Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Black holes and humanity

August 22, 2021

The force of gravity is proportional to mass and diminishes with distance. When a star dies, there’s a lot of mass in a pretty small space, and no more force pushing outward against the gravity. So the star crushes down, becoming even smaller and denser, further concentrating the gravitational force pulling toward the center. With enough mass it condenses into a tiny nubbin, with gravitation so great that nothing, not even light, can escape. That’s a black hole.

With a ratio of mass to volume virtually infinite, the normal laws of physics cease to apply, which is called a “singularity.” Many formerly doubted this could occur in reality. Now we know it does. There may be a black hole at the center of every galaxy. Meantime, black holes’ weirdness captured popular imagination. Gravity so strong it sucks in anything getting near, while nothing gets out. “Black hole” became a useful metaphor (especially in 2017-21).

When we discovered the Universe is expanding, running that film backwards gets you to something that also has vast mass concentrated into virtually zero space — again a singularity where the laws of physics break down. This has led to speculation that the “Big Bang” and black holes are connected — that a black hole could detonate big bangs — perhaps answering the conundrum of seemingly getting something from nothing. With new universes being birthed all the time out of black holes.

You may have seen in 2019 our first photo of a black hole. We watched a great Netflix film about the scientists working on what was a massive photography project. A big problem was that a black hole is, well, literally black, no light escaping. But it does produce “Hawking radiation” in the surrounding space.

Still, getting a photo was a huge challenge because so few photons reach us across the cosmic vastness. The film illustrated this vividly by first showing a grid of squares, with one small square containing our solar system. Then it zoomed out to show that whole grid as just one square in a far bigger grid. Then it did it again. And again and again and again. I lost count, before we finally saw a grid big enough to contain both our solar system and the black hole.

That was one of two the team targeted. The other was a thousand times bigger — and a thousand times farther away.

The paucity of photons reaching us meant an ordinary telescopic photo would be, like, one or two pixels. Hardly helpful. To get a decent meaningful image would have required a camera the size of the Earth. So that’s what they built — by coordinating a whole slew of telescopes all across the planet. Each making images simultaneously. Having good visibility conditions at all of them, simultaneously, was a problem too. Somehow they succeeded. The result was an immense amount of data shipped on hardware from all those locations to a central clearinghouse where computers could put together the pieces of this stupendous jigsaw puzzle. Revealing the picture of a black hole.

Meanwhile . . . the film also focused on a group of theoreticians working with the late Stephen Hawking, he of “Hawking radiation,” the leading thinker on black holes who practically invented them. The main concern was with what they called the “information paradox.” “Information” here means more than its common parlance; it refers to what’s encoded in the structure of any physical object. In that sense, your body, for example, entails many trillions (or quintillions?) of bits of information. Throw it into a black hole and that information seemingly disappears. That bothered the theoreticians, a lot, contravening their intuition for how the Universe should operate. (This is about as well as I could manage to understand the matter.)

So they banged their heads against the mathematics. I didn’t begin to grasp the interplay between the very complex mathematics and the physical phenomena. But finally, it seemed, they did get the sums to work out such that information sucked into a black hole is not truly annihilated but is conserved in some manner.

But here is what struck me viewing this film. All the numerous people involved in these enterprises, especially the photography effort, exemplify what I see as our great human project. To understand — everything. And to use that understanding to imbue our lives with meaning and fulfillment. With nothing given to us but what we seek and find ourselves. Everything else pales beside the immensity of that great human project. Membership in this species fills me with pride.

The truth about UFOs

July 22, 2021

They’re out there! It’s real! The government finally admits it!

Um, no.

For all the media frenzy, the actual story is a big nothingburger. The Pentagon produced a document saying reports of “unidentified aerial phenomena” by U.S. military personnel are for real. Meaning that, yes, some military people did report such unexplained sightings.

Which tells us nothing about what the explanations might be. The Pentagon says it cannot rule out extraterrestrial explanations. That tells us nothing either. Actually, it’s overwhelmingly likely that the true explanations are prosaic.

Many people have always reported witnessing all sorts of strange, seemingly inexplicable phenomena. Often their senses deceived them, something extremely commonplace. Or their stories were embellished. Or simply didn’t happen. Many people telling such tales have a screw loose. Or dishonest motives. (Another whole category is in the religious sphere.)

