I Only Looked Away For a Second

A few days ago, I clicked on a campaign ad for Elizabeth Warren. The ad was inviting me to vote on what issues I considered important, and would like Warren to address. The categories were far reaching, including reproductive health, income inequality, race-based injustice, LGBTQ+ protections, income discrepancies… I kept scrolling, and kept clicking. Yes, I thought this was important. Yes, I thought that was important. Yes, I’d like a political candidate to address this issue. I scrolled through almost twenty items, clicking as I went, before I reached the end. I’d clicked on everything, and there was a box at the end to allow me to enter even more things that mattered to me. “My God,” I thought, looking back over that list. “I care about all of those things. But how can any one candidate cover all of those things, let alone cover them well? How would they even attempt to prioritize a list like that?”

That sense of being overwhelmed by how many things are going wrong, of not knowing where to focus, of not even knowing what fire to start putting out when everything is on fire, is one that I’ve known well for most of my adult life, but especially since November 2016. To a certain extent, I’ve chosen some of my priorities—this is called “Feminist Friday,” after all. Gender concerns are pretty obviously on the forefront of my mind. But good feminist practice involves incorporating many concerns, because pretty much all social justice issues intersect. Being a generally good person involves caring about many different concerns because, you know… gotta look out for your fellow humans. And animals too. And plants. And the environment in general. And… you see how it goes?

An accidental byproduct of this split attention is that some things end up being de-prioritized. Or not even de-prioritized so much as “set aside and hoping they won’t explode for two seconds.” Like when you have a pot about to boil over but there is another pot boiling over right now, so you have to hope that the first pot will keep its shit together for as long as it takes you to turn down the other burner, take it off the heat, and try to salvage something within it.

 Or even worse, the issue is one that you thought was mostly handled, but then suddenly flared up again while you were focused on something else—a new attack that you weren’t expecting. For me, that supposedly settled issue that has suddenly boiled over is reproductive rights. Namely, abortion rights.

I learned about Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood early on in my feminist arc. And both of them felt fairly far away, even though I realistically knew that the cases had affected my grandparents’ generation, my parents’ generation. Even though people liked to come to campus with large pictures of mangled fetuses. Even though I had to pay out of pocket for my birth control at the school clinic. Things were a bit unfair, sure, and things could certainly get better, but we were making forward progress! We were going to only move forward. We’d already established our rights, and there was nowhere to go but up. After all, it wasn’t like we had our rights to vote curtailed once the 19th Amendment finally passed, was it? (Ah, young!feminist Elle. So idealistic. So naïve.)

The steady rise of TRAP laws, the gradual erosion of reproductive rights, the constant pressure from anti-abortionists, the downright false beliefs that fly in the face of established medical science… they’ve been gnawing at reproductive rights since the beginning, but they have definitely gone into overdrive in the last few years. And I’ve certainly been paying attention for the last few years– a good deal of my posts on this blog and our former blog deal with reproductive rights. But I still thought that things were happening piecemeal. That enough anti-abortion legislation had been overturned that while things were getting dicey, and Handmaid’s Tale-y, public opinion was enough on our side that things would stay at the current level of bad for a little while longer– long enough for me to catch my breath and focus on things like “children being put into cages” and “the 12 year time limit on our planet as a functioning system.” And… that didn’t happen.

And now everyone who was yelling at feminists for being alarmist because we kept comparing the erosion of reproductive rights to The Handmaid’s Tale are now going, “…..yeah, ok. Damn. Kinda Gilead-y over here.” Georgia’s new anti-abortion law is horrific on a level I can’t even really fathom. It could foreseeably treat any miscarriage as a potential homicide (btw, did you know that about 20% of all recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage? And that even more pregnancies end in miscarriage because they happen before the woman knows she’s pregnant… which under this bill would probably still be after the point at which an abortion is illegal?) It punishes you for leaving the borders of Georgia to try and obtain an abortion. It punishes anyone who helps someone else to get an abortion. This is…. This is some “chain you to the kitchen” kinds of legislation. It clearly and explicitly sees people with wombs as incubators for children, and nothing else. You’ll notice that the law doesn’t require the institution of child support, or other protections that are afforded to children. The law considers a fetus a “child” only for the purpose of punishing women.

In previous years, I’d at least have the cold comfort of knowing that once the inevitable lawsuits over this law made it to the Supreme Court, it would be overturned. But now that we have Neil “Torquemada” Gorsuch and Brett “Devil’s Triangle” Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court… I don’t really have that confidence. In fact I have confidence in the opposite conclusion. And in a lot of ways, the damage will already be done, even if the law is overturned.

 The damage that has already been done is incalculable—clinics that have been forced to close and will never open again, policies passed at various levels that will keep people away from reproductive information at crucial times in their lives, necessary funding has been withheld, research has been set back by decades…. It makes me want to cry.

We are treading in waters that are very reminiscent of the pre-Roe v. Wade era. Because overturning Roe v. Wade is the endgame. This law was put into place in order to be challenged, because anti-life activists (not giving them the pleasure of being either “pro-life” or “anti-abortion,” at this point they are sincerely anti-life) read the signs, and decided that this was the best possible time, with the best possible state government, and the best possible Supreme Court, to get this law to work its way through the system and effectively overturn Roe v. Wade.

There are some things we can do to try and condemn Georgia lawmakers specifically for their actions—namely, encouraging major industries like film and television to stop using the state as a location, or removing tourism dollars in other ways (no Dragon Con for me). But Georgia is not the only state where this is happening. Fun fact, the pending Ohio bill requires a surgery to “save” ectopic pregnancies that doesn’t currently exist. Funner fact, the Alabama bill that is trying to overturn Roe v. Wade calls abortion worse than Hitler, Stalin, China’s “Great Leap Forward,” and the Khmer Rouge! By the time this is all done, the structural damage it leaves in its wake is going to affect the entire country.

