Terrible disease rips through BBC staff

The news out of the UK is grim. Various voices in the media are falling silent, victims of an affliction called “reason”. The staff have been told that false impartiality, which allows kooks to air their views side-by-side with legitimate experts, must stop.

BBC journalists are being sent on courses to stop them inviting so many cranks onto programmes to air ‘marginal views’

The BBC Trust on Thursday published a progress report into the corporation’s science coverage which was criticised in 2012 for giving too much air-time to critics who oppose non-contentious issues.

The report found that there was still an ‘over-rigid application of editorial guidelines on impartiality’ which sought to give the ‘other side’ of the argument, even if that viewpoint was widely dismissed.

Some 200 staff have already attended seminars and workshops and more will be invited on courses in the coming months to stop them giving ‘undue attention to marginal opinion.’

They specifically mention anti-vaccine kooks, climate change denialists, and GMO hysterics, but I imagine it applies to creationists, flat-earthers, and people who claim to be able to square circles. For the BBC, this disease is going to sweep through them like a high fever requiring a bit of bed rest — they’re going to have to kick interviews with James Delingpole or Christopher Monckton to the curb.

But if Reason proves infectious and jumps the Atlantic, sweeping through American newsrooms, the effects could be devastating. We have no natural immunity. Our media revels in crankery of all kinds. Imagine this rule enforced on the executives of the History Channel: we’d have 24 hours of dead air. What if Fox News came down with it? It’d be like the Zombie Apocalypse there. Roger Ailes would have to be hospitalized; Fox & Friends would be populated with stunned, broken, speechless idiots staring teary-eyed and mute at one other; Bill O’Reilly wouldn’t be able to vent gas and would eventually explode. The Sunday morning pundit shows across all the networks would be destroyed. Imagine if they had to face the fact that Dick Cheney was disastrously wrong and simply not a respectable source to be consulted on foreign affairs?

Oh, the humanity.

I will not call on you to demand Anthony Cumia be fired

Anthony Cumia of the Opie & Anthony show has a long history of public awfulness. He’s a sexist pig and a creep.

But I don’t think you should call Sirius XM and complain.

His latest episode was a flamingly racist tirade against a black woman (only he didn’t restrain himself to merely call her a “black woman”). He wanted to shoot her because she slapped his camera away when he was taking creepshots.

He’s an appalling human being. But why bother demanding his dismissal?

Many media outlets are howling about his violent racist fantasies. He’s scum.

But he’s just the erupting pimple of the problem. The real issue is that somewhere in the corporate headquarters for Sirius XM, there is a nest of verminous, amoral, soulless corporate drones who saw a racist misogynist loudmouth as a pile of dollar signs. Fire Anthony Cumia, they’ll still be there. Fire Cumia, his audience of sympathetic racist misogynist cowards will still be there. Treating the repugnant excrescences without digging deep to the root of the disease is not enough.

If you want to do anything, cancel your Sirius XM account. Not conditionally, not if they don’t fire Cumia, but just plainly and simply cut them off. Punish the executives. Do you know anyone who listens to that Opie & Anthony crap? Repudiate them, publicly and unabashedly. Let them know that they are also terrible human beings for giving an audience to racists.

Firing Anthony Cumia is just the icing on the cake. Demand more.

Nothing ever changes

It’s disgraceful how people are getting distracted by games and wasting their time and the time of others. We must end all frivolity. Beginning with crossword puzzles in the 1920s.

Everywhere, at any hour of the day, people can be seen quite shamelessly poring over the checker-board diagrams, cudgelling their brains for a four-letter word meaning "molten rock" or a six-letter word meaning "idler," or what not: in trains and trams, or omnibuses, in subways, in private offices and counting-rooms, in factories and homes, and even – although as yet rarely – with hymnals for camouflage, in church.

Oh, I remember my shiftless grandmother, who’d work the fruit season in Yakima picking apples and then spend the winter working at the cannery in Seattle, and as a widow had to raise 6 kids and later a horde of grandchildren, and who in the evening would spend hours unwinding with stacks and stacks of crossword puzzles. She should have gotten another job, I guess.

I also get a hint of an attitude from the article that they were really concerned that the proles had interests beyond working.

Of course, the newspapers themselves had by now got in on the act, publishing crosswords and by some accounts relying on the puzzles for newsstand sales. Hypocrisy, following scaremongering and berating the British public for not toiling every hour God sends. Who’d have thought it from the press?

