Three Ways to Change Someone’s Mind

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

With the fallout of the election, a lot of us skeptics have been doing a bit of soul searching (for lack of a better term). Skeptics have been fighting the good fight before I was even in diapers, yet many humans seem impervious to pure, demonstrable facts, to the point where our president elect is a denier of clear unambiguous science. Donald Trump denies the existence of anthropogenic climate change as well as the efficacy of vaccines, and his followers are not far behind. Perhaps this is unsurprising, coming from a man who led a movement that literally thinks Obama is a Kenyan (the movement still isn’t dead, soon to be ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio tried to restore legitimacy to birther claims with an amateur investigator in mid-December). As a result of an apparent surge in terrible reasoning, the election has apparently lit a fire under our asses to bring critical thinking, skepticism, and reason to the forefront and redouble our efforts.

Unfortunately, even the cold hard facts are not enough to change the minds of humans, and, in fact, sharing facts can even make things worse. Science has shown us that the backfire effect contributes to our strongly-held beliefs, such that when we are presented information that contradicts what we already think, it can cause us to become even more certain in our poorly-held beliefs.

What?

This means that if we share the cold hard facts and nothing else, this causes people to reject the facts even more? So we shouldn’t use facts to try and convince people?

That’s not necessarily the case. We should of course make sure that all of our arguments and positions are supported by the evidence and the facts. But the point is if we actually care about convincing people to a more evidence-based worldview, merely presenting the evidence alone won’t get the job done. Humans aren’t perfect logic machines; we can’t simply give everyone certain inputs and expect them to arrive at the same reasonable output. Our approach counts for a lot.

Along with other skeptics, I’ve been working on trying to reach out to “the other side” to find people who are reachable. While I’m hardly an expert in interpersonal conflict, psychology, or debate (mostly the opposite, I’m baffled every day at how humans function), there appear to be some approaches that have better efficacy than others. Nothing is a silver bullet, and we should never go into a disagreement expecting to change the minds of others, as that will lead to unnecessary disappointment more often than not. But if we want to set out to plant a few seeds and give the other side some food for thought, and perhaps reach the people on the fence, then it would behoove us to adjust our approach.

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Image: Two people conversing

1. Humanize yourself to the opposition

This approach admittedly has a limited scope, and is mostly applicable to issues of bigotry and prejudice. But when it works, it works incredibly well. Often this is the case when people are biased against certain demographics, such as gender, sexuality, and race.

What does the evidence say? Even a very brief conversation with someone opposed to your nature can drastically change the way you are perceived. A study found in Science set out to find how voters react to meeting gay and transgender individuals. The abstract for their paper is as follows:

Existing research depicts intergroup prejudices as deeply ingrained, requiring intense intervention to lastingly reduce. Here, we show that a single approximately 10-minute conversation encouraging actively taking the perspective of others can markedly reduce prejudice for at least 3 months. We illustrate this potential with a door-to-door canvassing intervention in South Florida targeting antitransgender prejudice. Despite declines in homophobia, transphobia remains pervasive. For the intervention, 56 canvassers went door to door encouraging active perspective-taking with 501 voters at voters’ doorsteps. A randomized trial found that these conversations substantially reduced transphobia, with decreases greater than Americans’ average decrease in homophobia from 1998 to 2012. These effects persisted for 3 months, and both transgender and nontransgender canvassers were effective. The intervention also increased support for a nondiscrimination law, even after exposing voters to counterarguments.

When someone is convinced that we need to ban gay marriage because gay men are depraved perverts who walk around in leather and feathers all day to recruit children, introducing them to a gay person melts away these stereotypes. When someone thinks that trans women are really men in dresses trying to sneak into restrooms, introducing them to an actual trans woman will make them drastically rethink them. It turns out when you live within the bubble of how your go-to media outlet describes an issue, you thoroughly lack the full picture and the human aspect of why something is important.

It’s not hard to see real-world examples of this happening. It’s often most visible in politicians whose positions on certain issues are very public, and will occasionally change drastically. We’re familiar with cases like former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney, who supported the standard Republican position against gay marriage until his daughter came out as a lesbian, and since then has even lobbied for gay marriage. Tim Ryan, a previously “pro-life Democrat”, changed his mind on why people should have access to abortion after discussing with female constituents on why those issues affected them. It turns out that gay people aren’t trying to recruit all Americans into orgies, they just want the same access to society that everyone else has. It turns out that women aren’t just trying to get rid of a fetus because it’s inconvenient for their next vacation, they simply want bodily autonomy. As a straight male, no matter how good my arguments could possibly get against someone, I could never humanize their cause in the same way that a gay person or a woman could.

What does this mean for people who care about issues on prejudice? It means visibility is incredibly important. It means coming out en masse has worked wonders for the LGBTQ rights movement, and why the National Coming Out Day is more than a mere celebration of being one’s self. It’s the reason why the atheist movement has been pushing visibility, in efforts like the Out of the Closet Campaign  or Openly Secular which are based of the successes of the LGBTQ rights movement. It looks like a black man joining the KKK to ease racial tensions. It looks like putting a trans person on the stage of the Democratic National Convention, or making sure there is more racial representation in our films and television shows. It could also mean someone showing that they need access to healthcare despite their pre-existing conditions, and that plans like the ACA are actually necessary for their well-being. This is more than simply making an appeal to giving everyone their fair share, this actively shifts the way we think.

