Atheism+, misogyny, and the trouble with trolls

There has been a lot of conversation about Atheism+ over the last week. Excellent summaries of the arguments against Atheism+, and rebuttals to those arguments are presented by Jen McCreight, Greta Christina, and PZ Myers.

Many of the discussions have been about whether A+ is really just the same as humanism. In addition to the verbal rebuttals linked to above, Jason Thibeault uses a nice set of Venn diagrams to make the same point.

Per Smith uses this diagram in illustrating his scholarly analysis of A+ as a sectarian movement. (Note that although it may seem that he is criticising A+ for being sectarian, he points out in the comments that he is describing a fairly common phenomenon, not making a value judgment over whether it is a good or bad thing.) What caught my interest, however, was not Per’s description of sectarianism, but one of the comments:

The biggest problem with this, is that is places ‘other miscreants’ in with misogynists etc. When we are actually talking about tolls. Trolling is a sport, the aim of which is to get a reaction out of people who are perceived to be pompous and thin skinned. In other words, to get drama out of drama queens. Within the rules of this game, no tactic is considered too underhand….

…In fact noting is sacred, anything from antisemitism to child abuse and be used or abused, and to ‘spout your own views’ is considered a ‘troll fail’. Therefore a troll may threaten rape, but this does nothing to inform us of his/her views on rape, misogyny or anything else. It doesn’t even indicate that the troll disagrees with the views of the person they are trolling.

I think Vicky makes an excellent point; let’s look at this more closely. Many of the opinions that atheism+ is a response to may be opinions voiced by trolls. Those opinions are therefore not representative of “actual” opinions, but rather reflect the fact that a troll can find some rich pickings by voicing nasty opinions about women and sexual assault, for example.

There is a somewhat philosophical issue here: how can we tell if someone is trolling, as opposed to voicing his actual opinion? Most of the time we can assume that when people say things, the content of their speech match up (to a reasonable extent) with the contents of their attitudes and beliefs. Of course, people do lie, and it can be hard to ascertain whether someone is telling the truth or not. But trolling is a special case. The motivation for a troll to respond with “chicks are bitchez!!!”, or a slightly more subtle “atheists are just like religious fundamentalists”, is to provoke a response. And the troll may or may not be lying. That is, the contents of his mind may or may not bear some correspondence to the words.

So when a blog commenter makes a statement, we cannot always know if he is a troll or whether he is reasonably sincere. How we categorize these statements informs how we respond. A sincere statement should be responded to with a link to the eleventy places where that particular argument is dealt with, at least. A troll can be ignored (but see the paragraph at the end of this post) , and should not be counted as evidence that atheist/secular/skeptical/humanist men are misogynists/racists/privileged etc. Or should he? As mentioned above, it may well be the case that the troll, whilst trolling, is actually making statements that reflect his attitudes. In which case he should be counted as one of the atheists etc. who are misogynists etc. But we cannot always tell.

Do these distinctions matter? Does the suspicion that many of the voices speaking out against the “evils of feminism” may not be sincere alter what we consider to be an appropriate response? Is atheism+ necessary if all the jerks within atheism/skepticism are trolls? My answers to these questions are “maybe”, “no”, and “yes”, respectively, but this is partly because I really don’t get the troll mentality. I get why people (usually adolescents) engage in pranks. I get why a pompous voice of authority can be an alluring target. What I don’t get is the “anything goes” approach. I don’t get how it’s OK to say hurtful things to victims of rape or any other abuse or injustice. I don’t get how it’s OK to pick vulnerable targets, find the things that are most hurtful, and attack those targets with passion and glee.

