Fairfax’s campaign against men and factual reporting

Earlier, this week the Victorian State Government released the terms of reference for its Royal Commission into family violence. This Royal Commission is a very strong step forward in the battle against what is one of our most shameful scourges: violence in the home. I fully support it, and commend Premier Daniel Andrews for launching it. The Age, however, ran a story with the headline: Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 12.55.17 pm Yet violence is not the leading cause of death for women under 45. Suicide is, followed by transportation accidents, followed by accidental poisoning. The breakdown of the cause of death statistics can be found here.

The claim that violence is “leading cause of death” comes from a 2004 cross-sectional study into women’s health funded by the Victorian government. The study stated that violence was a leading contributor to ill health, disability and death in young women, not a leading cause of death. Whenever this claim is repeated it suggests that homicide is the leading cause of death for women under the age of 45, so it should be corrected and stated accurately. A more detailed analysis of where this claim comes from, and the flaws within the original study can be found here.

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In the very same week, Fairfax continued their campaign against men by publishing the following article – NSW Police fail victims of domestic violence with flippant social media post The author of the piece refers to this post from the NSW Police on their Facebook page –

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 1.15.01 pm

The post states – Last year 1 in 5 domestic violence assaults that NSW police responded to involving intimate partners were for male victims. The NSW Police Force has zero tolerance for domestic violence. You make the call – we’ll make it stop.

It’s a pretty straightforward post from the NSW Police Force. It is devoid of any political agenda, except to perhaps alleviate some of the stigma that male victims of violence may feel when reporting abuse to authorities. You would assume that no person who is interested in gender equality would be offended by such a post from a law enforcement agency. You would assume wrong. Jenna Price, Fairfax columnist, was offended, calling the Facebook post “deliberately misleading”, “offensive” and “flippant”. The title of the piece went so far as to accuse the NSW Police of “failing victims of violence”.

From her article, it became apparent Price was offended by the suggestion that women commit partner violence against men. The article stated –

there was no indication of the number of men who were victims of partner violence from other men. It is widely accepted that one in three gay men are victims of abuse in relationships and that these assaults contribute significantly to the statistics but the police post failed to mention that.

Generally people who are not homophobic and government agencies do not profile criminal behaviour according to sexual orientation. Why should the NSW Police Force? Yet overlooking same-sex violence was not the crux of Price’s offence. The real reason for offence was explained further on when she lamented –

Why imply that women are the perpetrators [of violence] when there’s plenty of evidence from multiple sources demonstrating that it’s just not the case (and it’s clear from the ambiguity of the post that the writer knew that men are perpetrators against their male partners)?

Plenty of evidence? What about the evidence provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics? The ABS in their Personal Safety Report of 2012 state that while women are more likely than men to experience violence by a partner, 5.3% of all men aged 18 years and over have experienced violence from a partner by the age of 15.   

On Twitter, when asked about this inaccuracy, Price clarified her point:

But what are “other sex partners” other than men? And what exactly is Price saying when she says that “women do not perpetrate violence”, and that gay men make up the bulk of perpetrators (and victims) – but that women perpetrate violence against “other sex partners”? What exactly is Price’s charge, and how is the NSW Police force being “offensive”?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics collects data on personal safety – including intimate partner violence. Of interest to us is Table 6 in the Personal Safety Survey: Experience of Violence Since the Age of 15: Relationship to perpetrator by sex of perpetrator. The table states that 1.139 million men in Australia have experienced violence at the hands of a partner. Of these, the majority are female. To be precise, 427,000 have experienced violence at the hands of a female perpetrator who was a previous partner and 295,000 have experienced violence at the hands of a perpetrator who was a previous girlfriend or date. This information can be found in the data cubes here. The ABS is considered the most reliable source of statistics in Australia.

In not consulting publicly available data from the ABS, both of these Fairfax articles make egregious and mendacious errors. It begs the question – why aren’t empirical statements checked by this major news organisation before publication? Is this not something that we expect Fairfax journalists to do?

***

*Thanks to reader Nate for help clarifying the statistics for this blog.

Further Links

Australian Bureau of Statistics. 4906.0 Personal Safety Survey, Australia, 2012. Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 11/12/2013

The health costs of violence: Measuring the burden of disease caused by intimate partner violence: A summary of findings“, VicHealth, Carlton South, Australia, 2004

Holden L, Dobson A, Byles J, Loxton D, Dolja-Gore X, Hockey R, Lee C, Chojenta C, Reilly N, Mishra G, McLaughlin D, Pachana N, Tooth L & Harris M.“Mental Health: Findings from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health.“, Report prepared for the Australian Government Department of Health & Ageing, June 2013.

