“Shameless” implies that there is something to be ashamed of

This story bugs me: it argues that Stormy Daniels is just like Donald Trump in shamelessness. I can agree that her tactics are interesting and she has a good chance of smacking Trump upside the head, but implicit in the story is the idea that she ought to be ashamed, and her refusal puts her in the same plane as Trump. So the story contrasts her with the respectable women who have accused the president of harassment.

Many of the women alleging that Trump victimized them (which Daniels, by the way, does not) have proceeded by insisting on their own respectability: They want nothing from him; they simply spoke up because they’d been harassed or assaulted by a presidential candidate, and they wanted to do the right thing. The Trump campaign’s response was to characterize his accusers as attention-hungry profit-seekers. In one case, he implied that she was too ugly to harass.

OK, but why shouldn’t they have insisted on their respectability? They did nothing wrong. The only thing that prevented them from being effective is the complicity of the media, who have been very willing to downplay women’s concerns. Those characterizations by the Trump campaign should have been a whole big story on their own, and should have brought him down. They weren’t, and they didn’t.

But Stormy Daniels is “different” than other women. She’s shameless.

Stormy Daniels is immune to these attacks. Just as Trump bragged about not paying a dime in taxes — “that makes me smart,” he said during one presidential debate — Daniels is open about her desire to profit. Why wouldn’t she? She says she has a story to sell, and she’s 100 percent open about her desire to sell it. She’s the only person in this story as shameless as the president himself. And the White House is reeling as a result.

It’s a truism at this point that Trump benefited from a tiresome double standard. The reality TV star entered an electoral landscape filled with intelligent and image-conscious suits who understood respectability as the sine qua non of political viability. Trump refused to be respectable. He embraced his image as a corny, narcissistic, overtanned procurer of women’s bodies, and twirled and winked at the mountain of crimes and improprieties he stood accused of. It worked: No single charge could stick for very long. Particularly — and this is the nub — because he didn’t seem to mind. For a scandal to stick to someone, they have to worry about it. Trump may talk endlessly about people “laughing” at the United States, but when it comes to his own image, he has the lifelong rich man’s imperviousness to the opinions of the poor. That has protected him from scandal. His narcissism only extends to those he sees as equals or superiors; everyone else is expendable.

Every point there is correct, but it’s just the bias that bothers me. Daniels is open and honest about her career as a sex worker, and she should be. She has nothing to be ashamed of — she hasn’t lied and swindled and trampled over others (I assume — I suppose she could be the Donald Trump of the porn industry, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest it). To claim that she is shameless implies that she has something to be ashamed of, which assumes that sex work is automatically disgraceful.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, is a corrupt liar who is doing his damnedest to wreck the country, and is engaged in shameful behavior — he is harming people, and harming the nation, which Daniels is not doing. This is not about shamelessness, it’s about honesty, and in that regard Daniels and Trump are completely different.


Maybe the alt-right is non-binary

Jason Wilson writes about the alt-right’s tactics. Here’s one perfect example: Andy Ngo is a kind of inflammatory yellow journalist whose specialty is capturing tiny slices of left wing events that he then distorts into the kind of lie useful for enraging the Fox News/Breitbart crowd. For instance, here’s how he handled a visit by James Damore to Portland State:

In the lead-up to Damore’s appearance, Ngo penned an article for the Wall Street Journal alleging that the event had been threatened, writing that that “we expected controversy. But we also got danger.” The evidence of danger, as reported in Willamette Week, was “two violent threats on Facebook, three diversity events held on campus as counter-programming, and a scornful blog post”.

This was more than enough for Fox News, who ran an item under the headline “Antifa targets ‘Google memo’ author James Damore’s talk at Portland State”.

Impressive. Everything is coming up antifa nowadays. I suspect this post makes me antifa, at this rate.

Then the ever-ridiculous Peter Boghossian chimes in. This is where it gets really interesting, because there is a phenomenon many of us have noticed before: people who like to claim to be on the Left, usually referring to themselves as “classical liberals” or “centrists”, who are remarkably consistent in siding with the Right to deplore anything and everything anyone on the Left does, yet also pay lip service to rejecting the traditional Right. Maybe we ought to start recognizing that the usual political binary is often invalid, and that there are multiple axes of polarization. Maybe we ought to appreciate that someone like me can despise, for example, Bill Donohue, and so can a Boghossian, and at the same time, Boghossian and I can mutually reject each other. It’s amazing! More than two categories? Brains will explode!

