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.

“no survivor privilege, just survivors”

Jen Gunter rips up George Will on his rape column. (By the way, Gunter talks frankly about her own rape: might cause extreme discomfort for some.)

I have a dream: that the editors at the Washington Post will wake up, realize that Will is a tedious, stupid asshole and will fire him, and replace him with someone like Jen Gunter. With a 10% increase in salary.

It’ll never happen.

Amoral ignorance

We’re having a Catholic sex abuse scandal here in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and I’m learning lots of interesting things. Did you know that you can rise to the level of archbishop in the Catholic hierarchy without learning that it is illegal for priests to have sex with kids? They just didn’t know it was bad to stick your penis into 8 year old boys. Maybe they thought it was a perk of the job.

The Minnesota lawsuit was filed by a man who claimed a priest abused him during the 1970s, and Carlson told the plaintiff’s attorneys that his understanding of those accusations had changed over the years.

“I’m not sure whether I knew it was a crime or not,” Carlson said. “I understand today it’s a crime.”

The accuser’s attorneys asked Carlson whether he knew in 1984, when he was an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, that it was illegal for priests to have sex with children.

“I’m not sure if I did or didn’t,” Carlson said.

If you have to ask yourself whether it’s OK to have sex with children, I think it’s pretty obvious that you don’t know that it’s wrong.

So, so far we’re learning that Catholic priests don’t learn about the ethics of raping children, or of throwing their dead bodies into a septic tank. What exactly do they teach in Catholic seminaries? Actually, push that back, since most of us learned that this kind of behavior would be bad so long ago that it is lost in the murk of our preschool experiences. Maybe the question should be about whether the Catholic church actively recruits psychopaths to be priests.

We’re gonna need a bigger asylum

All this talk of Elliot Rodger being mentally ill is driven by the same circular reasoning: only a mentally ill person would commit mass murder, Rodger committed mass murder, therefore he was mentally ill. It’s what I said yesterday, that people think “violations of conventional mores, or doing acts that harm people, are prima facie proof of mental illness” — which, if true, would mean that atheists must all be mentally ill because they defy traditional expectations of behavior in society. You’d think we atheists would know better than to set ourselves up like that.

But here’s an even more vivid example. Rodger was a member of a group called PUAhate, a label which some people have used to argue that he must have been an anti-pickup-artist kind of guy. That’s completely wrong, of course — these were people who hated pickup-artists because their techniques don’t work, that they fail to provide easy push-button techniques to manipulate women.

Erin Gloria Ryan spent a day monitoring a chat room containing Rodger’s peers, fellow members of PUAHate. Trigger warnings galore: these people spent the day praising Rodger, wishing they could go out in a blaze of glory just like him, hating women for existing, calling them subhumans, and urging each other to go out and kill, or at least, go out and rape.

They’re wrong, they’re awful, they’re terrible people. I’m sure I couldn’t have a pleasant conversation with any of them for any length of time without storming off with a snarl on my face, and my regard for humanity suffering a precipitous decline.

But are we seriously going to diagnose them as mentally ill because they’re terrible people? Shall we slap them into straitjackets and shoot ’em up with Prozac?

Because if that’s the path we’re going to take…we can probably lock up a few thousand World of Warcraft players, and I suspect we might easily find a million Call of Duty players who will fit this trivial online diagnosis of psychopathy. Then we can visit the Stormfront site, and get all the members there committed. All those contributors to Uncommon Descent, the intelligent design creationist blog…clearly insane. Especially Denyse O’Leary. I once visited a car forum when I was looking for a recommendation, and was appalled at the racism on display — a significant fraction of Honda drivers are clearly nuts. Oh, and Tea Party members! They all need to be rounded up and put in camps, for their own good…they must be so dysfunctional that they can’t possibly cope with the real world.

We also need to do this fast so that we become the majority, otherwise they will decide that commenters on Pharyngula are so far outside societal norms that we must be mentally ill.

Note please that I do not think that what the PUAHate crowd are saying is at all forgivable, conscionable, or defensible — I’m arguing that they are bad kids full of bad ideas. But bad is not a synonym for mentally ill. It requires a different approach to deal with corrupting ideas in a culture vs. dealing with victims of illness, and we do ourselves no favors when we so readily confuse the two categories.

Demons. It’s all demons.

