Learning from 2015

Ok, this is going to be a long one. In this post I’m going to go over a LOT of the different topics and ideas I had thought about over the course of 2015 and wanted to post about but could never find the time or motivation. A lot of them I feel very strongly about but the thought of having to reiterate arguments many other people are making (and have made and will continue to make) left me exasperated. This may be my only post this year, it may not, but I wanted to at last commit these ideas to digital paper, as it were, and ensure that they were put out there. I spend a lot of time on Twitter these days and the character limit there makes it very hard to sufficiently expand upon any one point during a given discussion. The platform seems to engender, in others, at least, the desire to fire out as many discrete points as possible as opposed to making one solid and defensible claim and arguing that point back and forth. Anyway.

  • Stop misgendering people. Just stop it. Don’t make excuses, don’t say anything else, just stop it.
  • Respect people’s preferred pronouns. If you are unsure what they are: ASK the person.
  • Nonbinary people are valid. They exist, they are real and their gender and identity is valid.
  • Bisexual people are bisexual. They’re not sometimes straight, sometimes gay, they are bisexual. Understand this. Accept this.
    • Sexual orientation is a spectrum and can be fluid but a bisexual person is bisexual even if they have only had relationships/relations with one gender.
  • Feminism is not about men’s rights. Feminism is about striving for women to be equal to men in all appropriate regards. Men’s issues or inequalities do not invalidate feminism.
  • Feminism will, however, positively affect men’s rights. In an ideal world, at least. When people can remove a person’s gender from an issue those inequalities should become less prevalent.
  • Genital mutilation of anyone of any gender who cannot consent where not medically necessary is a horrific abuse of bodily integrity. To be clear, this includes male circumcision of infants.
  • Male circumcision is proven to reduce HIV/AIDS transmission rates [Ref] but its use as a strategy to fight HIV/AIDS in epidemic regions doesn’t undo the abuse of bodily integrity.
  • If you want to fight for men’s rights and highlight inequalities faced by men, attacking people, slandering them, throwing slurs and doxxing is NOT an effective strategy.
  • If you are Pro-Life the most effective thing you can do to reduce the numbers of abortions being pursued by Irish women is to promote #BetterSexEd
    • In statistics from 1996, Netherlands and Belgium had the lowest abortion rates internationally [Ref pg.27] and this is in large part due to their comprehensive Sex Education ethos [Ref]
  • The Convention on the Rights of the Child does NOT give an unborn child/fetus/embryo a right to life because it does not define at what point an embryo/fetus becomes a “child”
  • The Convention on the Rights of the Child does NOT give an unborn child/fetus/embryo a right to life because it only states “the child…needs…appropriate legal protection before…birth
  • Fighting human trafficking and sex trafficking by criminalising Sex Workers and/or their customers and the rights of everyone involved is NOT a proven effective strategy.
    • Men who buy sex and thereby create the demand that fuels trafficking have stated that greater criminal penalties, having their name publicized and having a letter sent home stating that they were arrested for buying sex would deter them from buying sex.[Ref]
    • The argument here is that men create the demand for sex work which fuels trafficking. So, instead of tackling the trafficking, we are instead making something more illegal than it otherwise would be, in order to attack a different crime. I can see how anything that reduces trafficking levels could be seen as a good policy but the reality of the situation is no matter how harsh the criminal penalties are, the demand will be reduced yes, but not eliminated. The groups and individuals who make money from human trafficking and sex trafficking may make less money, but so long as there is profit to be made from whatever demand is available this human rights abuse will continue largely unabated. Without any statistics or models to show how much demand can and will be reduced by, determining how much profit is made by these groups, factoring in the costs to these people of trafficking people it is largely impossible, I believe, to determine whether this policy will actually result in reduced trafficking of people for sex or other purposes.