I always apply Occam’s Razor, also known as the principle of parsimony. Telling us that the simplest, most mundane explanation for anything is the likeliest. When a story is seemingly inexplicable, the likeliest explanation is that the facts are somehow wrong, or misinterpreted.

I recall seeing a remarkable UFO video. Real, not doctored. Filmed through an airplane window, it appeared to show a bright saucer-like object flying beside the plane and making weird zigzag maneuvers defying the laws of physics.

Unexplainable? Turned out to be just a bizarre reflection of a cabin light from inside the plane.

My UFO skepticism is very great. I actually consider it likely that intelligent life has evolved elsewhere. But the distances between stars are stupendous, and planet hopping would be a formidable challenge for even the most scientifically advanced civilization. Would they make such a prodigious journey — merely to lurk silently in our skies, doing nothing? Or, even less plausible, to abduct occasional humans for proctology exams? As if beings with the capability of traversing the cosmos would have anything to learn that way.

If UFOs were really visiting us, there’d be no mystery about it. We would know it. (Just like if there really were a God, there’d be no mystery.)

Covid-19: Now the Republican Disease

July 15, 2021

The ultimate political wet dream: a deadly disease that, somehow, selectively targets the other party.

U.S. Covid cases and deaths are climbing back up. Spurred by the especially nasty Delta variant. Deaths are 99.5% unvaccinated people. And most unvaccinated people are Republicans.

They’ve needlessly brought this holocaust upon themselves, by politicizing Covid, and vaccines in particular, bathing in a sea of lies, and making vaccine refusal a “freedom” issue. As in freedom to jeopardize not only your own life but your family’s and neighbor’s. (All of ours, actually; failure to end the pandemic allows further variants to emerge, potentially one that defeats the current vaccines.)

Vaccination’s alleged risks are simply lies promoted for various bad motives. Fox News creeps like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham are especially culpable. But even if most of the claimed vaccination risks were real, your risk of illness and death from Covid is still vastly greater. The anti-vaxxers can’t do math.

Not only are unvaccinated people now the ones really in danger from Covid, but the risk rises steeply with age too — and Republicans, on average, tend to be older. Furthermore, especially if you’re not vaccinated, mask wearing offers much protection. And who refuses masking? Republicans again.

So Republicanism is becoming a major health risk. Will insurers start asking for party affiliation — and charging Republicans more?

Dr. Michelle Fiscus, a top official of Tennessee’s Health Department, has been fired for promoting vaccination for young people. In today’s political climate, that’s a firing offense. Similar stories proliferate in other states.

At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, America’s failure to meet vaccination targets was greeted with raucous applause. These people — who call themselves “pro-life” — were cheering the march of death. “Macabre,” said columnist Michael Gerson, wondering how we got “to such a strange, desperate place.”

Remember Trump actually claiming huge credit for the “warp speed” vaccine development? That was then; now he’s silent. If Trump runs in 2024, you might think he’d want his fans vaccinated so they can live to vote for him. He could put out a video urging that. Why doesn’t he? Because he himself is trapped in the deranged alternate universe that is Trumpism.

Vaccination refusal is the apotheosis of the Republican flight from reason, decency, reality, and sanity. They’ve made war on truth; on voting rights; on immigrants; on the press; and much else. Now their war on vaccination is actually a war upon themselves.

Maybe cosmic justice.

How many brains do you have?

July 13, 2021

Though some people are called brainless, most would say they have one brain. But how many minds do you have? Perhaps a trickier question. You might say you’re “of two minds” about an issue. There’s even a phenomenon called “split personality” (or “multiple personality disorder”).

While we do talk of “the brain” as a unit, we also speak of right and left brains with differing functionalities. The left brain being more logical, the right more intuitive and creative, and so forth. But there have been cases of people losing one hemisphere, yet able to live fairly normally, the remaining hemisphere taking over the other’s duties. On the other hand, I’ve written about a stroke victim whose damage was in the right hemisphere, enabling the left to become more dominant, changing her personality.*

But it gets yet more interesting.

The two hemispheres are really quite separate physically, being connected only by a clutch of fibers called the corpus callosum. A conduit for messaging between them. Now, it’s been found some epileptics can be helped by severing the corpus callosum, keeping seizures from passing between hemispheres. The patients seemingly unharmed.

They’ve been the subject of experiments testing the effects of thusly splitting the brain. Each hemisphere controls the opposite side the body. You can show each eye different things. In one experiment, the right eye saw a snow scene, the left a chicken claw. Next, the subject was asked to choose something related from among a group of various pictures. One hand picked a snow shovel; the other a chicken. Logical enough.

