Friday, September 29, 2006

Beyond Reason: Serious or Satire

Last week, my University's student newspaper, Imprint, included an article by Brendan Pinto, talking about the double standard between male and female sexuality. It was part of his regular column entitled Read This, Lest the Terrorists Win. You can read the entire article here. A few choice excerpts:

I’ve always subscribed to the notion that you should live and let live. Anyone can choose to sleep with however many partners they wish, and that’s completely fine with me. Unless you’re a girl, because, I mean that’s just gross.

The essence of this metaphor, as I understand it, is that if you can have sex without committing to a monogamous relationship, then why bother with dating at all? Don’t allow yourself to be tied down sharing a bed with just one girl. Let’s be honest, emotionally fulfilling relationships are for ugly people.

Genetic diversity is important to the survival of any species, thus men are hardwired to try and inseminate as many different women as they possibly can. That’s a scientific fact. On the other hand, if you are a girl and you sleep with multiple partners, you must obviously be a slut. A floozy, riding the trollop trolley to harlot town — population: you.

Now I’ve heard some people say that my views characterize women as objects whose express purpose is the gratification of men. I’m not arguing this, I jut thought I’d point out that people say that. But they also say that what I write is sexist, baseless and inflammatory. These angry feminazis really just need to get laid — but only once.

That should give you a pretty good impression of the content of that article, so now we come to the question: Serious or Satire? Was this written in the spirit of Coulter or Colbert? I know many of you will likely be thinking that this is obviously satire. He's mocking the misogynist position in order to illustrate to all of us how absurd it is. Once you look at it in the context of his past article, it's even more obvious.

But sadly, this wasn't obvious to a number of concerned women on campus. A few excerpts from Letters to the Editor in this week's issue, along with personal commentary because I just can't help but ridicule those who took this seriously:

Somewhere at the back of my my mind, I am wondering whether Brendan Pinto’s article “Double the standard, double the fun” was writen purely for the sake of entertaining himself with hate mail.

So the back of your mind is thinking "Evil and twisted," while the front of your mind is focusing on the "evil" part. Hmm, if only there were a third possibility...

You walked yourself into a corner in your first paragraph — if female promiscuity is indeed frowned upon by you, then you wouldn’t be getting any. Unless you expect five girls to devote themselves to you and no other, which is nearly impossible unless you’ve planned your penile implants through and through.

Actually, he's planning on 70, and he plans to make this possible through genetic engineering of the gender ratio. Reading comprehension fails again.

After reading your article I am once again reassured that it’s because of guys like you that girls turn to GLOW for comfort.

GLOW is "Gays and Lesbians of Waterloo," the campus club for, you guessed it, hockey. It's Canada, every club is a hockey club (atypical sexual orientation places a far second in their goals). Now, if only sexual orientation weren't genetic, you might have been witty there. As it is, you're inadvertently discriminating against another group while attempting to defend your own.

And another letter says:

As an angry Feminazi (as this article has coined me, an individual appalled by last week’s editorial), I believe it is my duty to respond to “Double the Standard, Double the Fun,” and question Imprint’s lack of discretion in having printed an article that will affect 22,241 students, 48.2 per cent of which are female.

"Affect" them, you say? So, is this article jumping out of the pages of the newspaper and sexually molesting women? Or could it maybe be that it's just words that once filtered through stupidity can at worst cause feelings of offense?

You call it satire. I call it sexism!

Wait, so satiring sexists is sexist itself? Your definition of satire might need a little work...

Both the University of Waterloo and Imprint must take responsibility for the printing of an article that infringes on the rights of its entire people.

Aah! The existence of words on a piece of paper in the Opinion section of the student newspaper is infringing on my right to... my right to... uh... not be exposed to satire of ideas I dislike and might mistake for being serious!

Some may argue that the author was "kidding" and that it was "satirical."

Some may also argue that gravity pulls things towards the ground. People tend to do that with blindingly obvious things.

