And now for some good news

Here’s what I’ve been listening to today. I think Janelle Monae is what you’d get if Prince were resurrected as a woman.

I like this one even better. I want to visit that club, even though I fear I would not survive the experience.

Genius. But I have to wait until 27 April for the whole album to drop, which is cruel.


Skeptic and atheist organizations suffer a failure of leadership

In a total coincidence, I woke up this morning and notice a box of old magazines by the bedside that my wife was planning to throw out, and on the very top was the back cover of Free Inquiry, with this advertisement:

And then, this morning, this article appears: Science Organizations Cancel Lawrence Krauss Events After Sexual Harassment Allegations. Like lightning, within days of the big, thoroughly-sourced article documenting Krauss’s shenanigans, the speaking engagements are sublimating away, leaving nothing but a greasy smear on floor of his reputation. He’s lost the odd event with Sam Harris last night, NECSS has announced that they don’t plan to invite him to future events, MIT cancelled an event, the American Physical Society has dropped him from their annual meeting — he has been Harvey Weinsteined practically overnight.

There are a few exceptions. That infamous cruise:

The BuzzFeed piece also cites an alleged incident in 2011 involving Krauss that I previously detailed in a 2013 post I wrote for the Heresy Club, a now-defunct blog network of young writers in the skeptic community. The blog post, which was removed shortly after its publication following legal threats from Krauss, described a 2011 incident in which Krauss allegedly propositioned a woman to engage in a threesome with himself and another woman (the request was reportedly turned down). The woman was at the time a guest on a cruise sponsored by the Center for Inquiry, where Krauss was one of the featured speakers. I also wrote in my 2013 blog post—and the BuzzFeed article reiterates—that at least one CFI employee implored the then-president of CFI, Ron Lindsay, to not invite Krauss on a planned 2014 cruise, citing the “report of unwanted sexual attention” she had received from the woman and other past offensive behavior. The CFI nevertheless invited him.

CFI has known about these problems as long or longer than other organizations. Nevertheless, CFI has long supported him.

Once, Krauss was barred from making contact with an undergraduate student by his university or from entering the campus without permission, following her harassment complaint, the BuzzFeed article reports. In another instance, the article says, a prominent research institute placed Krauss on its do-not-invite list, following a complaint made during a 2009 event where he guest-spoke. The article also reported that another prominent secular and skeptical organization, the Center for Inquiry (CFI), continued to invite Krauss to events even after having been made aware of several allegations against him and CFI employees requesting that he not attend in light of them.

Universities, like Case Western Reserve, apparently dealt with him effectively after due process (universities are notoriously slow at handling these internal matters). Professional scientific organizations cut him off with remarkable swiftness. CFI, on the other hand, is still struggling to figure out how to cope at least 7 years after the problem first raised its ugly head. The Center for Inquiry doesn’t even have a comment on the matter on their website; neither does the Richard Dawkins Foundation, despite their long association with him.

It’s dismaying that the skeptical/atheist organizations still have their heads stuck up their butts while the rest of the world passes them by. It’s especially troubling because I know there are good people at CFI who are seething about all this, but management has them locked down.


Time for some Secular Social Justice

I’ve managed to eke out enough frequent flyer miles that I can afford to fly off to Secular Social Justice on 7 April. Also, as usual, all it takes is reading a little Sikivu Hutchinson to get me fired up for it.

In April, the American Humanist Association is sponsoring the semi-annual Secular Social Justice (SSJ) conference in Washington, D.C. This first of its kind conference is designed to spotlight the intersectional, anti-racist organizing, activism and cultural work of secular people of color. When my comrade Donald Wright (founder of the National Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers) and I organized the first SSJ conference two years ago at Rice University in Houston, non-believers of color were struggling with the very same visibility and platform issues that they grapple with today. The majority often navigate between a white mainstream atheist world that has been hostile to intersectionality, black feminism and people of color, and socially conservative religious communities of color that view atheism as inauthentically black or tantamount to devil worship.

Sincere Kirabo, lead organizer for this year’s SSJ conference notes that SSJ “was developed as a direct response to pervasive complacency within the secular community that considers focus on matters of social justice issues unnecessary or a “distraction.” Countering that view, the conference will feature speakers and presenters from racial justice, law, public policy, queer, trans and immigrant rights activism, educational equity and humanist activism.

Finally, SSJ also speaks to a critical leadership vacuum in the mainstream atheist, humanist and secular movements. There are currently few to no people of color in executive management positions in major secular organizations (i.e., the Center for Inquiry, Secular Student Alliance, American Humanist Association, etc.). As a result, it is precisely because of anti-atheist religious bigotry, white atheist racism and the lack of culturally responsive secular organizations that the vast majority of non-believers of color do not feel comfortable openly identifying as atheist. And, until this shifts, the much-ballyhooed rise of the nones will only be a footnote for segregated communities of color.

This is the direction movement atheism has to take if it wants to survive and be meaningful. If I can help in any way, that’s where I want to make my contributions.

Now, one other little thing: the conference is taking place at All-Souls Unitarian Church, but does anyone know if there is an associated hotel for the event? Otherwise, I’m just going to book the nearest, cheapest hotel in the area.


