Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Fear of Street Harassment

I just got home from a very late night in the lab, after having myself quite a scare. 

At around 10pm I finally managed to finish up my work, after a stupid experiment was refusing to go as planned, and exited the main building of the Biology Department into the fenced area where my bike was locked up. Through the chicken wire fence a group of six men on bikes spot me, and one of them comes closer to the fence to whistle at me. The first and only thought to enter my head: Shit

Something you have to understand about where I work is that it is in an area that is only populated during the day, surrounded on three sides by office buildings and banks, on the fourth by a canal and pedestrian walkway. It is because of this that it is a notorious area for drug dealers at night, which in this part of Italy consist largely of North Africans, infamous for their distaste of women. There has been more than one woman beaten, raped or violently mugged on these streets immediately surrounding this building either at night or on Sunday, when no one is around.

My brain immediately went into survival mode. I can't go back inside, like hell I'm sleeping in the lab tonight. I can't call anyone, everyone I know well enough to have their number is on holiday. I stand no chance if they intend to chase me and catch me, I might have a shot if there was just one or two of them, but six? My chances plummet to zero. I can loop around the back, exiting the side gate, which would give me enough of a head start to either (a) not be seen by them or (b) having a good enough chance to out-bike them to the nearest street with the highest possibility of traffic and make my way home from there. So that's what I decide to do, and as I leave I see in the distance a few people walking back up along the canal. Phew, people! And that's when I remember: the kiosks. There's kiosks set up along the canal for the summer that are open all night. They must be full of people, I'm safe. Those men that freaked me out were probably just pumped about going out for a night on the town, not spotting and pointing a possible target. Crisis averted. And then I started to get angry.

Those men probably have no idea the sheer panic that they put me through. They were at best blissfully oblivious at worst wholly indifferent, and all for what exactly? What do men expect women to do when they whistle, make kissing noises or vulgar gestures? Am I supposed to swoon in delight, run after your car or bicycle and beg you to take me home with you? Am I supposed to be impressed or flattered by this cowardly gesture of vulgarity after which you run away lest you have to confront the inevitable rejection? Are you just trying to make me uncomfortable in my own skin as a way of dealing with your own sense of inadequacy? For what fucking reason do you justify putting women in this position day after day after day?

I used to get a little annoyed with the direction the conversation of street harassment inevitably took: that women never know if the person harassing them means them harm and having to live with the insecurity of their physical inferiority. I thought and still think that it is justifiable in such a small portion of cases of harassment to be condescending that it is constantly brought up. No, I don't think that the construction worker that whistles and licks his lips at me as I walk to work is going to hop over the rail and rape me in broad daylight in front of all his coworkers, and if there are women who are afraid every single time a man makes a rude gesture their way they have their own problems and do not represent the majority. Street harassment is annoying and represents a cultural acceptance of the lack of respect and value that women still have in our society, first and foremost, the "fear factor" is a very distant runner up.

However, after what happened tonight (as well as what happened to me once in college, walking the far more dangerous streets of Dublin one night, having to defuse a potentially devastating situation in which a car full of five obviously high guys were aggressively trying to convince me to get in the car with them to go to a party), I realize that the fear that street harassment can inspire in women, while not being the central problem, is still one that is important to discuss.

The end point is this: at best, harassing a stranger in the street will make them feel annoyed and angry, as well as a little uncomfortable. At worst, it can cause them to panic and fear for their safety or lives. Considering all of this, what reasons do you have for harassing people on the street? Do you think it's just harmless fun, a dare amongst your friends? Are your reasons for doing this worth what you are putting them through?

Or perhaps are your reasons for doing these things precisely to passive aggressively cause these emotions in women? If so I have to ask, why?

What the fuck is your problem?

Monday, July 30, 2012

Thoughts On: Defensible Arrogance

I have mentioned before that I have a friend that is struggling to accept the fact that she is losing her faith, and so I suggested that she read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, a book I know has helped a lot of people in her same position. The other day she tells me that she is having a very hard time reading it, because despite the fact that she agrees with much of what he says, the arrogant tone with which he says it is putting her off. “There are millions of people around the world that have faith”, she told me, “are you saying that they are all stupid? Are you presuming that you are more intelligent than all of those people, that they have nothing worthwhile to contribute to the philosophical conversation, that you are smarter than all of them, simply because they believe?” Now I do not presume to speak for Richard Dawkins and I do not know how he would answer this specific question (though I am sure there are some videos of him responding to similar questions floating around, as he is often accused of this smugness), but there are a few points of contention that I would like to bring up.

First of all, I pointed out that The God Delusion is a book about the reasons why one should not believe, and that if there is a believer with something to offer they are by no means prohibited from putting forth an argument in contradiction to something in the book and hashing it out. Secondly I pointed out that the “smug” tone of the book would not be nearly so criticized if he was taking shots at Bigfoot believers, reptilian conspiracy theorists or AIDS denialists. She agreed with me on both points, but still maintained that the tone of the book is something that is unnecessary and off-putting.

I am not going to sit here and pretend that Richard Dawkins has no arrogant or smug bone in his body, that is not true and I am perfectly aware of it. I also realize that I was talking to someone that wont be derisive to anyone, not even the stupidest idea alive will make her snarky towards them, so this was not an issue of putting religion on a pedestal. However, here comes one of my extended analogies to address her initial question: there are millions of believers around the globe, are you saying that they are all stupid?

