Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Leasons Learned from the IFC: Why Christians strawman atheists

Before I go over any deeper thoughts on the "Intelligent Faith Conference," I want to go over a lesson I learned about conservative Christians and apologists that I should have realized quite some time ago. I have been bothered by the way Christian apologists will make claims about what atheists believe. It was quite common throughout the book, "I Don't Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist," (IDHEF for short from now on) which I have blogged about. I had thought the reason was largely to make atheists seem silly in order to make their beliefs seem more reasonable in comparison. I now have slightly different thoughts.

First, let's go back to March 2010 when I attended a conference in Des Moines with my now-wife, Amy. I had attended a session with a doctor who was giving a presentation on the brain. I no longer remember the full details of the presentation (I do remember they had brought an actual brain in a vat) nor do I remember why they brought this up, but they said that everyone, including atheists, have faith. (Their example of atheists having faith, for reference, is that we have faith that our car brakes will work.) At the time, I wasn't all that familiar with Christian apologetics nor logical fallacies, so I was not able to recognize they were committing an equivocation error, but, later on, the question I had was why was it so important for them to believe that atheists have faith?

Sometime in between then and now, I would learn about cognitive dissonance theory. For the purpose of this blog post, I'll share a few paragraphs on the topic from Simply Psychology:

According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, a discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it, and achieve consonance (i.e. agreement).

Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger, arising out of a participant observation study of a cult which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members — particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult — when the flood did not happen.

While fringe members were more inclined to recognize that they had made fools of themselves and to "put it down to experience", committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members).

The one big takeaway from cognitive dissonance theory is that those with strongly held beliefs have a very difficult time letting go of those beliefs when they come in conflict with observed reality and that it tends to be easier to seek out information or reasons, regardless of their truth value, to reduce dissonance. Or, as the Simply Psychology article states, "One of the points that dissonance theorists are fond of making is that people will go to all sorts of lengths to reduce dissonance."

I have also read that Festinger had observed that the cult members also began "an enthusiastic effort at proselytizing to seek social support and lessen the pain of disconfirmation." The idea here would seem to be that people feel more comfortable in their beliefs if they think others share in that belief. (This is also backed up by other psychological studies, like the Asch conformity studies.)

This brings us back to the doctor I met six years ago. I have since come to the realization that the doctor was out to convince themself that everybody believes things off of faith to gain social support for some belief that they have that they are uncomfortable with. I will also note that I recall them asking the audience if they (we) agreed. I see this as serving as further evidence that they were indeed out for social support. I have since seen claims about atheists having faith to serve essentially the same purpose.

Yeah? Well, you know, that's
just like, your OPINION, man.

Fast-forward to the present day, I was seeing my coworker make rather similar claims. When talking about the supposed resurrection of Jesus, they made some remark that everything that's written down is essentially just opinion. It was rather clear where this was going. I'll just go ahead and be blunt that there isn't any really good evidence that a resurrection happened. (As I said in my post on initial thoughts, the person, Gary Habermas, who was presented as a supposed expert on this subject, made an argument from ignorance at the end of the presentation. If they had good evidence, there should be no need for them to engage in fallacious reasoning.) My suspicion is that my coworker realizes this as well. But, as they are a believer, this would cause cognitive dissonance. So what would be a way to reduce that conflict? Proclaim that everybody believes for bad reasons, just like that doctor and others do when they proclaim that everyone believes things on faith!

