A Statistical Analysis of a Sexual Assault Case: Part Two

[the fundamentals of the birds and the bees]

Forget all that talk of sexual assault from last time. Instead, pretend I’m an ornithologist.

Wandering past nesting site 84744 M.S. one day, I wonder if a Sexualis Asoltenti has ever flown in and either nested or attempted to nest there. From various studies, I know the odds of that happening are between six and thirteen percent, making it unlikely. Still, I’m just one person; what have other birdwatchers seen? When I get home, I pull up the favourite web forum for local birders and have a look.

I immediately spot a post by Douglas Hugh, who claims to have seen a nesting Sexualis Asoltenti there. What does that do to the odds? Let’s diagram it out.

The entire universe of possible outcomes.This rectangle represents every possible situation: that no nest exists, that it was made of discarded twine, that Wile E. Coyote instead threw an Acme Portable Hole in there, and so on. We can slice that space by partitioning it into two, one side containing all possibilities where the nest was built or attempted, the other containing the inverse.
Partitioning the probabilities into [I should mention these areas aren’t to scale. I’m just focusing on topology here.]

As this rectangle represents every possibility, it also contains scenarios that include Hugh claiming a nest, as well as Hugh not making any such claim. We can further partition the space.

All possibilities partitioned both by whether or not a nest/attempt was made, and whether or not Hugh claims to have seen a nest.[I should also mention that these boundaries aren’t necessarily accurate. Topology, remember. Also, I wrote this a good three weeks before I saw Jamie’s similar post about Bayes’ Theorem over at SkepChick. Scout’s honour!]

Those previous studies I mentioned represent the area of (A + C) divided by the area of (A + B + C + D).

While we may not know the status of the nest, we do know whether or not Hugh made the claim. Areas C and D are contrary to reality, thus should be dropped from this analysis. The odds of a nest or attempted nest is now the area of A divided by the area of (A + B); in English, that’s the number of instances where Hugh claims a nest, and there is one, as compared to the number of instances where he falsely claims there’s a nest there plus the number of true claims.

As luck would have it, we already have a number to substitute in. Prior research puts the odds of a false nesting claim for Sexualis Asoltenti at between 2-8%; this means that the odds of A / (A + B) are about 92-98%. I’ll take the more conservative value, and say 8% of claims are mistaken, fabricated, or something else. Easy enough.

After figuring all that out, I spot a post from someone named “daufnie_odie.” They claim to have heard a birder mention they’d spotted a nest at 84744 M.S.. No name is given, but the context makes it fairly clear they know this person.

We got lucky last time, because that 8% was for cases where someone claimed they saw a nest or attempted nest, which was exactly the scenario we had. No such luck here, plus there’s a layer of indirection we need to account for. Here’s a first attempt at that:

All probabilities, partitioned by whether there was an attempted/actual nest AND daufnie_odie was approached, vs. daufnie_odie making a claim.On our diagram, the odds of “someone genuinely spots a nest or attempt and mentions it to daufnie_odie” corresponds to the areas where daufnie_odie was approached, A and C, divided by all areas, which is (A + C) / (all). As this box represents all possibilities, and has a total area of one, the odds of the negation of the prior claim (specifically, that there was no nesting, or a false claim, or the news never reaching daufnie_odie), is (1 – (A + C) / (all)) or (B + D) / (all).

Even if that original person saw a nest, though, it’s possible they’d never mention it. We know the first probability, so I’ll put the second at… oh… one third, then multiply the two values together to reach the chance of both events happening.

[Why multiplication? I’ll explicitly cover that in part 3, but if you pay real close attention you’ll get a preview below.]

At this point, I bet a number of you are about to quit in disgust. I just pulled that number out of thin air, and doesn’t that taint the whole enterprise?

If that probability is wildly different from reality, it might. Or, it might not. As I pointed out earlier, if we’re testing the bias of a coin and take a few bad tosses, that could throw off the measurement… but only if we only do a dozen throws. If we do a thousand, it’ll have no significant effect on our final results. Likewise, a bad guess among several good ones will be neutralized, and a lot of fuzzy measurements can combine to create a precise one.

