Archives For politics

sad calvin

Since I’ve been quiet for a long time and a whole lot of things have happened, there’s a sense that before moving forward, we might want to take a quick look back and address a few major issues that have been brewing in atheist and skeptical blogospheres. Sadly, the muddled focus for the future of organized skepticism is still as much a problem as it was over a year ago. It’s unnervingly telling that columns about JREF have been drying up and there’s still no articulated vision for where we go from debunking homeopathy and UFOs, though it would be unfair not to highlight major positives, like Orac being regularly quoted in mainstream media’s takedowns of popular quackery, and Yvette d’Entremont, aka Science Babe, being asked by Gawker to weigh in as a professional chemist on the flood of Vani Hari’s trendy, brain-dead nonsense. As for the organized atheist movements, which often participate in skeptical groups, well, they’re still more interested in turning skepticism and popular science into a left wing political movement and how to change the subject from science education to battling the ills and inequities of society.

And that’s pretty much where we left off last time, with two broad competing groups battling for what each says is the soul of skeptical and atheistic blogging. One sees science and skeptics being a means to a political end, as weapons to fight the Culture Wars with social reactionaries who are desperately trying to return us to the 1950s they imagine in their nostalgic fantasies. In the other end of the spectrum is the group which sees education as its ultimate goal, betting the farm on the idea that when you give people hope for a better world, they’ll help build it with the educational tools you provide, and that while battling social inequities is a noble goal, there will always be some social injustice, so the best we can do is confront it when it happens. I’m firmly in the second camp, personally, and as it so happens, people like me have managed to end up on the wrong side of the We Are All Already Decided doctrine of political debate. We just aren’t what the social justice contingent wants us to be: dedicated ideologues in their service.

Now, surely, you’ve heard the acronym SJW brandished on the web as a pejorative and almost immediately being proudly accepted by someone as an acknowledgment that he or she is on a mission to right society’s wrongs. Quite a few even go so far as to say that SJW is an imaginary pejorative used solely by misogynists and bigots, and that there are no “social justice warriors,” just people who support equal rights and respect for all, and those who don’t. But there is a line that can be crossed, even if you have nothing but good intentions, with which the road to Hell is often paved, to paraphrase St. Bernard of Clairvaux. There are activists who work to make sure that those being discriminated against have a voice, go to city council meetings, write op-eds in their local newspapers and in the national press, and who need our help and support. And then there are overzealous keyboard warriors fighting for the unwashed masses from the comfort of their couches, going after those who commit transgressions big, small, and even micro.

Oh you haven’t heard of microaggressions? Based on academic studies of how racism begins and propagates, the theory is based on subconscious biases coming out in everyday life. While its debatable whether these aren’t just known manifestations of racism by another name, there was little time wasted by the aforementioned keyboard warriors to cast everything around them as some sort of microaggression. Consider the following. As a Ukrainian-Russian Jew, much of my adult life was accompanied by jokes about the sturdiness of my liver, my friend Vassiliy who just so happens to be an enforcer for the Russian mob, my probable side job of selling malware to carders and identity thieves, my spy work for the KGB, and in some circles, a number of very colorful stereotype-based zingers not fit to print. And that’s just the Russian stuff. Can you even imagine the number of jokes lobbed my way when I was moving to LA? “Hey Greg, so will your work be primarily is software, or ‘hardware?'” apparently never gets old.

All of that is just good-natured ribbing, playing off on various stereotypes, many of them either negative or in a moral gray zone, right? Well, as most self-proclaimed social justice activists will rush to explain you, these are all microaggressions, intended to demean and stigmatize me, so every time you make a joke like that towards me, I should get offended and blame you for how often Russians in movies are gangsters, weirdos, malicious hackers, nefarious spies, or former commandos for hire with a moral compass pointing to the biggest wad of cash. And should you ever make such jokes in a publicly accessible platform, I’m within my rights to bring it up to then dismiss everything you have to say, and you as a person, by default. Why do you think Watson, to this day, features only the most vicious trolling she receives to address any criticism of what she says or does, and categorizes any disagreement with her or PZ Myers as hate speech by misogynistic, racist bigots? It turns their identity into an argument-ending cudgel and allows for what amounts to a get-out-of-criticism-free card with a side of self-indulgent moralism.

