Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Guns And Controllers: The APA Reviews, Kotaku Gets Aggressive, The Game Continues

Just about one year ago, I summarized the best research available on the topic of violent video games causing aggressive behaviour. Reviewing several meta-analyses and discussing the APA's statement on the subject, I concluded that violent video games almost certainly have a minimal effect and likely have a higher effect on aggressive cognition. For those of you who follow my posts, this was a long winded process, and left on a cliff hanger: the APA had been petitioned to review the literature again and revise their first resolution on the subject. This effort was led by Christopher Ferguson, one of the leading researchers in this field, and joined by approximately 228 media scholars and academics as well. That was in October of 2013.
Remember this picture? I know you all missed me.

In August of this year, the APA released a new resolution as well as a full report on video games and violence/aggressive behaviour. Keep in mind that the last APA resolution on this subject was from 2005, so this is big news since we have had just about 10 years to analyze and accumulate new studies and research. Surely after taking a new look at the data, the APA would come to a more "reasoned" conclusion, right? As promised in my first article on the subject, I'm here to report. That's right, you get tons of presents for the holidays: the queen returns, she's getting newsy, and she's actually keeping one of her promises for once!

Focusing exclusively on research conducted between the time of the first resolution and now, the new APA resolution concludes the following:
  • The link between video games and aggressive behaviour exists, is robust, and is backed by the majority of data.
  • The link is not just limited to aggressive behaviour, but aggressive affect and aggressive cognition as well.
  • In addition, violent video games are also related to decreases in prosocial behaviour, empathy, and sensitivity to aggression.
Needless to say, people flipped. Kotaku wrote an article in response to the new APA resolution attempting to point out the numerous flaws in the studies they cited to convince people that the studies are "nonsense," and that the resolution should be disregarded. Oh, Kotaku...

Let's take a look at some of their contentions:
"An outside observer might wonder—how can you tell whether someone is 'more aggressive'? Is there really a way to measure an emotional state like aggression? Well, some of the tests used in violent video game studies include:
A) The 'short story' test, where a subject is given the beginning of a writing prompt ('A driver crashes into Bob’s car. Bob gets out of his car and approaches the driver.') and told to fill in what happens next.
B) The 'noise' test, where a subject is asked to press a button that delivers a terrible sound to another subject, then evaluated based on how much noise they deliver and how intense it is.
C) The 'hot sauce' test, where a subject is asked to dole out hot sauce to another subject and is evaluated based on how much sauce they give and how spicy it is.
Other tests ask subjects to fill out questionnaires asking how aggressive they feel, and if all this has you raising an eyebrow, you’re not alone. 'Aggression' is an ambiguous psychological concept—if I get mad at a game and scream at my TV for a few seconds, am I being aggressive?—that can only be measured in subjective and often arbitrary ways."
Kotaku is correct to say that there is no single way to define or study aggression, and that it is often subjective and arbitrary, but it is meaningless to point this out here. There are swaths of psychological traits that we study every day that are largely arbitrary in their definition, such as intelligence, impulsivity, introversion versus extroversion, empathy, and so on. To say that the studies examining these things are useless betrays a lack of understanding regarding why we create these terms in the first place. Simply put, a term is only meaningful if it can practically be used to examine something. For example, the term "intelligence" is meaningful because it can be one word which describes several factors which are often correlated with one another: good grades, analytical skills, and spatial ability to name a few. It is true that you can define "intelligence" in a number of other ways too, but as it is defined here, it is quite useful and predictive.

"Aggression" - a useful definition for real, observable things.
Similarly, we define aggression a number of ways. In the APA resolution, they make their definition clear: "behavior that is intended to harm another." This is the practical definition that is used by most researchers in the field of psychology; thus, when a study claims to find an association between video game violence and aggression, it can be reread to claim an association between video game violence and behaviour that is intended to harm another person. It means the same thing.

So what about these tests that these researchers use? Do they help us examine "aggressive" behaviour, affect, or cognition (note: this is an important distinction that Kotaku neglected to make; these tests were used for different psychological traits entirely, and so may not make sense when examined exclusively through the lens of "aggressive behaviour")? The answer is yes. Imagine the answers one might receive to the question in example A. Bob gets out of his car and approaches the driver, they exchange information, and they go about their way because they both have jobs to get to. Someone else might answer, Bob is shot and the driver flees. Aggressive cognition.

Example B, a button which delivers a noise which hurts another person's ears. Person 1 presses the button quickly and flinches. Person 2 slams down on it and holds it until the air runs out. Aggressive behaviour.

Example C, intentionally giving someone spicier hot sauce, more hot sauce, or both, is intended to hurt them. Aggressive behaviour.

Kotaku also seems to have chosen, randomly or otherwise, those tests which appear to have the least merit. Some other tests include parental reports, peer reports, and teacher reports of explicitly aggressive behaviour such as kicking, hitting, threatening, hair pulling, insulting, biting, pushing, and much more. There is also the Implicit Association Test, which is a direct test of cognitive processes based on subject response. The tests used to determine aggressive behaviour, cognition, and affect are numerous, which is why I like to tell people to defer to concordance among sources. Like climate change denialists, those who refuse to accept the causal connection between violent video games and aggressive behaviour will either throw out broad generalizations about how these studies are conducted or will nitpick every single one. Disregarding calculations for effect size in meta-analyses such as these, the fact is that the vast majority of research is in agreement, regardless of the particular method each study uses. People using multiple different methodologies and coming to the same conclusion is evidence supporting the hypothesis in question, not taking away from its credibility.

So regardless of whether or not it's "arbitrary," it's consistent and useful. For research purposes, this is all that matters.
"One major problem with the tests used by these studies is that they all measure their subjects’ aggression directly after they’ve played violent video games. Even if you assume the tests are good ways to measure aggression, this is not particularly useful information for practical purposes. If you’re a parent who wants to know how violent video games might affect your children, the bigger concern is how their behavior will be impacted in the long run.
But there aren’t enough studies on the long-term effects of violent video games. Admits the APA in their report: 'However, the meta‐analyses we reviewed included very few longitudinal studies, and none of those that were included considered enough time points to examine the developmental trajectory of violent video game use and associated outcomes.'
So the APA’s conclusion—that there’s a consistent relation between violent games and aggression—is misleading at best. What they’ve actually concluded is that there’s a consistent relation between violent games and short-term aggression."
The statement Kotaku is referring to comes from the full APA report, which is still in the correction stage (i.e. why I waited so long to talk about this). This is found on page 4 in response to questions about whether or not violent video games have particularly harmful effects for children and adolescents who are susceptible to developmental harms. Given this context, it is easy to see why the APA would respond in this way: there simply isn't enough evidence to suggest that violent video games significantly impact a child's development. But do they really believe in the lack of evidence overall from longitudinal studies? This is not so. In summarizing the outcomes of the research on page 10, they say the following, emphasis my own:
"Since the earlier meta-analyses, the literature has broadened in some directions. For example, there are more longitudinal studies and multi-exposure studies. The literature has also broadened in terms of populations studied, including a limited number of children, high-risk populations, and non-U.S. samples, although more similar research is needed. Several longitudinal studies, using both experimental and naturalistic approaches, have helped establish that the effects of violent video game exposure last beyond immediate effects in the laboratory."
The emphasis on concordance between experimental and observational studies is important, because it shows that even those longitudinal studies which directly assess violent video games as a cause for aggression found an effect. For aggressive cognitions:
"Numerous laboratory and longitudinal studies have assessed the impact of violent video game use on aggressive cognitions, which includes both self-reports and direct measures of cognitive processes. ... Of the 31 studies reviewed, 13 included aggressive cognitions as an outcome. All of these studies showed an effect of violent video game use on increased aggressive cognitions, replicating the finding in the pre-2009 research."
That moment you find out you didn't read the whole thing.
This is not unusual for a research report to do. When given a specific question, they respond in a specific way. When asked about the overall findings of the research, the water gets clearer.