Certainly, he aims to amuse those who share his opinion, but his belief regarding the inequality of women from a sexual standpoint remains. If this article was intended to exemplify the ludicrous notion of the gap of privilege between men and women’s sexual freedom, then it failed to demonstrate this is in its final paragraph, where it may have had the opportunity to redeem itself.

Alright, let's drop the joking about, and let me explain the point of satire. The basic point of satire is to illustrate the absurdities of the opposing position. You obviously saw a lot of absurdities in what he said. But you seem to think that since he didn't come clean at the end of the article and admit that it was satire, it had to have been serious.

The problem with that is whether or not you should be coming clean depends a lot on context. Take The Colbert Report, for instance. The show was originally pitched as "Colbert parodies the O'Reilly Factor," and Colbert will readily admit outside the show that it's satirical. Yet within the show, he's playing a character. Admitting it's satire within the show would be breaking character. (Plus, this makes for hilarious instances where Republicans are idiotic enough to think he's serious.)

When a normally-serious venue makes a satirical segment or article, on the hand, it's generally best if they do come clean. I did this myself in an earlier post. The bulk of the article is satirizing the simple booklet that supposedly teaches you how to debunk evolution, but I put in a note at the end to make it clear that I was just joking around. (Granted, I never actually said it, but instead went into an increasingly ridiculous variant on the "shooting fish in a barrel" metaphor that at the least made my personal beliefs clear.) For another example, see this recent post at the Two Percent Company.

So then the question becomes, where does Brendan Pinto's weekly column fit in? Look at the title: "Read This, Lest the Terrorists Win." Look at his first article. Look at his article in this issue. It's constant satire. How distracting would it be if he came out at the end of each article saying so? That would surely get annoying fast.

Now, besides that, there's another good reason he shouldn't be admitting it's satire. This reason is that leaving it this way makes it more likely to convert people over to his actual way of thinking. Take the case of the rational person who's initially neutral to this debate and thinks this is serious. They'll see that it's utterly ridiculous, and will likely come out against the satirized position.

Now take the case of someone who's initially in agreement with the satirized position, and thinks this is serious. They might be suckered into accepting these flawed arguments, and then go on to later use them themselves, ultimately making them look ridiculous and easy to take down. On the other hand, they might think about the whole thing logically and see clearly that these arguments are flawed. If they can come up with reasonable arguments for their position, nothing might happen from this. But if they can't, they might be lead to start questioning whether their position is logically supportable at all. None of this would happen if they knew it was satire; they'd just reject it entirely as the other side's propaganda rather than think about it logically (okay, some people are better than that, but a lot aren't).

The problem, of course, is that some people on your own side might think you're serious, and get ridiculously mad. If they take the time to present logical arguments against your ridiculous claims, there's no real harm done to your cause. Unfortunately, sometimes people don't bother with argument and instead resort to censorship. Imprint received a petition asking for Brendan to be fired and for a formal apology for the article. They were fortunately wise enough to not do so, and instead published a community editorial, written by the arts editor, explaining the situation. This is a good move--they're explaining that it's satire without Brendan breaking character.

In the end, though, this raises concerns for people's gullibility. There was a frightening number of people who didn't realize this was satire and got quite angry about it. Perhaps it's the existance of people who seriously do believe such insane things that's the problem. If no one ever said something like this seriously, people would be more likely to jump to the conclusion that it's satire. Instead, people are expecting to be viciously attacked. When they see something like this, instead of realizing this is an ally, they see the attack they were suspecting. Confirmation bias, perhaps?

On the other hand, it's also possible to be fooled in the other direction. When I first stumbled across Jack Chick's tract on evolution, it was so ridiculously bad that I thought it had to be satire for quite a while. What finally clued me in that he was serious was a misstatement of fact, where the professor supporting evolution agrees with the straw man that evolution also includes cosmology, nuclear chemistry, astrophysics, and abiogenesis. This is something a satirist would never do. A satirist uses the other side's bad arguments, but the actual facts. If their false facts are left in, the audience won't be able to see through it like they will the arguments, and those will remain even after the arguments have been stripped away.

