That’s half the story

Jim Sterling has an excellent essay on the recent exposure of certain youtubers for their ugly remarks, which has led to quite a bit of furor as they gasp in shock that anyone would call them out on this, let alone cause them a loss of income, while a muddling mob roars in support or protest. He makes the very good point that if you’re making tens of thousands, or even millions of dollars, playing games on the internet, then you must be the focus of a lot of attention, and you should be aware that people will notice you and sometimes criticize you. I can assure you that being public and opinionated does not mean you get parades of flowers and that everyone loves you.

He points out that the naiveté of these youtubers is silly, and also that trying to defend them by arguing that it’s simply because people have different views does not work — it forgets that communication is a two-way street, and if Famous Rich Youtuber gets to say offensive things as their right, then their audience also gets to express their criticisms.

“Sometimes people are gonna say things you don’t like,” explained Boogie in his video. “People are gonna have ideas and opinions that you don’t enjoy.”

This is true and it works both ways. One opinion and idea that several big YouTubers don’t enjoy right now is that YouTubers are relevant enough to make headlines and become international controversies. One opinion and idea that several big YouTubers don’t enjoy right now is that, no, you can’t share your racist beliefs and expect nobody to argue back.

The Internet has warped the idea of “free speech” to mean “speech without consequence” and that’s simply not what it is.

But one thing Sterling does not get into, at least in this essay, is that these aren’t just “words”, they’re ideas, and ideas have meanings and most importantly, can be wrong. It would be lovely to pretend that they’re just lexical strings, and Person A has emitted a string that provokes a different string from Person B, but both A and B are actively translating those strings into meaning, and may also translate them further into actions. We too often excuse those meanings by saying “it’s just their opinion,” but sometimes those opinions can be looked up in the truth table of reality, and that function returns a value of FALSE (Or NaN, or ERROR, or SYSTEM FAILURE, or CODE RED: MISSILES HAVE BEEN LAUNCHED.)

One response is to wag our fingers and announce that they’ve lost our eyeballs and our revenue — a purely personal and singular punishment by neglect. But sometimes that isn’t enough. When someone declares that they think all gingers ought to be lined up and shot, yes, you should turn away and shun them. But what if they have a mob of thousands at their back who all agree about the ginger exterminations? You’ve left the group, but there are still all the others who are working together and coordinating and praising the initial head eliminationist. You aren’t going to slow them down a bit.

Here’s another problem: sometimes, maybe, in addition to being wrong and stupid on some things, the person is brilliant on others. We don’t have a way to chop up the mosaic of attributes of a person and dispose of the nasty bits and keep the good parts. Now what?

For example, I think Dave Chappelle is an amazing comedian — talented and revolutionary. I have loved the guy’s routines in the past, and you can see that he’s intelligent and insightful.

He’s also…problematic, a word that is also problematically over-used. Here’s a story of Chapelle in a comedy club that praises his skills but also highlights his difficulties.

But the truth is that Chappelle’s set was riddled with transphobia, homophobia, and a bit about the Ray Rice incident that changed the energy in the room in a tangible way. He talked about seeing a drunk “transvestite” at a party, mocked her, and complained about having his pronouns corrected when he referred to her as “he”. He maintained that he should be able to use whatever pronouns he wanted. He called her a man in a dress. This bit was not really a joke, just a strange, awkward story, but people laughed. It was pure, absolute, unabashed transphobia, and it broke my fucking heart.

He then started talking about “the gays”, essentially saying that he doesn’t understand why they need a whole parade because everybody has freaky sex. He compared his foot fetish and the negative reactions and judgment he’s gotten from people for it to being gay. Don’t get me wrong – the personal stuff about his foot fucking was VERY funny. But comparing his sexual proclivities to the experience of gay people was also, ultimately, problematic and misguided. I was sitting there in the front row, laughing at his jokes but simultaneously confused and upset by where some of them were coming from, and why he felt the need to talk about being mugged by a man who he “knew” was gay from the way he walked. It was the most conflicted I’ve ever felt about comedy.

That was written in 2014.