It was not this interaction that led to my light-bulb moment, but this interaction did help bring to the front of my mind the thought of such experiences with believers where they try to present some sort of "everybody does this" argument to justify their behavior. It was a couple other interactions that led to my new realization.
  • On the Friday night of the event, my coworker introduced me to their friend, James, and we talked a bit about the second presentation by J. Warner Wallace, the crime-scene investigator. Their presentation roughly mirrored chapters 3 through 6 of IDHEF, so I was familiar with the arguments. I talked with James about the science behind the origins of the universe and how I find it irrational to jump to the conclusion of god because one does not find any naturalistic explanations satisfactory. Why can't one just say, "I don't know"? They did find that to be interesting, but then they went on to assist that one does need to come to a conclusion, to which I responded with a pointed "Why?!?" They seemed to think one would need to come to a conclusion in order to make decisions and, unfortunately, that is where that part of the conversation ended. (I will agree somewhat that there are indeed many moments in life where we do need to make decisions on a limited amount of information. As an engineer, I have to do so as a regular part of my job. But what decisions would I need to make based on the origins of the universe?1) James looked as if he'd never actually had this suggested before. It was a telling moment.
  • During Saturday discussions with my coworker, they made some claims along the lines that I "have a perspective" and that they "have a perspective" as well as I "have a worldview" just like everyone else does. I was also accused of borrowing from their worldview, a claim which could use further discussion in a separate post.

It was upon reflection of these events that I realized this is actually more of the "everyone does it" rationalizing, like it is with the "even atheists have faith" claims. I'm thinking that part of the reason I had missed this before is because I had not been the intended audience. It is one thing to read in a book, like IDHEF, passages that make bogus claims about what atheists believe and that we have "worldviews" just like Christians, etc. In such cases, I am not the intended audience. But in these interactions with James and my coworker, I was now the main audience. It is perhaps the reason why I remember what that doctor said those six years ago; they weren't necessarily speaking to an audience of believers. When they called out atheists, there very well could have been (and was at least one) atheists in the room with them. It is more obvious in such a context that social reinforcement is part of the goal. Another reason may be that, because the beliefs are different, I was missing the point of atheists supposedly believing things in the same way that Christians do.

One other thing my coworker said to help drive this home was that their Christian worldview comes first and foremost for them. I cannot say the same. From my personal notes on IDHEF, I have the following written down:
Another issue in this framework of presenting ideas as needing more "faith" than others is that they completely ignore conviction and importance of the belief. I’m an atheist, but I don’t have any particular attachment to the big bang theory. I largely go along with the idea of the big bang because that is what the scientific consensus is. But my world isn’t going to be shaken one bit if scientists come out tomorrow and say that this was a completely incorrect idea. [Adding: I likely wouldn't even be shaken if scientists came out and said, "Yep, there is an intelligent designer behind the universe." I'd be surprised, and a bit skeptical, but not necessarily shaken.] The theory of evolution, for example, isn’t dependent on the big bang theory (and, in fact, the theory of evolution was formed first). Nor do my views on morality depend on evolution. Can the same be said about theists who believe a god brought about the universe?

That final question was a bit rhetorical as I have already suspected the answer is often "No." But I am no longer sure those authors are actually ignoring this. Based on these interactions I had with James and my coworker, they may very well believe atheists hold the same level of conviction. I've taken issue with the way IDHEF portrays there needing to be a lot of faith to believe in, for example, the multiverse theory because I don't know any atheists who actually believe in the multiverse theory in the same way theists believe in a god that created the universe. Instead, the multiverse is little more than an interesting concept that would need more investigation, which, with current technology, is impossible and so it should remain as no more than an interesting concept until it is actually possible to investigate. Another way to phrase this is I found their comparisons of belief between atheists and Christians2 to be apples to oranges, but they were treating them as apples to apples. It now appears that they make the apples to apples comparisons out of that need to believe that "everyone does it" so that they can battle their cognitive dissonance. That is what I have learned is likely the primary purpose of straw-manning atheists. That said, the idea of trying to make atheists look silly still seems to be secondary. I saw this with J. Warner Wallace's presentation as well as in IDHEF. Part of their shtick is to proclaim that atheists have virtually no evidence for such beliefs (which is true) while they at least have some evidence.3

With that, my response to these theists and Christians could simply be, "No, I don't do what you think I do. I don't believe the way you think I believe. I don't think the way you think I think." I realize, though, it would take a lot of work to get them to accept this. Again, it appears they believe these things about atheist beliefs out of necessity for battling their own cognitive dissonance. It won't be easy for them to let go.