Let us emulate the godly believers. We know what is right, and anything that deviates from it is…mental illness. But we might want to remember that sometimes the shoe is on the other foot.

Some people believe that atheism causes insanity.

But what about the variety of mental illness from which Richard Dawkins suffers? You see, that is the flip-side of the coin which belongs to the man on the corner who believes he is Napoleon. Dawkins may not believe he is a conquering French general, but he believes something just as preposterous. He believes that he himself does not exist. As illogical as that sounds, this is the ground which atheism is forced to defend. The worldview which insists we cannot believe (or know) anything aside from our senses is just as mentally ill as the worldview which insists that we cannot believe our senses.

Or that faith is an essential component of a mentally sound human being.

…the evidence today implies that atheism is a form of mental illness. And this is because science is showing that the human mind is hard-wired for faith: we have, as a species, evolved to believe, which is one crucial reason why believers are happier – religious people have all their faculties intact, they are fully functioning humans.

Therefore, being an atheist – lacking the vital faculty of faith – should be seen as an affliction, and a tragic deficiency: something akin to blindness. Which makes Richard Dawkins the intellectual equivalent of an amputee, furiously waving his stumps in the air, boasting that he has no hands.

Or that the root cause of what we call mental illness is an absence of god.

All Depression is caused primarily by a lack of contentment. For the Christian, depression is a lack of obedience to the command "be content with what you have". It is not accepting your current condition, whether good or bad. It is a lack of faith that God loves you. It is a lack of hope of the glories and riches of heaven awaiting. For the non-Christian, depression is a lack of faith in a creator. It is a rejecting of Jesus for faith in Darwin. Darwin said we have no purpose, design, meaning other than random chance processes. Jesus can cure the depression of the atheist because their life has meaning and eternal purpose.

That source charmingly tells us exactly what mental illness is.

The Bible clearly teaches that people suffer both physically and emotionally as a result of sinful choices. The world labels this suffering as a mental illness, but the Bible labels this suffering as the consequences of a sinful standard of morality. Mental illness is sinful conduct.

A lot of atheists seem to think that same thing: that violations of conventional mores, or doing acts that harm people, are prima facie proof of mental illness. There must be something organically wrong with their brains to cause them to engage in behaviors we don’t like. They pray? They must be crazy, that doesn’t work. At the same time, the other side is saying, “They don’t pray? They must be crazy, god must be served.” If we’re going to define mental illness as something someone judges to be bad behavior, then every single human being on the planet is crazy.

Mental illnesses are real. We can identify chemical imbalances in the brain; if you’re depressed, drugs like TCAs, MAOIs, SSRIs, and SNRIs can be effective in making people healthier. Schizophrenia is real and debilitating; there are also antipsychotic drugs that reduce the symptoms. Obsessive-compulsive disorders are real; they can be treated with certain antidepressants, but also behavioral therapy also seems to be effective in reducing the problems. We actually do have fairly concrete indicators of genuine illnesses that affect the functioning of the brain.

However, it is not helpful to categorize bad ideas as similar. Elliot Rodger was a disturbed individual, but it was not because he had a disease — it was because he had been shaped by his narrow little world to regard a host of malignant ideas as perfectly normal. Almost all Europeans and Americans once believed that black people were inferior, and used that belief to justify everything from excluding them from educational opportunities to kidnapping and slavery. Were they all insane? Or did they just have a set of false, untested beliefs that they blithely propagated from generation to generation?

One would think that atheists, at least, would be able to recognize the power of ideas to shape how people think. We live in a world where the majority give credulous credence to religious nonsense, and I think most of us recognize that it’s not a symptom of a brain disease, but of the power of socialization, indoctrination, repetition, and widespread unquestioning acceptance. If you’re willing to see that a religious idea can have such potency that people will kill and die and suffer for it, why are you unwilling to see that there are other ideologies that can misdirect minds in lethal directions? That bad stories can persuade healthy, normal people to do stupid, evil things?

I’d also like to remind my fellow atheists of another way people think.

When a 700 Club viewer asked host Pat Robertson today if she should give up proselytizing to her atheist coworker and “let her perish,” Robertson speculated that the colleague might be possessed by demons or a survivor of rape.