Now he has a new comedy special on Netflix, and I have been strongly tempted to watch it — it’ll probably make me laugh throughout — but I’ve also heard that it is problematic in exactly the same way as that comedy set from 2½ years ago. There will be hilarious bits, and there will be parts that are just plain wrong and that hurt people. People are murdered for being gay or transgender, and since Chapelle is neither, he comes across as trivializing the pain of others. It kinda rips the humor out of the routine.

So I’m doing the minimal response. I’m choosing not to watch it. The ratings for his show will decline by a few thousandths of a percent.

But I also wonder if there isn’t something more that should be done. If Chappelle had been strongly chastised in 2014, maybe his 2017 special would be better. Maybe we’re doing harm to Chappelle by not loudly correcting him when he is so terribly wrong.

Because let’s make no bones about it, Chappelle is just as wrong and damaging about gay and transgender people as those youtubers are wrong and damaging about race. It’s also more than just insensitivity — these are views that do real harm to human beings.

Beware the sex police

A group of people is sinking a bunch of money and time into this bus tour.

sexbus

An orange bus rolled onto the streets of Manhattan Wednesday to make its first stop on an East Coast tour, during which a load of activist passengers will evangelize that transgender people don’t exist and citizens must rise up to complain about their growing acceptance.

Another version was even worse.

bluesexbus

For a change, I’m not going to say a word about their superficial perception of biology. Instead, I want to ask…

WHY?

I don’t understand at all why putting all people into two, and only two, categories is so important. I’ve met many people in my life, and the least interesting way to categorize them is by sex — I’m not ace, but still, I have no plans or interest in having sex with any of them, so no, I don’t care what chromosomes they have (and the funny thing is, most of these people have no idea what their chromosome complement is, anyway), I don’t care what kind of genitals they have (and honestly, most of us don’t see the genitals of 99.9% of the people we interact with), and I definitely don’t want to know what kind of gametes they produce.

The organizers of this bus tour aren’t at all helpful. There seems to be a vague dislike of any kind of diversity in sexual behavior, but they don’t articulate why.

On Wednesday, they parked outside the United Nations headquarters, where ambassadors are considering a sex education resolution that a spokesperson for the bus argued promotes an ideology that gender is fluid.

We are trying to strike back against that, said Joseph Grabowski, a spokesperson for the National Organization for Marriage, one of the three conservative groups behind the project. They hope parading the bus through major cities will unleash a silent majority that they believe is frustrated by shifting norms about gender and families.

OK, but why are they unhappy and frustrated by someone with a different sexuality than they have? Why do they need to “strike back”? I mean, I might personally think that brussels sprouts are icky, but if you like ’em, go ahead. I’m not going to lease a big bus and put a giant decal on it that says “I HATE BRUSSELS SPROUTS” and drive around the country, trying to spark a mass uprising.

I know that gender identity is a far bigger concern than a food preference, which means that I’m even less likely to try to force my perspective on someone else. These guys apparently realize that it’s a major issue in someone’s life, too, yet that motivates them to try to spread misery even more.

One of the purposes of the bus tour is to have people speak up if they feel uncomfortable and let the business owner know, Grabowski said. This can’t be considered transphobic or bigoted.

Joe. Really. Feeling free to express bigotry doesn’t change the fact that it’s still bigotry. You are definitely transphobic. Why? Can you please try to examine your feelings and explain why you’re bothered by other people’s perception of themselves?

They are a small segment of the population, with a disorder, that has quite a big megaphone for the demographic it represents, he said. This is not about live-and-let-live, he added, saying transgender people pose an threat to norms of sex and procreation. This is about what is best for the common welfare of society.

It’s not a disorder, and even if it were classified that way, it wouldn’t change the fact that you are talking about people. I could argue that being so obsessed with other people’s sexuality that you sink a significant sum of money into a bus, and then drive around in what is essentially a giant orange megaphone, is also a disorder — it’s certainly damaging your life.

I’m also troubled by This is not about live-and-let-live. Do you think transgender people should not be allowed to live?

Saying that they are a threat to norms of sex and procreation is actually a little bit revealing. Do you feel threatened if your preferred sexuality is not regarded as normal? Does it bother you when you think other people might disapprove of your preferences? Is it very important to you that other members of society do not try to police your sexuality? I can sympathize with that, and even agree that other people do not get to monitor my sexual behavior and pressure me in any way to control what I do in private with another consenting adult.