1 One possibility that I could see being argued is Pascal's Wager. For those unfamiliar with the wager, the gist of it is that it is supposedly better to believe in God than not because, if God exists, then you could be punished for not believing. If God doesn't exist, then it doesn't matter anyway. The problem with the wager is that it assumes that if a god exists, it will be the Christian god, which is why I capitalized the "g" earlier. The wager fails to consider the possibility of a god that might punish people for wrongly believing in the Christian god. The wager also fails to consider the possibility of a god that would punish people for believing on a wager, and so forth. In short, it is an argument that essentially assumes the conclusion, making it circular and fallacious.

2 I'm talking about only the Christians who, like my coworker, take their beliefs really seriously. There are many Christians who clearly do not take their beliefs anywhere near as seriously (and thus don't have near the cognitive dissonance to tackle).

3 On more of a side note, their so-called "evidence" tends to be little more than philosophical arguments for which they haven't or can't verify as being true. For example, "Design only comes from an intelligence." Part of the response here would be, "As far as you know," as well as "Can you prove that?" or "Where is your verification for that claim?" Likewise, it could be asked, "Where is your verification that this is actually design?" The reality is their "evidence" relies heavily on assumptions. But, here too, one can expect the theist or Christian to proclaim that atheists also have assumptions (a common one is that there is no such thing as the supernatural), so we go right back to the bogus "everyone does it" claims.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

First thoughts on the first day of the "Intelligent Faith Conference"

This weekend there is an "Intelligent Faith Conference" here in Cedar Rapids. A Christian coworker invited me to go, so I have thus far attended the Friday night session. Here, I am posting my first thoughts. I plan to go into further detail later on, which will likely involve repeating some of the thoughts here.

My first thought as far as Friday night goes is that I noticed a bit of a theme of each presentation containing some sort of "argument from ignorance." The latter two presentation really relied on the fallacious argument, while the first presentation really only implied such an argument as part of a side argument.

The argument from ignorance can be summed up as "I can't think of any other possible explanation, so this explanation I can think of must be true." This reasoning is fallacious as the truth could be with an explanation that just hasn't been thought of.

In the first presentation, the argument from ignorance appears in a story of a skeptic who refuses to watch a video of a woman being miraculously cured because the skeptic will just come up with a natural explanation. This was used as evidence that skeptics are really predisposed to not believing in god. Well, the problem here is that the skeptic doesn't even need to come up with a natural explanation. Even if the skeptic cannot come up with any explanation does not mean they have to accept the supernatural explanation. (If there is any reason to not bother watching the video, it would be because it would unlikely be any sort of "proof" for that supernatural explanation.) Yet, I got the impression from the presenter that the skeptic should accept the supernatural explanation. That would, however, be fallacious.

On that note, much of that first presentation was just a collection of stories where it was claimed that a supernatural event happened and these claims were accepted uncritically when it should be well known that humans have a tendency to exaggerate. It was not a good way to start a conference that is supposed to be about discussing why Christianity is a rational worldview.

The second presentation was essentially centered around the argument from ignorance. That presenter was offering a process-of-elimination approach to concluding that there is a god, using the fact that such an approach is useful in his line of work as a cold-case detective. The problem here is that such an approach works when the list of possibilities is contained, as it seems to be with detective work, but not so well when that list is not. By a contained list, I mean that we know, or can be reasonably sure we know, that we have the full list of possibilities. In such a case, if all but one possibility have been eliminated, we can be reasonably sure the remaining possibility is correct. When we don't have a contained list and don't know all the possibilities, then using such reasoning becomes the fallacious argument from ignorance. The presenter tries to make his position seem reasonable by making a point that he's using the same skill set with his religious beliefs as he does with his job. The failure here is in failing to ask the question as to whether or not it is reasonable to actually do this and I would say the answer to that question is "No, it is not reasonable."

The third presentation didn't really hit the argument from ignorance until we got near the end. This presentation was about the resurrection and it was largely about how scholars largely agree to a set of 12 facts. I'll have to go over the facts later (I only captured 8 of them at the event, but I suspect I can find the other 4 on the presenter's website), but it ended up boiling down to a "I'm going to believe that there was a resurrection until someone can present me with a reasonable alternate explanation." Skimming over the 8 facts that I had captured, none of them come close to conclusively demonstrating a resurrection happened. What had started out as a somewhat interesting presentation came crashing down at the end with rather obvious (well, at least to me) fallacious reasoning.

