You may remember my rant on the “Regressive Left”, a phrase used by those wishing to disparage the views of those on the left who approach cultural mismatches with tact and pragmatism.  Well, those on the right have had a pop at Peter Tatchell this week on Twitter.  I’m so pleased that a well-known figure such as him is standing up for sensitive and intelligent handling of difficult issues.  Here’s some of the highlights:

@PeterTatchell I bet that guy is an absolute delight to be around.

Oh, wait, smearing LGBT folk looking out for ordinary Muslims as “the regressive left”, or “turkeys voting for Christmas” is actually doing the far-right’s work for them.  Whoopsy!

Human Rights are universal, you don't get to pick and choose. Wise words, indeed.

When you stand up for human rights, you need to consider a set of universal values.  You don’t get to downplay the rights of one group just because some of them hold objectionable views – that would be moral relativism, and I thought that was a bad thing, no?  They are still human beings.  We even have to extend that truth to the racists.  They are but human, sadly.




The saying goes something like “But how can atheists be militant?  They are defined by their absence of ideology!”, usually said in the company of other cookie-cutter Straight White Male atheists, with all the self-awareness of a baboon’s arse.  Well, there is such a thing as a proselytising atheist, and this is what they look like from the outside:


Oh noes!


As much as I want to find this caricature unbelievable, I do sometimes find myself in the company of those whose mouths are bigger than their modesty.  And it is so tedious.  We don’t need to “debate” this stuff, it achieves nothing.  This Easter, let’s celebrate by keeping our mouths full of chocolate, and free from bluster.




There have been a few articles that have caught my eye recently about people who have either vanished intentionally, or who have disappeared some other way.  The first is this one, about a gentleman called Henry Summers, who lived on Easter Road in Leith.  Mr Summers was found dead in his flat, after three years in which nobody noticed or cared that he was no longer around in the neighbourhood.  It’s sad, and it happens sometimes – fortunately not too often, but for those lonely people who go undiscovered, it is a miserable death.  A former friend worked for a housing association, and they told me that sometimes, when they are asked to carry out an eviction, they turn up and discover that the rent’s not been paid for years because the tenant has died in the flat.  Not a pleasant discovery.

But Mr Summers’s story has a few twists, mainly in that people thought he was someone else, or two people, or that someone else was him.  It didn’t help that another Mr Summers, of a similar age, lived on the same road.  It turns out that that wasn’t too unlikely, as Summers was a common surname in the area.  Still kinda weird if you’re the other Mr Summers and everyone thinks you’re dead, though.

I had a similar problem in my 4th year at university.  I received a letter from the Student Loans Company informing me that my loan had been stopped due to me leaving my course.  Being an OCD sufferer, my brain went into overdrive.  What if I couldn’t buy food or pay rent?  What if I get evicted?  Have I been kicked off my course?  What did I do?  It turns out that someone else with the exact same name, date of birth, and in the same local education authority as me had dropped out of their studies at a college in Leicestershire.  I spoke with the SLC over the phone and convinced them that the had the wrong person.  Our names were next to each other on the list, and I can see how the mistake was made.

Something like this happened to a woman living in New York City, when somebody else kept stacking up driving offenses on her license!  Due to the way the system works (or doesn’t), the best thing she could do was pay the fines and hope she didn’t get any more (she did).  They did eventually meet, and the other Lisa Davis finally found out why her speeding tickets had mysteriously vanished off of her record so many times…

I find it more shocking that things like this happen so rarely, if you consider how many people share common names, and that coincidences around birthdates, hometowns, careers, etc. appear to occur quite frequently.  Maybe the system does work!

Mistaken identities aside, there are those who go missing and are never found.  Some intentionally, but not always.  The Missing Persons Bureau has people on their records going back over 50 years, and at present there are approximately 1,000 people on their database who remain unidentified.  As well as these, 250,000 people go missing every year.  Most are found, but many are not.

