish” relationships it likely wouldn’t today. There remains a reticence to depart in any enduring way from dyads (and when non-dyadic relationship structures do appear they still tend to be contextualized by crime).

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being a spectator to the mathematization of history

March 3, 2013 Leave a comment

For whatever reasons, we tend to think of societal studies as not so much varieties of science as methodologies of investigation that pull to varying degree from the sciences. (And by “we” i include laypeople, other scientists, and several experts.) Yet economics, human history, politics, linguistics, and similar disciplines have, in many respects, become as describable and predictable as such essentially deterministic disciplines as climatology and cosmology.

Given this backdrop, i seem never to tire of hearing news that some or other discipline traditionally consolidated with the arts or humanities is succumbing to a more overtly scientific protocol. There seem to be several flavors to this trend, but the most palatable is perhaps “quantification”.

Most recently, via The Chronicle, the multidisciplinary approach to the study of human societies ushered into the public discourse by the popular writings of Jared Diamond appears to have given rise to a revival of interest in quantitative history. I, meanwhile, was surprised to learn that this interest was a revival, as apparently the original grand attempt at applying scientific methodology to history suffered from as much bias and misapplication as became its better-remembered counterpart two decades later.

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fluoride fallacies: consensus

February 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Like all informal logical fallacies, the argument from authority is often less a cheap rhetorical tactic than a misemployed heuristic. Because (by definition) a significant burden of evidence or reasoning has been shifted to an authority, whatever scrutiny might have been aimed at that evidence or reasoning now bears upon the source of authority.

In fact, authority is, at least in today’s world, an indispensable source of belief. For instance, when getting dressed we implicitly rely on several authorities: To believe that our clothing is appropriate for the day’s weather, we rely on the authority of weather forecasters; that it is appropriate for our occupation, that of tradition or of seniority; that it is appropriate to our appearance, that of fashion; that it has not been negligently laced with toxins, those of moral standards and of government regulatory agencies; and so on.

Obviously there are authorities generally, or at least widely, thought to be reliable that nonetheless are not. We can know this not just because authorities disagree, but because we have more reliable sources of evidence regarding many things in life than authorities. For example, we don’t (or oughtn’t) rely on weather forecasters to know whether it is currently raining in our own neighborhood, or on political commentators to know whether wealth is fairly distributed, or (solely) on the generic advice of any of our confidants to know what course of action to take with respect to a thorny social situation.

An especially common authority cited with regard to an issue is the expert—someone trained, knowledgeable, and experienced in the issue itself or in some discipline(s) relevant thereto, who can convey and contextualize current best knowledge on the subject and its implications for people’s lives. We rely on the experts who prescribe our meds and tune up our bikes as much as we rely on those who inform our healthcare professionals and policymakers. When an expert speaks about their area of expertise, we tend to listen. (While it’s another story in itself, we even tend to listen carefully to experts when we’re predisposed to—even intent upon—doubting them. When we fall into denial, we crave their validation even as we reject their credibility.)

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commenting about

February 18, 2013 5 comments

I’m been having a bit of back-and-forth with commenter OaringAbout on skeptic extraordinaire Steven Novella’s Neurologicablog. They brought up the increasingly tangentially familiar (and very plausibly artificial) equity–gender divide among feminists, in response to which i asked for some examples within the so-called “community of reason”. They obliged, somewhat, and while checking their claims, citing sources, and formulating my response, i synthesized some ideas i’d not taken the time to before—though admittedly with limited confidence in some of it. So, it seems appropriate to put it here as a touchstone, even (especially) if i’m forced to recant some of it in light of new evidence. But do read the background of the conversation first (and apologies in retrospect for the opportunistic moralizing at the outset).


@OaringAbout, thanks for responding. I have a few problems with your setup, though i don’t think they need to tint the rest of this exchange. One is that, while you seem partial to literalism (judging from the links you provided), you are willing to conclude from circumstantial evidence that people believe things that they have not said. The other is that likening the drawing of provisional conclusions based on circumstantial interpersonal evidence, perhaps analogous to journalism, to a bona fide science strikes me as unnecessarily haughty and perhaps hazardously self-assuring. (If i understand the chronology, for instance, evolutionary theories existed before fossils were understood as such, and Darwin’s early work was not based on fossils at all.)

To put us more in alignment: I don’t doubt that several feminists are antagonistic toward and perhaps even in denial of the science of sex and gender differences. What i doubt is that any prominent feminists identified with atheism or skepticism as movements or communities are so antagonistic. There is, however, widespread criticism among these feminists of the tendency of other feminists or atheists or skeptics toward biological determinism, loosely speaking the opposite extreme from tabula rasa along the traditional nature/nurture axis (itself, i understand, outdated in the face of such interactions as gene-environment interactions).

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Categories: skepticism Tags: , , ,

some qualifications on agency

January 19, 2013 Leave a comment

I was terse in my assertion that agency is a necessary component of morality, so that there are two fronts on which i think i could be clearer and more convincing (to myself, at any rate): (1) more precisely demarcate circumstances involving agency from circumstances not, and (2) addressing some plausible objections to the necessity of agency at all.

Within the terrain near the lower threshold of agency i positioned three examples: viruses, agent-based models, and deterministic games. The first of these may have been unnecessarily complex; the behavior of individual proteins and other molecules within a cell themselves exhibit agency, e.g. by traversing and (un)zipping nucleic acids and by ferrying other chemicals from one location to another. One might then object that these processes are themselves deterministically (in the colloquial sense) governed by regulatory processes that themselves may be described entirely in terms of the quantities and behaviors of substances in the surrounding environment. Thus, the whole cell, something rather more complicated than a virus, might be described analogously to a Rube Goldberg contraption, performing all sorts of tricks but with the underlying mechanisms entirely (or adequately) exposed. From this point of view, the perception of agency vanishes.

I want to argue that this is fine—that agency can depend upon point of view.

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Room for all to be offended

January 16, 2013 Leave a comment

The Roanoke Times printed a letter from me today:

Ann Boyd made an important point in her Dec. 31 letter (“Atheists’ message did offend”): Atheist billboards, appearing all over the country, offend many people by signaling that many others don’t believe in God.

How is this offensive? We are implicitly denying — or at least doubting — Boyd’s and many others’ testimony that God changed their lives for the better. That’s pretty personal.

Indeed, many Christians say that without God in our lives, we would have no sound morals. Without God, our inner depravity would conquer us.

However, this implicitly denies that I, an atheist, have sound morals or do good works — or that I believe anything at all.

I find that offensive.

Boyd is entitled to her offense, but I hope she’ll agree that I’m entitled to mine. After all, if atheists took as much space as Christians to complain about such offenses from billboards, marquees, politicians, pastors and letters to the editor, the papers would print nothing else.

The public dialogue concerning morality — and religion — needs to continue, and people of all beliefs will be offended along the way.

We can cope. I hope. Our nation was founded on pluralism, a value we can share.

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