I’ve always thought the Southern Poverty Law Center was one of the good guys, fighting against race hatred and taking on groups like the KKK. And then, suddenly, Morris Dees, one of the founders and leaders of the organization, was booted out. What was going, I wondered. The SPLC’s brief announcements didn’t explain anything. Now we know.

We were working with a group of dedicated and talented people, fighting all kinds of good fights, making life miserable for the bad guys. And yet, all the time, dark shadows hung over everything: the racial and gender disparities, the whispers about sexual harassment, the abuses that stemmed from the top-down management, and the guilt you couldn’t help feeling about the legions of donors who believed that their money was being used, faithfully and well, to do the Lord’s work in the heart of Dixie. We were part of the con, and we knew it.

Wait, are you saying I was conned? By the SPLC? Crap.

the Los Angeles Times and the Alabama Political Reporter reported that Dees’s ouster had come amid a staff revolt over the mistreatment of nonwhite and female staffers, which was sparked by the resignation of the senior attorney Meredith Horton, the highest-ranking African-American woman at the center. A number of staffers subsequently signed onto two letters of protest to the center’s leadership, alleging that multiple reports of sexual harassment by Dees through the years had been ignored or covered up, and sometimes resulted in retaliation against the women making the claims. (Dees denied the allegations, telling a reporter, “I don’t know who you’re talking to or talking about, but that is not right.”)

The staffers wrote that Dees’s firing was welcome but insufficient: their larger concern, they emphasized, was a widespread pattern of racial and gender discrimination by the center’s current leadership, stretching back many years. (The S.P.L.C. has since appointed Tina Tchen, a former chief of staff for Michelle Obama, to conduct a review of its workplace environment.) If Cohen and other senior leaders thought that they could shunt the blame, the riled-up staffers seem determined to prove them wrong. One of my former female colleagues told me that she didn’t want to go into details of her harassment for this story, because she believes the focus should be on the S.P.L.C.’s current leadership. “I just gotta hope your piece helps keep the momentum for change going,” she said. Stephen Bright, a Yale professor and longtime S.P.L.C. critic, told me, “These chickens took a very long flight before they came home to roost.” The question, for current and former staffers alike, is how many chickens will come to justice before this long-overdue reckoning is complete.

They talked the talk, but they didn’t walk the walk. What they were doing was good and necessary, but their aims were not reflected at all in their internal organization. This is a familiar bad look, where teams of old white men run the show and tell the world how much they value diversity. It’s fine to promote diversity, but you also have to be able to step to the side and make room for other voices. I guess Morris Dees wasn’t able to do that.

This video is really good. You should watch it. The basic message is that conservatives don’t much like democracy, equality is not a key value for them, that they’re in it to maintain the status quo, and they’ve always been this way. In many ways, Trump is not an anomaly (nor was Nixon, or Reagan, or Bush), but just representative of how the conservative brain thinks. It’s not a radical or surprising idea, simply clearly presented.

Also see the followup on the historical and philosophical foundations of conservatism.

I’m sad to say that I don’t care anymore. I got all these messages that 23 March 2019 is Atheist Day, a “global event” with a few scattered local events, some of which look rather interesting, but the whole concept is leaving me cold, and I wasn’t sure why. I tried to figure out what was turning me off to the idea.

First thing that turned up was the source: Atheist Republic. I really dislike the organization — it’s very 2005, a group of people who are proud of themselves for the simplest possible conclusion, and who refuse to consider anything deeper. Their main web page makes the hoary old argument that “Atheism Is a Lack of Belief in Deities”, nothing more, and announces that there is “no singular, decisive atheist movement,” all while trying to represent an atheist movement. It’s the denial of any social responsibility, this idea that there is no point to atheism other than slapping each other on the back and telling each other, “you’re right!” when someone says there is no god. Over that.

Also, in past encounters with the group, there’s the casual, unthinking misogyny. But then, I guess that’s just part of the old-fashioned atmosphere. The good old days, you know.

And then Twitter is flooded with the #AtheistBecause hashtag. That was just a reminder of a disappointment. Some of you might recall I had this series on the blog, “Why I am an atheist”, in which I invited the audience to send me their personal story of why they were atheists. It was very popular, and there were quite a few thoughtful, interesting submissions, to the point where I was actually thinking of putting them into a book. I had drafted some release forms and was getting ready to send them out, when there was a peculiar shift. I was still getting submissions, but I was also getting all these frantic emails asking me to delete entries or edit out names — people were noticing that when they googled their names, the first thing that popped up was…their declaration of atheism. This was not good if you were, for instance, applying for jobs (and that also tells you how messed up American attitudes towards atheism are). The day the number of retraction requests exceeded the number of submissions was the day I knew that little project wasn’t going to happen.

I’m still getting retraction requests, by the way. Every few months someone writes to me and pleads to have their name redacted, or the whole dang post deleted. I oblige every time, of course.

Also by the way — the number of women making those deletion requests exceeds the number of men. I can’t imagine why.

I think I’ll spend my Atheist Day working through a couple of papers on spiders — I still have grand plans for my summer research, once this damnable snow goes away. Funny thing, though: spiders are all atheists. I guess I’ve found my people…errm, organisms.

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If you’ve watched any of my videos, you’ve probably guessed by now that I’m a filthy hippy liberal progressive socialist space communist. And so I will generally support the most progressive candidate that I feel has a chance in hell of winning an election, however because I am also a skeptical cynical agnostic atheist contrarian asshole, I feel quite free to criticize the most progressive candidates when they screw up, because constructive criticism is how we all get better. That and lifting heavy. Constructive criticism and lifting heavy are how we all get better. Gains!

So this week, Democratic Senator Kristen Gillibrand tweeted, “If we want to end the opioid epidemic, we must work to address the root causes of abuse. That’s why @SenCoryGardner and I introduced legislation to limit opioid prescriptions for acute pain to 7 days. Because no one needs a month’s supply for a wisdom tooth extraction.”

Oh, no. Oh, no no no. Gilly! Why?!

This is typical of the worst of politics: politicians proposing legislation that sounds good and rational and wholesome on the surface but doing it in the face of all of our current scientific knowledge. If Gillibrand and Gardner had spoken to any doctors who have researched the opioid epidemic, they would know that this ain’t it.

First of all, I don’t think anyone would argue that we have a problem with opioids here in the US, where more than 130 people die of an overdose every day from abusing them. The reason why this became a problem was because of pharmaceutical companies (aka Big Pharma) assuring society that prescription opioids wouldn’t be addictive and wouldn’t lead to serious abuse, leading to some doctors prescribing them more often than they should have and also leading to these pills flooding the black market, and here we are: 130 people a day, dead.

Michigan had the same idea as Gillibrand and Gardner back in 2017, when they passed legislation limiting the number of days that doctors could prescribe opioids. It’s been long enough that we can start to see how effective that was: while the total number of opioid prescriptions have decreased by 40%, the number of deaths from opioids has remained steady. In other words, no lives have been saved but we may have more people out there living with intense pain because they don’t have a prescription. Doctors in Michigan have pointed out that because of the limits, even patients with prescriptions aren’t getting the pills they need, as they often run out too early and can’t get back to the doctor in time for a new prescription. Doctors are also complaining because all of this has greatly increased the amount of red tape they have to deal with just to do their job, which includes managing the pain of their patients.

But wait, there’s more! One of the biggest concerns with prescription opioids is how they introduce people to the black market. Once a patient can no longer get (or afford) a prescription, they may likely be driven to the street, where they can buy pills that are there because people with chronic pain often sell them in order to pay for other life-saving medication. And at that point they are likely to realize that there is a cheaper, more efficient solution: heroin and fentanyl. Over the past several years, deaths from prescription opioids have remained stable while deaths from heroin and other street drugs has skyrocketed.

So laws like this just end up making the problem worse, pushing patients to the black market to get the pain meds they need. And Gillibrand and Gardner should know that, because all the data is there for us to see, including a perfect, crystal clear case study in Michigan showing what a huge disaster it is.

I’m all for reevaluating our drug laws to stop senseless deaths due to addiction, but only when our politicians are informed by actual science. Let’s hope they reconsider before this nonsense becomes a law.

The post The Democrats’ Terrible Plan to Fix the Opioid Epidemic appeared first on Skepchick.

By Douglas Quenqua In March 1997, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the nonprofit organization that oversees the Jehovah’s Witnesses, sent a letter to each of its 10,883 U.S. congregations, and to many more congregations worldwide. The organization was concerned about the legal risk posed by possible child molesters within its ranks. The letter laid …
By John R. Platt It’s official: Climate change has claimed its first mammal extinction. This week the Australian government declared the extinction of a tiny rodent called Bramble Cay melomys (also known as the Bramble Cay mosaic-tailed rat, Melomys rubicola). The quiet announcement was buried in a press release about enacting stronger protections for other endangered species. It …
By Hemant Mehta There’s a bill currently making its way through the Washington state legislature that seems sensible on the surface but could open the door to a lot of problems. SB 5166 is basically meant to give “religious accommodations” for postsecondary students. For example, they shouldn’t be punished for missing an exam that falls on a religious …
By Bob Brigham Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered alarming views during an exclusive interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN News). CBN News asked if President Donald Trump could be like a 2,500 year-old character in the Old Testament. “Could it be, that President Trump right now has been sort of raised for such …
By Reis Thebault Mississippi’s governor has signed into law one of the strictest abortion bans in the country, making it even more difficult for women to get abortions in a state where only one clinic still operates. The bill, set to take effect in July, bans abortions after a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat …

I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but Cambridge is one of those prestigious “elite” universities, and sometimes they do exhibit some good sense.

Oh, but Peterson is mad about this. How dare they deny him an appointment! They owe him!

University of Toronto psychology professor Dr Jordan Peterson had planned to be with Cambridge’s Faculty of Divinity for two months in autumn.

But on Wednesday the university took the invitation back after a review.

Dr Peterson said the faculty had “made a serious error of judgement in rescinding their offer to me”.

He has fired back.

This is what we academics call “burning your bridges,” or “guaranteeing that you’ll never get a second invitation,” or “confirming the wisdom of their decision,” or “hah, what college would want you as a visiting professor after that childish outburst,” etc. Poor man. He gets no respect from his peers, so he’ll have to settle for a consoling tongue-bath from his mob of under-educated manbabies.

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This article is a preview from the Spring 2019 edition of New Humanist

She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak (Cassava Republic) by Azeenarh Mohammed, Rafeeat Aliyu and Chitra Nagarajan (eds)

“I’m so very excited because I’ve never told anyone my story before.” So says one of the 25 queer women whose diverse stories are brought together in this new collection. Published last year by an Abuja-based independent publisher, the collection is based on first-hand accounts. Raw, messy, brimming with life, these stories jump off the page. The trio of editors travelled across the country to find women of different sexual and gender orientations, ethnicities and religions, not to provide a “comprehensive picture” but “snapshots of histories, experiences and realities”.

The book’s very existence is cause for celebration. As the editors remark in their introduction, “talk of queerness is everywhere”, yet in Nigeria and abroad, those under discussion are too often missing from the conversation. As a country that is racing towards the role of cultural and economic powerhouse of Africa, Nigeria is in a state of self-examination, and She Called Me Woman is an intervention into a frenzied public debate. The collection is clearly a rebuttal to the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act of 2014, a brutal attack on queer rights. Yet it is also multi-layered and intimate, challenging the focus placed by Nigerian society on marriage and kids. She Called Me Woman offers a space in which transgressive stories of love, lust and longing can be heard on their own terms.

One of the aims of the collection is to show that these “transgressions” are nothing new. The editors see the book as combating various forms of erasure, including “the rich histories and cultural traditions of diverse sexualities and gender norms in the land known as Nigeria”.