First of all, there mere presence of numbers of people that believe a certain thing is a terribly piss-poor reason to give credence to that particular idea or theory. The classic example is 1000 years ago the vast majority of the world believed that the Earth was flat, it does not mean that “there might be something to that” and it does not mean that everyone who thought that way was stupid: they just didn’t know any better.

To second that point, let’s say that I wrote a book similar to The God Delusion but about racism. I hate racism, I think it is an incredibly stupid belief system, and my frustration in having to deal with multiple racists throughout my career prompted me to write a particularly scathing book about all the reasons that I think the concept of racism is ridiculous, regardless of how mild or extreme, and that it should be renounced altogether. I truly believe that I am right and that the evidence backs me up, and I go on to cite all of the reasons why racism has had a terrible, poisonous influence on society as a whole, how it has impeded education and how the genetic variability within races is higher than the genetic variability between races and that thus annihilating the basis for racism.

You may come up to me then and rightly say hey, you realize that there are millions of racists around the world, and that they outnumber people that are not racist? (Not to suggest that all people are racist the way die hard Nazis are, which would be more analogous to the Westboro Baptists and Al Qaeda fundamentalists, but it is true that the majority of people around the world do have some prejudices based on race). Are you saying that those millions of people around the world, those who outnumber you, are all stupid, or bad people? The answer to that question is no.

There are plenty of stupid people around the world, and there are plenty of smart ones as well. There are stupid racists and smart racists, and then there are a bunch of people that are in the middle. There are plenty of people that do not have access to good education, have not heard the evidence against racism, and have never sat around to ponder the question because honestly they have more important things to worry about like how to feed themselves and their families. There are plenty of people that have never traveled outside of their town of birth, have never seen someone of a different race and are thus very understandably wary of the unknown. This does not mean that the people that fit this description are terrible people, or that they should be considered “just like the Nazis”. Many people of this description are very good people, they help out in their communities and are amazing, empathetic people. They do these things because they are good people, not because their racism towards other tribes or colors causes them to want to help out people of their own color and tribe.

There are also people that go on TV and spout hateful racism out to the masses, trying to convince as many people as possible to give them money, power and status. There are people that believe them, follow them and do unspeakable things in their name. Many times these people are intelligent, often times they are charlatans that do not believe their own hype, and sometimes they are stupid but possess a flair for rhetoric. I, as the author of this book, should be allowed to point this out for the awful, hurtful crap that it is, without having to constantly repeat “yes, I am aware that not all racists are like that!”. Also, the fact that a large portion of racist people do not harm others and are good people does not mean that I should not be allowed to attack the core principle of what they believe, or that I cannot express that I believe they would be even better off if they let go of their racism altogether and all of the fear, mistrust, anxiety and hate that comes with it.

At this point you might say that it is a false analogy, because racism is something that is undoubtedly hurtful to society, to which I say exactly! That is what many of these authors are saying about organized religion as well! Nowadays it’s OK to vilify racism and its loudest proponents, but even 150 years ago it most certainly was not. To even mildly suggest that maybe African Americans were also human beings, Like Harriet Beecher Stowe did in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, got her the same kind of hate mail and death threats that many prominent atheists get today, including a package containing an African American’s severed ear. The two points are more similar than you may think.

Anyway, I suppose the main point is that yes, despite the arrogant undertone of the book, there are always going to be instances in which people will feel that an arrogant undertone is perfectly justified. The question in the end becomes, is it justified in this case? And if not, what is the real reason that it annoys you?

Is it really because you have a zero tolerance for smugness in any shape or  form and are never smug about anything yourself, or is it because some fragments of religion’s historical pedestal still remain in your mind?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Repost: Why I Am An Atheist - Gregory Greenwood

As I have mentioned before, PZ Myers has started a "Why I Am An Atheist" series of essays submitted by his readers - something that I suggest anyone who is struggling with coming to terms with their own atheism, or anyone who has misconceptions about atheism, should read. 

A perfect example of addressing the common misconceptions surrounding atheism was wonderfully and concisely summed up in this essay, which I have had permission from the author to repost here. I would love to use it as a starting point to delve into some of the key arguments later on, but for now I would like to start with this. As of course I cannot presume to speak for the author please leave any comments or queries relating directly to his essay on the original post

Why I am an atheist – Gregory Greenwood

In order to properly address why I am an atheist, I think it might be helpful to first deal with those common misconceptions about why atheists don’t believe in god.

I am not an atheist because I am ‘angry at god’. As an atheist, I don’t believe in god, any god, at all. I see no reason to express anger at a fictional character. Declaring that someone’s atheism is motivated by anger at god is as irrational as saying that it is caused by anger at Sauron. I am angry about the harm that religion causes to innocent people all across the world, but this is hardly the same thing.

I am not an atheist because of a commitment to ‘nihilism’. I am not a nihilist at all. As a secular humanist, I believe that all human life has value, but not because of any unevidenced deity. As a rationalist, I find the universe beautiful and fascinating, but I do not believe that it was designed, and I do not believe that its beauty is somehow lessened by the absence of a designer. I do not refer to any undetectable phantasm to inform my sense of what has worth and value. If anything, it is religion that is truly nihilistic – to the fervent believer, the world and all the people in it have no innate worth, their value is dictated solely by the supposed edicts of god – a non parsimonious god asserted without evidence. Take that all pervasive construct of god away, and on what basis can the theist claim that anything has value on its own merit?

