Meat robots and the cure for conservatism.

As a lifelong student of the deadly scourge known as “conservatism,” I read with great interest a recent piece by Ezra Klein in Vox entitled Standing near hand sanitizer makes Americans more conservative. So what will Ebola do?. Klein reports on a growing mass of evidence that human social and political cultures are emergent properties of our responses to infectious disease threats—or “pathogen stress,” as the fancy lib’rul eeleet perfessers like to call it. The gist of the theory is this: through all of human history, infectious diseases have been the single greatest threat to human populations—killing more people than wars, natural disasters and noninfectious diseases combined—such that humans (like other animals) have evolved behavioral responses to avoid them. Just as our biological immune system is triggered by the presence of diseases, so too is our “behavioral immune system” activated by (perceived) disease threats in our environment. Klein gives the examples of our fear and aversion upon encountering a rat, and feeling disgusted when you get a whiff of rotten meat. It works at a surprisingly granular level, too: humans react with disgust to yellowish liquids that resemble pus, yet we remain unfazed by blueish substances of the same texture.

It turns out that the reaction of disgust in particular has profound moral and political implications, not just for individuals but for culture writ large. There is a well-demonstrated link between moral notions of “purity” and social conservatism, and conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals. Where this gets very, very interesting is the finding that even subtle reminders of cleanliness (or its opposite, impurity) can trigger more conservative attitudes—in anyone. In a clever set of experiments, Cornell University psychologists Erik Helzer and David Pizarro approached every ninth college student entering a campus hallway and asked them to take a quick survey about their demographics and political beliefs. Half the students were were asked to “step over to the hand-sanitizer dispenser to complete the questionnaire,” and the other half were asked to “step over to the wall to complete the questionnaire” where the hand sanitizer had been removed. The researchers reported:

Participants who reported their political attitudes in the presence of the hand-sanitizer dispenser reported a less liberal political orientation than did participants in the control condition. Despite the noisy nature of the public hallway in which we collected the data, it appears as if a simple reminder of physical purity was able to shift participants’ responses toward the conservative end of the political spectrum.

The conservative effect held for fiscal, social and moral positions. Helzer and Pizarro then ran a second experiment in the lab, where half the participants were offered a hand sanitizer wipe before using the lab computers to answer a questionnaire about their moral values. Again, the researchers found that those exposed to the cleanliness cue reported significantly more conservative political attitudes than subjects who were not.

In other words we are pretty much meat robots, subconsciously programmed by cues in our environments. Even our most cherished and fiercely held moral and political beliefs can be profoundly affected by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It is worth remembering that we are talking about tendencies here; these are modern manifestations of ancient survival mechanisms in a much more complex world. It’s probably a safe bet that it would require a whole lot more hand sanitizer to get some of us to vote for some berserker theocrat than it would our fellow citizens who are already well on their way to Hitlerville. Complicating matters further, future political orientation can be predicted by personality traits evident in children as young as 3, which throws a monkey wrench into any simplistic nature-vs.-nurture calculus. And just anecdotally, virtually everyone probably knows siblings reared in the same environment with diametrically opposed political views.

Still, as research in the field has been expanding, the political ramifications of the behavioral immune system are turning up everywhere. Mark Schaller  & Co. found that subjects primed to think about disease were much more prejudiced and fearful toward immigrants; in light of this, it is hardly surprising to discover that wherever there is a higher risk of infectious disease, societies tend to be more xenophobic. And it gets weirder—and worse:

As Ethan Watters writes in an overview of the evidence, researchers have found “severe pathogen stress leads to high levels of civil and ethnic warfare, increased rates of homicide and child maltreatment, patriarchal family structures, and social restrictions regarding women’s sexual behavior.”


Ezra Klein finds the implications of a behavioral immune system unnerving, and it troubling to the degree that it has become maladaptive—witness the recent child refugee pants-wetting, and the current Ebola lunacy. It could also be exploited for nefarious purposes, which raises an interesting question: if we know about it, do political operatives? Bankers? Health insurance executives? Big Oil? CIA? NYPD?

Yet as terrifying as that prospect is, there are positive implications as well. Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer found that “reframing proenvironmental rhetoric in terms of purity, a moral value resonating primarily among conservatives, largely eliminated the difference between liberals’ and conservatives’ environmental attitudes.” They had set out to uncover the whys and wherefores of extreme political polarization between liberals and conservatives on climate change and environmental degradation, and found that messages tying these issues to a conservative moral framework—purity—either significantly reduced the liberal/conservative gap or eliminated it entirely. And if we examine the study design, it may offer up even more support for the theory. Subjects were shown two sets of pictures related to global warming and the environment, each reinforcing a different moral frame. In the liberal-associated “harm/care” moral framework, subjects were shown “a destroyed forest littered with tree stumps, a barren coral reef and cracked land suffering from drought.” If it seems like conservatives don’t care about any of that, that’s because they don’t: for reasons that naturally escape this lefty, they simply do not see environmental devastation or the looming climate calamity in moral terms. But:

In the second [conservative-associated] purity/sanctity framework (whose violation tends to trigger disgust), they were shown a cloud of pollution looming over a city, a person drinking contaminated water, and a forest covered in garbage. In the later case, there was virtually no liberal/conservative gap so far as general environmental attitudes were concerned, and the gap was significantly reduced on the issue of global warming.
[Emphasis added.]

Pathogen stress, anyone?

The authors note the major obstacle: the predominance of the harm/care moral paradigm in our environmental discourse. But Feinberg also suggests the solution: “if you’re pro-environmental, there are ways to cater to the morality of conservatives that will likely to get them to be more pro-environmental in their attitudes.”

Two of the earliest pioneers in the field, Randy Thornhill and Corey Fincher, are still going strong. They’re the researchers who published the major paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2012, compiling all the evidence that “severe pathogen stress leads to high levels of civil and ethnic warfare, increased rates of homicide and child maltreatment, patriarchal family structures, and social restrictions regarding women’s sexual behavior.” (No, seriously, WHAT.) They went further, noting that societies in which pathogen-avoidant behaviors flourish are likely to coalesce into repressive and autocratic government systems. Ethan Watters, writing in the Pacific Standard, noted:

Even the most obvious counterexamples that spring to mind can, on closer inspection, seem to offer oblique and even surprisingly overt support for some version of the pathogen stress theory. It’s rather conspicuous that Nazi Germany—probably the most famous modern example of an ethnocentric, bellicose, authoritarian regime—arose in a northern clime, and not in some tropical latitude. But consider that the Nazi party began its rise to power in the aftermath of a Spanish flu pandemic that had killed over two million people across Europe—over half a million in Germany alone. And remember that much of Hitler’s poisonous rhetoric specifically suggested that Jews were disease carriers. Again and again, his rants portrayed Germany as an organism fighting disease—caused, among other things, by “Jewish bacteria.” Did Hitler manage to manipulate an unknown psychological mechanism that had been triggered by the threat of disease in the German population?

