If At First You Don’t Succeed

Beginning in August 2017, the trio wrote 20 hoax papers, submitting them to peer-reviewed journals under a variety of pseudonyms, as well as the name of their friend Richard Baldwin, a professor emeritus at Florida’s Gulf Coast State College. Mr. Baldwin confirms he gave them permission use his name. Journals accepted seven hoax papers. Four have been published.

Does that sound familiar? It should.

The three academics call themselves “left-leaning liberals.” Yet they’re dismayed by what they describe as a “grievance studies” takeover of academia, especially its encroachment into the sciences. “I think that certain aspects of knowledge production in the United States have been corrupted,” Mr. [Peter] Boghossian says. Anyone who questions research on identity, privilege and oppression risks accusations of bigotry.

Yep, after attempting to discredit all of gender studies by publishing a fake paper in a pay-to-publish journal, and being dismayed that no-one thought gender studies had been discredited, Boghossian and crew decided to repeat the experiment, only bigger. There is a unique spin on it this time, however.

While fat activism has disrupted many dominant discourses that causally contribute to negative judgments about fat bodies, it has not yet penetrated the realm of competitive bodybuilding. The author introduces fat bodybuilding as a means of challenging the prevailing assumptions of maximally fat-exclusionary (sports) cultures while raising fundamental ontological questions about what it means to “build a body.” Specifically, he advocates for imagining a new classification within bodybuilding, termed fat bodybuilding, as a fat-inclusive politicized performance and a new culture to be embedded within bodybuilding.

Baldwin, Richard. “Who are they to judge? Overcoming anthropometry through fat bodybuilding.” Fat Studies (2018): 1-13.

That’s one of their hoaxes. But if you read it carefully, you can see a legitimate point.

Conceptually, fat bodybuilding emerged from applying that lens to a prototype: a disruptive “fathletic” event, the “Fattylympics.” The Fattylympics was an act of cultural disruption undertaken as a nonprofit community event in East London in 2012 to satirize the Olympics and offer a different take on “sport, bodies, community, [and] protest” (…). The Fattylympics ultimately relies on (Judith) Butlerian parodic performance, which has been effectively utilized as a culturally disruptive tool, especially with regard to gender/queer activism (…). Here, as Monaghan, Colls, and Evans (2015) explained, “Fattylympics illustrated the possibility of claiming a public space for resisting the dominant anti-fat ethic of sport and physical activity, constructing an alternative value set for active bodies and critically understanding the relationship between fat and health” (117).

“Baldwin” (2018), pg. 3-4

The bit about Judith Butler is pure nonsense that should have been caught during peer review, but their overall proposal is rooted in legitimate body-positive activism. Look at pictures of female weight lifters, and you’ll find two basic body types. The first has a “conventional” body type with minimal fat, not too dissimilar from Michelle Rodriguez or Ronda Rousey.

Type-1 Weightlifters, via Google Image Search.

Type-2 Weightlifters, via Google Image Search.

But there’s a second type, with the stocky barrel-chest that’s more typical of “World’s Strongest Man” events. Women like this are incredibly rare in pop culture; the only example I can think of is Zarya, and she’s a fictional videogame character. The net result is that we’re discouraging or minimizing an entire class of women because they don’t look the way we expect them to. At the same time, it’s clear body fat is not much of a factor in weight-lifting performance. So if we wanted to break body stereotypes, “fat bodybuilding” is a great choice.

“We understood ourselves to be going in to study it as it is, to try to participate in it,” Ms. [Helen] Pluckrose says. “The name for this is ethnography. We’re looking at a particular culture.”

Each paper “combined an effort to better understand the field itself with an attempt to get absurdities and morally fashionable political ideas published as legitimate academic research,” Mr. Lindsay wrote in a project summary. Their elaborate submissions cited and quoted dozens of real papers and studies to bolster the hoax arguments. […]

The trio say they’ve proved that higher ed’s fixation on identity politics enables “absurd and horrific” scholarship. Their submissions were outlandish—but no more so, they insist, than others written in earnest and published by these journals.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is when you are so ignorant of what you’re ignorant of that you think you’re knowledgeable. But if you don’t know anything about gender studies, how can you tell a legitimate paper from a hoax? By doing extensive research to write a hoax paper, yet nonetheless accidentally creating a legitimate one, Boghossian, Lindsay, and Pluckrose have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt they know jack-shit about gender studies. You will not find a better example of the Dunning-Kruger effect than that trio!

Mr. Boghossian doesn’t have tenure and expects the university will fire or otherwise punish him. Ms. Pluckrose predicts she’ll have a hard time getting accepted to a doctoral program. Mr. Lindsay said he expects to become “an academic pariah,” barred from professorships or publications.

Yet Mr. Lindsay says the project is worth it: “For us, the risk of letting biased research continue to influence education, media, policy and culture is far greater than anything that will happen to us for having done this.”

Oh, I sincerely hope the trio are made academic pariahs. I also hope they achieve enough self-awareness to realize the true reason why.