We hear from a lesbian, happily out to her family, who tells us how in Igboland there are multiple ways in which a woman can marry another woman. Western readers are reminded not to bring our prejudices to the recurring accounts of rape and violence, forced outings and medical treatment, just as we should not be surprised when one of the narrators proudly describes the lively pick-up scene in Jos in the chapter “Everybody in J-town is Now a Lola [lesbian]”.

There are limitations to the first-hand accounts. Other anthologies such as 2013’s Queer African Reader or Ashwini Sukthankar’s Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India have used a mix of poetry, prose and essays to present stories of queer life from multiple angles. In contrast, some of the chapters in She Called Me Woman read a little too much like lightly edited transcript.

Yet this is the first anthology of its kind to focus on queer Nigeria. Staying true to the voices lends the collection weight and authenticity. A review in Nigeria’s Guardian, a popular daily newspaper, framed the struggles portrayed in the collection as part of the broader “Nigeria problem”: the lack of support for the “dreams and ambitions” of the country’s citizens. All of the narrators in She Called Me Woman are under 40. The book can thus be seen as belonging to a new generation of Nigerians who are navigating family and social expectations, as well as corruption and inequality, whether they are straight or queer.

She Called Me Woman is a milestone on a journey. The fact that the women are anonymous tells us something of the way still to go. Around the same time as the book came out, lesbian teen romance movie Rafiki was banned in Kenya, despite critical acclaim. Securing visibility and acceptance is an uphill fight. Yet ultimately this collection leaves the reader feeling gratefully surprised. It’s a sentiment that the editors share. “We expected to find despair and loss,” they say, “and instead we found joy and resilience.”

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Biotechnology is more advanced than ever. From next-generation prenatal tests to genome-editing, today we have unprecedented power to predict and shape future people, raising questions about who we count as human and what it means to belong. How will can square new biotech advances with the real but fragile gains for people with disabilities - especially when their voices are often absent from the conversation? In his new book "Fables and Futures: Biotechnology, Disability, and the Stories we Tell Ourselves" (MIT Press), George Estreich - poet, memoirist, and father of a young woman with Down syndrome - explores the place of disability in our narratives of technology. Here, he discusses his ideas.

What drew you to this subject matter?

As is often the case with writers, one book leads to another. Fables and Futures grew out of my last book, The Shape of the Eye, a memoir about raising a daughter with Down syndrome. Writing that book, I came to see that I couldn’t just tell Laura’s story; I had to reckon with the stories told about her condition. Fables and Futures extends that exploration, thinking about our broad, unending conversation about biotech and disability - the stories we’re telling ourselves now. I spend part of the book dissecting those stories, looking for patterns, and part of the book telling new ones, mainly about me and Laura. So this book continues and builds on the last one.

In what ways do we misunderstand disability?

A very big question, and one that the field of disability studies will always be answering. But I’ll focus on a few things I’ve learned from other writers, disabled and nondisabled, who’ve explored this question before me. I think we often tend to automatically equate disability with suffering or tragedy. Other closely related problems include understanding disability in terms of disease, abnormality, or defect; seeing disability as a purely measurable and physical phenomenon, like an extra chromosome or a visual impairment; and seeing a disability as the most relevant fact about a person, not as something whose meaning changes in, is created by, context. This is not to deny the real difficulties physical differences can entail. But too often, the lived complexities of disability tend to get elided, and the voices of people with disabilities tend to get ignored. It also means that in some cases - notably Down syndrome - stereotypes about personality traits prevent us from seeing, and listening to, the individuals who have the condition in question.

What troubles you about the meeting of biotech and disability?

I’m not troubled by that convergence per se. There are many ways in which biotechnology can be a direct or indirect benefit to people with disabilities. To be disabled is not necessarily to be sick, so to the extent that biotech developments can help anyone, they can help people with disabilities too; and to the extent that tools like CRISPR speed basic research, they will likely have indirect benefits that filter to all of us. In a more utopian vein, it’s possible to imagine a world in which biotechnology is mainly focused on helping people flourish, whoever they are, as opposed to preventing or altering conditions deemed abnormal.

But in the world we actually live in, the negative features of disability tend to get emphasised in order to boost the fortunes of a particular technology. Advocates for CRISPR, for example, may suggest that a laundry list of conditions can be cured or averted. When that list is heterogeneous - for example, including schizophrenia, autism, deafness, dwarfism, and cancer - the tendency is for all of them to sound like abnormalities, bad things. The diseases are ballast for the disabilities, even when many people with the conditions in question do not see themselves as sick. Because I don’t identify as disabled, I’ve quoted other writers throughout the book who can speak to the experience of disability, including people with Down syndrome.

How are stories used in the promotion of new technologies?

In many ways: stories about and by charismatic scientists (in memoirs, feature articles, and TED talks); stories of parents and families making successful use of technology; promissory and speculative stories, forecasting everything from the revival of extinct species, to choosing desired qualities of children, to the elimination of disease. Beneath the individual stories is a basic progress narrative, in which science and technology bring us a better world.

I wanted to break down the story, to reduce it to its components, to look for patterns. One instance is the way technology is named, the way the ordinary name for a technology is already persuasive: “noninvasive” prenatal testing (NIPT), for example, or “mitochondrial therapy.” Though these are neutral-sounding labels, they’re actually persuasive, chosen for a purpose; the name “noninvasive,” for example, anchors a consistent marketing message, in which NIPT is opposed to “invasive” tests, such as amniocentesis.

But stories are built up from characters too. In popular discussions of biotechnology, the same characters recur: the scientist, the Luddite, the “designer baby.” I’m interested in the way those characters are deployed. At the same time, I’m interested in the people left out of the story, or understood purely in terms of risk. Who gets a story, who gets to tell one, and whose stories are credited.

You write about echoes of eugenics in current discussion of genomes. Could you expand?

It’s been nearly a century since the high tide of American eugenics, with its visions of breeding the “best” Americans for the good of the gene pool, and of sterilising the unfit. It’s critical to emphasise how far we have come, not least in our understanding of the basis of human heredity.

That said, historians like Nathaniel Comfort, Alexandra Minna Stern, and others have documented the continuities between the mainline era of eugenics and the present day. The context is radically different, but the idea of directed evolution is still around, and many themes persist. Among these are images of ideal families and children; the understanding of disability as a cost to society; the idealisation of intellect, and the avoidance of intellectual disability; and the existence of persuasion itself, a rhetoric that joins literary tactics to scientific authority. That rhetoric, both a century ago and today, is pervaded by metaphors of disability: rational control is opposed to “blind” nature.

You say that biotech raises questions about what kind of people we value. In what way?

Which biotechnologies we develop, which are profitable, which we sell, how we sell them: all reflect our assumptions about which sorts of bodies and minds we value, and which sorts we would collectively prefer to avoid or cure.

Fables and Futures begins with an epigraph: “Technology is neither good or bad, but it is never neutral.” It’s impossible to say that “biotechnology” is good or bad: like everything else - including disability itself - its meaning depends on context. But of course, biotechnology is part of that context, and it works in unpredictable ways. The ability to detect a condition prenatally can be at once useful and necessary in some cases, while contributing to stigma in others: for example, the very fact that a condition is avoidable means that parents can be considered morally obligated to avoid it (or blamed for failing to avoid it).

When you look at biomedical developments, are you optimistic?

Biomedicine is too vast, and the future too uncertain, for me to predict much, even to be optimistic or pessimistic. I see a great tension between the ideas of belonging and improvement, between an understanding of disability as a social and political identity, on the one hand, and as defect and abnormality on the other.

I do see a rapid movement towards the adoption of germline editing, which concerns me: even in the last few years, the consensus seems to be that germline editing is both desirable (as long as it’s safe) and inevitable. I think that a far broader and deeper conversation is required before we take this step as a species, and I think that conversation needs to include all of us, including people whose disabling conditions are invoked in support of the project. Understanding the way the conversation works now, the persuasion both subtle and less so, can help us to engage more fully with the issues involved.

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This article is a preview from the Spring 2019 edition of New Humanist

What to do about nationalism and national identity has become a key question of our age: is the current nationalist backlash on view in many parts of the world a sign that the concepts are unfit for the 21st century? Or have we, in fact, mistakenly allowed them to crumble away? Resolving this question is becoming all the more urgent, as the resurgence of nationalist politics threatens to shade into something much worse.

For many of us, the shock lies not simply in the way nationalism has reappeared – its “death” having been, in many ways, a cornerstone of the liberal notion of “progress” – but in the virulence of its discourse, and the polarising effect it has had on culture. Complexity itself seems under threat, which is precisely why there’s an urgent need to unpack and explore the terms of the debate.

These disputed concepts have informed the work of the French philosopher Étienne Balibar for over 50 years. Particularly important is the issue of how a nation-state defines itself, and what the effects are on populations within and outside it – as well as those within who fail to fit the definition of belonging. Balibar, born in Burgundy in 1942, first came to prominence as a student of Louis Althusser, a Marxist philosopher who had a major influence on the 20th-century intellectual current of structuralism, which holds that human culture and individual behaviour can be primarily explained by underlying systems and structures. While the scope of Balibar’s work has increased dramatically – drawing in geopolitics, questions of race and racism, of violence, of the secular against the religious, and questions of the family and pedagogy – Althusser’s ideas continue to hold a vital place in his philosophy.

Of particular importance here is Althusser’s view of how ideology – systems of ideas that make certain ways of behaving or thinking, such as dividing the world’s population into discrete national identities like British or Chilean or Malaysian, seem natural and common-sense – actually works. Marxism had long struggled (and continues to struggle) with the idea of “false consciousness”: the notion that working people in capitalist society are misled into believing the ideology of the ruling class. This process hides the true relationship between classes, the argument goes, so the oppressed act against their own best interests. But to take only one objection to this claim: if false consciousness exists, then what is “true” consciousness? By what standard is it measured? And by whom?

For many Marxists, there was a real world hidden behind ideology which could in theory be perceived. Althusser argued instead that all individuals have an “imaginary” relationship to reality, in that we all make sense of the world via images of it we hold in our heads. Different ideologies, then, are different representations of this relationship. They do not hide reality from us so much as shape the way we imagine the world to be.

Althusser identified two key generators of any given ideology. On the one hand there are “repressive state apparatuses” – the armed forces and the police – which, through mental and physical coercion, maintain order within a political system. On the other, there are “ideological state apparatuses” – educational institutions, media outlets, the churches, family, media, trade unions and social clubs. While the former use force, the latter, which are generally outside formal state control, operate by disseminating ideologies into which an individual is incorporated, and from which she or he fears being ostracised. The nuclear family, tied to the desire for property and the need to work and earn, for instance, is transmuted from a basic requirement of capitalism into a moral requirement. Crucially, ideology is reinforced through its practices – by ritual, conventional behaviour and so forth. (Here Althusser quotes ironically the 16th-century mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal: “‘Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe.”)

* * *

Balibar takes this analysis and makes it central to his argument about the way in which the great collective identities of nation and race that dominate modern history – and sit at the heart of terrible conflicts – are constructed. In his 1988 essay “The Nation Form: History and Ideology” (from the collection Race, Nation, Class, co-authored by Immanuel Wallerstein and published by Verso), Balibar introduces the idea of “fictive ethnicity”, arguing that:

No nation possesses an ethnic base naturally, but as social formations are nationalised, the populations included within them, divided up among them or dominated by them are ethnicised – that is represented in the past or in the future as if they formed a natural community, possessing of itself an identity of origins, culture and goals which transcends individuals and social conditions.

This leads to the production of individuals who “belong”, who are regarded as placeable within the scope of, for example, “Britishness”. The obvious corollary of this is the production of individuals who do not belong; who are not entitled to take part in the political community of a nation-state, or access the rights given to its citizens.