I guess it’ll be another IMDB credit for me

I was informed yesterday that I am the ☆STAR☆ of yet another movie, a movie that I was not told about and just sort of stumbled into. I’m losing all respect for movie celebrities, though: apparently, the way a movie star works is to have some guy with a camera record you talking for a bit, and then they all go away, and you don’t even think about it for five years, and then suddenly this thing is available online and you see it and say “Oh crap, I was in that piece of shit?” and you never get paid. I’m beginning to wonder how those other movie stars can afford their beach houses in Malibu.

So here, you can watch my fabulous movie, Origins of the Universe: The Great Debate on Amazon Prime.

Oh, yeah, they also misspell my name, because of course they always do.

You don’t really want to watch it.

As I was watching it, I remembered the circumstances. I think it was a conference in Winnipeg; this guy asked me nicely if I’d answer some questions on camera, and I said sure, so I end up in this oddly lit hotel room with a stranger (I hate how that happens) and he starts firing questions at me, for about an hour. I had no idea it was a debate, but I guess that after the fact, it was. And then I literally went away and completely forgot about it.

The interviewer, Todd Cantelon, then spliced me in with other footage of such luminaries as Ken Ham and Terry Mortenson and David Menton and Jason Lisle and Georgia Purdom and PZ Meyers (oh, wait, that was me). It’s weird to be retroactively ganged up on, but I’m unconcerned, they were all idiots.

There’s also a woman named Mary P. Winsor who was interviewed, so I wasn’t alone on my side. She’s a historian of biology, and has written criticisms of Mayr’s claims about pre-Darwinian essentialism. I don’t know much about her work, but if she’s been opposing some of the ahistorical BS that Ernst Mayr spent a long lifetime injecting into the discourse, she and I are on the same side.

Anyway, it’s a long boring set of spliced-together clips of me saying a sentence or two, then Ken Ham babbling out his fallacious canned spiel about “observational science” and then more creationists talking, then another sentence or two by me or Mary Winsor followed by more nonsense from creationists.

Also, to spice it up, the creationists were recorded at the Creation “Museum” in some place where dinosaur roars and honks occasionally drown them out. Todd Cantelon pretends to be a moderator, but all of his segments were filmed in some spectacular red rock canyon somewhere. It’s kind of unfair that all I got was a grey Winnipeg hotel room.


Doing the right thing

Lawrence Krauss was scheduled to speak at an event with Harris and Dillahunty tonight: Krauss has withdrawn from it, which is rather interesting. This is part of a series of events assembled by this impresario I never heard of before named Travis Pangburn, who mainly seems to be focused on pandering to the old guard regressive atheists, pushing Sam Harris at every opportunity, so you’d think this would have been the friendliest possible venue for Krauss to push back. I guess he doesn’t think he can.

It is nice to see someone lose status within the atheist movement for being an asshole to women. It’s usually the other way around.

Also note that the American Humanists have spoken out.

“As humanists, we positively affirm a woman’s bodily autonomy and support those women who speak up and hold men accountable for misogyny and bad behavior. We encourage women to be empowered,” said Rebecca Hale, president of the AHA. “Sexual misconduct violates humanist concerns for equality and compassion.”

“Many have voiced concern that there will be little response to these allegations within our movement, and I want to assure them as a leader of the humanist community, that the AHA will not ignore these assertions,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of AHA.

The AHA works actively for gender equality and against harassment through its advocacy programs and with a special emphasis from the AHA’s Feminist Humanist Alliance. “Men benefit from a patriarchal culture that encourages male entitlement and predatory behavior,” said Sincere Kirabo, social justice coordinator at AHA. “Atheists aren’t exempt. It’s our job to work against this programming, to divest from it, and to actively challenge it.”

That’s the right tone. Now let’s see it applied to all the abusers.

And now…another Krauss cancellation.


Is Banning Circumcision Anti-Semitic?

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Iceland is considering becoming the first country in the world to ban infant circumcision, the practice of removing a newborn’s foreskin for no medical reason. The legislature is coming under fire from European Jewish organizations for being antisemitic.

It’s not coming under fire from Icelandic Jewish organizations, mostly because there are none. There are an estimated 90 Jews in Iceland, and as of this moment none seem to have come forward with a strong opinion about their or their children’s dicks. That said, it doesn’t matter how many people of a particular religion or culture live in a place if that place is enacting bigoted laws against them, since those laws can be used to oppress the small minority in the country while keeping others out of the country. In fact, one of the reasons there are so few Jews in Iceland is because Iceland refused to take in Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust, which we now understand is all kinds of fucked up (even if we fail to see the connection between that and failing to provide help for people fleeing similar circumstances in other countries today).

The Jewish Communities of Nordic Countries penned a letter to the Icelandic government arguing against the circumcision ban, stating in part, “If any country with next to no Christian inhabitants would ban a central rite in Christianity, like communion for instance, we are certain that the whole Christian world would react as well.”

And that’s true! If, say, a predominantly Muslim country banned communion, Christians in the US would be up in arms and at this point, who knows, Trump would probably declare war.

Here’s the issue: there are several rather stark differences between circumcision and communion. Chief among them is that during a communion, no infants have a piece of their own body amputated for absolutely no medical reason. I mean, I don’t think. It’s been a really long time since I’ve taken communion but I’m pretty sure that at the absolute worst, if you’re Catholic, you eat a little cracker that magically turns into a piece of Jesus as you digest it. But Jesus is a consenting adult — he literally said that we should do it. He’s into it. He may get off on it, who knows.

