Activists should calm down. Science is not so sexist

 “Academic Science isn’t Sexist” declared Wendy Williams’ and Stephen Ceci’s op-ed in The New York Times last October. Their piece summarised a 67 page review published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest called “Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape”[1]. Working alongside two economists, they compiled data from several hundred analyses of women’s participation in sciences – from the life sciences such as psychology – to the more math-intensive disciplines such as engineering and physics.

The biggest barrier for women, they found, was that they saw academic jobs as being in conflict with family formation. Despite this, they found that the picture painted was one of “gender fairness, rather than gender bias”. Women across the sciences were more likely to receive hiring offers than men, their grants and articles were accepted at the same rate, they were cited at the same rate, and they were tenured and promoted at the same rate[2].

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Just two weeks after Williams’ and Ceci’s op-ed was published, the online fracas ‘shirtstorm’ happened. The lead scientist of the Rosetta Mission, Dr. Matt Taylor, was ridiculed online for wearing a celebratory shirt with pictures of scantily clad cartoon women. After tens of thousands of tweets were generated by the subject, Dr. Taylor broke down in tears on a television interview and apologised. After his tearful appearance many high profile figures came to his defence including Richard Dawkins and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Even the prominent UK feminist Julie Bindel wrote a concerned op-ed in The Guardian warning that “feminism is in danger of becoming toxic”.

Yet the tweets which sparked the online vilification of Dr. Taylor did not originate from professional agitators. They originated from a segment of the online science community. And this community is now publicly smearing the work of Williams and Ceci. Science blogger Emily Willingham reacted to their paper with incredulity, “how could anyone with any actual experience in academic science say something like that with a straight face?” PZ Myers took to his blog to liken male academics to ISIS, and female academics to refugees fleeing Iraq. Several commentators described their work as “victim-blaming,” trying to impart moral value to their empirical data. And Rebecca Schuman, education editor of Slate, declared that “work like [Williams’ and Ceci’s] will do little more than help to ensure that institutional bias in the academy endures for years to come.” [emphasis mine].

***

What exactly is going on here? To the general public, Williams and Ceci’s data simply confirms the obvious. Across the professions, such as law and medicine, women are not required to produce a tenure dossier to keep their jobs. Young women upon graduation are able to find permanent employment, and if or when they decide to have families, they tend to take maternity leave and arrange part-time hours on return. It’s not rocket science. Negotiating a biological clock at the same time as a tenure clock is simply not an appealing option for many intelligent women.

Yet while many female grad students opt-out of the academic career track early on (especially within the life sciences) evidence suggests that once women are in the pipeline, they are likely to persist[3]. And in a paper from Williams and Ceci published just this month, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), it was found that within controlled experiments tenured academics had a shocking 2:1 bias for preferring hypothetical female job applicants[4].

Williams and Ceci are far from the first scholars to be wary of narratives of oppression when it comes to women in science. Fifteen years ago Science published a paper in which Linda Gottfredson and Judith Kleinfeld questioned the ethics of trying to achieve parity in the sciences through social engineering[5]. And in 2002 The Blank Slate was published. Steven Pinker wrote:

Certainly there are institutional barriers to the advancement of women. People are mammals, and we should think through the ethical implications of the fact that it is women who bear, nurse, and disproportionately raise children. One ought not to assume that the default human being is a man and that children are an indulgence or an accident that strikes a deviant subset. Sex differences can therefore be used to justify, rather than endanger, women-friendly policies such as parental leave, subsidized childcare, flexible hours, and stoppages of the tenure clock or the elimination of tenure altogether.[6] (p358).

Some eleven years after the publication of Pinker’s seminal text, the scholars Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas Wolfinger and Marc Goulden asked if family formation mattered in the Ivory Tower. Their book was called Do Babies Matter? And they answered their question with a resounding “yes”[7]. Their research found that, in general, women who were successful in the academy delayed having children and had fewer children than they had hoped for[8]. And a significant proportion of women who had hoped to form families at some point forewent parenthood altogether[9]. Among graduate students that Mary Ann Mason surveyed, more than half of men and more than two thirds of women viewed academic careers as being in conflict with family life[10]. And when female graduates were asked why they didn’t continue on with academic careers after PhD completion, the most commonly reported reasons were having “other life interests” and “wanting to focus on children” [11].

