I’ve been meaning to draw more, but I never know what to draw. Sometimes, I just let my hand go and my mind follows. Most frequently, I draw faces. I don’t think that’s unusual.

Twinkie BanditSo, I’m calling this, “The Twinkie Bandit.” Long ago, I had a boyfriend that used to use that phrase all the time. I guess it’s sort of nasty, but he was aware that it described himself as a pre-adolescent. I don’t know if they have them outside of the U.S., but Twinkies are mass-produced vanilla cakes that you can buy in convenience stores and drugstores. They come as two small oblong cakes to a package and they’re inexpensive. When my sister and I were young, we’d ask our mother or grandmother for a few quarters and go to a nearby candy store. It was just about as far as we were allowed to go without supervision. It had a soda fountain, comic books, candy, popular paperback books and newspapers. We’d buy a package and split it. As it happens, I preferred Devil Dogs or Yodels because they were chocolate.

My doodle doesn’t really resemble my former boyfriend when he as a kid, but it does a little bit. Next year, he’ll discover girls and cut down on the Twinkies.

20150418_145839

Some Virginia bluebells

Last weekend I went to my sister’s place down in Baltimore to do a little work in the yard. Here are some pictures I took.

This is some sort of Trillium.  I won't be able to know what type it is until it blooms.

This is some sort of Trillium. I won’t be able to know what type it is until it blooms.

ICNA irregularly shaped flower about 3 inches high with lacy leaves

Here are some Dutchman’s Breeches. There were more however some animal ate the others.

This is a squirrel I call Spot. She recognized me from last year.

This is a squirrel I call Spot. She recognized me from last year.

A chipmunk.

A chipmunk.

Some Primroses.

Some Primroses.

Addendum: I originally tried to post this from my phone, which is why I suppose the format looks a little strange. Also, the size of the photo files are a little large. Normally, when I post from my desktop, I try to make the file size smaller. I do have to say, however, that the phone takes surprisingly good pictures.

I’m a creaky old lady. Cranky, sometimes too. My age shows in attitudes that appear to be becoming quaint. For instance, I love technology, but I’m not oriented towards consumerism. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude and am perfectly happy to have a new toy, but I don’t quite get the attitude that you have to have the latest even if it isn’t the greatest. The evident pride some people have in showing-off their new consumer devices is something I don’t quite feel. I’m happy enough to have an item myself, but I don’t really care if the whole world knows about it, or if they already have it.

Back when new technology came in a large, unsexy, beige box that sat at home and no one even knew you had, I was pretty much in tune with the attitudes of other people who were technophiles. Starting with the iPod, however, technology became something you took out of the house and was therefore easy to show off. Then the melding of a love of technology and consumerism created a new animal, technophile 2.0.

Which is a long-winded way of saying, “What’s up with that watch?”

Since I’m technophile 1.0, I’m more likely to read Tom’s Hardware than Gizmodo, which means I only have a vague awareness of what the new items are and what they do. Back when the new technology still sat inside, or at least was plugged into, that big, beige box, I had a tendency to buy technology that was not the newest. Right after the price dropped seemed to get you the biggest bang for your buck, then I’d use it until it was dead as a doornail. Back then, by the way, geeks were notoriously cheap. In recent years, that technique hasn’t been as functional because many of our new computer related items become less functional quite quickly. My cell phone, which was considered a “smart phone” when I got it, did about what an average “dumb phone” does today. However, despite not being able to access all sorts of applications, I was still using it until about a week ago when it became the worlds smallest doorstop. I just can’t bring myself to throw out something that’s still remotely functional. It feels unnatural. (And my apologies for any unreturned phone calls. It’s not you. For a change, it’s not even me. It’s my phone. As soon as I get a new one, I’ll return your call.)

Which brings me to the watch.

When I first hit that age when girls start pretending that they’re women and carrying purses, I learned a lesson. In fact, I learned the lesson many times. The lesson is this: Most people are really nice and very honest. You see, I had a bad habit of leaving my purse all over the place. Inevitably, it was returned. As a result, I’m absurdly trusting. Once, on a date, I lost my wallet. The man with me asked if I needed to cancel my credit cards. I said, “No, my wallet will be returned.” He thought I was being reckless. Perhaps, but I was right. (Thanks, Pia!) Still, over the years, I learned to not carry a purse. I adopted smaller men’s wallets rather than the strangely large things women carry. I seek out clothes with pockets. I go to the grocery store looking like I’m ready for a safari or a month in the Australian outback. Generally, however, I travel light. The rise of the cell phone has caused me to start carrying a purse again. How strange to have a whole bag just for one item. I’ve tried clipping it to my belt. I assure you that the old Blackberry could survive flying about ten feet and landing on hard pavement as you jog across an intersection. Despite the proven durability of the phone, I was less sure of the durability of my body and I felt that one day I might get hit by a car running back to retrieve my wayward phone. I gave up the belt clip.

So, my phone is now dead and, the other day, I roused myself to take a look at what was on the market to replace it. “OMG! A watch!” Ah, I had such fantasies of dashing around Manhattan, as free and bagless as I was in my twenties, phone strapped conveniently to my wrist. So what if the screen is a little small. I didn’t surf the web on my phone much anyway. I could feel like James Bond talking into my sleeve.

Alas, it seems that that unicorn was just a goat viewed from the wrong angle. On closer inspection, it seems that you still need a phone, and need to carry it with you. The watch apparently just syncs to the phone. It doesn’t appear to be particularly useful, just one more encumbrance, which leads me to wonder why anybody wants it.