To be clear, the only people who have the ability to use this technique are people affected by prejudice, bigotry, and misinformation. It’s not for me to tell any individual that they should put their self in a position that compromises their safety for the sake of changing minds. But it’d be a mistake to not show that this is a powerful tool. I’m happy to help put a friendly face on atheists, though.

2. Social pressure

Humans are social creatures, and if we’re going to try to influence the behavior of other humans we have to understand the mechanisms behind what causes people to change their mind. This is somewhat related to the first point, but more broad and large scale. This is not something we can accomplish overnight, and it’s not something that we can control directly, but this is something we can do in the spaces we have influence over.

We’ve known for over half a century that the opinions of those surrounding us influence us greatly. This has been known since the 50s when we started doing experiments on this. A good example is the Asch conformity experiments, which found that subjects were likely to give a clearly wrong answer when everyone around them gave a largely wrong answer. Subjects were given two cards, one with a single line, and one with three lines of varying lengths. While only one of the lines clearly matched the length of the other card, when a subject was surrounded by people who give the same wrong answer, the subject was far more likely to pick the same wrong answer. There are many of other examples and experiments that since then corroborate these findings (such as the humorous elevator example).

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Cards used in the Asch experiment. On the left, a card has one line, and on the right a card has three lines of varying lengths, with the medium-length line matching the length of the line on the left. [Wikimedia Commons]

It’s important to note that this is simply an aspect of human behavior. I am not advocating groupthink or tribalism, but simply describing how humans act. As skeptics, we should be aware of the way this can harm people. It’s a contribution to the fact that many Trump voters on Twitter seemed to operate in a completely separate universe from everybody else, likely along with conspiracy beliefs like Pizzagate and anti-vaccine theorists. As critical thinkers, we should be well aware of the effect this can have on our own beliefs, and we should try and ward off any effect this can have.

But we should also recognize the power this phenomenon comes with. Creating environments that allow certain ideas to flourish, while at the same time making it hostile for other ideas, is actually a good thing. This is why even though atheists don’t necessarily have to agree on almost anything, I make it a priority to make sure that the environments that I curate are welcoming to the marginalized and hostile to anti-racism (cue accusations that I’m forming a bubble here). The idea that people of different skin colors are substantially different or that women are weak are evidentially dead ideas, and they should be shunned in every way possible. As I mentioned before, merely showing someone the evidence that “no, their brains are not smaller than ours” may cause them to double down on their beliefs. Instead, once we have evidence that some ideas are bad, outdated, and harmful, we should make it clear that we have no need to revisit them.

We can see the effect this has on people around the globe and over time. We know, for example, that the religious belief you have as an adult is not so much a function of which religious belief makes the most sense to the person, but more of a product of the environment and culture you grow up in. We know that children born in the past couple of decades are far more accepting of LGBTQ people than people born eighty years ago, and that is a good thing. What if we were to create a culture where skepticism and critical thinking were the largest ideological motivators, instead of religion or conspiracy theories?

This also provides pushback against a few ideas that have been floating around since the election. It’s commonplace to make fun of “social media activists”, since speaking out on Facebook and Twitter appears to do nothing. But every time you speak out on a controversial position, or challenge a piece of bullshit on someone’s wall, you provide a small bit of more social pressure towards a certain position. Not only that, but you encourage others to do the same, helping push towards reason. It’s not a silver bullet and it’s not the majority of the work getting done, but it’s a step.

Furthermore, we’ve also been told that we shouldn’t be shaming people or “calling out” others for having bigoted or racist positions. To be clear, simply calling someone a bigot isn’t going to change their minds, but calling someone a racist or a xenophobe to their face directly isn’t what I’m advocating. When we shame someone’s positions, we also induce social pressure against them. When we shame someone for something that’s terrible, we are signaling to others that a certain position is unacceptable. While many positions are worth debating, some things are simply not worth discussing anymore. We’ve settled the fact that gay people aren’t pederasts, we know that homeopathy is a scam, and atheists aren’t evil. Anyone holding those positions should feel shamed. Perhaps we can reach certain people with cautious and respectful discussion, but for those we can’t, we should signal to others that this is an unreasonable position that deserves to be completely disregarded.

3. Appealing to their values, not yours

In keeping with the fact that we humans are not logic machines, we build our opinions and conclusions on a lot more than the mere facts. When we construct a moral and ethical framework, we must have a moral foundation upon which we build our most cherished and important tenets. As members of a social species we would assume that most of these foundations are mostly the same, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

According to research by Feinberg and Willer, people who tend to identify as either “liberal” or “conservative” tend to value the foundations of their moral systems differently. Those who identify towards the political left tend to value care and equality, while those on the right value things such as tradition and loyalty. Both groups value these things to a certain extent, but in different amounts. You can find a more in-depth discussion on this topic and even discover more about your moral foundations here.

The relevant research, though finds that we tend to make arguments in terms of our own values. For me, gay marriage absolutely makes sense based on the fact that all people should be treated equally, but apparently to someone with a more conservative mindset this argument doesn’t quite cut it. For someone who values tradition more than I do (which is not hard to do), gay marriage seems unprecedented and therefore is something to be wary of. However, according to this study, a good way of convincing a conservative that gay marriage is a good thing is to appeal to in-group identity as Americans.

They then conducted four studies testing the idea that moral arguments reframed to fit a target audience’s moral values could be persuasive on even deeply entrenched political issues. In one study, conservative participants recruited via the Internet were presented with passages that supported legalizing same-sex marriage.