Fortunately, the opposite dynamic also appears to work: “If promoting democracy and other liberal values is on your agenda, health care and disease abatement should be your main concern,” Thornhill has said. “If you increase health then people will become more liberal and happier.” In much the same way that our biological immune systems can be tricked into positive action by vaccines, perhaps the behavioral immune system can be recruited to virtually eradicate conservative pestilence (<—see what I did there? Hahaha.). It will be no easy task—but it might turn out to be easier than we think.

We can start here:

medicare4allMEDICARE for ALL.

Horsemen of the Atheist Douchepocalypse.

Listen. All human beings have huge blind spots: in the neurological/cognitive sense, the pernicious cluelessness inherent in the very nature of privilege, and cavernous gaps in our knowledge and experiences—all of which by definition cannot figure into our judgements. As it turns out, it is only to the extent that we acknowledge these truths about ourselves that we stand any chance of becoming more enlightened about the realities of the world, and, perhaps, better human beings. In this regard, certain Horsemen have been a bit of a disappointment—to put it mildly.

Richard Dawkins.

I have read every book The Dawk has ever written (although I admit I got lost about halfway through The Extended Phenotype). He was hardly the only author I read during my torrid affair with evolutionary biology: Carl Zimmer, Jerry Coyne and Neil Shubin come to mind, and there were others. But I have to say that—especially by the measure of “wow” moments, where I found myself gaping in awe at the wonders of life on Earth—Dawkins reigned supreme. He is a naturally gifted writer, with that rare talent for explaining complex scientific subject matter to the uninitiated. The God Delusion was a great read too, of course. But as soon as he started fapping away with that Dear Muslima shit and just kept doubling down, I wrote him off. The mask had slipped, and underneath I saw an ugly, arrogant asshole who could never be wrong about women or sexism—or about anything at all, for that matter.

Here is a man worth an estimated $135 million pettily accusing bloggers who criticize him of bullying, faking outrage, and doing it all for the page clicks. You see, no one could possibly be criticizing him for saying factually wrong and harmful things in the (futile) hope that he will stop doing that. Well, okay, in my case I mock him for the lulz, in part because I thoroughly enjoy skewering unrepentant shitweasels. But I also think it’s important and necessary to do so—if, that is, one wishes to change the culture in which said shitweasels operate with impunity. But even though in this instance his “page clicks” accusation is embarassingly wrong, does he write for free? No? I didn’t think so. And while there is nothing wrong with making money from writing, bloggers make chump change—which makes the clickbait j’accuse particularly hilarious coming from an obscenely wealthy author. And as for the “bullying” charge—coming from the man who shat forth Dear Muslima—I’ll just quote PZ: “since when is standing up to the two biggest names in the atheist movement a case of bullying? That’s simply delusional.”

And here is a “rationalist” who writes, with zero sense of irony or self-awareness, in a blog post entitled Are there emotional no-go areas where logic dare not show its face? that it is:

deplorable that there are many people in the same atheist community who are literally afraid to think and speak freely, afraid to raise even hypothetical questions such as those I have mentioned in this article. They are afraid – and I promise you I am not exaggerating – of witch-hunts: hunts for latter day blasphemers by latter day Inquisitions and latter day incarnations of Orwell’s Thought Police.

Rebecca Watson deals very nicely with “witch-hunting” here, but suffice it to say that telling someone “you are demonstrably wrong and saying harmful things, here is why, please stop doing that” is not in fact a witch hunt, an Inquisition, or thought-policing of any kind: Dawkins has built an entire career out of saying EXACTLY THAT to creationists and godbots. For fuck’s sake.

What a douche.

Sam Harris.

I’d never been a big admirer of Sam Harris, but since my good friend SJ is a fan I’ve had occasion to look at some of his work more closely. My main problem is that I find him a tedious writer (and speaker). Whatever brilliant insights he may have (if any) are often difficult to tease out of a morass of bland wankery: I feel like I’m back in college slogging through a boring textbook I have to suffer through to pass a test. Perhaps this is just a matter of personal aesthetic taste: what my brilliant friend finds incisive and clear, I find witless and dull. I would argue however, that if Harris is so often misunderstood by his critics—liberal or otherwise—that ought to count as evidence against incisive and clear. But beyond that, if your erudite moral philosophy has lead you to justify torture, yer doin’ it rong. Not a priori, either: even tossing aside basic human rights (!), torture doesn’t work. (And, interestingly enough, it also has negative consequences for torturers.) Harris’s latest gender-essentialist drivel and subsequent ‘splainin are pure comedy gold, coming as they do from such an Esteemed Intellectual™, but it’s not as if I feel personally disappointed by his douchiness or anything. I’ve just never held him in very high regard.

[UPDATE: Amanda Marcotte’s PWNage of Harris is superb.]

Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchens was a brilliant writer: the d00d spewed liquid fire from his pen. I followed his writings religiously (<—hahaha omg I crack myself up) in Vanity Fair, and his books just lit me up. Wit, passion, eloquence, astonishing historical and literary knowledge, and an unrivaled sense of glee at knocking down sacred cows, with great panache. He held some truly horrendous opinions about war, and more to the point here, wore his misogyny like a fucking badge of honor. World Class Douche, I’d say. But you know what? At least I knew where my gender stood in his estimation, so I could keep him at a safe distance like a creepy uncle. Frankly, I much prefer that to watching clueless and arrogant weasels enamored with their Superior Intellects™ spin embarrassing rationalizations for the sloppy and demonstrably false sexist shit they spew—all because they can never, ever be wrong, or gawdferbid apologize.

Tick-tock, tick-tock…

Is it only a matter of time before Daniel Dennett says something epically misogynist? I don’t know about you, but I’m not waiting around. (For all I know he already has. Whatever.) And for the record, the Horsedouches are hardly alone: James Randi, Ron Lindsay, DJ Grothe, Phil Mason (“Thunderf00t”), Michael Shermer, TJ Kincaid (“The Amazing Atheist”) and other so-called “leaders” in the movement have all been appalling shits to women. When Steven Novella recently spoke to a reporter, he recounted that “Back in the ’90s, up until our movement exploded online, this was an old boys’ network. The guys would look around and go, ‘Where the hell are all the women?’” Great question. Except it has long been evident to me that not everyone asking that question has the same motivation. Let’s bring more women to the table because we want to expand our movement and they have so much to contribute is not quite the same sentiment as let’s bring in more women so we can hit on, harass, abuse and maybe fuck them, heh-heh. Extraordinary women have already bailed, and who knows how many others have taken one look at the movement, and run.

Of course atheism has a misogyny problem. The internet has a misogyny problem. The entire world has a misogyny problem. You can choose to be part of the solution, or to bask in the comfortable ignorance of unjust privilege and ancient superstition, and thus accept and perpetuate a very ugly status quo.