Anyone who has the ability to get pregnant needs to decide what they going to do about that. And anyone who has the ability to get anyone else pregnant needs to figure out what they’re going to do about it as well.

On the personal level, I genuinely, strongly encourage anyone who is able to get pregnant and doesn’t want to do so to look into long-term birth control. I personally ran out and got an IUD as soon as Trump was elected, because even though I was pretty distracted from just how bad things were getting on the reproductive rights front, I could still see the writing on the wall. It’s supposed to last for another three years, aka, “hopefully past the end of Trump’s only term.” Emergency contraception like Plan B is not always readily available, and it doesn’t work well for anyone over 160 pounds.

If you’re able to get someone pregnant and don’t want to do so, strongly consider getting a vasectomy. While the process isn’t as foolproof, or as non-problematic, as people like to act it is, it’s still one of the quickest and easiest ways to ensure that unwanted pregnancies don’t happen. It also puts some weight and responsibility on the impregnator which… basically no abortion bill does. Weird. It’s like abortion bills are written by a lot of misogynists under a patriarchy.

Finally, think really hard about what role you’re willing to play in helping the people affected by this bill, and by bills like it. Are you willing to give money to organizations fighting these bills, to clinics, or to individual people needing assistance affording contraception or an abortion? Are you willing to donate your time? Are you willing to run to office? Are you willing to help smuggle people out of the state to get abortions? Are you willing to let people stay at your house, or drive someone for ten hours, or use your insurance, to try and work around various abortion restrictions? Are you willing to risk imprisonment? Are you willing to risk your medical license by performing illegal abortions? Because pretty much all of these things are going to become necessary if we want to maintain reproductive choice under these conditions.

I’m not trying to scare you—you should already be scared.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is of a group of actresses dressed as Handmaids filming for the Handmaid’s Tale television show. Photo: Victoria Pickering CC BY 2.0

Subjective Science

Gather round, everyone, and let’s have a little chat about how seemingly “objective” means are frequently used for subjective ends.

The supremacy of science and phrases like “Facts don’t care about your feelings” are frequently trumpeted on the internet by men who are some combination of fedora owners, neo-Fascists, and lovers of literature about lobsters written by white men. (The funny thing is that you don’t know if I’m talking about Jordan Peterson or David Foster Wallace. The sad thing is that it doesn’t matter.) The idea is that there is a Realm of True Things, and they are always available to us if we just Logic hard enough and set our feelings aside. And to a certain extent, they are right—my feelings do not change the efficacy of vaccines, or the reality of climate change. The Three Laws of Thermodynamics do not give a fuuuuuuck about my feelings regarding entropy. But the same people who say these things aren’t usually talking about how gravity is the one law that anarchists have to believe in. They’re talking about things like gender, and sexuality, and biology, and race, and that is where scientific things get really, really squishy. Because science, you see, is done by people. And people… well people are just monkeys with anxiety and superiority complexes, basically. And we are really good at using supposedly objective things to support subjective goals, even while still loudly bragging about how objective we are.

Language, for example, would seem at first glance to be objective—it’s “just” words, an agreed upon system of sounds and pictures that we use to convey meaning. But did you notice that I started this post off with “Gather round, everyone” instead of the more traditional “Gather round, boys and girls”? I did so deliberately, because “Gather round, boys and girls” implies that there are only two genders, whereas I know that things aren’t that simple. We have nonbinary gender folks, agender folks, transgender folks, etc. And so I deliberately avoided using a seemingly objective opening that would have carried a point of view that I don’t agree with.

But that’s language. Language is already suspected of treason by the Fedora Federation, because it is very close to poetry, which is feminine, and also was probably invented by left-wing academics. So let’s talk about their beloved science.

Science, as we said before, does have some objective foundations. And then it has a looooot of subjective sprinkles on top, depending on who is doing the science and what they believe is true. At various points in our history, we Absolutely Knew Thanks to Bulletproof Science that:

  • Women who grew despondent in the face of the patriarchy were “hysterical” and could be cured by a combination of forced seclusion and forced orgasms.
  • People with mental illness could be cured via an icepick through the orbital socket.
  • People of color, especially Black people, were “inherently” inferior races due to the size and shape of their skulls.
  • Diseases like cholera were spread via “bad air.”

All of these things were scientific “discoveries” or even widely believed scientific “facts” at one point or another. Note that a lot of them seem to specifically disadvantage marginalized people. I wonder why that is… (I don’t actually I was just using one of those sneaky rhetorical flourishes. Language again.) Science, you see, is only objective when it is used by a subjective person as objectively as possible. If the person doing the science is consciously or unconsciously putting their thumb on the scale to change the results… well. Phrenology happens.

All of which is a very long way to say a very short thing: what is happening to Caster Semenya is fucked up. Because quirks of biology, discoverable through scientific means, seem to only be “unfair” when they are happening to a Black woman.

Athletic ability has a lot to do with dedication, and practice, and luck, and privilege… and biology. Like, some folks are just gonna be 7’3”, and that is probably going to give them an advantage in basketball. It doesn’t have to, they could still suck at basketball, but… I mean it probably is going to help them out. And we don’t say, “Hey, tall people have an unfair advantage in basketball! They should only be allowed to play basketball if they walk on their knees!” I admittedly would probably watch more basketball if everyone was walking on their knees, but that is neither here nor there. We just accept that their genetically-imbued factors, namely their tallness and skills, are a natural part of who they are, and their use of their genetic gifts in their sport is seen as normal.