Conservative participants were ultimately persuaded by a patriotism-based argument that “same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans … [who] contribute to the American economy and society.”

On the other hand, they were significantly less persuaded by a passage that argued for legalized same-sex marriage in terms of fairness and equality.

To me, appealing to in-group identity seems dishonest and fallacious. However, the American identity is something that conservatives hold dear. And reframing my arguments to focus more on “tradition” and “purity” seem just as bad. In fact, we have named informal logical fallacies after appealing to those values. In that sense, if I reframe my arguments in terms of those values I feel like I am cheating. However, the facts are the facts and it appears to work. I have to consider the desired outcome of my discussion. If someone is not going to be compelled by facts and reason (at least within a reasonable timeframe) would I rather them believe bad things for bad reasons, or would I rather they believe good things for bad reasons? I’m leaning towards the latter. Perhaps, after they start to develop reasons for believing the “right” things, they also reframe their own morals and cognitive processes such that they eventually believe things for the right reasons anyway.

Hell, we know that we occasionally have trouble selling skepticism and critical thinking as a valid epistemology when talking to religious folk. Perhaps after we reframe why critical thinking and skepticism are important using their value system, they could eventually come to better conclusions based on those methodologies as a result.

It’s worth noting, again, that this is hardly a silver bullet. We should not expect to ever change someone’s mind during a single discussion, and even the results of the paper do not indicate that someone who responds favorably to this “reframing” is even likely to completely shift their position. Reframing arguments in terms of these moral foundations only has a small effect, albeit a significant one.

As a skeptic, I really enjoy arguing with other people (perhaps too much). With us going into a terrifying presidency, it will be important for us to establish a better way of helping people come to better positions. What people believe matters, as we all act on our beliefs. I look forward to finding better and better ways to convince people. These are the best I’ve found for now, and they all have their strengths and limitations. It’d be nice if skepticism and critical thinking could always win by default as a result of being stronger, but that’s simply not the case. We need to put in the work, and apparently the approach matters. So let’s care about that in the future.

A Few Short Christmas Thoughts from a Humanist

Merry Christmas, my fellow heathens! I say Merry Christmas because that is what I will celebrate. I’m visiting my parents’ house, celebrating my third Christmas out as an atheist (and my fifth one as an atheist total). I felt like sharing some of my thoughts, but I couldn’t think of anything to delve deep into. So instead, here are some disparate thoughts I felt like sharing for the holidays.

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[Image: A red christmas ornament bulb resting in some snow]

  • If you celebrate something other than Christmas, happy holidays! If you don’t celebrate, I wish you happiness and good will.
  • If you actively disparage atheists who celebrate Christmas, then from the bottom of my heart, you can sincerely go fuck yourself.
  • One time when I was still a closeted atheist, I was at a Bible study with my family before Christmas, and some of the more conservative members of my group wondered aloud where the Christmas tree came from. Being an insufferable know-it-all I eagerly began to tell them about the pagan traditions that the Christians stole, only I remembered where I was. I gave them a watered-down version without insinuating that Christians did anything bad.
  • Members of my Bible study attend a Catholic church on a Native American reservation, where the priest there integrates Apache traditions into his Catholic mass. I was more or less raised going to this church, and yes, this is thoroughly unorthodox. When I told my Bible study friends about this, they compared the Christian takeover of pagans and appropriating their traditions to this church which had an Apache-friendly environment. I didn’t say anything.
  • I also didn’t tell them that my namesake book of the Bible says fairly clearly that we shouldn’t have Christmas trees.
  • I’m going to Christmas Mass again this year. Mostly because it’s a family tradition, and I actually enjoy Christmas Mass at this nontraditional church. Sorry, David Silverman. Christmas Mass where I go is light on the preaching and heavy on the celebration.
  • This contrasts with the Catholic Wedding I attended earlier this year. It was less of a wedding and more of a completely ordinary Mass where two people kissed at the end. It wasn’t my wedding, but I was disgusted nonetheless that a ceremony all about two people had almost nothing to do with them and almost everything to do with their god.
  • My mom actively told me that I didn’t have to go to Mass, so I’m not being coerced.
  • It’s still strange for me to cite family for reasons to go to Mass. I’ve definitely valued blood relative relations less and less over time and feel more like family around the friendships I’ve made in the past couple of years. I’m put in a strange position because while I value my immediate family, I don’t feel terribly close to them any more. So it’s not enough that I feel like I need to break it off with them at all, but I don’t particularly care to take so much time off for them when I have more and more friends across the country that I feel closer to. But I haven’t said anything to anyone besides my therapist, cause I don’t want to stir the pot.
  • The worst Christmas presents for me are small, plastic things that my mom puts in my stocking. They’re usually novelty items that I won’t use a week from now, and all I can think is that it contributes to landfills. I really need less stuff taking up space and creating a mess already, and it would make me happier to get less of it.
  • While my dad is Christian, he’s been getting interested in skepticism and listens to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe every week. He expressed an interest in The Demon-Haunted World, but I couldn’t find that before I flew home. I got him a different book for Christmas instead.
  • On a separate holiday note, I’ve also rang bells for the Salvation Army. I did not know that they are bigoted antigay shitheads at the time. For those who are curious, the sound of the ringing bells kind of goes into the background after 2o minutes.
  • You know the charities people ask you to donate to at checkout? It seems like a good thing since it probably works really well, especially if the cashier asks you verbally if you want to donate to a certain cancer charity and you sound like an asshole if you say no. However, that really gives me anxiety, and it’s not helpful because it doesn’t give you time to research whether or not it’s an effective charity.
  • For those looking for a good secular charity that actually does some good regardless of gender and identity status, please consider donating to Modest Needs.
  • On that note, did you make a large donation to a charity for the holidays? Consider picking a charity and setting up a monthly recurring donation to them throughout the year, instead of a large one-time donation. This allows them to have a more sustainable source of income, and it might make it more affordable for you.