[HJH 2018-10-03]: I had plans to revise to tack on an addendum. After all, the original paper was about bodybuilding, not weight-lifting, and there’s still the obvious retort “but their goal was to fool you into making a legitimate paper, so aren’t you admitting they succeeded?”

And then I read their methodology, and I realized I didn’t have to.

Specifically, over the course of a year we wrote twenty academic papers and submitted them to significant peer-reviewed academic journals in these fields with the hopes of getting them published. Every paper combined an effort to better understand the field itself with an attempt to get absurdities and morally fashionable political ideas published as legitimate academic research. Some papers took bigger risks in this regard than others. […]

We wrote academic papers targeting (mostly) highly ranked, peer-reviewed journals in fields we are concerned might be corrupted by scholarship biased by “grievance studies.” These papers were submitted to the best journals we could find, given constraints of the journals’ aims and scopes, and then we used the feedback we received about them from editors and peer reviewers to improve them and our future papers. […]

Each paper was submitted to higher-ranked journals first and then down a line of suitable alternatives until one of the following occurred: it was accepted; it was deemed too unlikely to succeed for reasons we came to understand to continue with it; or we ran out of time.

They had twenty papers going at once, yet by their own admission they made 48 “new submissions.” It’s not clear if “new submissions” includes the original submission, so let’s be charitable and say it does. That means that, on average, each paper went through one and a half rounds of peer review. Peer review is probabilistic: reviewers can vary substantially in terms of how much effort and scrutiny they put in, so if you keep submitting a paper over and over you might get lucky and get lazy reviewers. When you’re submitting twenty papers, you make that much more likely for one of them. When you’re editing your papers according to reviewer feedback to make them better fakes, you raise the odds of that even higher. On top of that, after those edits they’d take the paper to another journal with less prestige, and presumably lower standards for peer review.

It’s like watching evolution in action. The authors kick out what they think are nonsensical ideas; since they know jack-shit about the field they’re trying to discredit, some of those turn out to be legitimate by accident, or nearly so. These do well in peer review, though from the looks of it even their best work needed a second round; it took five months to get their first acceptance, yet the median review time is about three months. Either way, the best of the bunch get edited, accepted, and then published. The failures die out or get edited until they join these “successes.”

In reality, the methodology is heavily rigged to generate “success.”

Speaking of which, let’s look at what counts as a success. Here are the articles they got published:

Wilson, Helen. “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon.” Gender, Place & Culture (2018): 1-20.

Smith, M. “Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria, Transhysteria, and Transphobia Through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use.” Sexuality & Culture (2018): 1-19.

Richard Baldwin, “Who are they to judge? Overcoming anthropometry through fat bodybuilding”, Fat Studies, DOI: 10.1080/21604851.2018.1453622, published online on 10 April 2018.

Baldwin, Richard. “An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant.” Sex Roles (2018): 1-16.

Of those four, two were retracted within days of the news coming out. That’s a damn quick turnaround! Say what you will of the peer review process, but quickly scrubbing nonsense from the scientific record isn’t what you’d expect if the field of gender studies was lax about rigor.

Er, sorry, I mean “grievance studies,” the term Boghossian et al. use. What does that term mean, anyway? Emphasis mine:

The specific problem we targeted has various names in various quarters and is difficult to pin down. Careful academics would refer to it as “critical constructivism” and/or “blank slatism” and its scholars as “radical constructivists.” (In this sense, it is the descendants of postmodernist and poststructuralist thought from the mid 20th century.) Pundits have termed it “academic leftism” or “cultural studies” and identify it with the term “political correctness.”

We prefer to call it “grievance studies” because many of these fields refer to themselves as “[something] studies” and because they operate primarily by focusing upon and inflaming the grievances of certain identity groups.

Uh, “critical constrictivism” and “blank slatism” have nothing in common with each other, and the latter doesn’t exist except as a straw. “Academic leftism” is bad, according to three self-proclaimed “left-leaning liberals?” “Political correctness” has no academic meaning at all. “Grievance studies” has as much coherence as ghosts!

Even if we steel-person the argument and go with “grievance studies” as “focusing upon and inflaming the grievances of certain identity groups,” how does promoting increased acceptance of overweight people fit under that banner? How does making men less homo- and trans-phobic via anal sex toys “focus” and “inflame grievances” in certain groups? How about observing a unique pattern of sexism in “breastaurants?” None of their published papers qualify as “grievance studies” papers, for the most charitable definition of “grievance studies,” so they cannot draw any conclusions about the rigor of that field. Even if their methodology was absolutely perfect, these three still cannot prove what they claim to.

Shit, I’ve seen ghost hunters with a more coherent world view. Is this what organized skepticism has been reduced to?!