Here in Manchester, we had a recent local mystery, which could have been the plot of an Agatha Christie novel.  An elderly man arrived in Saddleworth, asked for directions to the top of the mountain, and was eventually discovered at the summit, dead from strychnine poisoning.  Just from those few facts, this looks seriously weird, and like there must be more to his story.  For months he went unnamed, until someone identified him as David Lytton, a British man who had lived in Lahore for many years.  Little else is known about him, and his death near to the Dovestone Reservoir remains a mystery.

In the town where I grew up, a young man was washed ashore, and found by passers-by, drenched in sea water and unable to speak.  While we were used to odd things happening there (it’s just one of those places, trust me), this was pretty epic, even by our standards.  He was taken to hospital, and given a pencil and paper.  He drew an elaborate sketch of a grand piano.  It was rumoured that when taken to a piano, he than played beautiful and complex pieces, but reports differ.  The local press dubbed him the “Piano Man”.  Eventually, he spoke, and was identified as Andreas Grassl, a 20-year-old German citizen who had gone missing four months earlier.  Today, little is known about how he ended up on Sheerness beach, although it is believed that he had planned to take his own life.

All of these tales are stories of intrigue, and sometimes tragedy.  While each of us considers our own life to be of high importance (whether we admit it or not), there is a chance that we may find ourselves in circumstances where there is no-one to look for us, or we cannot be found, or we cannot help ourselves.  If I went missing tomorrow, who would look for me?  And how likely is it that I would be discovered?  I have few living relatives, although I hope that at least some of my friends might enquire after my whereabouts.  What if I move abroad, or grow old alone?  That’s a more common scenario for today’s citizens than it has been at any other time for many centuries – who is going to keep track of the elderly millennials?  And what memories will we have to pass on to future generations?  I hope that I live an exciting enough life to get at least a full-page obituary, just not any time soon.




The Conservative press are currently doing everything they can to pander to the irrational beliefs of the Brexiters.  This week’s hilarious piece of rose-tinted nonsense is the possibility of bringing back Imperial weights and measures for consumer transactions.  In spite of the fact that we no longer buy all of our food from local shops where they weigh it out in front of us, and that most people don’t even think about pack size in more detail than “big”, “small” or “serves 4”, the desire of the blue-rinse brigade is to take our shopping experience back to the 1950s.  And who can forget those halcyon days when we had polio, an outside loo, and no telly?

Apparently there are also rumblings about restoring pre-decimal currency, and since we’ve already begun devaluing the pound by voting for economic hari-kiri, we might as well go one step further and properly screw things up by taking the economy back to the 1970s.  My dad often claims that imperial weights & measures are simpler to use, and that “old money” is easier to understand.  The argument goes along the lines of:

“Well, when I was younger, that’d cost two-and-six.  You can’t get that in new money, eh?”

“You can, it’s 30p.”

“Well, that’s devalued because there used to be 240d in a pound and now it’s only 100p.”

“The two systems use different base units and you also have to take account of inflation.”

“You’re talking a load of mumbo-jumbo there, it was all a con, old money was worth more, etc, etc.”

and then…

“But how can decimal measures be more accurate?  I used to go to the butcher’s and ask for 2lb of lamb chops and now they sell me 908g, or 902, or 976 – what’s accurate about that?”

“Well, that’s more accurate….”

Anyone who’s grown up with the metric system, or works with it every day in their study or employment, will know that YOU LITERALLY JUST DIVIDE AND MULTIPLY EVERYTHING BY TEN; IT’S THAT SIMPLE.  But apparently it’s easier to work in a combination of base 12, 14 and 16, than base 10 in which you add or remove zeroes.  Well, obviously this isn’t true, but there’s a reason older folk are clinging to pounds, shillings pence, feet, yards, and furlongs.