The very fact that trolls exist, and that they consider victims of rape, institutional sexism, or any other kind of misogyny to be valid targets is a problem. It’s part of our culture. While trolls may not be sincerely stating their beliefs, the fact that anyone considers their behavior to be acceptable is a real problem, and it is a problem that is plausibly entwined with the problem that there are people who do sincerely hold the values espoused by the trolls. In reality, it is extremely unlikely that all the misogynist comments that have been made regarding feminism and atheism+ are from trolls. As Greta Christina points out

I am getting very tired of people responding to these posts by saying things like, “Don’t give them attention. Don’t feed the trolls.” This has been addressed at length, in the #mencallmethings: “whore” comment thread, and elsewhere. (Here is a very good short video on that subject, summing up why “don’t feed the trolls” is a terrible response to sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, or other group-based hate.) The tl;dr: This is not a few trolls trying to get attention and stir up any kind of response. This is a sustained campaign of misogyny, aimed at driving feminist women out of a community. And ignoring it does not make it go away. Ignoring it gives it tacit consent. The only way to deal with it is to point it out, and shame it, and make it clear that our community does not tolerate it. When you respond to a woman speaking out about misogyny by saying, “Don’t feed the trolls,” you are essentially telling us, “Stay silent about the misogynist shit you have to deal with on a daily basis.”

And do watch the video Greta linked to.


Are religious/conservative states more charitable?

…or as Hemant Mehta puts it, Are Atheists Being Stingy When It Comes to Charity?

Hemant describes data presented on the website of The Chronicle Of Philanthopy

Donors in Southern states, for instance, give roughly 5.2 percent of their discretionary income to charity—both to religious and to secular groups—compared with donors in the Northeast, who give 4.0 percent.

But the generosity ranking changes when religion is taken out of the picture. People in the Northeast give the most, providing 1.4 percent of their discretionary income to secular charities, compared with those in the South, who give 0.9 percent.

Unfortunately, none of the many other charts and analyses presented on The Chronicle Of Philanthropy website split the data by donations to religious vs secular oranisations. Is this an issue? Yes, because donations to churches are not really charitable contributions. Much of that money goes into church coffers rather than getting spent on good causes.

To be fair, churches can be excellent at charitable work, but this isn’t always the case. According to a report by the Council for Secular Humanism, a surprisingly small proportion of church funds is spent on charitable causes:

For instance, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS or Mormon Church), which regularly trumpets its charitable donations, gave about $1 billion to charitable causes between 1985 and 2008. That may seem like a lot until you divide it by the twenty-three-year time span and realize this church is donating only about 0.7 percent of its annual income. Other religions are more charitable. For instance, the United Methodist Church allocated about 29 percent of its revenues to charitable causes in 2010 (about $62 million of $214 million received). One calculation of the resources expended by 271 U.S. congregations found that, on average, “operating expenses” totaled 71 percent of all the expenditures of religions, much of that going to pay ministers’ salaries. Financial contributions addressing the physical needs of the poor fall within the remaining 29 percent of expenditures. While these numbers may be higher as a percentage of income than typical charitable giving by corporations, they are not hugely higher (depending on the religion) and are substantially lower in absolute terms. Wal-Mart, for instance, gives about $1.75 billion in food aid to charities each year, or twenty-eight times all of the money allotted for charity by the United Methodist Church and almost double what the LDS Church has given in the last twenty-five years.

Hemant also points out that the analysis of charitable donations by state, which makes “red” states look more charitable than “blue” states, is misleading with religious donations included. The chart looks like this:

I thought it would be interesting to see what this would look like without religious donations included. However, after much searching, I cannot find the detailed data necessary to do this. However, we do know that from the images above what proportion of donations are to religious organizations by region. For example, residents of Illinois give an average 4.2% of their discretionary income to charity. By looking at the maps, we can see that although residents of the midwest give an average 4.3%, they only give 0.9% to secular charities. The proportion of donations that go to secular charities in the midwest is therefore 0.21. We can do the same for all the map regions and multiply the percentages given in each state by the proportion given to secular charities for the region, giving us a rough estimate of donations to secular charities by state. Yes, this is hugely kludgey and assumes that religious/secular donation ratios are the same across states in a region, but it’s all I have to go on. The results look like this:

World + dog united in scorn at Akin

In a rare few hours of unity, the entire world has come together to point at Todd Akin and laugh.