[HJH 2018-10-04]: Looks like someone else came to the same conclusion as I did, only on a different paper:

I read the article that Hypatia accepted, “When the Joke Is on You: a Feminist Perspective on how Positionality Influences Satire.” In my opinion, if the citations are legitimate and the descriptions of others’ views are accurate (something which I am not in a position to determine at this time), the editors of Hypatia have nothing to be particularly ashamed of. Most of the twenty-page paper is a reasonable synthesis of others’ ideas about oppression and humor. It may not be groundbreaking (as one of the reviewers points out), but it is not ridiculous. It seems to me that only on the last page of the paper are there certain statements that could be interpreted as outrageous, but they are so vague that a much more charitable alternative interpretation would be reasonable. In short, assuming accurate representations of others’ views and legitimate citations, one’s opinion of Hypatia should not be affected by its publication of this paper.

Now I know some of you won’t believe me. So please, read the paper for yourself. It’s right here (look for the document titled “HOH2 Typeset”). You can also read the referee reports and editors comments here (look for the document titled “HOH2 ReviewerComments”). Let me know what you think.

As that last paragraph implies, Boghossian and friends have released their manuscripts to the public. Now you don’t have to take my word for it.

Little Lies and Big Truths

Brett Kavanaugh lied. Yet, as I just pointed out, Republicans are still fighting hard to put him on the Supreme Court, ignoring any damage to the (admittedly quite cracked) political neutrality of the court.

The most obvious explanation is that Kavanaugh is one of their own. Jeff Flake declared “I’m a conservative. He’s a conservative;” Kavanaugh shored up his Republican support by spinning conspiracy theories about a vast Democratic coalition trying to take him down, conspiracies we see echoed by Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Lindsay Graham; and the arbitrary deadline of one week was to prevent a partisan “fishing exposition.”

Partisanship doesn’t explain everything, though. Take Donald Trump: he wasn’t much of a Republican, has been at odds with his own party and allies repeatedly, yet is still enjoying broad support from Republicans of all stripes. There’s got to be something more at work here.

A special-access lie is a deliberately false statement based on facts about which the speaker is thought to have special access. A good example of such a lie is Bill Clinton’s notorious false claim that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman” (i.e., Monica Lewinsky). […] A common-knowledge lie is quite different. This is a false assertion about facts to which the speaker has no special access. … For instance, Trump often pointed to information that was supposedly in the public domain to support his claims, even if it was easily demonstrable that such supporting evidence did not exist (e.g., his claim that his election victory was “the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan,” or his claims regarding the size of the crowd at his inauguration). As such, the ideal-typical case of this type of lie is one in which the speaker not only knows the statement is false, but she knows her listeners also know that she knows the statement is false; it is thus common knowledge that the statement is false.

Hahl, Oliver, Minjae Kim, and Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan. “The Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagogue: Proclaiming the Deeper Truth about Political Illegitimacy.” American Sociological Review 83.1 (2018): 7-9.

A tweet by one of the study authors suggested what that “more” could be. “Common knowledge” lies are false statements that are either known to be lies or could easily be verified to be a lie. Why do these types of lies exist? They signal something to the listener.

In particular, whereas the speaker of a special-access lie is implicitly upholding the norm of truth-telling, the common-knowledge liar is implicitly attacking this norm. Following Frankfurt (2005), such a liar is a type of “bullshit artist”: he is publicly challenging truth as a prescriptive norm. … Insofar as a speaker seems capable of distinguishing between truth and falsehood and yet utters a statement everyone knows is false, the speaker is flouting the norm of truth-telling and inviting his listeners to endorse such violations. Indeed, listeners are complicit in the norm violation as long as they do not challenge him—and especially if they applaud him.

Hahl (2018): 9.

In the general case, the speaker is arguing that everyone lies, but no-one wants to admit it. By breaking that taboo, they flag themselves as speaking truth to power, even if they themselves are quite powerful. For instance, Kremlin propaganda doesn’t argue Russia is free of corruption, instead it argues every country is corrupt. Admitting to this truth gains your trust and allows them room to be corrupt, plus denies any way to actually fix corruption.

A minority—or even a majority under some conditions (…)—may privately disagree with publicly-endorsed norms, but a group’s established leadership (however formal or informal) tends to determine group membership, at least in part, based on compliance with such norms. Accordingly, individuals who seek social acceptance generally have an incentive to hide their deviance through public compliance and even to enforce a norm they do not privately endorse (…). […] Put differently, voters have two ways to determine a candidate’s authenticity. One
approach is to determine authenticity on the basis of the candidate’s sincerity or prosociality: inauthentic candidates are those who tell lies or who violate publicly-endorsed norms. A second approach for determining authenticity is based on the implicit claim of the lying demagogue – that is, publicly-endorsed norms are imposed rather than freely chosen. The lying demagogue thus claims to be an authentic champion of those who are subject to social control by the established political leadership.

Hahl (2018): 10-11

People may say they never got drunk in high school or college, but Kavanaugh is indirectly calling them liars. By lying about Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony and Leland Ingham Keyser’s statements, he’s dog-whistling that every guy has forced themselves on women but few would admit to it. By saying he earned his seat at Yale through hard work when he didn’t, Kavanaugh is quietly saying he’s on the side of people with power and privilege.

