New Atheists, Islamophobia, and the need for better public intellectuals

December 28, 2015

Author’s Note: Sooooo…hi. It’s been awhile. It seems I haven’t posted anything on this site for a year and a half. And even that piece was only one of three pieces I wrote here in all of 2014. But while I’ve gotten away from regularly blogging, I do, now and again, find the need to get some things off my chest, and this is as good a place as any. So, with that said, let’s move forward…

Regressive Left“New Atheists” have a serious Islamophobia denial problem. Contrary to how prominent New Atheist figures describe it, Islamophobia is not about merely objecting to religious criticism; rather, it’s about acknowledging persecution. Some innocent people do in fact get marginalized and persecuted for no other reason than being perceived as Muslim, a scary “other.” And I only use the words “perceived as” because there are many cases where Sikhs also face attacks because they are mis-identified as Muslims. This is a problem that magnified for a long time after 9/11 and has once again flared up in the wake of the tragic attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. There are plenty of undeniable examples of violence and persecution driven by Islamophobia (See: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here). That’s just a small sample.

Then of course there’s the case of Ahmed Mohamed, dubbed by various news outlets as “clock kid.” This was the case of the 14-year-old boy who was detained by police while at his Texas high school after bringing an electric clock he assembled to school to show his science teachers. It was confused for a bomb despite the device having no explosive material. This might have made for an hilarious sitcom misunderstanding if the arrested party was a white, Christian kid named Billy or Tommy. But of course this sort of confusion would never happen to a  white, Christian kid named Billy or Tommy. And we all know that. Well, perhaps everyone except famous atheist Richard Dawkins, who proceeded to cyberbully Ahmed Mohamed and encourage his Twitter followers to do the same for months.

Dawkins insisted the authorities were in the right to detain the child for hours for bringing a clock with no explosive material of any kind to school. Dawkins also claims the clock in question was just bought in a store, taken apart and re-assembled, and so therefore Mohamed should be criticized for cheating. Dawkins’ tweets about Mohamed grew increasingly more unhinged after news that the Mohamed family were suing the school for millions of dollars over the incident. Insisting that his primary issue was Mohamed’s cheating by falsely claiming to have built the clock — an accusation that I believe still remains unsubstantiated — Dawkins says the real issue at hand was the serious problem of children using their childhood as an excuse to avoid criticism. And, as his totally random example of why children DO deserve criticism, Dawkins posted an image of ISIS child soldiers. Of all the examples one might think to use, that seemed like a very, very odd choice. Not least of all because Dawkins has met accusations of Islamophobia in the past or that nobody in their right might believes these ISIS child soldiers had any real choice given the circumstances they were born and raised in, or the fact that Richard Dawkins himself has spent much of the last decade arguing the opposite point, that indoctrinating young children into religion is “child abuse.”

But to be fair to Dawkins, today he posted the following tweet:

dawkins

The article he linked to, about a case of Islamophobic violence, is here. One reply to the tweet read: “not saying you’re responsible, but hate speech against groups of people – like you & others engage in – fuels these flames.”

Now I started this piece by saying New Atheists had an “Islamophobia denial” problem as opposed to saying they’re Islamophobic. In Dawkins’ case, this tweet at least shows he can see bigotry and unfairness against people for simply being Muslim when there’s absolutely no ambiguity at all (much like how many people who did not condemn the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson did comdemn the shooting of Eric Garner in New York). But Dawkins quite often attacks and mocks the notion of Islamophobia, a term he says is used to silence legitimate criticism of “bad ideas.” And he’s not alone.

That brings me to Sam Harris, another major figure of the so-called “New Atheist” Movement that sprung up around 2006. I think a strong case can be made for Harris promoting Islamophobia and being Islamophobic himself. His public policy prescriptions certainly make a great case for that. Those articles have been written. But not enough is said about Sam Harris also being an Islamophobia denialist, even apologist. A recent Salon article highlighted this very point:

All of this can be excused, but only up to a point. What is inexcusable, and what should preclude Sam Harris from participating in any more projects on Islamic Reformation, is his complete lack of awareness about Muslims as they actually live today. He censures American Muslims for paying more attention to the coldblooded massacre of three American Muslims at the University of North Carolina than to the crimes of ISIS — proximity to Raleigh over Raqqa may explain why — before going on to say that hate crimes against American Muslims are “tiny in number, often property-related, and still dwarfed five-fold by similar offenses against Jews.” Reread that sentence and take in the moral callousness of this thinker.

The FBI says there are now 100 to 150 anti-Muslim hate crimes committed in the United States every year, a five-fold increase from pre-9/11 levels, and that’s before the San Bernardino attacks and Donald Trump’s fascistic fear-mongering. Furthermore, the vandalism and destruction of property is not something that should be taken lightly. Throughout American history, racially and religiously motivated violence desecrated the physical spaces minorities inhabited, threatening them everywhere, at all times, even in their places of worship. Anti-Semitism is a vile and contemptible form of group-hatred, but violence done against one minority should never be downplayed because there is greater violence against another minority. Harris has the supreme privilege — a rich, white man’s privilege, I should add — of remaining aloof and ignorant about these crimes, and it makes one wonder if he knows any Muslims beyond Maajid Nawaz and the two others he always cites, or if he has ever set foot in a Muslim-majority country and talked to more than a handful of Muslims.