We don’t have to compare Caster Semenya to all other athletes to see how she is being treated unfairly, however. We really only need to compare her to one: Michael Phelps. As Monica Hesse writes, Phelps possesses a slew of genetic oddities that make him perfect for dominating the world of swimming:

Phelps possesses a disproportionately vast wingspan, for example. Double-jointed ankles give his kick unusual range. In a quirk that borders on supernatural, Phelps apparently produces just half the lactic acid of a typical athlete — and since lactic acid causes fatigue, he’s simply better equipped at a biological level to excel in his sport.

I’m thinking of those stories, because I’m thinking about the ways Michael Phelps was treated as wondrous marvel. Nobody suggested he should be forced to have corrective surgery on his double-jointed ankles, nobody decided he should take medication to boost his lactic levels.

As Hesse points out, no one is suggesting that Phelps hamper or cripple himself in order to make the sport more “fair” on other contestants. He is taken as-is, and has gone on to win a shitload of gold medals.

Semenya gets no such free passes. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that if Semenya wanted to compete, she would have to take medication to curtail her testosterone, which is naturally higher than it is for the average woman. The CAS was not so much making their own bad ruling as upholding an earlier bad ruling from the International Association of Athletes so… way to pay it forward. And on top of that, they said the quiet part out loud, and admitted, “discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics.” Which… what?

In case anyone is confused, this isn’t about maintaining the integrity of female athletics. This is about maintaining the “integrity” of a popular concept of femininity. Specifically, the integrity of a popular concept of white femininity. They’re not exactly questioning the integrity of the female competitors of sports like discus, even though those women are super swole. (They’re also usually white.) When Michael Phelps literally doesn’t make enough of the thing that tells you that you are tired and should stop, there is no pearl clutching about the integrity of male athletics, or even the integrity of “non-superhuman athletics.” Even though the science on the benefits of a failure to produce lactic acid seems (to my English major-brain at least) a lot more convincing than the science on the benefits of testosterone.

The way that you study data, interpret data, and make decisions about data can turn seemingly objective “facts” into subjective weapons. And the athletic community is making a subjective claim in the battlefield of gender politics under the guise of an objective statement of facts. The more that we learn about the biology of sex, the more that we learn it is as much of a spectrum as the concept of gender. Humans are complicated, y’all. And while I don’t have the answer as to how sports should be divided (or even if it should be divided) I know that it shouldn’t be this—invasive testing and blanket proclamations that tell a woman that she does not have the right “stuff” to be considered a woman, while white male athletes have their biology unquestioned.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is of a phrenology map next to the word “science.”

In Which Elle Talks a Lot About Anti-Vaxxers and Flat Earthers

(So just FYI this one got kinda babble-y. I think it’s still good, just a bit meandering. If I were a better writer, I would edit it down before presenting it to you. But I’m a part-time blogger who does this for cheap therapy and has very little self-respect, so I’m just shoving it out there as-is. I still hope you enjoy.)

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing something that I normally don’t do; thinking a lot about Flat Earthers and Anti-Vaxxers. And not just thinking about them, but actually trying to understand them. (I know, I know. Hear me out.)

When I’m working, I keep a steady background hum of familiar YouTube videos. Because I am the particular mix of nerdiness and eccentricity that I am, for me that means that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend songs, leftist Youtube talking heads, cinema criticism, and a capella songs are on a pretty steady rotation. So Philosophy Tube’s “Flat Earth OR Why Do People Reject Science?” and Hbomberguy’s “Flat Earth: A Measured Response” (both attempts to examine the philosophy and “science” of Flat Earth theorists) were trading spots with “Don’t Be a Lawyer.” I ventured over to Netflix when I finally got tired of nice British men explaining things to me (it took a while, I’ll admit) and found the documentary Behind the Curve, which follows a few of the top figures in the Flat Earth movement and attempts to humanize them (without condoning them). I also happened to be reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and saw online articles about how Facebook moderators start to believe conspiracy theories, and watched testimony of an 18-year-old who defied his Anti-Vax mother. (I promise this all combines and makes sense in a second.) With these media influences tumbling in my head, and a very long road trip where even my audio books could not fully entertain me, my brain started to make connections. In a word—woah.

For basically the first time, I felt like I understood these two movements. Note that I did not believe either of these two theories; Flat Earth seems to be a “gateway drug” to other, more pernicious conspiracies and beliefs, including many beliefs that are racist, misogynist, transphobic, and anti-Semitic, and I don’t know if I have the time or the patience to explain all of the problems I have with the incredibly harmful Anti-Vax movement. The fact that Jenny McCarthy is on a TV show where she tries to guess what celebrity is singing inside of a costume, instead of facing a class-action lawsuit for all the harm she’s done, fills me with a rage so strong that I can only describe it as “fire-hate.”

But I think it’s worth pointing out that emphasizing all of studies in the world proving that vaccinations are safe and…. well… the 2000 years of established science that prove that the Earth is round…. seems to amount to diddly-squared-by-squat when it comes to trying to convince someone who is in the Anti-Vax or Flat Earth movements. I also haven’t managed to solve anything by staring at these people with my eyebrows raised and just muttering “why?” under my breath repeatedly. So to borrow a technique from Contrapoints, I think it’s time for me to try to meet these people where they live, and figure out what led them to this point. The best defense is not offense, it is prevention. And if we can figure out why this happens, then maybe we can prevent it from happening.

Cause 1: A Not-Unreasonable Fear and Distrust of Authority

When I say the words “medical experimentation,” you probably think of Nazis, or science fiction. But you don’t have to go that far in order to find horrific cases of medical experimentation, non-consensual medical procedures, and even just medical mistreatment.

The story of Henrietta Lacks, and of her family, is basically a case study in Doctors Not Giving Two Shits About Patient Consent. Whether it involved the taking of Henrietta’s cells, the failure to inform her family of the theft, the continued sampling of Lacks relatives in order to test them without clearly explaining what was going on, a failure to inform the Lacks family before Henrietta’s identity was revealed to the world, a failure to allow the Lacks family to receive any compensation from the repeated sale of Henrietta’s cells, the mistreatment of Henrietta’s daughter Elsie in a government institution…. It’s just… all bad.

