Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Discrimination and brain scans

Today we have two stories that are interesting in juxtaposition.

The first is out of North Bend, Oregon, where two high school students reported ongoing harassment not only from students, but teachers and administrators, over the fact that the students are LGBT.

One of the students, Hailey Smith, describes an incident that is horrifying. "The discrimination wasn't an isolated incident and it didn't just come from students," she says.  "When I told the principal that my civics teacher called me out in front of the whole class and said same-sex marriage was 'pretty much the same thing' as marrying a dog,' the principal told me 'everybody has the right to their own opinion.'  The next day, the teacher apologized, but as I walked away, he said 'don't go marrying your dog.'"

Violence toward the two students went unaddressed.  The second student, Liv Funk, says she was harassed by several other students, and once was ambushed outside school, where she had "I fucking hate homos" yelled at her -- and then was hit twice with a skateboard.  Funk brought this to the attention of Jason Griggs, the school resource officer.  Instead of making sure she felt safe in her own school, and seeing that the students who attacked her received consequences for their actions, he turned the blame against Funk.

"Mr. Griggs said being gay was a choice, and it was against his religion," Funk reported.  "He said he had homosexual friends, but because I was an open homosexual, I was going to hell."

The story ends as happily as this sort of thing ever could.  The students brought these incidents to the attention of the ACLU, who filed a lawsuit against the school.  Both Griggs and the principal, Bill Lucero, have been fired.

Which they should be.  As school administrators, it is your job to protect the rights of the students who are in your charge.  All of your students, regardless of race, ethnic origin, religion, or sexual orientation.  If you can't do that, find another job.

It is also most decidedly not your business to bring your own religion into the picture.  You are free not to pursue homosexual liaisons if your religion tells you not to.  Whether anyone else does is, frankly, none of your damn business, and it once again brings up the open question of why so many people on the religious right are so incredibly concerned with what other consenting adults are doing in the privacy of their own homes.  With regards to sex, most of us just do it in whatever form we enjoy; these people seem absolutely obsessed with how everyone else is doing it, and often focus on that question with a dogged determination that suggests they spend most of their time thinking about it.

Which is, honestly, a little skeevy.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Benson Kua, Rainbow flag breeze, CC BY-SA 2.0]

The second story comes from the University of Li├Ęge (Belgium), where a neuroscientist named Julie Bakker studied diffusion tensor imaging brain scans of 160 children and teenagers who were transgender -- to use the medical term, had gender dysphoria, where they felt that they were the opposite gender from their anatomical sex.  And she found that these young people had brain structures that are consistent with the gender they feel they are, not the gender their reproductive organs would suggest.

Bakker was clear on what this implies.  "Although more research is needed, we now have evidence that sexual differentiation of the brain differs in young people with GD, as they show functional brain characteristics that are typical of their desired gender," she said.  "We will then be better equipped to support these young people, instead of just sending them to a psychiatrist and hoping that their distress will disappear spontaneously."

So what LGBT people have always claimed is once again shown to be exactly correct; that sexual orientation and gender identification are not a choice, but a result of a fundamental difference in brain wiring.  It makes as much sense to discriminate against LGBT people as it would to discriminate against someone based on their eye color.

More to the point, since 99% of the anti-LGBT sentiment you hear comes from very religious people; if these individuals are wired that way, doesn't that mean that (in your worldview) God created them that way?  Funny how this implies that your all-loving God has created millions of people specifically for you to hate.

I'd like to think that this will open people's eyes a little, but I may be overly optimistic to think that.  People like Lucero and Griggs, the school administrators who gave tacit approval to harassment and violence against LGBT teenagers, clearly aren't going to let a little thing like a peer-reviewed scientific study change how they see the world.  I will say, though, that people like them will eventually be seen for who they are.  Just as we now look on the people who thought that other races were inferior, who sanctioned slavery and violence and discrimination, with well-deserved disdain, I can say with some confidence that the bigots of the world -- regardless of their target -- will one day be labeled as being on the wrong side of history.


This week's book recommendation is a brilliant overview of cognitive biases and logical fallacies, Rolf Dobelli's The Art of Thinking Clearly.  If you're interested in critical thinking, it's a must-read; and even folks well-versed in the ins and outs of skepticism will learn something from Dobelli's crystal-clear prose.

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