I went for a walk in the park today with my camera. The weather was beautiful and I’d been meaning to get out. Over the next few weeks, we should be having the warbler migration. In fact, I saw a Yellow-rumped warbler today. Hopefully, within a few days I’ll be able to put up some of the pictures. I got lots of them. Mainly birds, but some turtles and squirrels as well. I saw a flicker, which always makes me happy for some reason.

For now, however, I wanted to put up a picture of a bird I can’t identify.

strange-duckObviously, it’s a duck of some sort, but what type of duck. It just so happens he or she was swimming alongside a male Mallard.

two-ducksTheir profiles look very similar. I couldn’t help wondering if this could possibly be a melanistic Mallard. Has anyone heard of such a thing?

I’ve mentioned before that I could tone troll Amanda Marcotte on every third or fourth post she writes. I generally don’t because, while I believe her job mainly consists in voicing the outrage of her readers rather than enlightening or informing them, I’m usually in broad agreement with her. At some point, if I spend my time tone trolling other feminists, I have to ask myself what my priorities are. Don’t I have bigger fish to fry?

However, a couple of days ago, she put up a post with which I disagreed in substance, not in tone. The more I think about it, the more I think it is a subject I should address. By now, I think many people are aware of the scandal that has been swirling around the magazine Rolling Stone. In December, they published a story, “A Rape on Campus”, by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. She was assigned to write an article about sexual assault on college campuses, a subject that has been of growing concern in the United States. She sought out an “emblematic college rape case.” The story she chose to write was centered on the University of Virginia and the alleged gang rape of a first year student named Jackie. The veracity of the allegations were brought into doubt. Rolling Stone retracted the story. Recently, a group from the Columbia School of Journalism released a report about the failures in the story.

Back when I was a college freshman myself, in the early 1980s, I took an introductory women’s studies’ class. For one assignment, I wanted to write a paper, not about the crime of rape itself, but how a fear of being raped affected women’s daily lives, what they did or did not do in order to avoid being raped. Having grown up in a sheltered environment where crime was almost unknown, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to write about rape on campus. At that point in time, I had only the vaguest awareness that it happened. As word spread that I was writing a paper “about rape,” other students started to come up to me to tell me about something that happened to them. I was in no way, shape or form prepared for what I was about to hear and it shocked me profoundly. Almost every story started with a similar phrase, “I don’t know if it was rape or not…,” and almost every story I would personally have considered rape. Clearly, they wanted to tell someone, and clearly they had no one to tell. One involved large amounts of drugs and alcohol. Most did not. One involved enough violence and bodily harm that the woman had to be treated at the local hospital, but most did not result in serious injuries. The amount of force varied. The degree to which the victim knew her assailant varied. It was readily apparent that it could happen to anyone, both the cautious and the reckless. This affected me greatly and I’ve taken the subject of rape very seriously ever since. At the time, the stories were shocking because I was naive. Now, older, I look back and I can say that they were almost all undramatic, anti-climatic and banal. None of the women had gone to the police. As far as I know, they put the episode behind them and got on with their lives. I add that last part, not to minimize the seriousness of the crime, but to try to reduce the sensationalistic aspects. The days when a woman was “ruined” by rape, when it was a “fate worse than death,” were the days when women had few economic options beyond marriage, and marriage was unthinkable unless one was a virgin.

The lack of drama in the stories I heard has a particular interest to me in light of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article. Erdely considers herself a “true crime” writer, and she writes with all the luridness that might imply.

Trust between a doctor and patient is never more fragile than in a gynecologist’s office. For many women, there is no indignity greater than lying supine and vulnerable, being touched with gloved fingers and cold metal instruments in the most private of places. At best it is an uncomfortable and highly charged situation to begin with – even more so if the gynecologist is male – never mind if something goes wrong.

I have great difficulty reading stories about rape, however, when I decided to write this post last night, I read the original article, “A Rape on Campus”, which I had avoided, I also read the report by the people from Columbia about the original story’s failures, several Washington Post articles criticizing “A Rape on Campus,” as well as a few other articles, including some in the University of Virginia’s student paper. There has been quite a bit more written about this scandal. I also read some of Ederly’s earlier work. That previous paragraph came from an article, “Intimate Intimidation,” that appeared in Philadelphia magazine in 1996. I’ve been going to doctors for gynecological examinations for over thirty-five years now, and I have to say that I can in no way relate to this lurid, sensationalistic description. In this case, the gynecologist was in fact convicted of molesting his patients in a court of law, but it is worth noting Ederly’s style. “Never more fragile.” “No greater indignity.” “Supine and vulnerable.”

Admittedly, I read “A Rape on Campus” with a far more critical eye than I would have had it not been retracted. Still, the first thing that jumped out at me was this description:

A chatty, straight-A achiever from a rural Virginia town, she’d initially been intimidated by UVA’s aura of preppy success, where throngs of toned, tanned and overwhelmingly blond students fanned across a landscape of neoclassical brick buildings…

Overwhelmingly blond? It was such a strange descriptor I looked up pictures of students online. The university is one of the country’s better schools and the students are certainly clean cut, but I don’t know that I would describe them as overwhelmingly blond. However the atmosphere described at the school is integral to the story. Erdely continues to play upon the contrast established in that early sentence. The innocent, dark haired, country girl from a modest background and the rich, entitled frat boys. Although my own sympathies tend not to lie with rich, entitled frat boys, I couldn’t help the feeling that she was distorting the reality to make her case. The fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked was an “‘upper tier’ frat” that “had a reputation of tremendous wealth, and its imposingly large house overlooked a vast manicured field, giving “Phi Psi” the undisputed best real estate.” The University of Virginia is described as “genteel,” lacking in radical feminists, not “edgy or progressive.”