For those who are interested in the actual findings of the APA report, I would read it in its entirety (even in the correction stage). The one-liner that Kotaku cited has been noted abundantly by people who were outraged by this report, using it to essentially write the whole thing off. I personally saw this not only on the original Polygon report but on Reddit reaction threads as well. Truly comical to see so many people stop at 4 pages in to boast about the report's lack of power. Of course, this isn't to say that we couldn't use more longitudinal studies. We can always use more research, but at present, studies of varying designs have mostly come to the same conclusion. What else does Kotaku have to say?
"Few people are thinking about one of the most important factors: competition."
This is because the research is so lacking (or as the APA put it, "nascent") that nothing could be meaningfully drawn from examining the literature on competition. One of the only studies to date to isolate the effect of competition from violence on aggressive behaviour had a whopping sample size of 42 and 55 subjects respectively for pilots 1 and 2, with study 1 having an effect size of zero. They defend this by calculating the power of their test (~0.775), but the power of a test does not tell us if the effect actually exists, only the test's ability to detect it.

The lead author of the aforementioned study, Paul Adachi, submitted his doctoral thesis in 2013 in a similar realm. He took care of his sample problem, annually surveying 1,492 adolescents from grade 9 to grade 12 about their video game play and aggressive behaviour. He found that playing competitive games such as sports or racing games has a positive, moderate effect on aggressive behaviour, and that playing violent video games did not have an effect on this relationship. This effect also increases with how often the subject plays competitive games. So what's the problem here?

For one, the study was longitudinal, not experimental - it was a cohort. As explained a moment ago, longitudinal, experimental studies show that violent video games have an effect on aggressive behaviour and cognition. In addition, the assessment of violent video games was through a moderator analysis. All this means in the context of this study is that the correlation between competitive video game play and aggression does not go away when you account for violent video game play. This does not bring into question whether or not violent video game play has an effect on aggression; it only shows that there is an independent correlation between competitive gaming and aggression. And again, this is a correlation based on a cohort study.

The author of the Kotaku article, Jason Schreier, is not new to this discussion, and his review of the literature has not changed much over the years. Now that even more research has been conducted and the APA has weighed in once again on the subject, he still is not convinced. "It’s all of these questions," he writes, "and the subjectivity of scientific studies, most of which can be used to draw any number of conclusions—that have convinced me to avoid reporting on these violent video game journals every time we get a new press release or meta-analysis. There just isn’t enough research or
proper methodology to draw much from most of this science."

They're just sick and tired of it. They are just so, so done!
I think it's an interesting phenomenon that people have come to take to this "any conclusion can be drawn from a study" sort of thinking. It's a sweeping generalization that really seems lazy to me, when one can look at the individual merits of a study as I've done here and decide qualitatively whether or not the study constitutes any merit, or can be used for the claim that is being made. What's ironic enough is that Jason failed to see how the study he continuously cites has no bearing on this discussion, because he failed to apply such an analysis.

This just goes to show that the battle is far from over. The APA report will go largely ignored by those who have become disengaged and are tired of hearing the same thing come up every few years. Personally I'm tired of it too, but for different reasons. As I mentioned in my first article on the topic, this is something I came into being completely skeptical of the view that video games can cause aggression or violence. An honest review of the literature leads one to abandon the former view, but still leaves room for some skepticism of the latter, which is the good news: these studies can't just be interpreted any way you want. They can only truly be interpreted one way, and that is what they actually say.

Thank you all very much for reading, and have a happy New Year.


Adachi, P., & Willoughby, T. (2013). Demolishing the Competition: The Longitudinal Link Between Competitive Video Games, Competitive Gambling, and Aggression Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42 (7), 1090-1104 DOI: 10.1007/s10964-013-9952-2

Adachi, P., & Willoughby, T. (2011). The effect of video game competition and violence on aggressive behavior: Which characteristic has the greatest influence? Psychology of Violence, 1 (4), 259-274 DOI: 10.1037/a0024908

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Moral Vegetarianism/Veganism: What's The Beef With Eating Meat?


About a month ago, popular YouTube user Kalel uploaded a video entitled "Why I'm Vegan [+ how you can be too]." The subject is self explanatory: Kalel explains, in plain terms, why she is a vegan and attempts to convince the audience of why going vegan is a preferable choice. This is generally unproblematic, but becomes something of importance when she makes her arguments on moral grounds.

This isn't an uncommon tactic. Plenty of organizations supporting veganism or vegetarianism on the grounds of animal rights have jumped on the moral high ground by claiming it is morally fallible for a person to eat meat and, for vegans, to use the products that come from their bodies (e.g. eggs, milk, etc.). For example, part of the "Compassion for Animals" statement by The Vegan Society goes as follows: 
Non-human animals are living beings seeking life and freedom, and avoiding harm and danger. In every 'livestock system,' no matter how high the welfare standards are supposed to be, non-human animals will suffer. The Five Freedoms, frequently used to measure welfare, will never be met completely.
Avoiding comment on the use of more conceptual terms such as "freedom," the general message is clear. Animals are mistreated as livestock, and every animal has a right to life that we take away when we make them products for our consumption. Both of these factors play a pivotal role into why one should become a vegan (or vegetarian). Kalel's video echoes these sentiments and uses many typical arguments/talking points to make her case. Here, I am going to respond to them in detail and analyze the flaws in the moral vegetarian/vegan argument.

You might be asking, "Why Kalel?" Is she really that important? Do I have some kind of beef with her? The reason I am using Kalel's video as the center of my rebuttal is because of convenience. Her arguments are not very different from any other moral vegetarian/vegan, and so it doesn't really matter who I choose. Her video is just more recent, and has received a lot of attention. One could also review the fact that she is (or was) a spokesperson for PETA, but other than an inward vitriol for PETA, it doesn't provide much of a prompt. Beyond this, I have no personal issues with Kalel.

I will be addressing her arguments in order, so if you are following along with the video, it shouldn't be too hard to keep up. Her video is nearly half an hour long, but the argumentative portion of it only lasts for the first 8-10 minutes. That said, there is a lot to address, and thus this will probably be a long post. [Fair warning.]

Let's begin.


These first few points are relatively small, but nonetheless need to be addressed in my opinion. Kalel begins her video by requesting that nobody comment on their love of meat or anything of the sort in response to her video, and if they had any intention of doing so (or are "too closed-minded to let this information into [their] mind"), then to leave, because it's insensitive. Admittedly, Kalel has the right to put a prior restraint on anything she wants when it comes to her YouTube videos and her channel, because they are just that -- hers. However, I would argue that this in itself is a rather closed-minded outlook. It isn't insensitive to bring criticism or alternative opinions to a video for vegans or potential vegans; rather, it's an exchange of ideas that should be valued, not shunned.


Kalel makes a brief point here about "conditioning" when talking about the importance of watching videos and gaining information. She claims we have been socially conditioned into thinking that it's okay to "torture, rape [and] murder" farm animals, when in fact it isn't. Very briefly I want to say the following:

(1) There is nothing wrong with being socially conditioned to believe something. It happens all the time, and most of our personal beliefs and inner values are a result of social conditioning.

(2) Saying that it is, in fact, not okay is a personal statement. Only an individual can make a determination of whether or not something is truly "wrong." We tend to agree on most issues whether or not something is wrong, but we will have differences, as shown by the very existence of this article.

I won't address the use of the loaded terms "torture, rape and murder." In short, they evoke certain feelings in us that try to force us to sympathize with animals on a level that we typically reserve for humans. Kalel likely finds this to be acceptable, and precisely the point, but I have more reservations when it comes to that.

Why kill an animal when you no longer need to do so in order to survive?

This is actually pretty interesting, because it makes two implicit arguments: That we no longer need to eat animals in order to survive, and that we should only eat an animal if necessary to survive.

The former may be true for some of us, but certainly not all of us. Many people need to eat meat for vitamins/nutrients because they can't afford the numerous dietary supplements required otherwise. The alternative, "vegan" products are expensive. In addition, some have to eat meat as a matter of convenience. There are few vegetarian/vegan options at fast food restaurants, but some people have to order quick food from such places because time is valuable, and they don't necessarily have the time to cook a meal at home for their families. I'm speaking exclusively of America, but this is true for many westernized nations, and doesn't even get to the issues with extending this argument to people across the globe from impoverished nations or indigenous cultures.

But one could make the argument that it'd be okay for them to eat meat because it's necessary, right? That conflicts with two of the moral vegetarian/vegan propositions:

(1) That animals have the same rights we do.
(2) That killing animals is a moral wrongdoing.