Not surprisingly, Harris openly mocked this piece on Twitter as part of what he sees as Salon’s bias against him. I say “not surprisingly” because I can’t recall a single instance of Sam Harris ever publicly acknowledging a single critic of his so much as properly understanding him and honestly representing his positions. It’s only slight hyperbole to say that, at this point, Harris is almost more famous for his constant accusations that his critics are misunderstanding him or deliberately misrepresenting him than for any of the actual content he produces. Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks did a brilliant job of showing how Harris pulls this off by using doublespeak to effectively tow the line between two opposing positions. In this way, when you cite particularly distressing quotes like, “the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists,” (source) Harris or his obsessively devoted fans will insist you’re taking him out of context and then proceed to cherry-pick other statements he’s made that express anti-fascist sentiments. Or, when Harris says, “Given a choice between Noam Chomsky and Ben Carson, in terms of the totality of their understanding of what’s happening now in the world, I’d vote for Ben Carson every time,” he provides so many hedges that he’s essentially disowned the entire quote without ever admitting he’s backed down or was only being hyperbolic. For the record, the person Harris says has a greater understanding of geopolitics than Noam Chomsky can’t name a single U.S. ally in the Middle East. Of course this doesn’t matter because Harris also said, “Ben Carson is a dangerously deluded religious imbecile… The fact that he is a candidate for president is a scandal. But at the very least he can be counted on to sort of get this one right. He understands that jihadists are the enemy.” So the quotes cancel each other out entirely and therefore, it’s like he said nothing at all. Except that, to me anyway, it still kinda seems like he’s saying that, DESPITE Carson’s idiocy, Harris agrees with Carson’s crazy positions on Middle East policy. Which is problematic. To say the least.

Ironically, despite Harris’ constant outrage of supposedly being misrepresented himself, he has no qualms about promoting blatant, cartoonish caricatures himself in the form of what he calls “the regressive left.” He frequently uses this term to dismiss any who dare add any nuance to the discussion of Jihadi terrorism beyond Harris’ simplistic, caveman-like Muslim=bad rhetoric. There is a huge distinction between acknowledging the fact that U.S. foreign policy has negatively impacted many civilians in the Middle East, and that that is one factor in the disenfranchisement that leads some to join terror groups and Harris’ straw man of liberals excusing Islam entirely and just blaming the victims for the terrorism that comes to our shores. And while I agree with Harris that Western nations should be outraged at even the heinous human rights violations done by U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia in the name of Islam, it’s important to recognize the desired social changes must happen gradually and that our influence is contingent on our not rocking the boat too much with leaders in Muslim nations. First of all, it’s important to recognize that Jihadi terrorists do not represent all Muslims by a long-shot; rather, Muslims remain the greatest victims of organizations like ISIS or Boko Haram. Next, the geopolitical reality is that the U.S. can’t defeat groups like ISIS alone without the local Islamic nations doing much of the work.  Alienating those nations will drive more disenfranchised to hate the United States and join groups like ISIS. It will also weaken the kind of Western influence that affect the kinds of social reforms we want to see in those regions. It’s all very complicated, and there is no  perfect solution to every problem we see in the Middle East,  the rest of the Islamic world, and religion in general.

Look. I used to really admire both Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. In fact, I’m almost positive I could go through the archives of this very blog and find pieces championing both. But the world’s changed. Or maybe I’ve changed. Or both. I don’t know. But I do know that I used to oppose the term “Islamophobia” like they constantly do, insisting it’s just a term that’s thrown out to deflect legitimate criticism of the bad ideas within the Islamic religion, which is just as full of bad ideas as all the other religions. And I used to hate the term “New Atheists.” Now, I just see it as a convenient way to distinguish skeptical, reason-based atheism from those Islamophobic or Islamophobia denialist New Atheists who just insist everything they’re doing is based on reason when it isn’t, much like the Klingons on Star Trek falsely insist everything they do is honorable.

The bottom line is religious beliefs should be criticized, but reason-driven atheists should not provide cover for such irrational, bigoted behavior against Muslim people. As the late public intellectual and New Atheist author Christopher Hitchens once said, “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.” I share the sentiment expressed by Jeff Sparrow over at The Guardian that atheism can be reclaimed from these increasingly more toxic voices, that it can be saved. But if we atheists are to reclaim the name, we’re going to have to break from the cult of personality around figures we once looked up to and find new, better representatives for rationality, while also being sure not to make the same mistake of creating more cults of personality.


What’s so bad about labels?