Happy Noodlemas to all, and to all a good night!

If You’re a Fundamentalist Christian, then Why Did You Vote?

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

Just so the readers know, I’m not ready to stop making political posts. They’ll be religion and skepticism related for sure, and I’m definitely going to make non-political posts in the future. But ever since the nation I lived in decided that a nationalistic pomegranate who doesn’t think climate change exists would be a good thing to decide supreme court justices that could affect the rest of my life, I’ve been a bit miffed.

One of the causes of our pumpkin-in-chief, of course, is the white evangelical vote. Exit poll data showed that 81% of white evangelical/born-again voters cast a vote for him. It’s easy to point and laugh at how he obviously doesn’t belong in that camp, since he’s divorced four times and can’t even read a Bible correctly. But it’s shouldn’t be surprising, as on his campaign trail, he claimed to represent their interests. He promised bigly that he would support the repeal of the Johnson Amendment and that he would overturn Roe v. Wade (somehow). He promised to choose a supreme court justice like Scalia, who ruled in favor of evangelical interests in a thoroughly activist manner. No politician is perfect, so they decided that they might as well pick the candidate that would give them a favorable outcome.

The thing is, why do they care about that particular favorable outcome?

To Biblical literalists, the aim of the game is to become saved and end up going to Heaven. With any fundamentalist you run into, the only requirement for getting into Heaven is accepting Jesus Christ as your lord and savior.* It doesn’t matter how many women you keep in their place in the home. It doesn’t matter how many Ten Commandments monuments you get at courthouses around the nation. It doesn’t matter how many guns are legalized or how much you can lower taxes or how many queers you discriminate against. As long as you can ascend to Heaven.

Atheist activists are well aware that with the presence of an eternal afterlife, any life on Earth is meaningless. Sure, you still have to get saved, but once you’re in, you’re in. It doesn’t matter how you compare your time on Earth if there’s an infinity after that. It’s completely negligible. Therefore, all your time on Earth better damn well be focused on getting into Heaven, otherwise you’re not taking your faith seriously enough.

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[Image: Equation, showing that a ratio of time during time on Earth to eternal life is completely negligible]

On a related note, does anyone know somebody who can whip me and nail me to a cross? Sure, it’ll suck, but I hear doing so allows you to be the king of the universe for all eternity. So a small investment of a weekend of torture gives me infinite gain.

The point is, according to the fundamentalist worldview, no form of political activism actually matters. In fact, they may be hurting the cause of winning more souls for Jesus. If they subscribe to the idea that all aborted fetuses go to Heaven, then trying to reduce abortions simply increases the chance that some people will go to Hell. Furthermore, a significant portion of nones left the religion they were born into because they viewed organized religion as harmful. By making the world a demonstrably worse place by legislating against queers, trans folk, and women, they are playing a hand in driving people away from eternal paradise. Of course, apparently Jesus gets the credit when someone gets saved but when someone walks away from their faith it’s their individual free will.

Contrast that with me. I’m almost twenty-five years old. Statistically I have about two-thirds of my life to live out. And since I don’t have a reason to believe there’s an afterlife, my best guess is that’s all I have.

A supreme court appointment could last thirty years, and by the looks of it they’re either supremely activist judges or severely unqualified. This is the next third of my life. If Trump gets to pick three during his first term, then around half of my remaining lifetime will have a wing of the government that thinks it’s ok for companies to deny women’s healthcare, or thinks that corporations should have the same rights as people. When my trans friends want equal access to society, the court is far more likely to accept that they deserve it.

Furthermore, with a Republican-majority congress and a leader of the EPA who is currently suing the EPA, any hope of meaningful action on climate change is incredibly bleak. We are at a point in time where we’re already pumping so much carbon dioxide into the air that we are reaching tipping points where temperature increase is inevitable. Do I want to have children if they’re going to live to see the last days of humanity?

This is not trivial. This gets down to the core of my moral behavior. As a humanist, I have no reason to think that I will have anything other than my current life I am experiencing. This also goes for everyone else. What matters is here and now. There’s no Heaven I can help someone get to, but while we are here I can try and make their life better. If I can make them laugh, or if I can teach them something new, or if I can simply make them feel loved now, then that is what matters. I see no externally-imposed purpose on my life, so I don’t have to waste time in prayer. Instead, I can define my own purpose, and I can choose to spend time during my only life making the lives of others better. Even if I can improve someone else’s brief experience in the universe for one second, then I have fulfilled my purpose. Every heartbeat is precious, and I choose not to waste mine.

The Christian pre-afterlife, comparatively, is nothing. Yet here they are, imposing their non-evidence-based values on the lives on every single American. I feel like my existence has been hijacked by people who couldn’t care less about it. They have held my life at gunpoint, all for something that is Biblically meaningless. Find me the verse that says people need to vote. Find me the verse that tells us which bathroom we must use. Find me the Bible verse that condemns abortion. I submit that you will find nothing.

