Friday, July 30, 2010

Current lab work: Spintronics

As mentioned previously, I've just moved to the Bay Area so I can go to physics grad school.  Since I'm here a bit early, I'm doing a mini research project.  It's "mini" because the time frame is far too short to have anything approaching a full research project.

This mini research project is quite unlike my previous research experience because before I only did data analysis.  Now I'm actually working in a lab.

I wanted to include a picture, but I think taking a camera into the clean room would earn some strange looks.  So I got the next best thing: a stock image!

These here are silicon nanotubes, magnified by a factor of 10^9.

No, I'm just kidding.  They're drinking straws.  We use the straws to suspend crystal samples in the SQUID (superconducting quantum interference device).

The SQUID measures the crystal's response to strong magnetic fields.  To produce strong magnetic fields, we need a very strong current.  To carry a strong current, we need something that conducts electricity very well, like a superconductor.  To maintain a superconductor, we need to keep it cold.  To keep it cold, we use liquid helium.  So, you know, the SQUID is super advanced and super cool.

Why drinking straws?  They're cheap, and the right size.

My use of the SQUID is part of a larger research project on spintronics.  Spintronics is a kind of electronics which doesn't just make use of the negative charge of the electrons.  It also makes use of the spin of the electrons.

Electron spin is a bit like the electron is spinning.  Whenever there's electric charge spinning in a circle, it creates a magnet.  So an electron with spin produces a small magnetic field.  However, you cannot say that the electron is really spinning, because an electron is a point-like particle, and there's no way it could be spinning fast enough to produce the magnetic field we see.  Electron spin is fundamentally a quantum property.  There are two discrete spin states of an electron: spin up, or spin down.  Or it could be in some superposition of the two states.

Beyond that, I can't say anything about spintronics, because I don't know much.

To get spintronics to work, one thing you need is a "spin injector", which is a material that conducts mostly spin up electrons, not spin down electrons.  My research works on creating new crystals which could serve as spin injectors.

Growing crystals is a really complicated process.  I'm told that the training can take six months, so I'm not going to get to do it.  The device which grows crystals is called the e-beam.  The e-beam has a chamber under ultra-high vacuum.  Inside the vacuum are pure elemental metals.  These metals are heated up and evaporated using electron beams.  Some of the evaporated metal deposits on a little square (called the substrate).  The crystal grows at about half an angstrom per second.  Afterwards, the crystals are mechanically moved into an airlock so we can remove them without ruining the ultra-high vacuum.

We grow lots of crystals with different proportions of different elements.  And then we need to characterize all those crystals by testing them in all sorts of different ways.  The SQUID is just one of those tests.

Did I mention it's all done in a clean room?  And that there are giant dewars of liquid nitrogen all over the place?  Fun times are had by all.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Women and causality

Being female causes a person to not study physics.

It sounds outrageous, but it isn't when you examine the meaning closely.  The only thing outrageous here is my cheap attention-grabbing tactic.

What does it mean for something to cause something else?  It's difficult to explain, because it's sort of an intuitive concept.  A good place to start is by looking at the definition of causation in science.

In science, a causal relationship is proven by varying the cause, and measuring a difference in the effect.  For example, suppose that we're considering the idea that eating vegetables causes you to grow taller (silly example, I know, but just go with it).  The way to test this is by take a group of people and feeding them different amounts of vegetables.  Then we measure the change in their height.

If the results looks like this, then we may have a causal relationship!

Of course, I'm ignoring a few things like randomness.  Clearly some people grow taller than others, regardless of diets.  That doesn't mean that there is no causal relationship, it just means that you'll have to do some averaging or other statistical analysis first.  Eventually, you should get a straight line like above, and then you've found evidence for causation.

Note that you can have different degrees of causation.  If you have a very steep line, that means that vegetables cause you to grow a lot taller.  If it's a shallow line, vegetables just cause you to grow a little taller.  But we may also get a wonky mix of shallow and steep slopes, and even negative slopes.