If the way you are using the phrase “mentally ill”, with no evidence of genuine organic illness, can be replaced freely by the word “demon-possessed” without changing the sense, then you are engaging in the same magical thinking, using a phrase with no explanatory power. You’re just using the modern materialistically correct wording to express the same old sentiment, inventing a concrete causal agent with no evidence that it actually exists. That’s something else atheists need to be aware of: the seductive power of teleological or simplistically causal thinking to the human mind.

I always like to know who’s been bought

A correspondent asked me an interesting and difficult question about the sponsorship of science. I’ve been talking a bit lately about the allosaur affair at the Creation “Museum”, which can be summarized this way:

Michael Peroutka, an odious neo-Confederate nut, donates a valuable allosaur fossil to the Creation “Museum”.

Now the tricky part. What’s the difference in principle between that statement and this next one?

David Koch, an odious destroyer of the environment and climate change denialist, donates $35 million for a Smithsonian dinosaur hall redesign.

That’s a good question, and it brought me up short. The problem with these sorts of questions is that it’s really easy to slip into post hoc rationalizations — I like the Smithsonian, I don’t like the Creation “Museum”, so it’s a trap to start justifying why I like one and not the other, rather than thinking about the actual principle of the question. Would I just be arguing that the good institution is justified in doing whatever it can to get funding for its worthy goals, while the bad institution must be condemned for doing whatever it can to get funding for its unworthy goals?

I’m off the hook in one regard: I’m on record complaining about Koch’s contribution to an earlier exhibit, the Hall of Human Origins. His donation was used to describe the role of climate change in human evolution, making the case that it is a good thing, because we wouldn’t be here without the pressures of shifting climate. It was a subtle emphasis, but it’s still an example of the pressure of millions of dollars being used to gently bend the science in a particular direction.

But it’s only a gentle distortion. Otherwise, Koch seems to have had virtually no influence on the scientific opinions of the Smithsonian. Check them out; the Smithsonian explains the history of climate change, it sponsors Bill Nye explaining climate change, Smithsonian scientists are studying climate change, they have articles explaining how climate change is already affecting people’s lives, and they provide lesson plans for educating about climate change. It’s safe to say that we know on what side of this issue the Smithsonian stands, and it’s on the opposite side of Koch.

It’s a tricky thing, this business of funding science. Ideally, it would be done on merit only, by an independent source, like the NSF or NIH (or, as independent as they possibly can be), with no restrictions on how the money is used — a pot of money is made available, disbursed by knowledgable committees of scientists, and there are no hidden catches to restrict how it’s spent. We know that’s an ideal — government funding agencies are subject to fads, too, and politicians are constantly trying to tinker, with earmarks and prohibitions — but it’s as good as we’ve got. If private donors are involved, the same rules apply: they should give because they value the science, which is a search for the truth, and not because they intend to meddle to get the answers they want. In that sense, the Smithsonian did OK…although there are troubling signs that maybe they accepted some recommendations for Koch.

By the same argument, though, there’s nothing wrong with Peroutka handing over a precious fossil to the Creation “Museum”. It’s stupid and a waste of a good specimen, `but otherwise, philanthropists do get to decide what to do with their own money, and Answers in Genesis can accept it in good conscience.

However, there is another issue. The Smithsonian is committed to doing good science, so they continue to loudly and strongly argue for the scientific consensus, that global climate change is a serious problem, and they do so despite the fact that an extremely wealthy donor disagrees completely with them. I imagine that if a donor tried to insist that his money comes with strings attached and must be used to propagandize for counterfactual claims, the institution would have enough integrity to flatly refuse.

I’d expect the same from the Creation “Museum”. They’ve got a neo-Confederate racist sugar daddy: do they have enough integrity to repudiate his views, even at the expense of antagonizing him? The evidence so far says no. There is a difference between accepting a free donation, and being bought. I’d like to see Ken Ham come clean on his views on the Confederacy, the continued legacy of discrimination and racism, and how much of Peroutka’s paid shill he is. If they are in agreement, that’s fine — just own it, and let us know what kind of people run Answers in Genesis.

Not that we don’t already know they are a gang of loons, but there are quite a few other issues where we could possibly agree…or more likely, disagree.