Now if only Joe could empathize enough to realize that transgender people have exactly the same views.

When a deplorable wanker imagines himself as a supervillain…

I’ve always thought I was incredibly lucky to have such incredibly stupid enemies, but John @Scalzi has topped me. Scalzi has just come out with a new book, The Collapsing Empire. The guy who thinks he is Scalzi’s nemesis, Vox Day, has a small publishing house, and so he rushed into print a book, The Corroding Empire, to compete. Wait, you say, they just have similar titles, that’s not enough evidence to be plagiarism or an attempt to siphon off Scalzi’s sales, could it?

But then you see the covers.

empirebooks

Pathetically obvious, don’t you think?

Even more obvious, Vox Day openly announced his intentions.

When Beale announced pre-orders for The Corroding Empire, he made his mission very clear: He wanted his publishing house to do better than Tor Books and thought outperforming Scalzi with a near-identical book cover would twist the knife, adding What would be more amusing than for The Corroding Empire to outsell and outrank The Collapsing Empire? Then again, Beale’s never shied away from promoting himself or his publishing house through controversial means, including getting his followers to nominate himself and several Castalia House books for Hugo Awards during the Rabid Puppies heyday.

Beale has since announced a reprint that shortens the title to Corrosion, and changes the author’s name to Harry Seldon, parodying a character from Foundation. Some of his followers have also responded by giving Scalzi’s book negative reviews on Amazon.

That’s just sad and pitiful and weak. He’s basically admitted a desire to cling to Scalzi’s coat-tails.

I have heard these words too many times before #marginsci

Here we go again. The Science March is facing conflicts for familiar reasons: reasons that I’ve heard applied against science communication (“shut up, Myers, my way is the only way to explain science”) and against a better atheism (“shut up, Myers, atheism only means there is no god and including values is mission creep”). I always seem to end up on the side that is repeatedly told to shut up.

There are two paragraphs, one after the other, that very nicely encompass the problem with the march in just a few key words. Here’s the side that resents the inclusion of diversity as one of the goals:

At the heart of the disagreements are conflicting philosophies over the march’s purpose. In one corner are those who assert that the event should solely promote science itself: funding, evidence-based policies, and international partnerships.

Notice the word I emphasized. This is what’s familiar. There’s always a side that wants to limit what’s allowed and control what topics are appropriate, usually because they’re uncomfortable with new ideas and new approaches. This is the regressive side.

Now look at the characterization of the other side:

In another are those who argue that the march should also bring attention to broader challenges scientists face, including issues of racial diversity in science, women’s equality, and immigration policy.

Again, I emphasized an important word. This group agrees that “funding, evidence-based policies, and international partnerships” are appropriate and should be included, but also considers other topics are essential. They are happy to do the heavy lifting of representing their interests, and are not demanding that everyone explicitly follow their lead. One side is dictating what others are allowed to stand up for; the other side wants to stand up for their place in science, and are being told, in essence, to shut up.

Regressive authoritarians ruin everything.

I can sympathize with this comment from Stephani Page (who is now on the steering committee for the march).

“I wasn’t about to join something just to be a face or a Band-Aid,” Page said. She joined the committee in large part because she wanted to change the culture of science — “I was not going to carry the banner of an institution [of science] that continues to treat me as if I don’t belong there.”

Exactly. She is not telling others what should be excluded from the march, she is making an effort to include what is important to her. I agree. That’s a point of view that must be represented, and it does not detract from the message that we need more funding and more evidence-based decision-making, it strengthens it, because it brings the breadth of the culture of science forward, and increases the reach of science by representing more Americans.

Why would anyone oppose that?

For the answer to that question, let’s turn to that bastion of regressive orthodoxy, Reddit. They’re a reliable source, right? Especially when they’re condemning Social Justice Warriors.

In early February, an unofficial poll posted by one Reddit user in the site’s March on Science forum found that a majority of respondents said they wouldn’t participate in the march if organizers emphasized social justice issues. Several threads on the march’s Reddit community explicitly criticize the march for what they call “scope creep.”

Yes. We should trust the opinion of the users of a site where the most popular subreddit right now is r/theDonald. Has anyone polled Breitbart or /pol/ on this issue?