There is some sort of causal relationship here, but the slope of the line changes so much that we can't even say if more vegetables will make you taller or shorter.  It seems to depend on how much vegetables you were eating to begin with.  This isn't an unusual scenario; many causal relationships turn out to be nonlinear if you consider a wide enough range.  Perhaps the language of causation is not sufficient to describe the situation.

There's another important component I missed.  Imagine that I decided to put all the teenagers into the group fed with lots of vegetables, and put all the older subjects into the group with fewer vegetables.  This would compromise my evidence since teenagers grow a lot faster than adults.

The thing to understand is that there are a lot more variables than just the amount of vegetables eaten.  The way to test the effect of vegetables is to vary the amount of vegetables while holding other variables constant, such as age.  Or, since every person is different, you could just randomly assign them to groups.  When the groups are randomized, the averages are roughly constant.  For instance, two randomized  groups will probably have about the same average age.

But this introduces new kinds of trickiness.  For instance, if we are testing the effect of eating vegetables, which variables are we holding constant?  Are we holding the amount of non-vegetables constant?  Are we holding constant the total amount eaten?  Or are we holding constant something else entirely?

The above plot represents a possible relationship between the amount of vegetables eaten, the amount of non-vegetables eaten, and the change in height.  The blue line represents what we find if we hold constant the amount of non-vegetables eaten.  The green line represents what we find if we hold constant the total amount eaten.  If we look at the blue line, vegetables make you taller.  If we look at the green line, vegetables make you shorter.  Which is it?

Yet again, I will suggest that the language of causation is not enough to describe the situation.  It's not enough to say that vegetables cause this, or cause that, without saying which variables are held constant.

Let's go back to the statement about females.  When everyone is born, they're assigned more or less randomly either male or female.  Because it's random, all other variables determined at birth are roughly constant.  And then I make the observation that fewer women study physics than men.  Therefore, being female causes a person to not study physics.  I've proven it by a natural ongoing experiment.

But note that I only held constant the variables which are determined at birth.  What if I also decided to hold constant another variable: society's treatment of the person?  That is, both the female and male groups must be treated the same by everyone.  What's the causal relationship, if any?  Unfortunately, this experiment is too difficult to carry out.

Other posts in this mini-series:
Colds and Causality
Women and Causality
Responsibility and Causality
Nature/nurture and Causality
Physics and Causality
Math and Causality

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Popularizing Condensed Matter

Chad Orzel was discussing the difficulty of popularizing condensed matter physics.  It's a bit of a problem.  Everyone knows about cosmology and particle physics and astrophysics, but most people I've met don't even know what condensed matter physics is.  This is despite the fact that condensed matter physics is probably the biggest field of physics, with the most practical applications.  What's worse, this has become my problem, since I intend to go into condensed matter physics.

I don't know if I could really describe the condensed matter at this point.  I've only just started!  But as I understand it, condensed matter deals with all the "condensed" forms of matter, like liquids and solids.

People ask me, does condensed matter physics study things like this desk?  This teacup?  This tea?  Uh... not exactly.  From what I can tell, much of condensed matter is concerned with things with interesting electronic properties.  The electronics in your computer?  Condensed matter.  Solar panels?  Condensed matter.  Friggin' magnets, how do they work?  Condensed matter.  Not everything in condensed matter deals with electronic properties, but it's a good chunk.

You might also be familiar with some words like semiconductors, superconductors, and Bose-Einstein condensates.  All condensed matter.

I'm sure you find all that tremendously boring.  But then, I don't choose my career based on what I think would be good to blog about.  So why did I choose condensed matter?  What's so great about it?  You know, besides the sheer practicality of it?