Vos, T., Astbury, J., Piers, L. S., Magnus, A., Heenan, M., Stanley, L., … & Webster, K. (2006). Measuring the impact of intimate partner violence on the health of women in Victoria, Australia. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 84(9), 739-744.

RealClear Radio Hour with Bill Frezza

RealClear Radio Hour is a radio show broadcast in the US. It is hosted by Bill Frezza, a technologist and venture capitalist. Bill had me on his radio show recently, and I had a good time chatting with him. The episode is called Global Perspectives on Economics and Culture with Martin Hutchinson and Claire Lehmann.

You can download the podcast here: //itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/realclear-radio-hour/

real_clear_radio_hour_851x330

Video-games: a first world obsession

Video-games are a leisure activity, played by kids, sometimes adults. When they are played by adults, they’re generally played for enjoyment, not unlike having a cold drink after a hard day’s work.

Games in general are a release from the monotony and frustrations of real life. Their primary function is to provide psychological escapism, within a safe space. People buy them, and play them for the purposes of pleasure. And like all pleasurable pastimes, they are probably best enjoyed in moderation. Like the Japanese Otaku who sacrifice the real world for their online obsessions, critics of video-games can sacrifice their grounding in reality too.

Their obsession can sometimes lead them into the land of the bizarre –

Thanks to a new cohort of culture warriors, today video-games aren’t just a leisure activity. They are now a battleground of abstract theories and warring ideologies. Critics want games to be viewed as art, replete with as many “cutting edge” political messages about racism and sexism as a New York indie gallery. But the trouble is, they are not art. They are entertainment. They are not made to make a political statement; they are made to turn a profit. McIntosh is like a food critic railing against a packet of skittles because he wants it to be a soufflé.

At the centre of this new-age cultural war is Mr. McIntosh (@radicalbytes). He is known for co-writing and producing the videos of ‘Feminist Frequency’ (Anita Sarkeesian) who hit the mainstream press this year in the New York Times and Colbert Report. From a superficial perspective, Sarkeesian and McIntosh make reasonable criticisms of video-games. It is obvious to anyone that games are hyper-masculine. And games as well as the gaming community, would benefit from having more female designers representing the female perspective. This is a no-brainer.

Ultimately, however, the problem with the type of ‘progressive’ thought as spouted by McIntosh, is that it doesn’t lend itself well to real-life circumstances. Everything is ideological; almost nothing is practical. Instead of rolling up his sleeves and creating games himself, McIntosh simply moans from the sidelines. Meanwhile, the connection between video-games and real world behaviours is a spurious one. In fact, when I asked Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker earlier this year about how we can reduce violent inclinations in young men, he suggested that video-games were instrumental for this purpose. Empirical data shows that since video-games have been around, all categories of teenage crime have declined significantly. By most people’s standards, this is a good outcome.

Media and cultural studies grads specialise in the abstract not the empirical. And their obsession with pop-culture, at the expense of real life, leads them to think and say ridiculous things. Only a person with a non-trivial amount of economic privilege, living in the luxury of the first-world, would ever be able to say something this –

Someone seems to be forgetting about  all the people in the world who do not have a wifi connection. Or who don’t go to the movies, and who have never played a video-game. I hate to break it to McIntosh, but these people do exist. And it’s a special kind of first-world privilege to forget that not everyone lives in the same culture as you do.

Aside from the obsession with pop-culture, at the crux of culture-war mongering today is an undying conviction that women, as a class, are oppressed. And men, as a class, are “privileged”. It follows a long tradition of left-progressive thought where one group is held up as morally pure, while another group is painted as morally corrupt.

McIntosh explores this theme in depth in his latest video, the 25 Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male. At 1:11 one guy reads from the auto-cue: “If I enthusiastically express my fondness for video-games no-one will automatically assume I am faking my interest, just to get attention.” At 2:11 another reads: “When purchasing most major video-games in a store, chances are I will not be asked if, or assumed to be buying it for a wife, daughter or girlfriend.” These are examples of invisible male privilege.

Yet to any rational person with a three digit IQ, all these statements are evidence of, is the luxury that pop-culture critics get to live in. To imagine that the hypothetical assumptions made by a hypothetical store clerk in an imaginary store, are evidence of men’s supremacy, is to betray a deeply sheltered emotional life. In countries all over the world, the benefits of being male are not invisible at all. They include being able to work, leave the house un-chaperoned, vote, drive a car, and get an education.

Culture warriors need to realise that every time they talk about how oppressed women are when playing video-games, they are talking about a hobby which requires significant resources and time to pursue and is a sign of first-world privilege by definition. By prioritising the trivial, they ignore examples of discrimination which are profound. Women who are sold into slavery. Women who are barred from getting an education. Women who are brutally beaten for minor transgressions. Culture-warriors also insult Western women in their attempt to imagine us as delicate wallflowers in need of special protection.