Just… Google the phrase “icepick lobotomy.” Then think about the fact that one of the youngest patients to undergo one was 12. Then try to stop shuddering.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study started in 1932. Penicillin was discovered to be an effective treatment for syphilis in 1947. The study ended in 1972. (That’s about five years before the first Star Wars movie came out.) The men involved in the study were never told they had syphilis, never given penicillin, and actively prevented from accessing treatment elsewhere. The experiment only ended after 40 years because of whistleblowers.

The “father of gynecology,” James Marion Sims, developed most of his techniques by experimenting on slave women without the benefit of anesthesia.

Canadian doctors were performing forced or coerced sterilization procedures on indigenous women up until the far-distant year of… 2017. (writer’s note: Are you effing kidding me?)

And that’s not even taking into account more modern problems with medical science, ranging from the fact that the opioid crisis was driven by an unethical drug company owned by a single, reclusive family, to the fact that the prices of life saving drugs are going up by as much as 4000 percent, to the fact that all women, even famous, wealthy women like Selma Blair and Serena Williams, face years of pain and even near death because medical professionals don’t take their pain or experiences seriously.

Long story short, there are a lot of very good reasons to doubt the healthcare industry’s beliefs and practices, and to lack faith in their good intentions. The history of medical advancement is also a history of victimization, and the close relationship between healthcare and profit means that pretty much every patient has reason to believe that their doctor is not always acting in their best interests. It’s not completely unreasonable for patients, especially women and people of color, to distrust what the medical establishment calls “common practice.”

This story of exploitation, secrecy, and self-interest can be copy-and-pasted onto basically any authority that Flat Earthers believe contributes to the giant scam that is the “conspiracy” of the round earth, from the government, to religions, to scientific institutions, to major corporations. And we do, in fact, live in a world where high-ranking people are out to get us—or at least out to get our money and our allegiance. Those of us who are in the US are living under the official or unofficial rule of oligarchs and autocrats. They may not always be actively malicious, but they also wouldn’t exert themselves to extinguish the flames if we were on fire.

Cause 2: They Were Taught to Question Everything…. And Not Really How to Stop

One of the most telling moments in the Behind the Curve documentary is when one of the filmmakers asks a Flat Earther what authority or evidence she is willing to believe. Her immediate answer is “Myself.” And that is it. (Though it’s also kind-of a lie, since about five minutes earlier in the film she was showing off her collection of Flat Earth theory books. See my dedication to truthiness? I let you know things even when it kinda spoils my point.) Basically every generation since the baby boomers has been told with increasing frequency that we should distrust the world around us, constantly question the motives of people giving us information, and “do our own research” to figure out what is what.

Oliver Thorn of Philosophy Tube explains that many Flat Earthers are practicing something similar to what’s known as Direct Realism—we perceive the world, and what we perceive is the best evidence of what the world is. Obviously this runs into problems, when our perceptions have limitations, are subject to illusions, or are even warped by our biases. But only trusting ourselves also doesn’t seem like the worst option in the current media climate. We have fake news and “fake news,” foreign countries interfering, memes and jokes turning into viral scares (if one of you shares that fucking Momo thing one more time, I swear to God…) one of our most trusted sources of information is a website that literally anyone can edit, the best news and information is hidden behind paywalls, pay-to-play journals will publish pretty much any nonsense, and Google makes it possible to find something that backs up your opinion, no matter what your opinion is. How, exactly, are we meant to find “objective” truth? Obviously I believe there is such a thing—climate change is real, herd immunity is important, the Earth IS in fact round—but I can see how someone would quickly become overwhelmed, and decide that only their own beliefs can be trusted. When you’re taught to doubt everything…. when exactly are you supposed to stop doubting?

Cause 3: Anti-Intellectualism Plus Anti-Authoritarianism Equals Ugh

Raise your hand if you’ve heard any of the following: Ivory tower. Drain the Swamp. Those who can’t, teach. You can’t teach common sense.

For some good reasons and some very not good reasons, we’ve kinda grown to hate smart people. They’re elitist, they’re out of touch, etc. etc. Yeah, Hillary Clinton has tons of foreign policy experience, but is she likeable? Yeah, that astrophysicist is really smart, but will they crack jokes with John Oliver? Probably the only person we hate more than an authority figure is an authority figure who is an egghead. So when the people who are best suited to disabuse you of your theories have “MD” or “PhD” after their name AND are part of “The Establishment,” most people don’t have very strong instincts to trust them, let alone get warm fuzzies to hear them talk.

Cause 4: We Lack Media Literacy and Science Literacy

Any teacher who has ever had to explain to a student why they can’t cite a random blog in a paper will tell you that we have a serious problem in the US with media literacy, partly as an extension of the problem described above. We don’t do a great job of teaching people to separate fact from fiction, and our media itself is not really helping matters. If Fox News is proclaiming itself “Fair and Balanced,” “native advertising” means that advertisements can resemble news, and news agencies themselves often can’t be bothered to fact check, then proponents of media literacy face an uphill battle.

The same is true for science literacy. Our education system is…. not great. We can’t even decide if we should be teaching evolution and sex ed, let alone talking about neurodiversity and explaining the physics of the Earth. Hell, a lot of people still think that Columbus “discovered” that the Earth was round, even though people had known for hundreds of years (or longer) that the Earth was round, and even Columbus knew the Earth wasn’t flat. (He had a lot of other weird ideas about the Earth, but flatness wasn’t one of them.) Arthur C. Clarke said that an advanced enough level of science would resemble magic, and between AIs and gene editing, we’re basically at that point. People are taught to think that science is “scary” and above them. And as humans, we’re pretty good at hating what we fear, and going “oh yeah? Well uh, fuck you!” to anything that is seen as above us. So if people are sifting through likely-incorrect information about stuff they don’t understand anyway, then the chances that they are going to come away with a false conclusion is pretty high.