But with circumcision, it’s usually a surgery performed on infants who can’t possibly consent. I say “usually” because there are a few cases of adult men who decide to get circumcised after converting to Judaism, and in the past in some cultures circumcision was seen as a coming-of-age act or an act of manliness to have a piece of your own dick cut off without flinching. If that were the normal Jewish ritual, the comparison to communion would still be a stretch, but it would at least be vaguely comparable.

Instead, infant male circumcision has less to do with communion and more to do with another cultural act that many people try to keep up in the name of religion: female genital mutilation, which Iceland outlawed in 2005. Again, it’s not a perfect comparison since FGM so much more often results in extreme disfigurement, illness, and death in girls, but it’s a hell of a lot closer to male circumcision than male circumcision is to eating a cracker and having a sip of wine (or grape juice for poor suckers like me who were raised Baptist).

So yeah, Iceland (along with most other reasonable countries) banned FGM ages ago and didn’t give a shit about the cries of religious persecution. Why? Because reasonable people understand that your religious rights end where an innocent person’s body begins, and those infants are innocent people with no concept of religion or culture. What an infant should have is basic bodily rights — the right to be complete, “as God made them,” if you will.

I’ll end by pointing out that there are rare medical circumstances where circumcision is deemed appropriate by a doctor, and where it is performed by a doctor and not a random Jewish guy who closes the wound by putting his mouth over the baby’s genitals. And I’ll also point out that yes, the vast majority of male circumcisions result in no lasting harm to the child, and the vast majority of men grow up not missing their foreskin. All of that, though, makes no difference. If there’s any chance of harm, and if there’s any chance that a person would not consent to having it done, and if there’s no medical reason to do it, why are we doing it?

Iceland is in the right. I hope they pass the legislation and I hope that other countries soon follow suit, including the United States, where nearly half of infant boys are circumcised even though Jews only make up about 2% of our population–because, like female genital mutilation, it’s a cultural artifact having little to do with anything any god ever told anyone to do.


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Why the science fiction of my youth is disturbing me again

As our politics retreats from rationality, we must avoid complacency.

NO: Bots Didn’t Trick Liberals into Ousting Al Franken

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Bots are hot news these days, which interests me because I’ve spent many years talking about the role of algorithms on social networks used to spread false information. The classic example I always point to is the Massachusetts Senate race of 2010 in which Scott Brown pulled a last-minute upset victory over Martha Coakley, leading researchers to discover an intricate botnet that spread disinformation about her on social media and by gaming Google results in what became known as a “Twitter bomb.”

Today it’s all about the Russian bots that helped get Donald Trump elected in part by spreading disinformation about Hillary Clinton, but a slightly different story caught my eye this week and it concerns Al Franken. If you’ll recall, last year several different women came forward with stories of Al Franken (previously of Saturday Night Live and most recently a Democratic senator from Minnesota) groping them. There was photographic evidence of at least one incident, and Franken apologized for all the incidents and eventually resigned.

This week, Mike Farb of UnHack the Vote published an article on Medium claiming that liberals were manipulated by conservative bots spreading “propaganda”, which directly led to Franken’s ousting.

Farb says that he and his cohorts discovered a network of bots who created an echo chamber that spread false information, because, “People are easily convinced that if everybody’s talking about it, it must be true.” He says that someone set up two Japanese sites with “pseudo news,” and linked to them on Twitter using the article title, “Dear Al Franken: I’ll Miss You but You Can’t Matter Anymore.” That article was originally written by Ijeoma Oluo for the website The Establishment, but the title was stolen and used to link only to the Japanese sites, which were full of ads. Bots then shared those links around Twitter, and you can tell they’re bots by the fact that they only follow one another while parroting the same news stories. There are even algorithms to identify those bots, created after the Coakley incident, and you can read more about it at the Botometer from the Observatory on Social Media at Indiana University.

Farb lays out a convincing narrative for the fact that this story was definitely amplified by bots. He also points out that a letter penned by eight former Franken staffers defending him from the allegations got very little publicity.

Here’s the problem I have with all this, though: when I talk about the use of social media to spread misinformation, it’s important to me that we are talking about, well, misinformation. Lies. And nothing in Farb’s article suggests that bots or trolls or anyone else is responsible for saying absolutely anything untrue, and that’s a serious problem.

Franken actually did grope several women. He admitted it. Bots may have helped spread this story, but it also spread because it’s part of a larger conversation society is currently having about the cancerous mistreatment of women at the hands of powerful men today, and it’s true.

Even worse, Farb’s article itself is spreading misinformation. Oluo’s article was published on December 7, just after Franken had already delivered his resignation speech to Congress. How can a botnet carry so much responsibility for Franken’s resignation, when he had already resigned by the time they started spreading around the (true) news of his sexual harassment?

Farb also seems sad that the letter from Franken’s staffers didn’t get to go viral like the story of his groping, which is a frankly disgusting thing to say. Let me make it very clear for Farb and anyone else who might not realize this: a man might sexually assault someone but not sexually assault you. Not sexually assaulting you doesn’t mean that he’s innocent of sexually assaulting someone else. Charles Manson didn’t murder me, but I’m okay that he died in prison. Get it? Great.

Over on Raw News, Sarah Burris is sad to report that “No coordinated network of bots exists on the left that is funded by Democratic donors” as though it’s a simple fact, when she has absolutely no way to verify that at all.