There are too many smart, fiery thinkers and writers who want to be called out on their privilege when they fuck up (as all of us do), who are eager to learn from others’ knowledge and experiences and de-center their own, who are delighted to change their preconceived notions upon consideration of evidence and reason, and who can somehow manage to say these words: “I’m sorry. I fucked up. I now understand why. I will do better in the future.”

It’s really not that hard. Unless, of course, you’re a narcissistic little shitweasel. In which case, please accept this hearty Palace fuck you.

palacefuckyouHave a nice day. :D

Richard Dawkins, hysterical dumbass.

[UPDATE: cross-posted at Secular Woman.]

[CONTENT NOTE: misogyny; harassment; rape; rape apologia.]

Richard Dawkins has been keeping himself very busy indeed during his stay as an involuntary organ donor in the Palace Abattoir. In response to a widely-read piece by Mark Oppenheimer about misogyny in the atheoskeptisphere, he has bravely taken to Twitter to defend his BFF Michael Shermer, the notorious subject of multiple accusations of predatory sexual behavior toward women. Shermer’s MO, as described in the Oppenheimer piece by TAM staffer Alison Smith, shares most of the typical hallmarks of an overwhelming number of rapists-at-large: boundary testing; planning assaults using sophisticated strategies to isolate victims; deploying psychological manipulation, e.g., power, control; and last but certainly not least, using alcohol deliberately in order to render targets more vulnerable if not outright unconscious. They calculate, quite correctly it turns out, that this particular modus operandi puts them at miniscule risk of ever being accused—let alone reported, investigated, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and jailed. Regardless of whether you believe Smith’s or other women’s accounts regarding Shermer, these are just facts, and this is how rape culture works in the real world.

But not in Dawkinsland, it doesn’t. Nope! Yesterday, in defense of Michael Shermer the Infallible King of Reason tweeted:

RDtweetdrunkdriving“Officer, it’s not my fault I was drunk driving. You see, somebody got me drunk.” -Richard Dawkins

Astute readers will note that this is Richard Dawkins taking Smith’s allegations as true, knowing that by all accounts (including his own) Shermer was sober during the alleged incident, and then oh-so-very-cleverly sneering that she is responsible—by likening an alleged rape victim to a drunk driver.

Here’s Stephanie Zvan with a nice fisk:

He doesn’t appear to believe Shermer’s story, which is that Shermer had sex with Smith after she sobered up. Dawkins took Smith’s story as read, although he isolated it from Ashley’s story and Pamela’s.

Then he ignored the parts of that story that make Smith’s lack of consent and Shermer’s knowledge of it clear. He ignored that Shermer followed Smith away from the party. He ignored the promise to help Smith back to her room, only to end up in Shermer’s. Instead, he grasped the fact that Smith was drunk to the point of not remembering parts of the evening and used that to assign responsibility to her. He claimed Smith was responsible for the encounter despite the one fact that both parties agree on being that Shermer was sober.

He believed her story, not Shermer’s.

He believed she was intoxicated.

He knew Shermer was not, from all sources of information.

He believed Shermer deceived her in the process of getting her past the point of being able to consent.

Then he tweeted that she was responsible for the encounter.

Then he compared Shermer following Smith away from the party to Smith driving drunk.

Then he compared Shermer taking Smith to a different room than promised to Smith driving drunk.

Then he compared Shermer sexually assaulting Smith to Smith driving drunk.

I’ma say this once more for the cheap seats:


Fortunately, the vast majority of men do not rape. But those who do can always rely on victim-blaming shitweasels like Richard Dawkins to provide comfort and cover, so they can continue to operate unimpeded.

Then the Lord of All Logic tweeted this:

RDtweetREALrapecultureThe REAL Rape Culture: “All occurrences of sexual intercourse are rape unless there is certified evidence to the contrary.” -Richard Dawkins

No, my precious little cupcake: All occurrences of sexual intercourse are rape unless there is consent. This is really not difficult for most people to grok. And I find it… telling interesting when people are so highly motivated not to grok it. Before he deleted this tweet (“claiming it was sarcastic. There’s no word on what part of it he didn’t mean, however…”), he responded to a follower concerned that he “might fall in trouble again with Feminists”:


RDtweetcertainkindoffeministWith a certain kind of feminist, of course. Not with feminists who truly respect women instead of patronising them as victims -Richard Dawkins

This one sent PZ off on a righteous rant (which I highly recommend reading in its entirety):

Who are these mysterious patronizing feminists? They don’t actually exist. You are echoing a strategy of denial: you approve of feminists, but not the ones who actually point out sexist problems in our culture, or fight against discrimination, or point out that they’ve been raped, or abused, or cheated in the workplace, or any of the other realities of a sexist culture. This is what anti-feminists say: be quiet about the problems. If you mention the problems, you are perpetuating the sisterhood of oppression, you are playing the martyr, you are being a pathetic victim who must be treated with contempt.

But if no woman speaks out about the problems, how will we ever know to correct them? If we shame every victim for being a victim and daring to reveal her victimhood, it becomes very easy to pretend that there is no oppression.

Oh, silly PZ! You see, in Dawkinsville there are no “victims,” only irresponsible drunk drivers crashing themselves willy-nilly right into rapists’ penises!

But this morning’s tweet absolutely takes the cake:

RDtweetjailingRaping a drunk woman is appalling. So is jailing a man when the sole prosecution evidence is “I was too drunk to remember what happened.” -Richard Dawkins




Now, Twitter is a unique medium with pros and cons like every other; suffice it to say it does not particularly lend itself to schooling pompous assholes on the many wonders of reality. But I did my best:


@RichardDawkins false reports: est. 2-8%. Rape hugely underreported. 3% of rapist[s] do jail time. Now go away and learn how to think. -Iris Vander Pluym

(Incidentally, citations for these statistics can be found all over the fucking internet here and here.)

iristweetevidencetoodrunk@RichardDawkins As if men are prosecuted when “the sole prosecution evidence is ‘I was too drunk to remember what happened.'” #dumbass -Iris Vander Pluym

Jeezus. “I was too drunk to remember what happened” is exculpatory evidence: it creates reasonable doubt and nearly always benefits the accused. That is why prosecutors almost universally do not take such cases to trial: when they do, they lose, and this is true even when they present heaps of additional incriminating evidence to a jury. Seriously, this has got to be the stupidest thing His Intellectual Excellency has ever said—and that is saying something, my friends.

PZ’s plea to Dawkins closes:

And could you please stop supporting reactionary anti-feminists? Thanks.

No, he cannot. Because the World’s Greatest Rationalist is a reactionary anti-feminist, and thus there is no reasoning with him.

[for Tony.]

BREAKING: Richard Dawkins, live organ donor!

I’ve got a new post up at Secular Woman: Loyal Readers™, please give Richard Dawkins a warm welcome to the Palace Abattoir!


