… and Ophelia Benson

That small thing? I saw a referer pop up from Butterflies and Wheels, when one of Ophelia Benson’s commenters linked to me as an example of outrageous behaviour. Whenever that happens, I refer back to the rule I established three years ago.

For my part, I wrote myself into a corner with that last post. “Ophelia Benson is transphobic” became a “dog bites man” story, there wasn’t anything new or notable about it. The best evidence was on the table, people had entrenched in their opinions, and there seemed little point in flogging that horse further. So I hate-read Benson for a few weeks or so, then got bored and stopped caring. Maybe twice in that time she’s been mentioned in my circles, I checked back in, asked myself and others “does this qualify as noteworthy?,” then after some deliberation decided it wasn’t.

This time, it was. So I did my homework, typed up the first of a two-part post, and promptly got distracted. I promised to return to it during Trans Awareness Week, then broke that promise as academics and life caught up to me. PZ’s post landed just as I was clawing back towards a more stable spot, so I dusted off those old drafts.

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A Year-End Wrap Up

… You know, I’ve never actually done one? They feel a bit self-indulgent, but having looked at the data I think there’s an interesting pattern here. Tell me if you can spot it, based on the eleven posts that earned the most traffic in 2018:

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Checking In

Goodness, it’s been longer than I thought.

One reason I’ve been silent is that I spent much of the last month grinding away on a paper. It’s basically a useful set of computational tools for a specific job, a minor improvement over existing techniques. Nothing too fancy, but as is typical for me it wound up snowballing into a LOT of work right before deadline. My advisor wanted more results, alas, so we blew past that deadline and are aiming for another venue in February.

Normally I would have popped back up after that, but as you may have noticed the Christmas season was upon us. Historically, it has been the hardest time of year for me. Worse, my life has taken a nose-dive over the last two months, and that plus some changes to my emotional support network could have combined to absolutely crush me.

It didn’t, which is still surprising even in hindsight. After a lifetime of battling depression, I’ve apparently gotten to the point where my  subconscious can organise self-care without my consciousness cluing in. That was a head-trip.

I haven’t fully dodged the emotional bullet, alas, but at least I’m functional enough to either hammer away at the worst I’m dealing with or sit patiently while it passes. It does mean I’ll be keeping to lighter topics and sparse posts on the blog, though, as I’m not centred enough to pull off longform rants unless I get really ticked off. Sorry to disappoint in that department, but hopefully this isn’t a permanent phase.

And Then There Were Four

Now a fourth woman has told BuzzFeed News her experience of sexual harassment from Tyson. In January 2010, she recalled, she joined her then-boyfriend at a holiday party for employees of the American Museum of Natural History. Tyson, its most famous employee, drunkenly approached her, she said, making sexual jokes and propositioning her to join him alone in his office. In a 2014 email shared with BuzzFeed News, she described the incident to her own employer in order to shoot down a proposed collaboration with Tyson.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Our culture does its best to silence the victims of sexual assault and harassment, while protecting those who engage in it, so victims rarely come forward. When someone is willing to stick their neck out, however, other victims realize the strength in numbers and join them with their own tales. Sometimes, this leads to a measure of justice; sometimes, not. Whatever the case, the culture of silence makes this avalanche look like a conspiracy or panic; how can so many people be victims, and why are they coming forward now?

For years, Amet had been trying to make the world listen to her account of a powerful man who had once assaulted her and derailed her life. Mainstream publications, including BuzzFeed News, were unable to adequately corroborate the events from so long ago, and did not publish her allegations. And internet commenters assailed her character and New Age lifestyle. Her claims may have stayed buried forever, if not for the women who saw in Amet’s story a shadow of their own.

“I saw that her credibility was being questioned in a way that honestly had a lot of racist and sexist and anti-religious undertones,” [another accuser] said. “I kinda figured if I had any credibility to lend to that so that she’s taken more seriously, I should do that.”

When you look at the science behind sexual assault and harassment, and rationally weigh it, neither question is a mystery. It is exactly what you’d predict would happen if “rape culture” existed.

And it suggests there may soon be five.