Moral codes are universal. The morality of an act does not change depending on time and location. One could argue it changes in context, but then we would be conceding that there are some times where eating meat is okay because it's for our survival. We would, however, then be prioritizing our right to life over an animal's. Who are we to make such a decision? More on that later.

But this all embraces the premise that one should only eat meat when it's necessary for survival. Turning outward, I don't agree with this premise at all. We do many things as humans that are not necessary for our survival and find no moral contentions with them. We build extravagant houses (or sometimes, simple houses) in the territories of other creatures. We buy multiple cars and drive them profusely even though it contributes to global warming. Our nation and our society is not founded on the principle of "do only what you must." There is a threshold where we try to honor the sanctity of the environment around us while, at the same time, pursue our own interests. As humans we balance, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that because otherwise we would ultimately have to inhibit humanity's development, return our societies to the lowest common denominator, and deal with the disease/starvation that naturally comes with that. We would, indirectly, be promoting the torture of our own species.

Something's gotta give.

Which ones are okay to eat?

Here is another interesting argument. The picture in the video, shown to the side here, shows ten animal eyes and prompts you to say which ones are okay to eat. The average person isn't able to identify an animal exclusively by its eyes, and so the viewers find themselves in conflict. The animal identities are listed below for the curious person, but here half the eyes belong to dogs. It's fairly clear what the point is, though: Because you can't identify the difference, it's because they're all animals, and we can't differentiate between them. I completely agree, because they're all okay to eat.

Sure, it's hard for the typical westerner to say that it's okay to eat dogs, but really there's nothing wrong with it. Plenty of cultures do, and you know why? Because while objectively there is no difference between these animals insofar as what's okay to eat, we have determined that there is. Our society has determined half of these meats to be edible, and half of them inedible. Other societies think differently. The point is, however, that we make determinations of the edibility of creatures based on our personal thoughts. Dogs have been given a higher status than pigs in our culture. Other cultures are capable of differentiating between a pet dog and a dog meant for food. In America, we can actually keep pet cows, but still eat burgers. That's only the case because we've decided there's a difference.

Think about it: Why have dogs, cats, canaries and fish become more popular as pets than pigs, muskrats, otters and sparrows? We've just decided that the former four are more suitable as pets. Of course we've domesticated dogs, and cats are partially domesticated, but these are general statements, not particularized ones. There's no justification for us having decided that a guinea pig is a better pet than a muskrat, but we made that determination, and nobody bats an eye.

When pressed, we can differentiate between animals and make value judgments based on that differentiation. Kalel, at the very least, can understand that.

Continuing, this is also why Kalel's "man beating a dog" argument doesn't work. While we wouldn't want any animal being beaten, we've prioritized the welfare of dogs because they're not going to the dinner table. In a public setting, however, animals are almost always understood to be pets. A man beating a pig, a dog, a cow, or any animal in public will likely get backlash because he is interpreted to be beating a pet, not an animal for food.

This isn't to say that beating animals in farms is okay either. It certainly isn't, but we've at least made it a priority to address animal cruelty in the public sphere because the setting is different. It's illegal for two men to fight in the streets -- fisticuffs -- and yet millions of people around the country will sit around and watch two men brawl it out in the ring (e.g. boxing, wrestling, UFC) and nobody thinks there is a contradiction. The reason is that there isn't a contradiction. We've just decided one is okay, and another isn't.

Pequest Trout Hatchery
Here's a more on point example: Fishing. There are numerous regulations for the treatment of fish while fishing (e.g. no intentional foul hooking), for the stocking of fish in specific waters (to ensure they are given a proper environment), for the proper disposal of your equipment, etc. We have decided that all of these things are legal imperatives, and yet we can feel no moral conflict when we impale the fish through the lip with a metal hook. When we look at trout stocking programs, we see the exact opposite happening as well: Small spaces, little concern for their freedoms, and after raising they will eventually be dumped into lakes, rivers and streams where all of them will either be caught and killed for food, or will eventually die come the summer heat. Is this cognitive dissonance? No, because we decided that it's okay for these fish to be raised in this way and used for this purpose, but all other fish (for the most part) to live a much more comfortable life. This is why anglers can practice catch and release for all game fish, and yet still keep stocked trout.

But let's say that we should treat all animal cruelty in the same way, and cruelty in farms should be treated the same as cruelty on the streets (something I agree with). This gets to Kalel's next point (well, actually first -- we haven't even gotten to the main part of the video yet). Here, she begins to illustrate the four main reasons to go vegan, and so now we're finally getting to the heart of the subject.

What's nice, though, is that we already have the tools necessary to address some of these claims. If I were to highlight the most important point to rebut the moralist vegetarian/vegan position, it is this: Disassociation. You have to learn not only to disassociate yourself with the emotionalism and moralistic arguments, but also learn to disassociate two things that seem related, but actually aren't. Namely, this is the disassociation between eating meat and animal cruelty. What exactly do I mean by that? We'll see in a moment.

Reason 1: Animal Torture

In Kalel's own words, one of the biggest reasons to go vegan is seeing how animals go through "fucking pure hell" on the typical farm. Chickens have their beaks seared off, cows have their horns cut off, baby male chicks are thrown in a grinder, baby cows are ripped away from their mothers, and so on. The argument is that eating meat is perpetuating this practice and by eating meat, we are encouraging and giving our consent to this torture.

I agree, this is a disgusting practice and it shouldn't be encouraged, however this argument is flawed for the following reasons:

(1) It assumes that by not eating meat, we will stop this practice.
(2) It assumes that this is the best way to stop this practice.
(3) It assumes that by indirectly participating in this practice, we are endorsing it.
(4) It assumes that it is wrong to eat meat because of the associative burden that goes with it.
(5) It assumes that eating meat is the only avenue that leads to this moral conflict, or that vegetarianism/veganism are exempt from this moral conflict.

(1) It assumes that by not eating meat, we will stop this practice.

None of these assumptions are true. For the first assumption, there is no evidence to suggest that not eating meat will help prevent the perpetuation of this practice. As an example, while veganism/vegetarianism is at an all time high (about 5% of the total US population), overall meat production is increasing. The reasons for this are numerous, but mainly it's this: When consumption of meat by the US population goes down, the meat industry finds other ways to sell its meat. They'll export more meat to other countries, find new consumers across the globe -- indeed, citizens of America spend less of their disposable income on meat than any other country in the world -- or even resource their products for other purposes or markets, such as including it in dog food. The trend in vegetarianism/veganism has had no tangible effect on the production of meat in America.

(2) It assumes that this is the best way to stop this practice.

Let's assume, however, that going vegetarian/vegan did lower meat production in the United States. One would have to argue, then, that this is the best possible way to protest the cruel treatment of animals in America. I would argue it isn't. There are numerous, more lasting approaches to this issue that would help endorse the proper treatment of farm animals. You can elect members to your state legislature that will pass laws at the state level to protect animal rights, you can lobby members of Congress or your particular member of Congress to pass laws at the federal level, and then create federal agencies that enforce these laws. Even if you personally don't have the political clout to make this change happen, you can endorse advocacy groups who will have a much greater impact. The point is, however, that there are many avenues besides going vegetarian or vegan to protest the cruel treatment of animals in farms, and the latter isn't even the most preferable or effective way of doing this.

(3) It assumes that by indirectly participating in this practice, we are endorsing it.

On the third point, it's a bit difficult to address this. Most people would implicitly agree that by participating in a system which endorses a practice, we are endorsing it ourselves. This isn't true, however. When I fill out my Census form and put in information for my race, I am not endorsing the idea of categorizing humans by race. I'm simply endorsing the idea of using social categories for demographic/informational purposes that could be useful. I am being cooperative, not complicit. Similarly, a vegetarian or a vegan can pay their taxes which, in part, go to the regulation of the meat industry without having to concede that they are endorsing that industry. As such, I can eat meat without endorsing the practices that go into producing said meat. People participate in systems they don't agree with all the time, but as practical creatures, we operate in such a way that is beneficial for ourselves and does not burden our ability to properly function in society. If the average vegan or vegetarian accepted, in full, that participation in the system is endorsing it, every one of them would have to commit a federal crime via tax evasion.

(4) It assumes that it is wrong to eat meat because of the associative burden that goes with it.