As the regulars know, one of my favorite parts of physics is quantum mechanics.  But you can't just specialize in quantum mechanics.  That would be like a mathematician who specializes in algebra.  Quantum mechanics is just a tool we use to solve other problems.  Nearly every branch of physics uses at least a little quantum mechanics, but condensed matter uses a lot.  For me, that makes it exciting, but I think it's hard to appreciate if you don't study physics.

In introductory condensed matter, the first thing you talk about are crystals.  A crystal is a repeating structure of atoms.  And then we take this geometry, and do quantum physics to it.  Clearly, since millions of millions of billions of atoms are involved, you can't solve the problem exactly, so we've got to use models and approximations.  There's always plenty of theoretical work to be done because we need different models for different situations.

So how do I convey this excitement to a popular audience?  I think because of the nature of the subject, it's harder for popular audiences to understand.  I think it's harder for me to understand.  There are huge areas of condensed matter physics that I sort of understand, but would not be confident to write about.  There are fewer pretty pictures.  Nothing flashy or exotic, just little pieces of matter.  In other fields, I often draw upon narratives and analogies which are tried and tested, but in condensed matter I have to think up my narratives from scratch.

I am, of course, ignoring the question of whether it is worth popularizing condensed matter physics in the first place.  After all, we don't need to popularize every single field of science.  However, I am personally interested in writing about it.  So there.

Is there any particular part of condensed matter physics that you would be interested in hearing about?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Martin Gardner, the token theist

Martin Gardner, who died earlier this year, was one of the earliest great skeptical leaders.  He was also, as many know, a theist.  Specifically, he believed in a personal god who did not involve himself in the affairs of men.  And he believed in immortality after death.  He called himself a fideist, because he explicitly admitted that he had no rational basis for his beliefs, and merely chose to believe them on faith because they made him feel better.1

When it comes to discussing theistic skeptics, Martin Gardner is occasionally mentioned as an example.  I'm quite sure that this happened at TAM8, though I can't remember exactly what they said about it.2  Martin Gardner's fideism was briefly described, and someone said that Martin Gardner is still cool because his belief is entirely untestable.

According to Wikipedia, tokenism is defined as "policy or practice of limited inclusion of members of a minority group, usually creating a false appearance of inclusive practices, intentional or not."  To be honest, the skeptical movement's treatment of Martin Gardner strikes me as tokenism.  To demonstrate, here are some similar statements:
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say atheists deserve respect.  They're not hurting anyone as long as they're not mocking my beliefs, like that Richard Dawkins guy (why's he so angry?).

People think I'm putting fiction down, but I love fiction!  As long as it is science fiction and stays as true as possible to accurate science, I love fiction.

Of course I respect gay people!  My best friend is gay, and that's cool with me since he doesn't do any of those annoying girly things.

Some say you can't be a skeptic who believes in a god, but just look at Martin Gardner!  This doesn't disqualify him as a skeptic, because he's a fideist!
But maybe you don't think that these statements should be interpreted the same way.  Maybe you think it's different with Martin Gardner because fideism really is the only possible form of theism which is compatible with skepticism.

But I must disagree with this point of view, because, well, I disagree pretty strongly with fideism.  I believe the act of forsaking reason for faith is very anti-skeptical in spirit.  It doesn't matter how little evidence there is to bear on the question, you still shouldn't answer the question with faith.3

In short, I think fideism is very anti-skeptical, and yet I still consider Martin Gardner to be a personal hero and a hero to the skeptical movement.  So why should I treat other forms of theism significantly differently?  Fideism is a wrong belief and that is my opinion.  And all my opinions are greatly influenced by skeptical thought, so I could definitely call it a skeptical opinion.  But that's okay, because there is room for disagreement in skepticism.

There are limits, of course.  If a skeptic believed in the miracles at Fatima, I might regard him/her with the same suspicion as I'd regard a skeptic who believes that UFOs must be visiting aliens.  And not all wrong beliefs are made equal.  But it is silly to highlight fideism as especially acceptable.

