Archive | September, 2014

Why Believing Without Demanding Proof is Close-Mindedness

One common joke among skeptics goes as follows: “Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out.” Not only do I find this joke unfunny, I also find it pointless. If a person wants to take openness to new ideas to its logical conclusion, she will not end up being gullible or credulous. Rather, she will be a skeptic. True open-mindedness is not the same as accepting assertions without critical consideration. In fact, believing claims without being critical of them results in having a closed mind.

To see this, consider the following example. Suppose a friend of yours earnestly claims that he is being haunted by ghosts in his house. He tells you that he hears whispers inside his house even when he is alone and no television is turned on. During some nights, he hears cries or wails in the basement, even when nobody is there. He even catches glimpses of these ghosts walking around in the small hours of the morning. Worst of all, they sometimes appear behind him when he is looking at himself in the mirror, but the moment he turns around to face the ghost, it has already disappeared.

If you uncritically accept this friend’s allegations without demanding clearer evidence other than his vague anecdotes, you are closing your mind from all other possible hypotheses. You are rejecting many other possible explanations without giving them due consideration. You are being close-minded. By hastily jumping into the conclusion that he is being haunted without systematically investigating the causes of his experiences, your friend is being close-minded too. He has exhibited prejudice against the alternative hypotheses without giving them the deliberation they deserve. That is the definition of having a closed mind.

If you are open to all ideas, you should consider false perceptions such as pareidolia as a more plausible explanation for many supposed ghost sightings. [Photo credit: Pedro Luis Gomez Barrondo]

If you open your mind to competing ideas, you will fairly consider other explanations. One explanation for most ghost sightings is the phenomenon of pareidolia. [Photo credit: Pedro Luis Gomez Barrondo]

Consider the alternate explanations for your friend’s experiences. First off, he may be lying. History is replete with examples of people who claim special access to the spirit world, but who turned out to be charlatans. But suppose he is not lying. Suppose he has really experienced all the things described above. Well, he might be suffering from episodes of delusion. Perhaps some haughty neighbors are playing tricks on him. Or maybe an unusual but natural phenomenon is taking place in his house, one that is amazing and surreal but that does not require supernatural explanations. In fact, the phenomenon going on in his house, or possibly in his mind, might be yet unknown to scientists. His experiences might lead to new discoveries once close investigation has been done. True open-mindedness requires you to consider all these plausible scenarios and assess their likelihood in light of the evidence. In the absence of evidence, open-mindedness also requires you to withhold judgment.

But the cases where we truly lack evidence are very few. When it comes to people’s behavior, for example, we have plenty of evidence for errors in perception, credulity, or even fraud. The case of people claiming to be haunted is well-known and well-documented. There is plenty of evidence showing that people suffering from delusions sometimes claim to be tormented by spirits; treating the mental illness at the root of these delusions often make the “spirits” go away. There is plenty of evidence that elaborate pranks can be sometimes played by people on their neighbors and friends; I myself can relate to the pleasure of giving a friend a harmless fright. Furthermore, there are also a lot of natural phenomena that, when experienced, gives one a sense of the surreal and supernatural. Imagine seeing a Pepper’s Ghost illusion, or being victim to a case of pareidolia, or seeing a St. Elmo’s fire atop a mast near one’s backyard. Some buildings have acoustics that lead to the propagation of voices coming from far, far away. If you are in such a building, you can hear the murmurs of unseen speakers. If a person unfamiliar with scientific thinking experienced any of these or similar phenomena, it is easy to see why he would be tempted would jump to a supernatural explanation. A close inspection of these phenomena, however, does not reveal the supernatural, but only the super in what is natural.

It is a shame that so many people have the mindset that nature is dull and that any extraordinary experience can only be attributed to supernatural causes. This is lamentable because the lessons of our discoveries in science tell us otherwise. Science has shown that, contrary to our intuitions, nature is extraordinary and subtle, its workings no less than mind-blowing. Hastily supplying supernatural explanations for one’s extraordinary experiences is closing one’s mind to the beauty of the world. The lack of critical thinking leads to a close-mindedness that is blinding.

If you content yourself with a lazy explanation for an  astounding experience, you will lose a golden opportunity to learn something new about the world and the human mind.

If you content yourself with a lazy explanation for an astounding experience, you will miss a golden opportunity to learn something new about the world and the human mind. [Photo credit: chelanschool.org]

Does having an open mind mean treating all ideas as if they were all equally valid? Are skeptics being close-minded when they reject some explanations in favor of others? These and similar questions arise from the confusion between treating ideas equally and treating them fairly. Treating an idea fairly means giving it consideration by assessing its merit based on the evidence. If you treat ideas fairly, you will quickly discover that most of them are baloney and only a few are meritorious. Being open-minded requires you to treat ideas fairly, not equally. Believing in competing and often logically incompatible views of the world is close-mindedness; an open mind admits valid evidence and logic. Truly open-minded people know that not all ideas are created equal.

Worse than closing one’s mind to many possibilities, the lack of critical thinking leads to the practice of placing too much confidence on insufficient and flimsily evidence that have undergone very little examination. In short, not thinking critically leads to intellectual laziness and arrogance. Advocates of woo and the paranormal often accuse skeptics of being arrogant. What these fans of the supernatural fail to realize is that skepticism is not just a safeguard against being fooled by others. Skepticism is first of all a safeguard against being fooled by oneself. As the physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you shouldn’t fool yourself, and that you’re the easiest person to fool.” This realization is at the heart of skepticism. It is what make skeptics cautious and fastidious. It is what gives them intellectual humility. In the end, critical thinking is not just the direct implication of true open-mindedness, it is also the product of true intellectual humility.

Posted in Philosophy, Science0 Comments

FF Podcast 50 (Audio): Duterte, Abad, and Vigilante Justice

FF Podcast 50 (Audio): Duterte, Abad, and Vigilante Justice

FF Podcast 50 - Duterte, Abad, and Vigilante Justice

What is the appeal of authoritarians? This week, we talk about Rodrigo Duterte threatening to kill the instigator of his presidential campaign and why authoritarians have such great appeal to Filipinos. We also talk about vigilante justice and Budget Secretary Florencio Abad being pelted with objects by UP students.

You may also download the podcast file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Posted in Audio, audio podcast, Media, Politics, Society0 Comments

Is Victim Blaming Always Irrational?

stop-victim-blamingVictim blaming, which is said to occur when “the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is held entirely or partially responsible for the harm that befell them,” is perceived by many as irrational because it shifts the blame or at least a part thereof from the real offender to the innocent victim. They contend that the victim has zero responsibility every time regardless of the circumstances.

I intend to challenge this absolutist position.

When comedian Ricky Gervais posted a tweet about the leaked nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities, people called him out for victim blaming. In his tweet, which he later deleted, Gervais wrote:

“Celebrities, make it harder for hackers to get nude pics of you from your computer by not putting nude pics of yourself on your computer.”

The following are some of the responses he received:

@rickygervais, Ah, victim-blaming at its finest. “If you don’t want people to break into your house and steal your things, don’t own things.” – Brian Herbert

@rickygervais this is like telling women, make it harder for rapists to rape you by not going outside. – Jen Italia

While Gervais’ tweet was done in bad taste, I do not find it necessarily illogical as what the responses seem to suggest with their analogies. My position is that there are certain instances where victims can be held at least partially responsible for the harm that befell them, and those instances are where they acted negligently, and especially if they were grossly negligent.