And really, it would be fine if this sort of thing happened when we hit a sensitive topic in one of the talks in the skeptical and pop sci community, it’s unavoidable and everyone deserves their turn at the microphone. But like most fanatics, these keyboard warriors won’t change their mind and refuse to change the subject so every issue and every problem that comes up as a topic of discussion becomes a macro or microaggression to be dissected by internet scandal and mob justice on blogs. And even when their complaints are heard, acknowledged, and met, they just can’t be met fully enough. No “yes” is enthusiastic enough, no accommodation ever sufficiently accommodating, and no “safe space” ever adequately safe. There’s no goal but to keep up the perpetual outrage and the corresponding blog traffic, and if you don’t go along with it, or even worse, dare point it out, well, they don’t have to tolerate your bigoted hate speech, so why don’t you go to your favorite neo-Nazi MRA site instead of bothering decent people.

Just to bring this all back into focus, let’s return to the We Are All Already Decided doctrine and see how detrimental it is to getting new people excited about real science and technology, then drawing them into skeptical groups. Who will want to go to meetings that shift from astrobiology and physics applied to UFO reports into social activism lectures, and who will even want to talk to skeptical groups which are lambasted for being full or women-hating bigots for what could’ve never been an adequate response to some suffered microaggression? Bombastic social justice platforms are fine when you’re starting a political group, but when your goal is to teach, inspire, and help others, creating an insular, rigid ideological squad that tolerates no dissent is every bit as bad as the politics of discrimination and exclusion we’re told to be fighting against.

When we declare that we won’t tolerate intolerance, then classify everything with which we do not immediately agree as being intolerant, we’re building coffee klatches rather than the broad skeptical movements that attract the wide following and support we desperately need when any scientifically-illiterate crank and quack with a big smile can use the web to raise vast followings ready to be fleeced, and used to harass critics into silence by sheer numbers. We can fight for both good science and for the rights of others, yes. But we have to know when to tone it down and when someone is using a moral, ethical banner to shield his or her grab for popularity, and a place at the microphone not by virtue of having something significant to contribute, but solely by using our guilt and shortcomings as fallible humans against us. And right now, it just seems better to do this whole skepticism thing without getting involved with big groups…

calvin superhero

Apologies for the lengthy pauses between posts but with Project X in full swing and long days at the office, there’s only so much time to write, and the more gets written the more problems there are for the aforementioned project. But more on that in due time. For now, I decided to take the occasional detour into the realm of meta-debates and talk about news stories documenting the growing pains of the skeptical movement. Their common theme is that there are people under a banner called skepticism who want to confront pseudoscience while at the same time arguing a great deal about how to do it, and with certain influential skeptics trying impose their politics on the entire movement. Does a skeptic need only to worry about debunking Bigfoot, UFOs, quack remedies, and ghosts? Does a skeptic need to be atheist? Are skeptics allowed to shelter hope that a belief for which there’s little to no evidence might still somehow end up being true? And in the grand scheme of things, what do the skeptics really want to accomplish in the end and who gets to be invited to join them in their campaigns? In short, what exactly makes one a skeptic?

But hold on, you might object, why does arriving at a concrete definition matter? Aren’t skeptics just scientifically literate folks applying basic scientific methodology to bullshit claims made by all sorts of profit-minded shysters and by well-meaning but potentially dangerously ignorant people who pass them on or weave them into their personal brands of cargo cult science? Well, yes, in the broadest way that’s correct, and it’s what let me to start forging ties with organized skeptical organizations when their blog was in its prime skeptical phase. However just because you called yourself a skeptic for denouncing pseudoscience and were recognized for it by JREF or another skeptical group, doesn’t mean the topic you’re best equipped to address will ever get any major boost, even within the group. For example, I’m most often cited for Singularity skepticism, mostly because I’m a techie by profession and education, and have the experience and tools to put the wild claims of our impending immortality through technology under very tight scrutiny. Good for me, right? A new branch of skepticism can be added to the collective’s efforts, right?

Sorry but no dice. In fact, a certain very popular 2012 skeptic once told me that until he started reading my dissections of Kurzweil & Co., he thought that their ideas were a lot more plausible than they actually were, and the Skepchicks hosted a very sympathetic take on the claims and predictions being made by the attendees of a Singularity Summit. After talking to those involved on the subject, I was told that while my take was appreciated in the form of links, what I wrote on the subject was "sort of advanced skepticism" and they wanted to focus on something that was more common, the old school skeptics-as-common-sense-debunkers approach. Pretty much the only recognizable skeptics not only interested, but willing to give transhumanist and AI skeptics a real platform was the team at Skeptically Speaking, for which I ended up doing half an episode, and a two-hour debate with a prominent transhumanist. That’s right, we were so popular and the audience was so receptive, I had to come back twice. But to the old school skeptics, it’s really all about debunking common myths and popular quacks. It needs to be done but for those of us no longer interested in that, there doesn’t seem to be much room in organized skepticism.