Well, a few reasons.  But look at how they see the problem.  Up until 1971 (and for a good while after), they were using a familiar system that had “nice” round values, like “roughly 1lb of jam”, or “just over a quarter of humbugs”.  And then they had to change to a system that turned their simple approximations into intimidating not-whole numbers.  Even though the quantity was exactly the same, this new degree of precision came across as an unnecessary complication.

And it was a change foisted upon them.  I don’t know much of the popular public opinion in the early 1970s, because I wasn’t born then – so the fuss may not have been as great as legend makes it out to be.  I know plenty of older people who are quite happy with the metric system and decimal currency, but there’s a sizeable amount of older people who aren’t.  Articles like the one I linked to in the first paragraph serve to garner sentiment that the old ways were better, and so we end up with the situation we have now.  It makes little sense to those of us who think the metric system is so wonderful, but it’s become an emotional argument out of a practical one.  Initially, it was a change that took time getting used to, and was probably met with some resistance.  But now its become a movement to restore things to the way they “should” be, tied up in rhetoric about the The Good Old Days that never really existed.

From a business and scientific perspective a return to Imperial weights & measures, and pre-decimal currency, would be an expensive mistake.  But we know exactly what the British public think of experts (as evidenced by the outcome of the referendum, among other things), and so that argument carries little weight.  While I disagree with their views, I do think it’s important to listen to the Blue Rinsers thoughts on this, and have conversations with them.  Much of the EU referendum campaign was people from both sides yelling into the void and not engaging in discussions with their opponents.  Changing people’s minds is really bloody hard, and ultimately you have to allow them to do it themselves.  But our present tactics failed us, and we’re in a bit of a pickle now, aren’t we?




Today I had my long-awaited End-of-Year-One progression viva. And when I say long-awaited, I mean that it took me three years to get here. I study part-time, I have a demanding full-time job, I’ve been seriously ill, and there was a death in my family. Oh, and I also volunteer for a local charity, I’m working towards Chartered Engineer status, and I’m attempting to purchase a house. So three years isn’t bad going, really. The plan is that I complete the next two years by 2020, so let’s hope life doesn’t throw too much more at me in the intervening period. Anyway, I’ve not yet received the formal nod, but I can proceed to Year Two subject to some amendments. I basically need to better define my research question, filter out a ton of irrelevant sections, and rein my enthusiasm in a little.

My report had the following problems to be fixed:

The Research Question had changed.

The title now bore little resemblance to what my report was about.  The project had begun with the general subject area of “ventilation in hot climates”, with many of the researchers in my study group looking at ventilation solutions for the Middle East.  However, no-one in my department was looking at the effects of hot weather on British homes, and we know that things are going to heat up a little with projected climate change, so I saw my niche and jumped right in.  And ended up studying something completely detached from what I’d originally signed up for.  So I changed the title of my thesis; I suppose it’s a good thing that I did it now rather than at final submission time…

What the hell am I doing here?

The aims, objectives and central question were vague, but what I presented in the viva voce exam was clear and focussed enough to convince the examiners that I deserved a chance.  My literature review was somewhat meandering, and because my new specialism was still an incredibly broad subject, I’d read up on just about everything.  There was no stone unturned, but all I had was a lot of stones.  When presenting at conferences, I ended up in discussions with people from just about every discipline (I am not joking, I’m talking Archaeology right through to Sociology, with a bit of Medicine and Architectural History thrown in.  Did I mention that I’m doing an Engineering degree?).  And I thought at the time, “wow, my research is so relevant, what a blessing to be studying an interdisciplinary subject”.  The only problem is that a Ph.D is about depth, not breadth.  The idea is that you create new knowledge in your very specialised topic, so that you become an expert on that one thing.  I was in a position where I’d developed a reasonable level of understanding of many, many, interconnected things, but my supervisors needed to be sure that I was ready to specialise and produce work that was still relevant and useful to society, but had a clear focus.