What’s even more frustrating is that Christianity used to be an entirely apolitical position. It wasn’t until Jerry Falwell and other conservatives began pressing their Moral Majority movement to get Christians actively involved in the political process. If only that were true now.

I feel at the very least, if the fundamentalists can’t be bothered to critically examine their beliefs, they should at least leave us alone to have our brief time in the sun while they prepare for their eternal salvation. Apparently, that is too much to ask.

 


*If other Christians think that works are required, that’s fine. I don’t write to debate theologies and belief systems I think are complete bullshit. But we can’t deny that most evangelicals accept that only way into Heaven is through Jesus.

Science is Intersectional. Our Activism Should Be, Too.

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

The week after the world ended, but before I wrote five posts in a row about how the world is ending but how you can stop it, I attended a professional conference for my engineering field. Regular listeners of the podcast will know that I am a chemical engineering graduate student, and part of being a student is actually attending conferences. If your department can cover your expenses, it’s almost like a paid vacation. It’s like a paid vacation where you still have to watch forty PowerPoint presentations, but graduate students aren’t usually allowed to have fun anyway.

I was interested in seeing a lot of the things at this conference that some of the less social-justice minded atheists would have cringed at. There was a harassment policy that was far more comprehensive than Reason Rally 2016, yet the conference somehow

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Image: A sign with details for an LGBT+ reception at my conference. There are also details for a disabled engineer convocation at the bottom.

lasted over a week without some kind of meltdown or without people getting unnecessarily upset about a woman not wanting to be approached alone in an elevator. There was a safe zone workshop for queer and trans engineers (see picture), yet there was no whining about having to respect trans people by having to undergo the odious task of using the correct goddamn pronouns. There were also social events celebrating LGBT+ and disabled engineers. I also thoroughly enjoyed the diversity at the event. Of the thirty-five talks I attended, over half were by people of color, and I’m pretty sure only a minority spoke English as a first language. At the same time, my peers and I were still able to learn lots of new things, present new ideas, go back and forth and rigorously discuss novel research techniques, and critically examine each others’ work. The days we weren’t presenting were filled with practicing our slides and worrying about what questions people would ask. Yes, this conference somehow managed to accommodate minorities and enforce policies that made everyone behave in a safe manner, but somehow we were able to engage in critical thinking at the same time for the progress of science. Somehow those two concepts aren’t in conflict!

There’s a couple of simple explanations for the difference between this and the atheist movement, of course. I have to be honest and can’t compare apples to oranges, and the disseminations of research findings within academia serve a vastly different purpose than rallying cries for a social movement. The speakers and attendees at this conference are often looking to network or learn new techniques, and these research results are borne of many late hours of tedious and difficult work or long nights tweaking sentences so that a paper will be accepted into a good journal. Speeches at an atheist conference, on the other hand, are filled with pathos, and are presented at a far more basic level, because we don’t have to have an academic specialization to campaign for Separation of Church And State. Even the most sophisticated of secular conventions are set up for friendly, personal connections, while a science meeting is almost entirely for professional purposes (even if grad students like myself take the opportunity to hit the bars around the city after getting out of our suits later). Besides this point, my professional organization has been around for over a century, and has had a longer time to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

I could make a long post about things that social justice detractors in atheist communities complain about, and why they aren’t really problems if you look outside the lens of secular activism. I don’t see a need for that for now, but I would like to focus on one aspect of scientific dissemination that highlights the importance of social justice focused activism within the secular movement. And that is the aspect of intersectionality.

As a refresher of the term, intersectionality in a social justice context is a term that focuses on how certain forms of oppression and ways the combat those forms of oppression are interrelated and often related to each other. For example, there are certain ways that black people are oppressed in America, and black Americans disproportionately feel the effects of this oppression. Due to cultural and religious differences between black and white Americans, however, black women or female-presenting people often experience oppression at an elevated level due to sexism. This sexism also ties into traditional gender roles, which oppress queer and trans people of all stripes. Many of the aforementioned problems tie into harm done with the hands of religion. In many ways, unraveling the problems with one form of oppression undoes the harms of other forms of oppression.

This has affected me on a practical level, and in fact, directly led to me becoming a secular activist. My best friend in high school was gay, and even though I was a Christian I always supported gay rights. It should come as a surprise to nobody that when I critically examined what prevented gay people from achieving equality in my country I found that religion was at the root of the problem. This led to a thorough re-examination of my beliefs, a deconversion, and a subsequent rebuilding of my values. Now I fight for the separation of church and state, as well as trying to eliminate religious ideology on a social level.

What does this have to do with my conference, though? To my knowledge, nobody tends to refer to anything outside the context of social studies as intersectional, and that’s fine. But there are a lot of aspects that parallel intersectional activism with how we go about communicating research findings.

For one thing, people outside of academia may not realize how incredibly specialized any given scientific field is. At my university, chemical engineering is only one of sixty-five programs in which someone can earn a degree. If I’m going to focus on something for my career, I have to pick a program that represents roughly 1.5% of available knowledge at my campus (and of course, not everything can be learned at a university, obviously). When I attended my conference and submitted and abstract for my presentation, I had to choose from one of thirty-five topics to present in. After choosing which topic to present in (Nanoscale Science and Engineering), there were thirty-five sessions at the conference that I could present in, ranging from topics like “self-assembly”, “nanomaterials manufacturing”, and “carbon nanomaterials”. Yes, there was a 2-hour session dedicated entirely to research about carbon nanotechnology. Hopefully this gives an idea of just how specialized this research can become. For a period of time at my conference, there was a specialized room of people within a particular topic within a particular focus within a broad research area within an academic field that focused intensely on a very specific topic.