Negligence is defined as “failure to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in like circumstances.” Now whether the celebrities’ act of uploading their nude photos on the Internet constitutes gross or even simple negligence is an issue beyond the scope of my contention, because in order to resolve it certain facts need to be established, like how secure were the sites they used, how strong were their passwords, and what other necessary precautions they took or did not take.

For sure, however, not uploading one’s nude photos if you don’t want them leaked cannot be equated to not owning things if you don’t want people to break into your house and steal your things, or to not going outside if you don’t want to be raped. The analogies used by those who responded to Gervais’ tweet certainly do not constitute even simple negligence. We only need to ask the question: Would a reasonably prudent person not own things, or never go outside?

On the other hand, uploading nude photos involves a presumably unnecessary risk to one’s privacy. Of course, it is also entirely possible that the person actually did not know the risks, or had a compelling reason to back up photos online. These factors would certainly modify the dynamics of blame, but their existence is not to be presumed. Someone who knows how to upload photos will probably have a basic idea of the risks involved, and I cannot think of a compelling reason for a person to upload naked selfies. But even if you can come up with something, such “compelling reason” would probably be the exception rather than the norm, hence, its existence is not to be presumed.

For a better perspective, let us say person A, a famous actress, uploads to a non-secure site, not her naked photos, but those of her friend, person B, another famous actress. The site gets hacked and the photos are leaked. Would person B not have the right to blame person A – to hold her at least partially responsible for compromising her privacy? Can person A raise the defense that it is the hackers who should be held entirely responsible for the leak?

The problem with the term “victim blaming” is that it seems to imply that a person is being blamed because he or she is a victim, when in fact the reason for the blame is that he/she acted negligently. This is made clear in the above example where the one who acted with negligence and the victim of the privacy breach which the negligent act helped make possible are not the same person.

Moreover, we must distinguish between criminal liability and the non-criminal culpability arising from negligence. In the case of hacking, no amount of negligence on the part of the person uploading private photos to a non-secure site can remove or even diminish the hacker’s criminal liability in invading other people’s privacy. Just because the victim acted negligently does not mean that the hacker acted less criminally.

A friend of mine expressed this in another way:

“What people who keep bandying about the ‘victim-blaming’ argument seem to scarcely understand is that blame isn’t a zero-sum game where holding the victim partially responsible for her victimhood (i.e., if she can be said to have done something she knew would significantly increase the likelihood of being victimized) removes a proportional amount of blame from the victimizer; a victimizer can be 100% responsible for a crime (whatever it is) while the victim can be partially responsible for knowingly placing herself in a situation that increased the odds of said crime taking place. There is no contradiction there.”

Suppose a guy who jogs at night decides for no compelling reason to change his route and passes through a dangerous part of town known for its alarming number of muggings. He enters a dark alley and, sure enough, gets mugged and robbed of his wallet which contained a lot of cash and all his IDs and credit cards. At this point some people would probably say that the jogger should not be held even partially responsible for his loss and that all the blame should be laid on the mugger because it was the latter who committed the entire crime and the jogger took no part in it.

But let’s suppose that hours before his evening run he went to a wedding for which he borrowed his friend’s gold watch that happens to be an heirloom. He didn’t remove the watch when he went out jogging to that dangerous part of town. He gets mugged and loses his friend’s watch along with his own wallet.

If you were his friend, would you hold him responsible, not for the mugging because the criminal liability solely belongs to the robber, but for losing your watch because he was being grossly negligent for wearing it when he knows he’ll be passing through a dangerous area?

If you say yes, would you also hold him partly responsible for the loss of his own wallet in the same mugging incident? If your answer to the second question is no, then how do you distinguish between losing his own wallet and losing your watch? What fundamental distinction lies between a person’s negligence that contributed to his own loss and the negligence that contributed to another’s such that the negligent person can be blamed for the latter but not for the former?

But if your answer to the first question about holding your friend responsible for losing your watch is no, then I’d be very interested to hear your reasons for finding no fault on his part. And if you decide to play with words and say that you blame him for acting negligently but not for losing your watch (since it’s the mugger who’s solely to blame for that), then would you still blame your friend if he returned home safe and sound with your watch in one piece?

To blame means “to say or think that a person or thing is responsible for something bad that has happened.” If nothing bad happened, there is nothing to blame. A person can be blamed for something bad that has happened, or he can be blamed because of his role in allowing that bad thing to happen in that particular instant.

It must be stressed, however, that life is full of risks, some of which are unavoidable, and not acting negligently does not guarantee that one will not be mugged or that no nude photos will be leaked, or that one will never suffer any tragedy.  But to knowingly place oneself in a situation where risk is unnecessarily increased is to act with gross negligence. Even if the jogger in the above example never went to that dark alley or even if he invested in a treadmill and stayed at home, he could still be mugged elsewhere, or he could be robbed of his friend’s watch at the parking lot right after the wedding. The only difference is that he could not be blamed for losing it in that particular incident because he did not go out of his way to increase the chances of a bad thing happening.

After all, in this so-called “victim blaming,” what’s being blamed is not the victimhood.

It’s the negligence.

* * * * * * * * * *

Postscript:

Some readers might be tempted to draw a simplistic analogy from the mugging scenarios and relate them to rape. I caution them from doing so. Rape is a far more complex issue than mugging and nude photo leaks, and the dynamics of rape requires a deeper analysis than what this article provides. Here is an article that discusses victim blaming in rape cases. It is up to the reader to decide, after reading that other article, whether the principles laid down in this article apply to rape cases.

Posted in Advocacy, Gender Rights, Society3 Comments

FF Podcast 50: Duterte, Abad, and Vigilante Justice

FF Podcast 50: Duterte, Abad, and Vigilante Justice

What is the appeal of authoritarians? This week, we talk about Rodrigo Duterte threatening to kill the instigator of his presidential campaign and why authoritarians have such great appeal to Filipinos. We also talk about vigilante justice and Budget Secretary Florencio Abad being pelted with objects by UP students.

You may also download the podcast file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Posted in Media, Podcast, Video0 Comments

Why Victim Blaming in Rape is Always Ignorant and Irresponsible

TRIGGER WARNING: This article or section, or pages it links to, contain information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.

Victim Blaming 101

Let’s say a person left his iPhone unattended in a public place and it was stolen. Can we say that he contributed to his fate by being negligent? Yes. Is this victim blaming? Yes. Can the same logic be applied to rape? No.

But some people would say, “Yes.” Some people think that women get raped because they wear “slutty” clothes. Some people think that women get raped because they drink alcohol. Some people think that women get raped because they stay out late at night. Some people think that women get raped because they don’t pray. Some people are ignorant, yes.

I feel extremely frustrated right now to have to explain the distinction between a man who leaves his phone unattended and a woman who was raped.

Here’s the deal. In the case of the iPhone, to prevent the same occurrence from happening again, all the man has to do is to put his iPhone in his pocket. Needless to say, putting his phone in his pocket, instead of leaving it in a public place, would reduce the risk of theft greatly.

