Archives For laws

robot kiss

When you grow up in a religiously conservative household and discover that you’re gay, there’s often a lot of pressure for you to change your ways because many conservatives either cannot cope with the idea that homosexuality is not just a choice people make on a whim, or if they can manage to accept the science, refuse to see it as anything other than a defect to be cured. And as a result, numerous conservative communities have established infamous pray-away-the-gay camps and pseudoscientific “treatment centers” which promise that a few years of behavioral or cognitive or talk therapy will let patients overcome their gay urges. Both these practices have an abysmal rate of success, and while the former is often immune from lawsuits thanks to religious exemptions, the latter can be sued, which is what the Southern Poverty Law Center is doing on behalf of one such group’s former patients, alleging consumer fraud. Since you can’t cure a gay person, anyone claiming to be able to do so for a fee is in fact breaking the law. Knowing that it can’t win on the science, the group’s lawyers are going for the following red herring…

“I support the right of an adult to seek help from a licensed professional and to live their life as they choose and not as the SPLC says that they have to,” said Maggie Gallagher, the founding board chairwoman of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, which is defending JONAH. For certain gay people, “their identity in their religious faith is more important to them than their putative sexual identity, and that’s a choice that people are entitled to make.”

Which is all well and good, except that the SPLC is arguing, correctly in my view, that the group in question, JONAH, founded by Orthodox Jews in New York, isn’t so much helping gay men or women who come to it because they’re terrified of the next time an urge to have sex with same sex partners will hit, they are under pressure to do so from their communities. In a twisted way, what Gallagher is saying is correct, for certain gay people being a part of their community is so important that they’re willing to forsake their sexuality to stay in it. But she’s also admitting that staying in some communities can only happen through conformity, forcing people who might be happy being gay into an existential crisis in which they have to make tough choices they should not have to make. Then, these distressed souls come to JONAH or organizations like it where a councilor with dubious credentials spouts pseudoscientific claptrap at them, fails to make all but a handful of patients stop being gay, and puts the blame on them for the failure.

This is very much the typical alt med/faith healing model, claim to perform miracles, fail since all of biology is against the treatment, something well known to the experts, and then, when failure inevitably rears its ugly head, accuse the patient of not trying hard enough for the miracle he or she has been promised to happen. It’s fraud plain and simple, and we have laws against it. The patients’ consent or willingness to attend JONAH sessions is irrelevant as far as most consumer protection laws are concerned and, in another strike against Gallagher’s defense, the issue is if the councilors at JONAH were selling a false bill of goods, because if they did, the courts should find for the SPLC’s clients. Of course JONAH claims that gay conversion therapy actually works because they can find instances of people switching their sexuality and can summon someone who considers himself ex-gay to testify that hey, this gay-no-more therapy thing is legit…

Doyle, who considers himself a former homosexual, is now married with children. He was a sensitive child, he said, and he had trouble bonding with his father. He was later abused by an older female cousin, and “that caused me have a disdain toward women…”

“When I resolved those issues in my early 20s, my same-sex attractions really went away,” he said. “I realized that for some people, this wasn’t simply just something that they had to accept, they could actually work through these issues if they wanted to and go on to live a heterosexual life. I don’t have disdain for the LGBT community, I chose a different path.”

For those of you wondering about the science part of all this, here it comes. Doyle’s abuse is of course highly regrettable, but to argue that it turned him gay until he dealt with the trauma does not fit in with the scientific literature on this exact topic. Victims of sexual abuse can exhibit a lot of contradictory behaviors. Some become asexual, afraid of having any urges or any contact in any way, shape, or form to prevent future abuse. Others can become hypersexual, initiating as many of their future sexual encounters as possible, and constantly looking for new chances for sex with either a committed partner or a stranger, staying in charge of their sex lives. The main goal for these seemingly paradoxical responses to the same kind of trauma is staying in control. Post-abuse asexuality and hypersexuality are really just two ways to accomplish that. In Doyle’s case, he may well have seen women as predators and wanted to stay away from them sexually not to get abused again, also as a form of maintaining control of his sex life.