Prestige is at the core of UVA’s identity. Although a public school, its grounds of red-brick, white-columned buildings designed by founder Thomas Jefferson radiate old-money privilege, footnoted by the graffiti of UVA’s many secret societies, whose insignias are neatly painted everywhere. At $10,000 a year, in-state tuition is a quarter the cost of the Ivies, but UVA tends to attract affluent students, and through aggressive fundraising boasts an endowment of $5 billion, on par with Cornell. “Wealthy parents are the norm,” says former UVA dean John Foubert. On top of all that, UVA enjoys a reputation as one of the best schools in the country, not to mention a campus so brimming with fun that in 2012 – the year of Jackie’s rape – Playboy crowned it the nation’s number-one party school. Students hold themselves up to that standard: studious by day, wild by night.

The story reported that Jackie’s friends discouraged her from reporting the assault because they were concerned with their social status.

A recent article in the Univeristy’s student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, takes exception with the way the school was portrayed in the article.

For University students, Rolling Stone did not just get one story wrong. It presented a skewed perspective of our student body; it vilified administrators without adequately explaining the constraints of federal law regarding these issues; it reduced the significance of organizations like One Less and One in Four, as well as the work of many students; it selected egregious elements of University culture — such as the “Rugby Road” song and the phrase “UVrApe” — and treated them as ubiquitous when they are not.

This portrayal interested me because it reminded me of another school that many people felt was inaccurately portrayed by Erdely in another Rolling Stone article, “School of Hate.” The school in that article, the Anoka-Hennepin school district which is located in Minnesota, experienced a suicide cluster. Several of the students who killed themselves were, or were presumed to be, gay. At the same time, the school district was experiencing an internal struggle between a religiously motivated conservative group and the rest of the community. The suicides and the political conflict had been previously covered by Mother Jones and The New York Times, both of which noted that people have drawn a link between the anti-gay conservative activism and the suicides. However, it was Rolling Stone article that some people from the town felt portrayed them unfairly and inaccurately. Again, it seems the drama was heightened at the cost of accuracy.

The errors in Erdely’s UVA article have been picked over by quite a few people and I might not have written about it myself if it hadn’t been for Amanda Marcotte’s post.

The various reporting and investigation that was released prior to this paints, I think, a fairly solid picture of what likely happened, which is that Jackie was telling a tall tale and even seems to have invented the guy who she claimed was the ringleader in a gang rape. (He seems to have been a composite character, constructed out of  pictures of one guy and biographical details from a couple more.) Her friends suggested to the Washington Post that this was a habit of hers, as they suspected her of making up a date with an imaginary friend in order to try to get the interest of a guy who rejected her. Whether or not she made the rape up whole cloth or embroidered/fictionalized a real event remains unknown, though either way, what she did was very wrong.

Strangely, Marcotte decides to be hyper-critical of T. Rees Shapiro, the reporter from the Washington Post who interviewed people at the University of Virgina and found the discrepancies which discredited the story. Shapiro reports that Jackie told him that she asked to be taken out of the story, a part of the article that Marcotte quotes. She continues:

They did reach out to Erdely for comment about this and she didn’t respond, so that’s on her. But the report from the Columbia investigators suggests that this was yet another lie from Jackie. But the fact that this accusation was printed gives me some pause. Unlike Erdely, T. Rees Shapiro seems to have gone into his conversations with Jackie with a suspicion that she was lying about the rape. Under the circumstances, it seems more suspicion was warranted that Jackie would make up more lies to make herself look better. The irony here is that Erdely is the only flesh-and-blood human being that Jackie appears to have falsely accused of anything.

Marcotte misunderstands the nature of the criticism of Erdely’s article. In her style, which the Colombia team called “narrative,” Erdely presents much of Jackie’s story without attribution, leading the reader to believe that many of the events were corroborated by other people. Shapiro, however, notes clearly that Jackie told him this.

It is important to note that Jackie never approached Erdely with the story. The team from Columbia that examined the failures in the reporting note that one thing that caused Erdely to not question Jackie’s friends or seek out the alleged perpetrator was because she was afraid that Jackie would pull out of the story.

Jackie proved to be a challenging source. At times, she did not respond to Erdely’s calls, texts and emails. At two points, the reporter feared Jackie might withdraw her cooperation. Also, Jackie refused to provide Erdely the name of the lifeguard who had organized the attack on her. She said she was still afraid of him. That led to tense exchanges between Erdely and Jackie, but the confrontation ended when Rolling Stone‘s editors decided to go ahead without knowing the lifeguard’s name or verifying his existence. After that concession, Jackie cooperated fully until publication.

Unlike Marcotte, I am far less sympathetic to the notion that a forty-something journalist with approximately twenty years of experience was manipulated by an undergraduate who was a compulsive liar without feeling that there must be some underlying problem in her approach to journalism.

I am personally so opposed to the political views espoused by the founder of the site Red State that I find it actually embarrassing to quote an article from the site. However, Leon H. Wolf makes an excellent point when he notes that:

One of the painful things the New Republic was forced to undertake when it first came to light that reporter Stephen Glass had fabricated certain details of his stories was to go over all his stories with a fine toothed comb to determine exactly how systemic the problem had been with Glass’s reporting. After all, a reporter who faked details in one or two stories might well have done so in others. To TNR’s credit, they promptly performed an exhaustive, line-by-line review of each of Glass’s stories over the years and laid bare the gruesome results for the world to see, exposing that the infractions for which Glass was eventually caught were only the tip of the iceberg, and that fabulist reporting by Glass was the rule, not the exception.