Williams’ and Ceci’s analysis posits that early socialization – combined with the biological and emotional realities of motherhood – probably play a larger role in constraining women’s career trajectories than sexism. Yet their hypotheses are just that – hypotheses. It is plausible that social engineering will not produce anymore female physicists and computer scientists than what we already have. Why? Evidence regarding occupational preferences has found very large sex differences. While women in the aggregate tend to prefer social and creative work, men tend to prefer theoretical or mechanical work[12]. (This does not mean that women or men are any less capable in these areas, but simply that they are less interested in them). These sex differences become more robust the more people are surveyed. In a meta-analysis of over half a million people, the effect size of what is described as the “People–Things” dimension (where women prefer working with people and men with things) was found to be very large (d = 0.93)[13]. Even within professional fields the “People–Things” gender split can be found. In medicine, more women go into general practice and pediatrics and listen more empathically to patients[14] while men are more predominant in surgery. These sex differences don’t vanish when policies for gender equity are implemented, either. In fact, the evolutionary psychologist David Schmitt has marshaled cross cultural data across 21 sources which finds that sex differences on a range of variables are larger in nations with greater social and political gender equality[15]. For example there are more women graduating from computer science in Iran than in Norway or Sweden[16]. This is despite the greater gender egalitarian norms and policies of Nordic countries.

Fifteen years ago Gottfredson said that “if you insist on using gender parity as your measure of social justice, it means you will have to keep many men and women out of the work they like best and push them into work they don’t like”[17]. And Kleinfeld, declared:

We should not be sending [gifted] women the messages that they are less worthy human beings, less valuable to our civilization, lazy or low in status, if they choose to be teachers rather than mathematicians, journalists rather than physicists, lawyers rather than engineers[18].

Fifteen years later, perhaps it’s time we listened.

[1] Ceci, S. J., Ginther, D. K., Kahn, S., & Williams, W. M. (2014). Women in Academic Science A Changing Landscape. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 15(3), 75-141.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Miller, D. I., & Wai, J. (2015). The Bachelor’s to PhD STEM Pipeline No Longer Leaks More Women Than Men: A 30-Year Analysis. Name: Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 37.

[4] Williams, W. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2015). National hiring experiments reveal 2: 1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201418878.

[5] Holden, C. (2000). Parity as a goal sparks bitter battle. Science, 289(5478), 380-380.

[6] Pinker, S. (2003). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. Penguin.

[7] Mason, M. A., Wolfinger, N., & Goulden, M. (2013). Do Babies Matter?

[8] Ibid.

[9] Mason, M. A., Wolfinger, N., & Goulden, M. (2013). Do Babies Matter?

[10] Mason, M. A., Goulden, M., & Frasch, K. (2009). Why graduate students reject the fast track. Academe, 95(1), 11-16.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Su, R., Rounds, J., & Armstrong, P. I. (2009). Men and things, women and people: a meta-analysis of sex differences in interests. Psychological bulletin, 135(6), 859.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Hojat, M., Gonnella, J. S., Nasca, T. J., Mangione, S., Vergare, M., & Magee, M. (2014). Physician empathy: definition, components, measurement, and relationship to gender and specialty.

[15] Schmitt, D. P. (2015). The Evolution of Culturally-Variable Sex Differences: Men and Women Are Not Always Different, but When They Are… It Appears Not to Result from Patriarchy or Sex Role Socialization. In The Evolution of Sexuality (pp. 221-256). Springer International Publishing.

[16] Galpin, V. (2002). Women in computing around the world. ACM SIGCSE Bulletin, 34(2), 94-100.

[17] Holden, C. (2000). Parity as a goal sparks bitter battle. Science, 289(5478), 380-380.

[18] Ibid.

Our generation did not invent political correctness, but we can fight it

Political correctness is not a new phenomenon. The fact is that many dangerous questions are currently walled off by the baby boomers who dominate our universities (and large sectors of the media). Today’s culture war likes to scapegoat young people for the rise of the illiberal Left, but the responsibility really lies with the generation who came before us.

Each one of us has the ability to generate a hypothesis. A hypothesis simply comes from asking a question about the world and then using our imaginations to answer it. Almost every advance in human history first came from a person willing to look at the world, or the status quo, from a different angle. But if questions and hypotheses are going to have any impact they must be articulated. Questions have to come out of our minds and into the world around us.

The problem with P.C. is that it constrains the questions that we feel we can ask both of ourselves, and our superiors. It allows orthodoxy to creep in (as it always does). There is, however, a continuing perception that arguments against P.C. are only made by those wishing to go around calling people racist or sexist names. The question is often asked: what exactly is wrong with P.C. if it makes us more civil? The short answer is nothing. If that were all P.C. were about, no-one would have a problem with it at all.