Problem is that Doyle apparently wasn’t attracted to other men throughout his life without some traumatic event, unlike the SPLC’s clients who just realized they were gay when they hit puberty and simply weren’t attracted to women. Therefore, his case is just not applicable here. Likewise, human sexuality is a very complicated thing which depends on environmental triggers, genetics, behavioral modeling, and a whole host of other factors. For some, sexual orientation is a pretty fluid thing and they could switch from homosexuality, to bisexuality, then to heterosexuality over the course of their lives. For others, orientation is extremely rigid. For others still, there is a brief experimentation phase. My bet is that people who claim to be successfully freed from same sex attraction either had a fluid sexuality, or were caught in their experimentation phase, diagnosed as gay, then credited their natural stabilization on the sexuality spectrum with age to the pray or talk-away-the-gay efforts to the delight of their religious communities. Why do I say that? There is zero evidence of people who never had heterosexual urges being successfully “cured.”

Herein lies the whole reason why we should not be judging people by their sexuality. People do not fit into binary right/wrong, straight/gay categories with which religious zealots are obsessed to the point of driving themselves into a tizzy over non-existent crises of morality. That’s just not how nature works. Roughly a third of all men and half of all women admit to having some forms of same sex attraction, and while women are more likely to act on them, more than 90% of both genders stay heterosexual. Telling someone not to act on urges they statistically wren’t going to anyway, or with whch they were only going to experiment once or twice isn’t “curing patients of unwanted homosexual urges,” but just letting nature take its course, and to make money off of this from people desperate to stop being who they are to win back their friends and family is not just fraudulent, it’s unethical and predatory. And what about people who at a loss to pin down a precise sexual orientation and gender preference, who will always exist along the middle of the sexual spectrum? Organizations like JONAH can only mislead and harm them.

And here’s a really great thing about this particular lawsuit. The court taking up the case will not be entertaining “expert” witnesses who plan to give scientifically debunked pseudoscience from many decades ago, and we’ll get a full accounting of the methods these organizations use and public explanations of why they do not, cannot, and will not work on the vast majority of patients sent to them to change something far outside of their control. The only humane thing to do with people who are confused or troubled by their sexual orientation is to listen to them, find what’s really troubling them about it, and help them come to terms with who they are, not what you, or their family, or their friends, or their religious figureheads want them to be. It won’t always be all sunshine and roses at the other end of the process, there might be some serious issues to deal with, but the point is that it’s no one’s place to “fix” you to a particular stereotype. Your decisions regarding your sexuality have to be your own and take who you really are into account.

spider attack

Are you a religious fundamentalist who despises modern science as the root of all evil? Do you think vaccines will give your children autism or allow them to become pawns of a sinister global cabal bent on world domination through population control? Do you believe that cancer is cured by prayer and sacred herbs instead of clinically proven surgery and chemotherapy? Do trials of engineered viruses capable of controlling malignant tumors make you fear the coming Rapture as man plays God? Do you want to protect your children from this unholy progress and stop a future in which we might become space-faring cyborgs with indefinite lifespans? Well, do I have great news for you! Only two states in America won’t let you claim religious exemptions when it comes to decisions about the medical well-being of your children, so you could readily neglect, pray, and fear-monger all you want as long as you say you’re doing it for religious reasons, and should your child die or fall gravely ill, you might not even be prosecuted, unlike a secularist.

Noted atheist, scientist, and author, Jerry Coyne is extremely unhappy with the current situation regarding religious exemption laws. By his logic, it’s more or less an excuse to fatally neglect, or even kill children with few or no consequences and sets up a different legal standard for theists than secularists and atheists, which means that these exemptions need to be struck down. Not even someone who loves playing Devil’s advocate could really argue here. Our society is set up to give everyone equal representation under the law and while this doesn’t happen in practice, I would think that any law which allows you to get out of jail for cruelty to children because you’re very sincere in your belief that God personally told you that little Timmy or Susie didn’t need any surgery or medication, while someone who doesn’t play the same card can lose custody rights, do serious time, and even face the death penalty, is asinine to the point of being offensive.

It’s a national shame that we allow religion to be an excuse for something we seem to all agree is beyond the pale, and it needs to stop. People should be allowed to worship as they wish and are certainly entitled to voice their religious views regardless how offensive we find them since freedom of speech should also allow for freedom to offend. But one’s right to religious practice needs to stop where the health and well-being of others begins, doubly so when the others are not old enough to make their own decisions or understand the harm that may be inflicted by an authority figure they love and trust. And again, the double standard that allows one to declare a fervent religious belief to escape prosecution that’s considered fair and appropriate for equally guilty offenders who did not make such claims, turns religious freedom into religious privileges, something that American fundamentalists convinced themselves to be entitled to but should not exist under the law. People of faith are being mocked and subjected to legal bullying, we’re told, as the very same oppressed people of faith routinely get away with negligent homicide.