In general, I think the best path to inclusion is by accepting disagreements rather than shoving them under the rug in hopes that they'll disappear.  If you shove them under a rug, it's not just the disagreements that will disappear, but the people who are doing the disagreeing as well.

1. See Martin Gardner's own words
2. To show that I'm not completely making this up, Hemant mentioned it in his TAM8 liveblogging.  Randi states that JREF is not an atheist organization, and avoids untestable claims.  Then Martin Gardner's belief in a god comes up, and Paul Kurtz refers to the belief as "charming".
3. For a more expanded opinion, see Robert Carroll.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Double Rock Paper Scissors

Alice and Bob play a game of Extra Tricky Double Rock Paper Scissors (ETDRPS).  It's like Rock Paper Scissors, but with a few extra rules.
1. One game of ETDRPS consists of two simultaneous Rock Paper Scissors games.  One game is played between Alice's right hand and Bob's left hand.  The other game is played between Alice's left hand and Bob's right hand.  These two games are won/lost/tied separately.

2. Bob wins ETDRPS only if he wins more Rock Paper Scissors games than Alice does.  If each player wins one game, or if both games tie, then Alice wins ETDRPS.

3. Alice may not use paper.
What strategies should each player use?  What is the probability of each player winning?

This puzzle was "borrowed" from the Caltech Harvey Mudd Competition, which is supposed to be high school level.  If you ask me, most of them are exceedingly difficult, but this one isn't too bad.

See the solution

Solution to "Linking rings with scissors"

See the original puzzle

As it turns out, it's actually not too hard to create linked rings.  The first thing my brother tried was to tape the long strip into a knotted loop, and then cut down the middle.    He got two rings, as shown below.

These rings are, technically speaking, linked.  Linked just means that you can't disentangle the rings without breaking them.

But the rings are not simply linked.  There's a particular way to connect the loop in order to get simply linked rings.  The secret is to twist the strip 360 degrees before completing the loop.  And then you cut down the middle.

See spoiler image

Alternatively, you can just create a mobius, and then cut the ring into thirds (or fourths).  This will only result in two rings, and they will be simply linked.

See spoiler image

Additional note of interest: When writing puzzles, I often try to think of a bonus challenge just for the puzzle masters in my audience.  One bonus challenge I considered for this one was to create the Borromean rings by the same method.  But I'm convinced that this challenge is impossible!  Can anyone figure out why?

Monday, July 12, 2010

At The Amaz!ng Meeting

I've finally gotten back from The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM8) in Las Vegas.  There were over 1300 registrants, and supposedly about 400 of them were first-timers like me.  The bulk of TAM is in the talks and panels, but there were also workshops, parties, shows, and ever-productive lounging around.

For other reports of TAM8, I suggest this link roundup and in particular, Hemant's liveblogging series (1,2,3,4,5,6).  If you want photos, look elsewhere because my photos suck and I'm not posting them.

Several of the veterans told me that this year's TAM was more introspective than the previous ones.  Which is just as well, because my blog is relatively introspective (if you've never noticed).  There were several speakers who decided to level criticism at the skeptical movement.

Shorter Phil Plait: "Don't be a dick."  And the internet is abuzz!

Carol Tavris, author of Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) immediately followed Phil with a psychologist's perspective.  She says that we have three biases:

1) The bias that we are unbiased
2) The bias that we are above average
3) Confirmation bias

The second bias often causes people to cling to beliefs they hold even after they've been definitively proven wrong.  Because to admit that you were wrong is to admit that you were stupid.  Carol says this is one of the major obstacles skeptics face when trying to persuade others.  Also note that this bias operates on skeptics as well; skeptics like to think they are more rational than average, and can be slow to admit errors.  Carol Tavris was probably one of my favorite speakers.

Steve Cuno had a similar message, but from the perspective of an advertiser.  We're trying to sell critical thinking.  But critical thinking is not like ketchup, people won't just choose your product without much thought.  Selling something like critical thinking is a step by step process, and it's okay if it takes years.