July 18, 2014

organic-gmo1Over the last several years, the issue I’ve probably been most heavily involved in — and certainly most heavily associated with in skeptics circles — has been dispelling anti-vaccine propaganda. And a year ago, I wasn’t very involved in the debate over Genetically Modified Foods (GMOs). And it wasn’t a subject I knew an awful lot about. But over the past year, as it became more and more clear that the media and most people of any consequence have stopped taking the anti-vaccine movement seriously, I’ve sort of shifted my focus onto advocating for GMO’s. This decision was largely fueled by the bombardment on my Facebook feed of anti-GMO posts by my fellow liberal Facebook friends.

Now recently, someone asked me why I object to laws imposing labels on GMO products, and it occurs to me that the answer to that question is very nuanced.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with labeling GMOs in theory, but the primary objection to them is that they’re just a Trojan horse for ideologues who will use them to do the opposite of their stated purpose for the labels, that they’ll be exploited to misinform the public about their food rather than educate them. We already see constant propaganda about how because some European countries have banned GMO products, that that’s in and of itself evidence they’re dangerous when it’s much more a product of scientifically ignorant or pandering politicians. There’s every reason to believe that once labels are imposed on GMO products (for no good reason because they’re as safe as their non-GMO counterparts), that anti-GMO activists will insist that the existence of labels is an admission by the U.S. government that GMOs are less safe. This is the Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire Fallacy.

And we’ve seen this logical fallacy used before by anti-vaccine activists who insist that the removal of Thimerosal, the ethylmercury-based anti-fungal and anti-septic agent once contained in some flu vaccines, fifteen years ago is evidence the substance is inherently harmful. However, the reality is the chain of cause and effect was the reverse. Thimerosal was actually removed because of that very political pressure by uninformed citizens groups insistent that it was harmful. Now, anti-vaccine fanatics exploit their own success in getting public officials to change policy to then claim we wouldn’t have removed it if it was truly safe. A very devious tactic, and sadly, often very effective.

Now if the GMO issue was all just a matter of personal preference, it wouldn’t be such a serious concern among scientists. But the problem is that by 2050, the world population is projected to reach 9 billion people, and we’ll need to increase food production by 70% to feed that many people. GMOs are not only one of the most important means of making that happen, but they’re also better for the environment and can save lives today in communities that lack certain forms of nutrition. For instance, a genetically modified banana, which has the potential to dramatically reduce infant mortality and blindness in children across Africa, is undergoing its first human trials. In those regions, the local bananas don’t contain enough Vitamin A, so hundreds are dying from Vitamin A deficiencies. This particular GM banana contains much higher quantities of Vitamin A, and will literally save lives. But those who are biased against transgenic foods refuse to accept these live-saving benefits and will inevitably use these labels as a pretext for pushing their ideology in a similar way to how creationists use the pretext of “academic freedom” to push their ideology in schools.

 


Libertarianism and Rent Control

June 24, 2014

ImageI’ve long ago abandoned the notion that Libertarianism is anything other than a deeply flawed ego-driven ideology, contrary to its adherents’ insistence of its basis in pure rationality. But as much as I try to avoid it, sometimes I get sucked into an online debate on social media and find myself wanting to preserve some of the debate.

Today, a libertarian friend mine posted the following on their Facebook wall:

Obnoxious-sounding-but-honest question of the day:

Why do we push for low-income housing in NYC (rent control, stabilization, etc)? It seems a strangely-specific attempt at wealth redistribution that can’t possibly be allocated fairly. What’s wrong with unrestrained real estate prices that mean the ‘good’ neighborhoods end up being exclusively rich? Why do we treat that luxury as something everyone should get…why not insist cars are sold at a loss to low income drivers (for example)? The end result would be that poorer people would have to find housing further out, and their commutes would be longer. But that’s already the case, for the most part, and is a generally-accepted aspect of wealth disparity.

Of course one would likely argue that humanity is improved by a shrinking of said wealth disparity, but this doesn’t change it, it just masks it for a lucky tiny percentage of the population. Doesn’t it?

I assume there’s a good answer for this, considering how widespread the acceptance of the practice.

This post was met with numerous responses including this thoughtful one from someone else:

There’s also the downside of gentrification as produced by market forces.

As rents in crease the poorer members of the neighbourhood have to move out and further away from the jobs they have, resulting in a higher and higher share of their income going to commute & transportation costs, forcing more and more of even those with good budgeting skills to live month-to-month with no savings. While the metro system of NYC and associated bus routes help mitigate that, it does not reduce it completely. Further, think of the shitty public transit in most places and how that affects this problem. Because when those people have to move out of their neighbourhood the only options open to them are low-rent, residential-only neighbourhoods with no jobs in them and further away from any jobs open to them. Neighbourhoods with jobs means those neighbourhoods have services which are convenient which means they cost more to rent or buy in. Vicious cycle.

Also, it’s not about everybody being able to have luxury, it’s about what we are willing to accept as the minimum decent standard of living for everybody. We’re not talking about everybody being able to have the latest octo-core 64gigs of ram gamer’s delight PC and vacationing in southern France every year, but rather a $300 laptop less than 5 years old and a week renting a cottage with friends upstate every couple of years. 

Rent control and affordable housing are two of the tools that can be used to at least slow down gentrification and at least help with giving the less well-off a chance at that minimum decent standard of living.

