Monday, June 24, 2013

You don't actually have all the time in the world

A female friend of mine in her late twenties recently wrote a blog post pondering the question of when to have children. That is clearly a deeply personal choice that each woman or couple must decide for themselves. So, naturally, I'm going to weigh in. I’m going to tell her the same thing I ignored when I was in my twenties. If you’re a woman, you don’t actually have all the time in the world. 

My husband and I found out the hard way that I was infertile when we were both 27 years old. We did manage to have a child three years later, but it was not easy or cheap. Granted, most women do not experience infertility as early as I did. Nevertheless, age-related infertility is not a myth perpetuated by the male patriarchy. It’s real. A woman in her twenties who is actively trying to get pregnant will have a monthly success rate of up to 25%. By the time she’s 35, that rate is down to 10%. Meanwhile, her miscarriage rate will have more than doubled and her risk of having a child with Down syndrome nearly quadrupled. Once you hit 40, you’re almost certainly going to need the help of fertility specialists to have a child and they’re probably going to recommend that you consider using eggs that are donated from another (much younger) woman, aka ‘adoption in utero’*.

The moral of this story is that, no matter how much you moisturize or exercise, as far as your ovaries are concerned, forty is not the new thirty. 

Unless in your specific case, it is. 

And that’s what makes these kinds of decisions so difficult. Even if you have a family history of either infertility or late-in-life pregnancy, there are no guarantees. So what’s a woman to do? Start trying to conceive before they’re emotionally or financially ready for a child, something we’ve been telling them since they were little girls is a terrible idea, or wait until the perfect moment when their relationships and careers converge, something which might never happen?

This blog post is sounding very bitter, and I don’t mean it to be. My husband and I are very happy with the way our lives have turned out. However, my experience does make it hard to know what to tell young women who are considering the question of when to have children. Common sense tells me to say ‘don’t start too soon and have a child you’re not ready for, or worse yet harbor regrets about paths not chosen and pleasures not sampled.’ But biological sense implores me to say ‘don’t wait too long and find out that it’s already too late.’ 

*There’s also ‘regular’ adoption which, like donor eggs, can be used by women of any age. Women who don’t mind considering these options obviously have more time to play with.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

What is the real point of abstinence only sex education?

You might argue that abstinence only sex education is meant to prevent teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). I submit that if you did so, you would be wrong. I contend that the actual purpose of abstinence only sex education is to shame and control young people by teaching them to despise themselves for having normal human emotions and experiences.

To begin with, abstinence only sex education is an abysmal failure at preventing either pregnancy or STDs. States that insist on using abstinence only sex education have higher rates of teen pregnancy than states that offer comprehensive sex education. A 2011 study conducted by researchers from the University of Georgia found that “increasing emphasis on abstinence education is positively correlated with teenage pregnancy and birth rates”. In addition, abstinence only sex education does not prevent the spread of STDs or delay sexual initiation for any meaningful amount of time.

That’s because kids who are subjected to abstinence only sex education don’t actually learn anything about sex. Being human, sooner or later they’re going to have sex and when they do they won’t know the first thing about preventing STDs or pregnancy. Abstinence only sex education programs actually teach false and misleading information.

Students are taught that condoms have a 14% failure rate (it’s actually 2-3% with proper usage), and that condoms don’t prevent the spread of HIV or other STDs (completely false). 

Does this sound like useful information? 

In short, abstinence only sex education increases rather than decreases teen pregnancy, does not reduce STDs or sexual activity and provides kids with false and dangerous propaganda. Why would anyone sanction a program that was such an unmitigated disaster? Because it is effective at its true mission.