Most importantly, we live in an era of cheap computing. I can run a large number of simulations and check how the parameters change over a wide range of values, giving myself a solid idea of how stable the results are. A little fuzziness is no problem, and who knows? My ad-hoc guess could be bang on the money. This is also handy for anyone who disagrees with my numbers; just plug in your own instead and rerun the analysis.

But back to that. We now need to figure out the odds of daufnie_odie publicly stating their claim, assuming they actually were approached. Maybe they’d forget, or be embarrassed by the situation, but that’s highly unlikely (92%-98% of such claims are legitimate, remember), and this person has some protection by being pseudo-anonymous. I’ll make this probability fairly high, say 95% or so. This corresponds to A / (A + C) in the diagram.

There’s also the possibility that daufnie_odie is making the entire thing up. The pseudo-anonymous argument cuts both ways, also arguing that a false claim is more likely. Nonetheless, an anonymous person that’s careless could be tracked down and held accountable for their words. Given all that, let’s put this probability at an even 50/50. Note that this corresponds to B / (B + D).

Now we can calculate A / (A + B). Multiplying the odds of nesting and this person approaching daufnie_odie, with the odds of daufnie_odie sharing the claim with us, nets us A; multiplying the odds of no nesting or daufnie_odie being approached, with the odds of daufnie_odie making the whole thing up, arrives at B. Put A in the denominator, and the sum of (A + B) in the numerator.

The full math behind daufnie_odie's case. Trust me, it's a bit ugly looking.That’s a pain to write out, though. Let’s clean things up with some substitution; we’ll call the claim “there was a nest or attempted nest and daufnie_odie was approached by a witness” by the letter “H”, and daufnie_odie’s stating that happened will become “E”. To denote the opposite of a claim, like “daufnie_odie did not state he knew of nesting,” we’ll put a little mark in front of it; in this case, that’d look like “¬E”. To refer specifically to the probability of X happening, we’ll say “P(X)”, and if we talk about the odds of X happening given Y did happen, we’ll write “P(X | Y)”. With these simplifications, the math translates into

Bayes' Theorem, in binary mode.Whoops, we’ve accidentally derived a simplified version of Bayes’ Theorem. Ah well, either way we’ve calculated an 11% chance that there was a nest or attempted nest, given daufnie_odie’s post (though as you’ll see later, that number’s a bit naive). As we’re partitioning the probability space, that implies an 89% chance there was no nest or attempt at one.

How do we combine these two accounts together? That’s for part 3

[HJH 2015-06-09: Minor edits for clarity.]
[HJH 2015-06-19: Emphasized daufnie_odie’s probability would change later.]
[HJH 2015-07-19: Adding a missing link.]

A Statistical Analysis of a Sexual Assault Case: Part One

[statistics for the people, and of the people]

I just can’t seem to escape sexual assault. For the span of six months I analysed the Stollznow/Radford case, then finished an examination of Carol Tavris’ talk at TAM2014, so the topic never wandered far from my mind. I’ve bounced my thoughts off other people, sometimes finding support, other times running into confusion or rejection. It’s the latter case that most fascinates me, so I hope you don’t mind if I write my way through the confusion.

The most persistent objection I’ve received goes something like this: I cannot take population statistics and apply them to a specific person. That’s over-generalizing, and I cannot possibly get to a firm conclusion by doing it.

It makes sense on some level. Human beings are wildly different, and can be extremely unpredictable because of that. The field of psychology is scattered with the remains of attempts to bring order to the chaos. However, I’ve had to struggle greatly to reach even that poor level of intellectual empathy, as the argument runs contrary to our every moment of existence. This may be a classic example of talking to fish about water; our unrelenting leaps from the population to the individual seem rare and strange when consciously considered, because these leaps are almost never conscious.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a familiar example.

P1. That object looks like a chair.
P2. Based on prior experience, objects that look like chairs can support my weight.
C1. Therefore, that object can support my weight.

Yep, the Problem of Induction is a classic example of applying the general to the specific. I may have sat on hundreds of chairs in my lifetime, without incident, but that does not prove the next chair I sit on will remain firm. I can even point to instances where a chair did collapse… and yet, if there’s any hesitation when I sit down, it’s because I’m worried about whether something’s stuck to the seat. The worry of the chair collapsing never enters my mind.