My libertarian friend responded:

OK, I’ve gotten a pretty good feeling for the benefits of artificially manipulating housing costs for the purported benefit of community and social cohesion (and stability, for the revolution-minded).

Now I’d like to hear from the other side. Where my libertarians at? Tell me why the benefits aren’t as good as we think, or why even if the benefits are real the cost is too high, or something.

As I stand now I’m pretty convinced the upside is real and good. I’m less convinced it’s actually feasible and even less convinced we’re doing it well. Perhaps those are really the only objections and this is an optimization problem. But I’d be interested in hearing out those who think it’s a fundamental bad, too.

A bunch of people posted some great arguments, and I chimed in with this:

Also leads to this, allegedly perfectly good restaurants who would certainly thrive if it was merely a matter of market forces but are going out of business anyway simply because of obscenely high rent:http://www.nytimes.com/…/union-square-cafe-joins-other…

After it was suggested high rent was a market force, I made this correction:

Correction: I meant in terms of competition exclusively. One business could prove superior to its competition and still lose for reasons almost completely out of its control.

To which my friend responded:

I am completely unmoved by the plight of Union Square Cafe. They could double their prices to afford to stay, but presumably they would lose customers to cheaper places. So…they’re in a neighborhood where rich people want to eat cheaply, and they must close. That’s the way businesses work. I fail to see a problem here.

My response was:

It’s not about one restaurant but the entire neighborhood. If none of the businesses can afford to supply the demand, the customers will spend their money elsewhere, which is detrimental to the entire neighborhood, not just one single business. Now I personally haven’t encountered many libertarians who’d argue something like “then screw the whole neighborhood.” Rather, I’d expect libertarianism to be able to present some kind of solution that would save a neighborhood from losing all its business other than the Kobayoshi Mari scenario of raise your prices and kiss your customers goodbye.

To which he responded:

That doesn’t make sense. If it’s detrimental to the whole neighborhood, the property values fall, and the restaurants can afford to operate once again. It’s exactly how markets are supposed to work. Why does that equilibrium fail to establish here? Do we know it doesn’t? Is it possible this is just a transitional period where we’re hearing from a segment of the population that feels adversely affected by an equalizing market?

And this led me to make this broader point about Libertarianism as a whole:

It seems to underscore the dehumanizing foundation of libertarian argument where people are merely abstractions or data points. What you’re describing can only be viewed as equilibrium if you’re looking at it from afar over a long enough timeline of decades or centuries. Up close, on the month-to-month or year-to-year scale, it’s perpetual instability as a neighborhood gradually moves from one socioeconomic extreme to another and back again over and over again as many thousands of people suffer. I fail to see the human benefit of maintaining a state of constant instability over trying to employ sensible regulations. Given the human cost of instability, if rent control prevents erratic fluctuations in the socioeconomic status of a neighborhood and the trade-off is a mild imposition on property-owners that sill allows them to prosper, there seems to be value in it that can’t just be written off by libertarianism as irrational sentimentality. Of course it always depends on the size of the imposition versus the size of the overall benefit to the community but pretty much all human interaction is compromise or negotiation in one form or another. Inevitably, there will be cases that err on one side of that equation or the other, but the alternative seems like the naturalistic fallacy to me. If everyone else has to suffer so that a few people aren’t impositioned, then what good is it? Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance seems like a better starting foundation for a society than Eric Cartman’s “Whateva, I do what I want” model.

There were some other people that made lengthy and very interesting points on both sides of the rent control issue, but I didn’t want to copy even more extensive quotes than what I have already without proper attribution. And I don’t feel right broadcasting who is saying what on social media. I think it’s reasonable to try to preserve some privacy on Facebook. Anyway, I thought it was an interesting topic and I hope this adds to the discussion. 


How I answered MoveOn.org’s request to know why I unsubscribed to their email newsletters

June 22, 2014

ImageForgive me, father, for I have sinned. It’s been about a year since my last post. In that time, I’ve become quite active in trying to dispel some of the many myths surrounding the topic of Genetically Modified Organizations (GMO’s), and it’s in the spirit of that new focus that I have decided to unsubscribe from MoveOn.org’s email newsletters after they introduced a dishonest initiative to undermine GMO’s.

The petition linked to above makes several factually incorrect statements and also uses manipulative language. For instance, note the use of the word “pervasive” when describing GMO’s. “Pervasive” has obvious negative connotations, negative connotations not at all justified by the evidence. Then the petition claims the GMO’s are “largely untested, possibly harmful for humans to eat.” Every GMO currently on the market has been safety tested. Granted, since not all GMO’s are created equal, some are perhaps better tested than others, but the vague statement that GMO’s in general are “largely untested” pretty much falls into the “pants on fire” category. And of course “possibly harmful” is a nice bit of legalese that really doesn’t say anything. Anything within reason is possible; one could just as easily claim GMO’s will possibly turn you into a dragon. I’m not saying it will, but I’m just not ruling it out. But of course any reader, particularly one who knows nothing about the science and already trusts MoveOn.org’s judgment, this is sufficient to poison the well and persuade that person that GMO’s are bad. MoveOn’s evidence? They don’t provide any.