I am not an atheist because I am an immoral or ‘evil’ person. The idea that a person ‘cannot be good without god’ is one of the most repugnantly offensive and dehumanizing tropes of religion – it asserts that people are inherently vile and unethical creatures that are only kept in line by the threat of fire and brimstone. I do not hold such a low opinion of our species, and I believe that it is nobler to strive to act in the best interests of your fellow humans simply because it is the right thing to do rather than as a means of buying your way into some postmortem Disneyland.

I am not an atheist as a means to make some nonconformist statement or to appear ‘trendy’. Atheism is hardly associated with anything remotely fashionable. For the most part we are misrepresented and demonized by those who are either ignorant or actively malicious – the Pope even went so far as to seek to directly link atheism to nazism, and he was far from alone in making that assertion.

I am not an atheist because atheism ‘is just another religion’. Atheism is a loose catch all term for a very broad and decentralized community of people who only have to share a single factor in common to claim the title ‘atheist’ – a non-belief in gods. Beyond this, we are extremely diverse. Many atheists are also sceptics, rationalists and humanists, but not all. We have no dogma, no rigid authority structures and, contrary to the more hyperbolic claims of our opponents, no ‘high priests’ (or priestesses).

Now that we have had our little bonfire of the strawmen, lets return to the original question; why am I an atheist? The answer is simple; it is because there is no evidence for god. I think that the fundamental importance of this point is hard to overstate. Religions make all sorts of sweeping claims about the nature of physical reality based upon the supposed agency of an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent godhead and yet no evidence for this supposedly all powerful being is provided. As with any truth claim, if no evidence is forthcoming then the null hypothesis must stand. More than this, I think it downright irresponsible to confer belief on such a radical claim that is so often used as a basis for political, legal and social authority without the most comprehensive evidential base.

If the god proposition cannot be established, then all the theological manouevring of so called ‘sophisticated theology’ becomes moot. Asking ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ is pretty pointless if you cannot prove that angels exist. In the absence of evidence for god, atheism is the only intellectually consistent position to adopt.

And yet theists are never convinced by this simple point. They claim that they have an explanation as to why there is no evidence for god – apparently this entity has a strange fetish for using its power to cover its tracks. An all powerful being that demonstrates its power by rendering itself undetectable? This is perhaps the quintessential circular argument.

Even if we set aside the lack of evidence for a moment, that still doesn’t suffice to justify a belief in any one god over another. The fact is that atheism is actually highly ubiquitous; even the most committed theist is an atheist in regard to every god in the history of humanity bar their own, and there seems no rational basis for their choice of that god over any other. Why is belief in Yahweh or Allah somehow better than belief in Odin, Ra, Mithras or Zeus? Or, for that matter, belief in vampires, werewolves or fairies? In terms of evidence, each  is the equal of the others, and all are fictional. Religion demands that we treat certain classes of fictional character as sacred (and thus above debate) but not others, and never gives a compelling reason why this should be the case. The only reason why people afford the myth of god such greater standing in our culture than other classes of unevidenced superstition is because religion enjoys an unjustified, privileged status in our society as a relic of the theocratic past.

When I say that ‘I don’t believe in god’ I say it for the same reason that I might say ‘I don’t believe in fairies’. Very few people would argue that belief in fairies in the modern age is anything other than ridiculous; our understanding of science is such that positing the existence of fairies flies in the face of all that we know. I am an atheist because, if you look objectively at the evidence, there is no more reason to believe in god then there is to believe in fairies.

Gregory Greenwood

Friday, July 27, 2012

That's Just Not How It Works

I have noticed throughout my biology studies that the general public is grossly unaware of the rigorous ethical standards that biological and medical research has to adhere to. While with medical research I started to understand why after reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the misinformation that circulates regarding animal research is astounding, more so that very few people actually step up to correct it. While with other forms of misinformation that circulate in the public there are plenty of people who are not necessarily experts in that field that step up to the plate to refute it, there seems to be a general lack of knowledge when it comes to the ethical process when conducting research on animals. Television also tends to perpetuate the stereotype of the at-worst-sadistic-at-best-indifferent scientist (while also perpetuating old stereotypes in medical research as well – both the placebo and treatment groups get the treatment at the end of the clinical trial guys, I get it makes for good dramatic television to pretend otherwise but enough already), and it doesn’t help that the media go right along with it instead of taking the time to educate the public on a little known fact. I’ve been thinking about writing a post detailing the process for a while now, and a few days ago this post came up on Pharyngula. I’ll let PZ Myers explain:

Now in those old observations, we weren’t really manipulating either the brain or the environment: you don’t get to do that with human babies! All we were doing was documenting the natural progression of synaptic connection density — which, by the way, declines rapidly as the brain learns and refines. What we could see anatomically is that as young children adapt to their environment, the brain is busily pruning and shifting connections — but what we couldn’t see is what was causing those changes, or what effect those anatomical changes had on visual processing.
For that, you have to tinker. And since you can’t do that with human babies, you have to go to animal models.

And the most common animal models for studying the visual system in humans are mammals: cats (also ferrets, for technical reasons involving some of the pathways). And since we’re interested in the plasticity of the brain in young, developing animals, you can see where this is going.

Neuroscientists do experiments on kittens.


