Ursula Le Guin? Dead?

OK, 2018 already sucks big time.


Picking on the weak and hopeless

My latest video is just brutally abusing Intelligent Design creationism.


That’s some payoff

Why is Paul Ryan smiling? Because he got paid.

House Speaker Paul Ryan collected nearly $500,000 in campaign contributions from Charles Koch and his wife after helping usher through a massive tax reform law. According to a recent campaign finance report filed Thursday, Koch and his wife Elizabeth each donated $247,7000 to Ryan’s joint fundraising committee… The Republican tax overhaul plan passed in December benefited Koch Industries, as it cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, among other cuts. The legislation then got a boost from the Kochs’ multimillion-dollar public relations campaign to highlight its benefits. And 13 days after it passed, Charles and Elizabeth Koch made the near $500,000 donation to Team Ryan, which raises money for the congressman, the National Republican Congressional Committee and a political action committee run by Ryan. On the same day, Charles and Elizabeth Koch also each donated $237,000 to the NRCC.

There’s a word for this: corruption. Ryan is a bought and paid for stooge for billionaires, and he has received his quid pro quo. It’s gotten so bad they don’t even try to hide it any more.


Hiding behind Pepe isn’t very effective

There was a guy wandering around the edges of the Iowa City women’s march, putting up white supremacist stickers, and looking like this:

Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

He was pursued, non-violently, and people were taking photos of him to document his activities. He hid in a building and started making phone calls. None of this was illegal, nor were any of the marchers doing anything illegal — he was just being obnoxious, and his sweat shirt was provocative, obviously intentionally so.

What struck me, though, was this bit of the story.

“I was standing outside MERGE looking through the photos I’d taken, when a young woman in a blue hoodie came up to me,” Sarsfield said. “She asked if I’d taken photos of her boyfriend. I asked her if her boyfriend was the one putting up the white supremacist stickers.”

“She said, ‘Yes,’ and that he’d called her saying he was in MERGE. She said she wanted me to delete the photos, because this whole thing was traumatic for them,” Sarsfield recalled. “She said he’s not a racist, he just likes to do these things to get a rise out of people.”

Really? REALLY? I know the 4chan crowd likes to maintain a pretense of ironic mockery, but there are limits. Dress like a racist, act like a racist, spread racist slogans, you are a racist. I don’t care if you’re hiding behind your cloak of anonymity, you are still a bad person.

It’s kind of peak 4chan, though, when a trolling white guy claims he’s traumatized because people take photos that might identify him. He’s boo-hoo-hooing because his words and actions might just catch up with him. And that’s not all he has to worry about — he has been identified, and he was previously found guilty of possessing child porn. He’s deplorable. It just gets me how badly these people try to deny their actions.

new humanist blog

Swiped away

In the era of commercial dating apps, is the easy availability of sex dehumanising the experience?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

There is a culture of corruption in too many police departments. Case in point: New York police (and who knows who else) hands out ‘get out of jail free’ cards to their officers. Pulled over for a speeding ticket? Wave one of these and the policeman is likely to just wave you on.

The city’s police-officers union is cracking down on the number of “get out of jail free” courtesy cards distributed to cops to give to family and friends.

Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association boss Pat Lynch slashed the maximum number of cards that could be issued to current cops from 30 to 20, and to retirees from 20 to 10, sources told The Post.

The cards are often used to wiggle out of minor trouble such as speeding tickets, the theory being that presenting one suggests you know someone in the NYPD.

The rank and file is livid.

“They are treating active members like s–t, and retired members even worse than s–t,” griped an NYPD cop who retired on disability. “All the cops I spoke to were . . . very disappointed they couldn’t hand them out as Christmas gifts.”

“Cracking down” means reducing the number by a third, not getting rid of this unethical practice altogether. And clearly the cops are treating these as a privilege to be taken for granted — they deserve these special exemptions. I guess there’s one law for the friends and family of the police, and a different, harsher law for the rest of us.


A Few Reasons Why Oprah Should Not Be President #Noprah2020

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Direct link to video.