The problem with victim blaming in rape is that the common precautionary measures advised – don’t get drunk, don’t wear slutty clothes, don’t talk to strangers – do not reduce the likelihood of rape. Sober girls are just as likely to be raped as drunk girls. Girls who don’t talk to strangers are just as likely to be raped as girls who talk only to acquaintances. Girls who wear completely normal clothing are just as likely to be raped as girls who wear what some people consider “slutty” clothing.

 

“Take the Necessary Precautions”

In a conversation, I was asked this question:

“Let’s say a woman spends an average of 8 hours a day at home. Are the chances of her being raped at least once in her lifetime the same as if she spends an average of 8 hours a day in that dangerous part of town known for its alarming number of sexual assaults?”

It’s easy to make the assumption that avoiding a dangerous area could reduce the odds that a person was sexually assaulted. But we have to recognize the implications of such a statement. To suggest that avoiding a dangerous area could prevent rape is to imply that if a woman chose to spend time in an area where she could be raped by a random stranger, she didn’t do a good enough job of avoiding rape and may have been partially responsible for what happened.

The problem with this assumption is that it’s wrong. It’s also offensive. For one, a woman is more likely to be raped in a familiar venue, by a familiar person, than she is to be raped by a stranger in an area with a “dangerous” reputation. In the case of rape, the places that she “could be” raped in are exactly the places that she “should be” safe in: her own home, the home of an acquaintance, or an indoor venue near her home.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Statistics, “More than 50% of all rape/sexual assault incidents were reported by victims to have occurred within 1 mile of their home or at their home.”

What advice should we give women then to “avoid rape” then? Avoid your home and areas within 1 mile of your home because majority of rapes happen in these places?

Furthermore, a “Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women” says:

“64% of women who reported being raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked were victimized by a current or former husband, cohabiting partner, boyfriend, or date.”

So, to “avoid rape,” should we advice women to avoid their husband, their live-in partner, their boyfriend, and their date?

To pursue the analogy further, rape survivors did not “leave their iPhones unattended.” They were keeping them in their pockets and they got mugged while sober, in normal clothes, by familiar people, in familiar places that may include their own home.

In other words, there is very little a victim could have done if someone has decided to rape them. The “preventive measures” people usually bring up (stay sober, don’t wear slutty clothes) aren’t really factors at all when we consider the evidence.

To simplify, leaving your iPhone lying around will increase the odds that it will be stolen. Putting your iPhone in your pocket, will reduce the odds that it will be stolen. So, if you choose to leave your phone out in the open, when you could have placed it in your pocket, means that it is your fault if it was stolen.

However, dressing slutty or talking to strangers will not increase the odds that you are raped. Dressing modestly and talking only to acquaintances will not reduce the odds that you are raped either. If a person is raped, it is not his or her fault.

It’s a completely different issue altogether.

 

“Don’t Get Drunk”

This statement is also commonly provided as a precautionary measure to “prevent rape.” It’s also wrong. If drunkenness was a direct contributor to the prevalence of rape, then a statistical increase in alcohol consumption should lead to a statistical increase in the prevalence of rape.

However, in the article “To Prevent Rape on College Campuses, Focus on the Rapists, Not the Victims,” Amanda Hess reveals that:

“According to the Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey—which surveys Americans ages 12 and older about crime they’ve experienced, whether or not they reported it to the authorities—rape has declined markedly in the United States since 1979, even as female binge drinking has risen.”

In the article, “Actually, The Link Between Sexual Assault And Alcohol Isn’t As Clear As You Think,” Tara Culp-Ressler explains that:

“Even though alcohol is associated with sexual assault, it’s not actually a direct association. Getting intoxicated only leads to rape when there’s someone present to commit that rape. When you remove rapists from the equation, the risks of getting drunk — which, of course, do involve serious public health consequences — don’t include getting raped.”

 

“Sexual Violence is Predatory”

According to the study “Understanding the Predatory Nature of Sexual Violence” by David Lisak, perpetrators of sexual violence:

are extremely adept at identifying “likely” victims, and testing prospective victims’ boundaries;

plan and premeditate their attacks, using sophisticated strategies to groom their victims for attack, and to isolate them physically;

use “instrumental” not gratuitous violence; they exhibit strong impulse control and use only as much violence as is needed

to terrify and coerce their victims into submission;

use psychological weapons — power, control, manipulation, and threats — backed up by physical force, and almost never

resort to weapons such as knives or guns;

use alcohol deliberately to render victims more vulnerable to attack, or completely unconscious.

In Culp-Ressler’s article, she admits that alcohol may be one of the tools a rapist uses. However, she says that it’s just one of many tools at a rapists disposal, and the unavailability of alcohol won’t necessarily prevent a rapist from raping if the rapist decides to rape.

In other words, alcohol is just one of the things a rapist may use AFTER they have selected a victim. It’s very likely that a rapist who has raped an intoxicated girl already decided to rape her, before she even took a sip of alcohol. If alcohol is not available at that moment, he would simply chosen another tactic to rape her.

The common myth surrounding rape is that a drunk woman, in a dark street, wearing “slutty clothing,” is more likely to be raped, than a sober woman, in her home, wearing normal clothing, having lunch with an acquaintance. This leads people to think that if the drunk woman was raped, she may have contributed to it by being “negligent.” That’s not true. The odds that either would be raped is zero, if there was no rapist nearby to rape them. These odds increase drastically if there was a nearby rapist who wanted to rape them. What a woman is wearing or what she was doing before she was attacked is irrelevant. She would have been attacked anyway if a sexual predator has decided to attack her.

 

Why Do We Blame the Victim?

Two years ago, there was a thread on Reddit asking sexual assault perpetrators what their motives were, “Reddit’s had a few threads about sexual assault victims, but are there any redditors from the other side of the story? What were your motivations? Do you regret it?” It has since been deleted, but not before parts of it were featured in several articles.

The article “If You’ve Ever Wondered What It’s Like To Be A Rapist, Have We Got A Reddit Thread For You!” features a very chilling, first-hand confession copied from Reddit’s rapist thread.

Here’s the entire confession:

I am a post-colleged age male who raped several girls through use of coercion, alcohol, and other tactics over a course of 3 years.

First off, I must say, I was at a dark and horrible place in my life, that I’ve since grown from. I’m ashamed of the person I was, if the people who I’m close to now knew who I was, I would be ruined. I’m known for being a great guy, friendly and easy to get along with, a community/political activist, a fervent volunteer in the community, and a person who rises through the ranks quickly due to successes at work. That was my mask, and I was good at it, so good that maybe I convinced myself along the line that was who I could really be, and that may of helped me change, and stop doing what I did.

I’m somewhat remorseful for what I did to those girls, but I don’t think I could ever face them to apologize. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I had this certain insatiable thirst that brought me to do what I did. I didn’t know how to stop, and just when I thought maybe I could, I’d find myself back in my pattern, back on the hunt.