Skepticism isn't always about paranormal claims. Sometimes the skeptic's toolbox must be applied to situations like discerning whether or not someone is being satirical. Failing to do so can lead you to end up making a mockery of yourself.

Proceed with your information binge...

44th Skeptic's Circle

The 44th Skeptic's Circle is now up over at Salto Sobrius, so head on over and check it out.

Also, a quick note on my status. I've been fighting a rough cold for the last week or so, which has slowed down my posting a bit. I seem to be on the mend now, so I'll hopefully get a couple big posts up soon. Hopefully I'll get one out today dealing with the perils of satire, and soon after that I hope to finally get around to Distilled Wisdom #3: How to Sound Reasonable.

Proceed with your information binge...

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Waiting till it's too late

On August 2, model Luisel Ramos strutted down the catwalk, walked back, had a heart attack, and died. What caused her heart attack? What do you think? She'd been starving herself for weeks, consuming nothing but leaves and Diet Coke, in order to get thinner and more "beautiful."

Nutritionists and other health officials (not to mention many people with common sense) have long been pointing out that there's a problem here, but no one listened. Now that it's too late, and a model has died because of this, some are finally starting to get the message. Madrid's Fashion Week organizers have put a ban on models with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of less than 18 (the healthy range is considered to be 18.5-26), blocking out more than 30% of models. Is this the best measure to take? That's debatable, but at least they're finally doing something.

Of course, many in and out of the fashion industry aren't happy about this. Allow me to satirize the debate if I may...

Random Model "Jane": Why should we have to pay the price for Luisel's mistakes? Thin is beautiful, do you want to ugly up the modelling business?

Random Expert "Dan": First of all, it's not a price, it's a precaution. We want to prevent more tragic deaths like this from happening. Secondly, look at people like Charlotte Coyle, who's gorgeous despite being technically overweight. The push towards being thin isn't leading people to beauty, it's leading them to death.

Jane: But none of us have died yet! We're obviously handling it just fine.

Dan: And before Luisel Ramos died, she hadn't "died yet," and would probably claim she were handling it just fine. Some of you may well be handling it fine, but many aren't, and they're putting themselves at risk. We need to something to stop this before more of you die.

Jane: Aha! So you admit that Luisel would agree with us!

Dan: Jane, you ignorant slut...

Okay, how many of you could tell by the second line that I was setting that one up? Anyways...

There are a ton of points I could use this as a springboard into making. I could go into the superficiality of the whole modelling thing. I could discuss the arbitrary reasons why thin is what's considered beautiful (hint: Twiggy). But no, I'm going to talk about Global Warming.

The problem in both of these issues is that society often doesn't take measures to fix problems until it's too late. We didn't ban CFCs until after there was a huge hole in the ozone layer. America didn't enter World War II until after Pearl Harbor was bombed. We didn't take measures to prevent models from dying of starvation in the attempt to look thin until one actually died (and even now, many countries who haven't had a model over there die are doing nothing).

And on the horizon is the problem of Global Warming. Scientists know it's a problem, but it's in the interests of too many people for it to not be real, so we're doing nothing. We've already seen the ice shelves of Antarctica start to crumble. We've seen one of the largest lakes in Africa dry up to almost nothing. We've had extreme droughts, extreme floods, and the worst hurricane season on record. All of these are the results of Global Warming, but it still isn't enough. For something this bad, even all of this isn't enough to convince the people in power that we need to change.

Many less-knowledgeable-than-they-think people who try to raise awareness of Global Warming claim that we have to worry about the polar icecaps melting, as they have enough water in them to raise the global sea level by 20 feet. This is a bit less than half true. You see, all of the ice at the north pole and a good portion of the ice at Antarctica is floating. And when floating ice melts, it results in no net increase in the water level. You can test this for yourself if you'd like. Take a glass of water, and put an ice cube in it. Mark the water level, then leave it for some time to let the ice melt. Come back, and when the ice has melted, the water level should be the same (if not a bit lower thanks to evaporation).