But then the subject was asked why he’d picked the shovel, which he could see he’d done. However, the speech center is in the right hemisphere, so it does the talking. And the right hemisphere was unaware of the left’s (through the right eye) having previously seen a snow picture. So he answered, “The shovel is to clean up the chicken shit.” In other words, having no access to the real reason, lodged in the other half of his brain, the half that answered made up something plausible.

This shows just how separate our two hemispheres can be. And the import can be greater than mere choosing among pictures. In one case, a man’s arm reached to hug his wife, while the other arm punched her! Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran reports a patient whose right brain professed a religious belief while the left said he’s an atheist (logically enough). One can imagine two hands fighting over an election ballot.

The real-life model for the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man was found to have been born without a corpus callosum. He could read two pages of a book simultaneously, one with each eye. Memorizing each too, instantly.

All this helps us regarding the problem of understanding consciousness and the self. Which in fact science has not yet cracked. The split-brain stuff reminds me of Daniel Dennett’s concept in his (optimistically titled) book Consciousness Explained. He rejected our commonplace notion of some sort of captain at the helm in our minds, the “I,” who makes decisions. Dennett said it’s more like a scrum of mates fighting over control of the wheel. And it does seem that a lot of competing and often contradictory notions bubble up out of various modules in the brain each running their own separate sequences, until one dominates sufficiently to cause an action to be performed.

Some see the split-brain experiments as showing we are all actually “split personalities.” That we really do have two separate minds co-existing within our skulls, one in each hemisphere.

But let’s remember that literal split-brain is a very special case. Most of us have an intact corpus callosum enabling the two hemispheres to coordinate. Like in a marriage, only more so. I think that normally the two hemispheres work things out. When they can’t, that’s mental illness.

* https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2017/02/25/a-stroke-of-insight/

Let’s talk about climate change (no, really!)

June 23, 2021

My Humanist Group hosted a (pre-pandemic!) presentation by Tim Guinee, promoting the hoax of human-caused global warming. Just kidding; actually, it was a really excellent explanation of the reality, so I’ll recap it. Then offer a few points in response.

Our atmosphere is actually just a very thin sheath around the planet. It traps solar radiation, warming the Earth, and making life possible. But there can be too much of a good thing. Case in point: Venus, warmed to a toasty 867 degrees Fahrenheit. Carbon Dioxide in our own atmosphere increases its heat trapping effect. Today, mainly through fossil fuel burning (and despite the Paris agreement), we continue to increase atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, topping the previous high 3 million years ago — with sea levels 30 meters higher than now.

So 2019 was the 43rd consecutive year with global temperatures above the average. (New York’s rise exceeds our national average.) Guinee showed charts with the temperature bell curve moving toward the right; while the overall shift may seem small, it results in far more episodes at the extreme end. Thus heat waves have killed tens of thousands.

Most excess heat gets sopped up by the oceans. This has caused wobbles in the jet stream current, trapping weather systems like hurricanes and thus intensifying them. Also, warmer air above the seas increases water vapor, making for bigger downpours, now being called “rain bombs.” The Northeast has seen a 71% rise in extreme rainfall events since 1958. Builders of Kentucky’s full-size Noah’s Ark replica sued their insurers because it was damaged by rain!

The added heat also pulls moisture from land, causing droughts, and forest fires. Recent Australian fires are reckoned to have killed a billion critters — not counting insects, frogs, or fish. We’re also losing tree cover, which feeds back to more warming. While more warmth means more disease-carrying insects, like ticks, and additional air pollution, also adding to human death tolls.

And of course melting Greenland and Antarctic ice raises sea levels, endangering coastal habitations.

Guinee noted that the world’s poorest (who benefit least from fossil fuel burning) suffer the most from climate change.

But his message was hopeful. He noted that deployment of solar and wind power and electric cars has vastly exceeded projections from not long ago. These technologies are improving while costs are falling; this can make adoption of new paradigms quite rapid (look at cellphones). While some worry about economic costs of combating climate change, Guinee pointed out that since 2006 Minneapolis reduced emissions by 20% while its economy grew 30%. And in 1860, America’s biggest capital investment was in slaves; yet we successfully transitioned beyond that.

But people understanding the problem doesn’t mean they’ll act accordingly. Indeed, token actions can induce complacency. And we need big national and international efforts. But small actions can inspire greater ones and create new social norms. Guinee concluded that what we really need is a “mature leap of faith.”