What’s the larger truth in Kavanaugh’s case? I’m speculating now but I’d say there are three levels to it.

At the most basic level, it’s simply that it’s unacceptable to hold someone accountable for high school hijinks 35 years later, esp without evidence. And so when he claims there were no hijinks when everyone knows there were, he’s inviting his fellow partisans to help protect…

… him from being held to an unfair standard. They know he’s lying but they collude in the lie for a higher purpose.

Second, the larger truth may be the partisan battle, as evoked by his opening statement. Under this logic, the GOP are invited to collude in his lies bc he will be a reliable champion of the cause. The lies are in service of the larger truth that Democratic power is illegitimate.

Finally, and as suggested by our experiments, he may also be appealing to his fellow traditionalists’ anxiety about threats to their culture. What kind of real American doesn’t like beer, amirite? And what kind of loser doesn’t have too many beers once in awhile? The larger…

… truth then is that those high school hijinks were *good* and it’s wrong for these jerks to now cast aspersions on them. Of course these three logics are complementary. One, two, or three of them could be working for any one person.

No wonder Republicans have rallied to Kavanaugh’s side and, via their conspiracies, added falsehoods of their own. It also changes our rhetorical tactics.

Larger implication: Exposing lies is insufficient to reach across this kind of partisan divide. We have to look harder for the deeper implicit claims being made & why they resonate with those who seem unable to see the lies. They *can* see the lies but their *focus* is elsewhere.

A Reminder About Sexual Assault

I think Garrett Epps nailed this.

The gendered subtext of this moment is, not to put too fine a point on it, war—war to the knife—over the future of women’s autonomy in American society. Shall women control their own reproduction, their health care, their contraception, their legal protection at work against discrimination and harassment, or shall we move backward to the chimera of past American greatness, when the role of women was—supposedly for biological reasons—subordinate to that of men?

That theme became apparent even before the 2016 election, when candidate Donald Trump promised to pick judges who would “automatically” overturn Roe v. Wade. The candidate was by his own admission a serial sexual harasser. On live national television, he then stalked, insulted, and physically menaced his female opponent—and he said, in an unguarded moment, that in his post-Roe future, women who choose abortion will face “some form of punishment.”

In context, Trump promised to restore the old system of dominion—by lawmakers, husbands, pastors, institutions, and judges—over women’s reproduction.

And as they point out, the subtext has now become text with the allegations of sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh. There are plenty of other reasons to deny Kavanaugh a Supreme Court seat, mind you, but the Republican Party has descended so low that corruption and a dismissal of human rights mean nothing when it harms them (but everything when it harms their opponents). Even Senator Susan Collins, considered to be on the liberal side of the Party, still twists in knots to defend Kavanaugh. These allegations of sexual assault might have been the straw, though.

Of course, now that sexual assault is back in the news, all the old apologetics are being vomited up. “Why didn’t she speak up?” “Boys will be boys.” “You’re ruining his life!” “There’s no evidence.” “This can’t be a common thing.” “Just trust the system.” It’s all very tired, and has been written about countless times before.

For instance, here’s a sampling of my own writing:

Evidence-Based Feminism 2: Sexual assault and rape culture

Debunking Some Skeptic Myths About Sexual Assault

Index Post: Rape Myth Acceptance

Christina Hoff Sommers: Science Denialist?

A Statistical Analysis of a Sexual Assault Case

Men Under Construction

Sexual Assault As a Con Game

Consent on Campus

Colleges and Sexual Assault

Destruction of Justice

Sexual Assault as a Talking Point

“There are no perfect victims.”

False Rape Reports, In Perspective

Everyone Needs A Hobby

Steven Pinker and His Portable Goalposts

Perfect, In Theory

Holy Fuck, Carol Tavris

Recovered Memories and Sexual Assault

Talking Sexual Assault

The evidence around sexual assault is pretty clear, and even in Kavanaugh’s specific case there’s circumstantial evidence that makes the accusations plausible. If people are still promoting myths about it at this point, it’s because they want to.

[HJH 2018-09-17: Added a few more links. Props to Salty Current of the Political Madness thread for some of them.]

Don’t Do This, Skeptics

Science is not kind to minorities. Discrimination can make them difficult to identify and count, which combined with the minority’s relative rarity makes it nearly impossible to gather accurate statistics; convenience samples are the norm. Their rarity mean few people are researching them, so the odds of minority overcoming their discrimination and surviving academia to become a researcher are very small. Conversely, the few number of researchers means one bad apple can cause quite a bit of damage, and there’s a good chance researchers buy into the myths about this minority and thus legitimize discrimination.  A lot of care needs to be taken when doing science writing on the topic.

If you want to learn how to do it properly, read Dr. Harriet Hall’s recent article on gender dysphoria in children and do the opposite of what she does. [Read more…]

Why TERFs are not feminists

Nah, I’m not trying to start something with Siggy; heck, I too have pointed out the historical connections between TERFs and feminists. Whether one is a subset of the other will always be a secondary concern next to combating the damage they do. Still, I think there’s an argument for the other side, one that’s worth writing up.