Even worse, the very same fundamentalists and those who grovel to them constantly bombard us with the idea that atheists and secularists, the ones who actually will face the consequences of ignorantly malicious parenting by the way, of not loving their children enough because their worldview holds that all humans are just flesh, blood, and chemistry. What they’ll conveniently leave out is that large fundamentalist families often have large broods not because they just so love children that they can’t stop, but because “it’s their duty to raise soldiers for Christ,”which means having child after child and keeping them locked away from modernity so they’ll emerge from their Quiverfull cocoon oblivious to any other worldview. No wonder they panic when they see Muslim immigrants having high birth rates. It was their strategy to crowd out the secularists by sheer numbers and now they have competition from equally zealous imams! And I suppose, when to fundamentalists, their kids are just arrows in a quiver, they can maintain their purity in the eyes of their faith and just add another arrow should one be broken by their negligence…

police graffiti

Ignorance of the law is no excuse we’re told when we try to defend ourselves by saying that we had no idea that a law existed or worked the way it did after getting busted. But what if not even the courts actually know if you broke a law or not, or the law is just so vague or based on such erroneous ideas of what’s actually being talked about, that your punishment, if you would even be sentenced to one, is guaranteed to be more or less arbitrary? This is what an article over at the Atlantic about two cases taken on by the Supreme Court dives into, asking if there will be a decision that allows vague laws to be struck as invalid because they can’t be properly enforced and rely on the courts to do lawmakers’ jobs. Yes, it’s the courts’ job to interpret the law, but if a law is so unclear that a room full of judges can’t agree what it’s actually trying to do and how, it would require legislating form the bench, a practice which runs afoul of the Constitution’s stern insistence on separation of powers in government.

Now, the article itself deals mostly with the question of how vague is too vague for a judge to be unable to understand what the law really says, which while important in its own right, is suited a lot better to a law or poly-sci blog than a pop science and tech one, but it also bumps into poor understanding of science and technology creating vague laws intended to prevent criminals on getting off on a technicality. Specifically, in the case of McFadden v. United States, lawmakers didn’t want someone who gets caught manufacturing and selling a designer drug to admit that he indeed make and sell it, but because there’s one slight chemical difference between what’s made in his lab and the illegal substance, he’s well within the law, leaving the prosecutors pretty much no other choice but to drop the matter. So they created a law which says that a chemical substance “substantially similar” to something illegal is also, by default, illegal. Prosecutors will have legal leverage to bring a case, but chemists say they can now be charged with making an illegal drug on a whim if someone finds out he or she can use it to get high.

Think of it as the Drug War equivalent of a trial by the Food Babe. One property of a chemical, taken out of context, compared to a drug that has some similarity to the chemical in question in the eyes of the court, but instead of being flooded with angry tweets and Facebook messages from people who napped through their middle school chemistry, there’s decades of jail time to look forward to at the end of the whole thing. Scary, right? No wonder the Supreme Court does want to take another look at the law and possibly invalidate it. Making the Drug War even more expensive and filling jails with even more people would make it an even greater disaster than it has been already, especially now that you’re filling them with people who didn’t even know that they were breaking the law and the judges who put them there were more worried about how they were going to get reelected than whether the law was sound and the punishment was fair and deserved. Contrary to popular belief of angry mobs, you can get too tough on crime.

But if you think you’re not a chemist, you’re safe from this vague, predatory overreach, you are very wrong, especially if you’re in the tech field, specifically web development, if the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, or the CFAA has anything to say about it. Something as innocuous as a typo in the address bar discovering a security flaw which you report right away can land you in legal hot water under its American and international permutations. It’s the same law which may well have helped drive Aaron Schwartz to suicide. And it gets even worse when a hack you find and want to disclose gives a major corporation grief. Under the CFAA, seeing data you weren’t supposed to see by design is a crime, even if you make no use of it and warn the gatekeepers that someone could see it too. Technically that data has to be involved in some commercial or financial activity to qualify as a violation of the law, but the vagueness of the act means that all online activity could fall under this designation. So as it stands, the law gives companies a legal cover to call finding their complete lack of any security a malicious, criminal activity.