Yes, bots exist and can be used to spread misinformation and lies. This is not one of those cases, and it makes liberals look insane that they grasp at straws like this. Accept this fact: a politician we all loved turned out to be a prick in one specific way. He resigned. Move on. Elect people who don’t grope other people against their consent. Then we can complain when a botnet spreads lies — not when they spread the truth. Otherwise you’re just telling me, a woman, that Russian and Japanese bots care more about women than liberal humans.

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A neverending sentence

Britain’s approach to incarceration is coming under scrutiny. How did we get into this mess?

Woman Who “Cured” Cancer with Veganism Dies…of Cancer

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Sometimes, very lucrative jobs are extremely dangerous. For instance, you can make a lot of money on fishing boats or oil rigs, working long, hard hours at the risk of dying in freezing water miles from any coastline.

Or you can sell “natural cures” for cancer using yourself as an inspirational story. On the plus side, you’ll get hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and you can sell loads of juicers and vegan cookbooks or homeopathic “remedies,” but on the negative side you will most likely die of cancer, very slowly and very painfully.

That’s what’s happened to Mari Lopez, a woman who made YouTube videos with her niece Liz Johnson. Last year they made several viral videos claiming that Mari had stage 4 cancer but that she cured it by drinking lemon and ginger juice, adhering to a vegan lifestyle, and trusting in God. Their videos put the bold claims right in the titles: STAGE 4 CANCER HEALED BY JUICING & RAW VEGAN and CANCER HEALED NATURALLY.

Those titles are stark next to one of the final videos on the channel, posted back in October: “UPDATE: Mari, Cancer & Faith.” Liz appears alone in that one, explaining that Mari noticed her eye bulging out of its socket and went to the doctor to find that her body was riddled with tumors, including the one behind her eye. Liz is clearly shaken in the video but she soldiers on, explaining that she isn’t sure why the cancer came back but she knows that it’s not God’s fault, it’s Satan’s. She says that diseases like cancer are caused by sin, which may make you wonder why she thinks her aunt is on her deathbed.

If you watch the videos, and you shouldn’t, you’ll also learn that Mari wasn’t just healed of cancer but of something much more insidious: lesbianism. It’s at that point it all comes together: Liz clearly believed that Mari was dying because of her own sins.

It gets worse. When contacted Liz for a comment, Liz said that she believed Mari’s cancer came back because she started chemotherapy and didn’t stick to her strict raw vegan diet. Mari was living with her sister (Liz’s mother), who Liz says used the microwave despite Mari’s objections. For the record, microwaves do not and cannot cause cancer.

Following Mari’s inevitable painful death, Liz claimed to want to continue her proselytizing. Luckily she has not, yet. Unfortunately, the old videos claiming that Mari was cured are still there and racking up views and “testimonies” in the comments thanking Mari for inspiring them. reported that Mari asked Liz on her deathbed to take those videos down but Liz refused.

So Liz will continue to profit from Mari even after her death, and I have no doubt that if she chooses to, she can hop right back in the game of telling people that disease happens to bad people, and that you don’t need a doctor to cure it, you just need some lemons and a Bible. For the record, I don’t think Liz is just in this to get rich — I think she genuinely believes what she’s saying, even though it got her own aunt brutally killed. Here’s hoping she eventually wises up and deletes her videos before she causes more deaths.

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Climate and nature: the spring 2018 New Humanist

Out now - our writers on climate change.
new humanist blog

Pakistani humanist refused asylum - for failing to identify Plato and Aristotle

Hamza bin Walayat has received death threats in Pakistan after renouncing religion.

Changing Creationist Minds

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How do we convince people to accept basic facts that seem to be at odds with their belief systems? That’s a question I talk about a lot here, and usually the news isn’t great. There have been many studies suggesting that facts don’t actually matter — for instance, if you want to convince someone that vaccines are safe and necessary, you’ll probably have less luck explaining the science to them and more luck showing them photos of children dying of polio. People tend to make emotional decisions about their views, and logical arguments don’t do very well talking people out of emotional decisions.

That’s depressing news for people like us, who like to think that the best way to make decisions is based on facts, not feelings, so that’s how we like to argue. With facts. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t tend to work.

The good news is that a new study offers a glimmer of hope. Researchers at University of Pennsylvania conducted a survey of 1100 Americans in which they quizzed people not just about whether or not they “believe” in evolution but actually what they know about the theory of evolution. They also asked about their belief in God, in God’s role in the evolutionary process, and about their political views. And unlike way too many psychological studies these days, they didn’t just survey college students. They asked a demographically diverse sample of Americans to get a true read on the state of evolutionary knowledge in the US.

First, the bad news: Americans are idiots. 68% of respondents failed, meaning they got fewer than 60% of the answers right.

But now, the good news! Understanding evolution was correlated with accepting it as true. The people who did better on the test tended to be the people who accepted evolution, regardless of their religious or political feelings. The researchers seem confident that this means that if we increase general knowledge of evolution, that could mean that more people will accept it as true.

Here’s the bad news again, though: correlation doesn’t equal causation. It may be that these people accepted that evolution was true first for other reasons, and then became more knowledgeable about it because of that, or were more open to learning the details of it.