Of course his stupendously offensive, hurtful, misinformed, deranged remarks are not a laughing matter. Mark Turner at Friendly Atheist points out that, in addition to the obvious callous stupidity of the remarks, it is remarkable that Akin only mumbled a not-very-apology rather than immediately resigning:

What concerns me is that he is still in a position to say such things. As I’ve already mentioned, Akin has already made three other sackable offenses this week — how has he not been removed? How has he not been pressured to stepped down? It used to be that politicians were very careful about what they said in public — no doubt some may have shared Akin’s views, but no would dare be so candid. Even the staunchest of Republicans would still carry out the political process with an air of respect for their opponent, their voters, and at the very least themselves.

It seems that the last ten years has seen that system thrown out and replaced by a system which sees people who shouldn’t be running a street corner lemonade stand running for high office.

Turner then notes:

When someone runs for election to any position, they are essentially trying to get a job. They are trying to convince voters that they can do it better than the other guy. Why, then, does it seem that the least suitable people, with the lowest qualifications and the least practical experience, continually get elected.

Voters have to vote for someone, but it is the senior members of the GOP who chose to back Akin with not just logistical and ideological support but hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds. Was there really no one else?

Why is there no chain of command? Who is Akin’s GOP “boss”? Why can he not be thrown out of the Republican party? Some of the answers to these questions are the result of years worth of apathy and mistrust in the political system that seems to have resulted in the Tea Party. Why is no one in the corridors of power within the Republican party leaning on Akin to resign? Hell, why has he not resigned himself out of the utter shame he has brought on himself, his political party, and his state. Politicians in other countries have lost their position for far far less than Akin, usually pressured to resign to senior party leaders.

Hear hear!

Maybe there is some justice, however:

Republican U.S. Congressman Todd Akin is quitting his senate race, according to multiple GOP politicos, including CNN’s Erick Erickson, and Richard Grenell, Mitt Romney’s former foreign policy spokesperson.

But the matter is not yet settled. Even though the Republican chairman has urged Akin to give up his bid for senator, Akin may not quit:

But Akin insisted he would continue to pursue his Senate bid. Later on Twitter, he vowed to stay in the race and called on supporters to donate to his campaign.

Priebus, however, joined a chorus of Republicans urging Akin to drop out of the running.

“If it was me, and I wouldn’t say anything that dumb as he has, but if it was me, and I had an opportunity to let someone else run to actually give ourselves a better chance of winning, I would step aside,” Priebus said.

According to Missouri election law, Akin has until Tuesday evening to drop out of the race with little difficulty. He can choose to withdraw at a later date, but such an exit would require more paperwork and involve a court order. It would also give Republicans less time to build a campaign for the new nominee against McCaskill, a Democrat the GOP deems vulnerable in this year’s election.

Referring to Akin’s statement as “biologically stupid” and “bizarre,” Priebus on Monday said he’s “hopeful” the congressman hears the numerous calls for his departure from the race.

Fingers crossed…

Republicans are getting more and more insane

***WARNING*** may cause uncontrollable rage and/or despair

This blew my mind:

Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for Senate in Missouri who is running against Sen. Claire McCaskill, justified his opposition to abortion rights even in case of rape with a claim that victims of “legitimate rape” have unnamed biological defenses that prevent pregnancy.

“First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare,” Akin told KTVI-TV in an interview posted Sunday. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Akin said that even in the worst-case scenario — when the supposed natural protections against unwanted pregnancy fail — abortion should still not be a legal option for the rape victim.

You can check if you like, this isn’t from The Onion. This is a real politician who would like to be a senator. My first thought was that this must some weird mind-manipulation to make Romney and Ryan seem sane. My second one was that Akin thinks this is a serious and reasonable thing to say.

Akin started backpedaling as soon as everyone responded with “WTF?!!!”