I’ve done experiments like these in the past, and even more substantial surgical manipulations. The investigators know how to do these experiments humanely: we know about anesthesia, for instance, and anything involving surgery on animals is tightly policed by Institutional Review Boards (actually, they tend to be discouraged by IRBs, but that’s a different complaint), which usually have veterinarians serving on them. If Buyukmihci has evidence that these surgeries were done in a way that did not minimize suffering, he should speak up, and the neuroscience community would join him in deploring them.
But these protocols went through Cardiff University’s ethical review process and the Home Office Animals in Science Regulation Unit. There’s no reason to think they were anything less than impeccable.

Ralph Cook, some politician or bureaucrat: “It’s an academic producing a paper which is meaningless and can’t be transferred to humans. Vivisection is completely wrong.”
No, actually, most of this research isn’t just an abstract pursuit of knowledge (although there’s nothing wrong with that, either). This is research that is directly applicable to alleviating human suffering. Treatment of visual system disorders in children is informed directly by these kinds of experiments: they tell us about the sensitivity of the visual system to abnormalities in inputs and long term effects of sustained aberrations. I had a child with ‘lazy eye’ at birth: the doctors (as well as the parents in this case) knew how important it was to correct this problem as quickly as possible, and gave us protocols (tested in cats!) that we could implement until she was old enough to get surgery.


Scientists don’t do these experiments to get their jollies torturing kittens. These are experiments that advance our understanding of the wiring of the brain.
I agree that there is an amount of suffering involved, and having done similar work, I also know that good investigators do their best to minimize it. My second job as an undergraduate was as an animal care assistant in a surgery, and one of the things I was paid to do was to spend a few hours a day just playing with post-op cats and kittens, and making sure that their housing was clean and comfortable. These were conscientious scientists. They needed to do these experiments, but they also cared about the animals. I was really impressed with their concern and respect for the animals they had to do experiments on.

So after the Mirror published yet another ridiculously misinformed and biased article, they sent it to a poll, expecting of course for the public to outrageously vote No! Kitty experimentation not OK!

I went over and voted yes, not because I think it’s awesome to randomly experiment with cats, but because I understand how these experiments work and how, at the moment, they’re the best and only option we have. Trust me, scientists are looking for ways to avoid using animals in research: it’s complicated, it’s expensive and getting the experiment approved by the ethical review boards is grueling and time-consuming. Unfortunately at the moment we have no other option, and the decision at the end is that the knowledge gained from these experiments is worth it. I understand that not everyone will agree with me, it’s not as cut-and-dry as some of the other online polls I’ve voted in, but I voted the way I felt was right.

Well, the Mirror was not happy that it’s grossly biased poll did not pan out the way they wanted it to, so what did they do? They reposted the exact same article with the exact same poll, changed the title, and added the subtitle 

Animal lovers across Britain were left out outraged by our story yesterday, however, in our poll, just 54% of people said it was wrong

Golly gee! How did our hatchet job get such mixed reviews?! No assholes, that’s not how it works.

You don’t just get a do-over because you don’t like the results. How about doing a follow-up article about why people didn’t fall for your stupidly biased approach, actually going into what bioethics is and how it works? How many times are you going to lazily repost the exact same article under a different title before you accept that the numbers are not on your side?

This time, just to spite them, I want to vote from a few different computers.

You all should go vote too, if for no other reason than sending the message that you can’t ask people a question then ignore the answer just because you don’t like it.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

See? Scientists Have A Sense Of Humor...

I was reading this article the other day, just another on the very long list of articles that I force myself to read in order to get the most thorough understanding of my field as possible, and I couldn’t help but chortle at the sense of humor scientists occasionally reveal in their work. I shall quote, if I may:

Homozygous mutants are semilethal, and adult escaper flies are uncoordinated and show numerous neurological defects (Figure S1), hence the name fratboy.

OK I’ll translate that for those of you who have not studied biology since high school.

As you may remember, animals like flies, mice and humans are diploids, which means that we all have two sets of chromosomes, which also means two “copies” of our genes. I use quotation marks because that is not precisely accurate as they are not precise copies, but rather we often have two different alleles on the same corresponding portion of our chromosome pair, but that’s a story we don’t need to get into, except to explain the difference between a homozygous and heterozygous individual.

Having two copies of the same gene can mean that if one of the two genes is mutated, the individual can sometimes survive just fine with the one copy of the gene that has remained unchanged. If an animal has one of it’s genes mutated while the other “copy” is not, it is heterozygous for that mutation. If, on the other hand both copies of the gene are mutated it is homozygous for that mutation, and if that gene is important and there are no other genes that can step up and cover for it, the animal is screwed.

Scientists usually name genes based on the problems that the animal has when you remove the function of the gene by mutation. For example, the gene eyeless in Drosophila is called eyeless because when it is mutated the flies are born without eyes. In this case, the flies that have two copies of the mutated gene sometimes die before they can reach the adult stage. The ones that do survive, however, have neurological problems including bad coordination, which prompted the researchers to name the gene fratboy.

Not the best joke in the world after that tedious scientific explanation, but I was amused.

It is not uncommon for scientists to give genes weird or humorous names. Probably the most famous is sonic hedgehog, which was named after, well, Sonic Hedgehog. There are others too, like Van Gogh, because mutations in this gene cause Drosophila wings to form these swirling patterns that apparently but the researchers in mind of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Mutations that led to clear larvae earned that gene the name glass bottomed boat. And the list goes on and on.
Yea, I don't see it either

So yes, scientists are not as stuffy as you think people! We can make each other smirk at each other’s papers when we come across yet another oddly named gene.