And this is one of the biggest sources of friction that I’m seeing right now. Those of us who are technical experts in one subject or another interested in applying our specialized knowledge to a possibly arcane but still popular topic, are sick and tired of the umpteenth dissection of Dr. Oz and a UFO sighting now decades old, but we’re not really being included or asked to bring light to a new topic or two because that puts the old school skeptics out of their comfort zone. Now, I won’t be surprised if by now you’re tempted to dismiss this grievance by pointing out that it come from personal experience and makes for only one data point. But if you go back to the Atheism+ fight for just a bit, you’ll hear an undertone of the same exact issues from a completely different group of people with completely different goals. They wanted to turn organized skepticism into a left wing political movement rather than broaden its primary topics, but their reason for trying to create a new offshoot was due to a) feeling that the skeptical old school is not interested in new ideas for the future, and b) their avoidance of the skepticism vs. atheism question based mostly on marketing considerations, to make the religious feel more welcome at skeptic meetups.

Today’s big, organized skeptical groups don’t seem to be evolving or really expanding past the few topics that bound them together. More and more skeptical meetups seem to be preaching to the choir rather than exposing skeptics to new topics. The whole movement just seems stuck in place, retracing the same fake Bigfoot steps and analyzing the same flying saucer on a wire for the hundredth time. And as if that wasn’t enough, we get drama and gender wars on an endless loop for publicity and stats instead of guidance and fresh ideas. Wasn’t the point of well-funded, organized skepticism to spread education and combat the popularization of pseudoscience in all of its forms rather than spending a lot of time with people who agree with what you say? Where are the skeptical conferences that invite expert speakers to expose skeptics to big, cutting edge scientific ideas to peak their interest in broadening their horizons and taking on new topics? Is a skeptical equivalent of TED without the buzzwords out of the question? No wonder reporters on missions to write about organized skepticism all end up asking where would the movement go in the next few years and fail to prove an answer. They can’t. There’s no future game plan…

censorship ad

Policy wonks, like most people, tend to think of IT as a magical black box which takes requests, does something, and makes their computers do what they want, or at least somewhat close to it. And so it’s not really surprising to see Ronan Farrow and Shamila Chaudhary rail against major cybersecurity companies for enabling dictators to block internet content at Foreign Policy, with allegations that show how poorly they understand what these companies do and how virtually all of the products they make work. You see, blaming a tech company for censorship is kind of like blaming a car manufacturer for drunk drivers. Certainly their tools are intended to block content but they’re not designed to filter all undesirables from a centralized location to which a dictator can submit a request. They’re meant to analyze and block traffic coming from malicious sources to prevent malware and any time you can analyze and stop traffic, you can abuse the ability and start blocking legitimate sites just because you don’t like them or the people who run them.

Most of the software they cited is meant to secure corporate networks and if they no longer get to stop or scan data, they’re pretty much useless because they can’t do threat identification or mitigation. WebSense does filter content and uses a centralized database cluster to push how it classifies sites to its customers so, as Farrow and Chaudhary noted, it was able to change up a few things to help mitigate its abuse by authoritarians. But McAffee and others are in a tougher spot because they’ve simply sold a software license to network admins. Other than virus and bot net definitions, there’s not much they can control from a central location, and trying to shame a company for selling tools made for something entirely different puts them in a position in which it would be very hard to defend their actions to someone convinced that they can just flip a switch and end the digital reign of tyranny across the world. And its even worse when the first reactions to articles about the abuse of their wares blame them for just being greedy.

On top of that, it’s not exactly hard to write your own filters and deep packet inspection tools. It’s just difficult to scale them for millions of users but it’s nothing out of the authoritarians reach. As they spend billions on security and control, surely they could divert a couple of million to build a capable system of their own. In fact, the Great Firewall of China is mostly home-grown and uses the country’s ISPs to scan incoming and outgoing traffic on a daily basis to find what to block. It sounds like a powerful indictment to point out that the Chinese use Cisco routers in their system, but it’s not as if they outsourced the task of pinging and blocking Tor nodes to the company. To be perfectly fair in charging tech companies in aiding and abetting censorship, you’d have to be talking about search engines that agree to modify their functionality to get a toehold in markets ruled over by authoritarians who will get someone to censor searches if not the company which was trying to expand. Bottom line: dictators will find a way to censor what they want to censor. If they use network monitoring security tools to do it, the blame still rests with them.