Look, I get that it’s 2018 and everything is completely fucked because Prince and David Bowie are dead and Donald Trump is president and North Korea is going to drop a nuclear bomb on us because of Twitter’s poor harassment policies but no, I cannot stand idly by while otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people start cheering for Oprah God Damned Winfrey to run for President of the United States in 2020. No. Just…no.

This week, Oprah won the Cecil B. DeMille award at the Golden Globes, which goes to a recipient each year who makes “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.” She’s definitely done that — in addition to creating, producing, and starring in one of the most popular television shows ever, The Oprah Winfrey Show, she has produced movies like Beloved, Precious, Selma, and the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Oprah is absolutely an inspiring figure, because she’s done all that and become literally the richest African American ever after growing up poor with a single mother. It’s incredible! She’s a multi-billionaire media mogul, and she did it all because she was smart and hard-working and tenacious.

So she gave an inspiring speech at the Golden Globes and now sources are saying she’s considering a presidential run. Twitter is beside itself, with #Oprah2020 flying around. Can we just take a moment to stop and realize just how monumentally fucked up this is?

First of all, Trump be damned, the office of the presidency is not an entry-level job. I couldn’t get a job as a fucking copywriter right out of college because I didn’t have enough experience. I didn’t have enough experience to get a job writing words on a fucking billboard, even though I did have some experience writing words on fucking billboards. I didn’t have enough. Yet half of the entire nation is apparently just fine hiring a person to run the fucking country even though they have absolutely zero political experience. Oprah, do you really want to be president? Then run for the local school board. Run for mayor. Run for your condo board. Show me you can do that, and I’ll consider your qualifications for president.

But even if Oprah did start there, she’d still be a fucking terrible president. You know how I know? Because Oprah is the reason millions of Americans are suspicious of vaccines. Oprah let Jenny McCarthy come on her show countless times, first to promote “Indigo children” and “crystal children,” which is a belief that blond-haired blue-eyed children are psychics blessed by aliens from another dimension and no I’m not making that up, Jenny McCarthy thought her son Evan was a magical fairy until a few years later when she decided he was just autistic instead thanks to vaccines. And yes, Oprah continued to give McCarthy a platform to bash vaccines.

Oprah is also the reason we have “the secret,” the belief that if you want something you just pretend like you already have it and the universe will give it to you. When carried to its natural conclusion, it’s the belief that children die of cancer because they’re not wishing hard enough to not have cancer. Oprah is a huge proponent of the scammy books and videos, and she promoted it to her huge audience and launched it into becoming a national phenomenon.

Oprah has promoted loads of psychic mediums, men and women like John Edwards who charge huge amounts of money to lie to grieving people and tell them their loved ones say hello and to please keep paying the medium ridiculous amounts of money for more specific and important messages like that.

And let’s not forget that Oprah is 100% the reason why we have crackpots like Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil telling even more stupid bullshit to an even larger audience. I’ve spoken in the past about all the nonsense that comes out of Oz’s mouth but as a quick reminder he’s been yelled at by Congress for making misleading health claims and selling bullshit products to gullible people who believed Oprah when she called him “America’s doctor.”

This stuff isn’t just brainless — it’s actively dangerous misinformation. If you are horrified by the “fake news” of the Trump era, I guarantee you that under Oprah’s regime facts will cease to have any meaning.

It’s incredibly infuriating to me that so many liberals have failed to learn their lesson from Trump: just because someone is likable, or a celebrity, or rich, doesn’t mean they’re fit to run the damn country. Just say no to #Oprah2020.

The post A Few Reasons Why Oprah Should Not Be President #Noprah2020 appeared first on Skepchick.

new humanist blog

The science of belief: a conversation

Scientists Colin Blakemore and Tom McLeish examine how the cognitive impetus that drove the emergence of science might be considered to be the same impetus that fostered religion and other metaphysical beliefs.
new humanist blog

Warp-speed capitalism

The latest sci-fi imagines what society will look like if we colonise space – a universe in which might is right and there are no good guys.
school of doubt

Pros of Participation Grades 3

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

3. It is a motivation for some.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The post Pros of Participation Grades 3 appeared first on School of Doubt.

new humanist blog

Book review: The Gurugu Pledge

Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel's novel follows the fortunes of a group of African migrants trying to get to Europe.
new humanist blog

"The women of the past have traditionally been caricatured"

Q&A with Jane Robinson, author of "Hearts and Minds:The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote".