Still, people will cluster in domains of mutual sympathy, it’s just that there are definitely many more than two of them. Boghossian helpfully engages in a little taxonomy for us, in the process of saying stupid stuff.

Boghossian does seem to see members of her discipline in a dark hue. At the Damore event, he said that “diversity is a Trojan horse for a political agenda.”

When asked later what was inside the Trojan horse, he said “the diversity they try to create is the most superficial kind of diversity and doesn’t include ideological diversity.”

When asked who “they” were, Boghossian replies “all disciplines infected by postmodernism, and women’s studies and gender studies in particular.

“It’s intersectionality, it’s diversity, it’s those values which are riding in the wake of postmodernity,” he added.

“Jordan Peterson speaks about this, Gad Saad speaks about this, Steven Pinker speaks about this, there’s a whole circle of us speaking about this.”

Despite his criticisms of the campus left, however, Boghossian insists that he is not rightwing, that he “can’t stand Republicans”, and complains about recent accusations that he is “alt-right”. He insists it’s all about Enlightenment values.

Ngo too. “I identify as a centrist if I was forced to answer”, he writes, adding that “Freethinkers is a nonpartisan organization”.

Strange, then, that they, and the movement that Boghossian claims membership of, take such trouble over antagonizing the left, and drawing rightwing attention.

I’m actually kind of impressed here. There are quite a few people mentioned in the article who I, as an outsider to their group, would have lumped together, and there’s Boghossian, unconsciously affirming my taxonomy. Yes — Boghossian, Peterson, Saad, Pinker, they all belong in a single taxon. The defining character seems to be, at least in the context of this excerpt, that they are all pretentious academics who do not understand the meaning of the word “post-modern”, while hating it fiercely, all while huddling under the banner of the Enlightenment, an 18th century movement that they believe entitles them to consider themselves progressive. They also consider themselves liberal while hating diversity in a multicultural nation, and despising gender and women’s studies at universities that are encouraging students, who are mostly women, to examine the complexity of our social and cultural environment.

They’re a weird, regressive bunch. Their clique also includes other people mentioned in the article, like Christina Hoff Sommers, the anti-feminist who calls herself a feminist, and Dave Rubin, the cheerleader for right-wingers who insists he is a centrist, Enlightenment liberal.

I’m perfectly willing to recognize that this is an ugly mess of a beast that is completely different from the ugly mess of a beast called the Republican party. The American landscape is filling up with a diverse collection of shambolic monsters, united only in their willingness to shit on anything that resembles a progressive vision of our future.

new humanist blog

Living with the consequences

Climate change is already here: we must stop debating deniers and start making tough decisions about what we will save.

Oh, no, it’s the last day of Spring Break!

Crap. I think I blinked and missed it all. What should I do with my last day of freedom, aside from polishing up my preparations for class tomorrow and writing a couple of exams?

I do have to think about proposing something for OrbitCon on 13-15 April. You knew about this, right? An online conference about social justice? You can participate if you have something to say — just submit a proposal.

That’s also the week after the Secular Social Justice conference in Washington DC. I’ll be there, spectatin’ and learning. April is shaping up to be a good month for humanists.

But today…I should probably check my office and make sure there is no surprise grading lurking there. I thought I’d chased it all away, but you can never be sure — it’s sneaky and keeps leaping out at me when I don’t expect it.


I threatened you with niche construction

And I followed through! I kept it short, though, so it won’t hurt too much.


There are many ways to be a science communicator

Science magazine published a peculiar opinion piece titled Why I don’t use Instagram for science outreach. It’s peculiar because it starts off well, and then reaches an ugly conclusion, and because it’s coming from a graduate student who is going to be looking for a job, and there’s no effort to give her anonymity while promoting a controversial opinion and, frankly, bad reasoning. Here’s that promising beginning that could have gone off in a far more productive direction.