ice forecast model

According to the stream of reports from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the Arctic ice is slowly but surely disappearing. Well, slowly for us humans. On geologic time scales, it’s thawing in the blink of an eye. For this year, the extent of the ice is the sixth lowest on record, and last year, there was about half as much ice at minimum as there was between 1979 and 2000, while also being much thinner. On the other side of the world, Antarctica is not doing much better as an average of 100 cubic kilometers of ice are lost every year, despite ice sliding into the ocean from dry land seemingly increasing the reach of sea ice. Now, this prompted many denialists to distribute a talking point that while the Arctic is melting, Antarctica is gaining ice, which would be true only if you measure sea ice and forget that there’s an entire continent thawing, sending all that excess ice out to sea. It’s sort of like claiming a virgin birth by forgetting to mention that the couple isn’t married and the child’s father lives across town, visiting every other day.

But all this said, there’s the big question is how bad all this thawing is for us. Sea levels may rise between 16 and 22 feet, changing coastlines and altering climactic cycles over a century. How worried should we be? And is there any way to stop it? Well, exactly how worried you should be would depend on where you live and whether you think another century is too short of a time to move the cities back from the sea. The world is not going to flood as shown in many apocalyptic posters from environmental groups. To drown a city like that would require massive and sudden natural disasters like asteroid impacts or a magnitude 9.1 quake that triggers a monster tsunami and sends it towards a city built mostly below sea level. No city planner 30 or 70 years from now would be dealing with the same exact coastlines, and old buildings could be moved or altered to deal with the rising water. Of course, if we didn’t emit nearly as much carbon dioxide by building our economies around energy efficiency, we could just avoid all of that in the first place.

Though, just to play Devil’s advocate, there’s an interesting point that needs to be raised. New economies and infrastructures are expensive. Very expensive. And the thawing Arctic means a shorter path between Europe, Asia, and North America than the Panama Canal. Goods can get to their destinations cheaper, new fiber can be laid for a faster, more redundant internet, and a lot of oil and natural gas will be open to exploration far away from the Middle East. And while as the United States and Canada extract more and more oil from the Arctic, OPEC could just lower production to keep prices high, the political ramifications are huge and to many, worth perusing. Is potential energy independence that will let the United States disentangle itself from the Middle East and its messy affairs, while creating new jobs and cozy ties with its neighbors worth moving some big cities back from the rising seas? And do the improved economics of fast, new shipping lanes and extra fiber-optic cables just sweeten the deal to let it all melt?

Before we get carried away though, there is a downside to such strategic terraforming. Warmer climates mean more droughts in areas that are now among the world’s bread baskets, and a lot less food. In some countries, which produce far more food than they can consume or send over as aid, this isn’t a pressing issue. But in countries not producing enough, or just barely enough to get by, famines could easily reemerge because the farmlands couldn’t be moved to land that belongs to another state. For nations on good terms, there might be a deal in the making. For countries that view each other as an existential threat (like India and Pakistan), not so much. Oh and bad news for foodies. When food sources become any scarcer in a warmer world, the only viable response is doubling down on hyper-efficient factory farms that employ methods that can drive a panel of Food Network chefs up a wall. Point is that your experience with the effects of a warmer Earth may vary depending on many factors, but deciding how to manage the warming is not as cut and dry as a yes or a no, there’s an economic and geopolitical calculus involved…

microcosm

Really, the politicians in office today, science, and technology simply don’t mix. We have years and years of bills and their behavior proving this. From vapid remarks about science, to serious debate about an internet kill switch, to inviting woefully unqualified people to judge what should be funded by the NSF, it’s as if our lawmakers are trying to live the stereotype of over-confident managers who think they’re experts at all things because they can talk a big game. It would be amusing were they not in a position to actually change how science is being funded, and churn out ridiculous proposal after ridiculous proposal. The latest volley of this oblivious ineptitude is the bill from Lamar Smith (yes, R-TX, a real shocker, I know) which lays out what sort of projects the NSF should be funding and in the process basically discards anything that’s not an applied military or a medical project, negating the entire point of basic research and eviscerating basic research funding not obfuscated to look like a future treatment, weapon, or infosec system.

Basic science is done because we’re curious about something and we don’t know what sorts of applications or spin-offs it might have. Maybe there will be none. Maybe we’ll discover something as incredibly useful as lasers. Maybe there will be no direct benefit but in the process, we’ll build something that will change the world, like the world wide web being derived from a project meant to help particle physicists share data from particle collider results at CERN. We just don’t know, which is why we try to study all these things, and the results provide more than enough ROI as direct applications and spin-offs are commercialized. However, a lot of people will not see it that way, insisting that if something can’t be on the market within a few years, or used to kill bad guys half a world away, it’s a waste of money. And not only do they see it that way, they refuse to even try to understand how basic research and the scientific process work. They also do not care for, or understand scientists, deluding themselves with myths about their lifestyles.