    • Furthermore, Sex Workers come in many different forms and not all of them are trafficked individuals. While it’s unclear what actual effects this kind of policy will have on trafficking, it is very clear just how detrimental an effect it will have on people who are Sex Workers either by choice, by economic circumstance or other reason. It will rob them of access to proper resources for health, safety, finances, shelter and, ultimately, their life and livelihood. Because the demand will not completely disappear and because these people will still need to pay their bills, feed themselves and any dependants they may have they will be forced to operate in extremely unsafe conditions where they are in fact putting themselves at risk of being trafficked for sex.
    • Please also bear in mind that the Nordic Model uses Sweden as a litmus test for the effects on trafficking however the Swedish Ministry of Justice itself, in reviewing what effect their policies had, if any, “[acknowledged] the limitations in determining the prevalence of illegal activities[Ref]. They still said they were confident that their policies made a difference but were limited in actually determining what levels of these activities were going on. That is hugely problematic and should not be ignored.
  • Toxic masculinity genuinely affects men in an adverse manner and contributes to the abuses and inequalities they suffer.
  • Rape culture exists in a society where a claim of rape or sexual assault is met with comments of “he/she deserved it”, “just trying to ruin his/her life”, “that wasn’t rape”…
  • Rape culture affects both men and women. Your denial of rape culture hurts both men and women.
  • One feminist saying horrible, indefensible shit does not make all of feminism complicit and culpable in that persons abuses. Likewise one MRA saying horrible, indefensible shit does not make all of Men’s Rights complicit and culpable in that persons abuses.
  • No matter who or what you disagree with, no matter how fiercely you hold your position, your strongest, most effective weapons are 1) Rational Discourse 2) Evidence 3) Arguing the point, not the person and resisting any and all urges to Argumentum Ad Hominem.
  • If someone is slinging shit at you in a discussion you do not win by slinging shit back. You win by successfully articulating and defending your position. Anything else is probably a waste of your time.
    • Some people with a probable MRA connection have told me that they throw shit at feminists online because some people with a probable feminism connection threw shit at them. What, are you 4 years old? If you want to further your cause in an effective manner, wasting your time trading Ad Hominems back and forth is a waste of everyone’s time and it only serves to fuel any potential backlash from others who are more than happy to waste their time throwing shit instead of furthering their own cause. It doesn’t matter who started it, be mature enough to cut it out anyway.
  • No matter what anyone else writes or says or does, make up your own mind. Articulate and defend your position. Question and reinforce your position.
  • DO NOT provide sources/data in support of a particular claim/position you are making if the sources/data do not conclusively support your claim/position.
    • For example, if you provide a graph that shows that the number of male suicides in a given date range increases while government spending in prostate cancer research goes down over the same date range while government spending on breast cancer research goes up over the same date range you CANNOT use this to prove a claim like “feminism is killing men”. The reason for this is because you are not actually doing proper science or statistical analysis. Your data could be used to support ANY number of claims because there are too many other factors involved. “Feminism” is far too vague as a factor. The graph does not provide statistics on government spending on mental health, which could be a far greater factor than “feminism”, it does not include statistics on private funding for the different research areas, it does not show statistics on female suicide rates which could show instead “feminism” is killing both men and women however this still too vague as a factor. I could go on but I won’t. This is bad science, bad statistical analysis and bad logic. Don’t do it. Correlation does not equal causation.