Now what’s the real harm in a labeling campaign anyway? Should consumers not be informed what’s in their food? On the surface, it’s of course a reasonable-sounding argument. The problem is there’s already so much propaganda falsely implicating GMO’s for all many of unproven ailments and labels further give people an impression that the label exists to warn them of harm. This is an old tactic. Once the labels are there, the new argument made by anti-GMO ideologues will be, “If GMO’s are so safe, why did the government put warning labels on them?” This is called the Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire Fallacy.

So when asked for a reason why, I responded thusly:

MoveOn’s campaign against GMOs is fundamentally anti-science, every bit as anti-science as Right-Wing campaigns denying the human-effects of climate change and the teaching of evolution.

To quote Pamela Ronald’s excellent recent article in MIT Technology Review:

“If Vermont had honestly assessed genetically engineered crops, the bill would have indicated that there is not a single credible report of dangerous health effects from GMOs and that there is no science-based reason to single out the resulting foods for mandatory labeling. It would have mentioned that the technology has been used safely in food and medicine for 30 years. It would have stated that farmers’ use of GMO crops has reduced by a factor of 10 the amount of insecticides sprayed on corn over the last 15 years, reduced food costs, decreased carbon dioxide emissions, and enhanced biological diversity.” 

Make no mistake. Efforts to add warning labels to GM foods that have shown no indication of harm is every bit as corporate-driven as any efforts by the Koch Brothers or Big Oil, etc. Those most benefiting from it are parties marketing so-called “organic” foods, a product that, contrary to the hype, offers no health or environmental advantage over the alternative. 

MoveOn’s efforts in this arena are not only wrong-headed; they fly in the face of all the available evidence, stifle human progress, increase food costs for everyone, does immense harm to third-world populations, and denies the consensus of virtually all relevant reputable international science organizations, who universally agree that the process of genetic engineering is no more risky to human health than conventional approaches to genetic modification (http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/08/27/glp-infographic-international-science-organizations-on-crop-biotechnology-safety/#.U6CqifldWTO).

Some useful links:
ftp://ftp.cordis.europa.eu/pub/fp7/kbbe/docs/a-decade-of-eu-funded-gmo-research_en.pdf
http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/08/with-2000-global-studies-confirming-safety-gm-foods-among-most-analyzed-subject-in-science/#.UlTteYZOPTo
http://www.biofortified.org/2013/10/20-points-of-broad-scientific-consensus-on-ge-crops/
http://dangeroustalk.net/a-team/GMO

 

Oh, and I also created a petition on MoveOn’s website to MoveOn Executive Director Anna Galland.


Why I disagree with my liberal peers on Bloomberg’s proposed ‘soda ban’

March 11, 2013

Today, a judge struck down NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed limits on surgary drinks. And as a liberal progressive with mostly liberal progressive friends, most of my peers seems overjoyed by this news. But I’m not.

I’ll admit, when news of the bill first emerged, my initial knee-jerk reaction seemed to be the same as everyone else, that the proposed law was ridiculous. But then my opinion gradually shifted to the point that I’m now more in favor of it than not. Paradoxically, it probably didn’t help that Big Soda’s political ads running at movie theaters couldn’t have been more ridiculous and misleading if they were hosted by Troy McClure. And since the smallest beverage size offered at most movie theaters these days is 32 ounces, it’s hard to see any conflict of interest among theater owners’ opposition to the bill. Unfortunately, I don’t think it took corporate geniuses to spin this as a attack on consumer freedoms after the press was quick to inaccurately label the proposal a “soda ban.” The very first conclusion we all jumped to was the wild notion that Big Government was taking away our soda. And that’s certainly the angle of today’s nauseating headline in the joke that is the NY Daily News:  “Bloomberg’s soda ban fizzles, New Yorkers win.”

But that’s not what’s going on here at all. On the contrary, it’s not the consumers who are the targets of this bill but the corporations. They’re the ones being infringed upon. Now normally, it’s the liberals in modern society who crusade against corporate power, sometimes even to the point where that clouds their judgment. For instance, two popular pseudo-scientific positions, anti-vaccinationism and anti-GMOs, are held disproportionately by liberals railing against the corporations at the center of these issues. But here we have a case where corporations like McDonalds (sorry they’re always the stand-in representative for all fast food), have successfully diverted attention away from their role in America’s public health problems and managed to make the Left-Wing sound like the gun-obsessed Right that’s also been heavily in the news lately. Just like the gun-totting Republican stereotype proclaiming that they won’t let Big Government take away their guns when nobody is really coming for their guns, now I see my liberal peers proclaiming nobody’s taking away their freedom to drink sugary drinks when nobody is coming for their sugary drinks. That’s not what the bill is trying to do at all.