It’s a useful strategy to focus on something very specific when trying to solve certain problems. A typical scientist will often pick an incredibly narrow research topic and focus on that for the rest of their lives. While it’s true that a given scientist may be a biologist or a physicist, they often become an expert in a very specific system. I’ve known professors who have labs that study one specific biochemical. Similarly, I’ve attended a one-day conference that focused entirely on the environmental breakdown of a single molecule. If you want to know a specific technique or process, it’s not uncommon to find maybe two or three groups that have a bunch of papers on it. If you want to have groundbreaking research, you’re not going to become one by being a jack-of-all-trades. You have to find a good niche that nobody else has explored, and explore what you can little-by-little. Your specialization will keep you at the boundary between what we know and what we don’t know, and it’s simply impractical to try and hold a specialty within more than a few specific areas.

It is for this reason that “identity politics” (or at least some non-strawman version of it) exists. We need people focusing on a very specific cause. While it’s a noble thing to be concerned about many things, we are limited beings with finite time, energy, and resources to carry out specific tasks. It’s also very difficult to mobilize large groups of people when interests become broader and broader. If you don’t believe me, try and hold a discussion on what specific actions humanists should focus on, and you will immediately start a shitstorm. This is the reason that advocacy groups exist for a certain purpose. There are humanist groups that specifically work to help the homeless, there are humanist groups that fight legal battles, and there are humanist groups that simply exist for community. The fruits of their labor are clear, tangible, and effective.

It’s for this reason that making the argument that “everyone should have equal treatment” doesn’t get us very far. It’s a valid sentiment, but not everyone has equal problems, and certain problems have not made as many progress as others. If you want LGBTQ people to have equal rights, then telling your conservative representative that doesn’t get you anywhere. To him, gay people always had equal marriage rights (since everyone has the equal freedom to marry someone of the opposite sex anyway). When advocating for LGBTQ rights, you need to engage on the specific needs of queer and trans people, lay out why they are marginalized, and why they should care. If those specific needs or grievances are not laid out specifically, than nobody outside of that group is even going to be aware that there is a problem in the first place. So yes, we need to engage with the needs of specific identities based on how they are perceived and treated.

What does that have to do with intersectionality? Haven’t I just made the case that we need to do our own thing and focus on our own very specific projects?

There’s a bit more nuance to the story. It’s true that on an individual level we may want to focus our attention on maybe one or two things at a time. In my lab, it’d be very difficult for any student to get anything done if they had more than a couple of projects they were working on. At the same time, while each researcher does their own thing, it’d be a mistake for someone to only interact within their own focus. A technique that helps one researcher may easily help another one, especially if they have similar work. One investigator may have a question about their focus that can be solved by another investigator’s technique.

Not to mention, there’s really no solid line that divides one discipline from another. I mentioned earlier that my program is one of sixty-five programs I could choose from. This is true, but what makes an area of study in my program (chemical engineering) different from another isn’t always clear. Lots of chemical engineers work with catalysis, which crosses over with chemistry and materials science. The same could be said of people in my program who study nanoelectronics, which are also studied by mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and physicists. I also have peers who work with cells, which cross over into work like genetics, molecular and cellular biology, and medicine. What helps me in one field could easily help someone else in another.

When I went to my conference, I saw a lot of talks that superficially didn’t have much to do with what I specifically study. I focus on the chemical kinetics and physical forces that cause DNA to hybridize and dissociate at a solid-liquid interface (or in layman terms,  how DNA sticks together on a surface). It’s a fairly unique project, and I didn’t see a lot of talks that did many similar things. But I saw a talk on nanoparticle coatings which may inform the way I design my experiments in the future. I saw a talk on data organization that could inform the way I perform analysis in the future. Their scientific techniques were different from mine and we studied different things, but we are both operating on the same fundamental physical laws and on the same scientific principles to figuring them out. Temperature still means the same thing if you’re trying to measure it on a star or a cell. A chemical reaction is still the rearrangement of molecular structure, and it doesn’t matter the reaction is being studied by a chemist or a biologist.

While I am far and away not an expert on intersectionality, this makes sense as a parallel in how I look at it. Many social justice causes are focused on fighting privilege and bigotry, and both are linked towards pushing people to recognize their implicit biases. Certain problems in one “area” of social justice affect another. I could make a causal web tying different forms of inequality to each other in a web detailing systems of oppression (though, as a non-expert, I’d rather someone else with more knowledge and better aesthetic taste do it, lest it turn out like a kindergarten macaroni project).

It’s okay to make a focus of activism, as long as you recognize that what you do will affect other peoples’ focuses. When atheists campaign merely for separation of church and state, they don’t just affect prayer in public schools or religious imagery in courtrooms. The justifications for “traditional marriage” stop holding up in legislation, and we stop treating queer and trans people as second-class citizens. We also stop allowing people to cite “sincerely held religious beliefs” for denying healthcare for women and people assigned female at birth. We allow more death with dignity without unjustified supernatural belief get in the way. And when we shift the laws, this puts a little more pressure on the culture to become more accepting. When people complain about the secular movement engaging in too many things that aren’t related to atheism I am baffled, because the actions of movement atheists have never exclusively affected atheists.

