skepticism

Who needs pap smears when you have acupuncture?

All too often I hear critics who assert that skepticism and feminism have nothing to do with each other, and I should stop pretending that skepticism is relevant to women’s issues. And then I run into articles like this one, where an acupuncturist claims only prostitutes get cervical cancer and pap smears aren’t “real preventative measures” but only serve to conjure up unrealistic fears.

Thankfully Richelle of Skeptic North has the full take down, including real facts about HPV and cervical cancer. I love this little bit of snark in particular:

I’ve had an abnormal pap test, and unlike Freak-out McMelodrama, I talked to my doctor about what it meant and why it wasn’t particularly concerning, but worth monitoring. It wasn’t a cancer scare, it was a “huh, that’s weird.” Maybe I’m just used to my body doing strange things, but I really can’t fathom using it as the impetus to quit my job and go to an unaccredited college to get a unrecognized 4 year TCMD (Traditional Chinese Medicine Doctorate) diploma for $40,000. If you’re worried about an abnormal Pap test, or just the potential to exposure to HPV and the risks of cervical cancer, talk to your family physician. And if they tell you that only prostitutes get HPV, find a new physician, and then talk to them.

But Richelle, don’t you know family physicians are just the slaves to big pharma and all medical advances are a ploy to fear monger people into popping pills?! Much better to go poke someone with needles.

Drama

I have given up on the atheist and skeptical movements, and am starting a new one – the Jennifer McCreight Movement. The headquarters will be my bedroom (not the living room, which is shared with the Roommate Movement). The official dress will be whatever the fuck I feel like. Events will be held every night, consisting of reddit browsing, cute baby animal photos, cookies, and the occasional beer.

I hate to disappoint you, but there is one big rule. Only I am allowed to be in the Jennifer McCreight Movement, thus avoiding all the stupid drama and bullshit inherent in human interaction that has tainted atheism and skepticism for me.

No, I’m not really rage quitting. The overall goals mean too much to me. But I’m frequently reminded more and more why I was so anti- clubs and cliques and organizations when I was a teenager.

When I first started getting involved with atheist activism through reading blogs, I was excited. I wanted to change the world for the better, and I found others who shared my goal. I was so excited to work with these wonderful people who shared my ideals.

And then I became jaded.

Don’t get me wrong – there are lots of good people in these movements, and I’ve made some truly wonderful friends I otherwise wouldn’t have. People I met through my club at Purdue, Greta, JT, Brendan, everyone at the Secular Student Alliance… Those people are good to the core. Their passion doubles mine, and I want to get more and more involved to make a difference.

But getting more involved is precisely what makes me get jaded.

My first time attending a major conference had a dozen women coming to me independently to warn me about certain male speakers that I should be careful around. It was common knowledge to the female veterans who the aggressive and/or distasteful womanizers were, and they wanted to make sure some 22-year-old woman heard the warning. It was unnerving, to say the least. But for all I knew, it could just be gossip.

The more close friends I make, the more that comes out of the woodwork. The more specific examples of men – attendees and famous speakers alike – saying and doing things that cross the line. But they tell me to stay quiet. Because no one will believe them. Because they like the events overall and don’t want to ruin the experience by making people angry at them. Because they don’t want to lose their job or harm their employer. That was unnerving, too.

But before people think I’m a broken record – it’s not just the sexism. Becoming a board member of a secular non-profit and being invited as a speaker to events has really opened my eyes. You start interacting with a diverse group of people who have been in the movement a long time, and you get a behind-the-scenes glimpse. Some organizations (like the SSA) are truly awesome and run by lovely human beings. Some… boy, if you guys only knew.

The people are the same. Some are the most genuinely lovely individuals I have ever met. But some are manipulative, petty, passive aggressive, selfish, sexist, racist, homophobic, ablist, or just downright mean. Yes, I came to the shocking realization that atheists and skeptics are also human. The problem is that without this insider knowledge, it’s incredibly difficult to distinguish the lovely from the loathsome.

The bigger problem is that I see no real solution, and am stuck cringing silently when someone is unwittingly praising a person who’s really a Giant Fucking Asshole. Because the politics involved between people or between organizations is enormous.

I feel gross staying silent and playing the game, but I often have no choice. This isn’t because I’m afraid of losing readers – contrary to popular belief, I don’t just blog For Teh Hitz, and the money I make off blogging is not enough to float in swimming pools full of hundred dollar bills. This isn’t because I’m afraid of losing a potential writing career – my actual job is as a scientist, remember? It’s because there are people and organizations in the movement I genuinely care about, and stirring certain pots would cause them harm.

I’m not sure why I’m even writing this post other than to get it off my chest. It probably comes off as totally vague and pointless to those of you who aren’t privy to the back stories and insider knowledge. But maybe that’s the message. That when some of us insiders rant and rave, and it comes off as vague and pointless…it’s probably because you’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg, and we forget your view. You can’t see under the water to glimpse the private emails, the angry phone calls, and the years of history. So many people think other bloggers and I do anything for controversy because we’ll occasionally speak up against big names.

What should concern you are the things we can’t talk about.

So why don’t I rage quit? Why don’t I stop the blogging, speaking, and board of directors-ing? Because I know what I do matters. Maybe not the most, and maybe not a lot – but it matters. I occasionally get an email saying I helped make a person a skeptic or an atheist. I get twice as many emails saying I’ve inspired someone to take up activism too, whether it be writing or working with their local group or whatnot. I get ten times as many emails saying I’ve made someone a feminist and opened their eyes to sexism. And I get a hundred times as many messages simply saying I brought a bit of joy to their day.