Here are a few things Pam Stenzel, an abstinence only sex education spokeswoman who regularly gives lectures to high school students, tells her captive teenage audience:
If you take birth control, your mother probably hates you.
No one has ever had more than one [sexual] partner and not paid.
I could look at any one of you in the eyes right now and tell if you’re going to be promiscuous. 
In other words, abstinence only sex education is used to personally attack and shame young people. If that doesn’t turn your stomach, consider the story of Elizabeth Smart
Smart was abducted from her Salt Lake City home in 2002 when she was only 14 years old. Against all odds, she was discovered alive nine months later and reunited with her joyous family. She subsequently revealed that during her captivity, she did not take advantage of opportunities to escape. Why not? Smart credits abstinence only sex education:
I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.
Think about that for a moment. A fourteen year old girl is kidnapped and decides that no one will want her back because she was raped by her captors. That's the lesson she learned from abstinence only sex education.*
In summary, abstinence only sex education doesn’t work unless it’s intended purpose is to make girls feel dirty and worthless. In that case, its been a big success.

*Elizabeth Smart now runs a Foundation to help protect and educate children about sex crimes. She teaches children that "you will always have value and nothing can change that."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Climate change: it's past time to accept the science

I’ve written about this issue over at my science blog. For more background, check out Global warming is real and Human-caused climate change--Now even realer.

To summarize the data, virtually anyone who knows anything about climate agrees that global warming is real and that it’s caused by humans. Most of those people also agree that it’s going to be terrible. A large fraction of the human population is going to suffer and die, thanks to our inaction on this issue. Yet, nearly half the population of the United States does not know that this is settled science because our politicians and pundits have been misleading people to think there’s still some controversy over the issue. Nothing could be further from the truth.

One reason people remain skeptical of global warming is because of something that happened four years ago. In 2009, 1000's of private emails were hacked (i.e. obtained illegally) from climatologists at the University of East Anglia. The emails included suspicious phrases like: 
I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e. from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline. 
In what became known as ‘Climategate’, the denialists pounced on this and other comments as proof that the scientists were altering their data to make it look like the climate was changing when it wasn’t. 

Unfortunately, the public didn't get the memos completely debunking the allegations. For example, ‘trick’ is shorthand for 'mathematical technique' (am I committing fraud if I use the ‘trick’ of adding all the digits in a number to see if it’s divisible by nine?) and in this case ‘decline’ was referring to tree rings not temperature. Remember, these were private emails between colleagues. Like people in any business or community, climatologists use jargon and terminology when talking amongst themselves.

But don’t take my word for it. Six independent investigations have cleared all the scientists involved of any wrongdoing. And even if some data had been fudged (again, none was), that wouldn’t change the overwhelming amount of evidence that human-caused global warming is a fact.

If we’re talking about unethical practices, what’s more likely, that a small fraction of the scientific community was bought off by 'Big Oil & Coal' to say that things are fine the way they are, or that the vast majority of climatologists were bought off by… what, 'Big Academia'? To make false reports that won’t earn them an extra dime and will probably result in getting them humiliated and fired? Or by 'Big Clean Energy', so the government will increase their energy subsidies all the way to 20% of the amount given to the fossil fuel industries? What exactly would anyone have to gain by pretending that global warming was real?

Who are you going to believe? Politicians or your lying eyes?

I’m not saying that the few holdouts from accepting anthropomorphic global warming are lying. I’m sure they’re convinced that they are correct. I am saying that their financial incentive to retain that position is much stronger than any incentives the rest of the scientific community could have for accepting climate change.

Now to the last part of my title. One argument that people make goes something like this, ‘OK, climate change is real and we’re the cause, but will it really be all that bad?” I guess the answer depends on who you are and where you live. I attended a conference last year where one of the speakers, who was a climate change denialist, said that if he turned out to be wrong, he would just build a retaining wall around his house. How convenient for him. The people of Newtok Alaska, low-lying Pacific Islands and Bangladesh aren’t going to have that luxury. Instead, they have the privilege of being among the first climate change refugees. They won't be the only ones to feel the effects of global warming though.

Storm Surge Facts

2013 CoreLogic Storm Surge report

Here's something else to think about. CO2 levels haven't been this high for several million years. That means that our species has never experienced this type of climate. 