And this is why so many people like me harp on the danger of letting lawyers go wild with laws, budgets, and goal-setting when it comes to science and technology. If they don’t understand a topic on which they’re legislating, or are outright antagonistic towards it, we get not just typical setbacks to basic research and underfunded labs, but we also get laws based on a very strong desire to do something, but not understanding enough about the problem to end up with good laws that actually deal with the problem in a sane and meaningful way. It’s true with chemistry, computers, and a whole host of other subjects requiring specialized knowledge we apparently feel confident that lawyers, business managers, and lifelong political operatives will be zapped with when they enter Congress. We can tell ourselves the comforting lie that surely, they would consult someone before making these laws since that’s the job, or we can look at the reality of what actually happens. Lobbyists with pre-written bills and blind ambition result in laws that we can’t interpret or properly enforce, and which criminalize things that shouldn’t be illegal.


When four researchers decided to see what would happen when robots issue speeding tickets and the impact it might have on the justice system, they found out two seemingly obvious things about machines. First, robots make binary decisions so if you’re over the speed limit, you get no leeway or second chances. Second, robots are not smart enough to take into account all of the little nuances that a police officer notes when deciding whether to issue a ticket or not. And here lies the value of this study. Rather than trying to figure out how to get computers to write tickets and determine when to write them, something we already know how to do, the study showed that computers would generate significantly more tickets than human law enforcement, and that even the simplest human laws are too much for our machines to handle without many years of training and very complex artificial neural networks to understand what’s happening and why, because a seemingly simple and straightforward task turned out to be anything but simple.

Basically, here’s what the legal scholars involved say in example form. Imagine you’re speeding down an empty highway at night. You’re sober, alert, in control, and a cop sees you coming and knows you’re speeding. You notice her, hit the breaks, and slow down to an acceptable 5 to 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. Chances are that she’ll let you keep going because you are not being a menace to anyone and the sight of another car, especially a police car, is enough to relieve your mild case of lead foot. Try doing that on a crowded road during rush hour and you’ll more than likely be stopped, especially if you’re aggressively passing or riding bumpers. Robots will issue you a ticket either way because they don’t really track or understand your behavior or the danger you may pose to others while another human can make a value judgment. Yes, this means that the law isn’t being properly enforced 100% of the time, but that’s ok because it’s not as important to enforce as say, laws against robbery or assault. Those laws take priority.

Even though this study is clearly done with lawyers in mind, there is a lot for the comp sci crowd to dissect also, and it brings into focus the amazing complexity behind a seemingly mundane, if not outright boring activity and the challenge it poses to AI models. If there’s such a rich calculus of philosophical and social cues and decisions behind something like writing a speeding ticket, just imagine how incredibly more nuanced something like tracking potential terrorists half a world away becomes when we break it down on a machine level. We literally need to create a system with a personality, compassion, and discipline at the same time, in other words, a walking pile of stark contradictions, just like us. And then, we’d need to teach it to find the balance between the need to be objective and decisive, and compassionate and thoughtful, depending on the context of the situation in question. We, who do this our entire lives, have problems with that. How do we get robots to develop such self-contradictory complexity in the form of probabilistic code?

Consider this anecdote. Once upon a time, your truly and his wife were sitting in a coffee shop after a busy evening and talking about one thing or another. Suddenly, there was a tap on the glass window to my left, and I turned around to see a young, blonde girl with two friends in tow pressing her open palm against the glass. On her palm, she wrote in black marker "hi 5." So of course I high-fived her through the glass much to her and her friends’ delight, and they skipped off down the street. Nothing about that encounter or our motivations makes logical sense to any machine whatsoever. Yet, I’m sure you can think of reasons why it took place and propose why the girl and her friends were out collecting high fives through glass windows, or why I decided to play along, and why others might not have. But this requires situational awareness on the scale we’re not exactly sure how to create, collecting so much information that it probably requires a small data center to process by recursive neural networks weighing hundreds of factors.