No doubt he will have much to discuss with his fellow involuntary donors-in-residence, as they pass the time waiting until someone has a life-threatening condition requiring one (or more) of their body parts. Just for starters, there are the 447 active and retired members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who I am told are most anxious to hear more of his insightful pontifications on the relatively minimal harms of “mild pedophilia.”

Happy Labor Day Weekend, USAians! Remember when the U.S. labor movement was really something to celebrate? Yeah, me neither.

Reality: It’s Not For Everyone.

[UPDATED: added new and/or improved links. Also, WordPress ate my post title. I found this entirely unacceptable, so I am putting it back. Take that, WordPress!]

People, I just don’t know why I bother to click on linkbait at mainstream American media outlets like the Washington Post. Today, I got suckered by We think our enemies are idiots, and that’s a problem: The psychological explanation for our partisan strife, by psychologist and assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Adam Waytz. The piece is full of false equivalencies between conservatives and liberals, and finishes up with the usual pointless whinging:

“if we believe our political opponents are as rational, thoughtful and empathic as we are, then we are likely to pursue political compromise through rational debate, civil discussion and collaborative analysis of the facts.”

What bubble does Adam Waytz exist in, where American conservatives are rational, thoughtful and empathic? In this amazing Bizarro Bubble, the Republican party actually wants to pursue compromise, and Fox News thrives on rational debate, civil discussion and collaborative analysis of the facts.

FACTS?! Bwahahahaha!

If you truly believe that women cannot get pregnant from “legitmate rape,” you are definitely not rational or thoughtful. If you think uninsured people should be left to die, you have a cavernous empathy deficit. In either case, you should not be anywhere near a public office, because holding an “alternate view of reality” is not only about being flat-out wrong factually, it has demonstrably harmful and often deadly consequences. That makes it morally wrong, too.

Here is the gist of what apparently passes for insightful analysis at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and as publication-worthy by the esteemed editors at the Washington Post:

Another example is Thomas Piketty’s claims about income inequality to climate change. His champions who believe in rising income inequality and his detractors who see little cause for concern both say the other side is biased. Climate change believers and skeptics alike see their opponents as mistaken and lacking in basic analytical skills.

The arguments here, such as they are, rarely grapple with the interlocutor’s alternate view of reality, let alone the merits of the point. Rather, they center on the other side’s deficient mental capacity, and all the ways that “you” are less reflective, less rational, less empathic and more biased than “I” (or “we”). In other words, we see our opponents’ minds — their capacity for reason, emotion, thought and desire — as less sophisticated than our own minds, a phenomenon my colleagues and I have termed the lesser minds problem.

That’s pretty hilarious, because “the lesser minds problem” is a perfectly apt description of both the source of this crap and how it ends up in the Washington Post. You see, in the real world, income inequality is either rising, or it is not. (SPOILER: it is.) Man-made climate change is either happening, or it is not. (SPOILER: it is. Even the Department of Defense knows it, and is acting accordingly.) “Rational debate, civil discussion and collaborative analysis of the facts” will get you precisely nowhere with those whose minds are not remotely interested in actual, verifiable, demonstrable reality.

Remarkably, Waytz comes close to nailing the problem with this:

If I believe that I think more thoughtfully than you and feel more deeply than you, then it makes little sense for me to try to reason with you, much less listen to what you have to say.

Exactly correct. But he thinks the problem lies in merely believing that one’s political opponents are less thoughtful, rational and empathetic, not whether this is actually true and what to do about it. Worse, he appears to have no idea that conservatives are not only constitutionally resistant to facts, but that exposing them to more facts makes conservatives even more resistant. It does indeed make little sense to try to reason with conservatives, much less listen to what they say (except to mock it, of course).

Waytz really thinks he’s on to something when he scolds us:

This suggestion to disavow oneself from beliefs of mental superiority is preached often, but rarely practiced.

And thank the fuckin’ Lard it is rarely practiced. I hate to break it to Waytz, but conservatives in both parties (and Republicans especially) are openly waging war on Social Security. Unions. The environment. Education. Food and water. Immigrants. Cancer patients. Muslims. The poor. Gay and trans people. The oceans. Palestinians. The middle class. Black people. Brown people. The young. The elderly. The disabled. Science. The Earth. The godless. History. Women.

If conservatives were even remotely rational, thoughtful and/or empathic, would any of that be the case? Further, even if it were possible, when we are talking about life and death issues, why would anyone with any sense and empathy ever want to pursue “political compromise” on such matters, through “rational debate, civil discussion and collaborative analysis of the facts” or otherwise?

You know what? It doesn’t matter to me one whit if global warming deniers think I’m the one with a lesser mind. “Alternate interpretations of reality” are neither legitimate nor worthy of respect to the extent that those interpretations do not comport with, you know, actual reality. I am sick and tired of the Waytzes (and Linds, and Mooneys) not only ignoring reality themselves, but urging us all to respect and accommodate those who remain stubbornly, intractably untethered to it—and proud of it.

Lesser minds, indeed.

Ask Iris: Do you wish your mom erred on the side of abortion?

A stranger named GoodChoice wandered into the Palace last night, reeking of the distinct stench of an entirely unwarranted sense of superiority and smugness that has lately become all too familiar around here. Has Dunning-Kruger released a new fragrance or something? Anyway, GoodChoice spouted off in response to a comment by giliell, but it might just as well have been directed at practically anyone else participating in that thread. So please, giliell, if you would be so kind and allow me the honor of responding. 

Q. Do you wish your mom erred on the side of abortion?

A. Hahaha. HAHAHAHA! Did you really think this question was, I don’t know, some sort of gotcha? Is this the kind of thing you Forced Birthers sit around trying to come up with, then snicker at your own cleverness and slap yourselves on the back? I mean, this question is so utterly devoid of thought, so patently ridiculous, that you should probably stay far, far away from the internet so you do not continue to embarrass yourself.

NEWSFLASH: My mom had an abortion. If she had not, then it is probable that neither I nor my amazing sister would be alive today. Nor would my amazing nieces exist.


You see, the way reality works is that that when a pregnant person chooses to abort, her life takes a different trajectory than if she instead carried the fetus to term. It’s true! And it is especially true for young women without committed partners or the support and resources required to raise a child. It is also true for women with existing children (the majority of abortion seekers, BTW), and for women who care for others already dependent upon them. All of those lives would be profoundly disrupted by the presence of an unwanted child, and sometimes even by the pregnancy itself. The number one reason women have for choosing an abortion is “concern for/responsibility to other individuals,” which certainly puts the lie to the Forced Birther claim that women who abort are “selfish.”*

Further, there are indeed many people who would answer this inane question with “I wish my mother had aborted me.” They have thought deeply about the implications. I will not speak for them here; I will only say that your ignorance of their very existence is inexcusable, and rather telling.

Here is some free advice, cupcake. Learn to think competently. It will make a positive difference in your life, the lives of those around you, and the world at large.

We hope this edition of Ask Iris has been helpful.