All this overlooks the fact that if God didn’t want temperatures to rise, they wouldn’t.

But back to reality. Climate activists focus almost entirely on curbing carbon emissions. There’s a missionary zeal to this, demonizing humanity as guilty of raping the planet, and prescribing as penitence a hair shirt of dialing back economic activity. However, asking people to accept reduced lifestyles is totally unrealistic. And anyhow, global warming is already baked in, and temperatures will still rise even if we cut carbon emissions to zero. Thus we must give much more attention to investments aimed at preparing for adaptation to higher temperatures. And also more intensively research options for geo-engineering, that is, pro-active measures to reduce global temperatures (like mimicking the effects of volcanic eruptions, which do that). But climate activists resist such efforts as antithetical to their insistence on carbon reduction.

They also tend to resist expansion of nuclear power, which any rational carbon-reduction strategy must prominently include. In terms of climate, nuclear is actually the cleanest possible energy source. I just read a big article in The Economist about renewable power sources, highlighting all the obstacles to their deployment to the extent needed. Astoundingly (to me), the word “nuclear” nowhere occurred in the article.

Further, though you wouldn’t know it from listening to climate warriors, carbon is far from the whole picture. About a quarter of global warming is caused by methane — which, ton for ton, over 20 years from emission, causes 86 times more warming than carbon dioxide. And the good news is that methane could be reduced without incurring the economic damage associated with carbon dioxide. A major methane culprit is the process of extracting and transporting natural gas; with the mundane problem of leaky pipes playing a big role. Reducing these losses could pay for itself because methane, unlike carbon dioxide, is a valuable commodity. Farm animals are another key source of atmospheric methane; that could be meliorated by tweaking their diets.

Republicans’ deranged war on Fauci

June 8, 2021

Just when you thought Republicans could not get more insane . . . .

Now they’re rabidly focused on demonizing, of all people, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of America’s disease control agency since 1984. They hate Fauci for being the pandemic’s antithesis to Trump.

How crazy is it to intentionally spotlight the difference between the two? Trump fumbled for two crucial months while the virus spread; admitted downplaying the danger; his briefings were orgies of self-praise, misinformation, and divisive insults; pushing conspiracy theories, quack cures, and injecting bleach; encouraging resistance against his own shut-down guidelines, masking, and social distancing. All this utter idiocy surely caused most of our 600,000 deaths. While Trump disparaged and tried to sideline scientists like Fauci — a contrasting voice of reason and responsibility.

So what’s their beef against Fauci now? A trove of emails from early in the pandemic they say show he misled the public about its origins, to protect the Chinese government. Of course that’s a ridiculous lie. Of course. Republicans no longer even remember how not to lie.

Scientists, in the pandemic’s early days, scrambled to get information, so naturally their messages evolved as knowledge increased. To concoct from that a case that Fauci lied is itself despicably dishonest.

Central here is the “lab leak” theory for Covid’s origin. Originally dismissed because the virus fit a familiar well-understood pattern of jumping from animals to humans. The “lab leak” theory is lately getting a second look, even while the scientific consensus still deems it highly improbable.

Republicans now accuse Fauci of deliberately downplaying it. Why would he? A Chinese shill? But anyhow the emails actually show the exact opposite of what Republicans claim. In fact, as scientists go, Fauci was unusually open-minded toward the “lab leak” idea, refusing to join others in dismissing it.

Yet undaunted by truth and reality, Republican “stars” like Rand Paul, Josh Hawley, Steve Scalise and Elise Stefanik are thundering for a full-blown investigation of Fauci and his emails. (While opposing a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 violence against the very institution they (supposedly) serve in.)

They seem desperate to find some way to undermine the Biden administration’s credibility and support. The broad American public is comparing Biden’s honesty, decency, competence and leadership against his predecessor’s total shit-storm. Guess which they prefer? No matter how often Republicans screech the word “Socialist!” Yet instead of trying to run away from their shit-storm, they somehow imagine winning the next election by mythologizing it.

Note: this piece practically wrote itself. So clear is the reality. Long accustomed to genuine political debates about genuine issues, I can’t help despairing that so many Americans fail to see what are so obviously lies and nonsense from what are so obviously bad people. Fauci versus Trump on Covid? Are you fucking kidding me?

The Republican party is insane. Supporting (almost) any Republican is insane. Returning them to power would be insane.