In summary, if these are their best examples of "intelligent faith," it's going to be the poor reasoning skills of humans that keeps Christianity alive.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The disingenuous Christian "Die for a lie" argument/question

I was working on a review for the book I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (to be referred to as IDHEF from now on) and they pulled the "Die for a lie" argument in Chapter 9. In the book, they ask, “Why would the Jews [particularly the twelve apostles] who converted to Christianity risk persecution, death and perhaps eternal damnation to start something that wasn’t true? (p. 234)” I do think it is an interesting question to ponder, but they, of course, aren't actually interested in pondering the question. The point of the question is for the reader to jump to the conclusion that they would not have done so. The reader would certainly do no such thing! Therefore, it would seem reasonable to conclude that neither would the apostles. Therefore, Christianity must be true!

It really shouldn't take too much serious thought to realize how wrong this argument is. Other blogs and websites make references to the 9/11 hijackers, Jonestown, or Heaven's Gate, but one of the better counter-examples, in my opinion, is Mormonism. Early Mormons would have been in a similar position to what is claimed of the apostles: they personally knew their prophet and they were persecuted and even killed for their beliefs.

So would those who ask such a question agree that we should probably be Mormons then? Most likely not. This is because there are assumptions or other beliefs that are baked into the argument/question. One of the first time I ever heard this question (about dying for a lie) was from a video of Lee Strobel addressing such counter-arguments. Strobel acknowledges that people will die for things they sincerely believe to be true, but he won't admit that people will die for something they believe to be false. That's fair. He goes on to say he was told what the difference between these other cases and Jesus's disciples is that they were in a position to know that Jesus rose from the dead as opposed to merely believing it. In the case of Mormons, they would not have personally seen Joseph Smith use his supposed seer stone to write the Book of Mormon.

The problem with what Strobel says, though, is that he doesn't know that the apostles were in such a position. No, he merely believes this. A very similar problem can be found in IDHEF. There, they make certain claims about the apostles in the form of a question, asking, "Why would they, almost immediately, stop observing the Sabbath, circumcision, the Laws of Moses, the centrality of the temple, the priestly system, and other Old Testament teachings? (p. 234)" What they don't do is make any effort to establish these claims as facts. In other words, is it really true that the apostles did all of these things?* Where are they even getting the idea that this may be true? (And how would they respond to someone claiming the first Mormons abandoned a bunch of their prior beliefs?) It better not be from the apostles themselves! The same goes for Strobel's belief that the apostles were in that unique position. Does he believe that because the apostles said they were?

This is what makes the argument/question disingenuous. This logic essentially breaks down to "It's true because it says it's true." I would hope most people would recognize the silliness of such an argument. What can make arguments like this tricky, though, is that the real argument is buried in a foundation of assumptions. This can fool a lot of people as the presented argument seems reasonable and many won't think twice about the foundation.

In conclusion, the "Die for a lie" argument/question is not at all convincing. The argument itself has little bite as there are people from other religions that certainly cannot be dying for the truth because of the contradictory claims made. What would give the argument its bite is in other details of the story on which it is founded. However, I have never seen that foundation to have the support it needs, leading me to reject the argument.

* I would note, too, that Paul and even Christians today have written about why Christians don't need to follow Old Testament law (a.k.a, the "Laws of Moses"). This suggests that there were early converts who did not, as the authors of IDHEF claim, stop following these laws "almost immediately." Or maybe they use the phrase "almost immediately" in a way I would not. "Almost immediately," in my mind, means a matter of days or maybe even a few weeks. If they mean it to mean 20-30 years, then I find their description to be dishonest.

Update 1/1/16: I also remembered that Matthew 5:18 (NIV) reads, "For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." Note that the IDHEF authors believe that the Gospel of Matthew was actually written by Matthew, so I would find it really interesting if Matthew actually did "almost immediately" stop observing the Old Testament laws. Why would he have done so when he recorded Jesus telling people the law wasn't changing? This just makes the claim even more dubious. (I believe I've brought it up on this blog before, but it's also scary the way Christians can justify this verse. The most common justification I've heard basically boils down to "It's OK to break the law now.")