Unfortunately, this is what happens when political and cultural debate is ceded to obsessives. Leisure activities are re-cast as battlegrounds of oppression. Trivialities and abstractions are put-forward as “evidence” in a war that relies more on the perceived sins of the imaginary “other side” than real-world data.

And stupid ideas get to live another day.

 

tokyo-otaku

 

Links

25 Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male – Feminist Frequency, December 2, 2014

Video-games are not making us more violent, study shows – The Guardian, November 10, 2014

Are kids getting more virtuous? – Washington Post, November 26, 2014

The End of the World as We Know It – Steven Pinker at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, September 1 2014

 

 

False claims undermine good causes

Today is White Ribbon Day. It is an important symbolic event reminding us all to be aware of violence against women.

Domestic violence and family abuse are a scourge on all human societies. Events such as White Ribbon Day play an significant role in breaking down the shame and stigma which makes it so hard for individuals to seek help. I wholeheartedly support this aim. What I do not support, however, are dodgy statistics and false claims which belittle this good cause. On Monday, 25th November, 2014, SkyNews Australia published the following tweet:

This is a sensational claim that is easily fact-checked. Research institutions such as the Australian Institute of Health and Wellbeing (AIHW), the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) keep records of causes of death, and rates of victimisation for people in this age group every year.

To fact-check SkyNews Australia’s claim, let’s break down the most recent data we have for causes of death for men and women under the age of 45 (see Table 2 in the AIHW summary). Keep in mind these statistics are for both men and women:

1. Suicide                                 2,769 deaths

2. Accidental poisoning        1,534 deaths

3. Transport collisions          1,388 deaths

4. Heart disease                        915 deaths

5. Breast cancer                         509 deaths

Death by homicide does not make the top 5, for men or for women.

ABS data tells us that on average, one woman takes her life via suicide each day. AIC data tells us that in 2012, 33 women died from homicide, nationally, while 67 men did. In contrast, 336 women aged 15 – 45 died from suicide. Our rates of suicide should be our national shame. Combined, suicide and drug overdose claim eighty people per week under the age of 45, a significant proportion of whom are women. But violence is the sensational social issue du jour, so we do not hear about it. In May, 2014, ABCNews ran a story which stated:

Domestic violence is the leading cause of death and injury in women under 45, with more than one woman murdered by her   current or former partner every week.

Yet almost one woman dies every day from suicide, and almost two from breast cancer. So how is domestic violence “the leading cause of death” for women in this age group? Where does this claim even come from?

Source of the Claim

The claim comes from a ten year old report by the Australian government body VicHealth  tabled for the World Health Organisation. In 2004, VicHealth teamed up with a group of women’s advocates for the purposes of quantifying the overall health burden inflicted upon women and more broadly, society, from domestic violence.

In quantifying the burden of disease, the researchers involved chalked up health problems of victims as direct outcomes of exposure to violenceSee the figure below.

Untitled

Health outcomes contributing to the disease burden of intimate partner violence include mental health issues (73% of the total disease burden), tobacco use at 14% and cervical cancer at 1%.

In calculating the total “health burden” of violence, the study’s authors came to the conclusion that intimate partner violence was the leading cause of preventable illness, disease and disability for women aged 15-44. How they came to this conclusion is difficult to gather due to the report’s opacity. Yet astonishingly, at some point in our national discourse, the claim that intimate partner violence is “a leading cause of disease burden” has been replaced by this:

It behooves us then to take a closer look at the source of this claim, in order to see if it stands up to scrutiny.

Methodological Concerns

The VicHealth report is based on what is known as a cross-sectional design. Data was taken from pre-existing reports and in their analysis, health variables and exposure to violence were measured at the same time. The most fundamental limitation to such a design is confusing correlation with causation

Such a design cannot tell us whether or not violence came before the onset of mental health problems, tobacco use or cervical cancer nor any other health outcome.