If it isn’t already too late, and there’s some debate over this, anything we do from now on to fight the effects of climate change will be far more expensive than they would have been if we hadn’t been obstructed from acting for so many years. In the interim, we can also expect to pay in treasure and grief for the storms, droughts and floods that will become the new normal. Greg Laden provides an interesting approximation of what our planet might look like in 300 years if we do nothing: 


It's time for us all to demand action from our leaders on climate change. If you prefer to be part of the solution, here’s a good place to get started. And after all, what's the downside to taking action?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Things that kill more people than guns and why I don’t care

I find it particularly irritating when people make the argument, ‘X kills more people than guns, but no one tries to take X away from people.’ Invariably, those comparisons are completely ridiculous.  Let’s visit a few examples of ‘X’ and see why.

It is a fact that more people are killed in automobile accidents than through gun violence, though the difference isn’t as great as you might think, especially considering the daily per capita use of cars versus the daily per capita use of guns. However, there are two important facts to consider. First, people need their cars to conduct their daily business. That just isn’t the case for guns, no matter how fond of them people are. Second, being well aware of the dangers posed by cars, we license and regulate both cars and drivers. We insist that car manufacturers continually increase safety features, both through regulation and through the free market. If you want to treat guns the same way, I would be all for it.

Swimming pools
Swimming pools do take the lives of more children than guns do. Fair enough. However, swimming pools are also stationary objects that can be avoided. I have never once worried that someone would bring a swimming pool to my child’s school. Nor have I ever glanced suspiciously around a crowd to see if anyone was carrying a concealed swimming pool.

Yes, many people are killed by falls. Definitely exercise caution the next time you change the bulbs in your chandeliers. But rest assured, you are safe from people trying to force step ladders under your feet at the mall.

Medical errors (taking wrong medication, malpractice, surgical errors, etc.)
Yup, this is a huge problem that we should work to minimize. It’s not one I worry about when I’m at the movie theater though. The person next to me may be loud and obnoxious, but he’s not slipping insulin into my popcorn or trying to amputate the wrong limb.

Yes, I’ve actually heard a person make the ‘X kills more people than guns do!’ argument about cancer. Okay, you got me. Cancer does kill more people than guns. Is that supposed to mean that it’s not fair to ban guns if we’re not going to also ban cancer? Besides, doctors and scientists around the world are working day and night to cure, prevent and eliminate cancer. Are you suggesting we treat guns the same way?  I’m still waiting to hear someone say, ‘instead of limiting guns, why don’t we ban old age!’

Knives, hammers, baseball clubs, fists, spatulas, etc.
These items shouldn’t even be on this list because they kill no where near as many people as guns do, no matter what nonsensical rhetoric you hear. There have been at least two mass knifings since Newtown, and no one died in either of those cases. In contrast, there have been over five thousand gun deaths just since last December. If you can stomach checking it, Slate is keeping a running tally.

Did you notice something all these items have in common? 

First, with the exception of cancer, everything on this list has a primary use that is completely unrelated to violence. People don’t buy ladders with the idea that they might one day have to shove someone off of one. They buy cars and screwdrivers and even medication because they expect to use them to go somewhere, or build a cabinet, or lower their blood pressure. That isn’t the case for guns, which are constructed specifically to inflict harm, be it on an animal or a human. 

Second, most of these items are no threat whatsoever in the public square. They will not follow me into the grocery store, they won’t make an appearance at a political rally, and they won’t confront me at the playground. If I’m not taking any medication, I’m in no danger from your bottle of pills.

The point isn’t that guns are the most dangerous things on Earth. The point is that guns are dangerous objects that no one needs except for the express purpose of making things more dangerous for themselves and others. Comparing them to other dangerous objects is disingenuous if not absurd.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Actually, I do kind of care that the government is spying on me

The National Security Agency (NSA) says they had a court warrant to collect the ‘metadata’ (times, phone numbers, duration and frequency) of phone calls from all Verizon, AT&T and Sprint customers, over 250 million Americans. The NSA also has access to all kinds of online content (email, web searches, file transfer, live chats, etc.) directly from the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.  None of this is under dispute, despite some weak denials. Who you call, what websites you visit, everything you say online (except through Twitter, which so far hasn’t cooperated) is being recorded.