A Quick Note on Neil deGrasse Tyson

Sorry for going silent, I’m neck-deep in a paper at the moment. But the reports and news about Neil deGrasse Tyson have kicked up a discussion of sexual assault in my social circles. I’ve been here before; I spent months researching the literature on sexual assault, and delivered a lecture on the topic. I went gonzo with my citations, as I figured most people would be critical of my take. Between that and “A Statistical Analysis of a Sexual Assault Case,” there isn’t much else I can add. You wondering why allegations of sexual misconduct have anything to do with allegations of sexual assault, for instance? I touched on that in EvFem2.

A third reason may be that the cognitive tools used to justify one form of bigotry are similar to those used to justify others. A meta-analysis by Suarez and Gadalla found a strong correlation between belief in rape myths and belief in myths about age, class, race, and religion.[148]

[148] Suarez, E., and T. M. Gadalla. “Stop Blaming the Victim: A Meta-Analysis on Rape Myths.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 25, no. 11 (November 1, 2010): 2010–35. doi:10.1177/0886260509354503.

Bigotry is intersectional, and it’s great to see more people recognizing that. This also predicts that endorsement of benevolent sexism and sexual assault would be correlated, and sure enough it is.

Consistent with previous research, men were more accepting of rape myths against both male and female victims. Past literature on female rape myths has argued that men are more accepting of female rape myths because of adversarial, antiwoman attitudes (e.g., Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1995). If hostility toward women is the only contributing ideology, we would expect that men would endorse female rape myths to a greater extent than they endorse male rape myths. However, men’s acceptance of rape myths did not significantly differ based on the gender of the victim. Women’s acceptance of rape myths also did not vary based on the gender of the victim. This supports Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson’s (1992) conclusion that men are more accepting of rape myths in general, not just against female victims.

In exploring the ideologies associated with each of the rape myths, we find that benevolent sexism toward men is associated with male rape myths. This is consistent with the research that benevolent sexism toward women is associated with blaming female victims of acquaintance rape (Abrams et al., 2003; Chapleau et al., 2007; Viki et al., 2004). Viki et al. (2004) concluded that benevolent sexism is associated with victim blaming to protect one’s belief in a just world.

Chapleau, Kristine M., Debra L. Oswald, and Brenda L. Russell. “Male Rape Myths: The Role of Gender, Violence, and Sexism.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 23, no. 5 (May 2008): 600–615. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260507313529.

If we have evidence someone is acting creepy towards women, then, that raises the odds of them having committed sexual assault. Combine this with the rape apologetics a lot of men engage in …

… a study by Edwards, Bradshaw, and Hinsz found two different groups of people at risk to rape.[147] One sixth of the men in their sample had a genuine hatred of women, and openly admitted they would rape if they thought they could get away with it. But another sixth of their sample said they’d never rape a woman, though they’d consider forcing someone to have sex against their will. This group employed all sorts of apologetics to convince themselves that this wasn’t rape, and some went further to actually justify I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-rape as a good thing, an achievement to be unlocked and celebrated.

[147] Edwards, Sarah R., Kathryn A. Bradshaw, and Verlin B. Hinsz. “Denying Rape but Endorsing Forceful Intercourse: Exploring Differences Among Responders.” Violence and Gender 1, no. 4 (2014): 188–93.

… plus add in Tyson’s background as an athlete, when we’ve got evidence that athletes are more prone to commit sexual assault than the general public, and I considered it more likely than not that Tyson committed sexual assault even when I could count the number of accusers on one finger.

Hemant Metha has a different take.

This is an awkward thing for me to even mention because 1) I don’t want to believe it (not that my feelings matters), 2) my colleague on Patheos and this very site, David McAfee, is the person who’s been reporting this story from the very beginning and all of the articles coming out now stem from his posts, and 3) I’ve been reading his posts about the topic and still haven’t figured out what to make of it all.

My hesitation mostly stems from the fact that it’s a fellow blogger doing the investigation, rather than some media outlet with experienced editors overseeing the journalism, a track record for covering these topics, and reporters who know how to corroborate all the information.

Consider the priors, Metha, don’t ignore them because of your feelings or who is investigating the situation. That’s not being a good skeptic.

HJH 2018-12-02: PZ Myers seems to have been swayed by Tyson’s statement. I had to pop by with a comment, which is worth reproducing here with a minor edit.