This lack of science literacy also doubles as a lack of medical literacy. We have serious stigmas about people on the autism spectrum, to the point that in the hypothetical (and false) dichotomy between “autism” and “measles,” a lot of parents are leaning towards “measles.” And that’s partly because we don’t understand measles. Most of us haven’t seen them in person. Or tetanus, or meningitis, or any of the things that we have vaccines for. Name one person besides FDR that you know of who had polio. And if, as we discussed above, “my own personal experience and knowledge” is the only source that people trust, then vaccine-preventable diseases seem far away and unimportant.

Cause 5: On the Other Hand, They’re Not Actually Totally Ignoring Evidence

This one seems a little counter-intuitive. But one weird connection between Anti-Vaxxers and Flat Earthers is that they are actually both heavily invested in the concept of science. They’re just not using it in ways that are entirely correct, or that we would approve of. Anti-Vaxxers tend to rely on anecdotal evidence—“true” stories of children that were hurt or killed by vaccines. Flat Earthers turn to YouTube videos and self-designed experiments that “prove” the Earth is flat.

You will meet few people who are more dedicated to “research” than an Anti-Vaxxer who is determined to prove that vaccines are dangerous. They’ll join multiple message boards, start Facebook groups, look up the chemicals inside of vaccines (true story, I know the amount of mercury in vaccines is not dangerous, but I also didn’t even know that some vaccines had mercury in them until Anti-Vaxxers became a thing). They collect reams of “evidence” that vaccines are harmful, and can spit arguments at you on command.

The most endearing-yet-sad figures from the Behind the Curve documentary are two men who do multiple experiments in an attempt to prove the Earth is flat. Their experiments are actually interesting and fairly well-reasoned. But since they’re performing a twisted form of the Scientific Method (starting with an answer and then looking for proof via experiments, rather than starting with a question and using experiments to find an answer) the experiments are also doomed to fail, for these men’s definition of fail. At least two of the experiments that they design do, in fact, show that the Earth is round. They then have to scramble to find ways to dismiss their own results, or to “prove” that their original experiments were actually performed incorrectly.

Cause 6: They’ve Found a Community, and Are Terrified to Leave It

So what could cause two grown men to become so nervous that they would rather argue that they are idiots than to argue that their experiments were correct? Why, the fear of social ostracization, of course!

By the time someone reaches the point that they are a hardcore Flat Earther or an Anti-Vaxxer, they have done a lot to alienate their pre-existing family and friends (or never really had a strong social safety net to start with). Behind the Curve emphasizes how most of the people in the Flat Earth community find companionship and acceptance in one another, and how little connection they still have to the outside world. Most of them have been rejected by family and friends, some of them have even had spouses leave them over their beliefs. And… well you can see why. I’m a pretty patient person (I’ve repeatedly stood at parties and nodded while repeating “uh huh” in a perky voice while a guy with worse grades than me tried to explain my major to me) but I’m pretty sure that if I had a close friend who was a Flat Earther, there would be a point that I could no longer bear to hang out with them because the conversation kept turning to a mysterious “they” who wanted us to think the Earth was flat for… reasons. And I just genuinely don’t think that I could hang out with an Anti-Vaxxer—I would be afraid of carrying an illness either to or from their unvaccinated child, and I would probably be constantly tempted to deliver lectures that heavily featured the words “immuno-compromised” and “fuck.”

So the Flat Earthers and Anti-Vaxxers, somewhat naturally, pull even closer to their own in-group. Their fellow conspiracy theorists are the only ones that “get” them. And the internet makes it possible to form close connections with people even if you never get to see them in person—you could be the only Flat‑Earther in Wyoming (I promise you there is more than one Flat-Earther in Wyoming) but as long as you had the internet, you could still reject your real-life social interactions in favor of the warm, weird embrace of online conspiracy theorists.

But if your entire social circle is made up of people whose major connecting thread is belief in the same fringe theory, it suddenly becomes very, very difficult to stop believing in the theory. It’s a lower-stakes version of what happens to people who leave the white nationalist movement. All of your white nationalist friends no longer want to associate with you, because you no longer believe that white people are The Best. But none of your pre-white nationalism friends want to spend time with you any more either because… well… you were a fucking Nazi for a while. And as anyone over the age of 20 who has moved to a new city can tell you, making new friends as an adult is HARD. The longer someone spends time embedded in these movements, the harder it becomes to leave them.

Cause 7. The World Is Scary, And We Want to Think We Can Explain It

The Laws of Thermodynamics dictate that the universe trends towards entropy. And that is a really, really difficult thing for our “chimpanzees on Four Loko” brains to handle. Our minds demand patterns, even when none exist. If the roulette wheel has stopped on red five times in a row, we’ll bet it all on black because it “has” to finally stop there, even though it still only has a 50/50 chance. We’re dismayed when our earphones are tangled as we pull them out of our pockets, even though there is only a 1 in (insert very high number that Elle did not look up because she is not getting paid for this stuff) chance that our headphones would emerge not tangled. We crave control. And in a weird way, conspiracy theories are all about control. Just not necessarily our control.

It’s helpful (for me at least) to compare most conspiracy theories to 9/11 conspiracy theories. I became an adult in the post-9/11 era, and a lot of people around me from my teenage years on would dabble in the occasional 9/11 theory, mostly revolving around the idea of a “false flag” attack where Bush and Cheney attacked their own people in order to pad the pockets of their corporate friends and bloat the military budget.