As another quirky parallel to my conference, I also think of the utility of people having certain focuses. I attended a variety of sessions that week, and some of them had almost nothing to do with my research. My roommate had a presentation on hydrogen fuel cells, which is not very similar to my work which is focused on biophysics. I understood some of the various thermodynamic and chemical kinetic principles of the talk since they are fundamentals of my college major, but I missed a lot of the details. I didn’t understand enough to understand the context or the significance of the work during that session. Had I asked something about the catalytic property of platinum during the session, for example, I would have likely wasted everyone else’s time who already had learned that years ago. Afterwards, I was able to ask my roommate about the material properties of his fuel cells and how they worked. Everyone should be encouraged to ask questions, but keeping context in mind and waiting for the opportune time to ask it does nothing to curtail critical inquiry. In fact, it just makes it more efficient. Such is often the case when asking people of privilege to keep silent. When addressing the needs of the marginalized, we should pay attention and listen to the people of that group who need help. Given that many secularists routinely misunderstand or misconstrue basic concepts like privilege, trigger warnings, microaggressions, etc., it’s difficult to imaging they would get the larger point when discussing higher-level concepts. The difference between me in that situation and some punk being asked to remain silent is that I was thoroughly aware of my ignorance on the subject, and acted appropriately.

For me, I’m happy to recognize that secularism doesn’t just affect me and other atheists. It affects everyone. A lot of my detractors fail to recognize this, and often paint social justice minded atheists as immature or uncritical. In fact, a lot

Fighting Against the Trump Presidency: Racism

While I tend to focus on general topics on this blog, I’m trying to post resources this week on how to focus your dollars, activism, and efforts on reducing the harm from this year’s election. This will be a multi-part series of short entries, focusing on a variety of causes that you can get involved in to mitigate some harm.


Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

There appears to be a meme going around that Donald Trump isn’t really a racist, the media just calls him a racist. I’ll let you be the judge here:

He refused renting homes to black tenants, violating the civil rights act.

Trump promised to hire local minorities for a riverboat casino, later breaking his promise, hiring only majority Caucasians and relegating black employees to service jobs.

He led the birther movement for five years, alleging that Obama was born in Kenya and demanding his long-form birth certificate.

Trump picked a white nationalist as a delegate in California.

He has, of course, claimed that Mexican immigrants are drug dealers, criminals, and rapists. He has claimed that “Mexico doesn’t send their best”.

You could also count many of the things listed against Muslims. Islam is not a race, but Muslims are largely racially targeted, and even brown skinned non-Muslims are targeted with anti-Muslim bigotry.

In line with his anti-Muslim bigotry, he has spread complete misinformation that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated 9/11.

He attacked a Judge overseeing his lawsuits for having Mexican heritage.

Trump Plaza lost an appeal of a discrimination penalty from New Jersey when they moved black card dealers away from the floor at the request of high-spending gamblers.

Trump refused to rebuke endorsements from KKK leader David Duke four times.

He questioned how “Native American” certain tribes could be when, “they don’t look like Indians to me.”

Trump condoned the beating up of a Black Lives Matter protester at his rally, stating, “Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”

Trump pointed out a black person at his crowd, calling him, “My African-American.”

During the debates, Trump advocated for stop-and-frisk, which is a practice that targets racial minorities.

Trump has picked Jeff Sessions for attorney general, a man who has been repeatedly accused of racism throughout his career and is anti-amnesty.

He has also chosen Steve Bannon, head of Breitbart Media and White Nationalist figurehead, as chief strategist.

While candidates can’t control the people who endorse them, I’d be leery of someone who has earned the support of the KKK.

There’s more, of course, but people often have a hard time accepting anything other than overt racism as racist.

What can I do?

If you’re concerned about you or people you care about being deported, search for a legal resource for immigrating. Check out this directory. One large advocate for immigrant rights is the National Immigrant Law Center, who fight for the rights of immigrants and work to affect policy in their favor.

If you’re worried about authoritarian policing by a candidate who has threatened to be the “Law & Order Candidate” and who has no problems with measures such as Stop & Frisk, consider joining Campaign Zero, who are working to eliminate police violence in America.

If you are interested in organizing for racial justice, consider volunteering or donating to Showing Up For Racial Justice, as well as their black-led groups. I joined in a phone banking campaign with them recently, and I hope to participate in more actions in the future. Some of these groups include the Movement for Black Lives, BYP100, and Southerners on New Ground.

Also, make sure to contribute to public resources like libraries and universities, which often give free information and sometimes free classes for those wishing to immigrate and work towards a better future.

Please feel free to share this piece with others who are concerned with relevant issues.

 

Fighting Against the Trump Presidency: Religious Freedom

While I tend to focus on general topics on this blog, I’m trying to post resources this week on how to focus your dollars, activism, and efforts on reducing the harm from this year’s election. This will be a multi-part series of short entries, focusing on a variety of causes that you can get involved in to mitigate some harm.


 

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

In his own terminology, Donald Trump would be an absolute disaster for Religious Freedom. His words seem to imply otherwise as he claims to champion religious freedom, but only superficially. He courted evangelicals by stating that he values religious freedom, and that he wants to do that by repealing the Johnson Amendment, which earned him 81% of evangelicals who voted.

However, this actually is a distortion of religious freedom. The Johnson Amendment actually maintains the First Amendment by holding all tax-exempt organizations to the same standard. We give tax breaks to nonprofits, while stating that they can’t utilize their special status for political purposes. If religious organizations are allowed to make political pronouncements, then this gives their speech special status.