And that makes putting up with the drama worth it.

There is part of me who doesn’t even want to post this, because I know everyone will interpret it however they want. People will insist I’m talking about Person X or Organization Y, while the people who really know what I’m talking about also can’t talk about it. But I blog because being able to express myself brings a little joy to my day, and I’m taking this opportunity to be the selfish one for a moment. Maybe instead of reading the comments I’ll relish in one of the Jennifer McCreight Movement’s fine events.

The straw woman of the skeptical movement

Let’s break this one down sequentially:

1. Penn Jilette tweets a link to a “really wonderful” article his friend Mallorie wrote about her experience in the skeptic community.

2. I click said link.

3. I nearly vomit while eating my dinner because the article can be summarized as “I’m a woman who doesn’t feel uncomfortable in the skeptic community, therefore all those other women who complain are humorless, overemotional, and anti-sex. Don’t listen to them, listen to me because I’m part of the boy’s club!”

4. I get in a twitter fight with Penn Jilette and he actually responds, insisting that she’s “just right.” Yes, I know, my life is weird. He is totally bewildered by all the people trying to explain what’s wrong with her article.

Penn Jilette is a major celebrity in the skeptical movement and has traditionally played a major part in The Amazing Meeting, including throwing his Bacon and Donut party to raise money for the JREF. I know he cares about it, so I want him to understand why this article is so terribly, terribly wrong. Let’s break it down:

For as long as I can remember I have been welcomed in to communities which were generally considered “sausage fests”. If not for the constant noting of this fact I would have never noticed. You guys were always just my friends.

As I’ve gotten older these subcultures have become more vocal about wanting to include more women, the discussion has become “how can we make the community more welcoming to women”.

As a woman who has been here all along this is distressing to me, I love you guys for who you are, from my table-top strategy gaming group though my political debate forum right in to the skeptical community. You have never been anything but awesome and welcoming. Who made you think you weren’t?

The women who are seen as nothing more than sex objects and whose views and opinions are ignored or dismissed. The women who give talks and receive compliments about their appearance before the content of their presentation. The women who are sexually harassed by big names in the movement and are too afraid to speak up lest her social life or career is ruined. The women who make it clear that sexual advances are personally unwelcome, yet have their boundaries disregarded. The women who blog that are silenced by gendered insults and threatened with sexual violence, rape, and death threats.

The outspoken women who aren’t as lucky to have had awesome, comfortable experiences like you.

I am here, in my various communities because I like you guys, and I like the basis of the movement. The idea that you have to set time aside to cater to me, because my vagina imbibes me with some special needs is becoming increasingly insulting. These communities are about our minds, not our genitals and as far as I can tell my mind is just like yours.

Here’s the first straw man. No one is asking for communities to cater to our special needs, because being treated as equal is not a special need. We’re asking for exactly what you claim to want: recognition that these communities are about our minds, not our genitalia.

More recently I have noticed a trend among men in my communities, you seem to have been told that you’re  awful and need to change. Again, apparently because your genitals imbibe you with an inescapable assholism. Please never believe this lie. With all my heart I beg you to not make monsters of your gender. I like your jokes. I like your humor. I like the casualness and ease that no gender distinction has allowed us all over the years. You have never hurt or insulted me, you have brought me years of joy, wonderful debate, and stimulating conversation. By forgetting to see me as a woman, you have treated me as an equal, as a comrade, as a friend.

Again, straw man. No one is saying all men are evil misogynistic assholes, and that this is a trait somehow biologically predetermined by the presence of a penis. Were saying that the select men who are treating women poorly need to cut it out and treat us like human beings.

If your jokes or teasing manner offend some people, so the fuck what? Someone will always be offended by jokes, never let them make you believe that you are guilty of something worse simply because of your gender. If you want to make boob jokes thats fine by me, you have after all been making dick jokes since you were old enough to make jokes. Plus they are funny as hell. If you want to go free and uncensored among a group of like minded people, if you want to try to acquire sex from a like minded person, awesome, do it, sex and friendship are amazing. You are not a monster for wanting these things.  You are not a monster for attempting to acquire them.

Third straw man. This has nothing to with dirty jokes or flirting. Scroll back up to that paragraph I wrote about the kind of women who are asking for change. That’s what we’re upset about. Not crass jokes. I am the skeptical movement’s fucking patron saint of boob jokes. Don’t tell me that’s what I’m complaining about.

I type this with all of the warmth and sorrow of someone entangled in the most beautiful of bromances. I love you guys. And I’d like to slap the silly assholes who have given you the idea that you have mistreated me.

With all of my heart I beg you: Do not change. Do not change for me, do not change for someone else. You’re wonderful, just the way you are. If the day comes when you censor your language around me, when dick/fart/vagina jokes are not allowed because of my delicate gender, my heart will break as I wave goodbye in a search for a more open, natural, candid community that does not insist on seeing me first for my gender. And if you want to tease me because I am shedding a little girlish tear though an odd smile as I type this, thats ok too. But don’t ever stop being you.

Yeah, just do whatever you want! Who the fuck cares if you’re hurting people. If you’re racist, great. Homophobic, splendid. Sexist, woohoo! Because you should never change your behavior to try to be a better human being.

I did not enter this relationship with the intention of changing you all. I am enough of a grownup to know that is a terrible idea. I entered because I love science, truth, questioning, and curiosity. I love candor, and occasionally rough humor, I love the ingroup demeanor we have with each other. And I have stayed because you never insisted on seeing me as a girl.