Science Sam is a big name on campus. She’s a Ph.D. candidate in the sciences who wants to pursue a career outside of academia, like me. But unlike me, she is our school’s science communication, or #scicomm, superstar. Her Instagram page, which aims to show the “fun and trendy” side of science, was recently celebrated in the school’s newsletter for increasing the public’s trust in scientists. At a career workshop, graduate students were urged to follow Science Sam’s example and use #scicomm to build our personal brands as we enter the job market. I already have an Instagram account, but it reflects my interests in photography and baking more than my love of science. The workshop got me thinking: Should my posts focus less on pastries and more on pipettes?

OK, so I took a look at Science Sam’s Instagram account. I’ll be honest, it personally left me cold. I’m not into Instagram, the format lends itself to superficialities, it’s focused a great deal on selfies of a photogenic young woman, and I won’t be subscribing or following it in the future. But that’s just me. There exists a large instagram-centered subculture, Science Sam is good at fitting into it, and I am glad there is someone doing science outreach there, and doing it well.

I think the @scicomm community would also agree that the point isn’t to conform, but to express yourself freely and share your appreciation of science in ways that fit your personality and interests. There should be no message that says you must be a slender woman with a large fashionable wardrobe and artful skill in applying makeup in order to be a good science communicator — I’m kind of the opposite of all that, so I (and many of the science communicators I know) would be right out of the business from the get go. David Attenborough would also be out of work.

At this point, my advice to this grad student would be yes, focus on the pastries and the photography as a hobby. You be you. There is another huge subculture that is interested in the visual arts and food, and you can be science’s ambassador to those people. If the message you got from your university’s career workshop is that you have to imitate Science Sam, they fucked up. The career workshops I’ve participated in emphasize the breadth of possibilities, and should definitely not be telling new scientists that they have to follow the path of performative traditional femininity. That is one path out of many.

But this grad student confesses to “increasing bitterness” over the example of Science Sam. She has somehow come to the conclusion that another person’s approach is directly harming her.

When I next interview for a job, I won’t have an Instagram page to show that my love of science doesn’t make me boring and unfriendly. Publicly documenting the cute outfit I wear and the sweet smile I brandish in the lab isn’t going to help me build a fulfilling career in a field where women hold less senior positions, are paid less, and are continuously underrated. Time spent on Instagram is time away from research, and this affects women in science more than men. That’s unfair. Let’s not celebrate that.

Jeez, someone needs to talk to whoever put together that career workshop, because at least one student has come out of it with a seriously warped perspective. You shouldn’t have to flash a sweet smile and a cute outfit to get a job (I know, often women are expected to, which not right and grossly unfair), but you do have to have an enthusiasm for the work, which even homely grizzled old geezers like me can achieve. If you’re trying to do science outreach, bitterly policing other people’s approach is a negative — find your own strengths and explore and expand them. You’ll be happier doing that than feeling like you have to conform to a role you detest. There also has to be work/life balance — if Science Sam enjoys spending time on Instagram as her avocation, she should! If there’s something outside of work that makes you happy, you should do it without guilt!

Seriously, too, while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Science Sam’s angle, and she’s going to be effective at reaching some people, I’d find an instagram account about photography much more interesting. So would other people. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

I really hope whoever was in charge of that career workshop is feeling rebuked by the fact that the bitterness it invoked was highlighted in Science.

new humanist blog

Book review: The Rage

A new book demonstrates the deep commonalities between far-right and Islamic extremists

Will Banning Video Games Fix Gun Violence?

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In the wake of yet another school shooting — and I mean Parkland but I could mean any of the other school shooting that have happened since Parkland — our politicians have rushed to take bold measures to keep our children safe from gun violence. By “take bold measures” I mean “Tweet ‘thoughts and prayers’” and “pass a bill declaring porn dangerous.” Our dear President has added to those bold measures by forming a committee to discuss…(drumroll)…the role of violent video games in school shootings.

I mean, it makes sense! Clearly the answer to someone using a gun to kill many people is to regulate the sale and possession of digital guns only. Real guns are fine, but a gun made of pixels is incredibly dangerous and cannot fall into the wrong hands. I’ve fired a real gun before and it was a lot of fun but nowhere near as fun as firing a fully-charged particle cannon into the unsuspecting face of a cyborg ninja who is trying desperately to reflect it back on me but YOU CAN’T REFLECT PARTICLES, NINJA IDIOT. Ahem. Yes, the problem is video game guns.