And that’s is why we are so far from AI as seen in sci-fi movies. We underestimate the complexity of the world around us because we had the benefit of evolving to deal with it. Computers had no such advantage and must start from scratch. If anything, they have a handicap because all the humans who are supposed to program them work at such high levels of cognitive abstraction, it takes them a very long time to even describe their process, much less elaborate each and every factor influencing it. After all, how would you explain how to disarm someone wielding a knife to someone who doesn’t even know what a punch is, much less how to throw one? How do you try to teach urban planning to someone who doesn’t understand what a car is and what it’s built to do? And just when we think we’ve found something nice and binary yet complex enough to have real world implications to teach our machines, like writing speeding tickets, we suddenly find out that there was a small galaxy of things we just took for granted in the back of our minds…

instagram model

As just about every organization with the word “family” in its name, the Family Research Council is an archconservative group that spends its time fighting against big government when it wants to fund social programs or raise taxes, and promoting it when they think it should barge into your bedroom to check if you’re having sex in the positions they deem not too indecent with a person they find acceptable to be your sexual partner. So when one of the FRC’s senior fellows went on the radio to advocate the illegalization of pre-marital sex, declaring that “functioning societies” could never tolerate it, it’s hardly big news. Considering that virtually every major study on the subject shows that between 80% and 95% of the Western world engages in pre-marital sex and the modern Occidental civilization is nowhere near collapse, I could only describe his comments as downright imbecilic and so fantastically detached from reality that it boggles the mind.

But of course none of this confuses or surprises me. No, what I find so bizarre and worthy of an actual post about Pat Fagan’s brain-dead proclamations is how incredibly unaware of the world around him he must be to think even for a moment that he had a logical line of thought. At least the Fox News featured prude with a superiority complex famous for his obnoxious naiveté on the subject, Stephen Crowder, was at least self-aware enough to shame those of us who treat sex not as a forbidden fruit, but as an important facet of any romantic relationship, not demand that the government crack down on anything sexual without a ring and a marriage license involved. Fagan’s plea for the Supreme Court to illegalize pre-marital sex by once again making it a crime to sell contraceptives to singles is so patently absurd and so spectacularly devoid of any hint of nuance or logical follow-up that is sounds like a manifestation of a pathology.

Then again, we’re talking about zealots who see the world in black-and-white absolutes, whose definition of a crumbling society is based on their belief that any family unlike the ones in which they and tried friends and loved ones were raised is fundamentally wrong and broken, and that just the fact that the typical American family has changed over the last 60-plus years is a sign of societal collapse. Perhaps I’m simply expecting too much to have such people think through the talking points they spew and realize why so few take them seriously, much less take the time to study anything about human sexuality or acquaint themselves with the volumes of work showing that artificial prudishness results in more unwanted pregnancies, more STDs, and more demand for social programs to support kids and their young parents, who had children when they weren’t ready for it and were lied to about their family planning options. They’ll simply find any excuse to stay in their cozy, self-righteous bubbles, getting high on their own pious fumes…

internet cat

For the last few years, we’ve all been told that ill-considered pictures on social media sites were going to come back to bite us. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter if you had a few crazy or wild pictures from your college days on Facebook because you’d just limit the access to your friends and it’s college so those days are past and should have nothing to do with your ability to do the job for which you’re applying. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Employers are judgmental and your privacy settings can be manipulated or circumvented, and lately there have been too many cases of employers doing exactly that. And without a court order and a lot of hard work, you will not be able to prove that you were rejected for a job not because you didn’t have a high enough GPA or enough years of experience, but because a picture of you having — gasp! — some fun once in a while, made a prudish HR manager purse his lips in disapproval and ditch you.

To help remedy this state of affairs, Viviane Reding, a high ranking European politician, is now trying to introduce a "right-to-forget" law which would mandate that pictures you no longer want on social media sites are removed and stay gone. Technically, social media sites already comply with takedown requests but the process can be slow and cached versions can still rear their ugly heads if someone knows how to rephrase a search. This law basically wants the image to vanish from the web as much as possible, and by doing, is asking too much. Once a picture is out on a website, it can be downloaded and reposted, cached, and distributed at a whim and any picture that goes viral can have literally thousands of different copies residing on servers around the world. Just try to track all of these copies down. You won’t be able to because the very nature of the internet today will be against you. That means that if you become internet famous for taking some very awkward body shots at a bar snapped by an amused stranger, you’ll just have to live with knowing that there’s little you can do to make sure that picture is wiped out.