While it is highly likely that victims of violence do go onto develop mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and PTSD. It is also highly likely that individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions find themselves in circumstances where such victimisation occurs. Last year’s report from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health said the following:

Women in their 20s and 30s who report intimate partner violence experience poorer mental health prior to intimate partner violence, suggesting an inter-connected relationship; that is, intimate partner violence affects mental health status and likewise mental health affects intimate partner violence. [6 pp 83]

The only way to prove causality is to prove that violence occurred at a point in time prior to the onset of mental health problems. The authors of the report have not done this. They also have not proven any causal link between violence and cancer, or tobacco use either. When referring to this limitation in their ‘technical report’, they stated simply that they “decided” violence preceded such health variables as cancer. Take a look at their reasoning in their own words —

A cross-sectional analysis is a weak design to examine the relationship between a risk factor and disease outcomes because it cannot indicate whether exposure to the risk factor preceded the health outcome, a necessary condition to prove causality. A longitudinal study design would be better suited to study this issue. Despite the large overall study size of ALSWH the number of women who newly reported intimate partner violence between the first and second survey was too small and the health status information too limited to examine temporality. However, we decided that a causal relationship between intimate partner violence and health outcomes was much more plausible than a health outcome being the cause of intimate partner violence. [5 pp 742-743]

“We decided”

Let’s take a look at who “we” is. For the VicHealth report, “prevalence data review and expertise” was overseen by Melanie Heenan, from the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault. The “Health impact data review and expertise ” was overseen by Jill Astbury, of the Key Centre for Women’s Health in Society. These researchers have dual roles as political advocates.

The authors of the report “decided” that intimate partner violence caused negative health outcomes. But they did not prove it. They did not rule out alternative explanations for the relationship between violence and negative health outcomes. And they did not attempt to temper their study’s conclusions in light of these serious methodological flaws. They also looked at female victims only, despite the fact that intimate partner violence is known to affect men at significant levels as well.

Political biases do not always undermine the quality of research, but they can and sometimes do. This study (which has not been replicated) contains major limitations. Published in a WHO newsletter, as opposed to a scientific journal, the report has never passed what is generally considered an acceptable standard of peer review. It is a government report, overseen by bureaucrats, funded by taxpayers. In short, it is an example of bad research performed for a political agenda. And now it is the basis for sensationalist false claims promoted in Australia by Sky and ABC News.

On White Ribbon Day, or any other day, we do not need false claims about the impact of intimate partner violence to know that it is a shocking thing, and a scourge on our society. We do not need to be told that domestic violence is the leading cause of death for women aged 15 – 45 in order to take it seriously.

The more false claims are publicised about violence against women, the more community cynicism will grow.

We do not do women any favours by producing bad research, and making exaggerated claims in their name.

***

Update

Reader Stu makes the following comment.

More data from the ABS here:

http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/3303.02012?OpenDocument

From this we actually can break down the actual data to females between the ages of 15 and 44.

In all age subgroups (15-24,25-34,35-44), the top cause of death is suicide, although if you combine cancers into one group, cancer tops the 35-44 list. 

Overall the breakdown is similar to the gender-neutral one above – it is still suicide, followed by poisoning, then traffic accidents, then various subgroups of cancer and heart disease.

It’s hard to tell whether the false claims are deliberately dishonest or just carelessness, but they’re only harming the credibility of those who make them.

***

Further Links

ABC News – Domestic violence of epidemic proportions a ‘national emergency': campaign groups

NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research – New South Wales Recorded Crime Statistics 2013

NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research – Trends and patterns in domestic violence assaults: 2001 to 2010

Carlson, M. D., & Morrison, R. S. (2009). Study design, precision, and validity in observational studiesJournal of palliative medicine12(1), 77-82.

The health costs of violence: Measuring the burden of disease caused by intimate partner violence: A summary of findings“, VicHealth, Carlton South, Australia, 2004

Holden L, Dobson A, Byles J, Loxton D, Dolja-Gore X, Hockey R, Lee C, Chojenta C, Reilly N, Mishra G, McLaughlin D, Pachana N, Tooth L & Harris M. “Mental Health: Findings from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health.“, Report prepared for the Australian Government Department of Health & Ageing, June 2013.

Vos, T., Astbury, J., Piers, L. S., Magnus, A., Heenan, M., Stanley, L., … & Webster, K. (2006). Measuring the impact of intimate partner violence on the health of women in Victoria, Australia. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 84(9), 739-744.

Hijab selfies make a mockery of spiritual identity

Western women taking selfies in hijabs is a phenomenon loaded with so much irony it could be a Zen riddle.

One does not have to be a religious scholar to recognise that the hijab, niqab and burqa are informed by a moral framework which puts female sexual propriety front and centre. Catholic nuns wear habits for this same reason. In fact, Christian women wore head-coverings to Church right up until the twentieth century.

Read more: Hijab Selfies Make a Mockery of Spiritual Identity | ABC Religion and Ethics

Post-modern assumptions about gender harm women

Until last year, women in the US had been unwittingly overdosing on sleeping pills for nearly twenty years.

In January 2013, the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered drug companies to slash the dosing of Zolpidem (an insomnia drug known as Ambien) by half for women. Side-effects from over-dosing on Zolpidem (known as Stilnox in Australia) include impaired thinking and reaction time, sleep-driving and sleep-eating.