And then we find out that we’re the only ones that find each other funny, and go back to another funless day – unless we decide to make dry ice bombs, that can brighten up our moods.

Sources: Verstreken, P et. al. (2005). Synaptic Mitochondria Are Critical for Mobilization of Reserve Pool Vesicles at Drosophila Neuromuscular Junctions. Neuron 47(3): 365-378

Taylor, J et. al. (1998). Van Gogh: A New Drosophila Tissue Polarity Gene. Gentetics 150: 199-210

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Book Review: Flesh House

Well it had to happen sooner or later: it is a completely negative review of the latest book I had to force myself to finish: Flesh House by Stuart MacBride. I have no idea how it won the awards that it did, because I found it to be boring, long-winded, predictable and just plain gross.

I am not one of those people that can't handle a little violence or horror in my novels or movies. I have recently blathered on about how much I loved A Nail Through the Heart, which was not lacking in violence. I am a regular fan of Stephen King, and his stuff can get pretty gruesome. It is not the mere presence of gore that thoroughly annoys me when it comes to this book, it is the style and the apparent reason for its presence - and this goes for all of those pathetic Saw, Hostel or otherwise bullshit movies that I despise.

The violence in A Nail Through the Heart was necessary for the telling of a story that was not centered around pure, meaningless gore. Stephen King's (better) novels bristle with tension and suspense, being the only author I have ever come across that made my grown self check under my bed for monsters before I kept reading in my room alone at night. This book on the other hand had none of that. There was no fear, or suspense. There was no literary art to the prose. There wasn't even a good enough murder mystery clue trail to follow. Just like in those stupid movies I hate, all there was was a pointless predictable twist at the end to justify the existence of the book itself, so that all those people that love to read it don't have to admit that they are into torture porn.

I am not interested in the most disgusting thing your mind can come up with thrown in there for mere shock value. I concede that you can come up with grosser things than I can, congratulations.

I am not interested in your detailed descriptions of the torturous murder scence. Dude's getting killed, I get it.

I am not interested in the emotional turmoil that the witness to the gruesome scene must be going through. You only added the witness to tug the heart strings even further and force the reader to imagine what it would be like to have to witness such a thing happening to someone they care about. The torture itself is bad enough for my sensibilities without needing to add that in there too, thanks.

Just... I'm not interested. Now that I know that I have drastically different tastes than the girl that gave me the book in the first place I will make sure I'll remember that.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

It's OK If We Disagree

Phew sorry about that little absence guys! Almost managed to land myself in the emergency room, but I’m back and no worse for wear (you’re not getting rid of me that easily!)

As I’m sure you have gathered by the content of this blog, I get into arguments with a variety of different people quite often. Consider also that, due to my rather busy schedule all of the arguments that I have posted here have been initiated by people that have contacted me directly in search of a discussion, I haven’t started any of them myself. You can only imagine then how many arguments I get into in the “real world”, where points of contention will normally spring up in conversation with people that I don’t know, or don’t know well. It is my rather argumentative nature that has people exasperated with me at times, and I am frequently accused of being arrogant, in that people “have to agree with me”. It is a common accusation thrown around by people that are not willing to defend their positions, and one that I would like to address.

No, we don’t have to agree. I am fully aware that we as human beings possess a variety of different opinions and points of view, and this heterogeneity is something that makes us so interesting. I love meeting someone that has a different perspective from my own because I want to know all about it, how they reached that conclusion and what logical thought process brought them to a different endpoint than my own.

I don’t just say things or repeat what people I like say around me, I overthink pretty much every position I have to death. It is because of this that, if someone around me has a belief or an opinion that my logic has previously discarded, I want to know how they got there. If I find a logical fallacy or a source of inconsistency in their thought process I hammer on about it. Easy examples could be how can you call yourself a fiscal conservative, wanting to cut social programs for people that need them the most, while supporting tax cuts for the super wealthy that actually cost the country more than the social programs do? How can you laugh and scoff at people who believe in chemtrails or AIDS-denialists, but don’t laugh and scoff at anti-vaxxers?

These questions are meant to point out inconsistencies in a person’s thought process, and can bring to light either

  1. That they never noticed that there is an inconsistency
  2. That they are unaware of the facts, or lack thereof, that support a certain belief they have
  3. That I am the one with the fault in logic because I was unaware of a different aspect of the topic that this person can inform me about.

I do not want hypocrisy or fallacy to influence my conclusions, so I assume that others feel the same way. Of course, there are many people who don’t overthink their positions the way that I do, that don’t want to get into detailed conversations about why they believe what they do, they just want to be able to tell the world about them without any pushback. Once I realize that the person I am talking to does not actually have any more to contribute to the conversation because of the lack of thought behind their opinion I usually abandon the conversation, at least after I am certain that they are not curious to know more about the facts they were unaware of. Despite this I still am accused of needing everyone to agree with me because unfortunately abandonment of the conversation is usually how the argument ends (or, incidentally, with the person actually agreeing with me), but I want to clarify.

If we disagree, it’s OK. I have no problem with people who have different opinions than my own. If you tell me that you think that the super rich should get tax breaks because they deserve it fine, that is your opinion. If you tell me that you think that the state should fund religious institutions fine, that is your opinion. All I ask is that your opinions be based on the facts.