And this is how we get the Lamar Smiths of the world. His constituents truly believe that a typical scientist could never make it in "a real job," and lives off of government welfare in the form of an enormous grant, handed over like a blank check from the NSF. The facts that scientists actually make something like $55,000 per year on average, have to deal with the NSF approving only a small fraction of all the grant applications they receive (below 10% in many fields and up to 20% in some others), and generally to already well established scientists, and that they can be fired for not being top of their field, do not register with them. It’s so sadly ironic that people who can easily out-earn scientists in their lifetimes and can keep their jobs if they’re at least mediocre, are deriding woefully underpaid professionals who can be fired for not being in the top 10% of their discipline and have to pay their own salaries through fundraising and political savvy. And it’s an insult to injury when said people turn scientifically illiterate politicians into their attack dogs.

But this is what happens when people are allowed, and even encouraged, to remain glib and as incurious as they please by politicians and public figures who rush to pat them on the back and give them a gold star for just being who they are. The current push to structure basic education around standardized testing rather than discovery, curiosity, and career orientation isn’t helping either. If we just let kids find out what fascinates them and feed their curiosity with key subjects that will let them pursue it further, they’ll learn the reading, the math, and the history involved to perform well on whatever standardized tests you’ll give them. After all, any field requires a solid command of basic literacy and mathematical competence to fully understand. But that requires the effort to restructure how the education system works, basically, giving a shit and trying to do something about it, to put it bluntly. However, by the choices a lot of people are making in their elected officials, and their support of said officials’ scientific illiteracy and hostility to science, I’m willing to bet that not a whole lot of the required shits are being given on average…

robot and human

Generally, political pundits are quick to ridicule technocrats and wonks for assuming that they’ll solve all the world’s problems with spreadsheets and computers, sounding so very dispassionate as they do their seemingly tedious jobs. One of the more recent examples is this critique of Ezra Klein’s wonkish style which has a hard time accepting the focus on numbers rather than entering the political fray with partisan zeal. As if this was a bad thing. Ever notice that political debates in general seem to be a morass of big emotions, big ideas, big personalities, bold pronouncements about the past, present, and future, and pretty much devoid of facts, that if present, are verbally violated to fit into whatever pigeonhole the person abusing them wants to fit them? Discussing the mathematical and statistical viability of a budget proposal and the ideological underpinnings that the budget tries to advance are two different conversations. One is the goal, the other is a means of reaching it, and it’s good to focus on how well that works out on paper.

Yes, well meaning technocrats can go way too far, I know. Yes, I know that people are creatures of messy, disorganized, and often irrational habits. And that’s exactly why they need technocrats to help them parse the facts and just the facts. I’m not saying that people like me should run the world, in fact I think I could make a very lengthy case as to why you would definitely not want to do that. But you do need technocrats to play a big enough role to stop wasteful projects or shut down impossible pipe dreams inspired by delusions of grandeur or ideology than sound logic. A political pundit will read whatever he or she wants to read from a budget to support a position all his or her viewers tune in to see every weeknight. Technocrats have a harder time doing that to justify their ideas because for them, the math has to add up, and whatever grandiose plans they have, they’re going to debate about implementation until a decent one is hammered out. This is not to say they could never be biased or ideological, just that they have to be less so.

Politicians can afford to talk big and act larger than life. They’re not the ones who have to see how their laws are implemented after they’re passed. The technocrats are the ones doing much of the real world work involved in turning policies and ideas into workable plans, and when they get it wrong, the results are soon obvious and it takes an amazing amount of stubbornness not to admit that something went wrong. A terrific example is sex ed. The ideologues insist that we must shove abstinence and scare tactics down teenagers’ throats. They fail. They always fail. They’ll continue failing compared to comprehensive sex ed, which does a far better job at delaying sex than any abstinence-based farce of a curriculum. Yet they continue to whiz into the windstorm in oblivious disregard of how the world works. Meanwhile, the technocrats are pushing for superior comprehensive sex ed classes because they looked at the numbers and pick what was factually shown to be better. And that’s why we need them around, dissecting facts rather than allowing a rabid ideologue to drag them down into partisan politics and beat them with experience.