The Curse Of Boundless Enthusiasm

I am far too excited about my research. Ok, this may seem like a contradiction – Ph.D candidates need to have enthusiasm for their subject to the point of obsession, right? Well, yes, but I took this to a whole new level. As well as an extensive and expansive literature review, I also had Grand Plans For The Future.  I wanted to do everything, basically.  One of the examiners said that I had planned a project large enough to employ a post-doc with a team of 5 research students.  So I needed to scale it down a little, and focus on an initial project to get me through my Ph.D.  It is a bit strange that I’ve already thought ahead to the “Further Work” section of my thesis already, but at least I can envisage my future in academia.  Only problem is that I might have seen another intellectual butterfly to chase by that time.

How did I get through unscathed?

The entire point of the oral exam is to demonstrate to the examiners that you know your subject, have researched it in depth, and that you have a credible plan for the next two years’ worth of study.  Your research must be original, and bring something new to the table.  While you’re unlikely to make a ground-breaking new discovery during your Ph.D years (but you never know!), you will still be contributing something to the overall body of knowledge.  And your research will go far further than just your lab – it will cross borders, be cited by others, and lay the foundations for someone else’s Ph.D.  And my job was to prove that I was capable of all that.

The leading paragraphs may have seemed like a catalogue of failings, but this is par for the course as a research student.  Yes, you can’t be the best at everything.  Yes, you will get knocked back.  But you will also gain valuable experience and produce work that challenges the existing knowledge and challenges you.  You can list out all your failures as an academic, but they are part of a process.  Part of doing a Ph.D is learning how to do a Ph.D – how to learn, analyse and produce work of a high academic standard.  It prepares you for more – for a career in academia, which is essentially a method for filtering good information.  Papers get rejected, new ideas replace what we thought was immovable, people change their research focus.  It happens and you have to get used to it; the worst thing you can do is pretend you’re perfect.  Take these setbacks in your stride, they will inform your future work and career development.

And so, I acknowledged the areas in which I needed to improve, and came up with a plan for success during the Q&A:

Be Specific.

I narrowed down my research question to a rather long-winded, yet single, sentence that actually reflected what I am studying, rather than the all-encompassing “ventilation in hot climates”, which could be spun to cover just about anything.  My subject is still an interdisciplinary one, but it’s a far more specific and manageable one, too!

Make it testable.

It was made clear during the exam that I had studied a lot of literature in a lot of depth, but it wasn’t so clear what I wanted to use this knowledge for, or how I would demonstrate an answer to the question.  So I need to come up with a testable hypothesis that my research could use to channel its direction.  It’s a single sentence, but it is a question that will take a lot of time and resources to investigate thoroughly.  About one thesis’s worth, happily.

At this juncture, we also spoke about the possibility of the hypothesis being found to be false – what would I do then?  Turns out it’s ok.  As long as my method is sound, and the results are valid, they still matter.  We’ll know something that we didn’t know before.

Ask Questions.

The viva voce exam is a time for you to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of your subject.  But a major part of the exam is the Q&A after the presentation.  And it’s not a one-way street.  I wanted to know from the examiners: what do you expect to see in a good thesis submission?  Obviously, it’s different if it’s an interim review like mine – it’s a bit late to be asking this in your final Ph.D defence (unless you are expecting a serious amount of corrections)!

An interesting debate opened up when one of the external examiners revealed a difference of opinion with my supervisor over referencing styles.  I know how fastidious the examining board can be, so I will make sure I have this one sorted prior to final submission (I do not want to have to go through 90,000 words changing my references from Vancouver to Harvard style!)

PHD Comics: The Thesis Committee
This was how my viva was, except without the cookies.




Meow!  Controversial “debates” abound this week with the argument (mainly from radical feminists) that trans women can’t be “real” women because they experienced male privilege while growing up.  First off, this is a complete non-argument; it’s like saying I can’t identify as disabled because I was healthy up until my teens, or because I had a brain tumour that others couldn’t see, that I experienced “able privilege”.