So Trump gathered a group of experts in the field of video game violence, and by experts I mean a few people who own video game companies and three idiots who hate video games.

If he had included experts, it would have been tough to find any that support the notion that video games lead to an increase in violence among children. So instead, he invited people like Representative Vicky Hartzler, who said, “Even though I know there are studies that have said there is no causal link, as a mom and a former high school teacher, it just intuitively seems that prolonged viewing of violent nature would desensitize a young person.” To be clear, pretty much every study says there’s no causal link, and being a mom with “intuition” doesn’t exactly do anything to rebut that, but thanks, Vicky.

And when I say “pretty much” every study says there’s no causal link, I want to mention that there are some studies that do find that violent video games can increase aggression in very particular circumstances, like if they play for more than three hours a day or if they are already prone to aggression.

The good news is that the violent video game meeting didn’t seem to actually go anywhere. Vicky Hartzler says she’s up for regulating imaginary guns, but Trump didn’t seem particularly interested, probably because he remembered he had a Werther’s candy in his desk and he wanted to make sure he ate it before he had to leave for another golf outing. Being president is hard.

But the bad news is that this was such an obvious, stupid distraction from what actually has to be done to stop school shootings, which is to regulate real guns that kill real people instead of imaginary guns that kill imaginary people. I can’t believe I even have to say that, but what the hell, it’s 2018. Next Trump will have a meeting about the problem with imaginary guns in movies, and he’ll invite some film executives, Betsy DeVos, and probably Chuck Norris so that he can delay and distract some more and also maybe meet Chuck Norris. I wonder how many school shootings will happen between now and then?

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Johann Hari is Wrong About the Treatment of Mental Illness

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I really didn’t want to talk about this, but the BBC has forced my hand by posting an inane video promoting the claims of Johann Hari and his newest book, in which he argues that antidepressants are essentially useless and that we should ditch our pills in favor of global societal change.

I didn’t want to talk about it for several personal reasons — for a start, I’ve met Hari and I always liked him, even (begrudgingly) after his plagiarism scandal broke. For years I thought he was a smart and thoughtful writer who covered important topics from a humanist angle. Then some people discovered that he had been stealing quotes his interview subjects said elsewhere and reporting them as though they had been spoken to Hari in his interview. He did it so often that he was fired from his job, lost his Orwell Prize, and basically became persona non grata in the English intellectual scene for several years.

I was kind of still rooting for him, though, I guess because I just thought he was a nice person who made a stupid mistake and that he could come back with a better set of ethical standards. Unfortunately, I was stupid and wrong.

The other reason I didn’t really want to talk about this topic is because I’m very biased in favor of antidepressants. I’ve been on an anti-anxiety/anti-depressant called escitalopram for several years now, and it literally changed my life. A doctor suggested it when I was in the midst of “elevatorgate,” when I was being just continually harassed all day every day, online and in person. I was really skeptical about going on a daily medication — I asked him if I could just have some xanax or something to deal with the occasional freak-out, but he insisted we try it. So we did, and what I found was that yes, it made me feel better about the unending harassment, but also it changed things that I didn’t even realize were wrong. For instance, I used to have nights where I would lay in bed quietly freaking out for hours over the fact that we are all going to die one day. After the medication, that stopped. I had assumed that it was just the human condition and not an actual problem that can be solved, but with the medication I would still have thoughts like that but I wouldn’t obsess over it for hours. My brain could move on and think of other more pleasant topics.

My brain was clearly broken, but I couldn’t realize it until it was fixed, because, well, my brain was broken. The chemistry was wrong. Yes, outside circumstances like elevatorgate made it much, much worse, but even when things were going great I had depression and anxiety, and my doctor realized that. Along with prescribing the drug, he strongly recommended I quit my job.  

Now Johann Hari is back and he has written a book about how we don’t need psychiatric drugs like mine. He even slid into my DMs to ask me to promote his book. I didn’t respond because I had already heard friends whispering about what a complete mess the book is. I was hoping that Hari would just fade away again but his relentless publicizing has led to celebrities retweeting him into my feed, and now the BBC World Service making a little viral video just for him.