In reviewing my off-the-cuff remarks, it’s clear that I misspoke in this interview and it does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year. Those who perpetrate these crimes are the lowest of the low in our society and their victims will have no stronger advocate in the Senate to help ensure they have the justice they deserve.

However, he immediately shoved his foot back into his mouth:

I recognize that abortion, and particularly in the case of rape, is a very emotionally charged issue. But I believe deeply in the protection of all life and I do not believe that harming another innocent victim is the right course of action. I also recognize that there are those who, like my opponent, support abortion and I understand I may not have their support in this election.

and then quickly tried to change the topic

But I also believe that this election is about a wide range of very important issues, starting with the economy and the type of country we will be leaving our children and grandchildren. We’ve had 42 straight months of unacceptably high unemployment, trillion-dollar deficits, and Democratic leaders in Washington who are focused on growing government, instead of jobs. That is my primary focus in this campaign and while there are those who want to distract from that, knowing they cannot defend the Democrats’ failed economic record of the last four years, that will continue to be my focus in the months ahead.

Hey! Look over there everyone! The democrats! Jobs! The economy!

Just going to show how crazy Akin is, Romney and Ryan quickly said “we’re not with him”

… the Romney campaign said it does not share Akin’s view, nor will the Romney-Ryan ticket govern in keeping with his belief that abortion should be illegal even in the case of rape and incest. Akin himself later tried to back away from the comments.

“Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin’s statement,” the Romney campaign said in statement. “A Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape.”

Ryan’s history suggests this is not necessarily true

the rape exemption called for by the Romney campaign would represent a big shift for him. Ryan is among the most socially conservative members of Congress on abortion, favoring a ban even in cases of rape and incest.

Both Akin and Ryan co-sponsored a 2011 bill in Congress that would refine the federal abortion coverage ban exemption for rape to cover only “forcible rape.” That language was dropped under pressure from women’s advocacy groups and Democrats.

Atheism, therefore Feminism

Does being an atheist imply that one is (or should be) a feminist? The answer, according to me, is “yes”. Like many others , I implicitly thought that people who were skeptics and atheists, who rail against the oppression of fundamentalist religion, must stand for a whole bunch of Good Things and against a whole bunch of Bad Things. I assumed they were for liberty, justice, and equality, and against racism, homophobia, sexism, and misogyny.

It turns out that I, and the many others, were wrong. In case you missed it, one bit of the internet has spent some considerable proportion of its time discussing sexism and feminism. The bit of the net I am talking about is the section of the blogosphere centered around the freethought and skepchick blog networks .

A year ago, Rebecca Watson said “Guys, don’t do that” and craziness ensued . The subsequent debates about what is or isn’t acceptable behavior and what does and doesn’t count as sexual harassment led to discussions about sexual harassment policies at conferences . In June 2012, Rebecca explained why she wouldn’t be attending a conference.

Later in June, freethoughtblogs added Thunderf00t to their roster, and he immediately started spewing all kinds of nastiness about sexual harassment. In early July he was booted from the network, and in August it was revealed that he had access to confidential information about freethought bloggers . This led to a very distressing post by Natalie Reed.

Then there’s the campaign against skepchick Surly Amy . And the “feminazi” name calling aimed at freethoughtblogs and skepchick. And probably a whole bunch of other stuff that I don’t remember or didn’t see, given the vast amount of traffic on sexism and feminism.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, and don’t have several hours to read everything I linked to above, here’s the brief summary: it turns out there are many people in the atheist/skeptic community who really hate feminists and feminism, and are willing to wish horrible fates on women who dare to argue that sexism exists within the community and should be dealt with.

So, given the fact that many people who identify as atheists, skeptics, and freethinkers clearly do not identify as feminists, why should I claim that atheism logically implies feminism. Well, there is a sense in which it doesn’t. Atheism means not believing in gods. Nothing else. From a definitional standpoint, arguing that atheism implies anything other than not believing in gods is incorrect. However, atheism as a movement has moved beyond the dictionary definition of the term. A lot of people have stated that dictionary atheism isn’t enough, and that being skeptical should go beyond debunking bigfoot, Loch Ness monster, or alien sightings. What is missing from the old-school of skepticism and atheism is an interest in social justice.