It’s certainly something we could test, though, by sitting creationists down and forcefully teaching them the answer to “if humans came from monkeys why are there still monkeys” and seeing if acceptance of evolution increases. I gotta say that despite this study, I’m pessimistic, due to the overwhelming existing research showing us that facts just don’t really mean that much when it comes to changing opinions. But hey! My opinion is open to changing if the facts are convincing!

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What is the best way to tackle terrorism?

The controversy over Sara Khan's appointment as counter-extremism commissioner distracts from more fundamental questions.

This Congressman is Too Grossed Out About Women to Do His Job

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Imagine there are state-run prisons in which prisoners get 10 squares of toilet paper a week. Single ply. If they want any more, they have to buy it, but because they only earn about 5 cents per hour, they can’t afford it unless they have someone on the outside giving them money.

And imagine that if they run out of toilet paper and end up getting feces or urine on their uniforms, they’re punished by not being allowed to buy things from the commissary. Things like…more toilet paper.

I’m sure if you described that situation to state lawmakers, they’d be appropriately shocked (I hope) and want to do something about it, like make toilet paper a basic sanitary right.

Unfortunately, a very similar situation didn’t go nearly so well for prisoners in Arizona, where menstruating people are given 12 menstrual pads per month, about half of what the average person uses while menstruating. If they want tampons or more pads, they have to buy them. If they run out and bleed on their clothes, they are punished. They are sometimes punished by not being allowed to buy more menstrual items.

State representative Athena Salman introduced a bill to correct this by providing unlimited sanitary items to prisoners, and she brought it before the Arizona Committee on Military, Veterans and Regulatory Affairs. That panel is made up of nine men, none of whom, I am assuming, have ever experienced a period. That normally doesn’t have to be a problem — a decent human being should be able to sympathize even with humans who are in situations they haven’t personally experienced. Unfortunately, women who have periods don’t really count as human, because periods are gross.

I mean sure, poop is gross, and so is urine and blood and bile, but those are all things that men experience, so it’s okay to talk about. Nothing about menstruation is “normal” to these men, and unfortunately to many men around the world, who prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist, even when it’s drastically important to acknowledge that it exists.

For instance, when Representative Salman introduced the bill she pointed out that a box of pads costs $3.20. One of the panelists, Representative Jay Lawrence, interrupted her to say, ““Rep. Salman, Can you keep your conversation to the bill itself? Please?” He later said on the record, “I’m almost sorry I heard the bill. I didn’t expect to hear pads and tampons and the problems of periods.”

I find all this particularly ironic considering that Lawrence himself has a face that looks exactly like a puckered asshole. I mean, it’s ironic because of how sensitive he is about disgusting things, when he is one, but it’s not ironic because so much shit seems to come out of that puckered asshole that I guess it’s appropriate. Anyway.

How embarrassing is it that this man who is clearly old as fuck isn’t doing his fucking job, and is getting in the way of women doing their job, which is to help other women, because he thinks periods are icky.

Oh, then he said that he thinks most of the prisoners are liars and questioned whether or not this was a real issue at all.

Luckily, despite the puckered asshole’s objections, the bill just barely passed the committee 5-4 and now it may move on to a floor vote. I hope it makes its way to law so that, as one of the supporters told the news, we can start treating these prisoners like human beings, which then is likely to help them behave like human beings and stand a chance at actually leaving prison with a semblance of their humanity intact. In the meanwhile, men: grow the fuck up and learn what half the population has to deal with on a regular basis. It’ll make the world a better place.


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Pros of Participation Grades 3

Continuing my series on the downsides and benefits of grading participation, here is another benefit.

3. It is a motivation for some.

There’s no magic secret to motivating people, and broadly speaking it doesn’t work. One of the common skeptical criticisms of practices like firewalking and other such “motivational” activities is that the motivational effect is very short term. The body likes homeostasis and hearing someone yell “you can do it!” at you doesn’t do much to make long-term changes in the massively complicated set of hormonal interactions that affect our desires and willpower.

One of the things that was emphasized in my educational psychology classes was that teachers can’t motivate students. That is, we can’t make them want to do things. While we can try to set up extrinsic factors to “motivate” students, we have no real effect on their efficacy (eg. offering candy fails if a student doesn’t like candy) or on the much more powerful intrinsic motivators.

There are, of course, things that teachers can do to affect what students do. If this wasn’t the case, school wouldn’t really work at all. Millions of students do homework, take notes, and write tests that they don’t really want to, because they have some kind of motivation to do them that pushes beyond their personal disinterest.

Grades are one such motivating factor. Not all students are motivated by grades, and those who are are not all motivated to the same degree. However, there are such a significant number of students who are that it seems logical to use. Grades can even be an indirect motivator. A child might not care about the letter on the paper, but a parent might. The child may be motivated by a parental attitude, meaning that grades are important even when they are not.

(I’m not going to discuss whether grades are a good reflection of student ability – this post is simply proceeding with the fact that this system exists, not arguing about whether it should.)

If participation is important at all, it stands to reason that it should be graded. Grades reflect student performance and part of their performance is in how they participate, so it is not as if grading participation is assessing something irrelevant (like assessing physical appearance). Because many students are motivated by grades, tying participation in class to students’ grades can be an effective way to get some students to participate more in class.

A key weakness in this argument is that it is assuming that participation is important. In some cases, participation is truly irrelevant (and in such cases I would certainly argue against grading participation). However, in the cases where student participation is vital, including it as part of grades can be a good idea.