By way of contrast, in the wake of a damning CJR report on the reporting practices of Sabrina Rubin Erdely and the editorial and fact checking practices of Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone has shown absolutely no inclination to engage in a similar soul searching over whether Ms. Erdely might have engaged in similarly shoddy reporting in the past, and whether such shoddy reporting (if it exists) might have slipped through their fact checking and editorial system. Ms. Erdely by all appearances has not been professionally disciplined at all for her blunders and the Rolling Stone brass is acting as though this is an isolated incident in which they were blameless victims of an exceptionally clever con artist.

By coincidence, the Stephen Glass scandal was fresh in my mind because, a few days ago, I was about to throw out my old copies of The New Republic when I decided to go through them to see if there were any interesting stories I’d overlooked. There was one about Stephen Glass.

Before I came across the Red State article, I’d already looked up the Wikipedia page on Erdely. On her Wikipedia page, there is information about another article she wrote about shocking sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, including information about a boy who alleged that he had been gang raped by priests. According to Wikipedia:

Ralph Cipriano wrote in Newsweek that “Erdely didn’t know or bother to find out … that Billy had already told his story to the archdiocese, police, and a grand jury, and would subsequently retell it to two different juries in two criminal cases. And every time he told his story, the details kept changing.”

The Red State article by Wolf is concerned with yet another article about a sexual assault written by Erdely, “The Rape of Petty Officer Blumer.” All the articles I can find criticizing this piece by Erdely are unfortunately from websites with an acknowledged conservative agenda. Where is the soul searching on the left? Her work needs to be examined without the defensiveness. It needs to be gone over with a fine toothed comb, just like the work of Stephen Glass.

In “What Went Wrong,” Coronel, Coll and Kravitz write:

The story’s blowup comes as another shock to journalism’s credibility amid head-swiveling change in the media industry. The particulars of Rolling Stone‘s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.

Unfortunately, they fail to note what some of those “head-swiveling” changes might be. One thing that had changed in recent years is a changing attitude towards journalistic objectivity. From Media Ethics:

The past two decades have witnessed a conscious push away from the traditional journalistic value of objectivity, often deeming it an impossible goal…. Scholars have noted that advocacy journalism promotes societal change. Thus it tends to advocate more for “leftist” causes, serving as a progressive counterweight to the intrinsically conservative nature of objectivity. And advocacy journalism as a whole—including much “rightist” activity—is growing.

Research has shown that members of the press have a strong, widespread politically liberal orientation. At the same time many scholars and journalists argue that, despite this inherently progressive attitude, the ethical value of objectivity exerts a powerful moderating influence and that liberal bias in the media is for all intents and purposes non-existent…. A highly partisan press corps cannot produce politically unbiased journalism without respect for the value of objectivity….

Despite scholarly findings of “balanced” political news reporting, the public increasingly views the media as politically partisan, with nearly half of poll respondents specifically citing a liberal bias in the press. As charges of bias have risen, media credibility and trust in journalism have plummeted. While this is prevalent among Republicans, independents have also shown a substantial drop in trust of the media with ratings much closer to Republicans than to Democrats (Morales, 2012). More than three-quarters of the respondents in a 2011 Pew poll indicated belief that the media favored one side. With some journalism organizations continuing to enshrine “objectivity” in their ethical codes and others, such as the Society of Professional Journalists, are moving away from it, one can understand the public’s confusion about the place of objectivity in journalism.

… Some scholars have found evidence supporting the idea that perceived bias drives audience members away from use of traditional media as a common source of news, and toward alternative outlets, exacerbating partisanship. For example, Hollander (2008) found evidence that partisan viewers were migrating to media that reflected their own viewpoints, while casual news consumers were moving to entertainment rather than news programming. … As distrust in the media increases, voting becomes correspondingly more partisan. Malone (2008) and others have suggested that this represents a danger not only to the future of news organizations but to the American democracy.

Conclusion

This essay is not meant to suggest that objectivity is the only laudable goal of ethical journalism. Nor should it be taken as an assault on either the ethical or practical merit of advocacy journalism. It is instead intended as a call for the re-evaluation of objectivity and advocacy as ethical values in journalism. As a practical matter, perceived objectivity has a demonstrable impact on journalism. Some have asserted that a lack of objectivity has been responsible, at least in part, for journalism’s reputational decline. Others declare that objective journalism has grown stale and that advocacy journalism offers an opportunity to make it fresh and relevant in a society overloaded with information. News organizations need to understand what members of the public mean when they express a desire for the press to be objective, the extent to which the public is aware of the advocacy movement within journalism, and their reaction to the virtues of both objectivity and advocacy. Media ethicists should assert a central role in furthering our understanding of these vital concerns.

Which leads me to why feminists in particular are obligated to speak out against the work of Sabrina Rubin Erdely.

The best predictor that a person will believe in a conspiracy theory is that he or she already believes in another conspiracy theory. While belief in conspiracy theories affects women as much as men and, in the U.S., Republicans as much as Democrats, one thing that many conspiracy theorists have in common is a distrust of the mainstream media and a tendency to seek out alternative sources of news. From an article in the MIT Technology Review:

In particular, people who engage with debates on alternative news posts are much more likely to engage in the debate about false news posted by trolls. “We find that a dominant fraction of the users interacting with the troll memes is the one composed of users preeminently interacting with alternative information sources–and thus more exposed to unsubstantiated claims,” they say.

That’s an interesting result. Quattrociocchi and co point out that many people are attracted to alternative news media because of a distrust of conventional news sources, which, in Italy, are strongly influenced by politicians of one persuasion or another.

