21 March 2012

Sex, porn and moralism

As someone who is sex-positive and polyamorous, my views on sexuality and relationships can be at odds with those of the largely monogamous, sex-negative mainstream. So it was encouraging to read Jennifer Wilson’s critique of anti-porn, anti-casual sex advocates and their self-righteous moralising. Wilson’s essay is set within the context of Australian pornography laws (which local anti-porn campaigners deem insufficiently censorial), but her cogent arguments are not restricted to any one country or culture. Take these for example:

In my opinion some campaigners are engaged in a moral battle to control who may desire whom, when and how. Their arguments are founded on conservative moral assumptions about what sex is or ought to be, how it can and can’t be performed, and by whom. To this end they define pornography as not about sex, but solely about violence against women.

Anti porn campaigners conflate sexual violence and exploitation with pornography to strengthen their argument against it, even though there’s a variety of porn available, from the inoffensive to the frightening. They allow no exceptions: their position is that all porn is bad because all porn is inherently violent and exploitative.

20 March 2012

Baysian improbability

Here’s my satirical response to this news.

Michael Bay to reboot Batman

Fans of the Batman film trilogy by director Christopher Nolan may be relieved to know that Nolan’s upcoming finale ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ will not be the last Batman film they will ever see. Producer and director Michael Bay recently announced his plans to produce a new Batman film, tentatively set for a December 2013 release. Speaking at the Nickelodeon Upfront in New York, Bay promised Batman fans that his take on the Caped Crusader will live up to the high standards set by Nolan.

“Chris brought a gritty realism and darkness to the Batman story, and I intend to preserve that,” Bay said.

But then the ‘Transformers’ director dropped a bombshell: he would be changing the Dark Knight’s origins.

“In my film, Batman, that’s Bruce Wayne, is going to be an alien,” he said, “And he’s going to have really cool superpowers that aid him in his crime-fighting.”

"I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien..."

Bay will also apply his poetic license to Bruce Wayne’s life-defining moment: witnessing the murder of his parents by a mugger. In Bay’s reboot, the alien Wayne sees his home planet destroyed by an intergalactic criminal organisation of giant transforming robots, leaving him its sole survivor. Bay stated that his version of the Batman mythos “will lend more credibility to Batman’s psychopathic obsession with fighting crime.”

“It’s not just his parents that get killed, but his entire race. Now that kind of loss would be far more traumatic than just having your parents killed. Lots of people have had their parents killed by criminals. But they don’t go running around in batsuits beating up bad guys, do they?”

And Bay’s reason for giving Batman superpowers?

“Because I fucking can.”

Needless to say, fans are not happy with Bay for changing the origins and very nature of DC Comics’ most commercially successful character. The public outcry has prompted Bay to issue this response on his official website:

“Fans need to take a breath, and chill. They have not read the script. Our team is working closely with one of the original creators of Batman to help expand and give a more complex back story. Relax, we are including everything that made you become fans in the first place. We are just building a richer world.”

Considering that both Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger are deceased, Bay may have recruited John Edward to join the production team.

Bay also mentioned plans to make a live-action Care Bears movie, based on the plush toys and animated TV series popular during the 1980s. “It’s still in the conceptual stage, so not a lot is certain just yet,” he said, “but one thing’s for sure – these Care Bears are going to be aliens.”


15 March 2012

Critical thinking and skepticism are for women too

Pick up any random women’s magazine and you are almost guaranteed to find a prettily illustrated astrology section. Men’s magazines in contrast rarely have a ‘masculine’-looking equivalent to Cosmopolitan’s sorbet-coloured horoscopes. It’s as if the belief in astronomy’s nonsensical doppelganger is essentially feminine, like lipstick and pencil skirts. Do magazine publishers presume that men are too sensible to buy into the touchy-feely mysticism of star signs?

This common stereotyping of women as being more intuitive, more emotional, more irrational than men is not only grossly inaccurate, but also harmful to the cause of gender equality. It sends out the message that reason and critical thinking are the preserve of the logical male. Women, meanwhile, can go channel their inner Goddess and connect with the Sacred Feminine while the men get on with becoming scientists, engineers and humourless skeptics.

Thankfully we have awesome female skeptics and rationalists like the ladies at Skepchick. Amy Davis Roth argues that skepticism is a gender-neutral worldview that, unlike faux-feminist mysticism, truly empowers women by giving them thinking skills that enable them to gain real knowledge. As Davis Roth writes to a Skepchick reader:

Don’t let superstition and the stereotypical roles of women influence your ability to understand reality and to educate yourself. Rise up, continue to speak up and fight back against the flood of anti-intellectualism and ignorance.

Davis Roth also smacks down the ridiculous idea that skepticism and the scientific method are ‘privileged’ worldviews that deny the validity of other ways of understanding reality. You’ll just have to read her post to witness her argument in all its acerbic glory. It’s a thing of beauty.


12 March 2012

The (current) limits of neuroimaging

I confess that I’m one of those neuroscience buffs who overestimate the advances made in this field of study. Rejecting dualism comes with a hazard: you tend to idealise any technology that can potentially prove once and for all that the mind is entirely created by the brain. But my idealism has been tempered with a healthy dose of realism after reading this article - it describes the limits of current neuroscience technology like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and shows the dangers of overselling the usefulness of neuroimaging. Conversely, it also touches on the danger of ignoring the contributions of neuroimaging, particularly in disciplines like psychiatry. This paragraph makes it quite clear that psychiatry needs to do some serious house cleaning if it is to remain a credible science.

Neuroimaging research also could completely change how we think about psychiatric disorders by rendering obsolete the idea that using discrete diagnostic categories such as schizophrenia or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) provides the best way to understand the underlying disorders. Today, these diagnoses are based on formal criteria, outlined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, that specify symptoms for each disorder. But these criteria have no basis in neuroscience. In fact, the psychiatric community has become increasingly concerned that traditional diagnostic categories actually obscure the underlying brain systems and genes that lead to mental health problems. In addition, a growing body of evidence indicates that many psychiatric problems lie on a continuum rather than being discrete disorders, in the same way that hypertension reflects the extreme end of a continuum of blood pressure measurements. Neuroimaging provides us the means to go beyond diagnostic categories to better understand how brain activity relates to psychological dysfunction, whereas using it to “diagnose” classical psychiatric disorders could obscure, rather than illuminate, the true problems.

I’m still a staunch materialist, and all this new information doesn’t suggest that dualism is a valid idea. What it does suggest is that although the field of neuroscience is discovering more and more about how the brain gives rise to consciousness, we shouldn’t attribute discoveries to it that it hasn’t actually made.

HT: Matt O Bee