Of course, now the concern is that they might be enjoying sex.

So that’s mental illness

Read this account of a man slipping away into madness. It’s not about melodrama or violence, but about an ordinary person drifting towards paranoia, cutting off all contact with his family, and acquiring strange obsessions in place of normal human relationships. It’s harrowing and tragic.

The story also points out the social and legal difficulties in handling these cases. The man is clean and presentable, he can engage coherently for periods of time, and he will tell you that he is not sick — which means everyone is helpless to deal with his problems, and for good reason.

Once, the man’s family might have handled the situation by having him involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution. For decades, it was a routine and simple procedure: If a doctor agreed that the patient had a mental illness, he could be institutionalized even against his will.

The problem was that it was a process with few safeguards, and during much of the 20th century, all kinds of people who didn’t belong — from free-thinking women to gay people, minorities and rebellious children — wound up locked in hospitals where abuse was common and conditions were often bleak.

So the system changed, with one catalyst being a 1975 Supreme Court ruling that effectively restricted involuntary commitment to instances when a person becomes a “danger to self or others,” a phrase that now appears in one form or another in state laws across the country.

Keep that in mind next time someone declares that labeling someone “mentally ill” is a good response to a problem.

Hobby Lobby won

Of course they did: in a court packed with Catholics and their twisted views on reproduction, it would have been a surprise if they decided otherwise. So now, the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have a right to dictate how you manage your health care, and the corporation’s religious convictions (they can have them, apparently) trump yours.

You’re all boycotting Hobby Lobby, right? And if you work there, try to get out.


We now have the underlying truth about the decision.

thesame

Whatever happened to informed consent?

Facebook has been experimenting on us, and getting scientific publications out of us. They took advantage of their large numbers of users to do a study on more than half a million subjects on how positive and negative messages affect attitude. I was surprised — I know I could never get approval for such a project (if I were a psychologist, that is). But apparently they had IRB approval.

Did an institutional review board—an independent ethics committee that vets research that involves humans—approve the experiment?

Yes, according to Susan Fiske, the Princeton University psychology professor who edited the study for publication. 

“I was concerned,” Fiske told The Atlantic, “until I queried the authors and they said their local institutional review board had approved it—and apparently on the grounds that Facebook apparently manipulates people’s News Feeds all the time.”

Wait. I thought one simple, basic criterion was this: do the subjects know that they are in an experiment? Did they voluntarily sign up to be tested? You don’t have to spell out exactly what they’re being tested for, but they do have to understand that they are entering an artificial situation in which they are going to have some sort of evaluation done.

Oh, yeah, the APA says something like that.

When psychologists conduct research or provide assessment, therapy, counseling, or consulting services in person or via electronic transmission or other forms of communication, they obtain the informed consent of the individual or individuals using language that is reasonably understandable to that person or persons except when conducting such activities without consent is mandated by law or governmental regulation or as otherwise provided in this Ethics Code.

I’m pretty sure that when I signed up for facebook, it was to be part of social media, to interact with other people who had also signed up for the service. I don’t remember agreeing to be a guinea pig for whatever manipulations the company wanted to carry out.

But then, maybe I’m just naive. Maybe we signed over our rights and privacy to the corporations when we were five years old and joined the Chuck E. Cheese Birthday Club.

Also notice that the APA rules do have an exception. Here it is:

Psychologists may dispense with informed consent only (1) where research would not reasonably be assumed to create distress or harm and involves (a) the study of normal educational practices, curricula, or classroom management methods conducted in educational settings; (b) only anonymous questionnaires, naturalistic observations, or archival research for which disclosure of responses would not place participants at risk of criminal or civil liability or damage their financial standing, employability, or reputation, and confidentiality is protected; or (c) the study of factors related to job or organization effectiveness conducted in organizational settings for which there is no risk to participants’ employability, and confidentiality is protected or (2) where otherwise permitted by law or federal or institutional regulations.

I’d have to argue that the facebook study does not meet the exception, because it was not purely observational: they manipulated the news items that their users saw. They can’t simultaneously argue that their tinkering with facebook users’ stimuli showed an effect on attitudes, and that their tinkering did not affect their subjects. That, to me, is the key problem — not that they’re analyzing users’ interactions, but that they’re now reaching out to attempt to modify what users do.