As for “scope creep”, I’ve always wondered who gets to define the scope. It always seems to be some loud, prominent, hostile jerk who demands that people don’t bring up subjects they don’t like. Speaking of which…

Others in the scientific community have expressed concerns about the march’s message becoming watered down. When, for instance, the diversity page was briefly removed from the march’s website in January, prominent Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker tweeted that he was “glad to see that the March for Science Web site has removed the distractions.” Pinker had previously described the march as “anti-science” for its left-wing political tone.

And yet no one ever tells Steven Pinker to shut the fuck up, even as he arrogantly decides what is a distraction and what is not.

Here’s the bottom line: some people feel that they get to silence others in the name of keeping the “mission” pure and undiluted by subjects they don’t like. Typically, these are people who are already privileged and benefit from the status quo, and are trying to exclude people to whom these subjects are vital to their involvement in science. We have people who are arguing that diversity and inclusiveness are “distractions”, and they get far too much respect and attention. They get to claim that justice and equality and diversity are “anti-science”, and damn few people point out that that is a repulsive attitude.

No one has tried to kick Pinker out of any march — he’s free to join in with a great big sign that says nothing but “$” if he’d like. But who is giving him, and the mob of alt-righties on Reddit, the right to insist that a woman or a black man or a transgender person who wants to promote their contributions to science is diluting his sign, and must stay out of his parade?

And if they’re made uncomfortable by diversity or new perspectives, they’ve lost sight of the science. Science always pushes cultural boundaries with new ideas. If you don’t have the courage to face this novel idea that non-white, non-male people have a stake in science, then you don’t have the courage to challenge the public with ideas like climate change, or evolution, or vaccination, or any of the thousand other difficult concepts science has the duty to bring to the table.

Guess the crime!

Bruno Fernandes de Souza is a soccer player, and he is confident that he is not a bad guy. What crime do you think he committed to warrant a few years in prison?

In his first major interview since being released from prison, 32-year-old Bruno Fernandes de Souza said: “What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy.”

Brazilian goalkeeper who ordered woman’s murder returns to football
“People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude,” he said, according to the Guardian.

God forgave him, and he’s already landed a contract with a team. How bad can it be?

Answer below the fold.

[Read more…]

We haven’t heard from Bill Donohue for a while

I wonder what he is up to…ah. He’s defending Trump’s savage budget cuts for the arts, because art isn’t reverent enough.

Justice demands that these agencies should be eliminated: Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for assaults on their religion. Christians constitute roughly 75 percent of the population; Catholics are approximately 25 percent of the total. In the name of “art,” these Americans are expected to pay for irreverent exhibits, but depictions that are reverential—such as a nativity scene outside City Hall—are denied a dime. It’s time we stopped giving the arts a privileged position and cut their funding. The same is true for publicly funded radio and TV programming that has a history of insulting the majority of Americans.

I don’t think he understands art. Bye, Bill, sink back into obscurity, ‘k?

Keep on assessing science

Ugh. I got up at 5am and tried to read a statistics paper to put myself back to sleep, and it didn’t work. Dang numbers, stop being interesting! Anyway, this paper was a meta-meta-analysis to try and dig up the causes of bias that might be causal to the reproducibility crisis in the scientific literature. Here’s the abstract from the Fanelli, Costas, and Ioannidis (2017) paper; my emphasis on some of the key points.

Numerous biases are believed to affect the scientific literature, but their actual prevalence across disciplines is unknown. To gain a comprehensive picture of the potential imprint of bias in science, we probed for the most commonly postulated bias-related patterns and risk factors, in a large random sample of meta-analyses taken from all disciplines. The magnitude of these biases varied widely across fields and was overall relatively small. However, we consistently observed a significant risk of small, early, and highly cited studies to overestimate effects and of studies not published in peer-reviewed journals to underestimate them. We also found at least partial confirmation of previous evidence suggesting that US studies and early studies might report more extreme effects, although these effects were smaller and more heterogeneously distributed across meta-analyses and disciplines. Authors publishing at high rates and receiving many citations were, overall, not at greater risk of bias. However, effect sizes were likely to be overestimated by early-career researchers, those working in small or long-distance collaborations, and those responsible for scientific misconduct, supporting hypotheses that connect bias to situational factors, lack of mutual control, and individual integrity. Some of these patterns and risk factors might have modestly increased in intensity over time, particularly in the social sciences. Our findings suggest that, besides one being routinely cautious that published small, highly-cited, and earlier studies may yield inflated results, the feasibility and costs of interventions to attenuate biases in the literature might need to be discussed on a discipline-specific and topic-specific basis.