Massimo Pigliucci actually went ahead and called out specific skeptics.  He went over Bill Maher's egregiously wrong antivaxxer statements, Penn & Teller's episode on global warming, and James Randi's moment of sympathy for global warming dissidents.  He also named Michael Shermer, but I think as a complement, since Michael Shermer publicly disbelieved anthropogenic global warming, and publicly changed his mind.  Massimo went on to say that there are certain realms that skeptics should leave to the experts.

On the subject of experts, there was a panel on the proper attitude skeptics should have towards climate change.  Should we defer to experts, and to what extent?  Panelists were Michael Shermer, Daniel Loxton, James McGaha, and Donald Prothero.  Of all the panels in the conference, this one clearly had the most disagreement.  Unfortunately, I only saw the first half.

James McGaha thought that we have no obligation to follow experts, because many factors bias them (ie funding sources).  I don't think the crowd liked him very much, and Shermer got applause when he compared McGaha to Intelligent Designers.  Michael Shermer's position is demonstrated by the articles published in Skeptic (which is headed by Shermer).  Skeptic has published for and against articles, but not with the pretense that all sides are equal.  Daniel Loxton had the most conservative position, that in an issue like climate change, skeptics should only explain the science rather than offering their own opinions.

Of course, I've only highlighted five talks out of more than twenty.  There were also talks about traditional skeptical topics like UFOs, psychics, and alternative medicine, and talks from politicians, entertainers, astronomers, psychologists, historians, feminists, investigators, and skeptical leaders.

The last day was reserved for "papers", which were submitted by members of the skeptical community talking about their accomplishments.

Jennifer McCreight, aka the Blag Hag, talked about Boobquake.  Some Iranian cleric blamed earthquakes on women who dress immodestly, so Jennifer joked that women should do an experiment and dress immodestly for a day.  To her surprise, this idea got a lot of support and media attention.  It was the perfect blend of silliness, skepticism, and feminism.  Funny, I had heard of Boobquake, but it never quite struck me how much media attention it got.  It's just like me to underestimate the power of boobs.

Barbara Drescher talked about how science education for kids could be improved by teaching skepticism.  As an example, she explained how her son investigated Phiten wrist bands, which appear to be homeopathic sportswear.  The Phiten experiment is better than say, a potato clock experiment, because it actually teaches the scientific method of investigating new claims, rather than simply demonstrating a scientific principle.  It's a nice idea, but I wonder if it would always play out so nicely as it did with her son.

Brian Hart talked about how the Independent Investigations Group (IIG) went after the California Board of Registered Nursing (CBRN).  IIG saw that the CBRN had authorized Clearsight to teach Healing Touch, and give nurses credit for attending workshops.  After many ignored complaints, the IIG decided to get in on the game themselves.  They invented a new organization "CFI Care" and successfully registered with CBRN.  They were authorized to teach nonsense like "Mobel Kinesiology" (Furniture Moving), "Vapor and Reflective Surfaces" (smoke and mirrors), and Anthropomancy (divination from live human entrails).  And then they actually gave these workshops.

For some reason, they never got any major media attention for this despite involving reporters.  Why not?  It sounds like a great story!  However, IIG won in the end, because Governor Schwarzenegger later fired the entire staff of CBRN.

IIG is based in Los Angeles (though it is currently starting new chapters in other parts of the country), so for me it is local.  I'm an honorary member of the IIG, and I know all the people in the group, sort of.  I spent a lot of time hanging out with them.  They also brought with them Anita Ikonen, who was one of the people tested for the IIG's \$50,000 paranormal challenge.  She claimed to be able to detect missing organs just by looking at a person. She failed the test, and now she wants to join the skeptical movement.

However, Anita hasn't gone all the way.  She isn't entirely convinced that her ability isn't real.  I would suggest that this is exactly what Carol Tavris was talking about.