But this search for other sources of news seems to be fraught with danger. “Surprisingly, consumers of alternative news, which are the users trying to avoid the mainstream media ‘mass-manipulation’, are the most responsive to the injection of false claims,” they conclude.

If you read posts by men’s rights advocates, a picture of feminism emerges in which powerful people, in this case often professors in the academy, spread lies and propaganda. Feminism is, in short, a conspiracy. So, Erdely’s article did not just undermine the credibility of rape victims as her editor worried, but she has undermined the credibility of feminists, liberals and the mainstream media, especially leftward leaning sources among mainstream news outlets.

Many people have said that Erdely was not guilty of fabrication, but of confirmation bias. Because we are all, to some degree, capable of confirmation bias, it seems that many people are interpreting this to have absolved Erdely of the guilt that ended the career of Stephen Glass. In fact, a straight out liar presumably knows that he is lying, can repent and change, as Stephen Glass has claimed to have done. However, if Erdely has not confronted her biases, she is very likely to make the same error again. It is worth asking exactly what her biases are.

I, for one, will never again trust her or Rolling Stone.

 

Today, I thought I would try to do something fun to cheer myself up. For a little over a month now, I’ve been looking forward to the opening of a new exhibition at the Museum of Natural History. They were having a members only preview starting at 4:00 today, with a little reception afterwards. Since I moved to New York, I’ve tried to join lots of little things partly in hopes of meeting people. Now, you sort of know that you might not, actually, you probably will not, meet anyone, and by anyone I mean platonic, romantic or otherwise, at any given event. However, you certainly won’t meet anyone sitting at home and if you keep putting yourself out there and you keep going to events, you might actually make a friend or two.

So, this is the first even that’s come up anywhere this year, and I was looking forward to it. At least, I had been looking forward to it until the depression got triggered again a day or two ago. I went to the gym and brought with me a change of clothes into something casual/nice. I didn’t do my full work out because was running late. The women’s locker room at the gym is very nice with big mirrors and lights. In the afternoon, when it’s not crowded, it’s better than my own bathroom. I showered and took my time getting dressed and putting on makeup. I walked over to the Museum and was probably there shortly before five.

I can’t say that I was feeling light-hearted, but I wasn’t aware of being especially depressed. Someone at the gym smiled at me and gave me a thumbs up for some reason I don’t understand, but it made me feel good. Little things can make a huge difference sometimes. So, I went, checked my bag and got my ticket at the reception desk. The exhibit was on the fourth floor and there was a long line for the elevator. They explained that there was a little bottleneck in the exhibition and we’d have to wait. We waited about twenty minutes, maybe a half-an-hour at most. It wasn’t really that long. One of my experiences of depression has been that I can act like a normal person in public as long as there is enough distraction. However, just standing in line left me with my thoughts. I noticed all the people with other people, in couples or in families and I started to feel incredibly lonely. Then I starting crying. I couldn’t help it. I just felt so sad. I had to leave to save myself from embarrassment. So, I never got to see the exhibit or go to the reception.

It’s very difficult when you get to the point that you don’t have the strength to do exactly the things you need to do to feel better.

I’m a nearly fifty-year-old overweight depressed woman who, very literally, can’t get laid and… stop the presses… a good-looking young tv star doesn’t want to fuck me.

I don’t know where to take this. I tried writing a couple of people privately yesterday, but I haven’t gotten any replies. I put a post up on the depression subreddit, but the only reply I got made me feel worse. I know the internet is a rough place for anyone who is not on the top of their social hierarchy.

Anyway, I don’t know what I’m saying, really. I read some of Trevor Noah’s tweets about fat women and they made me feel really bad. Its been about twenty-four hours now and I haven’t been able to shake the bad feeling. Somehow, it’s really making me feel awful. The fact that all these people are defending him makes me feel worse.

I can’t help thinking about what I was saying the other day about stories. One of the things people always say about liberals is that they hate the United States and that they hate most Americans. The Daily Show is generally associated with liberals. Now, they’re going to have a good-looking rich foreigner telling jokes about stupid, fat Americans as the host? Thanks, Daily Show, for making the U.S. even more conservative. Really, I have to ask liberals if they have any fucking sense at all about how they sound to other people?

I’ve never liked the punching up/punching down phrasing because, as I’ve said before, it’s not so clear who is up and who is down. However, one thing is clear, Trevor Noah is “up.” There aren’t too many directions in which he can punch without punching down. He makes fun of atheists. He makes fun of women. He makes fun of gays. He makes fun of Jews. His humor reminds me of the popular good-looking kid in middle school who makes fun of all the freaks, nerds and the kids that can’t afford the latest sneakers.

I don’t know. I’m not going to do anything stupid right now. Although the fact that the last time I got laid the guy was drunk keeps circling around and around my head. Of course, he was a fifty-something overweight guy from England. We actually got together a second time, and I think it was my fault there wasn’t a third. It was probably my turn to text. I’m not good about texting. I was ambivalent about him anyway. So, I’m probably not really that desperate. Still, the joke cut a little too close to home. Yeah, when you’re overweight fewer men are interested in you. Thanks, Trevor. You’re so fucking funny.

I’ve been crying intermittently ever since I read about him. I’m not being the PC police. This isn’t manufactured outrage. It is genuine, and it isn’t outrage. It’s shame, embarrassment, depression, sadness, isolation, loneliness and sexual frustration.