Once you’ve had the water pointed out to you, it appears everywhere. Indeed, you cannot do any action without jumping from population to specific.

P1. A brick could spontaneously fly at my head.
P2. Based on prior experience, no brick has ever spontaneously flown at my head.
C1. Therefore, no brick will spontaneously fly at my head.

P1. I’m typing symbols on a page.
P2. Based on prior experience, other people have been able to decode those symbols.
C1. Therefore, other people will decode those symbols.

P1. I want to raise my arm.
P2. Based on prior experience, triggering a specific set of nerve impulses will raise my arm.
C1. Therefore, I trigger those nerve impulses and assume it’ll raise my arm.

“Action” includes the acts of science, too.

P1. I take a measurement with a specific device and a specific calibration.
P2. Based on prior experience, measurements with that device and calibration were reliable.
C1. Therefore, this measurement will be reliable.

Philosophers may view the Problem of Induction as a canyon of infinite width, but it’s a millimetre crack in our day-to-day lives. Not all instances are legitimate, though. Here’s a subtle failure:

P1. This vaccine contains mercury.
P2. Based on prior experience, mercury is a toxic substance with strong neurological effects.
C1. Therefore, this vaccine is a toxic substance with strong neurological effects.

Sure, your past experience may have included horror stories of what happens after chronic exposure to high levels of mercury… but unbeknownst to you, it also included chronic exposure to very low levels of mercury compounds, of varying toxicity, which had no effect on you or anyone else. There’s a stealth premise here: this argument asserts that dosage is irrelevant, something that’s not true but easy to overlook. It’s not hard to come up with similarly flawed examples that are either more subtle (“Therefore, I will not die today”) or less (“Therefore, all black people are dangerous thugs”).

Hmm, maybe this type of argument is unsound when applied to people? Let’s see:

P1. This is a living person.
P2. Based on prior experience, living persons have beating hearts.
C1. Therefore, this living person has a beating heart.

Was that a bit cheap? I’ll try again:

P1. This is a person living in Canada.
P2. Based on prior experience, people living in Canada speak English.
C1. Therefore, this person will speak English.

Now I’m skating onto thin ice. According to StatCan, only 85% of Canadians can speak English, so this is only correct most of the time. Let’s improve on that:

P1. This is a person living in Canada.
P2. Based on prior experience, about 85% of people living in Canada speak English.
C1. Therefore, there’s an 85% chance this person will speak English.

Much better. In fact, it’s much better than anything I’ve presented so far, as it was gathered by professionals in controlled conditions, an immense improvement over my ad-hoc, poorly-recorded personal experience. It also quantifies and puts implicit error bars around what it is arguing. Don’t see how? Consider this version instead:

P1. This is a person living in Canada.
P2. Based on prior experience, about 84.965% of people living in Canada speak English.
C1. Therefore, there’s an 84.965% chance this person will speak English.

The numeric precision sets the implicit error bounds; “about 85%” translates into “from 84.5 to 85.5%.”

Having said all that, it wouldn’t take much effort to track down a remote village in Quebec where few people could talk to me, and the places where I hang out are well above 85% English-speaking. But notice that both are a sub-population of Canada, while the above talks only of Canada as a whole. It’s a solid argument over the domain it covers, but adding more details can change that.

Ready for the next step? It’s a bit scary.

P1. This is a man.
P2. Based on prior experience, between 6 and 62% of men have raped or attempted it.
C1. Therefore, the chance of that man having raped or attempted rape is between 6 and 62%.

Hopefully you can see this is nothing but probability theory at work. The error bars are pretty huge there, but as with the language statistic we can add more details.

P1. This is a male student at a mid-sized, urban commuter university in the United States with a diverse student body.
P2. Based on prior experience, about 6% of such students have raped or attempted it.
C1. Therefore, the odds of that male student having raped or attempted rape is about 6%.

We can do much better, though, by continuing to pile on the evidence we have and watching how the probabilities shift around. Interestingly, we don’t even need to be that precise with our numbers; if there’s sufficient evidence, they’ll converge on an answer. One flip of a coin tells you almost nothing about how fair the process is, while a thousand flips taken together tells you quite a lot (and it isn’t pretty). Even if the numbers don’t come to a solid conclusion, that still might be OK; you wouldn’t do much if there was a 30% chance your ice cream cone started melting before you could lick it, but you would take immediate action if there was a 30% chance of a meteor hitting your house. Fuzzy answers can still justify action, if the consequences are harsh enough and outweigh the cost of getting it wrong.