So you’re probably able to summarise my thoughts on the matter quite succinctly.  I am: it’s utter bollocks.  But let’s delve a little deeper to highlight some of the errors, contradictions and downright fantasies that make up this viewpoint.

The male privilege argument

This is the most controversial of all the points, for me, because there is a grain of truth behind it.  We don’t choose to have privilege in any given situation.  It is as much about people’s perceptions of an individual as it is about the actual characteristic that is said to be responsible for the advantage.  So while a trans woman may have experienced terrible suffering and marginalisation as a child due to their gender identity, it doesn’t mean that they weren’t perceived as male, and therefore treated like a boy (and this will have added to their problems).

Privilege doesn’t cancel itself out

There isn’t a scorecard of oppression that we use to decide who gets the most points in any given situation.  Intersectionality is a wonderful frame to consider complex relationships between different axes of privilege.  And it’s for that reason that it’s not a totting-up exercise.  A trans woman who was once considered male doesn’t lose the trauma and dysphoria of her earlier years due to the concept of male privilege.  It’s not Top Trumps, people!

There is no universal standard of womanliness

You’ve often heard it said that there’s more variation within a population than between populations.  And it’s true in this case!  There’s so much variability in people’s experiences of childhood, that I couldn’t tell you what a typical childhood even is, let alone a typical “socialised female” childhood.  If we’re going to say that trans women never had the experience of growing up as a girl, we’re going to have to exclude a lot of “real” girls from that as well.

Trans women are women

There are so many different facets of what it means to be a woman.  we can pick and choose the criteria in whatever way we like, but they will never give a complete picture, and every single definition we choose is going to unjustly exclude somebody.  Perhaps the problem is that we are looking for too rigid a characterisation, like a Girls Only club with secret passwords and a ladies-only treehouse.  I feel that this is one of the failures of trans-exclusionary arguments: that because historically women have been oppressed as a class, we must protect the definition of “woman”.  But what then?  We have our perfect definition that can never be challenged, and this is going to help us to fight the patriarchy… how?  Isn’t it better to expand the definition of “woman” to reflect the entire female experience and to increase the number of allies?

Privilege works both ways

Transgender people are disadvantaged on just about every scale you can think of.  More likely to be unemployed, more likely to be the victim of  crime, more likely to attempt suicide, more likely to live in poverty, more likely to experience direct and indirect discrimination, etc, etc.  I could sit here listing these all night.  It makes the male privilege argument rather redundant when you consider the unending torrent of disadvantage many trans people have to wade through every single day of their lives.  And let’s not forget that those making the trans-exclusionary argument are almost always white, middle-class and wealthy.  Have they checked their privilege recently?

Men aren’t the problem, either

This “debate” inevitably ends up with someone claiming that trans women are men.  Well, that ain’t so, and even if it was, it’s a fallacious route to head down.  While it is true that the majority of gendered violence is perpetuated by men, it is by a minority of men.  We hear so much about them because they create a toxic culture that often goes unchallenged and causes numerous disadvantages for women.  There are feminists who believe that all men are a threat, and they are wrong.  There are plenty of things that we are all guilty of, like bias, stereotyping and sexist language, but they aren’t the same as rape and murder.  This is a bit like comparing all the arguments against Islam to terrorism – it’s just nonsense. [“You don’t want a bacon sandwich? You are worse than Bin Laden”]  Oh yeah, one more thing.  I’ll say it again: trans women are not men.

What about the (trans) men?

Oh, look, a huge f*cking elephant in the room.  Well, I suppose we’d better address it.  Trans-exclusionary arguments always, without fail, ignore not only the issues that trans men face, but that they exist at all*.  There’s no moral panic over where trans men go to do their business; it’s almost like it’s not really about bathrooms.  Shouldn’t we be going after these chaps with our pitchforks for betraying the sisterhood?  No? Why not?  Is it like Queen Victoria refusing to believe that lesbianism existed because she couldn’t imagine it?  How simple-minded the anti-trans brigade must be.