[ illustration by Allan Sanders ]

troll

Maybe it’s just me, but the older I get, the more it seems that high school actually gives teens a fairly accurate sneak peek into adult life, minus the rent/mortgage, bills, and the fear of getting fired for or without cause, of course. High school drama seems like a pretty good description of what currently dominates once immensely popular and influential skeptical blogs after the nerd gender wars in the wake of Elevatorgate as many small skeptical conferences are being quickly reduced into confrontations about sexism, politics, and gender rather than discussions about all those science and skeptical inquiry topics they were meant to facilitate. But while I get plenty of gender and political correctness discussions from big name skeptical bloggers, my tech reading has remained quite clear of them. Well, until now, when the Donglegate incident lit up the feeds of numerous tech blogs and unleashed the fury of the internet on two companies.

Unlike the basic premise of Elevatorgate, where there was something to discuss and some good points to be made before the problem metastasized into what it has, Donglegate fits the definition of a tempest in a teapot to a T. At a conference for programmers working with Python, a popular open source scripting language, tech evangelist (basically a marketer/salesperson whose job is to explain why his or her company’s flagship products are the best thing since both sliced bread and perforated toilet paper) Adria Richards, overheard two guys behind her making an off-color joke about "forking a repository" followed by one about "big dongles." So she did what seasoned pros do in situations like this and asked them if they wouldn’t mind knocking it off because there was a presentation underway. Oh wait, then we wouldn’t have Donglegate, my bad. I meant she took a picture of them and publicly shamed them on Twitter for making dirty nerd puns with links to the conference’s policy asking attendees to keep their humor audience-appropriate.

From there things quickly got ridiculous. One of the guys in question was fired, Richards wrote an amazingly hyperbolic post delcaring that she felt compelled to shame them for every little girl out there who may never learn how to program because "the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so" and concluding with "Yesterday the future of programming was on the line and I made myself heard," which unleashed the fury of the internet. She was also shown the door at her company as commercially painful DDoS attacks kept on coming for two days and her bosses most likely lost their confidence in her PR skills. And as the sour cherry on top, there was the usual assortment of rape and death threats by trolls who are attracted to these dramas much like vultures are attracted by the stench of putrid, rotting flesh, giving Richards a shot at a moral high ground, saying that brogrammers couldn’t stand to see a woman in tech stand up for herself, and, apparently, every woman and girl in the field or considering going into it.

But of course no manufactroversy would be complete without a kicker, and here it is. Richards herself is no stranger to dirty nerd puns, having used one herself on her work Twitter account a short time before the conference. By her logic, someone should’ve spoken up against it for all the boys who dirty minds like her will discourage from the field to peruse the profession. Why, if we let people make off-color jokes, they will be too offended to study, constantly in fear that the women in tech will just make jokes about their penises. </sarcasm> In the real world, people will make sexual jokes all the time and yes, a lot of them will make them at inappropriate times. The way to deal with this fact of life is to accept it and to tell the offending parties to knock it off when they cross the line rather than rush to appoint oneself as the savior of your industry’s future. As a man in the tech world, I’d be lying if I told you I’ve never heard women in IT make all sort of off-color puns about "multitasking" and "mounting drives." And yet I survived to code another day, mostly because like all adults, I’ve heard plenty of stuff like this since middle school.

Women going into IT are going to find that their problems with the industry will be institutional in nature rather than potentially overhearing dongle jokes. Graybeards who subtly imply or not so subtly declare that the programming world is not meant for women, or hiring managers who have free reign to hire whoever they think is most attractive rather than most qualified, are big issues those who want to ensure that little girls can easily become programmers if they so choose have to battle. If someone can’t handle a cheesy penis pun or joke implying coitus you can see in just about every other Superbowl commercial, this person is going to have a tough time in any job or any social circle outside of a fundamentalist religious group. If knowing that dirty jokes about the profession they want to take up exist are enough to make them abandon said profession, to me it’s a sign of a pathologically sheltered childhood rather than a real issue with the industry. It’s a downright inane argument that Richards was standing up for the future of women programmers and its self-serving nature is even more infuriating because it glosses over real problems.