I’m a good looking guy, and I can get girls pretty easily. I’m currently married to a beautiful woman that I met during this time of my life (not someone I raped, but someone who knew my mask during this time). So, anyways, after a while it became boring to go after the sluts and sorority girls that would easily throw their cunt after you. I wanted the thrill of the chase, and that’s what led me to forcing myself on girls. I would find attractive girls that were self-conscious about their looks. Girls who were pretty in their own unique way, but not the outgoing sort, mostly introverts, and girls that didn’t party or do wild things. Hopefully a girl who was a bit damaged, had a shitty ex-boyfriend, or family issues, came from a small shut in town, that sort of thing. So, when I showed interest in them they’d be completely enamored, they’d almost be shocked that a popular, good-looking, and well liked guy would be talking to them. I’d have that initial meeting at the library, a coffee shop, a work function, or a party where I had them convinced of what a great guy I was. I listened to them, and made them feel special, like they were a princess. Sometimes we might sort of hook-up that night (kissing, making-out, never anything more). The next day I’d call, and see when they wanted to get together again. I’d feign some excuse for not going out somewhere, but having them come over late in the night. It was college, and not a lot of people had transportation off campus, so it was typical for people to come over and watch a movie or something on a date.

They would come over, and I’d always make sure it was real cold in the room, cold enough so that when we started watching the movie I’d say something about being chilly, and grab a big fleece blanket for the both of us. We’d get kind of close, and then maybe ignore the movie for some kissing. After a while, we’d talk some more, and I’d start edging my hands around the under strap of the bra, or maybe a bit into her pants, just kind of playing on the edge to gauge her response. Some girls would stiffen up a little, and that’s when you knew they didn’t like what was going on. We were in my studio apartment, so the bed served as the couch, and it was easy to start sliding down throughout the movie so we’d be laying down. It was then that I could turn around and get on top of her. The girls usually didn’t know how to respond. Some of them were into it, and those nights were usually consensual and boring sex, sometimes followed up by a few more nightly visits before getting the boot. However, the great nights were the ones who squirmed, ones who didn’t want to give in. I’d have to shush them down, and try to work on them slowly enough so they didn’t know what was going on until it was pretty much already happening. I’m a muscular guy, over 6′ around 200 lbs. and most of these girls may have been 125-130, really tiny and easy to pin down. To be honest, even remembering it now, the squirming always made it better, they didn’t want it to happen, but they couldn’t do anything about it. Most girls don’t say no either. They think you’re a good guy, and should pick up on the hints, they don’t want to have to say “no” and admit to themselves what’s happening.

Alcohol helped. Having a few drinks during the movie, or doing a few jello shots that were “prepared for a party that weekend” would usually do the trick.

The aftermath was always different. Some girls left after about 15 minutes after. Some girls would stay until the morning and then leave. A few tried to call back, maybe blaming themselves for what happened or something. I never worried too much about being caught. Everyone knew me, and I worked with the police a lot, with administrators, and campus officials. I was on first name basis with the Chancellor and the President of Student Affairs, so if anything came down to a he/she-said I figured I’d be in the clear. Having her come over to my place also made it seem less predatory, as she came into my domain, and “could leave at any time”.

I guess that’s about it…seeing as just about everything has been said I’m gonna call it a day. I hope this view into a dark part of my history offers some insight into the mind of a serial rapist.

As the confession reveals, the rapist is not the stranger hiding in a bush, ready to attack you as you walk by at night, in a “dangerous area.” He could be popular. He could seem friendly. He could be attractive. He could be a date, an acquaintance, or even a close friend. This fact shatters our sense of security. We don’t want to believe that any one of us could be a victim of rape. That is why we victim blame.

In the article, “Why Do We Blame Victims?” Juliana Breines explains that:

“Victim blaming is not just about avoiding culpability—it’s also about avoiding vulnerability. The more innocent a victim, the more threatening they are. Victims threaten our sense that the world is a safe and moral place, where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. When bad things happen to good people, it implies that no one is safe, that no matter how good we are, we too could be vulnerable. The idea that misfortune can be random, striking anyone at any time, is a terrifying thought, and yet we are faced every day with evidence that it may be true.”

The very idea that sexual assault can happen anytime, to anyone, violates our personal sense of control, so we refuse to accept that reality. We want to tell ourselves that, “I will not be raped, as long as I don’t get drunk.” We want to tell ourselves that, “My daughter will not be raped, as long as I make sure she doesn’t wear tube tops.”

When an anonymous girl gets raped, we tell ourselves, “Surely, she must have done something my mother, my sister, and my daughter is not doing.” We tell ourselves these things because it’s too disturbing for us to accept the reality that our sisters, daughters, and mothers can be raped anytime, anywhere, by people that they know, and in places that we thought they were safe in.

We blame the victim because we are afraid; for ourselves and for our loved ones. But instead of victim blaming, we should look for more productive ways to respond to this threat. We should be disturbed enough to do something about rape. We should be afraid enough to educate ourselves and our loved ones. At the very least, we should be human enough to empathize with the rape survivor; a person unfortunate enough to have had to endure the assault of a skilled criminal.

Survivors deserve our support, not our scrutiny.

 

References:

Breines, J. “Why Do We Blame Victims?” Retrieved on September 26, 2014. From: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-love-and-war/201311/why-do-we-blame-victims

Culp-Ressler, T. (2013, October). “Actually, The Link Between Sexual Assault And Alcohol Isn’t As Clear As You Think.” Retrieved on September 26, 2014. From: http://thinkprogress.org/health/2013/10/29/2844951/link-alcohol-sexual-assault/

Hess, A. (2013, October). “To Prevent Rape on College Campuses, Focus on the Rapists, Not the Victims.” Retrieved on September 26, 2014. From: http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/10/16/it_s_the_rapists_not_the_drinking_to_prevent_sexual_assault_on_college_campuses.html

Lisak, D. “Understanding the Predatory Nature of Sexual Violence.” Retrieved on September 26, 2014. From: http://www.middlebury.edu/media/view/240951/original/

National Violence Against Women Survey. “Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women.” Retrieved on September 26, 2014. From: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/183781.pdf

Rape Abuse and Incest National Network. Retrieved on September 26, 2014. From: https://www.rainn.org/get-information/statistics/sexual-assault-offenders

The Cajun Boy. “If You’ve Ever Wondered What It’s Like To Be A Rapist, Have We Got A Reddit Thread For You!” Retrieved on September 26, 2014. From: http://uproxx.com/webculture/2012/07/rapists-explain-why-they-rape-on-reddit/

 

Image Source:

http://www.ourstoriesuntold.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/victimblaming101.jpg

Posted in Education, Gender Rights, Politics, Science, Society1 Comment

Freethinkers Meetup, Sunday, September 28

10655199_10152695932098695_6961419322784277917_oRSVP on Facebook (optional)

Venue: 2nd floor of Bread Talk Promenade, Greenhills
Date: Sunday, September 28, 2014
Time: 2:30pm – 5:30pm

Google Map: http://bit.ly/1j2rdf6

Topics:
1. Changing the Culture on Women’s Rights: [http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2014/09/24/us-emma-watson-white-house-efforts-change-culture-womens-rights/]
2. Should we ban frats? [http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/24/rape-sexual-assault-ban-frats]
3. Is there a sexual objectification double standard? [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CB6TiRJNI-Q]
4. Outrage Culture: [http://www.atheistrev.com/2014/09/outrage-culture-effects.html]
5. Nosebleed Culture part 2: [http://thepedanticcynic.blogspot.com/2014/08/top-9-shitty-things-anti-intellectual.html?spref=fbTop]
6. Raunchy Topic of the Week

After the meetup we usually go for dinner and drinks somewhere nearby. If you’re not a meetup regular and can’t make it for the meetup but would like to go for the post meetup, please indicate on a post in the wall or comment so we can contact you.