Manifesto for a new political party

June 4, 2021

We have a two-party system. Except that one is no longer a responsible legitimate party. After 53 years as a Republican, I became a Democrat as the only sane option. But I still hanker for a good second party, and I’ve thought about what it might stand for. I have no illusions that it could spring forth in today’s America. But, as an exercise in political imagination, here is the platform:

1. Truth and honesty. This even being on the list — let alone as #1 — is a sad commentary on today’s Republicans. Inhabiting an alternate reality of lies. Many Republicans know it. Bad faith pervades the party.

2. Civic virtues — democracy, decency, civility, tolerance, fairness, compassion. Sad too that this requires stating. We’d thought our democracy was secure. Now we know it needs defending. This includes the right to vote itself.

3. Science acceptance — this goes with #1. Science is not just another viewpoint, it’s how we know things. Republican rejection of science — on evolution, climate change, covid, you name it — makes it a party of fools.

4. Racial comity. Our history of slavery still afflicts us, its legacy a factor in Black Americans, on average, living less well than whites. Most fundamentally, many still feel they’re not accepted or treated as fully equal. Simply put, we must ensure such treatment. This certainly means no tolerance for racist or white supremacist views. Or police abuse. It’s not “law and order” (and not “freedom”) when police — armed government enforcers — overstep their authority.

5. Freedom of speech. Democrats are too tolerant of intolerance. True, some viewpoints can be deemed beyond the pale (See #4). But most such issues concern what should be matters of legitimate debate. We must end the McCarthyism of punishing people for their opinions. Republicans do it too, persecuting apostates from Trump worship.

6. Free market capitalism. It’s not some system thought up by ideologues, it’s how people interact economically absent interference. And businesses trying to make a buck by selling stuff gives us the goods and services underpinning our advanced living standard. Of course there must be laws and regulations to prevent abuse (we have laws against jaywalking) and there are some functions the market cannot fulfill. Otherwise, consumers and society reap the bulk of the wealth created, when markets are competitive. Anti-competitive government actions and regulatory capture are key problems.

Many Democrats romanticize government running everything. Such a concentration of power would be the antithesis of democracy.

7. A caring society. America is a very rich country. We can amply ensure every citizen has at least minimally decent health care, shelter, nutrition, etc. Don’t call it socialism or “social justice,” it’s simply recognition of our common humanity.

8. Equal education opportunity. Its lack is central to inequality. People born in disadvantaged circumstances are put further behind by rotten schools, that tend to go with the territory. Democrats have a poor record here. School choice would help. By failing to invest in all our children, we make adults who are burdens rather than productive citizens.

9. Global human rights. Remember George W. Bush’s second inaugural, casting America as the global promoter of democracy and human rights — widely mocked by cynics? But being seen as standing for what’s right, and for humanity’s highest aspirations, is key to America’s own global standing. And a more democratic and thus more peaceful and prosperous world benefits America.

10. Free trade. Both parties have lost their way, succumbing to narrow interests at cost to our national interest. Free trade does hurt some people, but makes us collectively richer. If other countries harm themselves with protectionism, we shouldn’t respond by doing likewise. It’s not a zero-sum world; freer trade globally makes all countries richer — again good for America.

11. Global engagement. In both the above respects, “America First” should not mean America alone, retreating behind walls. Since 1945, we led the way building a rules-based world order aided by a network of alliances with nations sharing our values and aspirations for human betterment. We have benefited hugely, yet again making a world in which America itself can best flourish.

12. Church-state separation. One of America’s greatest blessings. Freedom of religion shouldn’t mean government favoritism toward religion — a source of woe throughout history. Church-state separation has benefited religions, it’s a key reason why they remain so strong in America compared to Europe. Those trying to tear it down play with fire.

13. Gun control. All rights are subject to reasonable regulation to protect the public, and that includes gun rights.* America’s unique proliferation of guns is a major contributor to violent crime. We must act to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, and ban military style assault weapons.

14. End the “War on Drugs.” Drug use should be a medical matter, not a criminal one. The drug war itself harms society vastly more than drug use ever could. While achieving almost nothing. (Psst Republicans: this is another “freedom” issue.)

15. A welcoming country. America, uniquely among nations, is blessed by the diversity of enterprising people who chose to live here. They enrich us, culturally, economically, and spiritually. As Ronald Reagan said, America is a shining city upon a hill — whose wall has a great big door.