I feel that it does a great disservice to women programmers when we’re told to treat them like a delicate bouquet of flowers instead of simply treating them as equals, paying them equal wages, and promoting them based on their merits as professionals. The women in IT I know want to be successful by doing something big and important, by cranking out highly visible projects. Why should we scramble to protect them from potentially overhearing a childish dirty joke and carry them to the finish line so we can hit the desired metric of female CIOs and CTOs, or architects? Isn’t that downright disrespectful to them? Why not just stay out of their way and let women in IT accomplish what they want to accomplish? It’s really not that hard to make an assumption that a qualified professional sitting across from you or next to you can excel regardless of gender. I’m not ridiculing Richards’ behavior because I don’t think there aren’t any issues for women in IT or any other STEM field. I’m ridiculing it because I have too much respect for women to think that a dongle or forking joke will deter them from following their programming dreams.

surveillance camera array

New America Foundation’s fellow Charles Kenny recently outlined his case for Big Brother for a group of casual policy wonks and argues that because a lot of biometric and surveillance data could be used for good, we should let it be used to catch tax cheats, keep tabs on criminals and crime patterns in general, and more efficiently allocate help to the poor. It’s not a new argument, in fact it’s the political science version of the benevolent technocratic authoritarianism you could hear from some TED luminaries if you spend a little time in the right circles. But there’s a reason why it’s not a very popular idea and why it has a lot of skeptics, and those skeptics are not from the tinfoil hat contingent by a wide margin. Give a government wide-ranging powers to track you and intervene in your daily life, and you open up enormous potential for abuse. The trains might run on time, just like in Mussolini’s Italy, but at what social and personal costs? What happens if you manage to run afoul of the government’s plan for how to best use you to boost GDP?

To be fair to Kenny, he’s not necessarily advocating that Big Brother is great, but that there are some benefits to programs to which we reflexively react with fear. Well meaning projects to find and catch criminals or stabilize shaky economies have been used as arguments for benevolent authoritarians for centuries, and they do tend to feed into many people’s preference for stability even if it’s at the cost of democracy. After all, people have to eat and it’s a lot easier to buy food when you have a government agency looking after your jobs and your safety. And while people tend to trust themselves not to be dangerous lunatics, the reality is that they often don’t object if their neighbors were periodically watched just in case because hey, you never know what might happen, right? One day you’re living next to perfectly quiet people and the next, bam, there’s an axe murder, the police are on your front porch, and there’s a maniac on the loose.

But again, there’s huge potential for abuse involved here. We could do such seemingly positive things as monitor all traffic and tell people when they should or shouldn’t drive, or even route all traffic by communicating with mandatory GPS units. We could also have a computer monitor an electronic version of all your health records and recommend you a diet and exercise regimen for a healthier lifestyle. However, we would also be taking away your choices and your responsibility for your own actions. People like to have choices. Yes, they hate traffic and yes, they want to be healthier and live longer, but they also want to be in control behind the wheel and if they want a doughnut at 3 am, then by FSM’s noodles they want the option to have one even if a protein bar would be better for them. Plus, and here’s the dark side of all this paternalism, who will enforce all this order and how will punishments be meted out for not following the rules? If we’re dealing with a government that can track you anywhere, how far can or will it go to discipline you?

mass media advice

Nature recently published a thorough look at Norman Augustine, an engineer who now advises political bigwigs on how to allocate research and development dollars for scientific ventues. A lot of his recommendations are praised as overdue, common sense, and essential. But there’s one nagging criticism that emerges every time. Augustine argues that the United States needs to get more STEM students from around the world because the United States can’t compete with entire armies of new engineers and scientists emerging from China and India. Sounds like good advice as well because science is fundamentally a collaborative process and the more ideas germinate and can be tested, the faster we can advance the task of acquiring and applying the brand new knowledge universities and research labs are supposed to produce. Unfortunately the data that lies under this recommendation appears to be fundamentally flawed…

The first version of the report ended up including at least one major exaggeration: that China graduated nearly ten times more engineers than the United States (600,000 versus 70,000) — a comparison used to argue for increasing the number of scientists and engineers in the United States. But the Chinese data probably included two-year technical degrees whereas the US figure did not. The error “contributed to the alarm quality of the report”, says Michael Teitelbaum, an economist at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York… “I don’t know of any serious analyst with an open mind who has concluded there are shortages in the science and technology workforce,” he says. In fact, many US scientists and engineers were struggling to find high-quality jobs in academia and industry, a trend that continues today.

Whoops. True, the "serious analyst with an open mind" part sounds a lot like a fallacy because there are analysts who disagree that there are enough STEM grads in the United States, but the problem of scientists and engineers being unable to find jobs is very real. We churn them out in significant numbers but companies don’t want to hire them because they’re too busy looking for perfect fits into their exact jobs, not transferable skills, and severe budgets cuts in higher ed can leave PhDs on food stamps. Which brings us to the real dilemma in American STEM disciplines today. Students often take on huge debts, study for 6 to 8 years for a shot at a $35,000 a year post-doc by professors who believe that it’s not their duty to prepare them for jobs, then with an immense debt burden and little pay face companies who refuse to hire them because they want someone with three years of very particular experience for an entry level position or prefer to offshore the positions to save money up front despite the often mixed results.