Thunderf00t makes a good point

And I’d link to it if he didn’t throw it away at the end, and if it weren’t made to invent a false conflict with Anita Sarkeesian’s major points. His latest video attempts to mock Sarkeesian by using clips from movies and video games to show that there is a huge amount of objectification of men — as targets and victims, rather than sexual objectification — using a similar style to her videos. The thing is, though, that he’s actually confirming what she says: that media is problematic in how it presents human beings. Sarkeesian shows in her work how women are trivialized and reduced to stereotypes; Thunderf00t’s video shows how huge numbers of people, especially men, are reduced to sword and gun targets.

We’ve all seen it. There’s a guard, a minion, a redshirt in a scene, and along comes the hero or villain…there’s a short gasp, a gurgle, maybe a Wilhelm scream, and then…next scene. A human being has just been extinguished and it’s given no moral weight at all, he was simply an obstacle that needed to be removed. And it is also true that it’s almost always a man who is dismissively executed — if the security guard who got garrotted were a woman, it would have greater shock value to the audience. Or look at this list of dead red shirts in Star Trekoverwhelmingly male. Most of the few women killed had brief speaking parts in which we get to know them as people, before their tragic deaths. The men? Just statistics. Bit parts that got killed to add generic weight to a threat, but their stories were completely unimportant.

I’ve made a similar point about the glut of superhero movies. They are festivals of CGI in which mass destruction occurs, cities are reduced to rubble (by the good guys!), and nothing matters at all. Actions lack consequences. But in real life, the death of one person close to you is a traumatic event, a huge concern that can tear at you for years. Signs of a little wood rot in your house can send you into a panic and be a big drain on your finances. But in the movies, death is casual, and houses can be flattened, and we move on to our deep concerns about the hero’s love life. Or in the case of Michael Bay’s ouevre, we move on to the next giant robot and the next explosion.

It’s a real issue. I’d almost be willing to applaud Thunderf00t for bringing it up, because cheap mayhem has become a staple of movies and games. And it’s not as if media can’t be humanizing. The best movie I saw last year wasn’t The Avengers, but Nebraska; the best video game I played (although my consumption of the genre isn’t exactly thorough) was Gone Home. In both, nobody dies, nothing explodes, but I still left the experience thoughtful and impressed. This is not to say there isn’t a place for light entertainment, but why does so much of our light entertainment involve mass murder? (I know, it sells, and the population wants it.)

Where Thunderf00t screws up the message, unfortunately, is in two ways. He cherry-picks his examples to only feature movies where the perpetrator/protagonist is a woman: Kill Bill and The Matrix, for example. But the problem is that movies slaughter men indiscriminately, whether the killer is a man or a woman, and the majority of the R-rated violent thrillers feature manly men as the protagonists. There is a universal trend to treat men as expendable, but they’re generally used as faceless targets for violence; is there any genre equivalent to the slasher movie in which sexuality is the target, and women are the special, select victims of the violence, in which men are murdered? Also, and I’m sure Sarkeesian would point this out, when women are the sword- or gun-wielding hero, they are typically sexualized to the male ideal: they are young (in the case of Kick Ass, way too young), slender, attractive, not your Brienne of Tarth type. Men are also idealized to be muscular, tough, sexually charismatic. It’s all about making the protagonist someone the male audience wants to watch, not necessarily someone a woman would want to identify with.

And then Thunderf00t throws all of his good points away. He ends the video by declaring that it’s all bullshit, and laughing.

That’s what gets me about these MRAs. There are real social problems that affect men — we have expectations about how men must behave that confine their ability to respond appropriately to events. Feminists will talk about ‘toxic masculinity’, and it’s not about claiming that all men are toxic — it’s about how societal stereotypes can lead men to deny the breadth of their identities to fit a particularly obnoxious model. We can see genuine distortions of men’s roles acted out in our media, where they are either brutal butchers, or faceless, unimportant victims who can be destroyed without qualm. I could actually support a Men’s Rights movement that tried to call attention to these sorts of damaging representations, that actually dealt with unfairness fairly — that didn’t make jokes about the prison rape of men, that sincerely tried to see that child custody cases were honestly decided on what was best for the child.