This platform distills a lifetime of thinking and political engagement. Is it so radical? Radically reasonable and rational perhaps. Yet can we imagine an American political party with such a program — and winning elections?

*The Supreme Court seems headed for an insane contrary ruling.

Crimes and brains

May 31, 2021

In Maryland, not long ago, a boy of 13 was riding in a car involved in a gang-related shooting. The state is one of many with the “felony murder” doctrine — any role in a felony that results in death can entail a murder charge. Maryland also authorizes judges to send children that young to adult court. The boy got 40 years in prison.

Harsh? Actually, a sentence of life-without-parole has not been uncommon in America even for juveniles under 18 — until in 2012 the Supreme Court ruled that out, except in rare cases. But such youngsters are still often treated as adults in the criminal justice system.

Neuroscience has found that the human brain doesn’t develop to maturity until well into one’s twenties. Particularly laggard is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision making. We’ve always known teenagers can be irresponsible, and this brain research explains it. They just don’t yet have the mental equipment — we’re not talking about simple stupidity here — to regulate their behavior in a mature adult way. Thus their greater proclivity to act in ways that break the law.

They normally grow out of it, and don’t become hardened criminals. Unless they’re put in prison for years alongside older people who are hardened criminals.

While the mentioned brain maturation is normal, another large segment of our prison population consists of people not psychologically normal, but instead mentally ill. A very different thing. The “insanity defense” in criminal trials is actually very restrictive, rarely invoked. Most people who commit crimes because they’re mentally unbalanced wind up in prison.

That’s no surprise. But I recently learned another aspect of this that I hadn’t realized. Another big part of the prison picture is brain injury. Not psychological, but physical, resulting from a knock on the head. Here again the prefrontal cortex (behind your forehead) is prominent. Damage there can also impair judgment. People who act out violently due to brain injury constitute a major segment of our prison population.

Who are the most likely sufferers? Those living where street violence is common, and where their own parents are more apt to knock them around. Receiving hits on the head damaging the brain — causing behavior that leads to prison.

And of course a great many people are incarcerated in the “war on drugs.” I’ve written before how crazy this is. You might defend it if it actually curbed drug use, but of course it does not, while the drug war itself rampages a path of destruction throughout society, destroying lives not only in prison but in a penumbra of other human impacts. Drug use should be a public health matter, not a criminal justice one. (We are, very slowly, at last moving in that direction.)

I am not a bleeding heart, blaming “society” for crime, nor believing a lack of free will relieves us of responsibility for our actions. Misdeeds merit punishment. But, in all the ways I’ve explained, we go way overboard on that. Thus America has by far the highest incarceration rate of any country on Earth. This wasn’t always true. Our incarceration rate has exploded over the last few decades.Surely not due to way more crime. It’s because our criminal justice system is way out of whack.

Too often failing to give people help instead of prison terms that wantonly destroy lives. Like when a 13 year old is sentenced to 40 years. We should instead treat with human compassion people who are drug addicts, who commit crimes because their brains aren’t fully developed, or were damaged by injury or illness. We as a society have no such excuses for the crime of how we treat them instead.

Transgender wars: revisited

May 27, 2021

My 4/29 essay, “Transgender Wars”* basically said transgendering is right and good for many people, while caution is needed when pre-teen and teen kids suddenly decide they’re trans. I criticized trans activists who brook no discussion of that; and criticized the American Humanist Association’s revoking an award to Richard Dawkins for writing that trans and non-trans people differ. Dawkins retweeted my piece. A firestorm of comments venomously attacked my essay, and Dawkins for retweeting it.

I was assailed for calling out extremist trans activists as, well, extremist. The ferocity of many comments proved it. Demonizing anyone not in lockstep with every detail of their catechism, to cast themselves as more enlightened and morally superior. Intolerant “woke” cancel culture in all its censorious Savonarolan glory.

Start with my first sentence: “Changing gender wasn’t even a thing until the 20th Century.” Many commenters deemed this factually false, discrediting all that followed. When obviously the reference was to medical procedures, not gender fluidity. Only by ridiculously assuming it meant the latter could the line be faulted. Showing these commenters are just spoiling for a fight, keen to manufacture heresies to condemn.