I’m not going to address the questions of whether Edward Snowden was a hero or a traitor for letting the rest of us know that this was going on, or whether the NSA was within its legal rights to collect this kind of information. I don’t claim to be an expert on either constitutional law or whistleblowing. I’m also going to leave aside the question of whether this kind of spying is effective.

I do, however, have an opinion about how much we should care about any of this. I think we should care a lot.

I’ve heard people argue that they don’t mind the NSA spying on them because they’ve never done anything wrong. Maybe not, but are you sure you’ve never done anything that could be misconstrued? You’ve never sent an email that you later regretted? Or posted an inappropriate comment on Facebook? We all have enough ‘stuff’ out there on the internet that anyone wanting to put together a negative portfolio of us could easily do so. That’s why the police aren’t allowed to indiscriminately search your house for no reason. A thorough enough fishing expedition is bound to turn up something, especially if every piece of data can be saved for a ‘rainy day’, like when your political opponent wants to discredit you.

I’ve also heard people say that the sheer volume of data is itself protective. 'The government can’t possibly sift my data out of the haystack of online information.' If that’s true today, it certainly won’t be within a few years. We will have the capacity to record, store and retrieve any particular piece of information about anyone. Of that I have no doubt.

Okay, the truth is that the vast majority of Americans will never notice nor care a day in their lives whether the NSA or any other government agency is collecting data on them. I’m not really worried about the government showing up at my door, and I’m certainly not afraid to post this blog, even though I’m using Apple, Google and Facebook to do so. However, if you think your online life doesn’t connect in any meaningful way to your real life, think about this. Snowden was tracked to his Hong Kong hotel by twitter users identifying the lighting and furnishings in the background of his video (though he had already checked out by then). Anyone looking through our online information can find out anything he wants about us.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How gay marriage will affect me

Update 6/26/13: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) is unconstitutional. They also killed California's Prop 8 ban on gay marriage. 

By the end of the summer, there will be twelve states that allow gay marriage. Here are all the ways that is going to affect my own heterosexual marriage:


To prevent rape, know what it is

A couple of months ago, political analyst Zerlina Maxwell startled Sean Hannity by rejecting his notion that more access to guns was the best strategy for protecting women from rape. Her alternative plan? Teach men not to rape. 

If you read the transcript, you may notice that in exchange for her efforts to tell men not to rape women, she received numerous rape and death threats. Stay classy, internet.

As you can see, the idea that rapists could be taught not to rape was baffling to Hannity. Many of the people charged with finding solutions to the problem of rape in the military seem equally perplexed. Unlike Hannity, their best guesses weren’t to arm women, who presumably do have access to guns, but to keep women out of the military altogether. Senator Saxby Chambliss opined that raging hormones were to blame for the rampant sexual assault in the military and suggested that things wouldn’t improve as long as women were allowed to serve in the armed forces. This is like telling robbery victims to stop owning things. 

As the epidemic of sexual assault in the military makes clear, arming people in hopes of deterring violence does not and cannot work. This is particularly true in the case of rape. According to Maxwell, 80% of rapes are ‘acquaintance rapes’, meaning that the victim knows the rapist. That means that either the woman already knows that the man is violent, in which case she’s five times more likely to be killed by him if there are guns around, or she has no reason to suspect that he’s violent, in which case she probably wouldn’t keep her gun at the ready. Either way, guns are no help to either civilians or military personnel.

Let’s go back to Maxwell’s prescription: teach men not to rape. Hannity thought the idea of convincing a rapist not to rape was ridiculous. Not being known for being a good listener, he missed her point entirely, so I’ll spell it out for him. If you teach men what rape is, they’ll know it when they see it and they’ll be less likely to do it. At this point, you may be thinking, "Come on! Everybody knows what rape is!" Really?

Is it rape if you have sex with a girl who’s dead drunk? The boys involved in the Steubenville High School rape case didn’t think so. Even after the trial, many members of the community still didn’t think so, judging by the backlash against that girl. The problem isn't that some people are born evil as if they grew on rapist trees, it's that ordinary young men don't recognize sexual assault for what it is. Maybe that story would have played out differently if rape were more clearly defined in our society.