So, here we are. Hari’s claims can be broken down into two categories: things he is right about but the world already knew it, and things he is wrong about. For an example of the former, he says that antidepressants often don’t work. Yep, that’s a fact. Scientists aren’t even completely sure how they work, and the drug that changed my life might not do anything for you. Literally everyone in medicine knows this, which is why finding the right drug for you can often involve some pretty painful trial and error.

Then there are the things Hari just gets wrong. He says that doctors treat depressed patients with only one “menu item”: drugs. It’s not true, at all. Any decent doctor will tell you that there are ways to ease depression and anxiety that don’t involve drugs. In my personal example, my doctor told me to quit my job, but also to make sure I was exercising every day and not drinking too much. My current psychiatrist recommended I get a dog, which I did, and he has improved my life drastically, as I’ve discussed in another video. Sure, these are just my anecdotes, but they reflect reality. The NHS, the CDC, the Mayo Clinic — all major medical organizations recommend lifestyle changes to help in depression and anxiety, before or in addition to medication. This isn’t some grand secret that Hari has uncovered. Yet he has the audacity to say things like “if your baby dies at 10am, your doctor can diagnose you with a mental illness at 10.01am and start drugging you straight away.” Nope. There are absolutely no circumstances under which grieving for one minute would lead to a diagnosis of depression and a prescription for anti-depressants. No circumstance.

So Hari is wrong, and he’s dangerously wrong. When pressed, he may say he doesn’t want people to throw away their medication, but in practice that is what is going to happen when you pretend to be a scientist and you tell people that their doctors are against them and their medications are useless. He’s going to get people killed, and outlets like the BBC are helping him do it.

The post Johann Hari is Wrong About the Treatment of Mental Illness appeared first on Skepchick.

new humanist blog

Have postmodernist thinkers deconstructed truth?

Bruno Latour once sparked fury by questioning the way scientific facts are produced. Now he worries we’ve gone too far.

Why are Women Meaner to Other Women at Work?

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Women report getting more rude comments from coworkers than men do, so a University of Arizona study set out to figure out who was making the comments. After a series of surveys, they found that it tended to be women who were being uncivil to other women, more so than men being uncivil to women or to other men.

Now before we all erupt into a chorus of “why are women such catty bitches,” let’s talk about the weakness of the study. This was all done from surveys, asking people to rate interactions they’d had with male and female coworkers and how those interactions made them feel. So already you know that we can’t say women are more uncivil to women — we can only say, due to the fact that this is from surveys, that women perceive other women as being more uncivil to them.

Why is that important? Well, previous studies have shown that both men and women perceive women in a different light than men in the workplace. For example, a behavior that is seen as good leadership in a man can be seen as abrasive and overreaching in a woman.

So it’s possible that the women in this study are hurt by actions their female coworkers take but are fine when a male coworker demonstrates similar behavior.

That said, I’m pretty sure every woman can think of examples of female coworkers who we felt were unnecessarily harsh or cruel. I had to work under a woman once who would regularly make other women in the office cry. The woman hated me and made my job a nightmare until the day I left (because of her). But thinking about it later, I realized that she was a vice president in a construction company (I was a copywriter in the company’s marketing department). Construction is, of course, a very male-dominated industry, even at a fancy luxury company like ours. She was the only woman at that level, and I can’t even imagine the literal balls she had to bust to get to where she was. Does that make her behavior okay? Of course not. But it might explain it.

Studies show that women in male-dominated fields tend to take on “male” traits in order to get ahead. Not only do we perceive those women as being “bitchier” than men with the same traits, but now those women may feel a sense of gate-keeping — they had to pay their dues, so why shouldn’t the women trying to come up beneath them?

Another interesting aspect of the University of Arizona study is that the women who reported the most incivility from other women tended to defy gender norms by being more aggressive and dominant. Again, this is all self-reported so take it with a grain of salt, but it does lend credence to the idea that women in the workplace may be acting as gate-keepers to keep other women in line and to possibly limit competition since very few women will actually make it into the upper ranks.

So it’s not exactly a surprising finding, but it is interesting and I’d love to see follow-up to determine the actual cause of this. For the record, I don’t believe the cause is “women are genetically programmed to be catty to each other,” but I do expect that to be the conclusion drawn by Redditors and YouTube commenters.