So why not see what answers we can draw from a sexual assault case? Well, maybe because discussing sexual assault is a great way to get sued, especially when the accused in question is rumoured to be very litigious.

So instead, let’s discuss birds

[HJH 2015-07-19: Changed a link to point to the correct spot.]

When Secularism Is A Lie

In 1990, Gregg Cunningham thought the anti-choice movement was losing the battle for reproductive rights. In response, he formed the Center for Bioethical Reform, then spent years brainstorming how he could reinvent the movement. His answer: secularize it. This allowed anti-choice messaging to dodge past religious disagreement over abortion (Christian denominations are evenly divided over support for abortion) by pretending to be above it all, and get into places a religious approach was barred from entering.

… this is very carefully targeted. When we do this on a university campus there is actually an enormous amount of preparation, and we do a great deal of follow-up. We start pro-life organizations on the campus where none had existed previously, we greatly strengthen currently existing pro-life groups by increasing the size of their membership, by donating to them all kinds of educational resources they can use, we help recruit students to volunteer at the local crisis pregnancy centers. We do a myriad of things of that sort. The same is true of churches. […]

The Genocide Awareness Project is one of a myriad of projects which we are doing, but they are all aimed at the same thing: how can we engage a reluctant culture and educate it over its own objections? It all starts with a willingness to take the heat. We lack moral authority if we are not willing to take the heat.

It signaled that lies and half-truths were perfectly acceptable, since Cunningham’s organization was secular in name only.

We are a secular organization, we’re not a Christian organization, but we are an organization comprised of Christians, and the thing that motivates us personally is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

While Cunningham is an extremist, his ideas have been very influential. The moderates in the anti-choice movement have since noted the failure of religious arguments, and have embraced trojan secularism. Emphasis mine:

the strenuous efforts of abolitionists have yielded very little in terms of measurable progress in reducing abortion, so it’s time to try a more fruitful strategy.

I have my own beliefs about the sanctity and rights of an unborn baby, but I don’t think we’ll change many minds by arguing about that. The proliferation of 3D ultrasound machines, new research about fetal awareness and pain, and the increasing viability of extremely premature babies will continue to make an impression on some people, but for those who are heavily invested in the moral neutrality of abortion on demand, and who see the concession of any status to the fetus as in direct conflict with the rights of the mother, this won’t make a lot of difference.

We need more discussion, then, of abortion as a women’s issue. Abortion damages women. It does them physical and psychological harm, which is multiplied by the fact that very few women seeking abortions give their informed consent (meaning consent even after being advised of the risks.) Those of us who take such things seriously tend to agree that it does them spiritual harm. More broadly, a culture in which abortion is seen as essentially harmless wreaks profound changes to our collective understanding of motherhood, sexuality, the obligations of mothers and fathers to each other and their children, and adulthood.

It’s been embraced so much by extremists and moderates alike, Kelly Gordon found that only 1.9% of anti-choice messages contained a religious element.[1]

The latest variation of this that I’ve heard of this comes from Crisis Pregnancy Centres. Cunningham called them “Ministries,” which is more accurate than I realized.

In a conference room at the Embassy Suites in Charleston, South Carolina, Laurie Steinfeld stood behind a podium speaking to an audience of about 50 people. Steinfeld is a counselor at a pregnancy center in Mission Hills, California, and she was leading a session at the annual Heartbeat International conference, a gathering of roughly 1,000 crisis pregnancy center staff and anti-abortion leaders from across the country. Her talk focused on how to help women seeking abortions understand Jesus’s plan for them and their babies, and she described how her center’s signage attracts women.

“Right across the street from us is Planned Parenthood,” she said. “We’re across the street and it [their sign] says ‘Pregnancy Counseling Center,’ but these girls aren’t — they just look and see ‘Pregnancy’ and think, Oh, that’s it! So some of them coming in thinking they’re going to their abortion appointments.” […]

In her workshop, “How to Reach and Inspire the Heart of a Client,” Steinfeld told her audience about her mission to convert clients: “If you hear nothing today, I want you to hear this one thing,” she said. “We might be the very first face of Christ that these girls ever see.”

