One reader's rave

"Thanks for the newspaper with your book review. I can’t tell you how impressed I am with this terrific piece of writing. It is beautiful, complex, scholarly. Only sorry Mr. Freire cannot read it!" -- Ailene

Help the Honey Badgers in their fight for freedom of speech and thought!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

After his public support for the Afghanistan war (in spite of his being a Quaker), it wasn't too surprising to hear NPR's Scott Simon offer a simple-minded commentary on Weekend Edition Saturday, chalking up the terrorism in Mumbai to "evil." But it provided a good opportunity to express some thoughts I hadn't had the chance to publish previously. The letter I've sent in response follows.

I was disappointed to hear Scott Simon ramble self-indulgently about "evil" today. I say "self-indulgently" because his comments expressed a surrender of intellectual clarity and curiosity to the impulse to dismissively label an enemy.

Simon says the Mumbai terrorists had "learned to use their intellect to turn off their conscience." But empirically, as social psychologist [and my instructor for a psych intro course at Penn] John Sabini once put it, conscience is "what stops you from doing what you'd like to do." Can Simon seriously think the Mumbai terrorists liked slaughtering dozens of people who were no threat to them? Nonsense. Free of the constraints of conscience, they doubtless would rather have been lying on a beach sipping a cold drink. But, as the Milgram experiment demonstrated, a conscience governed by an authoritarian ideology can be used to make people do unnatural, anti-empathic things.

[fellow] cult survivor and sociologist Janja Lalich said in her keynote address to the International Cultic Studies Association in June, "The suicide bombers are not psychopaths. They are victims." The same applies to the Mumbai terrorists.

Eric Hamell

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Polygyny Increases Diversity, Study Finds

Another story in the 25 October Science News may interest partisans of sexual freedom. Titled "X chromosome is extra diverse," it describes a recent study finding evidence that "the X chromosome is more genetically diverse than would be expected if men and women passed along their genes equally."

Despite this wording, I don't think this implies that it's the inequality between quantities of polyandry and polygyny that is responsible for increasing total genetic diversity. It's just that men are physically capable of having children by more mates than women are. It stands to reason that if women were capable of the same degree of polyandry, diversity would be increased even further. The bottom line is that this seems to be a good counterexample to the common assumption that monogamy is good for the species.

The article can be read here:

Eric Hamell

The Climate Consensus That Never Was

The 25 October issue of Science News contains an article germane to one of the issues discussed recently by PhACT. Titled "Cooling climate 'consensus' of 1970s never was," it reports on a study convincingly documenting that, while popular media may have given disproportionate attention to the possibility of a new ice age (coincidentally, I only recently saw such an article in the first, 1976 edition of Analog Annual which I happened to purchase a few years ago), in "major journal papers published between 1965 and 1979...only seven articles predicted that global average temperature would continue to cool. During the same period, 44 journal papers indicated that the average temperature would rise and 20 were neutral or made no climate predictions." This contradicts the claim frequently made by global warming skeptics that "not long ago experts all believed the Earth was cooling, not warming," the implication being that the experts could be wrong again.

The Science News article is readable by the public at

Eric Hamell

Friday, November 21, 2008

How Not to Do a Story About Porn

I just sent the following letter in response to an article in Philadelphia's City Paper. The original article is at

It's clear that Matt Stroud came to his assignment with a stick up his innards about pornography.

It's not surprising that Stoya got annoyed with him after a while. Sex workers are used to being approached by people with a judgmental attitude toward their work -- people who can't accept them at face value; who assume, if they seem happy, that they must be hiding something. I'm willing to bet that's what Stoya picked up on and got "mad" at.

Stroud makes his bias clear in innumerable small ways. There's his description of contract stars as "indentured," as if to remind us of the almost-slavery of some early American settlers -- while ignoring that "mainstream" actors, athletes, and other sorts of professionals have agreed to very similar arrangements up to the present time.

His ignorance is screamed again when he quotes someone at a porn confab who tells him many of the women he sees there are "fluffers." This looks like a case of natives-hoax-anthropologist; there's actually no such thing as a fluffer. Porn producers are far too cheap to keep people on retainer just in case someone has trouble keeping it up; they simply expect the male talent to have this ability.

Near the end of the piece, Stroud says, "I know [Stoya's father] doesn't like [her performing in pornographic films]. Stoya says as much." Unless Stroud has left something out, this too is false. What she told him is that her father works for a "mega-Christian" employer. It's Stroud who insisted that "almost any company would find that difficult to deal with." And he likewise projects that onto her father.

Then there are the quotes interspersed with the story, which are of dubious relevance when not from plainly erotophobic sources. One of these is a book whose title equates kink with "hatred"; another is from Susan Brownmiller and concerns the relationship between war and rape. The statement in itself is incontestable but has no bearing whatever on the subject of pornography; its inclusion could only have been intended to create a spurious association in the mind of the reader.

But none of this came as a surprise after reading the column by [publisher] Bruce Schimmel, who clearly shares Stroud's bias. He claims that porn "feeds on exploitation," without ever bothering to define this term. The only objective sense of the word of which I'm aware is that of one person's living off the labor of another by means of some sort of power imbalance, typically an unequal distribution of property. Under this definition sex work occurs in both exploitative and non-exploitative contexts, like most any other kind of work. But the stigmatizing attitude expressed in the article contributes to the conditions for exploitation.

Schimmel even cites Boogie NightsBoogie Nights as having shown us what the lives of porn stars are really like. Um, excuse me, Bruce, but that film was fictionfiction; it reliably showed not what the porn world is like, but how Hollywood is comfortable portraying it and/or thinks we want to see it.

If Schimmel, Stroud, or anyone else wants to get a more accurate picture of the porn industry, I recommend they subscribe to Spread$pread, a magazine by and about sex workers. Their URL is