Let’s start with a protest I’ve meant to blog about: a number of women attended a men’s-only swim night. Given just that, you can sketch out a rationale for the action. Sex separation for social gatherings has its roots in a time when we believed men and women should never mix, that we occupied separate spheres. The only good reason I know to allow sex segregation is to help victims of sexual assault, who in some cases can relive their trauma if they share a space with someone of a specific sex. Since that isn’t universal, sex segregation shouldn’t be either, and invading a space that wasn’t separated for that reason is a legit form of protest.

Female activists took a group of male swimmers by surprise on Friday evening when they attended a men-only swim session wearing just trunks and pink swimming caps. Amy Desir, 30, was one of the two women to gain access to the south London pool session, as part of a protest against proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, which would enable men and women to choose their own gender.

Both women explained their attendance to staff at Dulwich Leisure Centre by saying they “identified as male” and subsequently had the right to be there. […]

Their actions form part of a nationwide campaign formed on Mumsnet called #ManFriday which encourages women to “self-identify” as men every Friday in protest of the proposed amendments to gender laws, which would enable people to self-identify as men or women.

When we add more information, though, things get twisted around. TERFs believe men and women occupy separate spheres, otherwise they wouldn’t have identified as male; at the same time, they also argue that housework shouldn’t be a woman’s duty and the workplace shouldn’t favor men. They also believe that anyone with a penis is a man, to the point of obsession and despite scientific arguments to the contrary. Because of those points, they believe men should be disgusted and unsettled to find women invading their spaces.

They also used the male changing rooms before going into the session and were later asked by an elderly man if they realised it was a male-only session.

In reality, the most common reaction is puzzlement or a shrug of the shoulders. Just recently, in fact, while running some chores I noticed a guy stopped right in the entrance of a men’s washroom, blankly staring at the “Men’s Washroom” sign as if deciphering some puzzle. I walked past, turned the corner, and sure enough someone identified as a woman was in there. She gave me an embarrassed glance as she hurried out; I rolled my eyes as I continued to the urinal, without missing a single step. Women participating in marathons will sometimes “claim” men’s washrooms, due to a lack of facilities and their greater numbers in these events (at least around here, YMMV elsewhere). I know it happens, because I helped do it once; there were no complaints, no protests, no need for guards, everyone just got on with their business amid a few nervous giggles.

Every premise behind that TERF protest is either contrary to another premise they believe, or the best evidence available. As I’ve pointed out before, TERFs do not have a coherent theory of sex or gender; in contrast, feminists bend over backwards to establish coherency. This solves Siggy’s best argument.

On the flip side, there are also real pretenders to feminism. One of the best known examples is Christina Hoff Sommers, who identifies as a feminist, but who has been a conservative critic of feminism for her entire career. Sommers is one of several public figures who call themselves “equity feminists”, a term that, as far as I know, does not have any real history within feminism, and seems to have been invented by external critics.

So it seems we have a difficult task, finding a definition for feminism that includes TERFs, and yet excludes equity feminists. Ideally, the definition would also apply to feminists of the past and future.

No matter where you stand on Christina Hoff Sommers’ feminism, she has a more coherent theory of sex and gender than TERFs. That is a line of demarcation.

As just hinted at, Siggy’s other main argument is that feminism has historically been quite transphobic. Fair enough, in fact at one point a significant number of feminists opposed any LGBT activism. But pointing out that this bigotry was once part of feminism does not demand that we continue to accept those bigots as feminists, any more than pointing out that astronomy was once astrology demands that we consider astrologers to be astronomers. Words and definitions can change over time. If the majority of contemporary feminists are bullish on LGBT rights, if the majority of them agree that gender identity is a fundamental right, then we can consider transphobic feminists to be anachronisms. To bring up another anecdote, I attended Calgary Pride and was heartened to see half the floats had “trans rights are human rights” or similar explicitly plastered on them. The lead float was trans-inclusive, too, which was welcome given the bullshit TERFs have pulled at Pride marches.

Given that very few feminists are TERFs, and even mainstream society has accepted that gender identity is a thing (on paper, anyway), counting TERFs as feminists muddies what “feminism” means, in my opinion. That may not be your opinion, and that’s cool! Whether we call TERFs bigots pretending to be feminists or bigoted feminists, we can all agree the stress should be on the “b.”


HJH 2018-09-10: Oh dear, I seem to have started something anyway. A small and insightful thing, thankfully. Read Crip Dyke’s posts, especially her second one as it has some good points to make about sexism. I mean, damn:

Sexism = Sex Prejudice + Enhanced Power of one sex relative to another

In the course of it all, though, I’m getting feedback from Siggy and others that suggests I could have done a better job in this post. The crux of it can be handled via a little copy-pasta.