Some might object to this claim by saying that ethnic or cultural homogeneity is not only desirable but a necessary basis for a democratic and harmonious society. Balibar’s answer is that “‘peoples’ do not exist naturally any more than races do, either by virtue of their ancestry, a community of culture or pre-existing interests.” Identities, then, are not fixed. They are, to take the subtitle of Balibar and Wallerstein’s book, always “ambiguous identities”. Any nation, if you look at the different groups and communities that it is supposed to include, is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural from the outset.

To maintain fictive ethnicity – the idea that all these people who belong to the nation share the same ethnic identity that others do not – certain “characteristics” must be evoked for “us” to identify with. These are not just alleged physical characteristics but cultural ones such as “myths of origin” (Balibar gives the French Revolution as an example) and other cultural artefacts with which one is supposed to have an “innate” meaningful relationship. George Orwell, for example, proposed just such a connection between the English and “solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes”. From these characteristics we can then surmise a character – a national character – as though the nation was an individual subject with, as Balibar notes, “an origin and a coherence”. The implication here is also that, despite the mess of history, the formation of a nation is the outcome of a “project”, and those of us who belong represent its “fulfilment”. Our ethnicity could not, the unstated argument goes, have been otherwise.

What’s more, these cultural characteristics are frequently advertised as part of a past that was not only better but is under threat from those who do not share “our” ethnicity, who are not part of “our” project. Balibar’s co-author Wallerstein coins the term “pastness” to identify this phenomenon. In his essay “The Construction of Peoplehood: Racism, Nationalism, Ethnicity” he writes that pastness is:

. . . a mode by which persons are persuaded to act in the present in ways they might not otherwise act. Pastness is a tool persons use against each other. Pastness is a central element in the socialisation of individuals, in the maintenance of group solidarity, in the establishment of or challenge to social legitimisation. Pastness is therefore pre-eminently a moral phenomenon, therefore a political phenomenon, always a contemporary phenomenon.

Pastness, based as it is on social function as opposed to truth, is not static. Golden ages are burnished in new ways to suit different ideologies. Memory of Britain’s experience of the Second World War changes from a time of mass killing abroad and harsh deprivation at home that we should avoid repeating to a tonic for the nation that did “us” good and allowed us to display our inherent national character.

As Wallerstein notes, this “pastness” is used to perform three operations. First, it is used to explain “why things are the way they are and shouldn’t be changed.” Second, it is used to explain “why things are the way they are and cannot be changed.” Finally, it is used to explain “why present structures should indeed be superseded in the name of deeper and more ancient, ergo more legitimate social realities.”

These are the go-to manoeuvres of nationalist politics. Pastness has been one of the more malevolent aspects of the Leave campaign in Britain, and it is the “Again” in Trump’s “Make America Great Again”. We are said to be fallen from a past which was “better”; and though the past which was better changes over time, it is still a place to which we should aim to return.

* * *

More than this, as Balibar notes, the establishment of a fictive ethnicity for a nation-state can often lead to the creation of further “pseudo-ethnicities” inside the nation. For instance, “immigrants” is generally used as a catch-all to signify an undifferentiated mass of people that threatens the nation from within. It is not for nothing that the metaphors surrounding it tend to evoke the idea of a disease in the otherwise healthy body of “the people”. By evoking pastness and identifying a group without affiliation to it, blame can be apportioned.

This ideological process is inexhaustible because no individual, social group or nation can ever attain the ideal prescribed. But there’s a further problem: nationalism, with its system of inclusions and exclusions, can never fully coincide with the nation-state as a denoted geographical space. As Balibar writes in his essay “What is a Border?” (published in Politics and the Other Scene, Verso, 2002), these geographical borders only represent one part of a complex set of boundaries that surround the nation-state. Such boundaries are shaped by the wants, needs and histories on either side of them; they mean different things to different people (the border in Ireland being an apt example); and they carry out several different functions at once.

In the essay “Borderland Europe and the Challenge of Migration” Balibar notes that Europe, for example, is:

not a space where borders exist alongside one another but rather on top of one another . . . Europe forms a space within which borders multiply and move incessantly, “chased” from one spot to the other by an unreachable imperative of closure, which leads to its “governance”, resembling a permanent state of emergency.

The recent refugee crisis has exacerbated this sense of disputed borders and the ways in which they are supposedly threatened. While an Amnesty International report from late 2016 showed that of the top ten countries that host refugees six are majority-Muslim, and none are European, the crisis has been framed as a particularly European one: reviving, if it ever went away, the colonial trope of “our” role in civilising the backward. Those seeking asylum are also asked to shed their own “pastness”. In the routine conflation of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, an individual’s identity is washed away, absorbed into a mass. It is, writes Balibar, an economy of “poor residents” being pitted against “poor nomads”.

* * *

In this fixing of identities there is more than an echo of Jean-Paul Sartre’s powerful and disturbing 1945 essay “Anti-Semite and Jew”. Written at breakneck speed, it is an essay of many faults – Sartre did no research into Jewish history or religion, and the Jews in his book are of a piece with the Jews in his life: intellectual, middle-class, assimilated – but the essay nonetheless provides a searing account of the ways that nationalism requires enemies, and invents them accordingly. The anti-Semite, writes, Sartre:

can conceive only of a type of primitive ownership of land based on a veritable magical rapport, in which the thing possessed and its possessor are united by a bond of mystical participation . . . Since the Jew wishes to take France from them, it follows that France must belong to them.

The fictive ethnicity is thus reinforced by myths of origin, coherence, belonging. Or, as the Indian theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has pointed out in works such as Nationalism and the Imagination (2010, Chicago University Press), this privileging of one type of ethnicity, apart from everything else “is predicated on reproductive heteronormativity: birthright”. Nationalist ideologies often go hand-in-hand with conservative ideas about gender: the allotted role of women in reproducing and raising new members of the nation, and of men in defending their purity – against, for instance, “Mexican rapists”.
Sartre’s essay expresses his frustration at the imperviousness of those who defend the exclusion of people who do not belong to the nation. They have:

chosen hate because hate is a faith; at the outset he has chosen to devaluate words and reasons . . . They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.

Of course, all nationalisms are particular, and the enemies they choose vary, although I choose an essay on anti-Semitism advisedly, because it shows us exactly where this can lead. But there is, notes Balibar, a “competitive mimicry” in nationalism – both with historical nationalisms and with current versions. Particularly in this global age, nationalist tropes are repeated transnationally. In their rhetoric, Trump and Bolsonaro appeal to the same conceits, mimic each other’s gestures, copy each other’s slogans. As the “enemies” are emptied of their particularity, so the modes of repression and expulsion can be replicated and made general.

Does it still make sense to call this trend “nationalism”, when it apparently moves so easily from country to country? Those uncertain of their place – the “foot soldiers of every populism”, to use Balibar’s term – are often disenfranchised and uncertain in the same way, and thus the same rhetoric mobilises them. It would be wrong to call these movements “nationalist” if by that we simply meant a return to the past. Borders and identities are complex now in new ways.
And yet we have arrived at a point which, Balibar argues, we have seen before: the moment where the exercise of power is not only “violent or powerful or brutal, but is also cruel”. The followers of the cruel participate in strengthening their identity through the complete destruction of others.

Its basis no longer human, this cruel ideology loses its place within humanity. How long this takes, and what damage is done while the cycle is being completed, is an urgent problem for all of us. In the words of one of Balibar’s contemporaries, the philosopher Alain Badiou:

When the state starts being concerned about the legitimacy of people’s identities, it can only mean we’re in a period of darkest reaction, as historical experience has shown . . . This is because an identity-based definition of the population runs up against the fact that, since every population in the world today is composite, heterogenous and multi-faceted, the only reality such a definition will have is a negative one.

Making a Murderer

This article is a preview from the Spring 2019 edition of New Humanist

The story of Steven Avery, the subject of the popular Netflix true crime documentary series Making a Murderer, is deeply tragic. The 56-year-old salvage yard worker from Wisconsin, USA, was convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder in 1985. He had served 18 years of his 20-year prison sentence when new DNA evidence emerged that exonerated him of these crimes. He was released in 2003 and widely recognised as a victim of police misconduct. Just two years later, he was arrested again and charged with a completely different murder. In 2007 he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Repeated appeals and applications for a new trial have failed, and he remains incarcerated.

The first series, released in December 2015, was watched by over 20 million people. Avery became a kind of folk hero, the subject of dozens of spin-off campaigns, videos, podcasts and articles. Unusually in the age of streaming television, when viewers watch on their own schedule, the question of his innocence or guilt became an old-fashioned water cooler topic, with office workers and radio phone-ins buzzing with opinions. Wannabe investigators congregated on forums like Reddit to share interpretations of DNA evidence and CCTV footage.

Although interest in true crime was already high at the time of its release – the first series of the hit podcast Serial had come out in October 2014 and HBO’s The Jinx was released in February 2015 – it was the first season of Making a Murderer that took it to a new level. All of these series, and the dozens that have followed them since, take a murder case and repackage it as entertainment. More than that, these are prestige productions, with large budgets, original music and the kind of camera work that indicates “highbrow” subject matter.

It’s easy to get caught up in the compelling sort of narrative they offer: perhaps if we binge just one more episode tonight we will find out who really did it. This effect can be so potent that sometimes it’s difficult to stop and think critically about what we are watching. A larger question is prompted by the recent boom in expensive, prestige true crime productions. Is it ethical to consume stories of murder, rape and miscarriages of justice as if they existed just for our entertainment?

The popularity of true crime stories goes back much further than the advent of streaming services. From the beginning of widespread newspaper distribution in the late 17th century, reports of grisly murders and violent attacks were a big part of how proprietors shifted copies. As police forces came into being in the 19th century, interest in the way crimes were investigated and solved grew. Cases like that of Constance Kent, convicted of murdering her four-year-old step brother in Wiltshire in 1865 after a police investigation and a religious confession, sent the British press and public into a frenzy. Novels like Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, from 1868, incorporated elements of real life cases, breeding further interest.

Whether it comes via reading about Jack the Ripper in the 1880s, tucking into Vincent Bugliosi’s account of the Manson murders in the 1970s or downloading an episode of Serial in the 2010s, the impulse to revel in the details of others’ misfortunes remains the same. There’s a cosy sense of self-preservation and congratulation contained in consuming these stories – rather them than us, our subconscious says, as we dive into the horrors of the next chapter or episode. Crime in fiction is such a popular genre and its narrative structures are so familiar that the desire for similar stories easily carries over into real life reports.

During the 20th century, specialist magazines such as True Detective emerged, which frequently carried front covers emblazoned with headlines like “The Nylon Strangler”, “Corpse at the Picnic” and “The Slasher and the Young Widow”. These publications focused particularly on tales of murdered women, always treading the line between horror and sexual titillation. There was never a sense that this was intellectual entertainment, though. For decades, cheap magazines and tabloid newspapers were the natural home of these stories.

This gritty sensibility remained through much of the 1990s and 2000s. People continued to enjoy true crime, but they probably wouldn’t eagerly share their passion for it in public. These were magazines to be flipped through in a waiting room, or television shows like Dateline or Crimewatch to be consumed at home with a TV dinner. There was a sense that overtly taking pleasure in such horror was not something to be proud of.

The advent of glossy, big budget series like The Jinx and Making a Murderer changed the status of true crime. They appeared on premium TV services like Netflix and HBO, and were advertised with huge billboard campaigns. The internet and social media allowed fans to connect with each other and share theories, and suddenly “enjoying podcasts about murders” was something people were more than willing to share about themselves. A whole support system sprang up around this newly public fandom, too – the podcast My Favourite Murder, in which two comedians discuss the gruesome cases that most appeal to them, has hundreds of thousands of listeners and has just begun releasing its own spin-off shows.