Another weakness of this argument is that it depends on students. If they do not care about their grades, this is once again irrelevant. However, there are always some who do care, directly or indirectly, and there can be ways of encouraging students to care (such as point out how a grade can affect their chances of getting something they want, like a job or special program).

One other potential problem with this argument is that one might argue that students who are motivated by grades also tend to participate well in class anyway. As a former extremely shy student who obsessed over grades, I can say that there are a number of classes in which I owe my active participation entirely to the fact that I was graded on it. Though I’m not a majority, students like me do exist and we can be a part of the reason to grade participation.

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Evidence to House of Commons Sci Tech Select Committee on Research Integrity

Sorry not to be in regular blogging mode at the moment. Here’s a video of our evidence session to parliament, where they are running an inquiry into research integrity. I think clinical trials are the best possible way to approach this issue. Lots of things in “research integrity” are hard to capture in hard logical […]
school of doubt

Pros of Participation Grades 2

Continuing my series on the downsides and benefits of grading participation, here is another benefit.

2. It makes effort important.

Though this post won’t really deal too much with motivation and grading (ie. whether or not students actually view grades as “important”), there is a good case to be made for allowing effort into an assessment plan. I will not argue that effort is the only thing that matters of that it should be the main factor of a grade. I think that position is a weak one to hold.

However, I do think there is room for students’ effort in some parts of grading. One reason is the fundamental problem with focusing exclusively on success. This is even something that comes up a lot in the skeptic movement. Consider the file-drawer effect: positive studies are over-represented in scientific journals. This creates many problems in science because we are only seeing part of the real picture. Similarly, a recent episode of the SGU podcast talked about how the Nobel Prize is awarded for successful discoveries only and how this is a problem. We need to learn from failures and focusing too much on success created real world problems. Funding for science winds up getting skewed and subtracted when the results aren’t stunning successes, but we need to know about what doesn’t work too.

My students recently watched part of the TED talk “On Being Wrong” by Kathryn Schulz. She highlights a problem that occurs when a child gets many answers wrong on a test. Other children label that child as “dumb” and this whole situation fosters an attitude that mistakes aren’t okay. We must always be right, because being wrong feels so bad.

A much better TED talk, Julia Galef’s “Why You Think You’re Right – Even If You’re Wrong” shows why this kind of thinking is so bad. Like soldiers, we defend our wrong beliefs against anything that opposes them. But, if we adopt a different attitude, that being wrong is okay, we pave the way to being able to change our minds and think critically instead of only with motivated reasoning.

Effort is worth grading because it allows students to be wrong without being punished for it. They can learn from mistakes without being slapped down because of them. Teachers don’t have to focus exclusively on the narrow aim of students getting everything right. Students can succeed by actually trying.

There are a lot of external factors which affect a student’s actual ability. Grading purely on how “correctly” they can answer questions winds up with the result of assigning grades based on the effects of external factors, like SES or their situation at home. When effort plays a role in a grade, students with the fewest opportunities in life can get a slightly better chance at not being so disadvantaged in schools.

But what about the problems with grading effort? How can teachers actually measure something so abstract? Again, I must point out that there are already a lot of things that teachers grade which are abstract and subjective (consider art, for instance). And once again, a well-designed rubric can preemptively address many of these problems. Still, there can be a real conundrum in deciding that one student didn’t put the same effort as another on a project. If a student is extremely high level, they might not need to put as much effort in to get a great result. This objection brings me back to the topic of this series: participation grades.

The effort I am suggesting that teachers grade is based on what students do in class. That is, what teachers actually observe, in context. It’s one thing to just decide that one paper looked like a student spent more time on it at home, but quite another thing to observe students playing games on their phone instead of writing in class and then turning in an incomplete draft as a final essay. Another student, who may struggle with the language but actually spent the time working, asking for help, and visibly put effort into writing, could get the same grade as the gaming student under purely performance-based criteria. Participation grades allow the hard-working student to be rewarded for actually working hard. Like the socialization argument, this is an attitude that schools want to actively foster in students, hence its logical role alongside other grading methods.

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Pros of Participation Grades 1

I’ve written a series of posts addressing some common criticisms of giving grades for participation in class. For each of those criticisms, there was a strong rebuttal. Basically, they can be summed up as “this isn’t a problem if you do it right.” Now I’m going to go over some of the arguments teachers give in favor of participation grading, and try to include weaknesses of these arguments as well.

1. It can positively contribute to socialization.

This is not a universal benefit; I am only arguing this point as it applies to some implementations of participation grades in some subjects and circumstances. For example, this “pro” would not apply to a math teacher having students shout out their answers to the homework for “class participation” purposes.

This argument is based on a function of schooling. There are many different reasons people cite for having an education system: economic benefits, successful democracies, etc. One of these is also to help promote socialization. One might try to argue that this is only really important for younger grades (like kindergarteners learning how to share and not to hit other kids) or even that this isn’t necessary in school at all. After all, there are plenty of homeschooled children that grow up to be perfectly functional adults. Then again, as the recent “metoo” trend of publicizing sexual harassment which had been going on for years and years has shown, maybe a lot of people need more help being socialized, not less.

Regardless, one of the functions of school is to be a tool for socialization. Students need to learn a multitude of cultural norms to function well and fully participate in their societies. A mismatch between a student’s actual behavior in the world and their expected behavior can be devastating, as this can make them seriously struggle to succeed. Of course, there are certainly downsides to socialization: many norms can be illogical or even unethical (though that depends on whether you subscribe to a more relativistic or objectivist view of ethics).