Shoot, I should have explained this point a little better. I don’t argue that having a consistent definition is necessary for being a feminist, instead working towards a consistent definition is the key. You can see this quite clearly with Judith Butler:

Before Undoing Gender, Butler never addressed the T or the I (transgender and intersex) in GLBTQI in any sustained way. In turning her gaze toward what is unthinkable even for many gays and lesbians, Butler has continued to push against the boundaries of the field she had a large part in creating. Undoing Gender constitutes a thoughtful and provocative response to the new gender politics and elegantly employs psychoanalysis, philosophy, feminism, and queer theory in an effort to pry open the future of the human.

Zavaletta, Atticus Schoch. “Undoing Gender.” The Comparatist 29.1 (2005): 152-153.

Compare and contrast with this with TERFs. Confronted with evidence that their definition of “sex” is too simplistic, they discard the evidence rather than update the definition. Bigotry takes precedence over consistency, and we can exploit that to draw a dividing line.

The worst of it seems to flow from that misunderstanding, at least so far.

Secular Women Work

One reason why Adventure Time may be popular with adults is its complex emotional content. Via the creator, Pendleton Ward:

Dark comedies are my favorite, because I love that feeling – being happy and scared at the same time. It’s my favorite way to feel – when I’m on the edge of my seat but I’m happy, that sense of conflicting emotions. And there’s a lot of that in the show, I think.

The best example I can think of came in Season Four: the Ice King visited Marceline to get her help writing a song. Her conflicted emotions towards the Ice King are eventually explained via notes that he wrote to her. The result always crushes me, turning a comic character into a deeply tragic one.

I walk away from Secular Women Work in a similar state. It is very easy to look upon the works of others and despair, as a starter. Bria Crutchfield fundraised for and delivered four trucks’ worth of water and supplies to Flint, Michigan; Danielle White’s activism helped overturn HB2 in South Carolina, which discriminated against trans* people; Mandisa Thomas founded Black Nonbelievers, a thriving atheist community which has expanded into twelve cities; Lauren Lane founded and ran Skepticon for a decade; Debbie Goddard has been within organized skepticism/atheism for over sixteen years, splits their time between multiple organizations, and specializes in campus outreach. Every speaker was an activist with several wins under their belt, working to make this community a better place.

There was also despair over the state of the movement. One of the panelists mentioned graphic threats leveled by fellow atheists against herself. Bria mentioned how someone tried to get her fired for bringing water to Flint, during a panel devoted to the blowback activists face for doing their work. An offhand conversation I had turned to the women who have been driven from the movement due to harassment or worse. Five years ago, Melody Hensley gave me a warm hug to welcome me to Women in Secularism 2; roughly a year ago, she had to commit social media suicide to escape years of harassment directed at her, harassment that continues to this day. There are many more examples, most of which I’ve never heard.

But the human cost really hit home while I was packing to leave. Niki Massey’s name came up during this conference; she was someone I had the fortune to see at the first Secular Women Work, both on stage and at an after-conference dinner, but that was the extent of our connection. As a result, her death never carried the same impact for me that it had for so many others. While organizing my things, however, I reflected that three years prior Niki was doing the same thing. She too was organizing her things, she too was reflecting on her conference experience. Was she also thinking about attending the next one? It weighed heavily on me that she’d never have the option.

Still, while Secular Women Work did load me down, it was also a great release. Merely being in the same room as people I admired, soaking in the conversation, was a trip. There were fascinating discussions both on and off the stage, including a long one about IT management during a beautiful sunset. I found myself actively seeking light conversation, and I’m not the light conversation type. On the stage, Mandisa not only talked of her experience growing Black Nonbelievers, she also laid out her full management strategy. In a workshop, I scribbled down a few pages of notes as Elise Matthesen held forth on codes of conduct. Debbie pointed out there was little we could do about Trump, so she suggested redirecting our attention to local politics where we could have an impact. Cassidy Slinger argued that mission statements weren’t just for attracting new members, they also made it easier to kick troublemakers out. Mandisa made a similar point during her talk: joining organizations is a privilege, so no single member has a right to be a part of it. Gretchen Koch stated that all art is political, so decrying art for its politics is a smokescreen for arguing against politics you don’t like. There’s a lot more where that came from, I could easily fill another paragraph just using the notes I took during the direct action panel.

Inspiration for activism was in ample supply, too. During a workshop, Trinity Pixie argued the most effective way to help the trans* community was to donate cash directly to those in need. There’s a tonne of discrimination against them at work and elsewhere, so earning a paycheck is difficult, yet it is common for charity groups refuse to help trans* people. Donating directly also cuts out the overhead inherent to charities. Here’s a Twitter thread to get you started, but consider actively searching for such fundraisers if you have a little cash to spare. Even a few dollars could make a huge difference.

I walk away from many atheist/secular conferences giddy at hanging out with cool people. I walk away from Secular Women Work thinking deeply about myself, and how I can help the communities I belong to, and a little bummed at the state of the world, and giddy over cool people. It’s like the difference between snacking on candy and eating soy people.