It’s not a zero-sum-game

I’m sure that if you’ve read this far, you don’t need this explaining to you, but here it is anyway: there’s not a finite amount of rights to go round.  In protecting the rights of one group, we don’t need to take rights away from someone else in case we run out of human decency.  There’s enough to go round for everyone.  And if we then come back to the idea that women are suffering because our society chooses to treat transgender people with dignity and respect, I’d really like to see some evidence to support that claim.  It’s ok, take as long as you need – the last 40 years or so haven’t yielded anything, so I’m in no rush.

So what am I allowed to debate then?

Well, you’ll have you consult your self-awareness guide for that one.  I’m not going to tell you what to think.  But I am going to tell you that you should think.  We can criticise gender roles, gender-based violence and discrimination, while still supporting equal rights for transgender people.  Indeed, many transgender people will have views on these topics, and they are worth listening to.  It’s not an either/or problem.  Yes, men in general start off from a more advantageous position than women in almost every area of life.  But that’s not a Get Out Of Jail Free card that we can whip out every time a new feminist topic comes up.  We didn’t just do feminism up until the 1970s and then it was job done.  The world is changing and it’s not going to wait for us.  Feminism isn’t simple, and nor should it be.

*NOTE: while trans men get conveniently hushed out of the room, some trans-exclusionary folk do have a problem with non-binary identities.  I’m not completely sure what their “academic” argument is, but it quite often descends into insults like “trans-trender”, and it’s really ugly.  I can only assume that they feel threatened by AMAB (assigned male at birth) people adopting identities that are more feminine, but at the end of the day it comes across as a dogmatic belief rather than anything backed up by evidence or a solid argument.




BULLSHIT.  That’s right, if it ain’t inclusive, then it ain’t equal.  Intersectional feminism strives for equality for all genders, recognising that while gender oppression is a huge factor in an unequal society, it is also more complicated than that alone.  There are numerous other influences that are oppressive in their own way, or that combine with gender discrimination to create an even worse problem.  For example, a black woman is more likely to experience both racism and sexism, whereas a white woman is likely to only experience sexism, and a different expression of it.  Disabled and transgender women are at a similar junction – there are feminist issues specific to minority women that arise because of the traits that make them a minority.  It’s really not that difficult to understand, unless you’ve got your head stuck in the 1970s.

And you’d think, what with them being a switched-on feminist publication, that this would be easy-peasy for Jezebel (they’re often criticised, but the conversations they generate are usually important ones).  But they have really let themselves down today:


Did you really think this through, Jezebel?


The headline reads “The FBI, Which Still Won’t Address Online Threats Against Women, Arrested Someone For Tweeting a GIF at a Male Journalist”.  This is complete intellectual dishonesty.  That headline, while technically true, doesn’t talk about what actually happened.  The GIF was sent to the recipient, Kurt Eichenwald, specifically because the sender knew he has photosensitive epilepsy, and with the intention of causing him to experience a seizure.  Besides that, it’s possible for the FBI to concentrate on more than one problem at a time – they are a national government-backed organisation with plentiful resources.

This was investigated and prosecuted because there was enough evidence to bring a case, and because this crime crossed the line from threat to assault.  There is an issue of female journalists (and, generally, females) suffering disproportionate and gendered harassment online, and it needs to be taken seriously and investigated.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prosecute other crimes, and arguably this case works towards creating a safer online environment for women anyway, because there is now precedent for dealing with online abuse.

And then, back to the bullshit.  The article (click if you dare) and its headline are worded in such a way as to take a story about an individual, trivialise the main issue, turn it around and make it about women.  This is the exact derailing tactic used by the “what-about-the-men” trolls, and we shouldn’t be giving sexist knobheads any ammunition by behaving like sexist jerks ourselves.  Not to mention the intersectionality fail.  Mr Eichenwald was targeted for his disability (although it’s probably no coincidence that the person who did this had the Twitter handle @jew_goldstein).  It had nothing to do with his gender, until Jezebel decided to make it so by throwing the disabled under the bus.  Thanks a bunch, Jezebel.