The FDA ordered the makers of Ambien to provide different dosing instructions for males and females. Prior to their decision, the instructions for men and women were exactly the same. Why? Because we still don’t have enough information about how men and women metabolise drugs differently.

Phyllis Greenberger, CEO of the Society for Women’s Health Research in the US wrote just last month in a blog for Huffington Post: “the reality is that we do not know whether a drug will harm women until after they have started taking it.”

It is the year 2014 and women are at risk of harm from easily preventable biomedical errors. How on earth did we get here?

Firstly, drugs are tested on animals before they make it to human trials. Female animals are more difficult to test on, due to a more complex hormonal profile. The neuroscientist Larry Cahill is on record saying that the scientific understanding of women’s neurobiology is pitiful. He explains that 93% of the animals used in neuroscientific research are male, simply because they’re easier to study.

Secondly, medical and health researchers, including neuroscientists and psychologists, avoid studying sex differences out of a fear of being labeled “sexist”. One psychologist consistently name-calls neuroscientists publishing work on sex differences, dismissing such work as “neurosexism” and “neurotrash”. Researchers wanting to enjoy controversy free careers understandably avoid the sex differences arena.

In the field of medicine, heart disease, the number one killer of women in Australia, is known to affect men and women differently. More women die from heart attacks than men and females are at higher risk of extensive bleeding after heart surgery. Women’s brains are also more sensitive to neural deterioration. This leads Alzheimer’s to be more prevalent amongst women compared with men. It follows that research focusing on sex differences at the level of the neural substrate, is a pressing women’s health issue. Implying that it is a niche interest of “neurosexists”, in 2014, is simply reprehensible.

The dismissing of sex difference research stems from a deeply ingrained false assumption – that males and females are the same in matters of biology. To understand this probably unconscious assumption, we have to go back to Rousseau and his idea of the tabula rasa. The “tabula rasa,” means in Latin, “scraped tablet” or to us, that a baby is born with no preconceived ideas, his or her mind being a “blank slate”.

According to the assumption, culture writes upon this blank slate, shaping an individual until they conform to social norms. Tabula rasa thinking has been around for a long time, but it reached its zenith in the 1970s and 1980s when post-modern philosophy became popular.

The post-modern theorist Michel Foucault famously eyed biology and medicine with suspicion. He characterised “knowledge-producing” institutions, such as the medical clinic as potential tools of oppression. According to post-modernists, traditional research agendas were racist, classist and sexist, (albeit often unintentionally).

These ideas have been incredibly influential. In many undergraduate humanities courses – such as English Studies or Gender Studies – a student learns that the scientific method is biased for the fact that “if you ask certain questions you get certain answers”. Simply asking a question about sex differences reinforces a potentially constraining cultural dichotomy.

Today anti-vaccination advocates cite post-modern arguments in their suspicion of the pharmaceutical industry. Anthropologist Anna Kata has written:

Anti-vaccination protestors make postmodern arguments that reject biomedical and scientific “facts” in favour of their own interpretations…these postmodern discourses must be acknowledged in order to begin a dialogue.

Post-modern ideas are often presented in a very complicated language. At their heart however, lies an implicit manifesto of questioning socially received “binaries”, dichotomies hitherto thought to be self evident, such as male versus female, normal versus abnormal, or biology versus culture. Post-modernism tells us that these binaries are arbitrary, that gender is fluid for example, and in doing so has helped many men and women who don’t fit into straight-laced ideals of masculinity and femininity explore sex and gender with an open mind.

Unfortunately however, post-modern philosophy and the cultural baggage of the tabula rasa has not helped women in areas of health and medicine. In fact it has harmed us. This is simply because there is much more to biological sex than reproductive anatomy. And when it comes to testing biomedical hypotheses or interventions, we need to apply strict binaries. We need to test control groups against experimental groups, and women against men, to eliminate noise and bias, so that we can make causal inferences.

Zealous activists may argue that incorporating sex differences in studies may provide ammunition to those wishing to make sexist generalisations about women. However we also need to be aware that a dismissive attitude towards sex differences research constructs an arbitrary binary. If sex differences research is automatically viewed as “bad” while proof of similarities is viewed as “good”, then we are failing to think critically. (If Foucault could see how rigid his inheritors have become, he’d be turning in his grave).

The bottom line is that women’s health needs to be taken seriously. While sex differences research should be treated with a healthy skepticism (like any other research agenda) if we are too afraid to ask the questions, we will end up with no answers.