Got questions about the meetup? Contact us at 0927 323 3532

* Newbies are welcome, and admission is free.
* Early birds get to play board/video/party games with the group.
* Look for the FF sign (or the group of smart, sexy people).
* There is no required age, religion, philosophy, or IQ level.
* Discussions are informal yet intelligent (most of the time).
* You don’t have to talk; you can just sit in and listen.

Posted in Announcements, Meetup0 Comments

Duterte won’t stop until every last Filipino is dead

Duterte won’t stop until every last Filipino is dead

Duterte and his weapon of choice

DAVAO CITY, Philippines — After having killed most of the politicians in the country as a result of his anti-crime campaign, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte says he plans to kill every last Filipino in the world, including himself.

Duterte’s killing spree began with his capacity as judge and jury, charging Commission on Human Rights chair Loretta Rosales with obstruction of justice, sentencing her to capital punishment, and personally carrying out the execution himself. Davao City groups including Kilusan Ng Mamamayan Laban Sa Krimen and Duterte Youth have praised Duterte’s no-nonsense crime fighting style, a move that has resulted in a near 0% crime rate in Davao. Duterte, however, is unsatisfied.

“It is time we stopped our mediocre filipino ways. ‘Pwede na yan’ isn’t world class enough. We’ve started our war on crime, and we’re going to end it. I won’t stop until the country’s crime rate is exactly 0,” Duterte said in an interview. “And the only way to ensure a zero crime rate is to kill every last Filipino in the country. Let’s stop our filipino ways altogether, mediocre or otherwise.”

Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Xi Huan Wang praised the sentiment, which echoes Beijing’s policy on corruption and the Philippines. “We are impressed by the Mayor’s resolve to rid the Philippines of filipinos, and fully support his initiative.” Beijing has offered to repopulate the country after it has become completely depopulated. If the offer is taken, this could signal the end of territorial disputes between the two countries.

Not everyone is happy with Duterte’s plan, however. Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower, as well as Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Labor have expressed concern over the potential shortage of filipino slaves. “Who will clean our houses? Who will raise our children,” said a teary-eyed sheikh who wished not to be named. Singapore’s Ministry of Internal Affairs has also stated that there are mounting fears that Singapore’s already declining population might follow suit, as they will no longer have maids to take care of their already very rare young.

Tens of maritime services are expected to shut down. Maersk, one of the largest shipping companies in the world, has a roster of seamen that is 100% filipino, and is already beginning to wind down operations amid news of the upcoming genocide.

Duterte plans to kill himself after all this is done, because after all he is a Filipino, and a human rights criminal. He has already contacted Guinness Book of World Records to apply for the distinction of the last filipino alive, and the last filipino to die.

Image credit: http://www.9news.ph/news/regional/2014/04/07/duterte-issues-shoot-to-kill-order-vs-cocaine-dealers

Posted in Humor, Politics, Satire3 Comments

FF Podcast (Audio) 49: I’m an Atheist Pero Respeto Naman, Guys

FF Podcast (Audio) 49: I’m an Atheist Pero Respeto Naman, Guys

FF Podcast 49 - I'm an Atheist Pero Respeto Naman, Guys

This week, we talk about the Pennsylvania kid who is facing two years in prison for simulating oral sex with a Jesus statue.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Posted in Audio, audio podcast, Freedom of Expression, Religion, Secularism, Society1 Comment

Wasting Your Life: One Peso at a Time, One Minute at a Time

I commute to work on a daily basis. I wake up at around 6:00 AM to make sure that I arrive at the MRT station before 6:30 AM. If I arrive any later than that, I basically missed my chance to make it to my 7:30 AM class in Makati.

My teaching obligations end at 5:30 PM. Everything that happens before 5:30 PM, I consider a privilege. I get paid to talk about things that I like talking about. But after 5:30 PM, that’s when the real work begins.I’m talking about the rush hour commute between 5:00 PM – 8:00 PM. The experience is unpleasant, stressful, unproductive, and time-consuming.

In the station I often ride the train from, the MRT platform has a pathway that links it to the Alphaland Mall. The platform links to the third floor. The line, however, often extends to the entrance of the mall. During rush hour, it would take more than 30 minutes just to get to the MRT platform. And let’s not talk about the shoving, grinding, swearing, and cramping that happens once inside the train.

Deep inside everyone who takes the MRT at this time feels that something about this experience is extremely wrong. Everyone that takes alternative means of transportation, via buses, feels equally as miserable. I hate to be the bringer of bad news, but the feelings we all have about our commute is correct – it’s bad for us.

mrt

North Avenue Station

Commuting Makes Us Unhappy

In the article “Your Commute is Killing You,” Anne Lowry discusses how long commutes can make us fat, cause neck pain,increase our feelings of loneliness, cause stress, and may even lead to divorce. According to her, researchers at Umea University in Sweden discovered that, “Couples in which one partner commutes for longer than 45 minutes are 40 percent likelier to divorce.”

In the same article, she mentions how a survey done by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and Princeton economist Alan Krueger reveals that among common activities that 900 Texan women share, they find commuting in the morning the most unpleasant.

The misery of the commute extends to other areas of a person’s life. It was revealed in a report by the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index that workers with lengthy commutes report more adverse emotional conditions.

Commuting Isolates Us from Fulfilling Relationships

Robert Putnam is another name that was mentioned in Lowry’s article. Robert Putnam is a Harvard political scientist and is the author of “Bowling Alone.” According to Putnam, every 10 minutes we spend on our daily commute results in 10% fewer social connections. He warns that our social capital is plummeting, and our lives and communities are becoming impoverished. We, as a society, belong to fewer organizations, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less often, and spend less time with our families.

Personally, I spend almost 10 hours a week commuting to and from the office. As much as I can, I try my best to spend Sunday lunch with my siblings and my grandmother. We would sit at the same table and chat from around 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM. That’s 3 hours.

Sometimes, if I am lucky, I can spend an evening having dinner with a few friends. We’d meet at around 7:00 PM, but we’d have to part ways before 11:00 PM because I have to be at the MRT platform by 6:30 AM. I can honestly say that I spend more time at the commute with strangers than I do with my friends and family. That sucks.

Commuting is Unpaid Work

Mentioned in Lowry’s article is another study by Thomas James Christian of Brown University. According to Christian’s research,each minute spent at the commute reduces our exercise time, our food preparation time, and our time for sleep. The length of our commute also determines our propensity for making non-grocery food purchases.

In other words, if we often find ourselves in long commutes, we tend to buy unhealthy food knowing that we will have no time to prepare healthier meals when we get home. Other people,in their desire to avoid the rush hour, would have dinner at a fast food instead to kill time. In both cases, we’ll be spending more, eating less healthy, and we’ll be having less time and energy for exercise because we’re too tired.

When we compute for how much we’re earning, one of the invisible liabilities we often forget to acknowledge is the cost of commuting.

According to Lowry’s article, two economists at the University of Zurich quantified the value of how much more a worker should be compensated to make even just an additional hour of commute worthwhile.

In the paper entitled, “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox,” economists Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer found that for an extra hour of commuting, a worker has to be compensated with a 40% increase in salary, just to make it worthwhile.