The fourth point is similar to the third point, but carries different weight. The primary assumption behind these arguments is that the cruel treatment of animals is a reason that eating meat is wrong. This is the very nature of this first point Kalel makes: You shouldn't eat meat because animal cruelty is wrong. However, this says nothing about the morality of eating meat. It only speaks to the morality of cruelly treating animals. If we were to reach a point where all of our farm animals were treated ethically and with dignity, then there would be no objection to eating meat under this argument. More realistically, these arguments do not extend to the morality of eating meat that is produced from small, local farms that do not abuse their animals.

(5) It assumes that eating meat is the only avenue that leads to this moral conflict, or that vegetarianism/veganism are exempt from this moral conflict.

The last point regards the inevitability of violating animals' rights. Implicit in the vegetarian/vegan moralist argument is that eating meat is the only route through which someone is violating the rights of a living creature. But there are insects or pieces of insects in every jar of peanut butter, microorganisms on every stalk of celery, and some foods can even have pieces of mice or rats. Save for the last part, the finding of insects in your food is almost always inherent to the harvesting and manufacturing process. Bugs get into the food because we neglect to prevent that, and we have all come to accept that this is okay. But what about those living creatures' rights: The beetle that finds his way in your chocolate bar, the mouse that drowned his sorrows in your can of baked beans, or the microorganism riding your tongue like a slide when you bite a carrot? Do they not matter?

There are a few possible objections to this argument:

(1) These are incidental occurrences that can't be avoided, as much as accidentally crushing an ant on your walk to school.
(2) These animals aren't tortured by humans. They, by their own actions, fly into our food and die.
(3) Insects, while living, are not typically conscious, and are much more impulsive creatures.

Objection 1 is rather lazy. These things aren't avoidable as a part of our daily lives, and so we shouldn't be concerned about the moral implications? One could easily ask the objector why our lives need to take priority over these animals' lives. There seems to be nothing which suggests that our lives are more important than theirs; and if one concedes that our lives are more important, then they accept that sometimes it's okay to kill an animal for the benefit of our own lives. You would then have to ask why cows and pigs don't fall into that gray area, which we'll get to in objection 3.

Objection 2 seems to accept that if an animal is killed by its own agency, even if our actions are the root cause of their death, then there is no moral dilemma. But as said, we are the root cause. That tasty tub of Toblerone would not be in that factory building for the fly to suffocate in if we didn't put it there for our own benefit. We know the risks it poses for the fly, who will be too enamored by the bounty to think of the risks and thus suffocate once it dives head first into the vat of chocolate, but we don't care. We don't avoid a moral dilemma by blaming the fly for its own agency, because we set up the environment for it to die in, knowing the risks involved. Our negligence to take precautions to ensure its survival is what led to its death.

Objection 3 involves hierarchical claims. As we saw earlier in this article, even individuals like Kalel can be pressed to thinking in terms of speciesism and learn to prioritize some living creatures over others. Such a mindset is antithetical to the moral vegetarian/vegan philosophy, but is also unavoidable.

If the argument is that an insect, being an unconscious, impulsive creature made up of nothing but nerve cells, has fewer rights than a cow, capable of much more complex thoughts, then we have established conditions where some animals are okay to eat, but others aren't. Where do we draw the line at, then? Mice are very simplistically minded creatures as well, but they have a bit more complexity than a praying mantis. Is it okay to kill the mouse? If the answer is no, then why? If the answer is yes, then we move on to a rat, then a guinea pig, then a squirrel, and so on until we find where the line is drawn.

But let's assume the line is objectively drawn at the point of insects, however: Insects are okay to kill because they have no conscious thoughts. They don't process pain and the concept of living the same way a cow does. What if we anesthetize the cow, then? It feels no pain, it falls asleep, and then we kill it. It isn't processing any of those emotions or thoughts at the time of its death. Is it okay to eat beef from such a cow?

Let's say this is flawed too, and the cow still isn't okay to eat because intrinsic to its existence is the capability, in the proper state of mind, to process these emotions and thoughts. Because it can think of these things, then it doesn't matter that it wasn't thinking of them at the time of its death. Well, then what happens if we genetically modify a breed of cows that are essentially brain dead? We feed those cows through tubes, they sit in a box all day and night without a thought going through their brains, and are then eventually killed for their meat. It never had and never would have had the ability to conceive of pain, loss, suffering, death, and so on -- its brain functions the same as a centipede. Is it okay to eat then? Why wouldn't it be? We have established that this creature, in all matters of its existence, is the same as an insect, which we have already deemed okay to eat. What's the difference here? There is none.

No matter what, a hierarchy is impossible to avoid. We decide what has the right to live and what doesn't, and in the end, living beings die as part of our need to survive, and our preference for our own survival. We prioritize some creatures over others, and even a vegan can't avoid this. The moral dilemma is not solved by choosing to not eat meat, because other animals are at stake as well.

Reason 2: You don't need meat to be healthy.

The second reason Kalel provides for not eating meat is that it isn't necessary to be healthy. She claims you can get all of your nutrients, including protein, from a plant-based diet, and that such a diet can prevent or even reverse disease. Let's assume that her claims of health and nutrients are true. Just because we don't need meat doesn't mean we shouldn't eat meat, or that eating meat is morally wrong. Necessity does not determine the morality of these acts, although to some people it can provide legitimate justification. The problem is that "health" isn't even the primary concern for many people who eat meat, it's just survival. The average person who needs to make a financial decision involving buying a bundle of vegetables from a grocery store miles away from their urban home over buying fast food beef, chicken, etc. down the block isn't going to be thinking about nutrients. To suggest that this is a reason that it's morally wrong to eat meat ignores the struggles that millions of people face around the country, and even the world, every day.

Moreover, it assumes that the average person not facing financial struggle cares about nutrition when making dietary choices anyway. It's pretty well known that America has an obesity problem, and this doesn't stem from us habitually being concerned about whether or not we're getting the proper nutrients and vitamins in our oh-so-healthy diets. In reality, nobody thinks about nutrition most of the time. That's why we have junk food culture, and that's why I indulge in it willingly. Nutrition isn't on my mind when I eat a Twinkie. Food is. Convenience is the biggest problem, not nutrition.

Reason 3: Animal agriculture is destroying our planet.

Kalel's factual statement here is, once again, correct. Animal agriculture is the main contributor to greenhouse gases which is, in turn, the leading cause of climate change. By cutting back on eating meat, the argument goes, we can reduce the production of greenhouse gases and slow down climate change.

Once again, however, going vegetarian/vegan does not reduce the production of meat and so has no visible effect in this realm. The imperative isn't there. Moreover, once again, this has to deal with intensive agricultural practices. It says nothing about local farms that produce meat the same way we've been producing it for thousands of years. Lastly, and most importantly, this isn't necessarily a problem for our future. Genetic modification can lead to the creation of farm animals that do not produce anywhere near as many CO2s as our current livestock does. We can also genetically modify trees and other plants to enhance their natural processing of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to offset this greenhouse gas production. Scientific advancements can lead to the same agricultural practices without the harmful effects on the environment.

Kalel also includes a modest point about water usage. She claims that it takes 2500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, and so anyone concerned about water usage (esp. in times of drought) should stop eating burgers. While this figure is often disputed to some extent, let's assume that it's correct. What happens when we stop eating burgers, then? We've "saved" that much water, but is it enough? Who is to say we shouldn't go further: Let's stop producing bread, since every pound of bread requires 200 gallons of water. With the average person in America consuming 53 pounds of bread per year (and this trend rising due to the swap from beef consumption to bread consumption), we see that we are using about 3.4 trillion gallons of water every year for bread; and this is just for American consumers. Considering that a lot of the bread we produce is exported, that number is considerably higher for overall water usage. This is compared to approximately 64.5 trillion gallons of water currently used for beef production, using the 2500 gallon figure. This number will shift with the increased consumption of bread over the years.

So why don't we stop consuming bread? The answer is that while these figures are scary, they aren't comparative. Who draws the line at how much water is too much, and at what point we can say "Okay, we're good now, we don't need to cut back on any more water usage"? These types of claims are hard value judgments of figures that are otherwise valueless from a moral perspective. If cutting back on water is a moral imperative, however, then we can do this by consuming genetically modified farm animals that do not require as much food/water to properly function.