Now let me be clear here. The appropriateness of any given public health initiative is always debatable no matter how scientifically sound its premise. And sensible people can reasonably disagree on such public policy decisions without being driven by ideology or corporate money. Now I used to flirt with libertarianism myself in college but it didn’t take. I’ve since become a strong opponent to libertarian ideology while still maintaining that there are some cases where the more libertarian approach may be called for. But when it comes to public health policies firmly rooted in real science, I tend more socialist. For instance, I support strong vaccine policies and water fluoridation programs. So if a reasonable amount of scientific evidence backed the notion that reducing sugary drinks has a statistically significant positive health effect, I’d have no problem at least entertaining the idea of government playing a role in reducing that health threat, provided I felt the measures didn’t go too far.

Today, there was a great piece over at Think Progress that touches on the relevant science and facts surrounding this issue:

Restaurants’ portion sizes are more than four times larger now than they were in the 1950s — and that culture of excess is making its wayinto Americans’ homes, too, where meals are also getting bigger. Soft drinks sizes specifically have seen one of the largest increases, ballooning by over 50 percent since the mid-1970s. And research suggests that larger portion sizes do lead people to consume more than they would have otherwise, since we tend to estimate calories with our eyes rather than our stomachs.

The average American child consumes about 270 calories from soft drinks each day, which adds up to U.S. children drinking about 7 trillion calories from soda each year. That’s a huge problem in the larger context of childhood obesity rates, which have tripled since 1980. But there’s evidence that innovative public health measures can pay off. After all, states with aggressive nutrition policies, which include limits on sugary drinks and fried foods in public schools cafeterias, have experienced decreases in their childhood obesity rates.

The impact of sugary drinks on the ongoing obesity epidemic, and how best to encourage Americans to make healthier choices, is one that health advocates continue to grapple with, and there’s general consensus that proposals like Bloomberg’s are worth a shot.

Now I remember years ago when NYC implemented a policy to reduce smoking by banning people from smoking indoors in public spaces. Back then, even though I’d never smoking a cigarette in my life and had no love for the tobacco industry, I passionately opposed that policy decision. In the years since, however, the statistically significant drop in lung cancer deaths in New York City made that position more and more untenable. The reward proved to far outweigh the infringement on civil liberty, in my opinion. If I’m honest, perhaps my feeling I’d been wrong about that decision has influenced my position on the sugary drink restriction bill by making me reconsider my initial negative gut reaction to the idea.

Regardless of one’s opinion on the ethics of the matter, Bloomberg’s proposal seems at least born out of a drive to improve public health. And for any public official to put the people first is admirable…and rare these days. The message the mayor wants to send people is that too much soda is not good for you. He does this by slightly inconveniencing consumers who wish to drink more. I suspect that if this bill does come to pass, it’ll have an overall statistical effect on people’s waistline. But we’d have to see when we get the hard data. I concede that it’s entirely possible it will fail miserably. But I think it’s a worthwhile experiment.

It’s also worth noting that this is hardly breaking the mold; we regulate lots of substances and the legal system attempts to determine in each case what a fair penalty is. The only difference here is that sugary drinks are generally viewed by our society as benign despite the science showing the contrary, and so people quickly jump to a knee-jerk argument from personal incredulity. Again, the proposed law does not target the consumer, but the corporations.

Now paradoxically, the very reason the judge today ruled against the law is largely the reason I like this particular proposal in the first place. His complaint was that it left open too many loopholes, and thus was unenforceable. After all, hasn’t everyone already patted themselves on the back for being genius enough to conspire to buy two cups? But that’s the whole point! Yes, you can buy two 16-ounce drinks to buck the system, you sly devil you. Hell, you could buy 20 cups of soda if that’s your personal idea of freedom, or whatever. The press has done a horrible disservice to the public by labeling this a “ban.” It’s nothing of the kind. You can buy all the diabetes juice you please. That’s the beauty of the bill and exactly why comparisons to alcohol prohibition completely fail.

Any individual CAN get around the bill easily if they were so inclined. The beauty of the bill is that it’s built on decades of psychology research that predict that given the choice, the vast majority people simply WON’T ultimately choose to buy more than one cup and WON’T bother to make another stop somewhere else, because most people will likely choose the path of least resistance. And it gets even better than that. Not only will people on average likely choose to not make an extra effort and just accept whatever size is offered, but its using the corporation’s own stigmatization strategy against them. Decades ago, McDonalds realized that many customers would finish their small fries, and despite still looking hungry, would not go up to buy another order of fries. They eventually discovered that people didn’t go up to order more fries because it was embarrassing to be seen ordering even more food. That’s why they introduced larger sizes; it’s more discreet. The Bloomberg plan does the same thing in reverse. Sure, everyone says they’ll just order multiple cups –and most importantly of course, the law doesn’t stop anyone from doing so– but who really wants to be the guy sitting at McDonalds seen with two cups in front of them? I suspect the ordering multiple drinks strategy will be more common among those taking their food to go. But then again, if you’re taking it out, why even bother buying insanely overpriced soda at the fast food restaurant?