Don’t tell me that you think that the super rich deserve tax breaks because they are disproportionately picked on in society, that’s just untrue. Don’t tell me that you support the death penalty because it is cheaper and a better deterrent than life in prison, that is untrue. Don’t tell me that you think that abortion should be illegal because a zygote can feel pain, that is simply ridiculous.

We don’t have to agree, if anything our not agreeing can lead to a very interesting discussion. The only thing that I insist on agreeing on is what the facts are, what is reality.

And with that, I leave you with a video of someone who seems to have the same problem I do in this regard

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book Review: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat

After discovering (far too late I might add, a serious lapse on my part) the movie Awakenings I knew I had to read more about this Oliver Sacks guy. It was a couple of weeks ago that my father told me he was reading another of Oliver Sacks' books, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, a collection of odd neurological cases Oliver Sacks has encountered over his amazing career as a neurologist. My mother had a copy lying around, so I picked it up immediately.

The case histories need to be read to be believed. Most of them are so bizarre, so unusual that they are comic, tragic and fascinating all at the same time. Their existence force us to recognize how incredibly complex and intricate the human brain must be, for it to be possible to have such specific and bizzarre things to go wrong with it. 

Reading this book makes you realize that Dr. Sacks is one of those pondering geniuses. He adds a postscript to every chapter where he presents his musings on each case, what thoughts he had when confronted with them not just on neurology, but on life itself, what it means to be human. As The Standard said about the book, "[Dr. Sacks] has a happy knack of turning his casebook into literature", and once you get used to his writing style you see that it is absolutely true. You have to keep in mind that it is a book written in the early 80s, so words that are not considered very PC today are used gratuitously (like "simple" or "retarded"), but the tone of the book show that this is not due to a callousness on Dr. Sacks' part.

I wanted to quote a few sentences from the preface that illustrate why I find Dr. Sacks to be a likeable person:

There is no "subject" in a narrow case history; modern case histories allude to the subject in a cursory phrase ("a trisomic albino female of 21"), which could as well apply to a rat as a human being. To restore the human subject at the centre - the suffering, afflicted, fighting human subject - we must deepen a case history to a narrative or tale: only then do we have a "who" as well as a "what", a real person, a patient, in relation to a disease - in relation to the physical.

It is a common complaint that doctors dehumanize their patients, seeing them as a complex machine with a glitch rather than an emotional, suffering entity. Of course many recognize this as a coping mechanism on their part, emotionally detaching themselves from their work in order to be able to deal with disease and suffering and death on such a scale over a number of years. It is because of this that I truly admire Dr. Sacks' insight and courage, the fact that he really connects with his patients beyond the purly physical problem, that he gets to know them and really understand what they are going through and what it means to be them; it is truly exceptional. 

I reccomend this book to everyone, scientists, doctors and non-scientists alike, because there is something in it for everyone. I don't want to give away too much about the content of the book, suffice it to say that it opened my mind to the intricacies of the brain without being overly technical. It made my laugh out loud and wide-eyed with wonder at the diverse examples of some of the most extraordinary neurological problems. It allowed me to muse on the implications of these alongside Dr. Sacks, allowed me to agree or disagree with his thoughts in parts, without forcing my down a single logical path. 

I loved it, and I think it is a great example of how science can be amazingly interesting.

Friday, July 13, 2012

You Know You're Cool When They Name A Fish After You

In a recent paper published in Ichthyoloigical Explorations of Freshwaters, Pethiyagoda et. al just went through the laborious task of teasing apart the tropical Asian cyprinid (i.e. small, colourful and pretty freshwater fish) named Puntius, a “catch-all” genus that comprised over 120 species. In this paper, the researchers delved into the relationships between these species as well as their morphological characteristics, organizing them into more detailed genuses (geni?). One genus was called Dawkinsia, in honor of the great (and not late!) Richard Dawkins.

Now I have always admired Dawkins’s intellect and his contribution to evolutionary biology, and am prone to defend him vehemently. Those who dislike what he has to say about religion and atheism fine, dislike it, but I always argue that despite him being more famous for that aspect of his career in the public, in scientific circles he has made an enormous contribution, and the two things should be considered separately. It tires me that most people only know him as the Atheist Boogeyman, because he is so much more than that.

Anyway, despite what I think, it’s pretty badass to have a fish genus named after you, especially when you’re still around to know about it. It is also infinitely cooler than naming the species after yourself, which some people are prone to do.

Anyway, I tip my metaphorical hat to you Mr. Dawkins! Hope to be reading more of your books soon enough.

Source: Pethiyagoda, R., Meegaskumbura, M., Maduwage, K. (2012). A synopsis of the South Asian fishes referred to Puntius (Pisces: Cyprinidae). Ichthyol. Explor. Freshwaters, 23:1 6

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Says It All

A little cartoon that perfectly describes my sentiments on the matter.

In Italy it is most certainly not illegal to sunbathe topless (quit drooling boys, it's mostly old women who do it) but regardless there is of course still a huge difference in how areolas are perceived, depending on the person's gender.

People, grow up and get over it.

Repost: Sign This Petition!