So, when it comes to the polar ice caps raising the water level, we don't have quite that much to worry about. There is still a significant amount of land-bound ice in Antarctica, however, which could pose a problem. There's also one other huge deposit of land-bound ice we have to worry about: Greenland. The ice in Greenland is currently plugged in, but if the plug melts, we're, quite simply put, screwed. No, scratch that. This one is worth breaking out a swear for. We're fucked. Coastal cities the world over are doomed. Imagine New Orleans during Katrina happening to thousands of cities simultaneously.

Hopefully this time, we won't wait until it's too late.

EDIT: As I calculated in the comments, thermal expansion of the water in the oceans could be an even worse threat. An overall change of just one degree Celsius in ocean temperature would result in an increase of global sea level of over 5.5m. The only saving grace here is that it will take a while to heat up the oceans, but if we don't stop Global Warming, it's still inevitable.

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, September 21, 2006

No time for rest

I've been feeling pretty sick over the past week, so I haven't gotten around to posting anything, but this issue can't wait. To sum it up, 6 innocent medical workers are facing execution in Libya so that they can be scapegoats for the corrupt President Gaddafi. Read more details on the story over at Respectful Insolence.

It's a matter of weeks before this issue will be decided, so that limits what can be done. You might want to try writing a letter to your senator/representative urging them to push the government to push for the release of these people, but I don't know how long it would take for the message to filter through to them. Orac provided a link to send a letter to al-Gaddafi or other Libyan officials, but I doubt that would be worth it. You could also donate to Lawyers Without Borders, which is helping to represent these people. And if you have a blog of your own, you can make a post about this issue there to raise awareness.

Proceed with your information binge...

Friday, September 15, 2006

Breaking News! The most logical creature is...

...the puppy! Yes, scientists have recently determined that bad logic makes puppies sad. Browse through all the posts in the 43rd Skeptic's Circle, and watch as the poor logic displayed and mocked in each one makes nearby puppies sad.

Proceed with your information binge...

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Assume a Spherical Cow

Well, it's taken a while, but I've finally decided on an avatar. "What is it?" you ask? Read the damn title or look over at it! If it doesn't make sense, maybe the following joke I heard a while ago will help:

One day, a farmer's sole cow stops giving milk. He calls in a biologist, chemist, and physicist to see if they can solve the problem.

The biologist first looks and the cow, and after some consideration declares, "It must be the cells!" The farmer is completely dissatisfied with this answer, so he asks the chemist his opinion.

Next, the chemist takes a look at the cow, and after thinking for a while exclaims, "No, the problem is that the cow has an imbalance of biochemicals!"

"Well, how do we fix it?" the farmer asks.

"Beats me. That part's up to the pharmacists," the chemist replies.

Finally, the physicist takes a look at the cow, and after careful contemplation says, "I think I have a solution. There's just one little problem."

Exasperated, the farmer asks, "What's the problem?"

"It only works for spherical cows in a vacuum."

Proceed with your information binge...

Monday, September 11, 2006


Lots of little things to say, so I'm squashing it all into one post.


I always get an overload of what's going on in Canada in the weeks right after I move back up for university. Part of what contributes to the overload is the dearth of information on Canada that Americans receive, but that's not the main subject here. The point here actually relates to what happened 5 years ago on this date, when the World Trade Center was attacked, prompting the US to launch its war on terror.

It's taken a while, but it seems with the recent terrorist plot over the summer, Canadians have finally broken out of their "It can't happen here" mentality. Canadians just didn't give the world anything to hate them about, and thus had been relatively safe from international terrorists. But it seems that this new breed of terrorist cares less about what people did, and more about what people are. Canada was targeted simply because it was a secular/Christian country, which to the mind of a Muslim wacko means it must be destroyed. In the end, it's just good to see that Canadians have woken up to this kind of threat without anyone having had to die.