Psychic Predictions: How I Did in 2017, and More for 2018!

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Well, it’s that time again: time to use my INCREDIBLE PSYCHIC POWERS to tell you what’s going to happen in 2018. But first, let’s look back at my predictions for 2017 to see how I did. As a reminder, I am the only psychic on YouTube who is happy to be held accountable for my predictions. I am also the only psychic on YouTube who admits that I don’t have psychic powers.

If you’ll recall, last year I had loads of hits, so I was pretty excited to see how I did this year. Spoiler alert: I’m incredible.

The first thing I predicted was heavy rains leading to mudslides in California, possibly sent by God to punish us for loving pot and gay people. Sure enough, there were heavy rains and in May, a huge mudslide buried a chunk of highway in Big Sur and kept it inaccessible for months, with closures and rerouting still happening probably through next summer. I have to say, that was crazy on-the-nose, even for me.

Next I predicted an e.coli outbreak. Sure enough, there was exactly one. In May (a good month for predictions obviously) 32 people were reported sick and 12 hospitalized across 12 states. Luckily no one died, which is the best way for me to be right about an otherwise terrifying health scare.

Finally, I predicted that someone famous would die: Charles Manson. You guys! He died last month! Again, this is the best possible prediction of a celebrity death because he was a terrible human being and no one has to be sad that he died or that I somehow KNEW he was going to die.

Okay, so that’s the rosy picture that other “psychics” would paint to convince you that they’re the real thing. And yes, you can go back and watch my video and see that I really did nail all these things. But here’s the context that others would leave out.

Yes, I predicted mudslides, but I failed to predict the biggest weather-related news California news story of the year, which was wildfires that absolutely terrorized both Northern and Southern California residents this year. Someone who could really see the future would have definitely seen that. If they could see a mudslide taking out a highway, they can see the destruction of literally thousands of homes.

And yes I predicted an e.coli outbreak, but I also said it was going to be due to contaminated produce. The May outbreak was actually due to a product called “soynut butter”, a kind of peanut butter without peanuts in it. That’s in no way produce.

Finally, Charles Manson. Yep, that was a great guess, but he had already been admitted to the hospital by the time I made that video (though I wrote the script before he was hospitalized and he didn’t die for another 11 months, so I still say it was a valid prediction!). But still, he wasn’t the only celebrity I guessed would die. Here’s who else I “predicted”: Guy Fieri, Martha Stewart, Dick Van Dyke, Miley Cyrus’s weird gross dad, the Spice Girls, and Tony Bennett. All those people are still alive. Good for them, bad for my psychic career.

Alright, let’s move on to my predictions for 2018!

In 2018, I predict that a major world leader will die suddenly and unexpectedly. I see an assassination but it could also be something to do with their heart.

I also see some major astronomical news concerning a meteor or asteroid interacting with Earth in some way.

I see a miraculous story of a dog or cat rescuing people, possibly from a fire or a tsunami or other natural disaster.

I see Chris Pratt getting another big film franchise in 2018.

Finally, celebrity deaths: I still see Tony Bennett in trouble. Sorry Tony. Charlie Sheen (hopefully). Jeff Goldblum (hopefully not). And Maggie Smith (hopefully not, I want the dowager to live forever). Eh, and let’s throw in Rob Schneider. Fuck that guy.

OK, I’ll be back at the end of 2018 to see how I did!


The post Psychic Predictions: How I Did in 2017, and More for 2018! appeared first on Skepchick.


The Crazy Reason Why Killing Coyotes Won’t Get Rid of Them

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Some people think America has a gun problem. Some other people think America needs more people roaming crowded city streets with AR-15s shooting at animals. What I’m saying is that there are two sides to this argument, both of them equally valid.