Under this theory of 9/11, the government is competent, cunning, ruthless, and coordinated, like an Ocean’s 35682 heist team. They’re capable of planting explosives in a building, hiring fake terrorists, hijacking planes, coordinating the response, framing foreign nationals, keeping a gigantic secret, etc. etc. And even though this version of our government is horrific, implying that they are capable of actively murdering planes and buildings-full of their own people (as opposed to the way that they normally passively kill their people by passing bills that deprive people of rights and resources) it’s also kinda…. comforting. Because it means that someone was in charge. Someone was pulling all the strings. Someone was keeping this from being random.

For a lot of people, the actually-horrifying option is the truth: that we were victims of a terrorist attack that we were woefully unprepared for. That our foreign policy has gained us enemies, that our attempts to mix liberty and security leave gigantic holes, that our leaders were a half-assed cowboy with Daddy Issues and a nasty troll man that my state is STILL apologizing for, and they were opportunists and capitalists and took advantage of the situation after tragedy had already occurred. The truth is that this happened because the world is chaotic and uncontrolled, and something on that scale can honestly probably happen again. Whenever. Wherever. Because seven point five billion people = chaos.

Flat Earthers have a hard time explaining WHY a shadow group of intellectuals and officials, an undisclosed “they,” would bother creating this elaborate myth that the Earth is round when it is really not. The best they usually manage is that this delusional belief is part of a vast web of conspiracies, and in its own way serves as a gateway drug to the sheeple—after all, what better way to test the gullibility of a populace than to mislead them about the shape of their home, the construction of their literal universe? But for many Flat Earthers, WHY someone would do this is not as important as the fact THAT someone is doing this. There is a shadow organization that is so powerful, it can mislead billions of people. It can dictate science, and education, and the space program, and our concepts of time and direction. It can mislead people about airline flights, photography, even gravity. Though they might have nefarious intentions, someone is behind the wheel of all of our major institutions.

You see the same thing with Anti-Vaxxers, who also have a hard time explaining why, exactly, anyone would be purposefully poisoning children with vaccines. (As opposed to purposefully poisoning children with lead-contaminated water…. Goddamnit we live in a pretty terrible society.) They usually point to a conspiracy involving Big Pharma and government control—Big Pharma actually wants us to get sick, so that we have to buy their medicine. The government wants children to “develop” neurodiversity because… something something, sheeple. And again, Anti-Vaxxers want this to happen because to them, the alternative is scarier: things can happen to their children that are outside of their control, and outside of their understanding. They see the commercials about the rates of autism going up, and think it is because autism itself is increasing, and not just our ability to correctly diagnose it. They would rather think that it is a new development than just something that has always been there but that we’ve been shitty about noticing. They see a timing link between vaccinations and the appearance of autism characteristics, and think that the vaccines cause autism, because they’d rather think doctors are purposefully altering children than to realize that their child is not necessarily going to grow into the type of child they always pictured (a neurotypical child) even though they’ve been keeping pace with their peers in their development to this point. They feel (wrongly) that they’ve been a victim of a bait-and-switch, that some evil entity pulled a “changeling” situation on them and left them with a child that is different from the one they had originally. They have a hard time accepting that no… this is just their kid, and their kid always had autism, and they shouldn’t love them any less. And also, maybe they should campaign to end stigmas against neurodiversity, instead of campaigns that let their kids get exposed to measles. You know. Just a thought.

So Uh…. Why Have You Babbled About All of This, Elle?

So. Wow. Okay, so if you’ve stayed with me thus far… well first of all you have far too much patience, but I appreciate you. Second of all, I promise this is all coming to a point. And the point is: I think we can fix this. Maybe not immediately (definitely not immediately) but we can address most of these causes with corresponding solutions.

Solution 1: Make Institutions… Suck Less?

So we’re starting out with one of the bigger and less-possible solutions right out of the gate. But one of the most obvious solutions is to make major organizations, especially the medical industry and the government, just… suck less. Make them less imposing, and less scary. Increase their transparency and their accountability. If we lived in a world where the medical community had a vested interest in us not being sick, as opposed to the current situation where “the longer we are sick the more money we will give them,” that would go a long way in disputing notions that pharmaceutical companies are getting us sick on purpose. If every branch of the medical community treated the Hippocratic Oath as if it were a law, instead of a wishy-washy guideline, more people would be able to believe in their good intentions.

If the scientific community was better at communicating and explaining things, instead of just dismissing anyone who can’t keep up with them, it would also help rehab their image. The same with the government—increased transparency about intentions, spending, etc. would dismiss a lot of fears that all of this was happening for murky reasons that involve fooling us.

Solution 2: While We’re at it, Increase Media Transparency

There should be consequences for knowingly spreading misinformation. There should be a strict division between “news” and “advertising.” There should be a sense of community responsibility to fund ethical, as-objective-as-possible journalism. Organizations and people that knowingly spread harmful misinformation should be de-platformed from social media and sites like YouTube. If we’re going to ask people to trust sources outside of themselves, we have to make sources outside of themselves trustworthy.

Solution 3: Make it Cool to be Smart, and Make Smart People Act Better

Why do we televise sports drafts, but we don’t televise university hires or research lab head hunting? Why aren’t there journalists breathlessly covering the action at the Modern Language Association conferences? Why do we act as if intelligence is purely inherent, instead of a developable skill like talent at painting or writing? Why do we make so many intelligent characters into alien-like assholes or chip-on-their-shoulder jerks? Why do we perpetuate the idea that academia is an ivory tower by making it an ivory tower. (True facts, I once saw Salman Rushdie get accused of living in an ivory tower and his pearl-clutching “Well I never!” response is what I think about whenever I hear some top-tier academic try to unconvincingly insist that that they are not disconnected from the common people.) We need to make intelligence accessible, interesting, and cool.