I spent most of the past weekend lazing about reading a book I picked up on impulse. I haven’t done a book review before but I thought I’d give it a shot because I think many atheists and skeptics could benefit from some of the insights in it. The subtitle of the book is certain to appeal to those two groups, “Adventures with the Enemies of Science,” and the first chapter, which starts out among creationists, is certain to appeal to skeptics. Later in the book, there is a chapter in which skeptics themselves come in for a great deal of criticism. Although I think Storr has taken a subset of skeptics and had them stand in for all skeptics and his criticism, while not entirely off base, is a little harsh on that account. Yet many of his insights would be especially beneficially to skeptics and movement atheists, who often identify with skeptics, so reminding oneself to not give in to our initial emotional reaction and become highly defensive might be necessary in order to give his ideas a fair hearing.

One of the things I liked most about Storr as an author was his readiness to doubt his own opinions. He starts out by asking why some people believe things that are easily disproved. The list is diverse, creationists, UFO abductees, people who object to western medicine, homeopaths, believers in past lives, ritual Satanic child abuse, and a couple of other items I’m missing. By passing the easy answers, that they’re charlatans or fools, he looks into more general questions of why people believe the things they do. In doing so, he discovers that human beings are, in general, unreliable narrators.

I consider – as everyone surely does – that my opinions are the correct ones. And yet, I have never met anyone whose every single thought I agreed with. When you take these two positions together, they become a way of saying, ‘Nobody is as right about as many things as me.’ And that cannot be true…. So I accept that I am wrong about things – I must be wrong about them. A lot of them. But when I look back over my shoulder and I double-check what I think about religion and politics and science all the rest of it… …. – it is usually at this point that I start to feel strange. I know that I am not right about everything, and yet I am simultaneously convinced that I am….

It is as if I have caught a glimpse of some grotesque delusion that I am stuck inside. It is disorienting. It is frightening. And I think it is true to say that it is not just me – that is, we all secretly believe we are right about everything and, by extension, we are all wrong.

I, myself, have experienced many times just this sense of disorientation. In fact, it was the main reason I started writing down my memories. It is clear that a great many people don’t believe as I do on many subjects, often people I estimate to be perfectly rational and intelligent. I started writing my memories down to explore how my own biases came to be in place.

At another point later in the book, he explores the question of how it is possible to be a journalist if a person believes he might be an unreliable narrator.

Storr is, by his own accounting, an atheist. Much as I would myself, I would call him a skeptic, but not a Skeptic. In other words, he seeks and expects naturalistic explanations for events but he does not belong to any organized skeptical organizations. As a Brit, he makes the distinction between the two groups by using the British spelling. A detail which has its own interest to me that I’ll get back to later.

In between episodes talking to people who believe hard to believe things, Storr paints a picture about how our minds work. That picture is one of a brain that is not always rational and works to deceive us. He introduces the reader to “situational psychology.” Giving well-known examples such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and the work of Stanley Milgram, he explains that individuals are far less in control of themselves than we believe ourselves to be.

According to Zimbardo, there is a kind of recipe for creating evil. ‘How did evil come about during the prison experiment?’ he asks. It was people playing a role…. Although you start off thinking those roles are arbitrary and not the real you, as you live them, they become you. the second thing is the power of the group…. Groups can have powerful influences on individual behavior…. You take away somebody’s individuality. You make them anonymous. The next process is called dehumanisation, where you begin to think of other people as different from you and then as different from your kind and kin, and then as less than human.

Later, he describes how the brain makes an interior model of the world. When we look, at any given moment we are not seeing as much as we think we are seeing. As our eyes dart around a room, for instance, the brain fills in the gaps and we think we are seeing more than we are at any given moment. As Storr phrases it, our senses are “fact-checkers.” However, that model must be good enough that we can function in the world.

The next point Storr brings up is tribalism. We have a strong tendency to divide ourselves into “us” and “them.” We will do this even if we are assigned to arbitrary groups.

“Cognitive Dissonance” is uncomfortable feeling we have when we are introduced to facts that don’t fit our interior models of how the world works.

We find ourselves chewing over something that we have done or heard or experienced. It can last for hours, days or sometimes longer. That upstairs agony, that bickering between the warring voices in our head – that is what it feels like to have your brain taking apart an experience and rearrange it in such a way that it doesn’t have to rebuild its models.

The next factor Storr introduces is another one my skeptical friends will recognize, “Confirmation Bias,” which Storr describes as the “makes sense stopping rule.”

…when confronted by a new fact, we first feel an instantaneous, emotional hunch. It is a raw instinct for whether the fact is right or wrong and it pulls us helplessly in the direction of an opinion. Then we look for evidences that supports our hunch. The moment we find some, we think ‘Aha!’ and happily conclude that we are, indeed, correct. The thinking then ceases.

When we arrive at that point of “that makes sense,” when our cognitive dissonance is eased, the reward center in the brain is activated. Storr quotes Carole Tavris and Elliot Aronson: “Dissonance reduction operates like a thermostat, keeping our self-esteem bubbling along on high.”

One point Storr hammers over and over again is that we are all subject to these effects. It’s an inherent part how the human brain works to which none of us are immune. To some extent, I believe he underplays the positive role of this. We make countless decisions everyday, most of which are far more mundane than whether or not UFOs exist. If we had to stop and wonder about how we know the things we know, we would be paralyzed. Sometimes, when we skeptics and atheists criticize the “argument from authority,” I pause and think to myself that much of what I believe I believe based on “authority.” I think eggs, spinach and bananas are healthy things to eat, and that if you’re exercising bananas are really important. Why do I think this? Because my competitive speed skater grandmother told me so.