World Atheist Convention: Day 2 (Super, Super Late Edition)

As I haven’t been blogging for months, I completely missed the fact that I never actually posted this piece. While it’s remarkably out of date (back in June for cripes’ sake!) it’s still got enough content in it that I can’t leave it sitting in my drafts. Enjoy!

Unfortunately due to a lack of internet access and other things during the weekend I wasn’t able to keep hugely up to date with blog posts on the conference and I also missed the early sessions on Sunday morning, which is a shame as I missed the awesome Maryam Namazie who I hear was on form as ever, but I’m here to add my voice to the many others reporting from the event.
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World Atheist Convention 2011: Day 1

Aloha and greetings from sunny Dublin! Unusually warm and sunny for Ireland despite the time of the year but rather nice to start off the weekend of the WAC 2011!

I’d like to just stick my oar in on a topic that came up and piqued my interest. It’s the issue of why do we have a gathering in the first place? Surely all we could talk about is our shared lack of belief. It conjures up a rather dolorous image of a group of people twiddling their thumbs and constantly asking each other if they believe in God yet. The simple answer is because we are the minority. The wonderful point was made that in a society where most everyone collected stamps and thought it was a moral requirement, there would be groups of aphilatelists popping up discussing how to live their lives well while not collecting stamps. The same is true of atheists. The long answer is that in a world that is primarily religious, a world where the common consensus is that religion of some form is a necessary foundation for a moral life, a world where people are assumed to be religious, a world where social and legal policies greatly reflect the religious beliefs of the people and their elected members of government it is vital the people who don’t collect stamps stand up and say “Hey, hang on a second. How dare you accuse us of being amoral when you impose a pre-existing, socially conceived moral framework onto your religion and then try to pass it off to us as having its origins in your delusion of choice.”

That is why we have conventions.

Beliefs vs. Fact

This has long been a debate of various sorts and forms in the non-believing community but I think I’ve finally figured out how I want to phrase my argument in relation to it.

We have these things called beliefs, that quite often are not based on evidence, yet are still robust, rational and logical. For example “I believe that peanut butter and jam make a good sandwich filling” is a rational belief as I’m basing it upon my own experience and the experience of others. The problem with beliefs though is that they can quite often be wrong and can also disagree with both established consensus and even reality itself. For example “I believe that I can see Angels who guide me through life and watch over me.” On the one hand, a lot of people don’t share this belief, and on the other there’s no actual evidence for it outside of one person’s subjective experience.

We also have things called facts. These puppies are a hell of a lot more useful. For example “so long as the Earth maintains it orbit around the sun, the sun will always rise the next day” this is an established fact. We can link the rising of the sun to the structure of our solar system and based upon that establish logically and rationally that the above example is indeed a fact. The important thing to note here is the details may differ or change with new scientific understandings or discoveries, for example it could potentially happen that the times we now attribute to sunrise and sunset across the globe could migrate slowly forcing us to alter our current timezone system (it’s not likely, but certainly not impossible) but still the rising of the sun would remain a fact. So too can we say that while the individual mechanics underlying the Theory of Evolution* may change, or more rather our understanding of those underlying mechanics, the theory as a whole is an undeniable fact.

That word “undeniable” is a key one though. With beliefs one simply believes or disbelieves. With facts, however one can accept it or deny it. While accepting it requires no active belief (we don’t believe in gravity, we accept it as a fact of nature) denying facts requires some active belief. To deny a fact such as gravity, one needs to actively believe either that people are wrong and it is not a fact or believe that universe does not in fact function the way the so-called fact would imply.

This important distinction between disbelief and denial is rather profound and it’s effect can be seen in modern parlance. People who doubt that Hitler and his Nazi government put millions of Jews to death during WWII are not called Holocaust-disbelievers. The Holocaust is not a belief to be debated upon such as Deism or Theism etc… it is an established fact of history. To doubt the Holocaust happened is to deny a fact of the world. As I mentioned above, some details may change over time, we may yet uncover secret documents that detail that someone other than we thought was actually signing the orders in Auschwitz for the murders (unlikely) but the overall fact will remain a fact.

With all this in mind I think it’s time we stop asking/responding to questions in the form of “Do you believe in [insert established scientific fact here]” and start demanding that the question become “Do you accept [insert established scientific fact here]”

I do not believe in a God or gods. I do not “deny” God or gods as they are not Fact. I do not “believe” in Evolution, I accept Evolution. These are important phrases and important kinds of phraseology that I think would serve not only the non-believing community well, but mankind in general also.

* – It’s NOT just a theory. It’s a Theory.

Intangible Evidence for Ghosts Pt. I

As the title suggests, if there does happen to be any robust evidence for the existence of ghosts or spirits or any other popular manifestations of the supernatural world, it’s intangible. We can’t see it and we certainly can’t find it. I was recently watching a Discovery series called Ghost Lab as part of my search for engaging entertainment and I was drawn in by their claims of “scientific” studies and a search for “evidence of the afterlife.” For the sake of transparency I must admit that I only watched the first episode in the first series and I have not watched any of the other episodes, including the latest series. That being said I found their so-called “scientific” methods highly flawed and their whole approach smacks of a distinct lack of impartiality.