Judicial Math

Whew, quite a week of news, eh? The Manafort verdict has stuck with me, if only for this detail.

One of the jurors from the recently-concluded trial of Paul Manafort has described herself as a strong supporter of President Trump. She said she drove every day to the Alexandria courthouse where Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman was being tried with her “Make America Great Again” cap in the back seat, and that she planned to vote again for Mr. Trump if he runs for reelection in 2020. She said she thought prosecutors had targeted Mr. Manafort as a way to get dirt on Mr. Trump, and that she didn’t want Mr. Manafort to be guilty. Nonetheless, she voted to convict him because the evidence of his guilt “was overwhelming.” […]

The jury couldn’t come to unanimous agreement on 10 other counts and a mistrial on those charges was declared. Ms. Duncan revealed that there was just one juror who held out on conviction on those counts, citing reasonable doubt. The other eleven jurors were convinced of Mr. Manafort’s guilt.

I don’t know why that juror held out, so let’s instead consider a hypothetical. Earlier, I argued that Democratic and Republican voters were more polarized than first appeared because roughly 10-20% of the population can be convinced of nearly anything. The first juror in the Manafort trial to out themselves bought pretty heavily into some of Trump’s conspiracy theories, so they must have some grip on the general public.

What if this 10-20% of the populace was so deep into these theories that they’d never find one of Trump’s associates guilty? That would be a huge problem if they were on a jury. What are the odds of such an event occurring?

We can calculate this ourselves, via the Binomial distribution.

The expected number of jurors that'll never convict on a 12-jury panel. I'm cheating a bit and using a Beta, to create more visual distance between the 10% and 20% cases; for the latter, only use those values which correspond to an integer along the X axis.Assuming a 12-person jury, if 10% of the population would refuse to convict under any circumstance, then there’s about a 72% chance of at least one such person being a juror; if 20%, then there’s a whopping 93% chance. Since the US Federal courts require unanimity to reach a verdict, those are also the minimum odds of a mistrial on one count!

There’s an obvious workaround, drop unanimity and permit eleven people to reach a verdict. The minimum odds of a mistrial drop to 34%, if 10% of all people would refuse to convict, or 72.5% in the 20% case. Is that acceptable to you, or would you like those values to be lower? We can use math and computers to determine the ideal quorum of jurors needed to satisfy your threshold. Let’s define t as the minimum odds of a mistrial, n as the number of jurors, k as the minimum number of guilty votes needed to achieve a conviction, and q as the proportion of people guaranteed to refuse to convict. For any given combination of those, the minimum odds are

t = sum from p=(n-k+1) to n (n, p) q^p (1-q)^(n-p)

The good news: you can drive t to be as low as you wish. The bad: you accomplish that by inflating the size of the jury pool while keeping the quorum low, which means the weight of the evidence necessary to convict drops. Avoiding partisan bias means more false convictions, and vice-versa, so we have to calculate our preferred trade-off.

A chart of the minimum odds of mistrial, for a given jury size and quorum necessary to convict.

This math is par for the course. Every judicial system puts numbers to these questions:

  1. How many guilty people should be allowed to walk free?
  2. How many people should be convicted of a crime they didn’t commit?
  3. How much should we invest into those who have been convicted of a crime, and how should we spend those funds?
  4. How much should we spend on crime prevention, and which programs are the most effective?

For instance, its been estimated that at least 4.1% of all convicts given a death sentence in the US were falsely convicted; is that rate of killing innocent civilians acceptable, or should it be lowered? Of the hundred thirty-seven prisoners freed from US jails in 2017, their average time behind bars was 10.7 years; is putting an innocent person behind bars for that length of time something we can tolerate as a society, or should it be lowered? If it should be lowered, are we going to do that by doing more aggressive post-conviction audits, better training for police and prosecutors, both, or are there more effective tactics out there?

Working out this math also changes our judicial philosophy. If we build our system so that it punishes the guilty, then our false conviction rate had better be low. If instead we build our system so that it makes them better citizens, then putting an already-good citizen in there isn’t a big loss and we can instead tune other variables.

The only real choice here is if we consciously put those numbers in place ourselves, receive a nasty shock when we later calculate them, or pretend those questions don’t exist. Currently, we’re doing a lot of the last two in Canada and the US.

On Jakiw Palij

You may have heard of this story.

The last known Nazi collaborator living in the United States — a 95-year-old former camp guard who played an “indispensable role” in the murders of thousands of Jews — was deported to Germany from his New York City home early Tuesday morning, completing what the U.S. ambassador to Germany called a “difficult task.”

But I have yet to see a single news report that gives you the full account. For instance, they guy was 95 years old, yet there’s been an active hunt for Nazis for decades. Why did it take so long to find him?