So what’s my final takeaway here? Big Government isn’t taking your soda any more than its taking your guns. Bloomberg’s proposal infringes on corporations, not consumers, who would be just as free to consume sugary drinks as they’ve always been in whatever quantity they please. If psychology research proves accurate, merely adding a slight inconvenience to consumers who choose to drink above 16 ounces will drive many to just accept the smaller sizes given, and in turn, consume fewer calories from soft drinks and less sugar, which would have a statistically significant effect on public health in the long run. And regardless of whether the science is sound, most people will probably reject this policy and similar policies in the future for ill-conceived, illogical, and ideological grounds before finding an actual good argument to oppose it (and I certainly think there are some good reasons). Oh yeah, and patrons can always order larger sizes of diet beverages.


Sorry for the long hiatus

December 5, 2011

Lately, I’ve been busy with a lot of other activities and so that’s why I’ve been neglecting my blogging duties here. For instance, this weekend I presented a talk at NYC SkeptiCamp on Bringing Skeptical Activism to NYC. Add to that the birth of my niece, Thanksgiving, a new job, small participation in Occupy Wall Street, and a short film project. Oh yeah, and I participated in last month’s Anonymous “Fancy Raid” against Scientology, the events of which are discussed on Tony Ortega on The Village Voice blog. That was a fun and crazy night.

Anywho, I’ll come back as soon as I can.

In the meantime, enjoy Tim Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun”:

And here’s also a picture of my brother and little nephew at the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia’s rally to put up their Tree of Knowledge display for the holiday season:


Insane Troll Logic

May 11, 2011

Lately, I’ve been inundated with comment trolls who have asked me why I try to spoil everyone’s fun or asking why I even care, or suggesting I’m wasting my time. So I thought it might be fun to start a new potentially reoccurring category of posts titled “Insane Troll Logic,” where I’d share some of my comments along with some hopefully entertaining responses. In this post, I’ve decided to share two recent comments.

The first one comes from someone calling themselves M.D.M., who posted a comment on one of my more popular pieces, which was about the “University of Metaphysical Science”:

Why do you care? Shouldn’t you be focusing on something positive than what you believe is negative? Posting your “beliefs” is a scam too. You have no proof to your so called findings. After all, isn’t that what science is anyway? Proof? If you cannot prove it, then take your bandwagon on a trip to solve something that can be proved. As a fellow Doctor, we are supposed to have supporting information before we claim something to be true. Otherwise, it is just an opinion. . .everybody has one.

Save the world by doing something useful, not by trying to tear down others.

Peace

I care because I care about what is true and I believe the more people that are educated in what is true and educated in how to distinguish truth from fiction, the better society will be. I am focused on a positive goal, science education. If you’re going to judge me on a single blog entry, I can just as easily accuse you of being negative based on your critical comment.

As for your claim that I have no proof for my position, you’re shifting the burden of proof. Science bases its every conclusion on falsifiable, empirical evidence. If one is charging money to teach a scientific curriculum that is not based on sufficient evidence, they are not really teaching science at all and are merely using the name of science to deceive customers into believing that what they’re teaching is science. This is false advertising and fraud. So not only do the claims of this school directly contradict proven scientific principles but it fails to provide any proof of those claims, and the burden of proof is on them. This is like claiming Santa Claus exists and charging money to teach people how to do Santa’s job, and then insisting it’s everyone else’s job to disprove the existence of Santa Claus. Science doesn’t work that way. Nor do the laws of logic. It’s always the claimant’s job to prove their claim.

Actually, I’m quite happy saving the world doing exactly what I’m doing now, regardless of whether you misinterpret it as “tearing down others.” On the contrary, all I’ve criticized is a scam. I have not torn down any person who has the misfortune of falling victim to it.

Troll 2

The next one comes from someone calling themselves Python, who posted a comment on my piece on “Quantum Jumping”, which thanks to Google, has probably become my most viewed and most commented on post ever:

Skepticism is dogmatism. It’s doubting something else because it doesn’t align with your personal truths. It is literally saying “I don’t believe in X because I believe in Y.”This is one reason I can’t trust skeptics, ever. You people don’t trust yourselves or others, and these put forward a false front. You are charlatans, in your mind and in your lives. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one truly happy skeptic, ever. That doubt creeps through their lives spreading fear, pride and resentment. They can’t just relax because they are on edge, ready to defend all attacks on their beliefs, both real and imagined threats, mostly imagined.

In the end, skeptics can’t be dealt with. They are so stubborn and insistent. If you try and tell them your view, they argue with it, or demand proof. If you ask them to prove their own view they get upset and start spouting off nonsensical words like “burden of proof” and “reasonable doubt”. No one has to prove anything, there’s no law saying you need to prove what you know to a complete stranger. It would get silly if everything you did required some burden of proof. Every time you buy bread “Prove to me that this bread really is made of flour! I don’t believe it is!” Every time you fill up with gas “Prove to me how the four stroke engine works! I don’t believe that cars work this way!” Burden of proof and reasonable doubt are legal terms for court cases, not for inquiries into the human experience.