These guys, the Klinge brothers, are coming into this whole situation with the assumption that there is such a thing as the afterlife and spirits and they contaminate all of the conclusions they draw with this bias. They are like the theist who is sure that God exists and that the Bible is true and takes any evidence she comes across and twists and manipulates it until it confirms her belief. This kind of thing is, for the uninformed, called “confirmation bias” and it simply means that you ignore anything that could disagree with your theory and you only look at that which seems to confirm it. It’s a common theme in pseudo-science and bad theology (now there’s a redundant phrase if ever I’ve heard one) and it is not a part of the scientific method.

The first episode is helpful, however, as it illuminates both the motivation behind the investigations and the methods used by the team which is, after all, the meat of the discussion: how do you (or can you even) prove that ghosts and/or spirits exist? Near the beginning of the episode one of the brothers retells the story that got him interested in the world of the paranormal. We are shown a piece of old footage, which one can only assume is the one in question, as he tells us about filming a visit to Gettysburg with his family when he was young and he was amazed to see a lone, small group of people dressed up in Civil War get-up strolling through a field whereby he asked his parents to pull over so he could get out and get closer to film them. He then tells us that he turned off the camera, made his way out of the car and got as close to the field as he could yet when he looked to find the group they had simply disappeared. He says, rather authoritatively, that there were not close enough to the forest line to have made it there by that time and, seemingly most importantly for him, there were no other groups or onlookers nearby which, he assumes, would indicate a re-enactment of some sort. Now, if the footage we saw is the footage shot then I have to question his claim that they could not have made it to the tree line in that time. The landscape seems to be very rolling and hilly and the group seen on screen with a giant waving flag does not appear to be too far away from the tree line in the shot that we see. I have to question both why he turned off the camera in the first place, and how long it took him between that point and getting to seeing that they had disappeared. If I was him in that situation, even at that age (I think he mentioned being around 9 or so at that point) I would hesitate to jump to a supernatural explanation for their disappearance.

This presupposition of supernatural events seems to have followed this man and his brother well into their adult lives and into their supposed scientific investigation of supernatural claims as we’ll see in the following examples I’d like to mention from that show. They investigate two specific locations that are supposedly haunted. One is a municipal auditorium which has connections to rock-a-billy and Elvis himself while the other is a plantation house which is connected with civil war era military men and abuse of slaves.

The Shreveport Municipal Auditorium is their first stop. They detail some of the stories from people who have experienced strange goings-on and they go over some of the potential explanations for the phenomena from the point of view of the paranormal world and then they proceed to investigate. I’m fairly impressed with most of their methods as they lay down a lot of monitoring equipment over a large area to try and capture as much information as possible using devices to detect changes in temperature, shifts in electromagnetic fields and sound recorders to pick up any so-called Electronic Voice Phenomena. These EVP are my first issue, although I must preface this with the fact that throughout their investigations, they focus most of their efforts upon the places that have been reported as being linked to paranormal events, which is not truly scientific. It would be far more scientific to simply gather all the available data they could over an extended period of time and then collate the it to examine it for any noticeable phenomena. Furthermore their equipment is never shown to be insusceptible to outside interference from other electronics or other forms of electromagnetic interference especially given that they conduct the Shreveport investigations in a large old building that contains large amounts of electrical wiring and equipment, which is apparently left connected and untouched during their, primarily, night-time investigations.