The way these prestige true crime TV series were filmed hinted at more complex, almost arthouse cinematography, with unusual angles and aerial tracking shots. Rather than focusing just on the grisly interaction between victim and murderer or the police investigation (although both are still present), they shifted the emphasis onto a character that stands in for the audience. In Making a Murderer, this is the filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, who made the first series over a period of ten years. In the podcast Serial, host Sarah Koenig makes explicit that the listener is hearing her own subjective view of the case – after all, much of it is delivered in her own voice.

The grammar and style of these series are so recognisable that they have spawned dozens of imitators and parodies. One of them, American Vandal, is so pitch-perfect in its observations – right down to the aerial shots and the slash of paint across the suspect’s eyes like the Making a Murderer poster – that it almost feels bad to laugh. That is, until you grasp that it is a mockumentary about an unknown “vandal” who spray-painted penises on some cars. Somehow watching it is a relief, because its relentless silliness makes the deadly serious tropes of the shows it is parodying seem less grave and more absurd.

In October 2018, Making a Murderer returned for a second series. There were no new substantive new developments to report in Avery’s case, or indeed much of a public interest argument for airing extended interviews with his family and friends. But the show is a major draw for Netflix, so it’s not difficult to understand why more episodes were made – true crime is big business.

The narrative that today’s true crime sells about itself is all about exposing miscarriages of justice – this isn’t voyeuristic, intrusive or harmful, it seems to say, but an important social affairs issue that you are assisting with correcting somehow by gulping down episode after episode. Many of the themes it explores, such as toxic masculinity, racism and class prejudice, are vital issues that deserve more coverage and attention. Packaged as a subplot in a neat whodunnit, though, these subjects lose their potency.

True crime tries to make us feel good for watching it, virtuous even, in a way that the penny dreadfuls or cheap magazines of decades before never did. Yet watching the new episodes of Making a Murderer, I felt uncomfortable. Who really benefits from our obsessive viewing of TV shows about other people’s misery? It is certainly not the original victims of these crimes.

April 1989, when more than 300,000 pro-choice demonstrators marched in Washington, DC

This article is a preview from the Spring 2019 edition of New Humanist

The appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court after a hugely divisive confirmation process sets the stage for the Court to reopen the fundamental question of whether a woman’s right to abortion is protected by the US Constitution. This was a protection famously established 1973 in the case of Roe vs Wade, when the Court held that the right to abortion falls within the right to privacy in the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.

The Supreme Court’s role in American society is hugely political. Nine justices sit on the Court. Before Kavanaugh’s confirmation, the Court had four avowedly conservative justices (Roberts, Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch) on one side and four avowedly liberal justices (Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor) on the other. In the middle, often casting the decisive “swing” vote, was Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, generally tilted towards the conservative camp, but not consistently so – he voted for constitutional recognition for same-sex marriage, and also co-authored the majority opinion in another landmark abortion case in 1992, Planned Parenthood vs Casey, which to the disappointment of conservatives upheld Roe’s core principle. Kennedy’s retirement gave President Trump the opportunity to appoint a reliably conservative justice, and secure an inbuilt 5-4 conservative majority on the Court.

This bodes ill for abortion rights. The five conservative justices on the court are all, to a greater or lesser degree, “originalists” – and they are also all Catholics. Originalism is a judicial philosophy which holds that the US Constitution should be interpreted according to the meaning of its words at the time they were drafted. Anything else, an originalist would say, is unacceptable judicial activism. Originalism contrasts with the liberal view that the text of a constitution is a living instrument, the meaning of which should be constantly updated to reflect changing social attitudes, for example on same sex marriage or abortion. Originalists argue that this is an illegitimate usurpation of the legislative function – judges are appointed to interpret laws written by legislators, not to become legislators themselves. In the originalist view, no “right” to reproductive choice (or indeed to same-sex marriage) can be identified in the words of the US Constitution when those words are interpreted according to their meaning at the time they were written: the founding fathers, and their successor legislators who passed the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, plainly never intended to create a “right” to an abortion.

For an originalist, any constitutional protection of the right to abortion should be removed, and the matter simply left for voters in individual US states to decide. The likely effect of this can be seen by looking at abortion laws in the US just before Roe was decided in 1973: 30 states banned abortion outright, except where necessary to save the mother’s life, and 16 more had severe restrictions.

Moreover, when it comes to abortion, the Catholicism of the majority of justices may also be relevant. Religious affiliation does not translate reductively into judicial decision making: one of the architects of Roe was Justice William Brennan, a Catholic who was personally opposed to abortion, but who believed that religious faith should play no role in judging. Nonetheless, in analysing Supreme Court decisions in abortion cases since Roe, the American legal scholar Geoffrey Stone found compelling evidence that Catholic justices had a greater tendency to vote in favour of reducing rights. Stone’s conclusion that justices’ religious beliefs have tended to influence their thinking on abortion reinforces the likelihood of a majority on the current Supreme Court wanting to change the law.

* * *

So what might happen next? First, some historical context. For much of America’s early history, at least until the 19th century, abortion was not unlawful: it was permitted up to “quickening” (the start of foetal movement). It was only from the mid-19th century that most US states started to ban abortion. Some historians have analysed this trend as part of a conservative, nativist reaction to growing female independence and ethnic diversity. One anti-abortion campaigner in 1868 is recorded as asking rhetorically whether, in the absence of an abortion ban, the new states of America’s West and South would be colonised by “our own children or by those of aliens? This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation.” So in this context of nativist fears of immigration and racial dilution – a curious echo of our own times – criminalisation of abortion accelerated from the late 1860s onwards.

By 1880, all US states had banned abortion save for limited medical reasons, which in practice meant that safe abortion was only available to wealthier women while poorer women frequently bled to death: in 1930, back-street abortions caused around 20 per cent of recorded maternal deaths. But by the 1960s, as abortion rights became a key part of the agenda of the emerging feminist movement, pro-choice advocates in the US started to have some political success: in 1967, Colorado became the first state to decriminalise abortion in cases of rape and risk to the health of the woman. However, this success was limited: by 1973, abortion still remained illegal, or severely circumscribed, in the majority of US states.

Roe transformed this landscape by holding that the right to abortion fell within the implicit right to privacy (i.e. the right against encroachment by the state) which the Court found in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. But the right to abortion was not absolute: the Court held that women’s autonomy and right to privacy had to be balanced against the “important state interests in regulation” of abortion, in particular in protecting the mother’s health and the “potentiality of human life”. The Court established a trimester framework for analysing this balance. In the first trimester (i.e. first 12 weeks of pregnancy), the decision as to whether to have an abortion was solely a matter for the woman and her doctor. No state law could impose any restriction on it. From the end of the first trimester until “foetal viability” – the point at which the foetus could potentially survive outside the womb – the state had a compelling interest in protecting the life of the mother: it could regulate abortion for maternal health reasons. At the point of foetal viability, the state’s interest in protecting “potential life” became compelling, and thereafter the state could prohibit abortion so long as it made an exception to preserve the life or health of the mother. As a result of Roe, many state laws banning or restricting abortion were automatically invalidated. Backstreet abortions were largely consigned to the past; several generations of American women have now grown up being able to control their own bodies and exercise reproductive choice.

* * *

In its next landmark abortion case, Planned Parenthood vs Casey in 1992, the Supreme Court modified Roe’s trimester framework but reaffirmed its “essential holding”, confirming that abortion is one of those matters of “personal dignity and autonomy” which are “central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment”. However, whereas Roe held that the state could not regulate abortions at all in the first trimester, Casey held that the state could now regulate abortions prior to foetal viability, providing such regulation did not constitute an “undue burden” in the way of the woman’s access to abortion. The Court explained that an “undue burden” is any legal restriction that has “the purpose or effect of placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a non-viable foetus”. Of course, a judge’s view of whether an obstacle to abortion is “substantial” might be different from that of a pregnant woman who is actually faced with it. In Casey itself, the Court upheld four Pennsylvania state regulations seeking to trammel abortion access (for example, a requirement that minors must seek parental consent), although a fifth – a spousal notification requirement – was ruled out as an “undue burden”.

Casey was generally seen as a blow to anti-abortion campaigners. The composition of the Court at that time – dominated as it was by justices appointed by Republican Presidents – raised expectations that the Court would overrule Roe. The core holding of Roe was reaffirmed, and in upholding it, the Supreme Court cemented it further in US jurisprudence as an unshiftable precedent. At the same time, however, the “undue burden” test, and its application to abortions in the first trimester (which had previously been safe from state interference), might leave abortion rights looking more vulnerable if the test were to be applied weakly, as many complained it had been in Casey itself, where several state regulations designed to inhibit abortion were upheld. Pro-choice advocates have warned that the Casey decision, and particularly the vagueness of “undue burden”, could, as one put it recently, “make Roe harder to overturn, but easier to gut”.

* * *

What might the Supreme Court do now? There will be no shortage of opportunities to rule on abortion: a raft of cases concerning new state restrictions on abortion are working their way up through the lower courts. Any of these might put the issue before the Supreme Court again – indeed this looks imminent at the time of writing, so an indication of the Court’s direction of travel is likely sooner rather than later. One conservative Catholic commentator, Matthew Schmitz, has urged the conservative majority to do the reverse of what the liberal majority did: whereas Roe found a right to privacy in the Fourteenth Amendment which included the right to an abortion, he argues that a conservative Court should hold that a foetus is a person deserving of the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment, and thus enjoying a “right to life”.

This seems highly unlikely: it would make a mockery of the originalist views of the conservative justices, since self-evidently the authors of the Fourteenth Amendment did not intend to protect the life of the unborn foetus. So there are now essentially two possibilities. One is that Roe is overruled in its entirety, leaving states at liberty to pass whatever laws they want in regard to abortion – pro or anti. Inevitably, this would lead to two Americas, with the more liberal states preserving a woman’s right to choose, whilst many others heavily restrict abortion or ban it altogether. The other possibility is that the “undue burden” test, or some new version of it, is applied so weakly that abortion rights are incrementally whittled down. In the longer term, this may have much the same impact.

Roe is protected to some degree by the legal doctrine of stare decisis: respect for precedent (i.e. past decisions of the Court). For conservative judges especially, respect for precedent plays a central role in promoting the stability of the legal system, enabling citizens to order their affairs secure in the knowledge that judges will not whimsically change the law. Indeed, the importance of stare decisis was acknowledged by Kavanaugh in his confirmation hearings. So it is difficult for the Court simply to junk a landmark precedent, even a liberal one like Roe. For conservative judges to abandon their professed respect for precedent by overturning Roe might imperil the legitimacy of the Court itself.

US conservatives are fond of complaining about “judicial activism”; judges, they argue, should be wary of countermanding the will of the voters and becoming legislators themselves. Yet the two most recently appointed Supreme Court justices – Gorsuch and Kavanaugh – have been appointed by a President, Trump, who won 3 million fewer votes in the Presidential election than his pro-choice Democratic opponent. So whilst the conservative majority on the Court may be tempted to use its new-found power to revoke Roe, the consequence of doing so would be an erosion of the Court’s legitimacy – a risk even justices with strong anti-abortion views may be reluctant to take.

A less dramatic alternative would be to neuter Roe by allowing state restrictions to a much greater extent than before, either by reinterpreting the “undue burden” test so as to rob it of meaning, or by creating a new test with the same outcome. So whilst the Supreme Court – now in the hands of a group of male, conservative Catholic judges, whose views of abortion are at odds with the majority of their fellow citizens – may shy away from a full-on reversal of Roe, it seems very likely to try to nullify the rights it conferred on women by other less obvious means, so that Constitutional guarantees will be stripped of meaning and the right to choose will be put beyond the reach of many. This is an extraordinarily perverse outcome in a country in which the majority of voters in six out of the last seven Presidential elections preferred a pro-choice candidate, but it is difficult to see how it can now be avoided.