When someone’s salvation is on the line, anything is justified. Exploiting the desperation of someone in order to bring them into a relationship with Christ is completely justified, so long as you don’t use the word “exploit.”

Multiple women told me it was their job to protect women from abortion as “an adult tells a child not to touch a hot stove.” Another oft-repeated catchphrase was, “Save the mother, save the baby,” shorthand for many pregnancy center workers’ belief that the most effective way to prevent abortion is to convert women. In keeping with Evangelicalism’s central tenets, many pregnancy center staff believe that those living “without Christ”— including Christians having premarital sex — must accept Christ to be born again, redeem their sins, and escape spiritual pain. Carrying a pregnancy to term “redeems” a “broken” woman, multiple staff people told me.

And here again, we find they deliberately avoid the “G” or “J” words until they’ve sealed a connection.

The website for Heartbeat International’s call center, Option Line, offers to connect women with a pregnancy center that “provides many services for free.” It encourages women who are curious about emergency contraception to call its hotline to speak to a representative about “information on all your options.” On the Option Line website, there is no mention of Christ, no religious imagery, no talk of being saved. But visit the website of Heartbeat itself and you’ll find very different language. “Heartbeat International does promote God’s Plan for our sexuality: marriage between one man and one woman, sexual intimacy, children, unconditional/unselfish love, and relationship with God must go together,” it says. […]

In her session, “Do I Really Need Two Sites?” Chenoweth explained that, yes, in fact, pregnancy centers do. She recommended that centers operate one that describes an anti-abortion mission to secure donors and another that lists medical information to attract women seeking contraception, counseling, or abortion. […]

Johnson … emphasized that waiting rooms should feel like “professional environments” instead of “grandma’s house,” and discouraged crucifixes, fake flowers, and mauve paint before showing slides of Planned Parenthood waiting rooms and encouraging staff to make their centers look just as “beautiful and up-to-date,” especially if they have a “medical model,” meaning they offer sonograms and other medical services. Johnson also said pregnancy center staff should mirror Planned Parenthood’s language.

Lies are an integral part of the anti-choice movement. Lies about what abortion does to you, and lies about what they stand for and believe in. Anyone hoping to promote secularism and humanist values should be wary of religion in secular clothing.

 

[1] Gordon, Kelly. “‘Think About the Women!’: The New Anti-Abortion Discourse in English Canada,” 2011. pg. 42.

EvoPsych, the PoMo-iest of them all

One last thing.

Feminism comes under fire for being “post-modernist,” a sort of loosy-goosy subject which allows for all sorts of contradictions and disconnects from reality. Evolutionary Psychology is held up as being on much firmer ground, in contrast. What is EvoPsych, exactly? Let’s ask David Buss, the most-cited researcher in the field:

  1. Manifest behavior depends on underlying psychological mechanisms, information processing devices housed in the brain, in conjunction with the external and internal inputs — social, cultural, ecological, physiological — that interact with them to produce manifest behavior;
  2. Evolution by selection is the only known causal process capable of creating such complex organic mechanisms (adaptations);
  3. Evolved psychological mechanisms are often functionally specialized to solve adaptive problems that recurred for humans over deep evolutionary time;
  4. Selection designed the information processing of many evolved psychological mechanisms to be adaptively influenced by specific classes of information from the environment;
  5. Human psychology consists of a large number of functionally specialized evolved mechanisms, each sensitive to particular forms of contextual input, that get combined, coordinated, and integrated with each other and with external and internal variables to produce manifest behavior tailored to solving an array
    of adaptive problems.

This is already off to a bad start, as Myers has pointed out in another context.

complex traits are the product of selection? Come on, John [Wilkins], you know better than that. Even the creationists get this one right when they argue that there may not be adaptive paths that take you step by step to complex innovations, especially not paths where fitness doesn’t increase incrementally at each step. Their problem is that they don’t understand any other mechanisms at all well (and they don’t understand selection that well, either), so they think it’s an evolution-stopper — but you should know better.