And there’s the first part of a declaration of being part of the boy’s club. “Thanks for not seeing me as an icky girl.”

I came because I love what we are about, and I love you guys too. Don’t ever adulterate yourselves in an attempt to try to lure more vagina possessing patrons. I can think of nothing more tragic and disingenuous.

Keep joking with me, keeping being open and awesome and curious and funny, keep trying to fuck me, because I cant think of any reason why I would rather fuck someone else, we are after all human. I assure you I’ll return the favor.

And there’s part two: “Keep trying to fuck me.” That statement effectively communicates “I put out, unlike those sexless naggers, so you should keep me around.” It’s a straw man in itself, since no one is telling men to stop flirting or trying to get laid. We’re asking that you respect the boundaries that we clearly state, understand when no means no, and time your advances for appropriate social situations. Flirt with us in the pub night following the group discussion, not while we’re organizing a campaign to fight the anti-vax movement.

And I’m not sure how this logically flows with her insistence that guys don’t see her gender or treat her differently. Unless the whole skeptical community that she’s addressing is bisexual, and she’s the only one in on that secret.

In conclusion: Don’t ever let someone make you feel bad for being you, for being male, for being funny, don’t ever believe the lie that us delicate girls cant take being hit on, cant keep up with the filthy jokes, cant argue you blue in the face, and need special treatment. I love you guys. Don’t change.

Don’t ever believe the lie that those topics are what skeptical women have been shouting about for the last couple of years.

I’m glad there’s a woman out there who has had nothing but lovely experiences in the skeptical movement. I hope the number of women who feel that way grows and grows. But I hope none of them totally disregard the experiences of other women like Mallorie has. It’s salt in our wounds that Penn felt the need to promote this. Has someone so involved in the skeptical movement really not been listening to what we’ve been saying?

My Skepticon talk: Skeptical Genetics

My talk from Skepticon is now online! If you ever wanted a quick and dirty summary of basic genetic concepts, now’s your chance. I try to address a lot of common misconceptions about genetics and address some of the shoddy ways genetics is portrayed by the media:

That was my first time giving that talk. From the Q&A and questions I got afterward, I certainly know what sort of stuff I need to add, subtract, or explain better. If there’s still anything you don’t quite get about genetics, feel free to leave a question in a comments.

More damning revelations about Burzynski’s “research”

Yesterday I picked apart the Burzynski clinic’s list of “scientific studies supporting antineoplason research since 2006.” Unsurprisingly, a majority of these citations were just abstracts of conference presentations lacking peer review, and a couple studies published in terrible (and even sketchy) journals. I wasn’t able to comment on specifics about the papers since I didn’t have access through my university.

A reader sent me a pdf of the first paper from Pediatric Drugs, which is even more incriminating. For one, it’s a review paper. Review papers summarize the current state of scientific knowledge about a certain topic. Sometimes they perform meta analysis on multiple papers, but they don’t always add any new information. Burzynski’s review falls into the latter – that is, it does not have any new peer reviewed data. And the studies about antineoplastons that the paper cites are from multiple conference abstracts, a patent from 1995, his report to the FDA, and an entry in a book by Nova Science Publishers (aka, also all not peer reviewed).

The only peer reviewed research paper the review cites was on the previous list – it was the one published in the crappy alternative medicine journal. I haven’t gotten hold of the paper, but commenter joshtriska summarized it thusly:

[2] A report on 18 patients with “High-Grade, Recurrent, and Progressive Brainstem Glioma” picked from 4 of his clinical trials. The conclusion states that typically less than 10% of patients with this condition survive 2 years, but in his group 22% (or four whole people) survived past 5 years. The conclusion also states that “Because a small number of patients have been evaluated, a larger study is required to confirm these results”. No kidding!

And that final paper – the one published in the sketchy as hell “Cancer Therapy” journal, was also a review:

[3] A review paper, not a study. Antineoplastons are mentioned and a line of data from one of Burzynski’s trials is included in a table. The discussion states that the data concerning antineoplastons was from from conference abstracts, and not peer-reviewed.

The Burzynski clinic is claiming that it’s libelous to say “There are no scientific studies supporting antineoplaston treatment since 2006.” But it’s not libelous because it is true. Results that lack peer review cannot be said to support something. Abstracts at conferences are not peer reviewed. Review papers do not include new, peer-reviewed data. The only published paper he has itself states that it is inconclusive without a larger study to confirm the results.

Plus, they don’t even understand what the phrase “since 2006” means. It means published starting in 2007. From that alone we throw out the first two papers. You’re left with a review paper that cites conference abstracts, and conference abstracts.

So no, Burzynski clinic. There aren’t any scientific studies supporting antineoplaston treatment since 2006. But there are plenty falsifying it.

A look at the Burzynski clinic’s publications

The Burzynski clinic has responded to the flood of skeptical bloggers with a press release. They’ve apparently fired (in so many words) Marc Stephens for his harassment, yet still plan to send attorneys after UK bloggers. I’m not sure if the targeting of UK bloggers has to do with UK libel laws, or if the Burzynski clinic is oblivious to the dozens of American bloggers also pointing out their harmful pseudoscience.

But the part of the press release that intrigued me was that they finally attempt to give some evidence for all that scientific research Burzynski has to back up his claims. Wow, a list of citations! To a non-scientist, it certainly seems impressive, what with its big words and journal names and such. But as a scientist, I was still skeptical, and decided to do some digging.