Anyway, back to EVP. This is the first issue I have with their methods as they focus their efforts on detecting EVP in one of the supposed paranormal event sites and they contaminate their results so thoroughly that it is quite simply required that we ignore any of the results they find. It is important to understand that the devices they use are handheld recorders with low-quality microphones and the hardware itself modulates the input volume based on the level of the input it receives so the quieter the surroundings become the higher the gain on the recordings, which further increases distortion of any captured input until the device regulates the level to a more manageable volume. Furthermore, since it’s a low quality microphone being used, as anyone who has recorded any kind of audio or video on a mobile phone knows, distortion is guaranteed when things get any way loud. So, they conduct their EVP test, which consists of asking an empty room a series of questions and waiting for a response, supposedly from an other-worldly entity. I highly recommend Derren Brown’s tv show Derren Brown Investigates The Ghost Hunter for a look at how sketchy these EVP, and, more importantly, their highly subjective and downright ludicrous interpretations, can be. Before the test was conducted, they were advised that one of the supernatural events in the building involved someone hearing someone, who apparently wasn’t there, saying “they saw the light”. Once the complete the testing and return to their operations truck to review the audio file they come across what sounds like some distant voice saying, you guessed it, “they saw the light”, now to my ears, and to anyone who has listened to the quality of the recording and the amount of noise and distortion going on, what they hear as a distant voice saying this phrase they had pre-attuned to, I hear it as simply the rustling and movement of lots of people and equipment in a big, echoing space, which is exactly what their testing environment was like. They then did something which initially I thought would redeem them from their mistakes in that they went back to the site where the so-called EVP was detected and they had one of their team utter the supposed phrase in a hushed manner and then brought back the recording to their truck to analyse and compare both audio samples of the supposed phrase. I initially applauded this as it showed true scientific methodology, if only for a brief moment: This is our hypothesis, let’s go conduct an experiment and see if our hypothesis conflicts with the real world or not. They failed spectacularly in that all they did was look at the general wave forms of both audio files and compare their general shape. The supposed EVP was lower in volume than their voice sample but its general shape seemed to correspond to the sample of the team member uttering the phrase. And that was it, they concluded that their EVP was indeed evidence of some sort of other-worldly presence uttering a phrase. That’s it. No further in-depth analysis, no confirmation that the waveform and frequencies actually conform to human speech and no accounting for the fact that most people have radically different voice patterns.

It’s extremely common where EVP are concerned to have someone in a room with a handheld recorder either in hand or resting somewhere asking questions of the empty room and on the recording you hear, when the questioner falls silent, the background noise increases in volume audibly and becomes extremely dominant as the gain on the recording device rises to detect any and all bits of input. Anyone familiar with any kind of audio knows that the higher the gain goes the more distorted and noisy the signal becomes to the point where the signal to noise ratio is just untenable and nothing meaningful can be taken from the signal. What paranormal researchers then do is listen to these sections of pure noises and try to discern human voices or sounds from them. In case of so-called ‘demonologists’ they don’t even limit themselves to discernibly human voices but anything that sound remotely like any kind of words or phrases. Quite often the questions will come in the form of Yes/No questions, seemingly in order to make the communication as easily as possible for these spirits. Given that these spirits are said to be able to inhabit people and control them, suck the temperature from a room in order to manifest physically and have also been charged with physically interacting with objects and/or people and flinging them across the room, or making them levitate, it seems highly suspect to assume that these entities could not string convincing sentences of audible and comprehensible words together. No, instead we are left with clips and phrases as vague and subjectively interpreted as is possible to imagine. If one were to attempt to prove the existence of other-worldly entities through EVP it would require far more sensitive equipment and far more well controlled circumstances where someone simply shifting their stance would not lead to the recording equipment picking up the rustling of their trousers and mangling it through high-gain distortion into something vague and noisy that an entirely impressionable and biased individual could then subjectively interpret as a muffled “Yes” in response to a vague question that he has intentionally formed in the hopes of receiving a Yes or No response (where no response at all would then further be interpreted as a lack of willingness to respond to the question at hand).