So this is a bit of an issue, isn’t it? With everybody carrying around a camera linked to a social media ecosystem that’s not going anywhere anytime soon, despite its poor profitability, you will either have to watch your every step, become a homebody, or just deal with the consequences as they come. We can no longer get away with stashing embarrassing or questionable photos of ourselves in a shoe box or throwing them in the trash. How do we handle that? My suggestion is purely non-technical. We adapt our culture to deal with it and think twice before anything goes online under our names. That’s all we can really do because adding more filters, blocks, hacks, and privacy settings just tends to create new security holes and rarely deter determined sleuths with a good grasp of how social media and exploits work. And employers looking through profiles on social media sites will need to stop looking just because they can, since so many of them will already perform background checks, credit checks, employment verifications, education checks, and drug tests. Really, that should be more than enough.

worshiping crowd

The citizens of Missouri recently approved a “right to pray” amendment by a landslide, which would be huge news if the Constitution of the United States didn’t have an Establishment Clause and there was a law against being a practicing member of a religious group. But it does, which raises the question of why would the citizens of Missouri vote to have a right they already have. Well, if you look at the sneaky clause stating that “no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs,” then you’ll probably note the Religious Right’s typical sneaky tactic of using an existing protection for religious freedoms, tacking on something it really wants, and portraying it as an extension of a basic an inalienable right to believe. Well, a denomination of Christianity. Other religions will have a tougher time being accepted even if they try to use the exact same laws the Religious Right fought to institute.

Now, this is just not good reasoning because under this logic, I could justify that because I’m an atheist and never liked that whole “under God” thing on money, much preferring a return to “e pluribus unum” as the official motto, I could just whip up my own money with the motto which meets my views and use it instead of the officially recognized legal tender. Sure, sure, atheism isn’t a religion, but the Establishment Clause grants me free speech and we can argue that my free speech and beliefs regarding religion are constitutionally protected so I should be allowed to counterfeit. But I’m pretty confident that the Secret Service would disagree with my opinion of the law were I to start printing my own “godless” bills and have much more of a legal leg to stand on when they send me to a federal penitentiary. You see, the right to free speech doesn’t entitle me to always get my own way in everything. Secularists can understand that. The Religious Right, convinced of its own divine moral superiority, simply cannot.

As far as the fundamentalists are concerned, religious freedom can only exist when they’re given preferential treatment and allowed to get their own way every time. If they can’t do as they wish with nary a peer from criticism, they’re being oppressed by hateful sinners and heretics. And God forbid that the delicate little ears of their precious children be forced to hear scientific facts. They would so much rather rehash the same talking points that have been publicly debunked and eviscerated countless times by anyone who passed a science class when it comes to evolution and cosmology, and leave it at that. So this is why they’re trying to make it sound as if closing one’s ears and screaming “la la la, I can’t hear you!” is somehow sane or acceptable behavior in schools when teachers present the findings drawn from millions of papers and hundreds of years of research rather than bow to the zealots and start science class by flipping to the first page of Genesis and proceeding to read it word for word.

Science is not optional. Facts are not optional. There are a lot of facts and findings that I don’t very much like either, but if they have strong evidence behind them, I have to listen to them. Any creationist kook can vomit a Gish gallop and then refuse to accept when he’s proven wrong but that won’t make DNA stop being a double helix, or invalidate natural selection, or make the stars 6,000 years old. To claim that we knew more about the world 2,000 years ago then we do today, and that the vast bodies of work that created the modern, technologically advanced civilization where men have walked on another world were crafted by bedeviled heretics whose only goal is to remove the godly from their faith in a conspiracy lasting since the 1500s, is utterly absurd. But this is exactly what the Religious Right in the United States does day in and day out, coming up with more and more excuses for their intolerance of other faiths, ideas, opinions, and ways of life, and ways to pettily defend their seemingly fragile faith.

Accommodationist philosopher extraordinaire, Michael Ruse, who recently decided to compare the scientific method to religious revelation, has managed to produce yet another emanation of cluelessness that’s spot on in explaining how those crusading against scientific education think and proceeds to entirely miss why the line of thought being explained is wrong. This time, the subject is a much discussed new Tennessee law that grants teachers immunity from teaching their students pseudoscience by calling this a debate. Why students who are still just learning about the topics involved need to have some sort of debate about something they’ve not been taught yet seems rather odd but with the governor too scared of the backlash if he signed the bill into law and too cowardly to face and creationists if he vetoed the bill, this bizarre legal construction was elevated into law by default. Now, scientific organizations obviously want it repealed because pseudoscience, religion, and political indoctrination don’t belong in the classroom, but Ruse warns that the law might be against them. Not because they’re wrong about the science mind you, but because of all those darn atheists…

[The New Atheist movement’s] supporters openly and explicitly link evolutionary thinking with non- belief, sneering at those (like myself) who think that science and religion can exist harmoniously together. I don’t care what the law says, politically this is moronic. The citizens of Tennessee, the judges of the Supreme Court, are going to believe that if evolution alone is taught in schools the kids of the country would be getting atheist propaganda – no matter what actually happens – and they are going to want to counter it. I imagine every time that Richard Dawkins opens his mouth, the Discovery Institute lights a candle of thanks, or whatever it is that evangelicals do these days.