Late Sunday, she gave a demonstration to TAM, but I had to miss it.  (Update: You can learn about the results of Anita's demonstration from other reports.  The demonstration had five people, with one kidney missing, but Anita guessed the wrong person.)

Anita and I know each other from before.  She wants to study physics, so naturally, we get along.  She told me that she hasn't been speaking to Mark Edwards (another IIG member) since he wrote an essay that seemed sexist to her.  Oh, drama...  I don't think Anita is trying to manipulate anyone.  I think magician skeptics like Mark Edwards (or James Randi) tend to overemphasize the role that manipulation plays in woo.  Or maybe it's that I tend to overemphasize the role played by cognitive bias.  Anyways.

I also met an assortment of other people.  I didn't really seek out celebrities, but I did talk to Hemant Mehta, Michael Shermer, Jennifer McCreight, Tim Farley, and probably more.  There were also lots of random people, no more famous than I, and lots of JREF forumites.  They're pretty cool, the kind of people you can just start talking to about skepticism, the kind of people who spontaneously start playing board games in a bar.

Diversity is always an issue when we move from internet to meatspace, and I'd say that the diversity wasn't too bad.  The age diversity is impressive.  There are more men than women, but I'm told that it's been improving over time.  I was most struck by how white the conference was.  Maybe it's just because I'm from LA, but I was thinking, where are all the Asians, Latinos, and Blacks?  You can't say it's just a matter of existing education gaps, because Asians tend to be overrepresented in higher education, at least where I am.  (BTW I am half Asian, in case you didn't know.)

Finally, I'd like to recap the keynote speaker, Richard Dawkins.  This is the first TAM to be cosponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.  Richard Dawkins was interviewed by DJ Grothe, the current president of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF).  Ironically, though Richard Dawkins is the most famous, I think I disagreed with him more than anyone else.

DJ started out by asking whether it's more important to be a skeptic or an atheist.  Dawkins started talking about how skeptics should investigate religious claims same as any others.  That's all well and good, but it didn't answer the question!  Dawkins considered theistic skeptics, but what about non-skeptical atheists?  I would go so far as to say that non-skeptical atheists are not my allies, except on the issues of legal and social discrimination against atheists.

DJ also asked about Dawkins' public speculations about whether reading fantasy promotes superstition.  Dawkins was quick to say that it was mere speculation, a question he wanted researched.  He tried to emphasize that he likes fiction, but basically said he only likes hard sci-fi.  DJ Grothe kept on trying to pin down Dawkins on the subject, so much that it almost seemed like a hostile interview.  It probably isn't good to have a hostile interview with the keynote speaker, but I sure wanted to pin Dawkins on the subject too.

I think that Dawkins should not just admit that it was speculation, but that it was idle speculation, the kind that is irresponsible to publicly state in major media.  It was based purely on Dawkins' personal experience.  There is basically no reason to think it's true, and I'm not even convinced it's a good question.  It also reeks of the wrong kind of elitism, that is, elitism about primarily subjective things like taste in literature.  I don't know about anyone else, but I'm tired of the atheist movement putting so much emphasis on the beauty of reality or whatnot, as if we all had the same sense of aesthetics.

Of course, Dawkins also said some very smart things.  For instance, his discussion of the Drake Equation was good.  He said that if life is very rare, then this predicts that we are wasting our time looking for an abiogenesis mechanism.  That's is exactly what I would say if I ever got around to blogging on the Drake Equation.

Questions?  Comments?  Anyone here also attend?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

God as quantum observer

Today we will look at the intersection of quantum nonsense and terrible arguments for God.  How fun!