Another important element of the picture is “the spotlight effect,” which I always think of as “the candle effect.” The best description I’ve read of this effect is in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. She describes a table covered in a million random scratches with no pattern. Yet, if you hold a candle up to it, the light will make it appear as if the scratches are in concentric circles around the point of the light. So our own egos lead us to believe that the world revolves around us. Of course, everyone else is thinking the same thing.

The roles of cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and the spotlight effect are summarized:

Our prejudices and misbeliefs are invisible to us. The form in childhood and early adolescence, when our brain is in its heightened state of learning, when it is building its models, and the  they disappear from view.

These models of the world we build, they are the stories we tell ourselves to explain how the world works.

This notion that we are all deluding ourselves all the time leads to the uncomfortable acknowledgement that the line between the sane and the insane is not as clear as we would like to believe. Studies have shown that even perfectly sane people have unreliable memories. Healthy people can have false memories implanted.

Professor Loftus was interested to see whether it was possible for a therapist to generate a memory of an event simply by suggesting it. In a further study, she gave twenty-four adults a brief description of four past events that they were told had been supplied by a close family member and asked to write about them. Unbeknown to them, one of these events was false. Six of them – 25 per cent of the croup -= actually remembered the false event. When asked to choose which of their memories was fiction, five got it wrong.

Another important aspect of how our minds work is that our emotions guide our behavior. I, myself, have long thought this to be true and the tendency for skeptics to downplay the importance of emotions in our thought processes has always bugged me a bit.

If you are about to do something that your models predict will be good, you will get a subtle encouraging hit of pleasure. If you are about to do something inadvisable, you will feel bad.

Of course, one of the funny things about reading a book like this is that it makes you doubt your own ability to judge the contents of the very same book. Storr just confirmed my own model. Of course, I had that satisfying sensation of “yep – makes sense.” Is Storr making sense or do I only believe he makes sense because he agrees with me?

When my grandmother was going senile, we would catch her doing odd thing. Digging out her old ice skates in the middle of the summer and heading out the door with them. Walking around in odd clothing. When my mother would confront her, she would momentarily look confused and then come up with an “explanation.”

“My friend is coming to pick me up and we’re going skating.”

Then my mother would get furious and start yelling, “Why are you lying. It’s summer. No one is going skating! What friend are you talking about? No one is coming!”

My grandmother would look confused and start crying.

This is a funny trick our brain plays on us. Sometimes it makes up explanations.

There appears to be a lack of consensus on exactly how much of our conscious reasoning is confabulation. Opinions range from those of Professor David Eagleman, who says that ‘the brain’s storytelling powers kick into gear only when things are conflicting or difficult to understand,’ to those of Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Wegner, who argues that even our sense of having free will is a confabulation….

The final chapter is titled “Hero-Maker.” According to Storr, the key elements of a story are crisis, struggle and resolution. Our brains take in the chaotic events in the world and, in order to make them understandable, weave for us a narrative, and in our narratives we are the heroes of our own lives and our own stories. We do not weigh the evidence objectively, even though we may believe we do. We fact check them against our models. When the evidence conflicts with the models, we experience negative emotions. We search for more evidence. We must either rebuild our models, a very difficult thing for adults, or find evidence that fits our preexisting models. That is the struggle. When we finally have a resolution, we feel good.

The scientific method is the tool that human have developed to break the dominion of the narrative. It has been designed specifically to dissolve anecdote, to strip out emotion and to leave only unpolluted data. It is a new kind of language, a modern sorcery, and it has gifted our species incredible powers. We can eradicate plagues, extend our lives by decades, build rockets and fly through space. But we can hardly be surprised if some feel an instinctive hostility towards it, for it is fundamentally inhuman.

The more I think about this book, the more I like it. Who among us hasn’t had an argument in which he or she felt fairly confident about the facts and then came across someone making a statement that was easily refutable. You go, you get link. You have what you feel is nice solid proof to refute the assertion, and the person will not accept it. I had that just the other day with a comment that someone made about affirmative actions and quotas. As it happens, quotas are illegal in the United States. That was a fairly straightforward bit of information, I thought. I wasn’t arguing the pros or cons of affirmative action because that a far more involved argument and I wasn’t in the mood. I just wanted to correct the record about one smallish fact, quotas. The response of the other person was to move the goal posts. It was, to say the least, maddening and frustrating.

Of course, it wasn’t about facts. We had opposing stories. Or at least he had a story into which my facts didn’t fit. I, myself, am ambivalent about affirmative action. He, however, had a story about how affirmative action was put in place to hurt white people. In his story, he was bravely standing up to the PC establishment that won’t admit the truth. I got frustrated and gave up.

I think atheists, skeptics and liberals need to be more sensitive to the narratives we tell. One of the most brilliant pieces of propaganda I’ve ever read was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As literature, I only enjoyed it intermittently. The Victorian sentimentality was hard to take. I couldn’t wait for that fucking little Eva to die. Apparently, the Victorians had a think about sweet, innocent girls suffering bravely. Me, I was sick of it after five pages, shouting, “Die already!” at my paperback. Still, I had to marvel at Harriett Beecher Stowe’s talent as a propagandist. The most brilliant move she makes is that she gives everyone someone with whom he or she can identify and still feel good joining the abolitionist cause. I believe that it was important to the effectiveness of the book that there were sympathetic slave owners. Instead of insisting that all slave owners are inherently evil, Stowe reassuringly says, “Of course, you are a good person, but you should oppose slavery because everyone is not as good as you.” If you are Northerners who would like to stay out of the question, you have the Birds. In later years, the name “Uncle Tom” would become a slur because African-American activists would view Tom as too passive. However, the novel is a carefully constructed piece of propaganda that was clearly effective in its day.