.foucault

Motherhood on Campus and at Work

Born in the 1980s, my generation has grown up hearing from our elders that gender is a fiction. “Men and women are the same,” my humanities lecturers taught me. “To romanticize motherhood is to do women an injustice,” we’re told.

Parenthood for women, we learned, should be the same as parenthood for men. It should be optional, and it should be delayed. And if we opt-in, home duties should be delegated fifty-fifty, after some careful negotiation. This is the ethical, progressive way to start a family.

Millennial women of a certain class have grown up internalizing these messages. We heed the lessons of our foremothers. We know that whatever maternal urges we may have, they have to wait. And there is nothing inherently “female” about care-giving, anyway. If we think there is, it is because we have been brainwashed by dominant social norms.

But what if reality were not so simple?

Read More: Motherhood on Campus and at Work | Institute of Family Studies

Blogged down in polarities

The sensible middle-ground of politics is being lost in a sea of reactive, frothing debate. And what is to blame? Page-view journalism.

We blame our politicians, but it’s page-view journalism that drives Australia’s partisan divide. Too much of our discussion insists on obsessing over personality, instead of wrestling with ideas. Lazy ad hominem attacks are de rigueur; with anti-Abbott T-shirts, “frightbat” polls, and vulgar skits involving dogs, coming to dominate an increasingly vapid landscape.

While publications in Australia vary widely, from the trashy tabloid to the first-class broadsheet, almost all newspapers are transitioning from a model of paper subscription to that of digital. And page-view journalism, whether it exists in Australia or overseas, incentivises polemics that are of questionable quality.

Opinion writers who are “polarisation entrepreneurs”, inspire dozens and dozens of comments on their articles, and grow fat with online status in this market. Non-partisan analysis, which educates rather than angers, is not valued as highly as that which triggers righteous outrage. As a result, we have reactive, frothing debates, which lurch from one insignificance to the next, week after week.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

In July 1945, in the sombre aftermath of World War II, Vannevar Bush wrote a treatise. It was called How We May Think, and in it, he formulated an idea of how human beings could better capitalise on and dispense their accumulated knowledge. He imagined a future where we would share what we knew with one another, maximising collective utility. He wrote:

Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.

His essay conceptualised the digital media and went on to develop an early pre-cursor to the internet. He envisaged a knowledge utopia, where informed citizens could share and analyse data with speed and accuracy. We would do this to strengthen our liberty, social capital and to guard against re-enactments of the past.

Six decades later, and not only do we share knowledge with unprecedented ease, social media allows us to chat with friends from every continent in the world, on a daily basis. We are able to exchange ideas with those who have our niche interests in any time-zone that suits us.

University students have the world of research at their fingertips. Just a few clicks, and one can find the most obscure or cutting-edge article, saving the hours of toil in the library that was necessary in past decades.

We all enjoy this freedom. But this knowledge utopia that is facilitated by digital media and online sharing also has a dark side. The sensible middle-ground of politics is being lost.

As Mark Latham said on a recent Q&A, the political class in Australia is a minority. Those engaged with political issues are few in number, but they are rancorous. Because of the rancour, moderates eventually disengage, having better things to do than argue with strangers about politics. The sensible middle is thus drowned out by the vitriol of those inhabiting the extremes: those who are adept at rapid-fire, shallow commentary, often in 140 characters or less.

Page-view statistic-counters do not register if a person is clicking or commenting on an article out of agreement or moral disgust. Anger drives people to share and anger drives people to comment. High volumes of both, equate to “success” in the page-view journalism world.

And viral outrage, led by this new generation of “polarisation-entrepreneurs”, has in recent years led to boycotts, sackings, humiliations and public meltdowns. It is moving us toward a culture of surveillance, where one false move can bring about the end of a career, and fast.

We do not yet know how page-view journalism will affect politics, long term. One reasonable prediction is that the constant surveillance will deter people from joining political parties. We may be left only with apparatchiks, or those motivated by the most extreme or rigid of ideologies. Conversely, others will build entire careers out of manipulating and fanning the flames of online prejudice.

But because this new-business model affects everybody, our partisan division is just as much a product of the left as it is of the right. It is pointless to argue about who started the animosity. Each camp is guilty, each camp likes to see themselves as “victims”, and each camp is rarely accountable.

Pinpointing who started the war doesn’t really matter. What matters is working out what allows it to persist, and figuring out how we can fix it.

Read the original article here:

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-07-07/lehmann-blogged-down-in-polarities/5576412

Denying the Tribe

Image 

“When I asked him, fifty-three years after the event, “Mr. Lucas, why did you jump on those grenades?” he did not hesitate with his answer: “To save my buddies.”