Why was I skeptical? Because not all journals are created equal. Lay people know this to an extent. It’s much more prestigious to get into journals like Science and Nature because the peer review process is way more rigorous. Your research not only has to be pretty damn air tight, but it has to make a significant contribution to scientific knowledge. We can measure how good a journal is by a metric known as an “impact factor.” It’s complicated, but generally the higher the impact factor, the better the journal.

So let’s have a look at Burzynski’s research, shall we?

1. Burzynski, SR. Treatments for Astrocytic Tumors in Chiìdren: Current and Emerging Strategies. Pediatric Drugs 2006; 8: l67-178.

Pediatric Drugs: No impact factor.

Off to a great start! (Hint: That’s sarcasm)

2. Burzynski, S.R., Janicki, T.J., Weaver, RA., Burzynski, B. Targeted therapy with Antineoplastons A10 and of high grade, recurrent, and progressive breínstem gliome. Integrative Cancer Therapies 2006; 5(1):40­47.

Integrative Cancer Therapies has an impact factor of 1.716. What does this number mean? Compared to other journals in the category of Integrative & Complementary Medicine, it’s ranked 6 out of 21. Not bad, but “Integrative medicine” sets off my Pseudoscience Alarms. Suspicions confirmed, the  journal describes itself as emphasizing “scientific understanding of alternative medicine and traditional medicine therapies.”

To quote the brilliant Tim Minchin:

“By definition … alternative medicine … has either not been proved to work, or has been proved not to work. You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.”

What happens when you compare this journal in a more legitimate category, like Oncology? Its rank unsurprisingly drops to an abysmal 134 out of 185.

3. Burzynski, SR. Recent clinical trials in diffuse intrinsic brainstem glioma. Cancer Therapy 2007;5, 379-390.

When this journal’s website loaded, I started laughing and dragged my laptop to my fellow-scientist roommate. It looks like a relic from the 90s. Even more sketchy and unprofessional than the white-text-on-black-background and ugly use of frames is its repeated mentioning of its “rapid review process.” I couldn’t find out anything about the editorial board other than there’s some guy in Greece you should submit things to. And after a lot of digging, I couldn’t find an impact factor at all.

Super sketchy.

4. Burzynski, SR., Weaver, R.A., Janicki, T.J., Jufida, G.F., Szymkowskì, B,G., Kubove, E. Phase Il studies of Antineoplasîons A10 and AS 2-1 (ANP) in chiìdren with newly diagnosed diffuse, intrinsic brainstem gliornas. Neuro-Oncology 2007;9:206.

[etc]

The final nine of his citations all seem to come from the Journal of Neuro-Oncology. Upon first glance, it seems legit. It has a relatively high impact factor of 5.483, which makes it 24 out of 184 in Oncology. Not bad at all, especially for a specialized oncology journal (the neuro part).

Not bad until you search the journal for articles by Burzynski. The result?

Burzynski has not published a single paper in this journal. Every single citation is an abstract from a presentation made at a conference. For those of you not in academia, we like to hold conferences where people can present their research and network. However, you’re allowed to present preliminary results that haven’t been published yet. Any scientist can submit abstracts in order to speak at conferences, and if that single paragraph sounds interesting, you get to give a talk. It’s pretty much impossible to judge how legitimate research is from an abstract (or presentation) alone, and some conferences are not competitive at all when it comes to who gets to speak – they have plenty of spaces to accept all presenters. Journals often act as archives for conferences they’re affiliated with, and will list those abstracts.

This means that none of Burzynski’s research from this journal has actually been peer-reviewed by the journal. The fact that he never actually published this data says a lot. Seriously – if you legitimately found something that helped cure cancer, prestigious journals would be tripping over themselves to have you publish in them. The fact that you can’t publish your research anywhere except in the occasional bottom-of-the-barrel shady journal means your research is terrible.

There was a final citation that stood out to me. It was the only citation that wasn’t research that Burzynski himself had done. Another key facet of science that makes it robust is that other scientists must be able to confirm your findings. And if they falsify your hypothesis, it’s back to the drawing board. So lets look at this one last citation:

11. Ogata, Y., Shirouzu, K., Matono, M., Ushìjima, M., Uchida, S., Tsuda, H. Randomized phase H study of hepatic arterial infusion with or without antíneoplastons as adjuvant therapy after hepatectomy for liver metastases from colorectal cancer. Ann Oncol 2010;21:víiî221 .

Again, this was a presentation made at a conference, specifically the 2010 European Society for Medical Oncology. Again, that means this research has not been peer-reviewed at all. In addition to the lack of non-Burzynski studies replicating his results, the National Cancer Institute also points out multiple studies (in legitimate journals) that are not able to replicate his results.

I would really like someone to take a look at the few papers Burzynski has published to see what the science looks like. One, I can’t access the couple of journal articles he actually does have because the journals are so crappy that my university doesn’t bother subscribing to them. But two, my area is population genetics and evolution, so I’m not really equipped to do an in-depth analysis of cancer research. But as a biologist I can safely remark on the quality of the journals his research was published in, and what that means.

So, Burzynski. Do you have any actual science to support your claims?

Update: I discuss further damning revelations about Burzynski’s research in this newer post.

For shame, Burzynski clinic

Why am I directing my ire at the Burzynski clinic? Any one of these reasons would be enough, but let’s go through the list, shall we?