In reality, Donald Trump only appears to selectively support certain religious beliefs, while completely opposing others. He has built a campaign on anti-Muslim bigotry and fear, and threatens to eradicate freedom of religion by marginalizing religious minorities.

He has proposed a ban from all Muslims entering the United States.

He has called for surveillance targeted at Mosques in America.

Trump has called for a database on refugees, and “did not rule out” a database or registry of Muslims. His position is unclear on whether or not he actually wants to target citizens based on belief.

He spread misinformation on the Orlando Shooter, as well as Syrian Refugees as an excuse for extreme vetting.

While he has specifically built his campaign platform on xenophobia targeted against Muslims, his proposals are threatening the religious freedoms of anyone who is not a Christian. He is transparently ignorant about Christianity, but he continues to pander to evangelicals. As with all candidates, his religious beliefs don’t matter, but his honesty absolutely does.

Secular Coalition For America gives him an F on secular values, threatening our secular constitution.

His pandering to evangelicals occurred at the Values Voter Summit, a conference of religious anti-LGBTQ and anti-women hate groups. Trump met with many of these leaders.

Trump has picked Betsy Devos as the Secretary of Education, who is a voucher advocate, which tends to lead to funding of religious schools.

Jerry Fallwell Jr., president of Liberty University, has also been considered by Trump to have a hand in the Department of Education.

Trump has stated that he will (somehow) make everyone say Merry Christmas again, which certainly is against the First Amendment.

Not to mention, Mike Pence would be bad at this as well. He opposes stem cell research, doesn’t accept evolution, and as I’ve covered is terrible on LGBTQ issues, all as a function of his theocratic tendencies.

All these threaten our secular constitutional republic, which is founded on religious freedom, such that us and our freedoms aren’t subject to the religious beliefs of others.

What can I do to help?

Again, I would suggest that you can support the ACLU, who will fight for your rights if you are discriminated based on religious identity.

You can also support and take action with the Anti-Defamation league, which will legally fight against religious bigotry, and also has actions you can participate in to combat this bigotry.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation will combat any overreach of religious action into government, including public schools. The American Humanist Association will also fight these legal battles, but also major human rights projects you can be involved with.

Also, take the time to meet people whose religious beliefs are not your own. If you feel like it, inform yourself on the religious practices and beliefs who are not your own, and not just the bad stuff. Be willing to challenge bigotry of this type if you see it.

Please feel free to share this piece with others who are concerned with relevant issues.

Fighting Against the Trump Presidency: The Environment

While I tend to focus on general topics on this blog, I’m trying to post resources this week on how to focus your dollars, activism, and efforts on reducing the harm from this year’s election. This will be a multi-part series of short entries, focusing on a variety of causes that you can get involved in to mitigate some harm.


 

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

We have been missing milestone after milestone to curb global warming, and we need to take action as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the Donald Trump presidency will not only undo the minimal gains we have made recently, we will actually go backwards. This is terrifying, as this is something we urgently need to take action on.

Our President-Elect really does think global warming is a hoax (yes, he lied in the debates).

His only “solution” is advocating clean coal, a dubious prospect.

Donald Trump has tapped Myron Ebell to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, who flat-out denies that climate change exists.

Trump is looking to step out of the Paris Climate Agreement as soon as possible.

And under a Republican-led congress, Trump could do serious damage to climate change research funding, NASA funding, as well as slashing regulations to curb carbon emissions in the United States.

We are behind on preventing climate change from doing serious damage. We need to reduce our fossil fuel usage as much as possible and get off coal. We need to transition as much as possible to other energy sources, such as hydrogen, solar, and wind energy. While we transition to that, we can utilize nuclear fuel to have an efficient energy source that, while it creates waste, is much more containable than gaseous emissions. These will not only help reduce emissions, but help the United States become energy-independent and not rely on Middle-East relations for a reliable fuel source. This need to be done globally, in partnership with other nations.

How Can I Help?

Unfortunately, this is very difficult to address on a global scale, but you can still help by contacting your representatives when needed. It is their job to listen to you. Pressure them every opportunity you can to help protect the environment.

Joining the League of Conservation Voters will help you keep up on these issues. You can donate to them and participate in actions with them to help educate the public on this deeply important cause.

You can also take basic steps to reduce your carbon footprint. If it’s within your means to do so, consider putting some effort into changing your behaviors and lifestyle to have a low-footprint life. One of the best ways to do that is to reduce your meat intake. Livestock and Agriculture accounts for about one-fifth of carbon emissions. Beef is one of the worst offenders, requiring ~28 times more land than the average livestock category. Even if you can’t eliminate meat from your diet, consider reducing it. You can set aside eating meat during certain days of the week, or eliminate beef from your diet. Small steps help!

If it’s within your capabilities, you can also:

-Install LED lights in your house, which will be more efficient.

-Make sure your tires are inflated to make sure you get the most out of your gas tank.

-Reduce your driving time, by carpooling or biking.

-Stop relying on the AC, put on an extra sweater or jacket and turn down the heat by a few degrees.

-Unplug your gadgets from the wall, as vampire energy drains a surprisingly large amount every day.

Aside from that, there are a couple defense funds that you can donate to EarthJustice to fight environmental-based legal battles. You can also donate to the Natural Resources Defense Council to advocate for environmental campaigns and fight similar legal battles.

Please feel free to share this piece with others who are concerned with relevant issues.

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