One of the reasons I object so regularly to people who say that Americans are dumb, and other negative things, is because it is a statement that, while satisfying to the speaker, undermines any larger goals of getting Americans, those people you just called dumb, to agree with you. This is part of a narrative that many people on the left enjoy, especially in the United States. They live beset on all sides by ignorance and prejudice, superstition and complacency. The US is evil, possessing as it does the original sin of slavery, or if that doesn’t suit you the original sin of conquest, evil that can never be expiated. However, they are “fighting the good fight,” out numbered on all sides. In order to bolster their ego, they exaggerate the threats. No country is as awful as the U.S. No people are as religious. None is as poorly educated. Hell, we’re even the fattest.

Personally, I don’t like this narrative because it requires that we lose. We fight nobly, but we lose.

People do sometimes change their minds and I wish he had explored a little bit more about why that happens.

I may write some more posts inspired by this book in the future.

One last thing, the Skeptic vs. sceptic question. Storr, being a Brit, writes “sceptic,” not “skeptic.” He notes that many of the organized skeptics, even in Britain, prefer the American spelling. It becomes a weird little bit of us vs. them. Storr, the sceptic, vs. the Skeptics. Storr’s writing about skeptics had an air of “both sides do it.” As Paul Krugman famously quipped, if George Bush said the Earth was flat the headlines the following day would read, “Shape of Earth, Views Differ.” Likewise, Storr writes, “Psychic Phenomenon, Views Differ.” Storr’s own story is that of an irrational, messed up teenager and young adult who somehow got his shit together to become a reasonable, well-balanced person. There are the fervent people, the extremists, and in this view Skeptics and UFO abductees are on the same side, and then there are the adults in the room, like Storr and Jonathan Haidt, a professor he frequently quotes. Generally, Storr is pretty aware of his own biases, but he seems to miss this one, so I found it amusing.

(The British edition of the book appears to be called “The Heretics.”)

This is going to be short and sparsely sourced because it was just going through my mind and I wanted to get it off my chest. There was an article in The Atlantic Monthly about addiction treatment, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous.” The subtitle reads, “Its faith-based 12-step program dominates treatment in the United States. But researchers have debunked central tenets of AA doctrine and found dozens of other treatments more effective.” Some people have called it a “hatchet job,” but that’s not what I saw. I’ve seen all these concerns raised about AA in the past. Now, I am quite far from having a drinking problem and have no first hand knowledge of this organization or any other, however our understanding of psychiatry and the workings of the brain have come so far since 1935 it seems almost odd to me that people are still using a method that old without any significant alterations.

I did, many years ago, have a boyfriend who had, years before I met him, had a problem with the law. Something small, like drunk and disorderly conduct. He was effectively sentenced to AA. Also, he was an atheist, which is why I’m bringing this up. As many people know, one of the ideas of AA is that you are supposed to turn your life over to a “higher power.” The better known of the two founders of AA, Bill Wilson, was active in a Christian fellowship known as the Oxford group and he credited becoming sober to a religious experience he had. The original book, Alcoholics Anonymous, had a chapter specifically addressed to agnostics. They acknowledge that agnostics and atheists might not like the ideas behind the method.

    Lack of power,that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be A Power Greater Than Ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this Power?

Well, that’s exactly what this book is about. Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself, which will solve your problem. That means we have written a book which we believe to be spiritual as well as moral. And it means, of course, that we are going to talk about God. Here difficulty arises with agnostics. Many times we talk to a new man and watch his hope rise as we discuss his alcoholic problems and explain our fellowship. But his face falls when we speak of spiritual matters, especially when we mention God, for we have re-opened a subject which our man thought he had neatly evaded or entirely ignored.

After acknowledging some of the thought that might lead one to doubt the existence of a supreme being, the book continues:

We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results, even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God.

Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with Him. As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, A Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction, provided we took other simple steps. We found that God does not make hard terms with those who seek Him. To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding. It is open, we believe, to all men.

This seems to me to be fairly obviously religious, although of a pluralistic sort. Some agnostics might find this satisfying. Defenders of AA seem to be unwilling to acknowledge the burden this puts on atheists.

I was reading the comment thread under the article and I couldn’t help noticing a recurring theme:

This useful concept is so open ended, it really shouldn’t give atheists problems if they can keep an open mind (and disregard the opinions of some of their fellow AAs). I started out as an atheist. Now I would consider myself a skeptical agnostic. I recognize there is a higher power than myself. It reveals itself to me through physical laws, like gravity or the second law of thermodynamics.

 

People are generally encouraged to find a higher power of their own understanding, and in the case of atheists or agnostics (of which there are many) they generally lean on the collective wisdom and experience of the group as their higher power. Many people return to the religion of their upbringing as well, and there are all varieties of faiths among members.

 

Trust in God, is all that’s asked. That’s not “religious”, that’s what happens when you assume enough about tomorrow , to fill out your calendar.

You have faith, if you believe tomorrow will come.

 

Yes, AA is based on many principles drawn from religion. That’s a feature, not a bug, to the vast majority of humanity not afflicted with spiritual autism.

 

AA is not faith-based program. It does not come under the aegis of any religion. Those who complain about “god” in the Steps are leaving something out: “as we understand him”. That may be the most important phrase in AA. It was inserted at the insistence of an Atheist in the first New York AA Group (see BB story “That Vicious Cycle”). God as we understand him covers a lot of territory, including Agnostics and Atheists, of whom there are many in AA.

Overall, the impression I got was that the theists just wanted the atheists to shut up an pretend to go along. Well, I’m glad I don’t have a drinking problem because I would sure hate to go to AA.

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