1. Pseudoscience. The Burzynski clinic claims to be able to cure cancer with “antineoplaston therapy.” What’s that? Mainly a load of bunk (emphasis mine):

Some people promote antineoplaston therapy as a cancer treatment. But available scientific evidence does not support claims that antineoplaston therapy is effective in treating or preventing cancer. Antineoplaston therapy was developed by Dr. S. R. Burzynski in the 1970’s. He believes that antineoplastons are part of the body’s natural defence mechanisms against cancer and that people with cancer don’t have enough of them. At first, he took these compounds out of urine and blood. Now, it is possible to make them in the laboratory. There are several types of antineoplastons. They are known by the letter ‘A’ and a number such as A10, AS-25 and AS2-1.

Antineoplastons are taken either as a tablet or as an injection into the bloodstream.

There have been a number of phase 1 and 2 trials in different types of cancer. These early phase trials test what dose of treatment people should have, how safe the treatment is, and how well it works. Early trials only give the treatment to small numbers of people. Although Dr Burzynski’s own clinic have reported positive results for these trials, no other researchers have been able to show that this type of treatment helps to treat cancer. Other researchers have criticised the way the Burzynski Clinic trials have been carried out. Despite researching this type of treatment for over 35 years, no phase 3 trials have been carried out or reported.randomised clinical trial is the only way to properly test whether any new drug or therapy works.

Are we clear? There’s no evidence that “antineoplaston therapy” cures cancer, despite decades of research. Moving on.

2. Unethical behavior. Despite this lack of evidence, the Burzynski clinic will happily give you their “treatment.” The newest example of this despicable behavior is with four-year old Billie Bainbridge, who has an inoperable brain tumor.

The Burzynski clinic is happy to “treat” her – for $200,000. Which was donated by random people and even some celebrities (including the bands Gorillaz and Radiohead), who had no idea that there’s no evidence that this treatment works. Exploiting sick children for your own profit is the lowest of low.

Quackometer puts it best on why this false hope is so terrible:

False hope takes away opportunities for families to be together and to prepare for the future, no matter how desperately sad that is. It may make the lives of those treated more unpleasant and scary. (Antineoplaston therapy is not without dangerous side-effects). It exploits the goodwill of others and enriches those that are either deluded, misguided or fraudulent. It may leave a tragedy-struck family in financial ruin afterwards. Giving false hope may be more about appeasing the guilt and helplessness of ourselves rather than an act of kindness to the sick.

3. Bullying. If you can’t back up your claims with scientific evidence, it seems like the next step is propaganda and bullying. Burzynski claims he’s some of “brave maverick doctor” who’s being persecuted by the scientific community. There’s a whole propaganda documentary supporting his clinic.

But now the clinic has turned to bullying bloggers who dare question the efficacy of his treatment. Marc Stephens, who represents the Burzynski clinic, has been sending deranged pseudo-legal rants to these bloggers, threatening to sue for libel. Andy Lewis of Quackometer had his family threatened:

“Be smart and considerate for your family and new child, and shut the article down..Immediately.”

If that wasn’t enough, Marc has aggressively gone after 17-year-old blogger Rhys Morgan, including a screen capture of a Google Maps satellite view of Rhys’s house in order to intimidate him. 

If Burzynski really is a visionary, his research should speak for itself. Bullying and silencing is not how science is done, despite how highly you think of your ideas. The Texas State Medical Board is holding a hearing next April to revoke his medical license – not because he’s a rebel – but because he’s unethically exploiting sick people with his pseudoscience.

If you want to learn even more about “antineoplaston therapy” and Burzynski’s history, Dr. David Gorski has an excellent and lengthy summary over at Science Based Medicine. And if you want to show these bullies that silencing tactics do not work, spread the word far and wide. Let’s teach them about this little thing called the “Streisand Effect.” 

I’ve been pony-fied

I had two My Little Ponies that I played with when I was about six years old, until their manes turned bright green from me bringing them to the swimming pool too many times. But I totally don’t get the whole My Little Pony reboot fandom thing. Bronies? What?

But I don’t care. Along with the other Skepticon speakers (here and here), I’ve been pony-fied, and it’s pretty damn cute:

I love it. My favorite color blue (nabbed from the Blag Hag logo, I assume), badass pegasus wings, a DNA symbol, a mane that accurately depicts my bushy brown hair, and a pony pun that PRONOUNCES MY LAST NAME CORRECTLY! Win.

An apology to Skepticon from Gelato Mio

I previously blogged about “Gelatogate” (really? does every kerfuffle have to end in “gate?”) and felt that the business’s apology seemed a little insincere. It came off more as “I’m sorry I offended you because now my reviews on yelp and urbanspoon are plummiting,” not “I’m sorry for what I did because I understand why it was wrong.”

Well, the owner of Gelato Mio just emailed me to let me know he had posted a lengthier apology on reddit. There he describes the situation in more detail:

To the World:

Hello, my name is Andy and I’m the owner of Gelato Mio, a gelato shop located in Springfield, Missouri. There has been quite a lot of buzz and discussion concerning a picture of the sign I briefly posted in my front window Saturday evening. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell my story and offer a heartfelt apology to your community. I messed up, plain and simple. This is NOT an excuse, but how it happened from my perspective.

I decided to welcome the convention downtown by offering the attendees 10% off their purchases at my store. A lot of the group from the convention were stopping by, being very polite and enjoying my Gelato. Saturday night started out as a great night. Once the store slowed down, I decided to walk down the street to learn more about the convention, fully thinking it was something involving UFOs (“skeptics”). What I saw instead was a man conducting a mock sermon, reading the bible and cursing it. Instead of saying “Amen”, the phrase was “god damn”. Being a Christian, and expecting flying saucers, I was not only totally surprised but totally offended. I took it very personally and quickly decided in the heat of the moment that I had to take matters into my own hands and let people know how I felt at that moment in time.