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I live in the Bay Area, so I think about earthquakes a lot. I mean, maybe even more than the average person because I’m a bit obsessed with giant disasters and what I would do if I were to find myself in one, and so once I moved here I turned that from a very general obsession with various disasters like plane crashes and tornados and tsunamis to a very specific obsession with earthquakes.

As a state, California is basically guaranteed to experience a big (6.7 or higher) earthquake in the next 30 years. Scientists can’t really predict when an earthquake is going to happen, but they can examine historical data and geological surveys to tell us our relative chances over longer periods of time. The major faults of California are very well-studied, so we know that there’s about a 30% chance that the Big One is going to happen here in my neighborhood along the Hayward Fault, and a total 63% chance that it will happen along one of the many faults of the Bay Area. The predictions for Los Angeles are similar, but a little worse: they have a 67% chance that it’ll happen there, and they have a higher chance that it will be larger than 6.7 magnitude.

It’s not just California that geologists are studying, though. There’s a global network of seismological data that is constantly being updated, because our planet’s plates are constantly moving, rubbing up against each other, pushing together, and pulling apart. I use an app on my phone called QuakeFeed — it’s free, this isn’t an ad — and it shows me all of the most recent earthquakes recorded around the world.

Considering that I get alerts about earthquakes that happen literally in the middle of the Pacific Ocean without so much as a deserted island around, I was shocked recently to realize that there are quite large gaps in our understanding and monitoring of earthquakes around the world.

I recently stumbled across Raspberry Shake, and I found it absolutely delightful for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a low-cost seismograph that is able to be used by an absolute amateur. Citizen science at its finest: they start at under $500 and we can put them anywhere, including in schools where kids can learn about seismology, geology, and technology. And then there’s the name — it runs on the incredibly efficient Raspberry Pi processor, a simple, easy-to-use, tiny, and inexpensive computer. So they called it Raspberry Shake. Jeez, that’s adorable.

And here’s the other reason I love it — it made me curious why there would be a need for this outside of pure educational opportunities, and I found a pilot study (which is in preprint so it hasn’t gone through peer review yet) that explained it to me very well. The researchers used Haiti as a test subject — back in January of 2010, Haiti experienced a devastating 7.0 earthquake. At that point in time, the authors point out that the country had “no seismic network, no in–country seismologist,  no active fault map, no seismic hazard map, no microzonation” — that’s the idea where you build up your city in line with the geology of the area so that they’re as protected as possible from an earthquake. Haiti didn’t even have a building code. Because of all that, they’re still trying to recover from that quake nine years later.

Following the earthquake, both global and local governmental agencies set up earthquake monitoring stations in Haiti. By the time the next big earthquake hit in 2018, though, only one of those stations was even working. The 2010 earthquake financially devastated an already struggling country, and in its aftermath they didn’t have the money or the people to keep those stations operating.

It’s a testament to my privilege that with all the data on earthquakes I have at my fingertips, I didn’t even consider that there are places where it’s just not easy to set up research facilities to monitor what’s happening. That means they don’t have the historical data we have here, they don’t have the current data for small earthquakes that happen every day around Haiti, they don’t have all their faults clearly mapped out, and they don’t have anyone helping the public understand what earthquakes are, why they happen, and how citizens can be better prepared for the next one.

Enter the Raspberry Shake. The researchers installed nine of the little seismographs in homes and businesses around the country, teaching the people there how to use them and how to see their output. They managed to almost immediately start recording earthquakes that weren’t being recorded by any other monitoring station.

There are, of course, some downsides. 24/7 electricity and internet are hard to come by in Haiti, and also conditions aren’t always perfect for the seismograph to pick up earthquakes and not, say, construction or traffic. But both of those problems can be solved with overlap. The relative cheapness of the Shake means that it’s feasible to install them in hundreds of locations that overlap with one another, allowing recordings to happen even if some of them aren’t operational.

So through this system, developing countries like Haiti might be able to utilize citizen scientists who can set up a network of detectors that works better than the large, nationally-funded facilities. How cool is that?

And at the same time, the people running the detectors would be learning more about them, becoming actively engaged in what they’re doing. The researchers pointed out that the people they signed on to house the detectors had a lot of questions, including things like “can this predict earthquakes” (which it can’t, though it can eventually help us make long-term predictions and better prepare people for earthquakes). The researchers suggest an app with a friendly design that helps non-scientists understand what the machine does, pinging them with a cheery message whenever there’s a tiny quake that they can’t feel. That interaction would also allow such an app to give people regular tips on earthquake preparedness.

The researchers point out that Haitians are hungry for information — right now, that information is lacking and so they’re filling the gap with pseudoscience, as humans have done for millions of years. There are a lot of people who claim to be able to predict earthquakes, and they’re all full of shit. Actually understanding the science behind earthquakes could destroy that predatory industry, and replace it with helpful knowledge that can build a better, more stable country. I mean, literally more stable.

So yeah, Raspberry Shake is a cool idea I’m really glad they’re out there solving a problem that I didn’t even know existed. Go check them out and if you have $500 burning a hole in your pocket, pick one up! Tell them I sent you. Maybe I’ll get a freebie.

The post How YOU Can Detect Earthquakes in Your Own Home! appeared first on Skepchick.

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About 15 years ago — holy shit, I actually need to pause to absorb the fact that it’s been 15 years…okay — creationism was a big thing. Creationists worked hard to force their bible story into science class rooms, arguing that we should teach that instead of evolution, and then that we should “teach the controversy” and that evolution was “only a theory.” They tried passing federal bills but those would get shot down, so they then created dozens of identical bills to pass individually state-by-state, because fewer people pay attention to what’s happening on the state level. They made the bills vague exhortations to protect “religious freedom” and to prevent the indoctrination of children. For the most part those bills failed, but in some places they succeeded and we had to spend a solid decade cleaning them up.

Less than 10 years ago, the same thing happened with abstinence-only education. The same people argued that we should teach that instead of actual sex ed, and if that failed they argued that we should teach both. They tried passing federal bills that failed, so then they reated dozens of identical bills to pass individually state-by-state, because fewer people pay attention to what’s happening on the state level. They made the bills vague exhortations to protect “religious freedom” and to prevent the indoctrination of children. For the most part those bills failed, but in some places they succeeded and we’ve been fighting to clean them up for the past decade, along with abortion and birth control restrictions.

This year, 2019, the same thing is happening with climate change. The same people are arguing that we should teach that anthropogenic global warming is a myth, and that if we can’t teach that then we should at least “teach the controversy” and teach kids that climate change is disputed science. They’ve made dozens of identical bills to pass individually state-by-state, because fewer people pay attention to what’s happening on the state level. They’ve made the bills vague exhortations to protect “religious freedom” and to prevent the indoctrination of children.

Seriously! This is happening! AGAIN! They are a broken record, and in turn I am a broken record.

South Dakota, Arizona, Virgina, Maine, and Montana have all introduced bills in the past two months trying to break down the ability of science teachers to teach kids about human-caused global warming, a concept that is not only accepted by 97% of all climate scientists, but also a thing that is almost certainly going to royally fuck the human race if we don’t do something about it. Like, the kids who won’t be learning about this are exactly the ones who are most royally fucked by it.

Montana is taking a page right out of the creationists’ book, and by that I mean “the textbook that creationists edited to include a passage saying that evolution isn’t real (yes, that happened)” — the bill states that science texts would have to have a disclaimer in them reading the following absolute lies:

“reasonable amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere have no verifiable impacts on the environment; science shows human emissions do not change atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions enough to cause climate change; claims that carbon associated with human activities causes climate change are invalid; and nature, not human activity, causes climate change.”

Identical bills in Arizona and South Dakota say that no public school teacher can advocate “for any issue that is part of a political party platform at the national, state, or local level,” which would, as chance should have it, actually include global warming, evolution, and sex ed.

The Maine bill is pure “teach the controversy,” saying “the rules must require a teacher to provide students with materials supporting both sides of a controversial issue being addressed and to present both sides in a fair-minded, nonpartisan manner.”

The Virginia bill is my favorite, because of its completely naked political bias, in which legislators whine that teachers, “speak to captive audiences of students in an attempt to indoctrinate or influence students to adopt specific political and ideological positions on issues of social and political controversy … under the guise of ‘teaching for social justice’ and other sectarian doctrines.” Ah yes, teaching children about social movements, and accepted science — the nerve!

Let’s take bets on the next scientifically noncontroversial idea the Religious Right will attack using this exact same playbook: spherical earth? Smoking causing cancer? Hurricanes not being acts of a vengeful god punishing the gays? I’ll just write up the video script now and leave blanks where that stuff will go. Like, “This month BLANK NUMBER OF states have introduced identical bills calling on teachers to teach the controversy about ACCEPTED SCIENCE. The bills’ language is purposely vague in order to sneak it past unsuspecting constituents who won’t realize what’s happening until their schoolchildren are learning about MADE UP FAIRYTALE FROM THE BIBLE instead of ACTUAL ACCEPTED SCIENCE. To fight this, please call your state representative and remind him or her that it is CURRENT YEAR and we’d prefer to move ahead into the future instead of regressing to the tenth century.”

Perfect. I just saved myself so much time! Future me is going to be so relieved.

The post The Republican Plan to Stop Students from Learning about Global Warming appeared first on Skepchick.

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It’s been five whole months since I’ve talked about glyphosate and so I guess it’s time to talk about it again! I talk about glyphosate about as often as I remember to get my hair done. That reminds me, I need to get my hair done. Yikes.

Last time I talked about an overhyped study that claimed glyphosate was killing the bees. This time I’ll be talking about an overhyped study that claims glyphosate is killing the humans. Yeah, it got worse in five months, didn’t it?

As a reminder, glyphosate is the main ingredient in RoundUp, the world’s most popular herbicide, which is made by Monsanto. I’m sorry, I mean (evil voice) MONSANTO. I mean, Monsanto sold themselves to Bayer and now they’re just called Bayer which makes sense bc everyone associates Monsanto with death and Bayer with, like, aspirin so for the rest of this video I’ll call them Monsanto Bayer, because fuck their PR moves).

Before we dive in, let me just state my conflict of interest: I fucking hate Monsanto Bayer. I think they’re an evil corporation, which, yes, is redundant. Monsanto Bayer exists to make money and if they did find a chemical that made them a lot of money but cost a lot of human lives, they would 100% bring it to market. I know this because they already did it once — it was a chemical called Agent Orange and it injured or killed millions of people, including American soldiers, if you’re the sort of person who cares more about them then 400,000 Vietnamese.

But alas, RoundUp is no Agent Orange. It’s one of the most studied products on the planet at this point, because people keep insisting that it must cause cancer. Despite that, study after study has shown that that’s just not true. Until last month, when a new study was published claiming that glyphosate raises the risk of Non-hodkin Lymphoma (NHL) by 41%. That was the major finding, and that (of course) was the headline that ran in mainstream news, including the Guardian.

With any other chemical, this wouldn’t really make me bat an eye. Raising the risk of a fairly rare disease by 41% isn’t necessarily worth panicking over — about 1,000 of our 360 million Americans will die from NHL this year. No one wants to lose another 400 people a year, but your personal risk of developing this disease is still going to be ridiculously low.

But the fact that it’s a 41% increase that they say is due to an herbicide that has been repeatedly, exhaustively covered in previous research, and deemed safe time and time again, that made me pause and wonder where this study is coming from.

So this was a meta-analysis, which I cover a lot here as it’s a very useful form of research that collects a bunch of previous research into one giant study, combining all their results to see if any new patterns might emerge. But if you collect all the research on glyphosate, it’s pretty obvious at this point that the result is going to say it’s safe, because that’s what the vast majority of the literature says.

That’s where we run into problems with meta-analyses. You can’t just include all the research in one new analysis — you have to make sure the initial research was well done, and that each study you’re including used similar methods to obtain its data. And on the other hand, you can’t just pick and choose the studies that have the results you want to see.