Just kidding! One of those sides is not in any way valid but they’re getting a fair portrayal in the New York Times because that’s what we do these days. The animal in question is the coyote, a distinctly American beast that has experienced a checkered history here. Coyotes have spread into more and more large American cities, like New York, Chicago, and even right here in San Francisco. They’re native to this area, but in the 1930s the US government set about extirpating them nationwide. They were seen as dangerous to humans and a nuisance that, like wolves (eradicated in the 1920s) hunted the same game humans were hunting. Neither of those was correct, but the US government devoted millions of dollars to destroying them before scientists had even studied them.

All the government’s efforts went to waste, though. In 2004 San Francisco officials spotted a coyote walking across the Golden Gate Bridge at night to sneak into the Presidio, and a decade later they’re in neighborhoods all over the city.

Now people are scared of them again, since they have occasionally killed cats and small dogs, and once 30 years ago a coyote apparently killed a 3-year old in LA. Hunters are jumping at the chance to “help” by asking for (and in many cities and suburbs getting) permission to gun down coyotes and sell their fur. One hunter interviewed by the Times offers tips on convincing homeowners to allow hunting in and around their property by “promising to hunt only at dawn or dusk to avoid cyclists and joggers, and when dealing with especially reluctant people, to offer to use a crossbow instead of a firearm.” As a cyclist and a jogger: WHAT THE FUCK do you think we only go for runs and rides during working hours? Jesus. And yes, this hunter uses an AR-15 assault rifle, when he’s not trying to win over reluctant homeowners with his crossbow.

Obviously it’s a terrible idea to let idiots wander city streets with assault rifles firing at any 30-pound quadriped they think they see — in fact, I’m much more worried about me, my dog, or a random cat being hurt or killed by a hunter than by a coyote, which are known to avoid humans whenever possible.

But there’s another reason to not let hunters “cull” coyotes and remove them from our cities: because biologists say it won’t work.

The US spent millions of dollars over a century and a half trying to exterminate coyotes, but today they inhabit three times as much land as they ever did before the program started. They used to be found only in the west, but now they exist coast to coast, and from Mexico all the way to Canada. That happened in part because first we killed their only other predator: wolves. But it also was spurred by our deathwish. Coyotes usually prefer to live in packs that are hierarchical, in which only the “alpha” male and female mate and produce offspring. But when they’re threatened, they split up into pairs, each of which can then mate and have offspring. Their howls inform them of how many other coyotes are out there, and if they don’t get enough of a response, they kick their mating into high gear. They breed at younger ages and their litter sizes double or even triple. Coyotes are a fascinating example of a species that adapts and not just survives, but thrives.

When the extirpation program unintentionally spurred their numbers and pushed the population across the country, coyotes even started breeding with the few remaining wolf species they started running into in the east. So now we also have “coywolves” running around, which is fucking amazing.

So not only will hunting the coyotes probably not help, it will probably make the situation worse, especially considering that when left alone, coyotes won’t overbreed — they will control their own population to lessen intra-species competition.

And in the meanwhile, the coyotes we so desperately want exterminated aren’t stealing our food or hunting our babies — they’re doing hardcore pest control, eating our rats and our mice, and even our feral cats. Yes, I love cats and don’t want to see them killed, but cats belong in the home where they are safe from cars and coyotes and budding psychopaths, and where they can be prevented from decimating our songbird population. Coyotes are in fact amazing animals that are a healthy, beneficial part of our ecosystem.

While I don’t mind that coyotes eat the occasional feral cat, I do mind that they eat the occasional family dog. And that’s why instead of killing coyotes, we just need to study them more and educate our society more. We need to know when and where they’re making dens (because they’ll be more aggressive toward humans who come near offspring), and we need to know where and when they’re active so that people can avoid allowing dogs off-leash near them.

Coyotes are everything that we want America to be about: clever, beautiful, and able to adapt and overcome extreme obstacles. Here’s hoping we stop idiot humans from basically making a non-problem into a huge problem.

The post The Crazy Reason Why Killing Coyotes Won’t Get Rid of Them appeared first on Skepchick.