So, I went quickly back to my business, grabbed the first piece of paper I could find, wrote the note and taped it in my front window. This was an impulsive response, which I fully acknowledge was completely wrong and unacceptable. The sign was posted for about 10 minutes or so before I calmed down, came to my senses, and took it down. For what it’s worth, nobody was turned away. I strongly believe that everybody is entitled to their beliefs. I’m not apologizing for my beliefs, but rather for my inexcusable actions. I was wrong.

Guys, I really don’t know what else I can do to express my apologies. I’ve received dozens of calls and hundreds of emails since the incident, and have done my best to reply to each and every one and express my regret for what happened. For the thousands of you whom I’ve offended, I sincerely apologize. I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me. This is me as a human being sincerely apologizing for my actions.

To those of you who accept my apology, Thank You; it means a lot. To those of you who haven’t, I hope you will. I’m just a 28 year old small business owner who made a big mistake. I hope you see that I have not made any excuses, I’ve owned up to what I did, and I apologize.

For what it’s worth, an Atheist reached out to me to help me work through all of this and contact your community directly. I graciously accepted his offer.

I will give everyone who comes to my store this week 10% off as a token of my apology. Really, what’s more universal than ice cream?

Sincerely, Andy

This seems like a sincere apology, and I personally will say apology accepted. Like I said before, admitting you were wrong is hard, and I respect people who do it.

No Gelato for Skepticon

This is the sign hanging in Gelato Mio, a gelato place right next to where Skepticon is currently taking place:


“Skepticon is NOT welcomed to my Christian Business

lol bigotry

Why am I laughing? Because it’s their loss. Other restaurants have been overflowing with Skepticon people buying their food. They don’t want our money? Fine by me.

UPDATE: The gelato place has offered a vague apology. Maybe it’s because they realized their urbanspoon ranking dropped by 60% and that the internet exists.

UPDATE 2: The apology has been updated to actually sound more like a real apology.

Admitting you’re wrong

It’s a hard thing to do – trust me, I know from experience. That’s why I respect people who are able to do it. Aaron Friel of UNIFI wrote an excellent post about why he was wrong about his previous opinion that you “don’t feel the trolls,” and why it’s important to admit when you’re wrong. This was prompted by the post written by his clubmate Keenan and my response (well, and a lot of introspection, of course). It’s long, but worth the read. I particularly relate to this back story:

I was the kid that teachers described as “precocious” and students described as “know-it-all”. That’s not a compliment to me, mind you. It took me most of my life to admit I was wrong. If I claimed knowledge I didn’t have, I rationalized it away later. This started to change in middle school, when surrounded by the bright students of Malcolm Price Lab, I had to articulate my beliefs and then actually defend them. I can easily say I’ve never cheated on a test, but I’ll admit now that I cheated on some arguments. When confronted with evidence to the contrary, I rarely relented. I’d rationalize away the flaws in my argument and persist.

I first admitted I was wrong privately, a small victory. It was after a mock debate on whether or not to allow a chemical plant to be built near a river. During that debate, I lied. I claimed knowledge I didn’t have to solidify my argument. I don’t even recall whether or not we won; the sting of realizing as I was saying something that I had no evidence whatsoever of its truth washed away the other memories of that day. I looked up my claim later online and I was … wrong.

Since first admitting I was wrong, I had a lot of catching up to do. At Cedar Falls High School, I opted to sit with people I didn’t know, and with whom I didn’t agree; once I sat with conservatives and people who quoted scripture in defense of their positions. I came away a better person for it. I learned better how to articulate an argument and to submit it to criticism. I also learned not to take personally some of the harsher remarks. Especially, I learned something akin to Hanlon’s razor and took it to heart. It became the one thing I would always fall back on in an argument. My preferred version goes a little like this:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by misunderstanding.

Sitting between Guy-That-Quotes-Scripture and Guy-That-Thinks-Iraq-Had-Nuclear-Weapons led to some very prideful arguments, if you’ll allow the understatement. Words were exchanged and the bell would sound and we’d return the next day, maybe with a printed off article or two to back up our positions. I’m not sure if we ever budged, but I learned not to interpret malice into their words. We didn’t see eye to eye, but there was no hate. I was often wrong even then, of course, but they’re no longer around to hear me admit it.

Learning to gracefully accept being wrong is my Moby Dick, I’m still working out the kinks.

At the same time, I think our community is, too. In the past six months we’ve had some prideful arguments. Unfortunately there’s no lunch bell to send us off to classes and give us time to think. We give ourselves no time to relax, and no room to recant our invectives before beginning another argument.

Our movement is predicated on the belief that we can and will be wrong. A lot. And that’s OK. When we admit we’re wrong, we grow as people, as a community.

Honestly, I went through the same thing. I was a precocious child. McCreights also tend to be tremendously stubborn – you should see our Thanksgiving dinner table “discussions” – which is a dangerous trait when coupled with smarts. It took me a long time to be able to admit I was wrong. I still have a hard time with it – ask any of my friends when we get into a debate about trivial stuff that I insist I’m correct about. I haven’t completely stopped (Jen’s friends: “Ha!”), but at least now I recognize that I’m being stupid.