This argument is based on something Michio Kaku said to Deepak Chopra in an interview. It wasn't very clearly stated, so I'm filling in the blanks.
1. Quantum mechanics says that things do not exist unless there is an observer to observe them.
2. The universe exists.
3. There must be an omniscient conscious being to observe the universe.
4. That being is God.
As with most arguments for God, the last step is troublesome, because there are all sorts of things the being could be.  There's no compelling reason to think that the object in question can appropriately be called "God", much less the Judeo-Christian god.  For example, why should we think that it's a single object observing the entire universe rather than multiple objects?  But since Deepak Chopra is not part of any western religion, he would skip step 4, thus avoiding the problem.  Unfortunately for him, the rest of the argument is crap too.

Rebutting the rest of the argument is really an exercise in applying the advice in my presentation on Quantum Mechanics for Skeptics.

Error #1: Elementary misunderstanding of what Quantum Mechanics actually says

According to step 1, things don't exist until we observe them.  This is incorrect.   Observation does not cause things to come into existence, it just causes a mixed state to become a definite state.  For example, if we have an electron in two places at once, and we observe its position, then it "collapses" into a single position.  The electron existed before you observed it.  The mixed state existed before you observed it.

Getting a little more advanced: Even after you observe an object, in some sense it's still in a mixed state.  This is because all states are mixed states.  So even if you mistakenly believed that "mixed state" = "does not exist", then you would be forced to conclude that nothing exists with or without observers.

Error #2: Misunderstanding observers

Step 1 just talks about observers, while step 3 suddenly jumps to conscious observers.  Observers do not need to be conscious.  The chair I'm sitting on functions as an observer.  A piece of white paper functions as an observer.  Anything with enough atoms to be visible to the naked eye probably functions as an observer.  When you realize the banality of observers, it makes much more sense to conclude that the universe is full of non-conscious observers, none of which need be omniscient.

Error #3: Misunderstanding quantum interpretations

This whole time we've been talking about observers.  But observers are specific to one interpretation of quantum mechanics, the Copenhagen interpretation.  Under many other interpretations, there is no such thing as an observer.

The thing is with quantum interpretations, they're all or nothing.  All interpretations make the same predictions.  Therefore, all of them predict God, or none of them do.  If you've formulated an argument that only works for the Copenhagen interpretation, but not for others, then this is a sign that you made an error somewhere.  I already showed errors in the argument, so the problem is resolved.

A summary:
#1: The universe does not need to be observed to exist.
#2: There are probably non-conscious observers all over the universe.
#3: A valid argument would make sense under all quantum interpretations, but this one does not.

I've also heard an argument from quantum mechanics that God does not exist.  It is also a crap argument.  I will cover it next time.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Atheism and LGBT vs queer

I didn't see it this way before, but I now realize that one of the greatest hidden blessings I got from the atheist community was the sheer LGBT-positivity.  Atheists are not simply supportive of LGBT.  They actively support LGBT causes, and actively criticize and mock its opponents.  If you look around at atheist blogs, many of them periodically talk about LGBT rights, and no one thinks twice about it.  Gay rights issues are atheist issues.

I'm not the only one who's said so.  See Greta Christina:
I'm not saying that I've never encountered homophobia or homo-stupidity in the atheist community. I have. But I've found it to be very rare, very much the exception. And maybe more to the point: When it does show up, it gets smacked down like a bug, by a dozen different hands or more.
On the whole, the atheist community has been just about the most LGBT- positive community I've been in that wasn't, specifically, an LGBT community itself.
Thanks to the time I've spent in the atheist community, I absorbed a lot of the LGBT-positive attitude.  So by the time I started questioning my sexuality, I already understood why it's okay to be queer and why gay rights are important.  It made my life so much easier.  If you had asked me a few years ago whether being an atheist had improved my life, I would have said, it's not meant to improve my life, that's not why I'm an atheist.  While that's still true, now I can say that it's greatly improved my life because being a gay atheist is just so much brighter and happier than being a gay Catholic.

That said, there is a bit of a limit to how the atheist community handles queer issues.  I don't mean this as a point of criticism or even as an area that needs improvement.  I simply wish to point out the unsurprising fact that the atheist community does not cover queer issues quite as comprehensively as does the queer community itself.  If you aren't in in the queer community, perhaps you're curious what you're missing.