*Actually, I would go even further in reply to the demonstrably false “selfish” claim: so the fuck what if she puts herself and her own happiness first? The cultural trope that the expected and proper role for all women at all times is that of self-sacrificing caregiver cannot die in a fire soon enough. She can have an abortion and finish high school or college. She can have an abortion and more easily get out of an abusive relationship. She can have an abortion and not interrupt her important research, or her promising career at a critical stage. My mother might not have had the extraordinary career she did. And that would have been a tragedy not just for her and her kid(s) after my father ditched her, but for all of the people whose lives she touched along the way—including, incidentally, the patients at a local abortion clinic.

Iris HEARTS Neil deGrasse Tyson.

neildegrasstysonNice interview at io9: Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why the new Cosmos matters so much.

Tyson: I want to clarify that the goal of this Cosmos is not to update the science. A lot of science has happened in the last 35 years. We’ve discovered a thousand exoplanets, for example. But that’s not the goal, because any time of day you can channel surf and find a documentary about black holes, colliding galaxies, the search for life, the Big Bang, dark matter, the Higgs-Boson, etc. There’s no end of documentaries that serve that goal.

Cosmos has, as its mission statement, the effort to convey to you why science matters. That is a different motivating factor than “Here’s all this science I want to teach you.” When you take ownership of why science matters, then you are self-motivated, driven. You take the responsibility yourself to continue to learn. It’s a new Cosmos not because there’s so much more universe to talk about, but because the country and the world needs to know more than ever why science matters.

The director of photography for the new series is Bill Pope—the director of photography for The Matrix trilogy. OMFG I am totally geeking out ovah heeyah.

The new Cosmos premieres this Sunday, March 9th on Fox.

Aww, you guys…and it’s not even my birthday!

Oh, you jokers! Okay, obviously one of my beloved Many Tens of Loyal Readers™ has an absolutely brilliant talent for satire and parody. A comment we received today (on a 3 year old postnice touch!) is way too hilariously, jaw-droppingly stupid to have emanated from an actual conservative. In fact it is so perfectly idiotic, it’s fucking genius. Behold “olliek”:

The characteristics attributed to the fictional CPD perfectly describes the modern statist liberal. I suggest a reading of “Liberty and Tyranny” by noted conservative Mark Levin just to test depth of your ignorance regarding the nature of conservatism. Indeed, it is liberalism that is a mental disorder as it rejects the lessons learned by humanity over the millenia in favor of a mythical utopia that will never be realized, but has been the reason that hundreds of millions of people have been executed or killed in the attempt at implementing such a twisted vision of human order. As Thomas Sowell has said: “Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it”

Awesome, amirite? Nearly a dozen symptoms of Conservative Personality Disorder are on vivid display in just those four sentences. But the thing that really puts it over the top, and had me rolling on the floor with side-splitting laughter when I saw it, is the Gravatar image of “new” Palace commenter olliek:

olliekgravatarGravatar image of “new” Palace commenter olliek. Hahaha!


Goldberg’s hilarious book with Hitler smiley face.

Geddit? It’s a smiley Obama, ‘shopped with a Hitler mustache and Hitler hair!  Wow, way to resurrect a classic old trope—why, it was all the way way back in 2007 that the irrepressibly flatulent Jonah Goldberg shat forth “Liberal Fascism,” a spectacular embarrassment even by conservative standards. And that is saying something, my friends.

Well, I don’t know what to say. I am so humbled and grateful to have a readership as sharp and witty as mine clearly is. This “comment” is one of the most touching and meaningful gifts anyone has ever given me, and I shall treasure it always. Drinks are on me at the Palace Bar! We will be serving Mustache Rides (equal parts butterscotch schapps, grain alcohol and milk—soy milk for vegans!— mixed with crushed ice and garnished with mint leaves).

*cheers!* Whoo-hoo! You guys are awesome!


Okay fine, you all seriously want to pretend this is for real? All right, I’ll bite. It’s the least I can do for you comedians. Pencils ready, class?


The characteristics attributed to the fictional CPD perfectly describes the modern statist liberal.

Projection: it’s not just for movies anymore!

The symptoms characteristic of CPD as delineated in my piece are not “attributed to” a “fictional CPD.” These are behaviors observed in self-proclaimed conservatives.

Before moving on, let us also take note of olliek’s use of the word “statist.” Although we sometimes see this word deployed as a slur by the leftist anarchist—with whom we share a good deal of common ideological ground, by the way—it is usually a dead giveaway that we are instead dealing with a particular subspecies of conservative, the Libertariansus wankerpus. When spotted in the wild, specimens can be easily identified: plumage is typically blindingly white, and males are frequently observed jerking off furiously to Ayn Rand’s terrible, terrible books.

I suggest a reading of “Liberty and Tyranny” by noted conservative Mark Levin just to test depth of your ignorance regarding the nature of conservatism.

Mansplainer is mansplainy: film at 11.

As Loyal Readers™ well know, I have spent much of my adult life to the study and careful analysis of conservatism (as well as much of my childhood surviving it). I have pored over endless tracts by William F. Buckley, Phyllis Schlafly, George Will, Milton Friedman and Ann Coulter; I have sought enlightenment in the work of Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and S.E. Cupp. I have listened to Rush Limbaugh and watched Fox News for hundreds of hours. I am a regular reader of The Wall Street Journal editorial page as well as various and sundry right-wing publications and blogs. Moreover, I have witnessed along with the rest of humanity the horrific destruction and devastation unleashed upon my country, people all over the world and the planet itself by the conservative policies of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and a long line of predecessors, both within government and without.

And yet! I am still directed to read this or that writing, by so-and-so Big Willie or such-and-such doucheweasel. Listen: I have satisfied myself beyond any reasonable doubt that there is nothing new in any of it. Not one single thing. All of it boils down to: an entirely unwarranted sense of self-regard and entitlement; desperate and fanciful rationalizations for one’s own unearned privilege, resulting in the characteristic detachment from reality, wild mischaracterizations of history, and rejection of hard-earned knowledge; and a blundering, comical narcissism. Or, in more colloquial terms: “I’ve got mine, jack! Fuck you! And especially fuck THEM!”

Indeed, it is liberalism that is a mental disorder as it rejects the lessons learned by humanity over the millenia in favor of a mythical utopia that will never be realized,

Wow, the dumbassitude is strong in this one.

First, we note that our new friend neglects to say exactly which “lessons learned by humanity over the millenia [sic]” liberals reject due to our unfortunate mental disorder. Here are some lessons that, broadly speaking, liberals have gleaned from history:

  • Religion is a blight on humanity and has absolutely no place in governance.
  • Humans are a social species, with all that entails. We are interdependent. Chew on your bootstraps while you think about the ramifications of that. Go ahead. We’ll wait.
  • Humans flourish far better with government structure and a meaningful social compact than without.
  • The rule of law is a necessary but not sufficient for justice.
  • Diversity is a strength.
  • Empathy is not a weakness.
  • Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
  • Social democracy is so far the best of all these terrible democratic systems.
  • Free markets aren’t free. We all pay the price—except for the richest of the rich, who just collect the spoils.
  • War is stupid, evil and expensive. It is rarely necessary, and justified only in self-defense. Defense contractors should all be non-profits, because war profiteering is a terrible idea.
  • Women are people.
  • Corporations are not people.
  • Conservatives are dangerous shitheads, and we should never let them anywhere near power. They have shown themselves to be enemies of democracy, opposed to equality in principle.