But I’m not really here to push back on that line. It’s these bits further on that intrigue me:

These basic tenets render it necessary to distinguish between “evolutionary psychology” as a meta-theory for psychological science and “specific evolutionary hypotheses” about particular phenomena, such as conceptual proposals about aggression, resource control, or particular strategies of human mating. Just as the bulk of scientific research in the field of non-human behavioral ecology tests specific hypotheses about evolved mechanisms in animals, the bulk of scientific research in evolutionary psychology tests specific hypotheses about evolved psychological mechanisms in humans, hypotheses about byproducts of adaptations, and occasionally hypotheses about noise (e.g., mutations). […]

Evolutionary psychology is a meta-theoretical paradigm that provides a synthesis of modern principles of evolutionary biology with modern understandings of psychological mechanisms as information processing devices (Buss 1995b; Tooby and Cosmides 1992). Within this meta-theoretical paradigm, there are at least four distinct levels of analysis — general evolutionary theory, middle-level evolutionary theories, specific evolutionary hypotheses, and specific predictions derived from those hypotheses (Buss 1995b). In short, there is no such thing as “evolutionary psychology theory,” nor is there “the” evolutionary psychological hypothesis about any particular phenomenon.

Wait, EvoPsych is a “meta-theoretical paradigm?” That would place it above theories like Quantum Chromodynamics, Plate Tectonics, Evolution, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and Logotherapy. Buss appears to consider EvoPsych more like Physics or Psychology, categories that we’ve drawn around certain sets of theories. But “Physics” the category makes no claim about how the world works. You can’t derive General Relativity from Physics, photons from “the way material and energy evolve.” Categories are just labels. The fact that Buss could list five assertions of EvoPsych means it is not a label, though, but a theory after all.

Buss is speaking in word salad! But he’s a major figure in EvoPsych, oft-cited and with decades of experience.

I’ve already explained how Evolutionary Psychology is based on a deep misunderstanding of evolution, but it really has nothing to do with psychology, either: where do they reference contemporary psychoanalysis? Scan over Buss’ deep summary, and you won’t see any mention of Behaviorism, Kohiberg’s Moral Development, or Attachment Theory. EvoPsych was not created by psychologists, nor does it draw from their theories; instead, it was created by biologists like Robert Trivers or E.O. Wilson, working with simplified mathematical models and personal observation. It doesn’t consider what people are thinking, and despite claiming otherwise Buss will go on to show his true colours:

Three articles in this special issue attempt to provide empirical evidence, some new and some extracted from the existing empirical literature, pertaining to one of the nine hypotheses of Sexual Strategies Theory — that gender differences in minimal levels of obligate parental investment should lead short-term mating to represent a larger component of men’s than women’s sexual strategies. This hypothesis derives straightforwardly from Trivers’s (1972) theory of parental investment, which proposed that the sex that invested less in offspring (typically, but not always males), tends to evolve adaptations to be more competitive with members of their own sex for sexual access to the more valuable members of the opposite sex.

So EvoPsych is a biology theory that doesn’t understand basic biology, and a psychological theory developed independent of psychology.

The lack of coherency bleeds through the entire project: an EvoPsych textbook is a parade of tiny “specific evolutionary hypotheses,” disconnected from one another. This makes them easily discarded and interchanged, like chess pawns protecting the king. David Buss once said aggression in women did not exist, and wasn’t worthy of study, but two decades on was studying it and argued they were equally aggressive but differed in the kinds of aggression they showed. Buss will flatly assert hunting requires mental rotation skill, gathering requires spatial memory skill, and therefore the sex differences in those skills are due to sexual selection over time. Consider this theory instead:

It’s probable humans typically hunted small game, since setting up snares is easy and cheap, as is killing a pinned animal. Effectively capturing a lot of food required not only setting out many traps, though, but remembering where they were.

In contrast, plant food tends to stay in one place, and over time well-worn foot paths would develop between food spots. This made navigation easy, so long as you could memorize and rotate angles effectively to remember which path you came from. As plants tend to bloom seasonally, you’d also need to keep track of time. Star calendars and constellations were the obvious choice, but in order to read them you had to be able to cope with rotated shapes.

Based on the observed sex differences, and assuming they were the result of sexual selection, women must have been the hunters in prehistoric societies, while men were delegated to do the gathering.