Getting paid to speak is not free speech

I have to completely agree with Adam Weinstein’s defense of protesting commencement speakers. There is altogether too much apathy on campus, and when students stir themselves to complain about what rat-buggering overpaid scumbag is getting a big pot of money to lecture them before they’re allowed to leave the university, I’m happy for them. It’s about time. And that’s true even if the speaker is someone I agree with. It would be true even if it were me — I’m always overjoyed to see protesters at my talks.

…being denied a chance to speak at a graduation ceremony is not an infringement on your free speech. Free speech might entail an invitation to speak to a voluntary audience and then have alternative viewpoints offered by other speakers, and then perhaps engage in a dialogue over those ideas. This is not how commencement speeches work. If a commencement address is free speech, then so is a seven-hour harangue by Fidel Castro to Cuban citizens who are too scared to get up and leave the auditorium to pee.

A commencement address is the opposite of free. It is paid speech. Paid speech that, just like the honorary degree that accompanies it, associates the recipient with the granting institution as if by royal decree. It’s entirely legitimate for faculty and students, who are already associated with the institution by their works and their merits, to dispute whether an honoree is also worthy of that association.

Lest you doubt that all of the power is in the hands of the speakers and not the listeners, consider how much they make to deliver a shitty speech:

Commencement fees range from a couple of thousand dollars to over $100,000. Katie Couric received an astonishing $110,000 to deliver the commencement address at the University of Oklahoma in 2006. Rudy Giuliani, a year earlier, charged $75,000 to speak at High Point University. Giuliani reputedly now gets about $100,000 plus a private jet for a speech. In 2007 Senator John Edwards received $55,000 for a speech at the University of California at Davis. The rates have probably increased significantly with inflation in recent years.

Really, is bringing in Katie Couric to cheerfully chirp a bunch of happy platitudes really worth 5 figures? The article talks quite a bit about Condoleezza Rice who backed down from an opportunity to speak at Rutgers after the students spoke out in horror. Is that wrong? I don’t think so. Instead of being honored, the gang of malicious liars from the Bush years ought to be in jail.

How can an Allosaurus be racist?

It can’t, but its owner can be. Ken Ham has been mugging for the media quite a bit lately: he’s got a little coup, in that he’s acquired a fossil allosaur — a real, and valuable, scientific specimen — for his crappy little Creation “Museum”. He claims it’s evidence for a young earth, because it is supposedly only 4500 years old, if you ignore the actual evidence for its age.

But here’s something I didn’t know. Daniel Phelps did a little digging, and excavated the history of the donor. He’s not a nice guy. He’s one of those racist traitors who worships the Confederacy.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 

May 22, 2014

CREATION MUSEUM TO UNVEIL DINOSAUR FOSSIL FROM ORGANIZATION WHOSE LEADER IS AFFILIATED WITH HATE GROUP

The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky is about to unveil a dinosaur fossil donated by an organization whose leader is affiliated with a hate group.

In October 2013 the Creation Museum, operated by Answers in Genesis, announced the receipt of a partial Allosaurus skeleton and skull from the Elizabeth Streb Peroutka Foundation. The foundation’s leader Michael Peroutka until recently was also a board member of the League of the South, a white supremacist, Neo-Confederate and pro-secessionist organization that has been named a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. (See the web links at the end of this press release for documentation.)

The Creation Museum will be unveiling the specimen this upcoming Memorial Day weekend. The Creation Museum expresses thanks to Michael Peroutka and the Peroutka Foundation on their website (http://creationmuseum.org/whats-here/exhibits/allosaur/):

"One blessing in getting the allosaur was that the Creation Museum did not seek it out. Michael Peroutka, one of the board members of the Foundation, says that this fossil is a testimony to the creative power of God and also lends evidence to the truth of a worldwide catastrophic flooding of the earth about 4,500 years ago as described in the Bible. In order to ensure that the display of the fossil represented this teaching, the Peroutka Foundation donated the fossil to the Creation Museum."

Kentucky geologist and President of the Kentucky Paleontological Society Daniel Phelps is calling for Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum to disavow the hate group, and to donate the fossil to a real natural history museum so that scientific research can be performed on the specimen. 

Phelps said, "The Creation Museum could use this opportunity to take a stand against a racist, Neo-Confederate, hate group by refusing to take possession of the Allosaurus fossil or by donating it to a real natural history museum so the specimen could be placed in the public trust, especially in the light of AIG’s anti-racist position."