Meanwhile, all conservatives have apparently gleaned is the following:

“I’ve got mine, jack! Fuck you! And especially fuck THEM!”

Second, the myth of the “mythical utopia” is a favorite trope conservatives like to fling, right along with their poo, and yet no liberal worth her L has ever seriously advanced such a notion. No, I’m afraid that distinction belongs to kooky separatist conservatives, Christian dominionists, and delusional supernaturalists of many stripes who conveniently claim with certainty that utopia exists all right, but only after you die.

What’s really going on in olliek’s fevered mind is as simple as this: conservatives are pathologically terrified of change. They cling so desperately to entirely fictional notions of “order” and habitual routine that they will resist any change, no matter how minor or beneficial to themselves and everyone else. So when anyone comes along and says, “gee, maybe racially targeted mass incarceration and private prisons are terrible fucking ideas,” or “hey, let’s legalize pot and tax it to pay for education,” without fail the conservative subject will become noticeably animated and apoplectic, spewing forth bizarre non-sequiturs like “mythical utopia!” and “death panels!” and “global warming is a hoax!” (See also: “Benghazi!”)

The reality of course is that there is nothing remotely “mythical” about social democracies: they actually exist. They are by no means perfect, but they are demonstrably better by nearly every metric of human happiness and well-being than the dystopic shithole these depraved conservatives want to see the U.S. become.

but has been the reason that hundreds of millions of people have been executed or killed in the attempt at implementing such a twisted vision of human order.

You see, our friend here pretends to understand a correct and proper vision of “human order.” Ooh! Ooh! Lemme guess: it’s a “natural” hierarchy, which just so happens to have arrogant white male fuckwits prancing around on top of it.

Once more: social democratic welfare states actually exist. It’s true! And yet remarkably, instead of executing and killing them, these nefarious regimes actually provide their citizens with things like single payer healthcare, so that they live longer and happier lives than Americans do. (Christ what a dumbass.)

As Thomas Sowell has said: “Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it”

In case it matters (it doesn’t), Thomas Sowell is a conservative liberturdian “free-market” proponent out of the Chicago School of Economics, à la Milton Friedman. That would be the very same “free market” that gave rise to the 2008 banking collapse, and to the unregulated chemical storage facility that leaked (again) in West Virginia. From his statement we can readily see that Mr. Sowell, like every fascist, is anti-liberal and anti-intellectual (despite having earned a Ph.D. himself). He has also apparently never heard of Sweden, Spain, Finland, Norway, The Netherlands, France or the U.K.


In short, it is well worth remembering exactly what it is that conservatives wish to conserve: a status quo that is racist, sexist, violent, amoral, ubercapitalist, hierarchical, heteronormative, patriarchal, and viciously social Darwinist—an imperialist oligarchy in a state of permanent war.

Thanks to “olliek” for the timely reminder.

You guys…!

Dear friend: Words have meanings.

[TRIGGER WARNING: images of embryos, f-bombs.]

In the space of less than five minutes, things turned very ugly. Maybe you won’t even read this, and that’s fine: you owe me absolutely nothing. Nor I you.

I am still angry and deeply hurt, but less so as the days pass. It’s good to know where I really stand with you: that my happiness and my life (to say nothing of the lives and happiness of billions of other people) mean less to you than this does:


FIG 1. Human embryo at 9 weeks clinical gestation. (Optical Topography)
Actual size = approx. 2.3 cm.
Three quarters of all U.S. abortions are performed by 9 weeks.
(9 weeks is also the cutoff for a medication abortion via mifepristone.)

Our mutual friend said that I took your words beyond their face value to mean something you never intended. Well, that is because your words have meanings. Those meanings have dire and direct consequences for real people. And those consequences include pain, suffering, misery, destitution and death for untold millions of actual people, right now, today.

Those consequences, as you know, also include my own death, should I get pregnant and not have access to a safe abortion. If you don’t know what your words mean, perhaps you shouldn’t say them. On the other hand, if you do know, and you say those words anyway, then I repeat: FUCK YOU.

When you express opposition to abortion on demand, your words mean that you view all of this as perfectly fine: My death. Their deaths. Their poverty. Their children’s poverty. You would condemn real people to death, to a life of misery and suffering. And for what? For this:

mouseembryoFIG 2. embryo.

OH WAIT, I’m sorry. I got mixed up. That’s ^ a mouse embryo up there, not a human embryo. Sure looks a lot like that human embryo, though. And yet, nothing like a mouse. Weird.

mousevsembryoFIG 3. Mouse vs. mouse embryo.
Can you tell which is which?


FIG. 4. Embryo.

That you believe this —> is precious is demonstrably wrong. It isn’t. Half of all fertilized eggs spontaneously abort. And yet for some reason we’re not holding millions of funerals for them. Why is that? No, seriously: why is abortion only a grave moral tragedy when a woman chooses to end her pregnancy—something that happens half the time anyway? Nature doesn’t give a shit about human embryos. They’re not even worth a dime a dozen. But you? To you, a single embryo is worth more than my life, my freedom, my happiness, and my humanity, including my right to decide what goes on inside my own fucking body. Do you even understand how fucking devastating it is for me to know that you care more about this—> than about me? That a tiny, unconscious, unwanted creature is more worthy of your love and respect than I am is heartbreaking.

So since you don’t give a fuck about me, what about the people who do love me and stand to lose me forever if people who “think” like you do get their way? (And they are indeed getting their way, both here and abroad.) That you can look my friends and family right in their faces and hold the views you do absolutely terrifies me. It makes me question my own judgment about getting close to anyone ever again, even if a person seems as truly compassionate and thoughtful as you once did. I do not trust people easily, and for good reason. As you know, many people in my life have devalued, abused and objectified me. Used me for their own desires and purposes, without ever giving even the slightest shit about my own. I will not stand for it anymore. Not from you, not from anyone.

Whoops, that image up there^ is a bat embryo. My bad.

batvsbatembryoFIG. 5. True fact: one of these is a bat embryo, and the other is a sleeping baby bat.