Well, yes, of course there are people in Tennessee as well as many other states who believe that evolution is just atheist propaganda responsible for all the evil in the world, but they believed that many decades before a popular atheist movement was ever even mentioned in the press. Dawkins and New Atheism are just big red herrings here and regardless of which movement links evolution and their cause, this doesn’t make the peer reviewed science behind it change its validity. Backers of the Tennessee law don’t care about the science and the quality of education for students, they see every worldview unlike theirs as heresy, and because they won’t be allowed to simply ban it as they have before, they’ll try to outshout it. Americans’ relationship with evolution has been very complicated and needlessly stays so, just because we can’t seem to put our foot down to say that facts are facts and we have to teach facts if we want educated and capable students. Those in danger of fainting in shock when the facts disagree with their opinions should examine their own worldviews first rather then rush to censor and outshout any fact they find offensive by virtue of it not fitting into their ideology. Ruse, in his ongoing effort to appease creationists of all types, either doesn’t understand this or refuses to.

When the typical supporters of bills that allow creationism in science class try to support their assertions that evolution is not scientific, they almost invariably proceed to describe the way evolution works in Pokemon and declare that no one has ever seen anything like this happen. Well yes, they haven’t. If they did, we’d have to be triaging our current body of knowledge about evolution for any useful scrap. Creationists fight the science with their ignorance and according to Ruse that’s certainly dreadful and all, but at least they’re not listening to what they consider atheist propaganda so that’s a positive start, right? No, not at all. Ruse is implicitly giving those who value dogma over facts the implicit license to ignore science at whim and then proceeds to blame a very popular but rather small group of atheists for these people’s inability to consider the possibility that no, a deity who created a sprawling universe with hundreds of billions of galaxies and countless trillions of stars did not come down to this planet to coddle them throughout their lives, and have a deep and very personal telepathic relationship with them. As much as accommodationism is claimed to be a framework for reconciling science and religion in cases like these, to me it seems like nothing more than atheist bashing and appeasement.

Obviously there’s no justification or mitigating facet when it comes to child pornography and it is, just as it has to remain, an instant condemnation that leaves a giant skidmark on anything good someone involved with this horrid form of child abuse may have accomplished at any point in his life. You could avert World War 3 then go on to create a democratic, transparent, and effective government for the people of Somalia thus winning a well deserved Nobel Peace Prize. But get caught with child porn and you’re an instant pariah and no wonder. We’re supposed to protect children. They’re our future. They’re our hopes, dreams, and when we have children, it’s a commitment to decades of raising and educating them, and we’ll do whatever it takes to keep them safe from violent sociopaths and perverts, especially when those perverts claim to study divine moral authorities and get easy access to kids by invoking their position in society. But as much as we want to protect children, we have to ask ourselves if we really want to completely obliterate legal online privacy and security while promptly exposing ourselves to blackmail, abuse, and a high potential for identity theft and financial fraud to do that?

Just like the issue with SOPA and PROTECT IP, the bill which opens another digital Pandora’s box has a very noble-sounding title and gives those intended to enforce it nearly limitless powers. A real world equivalent to this legislation would be declaring martial law to cut down on convenience store robberies. This isn’t just web traffic friendly hyperbole since both SOPA and PROTECT IP would’ve allowed anyone to take sites offline for any report of copyright infringement, real or not, the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographer’s Act is mandating that your ISP store absolutely everything about your activities on the web for 18 months, and when I say everything, I’m also talking about keeping your personal financial information on file. That odd rash that could be mistaken for an STD you looked up on WebMD? Or the sexy lingerie you bought online? All saved by the company providing your internet access along with your bank accounts so if someone at your ISP decides to blackmail you in the future or take a luxury vacation with your savings or your credit card, all that’s needed is access to your personal data, data that’s unlikely to be all that well secured since your ISP is not on the hook if your personal information is compromised unlike your bank or credit card issuer. They’re just storing it in data centers because they have to and PCIPA doesn’t come with any guidelines for handling sensitive data.