Very often when skeptics discuss alternative medicine, they look at the problem only from their own perspective.  We know the facts, why won’t people listen, etc, etc.  But that ignores the real reasons why people choose alternative medicine.  The evidence is enough for us, but it isn’t for some people.  And those people tend to be at the more affluent end of the scale.  I don’t know whether anyone has studied or theorised on this previously, but there’s a few reasons that I think are behind this:

Wealth is the best single indicator of healthcare outcomes

There are many factors that contribute to this whole, most of them related to the opportunities made available to those with more money.  Richer people can afford to partake in more physical and enriching activities, can afford to eat better food, are generally better educated, and are more likely to have access to private health treatments.  The rich are already at an advantage, health-wise.  Because of this, they’re more likely to pay attention to their health and avoid unhealthy environments, and therefore are already going to be healthier overall.  If they don’t experience any medical catastrophes (life threatening illnesses, accidents) then they might suffer the odd minor thing here and there that can be treated at home, and these are the kind of things that clear up by themselves in a few days anyway.  These are also the types of ailments for which there is a booming market in alternative remedies.  It’s not difficult to see how one might think that taking one of these remedies has “cured” the illness – because it would get better by itself anyway.

Alt med is a luxury product

Homeopathy, herbal treatments, and spiritual healing aren’t offered by the NHS.  There’s a damn good reason for this – they don’t work.  But manufacturers and vendors of these products and services market them as a life-enhancing extra.  The NHS is there for emergencies, they say.  But this is the good stuff.  And given how expensive it is, it gives the illusion of quality.

High-profile celebs endorse it

The Royal family are mega-homeopathy fans, and the Queen’s 90, so it must be good right? (bear in mind what I said about affluence above)  Not to mention the polished and glowing celebrity wellness gurus hawking their latest juice cleanse or fanny rocks.  As well as being a luxury product, alternative medicine is a fashion accessory.  Fashions tend to spread within peer groups, and alt med crap is marketed almost exclusively to middle-class women with traditional responsibilities and high disposable income (yep, the marketing is sexist as well as elitist).  Which explains the tendency for lovers (and pushers) of alt med to be female.

Alt med gives you the warm feels

Science and medicine deal in evidence and cold, hard facts.  Our health service is underfunded and overstretched, and there just isn’t the time to give every patient a cuddle.  There are strong arguments for improving communication, bedside manner, and making care more compassionate, but the present political climate doesn’t allow it.  As a former private patient, I know that private healthcare offers more in terms of personalisation, time for the patient, and looking after one’s feelings.  This offers benefits in terms of how patients view their recovery and illness; it’s certainly more pleasant to feel like you are “looked after”.  Most private hospitals are completely legit, offering speedy, effective, and dignified care.  But the one thing they share with the woo-woo clinics is the compassion.  Paying for alternative medicine satisfies the yearning that people have to fell like they are “treating the whole person”.  Trouble is, that’s all the alt-med will give you.  If you want a genuine treatment, you have to defer to the science, sorry.

It’s deceptively alluring

All of the above reasons are driven by emotion, and emotion is an extremely difficult thing to bypass.  People cling to delusions and snake oil because it satisfies their need for empathy, and because to shun it would mean leaving behind a part of their identity.  Alt med is a lifestyle choice.  Based on this, our current tactic of blinding adherents with science is obviously not working.  Now that knowledge of the Backfire Effect is spreading, we know that we could be making their views even more entrenched.  So what do we do?  Whatever technique we use, we have got to remain true to the evidence.  Lose our integrity and we’ve had it.  Promoters of alt-med are well-versed in persuasive argument techniques and will pounce on the slightest slip-up.  I feel that bearing the emotional factor in mind, acknowledging it and discussing that with alt-med users could work.  It addresses the issue honestly and would give them something to consider about why they really use alternative remedies.  Another tactic is effective science communication, done in a conversational way, involving scientists from a similar societal group to the audience.  They need to be relatable, and they need to demonstrate an ability to understand.  Simply throwing facts at people and not engaging with those who “disagree” achieves nothing.  We need to at least start those conversations, because the most effective way of changing someone’s mind is to get them to reach the conclusion on their own terms.  You can sow the seeds and nurture them, but you cant force a change in mindset.