In other words, don’t work for a far location if the salary difference is minimal. If you’re working at an office 15 minutes away for P14,000, the same work SHOULD pay you P19,600 if it’s 1 hour and 15 minutes away. If it’s 2 hours away, the same work SHOULD pay you P27,440. Anything less and you’re incurring a loss.

The time we spend commuting takes a major toll on our lives. We experience neck and back pain,spend less time with friends and family, experience loneliness, spend more, get fat, exercise less, sleep less, worry more, and get stressed.

80% of Filipinos are commuters. 80% of Filipinos will have their happiness and their health compromised. Every minute we spend in the MRT line or on a bus along EDSA is a minute of work that we did for free. It is a minute with a loved one that was taken from us. It is a minute we could have invested in our own physical or intellectual development. It is a minute we could have spent preparing a healthy meal. It is a minute we could have spent with our children. It is a minute of our lives that was wasted.

Apparently, it’s not just our money, our taxes, that corrupt and inefficient government officials can squander. They’re wasting our lives: one minute at a time, one peso at a time.

Posted in Personal, Science, Society113 Comments

FF Podcast 49: I’m an Atheist Pero Respeto Naman, Guys

FF Podcast 49: I’m an Atheist Pero Respeto Naman, Guys

This week, we talk about the Pennsylvania kid who is facing two years in prison for simulating oral sex with a Jesus statue.

You may also download the podcast file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Posted in Media, Podcast, Religion, Society, Video1 Comment

Atheists and Satanists; Bedfellows?

This post was inspired by a question directed to me by a fellow faculty member. She asked me whether or not atheism was similar to satanism. Well, the obvious answer should have been, “No, they’re different.” However, it’s not as simple as that, really. For one, there are a number of similarities between the atheist and the satanist, beginning with the prejudice both individuals have to deal with on a daily basis.

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Here are some of them:

1. Both atheists and Satanists are accused of sexual deviance

An atheist’s sexuality is often judged as deviant simply because atheists are often sex-positive and LGBT-friendly, having no religiously-motivated biases against homosexuality or sex, in general.

Similarly, Satanists are often accused of being sex-crazed, devil-worshippers who commit unspeakable sex crimes on unsuspecting strangers.

That’s false.

In fact, it clearly states in the Satanic Bible, written by Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan that:

“Satanism encourages any form of sexual expression you may desire, so long as it hurts no one else. If all parties involved are mature adults who willingly take full responsibility for their actions and voluntarily engage in a given form of sexual expression – even if it is generally considered taboo – then there is no reason for them to repress their sexual inclinations.”

Furthermore, the fifth rule of “The Eleven Satanic Rules of the Earth”  is, “Do not make sexual advances unless you are given the mating signal.” In other words, a person is not supposed to make sexual advances until provided consent. In Satanism, there is a huge emphasis on consent from a partner.

What’s strange is that it’s often the accusers of these transgressions that often commit them. It’s not the Satanists or the Atheists that encourage the violation of female autonomy, it’s the Bible.

These are verses from the Bible that legitimize rape, if the women were acquired through conquest:

“In the cities that god delivers into thine hands you must kill all the males with “the edge of the sword …. But the women … shalt thou take unto yourself.” — Deuteronomy 20:13-14

“If you see a pretty woman among the captives and would like her for a wife, then just bring her home and go in unto her. Later, if you decide you don’t like her, you can “let her go.” — Deuteronomy 21:11-14

In this verse, it is stated that a victim of rape should be killed if no one heard her scream:

“If a betrothed virgin is raped in the city and doesn’t cry out loud enough, then “the men of the city shall stone her to death.” — Deuteronomy 22:23-24

Atheists and satanists do have something in common, with regard to women. Neither of them considers the Bible as a guide for how women should be treated.

 

2. Both Atheists and Satanists are often accused of sacrificing children in weird rituals.

Another common misconception about both atheists and satanists is that they harm children. However, in “The Eleven Satanic Rules of the Earth“, the Satanist equivalent of the Ten Commandments, the ninth rule is, “Do not harm children.”

Once again it’s not atheistic or satanistic beliefs that encourage that attitude; it’s the Bible.

These verses encourage the beating of a child with a rod:

“Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.” — Proverbs 23:13-14

“Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.” — Hebrews 12:11

It’s not Satanists and atheists who sacrifice kids as part of a ritual to appease their god, either:

In Genesis 22:2 there was Abraham who was told by God to kill his own son: “And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.”

And, of course, in Judges 11:29-40 there’s Jephthah who promised God that, “I will give to the LORD the first thing coming out of my house to greet me when I return in triumph. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” Unfortunately, after his victory, his only daughter ran out to meet him, playing on a tambourine and dancing for joy. So, he kept his promise to God and burned her.

 

3. Both atheists and Satanists are accused of hating God.

This will sound strange, but most Satanists don’t actually believe in God or Satan. There is a thing such as theistic Satanism, but even these people do not worship the Satan of Christian mythology. For many Satanists, Satan is a symbolic adaptation. “Satan” comes from ancient Hebrew and means “opposer.” The contemporary Satanist is someone who opposes the ideas and commandments of the Judeo-Christian religion because they see them as evil. Yes, both the atheist and the satanist have this in common, “neither of them hate God.” They don’t even acknowledge his existence.

According to the Satanic Bible:

“ALL religions of a spiritual nature are inventions of man. He has created an entire system of gods with nothing more than his carnal brain. Just because he has an ego, and cannot accept it, he has to externalize it into some great spiritual device which he calls ‘God’.”

But there are many atheists who do oppose religion. Some of them are even very vocal about it. Richard Dawkins wrote “The God Delusion.” Christopher Hitchens wrote “God is not Great.” So, technically, when an atheist opposes the Judeo-Christian religion, he is being Satanistic, as in, being an “opposser.”

Furthermore, many atheists are also skeptics. Skepticism is another quality that both Satanists and Atheists have in common.

According to the Satanic Bible:

“The Roman god, Lucifer, was the bearer of light, the spirit of the air, the personification of enlightenment. […] It has been said “the truth will make men free”. The truth alone has never set anyone free. It is only DOUBT which will bring mental emancipation. Without the wonderful element of doubt, the doorway through which truth passes would be tightly shut, impervious to the most strenuous poundings of a thousand Lucifers.”

I have sometimes been called a Satanists by people who can’t tell the difference between atheism and Satanism. However, I don’t consider it an offense. As far as I can tell, Satanism, at least the atheistic LaVeyan incarnation of it, is not so bad. In all honesty, I would rather be mistaken for a LaVeyan Satanist than a fundamentalist Christian.

 

Image Source: http://leavingitblank.wordpress.com/tag/atheist/

Posted in Religion, Society4 Comments

Cheering for Equality

I don’t understand the Filipino sense of national pride. The Filipino sense of national pride is hard to distinguish from geographical bias, or outright racism. Filipino pride, to me, is similar to being proud of being born in a territory one did not choose to be born in. In other words, it’s like being proud of an accident.

Filipino pride, as it is commonly expressed, is like watching a male human being with a complete set of fingers being proud of being male, human, and having a complete set of fingers. Personally, I have these qualities too, but I don’t think I should take pride in any of these qualities because I was born with them. I am grateful about these qualities, but there was no effort on my part done to result in having these qualities. In other words, I didn’t work to be human, or male, or to have a complete set of fingers. I was simply born that way.