[Insert disclaimer that my experience in the queer community is limited to one year in university, and I have little clue what I'm talking about.]

I want to discuss a particular divide in the LGBT community, though "divide" is very much a mischaracterization.  It's more like, there are many views in the community, and some of them fall closer to one end or the other, with lots of people in the middle.  From this point on, I will call the two sides LGBT vs queer.

This might seem like a weird distinction, since I usually use the two words interchangeably.  Most of the time, people don't mean anything different by "queer" and "LGBT".  But each word has its connotations.  Queer is used more by the younger generation, because it's a recently "reclaimed" pejorative.  Queer also implicitly includes all sexual and gender minorities.  It's such a bother to include further minorities in LGBT, because you need to extend the acronym to something really ugly, like LGBTQQIAAP.

These different connotations can be extended into an entire dimension of internal politics in the LGBT/queer community.

LGBT is about "We're the same as you, so why don't you accept us?"  Queer is more about, "Some of us are different, but what's wrong with that?"  LGBT is mostly about the gays and lesbians.  Queer is about recognizing that not everyone fits in neat little boxes, that there is more to sexuality than gay and straight, and more to gender than male and female.  Queer is also more interested in intersectionality, how sexual identity interacts with things like ethnic identity, disability, social class, gender.

Politically, LGBT is more focused on immediate equal rights.  We need marriage equality, non-discrimination policies.  We need to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell.  Politically, queer takes the longer view.  Queer wants respect and rights for all oppressed minorities, and hates to ignore one group just because it would be politically inconvenient.  Though they both support each other, priorities may clash.  For example, when the proposed ENDA protected sexual orientation without protecting transgender, there was a big dispute over whether this was an acceptable compromise.

Queer asks many questions that are tough to swallow, questions with a lot of room for disagreement.  For example, in what way is being queer a choice, and how might that understanding help us?   In what ways are gender and sexual identity socially constructed?  Should we be fighting for the privilege of marriage, or should we be fighting the institution of marriage itself?  These questions are not really in contradiction with LGBT goals, but they often mesh poorly with LGBT political rhetoric.

Clearly, I am conflating a lot of very different issues with this simplistic LGBT vs queer caricature.  But I needed the caricature as a starting point.

Consider the atheist community's motivations for supporting the LGBT community.  You want an example of how religious beliefs cause definitive harm here and now?  How religion tears families apart, and makes good people do evil things?  You'd be hard pressed to find a better example than religious homophobia.  To the atheist, gay rights are just one of those things that religion tends to get horribly wrong.  Like evolution, but with more human interest.

It's a backlash against religion.  I'm sure that atheists would support gay rights for their own sake, but the active support is motivated by a backlash against religion.  Compare to transgender issues.  I'm sure that religion has plenty of hangups about transgender people, but religious leaders simply give more attention to The Gay than to The Transgender.  And so, atheists don't give transgender much attention either.  If it ever becomes a common issue in political and religious discussion, I'm sure we'd see atheists actively supporting trans people.

In short, atheists are focused on the politics.  In particular, they're focused on the most current and immediate political issues.  That's probably the way it should be. But as I said, the focus on the most current political issues is characteristic of the LGBT end rather than the queer end.  And that's why atheists find themselves skewed in the direction of LGBT rather than queer.

Since I have a non-standard orientation, some weird mixture of gay and asexual, this skews me in the opposite direction, towards queer.  This has made me hyper-aware of how atheists are missing the more queer perspectives on gay issues.  But I'm not complaining, just observing.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Next week: The Amaz!ng Meeting

I thought I'd let you know.  Next week (July 8-11), I'm attending my first skeptical conference, The Amaz!ng Meeting.  No liveblogging will occur, though I will probably write a report afterwards.

Is anyone else here going?