Augustine’s voice joining major tech companies who support massive offshoring and H1-B visas, which are dominated by a small clutch of Indian consulting companies, only makes the problem worse for the STEM grads. Now not only can they not find work, but they’re being told that we’re not graduating enough scientists and engineers and need to import them from abroad. What an incredibly cruel, mixed message! We have the best universities in the world. Only they don’t get enough STEM grads through the system and those they do are apparently unfit for work, while a technical college half a world away apparently churns out a surplus of the STEM grads we want those being produced by the world’s best colleges to be? Now, it is just me or does this make no sense whatsoever? Do the people who advocate this line of debate really research the quality of the data they use? Or do they simply brush it aside and assume that the complains about a lack of properly qualified STEM workers is the honest truth of companies with no ulterior motives?

broken emo

Oh how I miss the good old days of skeptical blogging, when PZ Myers was unloading on inane creationists and New Agers with the delicate touch of a tactical nuke, the Skepchicks didn’t lock down the comments under heavy moderation and traded links and the occasional friendly e-mail with me, so many skeptical big shots returned my tweets and e-mails, and many of us knew that our focus should be on science, education, and fact checking popular media for the benefit of a reader who didn’t see what was wrong with creationism in science class, or why so many people claimed to see UFOs if there’s almost no chance they’re really out there. That’s what we did. We educated, entertained, and started debates. But post-Elevatorgate, all that went to shit. Popular skeptical blogs now overflow with gossip and infighting, and the results are sad to behold. Sides have to be taken, lines have to be drawn, and the actual science and education stuff they used to be all about has taken a backseat, showing up between angsty s/he-said-what? posts.

PZ and the Freethought Blogs contingent has decided to turn their atheism and skepticism into some sort of a political campaign based on the logic that if you’re an atheist and a skeptic and know that creationism isn’t science, you also know why Paul Ryan’s budgets are crap and then proceed to take proscribed positions on key social issues. And as for the Skepchicks, well, the Elevatorgate horse hasn’t just been beaten to death, it’s bleached bones have been desecrated many times over by now, but of course Watson won’t quit because it brings her hits and lets her offer herself as a martyr to the hordes of sexist pigs in the skeptical community — who are really mostly rabid internet trolls who spew nothing but hatred anyway — to fawning fans. Her dubious behavior as a moderator at JREF can now be safely buried under her martyr cloak and skeptics who don’t agree have to tip-toe around her lest they displease her, explaining their behavior in great detail only to get a dismissive, passive-aggressive reply over a year after the fact.

I’m not sure what was the moment I first facepalmed while reading what has become of some of the big profile skeptics nowadays. Was it PZ Myers’ brief manifesto filled with disgust that some libertarians have the gall to call themselves atheists? Was it Greta Christina’s breathless praise of a cafe that put a diaper change station in the men’s room because it didn’t have space for a second one in the women’s restroom as if it was some sort of revolutionary anti-sexist message to its patrons despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of men’s rooms do have changing stations anyway? The whole Atheism+ affair that ultimately went nowhere fast? Perhaps it’s true that nostalgia is a seductive liar, as George Ball once opined, and maybe I am glossing over a periodic rift or two, but the last year has been one of the skeptical movement taking three steps back to quibble over semantics, late night bar gossip, and internal politics instead of promoting the united message of science and education needing to triumph over ignorance and stubborn fundamentalism, rendering once flourishing blogs less and less relevant.

Perhaps the real bright spots have been Phil Plait, whose passion for space overruled his meta analysis of skeptical niceness and who keeps cranking out fantastic skeptical and pop sci work on a daily basis, and the former top dogs of the Discover Network who never changed their big picture focus on the science and the narrative of discovery and education. They’re on to a new home but they’re still going strong. And here’s the important thing. If they paid any attention to the drama at TAM and the gossipy blog fights, they moved on. Maybe that’s what FTB and the other squabbling self-proclaimed skeptical leaders need to do? Maybe they could find a hobby that doesn’t involve writing passionate treatises about their feelings and how those around them are failing to nurture their personal existential crises? Last year I found a hobby that has zilch to do with computers, blogging, or Singularity skepticism and find it amazing how much that clears your mind. Maybe a little less focus on their drama will get the back into being the strong voices for science, education, and skepticism they were before they let politics overtake them?