What I’m saying is, as Filipinos, we should not be proud, by default, for being Filipino. What I believe people should take pride in is having qualities that come as a consequence of effort. Being disciplined,for example, is an attribute that a person should take pride in because discipline is a product of self-control; a consequence of effort. Being kind, I think, is another quality that one can be proud of. Any person who decides to be kind is worthy of praise in my book.

If there’s anything Filipinos should be proud of, it should be something that is achieved through a collective effort. For example, I do not think Filipinos should take pride in Pacquiao becoming champion, because most Filipinos didn’t really help him train. They contributed very little to Pacquiao’s achievement.

However, Filipinos could take pride in the fact that the Philippines ranks among the most gay-friendly in the world. On the survey called, “The Global Divide on Homosexuality,” 73% of adult Filipinos believe that “homosexuality should be accepted by society.”

This is something Filipinos can take pride in, because being considered gay-friendly, as a nation, takes a collective effort, a collective decision to be tolerant.

Just recently, the University of the Philippines expressed a similar, LGBT-friendly message as part of their performance in the recent 2014 UAAP Cheerdance Competition. Since the theme of the performance was gender equality (#pantaypantay), the UP Pep Squad had their female pep squad members lift their male counterparts. As they were performing, the same group initiated the passing of a rainbow flag, a LGBT symbol, to further highlight their advocacy for equality.

UPPEPSQUAD

As a long-time student of UP (8 years and counting, for various reasons [don’t judge me]) I felt very happy that the UP Pep Squad members did that. I was happy because they promoted an advocacy that I was also promoting.

I felt a sense of kinship with them; like we were comrades and colleagues, fighting for a common good. I felt a sense of pride; I wanted to think that maybe I contributed somehow to the UP community that fostered this environment of tolerance that encouraged the UP Pep Squad to highlight gender equality in their performance. But the pride of the Pep Squad does not and should not extend to me, by default, just because I go to the same school as they do.

I didn’t help them train. I didn’t risk my life being thrown10 feet into the air. I wasn’t part of the group that made a collective decision to take advantage of a national platform to bring consciousness to an advocacy that they collectively supported. They deserve to be proud of what they did.

I don’t.

I didn’t take the risks that they did. I didn’t voice out my support for the LGBT community as loud as they have. In a simple cheer dance performance, the UP Pep Squad was able to force a nation confront the issue of gender equality. That’s quite an achievement, I think. If anything, I should be humbled by that effort.

All I can say is that I’m grateful and happy that I’m part of the academic community whose image these people represented in the best way I can imagine. Congratulations to the UP Pep Squad!

 

Image Source: http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/379148/sports/campussports/binuhat-yung-lalaki-eh-up-pep-squad-s-pantaypantay-routine-a-hit-online

Posted in Advocacy, Gender Rights, Religion, Society3 Comments

An Organic Tale of a Chemical Nature

The Power of Words

Words are powerful. Consider, for instance, the fact that right now you are staring at a grid of pixels on a computer screen and somehow because of this you hear a voice — my writer’s voice — inside your head. What more, through this voice you hear words that, as if by magic, conjure images, evoke emotions, or transport you across time and space. By a careful choice of words I can gain a certain degree of control over your mind, and consequently your behavior.

Because of their power, words must be used with care. To abuse words is to endanger people. This fact, though true in general, is most acutely felt in the case of scientific terms.

Take, for instance, the word ‘chemical’. Does it describe something dangerous or beneficial? Something to be avoided, perhaps? More than a few TV commercials boast the absence of chemicals in a product, and our supermarkets are filled with merchandise claiming to be “chemical-free.” What do these commercials and product labels mean, if they mean anything at all?

This ad for SunFX, a brand of spray on tan, is just one of many disavowing the use of chemicals. Does this claim make sense? [Photo credit: mysunfx.com]

Sometime ago, after performing a science demonstration for a general audience, I was approached by a girl of about 6 years who called my attention by tugging at the bottom of my lab coat and calling me, “Mr. Scientist.” When I finally looked down at the little girl’s quizzical face, she said, “Mr. scientist, Mr. scientist, what is a chemical?” The question gave me pause. I had to put down the tray of glassware I was holding (which contained several chemicals) and sat down. I couldn’t have given her wonderfully deep question justice by merely blurting out a textbook definition. Neither would she have been satisfied with the meaningless answer, “Oh, everything is made of chemicals.” Light and sound aren’t composed of atoms, are they chemicals too? Are space and time chemicals? Is dark matter composed of chemicals? Her question deserved nothing less than a story in reply.


The word ‘chemical’, like many scientific terms, is a shorthand for a story of discovery. Every time we refer to something as being a chemical, or of a research as part of chemistry, we are referring to this story — we are making reference to a narrative. Like all stories of discovery, it is a rich and intriguing detective story where the mystery to be solved is nature’s behavior and where the detectives are the scientists. In telling this story, we also learn about related and likewise oft-used words like ‘organic’ and ‘natural’, words that, like ‘chemical’, are often used to appeal to people’s emotions but not to their reason.

What are the advantages of products that are labelled organic? What does it take for something to be “100% natural”?


The (Distilled) Story of Chemistry

The story started with people asking what everything is made of. Are all the various things around us made of different stuff, or are they all made of the same stuff arranged differently? How many different kinds of basic stuff are there?


When this story began people let their imaginations run wild. “Everything’s made of water,” asserted Thales. “Nope, it’s all fire,” replied Heraclitus. “Atoms and the void, is what I say,” retorted Democritus. “My money’s on earth, air, fire, and water,” declared Aristotle. “Oh, and also ether,” he added. Most of these early thinkers scarcely bothered to check if their guess was the correct one.

Aristotle's five elements in their nested spheres: earth, water, wind, fire, and ether.

Aristotle’s five elements in their nested spheres: earth, water, wind, fire, and ether.


Sometime later, however, people started to earnestly and systematically burn, boil, pulverize, and purify every piece of ore they could get their hands on. In the hopes of one day finding a way to change common metals to gold or extract the elixir of life, these investigators carefully wrote down their methods and observations, trying to find patterns behind it all. In detective stories, this is the part when the detectives pin the many collected clues onto a board, connect related clues via strings, and stare at the constellation of facts wishing to discover the secret symmetry behind it all. These mortar-and-pestle-wielding detectives were called alchemists, a word which can be traced to the Greek word ‘khemia’ or the”art of transmuting metals”. Little by little the alchemists, who were later succeeded by people who called themselves ‘chemists’, saw a pattern emerging, a pattern suggesting that while most things are made of a mixture of stuff, some are made of just one kind in pure form. They called the latter group ‘elements’. The rules that govern the interactions of the elements came to be known as chemistry, and the products of these elements mixing and matching came to be called chemicals. (And oh, they also finally got the hint that you can’t turn lead into gold through chemical means, but by that time they found use for their knowledge in distilling good whiskey, and that more than made up for it.) After some false leads involving non-existent substances like “phlogiston”, the chemists eventually came up with the Table of Elements tabulating all the basic stuff that make up tables, chairs, planets, and stars.