Yes, tarot readers and mediums do prey on their customers, and shouldn’t get away with it, and of course we should be combating religious institutions’ interference in secular life. But we should be asking ourselves why we care about these things. We could say we care about religious interference in secular American life because it is unconstitutional/illegal, and we could argue that the whole point of the United States is freedom of religion, and this is true but, again, it is a narrow technical explanation. If true, then people in other countries should not be trying to promote secularism and we shouldn’t care what happens in those countries as they do not have legal protection against religious influence.

We care about the influence of religion, not just because it violates laws, but because of the real-world outcomes. These include outcomes that atheists and skeptics have been working against for decades, such as the dilution of science education in order to weaken evolution and promote creationism. A good science education is incredibly important, but there are other negative outcomes to fight against as well. Anti-choicers are largely driven by religious motivations, as are those who do not want gays to marry. Those in the middle east who do not like the idea of girls getting educated, and who don’t want women driving, using cell phones, going out in public on their own, or wearing what they want are driven, at least in part, by their religion.

We care about what happens to people who belong to minority ethnic groups, what happens to gays, what happens to the poor, what happens to the starving, what happens to inhabitants of war-torn countries, and what happens to women all over the world for a reason. That reason is not that their suffering is caused (or aided and abetted) by religious individuals and institutions. The reason is that we care what happens to people: we do not like to see others suffer. Why? Because we are moral beings with empathy.

I have often heard the argument that morality derives from faith in the divine, and that atheists in particular have no reason to be moral beings. In fact, just recently one of my friends was relating an anecdote about a conversation he had in his workplace. My friend’s atheism was mentioned by one colleague to a second colleague; the second colleague turned to my friend, shocked, and asked whether my friend was really a nihilist and whether he really thought that life was meaningless and that we have no reason to behave well towards others.

One of my earliest memories of my teenage proto-atheism is my reaction to these words from chapter 9 of The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge :

Now that we know that the only thing on the other side of the sky is more sky, the idea of an afterlife has finally been slid into the history books alongside the rest of the quaint and forgotten religions. With heaven and hell gone we are faced with the necessity of making a heaven or hell right here. What with societies and metatechnology and allied disciplines we have come a long way, and life on the civilized worlds is better than it ever was during the black days of superstition. But with the improving of here and now comes the stark realization that here and now is all we have. Each of us has only this one brief experience with the bright light of consciousness in that endless dark night of eternity and must make the most of it. Doing this means we must respect the existence of everyone else and the most criminal act imaginable is the terminating of one of these conscious existences.

My reaction: Oh, wow, that is so evidently true. And coherent.

I was thinking about this quotation just a few days ago. The next day Harry Harrison , the author of the Stainless Steel Rat books, passed away .

My point (I realize that it may not be clear yet) is that atheism does not end with the dictionary definition. I find it hard to see how one can state “I believe in no gods” and then move on without considering the implications. The passage quoted above was the first implication that was made clear to me. This is all there is. There is not afterlife, no eternal reward; putting up with oppression and abuse in the hope that it will all be alright in the next life is tragic. Oppressing and abusing others, whilst offering them hope of some karmic balance in another life, is criminal.

Another implication of atheism is feminism, as described by Amanda Marcotte :

It was atheist thinkers who I first encountered who had an explanation for gender that comported better with the real world evidence. Simone de Beauvoir, author of the seminal text “The Second Sex”, laid out a rationale for feminism that was firmly rooted in her atheist existentialist philosophy. To wildly oversimplify her extremely long argument: There is no God. Therefore, there is no higher authority telling us what we are here “for”. Therefore we have the right to define our own purpose for ourselves. There is no rational reason that this right should only be extended to men, because again, there’s no higher power assigning one gender the role of leaders and the other of servants. Thus, women are equal to men, and as a matter of human decency, should have the same right to self-determination. Elegant, persuasive, and above all other things, logical and evidence-based. Atheism, by all rights, should lead to feminism, I thought. It’s just what’s rational.