All of this is not to say I support the actions taken by the US in the "War on Terror," but I support the goal of stopping terrorism. I just feel that it's better fought by fixing the root causes--mainly the impoverished state of many of these people, and secondly their perverted religious values--than attacking the symptoms. What the US is doing is like trying to cure Strep Throat by taking a throat lozenge, when they should be taking an antibiotic.


A little personal anecdote here that I kept out of my last post because I wanted to keep that one anecdote-free. Back when I was around 6 years old, I developed sharp, shooting pains in my right arm for seemingly no reason. My mother took me to a doctor and later a physical therapist, but neither could figure out what was wrong. Getting a bit desperate, she approached the father of my best friend, who happened to be a chiropractor.

She'd heard of chiropractors, and was rightfully wary of their claims to be able to treat anything, but he assured her that he was a "Straight" chiropractor, a group trying to distance themselves from the mainstream ones. He also commented that what I had sounded like a simple pinched nerve, and that he should be able to fix it easily. My mother, figuring that it couldn't hurt (Chiropractors actually do have pretty good safety records), decided to let him try. After a single session with him, the pain in my arm decreased drastically. After a few more sessions, it vanished entirely.

Was it a placebo effect? Maybe, but I've never been one to be susceptible to it, and I'd already tried other treatments which had no effect. But anyways, this personal experience is why I'm trying to get the word out about the good chiropractors, and also why you might have reason to doubt my judgment about them (If I might have a bias in a certain area, I feel that others should know that so they can make an informed decision).


Something's off in my brain, but no psychiatrist has ever been able to pin it down. I seem to lack many basic human instincts with regards to socializing, approach things a bit too logically and literally, have an almost savant-level ability in mathematics, and am prone to fits of depression. Describing it like that, I seem to fit many of the characteristics of having autistism (even leading my mother to highly suspect it at one point), but the rest of the story doesn't fit, and no psychiatrist thought that autism was an apt descriptor for me.

The biggest problem with the theory of me being autistic is that my early development didn't fit autistic patterns at all. At first, I was normally sociable, and my sensory and verbal development were normal (though occuring at a faster rate than many, most likely due simply to my aptitude for learning). I had no problems with repetitive behaviors, and the only problem with my education is that it was always too slow for me.

It wasn't until second grade that I diverged drastically from normal development. I slowly withdrew from social activities, my instincts leading me towards isolation over socialization. My mind also started thinking critically about more things, and I rejected things like fashion trends as pointless and illogical. I went from hanging out with friends during recess to simply wandering around, waiting for it to be over.

I can't remember what was going on in my mind at the time to cause it, and no one else could figure out any reason. The only theory I have is that it was a subconscious response to bullying I experienced (they always pick on the smart ones, among others); I avoided socialization to avoid the discrimination. But the problem here is that I don't remember experiencing any bullying until a while after this, after my family had moved to a different city and I was the "new kid" in addition to being the "smart kid."

In the end, I don't know what I am. Most likely, I simply don't fit into any established category of mental or developmental disorders, and am just off somewhere on my own (more on this planned for a future post). My experiences looking into autism, however, and the rough similarities between it and my condition have led me to have a lot of sympathy for autistics. Hopefully we'll be able to forge a world that excepts all of us, including autistics and those who, like me, are just plain weird.

Proceed with your information binge...

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Chiropractors: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Sorry for the delay in posting, I've been busy moving up to University for the term, and then after that I couldn't decide which of a few topics I wanted to address first. Anyways, onto the content.

Anyone who's spent time in the Skeptic community has likely heard about the claims of Chiropractors. Most of what you hear about are the bads ones, as these are the overwhelming majority and also represent the traditional views of Chiropractors. But, there are a couple of other groups that have notable distinctions. I'm going to use this post to explain these three groups.