FIG. 5
human blastocyst
day 5

I pointed out the fact that my cat is more sentient than a blastocyst, and you asked me—repeatedly—”How do you know?” Three answers:  (1) the sciences of embryology and neurobiology which inform us when it’s even possible for a creature to be conscious and aware, (2) it doesn’t even fucking matter, because it’s grotesquely immoral to force me (or you or any other person) to be a slave to anyone else who needs to suck my blood in order to survive, whether that person is sentient or not, and (3) the exact same way you know. That’s right: you know the difference between sentient and non-sentient beings. And I’ll prove it to you, with an old thought experiment. It goes like this: you find yourself in a burning building and all exits are blocked except one, which happens to be in a fertility clinic you must pass through to escape. The flames and smoke are almost unbearable. As you make your way toward the exit, you see on one side of the room a small box marked “100 Live Embryos” (technically they’d be blastocysts at this point, but since we’re pretending we’ll pretend they’re actually embryos eight weeks older). On the other side of the room, you see a live human infant completely oblivious to the imminent danger. You will only have time to take one of these with you on your way out, before the room is completely engulfed in flames. It’s the baby or the box. Which will you take?

Here, look—I made a graphic to help you make up your mind:

babyvsembryosFIG 6. dozens of human embryos vs. one human infant.
Choose carefully!


If you chose to save those embryos, then let me just say on behalf of myself, the baby you would let burn to death, and the rest of humanity: FUCK YOU.

If you chose to save the actual baby, congratulations! You’re a decent, intelligent, compassionate human being who knows the difference between non-sentient embryos and a sentient baby—and you really should fucking stop saying words to the effect that you don’t.

Are there not enough unwanted children? Are the world’s orphanages empty? Are there not enough grindingly poor pregnant women in the world’s overpopulated slums and housing projects, starving themselves because they cannot even feed their existing children? Can the planet even sustain the billions more people that would result from your preferred policies? Women with unwanted pregnancies are so desperate not to give birth that they will knowingly seek unsafe abortions, or attempt dangerous terminations themselves with whatever is on hand. A knitting needle. A coat hanger. A twig or stick. They have done so for all of known history, when they were not otherwise busy dying in childbirth from their umpteenth pregnancy.

We know that outlawing abortions does not stop them, but it does fill hospital wards with women dying of sepsis infections and hemorrhaging. Well, at least those “lucky” ones that can make it to a decent hospital in time. We know that denying women abortion on demand kills, maims and impoverishes them and their families. It reduces their humanity to that of subhuman incubators, enslaved against their wills, to this:

catembryoFIG. 7. Adorable tiny baby embryo. Awww.
Actual size = less than 2 cm.

But you’re okay with all of that. This ^ thing is more important to you than women deciding whether, when and how often they wish to go through a nine month pregnancy followed by the violent expulsion that is giving birth, to become a mother with all of the responsibility that entails.

Did you know that a woman who carries a baby to term is 14 times more likely to die than she is from a legal abortion? And that’s to say nothing of birth complications including fractured pelvis, infection, hemorrhage, genitovaginal fistula, vaginal tearing, or the 15% of women who experience nerve damage leading to incontinence of stool or urine and sexual dysfunction. Childbearing is one of the most dangerous things a woman can do; it’s the sixth most common cause of death among women age 20 to 34 in the United States.

Now, given all of that, who should decide whether, when and how often someone goes through all of this? Why, other people. Of course.

My rage, sadness and contempt at this level of cruelty and disrespect knows no limits.

It’s physically revolting to me. Literally: I am barely holding down my breakfast as I write this.

OH SORRY! That’s ^ a cat embryo. I got confused for a minute because it’s so gosh darn cute. Maybe someday it will look like this:

kitty2FIG. 8. Mah kitteh.
She would probably miss me if I died for a fucking embryo. Okay, maybe not.

The moral ground here is not murky. This is not something on which reasonable, thoughtful and compassionate people can just agree to disagree.

This is an excised tubal pregnancy:

week6tubalFIG. 9. This little fucker would have soon killed its human host if allowed to remain.
Kill it! Kill it with fire!

Maybe for some reason you had just not thought through the consequences of your position on abortion until now. That really is the best possible interpretation I can think of for the things you said: that you were simply thoughtless. Then again, perhaps it’s not thoughtlessness but ignorance; that is, you honestly had no idea what your position actually leads to for me or other people. As you have long been a loyal reader of this blog and are a well-informed person generally, I would find that exceedingly difficult to believe, but I guess it’s possible.

A third possibility is misogyny: the deep, abiding hatred and distrust of women. Maybe I can do something to remediate the first two, but not this one. If you’re inclined to view women as less capable, less intelligent, less human than men, and less deserving of the basic human rights and bodily autonomy that you enjoy—and let’s be clear, forcing someone against her will to stay attached to a growing, blood-sucking fetus for nine months followed by the violent and dangerous expulsion that is giving birth, and to bring into the world a child she does not want is a particularly vile form of slavery—well, I don’t think I can help you with that.

Unfortunately statements like this one of yours make me lean toward the misogyny hypothesis:

“Since the man is on the hook for 18 years of child support, he should get a say.”

As if a mother is not also responsible for supporting her child. As if a mother’s support does not also go far beyond financial support, to a life-altering, all-encompassing, 24/7/365 commitment for at least 18 years that a father can walk away from if he chooses not to seek custody or visitation. Once there exists another person in the world, however, they are both responsible for the welfare of that person. As they damn well should be. Wanna pay less child support? Split custody.

I asked you what “a say” would look like. You know: in real, practical terms. Would the sperm donor get to make a speech about his opinions on abortion and childbirth to which the pregnant person would be forced to listen? No. Read something he wrote about it? An official filled-out form, maybe? No. Well what, then? I’m just saying, he should have a say. What does “a say” mean, exactly? Why wouldn’t you answer this question?

I strongly suspect it’s because “a say” means it should be his decision whether she will either abort, or be forced to have his child. And you just couldn’t come right out and say that to me.

Fucking patriarchy, how does it work?

That’s some fine company you’re in: the religious right and the Catholic church, patriarchal people and institutions whose contempt for the very notion that women are human beings entitled to the same human rights as anyone else knows no bounds. Wherever the Catholic church or the religious right has the political power to outlaw abortion, thousands of women are maimed from unsafe abortions, and they and their children are frequently condemned to lives of hunger and desperate poverty when they are forced to have children. This is what that looks like. This too. I am dumbfounded at people defending these policies when they have seen exactly where the ideology of prohibiting abortion leads. FACT: it leads to no fewer abortions, only to more dead and maimed women and orphaned children. This is what that looks like. [<—WARNING: extremely graphic image. NSFW]. This and this, too. Even the U.S. government does not view my sex as equally deserving of the basic rights all the Real Humans™ enjoy. This is the text of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

The amendment failed.

And thus women can be treated as incubators, valuable only for incubating a fetus: a woman jailed for murder because she attempted suicide while pregnant; a woman denied chemotherapy for leukemia because she was pregnant; a woman dead from a septicemia because she was denied an abortion;  a woman dead from a forced C-section she did not want. And on and on. Mandated 3 business day waiting periods. Parental consent laws. This is what it means to treat a pregnant woman as less human than the mere potential human she has growing inside her. There is no justification for it; it is only the logical outcome of your view and those who share it. I get it: a fucking fetus is worth more than an actual living woman to them, too. Well FUCK THEM, TOO.