Nah, I gotta disagree with you PZ. Tyson just admitted to having poor respect for people’s boundaries, and his account of the 1980’s incident is a lot like a lot of the deflection I’ve seen from people who would never dare rape someone but would be open to forcing someone to have sex with them against their will. He also twice tries to poison the well [three times], by going after the credibility of the accuser…

For me, what was most significant, was that in this new life, long after dropping out of astrophysics graduate school, she was posting videos of colored tuning forks endowed with vibrational therapeutic energy that she channels from the orbiting planets. As a scientist, I found this odd.

… implies it was a false memory, when we know traumatic memories don’t work that way, and tries to shoot the messenger:

I note that this allegation was used as a kind of solicitation-bait by at least one journalist to bring out of the woodwork anybody who had any encounter with me that left them uncomfortable.

I considered him more likely than not to have sexually assaulted the first victim, back when I knew only of her; between the other women coming forward and his own statement, he’s made it more plausible still.

HJH 2018-12-03: My dogs, this paper has apparently had a monumental impact on my writing skills! I went back and did a quick brush-up, so it should smell a little less. If you’re super-paranoid that I’m flooding the place with deodorant, have at’er.

If instead you’re stinky that I didn’t write up something more substantive, Nathan has you covered.

And then there’s the colleague he harassed. He responds by saying that she gave everyone hugs. He admits to saying to her “If I hug you I might just want more.” There is literally only one way to take that statement. It’s sexual.

I could maybe season the post with a little more science, but the Venn diagram of our reactions is nearly all overlap. It’s worth a sniff.

Also, I see PZ Myers has back-tracked.

Not Well-Meaning

I’ve dealt with Darryl Bem’s work a few times, and my general impression was that he was a well-meaning kook: yes, he’s believed PSI was real for decades, but I got the impression that he was willing to listen to his critics and incorporate their feedback.

[Dr. Kenneth] Zucker referred to another article in Clinical Practice in Pediatric Psychology that he claimed implies that “the first line of treatment should be a gender social transition.” Dr. Diane Chen, one of the authors of that paper, told Rewire.News that was incorrect. “I would not agree with that,” wrote Chen. “As you’ll see from the ‘ongoing controversies’ section for pre-pubertal youth, we discuss the relative harm of encouraging social transition.” The paper recommends instead that parents of children considering or undergoing social transition keep their statements to their children open-ended with respect to their eventual adolescence and adulthood.

I don’t get that impression with Dr. Zucker. Siobhan managed to contact the man after his name came up in the news again, and he still seems to be spreading misinformation and common myths.

A common myth about the type of service described by the AAP, and the service Dr. Janssen offers, is that youth are rushed into referrals for hard-to-reverse or irreversible transition procedures. “If someone comes in and their child is saying, ‘I’ve been thinking about this for the last two weeks,’ it’s not like anybody’s going to make a recommendation that child goes on a some sort of irreversible intervention,” Janssen told us. “It’s more like: Let’s understand this and let’s see how this develops over time.” Any biomedical intervention for an adolescent would only be recommended after they meet the criteria for gender dysphoria in the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which requires a strong desire to be another sex that persists for at least six months.

Here he is, in print, repeating TERF misinformation about gender dysphoria treatment under the guise of it being a political disagreement. But while I’m willing to give Dr. Harriet Hall some benefit of the doubt on the topic of gender dysphoria, as she demonstrates no expertise, Dr. Zucker quite literally wrote the definition. He cannot invoke ignorance as a defense. Worse, he may not have changed his approach to gender dysphoria treatment, despite the evidence suggesting he should.

The [Centre for Addiction and Mental Health]’s report stopped shy of characterizing Dr. Kenneth Zucker’s practice as conversion therapy, but it did conclude his methods were “out of step” with the latest research findings and that they warranted sweeping reforms. Zucker’s clinic, which was housed inside CAMH but operated largely independently, closed later that year;  […]

Zucker confirmed with Rewire.News that he still offers services similar to his CAMH clinic at his private practice.