Alas I am not (officially) American, so this petition cannot be signed by yours truly, but when I saw it posted on Pharyngula I thought FINALLY we're discussing this seriously! I've been blabbing about this for ages, and people either didn't believe it was happening or knew it was happening and didn't think anything could be done about it. I'll let PZ Myers explain:

You know, if I violated tax law and then flaunted the fact to the IRS, it’s pretty much guaranteed that I’ll get slammed down hard and fast. So why do churches get a free pass?
Since 2008, pastors of some churches have openly supported and advocated specific political candidates in sermons to members in early October in an event referred to as "Pulpit Freedom Sunday". According to Reuters, videos of these sermons are sent to the offices of the IRS.
According to section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, the provision of the tax code from which these churches derive their tax-exempt status, a compliant organization must not "participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of … any candidate for public office."
The IRS has failed to remove the tax-exempt status of these churches despite their violations of tax code. This must change, and the law must be applied equally to everyone.
Don’t you suspect that many of the officers obligated to enforce the law are also members of these same kinds of churches, and are motivated to neglect their duties by a conflict of interest?
Maybe there should be a requirement that all IRS agents be atheists. That would certainly improve the popularity of atheism!

I am fully aware that PZ has a gargantuan following and does not need my help, but this glaring hypocrisy and injustice is something I care about and I want to spread the word as much as I am able to:

SIGN THE PETITION! (If you believe in the cause, of course)

Oh, and read Pharyngula (if you don't already do), tis awesome

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Book Review: A Nail Through The Heart

I have discovered the prose of Timothy Hallinan, and now I am buying all of his books. It is so rare to find an author that not only gives us a gripping thriller mystery, but writes with an English befitting literature, I am not letting this discovery go to waste.

A NailThrough the Heart is definitely not for the faint-hearted (harharhar). It is set in Bangkok, which is unfortunately infamous as a magnet for sexual predators, and the evil characters are inspired by true people, which makes it both worse and better. Better because at least the horrors of the book have the purpose of bringing to light real events that the general public may not be aware of and not just invented by a sick mind for shock value, worse because you cannot close the book in the comfortable knowledge that it was all pretend. It is this uncomfortable truth that brought me on a rollercoaster ride of emotions while I was reading about some of the worst people that have ever lived, similar to the one that I experienced when reading Trafficked.

My first reaction, as always, was to jump in the book and kill the child traffickers and abusers. The second reaction that immediately follows that is no, killing them is too easy, then everything just ends for them, it’s almost a blessing, torture them first. Better yet, make them go through everything that they inflicted on their innocent victims, that’s only fair. After the initial heat wears off and if I actually think about it thoroughly I understand that this thirst for vengeance is of course meaningless, and I come back to the ultimate conclusion: take away their freedom, stick them in a tiny cell for the rest of their lives where they can’t hurt anyone or bribe anyone to make their lives more comfortable, having to stare out of a tiny barred hole in the wall day after day. This time, however, I thought a little bit more about that second reaction I feel, the one that lasts the longest and somehow feels fair, and why it is I go back there every time. Partially, of course it’s about anger and revenge, I am human after all. However there is another aspect that I understand contributes significantly to my wanting these people to suffer what they have inflicted on others.

I think that human beings have a very hard time really understanding what it means to not have empathy. Just the thought of the suffering that those children went through causes me pain. The idea that I could be responsible for such suffering in others causes me more pain than I can imagine having to endure, I would die rather than inflict such suffering on others. So many of us feel that it is this that makes us “human”, what we feel makes our species unique, our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s place and feel emotional pain. How then is it possible that there are people in this world who cannot feel that emotional pain, who even get pleasure from causing other people to suffer? It goes so contrary to our very nature that we want to force them to understand what they have put others through. If that cannot understand emotionally then we want them to understand physically what it means to be on the other side of that fist, or knife, or gun.

What it really comes down to is we want them to feel guilt. Is there any worse emotional suffering than guilt? Any other suffering that persists, never fading with age, one over which humans have lost more sleep or sanity?

Unfortunately we have to accept that sociopaths do not have the capacity to feel guilt, and perhaps that makes them lucky in an ignorance-is-bliss sort of way. Torturing them will not make it click in their heads, will not force them to see the error of their ways, it only makes you the torturer the subject of their ire and a no better person than they are. If anything it justifies what they have done in some ways by demonstrating that in some cases it is tolerable, acceptable, and acceptable in society to get pleasure out of such torture. If you are one of those people that scoffs at the idea that torture is never OK and that some people deserve it, I want to pose a hypothetical scenario to you:

A man who is responsible for torturing and murdering people, getting very aroused while doing so, is caught and convicted to life in prison. In another state a similar person is also caught, but his sentence is to be tortured and killed himself. That state decides to fly in the first convict to do the honors, not being able to find anyone else to stomach the task. Would that bother you? Even if the victim deserved every bit of torture that he got, would it bother you that the person that is performing the torture is getting his own twisted pleasure out of doing the torture?

If the answer is yes, why are you so quick to justify the pleasure you feel from the idea of torturing a monster?

Friday, July 6, 2012

Why Does This Story Still Bother Me?

Italy is a country that is famous (infamous?) for having no rule that cannot be bent, twisted or outright broken. With sound logic and/or a sad story you can sway pretty much anyone to do pretty much anything for you, even if its not 100% by the book. It is because of this, coupled with an unhealthy love of certain foods, that I knew that some of my friends here would be amused by a few choice stories of mine and my father’s from the good old US of A, which is famous/infamous for the exact opposite.