Bad Science Reporting: Vegetarian Diets DON’T Cause Cancer

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The Independent has just published an article with the headline, “Vegetarians are ‘less healthy and have a lower quality of life than meat-eaters’, scientists say” and the subheading, “Controversial study suggests non-meat eaters are more at risk of physical and mental illness, despite leading healthier lifestyles.” Yikes! I’m a vegetarian-leaning person so this was of great interest to me.

First let me lay my cards on the table. I’ve been vegetarian or vegetarian-adjacent for about 20 years now, and by “vegetarian-adjacent” I mean that about a decade ago I went from vegetarian to pescetarian, which means I occasionally eat seafood. My reasons for my diet are varied. For a start, I think it’s stupid that anyone should have to validate any generally healthy diet. Among the people who have asked me to validate my own choices, a very small percentage have ever considered the reasons why they eat what they do. Their actual reasoning, if explored, would most likely be something along the lines of “because that’s what I grew up eating and it’s what society tells me to eat.” The fact that I’ve thought about what I eat shouldn’t force me to be on the defensive when I turn down a hamburger at a barbecue.

That said, I will briefly tell you my reasons: for one, I generally like animals when they’re alive and I don’t like being the direct cause of their deaths if I don’t have to be. If I am going to be the cause, I want the animal to be as intellectually as close to a vegetable as possible and also to know that I could do the killing if I needed to, both of which apply to fish. Two, research shows that reducing the amount of meat humans eat would go a long way towards helping the environment in many ways (despite over-the-top headlines that misrepresent the science). And as a distant third reason, yes, research shows that eating less meat is healthier. I say that one is a distant third because come on, Oreos are vegan. I’m not exactly a health nut.

But it’s true: research by and large shows that vegetarian diets are healthier than meaty diets, though vegans have to be careful to get all the nutrients they need through supplements and careful diet planning. So the study described in the Independent contradicts the previous body of research, which means that it’s helpful to turn a very critical eye to it.

The study itself looked at 1,320 Austrians split according to their diet: vegetarian, meat-eater with lots of fruits and vegetables, meat-eater who reduces the amount of meat they eat, and meat-rich meat-eater. Already you may notice a problem: there are four groups, only one of which is vegetarian. When you combine this with the fact that the researchers weren’t looking at just one health parameter but instead at dozens of different issues, this makes it extremely likely that any one of the other three groups may score “healthier” than the vegetarian group with any one vector.

You should always be skeptical of research that does this scatter-shot approach — it doesn’t mean the study is useless, but it does mean that you’re much more likely to get false positives when you’re looking for absolutely anything that seems out of place in the data. It’s really obvious when you look at the charts in the paper, which list dozens of possible conditions and highlighted the handful that the vegetarian group scored higher on. That’s why research like this is more often just preliminary, and more rigorous studies can follow-up on investigating what it turns up.

So the researchers did find that the vegetarian group showed a very slight increase in rates of cancer, allergies, and mental health issues like anxiety and depression. How slight, you ask? I’m glad you asked, by the way, because the Independent doesn’t even mention that it’s slight. The vegetarian group had a 4.8% difference in cancer rates, compared to 3.3% for meat-eaters who eat vegetables. They had a starker difference in mental illness: 9.4% compared to 4.5 to 5.8% for the various groups of meat-eaters. Ditto allergies: 30.6% compared to 16.7 to 20.3% among the meat-eaters.

That said, there is a statistically significant difference. Does that mean going vegetarian will increase your rate of cancer, mental illness, and allergies?

No. Absolutely not. For a start, this could still be a statistical anomaly that disappears once a follow-up study can drill down on those exact conditions. We’re talking about 300 people in each group, and again, the researchers were looking for literally any increase in any type of condition.

But setting that aside, even the researchers argue that the Independent’s headline is wrong: “we cannot say what is the cause and what is the effect.” In other words, this shows possible correlation, not causation. People who get cancer may be more likely to switch to a vegetarian diet in order to be healthier. People with allergies may be more likely to think critically about what they’re eating and follow a more restrictive diet because the stakes are higher for them. Anxiety may make you more likely to follow a restrictive diet. Or psychiatrists may encourage depressed patients to change their diet in order to feel better.