“The smartest guy in the room” trope is seen as negative because in most of our experiences, the smartest guy in the room will let you know, in excruciating detail, that he is the smartest guy in the room. We need to admire intelligence, but not idolize it. We need to share our knowledge, but not be paternalistic or condescending. Intelligence needs to be a tool, not a weapon. Anyone who has learned a cool fact and then excitedly shared it with a friend knows how good it feels to share knowledge in a helpful, enthusiastic way. Even when that knowledge is about bad stuff, sharing it with the intention to improve instead of destroy makes the act feel a lot less ill-intentioned. It may have made for a more boring show, but if Dr. House spent more time saying “You know that’s an interesting theory, let’s see how it compares against the data” instead of “You’re a moron,” then we probably would have gotten a better picture of the medical establishment.

Solution 4: Can We Please Fix Education for Goodness Sake?

No two ways about it, we need to do better with education. That means better funding (and not just redline-influenced property tax funding that ensures that white wealthy children get white wealthy schools, and children of color get textbooks that still say we have 48 states and call the Civil War “The War of Northern Aggression.”) We need to have better, less-partisan control over what makes it into textbooks. We need to start teaching children how to research and parse data from an even earlier age. We need smaller class sizes, more teachers with less burnout, better funding, and better resources. We need to stop stigmatizing neurodiversity, stop making science seem scary, and stop relying on simplistic, incorrect understandings of the world and of history.

Solution 5: We Need to Stop Writing Off Anti-Vaxxers and Flat Earthers as if They Are Lost Causes, and Convince Them to Use Their Powers for Good

Be honest—if someone tells you that you are wrong, even when you are wrong, how likely are you to take that in good faith and adjust your behavior? How long does it take you to unruffle your feathers? How likely are you to double down on your wrong beliefs, because fuck you that’s why? Why do we act as if Anti-Vaxxers or Flat Earthers are some magical other species that will respond differently?

None of us like to be made to feel ignorant, even if we are being ignorant. And none of us like to be dismissed. So even though it is painful, and unfair, we have to be open to the idea of taking these people seriously. Not taking their ideas seriously—we don’t need an Anti-Vaxxer on a panel with a doctor, or a Flat Earther on a panel with an astrophysicist the way that we have panels with climate scientists and total randos who think that climate change isn’t real because they can make a snowball—but taking them seriously, as people who are capable of growth and change. Talk to them about their fears and concerns. What led them to feel this way? What types of evidence would they need to change their minds? Find a point of common scientific belief (the sky is blue, cars burn fuel, whatever) and work backwards from there to show how the same process that can prove that belief can disprove their own beliefs. Tell them that you admire their dedication to discovering truth and that you acknowledge that there are problems in this world, but that you’d like to see their skills put to better use.

Solution 6: …..Um…..

I’ll admit, this one is hard for me. I think that being asked to stay friends with someone who is psychologically or physically harmful is asking someone to participate in abuse. On a purely herd-immunity level, I think that Anti-Vaxxers and their unvaccinated children shouldn’t really be around… well, anyone. But I can also see how leaving these groups of people in total isolation is not actually helping the situation, unless we are actively hoping that Ant-Vaxxers and their unvaccinated-but-innocent children actually die out, which is just too gruesome to bear thinking about.

I don’t really know what to do. I think that one option is to try, in the safest way possible, to let people in these groups know that you will be there for them if they manage to walk away from these beliefs. I don’t have any Anti-Vaxxer friends (I don’t think…) but if I did, and if they saw the error of their ways and wanted to be friends again, I like to think that I would easily, if a bit warily, accept them back into the fold.

Solution 7: Solve the Things We Can Actually Solve, Otherwise, Embrace the Suck

Hbomberguy points out that Flat Earthers are not wrong when they believe that things in the world are wrong. We’re in what’s commonly referred to as “late stage” capitalism, and the world is literally and metaphorically on fire. As I suggest in Solution 1, there are some things we can do to make this be less the case. But… well we can’t fix all of it. And to a certain point, we have to try to get to a point where we are okay with uncertainty. We can control a certain number of things to try and make things safer and more secure, but then we have to just keep existing in this world. Earphones are going to get tangled. The roulette wheel is going to land on red for a sixth time, and it’s going to seem really wrong. We have to find a way to accept that some things will be forever outside of our personal control, and even outside of our collective control. Not to say that we should stop fighting to make things better, but to say that sometimes we just have to acknowledge that entropy exists.

In Conclusion…

So…. This is what has been haunting my brain for the last couple of weeks. I guess now it can haunt yours. In a weird way, it has made me hopeful—up until this point, I admittedly thought that “reaching” Anti-Vaxxers and Flat Earthers was a pipe dream. As two of the groups who seem to most vehemently reject reality and science, I was afraid they were a lost cause. And now I know they are not.

That, at least, gives us a chance.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is six views of the Earth from space, taken from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Flickr account. They’re in the public domain because our tax dollars paid for them.

Let The Students Sleep

Shift the school day later.

 

Eight for work, eight for rest, eight for what we will. That’s the slogan that best represents the fight for a reasonable work-life balance, the one that led to the 40-hour work week. The venerable nine-to-five.

In my life I’ve seen the gradual erosion of the nine-to-five. I’ve seen commutes as long as two or even three hours each way. I’ve seen people working seventy or even eighty-hour work weeks, which where I come from (Canada) is literally not even legal. And I sure as hell haven’t seen wages go up to account for it.

But what I want to talk about for a moment is more than the labour movement. It’s about kids and the nine-to-five. And about how we aren’t even giving them that.

My local high school starts at 7:30am. It ends at 2:25pm.

Why?

This absolutely isn’t a post about teachers not working enough, by the way. If school starts at 7:30 and goes until 2:30, you know damn well they’re there from seven to five, doing coaching and club mentoring and music and theater, not to mention the lesson planning and the grading they take home with them every night. That’s its own injustice.