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Religious Morality That Isn't

In a recent post, I discussed how some religious people buy into what they are sold in church about needing a god for morality without giving it much thought. There are more problems with this than those arguments about how we arrive at our moral structures. It should come as no surprise that if they're not thinking about the how, they're not putting much thought into their moral system itself. As with the how, this means a sizable portion comes from being told by some sort of authority figure what is good and bad.

I had a discussion with a religious coworker last year on the topic of the why question of morality. They seem to be a good example of someone just gobbling up what the religious authorities told them without much question. A good indication of this was that they went straight to the topic of murder, which, as I stated last post, is a very cliche topic for the religious to bring up.

But a really funny thing also happened later in the discussion. One tactic religious apologists like to use is to make it seem like the world would just be a chaotic place if morality were at all relative. We were unable to finish this part of the conversation, but my coworker presented a hypothetical where I had a dictatorship, but then my son* takes over and changes a bunch of the rules. Again, since we didn't finish, it wasn't clear where they were going with this, but I suspect it was to present such a system as undesirable because of how it can change on little more than a whim. I hope some of the concern was how it is based on the authority of a human, but I have doubts on that.

There were a few things I found intriguing about this. One is how such people seem to be oblivious to the fact that the are trying to make logical arguments for a morality that they imply one cannot make a logical argument for (because their god puts it in our hearts, or whatever). That lack of awareness has both funny and sad aspects to it.

The second thing that I noticed right away is that they were presenting more of a hybrid relative morality. I thought they were trying to discuss relative morality, but that was not what was presented. With relative morality, morality would be relative to those within this hypothetical dictatorship, meaning those under the rule of the dictator need not agree with said dictator.

What was most intriguing, though, took me quite some time -- months, perhaps -- to notice: They were describing something rather similar to religious morality, much like the morality they subscribe to, particularly in regards to the authority part of it.

This got me to thinking how religious morality actually works. Through this process, I realized that a lot of the morality comes from an authority figure in the church, but I know from stories from pastors who lost their religion that the morality cannot be changed on a whim. I ended up figuring out why this is. While it is a church leader that has to dictate the morality, the morality is not associated with the church leader but rather a person or persons that are long dead, if they even existed at all. In the case of Christianity, this would be Jesus or God. With Islam, it is much the same where it is associated with Allah or maybe even Mohammed. Such a structure can even be found in non-deistic religions. Karl Marx being associated with Marxism would be one example. Or, in the USA, one can find a sort of State religion that worships the Founding Fathers.

All of these systems have the issue that one need not think about what they are doing. They just do what they believe their moral guide wants them to do. It's a scary system. One only needs to look at ISIS to see why this doesn't work. If my coworker's focus was on the idea of morality changing on a whim, their concerns seem to be not in the proper place. The authoritarian system is way more problematic. There could be a system of morality that gets everything wrong but never changes. I would hope my coworker would be more concerned about that system, but then they'd have to reject their own morality, which is why I suspect the focus was indeed on the idea of morality changing on a whim. I'm thoroughly unimpressed.

* Of course it had to be a son in this hypothetical! The regressive moral standards my coworker likely has may not allow for a woman dictator.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The irrationality of "That's different" or "That's an exception," etc. Plus, more on biology!

It would seem a point made in my post on transgender bigotry needs to be repeated because old habits need to be broken and, hopefully, the way to break them is to send the constant reminder that one is engaging in the habit. From that post, I said the following:
As I had said to my friend, if someone makes the claim that all swans are white and I then show them a black (or, really, any non-white color would do) swan, it is illogical for that person to stick to their claim. The claim has been falsified; they need to back down from the claim. The same holds true here. If the claim is that all people with an XY chromosome are male, then those questions I raised above need to be addressed. This, though, may actually explain why McHugh does not clearly define what he means by "biological sex." It's hard to falsify a non-specific claim.