But more to the point, when Kalel chooses to take a bath or not take a bath, she is directly affecting water usage. Whether or not she chooses to eat beef, as we have displayed, has no visible effect on beef production and thus has no visible effect on water usage. From this perspective, the person who sees it necessary to cut down on taking baths but not cut down on eating meat is actually in the right, because the former will actually reduce water usage, while the other will not. The only recompense offered by not eating meat is being rid of personal feelings of liability. Given the conflict I just illustrated however, personal liability is still not avoided by choosing to take a long bath but not eat meat.

Addressing her point on rainforest destruction, once again this has much more to do with intensive agriculture than it does to do with the inherent morality of farming animals and eating meat. Not eating meat will not solve this problem. Changing farming practices will. There are also numerous other contributors to rainforest destruction that the average person can't avoid, such as finding housing. When you think about it, all of our modern territory was once the territory of wild animals. It's another situation of "something's gotta give" -- if we prioritized every other animal on the planet over ourselves in an unrealistic phenomenon of nature, we would not have anywhere to live at all.

Finally, on choosing to eat meat being bigger than "me and you," as we can see above, it actually isn't any bigger than that. It's a personal choice that has no tangible consequences in terms of the environment. One could argue that on a grander scale, with millions of people making this personal choice, it is a bigger issue, but this isn't a moral claim. This is one of practicality, and it is easily moderated by both the source of your meat (i.e. a local versus a factory farm) and whether or not we choose to go with genetically modified farm animals in the future to cut down on environmental impact. There are many avenues to resolving this issue that do not involve going vegetarian or vegan.

Reason 4: If we stopped eating meat, it would end world hunger.

Kalel reasons that the amount of grain and produce used to raise farm animals could feed every person in the world for several years, and so if we used those resources to feed other people instead of animals, it could end world hunger. The operative word here being could. Even if we somehow shut down every single farm in America, and that grain/produce were not being used to raise farm animals, there is absolutely no guarantee that the food would reach the starving people of the world.

Kalel seems to forget that grain and produce are grown and sold by businesses. It simply isn't economical for a business to spend money to produce grain and other resources, only to then just give it away. Even if we somehow reached that desire to spend money with absolutely no profit or economic benefit, there's still no guarantee that the food we send to, say, Somalia, wouldn't be stolen immediately by warlords or terrorist organizations that would keep it to themselves or exploit access to that resource by charging the average person for its use. Solving world hunger is a much, much more complicated issue than just having enough food to feed people. It has to deal with our desire to send out that food and their ability to receive that food, among many other issues. This was the very source of the Marxist v. Capitalist arguments of the 19th century in the realm of economics: For the first time in history, we had enough food and resources to keep people well fed for the rest of their lives, and yet poverty and famine persisted.


After having addressed the many moral arguments invoked by moral vegetarianism/veganism, I have to stop and look at the biggest question: Why is this important? What was the point of making this article? Was it to invalidate vegetarians and vegans for their beliefs (a label that Kalel rejects), or was it something else?

I take personal issues with universal moral claims. I'm of the camp that believes there's no such thing as objective morality. Moral claims are made within the context of culture and society, and we all implicitly agree to certain rules that govern our behavior without really thinking about the premises behind them. The moralist position of some vegetarians and vegans attempts to override that and claim, as an ultimate moral imperative, that we have to all stop eating meat. Such a change in our way of life has many consequences and implications, and so before I put down my hamburger, I better damn well know I'm doing it for a good reason.

Does it help animal welfare? No, and that's its own issue.

Does it make me healthier? Not necessarily, and being healthy is not necessarily my priority, since I eat plenty of junk.

Does it help the environment? Maybe, but there are many other ways to do that that don't require giving up meat.

Does it end world hunger? No.

There is, therefore, no reason to change my habits, or let other meat lovers come to believe that what they're doing is objectively wrong. Kalel claims that she doesn't intend to attack anyone with her video, but by moralizing the issue, you are essentially trying to convince people that they are committing moral wrongs, i.e. evils by eating meat. That is a personal claim that need not exist here, for the reasons listed above. So to conclude, I say...

Well done.

Why can't we beefriends?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Men And Women: Similarities Or Differences?

Note to my readers: Sorry for the long hiatus. My life has been very hectic as of recent, jumping from one job to another, getting a promotion at the latter, quitting due to a lack of any freedom or respect, then picking up yet another job which currently occupies my time. I originally had something much bigger planned for this post, but time restrictions prevent it from coming to fruition. I believe that the following post is nonetheless informative, and I hope you all enjoy it.

It's a question that many people struggle with and has great implications for the study of our species: are men and women more alike than different or more different than alike, and what differences exist between the sexes?

It's a tough question, really, and is influenced by many different factors. I've reviewed these types of dilemmas several times. Despite the suggestions of recent studies, the gender gap in spatial abilities cannot be solidly attributed to an evolutionary perspective because, in short, there are many clear ways in which culture and society influence the manifestation of our spatial abilities, regardless of gender. Aside from that, it is shown that in more egalitarian societies, the spatial ability gap decreases. It's a perfect example of how culture and environment can influence psychological traits in a way that may automatically be assumed to be a product of sexual selection.

Briefly, in what I dubbed the "ROK Complex," I reviewed definitions of attractiveness by gender, and ultimately (and most relevantly) how well human sexes adhere to sex roles commonly found in nature in accordance with Bateman's Principle. As it turns out, what little success there has been in analyzing this has brought some questions to the idea that humans follow Bateman's Principle, although the study cited only examined 18 human populations. This is possibly the most straightforward answer to whether or not sex roles and major gender differences manifest greatly in humans.

Nonetheless, stereotypes of males and females still find popularity even within the scientific community. Sexual attitudes are a big topic in the sciences, as is the psychology behind men and women's preferences in sexual partners. While refuted in that post, the answer was (again) not conclusively drawn, and still did not get to the heart of the question at hand. Whatever piecemeal debates we can examine and draw conclusions about, there is a looming question that overbears it all: overall, are men and women more similar than alike? Overall, what differences exist? My posts so far haven't examined this, and it's because it's a question I really didn't have the answer to.

I was curious what the literature had to say on the matter. I found a research report on the APA's website that referred me to some great pieces. Namely I was introduced to researcher Janet Shibley Hyde, a leading scholar in her field, and her gender similarities hypothesis. The gender similarities hypothesis states that men and women will be similar in most (but not necessarily all) psychological variables, which is to be contrasted to the differences model which states the opposite. This, while more socially favorable, has not found much favor among psychologists, simply because it seems intuitively ridiculous. Hyde recognizes this and that there are many pervasive myths surrounding the idea of gender differences in various behavioral and cognitive faculties, and so set out to see what the body of scientific knowledge we had available at the time (2005) actually revealed.

Thus came the famous study "The Gender Similarities Hypothesis" where Hyde reviewed 46 meta-analyses on gender comparisons in various psychological/physiological faculties. This study revealed quite an array of surprising results, which I'll briefly review below:
  • On the vast majority of the examined variables, the effect sizes of the gender differences examined were small or close to zero (d ≤ 0.35).
  • Of these, 30% were close to zero (d 0.10) and 48% were small (0.11 < d < 0.35).
  • Those faculties that show larger differences are throwing distance/velocity (explained by large muscle mass and bone density in males), some sexual attitudes, and aggression.
But the results aren't so simplistic either. Social context was taken into account in many of these studies as well. Surprisingly for aggression was just how much it may rely on societal expectations -- when gender identities of test subjects were hidden, women actually displayed more aggressive tendencies than men. In addition to this, many of the gender gaps fluctuated over time, showing that a consistent, biological explanation doesn't conform well to some of the data. All in all, the big takeaway from this groundbreaking review was that, contrary to popular belief, men and women are much more similar to each other than they are different.

When this study was published, researchers went nuts, and who's to blame them? It's not surprising that so many people would be rushing to the lab setting after hearing that those sex differences they thought were just common sense turned out to be unsupported by the data, or at least fairly ambigious. A slew of meta-analyses were published in the years following, further increasing the pile of research available to accept the plausibility of the gender similarities hypothesis versus the gender differences hypothesis. When it seemed like the debate may have been coming to a close, instead it raged on hotter than ever.