If Darryl Bem is a well-meaning kook, Dr. Zucker is a dangerous one. He appears immune to outside criticism, yet comes across as an authority to a lay person. Siobhan’s article lays this out quite nicely; despite being a news report, she has no problem poking giant holes in his assertions. I recommend giving it a read.

Case Dismissed

Just over two years ago, Richard Carrier filed a lawsuit against Freethought Blogs, The Orbit, Skepticon, and a few individuals. Strangely, his choice of venue was Ohio, well away from anyone involved

It’s worth noting that Ohio lacks any anti-SLAPP protections — making it easier to sue people who may not have the money to fight back — while California, Minnesota, and Missouri have at least some protections.

It was a crafty move, but in the end it bit Carrier in the ass.

Defendants made allegedly defamatory statements outside of Ohio, relating to conduct that occurred outside of Ohio, about an individual who moved to Ohio a few weeks before the statements were made. In sum, there is no sufficiently substantial connection between any of the Defendants and Ohio to make the exercise of personal jurisdiction reasonable.

The Court declines to hold an evidentiary hearing because even if all of Plaintiff’s assertions of fact are true, there is still an insufficient basis for personal jurisdiction. Weighing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court holds that Plaintiff has not made a prima facie showing of personal jurisdiction over any of the Defendants.

PZ Myers is already celebrating, quite understandably, so I’ll play the grump.

For the foregoing reasons, the Court GRANTS Defendents’ motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction and DISMISSES Plaintiff’s Complaint WITHOUT PREJUDICE.

WITHOUT PREJUDICE” is the troublesome bit, as that means Carrier can re-file his lawsuit in another state. He appears to be an independent scholar that earns most of his money from online courses, yet his legal bills must be substantial, which suggests one or more people are subsidizing his lawsuit. Even if he didn’t have a sponsor at the start, he likely has one now. How much money are those people willing to sink into griefing FtB/The Orbit/Skepticon? If Carrier’s move was to set up this lawsuit, that suggests he or his possible backers know the legal system, know how expensive it can be, and hold a substantial grudge.

I’d recommend tossing some cash at the defendants; if my pessimism is accurate they’ll need the cash, and if not it’s a good guess that their legal bills are more than what they fundraised. Don’t dump all your cash in there, though. Save a bit for champagne, as this is still a celebration.

HJH 2018-11-14: Two things. James Hammond on Pharyngula pointed out that I wasn’t considering the statute of limitations. It turns out both Minnesota and Missouri only allow libel claims within the two years, and California within one; two of Carrier’s original five claims were for libel, so he can’t re-file those. Minnesota and California also limit personal injury claims to two years after the incident, which I think block his claims of emotional distress there. “Tortious interference with a business expectancy” is going to be very difficult to prove, even in civil court, as the allegations of misbehavior against him haven’t prevented Carrier from offering online courses, being invited to speak at conferences, and give lectures.

In sum, there isn’t much to re-file on, which deflates a lot of my pessimism.

PZ Myers, meanwhile, confirms what I suspected.

The donations don’t yet fully cover our legal costs, so no, we’re still in the hole.

If Carrier’s intention was to punish his accusers via the legal system, he’s partly succeeded. One way to soften the blow is by donating to Skepticon or the rest of the defendants. They’ll all be grateful for the support.

Moral Relativism

I’ve mentioned WEIRD on this blog before. For those who haven’t heard, the basic idea is that college students in North America are very unlike most people on Earth, yet psychology usually considers them type specimens for our entire species.[1] This calls into question a lot of “universals” proposed in psychology papers.

You might think morality would be a clear exception to that. Young people are fitter, old people have already contributed most of what they will to society; if one of each group is put in danger, we should try to save the former first before the latter. Right?

We are entering an age in which machines are tasked not only to promote well-being and minimize harm, but also to distribute the well-being they create, and the harm they cannot eliminate. Distribution of well-being and harm inevitably creates tradeoffs, whose resolution falls in the moral domain. Think of an autonomous vehicle that is about to crash, and cannot find a trajectory that would save everyone. Should it swerve onto one jaywalking teenager to spare its three elderly passengers? Even in the more common instances in which harm is not inevitable, but just possible, autonomous vehicles will need to decide how to divide up the risk of harm between the different stakeholders on the road. […]

… we designed the Moral Machine, a multilingual online ‘serious game’ for collecting large-scale data on how citizens would want autonomous vehicles to solve moral dilemmas in the context of unavoidable accidents. The Moral Machine attracted worldwide attention, and allowed us to collect 39.61 million decisions from 233 countries, dependencies, or territories.