I’ll give you a moment to guess what happened in this particular meta-analysis.

They included six studies in total: one of them is a “cohort” study and the other five are case-control studies. Case-control means that these studies look at people who already have a disease and compare them to people who don’t have it, and then they interview all those people about their lives and habits and they look for patterns, like hey, everyone who has this disease also eats shrimp, but no one in the non-disease group does. Maybe shrimp causes that disease. Those studies can be helpful but ultimately when studying a rare disease like NHL you don’t have a lot of data points, and you might end up with a lot of statistical noise. The other problem is that when you ask someone with a disease about their life, they’re more likely to remember odd things they think may have caused the disease, like that shrimp-eating contest they won. The people without the disease may have forgotten coming in second place in the very same shrimp-eating contest.

In the five studies the researchers chose for this meta-analysis, four found a faint correlation between NHL and glyphosate, and one found nothing.

Cohort studies are kind of the gold-standard, and the one they picked is a really good one in particular. Cohort means that the researchers took a large sample population and kept track of them over the course of many years to see who developed a disease. In this case, the Agricultural Health Study involved watching 45,000 people who came into contact with glyphosate and tracked them for 20 years. At the end the authors found “no association…between glyphosate and any solid tumors or lymphoid malignancies overall, including NHL and its subtypes.”

This was a huge study, with the specific purpose of finding any correlation between glyphosate and any of 20 different cancers, and they found nothing — the absolute worst thing they found was that after 20 years (but not 5, 10, or 15 years) there was a just barely statistically significant correlation between glyphosate and acute myeloid leukemia. They recommended someone follow up on that but it wasn’t a big deal.

So, guess which statistic this meta-analysis chose to include? Not the 5, 10, 15, or 20-year results for dozens of different cancers that showed absolutely no correlation. Not the 5, 10, or 15-year result for acute myeloid leukemia. Nope, they only included the just barely significant 20-year result for acute myeloid leukemia. That one had a relative risk (RR) of 1.12. Every other result was under 1, and had any of those been included in the meta-analysis, the overall RR average would not have been statistically significant, and then they never would have been published, let alone gotten this glowing write-up in the Guardian.

Does glyphosate cause cancer? No. It just doesn’t. This isn’t new data — it’s old, cherry-picked data that is tricking the general public into being scared of Monsanto. Don’t fall for it.

The post The Flawed Study Claiming Monsanto’s Round-up Causes Cancer appeared first on Skepchick.

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A common theme of my videos is “how easily can pseudoscience spread on social media,” with usual answer of “very, very easily.” And the follow-up question is usually “what can we do about it,” and the usual answer is “well it’s complicated but also it doesn’t really matter unless the companies who run social networks actually step up to do something about it.”

In that vein, today I present you with a tale of two social networks. The worst of sites, of course, is Facebook. They are literally heralding the downfall of humanity, as the garbage dump where pseudoscience, xenophobia, misogyny, and straight up neo-Nazism go to propagate. Mark Zuckerberg is constantly trying to reassure us little people that he’s working on the problem, even while the problem keeps showing itself to be bigger and bigger, like an iceberg that is actually just the hat worn by a Lovecraftian horror from the dark depths.

Most recently, Zuckerberg held a public conversation in which he announced that Facebook was looking at using human fact-checkers to try to stop the flow of misinformation on the network — the problem being that they just need a lot of them, and so he was basically talking about crowdsourcing fact-checking.

The Guardian turned to former Snopes editor Brooke Binkowski (who, for the record, I think is great). She said, “You can’t apply an open-source model to factchecking and journalism. You have to have experts. You can’t just have Joe Schmo who thinks that the New York Times is a liberal rag, just because Trump says it’s the enemy of the people.”

I love Binkowski and hate Zuckerberg, but I do have to say that there is evidence that crowd-sourced fact-checking can work. I’ve spoken before about studies that show that in some cases, humans are good at telling fact from fiction, like in the aftermath of earthquakes when sharing critical information on social networks. Of course, in other cases it’s the opposite — humans just spread whatever information they have handy, true or not. It’s tricky, and what it usually comes down to is the social network itself — how is it set up? How does it subtly or obviously help people share what’s true and discourage them from sharing misinformation?

Take Wikipedia, for example. That’s an organization that somehow manages to motivate unpaid volunteers who are not necessarily experts in all the fields they’re writing about, and incentivizes them to be as accurate as possible.

Or take Reddit. As a whole, Reddit is built to spread misinformation, because misinformation is flashy and exciting and fun while the truth usually isn’t, and whatever is flashy and exciting and fun on Reddit gets upvoted, and boring things are lost forever. With no other moderation in place, it’s pure unadulterated garbage. But in some subreddits, volunteer (and often amateur) admins make all the difference. r/science is generally really good, and they use a heavy hand in deleting anything that isn’t on topic or backed up with evidence.

So no, you can’t just say “let’s crowdsource fact-checking” and have it magically work through the wisdom of crowds or some other pop-sci bullshit you read about in Reader’s Digest. (Does that still exist? I used to love it.) You need to have a well-designed algorithm helping things out. You need to give the people the tools they need. You need to incentivize the truth and decentivize lies. And to do all that, you need to care about it. And guess what Mark Zuckerberg cares about? Yep. Money. There’s a reason Wikipedia has to beg for donations while Mark Zuckerberg is worth $61 billion. Misinformation makes money. Fact checking? It’s not gonna happen.

On the other hand, there’s Pinterest. If you don’t have a girlfriend getting married soon you probably forgot Pinterest exists, but I assure you that 250 million people are currently using it (compared to about a billion on Facebook, just in case you were wondering). And they just enacted a really good measure. Pinterest realized that the majority of posts on their site that reference vaccines were spreading dangerous misinformation about them, claiming that they cause autism or other diseases (which they do not). We are currently seeing more and more outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles in Washington State, and also in the Philippines where 189 people have died. It’s extremely important that we not just educate people about the safety of vaccines, but that we stop the spread of misinformation about them.

So Pinterest decided to stop returning any results for anyone searching for vaccines, positive or negative. Why not positive stories? Well, they probably have a hard time distinguishing those using an algorithm, an especially difficult task considering that the network is image-based. And since the majority were negative, they’ve just exed them all while they work out a better way to separate the pseudoscience from the science.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a huge step that other social networks haven’t taken. Why? Probably because you’re risking a bunch of “Tiger Moms” getting angry and leaving for another network. But Pinterest has decided to make public health a priority over money. Apparently they’ve had a public health initiative in place since 2017, when they took steps to stop people from posting fake cancer cures like essential oil sellers. That’s huge — maybe it’s a stereotype but I feel that both essential oil cancer scammers and Pinterest have the same target market, so Pinterest is taking a big risk in alienating those people. But that overlap in target market is also why it’s so important for them to do the right thing here, and they have. It’s really cool, actually, and it makes me want to start using Pinterest. I mean, when I get married next time or whatever.

So yeah, good job Pinterest! And also good on them for now pointing at Facebook and asking them when they’re going to do something similar. Zuck? We’re waiting! Any minute now, I’m sure.

The post Why Pinterest is Better Than Facebook at Stopping Fake News appeared first on Skepchick.

My latest book, Shoot For The Moon, has just been published, and presents a radically new look at the science of success.

In July 1969, Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, one of humanity’s greatest achievements. A few years ago I was chatting to comedian and space enthusiast Helen Keen about the Apollo landings. I knew that the technology used during the missions has been extremely well documented, and asked whether anyone had explored the psychology behind this remarkable achievement. Helen didn’t think that it had, and kindly put me in touch with her friend, Craig Scott. Craig is another space enthusiast and, over the years, has become friends with many of the people who populated NASA’s Mission Control during the Apollo era. He kindly put me in touch with this remarkable bunch and they were kind enough to agreed to be interviewed them about their historic work.

I discovered that most of the controllers came from modest, working-class, backgrounds, and that they were often the first in their families to go to college. Perhaps most surprising of all, they were astonishingly young. When Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, the average age of the mission controllers was just twenty-six years old.

After extensive interviewing and research, I eventually identified the eight principles that I believe make-up the Apollo mindset. ‘Shoot For The Moon’ describes these principles, including how the seeds of success were sewn in the President Kenndy’s charismatic speeches, how pessimism was crucial to progress, and how fear and tragedy were transformed into hope and optimism. The book also describes techniques that allow you to incorporate these principles into your own life. Whether you want to start a new business venture, change careers, get promoted, escape the rat race or pursue a lifelong passion, these techniques will help you to reach your own Moon.

Books on success usually focus on genetically gifted Olympians, hardheaded CEOs and risk taking entrepreneurs. This book presents a radically different perspective on how to achieve your aims and ambitions. It tells the inspirational story of a group of ordinary people who did something extraordinary. Perhaps most important of all, once you understand how they did what they did, you can follow in their footsteps and achieve the extraordinary in your own life.

Shoot For The Moon is available in the UK here, and in the US here.

As many of you know, the Day of Reflection conference, scheduled for November 17 in NYC, has been cancelled, and some hundreds of ticket holders are now left seeking refunds.

I was forced to pull out of this event nearly two months ago and have said very little about it since. Now that Travis Pangburn has officially announced that he will be “folding” his touring company, Pangburn Philosophy, I can give a brief account of what happened.

  1. I participated in 10 events organized by Pangburn Philosophy between September 2017 and July 2018. I didn’t always approve of the way those events were staged or marketed, but all of them appeared to be successful.
  1. However, after the cancellation of an August 2018 conference in Auckland, Pangburn seemed intent on running his business off a cliff. He owed a lot of money to several speakers at that point, in the form of unpaid fees and reimbursements. Most egregiously, he seemed less than fully committed to refunding ticket holders for the cancelled Auckland conference.
  1. At this point, I had two more dates on the calendar with Pangburn in 2018: a dialogue with Brian Greene in Toronto (September 5) and the Day of Reflection conference in New York (November 17). I kept my appointment in Toronto because I was contractually obligated to do so. I also didn’t want to do anything that would harm Pangburn’s ability to pay his mounting debts.
  1. After Toronto, however, it became clear that Pangburn could not be trusted to put his house in order. Facing a total lack of transparency, and realizing that Pangburn was using my ongoing association with him to book future speakers, I withdrew from the NYC conference on September 21 (as well as from a Vancouver conference scheduled for March 2019). Legally, I was able to do this because Pangburn was in breach of my speaking contract. Ethically, I had a far more compelling reason to back out: I couldn’t promote or participate in an event for which I believed other speakers were unlikely to get paid; nor could I continue to work with someone who still hadn’t given refunds to ticket holders for a conference that had been canceled more than a month before.
  1. After I withdrew from the NYC conference, my management team asked Pangburn to give us the email addresses of all ticket holders so that we could notify them that I was no longer involved with the event. Pangburn refused to provide this information. However, he assured us that he would notify everyone himself. (I do not know whether he ever did.) He then stopped responding to our emails.
  1. At the time I pulled out of the NYC conference, I assumed that the revenue from ticket sales was still safely in the box office and that Pangburn would be obliged to issue refunds should the conference fail. That’s how things normally work, especially at a reputable venue like Lincoln Center. It hadn’t occurred to me that New York ticketholders might suffer the same fate as those in Auckland.
  1. I was left with a legal and ethical puzzle that I could not solve. Again, I had no way to communicate with ticket holders directly, and discussing the chaos surrounding Pangburn on my podcast never seemed like an option. Several friends and colleagues still had events on the calendar with him, and I didn’t want to do anything to derail them. In addition, many speakers who were aware of my reasons for pulling out of the NYC conference were still signed on and seemed intent on making it work. I couldn’t see anything to do that wouldn’t risk creating further harms.