Possible museums that could properly curate and research the specimen, according to Phelps, include the Smithsonian (Washington, DC), the American Museum of Natural History (New York), the Field Museum (Chicago), Cincinnati Museum Center, and the Museum of Western Colorado.

Phelps also points out that the Creation Museum will be incapable of doing scientific research on the specimen.  All employees of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum are obligated to sign an oath of Biblical literalism before employment.  This oath (found here: http://www.answersingenesis.org/about/faith)

includes statements that make scientific research on the specimen impossible since all conclusions are known before any possible research is undertaken. The Creation Museum’s Statement of Faith even includes this dogmatic statement: 

"By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record."

Answers in Genesis has an in house publication that mimics a scientific journal named Answers Research Journal, but that publication requires author’s conclusions to match AIG’s statement of faith. The following quote from the publication’s instructions to authors illustrates this point:

"The editor-in-chief will not be afraid to reject a paper if it does not properly satisfy the above criteria or it conflicts with the best interests of AiG as judged by its biblical stand and goals outlined in its statement of faith."

(Page 9) http://legacy-cdn-assets.answersingenesis.org/assets/pdf/arj/instructions-to-authors.pdf

Phelps stated, "Oaths based on religious doctrine are not how modern science is accomplished. The Creation Museum has decided, without doing research, that the dinosaur fossil is evidence of Noah’s Flood which they believe occurred in approximately 2350 BC." 

Phelps continues, "Since the Creation Museum doesn’t do scientific research, all the Creation Museum really has done is obtain a nice display trophy. Real museums do research.  The Creation Museum has asserted the specimen to be evidence of Noah’s Flood without any actual research and will not consider other explanations for theological reasons."


Here is more information on Michael Peroutka and his connections to The League of the South:

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/03/23/1286860/-RINO-Says-His-Dino-Proves-Noah-s-Flood-Wha-Wha-What

http://www.independentpoliticalreport.com/2013/06/michael-peroutka-appointed-to-the-league-of-the-south-board-of-directors/

YouTube video of Peroutka joining League of the South board:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vze4fPPkgxY&feature=youtube_gdata_player

Michael Peroutka “proud to be a member” of The League of the South:

http://archive.theamericanview.com/index.php?id=80#__utma=149406063.1866893309.1398790110.1398790110.1398790110.1&__utmb=149406063.1.10.1398790110&__utmc=149406063&__utmx=-&__utmz=149406063.1398790110.1.1.utmcsr=google|utmccn=(organic)|utmcmd=organic|utmctr=%22michael%20peroutka%22&__utmv=-&__utmk=192255274

The Southern Poverty Law Center names The League of the South a Neo-Confederate hate group here:

http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-files/groups/league-of-the-south

The Southern Poverty Law Center writes of connections between Peroutka and The League of the South here:
http://www.splcenter.org/blog/2013/09/18/american-heritage-group-pushes-radical-theocratic-class-on-constitution/

People For the American Way articles on Peroutka’s activities:

http://www.rightwingwatch.org/category/people/michael-peroutka?page=1

Michael Peroutka decries Union victory in the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg:

http://archive.theamericanview.com/index.php?id=270

Michael Peroutka’s listing in the Encyclopedia of American Loons can be found here:
http://americanloons.blogspot.com/2014/05/1022-michael-peroutka.html

I think Dan is a bit optimistic if he thinks Ham will be swayed at all by the association with racist traitors. I suspect he’s sympathetic, actually, since they tend to be fanatical Christians, too.

At least some people are having the conversation

It’s under the hashtag #YesAllWomen, and it’s largely women doing the talking. Laci Green is also explaining the importance of this issue.

When she was describing all the ways our culture shapes how men are supposed to regard women, I suddenly recalled all those times playing video games when women would join the group, and the orders would ring out: “make me a sandwich.” A joke. But think about what that joke says about our expectations of women’s roles. There’s a long stretch from “make me a sandwich” to gunning down random strangers because women wouldn’t have sex with you, but they’re both on the same continuum.


By the way, this should settle all those claims that he was mentally ill and Aspergers: a comment from a friend of the Elliot family.

Astaire said Elliot had not been diagnosed with Asperger’s but the family suspected he was on the spectrum, and had been in therapy for years. He said he knew of no other mental illnesses, but Elliot truly had no friends, as he said in his videos and writings.