Once we nail down the actual cause, we can come up with a solution. Bad news for the aforementioned commenters but that will probably involve a complete upheaval of the patriarchy. I know. I’m sorry for your eventual loss and I look forward to hearing your cries of anguish about why it’s always the fault of the patriarchy.

The post Why are Women Meaner to Other Women at Work? appeared first on Skepchick.

new humanist blog

Book review: The Impostor

Javier Cercas' "novel without fiction" is a fascinating analysis of a nation in denial.
school of doubt

Required Reading, 5 March 2018

Just one today, because it is Important.

Ron Srigley, “Whose University is it Anyway?” LA Review of Books, Feb 22, 2018.

On another note, you may be noticing some visual changes across the Skepchick network. Along with the face lift we hope to soon put out a call for new writers and ramp up the activity a bit again, so watch this space!

The post Required Reading, 5 March 2018 appeared first on School of Doubt.

new humanist blog

Is there a way back from sectarianism in Iraq?

Dictatorship, invasion and war have placed Iraq’s religious and atheist minorities under mortal threat.

Sorry NY Times: The Key to Weight Loss is Still Quantity, not Quality

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An article in the New York Times announced that a new study shows “The Key to Weight Loss Is Diet Quality, Not Quantity,” which caught my eye because scientifically speaking, the quantity of your diet is absolutely the primary driver behind your weight. It’s an indisputable scientific fact that if you burn 1500 calories a day but you eat 2000 calories worth of bananas every day, you will gain weight. If you eat 1000 calories of Twinkies every day, you will lose weight. It’s ultimately about quantity, not “quality.”

Reading the article, as usual, debunks the headline. In case other people are confused, I wanted to make a video laying out exactly what is right and what is wrong about the headline, the article, and the study behind it.

The study itself did not test “quantity” versus “quality” in diets, and so it should absolutely not be used to support one over the other. If it were comparing those two factors, you could imagine it would involve two groups of people (at least): one that ate “high-quality” food (nutritious, home-cooked, or whatever other trait you consider high-quality) in whatever amount they wished, and one that ate whatever food they wished in low-quantity (fewer calories than they burn on a daily basis). In fact, this study compared two groups of people, all of whom ate “high-quality” food and none of whom counted calories in their food. On average, both groups lost some weight, but we have no way of knowing if they lost more or less weight compared to people who learned to count calories.

The actual difference between the two groups was that one group ate low-fat foods and the other ate low-carb foods. The actual purpose of the study was to determine if people’s genetics or insulin levels impacted how much weight they lost on these diets, as people like Gary Taubes have made millions telling the world. The study results contradicted Taubes’s assertions: neither insulin levels nor genotype predicted how much weight subjects lost. In other words, sorry, but a calorie is a calorie.

That should have been the headline but instead they went with this idea that can almost be interpreted to contradict those findings: calories don’t matter and it’s all about what foods you choose to eat, despite the fact that the study found that the actual foods you eat don’t matter. In a perfect world, that wouldn’t be the takeaway here, though it could be the impetus for another study to follow-up on this one. When you conduct a study and you find something strange that you weren’t looking for, you don’t generally publicize that as your finding — you set up a new study, with a new hypothesis, to further investigate that strange thing and verify that it’s not a statistical blip.

Until we get another study, I will say that it IS interesting that people, on average, lost weight on this diet in which they weren’t actively counting calories. The diet involved teaching subjects how to choose more nutritious foods while avoiding heavily processed food that contains a lot of sugar, and how to pick whole wheat over white bread or brown rice over white rice.

Does the fact that they lost weight mean that calories don’t matter? No, just the opposite — in fact, the study found that the subjects ended up consuming fewer calories than they previously had, which is why they lost weight. So really, this is not a problem of physics as much as it is one of psychology — the study may suggest that people can be tricked into consuming fewer calories by teaching them to eat more nutritious foods. And this makes sense, considering that it’s really, really difficult to eat 2,000 calories of spinach and it’s really, really easy to eat 2,000 calories of ice cream. When you avoid “junk” food, you’re more likely to eat fewer calories by accident.