The conclusion is completely at odds with what most EvoPsych researchers propose, yet it uses their exact same methods. Merely by shifting the focus around, I can easily come up with theories that contradict EvoPsych claims. As EvoPsych is a “meta-theory,” though, falsifying every single “specific evolutionary hypothesis” would fail to falsify it. EvoPsych is thus unfalsifiable, even though it makes empirically-testable assertions about human evolution!

Feminism, in contrast, is much more like Physics. It too is a category, defined as the study and removal of sexism.

But what constitutes sexism? Early theorists proposed Patriarchy theory, that society is structured to disproportionately favor men. Starting the 1970’s, though, a number of people began arguing for a role-based or performative view: society creates gender roles that we’re expected to conform to, whatever our sex, gender, or sexuality. This might seem to contradict the prior view, as men can now be the victim of sexism, but it’s no worse than what you see in harder sciences. Aristotle thought everything was attracted to the centre of the universe; Newton thought objects had mass, which attracted other objects with mass through an all-pervasive force; Einstein thought everything traveled in straight lines, it’s just that mass bends space and gives the appearance of a force. All three are radically different in detail, but they all give the same general prediction: things fall to Earth. Likewise, both Patriarchy and role-based theories differ in detail, but agree in general. This makes Feminism-the-category coherent, as there’s substantial overlap between all the theories it contains. There’s something tangible there, which no amount of theory-churn removes.

EvoPsych is a theory masquerading as a “meta-theory,” making specific assertions about the world yet denying it is falsifiable. Practitioners propose an endless stream of “specific evolutionary hypotheses,” which are only coherent with each other because they’re heavily influenced by the cultural experience of the people making them. It is far more post-modern than feminism, but because it goes easy on the jargon it doesn’t appear that way at first blush.

[HJH 2015/03/25: Added the following]

Hmmm, having mulled this over for a day, I think those last few paragraphs were grasping at something I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time. I think I have it securely pinned now.

Simple question: can you describe performative theory without referring to feminism? Sure, I’ve done it already: “society creates gender roles that we’re expected to conform to, whatever our sex, gender, or sexuality.” Categories are simplifications; if we were to recursively define “the study and removal of sexism” to ever-greater degrees, at some level we’d start describing performative theory.

Now, can you describe Sexual Strategies Theory without referring to EvoPsych’s five core tenants? Nope, because it depends on mind modules, hyper-adaptationalism, and the rest of Buss’ list to make any sense. EvoPsych isn’t a meta-theory to SST, it’s a sub-theory, a lemma. It’s not a simplification or over-arching category, because even if we clarified all the core parts to an arbitrary degree, SST wouldn’t pop out.

Even more confusingly, Parental Investment theory is neither a category containing EvoPsych (as there’s no mind modules buried in there) nor a sub-theory of EvoPsych (because it doesn’t depend on mind modules to make sense). It’s not part of the paradigm at all, even though it helped spawn the field via a paper of Robert Trivers and is frequently cited by researchers.

Buss could make a better case for SST being a “meta-theoretical paradigm,” yet he thinks it’s a part of EvoPsych. It’s more evidence the guy has no clue what he’s saying.

It’s About Ethics in Biomedical Research

I’m a bit surprised this didn’t get more play. From what I hear, Pinker has some beef with bioethics.

Biomedical research, then, promises vast increases in life, health, and flourishing. Just imagine how much happier you would be if a prematurely deceased loved one were alive, or a debilitated one were vigorous — and multiply that good by several billion, in perpetuity. Given this potential bonanza, the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.

Get out of the way.

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future.

This path leads to very dark places. I’ll quote a summary I wrote of Blumenthal (2004).[1]

Booker T. Washington had an ambitious plan around the turn of the century, of rapidly advancing the health and welfare of African Americans in that city. His Tuskegee Institute revived agriculture in the South, build schools and business alliances, created a self-sustaining architectural program, and developed a Black-owned-and-operated hospital.

It also took a keen interest in health issues, and after World War I it faced a major crisis in syphilis. Soldiers returning home led to a dramatic spike in cases, and as of 1926 as many as 36% of everyone within the surrounding Macon County were infected. The best cure, at the time, was a six-week regimen of toxic drugs with a depressing 30% success rate. Something had to be done.