Skeptics doubt everything except their own beliefs, and that’s the first thing that should be doubted. It’s a wonderful and complex universe out there, no one really knows what is and what is not possible. Being open to the possibilities and being curious is the path to truth, not skepticism and doubt.

Well, no. What you’re describing is denialism. I’m also not talking about “philosophical skepticism,” the idea that it’s impossible to know whether we actually know the things that we know.

Scientific skepticism is the exact opposite of dogmatism; it means specifically aligning one’s beliefs with the best available evidence. And the mission of Skeptical activism is simply to further the role of reason and evidence in our society.

To quote Steven Novella:
“A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.”

As I’ve said repeatedly in this comment thread, if you can present sufficient empirical evidence for a claim and it survives the peer review of experts in the relevant fields, I will happily change my mind and admit I was wrong. See, I don’t have any problem admitting when I’m wrong. I was wrong before and I’ll be wrong again. What separates me from a dogmatist is that I can admit when I’m wrong and change my mind when presented with new evidence. That’s called critical thinking.

On the contrary, if these ad hominem attacks on my character and straw men arguments against a position I do not actually hold are any indication, it seems like it’s YOU who cannot tolerate differences in opinion, not me. If I appear stubborn, it’s because I haven’t been given sufficient reason to change my mind, not that I’m unwilling to change my mind even when presented with a good reason to do so.

The one thing you said that does hold some legitimacy is you said I don’t trust myself or others. To that accusation, I say guilty as charged. As a student of human psychology, I recognize the flaws of human perception and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or even myself. Again, as Novella said in the quote posted above, “skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.”

If you haven’t studied logic maybe you should better educate yourself before concluding that terms like “burden of proof” are “nonsensical.” Burden of proof is a well established law of basic logic and it’s recognized in just about every court room in the world for a very good reason. If you don’t think it applies outside of a courtroom, why doesn’t it?

As for no one needing to prove anything, if they are charging money for a service, then they very well better be able to prove they can indeed perform that service or else this is a crime known as fraud. Your bread analogy is a false one in that the existence of bread is not an extraordinary claim. But yes, if someone on the street promises that if you pay them now, they will mail you a loaf of bread, you have sufficient reason to be skeptical that you will get your bread. Pretending that there’s no distinction in plausibility between any claim is utterly absurd. If I said I went to Starbucks yesterday, I might be lying or confusing one day with another, but you have no reason to doubt that claim because it’s rather unremarkable. Whereas if I said I was abducted by space aliens yesterday and they let me fly their flying saucer around the Earth, given the extraordinary nature of the claim, you’d have good reason to suspect that I was either lying or delusional. At that point, it would be quite reasonable for you to demand evidence. And if instead, I came up with a host of excuses, while that wouldn’t prove my experience didn’t happen, you’d have good reason to not believe it. And the responsibility would not be yours to prove it didn’t happen but rather, it’d be on me to prove I did fly a alien ship. Your car analogy actually works against you because we understand exactly how cars work. If I believed they worked by magic and someone wanted to convince me that it was actually scientific principles at work, I can read books and learn precisely how a car works. But because cars are anything but extraordinary in our modern world and I at least have a vague understanding of how they work, I have no reason to doubt “every time I fill up with gas.” You on the other hand seem to prefer to believe in magic rather than educate yourself about how the world really works. And you’re free to do so. Just like I’m free to ridicule you for your fuzzy, superstitious thinking.

But since you are such a critic of close-mindedness, tell me, what would change YOUR mind?

Troll 3

Actually, this one came first chronologically, but it was also posted on my ever-so-popular “Quantum Jumping” piece by commenter CallMeNutz:

you are sound like a person with a very bleak outlook on life. Am I wrong? here are a couple of suggestions, Live a little, Maybe instead of trying to tell people how wrong they are, you should be be out there making the best of your life. It’s pretty short you know. Maybe you’ll be able to live to 100 years but after that you’re dead to this Earth. If people want to believe quantum jumping then they can do that, they seem to be doing something with their lives instead of telling people how stupid they are. I agree with the fact that this Burt guy is obviously ripping people off but if they want to to that follow that, that’s their choice. I know one thing in life, you sure can’t control humans.The best you can do is make suggestions. Do you really feel happy mr.jr, on the web, trolling? Science can’t explain everything. It really can’t. Einstein and other scientist were just people, you can’t base all your beliefs on people. We’re too unreliable. I may seem like a mother scolding you via the inter web but I just couldn’t let this go by. Have a good life, and lighten up, big guy! Haven’t you heard? “Don’t take life so seriously, no one gets out alive anyway”.(If you want, ignore this comment. I know you probably will anyway :D)

Sincerely, That Laid back follower of God.

You’re wrong. I’m actually quite jolly. Glad to hear your wonderful solution to the world’s problems is to throw up your hands and say, “Ain’t my problem,” and then completely ignore it.

“Science can’t explain everything. It really can’t.”
Prove it. Bonus points if you do so without using science.

‘Einstein and other scientist were just people, you can’t base all your beliefs on people.”
This is Peter Pan, isn’t it? Are you commenting while flying through Never Never Land?

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