This friend, however, in a discussion regarding same-sex marriage, told my wife, who is intersex, and I that our situation is "different." This statement has a similar problem as McHugh's claims: Different from what, exactly? What is the claim being made that this is different from?

Unfortunately, these statements of "That's different" or "That's an exception" are all too common. I recently saw a blog post that put this in a slightly different perspective:
Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out, perceive, accept, and remember information that confirms beliefs we already hold, coupled with the tendency to miss, ignore, forget, or explain away information that contradicts our beliefs.

How many times have you either said yourself or heard someone else say, “well, that’s an exception?” Is it, or is it just data? By calling an example an “exception” you are assuming that there is a rule it violates. This is a way of dismissing information that contradicts your beliefs.

As with my swan example, the idea here that people try to cling to their claims in the face of contradictory information is the same. To put it simply, if someone says there is an exception to the rule, then the rule isn't a rule. Period. It may be a tendency (or trend) at best, but not a rule. I think that is what my friend was meaning when they said "different." But, if the case is that they were saying that our case still fits the rule, then what's the rule?

Frankly, I became much more of an advocate of gay rights upon meeting Amy and it's largely because that helped me learn that the typical rules people spout about XY chromosomes make someone male were bunk. I hope my friend can someday realize the same. Granted, though, I didn't have the extra challenge I suspect my friend has of ditching the belief that this rule is imposed by some supposedly perfect deity, meaning the rule would be perfect by extension.

I was half-way through writing this when I realized McHugh's error isn't exactly confirmation bias when I realized he isn't exactly trying to apply a rule. Rather, he's saying the rule is through biology. I.e, the rule is whatever biology determines it to be. He does not need to define this rule because it's not his job to define it. This is instead an argument from ignorance, which can be seen where he says, "No evidence supports the claim that people such as Bruce Jenner have a biological source for their transgender assumptions." I noted in my post that just because evidence has not been found does not mean evidence does not exist. The swan example still applies, but would need to be twisted just slightly to fit. Instead, one might say, "All swans are white as no evidence supports the claim that non-white swans exist." When stated in such a way, I hope the logical error becomes more apparent: that no non-white swans are known to exist is not support for a claim that all swans are white. Similarly, that no biological source is known is not support for a claim that no biological source exists. As noted in that previous post, though, that claim of "no evidence" is hogwash. Yeah, sure, there's no direct evidence to show what, exactly, may cause transgenderism in humans, but there is evidence that gender is not a binary. In humans, the existence of disorders of sexual development and intersex people demonstrates this. And here's a new one I learned about in other animals: Apparently, temperature impacts the sex of bearded dragons. Hotter temperatures tend to cause bearded dragons that are genetically male to be female instead.

This also made me remember epigenetics. This is, from what I hear from biologists, getting to be a big field of study. This field studies how environment impacts the expression of genetics. The aforementioned impact of temperature on bearded dragon may be an example of this, though it seems the environment may actually impact their genetics and not just the expression.

The larger point, though, is that there is a lot that we humans don't know yet about biology. So, for one to argue that transgenderism can't be biological because "no evidence" exists is highly irrational and shows their ignorance of biology.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Bigotry: A Pathogenic Meme

Two weeks ago my wife was upset by a post claiming transgenderism is nothing more than a meme. Given that I've had some conflict with my own family on this topic, I've avoided tackling the article, waiting these two weeks to even read the piece. I figured it would be riddled with logical errors and it turns out it is. Also to little surprise is that it is riddled with bigotry. What I failed to expect, but should have, where tricks, for lack of a better word, to make one's claim seem more certain than they actually are.

Perhaps I should start with these tricks. Mainly, this is about the author boasting about how they care about "reality" and/or "truth" and then proceeding to make dubious claims. What concerns me about this is I worry that readers may become less skeptical about the claims being made. If the author cares about reality/truth so much, then certainly the claims they are making are likely to be true, right?