A short study of six to eight months was proposed, the idea being to track the progression of the disease in African-Americans and learn more about it, then administer treatment. It got full approval of the government, health officials, and local leaders in the African-American community. Substantial outreach was done to bring in patients, explain what the disease was, and even give them free rides to reach the clinic.

But then… circumstances changed. The newly appointed leader of the project, Dr. Raymond Vonderlehr, became fascinated with how syphilis changed people’s bodies. The Great Depression hit, and as of 1933 there wasn’t a lot of money available for treatment. So Vonderlehr decided to make the study longer, and provide less than the recommended treatment. He also faced the problem of getting subjects to agree to the toxic treatments and painful diagnostic tools, but that was easily solved: stretch the truth, just a bit. Those spinal taps they used to diagnose syphilis spread to the neural system became “free special treatment,” even though no actual treatment was done. Disaster struck when other scientists discovered the first effective cure, penicillin; elaborate “procedures” were developed to keep the patients from getting their hands on the drug, even if other infectious diseases threatened their lives.

And the entire time, the project had the full support of the government, and published their results openly.

After the entire incident exploded in the press, a commission of experts were formed to advise the US government on bioethical legislation. The result was the Belmont Report, and one of the three core principals it rested on was

Justice. — Who ought to receive the benefits of research and bear its burdens? This is a question of justice, in the sense of “fairness in distribution” or “what is deserved.” […]

Questions of justice have long been associated with social practices such as punishment, taxation and political representation. Until recently these questions have not generally been associated with scientific research. However, they are foreshadowed even in the earliest reflections on the ethics of research involving human subjects. For example, during the 19th and early 20th centuries the burdens of serving as research subjects fell largely upon poor ward patients, while the benefits of improved medical care flowed primarily to private patients. […]

Against this historical background, it can be seen how conceptions of justice are relevant to research involving human subjects. For example, the selection of research subjects needs to be scrutinized in order to determine whether some classes (e.g., welfare patients, particular racial and ethnic minorities, or persons confined to institutions) are being systematically selected simply because of their easy availability, their compromised position, or their manipulability, rather than for reasons directly related to the problem being studied. Finally, whenever research supported by public funds leads to the development of therapeutic devices and procedures, justice demands both that these not provide advantages only to those who can afford them and that such research should not unduly involve persons from groups unlikely to be among the beneficiaries of subsequent applications of the research.

Ignoring social justice concerns in biomedical research led to things like the Tuskegee experiment. The scientific establishment has since tried to correct that by making it a critical part. Pinker would be wise to study the history a bit more carefully, here.

But don’t just take my word for it. Others have also called him out, like Matthew Beard

Let’s put aside the fact that one paragraph later Pinker casts doubt on our ability to make accurate predictions at all. Because there is an interesting question here.

Let’s assume that hand-wringing ethicists slow progress that cures diseases. As a result, animals aren’t subjected to painful experiments, patients’ autonomy is respected, and “justice” is upheld. At the same time, lots of people died who could otherwise have been saved. Surely, Pinker suggests, this is unethical.

Only under a certain framework, known as utilitarianism, in which the right action is the one that does the most good. And even then, only under certain conditions. For instance, although some research might have saved more lives without ethical constraints, Pinker wants all oversight removed.

Thus, even bad research will operate without ethical restraint. For each pioneering piece of research that saves lives there will be much more insignificant research. And each of these insignificant items will also entail ethical breaches. This makes Pinker’s utilitarian matrix much harder to compute.

… and Wesley J. Smith.

These general principles [than Pinker excludes] are essential to maintaining a moral medical research sector! Indeed, without them, we would easily slouch into a crass utilitarianism that would blatantly treat some human beings as objects instead of subjects.

Bioethics is actually rife with such proposals. For example, one research paper published in a respected journal proposed using unconscious patients as “living cadavers” to test the safety of pig-to-human organ xenotransplantation.

The best defences of Pinker I’ve seen ignored the bit where he dismissed “social justice” and pretended he was discussing less basic things. It doesn’t reflect well on Pinker.


[1] Blumenthal, Daniel S., and Ralph J. DiClemente, eds. Community-based health research: issues and methods. Springer publishing company, 2004. pg. 48-53