James D. Bradley, Flags of Our Fathers

Sunni rebels fight a sectarian war across the Middle East. In Texas, gun lovers stockpile their weapons. In Europe, white nationalist, right-wing “euro-sceptic” parties surge at the polls. These groups are held together by something they share in common: it’s called male tribalism.

Western psychology (which is really American psychology) has had difficulty explaining what drives young men to sacrifice their lives for each other, and for their tribe, since its inception. Even evolutionary psychology, which has developed frameworks for understanding parochial altruism, and within-group dynamics, has largely avoided empirical investigation into the relationship between maleness, tribal culture, and inter-group conflict. The Male-Warrior Hypothesis (2012) takes a step in the right direction, but it still remains mute on the relationship between culture and tribal identity.

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The discipline of psychology has reified the Northern American “ideal” of personhood, a person who is rational, materialistic, analytic, self-determining, and not tied down by communal obligations or allegiances. In 2010, cultural psychologists Joe Henrich, Steve Heine and Ara Norenzayan exposed the extent of this bias in their paper called “The Weirdest People in the World?” The article shattered psychology’s greatest implicit assumption: that people from Western cultures are representative of all people throughout the globe. (By “weird” they meant both unusual as well as Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic). Dozens of studies have now shown that people from Western, compared to non-Western cultures, think differently. And even among Western cultures, North-American people stand out as being the most different, the “weirdest” of all. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt summarises Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan’s key finding like this:

The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships. (p. 96).

In other words, Western psychology views people as separate units. Even Australian culture, which is Western, rich and democratic, is less competitive and less hyper-individualistic compared to that of the US. (While for Americans freedom is sacrosanct, in Australia egalitarianism and fairness is prized above liberty, for most people).

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Inter-group conflict, specifically male groups fighting other male groups, is something that happens everywhere in every culture, and has all throughout history – it qualifies as a “human universal”. But it is also a cultural construct. The symbols and values that groups of people organise themselves around, vary from group to group. They might be religious symbols, landmarks, emblems of national history or football teams. The symbols change, yet the tribalism remains the same.

Explanations for tribalism from the perspective of evolutionary psychology have typically focused on signaling theory and reproductive opportunities for individuals. Natural and sexual selection produces males with evolved “warrior” abilities because the rewards equate to fitness payoffs. But such explanations do not account for the bonding rituals that take place between males during tribal activities. Or the fact that more men than women watch sport. They do not explain why women are often excluded from tribes, and what the importance and function of male loyalty is – (what we in Australia call “mateship”).

Explanations for such phenomena must incorporate culture. A holistic explanation needs to take a holistic approach, with multiple levels of analysis, from the biological and evolutionary to the social and symbolic.

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The most extreme form of tribalism manifests itself in terrorism. Psychologists have struggled to explain the psychology of terrorists, and no psychopathological profile exists which explains terrorist behaviour.

While personality disorder, poverty and extreme hardship are not predictive of terrorist activity, what researchers have called “heightened coalitional commitment” is. In 2008 Ginges, Hansen and Norenzayan published a paper which demonstrated that Palestinian Muslims who attended mosque, most frequently, had the highest levels of support, for the most extreme forms of parochial altruism: suicide attacks. Frequency of prayer was not predictive. Likewise, priming synagogue attendance (but not frequency of prayer) for Jewish Israelis, predicted the likelihood that they would find a suicide attack carried out against Palestinians to be “extremely heroic”.

If we want to understand the motivations of Islamist jihadists, European white nationalists, or anti-government gun-nuts, we need to understand tribalism. If we deny the pull of the tribe, and only focus on its negative consequences, we set the stage for it to flourish in the most anti-social and destructive of ways.

Many of us think that tribalism is at an all-time low, and most likely it is. Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature describes how violence has drastically reduced, in large part, due to the suppression of tribalism throughout the world. Yet tribalism is still with us. Right now it is flourishing in the Middle East, with a globalised terror organization wreaking havoc throughout Iraq. Online, tribalism flourishes in the “manosphere”, “Neoreaction” and “Dark Enlightenment” movements.

Despite how civilized and peaceful we become, we can be sure that male tribalism will find a way.

 

See more

Ginges, J., Hansen, I., & Norenzayan, A. (2009). Religion and support for suicide attacks.

Psychological science, 20(2), 224-230.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Random House LLC.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world?. Behavioral and brain sciences, 33(2-3), 61-83.

Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological review, 98(2), 224.

Amanda Hess discovers women have control over their lives. Pop- feminists everywhere are confused.

A few months ago, pop-feminist Amanda Hess, wrote an Op-Ed in which she accused scientists of doing research that reflected their “masturbatory tendencies”. This month, she has spilled ink on science again, this time with another Op-Ed in Slate’s The XX Factor attempting to “debunk” the ovulatory-shift hypothesis.