Additionally, in some subjects, social interactions are a part of the actual content of a course. For example, in art, the students are not only learning about artwork itself, but how to talk about art and how to give and receive criticism. It turns out that there are, in fact, better and worse ways to give someone a critique. In these circumstances, grading participation is not just about checking off that students spoke in class, but considering if they have actually learned how and why to speak in a particular way. There is constructive criticism and nonconstructive criticism. Students can defend themselves with reasoned responses or with defensiveness and counterattacks. These skills are a part of a good art class, and they relate to having successful social interactions in life as well.

When students do not participate in a group critique, they are not demonstrating that they have some of the actual skills required to interpret art. That is, failing to participate means they have failed in a typical grading sense. It’s not an arbitrary extra criterion that the teacher has just lumped on top of the assessment plan, it is a basic and useful part of the actual subject. In this case, participation and student behavior is something worth grading.

In other subjects, particularly in the humanities, group discussions can play a key role in class and are often the focus of participation grades. Here, socialization may be a teacher’s motivating factor. Group discussions don’t just teach students about a particular subject, they teach students how to behave in a group. Giving peer feedback, either verbal or written, can help teach the idea of a social obligation. Reading the material in advance (another item that is often found on some teachers’ participation rubrics) can relate to the idea of an expectation for preparedness. Not only can this show students how to show respect (whether genuine or not) for their teacher, it can also demonstrate a kind of work ethic. All of these things are aspects of socialization.

These are social skills that people need to function well in society, and they are not the kinds of things we could teach well as isolated subjects. The best bet is to integrate them into other subjects, where appropriate. Assessing these skills is typically done though assessing participation. As in the art example, this isn’t a huge leap away from the purpose of a particular class. Students don’t just talk about Shakespeare to learn Shakespeare, they talk to learn how to talk about Shakespeare, and that includes a variety of general participatory behaviors.

As I have brought up before, there are some problems with this socialization argument. It doesn’t apply to all situations. It’s probably a better argument for younger grades, and post-secondary educators need to be very careful that participation really is a part of mastering their subject.

There is another criticism of this reason that is worth addressing. Even granting the importance of socialization and it being a function of schools, why does it need to be graded? Why not just have a behavior policy that is enforced through other means? Aside from this sometimes being impossible (at some levels, a teacher’s grading policy may be the only behavioral enforcement they can do), it meets the purpose of grading in general. Grades are assigned as a reflection of assessment. Assessment is meant to be a way to measure if students have certain knowledge and skills. The knowledge and skills taught in schools are meant to serve particular social functions, and socialization is one of those functions. In this way, grading participation is totally appropriate within the context of schools.

Still, if this was the only benefit cited for grading participation, it would not be a very strong case. However, there are a number of other “pros” I will break down in the following weeks.

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Cons of Participation Grades 5

Continuing my previous post (which I unfortunately must do in installments due to my schedule) here is another common criticism of grading participation.

5. It is not fair.

This is the last of the “cons” of participation grades I often hear about. The unfairness aspect of participation is typically linked to student personalities, particularly in the case of shy students with “speaking in class” as the measure of participation.

As a former shy student and current shy adult, I can speak to the feeling of unfairness that I must speak out in class. But once again, this objection falls apart with counter-examples. For instance, public speaking classes, which are often required in both secondary and post-secondary education, are no less anxiety-inducing than being obligated to occasionally speak out in class, yet we do not suggest that we shouldn’t have speech assessments.

Furthermore, while the following is a purely anecdotal experience and is in no way intended to be presented as representational of most students, I think my own story is worth mentioning in this context. I hated being forced to speak out in class. I could study well and succeed on essays and tests, demonstrating my mastery of the material in these conventional ways.

Having to speak in class felt completely unnecessary and unjustified. Each class became an exercise in anxiety. I was constantly worried that I wouldn’t be brave enough or find the right opportunity to speak in every lesson.

When I did speak up, I would go red in the face as everyone looked at me. I’d break out in a cold sweat and my heart would race. Every single time. I would dread going to those classes and I still question some of my teachers’ policies to this day (both their motivations for doing so and their “consistency” in grading).

Looking back over my career as a student, I can recall many of these horribly uncomfortable situations, and I am incredibly grateful for them.

I can’t imagine what kind of person I would be if I hadn’t been forced to learn how to interact in group discussions. If I was left to my own devices, I would have sat silently and not had such valuable practice in social interactions and having my ideas directly challenged. I learned that school is supposed to push students outside of their comfort zones, that is what real learning is.

When educators point out that assessing participation is unfair for the shy kids, they are losing sight of some of the purposes of education. It’s not supposed to be easy, comfortable, and un-challenging. Students are supposed to actually learn new skills, and speaking within a group is one of the skills that students are expected to have by the time they finish their schooling.

Of course, my whole story might be irrelevant considering another point. Participation doesn’t have to have anything to do with “speaking in class” at all. There are a variety of other ways that participation can be assessed and very useful purposes it can serve. Now that I’ve covered the cons of participation grades (and briefly touched on how they’re not really cons if the teacher does it right), it’s time to take a look as some of the arguments why the “never grade students’ participation in class” rhetoric might be totally wrong. Let’s look at the pros.