I could go on but I think you get my point: the researchers are very clear that no where in their work does the data even imply that vegetarian diets are less healthy than meaty diets. And what’s incredible is that the Independent quoted them on that and then ran that quote under a false headline anyway. I know I can’t expect better from mainstream science reporting, but man is it frustrating to know that vegetarians everywhere will have an uptick in “concerned” family and friends shoving this article in their faces when they’re inevitably forced to validate their dietary choices.

The post Bad Science Reporting: Vegetarian Diets DON’T Cause Cancer appeared first on Skepchick.


How Toxic Masculinity is Destroying the Planet

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You may be familiar with the phrase “toxic masculinity” — it’s the idea that our society has deemed certain traits and behaviors as “masculine,” and that doing so and encouraging men to adhere to that definition can be unhealthy for men, women, or everyone. For instance, we encourage boys to stifle many of their emotions and tell them it’s “girl” (undesirable) to cry, which leads to a whole host of psychological problems for men in later years.

A recent study has shown yet another downside to toxic masculinity and I have to say, it’s really on the nose about the “toxic” bit. Marketing researchers found that toxic masculinity may be to blame for men being way less environmentally friendly compared to women, who are much more likely to recycle, buy “green” products, and not litter.

The researchers conducted several different studies involving more than 2,000 people in America and China. For instance, both male and female test subjects were more likely to consider a person feminine if they brought reusable grocery bags to the store instead of using plastic. They even thought of themselves as more feminine after they were asked to remember a time they did something good for the environment.

These first studies established a link between environmentalism and femininity, so next the researchers tested whether that link was enough to discourage men from being “green” in order to protect their perceived masculinity. The researchers gave men a gift card and asked them to buy a lamp, a backpack, and batteries, all of which had “green” and non-green options. Some of the men were given a regular plain gift card while the other half got a card that threatened their masculinity because it was pink and had flowers on it. And let’s just take a moment to appreciate how fragile masculinity is: a pink card with flowers on it was enough to threaten it.

Sure enough, men who were “threatened” tended to reassert their masculinity by buying the conventional products instead of the “green” products bought by the men with the plain gift card. Yep: a pink gift card was enough to dissuade a man from being environmentally friendly.


I want to be really clear here that when I’m talking about, condemning, or mocking toxic masculinity, I’m not criticizing men. Well, not a particular man. This is our society, and like women, men are raised to believe certain “truths” even when they’re far from true. Men are raised to be tough heroes, just as women are raised to think of themselves as princesses and damsels and that mindset can be impossible to shake even when you know it’s bullshit.

Ideally, the solution to this problem would be to dismantle our society’s expectations of men, raising boys to understand that their feelings are natural and normal, and in no way makes them less “manly.” We’d also teach everyone that being less “manly” isn’t a bad thing anyway, and that there’s nothing wrong with being a woman, or feeling feminine, or wearing a skirt, or wearing makeup, or owning a cat.

Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen — at least not this century. So until we get there, the solution is to make sure that masculinity isn’t threatened when advertising “green” products or when encouraging men to adopt “green” behaviors.

I learned an interesting fact while reading up on all this, and of all places it came from the Reddit comment section where a user points out that Texas nailed this concept back in the 1980s. The Texas Department of Transportation wanted to reduce littering, and they noted that the biggest litterers were men aged 18 to 35. So they put up signs along the roadways with a brilliant slogan that ended up reducing the total amount of litter by 72% between 1986 and 1990. That slogan? Don’t mess with Texas.

That slogan went on to become so famous that I’ve only been to Texas a few times and I’ve heard of it, but I had no idea about its origins. In fact, it’s still the anti-littering slogan as you can see by visiting By making anti-littering a tough, manly thing to do, Texas was decades ahead of the science. And let’s be honest, how often can you say something like that about Texas? Well done to them!

The post How Toxic Masculinity is Destroying the Planet appeared first on Skepchick.

bad science

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

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

Pros of Participation Grades 2

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

2. It makes effort important.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pros of Participation Grades 1

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

1. It can positively contribute to socialization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cons of Participation Grades 5

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

5. It is not fair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(In a follow-up post.)

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On the Market VII: Job Candidates Are People Too

Another year, another job season. Sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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