Many savaged my effort to explain what’s going on with transgender people. Often fiercely nitpicking the words I used — which aimed for understandability by average readers. Such semantic onslaughts too are unfortunately characteristic of “woke” intolerance. With a canonical vocabulary, those failing to ape it placing themselves beyond the pale. Like insistence on “cis-” language, arch and baffling to ordinary folks. (See my essay about “people of color” versus “colored people.” Someone who almost uttered the latter excoriated by, among others, the National Association for the Advancement of — um — Colored People.**)

I was trying to enlighten those who think wanting to change sex is merely some kind of perverted whim. Males and females differ genetically and anatomically. I said male and female brains differ too, and that “gender dysphoria” entails a mismatch between brain and body. Perhaps an oversimplification — yet a useful conceptualization. Thus I said gender dysphoria is biological, not just psychological, so cannot be resolved by talk therapy.

Trans advocate commenters pounced, vehemently rejecting this. Denying brains differ vis-a-vis sexuality, and the idea of a mismatch. Indeed disagreeing that this is a matter of biology and not just psychology. Again it seems they just want to have a fight. But how does their stance here (nonsensical to me) serve their cause? If they’re right and I’m wrong, and it’s not biological, then those who are hostile to the whole transgender thing might have a point after all. That it’s all just some weird whim of transgender people.

I’m basically libertarian, holding that everyone should be free to live as they please (barring harm to others). If a man wants to live as a woman, fine by me. But not everyone is so broadminded. It needs explaining that there’s more to it than transgender people making some off-the-wall personal choice. That’s what I tried to do. Earning attacks from transgender zealots, arguing it is all about choice. Go figure.

My chief crime was, despite strongly supporting the reality of most trans people, criticizing the insistence that anyone declaring themselves trans must be supported in physical transitioning. My point was again confirmed by commenters’ expressed absolutism. Refusing to acknowledge there’s any sort of problem involving kids suddenly coming out as trans, who may be mixed up (often simply gay, it turns out). A cautious go-slow approach by adults is not tolerated. With denial that medical interventions in such cases are frequently irreversible and can entail serious health and psychological harm. One size does not fit all.

Dawkins’s “offense” was, again, pointing to the undeniable fact that trans- and non-trans-women (or men) differ. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be treated the same (for most purposes). But trans extremists act as though the latter proposition somehow demands denial of the former. As if we don’t treat men and women the same (for most purposes) even while recognizing the differences. Insistence on an obviously false absolutism of non-difference makes for an ideology flouting reason. Not a good way to persuade anyone.

* https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2021/04/29/transgender-wars-2/

** https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2020/01/11/people-of-color-versus-colored-people-call-in-the-language-police/

Transgender wars

April 29, 2021

Changing gender wasn’t even a thing till the 20th century.* This new concept discombobulated many minds, with hostility toward trans people. But now, happily, they’ve won the argument over their right to be themselves. In fact we seem to have gone to the other extreme. Transgender issues have become a minefield of political correctness, with a pitiless orthodoxy one mustn’t question. 

Here are the biological facts. Standard females — I use “standard” to describe most people, others reflecting naturally occurring differences — have two X chromosomes; males an X and a Y. Those genes guide development of an embryo’s sex characteristics. Male and female anatomies differ, as does the brain software accompanying each. Deploying all this in utero is a complex, tricky process, and glitches can occur. 

Obviously, for reproduction’s sake, standard brain software tells men to mate with women, and vice versa. But sometimes variant software gives you same-sex attraction. It’s not a choice. (Try to imagine yourself choosing it.)

More rare is a mismatch between anatomy and brain software. A genetic and anatomical female can get a male brain, and feel male in their heads. This is called gender dysphoria. Not a psychological condition, it’s actually biological. It tends to show up quite early in life (because males and females are raised and acculturated differently), and no psychotherapy can talk it away. Though of course some people try to fight it or deny it, and to live with it.

But now it can be rectified. Such children are typically given puberty blocker medication, to delay sexual maturation until an age when they can make an informed choice to undergo sex change treatment. That at least is the idea. We’ll get back to this.

Previously, gender dysphoria did seem quite rare. Less so now, with all the attention and ready access to treatment. In fact, it’s acquired a kind of cachet, with transitioning not just accepted, but even made attractive.

So we’re seeing an epidemic of “late onset gender dysphoria,” showing up during puberty and adolescence. Mostly girls coming out as trans males. And today’s society is very supportive of their choice — indeed hostile toward any impediments. They’re often moved straightaway to puberty blockers and/or hormone treatments, on a path to surgery. In one Australian case, a child was removed from parents who resisted. 