Maxwell doesn’t just pass around empty platitudes. She has some concrete ideas for how to go about teaching men not to rape. One idea I particularly liked: teach young men to take an enthusiastic ‘yes’, rather than the lack of a ‘no’ as consent. This would preclude men from thinking that sex with a woman who was unconscious or incoherent was acceptable.

If Hannity and Chambliss think that men are incorrigible and can’t be dissuaded from their desire to rape, then I have a higher opinion of men than they do. I also have a higher opinion of the power of information and education. With those tools, we can and must make the world safer for women.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Crimes against the youth: student loans and what we can do about them

Nowadays, you often hear young people (in their teens and twenties) being given the advice, “College isn’t for everyone! You might be much better off skipping college and avoiding those huge student loans. Think carefully about whether college will be worth your while.”

I hate this advice. Not because I think every person should go to college. I recognize that there are perfectly acceptable life choices that don’t include college, and that college may not even be particularly helpful for some careers. No, I hate this advice because it’s usually given by people who have been to college, at an earlier time when it was more affordable. It’s like telling someone, ‘you wouldn’t have enjoyed that cake anyway’ after you take the last piece. 

Actually, it’s worse than that, because nobody denies that college is a stimulating, enriching experience for most people. No one is suggesting that young people won’t discover new interests and develop useful skills and contacts at college. There's also no doubt that societies benefit from having a well-educated populace. The advice to bypass college is purely an economic calculation. So let’s look at some numbers.

In 2010, the total unemployment rate among high school graduates who did not go to college was 10.3%. For people with at least a bachelor’s degree, that number was only 4.7%. In April of this year, those figures were 7.5% and 3.9%, respectively. Things have definitely been improving for everyone, but people with a college degree still have a definite edge in getting a job.

What about pay?

For these figures, I went to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2013, the median salary of a 25 year old with a high school diploma but no college was $651/week. For a person with a college degree, the median weekly salary was $1095.

So far, it sounds like a college education is a huge asset. Why would anyone discourage someone from getting one? Two words: student loans.

Colleges and universities have been increasing in price more than any other commodity, at two to three times the rate of inflation. For the 2012-2013 school year, a student could expect to pay over $20,000/year at an in-state public college and over $40,000 at a private college. These numbers are averages for moderately priced schools in each category. 

Not too many poor or middle class kids have $80,000 (and in many cases, far more than that) lying around to pay for college. Obviously, everyone hopes their kids will get grants and scholarships, and some universities are working to help lower income families send their kids to college. Many Ivy League and elite schools waive tuition for families earning under $60,000/year. However, you still have to be accepted to those schools, which isn’t easy. For most students, the only way to get all the way to a bachelor’s degree is to take out some loans, and that changes the equation dramatically. 

While it’s true that college grads get more jobs and more pay at those jobs, that doesn’t mean that recent college graduates are getting the kinds of jobs they want. In one small study, only half of students who graduated from a U.S. college in 2011 or 2012 were employed full time. Many of those that were employed settled for unfavorable work hours, low wages and few benefits. One third felt that their college degree had little if anything to do with that job. Meanwhile, unlike high school grads, the college grads are starting their careers saddled with loans. Each year, 60% of college students borrow money for school. Most owe close to $25,000 but many owe far more and some owe more than $200,000. College graduates might be making more money than their bachelor-less peers, but not enough more to compensate for those loans. Forty-one percent of borrowers miss some payments within the first five years.

So here’s the choice faced by many young people today: skip college and take your chances with higher unemployment and lower pay, or take out loans that you may never be able to repay. Either choice is a loss, not only for the individual, but for society as well. Young people who are encumbered by huge loans make far fewer major purchases (house or car) than they would have otherwise done. They put off marriage or moving into their own homes. And that doesn't even count the loss of potential that results from discouraging a whole generation of talented people from pursuing their interests. 

I consider it to be a crime against the youth in this country that we put them in this position. But it doesn't have to be this way. 

Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed a bill to set the interest rate for student loans at 0.75%, which incidentally is the same rate the U.S. government charges the big banks. I think that’s a great idea and I hope it passes, but I think we should go even further. Let’s make higher education free. Why not? Lots of other countries do it. The University of California system was practically free until 1969.

Just how much would it cost to provide free universal college educations? One study estimates that, based on the number of students enrolled in public universities in 2009, the total cost of providing free public college would be $128 billion per year. That figure assumes that the 2009 ratio of 40% enrollment in cheaper community colleges holds steady. 

I think 128 billion is a low estimate, both because more people overall would attend college if it were free, and because more students would go straight to a four-year school rather than starting at community college. So let’s increase it by 50% and round it off to an even 200 billion. Where could we possibly come up with that kind of money? 

Here’s an idea. How about taking the money out of the military budget? If that makes you uncomfortable, take a look at this chart:

In 2011, the U.S. spent over $960 billion on defense. That’s more than the next fourteen biggest spenders combined. If we cut our defense spending by 20%, we could afford free universal higher education and we’d still be outspending the next highest military spender (China) by four to one. 

If you don’t like that idea, I’m sure there are programs you wouldn’t mind cutting or eliminating in favor of providing opportunities for the people who will one day be in charge of everything. It’s a matter of priorities, and it’s long past time we set ours straight. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Wherein I compare the secular community to the GOP

You don’t often find parallels between the atheist community and the Republican party. However, recent events place them in a surprisingly similar light with respect to their potential members.

Let’s look at the atheists first.

In recent years, secular, atheist and humanist women have rightfully demanded that they be given a greater voice within their communities. This culminated in the Women in Secularism 2 conference, which took place in Washington, DC last month. I wasn’t in attendance, so my information comes from the multitude of blogs and tweets about the event. According to most accounts, the opening speaker, Ronald Lindsay (President and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, which sponsored the conference) chastised the attendees for trying to silence men. I say ‘most accounts’ because Lindsay feels otherwise.*

This isn’t the place for a primer on the problems women and minorities have faced within the secular community. I bring the story up to compare it with a similar event, this time courtesy of the Republican party.

The GOP lost the last presidential election by five million votes. Much of that loss was due to their particularly poor showing among younger voters (teens and twenty year olds). The College Republican National Committee (CRNC) put out a report explaining why this was so. Briefly, young people don’t think the GOP cares about them or represents their interests. 

How did the GOP react to this news?

Here’s one example, courtesy of Bill O’Reilly:
So why should I care about this study, or why should the Republican Party care about a bunch of kids who don’t know anything?
In case it isn’t clear, the CRNC’s report was conducted by and for Republicans. It’s explicit purpose was to help the GOP regain the trust of younger voters. From the report’s introduction
We believe that Republicans can win young voters but that it will require a significantly different approach than has been used in recent elections. In this report, we propose what such an approach would entail and offer research-based insights that can guide Republicans wishing to find success with a new generation. 
Let’s compare O’Reilly’s comment to one by Lindsay
[They] assume you should never question, you should never argue back, because the person from the marginalized group must have the expertise.
As with the GOP, the people who were complaining about Lindsay’s talk at Women in Secularism 2 genuinely want their community to flourish. Their goal isn’t to aid and abet the enemy. They want more people to join their ranks. Scolding them for informing you about the feelings of people you need to court in order to stay relevant is shortsighted and unhelpful. While there are many effective strategies for growing a community, having a tantrum about dissenting views is not one of them.

Lindsay doesn’t speak for all secularists anymore than O’Reilly speaks for all Republicans. However, they are both in positions to guide their communities toward greater inclusion, something both organizations desperately need right now. The question is: will either group listen?

*Lindsay's full Women in Secularism 2 speech.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Neutrality does not mean the atheists win

A Muslim, a Christian and an atheist went into a community center...No, this isn’t the start of a joke, but of a real conversation that took place not long ago. I’ll be playing the part of the atheist.