But almost always, these loons destroy their own points. Thunderf00t made it clear that he doesn’t really care about the objectification of men in the media — it’s always about scoring points against the feminists. A good and productive Men’s Rights movement would be working in full partnership with feminists, each working together to end the sexism which harms both men and women. But somehow, the Men’s Rights side is dominated by asshats whose only goal is to put down those uppity women, rather than correcting an injustice.

The recent men’s rights conference confirmed that the driving force behind this incarnation of the movement isn’t men’s rights, but hating feminism. While there were a few talks that sound as if they focused on making life better for men, much of it was about demonizing feminism.

Mike Buchanan, a British men’s activist, warned that feminism was the ideology of “female supremacists, driven by misandry, the hatred of men and boys.” For 30 years, Buchanan said, “feminists have worked through the state to attack many of the pillars of civilized society,” and become “the defining ideology, of the political establishment.”

At the conference, feminism was responsible for turning wives against their husbands, bleeding them dry in divorce proceedings and separating them from their children, levying false accusations of rape and abuse against good men, or creating an ever-present culture of hatred where men are vilified.

Though men’s rights activists who hosted the conference often say sexual assault against men isn’t taken seriously, the audience laughed when speaker Fred Jones mentioned his fears about his son being raped after being arrested in New Orleans. 

“He’s kinda small and kinda cute, good looking, you know what I mean?” Jones said. “You know what they do with –” Jones cut himself off. But the audience laughed.

Why would you respond to a message about how men are victimized, by laughing at a situation where men are victimized? Perhaps MRAs would be more respectable if they actually took prison rape seriously. It’s not a joke.

Barbara Kay, a columnist for Canada’s National Post, argued that Santa Barbara shooter Elliott Rodger couldn’t have been driven by hatred of women because “he hated women because they rejected him sexually, but he also hated men because they had access to women.”

Not getting the point: how dare a slot machine reject his penis, while other penises were allowed to use the slot machine? Rodger regarded women as objects, and that was what drove his hatred — that they insisted on acting as human beings.

Rape on college campuses, she added, was a myth perpetrated by man-haters, and the concept of rape culture, how society can tacitly approve of or rationalize sexual assault, was “baseless moral panic.”

“The vast majority of female students allegedly raped on campus are actually voicing buyer’s remorse from alcohol-fueled promiscuous behavior involving murky lines of consent on both sides,” she said, drawing chuckles from the audience. “It’s true. It’s their get-out-of-guilt-free card, you know like Monopoly.” The chuckles turned to guffaws.

I’m on a college campus. I know women who were victims of sexual assault. That accusation is never delivered casually, it’s not used as an excuse, and again, it’s not a joke — these students are harmed by the event, and doubly harmed by the kind of dismissal jerks like Kay perpetuate.

And that’s why I can’t support these MRAs. They really aren’t about fighting injustices done to the rights of men, but about opposing the rights of women.

Not All Physicists

Sean Carroll criticizes those physicists who say silly things about philosophy, answering three common, and erroneous, complaints from the ‘philosophy is dead!’ mob. It’s pretty good, and I was thinking that maybe this would finally sink in, but then I read the comments. Oh, boy.

My favorite was the guy who said philosophy is pointless and that there’s nothing that a philosopher can do that a good physicist cannot. If you ever wonder why physicists have a reputation for arrogance, there it is: do they really believe that the 4+ years of graduate work required to get a Ph.D. in philosophy involves doing nothing? That has to be the case. I took a look at the degree requirements for several doctoral programs in physics: Houston, Tulsa, Stanford, and NYU (just the ones that came up first in a google search). Despite the word “philosophy” in the title “Doctor of Philosophy”, none of them require any coursework in philosophy. Not one bit.

Physics isn’t the only discipline with this flaw, though; it isn’t a requirement in any biology program that I know of, and though I’ve tried to squeeze a little bit into our undergrad biology program, there’s considerable resistance to it. In general, science programs aren’t very good at giving any introduction to philosophy — so it’s always amusing to see graduates of these programs lecturing, from their enlightened perspective, on the uselessness of this discipline they know next to nothing about.

I feel the same annoyance at this know-nothing attitude that I feel towards all those people who claim to know everything important about evolution — it’s so easy, they’ve mastered it with a little casual reading on the side. And then I mention a big something like drift or founder effect, or some fascinating little thing like meiotic drive, and they’re completely stumped. Didn’t know that before. But they know all about evolution, yes sir!

Some of them are physicists, too.