So, in part, the reproducibility problem is cause by new researchers scrambling to get a flashy result that will get them some attention, it’s worsened if they’re working in isolation rather than as part of a team, and there are a few scientists who are ethically compromised who have been spoiling the whole barrel of apples. That all makes sense to me.

It’s hard to police against individuals with little scientific integrity — rascals are present in every field. Catching them after the fact doesn’t necessarily help, because they’ve already tainted the literature with a flash-in-the-pan compromised paper.

Scientists who had one or more papers retracted were significantly more likely to report overestimated effect sizes, albeit solely in the case of first authors. This result, consistently observed across most robustness tests, offers partial support to the individual integrity hypothesis.

Catching a scientist who publishes bad data is already severely punished, so I don’t think that one is an avenue for improving the reliability of papers. It shouldn’t be ignored, obviously, but the other observations might lead to more improvement.

The mutual control hypothesis was supported overall, suggesting a negative association of bias with team size and a positive one with country-to-author ratio. Geographic distance exhibited a negative association, against predictions, but this result was not observed in any robustness test, unlike the other two.

Collaboration is good. In the days when I was in a large lab, it was always a little suspicious when someone suddenly plopped a whole, completed paper down in the lab meeting and announced that they’d finished the experiment, and by the way, would you like to be an author on the paper? I always turned those offers down, because a co-authorship ought to be the product of ongoing involvement in the work, not some attempt at fishing for external approval. But more cooperation and vetting of each other’s work ought to be a general hallmark of good science.

I’m not in a big research lab anymore, but I still try to get that across in student labs. There’s always someone who objects to having to work with those other students and wants to do their lab projects all by themselves, and I have to turn them down and tell them they have to work in teams. They probably think it’s so I’ll have fewer lab reports to grade (OK, maybe that’s part of it…), but it’s mainly because teamwork is an essential part of the toolkit of science.

And now I’m getting confirmation that it also helps reduce spurious results.

The biggest effect, though, is associated with small study size.

Our study asked the following question: “If we draw at random from the literature a scientific topic that has been summarized by a meta-analysis, how likely are we to encounter the bias patterns and postulated risk factors most commonly discussed, and how strong are their effects likely to be?” Our results consistently suggest that small-study effects, gray literature bias, and citation bias might be the most common and influential issues. Small-study effects, in particular, had by far the largest magnitude, suggesting that these are the most important source of bias in meta-analysis, which may be the consequence either of selective reporting of results or of genuine differences in study design between small and large studies. Furthermore, we found consistent support for common speculations that, independent of small-study effects, bias is more likely among early-career researchers, those working in small or long-distance collaborations, and those that might be involved with scientific misconduct.

More data! This is also helpful information for my undergraduate labs, since I’m currently in the process of cracking the whip over my genetics students and telling them to count more flies. Only a thousand? Count more. MORE!

The paper does end on a positive note. They’ve identified some potential sources of bias, but overall, science is in fairly good shape.

In conclusion, our analysis offered a “bird’s-eye view” of bias in science. It is likely that more complex, fine-grained analyses targeted to specific research fields will be able to detect stronger signals of bias and its causes. However, such results would be hard to generalize and compare across disciplines, which was the main objective of this study. Our results should reassure scientists that the scientific enterprise is not in jeopardy, that our understanding of bias in science is improving and that efforts to improve scientific reliability are addressing the right priorities. However, our results also suggest that feasibility and costs of interventions to attenuate distortions in the literature might need to be discussed on a discipline- and topic-specific basis and adapted to the specific conditions of individual fields. Besides a general recommendation to interpret with caution results of small, highly cited, and early studies, there may be no one-size fits-all solution that can rid science efficiently of even the most common forms of bias.


Fanelli D, Costas R, Ioannidis JPA (2017) Meta-assessment of bias in science. Proc.Nat.Acad.Sci USA doi: 10.1073/pnas.1618569114.