Story Number 1: My mother and I went to one of those places in the North West where you can pick your own apples, and in exchange you pay very little for them. When we had finished we saw that they also had zucchini that were ready to be picked, and on those zucchini the biggest, most beautiful zucchini flowers we had ever seen. Now Italians love their zucchini flowers, on pasta, stuffed with mozzarella and fried, nom nom nom. We asked hey, can we buy them off you? No they said, they don’t sell them. So what do you do with them? We throw them away, they responded. So…. Can you give them to us? No. In conclusion, they were so flabbergasted by this odd request, not even knowing that zucchini flowers are edible, that they preferred throwing them away rather than giving them to us. We left with faces reminiscent of a child’s when you give them a toy to touch for five seconds and then snatch it away. 

Story Number 2: My father was living in New York back in the day when espresso was nonexsistent in the United States. Italians are very particular about their coffee, and he was dreaming of having a proper espresso at night. One day he was told that at a fancy hotel they had just bought this super fancy pants espresso machine that made real Italian coffee, and before he could finish his sentence my father was there. He saw that the machine had settings one through five and that the machine was set at five, which still made a coffee that was 3-4times what he was used to. 

Dad: Great! I want an espresso, but make mine on the “one” setting
Barista: … No, I can’t touch the machine
Dad: If you can’t touch the machine, how are you going to make the coffee?
Barista: I mean I can’t touch the setting
Dad: But… that’s what it’s there for!
Barista: I can’t touch the machine Sir.
Dad: Look, if you’re afraid of breaking the machine I’ll come behind the counter, change the setting myself, and if it breaks you can sue me and I’ll pay for it
Barista: I can’t do that Sir
Dad: Please get the manager. (To manager) can I please have my espresso on the one setting now?
Manager: No Sir.

My father wanted to jump behind the counter and slap him, but eventually was forced to leave without his coffee. I can only imagine how livid he was.

Actually I don’t have to imagine, because I have one of these little stories of my very own.

Story Number 3: I was twelve years old and very excited to be cooking for my American family. I decided to make them a pasta all’amatriciana, a typical Roman pasta that is awesome. However you need cubed bacon for it (guanciale really, but I’ll take what I can get), and as you all know bacon in the States is sold very thinly sliced. Thin slices crisp up and taste completely differently, there was no point in making it without the cubed bacon, so my grandmother and I go in search of unsliced bacon. We must have gone to six different supermarkets and finally, success! I find one with a meat counter, where I spot a young man standing in front of a piece of bacon the perfect size for me. There was no one else at the counter, I run up and say

Me: Great! Can I have that piece of bacon please?
Meat Guy: How would you like that sliced?
Me: No thanks, no need to slice it, just wrap it up for me.
Meat Guy: I can’t do that.
Me:… And why not?
Meat Guy: Because I’m supposed to sell sliced bacon
Me: Do you sell it by the slice or by the pound?
Meat Guy: By the pound
Me: Right, so what difference does it make to you if it’s sliced or not? It weighs the same! I’m offering to buy the whole piece!
Meat Guy: I have to slice it.
Me: Ugh fine! Give me four slices half an inch thick then
Meat Guy: I can’t do that
Meat Guy: My slicer doesn’t slice that thick
Me: And how thickly does it slice?
Meat Guy: about a quarter of that
Me: So why don’t you pick up that big knife there and slice it yourself?
Meat Guy: No, I have to slice it with the slicer

At this point my grandmother rushed up to me and physically pulled me away from this asshat, because I was about to jump over the counter, strangle him and grab the bacon myself. Here is this twelve year old girl arguing with an adult, trying to reason with him, and the crazy thing was she never spoke up except to inquire if the manager was around (which he wasn’t). What was worse she seemed to think it was perfectly normal for this guy to categorically refuse to sell me the bacon without slicing it first, and it was incomprehensible to me.

Telling this story I was getting agitated, and my friends were laughing hysterically partially at the story, but partially because it seemed as though, twelve years later I still hadn’t gotten over not getting my bacon. Of course I’m not still upset about the bacon (I wound up finding some unsliced Canadian bacon further on, in your face meat guy), but something about this story was definitely still bothering me. The question was, why?

I realized that it had to do with the utter lack of logic that I was butting heads with. It was not only the inability to reason and follow a logical train of thought to a seemingly obvious conclusion, but more tragically it was the fact that this pigheadedness was considered perfectly normal by others around me, in this last case my grandmother. Of course he didn’t listen to you, what do you expect? He’s not paid to think! You were asking him a huge favour, you can’t blame him for not complying.

WHAT??!! That is what still upsets me today. Why can’t normal, non-academic people think for themselves also?! Being logical is not supposed to be the rare glowing pride of a few braniac philosophers, it’s supposed to be one of the fundamental aspects of the human brain. Of course there are people everywhere who are going to be stubborn and completely illogical even in the most mundane cases, but the rest of us are supposed to think that it’s weird and call it out, not accept it as the new societal norm!

I know it still looks like I’m getting worked up over bacon, but I hope I’m making it clear that it’s not about that. It’s about arbitrary rules and people blindly accepting to follow them no matter what their heads tell them, regardless of how stupid or pointless the rule is. It’s about refusing to buy into the idea that a blind acceptance of authority is not a good trait to find in someone. It’s about not wanting anyone to think that being a sheep is admirable and the new societal norm, and I felt like this story of my twelve year old head butting into a brick wall stirred up these old emotions in me. The emotions that tell me that no, I am no longer mad at the meat guy,

Now I just feel really sorry for him.