Awad, Edmond, Sohan Dsouza, Richard Kim, Jonathan Schulz, Joseph Henrich, Azim Shariff, Jean-François Bonnefon, and Iyad Rahwan. “The Moral Machine Experiment.” Nature 563, no. 7729 (November 2018): 59. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0637-6.

Well, the data is in. I could do an entire blog post on just their summary, but for now merely note the benevolent sexism,[2] focus on punishment, classism, deontology, and cat hatred. That left bar chart is confusing; the bar between the elderly and the young isn’t indicating that both would be spared equally often, but that children would be spared 49 percentage points more often.

Figure 2 (global preferences) from Edmond et. al (2018).

Sure enough, there’s a clear preference for sparing the young over the elderly. But hold on here; this was an online survey, and the map of people playing the “game” shows a definite skew towards North America and Europe. This summary is “global” in that it aggregates all the data together, but not in the sense that it represents the globe’s preferences. We would do better to break down the responses into countries and analyze that.

First, we observe systematic differences between individualistic cultures and collectivistic cultures. Participants from individualistic cultures, which emphasize the distinctive value of each individual, show a stronger preference for sparing the greater number of characters (…). Furthermore, participants from collectivistic cultures, which emphasize the respect that is due to older members of the community, show a weaker preference for sparing younger characters (…). Because the preference for sparing the many and the preference for sparing the young are arguably the most important for policymakers to consider, this split between individualistic and collectivistic cultures may prove an important obstacle for universal machine ethics. …

We observe that prosperity (as indexed by GDP per capita) and the quality of rules and institutions (as indexed by the Rule of Law) correlate with a greater preference against pedestrians who cross illegally (…). In other words, participants from countries that are poorer and suffer from weaker institutions are more tolerant of pedestrians who cross illegally, presumably because of their experience of lower rule compliance and weaker punishment of rule deviation. This observation limits the generalizability of the recent German ethics guideline, for example, which state that “parties involved in the generation of mobility risks must not sacrifice non-involved parties.” …

… we observe that higher country-level economic inequality (as indexed by the country’s Gini coefficient) corresponds to how unequally characters of different social status are treated. Those from countries with less economic equality between the rich and poor also treat the rich and poor less equally in the Moral Machine. … the differential treatment of male and female characters in the Moral Machine corresponded to the country-level gender gap in health and survival (a composite in which higher scores indicated higher ratios of female to male life expectancy and sex ratio at birth—a marker of female infanticide and anti-female sex-selective abortion). In nearly all countries, participants showed a preference for female characters; however, this preference was stronger in nations with better health and survival prospects for women. In other words, in places where there is less devaluation of women’s lives in health and at birth, males are seen as more expendable in Moral Machine decision-making.[1]

Just consider the consequences of all this: do we have to change the moral calculus of a self-driving car if the owner sells it to someone in another country, or if they merely drive into one? If we tweak the calculus to remove all benevolent sexism, people will feel these cars are unfairly harming women; either we need to pair driver-less cars with a global education campaign to eliminate sexism, or there’ll be a mass movement to bake sexism into our cars. At the same time, self-driving cars will save quite a few lives no matter what moral system they follow; should we sweep all this variation under the rug, and focus on the greater good?

Our moral code depends strongly on where we live and how well we’re living, so how could we all agree to a universal moral code, let alone follow it? Non-normative moral relativism, contrary to the name, is the human norm, and imposing a universal moral code on us will cause all sorts of havoc.

Except when it comes to cats.

[HJH 2018-12-05: Huh, where did that graphic go? I’ve popped it back into place.]

[1] Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. “Beyond WEIRD: Towards a Broad-Based Behavioral Science.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33, no. 2–3 (June 2010): 111–35. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000725.

[2] Glick, Peter, and Susan T. Fiske. “An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality.” American Psychologist 56, no. 2 (February 1, 2001): 109–18.