So it was no surprise when in 2014, Hyde released another review "Gender Similarities and Differences" which revealed results that were about the same as before, this time calling upon a much larger pool of research with a much more detailed review, in which they not only offer explanations from their previous study, but offer new insights to address the issue of gender/sex differences now and reconcile previous study design flaws.. The article is not available to the general public, however I can provide it by request. There's also far too much to review in this post, so instead I'll provide some of the highlights that I believe people are most curious about, so long as I haven't previously covered them.

Links are provided for all studies. Scores in the positive range mean that boys scored higher than girls, and scores in the negative range mean girls scored higher than boys for the tested factor. Any questions about sampling or study design can be directed to me in the comments or via email.

Lastly, I should remind everyone that these studies are all meta-analyses, meaning they each draw upon a large pool of research. Even where a factor is only examined by one study, the power of the study is found in its meta-analytic review.

Mathematical Performance

4 studies were reviewed here: Hyde et al. (1990), Hyde et al. (2008), Lindberg et al. (2010) and Else-Quest et al. (2010). The first meta-analysis from 1990 revealed that although boys and girls did not differ significantly in mathematical performance (d = -0.05), there was still a substantial gap in complex problem solving in high school (d = 0.29). So they reviewed again in 2008 and found that not only did the gap in mathematical performance not get wider, but the gap in complex problem solving appeared to have closed as well (d = 0.06). Lindberg et al. found again that the gap in mathematical performance was almost negligible, and there was a small but significant difference in complex problem solving (d = 0.16). While the results of the final meta-analysis are not given much detail, it is noted that the gender gap fluctuates both in magnitude and directionality across nations. In short, the gender difference in general mathematical performance has reached parity, and while there still may be a gap in complex problem solving, it seems to be declining (or perhaps has even closed entirely) and could be caused by sociocultural elements.

It should also be noted, bearing these data in mind, that Else-Quest et al. revealed that the gender difference in mathematical self-confidence is 0.27, and the difference in anxiety is -0.23. As Hyde notes, this means that the difference in how males and females see their own mathematical performance is higher than the difference in their actual performance. What is especially interesting about this information is that, at least concerning mathematical performance, it effectively eliminates an explanation via stereotype threat. This isn't intuitive, and it may actually surprise some people.


This section covers three factors of temperament: effortful control (i.e. inhibitory control, attention), negative affect (i.e. emotionality, fear) and surgency (i.e. activity, impulsivity). Data includes a sample of 236,102 temperament ratings for children 3 months to 13 years of age (Else-Quest et al. 2006).

For effortful control, girls scored higher for both inhibitory control and attention (d = -0.41; -0.23, respectively). Hyde notes that "These average gender differences are in the small-to-
moderate range and contrast to larger gender differences at the tail of the distribution, where
boys with attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) outnumber girls by ratios of 2:1 to
9:1 across studies" (p. 383). That being said, one should not take the extremes at either tail of the distribution and assume those to be the norm. There is much more substantial overlap between genders in this category.

For surgency, boys scored higher in both areas. Depending on the measure, gender differences in activity ranged from 0.15 to 0.33, and 0.18 for impulsivity. Again, a small-to-moderate disparity, but nonetheless significant.

Negative affectivity is probably the area of greatest interest, and has the most surprising results. No significant gender difference was detected in any factor of negative affect (d = -0.06): -0.1 for sadness and 0.01 for emotionality. While it's rather intuitive to believe that women are more emotional than men, the data doesn't show this to be the case, even though there is a rather robust difference in depression between the genders.

What's also important to note is that gender differences in these factors varied with age (typically increasing with age), but also varied depending on context. While the gender difference in emotional internalization were essentially nonexistent when children were by themselves, it increased to -0.16 when adults were present.

So while temperament shows significant gender differences, these differences are much weaker than expected, and the factor commonly believed to exhibit the largest disparity in fact had the smallest. Considering that studies which controlled for social expectations had larger effect sizes, this is completely consistent with the conclusions drawn in Hyde et al. (2005). Finally, once again context can completely alter the magnitude and directionality of gender differences in these variables.


This can definitely be a controversial discussion. Are women more emotional than men by nature, or even just a matter of statistical trends? Emotional disparity in particular motivates many gender stereotypes and social expectations, where it tends to be the case that men can more easily and acceptably express anger, while women can express most other emotions.

Only two studies are reviewed here despite the interest of the subject, however I believe this is the case because studies on emotional expression suffer from an inherent setback of the Hawthorne effect. This is where a test subject modifies their behavior while being observed because they believe it is more acceptable or desirable. However, what's interesting is that one of the studies directly examines this effect and what it does for the gender disparity in emotional expression. The results are quite interesting.

The two studies reviewed are Chaplin & Aldao (2013) and Else-Quest et al. (2012). In the latter study, it was found that while women were more likely to experience guilt (d = -0.27) and shame (d = -0.29), there were very minor differences for embarrassment (d = -0.08), authentic pride (d = -0.01), and hubristic pride (d = -0.09). What's interesting is that these disparities, while being small and trivial, actually show women displaying more pride contrary to stereotypes.

In the former study, gender differences in emotional expression were examined from birth to adolescence. Surprisingly, across the board gender differences in the expression of positive emotions (d = -0.08), internalizing emotions (d = -0.1) and externalizing emotions (d = 0.09) were all fairly small, although the trends seemed to be consistent with the relevant stereotypes (e.g. internalizing emotions are those such as sadness and anxiety, externalizing emotions are those such as anger). What was most interesting about this study however is that it showed that these differences vary by age, increasing gradually from early childhood to mid-childhood and into adolescence. This appears to be inconsistent with a more biological hypothesis as one would expect that if the differences were a result of biology, they would jump at puberty and into adolescence. If it were a matter of gene expression, the same might be expected. The trend here seems to be more consistent with social learning theory.

Lastly, in the same study, it was found that emotional expression varied greatly depending on whether or not the children were with adults. For example, for internalizing emotions, the disparity was almost non-existent (d = -0.03), but jumped when adults were present (d = -0.16). Again, this shows the importance of context and how social situations tend to increase, or in some cases may be completely responsible for, the gender differences we tend to observe.


Again, another difficult factor to examine longitudinally. There were 3 studies available for examination, however two of them were from the 1980s, so only one is focused on (Archer 2004) with additional information from Bettencourt & Kernahan (1997). It should be noted that two of these studies are fairly old, but still important for the discussion.

Gender differences in physical aggression were fairly substantial (d = 0.55), and this trend appears very early -- as young as two years old among children playing together. Yet while men hold the stereotype of being more physically aggressive on average, women hold a stereotype of more "relational aggression;" that is, non-physical aggression which seeks to harm peer reputation. According to Archer, however, such a trend is not very large: -0.19 for peer reports and -0.13 for teacher reports.

But what of context? It seems to be the case that for most of these factors, context plays a key role. The same is true of aggression. According to Bettencourt & Kernahan, when violent cues are present but absent of any provocation, the gender difference in aggression is still 0.41, however when both provocation and violent cues are present, the difference is near-zero. So while men are typically more aggressive than women, and while women are slightly more indirectly aggressive that men, the difference can be mitigated by context.


Lastly, the big "S." How do men and women differ in terms of sexuality and sexual conduct? This includes things such as number of partners, cheating, casual sex, etc. Across a total of 14 sexual behaviors and 16 sexual attitudes examined by Petersen & Hyde (2010), almost all gender differences were small. Four were in the moderate range: Masturbation (d = 0.53), pornography (d = 0.63), number of sexual partners (d = 0.36), and favorable attitudes towards casual sex (d = 0.45). For five factors, differences were ≤ 0.10, including oral sex, attitudes about condom use, attitudes about masturbation, attitudes about extramarital sex and attitudes about lesbians. Interestingly, the difference favored women slightly for attitudes about gay men (d = -0.18). Some of these gender gaps are closing, as revealed by moderator analysis. It's also quite possibly the case that some of the larger differences were affected by reporting bias, since gender differences shrink when the respondent is given anonymity, and nearly close when they are hooked up to a fake polygraph.