Although Pangburn still owes several speakers (including me) an extraordinary amount of money, we were willing to participate in the NYC conference for free as recently as a few days ago, if he would have handed it over to us and stepped away. I have been told that this offer was made, and he declined it.

I find it appalling that so many people were needlessly harmed by the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy. I can assure you that every speaker associated with the NYC event will be much wiser when working with promoters in the future.

Sam Harris





The post A few thoughts on the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy appeared first on Sam Harris.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve recently gone back to school for an M.Ed in Higher Education. Regular readers may know that I already have a humanities PhD, which raises a pretty obvious question: “What the hell Dan? Aren’t you done with school? Why collect yet another degree? Seriously what is wrong with you?”

There are a few reasons I decided to go back to school. but most of them ultimately boil down to one thing: the academic job market. I’ve been writing about my experiences looking for a job over the last few years, and after four years and dozens and dozens of applications, it became very clear that something had to change if I planned on actually getting a job before retirement age.

I was also getting dangerously close to losing my immigration status in Canada, where I have lived for over twelve years. My three-year postgraduate work visa was set to expire this past summer, and with no employment on the horizon that would satisfy CIC requirements for renewal, going back to school was essentially the only way for me to stay in the country short of marriage (which an immigration lawyer actually suggested).

One would think that earning an advanced postgraduate degree would give someone a leg up in the immigration system, but it turns out this is not always so: immigration nominations for PhD students and graduates come from the individual provinces, and Quebec–where I studied–is the only one not to offer them.* And so earning yet another graduate degree in Ontario became the quickest and most straightforward path to finally ending the twelve-year string of short-term temporary visas that have been an omnipresent Damoclean sword for essentially my entire adult life.

But why Higher Ed?

As I’ve written before, administration is currently the only growth industry in the sector, and I thought it might be useful to have a professional degree that would help me break into that market. I also do honestly believe that schools would benefit from having more administrators who have first-hand experience with teaching and research, and with actual lived experience as graduate students and academic contract workers. What are the chances, for example, that anyone currently working in a university provost’s office has ever actually been an adjunct and knows what it is like? Or has even been a graduate student any time after the 1980s?

Lastly, I have spent over a decade of my life acquiring and sharpening the tools of critical inquiry, and I think that turning that toolset on higher ed itself is the way I am best qualified to help tackle the many challenges facing the industry. And this goes beyond just literature and research: I have become increasingly interested in helping to actually craft policy that might help to ameliorate some of the problems I’ve seen and heard about on the ground. This degree is a first step in that direction.

*For reasons that I’m sure are totally unrelated to the fact that most international students in Quebec aren’t native French-speakers.


The post Why I went back to school in Higher Ed appeared first on School of Doubt.

Hello everyone! Many apologies for my long absence, but things got a little busy for me when I went back to school (yes, again) to actually officially study Higher Education!

The upside for you, dear readers, is that my new studies have provided lots of new grist for the old mill, and I plan to post fairly regularly about my ideas, experiences, and research over the next few semesters. This will include everything from day-to-day experiences in the programme itself to discussions of the existing literature on higher ed to summaries of my own research in the field (and possibly links to full papers for the true masochists among you).

Here’s a list of the topics I plan to address in the next few weeks, most of which derive from seminar papers I will be writing:


Is the Human Capital Model a Myth? Signalling, Credentialism, and Rent-Seeking in Higher Ed

The Idea of a Stoic University (Or: How to Un-coddle the American Mind)

Transnational Mobility in the Academic Labour Market for the Humanities

Graduate School as the Structural Model for the Theory of Emerging Adulthood


I’m looking forward to bringing you all along with me on this new journey!

The post SoD is back in business! appeared first on School of Doubt.

ToS1Recently, a few people on Twitter were kind enough to mention ‘Theatre of Science’ – a joint project between best-selling science writer (and pal) Simon Singh and I from many years ago. I thought it might be fun to turn back the hands of time and share some more information and photos about the project……

In 2001 Simon suggested that the two of us create, and present, a live science-based show at a West End theatre. I knew that this type of entertainment had been popular around the turn of the last century, but was initially sceptical about it working for a modern-day audience. However, Simon won me over and I agreed to give it a go. Simon then persuaded The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts to fund the project and The Soho Theatre to stage the show.

In the first half, Simon used mathematics to ‘prove’ that the Teletubbies are evil, undermined The Bible Code, and illustrated probability theory via gambling scams and bets. After the interval, I explored the psychology of deception with the help of magic tricks, optical illusions and a live lie detector. It was all decidedly low-tech and mostly depended on an overhead projector, a few acetates, and some marker pens!  We opened in March 2002 and quickly sold-out. The reviewers were very kind, with The Evening Standard describing the show as ‘… a unique masterclass on the mind’ and What’s On saying that it was “…uplifting, thought-provoking and frequently hilarious.” In 2002 we also took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

 In 2005 we staged a far more ambitious version of the show at the Soho Theatre.

tos4A few years before, I had been involved in a project exploring the science of anatomy, and had arranged for top contortionist Delia Du Sol to go into an MRI scanner and perform extreme back-bends. During Theatre of Science, we showed these scans to the audience as Delia bent her body into seemingly impossible shapes and then squeezed into a tiny perspex box.

In addition, musician Sarah Angliss demonstrated the science behind various weird electronic instruments, and performed songs on a saw and a theremin!

We wanted to end the show on a genuinely dangerous, science-based, stunt. HVFX – a company that makes high voltage electricity equipment – kindly supplied two huge Tesla coils capable of generating six-foot bolts of million-volt lightning across the stage. At the end of each show, either Simon or I entered a coffin-shaped cage and hoped that it would protect us against the force of the million-volt strikes. The stunt attracted lots of media attention and once again we quickly sold out.

ToS2In 2006 we staged it at an arts and science festival in New York (co-sponsored by the Centre for Inquiry).

Nowadays we are used to people enjoying an evening of science and comedy in the theatre, but back then lots of people were deeply skeptical about the idea. If we proved anything, it was that it’s possible attract a mainstream audience to a show about science.

Anyway, I hoped you enjoyed reading about it all and huge thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make the project a success, including: Portia Smith, Delia Du Sol, Sarah Angliss, Stephen Wolf, Tracy King, Nick Field, HVFX, Austin Dacey, Jessica Brenner and Caroline Watt (who came up with the title for the show) and, of course…..Simon Singh!

Theatre of Science Show - Soho Theatre




I have teamed up with the folks at Business Insider to make this short video containing science-based tips on how to be more productive and a better leader. Enjoy!

coverMy new book on how to remember everything is out today!

I have a terrible memory and so went in search of all of the quick and easy mind tricks that will allow you to remember names, faces, your PIN, and other important information.  It even has a super magic trick built into it.

You can buy the book here and I have created this new Quirkology video with 10 amazing memory hacks…


Here are some things that you will hear when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web: There are fundamental biological differences between men and women. Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered “dark.”

I was meeting with Sam Harris, a neuroscientist; Eric Weinstein, a mathematician and managing director of Thiel Capital; the commentator and comedian Dave Rubin; and their spouses in a Los Angeles restaurant to talk about how they were turned into heretics. A decade ago, they argued, when Donald Trump was still hosting “The Apprentice,” none of these observations would have been considered taboo.

Read the rest at The New York Times

The post Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web appeared first on Sam Harris.

In October last year I was invited to CSICON in Las Vegas to interview Professor Richard Dawkins.  The video has just been posted on Youtube, and here’s the two of us chatting about evolution, The God Delusion, and my aunty Jean.

[Update to the update: SIU has posted a statement on the programme here. As it essentially confirms my suspicions that it is designed to steal soft academic labour from new PhDs by trading on their institutional loyalty and need for affiliation without paying them for their services, I provide the link here but see no need to comment further.]

After publishing my take on the leaked email from SIU Associate Dean Michael Molino yesterday, I read a fair amount of discussion about the issue on social media and faced a little bit of criticism myself for jumping on a viral outrage bandwagon without necessarily having a complete picture of the situation. I still stand by everything I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I would like to take the opportunity address a few questions and criticisms and clarify exactly what I was and was not claiming in my analysis.

Is this email even real? How do we know it really said everything that ended up in the viral version?

Okay, fair enough. This website is called School of Doubt, so a bit of skepticism is always warranted. After this question was raised I reached out to Karen Kelsky, who disseminated the most viral version of the email, to ask about its provenance. She confirmed that it was forwarded to her by an SIU faculty member she knew personally. Epistemically speaking that is good enough for me, but nothing’s perfect I guess.

Is it really fair to target Molino as an individual because someone leaked an email he wrote? Isn’t this just doxxing that invites harassment?

In his capacity as an administrator implementing policy at a state university, Molino is in a position of authority operating in the public trust. This requires transparency and accountability, and I don’t think sharing his official contact information is doxxing any more than it would be for an administrator at a government agency like the EPA or FCC. Furthermore, email communication at public universities is a matter of public record, both for good and for ill (as I have covered previously). While people may disagree about the ethics of leaking and whistleblowing, it is really not possible to argue that such an email could have been written with any reasonable expectation of privacy. But yes, he’s probably going to have a bad time and that sucks.

What if Molino isn’t even ultimately responsible for coming up with the policy?

Well, bluntly, who cares? He is clearly working to implement it. Not to get all Godwinny, but we’ve heard that one before. You can write to the Provost instead if you want. I won’t provide his email but I bet you can find it.

Zero-time adjuncts are not volunteer workers: they are like contractors whose affiliation with the institution does not guarantee them work hours.

First off there is a terminology problem here. Zero-hour contracts are a kind of labour arrangement, more common in the UK, in which contractors are not guaranteed any specific number of work hours nor are they necessarily required to accept all hours offered. Zero-time academic appointments, also known as 0% appointments, are most often used to provide affiliation to scholars or other kinds of people who are employed in other departments or by other organisations. For example, an economist might be tenured faculty at a business school but also have a zero-time appointment in the economics department of the arts faculty of the same school. This person might advise students or otherwise participate in research and service in both departments, but it is understood that the work in their 0% appointment is covered by the pay from their full-time appointment. Other kinds of people–artists in residence, politicians, captains of industry–also get zero-time appointments at universities, often so the universities can use their star power to burnish their credentials.

Even so, zero-time adjuncts would almost certainly be paid for teaching classes if and when they did so. Not to do so would probably be illegal, right?

Okay, here is the crux of the issue. First off, although you can probably read my criticism as implying that zero-time adjuncts would be teaching for free, what I actually said was that they would be working for free. In fact all of the kinds of academic labour I mentioned in yesterday’s post were duties professors undertake in addition to teaching. Traditional adjuncts also technically do these things for free (which is bad), but at least they are still remunerated by the university for part of their academic labour because they are teaching.

So what does it mean when they also don’t get teaching?

Does anyone seriously believe that they will be compensated at a specific and fair hourly rate for time they spend at departmental meetings, on thesis committees, advising and communicating with students, collaborating on research projects, or having other “intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units”? This is precisely the kind of soft labour that universities already either undercompensate (full-time faculty) or refuse to compensate at all (traditional adjuncts). Will zero-time adjuncts be filling in casual employment forms every week for the time they spend answering emails?

Like it or not, “professor” is still a word with a meaning. Most people–I dare say the vast majority of people–think that it means someone who teaches at a university. Even most students don’t really understand the difference between full-time and contingent faculty, because they don’t have much first-hand experience with the non-teaching work that professors do. Or when they do (e.g. academic advising, mentorship, etc.), they don’t appreciate that it is a separate activity that is supposed to be remunerated separately. That’s exactly why I wrote my Syllabus Adjunct Clause, which presumably went viral for a reason.