I feel that I’ve missed the boat somewhat here, as this is a conversation I had way back in the days of my first steps in the skeptical movement.  But it came to mind because I had a question that I wanted to pose to the Atheism+ people, and I just discovered that their website no longer exists!  I am disappointed, because I feel that their movement has a lot to offer atheists, humanists and skeptics.  I hope that they still exist in some incarnation, because it would be a shame to lose a more compassionate atheist angle.  As well as that, they seemed to be the ones actually doing critical thinking about social and skeptical matters, unlike the self-proclaimed rationalists who would tear them down at every opportunity that they see someone tapping on their glass case of privilege.

But the conversation I had was about the dichotomy of New Atheism vs. Atheism Plus.  And, you guessed it, all dichotomies are false dichotomies.  Most of my social circle would err more toward the New Atheist end of the spectrum, and I do criticise their arguments and pose questions that their brand of atheism doesn’t always have a satisfactory answer for.  They’re free to do the same in turn for my atheism, but very often they would come at the argument from an extreme position “calling out” the other end of the scale – assuming that I was querying their viewpoints because I was some fringe lefty.

But this is not an either/or problem.  I find much of what the New Atheists say in terms of ideas to be useful, and I find the way it is presented to often be extreme and repugnant.  In terms of Atheism Plus, I find their philosophy far more welcoming and pragmatic, yet the practice is often exclusionary due to its adherents jumping to conclusions about atheists who don’t exactly fit their mould.

Very often, New Atheists make sole claim to all that is reasonable and rational, and then jump on whatever bandwagon is steamrollering itself over an oppressed minority (because down with social justice – booooooooo!).  But I’ve found Atheism Plus to be too defensive when genuine questions are asked.  I know that this stems from the phenomenon of “Just Asking Questions“, which New-Atheist trolls are very good at, but it unfortunately spills over into suspicion of people who are genuinely curious.

In my response to the question of whether one is “better” than the other, or whether they can even co-exist, I sort-of said that I thought it was the wrong question.  Because I do think that they can co-exist, but more than that, that they aren’t mutually exclusive philosophies.  There are going to be disagreements between these groups on certain, nay many, points.  But that’s half the fun of thinking skeptically – you ask two intellectuals a question and you get five different answers.  Atheism, skepticism & humanism aren’t any different, and it shouldn’t be seen as a problem if there are disagreements, or divergent viewpoints on some issues.  I suppose we come into difficulties when extreme views are involved; say a New Atheist with anti-feminist views wants to “debate” Atheism Plus, well that’s obviously going nowhere.  But then we get into absolutes again – many progressive people would say that to be anti-feminist is a right-wing and backward ideology, but the counter-argument is that to be feminist is an ideology (no, no, no, it isn’t – but that’s how the arguments go).

So I suppose the problem here is that there are people who decide that they are very much on one side or the other, and that they quite like there being two “sides”.  New Atheism and Atheism Plus can coexist in the same brain, so I don’t see why there’s so much unease at them existing in the same movement.  If we adhere to one school of thought too rigidly, or define it too narrowly, we’ll come up against conflicts both internally and externally.  It is one thing to be able to hold two contradicting ideas simultaneously (which we can all do), and another to simply hold an array of beliefs that have no contradictions, but come from different sources.  Um, isn’t the second one actually easier…?