Much more was covered by Hyde's review, but it would take too long to discuss them all here. Here is a list, however, of all factors examined:

- Spatial performance.
- Verbal skills.
- Attitudes.
- Personality and "the five factors" (i.e. The Big Five).
- Impulsivity.
- Interests.
- Communication.
- Helping behavior.
- Leadership.
- Depression.
- Rumination.
- Self-esteem.

If there is any one in particular that you would like me to summarize in the comments section, I'd be happy to take requests. Also, as stated before, I can offer a copy of the review upon request as well.

In terms of final thoughts and opinions, I'd say it's not that important what the data says when it comes to a real world understanding of gender differences in psychology and behavior. "Seeing is believing" as they say, and how people tend to act on average is much more important from a practical standpoint than what the causes of it are. Even if we were to say "context is everything" as a general rule, that doesn't say how much context exacerbates gender disparities in the listed variables. In the end, it's what we observe, not why.

Yet it stands true: We are more alike than different.

Thank you all for reading.


Hyde, J. (2014). Gender Similarities and Differences Annual Review of Psychology, 65 (1), 373-398 DOI: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115057

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Bad Creationist Arguments: Redefining Atheism

Since my last post on the topic, I've been somewhat carefully watching the blog Adoro Ergo Sum to see if there is any notice or note of my response. There didn't seem to be as far as I could tell, and so I decided it'd be best to just let the ignorance slip by. I'm not fond of debating anyway, so what reason would I have to shoehorn my reply into the argument? Simply put, I decided to keep quiet and not announce my rebuttal.

But then recently, I noticed a newer post from the same blog entitled "Why it Doesn't Make Sense to Define Atheism as 'Lack of Belief.'" The author, Nathan Barontini, wrote this post in conjunction with prior objections to the aforementioned post regarding atheism being unjustified. Part of my rebuttal falls into what Nathan takes issue with, and so I decided to give his response a read. What Nathan finds problematic is how many atheists define atheism in recent times; as opposed to defining it as believing there is no God, these atheists (myself included) define it as simply not believing in God. Nathan claims this is a reduction that doesn't make any sense. Once again, I find his argument to be underwhelming, and so I will respond to them here. This time, I will also be notifying Nathan of my rebuttal so that he might respond either in the comment section or with an article of his own. Readers be aware, however, that I do not intend to extend this to a prolonged back-and-forth exchange between the two of us. I'm interested in hearing any potential response Nathan can offer, but I'm not honestly expecting much. After addressing the following arguments, I will be comfortable with how much time I've spent responding to any claims made on Adoro Ergo Sum. Without further ado, let's begin.

It's very easy to see, at least for me, that Nathan loses his way from the very beginning. He seeks to first define the common positions (or systems) of belief in terms of religion and faith. He defines them thusly:
"The most straightforward, and most common, differentiation between positions on the existence of God is based on the various different answers to a very simple and straightforward question, Does God exist?

Group 1 - Theism - God Exists

Group 2 - Atheism1 (theism’s contradictory) - God doesn’t exist

Group 3 - Agnosticism2 (the skeptics) - We can’t know whether God exists or not

Group 4 - Weak Agnosticism (the ignorant) - God may or may not exist.

Group 1 (theists) answer the question Does God exist by saying “yes.” Group 2 (atheists) answer the same question “no.” Groups 3 and 4 answer our question by saying “I don’t know,” but differ on whether or not they think anyone can possibly know the answer."
The way in which Nathan defines these categories, respective to the original question "Does God exist?" is fairly unproblematic; however the issue here lies in the framing itself, and that question. Nathan has decided to use a valid prompt, "Does God exist?" What he fails to do, however, is entertain the notion that there are equally valid prompts to which someone can respond by stating one of these positions. Let me give the example that is most readily understandable, and puts a hole in Nathan's premise:
Prompt: Do you believe in God?

Group 1, theists, answer "yes."
Group 2, atheists, answer "no."
Group 3, agnostics, answer "I don't know (do not believe or disbelieve), and I never will."
Group 4, weak agnostics, answer "I don't know (do not believe or disbelieve)."
As we see here, all groups have given the same answer, but they hold entirely different implications as they respond to a different prompt. Here, the atheist answers "no" to whether or not they believe in God. This is a claim of personal belief, whereas the question Nathan uses is a claim of truth. Depending on how you frame the question, you still get the same response; however, the way in which the groups reply holds different weight. I, being an atheist, would respond to this question with a solid "no," placing me as an atheist, and yet I haven't gotten to the bigger question of "does God exist?" We will address that momentarily. Before we do this, however, I want to take a moment to respond to the paragraph that follows in Nathan's post.
"This last group is the weakest as it makes no real claim about anything outside their own heads. They say nothing about objective reality preferring to only comment on their own knowledge (or lack thereof). The proper agnostic at least affirms the unknowability of whether or not God exists, and thus can still be argued with. The “weak agnostic” however will not even go so far. This makes this last group not only the weakest, but also, by far, the least important."
This is such a bleak-minded view of the viewpoints in question, I don't know where to begin. Just because someone has not taken a position on an issue yet does not, by any means, imply that they are of any less importance and don't have anything to contribute. While it may be "weak," it's still valuable, and I will illustrate why in a moment.
"Someone from one of the first three groups can seek to enlighten them, but no one can argue with them as they have nothing to bring to the argument except ignorance. Imagine, if you will a group of mathematicians. The first man says the square of the hypotenuse equals that of the two sides. A second man denies this, claiming the math is simply wrong. A third man claims we can have no rule that will always work for all triangles.  These three men can have a conversation and even eventually work toward a solution to the disagreement. Now imagine a fourth man enters the scene who simply says “I dunno”. Is there any meaningful part in the conversation he can play other than being taught by one or all of the other men?"
Yes. The fourth man can take an objective point of view (insofar as he is without bias towards one particular position) and can, if he is informed on the subject, argue the merits and weaknesses of any side in the debate. What Nathan fails to see here is that just because someone says "I don't know" does not mean that is the last comment they make. I'll use some examples my coauthor, Nick, will like. A good lawyer, regardless of how he feels about a case, can argue the defense or the prosecution convincingly in most cases. This includes the potential scenario where the lawyer, having reviewed the case, is unable to make a determination for himself whether or not he personally agrees with the defense or the prosecution. Does this make him any less valuable to the debate? Of course not, that would be ridiculous.

Though, the courtroom has a structure conducive to that sort of thing, so let's use a more open example. This time, I'll invoke my coauthor as the example. Nick declares himself an "independent" in terms of politics, meaning he does not caucus with any particular political party. He examines positions via evidence and rationality. Does this mean that he's totally useless to the political process, because he hasn't picked a side? Of course not, because it's far more nuanced than that. He can take positions on individual policies, for example. Likewise, the "weak agnostic" is capable of taking positions on the merits of particular arguments involved in the debate of God's existence. To be so dismissive of this group is, in my opinion, heinous.
"In the same way we have three different positions that can have an active role in answering “the God question” while those claiming ignorance on the issue are best left to study the arguments and move into one of the other three camps."
So to summarize on this segment, Nathan's conclusion (above) is erroneous. People who claim ignorance on the final question can still offer nuanced talking points and arguments to narrow down the best of the other three herds. They don't need to take a position to contribute. They can moderate, they can reason, and they can find middle ground in the midst of heated argument. I'd encourage Nathan to leave his comfort zone and attempt a discussion with someone who has not made a decision on whether or not God exists, but is still informed enough to talk about the subject. The only thing absent is the ability to argue against them, since they have no position you can argue against -- you must entirely judge their reasoning based on the merits of the particulars. Difficult? Maybe. Fun and informative? Absolutely.

Continuing on with the primary point of this response, Nathan resumes his contention with atheists, framing such with the following diatribe:
"Apparently some atheists want to redefine these terms. To broaden out the atheist camp (perhaps in a desperate attempt to gain more numbers?) they seek to include most agnostics as atheists."
Nathan frames the argument in two ways: (1) he seeks to establish the definition he provided earlier as the definition of atheism, and any definition which deviates from this camp is a "redefinition;" and, (2) he tries to identify the motive of this "redefinition" in a rather vitriolic way. One can see why he might need a "weak agnostic" at this point, as his words are becoming increasingly toxic.