But what I fail to understand is why any school should start classes at 7:30 in the morning.

I can hear you saying right now that it’s to let parents drop their kids off and then get to work. Bull. If they were concerned about that, they wouldn’t close up shop until well after 6:30, if an hour and a half is the buffer you want to give working parents around the nine-to-five. It’s not out of consideration for parents, I promise.

Literally the only thing I can find in my scouring of the internet is vague references to agricultural life, cheaper busing, and an ingrained idea that if students are tired it’s because they’re morally lacking.

But year after year we get study after study demonstrating that school start times should be later.

It improves sleep time, which improves overall health.

It decreases lateness and improves attendance.

It improves student behaviour, which honestly makes everybody’s lives easier.

There are Many Many Studies On This.

Hell, even the CDC agrees.

So why are we doing this?

Recently, Boston had a fight over school start times, and the discussion was telling: everyone seems to favour starting school between 7:45 and 8:45, and according to the city, the buses would be too expensive if they did that for everyone, so some schools are starting as early as 7:15am. They were trying to follow the studies, they say, that show that teens need later start times. So they pushed younger kids earlier.

And apparently nobody thought of just pushing the whole schedule later.

I say: what about 9:30am for high school? What about 10am? Instead of keeping the vaunted “7:45-8:45” window for high school students and pushing the younger kids earlier, why not just push everything later? It’s not like the teachers are going to work any more or less (unfortunately—sorry teachers): they’ll just have to do their class prep, grading, and so on before rather than after the day.

One school in Australia tried 10:45am, though they admit they did have to scale it back to 10am to squeeze everything in by 4:30pm. It seemed to go over rather well, especially with the grounds opening at 9am.

And I know it’d throw a kink in the American cult of teenager sports. A day that ends at 3:30pm or 4:30pm means pushing sports into the evening. But maybe sports aren’t a good reason to hurt student attendance, health, and even completion rates.

Look, I get it. School is very important. It’s the foundation for the well-educated society we need to ensure our collective prosperity as a society. But it isn’t an emergency. It shouldn’t require students to be dragged out of their beds before the sun comes up just so they can meet an unreasonable and punitive schedule that objectively hurts learning outcomes and student health.

Let the students sleep. Shift the school day later.

Signed: The Remixologist

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The Featured Image is a woodblock print from the early days of the labour movement reading “8 Hours for Work, 8 Hours for Rest, 8 Hours for What We Will.”

I Don’t Know How To Convince You That GMOs Are Good

What would it actually take to prove to you that you’re wrong, that genetic modification is no more dangerous or harmful than any other kind of human agriculture?

On the heels of yet another study demonstrating that GMOs aren’t harmful and are in fact Very Good Things, I feel as though I need, once again, to address the 1-in-5 Americans that think the risks of eating GM foods are “high.”

What would it take? I’m asking you.

What would it actually take to prove to you that you’re wrong, that genetic modification is no more dangerous or harmful than any other kind of human agriculture? To prove to you that it is uniformly better in most cases? I can’t think of all the things I’ve tried to say.

They’re better for the environment. They increase the food supply using less land and often less water than traditional (and organic!) crops.

They use fewer and less harmful pesiticides than traditional (and “organic!”) agriculture.  Roundup (i.e. glyphosate) is safer and a better alternative to the other necessary pesticides.

They’re safer for humans because we know exactly what genes are changing, unlike the results of selective breeding which captures tens of thousands of unnecessary (and unstudied!) genetic changes. Unlike shooting your oranges with ionizing radiation so they won’t have seeds next time.

They’re healthier for humans. There’s rice that introduces vitamin A into the diets of malnourished children. There’s corn that contains less mycotoxin because it’s healthier. There’s potatoes that produce less cancer-causing agents when fried.

They’re not bad for farmers. Thy aren’t the only crops that are patented. The story about farmers being sued for seeds blowing into neighbouring fields is a complete fabrication. Nobody in India is comitting suicide over GMOs. Most farmers buy new seeds each year from other farmers who specifically grow seeds because it’s more efficient than trying to grow your own, so nobody even cares if they don’t grow well the next year from seed because that’s not what modern farmers even do.

They save taxpayers money. When farmers make more money—and they do with GMOs, because they can get the same or bigger yields with less investment of time and money in combating problems—they need fewer subsidies.

THERE IS NO FISHMATO. There was an attempt to make tomatoes frost-resistant that failed and it never went to market. There are zero GM tomatoes on the market and the only one there ever was failed commercially because of economics, not safety.

There is literally no argument against GMOs that holds even the tiniest bit of water, and all it takes to learn this is the tiniest bit of Google-fu and the ability to give just the most microscopic bit of credit to the group of people who’s only job is to study these things for a living—you remember them, right? Scientists?

And that’s really the problem, isn’t it?

You’ve lost the ability to trust in expertise.

You’d rather have your conspiracy theories about “Big Agro” and “Monsanto Shills” than a healthy stable food supply―so long as you get yours, that is.

Well right now there are Seven Point Six Billion Human Beings on this one exceptionally-taxed planet and that number’s not shrinking anytime soon. And we’re already using all the land we can. So you’d better suck it up and start trusting in science and scientists again soon otherwise the next time there’s a famine somewhere you’ll either A) be partly to blame, because your fear of expertise—that’s what that is, by the way, you’re afraid of people who know more about something than you, long and short of it—is doing things like leading your elected representatives to Ban GMOs in Europe For No Good Reason or B) be one of the starving multitudes yourself.

I don’t know how to convince you that GMOs are good, because I don’t know how to convince you to trust in expertise again.

But I sure as hell hope you suck it up and figure it out yourself, because we’ll all be in a heap of trouble if you don’t.

Signed: The Remixologist

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Photo source: David Kessler, CC BY-SA 2.0