But hold on. These years are emotionally and psychologically tumultuous even for standard kids. Wrestling with their emerging sexuality and personal identities, especially sensitive to social pressures and their place in a peer group. Now bombard them with positive messages about transsexuality, the internet full of it, trans kids showered with affirmation, making it look hip, cool, chic. While standardhood is so . . . dull. Convincing yourself that your confusing sexual feelings mean you’re trans might seem a great way to get attention, cut through the fog, and assert an edgy personal identity. (We used to have the term “drama queen.”) 

Parents who suspect something like this are dismissed as bigots. But they may be right. Seeing not true biologically based gender dysphoria, but a self-induced simulacrum. Which, with no medical interventions, many youngsters in due course get over. Studies indicate that between 61% and 98% of even early onset cases, once reaching adulthood, with all the life changes that entails, wind up accommodated with their genetic genders after all.

Another aspect is that a disproportionate number of these cases actually involve forms of autism, depression, or other psychological problems. Importantly, many of these kids, once they get a clearer fix on their sexuality, turn out simply to be gay. Which is indeed far more common than true gender dysphoria. And for which sex change is not a good answer. 

But meantime many will already be on a one-way track, thanks to the trans-industrial-complex seizing them in its jaws to execute their previous choice to transition. Backing out can take more guts than coming out. Though blocking puberty is said to be reversible, that’s true only up to a point. It certainly creates a biological platform that’s not natural. And use of hormones and other chemicals, not to mention surgery, has lifelong impacts. Even just hormone treatments, writes The Economist, “cause myriad severe health problems,” including heart problems for trans men on testosterone. And many who undergo such treatments, who later regret it, can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. A gal in Britain had her breasts removed before realizing she’s just a lesbian. Others are unable to orgasm. Or sire children. Some are left incompletely transitioned, in a limbo between genders. The psychological damage can be huge. 

Trans activists refuse to hear any of this. I’m reminded of the Soviet Union’s “Stalin doctrine” — once a country is communist, no reversal could be countenanced. So extreme has the trans ideology become that its advocates often seem to insist this isn’t biological at all, that gender (unlike sexual orientation) is a personal choice. That anyone saying they’re a woman must be accepted as female in all respects. Penises be damned. In some places where “conversion therapy” for gays is (justifiably) outlawed, there are efforts to apply the same policy to gender identity — a very different matter. This could prohibit counseling to explore what’s really going on in a claimed case of late onset gender dysphoria, a sensible go-slow approach before jumping to medical intervention. 

Unsurprisingly, there’s a backlash. Some states are moving toward outlawing transition medicine, an opposite craziness. Particularly fraught is the sports realm. Should trans women be allowed to race against standard ones? Men’s and women’s sports were made separate in the first place because of relevant physical differences. Allowing XY people to compete as women scrambles that. Trans athletes have rights but so do cis-gender women. This is a mess. I would solve it with a simple penis rule.

J.K. Rowling got denounced for insisting cis- and trans-women are not biologically identical. More recently Richard Dawkins (noting Rachel Dolezal condemned for posing as Black) wrote “Some men choose to identify as women and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.” Previously he’d deemed the issue “purely semantic,” saying he calls a trans woman “she” out of courtesy.

The American Humanist Association Board voted to revoke Dawkins’s 1996 “Humanist of the Year” award. Dawkins might really be the humanist of the epoch, having spent a lifetime as a top battler for science and rationalism. But none of that counts, for the trans Torquemadas who make the slightest nuance of deviation from their extremist orthodoxy a capital offense. The AHA has lost its mind and disgraced the humanist cause.

This should be a medical issue, not a political one. (Though in today’s polarized America, everything is political.) I salute the courage of transgender people who, in mature consideration, face up to their personal reality and take on the very great challenge of changing gender. But I also feel sorry for immature youngsters who, during a time of stress and confusion, make a dubious choice and find themselves locked into it by adults who should know better. Who should act with caution and thorough analysis before irrevocable action, violating the most fundamental of medical precepts — first, do no harm. But who are too scared of being pilloried as transphobic bigots.

As I will surely be.**

*NOTE: That sentence has been criticized as false. Obviously people were gender-fluid long before the 20th century. The intended reference was to medical/surgical interventions to change gender. If there were any such cases before the 20th century they were vanishingly rare.

** This essay owes much to an in-depth analytical piece, and accompanying editorial, in The Economist: https://www.economist.com/international/2020/12/12/an-english-ruling-on-transgender-teens-could-have-global-repercussions