Basically the whole point is to give law enforcement instant access to everyone’s personal data if they want to investigate someone for involvement in child pornography and come up with arrest warrant worthy evidence in several hours rather than several weeks or months. But as for those of us who have nothing to do with sordid child abuse and whose data is to be archived for effectively all time (not to get too technical, but such data will be around for a lot more than 18 months in the real world, I assure you), there’s no safeguard that will keep all this crucial information safe from characters with dubious intentions. Personally, if someone wants to peruse my financial records for an investigation in a court of law, I have no problem with producing what’s required as I’ve committed no crime and have nothing to fear from a judge. But just because I have nothing to fear doesn’t mean that I’m fine with my financial records and internet searches just floating around for a random employee or contractor at an ISP to dig through. Unlike law enforcement, they have zero business looking through them, and having seen how seriously they take security (hint, not very at all), I don’t trust them to have any of it. To go after child pornographers and pedophiles whether they are businessmen or holy men is noble. To declare an open season on everyone who uses the web and treat them as guilty until proven innocent is not.

With the well-deserved drama over SOPA and its sister bill, which are akin to taking a nuke to the web so an organization of huge content producers can protect their business model, Matthew Yglesias decided to make an impassioned defense of online piracy, arguing that it’s actually good to have a little of it because not every download means a lost sale and a number of these illegal downloads could translate into paying customers down the line. While it’s certainly true that a million illegal downloads of a $0.99 track doesn’t mean a loss for the studio that released it to the tune of $1 million, and it’s possible that a few thousand people who decided to download the track not because they knew the artist but didn’t want to pay but because it was free, went out and bought more of the artist’s music in the future, this odd logical calculus forgets about those who will only download because they don’t want to spend any cash. And while this seems like an omission, Yglesias’ leap of logic in positing that illegal downloads actually generate money gets truly bizarre in this example…

[E]ven when copyright infringement does lead to real loss of revenue to copyright owners , it’s not as if the money vanishes into a black hole. Suppose Joe Downloader uses BitTorrent to get a free copy of Beggars Banquet rather than forking over $7.99 to Amazon, and then goes out to eat some pizza. In this case, the Rolling Stones’ loss is the pizzeria’s gain and Joe gets to listen to a classic album. It’s at least not obvious that we should regard this, on balance, as harmful.

Why would we even regard this as a balance? The Rolling Stones are in music because it’s a business. The music they create is what pays their bills. Declaring that because they’re rich, they must’ve had enough and it would be just fine to pirate it (as many downloaders do) and spending money on pizza while getting the work they did for free, is not a balance. No one from the local pizza place is going to give the Rolling Stones a cut of the profits made on selling to Joe or Jane Downloader unless they own the pizza places in question. It’s very doubtful that Yglesias actually wants to say that it’s ok to download whatever you want as long as you spend a few bucks on a snack while you enjoy your pirated acquisition, but that is indeed what he seems to be saying and by the same logic, we could say that’s perfectly fine to download his book rather than buy it as long as we pay a visit to the grocery store after we do and get something for dinner between reading the result of months and months of his work. I’m sure he intended the proceeds from the book to be used to pay his mortgage and take his family on vacation, but hey, it’s ok. The money he doesn’t get will be spent elsewhere, right?

One of the big problems with the attitude that we should be able to download what we want because we want to and the content owners will often act like bullies, is that it opens the door to abuse. New artists trying to get into the entertainment industry have their efforts pirated and even though the downloaders praise them for an innovative or well executed song or movie, these artists don’t see a dime and never get on the radar of major corporations that could make them new household names. As a result, piracy perpetuates the status quo, the sequel, the remake, and the rehash along with an online entitlement culture which says that because of bad business habits or bad faith on the part of the content owners, you are now entitled to have whatever you want for free. Just try that with a nasty car dealer and see how far you’ll get with declaring that the car you wanted to buy is too expensive and the dealer is too shady, therefore you’ll be taking it free of charge. You’d expect to end up in jail of course. But in the digital world, this kind of behavior seems to be tolerated. And come to think of it, if music and movies today are all crap, why do you even want to download them in the first place? Why not let the studios and labels release crap and fail because no one buys it or listens to it? Surely we’d be able to get something new and exciting made or produced then, something worth paying to see and hear.