Hess concludes her piece with the following words:

Women’s endocrine processes have officially taken a back seat to our  own mental and physical capacities to regulate our preferences and our cycles to better contribute to our societies.”

Yes. One would hope all human beings over a certain age, who are fortunate enough to not be brain-injured, or drug-addicted would be able to regulate certain biological processes. And contribute to society. But being unable to “regulate” “endocrine processes” is not what the ovulatory shift hypothesis is about.

The hypothesis holds that like all other primates, human females change their behaviour during oestrus. Specifically, it predicts that women, on average, will find high-testosterone and socially dominant men more attractive for short-term mating (one night stands) when fertile. The shifts, however, a theorised to be subtle. And of course, there are exceptions to the rule. The hypothesis also only predicts which men women will find attractive, not which men women will actually have sex with (something which a whole lot of other factors influence).

But the fact that women have the ability to regulate their biological processes, does not rule out the ovulatory shift hypothesis. That would be like saying that because some people are able to regulate their appetites, this “contradicts” the neurobiology of hunger. Women choose to act on their desires, just as men do.

Hess’s Op-Ed attempting to debunk the ovulatory shift hypothesis was based on a meta-analysis (a synthesis of data from multiple studies) that was published in March this year in Emotion Review. It was conducted by Wendy Wood and colleagues and found that the relationship between menstrual cycles and mating preference to be negligible. It was supposed to answer once and for all if women’s menstrual cycles really do affect their mating preferences. But it didn’t.

This is because another meta-analysis by Gilversleeve et al was also published this year which came to very different conclusions. Featured in psychology’s flagship journal Psychological Bulletin, this analysis found that ovulatory-shifts in mating preference were “robust,” and “without bias”. It has also been noted that the Wood et al meta-analysis did not distinguish between “short” and “long” term mating, in accordance with sexual strategies theory.

Presumably unaware of these complexities, Slate’s editors went on to publish their Op-Ed with the following title:

Study Finds That Women Aren’t Run by Their Periods. Scientists Everywhere Are Confused.

In part, the piece argued that because women have free-will, and are also culturally conditioned, ovulatory-shifts in mate preference are implausible. Again, just because women have the ability to override their impulses, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

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Imagine choosing a meal to eat. Just because a person finds the combination of sugar and fat tasty, (it activates that reward centers of the brain), doesn’t mean that person eats cheesecake and ice-cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not eating cheesecake or ice-cream for every meal could be partly due to cultural conditioning, partly due to self-control, and partly due to other factors.

The point is we make choices that override our innate preferences everyday. Having more information about our biology and psychology, does not lead one to be “ruled” by anything. On the contrary, it leads us to be more reflective, and more in control.

This is not the first time that psychological research has come under attack from Amanda Hess, or pop-feminists more widely. In a piece published last year, feminist writer Ruby Hamad made the bizarre comparison:

“Whereas once religion was used to control women and define their role and status in society, more and more, we are finding that science is being used in exactly the same fashion.”

If the pop-feminist worldview seems anti-intellectual and self-serving, that’s because it is. There is no pop-feminist writing championing women’s free will in the face of radical post-modern theories which deny female agency. The extremists of the feminist movement who characterise all heterosexual sex as “rape,” or portray women’s choices as “illusions” get off scot free.

In fact, pop-feminists have been duplicitous in attempting to convince an entire generation of impressionable, young, (mostly white, middle-class) women that they don’t have agency. Like astrologers before them, they ply readers who are prone to fatalism with their ideological fairytales. Instead of Mars aligning with Venus, the ‘Patriarchy’ colludes with ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’ to obstruct women’s ‘true’ destinies.

Yet despite all the rhetoric and hostility , I suspect that Hess and her ilk have known that women enjoy free-will in their lives all along. They just admit it when it suits them. The irony is that gaining insight into biological and psychological processes only enhances women’s capacity to live how they want to. It is sad that feminists feel they must protect women from that.

roy

See also:

Gildersleeve, K., Haselton, M. G., & Fales, M. R. (2014). Do Women’s Mate Preferences Change Across the Ovulatory Cycle? A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin, doi: 10.1037/a0035438

 

Ferguson, C. J. (2014). Comment: Why Meta-Analyses Rarely Resolve Ideological Debates. Emotion Review, 1–2. Retrieved from: http://www.christopherjferguson.com/Emotion%20Review.pdf

 

Wood, W., Kressel, L., Joshi, P. D., & Louie, B. (2014). Meta-analysis of menstrual cycle effects on women’s mate preferences. Emotion Review, 1-2.

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