The Bad

First, the bad ones (I know, it's not the order in the title, but this is the best way to present it). These are the ones you hear about mostly, the ones who claim that correcting vertebral subluxations (misalignments of vertebrae) can cure literally any disease in the body. At that point, you should be immediately suspicious. One of the first rules I use when dealing with medical woo claims is "There is no Panacea." A single pill or procedure that claims to cure everything is almost always bogus; the body just doesn't work like that. Aside from that, how about the fact that there is no evidence to support their claims. As one Chiropractor famously said, "That's why we never use double-blind tests. They never work."

Many of these Chiropractors belong to the International Chiropractors Association (ICA), the American Chiropractors Association (ACA), the National Association for Chiropractic Medicine, or the European Chiropractors Union. They have their own distinctions within themselves, but I'm not going to bother with it. It's just a minor difference in what brands of woo they subcribe to.

The Good

Wait, did I just say "Good" Chiropractors? Yes, I actually did. While there isn't evidence that Chiropractic helps with most of the stuff it claims, there actually is evidence that it helps with lower back pain and tension headaches. A single procedure that helps one or two ailments? I can buy that. So, what was a Chiropractor to do? Unfortunately, most of them chose to keep claiming it treated everything.

A few, however, were smart. "If it can only be shown to treat these, how about we only use it to treat these?" They thought. So, they branched off and started calling themselves "Straight Chiropractors." (The name was since picked up by the bad ones, so these ones are now "Objective Straight" and the bad ones are "Traditional Straight" or a variety of "Mixers.") These ones are generally trustworthy, and actually know what they're talking about. If someone comes in and asks about a medical problem they can't help, they - *gasp* - refer them to a medical doctor!

These ones are usually members of the Federation of Straight Chiropractic Organization (FSCO) (I know, redundant...) or the World Chiropractic Alliance (WCA).

See the FACE's first position paper for an example of an organization that's taking the first steps towards respectability. (Sadly, they suffer from Giant Block of Text syndrome over there....) It's far from perfect, but it's a start.

EDIT: For a better example of a good organization, see, the homepage of the National Association of Chiropractic Medicine (NACM). These organizations still have their share of problems, but I still feel that we should encourage those who are moving in the right direction, rather than criticize them for not miraculously giving up every piece of woo overnight (of course, we should still encourage them to go all the way).

The Ugly

And then there're the ugly ones. These ones show up mostly in first-world countries that have strict requirements to become a real doctor. A lot of foreigners just can't cut it, often because they can't speak the local language, or the standards weren't as high where they came from. Since being a Chiropractor takes no training, they do that instead, generally masquerading as one of the bad ones.

These ones also generally claim to treat everything, but often this is because they're using real medicine (or real medicine as it was taught to them in their home country) instead of Chiropractic to treat it. If someone has lower back pain or tension headaches, they might take on the role of an Objective Straight Chiropractor and do that.

There are a few problems here, though. The first is that there's no easy way to distinguish these ones from the bad Chiropractors without paying to see them. The second is that the medicine they were taught might not be so good. Some are actually good doctors who just couldn't get certification as they couldn't speak the language well enough, but some are just bad doctors. In the end, if you want medical advice, there's no reason to go to a bad Chiropractor hoping you get one of the good ugly ones; just go to a real doctor. They are nice to have, though, in that they may provide good advice to some people who came because they were genuinely deluded.


I hope that, in time, the bad ones will fade out, and the term "Chiropractor" will only be used for the good ones (though sadly, that's rarely the way things go). All I can do for now is help to make sure people know the situation as it is, and only go to see the good ones, and them only for the right problems. Sometimes, they're aren't all bad.

Proceed with your information binge...

Friday, September 01, 2006

Watch out! It's a chair!

The 42nd Skeptic's Circle is now up at Immunoblogging. Just make sure you're standing up, that might not really be a chair...

Proceed with your information binge...