A Muslim friend of mine mentioned that, until recently, board meetings at her work in a public facility had begun with a Christian prayer. However, people had complained and the board had agreed to stop the practice. A Christian friend had listened to this and agreed that it made sense not to have explicitly Christian prayers. She could understand how such a practice would be alienating to non-Christians like our mutual Muslim friend. However, she pointed out, you can’t have no prayers at all because “then the atheists would win.”

Really? If no religion is favored, that’s a win for atheism? It’s not as if the board meetings would start with someone saying, ‘Before we begin, I’d like us all to take a moment to acknowledge that there are no gods.’ 

My Christian friend’s attitude pervades our culture. When the U.S. Army recently ruled that their weaponry could no longer bear references to bible verses, this was taken as an attack on Christianity. Never mind that these inscribed weapons were being used in Muslim countries. Not exactly a good PR move.

By the same token, Christian groups often oppose efforts to prevent school bullying or to promote understanding and acceptance. Any attempt to curb their ability to proselytize or force others to accept their viewpoint is seen as persecution. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association went so far as to claim that “anti-bullying policies become a mechanism for punishing Christian students.”

You know you hold a privileged position in society when you think that not being allowed to bully others is a form of discrimination.

The reality is that it isn’t just the atheists who win when no religion is promoted. We all do. When no specific religion is mentioned, each person is free to think about their own particular religion and no one feels excluded. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

They said it better: the good guys with guns myth

I do my best to make my points as clearly and persuasively as I can. Then I come across an article that does a much better job. In those cases, it's best for everyone if I step aside and let the author of that piece do the talking.

Retired pediatrician Wayne Myers wrote a blog post called A Doctor's View of Guns in the Daily Yonder, an online source of news and commentary about small towns.

In his post, Myers discusses his experiences with guns in his rural Maine community and why those experiences made him "skeptical of the 'good guy with a gun' theory". You don't have to witness or patch up too many cases of otherwise good people unwittingly sending bullets into themselves or other good people to come to a similar verdict.

His conclusion tells it all:
If children and adults were infallible, and never got angry, depressed, drunk, curious, delusional, careless, childish, greedy, confused or jealous, guns wouldn't be a problem.

Read the whole piece.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The wrong question about abortion

There are people who claim to be resolutely against abortion in all cases. A standard ploy to gauge the depth of these people’s conviction on this issue is to pose the question, ‘what if your own daughter became pregnant after being raped?’ Rick Santorum was asked this question during the 2012 Republican Primary race, and he, like others in his situation, answered that he would counsel her to keep the baby. Following exchanges like this, everyone congratulates themselves on having asked and answered such a tough, enlightening question.

I’m not impressed.

To explain why, I’m going to don my biologist hat. Let’s look at things purely from a genetic standpoint.

Santorum’s daughter’s baby, regardless of the circumstances of its conception, would be his biological grandchild. That gives him a powerful incentive to resist her attempts to abort it, even if he normally would be pro-choice (which, of course, he’s not). Seen in this light, asking him his views about his daughter’s theoretical abortion is a pointlessly facile question. Here’s what I hear when reporters ask it: “You say you don’t believe in abortion, but would you still feel that way even if one killed your future grandchild?”

All of a sudden, the stock answer sounds a lot less courageous, doesn't it?

Let’s contrast that question with an alternative question that I’ve never heard someone ask a politician*: ‘What if your wife got pregnant from being raped?’ 

If the daughter chooses not to abort, Santorum’s genes get passed on, very likely with little or no longterm investment on his part. If, on the other hand, his wife doesn’t abort, Santorum will have to invest huge amounts of time, money and energy into rearing someone else’s biological child. That’s quite a different prospect. If I heard a male politician say that he would willingly raise a child that resulted from his wife’s rape, I’d be far more inclined to accept his conviction on the issue of abortion. 

I feel I need to clarify something. Please don’t take this post to mean that I don’t think adoptive parents can love their children just as much as biological parents do. I know that they can and do. My point is that telling someone else to keep a baby, especially when you have a biological incentive for her to do so, is not the same as rearing a baby yourself, especially when you don’t have a biological incentive to do so. Applauding someone for holding the former position is giving credit where none is due.

*If you know of a case where this has happened, leave it in the comments.