I’ve had a few pregnancy scares, you know. Despite taking precautions. It is true that I am personally privileged enough to have the means to escape to a saner country (e.g. Canada) to have an abortion should that become necessary. But (1) I did not always have this economic privilege and may not always, and (2) this is not just about me, but about millions of other pregnant Americans who cannot get to the next county, much less to the only clinic remaining in their entire state, without putting their jobs, themselves, or their families at risk of social ostracism and poverty.

Forced pregnancy is slavery. No one would call it any differently if you were involuntarily tethered to another person and forced to sustain that life for nine months (followed by a violent expulsion from your body cavity that might very well result in the skin and muscle between your testes and your anus being torn open). No one would ever call you free.

I am no one’s slave. My humanity is not negotiable. It is not something upon which well-intentioned people can reasonably disagree. It is not something anyone who claims to love me can dismiss or deny, and then still expect me to keep them in my life. Disrespect me at the peril of our friendship. Because as long as you honestly believe people like me should be enslaved against our wills to keep some other person alive—baby or no—you are not now and never were my friend.

A long time ago you lost a loved and wanted infant, and for that I am truly sorry. Would that all children brought into the world were so loved and wanted. But the fact is they are not. And you would use your personal tragedy as an emotional weapon, as if it somehow supports the notion that all pregnant women should be forced to give birth to children they do not want?

How dare you.

Only one of these is a person:

irisvs7weekembryoFIG. 10. Iris’s ladies room selfie, Halloween 2013 & 7-week old human embryo.

The one you care more about says everything I need to know about you.

We’re all wrong. Some of us are less wrong.

Because he hates me and will go to any length to distract me from my Very Important Work here at the Palace, my Loyal Subject™ SJ sent me this image, noting that it’s a jpeg, not an animated gif:

illusion[IMAGE: A grayscale image of a square made of small cross-hatch marks surrounded by a square frame of the same cross-hatch marks. The square in the center appears to float above the image and move; the effect is more pronounced when scrolling.]

I was forced—forced, I tell you!—to copy/paste it from SJ’s email, print it to pdf and then view it just to assure myself that this is indeed a still image. (I have uploaded it here as a .png to avoid image degradation from .jpg compression.)

This is not the first time I’ve been amused by an optical illusion, of course. But it got me thinking about the ways in which our perceptual systems are wildly imperfect instruments. Our brains evolved for survival and successful reproduction, not for perfectly capturing and accurately interpreting phenomena we encounter in the real world. The very notion that the world we experience in our minds is an accurate reflection of reality is itself an illusion, and a very powerful one at that.

Nor is that illusion restricted to sensory systems, either: our cognitive processes, memory recall and moral intuitions are all subject to dozens of known distortions, biases and logical fallacies, and probably some unknown ones, too. It’s enough to make one wonder whether the profoundly flawed and fallible human brain is even capable of knowing enough about itself to ever overcome these obstacles to the point where we can actually know anything at all about ourselves or the world.

But of course we do know some things, and that’s because we have powerful tools to work with: evidence, sound reasoning, science. I am currently reading Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World, the subtitle of which is Science as a Candle in the Dark, and it very much speaks to this. See also:, where one can learn to apply the scientific understandings we have about our biases to improve our thinking and decision-making.

But unfortunately, there is something else frequently found plaguing the human mind, something that has so far proven nearly impossible to overcome: I speak, of course, of Conservative Personality Disorder. As the planet’s foremost expert on this subject, I can say with some authority that those who suffer from its ravages (meaning: everyone else in the world) have a particular cognitive skill that the CPD case does not: the ability to change one’s mind when evidence disconfirms one’s belief, instead of—as puts it—”being able to explain anything.”

It is no accident that conservatives want to destroy science education. You see, they “know,” despite mountains of evidence from multiple disciplines proving the opposite, that the fact of biological evolution is not true, and so they want 100% evidence-free creationism taught to the nation’s schoolchildren in science classes instead. These are the same kinds of people who wanted Galileo Galilei’s head on a spike for the capital crime of believing that, despite how it may look from our vantage point, the Earth in fact orbits the sun and not vice versa. Right-wing conservatives are all Flat Earthers of one stripe or another: the only difference is which phrase of scripture they point to when what they think they “know” is contradicted by actual knowledge about reality. Needless to say, this is not exactly sound reasoning, and it necessarily follows that all evidence that runs counter to their delusion(s) is summarily dismissed, no matter how compelling it is. You cannot reason with the unreasonable. Well okay, technically you can, but it will not get you anywhere, and may in fact have the opposite effect from what you intended.

In a recent piece for Alternet, Amanda Marcotte put it this way:

The Christian right has become the primary vehicle in American politics for minimizing the problems of the real world while inventing imaginary problems as distractions. Witness, for instance, the way that fundamentalist Christianity has been harnessed to promote the notion that climate change isn’t a real problem. Average global temperatures are creeping up, but the majority of Christian conservatives are too worried about the supposed existential threats of abortion and gay rights to care.

I mean, what can you say to someone who “reasons” like this:

Climate change is not really happening and even if it is happening it’s not humans’ fault and even if it is our fault it’s god’s will.

Nothing. That’s what. This is precisely why we here at the Palace recommend pointing and laughing. Because if there is one thing conservatives absolutely cannot stand for, even more than changing their minds based on reality, it is ridicule and mockery aimed in their direction. But lest we get too high on our horses, it is well worth reminding ourselves that while we may have tools to help us overcome the failings of human nature, we are all wrong about many, many things. For instance, that square up there sure as hell seems to be moving. But recall what I did to confirm whether or not this was truly the case: copy/pasted it from SJ’s email, printed it to a pdf file and viewed the result. This is how I can say, with virtual certainty, that it is indeed a still image. Similarly, it is how you can say, if I still cling to the belief that the square is moving, that I am wrong.

Here are a few more helpful and humbling reminders that we’re all wrong. I would be interested to know whether conservatives are less likely than others to believe that these are in fact illusions, rather than that their misperceptions are correct.

illusionmond-vergleitchEbbinghaus illusion: The two orange circles are exactly the same size.

illusionrevolvingcirclesRevolving circles: Look at the black dot in the center of the two circles, and move your head closer and farther away. The two circles seem to rotate.

illusionKanizsatriangleKanizsa triangle: there is no white triangle. Your brain put one there.

illusionjastrow1Jastrow illusion: Which is larger, A or B?

illusionjastrow2With their left sides aligned, the lower figure appears larger. A & B are exactly the same size.

illusionchecker1Checker shadow illusion: which square is darker, A or B?

illusionchecker2The colors of A and B are exactly the same.

Go forth, my beloved Loyal Readers™, and try to be less wrong.