 

The Essence of the Organic

But what about plants and people? What about animals and those unseen things called “germs” that make folks sick? Clearly they must be made of different stuff, aren’t they? After all, trees grow, fruits rot, animals make other animals, and things that live eventually cease to be alive. Dead matter like mineral ores, alkaline solutions, and hazy vapors did none of these things. Because of the striking difference between rock and rabbit, early detectives thought that living organisms were made of some special, life-giving stuff — organic matter, they called it (from the Greek ‘organikos’, meaning “relating to an organ or instrument”). And because the ‘vital force’ that moves a cheetah during a chase seems so different from the mundane forces of the elements that move pebbles around,investigators thought the processes of life were fundamentally different from those undergone by lifeless chemicals. (The word vital comes from the Latin ‘vita’, meaning life.) If you look at the miracle of life with eyes unaided by our current knowledge, as when you compare a rose in bloom with a crystal of rose quartz, it’s easy to relate with this mistake in understanding. But given how our modern life depends on the most recent scientific insights, it is important that we progress from this mistake.

Rose quartz

At a cursory glance, it is hard to believe that a rose quartz and a rose flower are made of the same kinds of stuff, only in different proportions. (Rose flowers have lots of carbon, quartz crystals have lots of silicon.)

 

What we would call living matter, it is now known, is made of stuff that can be found in the Table of Elements. Recall that these elements were discovered by people who dealt with so-called dead matter. For example carbon, which there’s a lot of in living things, is also what makes up diamonds, and the oxygen that so confused many chemists into thinking about phlogiston is just the pure form of the oxygen found in sugars and many other so-called organic molecules. What more, the rules that govern the interactions of the elements in flasks and test tubes are the same rules that hold inside cells and working organs — life is just chemistry. However, despite the fundamental similarity between dead matter and living matter, the differences are striking and important. The chemistry of life is mesmerizing; it’s complex and delicate — one might say that life is chemistry on acid. All this is made possible by the chemical properties of the element carbon, an element which can form the backbone of compounds as simple as ethanol and as complex as DNA. For this reason, we stuck with the original terminology ‘organic’. But because we know better, we now call the study of organic substances ‘organic chemistry’.

The atoms of elements (atoms are the basic units of a chemical element) can be promiscuous, but none are more promiscuous than the orgy-loving carbon atoms.

 

Organic substances are chemicals. The food we eat, the drugs we take, and we ourselves are composed of these chemicals. The processes that move our muscles and power our thoughts are chemical processes. It is therefore absurd to avoid chemicals and dishonest to claim that a pharmaceutical product, a product that has benefited from great advances in chemistry, contains “no chemicals”.

We continue to use the words organic and inorganic out of convenience because they signify concepts that are helpful in organizing our world. But a lot of important properties easily cross this divide of convenience. For example, many organic substances are poisonous or toxic, and a lot of inorganic ones, like water and table salt, are needed by living things. 

In agriculture, the word organic is often used to describe a certain group of food and farming methods that involve audit trails to ensure that certain standards are met in animal welfare, agricultural drug use, the application of biotechnology, corporate transparency (or more often the lack thereof), ecological impact, and many more. The problem with this use of the word organic is that it has little to do with the scientific meaning of the term. More often than not, people use the word ‘organic’ to invoke emotion without invoking much thought. True, some chemicals used in industrial farming might be harmful to the environment and the health of consumers, and it is best if we replace them with chemicals that work just as well and that have fewer negative side effects, but their being chemically organic or inorganic has little to do with it. The same can be said about their being natural or unnatural.

The USDA’s requirements for obtaining the label ‘organic’ vs common practices in products with the label ‘natural’. [Pic credit: stonyfield.com]

 

Natural Tendencies

When I’m in the supermarket, I am always amused to see so many products claiming to be “all natural” while being wrapped or contained in plastic and placed on a refrigerator in an air-conditioned, artificially-lit department store. But what about that seedless banana that looks so different from its wild counterpart? Does growing this product of generations of human cultivation without using pesticides and fertilizers make it “all natural”?

The word ‘natural’ is tricky because it means a handful of very different things. The word can be traced to the Latin ‘natura’, meaning birth in the sense of “having a certain status by birth”. It is natural, for example, for most people to want to eat. It is a tendency that people have since they were born. It is not natural, however, to want to listen to obscure music. Babies don’t have an inclination to visit pitchfork.com. Things like taste in music are what we describe as ‘cultural’, a word that can be traced to the Latin ‘cultura’, meaning ’tillage’. Something cultural is something that is cultivated. (Does this mean that anything cultivated, like nearly all plant products we currently consume, are not natural? In this sense, yes.)

The word ‘natural’, however, was for hundreds of years also used to refer to the collective phenomenon of the physical world outside the realm of human control. On the one hand was nature with its trees, animals, mountains, clouds, and rain, and on the other were humans with their cities, governments, philosophies, culture, and Stanley Kubrick films. A line was drawn between what was natural and what was ‘artificial’ (from the Latin ‘artificium’ meaning handicraft). Using this sense of the word ‘natural’, the predecessors of scientists called themselves ‘natural philosophers’ — people who love to reason about things that happen outside the human sphere.

The more these natural philosophers learned about nature, however, the more they noticed that the dichotomy between the natural world and the human world is at best arbitrary and at worst untenable. Not only are we made of the same stuff that make up things that were considered natural, we are governed by the very same “laws of nature”. Humans are part of nature, there is no way out of it. (After all, what is outside nature? That is, what is supernatural? Jensen Ackles’s handsomeness, maybe?)

As with the case of the word ‘organic’, we continue to use the words ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ because they are convenient shorthands. When we say a chemical “exists in nature”, we mean that it would exist even without humans manufacturing it. When we say a phenomenon is natural, we mean that it would happen even without humans around making it happen. As with ‘organic’, the main problem with ‘natural’ is not its uselessness, but the emotional undertones that people incorrectly attach to it. The word ‘natural’ is very often used as an assurance of superior quality. It is not. Parasites and pests are natural. Poisonous fruits and plant toxins are natural. Many diseases are natural. Heck, death is natural. Compare the above natural things with the following, all of which are artificial: lifespans that are relatively long and comfortable, low infant mortality rate, homes made cozy by electricity, medicine, anesthesia, distilled water, contact lenses, pet animals, YouTube, and Lena Headey’s blond hair in Game of Thrones. While one can argue that at least one of these is not good, the rest are great. Who can imagine life without modern medicine? Or YouTube?

Science and Stories

‘Natural’ does not mean better nor ‘artificial’ worse. ‘Organic’ does not mean beneficial nor ‘chemical’ harmful. These words have rich and complex histories, and we do these histories a great injustice by using the words that stand for them simplistically. Worse, by forgetting the stories behind these words, we not only forget all the amazing men and women who have labored to discover the workings of the world, we endanger ourselves by failing to grasp the nuances of their meaning.

Needless to say I did not tell all of these things to the little girl who asked me about chemicals. I told her a story that was more brief and less pretentious than the one above. She seemed to enjoyed it. At the end of the story, the little girl asked me one last question. She said, “So scientists are story tellers too?” “Yes,” I said, “Scientists are story tellers. But most of all, they are story makers.”

Posted in Education, Science3 Comments

FF Podcast (Audio) 48: Ethics and Celebrity Nudes

FF Podcast (Audio) 48: Ethics and Celebrity Nudes

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast Episode 48 - Ethics and Celebrity Nudes

This week, we talk about the recent celebrity nude leaks and the so-called “Fappening.”

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Posted in Audio, audio podcast, Entertainment, Media, Pop Culture, Society0 Comments

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