Other implications of atheism relate to reproductive rights and gay rights:

Anti-choicers insist that the debate over choice is a theological one over when “life,” i.e. ensoulment begins. If the public at large understood that a substantial percentage of Americans don’t believe in souls at all, then it would be much easier to see why the theological question of when “life” begins has no place in the law at all. Same story with gay rights; if you don’t believe in a supernatural higher power assigning gender roles and telling us what sex and marriage are “for,” then there’s no argument against equality for gays and lesbians.

This is why so many people were so shocked and confused when a number of men and women who identify as atheists started a campaign of verbal harassment, abuse, and threats against other women and men who identify as atheists and feminists. The confusion derives from the incoherence of an atheist taking an anti-feminist stance. As Amanda Marcotte puts it,

a not-insubstantial percentage of atheist men have convinced themselves they can both not believe in a god and somehow still conclude that women were put (by who?) here on Earth for the purpose of pleasing and catering to men. And that therefore women who rebel against that by, say, demanding the right not to be sexually harassed just because some guy feels like it, are evil witches who need to be fiercely attacked. All these years, irrational sexists have thought they needed a God to rely on to tell women that our bodies belong to men and not to us. But it turns out that plenty of men feel that they themselves are the only authority needed to take away this basic right of women’s.

Paul Fidalgo, the Communications Director for the Center for Inquiry, also points out that there has to be more to atheism than disbelief :

This movement (not merely the community of heretics, but the movement) is about lessening the power of religion, superstition, and credulous thinking because we want to live in a world guided by facts, science, and reason, because (and here’s the part I might lose some of you) we want to live in a world that maximizes human happiness, morality, freedom of thought and expression, and equality. Atheism and skepticism for their own sakes are not “causes.” They are not, in and of themselves, worthy of a movement. But we pursue these goals because we know they will bring about a society in which we are more free and equal, and in turn we will be more fulfilled and enriched as a result.

This quotation comes from one of fifteen (so far) statements made by men in leadership roles that have been posted on skepchick, in response to a request made by Surly Amy. These statements are just one of several positive things that have emerged from the discussions of sexism and feminism (although I do want to be clear that lots of *very* negative things have happened too, as outlined at the beginning of this post). A second major outcome is the formation of Secular Woman , a society whose mission is “to amplify the voice, presence, and influence of non-religious women”. A third outcome is in progress: it is fairly clear that the sense of direction and identity of the atheist movement is changing. I think it has been moving beyond the “second wave” of atheism spearheaded by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett for some time, but recent events have put a sharper focus on issues that go beyond whether there is a god. Jen McCreight is calling for a third wave of atheism :

It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime. We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.

The future of atheism will, I hope, be a movement that both implicitly and explicitly stands for humanism.

Missouri’s ‘freedom of religion’ fail

Jerry Coyne has the story on his website:

On Tuesday, by a 5-1 margin, voters approved a “right to pray” amendment to the state Constitution that guarantees what the residents already have, but adds a couple of nefarious provisions

The amendment contains these words:

That all men and women have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; that no human authority can control or interfere with the rights of conscience; that no person shall, on account of his or her religious persuasion or belief, be rendered ineligible to any public office or trust or profit in this state, be disqualified from testifying or serving as a juror, or be molested in his or her person or estate; that to secure a citizen’s right to acknowledge Almighty God according to the dictates of his or her own conscience, neither the state nor any of its political subdivisions shall establish any official religion, nor shall a citizen’s right to pray or express his or her religious beliefs be infringed

So far this all sounds fine. This is classic freedom of religion. Except that the amendment is completely unnecessary as people already have all these rights.