Wrong. It could well be the case that the author is arrogant. They are so sure of themselves that they twist facts, perhaps unconsciously, to fit their conclusion. As I read this post, I see signs of potential arrogance. McHugh brings up an analogy to The Emperor's New Clothes and then states, "I am ever trying to be the boy among the bystanders who points to what’s real. I do so not only because truth matters, but also because overlooked amid the hoopla—enhanced now by Bruce Jenner’s celebrity and Annie Leibovitz’s photography—stand many victims." He doesn't directly say this, but this analogy would imply that everyone knows that transgenderism isn't real, but people just won't say so. Now not only am I going to be even more skeptical of his claims, but I'm finding this guy to be a bit of an asshole.

It is of little surprise that, after he says all of this, he makes perhaps the most critical claim in the entire article:
The most thorough follow-up of sex-reassigned people—extending over thirty years and conducted in Sweden, where the culture is strongly supportive of the transgendered—documents their lifelong mental unrest. (Emphasis mine.)

This is a big claim for those who follow psychological views regarding transgenderism. The American Psychological Association, for example, states, "Many other obstacles may lead to distress, including a lack of acceptance within society, direct or indirect experiences with discrimination, or assault." McHugh is suggesting that this is incorrect; social acceptance is not, in fact, a factor. McHugh, then, is dismissing these alternative explanations through this claim.

My friend who indirectly brought this article to my attention had quoted Christopher Hitchens in a comment on the article. Well, there is another Hitchens' quote that is appropriate for this situation: "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." McHugh, as one can note, did not provide any evidence for this claim. No, instead, he had spent the previous three paragraphs setting himself up as a bearer of truth. On top of this, he perhaps expects us to have a view of Sweden as being a country that is more accepting than ours. While I would agree with such a sentiment, is Sweden as accepting as McHugh claims? And, remember, we can't just look at Sweden today, but we have to look at it in the time-frame of this study he cites, which started back in 1973. Given that he provided no evidence to back this claim, I would have to, as per Hitchens' Razor as quoted, dismiss the claim.

In addition to this, there was a similar claim made earlier in the article that I had overlooked upon my first reading:
Publicity...has promoted the idea that one’s biological sex is a choice, leading to widespread cultural acceptance of the concept. And, that idea, quickly accepted in the 1980s...

Hold on...what?!? Gay rights are only now just becoming accepted (as in like only the past 5 years). Transgender rights are most certainly not to the same level of acceptance. Additionally, as my wife had noted in a Facebook comment on this article, those who are intersex have been, and still are, struggling for acceptance. In other words, this claim is just utter bullshit! Or, as McHugh might say, "nakedly false." If he is so delusional to believe transgenderism was accepted here, in the United States, in the 1980's, there is no way I can take his similar claim about Sweden seriously without evidence.

Getting back on topic, much of this article is riddled with claims that McHugh fails to back up. About the only claim he does back up is about this study that he cites from Sweden regarding a 20% increase in suicide rates amongst sex-reassigned transgendered individuals. I did my due diligence and followed that link. What I noted is that remarks made in the link don't fully match up with what McHugh says in his article. According to McHugh, "Ten to fifteen years after surgical reassignment, the suicide rate of those who had undergone sex-reassignment surgery rose to twenty times that of comparable peers." There are a few issues with this statement. For one, what is a "comparable peer"? Is it someone who claims to be transgender but does not undergo sex-reassignment surgery? From what is written in the study, it would seem the answer is "No." The conclusion states, "Persons with transsexualism, after sex reassignment, have considerably higher risks for mortality, suicidal behaviour, and psychiatric morbidity than the general population." The emphasis there is mine. So this comparison is not against other transgender individual. Given that McHugh fails to back up his claim about Sweden being "strongly supportive," this claim is unimpressive.

Additionally, the authors of the study do not appear to agree with McHugh's position. As they state, "Our findings suggest that sex reassignment, although alleviating gender dysphoria, may not suffice as treatment for transsexualism, and should inspire improved psychiatric and somatic care after sex reassignment for this patient group." Once again, the emphasis here is mine. They note that the sex reassignment has benefits. This should raise the question of why would this be if, as McHugh claims, transgenderism is "nakedly false"?