And while the internet has the disadvantage of not having a lunch bell, I think it also has its perks. I would say learning about science is the most important thing that taught me how to be wrong – but blogging comes in close second. You’re constantly exposed to comments by people who disagree with you. Some of these comments are obviously incorrect or wildly silly, but plenty make me stop and think. I probably come off a lot more stubborn that I am, because a lot of my growth is behind the scenes. There are plenty of times where I start writing a post, stop, start, stop, and ultimately never post it because I know I’m unsure about what I’m saying. I also know I don’t necessarily agree with things I wrote when I first started blogging, and a couple of years from now I’ll probably disagree with some stuff I’m saying now.

And frequently, I am so thankful I didn’t start my blog sooner. I had some pretty ignorant or embarrassing opinions as recent as the beginning of college. I used to be adamantly anti-drugs and against underaged drinking. I thought sex was reserved for only when you’re madly in love, and casual sex was just for those “slutty” people. Even though I used the label “feminist,” I had some pretty backwards and frankly sexist views about women – especially feminine women. And I even used to be quite the tone troll when it came to atheism – I thought singing kumbaya was the only way of communicating. My first comment on Pharyngula was how PZ’s harshness was – if I remember correctly – “pointless dick-waving.” Stupid and sexist.

I don’t necessarily agree with Aaron 100% about the situation, specifically the part about “poisoning the well.” I think harshness has it’s place in communication – let’s not rehash the whole firebrand/diplomat debate all over again. And I think “tone trolling” is a real thing that distracts from the real issues being discussed. I have a feeling female bloggers are on the receiving end of tone trolling far more often since women are stereotyped as being nice and gentle, though it’s just speculation – I wish someone would do a scientific study of blog comments. And it’s also annoying how fellow atheists seem to employ arguments about “tone” when criticism is pointed within the group, rather than outside of it. Not as many people object to harsh words aimed at the religion (though obviously some do).

But while we’re admitting that we’re wrong, I will confess to one of my major weaknesses: I don’t always choose my words carefully when I’m angry. I get sloppy. When I point out someone is a “white male” or has “privilege,” I’m not trying to say that’s inherently bad. I’m not trying to say “You can’t weigh in on this discussion because of something you can’t control.” I’m trying to say that it’s patronizing when people try to tell minorities how they should feel and react to discrimination, even if they’re allies with the best of intentions. That sometimes you have to take a step back and think, “Maybe I don’t quite understand where they’re coming from.”

Trust me. There are times where I’ve read discussions about if something is racist, and I’ll have some pretty dumb opinions. I certainly don’t consider myself racist, but no one is perfect. I mean, come on, I’m from Indiana – my high school had 1400 students and you could count the number of black students on one hand. Lack of exposure breeds ignorance. But instead of writing an angry blog post about how black people are overreacting and should calm down, I recognize that I’m probably being dumb and that I should just sit and listen for a while longer.

And sitting and listening is the number one thing that’s made me eventually able to change my mind. This is especially true about feminism. Years ago I purposefully subscribed to lots of feminist blogs that I didn’t necessarily agree with. A lot of times they made me rage. But instead of unsubscribing, I kept reading and thinking. Eventually a lot of arguments won me over once I got over my stubbornness. And the things I still disagree about are now for real reasons that I can articulate, not ignorance.

Admitting you’re wrong is hard to do, but it’s also the sign of a good skeptic.

A bully, plain and simple

Wow.

You know, I certainly understand the concept that not every stupid thing someone says is worth responding to. It’s the reason why I don’t devote a post to every time Ken Ham or Focus on the Family update their blogs. I also understand that sometimes people post terrible things with the sole intention of getting you riled up, and responding probably gives them some sort of smug satisfaction.

But sometimes, even the craziest of tirades deserved to be shared. Not because I think I’ll change the mind of the writer, but because people deserve to see what pure, unhinged, vitriol looks like.

This is a message to me from Abbie Smith of the blog ERV, with my response:

btw, my response to Jen:

Jen–
Rebecca Watson is a loser. She leeches off the skeptical movement to exist. Its disgusting.

You have (had?) potential to be more. And you are flushing it down the toilet.

You are in graduate school. That is your job. You spend way too much time going to these stupid conferences (hey, like Skepticon this weekend), that are not even tangentially related to your job (contrary to what you wrote in the small portion of your proposal I read).

Indeed, graduate school is my job. It is not, however, slavery. I thought you would understand that since you’re also a biology graduate student, but maybe they’re particularly rough over at the University of Oklahoma. You see, people – even graduate students – are allowed to have free time. Yes, we’re allowed to unshackle ourselves from the lab bench and head home for dinner. Some of us will read books or watch movies. Some will head out for beers with friends and coworkers. Some will even – gasp! – take vacations. We are allowed to have lives, and hobbies.

It’s intriguing that you claim I spend way too much time at these conferences, since you don’t know my schedule at all. Like how I purposefully did not schedule any speaking engagements for August, September, October, and early November because I knew I would have to spend extra time preparing for my Research Reports departmental presentation and the NSF fellowship proposal. Or how I’m not scheduling anything January through February because I’m preparing for my committee meeting and have to, as my 2nd year PhD student duties, run graduate student recruitment weekends. Or how I never schedule speaking events in back to back weeks, because I wouldn’t have the time. Or how if I have to miss a half day or day of work for travel, that I make up the time earlier that week or while traveling (which I can do since my project is currently completely computational).

But I’m sure all of the graduate students who decide to attend skeptical conferences will be glad to know that you have deemed them to be a waste of time.