(In a follow-up post.)

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On the Market VII: Job Candidates Are People Too

Another year, another job season. Sigh.

I’ve been on the market for several years now, and regular readers may remember that in that time I have applied to many, many, many jobs. The positions I’ve applied for since finishing my PhD have represented a generous sampling of nearly all that our glorious neoliberal economy has to offer, from tenure track academic posts to generic office drudgery to unskilled minimum wage-slavery. One might think that applying to such a wide variety of jobs might lead to a similarly wide variety of experiences, but this would be wrong. Aside from the fact that the application process for academic jobs is significantly more onerous than it is for most other kinds of work, the overall experience of looking for work is, as it turns out, strikingly, dispiritingly, and resolutely uniform across all sectors.

If there is one thing that seems to unite prospective employers of all stripes, it is a profound lack of what one might euphemistically call “professional courtesy.” One might more directly call it “basic human decency.”

Such lack of courtesy can take many forms. One academic job I applied to asked applicants in the second round of the search to send them a sample syllabus–not in itself an uncommon or particularly onerous demand, except for two additional factors: it had to be tailored to the very unusual and specific nature of their program (and therefore essentially needed to be designed from scratch), and applicants were given only one week to turn it in. Now, for those of you who may not be aware, designing a good upper-level undergraduate course takes quite a lot of work. Even when you are familiar with the material, it takes many hours to search out and sort through potential readings, making sure they are at an appropriate level for the class. Music history courses also require sample pieces that not only fit the reading, but also have scores and recordings available for the students to consult. Assignments and other evaluations need to be designed. And, of course, the whole thing needs to fit a standard 13-week semester with 2-3 class sessions per week. All in all, it’s a good few days of work, assuming you have nothing else going on in your life.

Oh, did I mention the request was sent out on December 22? Just in time to ruin my one week back at home with my family for the holidays.

By far the worst offense in my mind, however, is the now common practice of failing to notify applicants of their rejection in a timely fashion. And I’m not just talking about the now-common boilerplate in most job ads that says they will only contact applicants in which they are interested. While this too is gross, it is at least somewhat understandable in instances where organisations expect to receive many hundreds of applications for a position (although, really, how hard is emailing a form letter?). In academic hiring at least, the community of job seekers has managed to find a workaround for this problem through the many Academic Job Wikis, where applicants who advance in searches can anonymously let everyone else know that the committee has gone forward without them.

Much more painful is advancing in a search and still being left in the dark.

I recently applied for a non-academic job with a large cultural organisation, and was absolutely delighted to be called in for an in-person interview. I thought the interview went quite well, and they seemed impressed with my references, one of whom they knew personally. They even asked by how soon I would be able to start! I was told to expect a decision on a specific day the following week, and I left feeling positive and hopeful.

The following week, I spent that entire day glued to my email, waiting to hear back. Nothing.

I spent the entirety of the next day waiting to hear back. Still nothing.

Not wanting to have to wait a whole weekend to hear back, I finally wrote to them myself to see if there had been a delay in the selection process. Imagine my surprise to receive a rejection not ten minutes later! Clearly they already knew I was not getting the job, but couldn’t be bothered to inform me on the promised date. I later heard from my references that they never even got a call.

Here’s the thing.

Being on the receiving end of this kind of treatment is painful, nerve-wracking, and humiliating. But when it comes to things like employment, applicants have a lot more than self-esteem on the line. We’re talking about people’s lives and livelihoods. People who are looking for work almost by definition are in a period of financial difficulty and distress. Getting a particular job might even mean the difference in making their rent that month, or even affording food. Their immigration status may depend on it (as mine did and does). Finding new employment is a huge, profoundly life altering process. It is anything but another day at the office.

So here is my plea to those of you who are ever in a position to hire someone else, whether in academia or not: Job applicants are people too, so please treat them as such. Communicate with them in a timely fashion, keep your promises, and don’t make unreasonable demands on people who are almost certainly already having a difficult time of it, especially since they are not being paid for any labour you demand of them.

Here’s hoping part VIII will be a little more positive. Until then, keep on doubting.

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How do the world’s biggest drug companies compare, in their transparency commitments?

Here’s a paper, and associated website, that we launch today: we have assessed, and then ranked, all the biggest drug companies in the world, to compare their public commitments on trials transparency. Regular readers will be familiar with this ongoing battle. In medicine we use the results of clinical trials to make informed treatments about […]
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Meaningful Transparency Commitments: the WHO Joint Statement from Trial Funders

By now I hope you all know about the ongoing global scandal of clinical trial results being left unpublished, and of course our AllTrials campaign. Doctors, researchers, and patients cannot make truly informed choices about which treatments work best if they don’t have access to all the trial results. Earlier this year, I helped out […]
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How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Robin Ince just asked if I know any epidemiologist lightbulb jokes. I wrote this for him. How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb? We’ve found 12,000 switches hidden around the house. Some of them turn this lightbulb on, some of them don’t; some of them only work sometimes; and some of them […]
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“Transparency, Beyond Publication Bias”. A video of my super-speedy talk at IJE.

People often talk about “trials transparency” as if this means “all trials must be published in an academic journal”. In reality, true transparency goes much further than this. We need Clinical Study Reports, and individual patient data, of course. But we also need the consent forms, so we can see what patients were told. We need […]