McHugh also makes misleading claims. At one point he states, "Although much is made of a rare “intersex” individual, no evidence supports the claim that people such as Bruce Jenner have a biological source for their transgender assumptions." Even if this were true, this does not support his conclusion. Absence of evidence, in this case, is not evidence of absence. Meaning, just because people have not been able to find such evidence does not mean such evidence does not exist. It could be the case that we just have not found such evidence yet.

In addition to that error, the claim is actually largely false. While I can agree that no evidence has been found for a specific source, it is incorrect to say that no evidence exists. As an article from Nature states, "Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of [Disorder of Sex Development]." This does not seem rare to me. The article continues:
New technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body. Some studies even suggest that the sex of each cell drives its behaviour, through a complicated network of molecular interactions. “I think there's much greater diversity within male or female, and there is certainly an area of overlap where some people can't easily define themselves within the binary structure,” says John Achermann, who studies sex development and endocrinology at University College London's Institute of Child Health.

I'd add to this that, according to PZ Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota - Morris, in regards to said Nature argument, "My only quibble would be with that “now”. You’d have to define “now” as a window of time that encompasses the entirety of my training and work in developmental biology, and I’m getting to be kind of an old guy. Differences in sex development (DSDs) are common knowledge, and rather routine."

I'll repeat: DSDs are routine, not rare (though I will note that not all DSDs would be labeled as intersex conditions). It would seem, then, that McHugh is rather ignorant about biology. But even if DSDs were rare, there are implications that McHugh does not bother addressing. As he said, "much is made of a rare “intersex” individual." There is a reason for that. (By the way, what is up with his use of quotations around the word "intersex"?) Take my wife as an example. She has complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS). Essentially, she has an XY chromosome pair, but her cells are unable to respond to androgens, so she developed a female body. But what effect does that have on her brain? This is a question McHugh needs to address, but does not. Does McHugh think my wife has mental issues because she identifies as female though she has XY chromosomes? Does McHugh think androgens are responsible for why someone has a "male" brain?

Actually, thinking about this question myself, this is a hugely important question. I note that McHugh does not actually make clear what he thinks makes a man a man and a woman a woman. He merely speaks of "biological sex" but does not define this phrase. This is not only problematic, but hypocritical given his objection to there supposedly being "no evidence" for a biological source for transgenderism. What is his evidence for a biological source for gender? XY chromosome? Then he needs to explain how intersex people fit into his model; he can't be dismissing them as "rare." As I said, there is a reason why intersex individuals are brought into these discussions; they do not fit into the binary model of sexuality, which should be a clue to people like McHugh that there model may be wrong.

As I had said to my friend, if someone makes the claim that all swans are white and I then show them a black (or, really, any non-white color would do) swan, it is illogical for that person to stick to their claim. The claim has been falsified; they need to back down from the claim. The same holds true here. If the claim is that all people with an XY chromosome are male, then those questions I raised above need to be addressed. This, though, may actually explain why McHugh does not clearly define what he means by "biological sex." It's hard to falsify a non-specific claim.

In the end, I find McHugh to just be a bigot. He doesn't actually make a good case for his position. Rather, his case seems to be largely based on cultural ideas around sex, which is why I find that it is actually McHugh who is victim to "a pathogenic meme."

Monday, June 29, 2015

Arrogance called out in SCOTUS dissents vs. Christians

Something occurred to me regarding my last post: Some of the Supreme Court justices on the losing side of gay marriage accused their fellow justices of arrogance much like I did with liberal Christians. They accused them of having special insight that no one had had for thousands of years prior, much the same as I did with liberal Christians. I disagreed with those in the dissent for committing an argument from tradition. Yet, I still think I'm correct in calling out Christian arrogance. Here's the difference: With Christians, they are claiming that wisdom was bestowed upon some humans by Jesus nearly 2000 years ago, but it is only just now that humans are figuring out that wisdom. In the other case, there is no such claim; it is a case of humans figuring out their own wisdom, which is a process that takes time. Plus, we can see the gains in wisdom over the course of time, whether it be creating a democracy in an age dominated by monarchies, ending slavery, allowing non-landowners and eventually women to vote, etc. There's no special insight here. It is, as Martin Luther King, Jr. described it, the long moral arc of the universe bending toward justice.