Christopher A. Wray, Acting Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, announced that a federal judge in Brooklyn, N.Y., today revoked the citizenship of a Queens resident on the basis of his service as an armed guard at an SS slave-labor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland and his concealment of that service when he immigrated to the United States. The denaturalization decision issued today by U.S. District Judge Allyne Ross cited admissions and other evidence proving that Jakiw Palij, 79, served during 1943 as an armed guard at the notorious Trawniki Labor Camp, which the court found was created “[t]o further the exploitation of Jewish labor.”“By guarding the prisoners held under inhumane conditions at Trawniki, Jakiw Palij prevented their escape and directly contributed to their eventual slaughter at the hands of the Nazis,” said Roslynn R. Mauskopf, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.

Some of the reason is due to Palij covering his tracks well, but if you do some mental math on his age you’ll realize he was stripped of US citizenship back in 2003. So why did it take 15 years to deport a Nazi war criminal?

Palij, an ethnic Ukrainian born in a part of Poland that is now Ukraine, said on his 1957 naturalization petition that he had Ukrainian citizenship. When their investigators showed up at his door in 1993, he said: “I would never have received my visa if I told the truth. Everyone lied.” […]

But because Germany, Poland, Ukraine and other countries refused to take him, he continued living in limbo in the two-story, red brick home in Queens he shared with his late wife, Maria. His continued presence there outraged the Jewish community, attracting frequent protests over the years that featured such chants as, “Your neighbor is a Nazi!”

The place he was born is now in a different country, and neither Poland nor Ukraine wanted Palij. There was no place to deport him to! And once they did deport him, why Germany?

The German government has acknowledged its moral responsibility to receive Palij, who could not be prosecuted in the US, and whom other countries such as Poland, where he was born, and Ukraine, where the place of his birth is now located, have refused to take in. […]

Palij has never possessed German citizenship. It has emerged that his current legal residency status in Germany is based on a clause of the residency law under which non-Germans can be transferred to Germany if “international law or urgent humanitarian reasons” requires it, or “to protect the political interests of Germany”.

The basic idea is that Germany was responsible for the rise of Nazis, ergo it should be responsible for cleaning up after them. They accepted Palij for humanitarian reasons, to heal old wounds. Though it’s kind of awkward to hold a trial for a frail 95-year-old person.

While authorities in the southern city of Würzburg had been trying to bring a case against Palij since 2016, Rommel said that investigation had been closed because no evidence was ever found linking Palij to any murders.

“His transfer from the USA doesn’t change anything about the state of evidence,” he added. “In theory, prosecutors in Würzburg could resume their proceedings in case something changed, but for that proof would be necessary in particular, which would bring the person into direct connection with the crimes, and that is what has been missing so far.”

Nobody, not even Palij himself denies he was part of the SS …

Palij admitted to officials that he was trained at an SS training camp in Trawniki, which was next to the labor camp, in the spring of 1943, according to court documents. But the documents didn’t say what he did after his training.

“There’s a big gap in the historical record,” Eli Rosenbaum, former director of the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations, tells NPR. And Palij wasn’t talking: “Mr. Palij took the Fifth Amendment and would not cooperate in the search for truth in his case.”

… but beyond showing he was an employee of the Trawniki concentration camp at around the time a massacre occurred, there’s no evidence to close that gap. Palij claims he was coerced into the SS to save his family, which is a common defense of former Nazis, but there are circumstances where that did happen. It was enough to convince a US judge that he should be stripped of his citizenship and deported, but it’s not enough for German prosecutors to bring a case. Arguably, the move to Germany will be a step up for Palij; he used to live on his own in the US, relying on retirement funds he saved. Now:

“Palij will spend the rest of his life here,” an editorial in the left-leaning Taz read. “The Nazi collaborator will now be cared for, receive financial help, a roof, food, clothing, paid for by the state.”

Look, I’m quite firmly on the “Punch Nazis” side of things. But that doesn’t prevent me from also pointing out that very little justice has resulted from this deportation. It’s not something to crow about.

The president used Mr. Palij’s deportation, which came one day after he saluted an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer and border agents at the White House, as an opportunity to praise the agency, implicitly challenging those who would denounce it. […]

A few hours later, the Republican National Committee sent out a news release noting that Mr. Palij had lived in the congressional district where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rising star among Democrats who has called for the abolition of ICE, is seeking a House seat. […]

At a campaign rally Tuesday night, Mr. Trump invoked Mr. Palij’s deportation during a screed against Democrats, who he said would throw open America’s borders and do away with ICE.

All those headlines about abused children being ripped from their families (almost 500 are still separated, despite a court order to reunite them nearly a month ago) have resulted in widespread calls to dissolve ICE and a movement to reform immigration procedure to make it more humane. Palij’s deportation is a cynical ploy to fight back: since no-one disagrees with deporting Nazis, it follows that his deportation is necessary and therefore both ICE and the current hard-line policy should remain in place.

Jakiw Palij’s deportation is a net plus to the world, but he was a not deported to promote justice; he was instead deported so he could become a political talking point for the Republican party. Like those children, he was not a human being in their eyes but an object to be exploited and abused.

Even when they do good, the Republican party cannot stop themselves from cruelty.