This lack of awareness is why it is so dangerous to allow this precedent. Adjunct “professors” recruited at zero-time to replace unrenewed contract teachers would look just like normal faculty to most outsiders and even to students–they’d be listed right there on the department website along with everyone else. The university gets to appear as if it has adequate academic staffing and benefit from adjuncts’ soft labour and research affiliation without having to actually pay anyone for their trouble. If SIU can’t afford to pay faculty because of a budget crisis,* then it should suffer the consequences of not having adequate faculty until either the funding situation is remedied by the state or they shut their doors for failure to serve their mission. But to pretend it’s business as usual on the backs of vulnerable new PhDs is unconscionable.

*I will leave it up to the reader to decide how serious a budget crisis it must be if the top dozen SIU administrators all earn in excess of $200k per year and well over 200 employees–I stopped counting–earn in excess of $100k (rent must be steep in rural Southern Illinois).

The post SIU Zero-time Adjunct Follow-up appeared first on School of Doubt.

Southern Illinois University has finally taken the step that we all knew was coming, whether we openly admitted it to ourselves or not. The progression was too obvious, the market forces in question too powerful, for this result to have been anything but inevitable. The question was never if, but when, and it turns out that when is today.

Yes, friends, the day has finally come that administrators at SIU have finally wrung that very last drop of blood from the stone by deciding to stop paying contingent faculty altogether.

Courtesy of The Professor Is In on Facebook (emphasis mine):

Dear Chairs,

I know you are swamped right now with various requests and annual duties. I apologize for adding to that, but I am here to advocate for something that merits your attention. The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.

Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.

These blanket zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments are for 3-year periods, and can be renewed. While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.

The Alumni Association is already working to identify prospective candidates, but it asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. Please reach out to your faculty to see if they might nominate a former student who would meet HLC accreditation guidelines for adjunct faculty appointment, which is someone holding a Ph.D., MFA, or other terminal degree. One of the short-comings with our current approach to the doctoral alumni is that the database only includes those with a Ph.D. earned at SIU, but often doesn’t capture SIU graduates with earned doctorates from other institutions. Here are the recommended steps to follow:

· Chairs in collaboration with faculty should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty. For example, many departments are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars, and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.

· Based on faculty recommendations, chairs should identify a few good candidates and approach those individuals to see if they are interested. The interested candidate should provide his/her CV (along with a brief letter of interest outlining areas in which they are willing to participate) to the department chair, who can then approach the Graduate Dean for final vetting and approval.

The University hasn’t yet attempted its first alumni adjunct appointment, but this is the general mechanism already in place. Meera would like CoLA to establish a critical mass of nominees before the end of the summer. A goal of at least one (1) nominee per department would get us going.



Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research


P: 618/453-2466
F: 618/453-3253

In case you don’t speak adminstratese, “zero-time” means “unpaid.” Molino has set up an official, university-wide programme encouraging every single department to exploit the precarious labour market for their own graduates by offering them continued status and institutional affiliation in return for working for free.

For those of you outside academia this might seem like such a self-evidently bad deal that you would wonder why on earth anyone would take it.

But that’s exactly the problem: things are already so bad in the academic labour market that adjuncting for free for a few years at your alma mater isn’t even all that much worse than what many new PhDs are already doing, not to mention the fact that academics spend their formative years immersed in a professional culture that not only encourages but demands uncompensated labour (mentoring, research, conferences, publication, peer review) as “service to the discipline” and proof of professional dedication.

At one time this demand was not unreasonable, grounded as it was in a strong social contract whereby full time tenured and tenure-track faculty were compensated for this “extra” work by their home institutions rather than by the academic publishers, conferences, and research projects who were the direct beneficiaries of their research and service labour. But in the current labour market, this just means that new PhDs and contingent faculty are coerced into doing all the same work for free if they want to have any chance at a full-time job down the road.

Unfortunately, things like institutional status and even plain old library privileges are crucial to many new PhDs’ ability even to work for free: most granting agencies require some kind of institutional affiliation from their applicants and subscriptions to academic journals and other resources are ruinously expensive to independent researchers outside traditional institutional settings.

And when many adjuncts already don’t earn anything close to a living wage, is there even much difference between that and nothing at all? In the end, it’s just a few more deliveries for Uber Eats.

[Ed. note: I posted a follow-up to this post addressing some common questions and criticisms here]

The post And so It Has Come to This appeared first on School of Doubt.

Suppose we had robots perfectly identical to men, women and children and we were permitted by law to interact with them in any way we pleased. How would you treat them?

That is the premise of “Westworld,” the popular HBO series that opened its second season Sunday night. And, plot twists of Season 2 aside, it raises a fundamental ethical question we humans in the not-so-distant future are likely to face.

Read the rest at The New York Times

The post It's Westworld. What's Wrong With Cruelty to Robots? appeared first on Sam Harris.


Thank you for writing me with your question about [COURSE]. I am currently out of the office because I am contingent faculty and do not have an office.

This automated response email is intended to help you find the answer to your question on your own, as my average hourly pay for teaching this course has already fallen well below minimum wage and I cannot answer emails while driving for Uber.

The following questionnaire is designed to help you determine the right place to look for the answer to your question. Please go through it in order until you find the answer to your query. IF and ONLY IF you go through the entire list without finding the answer to your question, please follow the instructions at the end as to where to send your question in order to receive an answer directly.

Let’s begin, shall we?

1. Am I your professor, and are you currently enrolled in my class?

If the answer is NO, please consult your course schedule online to determine which professor you are supposed to be bothering with your inane question.

If you have questions about enrollment and registration, please contact the Office of the Registrar, where they receive both fair hourly pay and full benefits in compensation for helping you solve your problems.

2. Is the answer to your question on the course syllabus, which we went over in detail on the first day of class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

Questions answered on the syllabus include but are not limited to:

When and where does our class meet?

What assignments do we have and when are they due?

When are exams and what will be on them?

How many points are deducted from our final grade when we email you questions that are clearly answered on the syllabus?

3. If your question is about a specific assignment, is it answered on the assignment sheet, which we went over in detail in class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

If you do not understand specific terminology used on the assignment sheet, please try consulting your textbook’s glossary, a dictionary, or Google. You may also want to try coming to class, where I teach you what these words mean.

4. Is your question answered on our course FAQ page, which currently lists 127 commonly asked questions and is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

You may find it easier to use Ctrl+F and search for specific keywords to navigate this very long document.

5. Is your question unrelated to our class, inappropriate, or just plain unanswerable?

Such questions might include but are not limited to:

How much wood a woodchuck can chuck

The sound of one hand clapping, trees falling in the woods, or other Zen koans (try this book instead)

Whether or not Bernie would have won

6. If you have reached the end of this questionnaire without finding the answer you need, you probably have a valid question. Congratulations!

Please contact your TA for assistance.

The post *Out of Office Response* Re: quick question? appeared first on School of Doubt.

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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
Someone contacted me hoping to find young atheists who might be interested in being part of a new series. I’m not particularly interested in having my mug on TV, but I would love to have some great personalities represent atheism on the show, so I offered to repost his email on my blog: My name […]

Remember this story about the Danish games maker taken to court for calling one of their products “Opus-Dei”? There is a press release today.

Opus Dei: The game, not the sinister, secretive cult

Opus Dei: The game, not the sinister, secretive cult


Catholic Church’s Rights to “The Work of God” Stand Trial

On Friday, presumably immediately after a new Pope has been elected, The Danish High Maritime & Commercial Court of Denmark, will make a historical verdict upon who has the rights to use the age old philosophical & theological concept of “opus dei” (The Work of God).

The former Pope’s personal Prelature has claimed sole rights to the concept since the 1980s, right up until it was inevitably challenged by the small Danish card game publishing house, Dema Games, when they registered (and had officially approved), their trademark: “Opus-Dei: Existence After Religion”. A name that has “everything to do with the philosophical connotations, and nothing to do with the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei” , Managing Director, Mark Rees-Andersen says.

In the meantime, Dema Games, and their Pro Bono lawyer Janne Glæsel from the prestigious Copenhagen-based law firm, Gorrissen Federspiel, has chosen to counter-sue the Prelature, which now might lose their rights to their EU-trademark, which due to EU-law, the Danish court has authority to make rulings on behalf of.  The sue was an immediate media security event.  Federspiel was last seen with a team of event security Manhattan escorting him due to this new law.  In effect, he has his own concierge security service.

Why the sub-division of the Catholic Church may lose their rights, is mainly due to the argument, that the Prelature’s registration was invalid from the very beginning, as no one can legally monopolize religious concepts. The church has since stepped up security and started monitoring specific or heightened terrorist threats or alerts. Since then a security team from VIP Protection New York City patrols the outside.  Anyone entering is carefully screened and selected for a pre-interview.

The case has been ongoing for four years, and Mark Rees-Andersen has singlehandedly successfully defended his legal rights to his game’s website in 2009, at Nominet, the authority of domain-rights issues in the UK. Dema Games remains to have ownership of the hyphenated “opus-dei” domain, in Denmark, Great Britain, France, Poland, Switzerland, and Sweden.


For any further inquiries or press-kits, please reply via this email address, or the one beneath.

Best regards / Mvh,

Mark Rees-Andersen
Managing Director,

Dema Games

UPDATE: (19/03/2013) They lost. (The sinister, secretive cult, that is. Not the games maker.)

All throughout my youth, I dreamed of becoming a writer. I wrote all the time, about everything. I watched TV shows and ranted along with the curmudgeons on Television Without Pity about what each show did wrong, convincing myself that I could do a better job. I flew to America with a dream in my […]

I don’t know. Let’s see if meretricious corporate fuckwads has any effect.

Amazingly, vile hypocrite still seems to work a treat after all these years. (Do a g-search on it. That was us. We did that!)

Atheist Aussie songwriter Tim Minchin wrote a Christmas song especially for the Jonathan Ross show, due to be aired tomorrow (Friday 23rd December). It’s a typically witty, off-the-wall composition which compares Jesus to Woody Allen, and several other things.

Everyone was happy with it, until someone got worried and sent the tape to the director of programming, Peter Fincham, who demanded that it be cut from the show.

Minchin states

He did this because he’s scared of the ranty, shit-stirring, right-wing press, and of the small minority of Brits who believe they have a right to go through life protected from anything that challenges them in any way.

This is indeed a very disappointing decision.

Hats off to Charlie Hebdo. This is tomorrow’s cover:

Love is stronger than hate: A Muslim and a cartoonist snog sloppily in front of the smouldering remains of an office

Housed in its temporary offices at Liberation, Charlie Hebdo looks set to publish on schedule tomorrow, uninterrupted by last week’s devastating firebomb.

Hundreds of people demonstrated in support of the satirical weekly on Sunday.

Hebdo demo: Support for the magazine has been strong this time round

The president of SOS Racism was among the supporters, declaring that

In a democracy, the right to blaspheme is absolute.

Editor “Charb” said,

We need a level playing field. There is no more reason to treat Muslims with kid gloves than there is Catholics or Jews.

Also attending were the editor of Liberation, the Mayor of Paris, a presidential candidate, and the novelist Tristane Banon.

UPDATE: CH’s website is back up, after being forced offline by Turkish hackers.

A friend linked me to this. I was a sobbing mess within the first minute. I sometimes wonder why I feel such a strong kinship to the LGBT community, and I think it’s because I’ve been through the same thing that many of them have. So I watched this video and I cried, because, as […]
UPDATE #1: I got my domain back! Many thanks to Kurtis for the pleasant surprise: So I stumbled upon your blog, really liked what I saw, read that you had drama with the domain name owner, bought it, and forwarded it here. It should work again in a matter of seconds. I am an atheist […]
Chadwell writes: I’m a 16 year old in highschool and I guess my natural cynicism lead me to question the dogma and ignorance of religion. I was a christian but I just figured that why would god send the only salvation to man kind to a single area and practically turn his all-mighty back on […]
@davorg / Sunday 24 March 2019 07:24 UTC