Here’s where is starts getting problematic

that the state shall not coerce any person to participate in any prayer or other religious activity, but shall ensure that any person shall have the right to pray individually or corporately in a private or public setting so long as such prayer does not result in disturbance of the peace or disruption of a public meeting or assembly; that citizens as well as elected officials and employees of the state of Missouri and its political subdivisions shall have the right to pray on government premises and public property so long as such prayers abide within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech under similar circumstances; that the General Assembly and the governing bodies of political subdivisions may extend to ministers, clergypersons, and other individuals the privilege to offer invocations or other prayers at meetings or sessions of the General Assembly or governing bodies;

The above section has the potential to restrict, rather than enhance, freedom of religion as it provides a way for specific religious sects to use government property as a venue for promoting their views.

But here’s the worst part:

that students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work; that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs

The most obvious interpretation of this is that students can be encouraged by family members or religious groups to opt out of any education in evolution. It could also affect sex education, any classes in which any progressive values are discussed (e.g, gay rights, civil rights, and feminism). In other words, the religious right are using “freedom of religion” as a cover for trying to fiddle with the secular world. It is not making a huge leap to predict years of lawsuits resulting from this amendent.

Also, as Jerry Coyne notes in closing:

If this isn’t challenged in the courts, expect a spate of similar legislation in benighted states, and a new crop of kids who will emerge from school ignorant of their origins and those of every other species. Equating refusal to learn important scientific truths with religious freedom is a devilishly clever strategy, but won’t fly—unless it goes to the hyperconservative U.S. Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on issues like this.

Coconut Sandwiches & Cargo Cult Science

After the recent Psychology of Science conference in Pittsburgh, my partner and I traveled a little further east to visit friends in Lawrence, NJ, which is a few miles from Princeton. On the way, we stopped off at the Memphis Taproom in Philadelphia for an excellent smoked coconut club sandwich. This is a clever vegan take on the bacon sandwich, consisting of grilled lemon garlic tofu, smoked coconut, and tomato herb mayo on toasted bread. The smoked flakes of coconut actually taste like bacon! The Memphis taproom and the smoked coconut sandwich were featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, & Dives (click to see the relevant segment; the bit with the coconut club starts at 4:54). We also had the suicide onion rings and beer-battered kosher pickles with horseradish buttermilk dip. Mmmmm……

The next day, after arriving in New Jersey, our friends took us into Princeton to see the campus and the town. One of our stops on this mini-tour was to look at the art museum, which was rather impressive. Another stop was the science library. Whilst there, I had a browse through the recent issues of periodicals on display. I was looking for psychology journals, out of idle interest. They did not appear to have Cognitive Science, Cognition, or Applied Cognitive Psychology (although they may have been (a) elsewhere, or (b) subscribed to in electronic format only), but I did find recent issues of Creation Matters on the shelves. Creation Matters is a newsletter-style publication produced by the Creation Research Society. I picked up one of the recent issues and found an article explaining how mutation and natural selection do not adequately explain finches’ beaks. Maybe this is a hot topic among creationists. Fearing for my brain cells, and because the parking meter was running out, I left the library. Later, I googled Creation Matters and found the Creation Research website , where all but the most recent issues are available as pdfs.

(At this point, I feel I should issue a warning. Spending any amount of time reading the material on this site may reduce you to a gibbering wreck.)

Out of idle curiosity, I picked the most recent available issue, Sept/Oct 2011, and started flicking through it. Towards the back of the publication there is an advert for the Seventh International Conference on Creationism, to be held in Pittsburgh (where we had just attended the fabulous Psychology of Science conference). What I found very interesting about the conference website is the very specific guidance given to those reviewing submissions. In principle, specific guidance to both authors and reviewers is good practice. However, the nature of these guidelines struck me as something unlike anything I’ve seen for any of the conferences I’ve submitted to and/or reviewed for:

(a) Does the Author provide a complete classification of this Summary (Area)? If the Summary is not properly classified, the Area-Editor is to classify it within another area, then the initial Area-Editor is to contact the appropriate Area-Editor for its inclusion. If unable to classify a Summary, then the EB Chairman is to be consulted for the final decision. (If a Summary is impossible to classify then it ought to be rejected or returned to the Author for resubmission).
(b) Is the Summary’s topic important to the development of the creation model?
(c) Does the Summary’s topic provide an original contribution to the creation model?
(d) Is this Summary formulated within a young-earth, young-universe framework?
(e) If (d) above is not satisfied, does this Summary offer a very constructively-positive criticism and provide a possible young-earth, young-universe alternative?
(f) If the Summary is polemical in nature, does it deal with a topic rarely discussed within the origins debate?
(g) Does this Summary provide evidence of faithfulness to the grammatico-historical/normative interpretation of Scripture? (if necessary refer to Walsh, R.E., Biblical Hermeneutics and Creation, Proceedings First International Conference on Creationism, Creation Science Fellowship, Inc., Pittsburgh, PA, 1986, Vol. 1, pp. 121-127).

Note items d, e, and g in particular. No dissenters allowed! Now, to be fair, one could argue that this is an event by creationists, for creationists, and they can choose to exclude non-creationists from the conference. Fine. But this is one of many indicators that “creation science” is a term that is only half accurate. I have never seen instructions for submission to a scientific conference or journal that require submitters to hold to a particular theory or theoretical perspective, or require allegiance to a religious doctrine. If creationists want to do all these things, they should feel free, but not try to pass themselves off as scientists; this is a religious publication and a religious conference. However, there are good reasons for some creationists to wear a mantle of scientific respectability, including attempts to get a specific religious belief taught in science classes. The superficial trappings of science, laid over a set of practices that are not scientific, is evidence that creation science and its offspring, intelligent design, are examples of cargo cult science.

Cargo cult science is a term introduced by Richard Feynman in 1974 to describe a variety of pseudoscientific practices and disciples that “follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential”. In cases of pseudoscience and cargo cult science, what is missing is the actual science: a willingness to be open to the falsity of hypotheses, to conduct carefully controlled experiments, to not inadvertently fool ourselves, and not deliberately attempt to fool others.

The original notion of a cargo cult refers to pre-industrial civilisations (typcially pacific islanders) who are exposed to advanced technology, and mimic the superficial aspects of that technology in an attempt to recreate it. The classic example is that of

the Melanesian islanders in the years during and after World War II. A small population of unsophisticated peoples observed, often right in front of their dwellings, the largest war ever fought between technologically advanced countries. First, the Japanese arrived with a great deal of supplies and later the Allied forces did likewise.

The vast amounts of materiel that both sides airdropped (or airlifted to airstrips) to troops on these islands meant drastic changes to the lifestyle of the islanders, many of whom had never seen outsiders before. Manufactured clothing, medicine, canned food, tents, weapons and other goods arrived in vast quantities for the soldiers, who often shared some of it with the islanders who were their guides and hosts.

After the war, when the troops and associated personnel had left,

charismatic individuals developed cults among remote Melanesian populations that promised to bestow on their followers deliveries of food, arms, Jeeps, etc. The cult leaders explained that the cargo would be gifts from their own ancestors, or other sources, as had occurred with the outsider armies. In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the soldiers, sailors, and airmen use. Cult behaviors usually involved mimicking the day to day activities and dress styles of US soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles. The islanders carved headphones from wood and wore them while sitting in fabricated control towers. They waved the landing signals while standing on the runways. They lit signal fires and torches to light up runways and lighthouses

In a form of sympathetic magic, many built life-size replicas of aeroplanes out of straw and cut new military-style landing strips out of the jungle, hoping to attract more aeroplanes.

Just as the islanders built control towers, signal fires, and headphones in the hope of attracting Western goods, the creationists hold peer-reviewed conferences, publish papers in journals, publicize the academic credentials of any who are sympathetic to their cause, and try to engage in debates with scientists in the hope of attracting the aura of respectability, wisdom, and influence that they imagine real scientists to have.