The problem with this premise, however, is that the definition of "atheism" meaning "without God" or simply "not believing in God" is not at all a recent phenomenon, and is an accepted definition by many accounts. From the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998): "In the popular sense, an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves in God, whereas an atheist disbelieves in God."

But earlier than this has existed a schism between definitions of atheism, ranging from defining it as an assertion or merely the absence of one. If Nathan took the time even to read the Wikipedia page, he'd immediately see that many people use the same type of distinction he uses for agnostics: weak and strong atheism, implicit and explicit. The point of this isn't to say my definition is correct and Nathan's is wrong -- no, I'm simply stating that there are many valid definitions of atheism which Nathan readily overlooks, due to his consistently being comfortable only with his perspective on the issues at hand. I'm challenging his premise that atheism's definition has to be, or has ever had to be the one he uses; and furthermore, I'm challenging the notion that this matters at all. It's simply framing the issue in a biased manner.

Continuing, Nathan believes that these "new" atheists want to define the terms as follows:
Group 1 - Gnostic Theism - God exists

Group 2 - Agnostic Theism - God may or may not exist, but I have a belief in God

Group 3 - Gnostic Atheism - God doesn’t exist

Group 4 - Agnostic Atheism - God may or may not exist, but I lack a belief in God
Nathan finds issue with this, firstly, because it leaves out the group "weak agnostics" and "[gives] them a weight they simply don't warrant." What Nathan fails to mention is that this is based on the premise that one needs four groups in this debate, with no overlaps. It's, again, a very bleak-minded view of the issue. Here is how I would divvy up the positions:
Group 1 - Gnostic Theists - God exists.
Group 2 - Weak Agnostic Theists - I don't know if God exists, but I take the position that he does.
Group 3 - Strong Agnostic Theists - I don't know if God exists, and I'll never know, but I take the position that he does.
Group 4 - Gnostic Atheists - God doesn't exist.
Group 5 - Weak Agnostic Atheists (Me) - I don't know if God exists, but I take the position that he doesn't.
Group 6 - Strong Agnostic Atheists - I don't know if God exists, and I'll never know, but I take the position that he doesn't.
Group 7 - Weak Agnostics - I don't know if God exists, and I don't take a position.
Group 8 - Strong Agnostics - I don't know if God exists, and I'll never know, and I don't take a position.
And this is only the beginning, as I could get into the divisions if we included universalism as a position as well (the belief that religion, or belief in God, is a human universal), since one can be a universalist but also take a position on whether or not they personally belief in God or not, or whether or not we'll ever know. The issue is far more nuanced than Nathan likes to make it, and he seems to think that all atheists think the way he does. By definition, we don't.

So to answer Nathan's next question, "Where are the people who claim not only that we don’t happen to know whether God exists, but that we can’t know," the answer is: right here. Just because he left them out of the equation doesn't mean we do. I certainly don't. There is no reason to believe that religious belief has to consist of exclusionary, non-overlapping categories as Nathan likes to illustrate. There's quite a continuum.
"If we pose our simple, straightforward question, does God exist, to these four new groups we get a simple “yes” from group one and “no” from group 3, while getting no answer at all from the remaining two groups. Group 2 answers, “I dunno, but I have a belief in God.” Group 3, “I dunno, but I lack belief.” Why anyone feels it necessary to add on an answer to an entirely unasked question about they belief/ lack of belief in God is quite beyond me."
Now that we have gone over the issues, we can now see why Nathan's confusion is of his own doing. The reason the answer is to an unasked question, as he puts it, is because he only asked one question. The reason he finds confusion with the answers is because, as we have reviewed, he only lets in four groups. The only problem is within Nathan's own mind, not with any epistemological issue that "new" atheists have.
"It is interesting to note that, supposedly, most atheists (or “most intelligent/ educated atheists”) are in group 4, that is they are really agnostics who happen to (mis)identify as atheists rather than being atheists in the full and proper sense of the term as most people use it."
Let's, for a moment, accept Nathan's argument: by definition, I am now an agnostic, because I fell into group 4. I'm not an atheist, I'm an agnostic. Now, ask me this question: "Do you believe there is a God?" My answer? No. I don't believe there's a God. I disbelieve in God. I have now fallen back into atheism. But I'm an agnostic, because if you asked me another question: "Do you know for sure that there is/isn't a God," I'd also answer "no."

But more importantly than the nuance that Nathan ignores is this: who gives a flying fuck? Language, by definition, is not set in stone. If we were seeking to redefine the terms that already exist (which we aren't), then it's not a fallacy for us to not follow the original etymology; in fact, to assert otherwise is a fallacy. Language evolves. Terms become more encompassing, and nuanced. When it happens, get used to it.

So to answer the last question in this series of argument, where Nathan wonders if anyone but agnostic atheists use this system, the answer is that it doesn't matter. Groups/categories are useful tools by which we seek to assimilate information from the outside world into our own manner of understanding. We can choose what groups we assign people to, including what groups we assign ourselves to. So long as they are logically valid (which, as I have displayed here, the nuanced system in question is valid), they can be used, and can be consistent with reality. These groups are socially/culturally constructed, not concrete definitions based on some unchanging element of the universe.

Now we will get into the smaller, latter portions of Nathan's article, just for a bit of fun, since his arguments only get worse from here. To begin:

1: What's the motive?

Nathan has now changed his story to display that an agnostic, when asked "do you believe in God," would answer "no." Most agnostics I've encountered hear this question, sigh, fumble on their words a bit, and then answer "I don't know, I'm an agnostic." They need to clarify. It depends on the system, however, what category they fall into.

In any case, Nathan wonders what the motive is to all of this imagined controversy. The answer, he claims, isn't clarity. Of course not, it's accuracy. Nathan, however, believes that the motive is to shift the burden of proof onto theists because atheists know they can't provide evidence or reason for their worldview. Well, that would be valid if the atheists defined themselves as "believing there is no God," but that's largely not the case. That would require justification, but simply disbelieving does not require said justification. If these atheists really do take this position, "I don't believe in God, but I'm not saying there is no God," then the burden of proof is most certainly on the theist. This isn't even an argument. This is Nathan's attempt to force atheists to take a position, consistent with his issue with weak agnostics. He doesn't like that they make no assertions. It's hard to argue with someone like that. He likes simplicity and clarity, not nuance and accuracy. Life isn't like that though, Nathan. If a person says, "I'm an atheist, I don't believe in God," and you say, "I'm a theist, I do believe in God," then you're the only one making an assertion. The burden of proof is therefore on you.

2: Is theism just a lack of belief too?

Nathan nearly makes a joke of himself here by stating that one could argue that theism, being "the non-belief in an uncaused universe," is simply a lack of belief too, and the burden of proof is therefore shifted back to atheists. This is absolutely hilarious, because the only thing needed to refute this is 1st grade grammar. The statement is a double negative. Let's say "belief in an uncaused universe" is "aunivertarianism" (bear with me here). To reject that claim by having "non-belief in an uncaused universe," then, would be a-aunivertarianism, or just univertarianism. It cancels out.

So why is this invalid, but atheism isn't? Because atheism (a) isn't a double negative; and, (b) is still rejecting an assertion. This isn't difficult to understand.

3: More absurdity.

Nathan gets even more ridiculous by claiming that defining atheism as "lack of belief in God" would then bring in dogs, cats, trees, etc. into the group of "atheism." This is utterly moronic. Okay, let's again accept Nathan's premise: "lack of belief in God" should be properly defined as "agnosticism." Now then, now that we've got the definitions right, let's call dogs, cats and trees by their proper title: agnostics! Dogs are agnostics, cats are agnostics, and trees are agnostics!

Yeah it's stupid isn't it?

The reason, clearly, is that all these things lack consciousness. You can't take a position or have an absence of a position if you lack the ability to take/not take a position.

To summarize, here Nathan has tried extending his aggressive rejection of atheism and the lack of taking a position to such extremes that he has made his argument so nonsensical that it can't even be identified as a proper argument anymore. It's an incoherent diatribe against atheists for not conforming to Nathan's understanding of the world. It's absurd.

Nathan, if you're going to challenge atheists, don't do it by forcing conformity upon them. The very fact that we're atheists, a minority and socially taboo group, means it's not going to work. Confusing the issue doesn't make your position any more legitimate, because the fallacies therein are still plain to see.

Thank you all very much for reading.

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