So, we’ve shown that not only is the entire concept of EVP and the common approach to it completely flawed and biased, but we’ve also shown specifically that the methods implemented by the team to both capture the necessary data and then interpret it were flawed, biased and, crucially, wholly unscientific. Should we give them the benefit of the doubt and say they were merely overcome by their enthusiasm? No, not in the slightest. They then go on to experience a series of so-called paranormal events, none of which are captured on camera, and none of which are repeatable or objectively confirmed. All confirmation of the events came from subjective viewers in a highly biased and impressionable state. One of the specific examples was of a door that is purported to open and close itself, which apparently happened during their night of testing but did they decide to set up some cameras on the door in question and observe it? No. They seemed distinctly determined to do everything they could to make every opportunity for highly subjective and non repeatable events to occur.

They then went on to what I find is one of the more ridiculous techniques I’ve come across in paranormal investigations and it seems wholly informed by the presupposition that spirits of dead humans exist and inhabit certain locations for interminable amounts of time. They call the technique “Era Cues” whereby based upon the dominant ghost story in the location (in Shreveport the dominant story was that the rockabilly culture and maybe even Elvis himself was inhabiting the building, seemingly reminiscing and unable to let go of a “golden era” of music and culture) they then do everything they can to introduce cues to that specific era in time, hence “Era Cues”, it’s a somewhat elegant idea and even more so when you buy into their presuppositions but it is once again entirely devoid of any substantial evidence whatsoever. First of all it presupposes the existences of human spirits. Then it further presupposes, solely on the back of the first flawed premise, that these spirits will hang around long after their death. We then build the house of cards one layer higher on the back of our flawed foundations to presuppose that somehow these spirits, who apparently “act out” at random, will be induced to “act out” more than usual by stimulus that is apparently linked to their supposed era.

In order to effect this higher incidence of “acting out” the team ask a rockabilly style band to come set up on stage and play some “era” music. The issue I pointed out earlier of loud people in a loud room trying to be quiet to hear quiet other-worldly noises is amplified (pun intended) by the team insisting that when the song finishes that everyone in the giant auditorium be quiet so that the team members, spread throughout the building can listen for any strange goings on. What do we find? Two jumpy and impressionable female team members (casting no stereotypes here, merely accurate descriptions of specific individuals) say that they heard a door close somewhere behind them that they swear, and video footage apparently confirms, was open earlier. Really? That’s it? That’s all we get from rockabilly spirits energised by music from their era? A closing door? Yes, apparently that’s the extent of the powers of human spirits, they make people’s rustling pants sound like voices and they encourage doors to close (off-camera). [Please bear in mind that my “rustling pants” hypothesis has far more evidence behind it than their weighty presuppositions, however, I still acknowledge the fact that it could also have been a shirt or some equipment etc…]

End of Part One. Part Two will deal with their visit to a plantation house with a ghost story apparently dating back to the American Civil War.

There Be Dragons Here…

At least that is what should be inscribed at the entrance to the supposed Ark Encounter theme park which apparently will include Dragons and Unicorns.

The biblical unicorn was a real animal, not an imaginary creature. … The absence of a unicorn in the modern world should not cause us to doubt its past existence. (Think of the dodo bird. It does not exist today, but we do not doubt that it existed in the past.). … To think of the biblical unicorn as a fantasy animal is to demean God’s Word, which is true in every detail.

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An Invalid Study on Sex and Marriage

According to a new study by Brigham Young University, reported on here by The Daily Telegraph, couples who delay sex until they are married report higher levels of relationship stability, relationship satisfaction, quality of sexual interaction and communication.

Before I break down these claims it’s distinctly worth pointing out that BYU is a university situated in Utah (otherwise known as Mormon country) and is “a private, coeducational research university owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” which means it is a Mormon-run university. Now, while, in the study and the media reporting on it, they claim that they controlled for religiosity in their 2,035 participants they should have controlled for their own religiosity and never carried out the study in the first place. The Mormon church preaches abstinence before marriage as one of their central dogmatic tenets so the potential bias involved pretty much renders this study invalid, but this is not the only reason that we should dismiss this study as invalid and ignore its results as I’ll demonstrate in the next few paragraphs. A rather witty commenter on the Telegraph website pointed out rather poignantly that it’s a case of “[an] Extreme religious sect does a flawed-study on a non-representative target-group which c0nfirms[sic] its fundamental beliefs. Big surprise!

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