And as for them not being “even tangentially related to my job”… Are you really saying that communicating science is not related to being a scientist? Would you say the same thing to students who spend their weekends helping with science fairs, or giving talks to classrooms or the community? I, like many scientists, want to be more than a pipetting machine.

These speaking engagements have given me much more practical experience in public speaking than most graduate students ever get, and it shows. I am consistently told by multiple professors in my department how excellent my speaking abilities are, and how clearly I can communicate my research.

You are behaving in an utterly unprofessional manner, posting pics of seminars you attend making fun of them, accusing your professors and classmates of being anti-science. The portion of your proposal I read was horrible, to the point of being shockingly horrible for someone of your education and writing experience. It bears absolutely no resemblance to my NIH proposal (which was funded).

This is a drastic distortion of what I’ve talked about here. Yes, I giggled at some particularly horrendous slides from a single seminar (not seminars) that the department as a whole was publicly cracking up about. And I have never accused my professors and classmates of being anti-science. I explained how because of the religious culture surrounding creationism, even some evolution-accepting scientists become uneasy about aggressively supporting evolution.

And while your comments about my proposal were probably meant to hurt my feelings and pad your ego (you got funding, good for you), it just makes me laugh. For one, the NIH fellowships don’t require a personal statement at all, unlike the NSF fellowships. And I explicitly stated my excerpt was from my personal statement, where you are required to talk about your motivation for becoming a scientist and doing outreach.

Second of all, it’s ludicrous that you think you can judge a 6 page application from two paragraphs of a personal statement. A draft personal statement that I openly admitted still needed revision, nonetheless. Unless you’ve been hacking into my computer and reading my finished application, I’ll just assume you’re bitterly taking pot shots. Especially since multiple professors and classmates have told me my application is excellent and very well written.

Which brings me to the worst part of your behavior, and why I know you are well on your way to becoming a professional loser– your proposal sucked, and you blamed your critique on your colleagues supposed anti-science. Youve already said your proposal isnt going to get funded ‘because youre an atheist’ or something stupid like that. And do I remember right, you didnt get into Harvard ‘because youre an atheist’ too, right? When you were properly chastised for behaving inappropriately and unprofessionally, you declared that it was because they couldnt handle you speaking out. Poor you for fighting the system! Career suicide! Bitch, please. I killed a Godfather of Retrovirology, and Ive still got a career (technically, it opened up locked doors for me). Heaven forbid your brain entertain the thought, for a moment, that you just fucked up. You are too stuck up your own ass to take responsibility for your own actions. Youre too old for this kind of immaturity.

My brain almost exploded from the irony that the same person who’s writing an unprovoked diatribe and coined the phrase “Rebecca Twatson” is the one calling me immature.

I’ve never said my proposal isn’t going to get funded because I’m an atheist, or that I didn’t get into Harvard because I’m an atheist. I don’t know why I ultimately didn’t get accepted to Harvard after my interview. And if I don’t get the NSF, it’s probably going to be because they don’t always like discovery based research without clear alternative hypotheses. My point in writing those posts is that I hate that I even have the inkling in the back of my brain that it may be because I’m an atheist. Because sadly, that shit happens. I know people who have lost their jobs because they were atheists, so I can’t help but worry and wonder. It’s one of the reasons I’m an activist – because I don’t think people should ever have to wonder that, even for a fleeting second.

But you can continue thinking I’m a sucky scientist with no social skills who can never admit she’s wrong. I don’t care, because I know it’s not true, and I know the people around me know it’s not true. I’ve demonstrated multiple times on my blog that I’ll edit, clarify, or even remove posts when I find conflicting evidence. I’ve greatly changed my talks because of feedback people have given me when they dispute certain points. And hell, in grad school I’m excited when I’m actually right. Classes challenge the way you think and what you think you know, and professors and classmates constantly challenge your data and interpretations. It’s how science works.

Oh, but right, I suck at that. Moving on.

If you went to my uni and you were in my department, you would be kicked out this coming Spring. And it would have had jack shit to do with your atheism.

But I am not your mother and you are not my problem. If you want to bitch on the internet for a living, more power to you. But you need to deal with the fact that people are going to call you a loser if that is what you choose to do with your life. Because you will be.

If you want to grow the fuck up and be a professional scientist, I would be happy to have you and happy for you.

But I just dont think its going to happen.

The irony of someone bitching on the internet about how I shouldn’t bitch on the internet.

It’s great to know that you would fire me just because you dislike a couple of things I’ve said about feminism (even though you apparently used to think I was awesome), and that you would make that decision knowing literally nothing about my academic achievements. How about the NIH training grant that I’m currently on? How about my two published papers? My grades? Work ethic? Scientific ability at all?

Nope, you know nothing, but you’d be childish enough to fire me.

You’re worried about my ability to become a professional scientist? I’m worried that you will become a professional scientist. We don’t need people who are so divorced from reality that they go on public, outrageous, denigrating rants. I’ll be the first to say that sometimes I can be a bit blunt, or rude, or abrasive. I don’t mince words when I have something to say. But what I’ve never been described as is pointlessly mean. Mean to the point where it’s frankly scary.

But really, it just makes me sad. I used to love your blog, but after “Elevator-gate” you did a Jekyll and Hyde. I can forgive people for occasionally saying something dumb or sexist or mean. But your cruelty isn’t occasional – it’s become an unhealthy obsession, with you lashing out like this at many different people. It’s not my place to psychoanalyze you on my blog, but I sincerely hope you find peace somehow. It’s one thing to strongly disagree with someone, it’s another to say stuff like this.