Here’s why that’s an important distinction, compare to the headline: we have no idea how sustainable that is. If people don’t understand why they’re losing weight, they risk gaining it back if they find a “whole” food they love that is a calorie bomb (like avocados, for instance) and overeating again. Or, they may get fed up with never having “treats” and give up their new lifestyle entirely. One of the nice things about calorie counting is that I know I can have an ice cream sundae if I eat fewer calories for dinner and add a run into my day. One of the reasons many people give up on “diets” is because they miss eating the things that used to bring them joy.

So to sum up, it’s an interesting study that disproved its hypothesis, which had nothing to do with calorie counting. And it’s a misleading headline in the New York Times that is only partially redeemed in the article. But hey, I bet Gary Taubes is relieved that they made the story about calorie counting instead of the actual result of the study, which debunked his life’s work.

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YouTube Removes Skeptical Video While “Crisis Actor” Videos Remain

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Look, we all know YouTube is a disgusting cesspit. Case in point, if this video has been live for more than an hour, take a look at the comments below. Go on, I’ll wait.

Done? The worst, right?

I try to do my part by uploading videos that are heavy on the science, debunking dangerous ideas I see proliferating on YouTube. One of the biggest problems on YouTube are conspiracy theorists, which is why every video I do on conspiracy theories have comments that are nearly as toxic as any video where I mention that I’m a feminist. Oh lord, that’s going to be a two-fer, isn’t it? Yikes.

Two years ago, I posted a video on YouTube debunking the idea of “crisis actors,” which conspiracy theorists believe are people who are hired to play the grieving friends and family of terrorism and mass shooting victims. Because the conspiracy theorists don’t believe these shootings are real, they’ve invented crisis actors to explain all of the people shown on the news crying and mourning and attending elaborate funerals. It’s bullshit, and it’s dangerous bullshit because the conspiracy theorists track down these “actors” and harass them, and it probably won’t be long before they decide to actually physically harm them.

My post went up shortly after the terrorist bombings in Paris, so November of 2015. You can read the transcript of that post, but unfortunately you can no longer watch the video. That’s because YouTube removed it last week for violating their community standards. According to the email they sent me, my video qualified as “predatory behavior, stalking, threats, harassment, bullying, or intimidation.” For the record, I didn’t mention any particular person in the video — only the fact that there are conspiracy theorists out there who were claiming the Paris attacks were a hoax, which I debunked.

The email says my video was flagged for review, and then deleted after review, which makes it sound like a real person watched it and decided it was in fact in violation. I don’t know if that’s true, but honestly I can’t decide which is worse: that a human at YouTube decided that debunking a dangerous conspiracy theory is akin to to “maliciously harassing or attacking another user,” or that their algorithm is blanket deleting anything reported by anyone while they falsely imply a human is overseeing it.

While I have appealed the decision, it’s been several days with no notice so I’m not holding my breath.

To make matters worse, while YouTube is deleting my skeptical content, they’re allowing actual conspiracy theorists promoting “crisis actors” to flourish. Crisis actors are a popular topic once again following the Parkland mass shooting, as conspiracy theorists rush to find “evidence” that the teenage survivors are government plants. The videos harassing these kids are so prolific that they’ve become their own kind of public health threat. A social media researcher posted Sunday showing what several large studies have previously suggested (and which I’ve talked about frequently): YouTube’s recommendation algorithm traps people in a conspiracy theory echo chamber. Watching one “crisis actor” video leads to countless more videos about how 9/11 is an inside job, we never landed on the moon, the Earth is flat — basically, every flavor of misguided bullshit on YouTube.

When I checked right now, YouTube still has plenty of videos up harassing David Hogg, one of the teenage Parkland survivors conspiracy theorists are after. And not only will the thousands of people watching those videos be more likely to click on other BS conspiracy theory videos, but now there’s one less video on YouTube debunking the BS. Thanks, YouTube.

And a real, non-sarcastic “thanks” to my Patreon supporters. Without you guys, there’s absolutely no way I would continue the sisyphean task of trying to educate people on YouTube. You’re the best!

The post YouTube Removes Skeptical Video While “Crisis Actor” Videos Remain appeared first on Skepchick.

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Pros of Participation Grades 3

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

3. It is a motivation for some.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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