If P.C. meant that fewer ad hominem insults were used in public discourse, intellectuals across the board would support it. If it meant that individuals were not clapped in the stocks in sadistic public-shaming campaigns, P.C. would be progressive. But in practice, those who enforce P.C. standards seem to specialise almost exclusively in ad hominem attack. Twitter mobbing, which quite literally destroys people’s reputations and livelihoods, is the apotheosis of P.C. justice. There is nothing civil or redeeming about it.

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After the transformation of society brought by the 1960s, a cohort of sentimental liberals naturally flocked to academia. Many of them set up shop in the humanities and social sciences and spread both post-modernism and blank slate fundamentalism (the ideological resistance to biology, genetics and evolution) far and wide throughout the academy. These two mutually reinforcing ideologies have had a massive effect on scholarship and the wider culture.

It would be prudent for us to remember that of the young people who police language and thought on campus today, many have not yet left home; their privilege has effectively kept them in a state of intellectual neoteny. While the political movements that their parents were involved in were creative, aspirational and good-hearted, many of these movements have now ossified into the most brittle of orthodoxies. P.C. students on campus today are simply foot soldiers for their parents’ ideologies. And before we attack young people for being censorious and priggish, we should remember that this kafkaesque political baggage is what this generation has to bear.

***

In 2005, when the president of Harvard, Larry Summers, hypothesised that women’s under-represention in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) might have something to do with men’s greater variance in IQ scores, his hypothesis was declared untenable. Touching on two taboos at the same time – intelligence research and sex differences – meant that he was met with the writhing apoplexy of the self-righteous mob. The scientific evidence was ignored, very few, even in the academy, defended his right to hypothesise, and he lost his presidency.

P.C. crusaders in the academy also have a long tradition of obstructing empirical work into sex differences. One psychologist repeatedly labels research looking at brain sex differences as “neurosexism” and “neurotrash”. And discouraging research into brain sex differences has very real consequences. In 2013, the drug administration of the U.S., the FDA, issued a statement instructing dosing for popular sleeping pills to be halved for women. Their decision implied that women had been overdosing on sleeping pills for nearly twenty years. Neuroscientists such as Larry Cahill, have described the situation as pitiful. P.C. dogma has stymied research into female neurobiology for years.

It is not my generation that is responsible for this kind of groupthink. Yes, original feminism was creative and brilliant in extending principles of humanism and universalism to women. But my generation were not bequeathed a political movement with an Enlightenment impulse. What we inherited was the intellectual equivalent of a dead carcass. Those of us born in or after the 1980s, who studied humanities at university, were told by our professors that “there is no universal truth”. We either dropped out – or became indoctrinated into a cult of epistemological nihilism. My generation did not bring the rot of post-modernism and blank slate fundamentalism into the academy. How dare the wider culture blame us for this. We are the generation left with liberal arts educations that have been trashed from the inside out.

***

It might serve us to remember that the enforcers of dogmas today would have been the enforcers of dogmas yesterday. Those who went after Dr. Matt Taylor of the Rosetta Mission for his shirt, would have happily brought Galileo before the Inquisition – and they would have thought it was for his own good. Whether they are warriors for God, or warriors for Social Justice, the moral certainty of holier-than-thou crusaders tends to remain the same.

Today’s “Stepford Students” are indeed disconcerting. But we ought not forget where and with whom their belief system originated. The Old Guard will eventually leave their postings in the academy (and the media) and it is up to us to make sure they take their P.C. dogmas with them. Of course, the baby boomers have made wonderful contributions –in art, culture, technology and science – but we should feel free to leave their orthodoxies, taboos and political baggage behind.

We did not invent P.C. but we can fight it. The first step is to drop our parents’ blank slate ideologies, including post-modernism, into the dustbin of history. The second step is to start asking questions, even if they offend. The third step is to get them down on paper (or the computer screen) and circulate them with other heretics. We all have the ability to generate hypotheses, and hypotheses are the engine of progress.

Happiness by Design – Paul Dolan (2014)

Book review originally published in the Journal of Economic Psychology

When we think about our ‘happiness’ we may think about the goals we have achieved, how much money we have in the bank, or how prestigious our job is. We may not think about our commute to work, our dreary co-workers or the fact that days at the office seem to drag along, uninspiringly. In doing so, Dolan argues, we privilege our evaluative self over the experiential self (Kahneman & Riis, 2005). And this goes a long way in making us less happy than we could be.

The tension between these two selves – the evaluative and the experiential – lies at the heart of Happiness by Design. In these pages, Dolan, a self-described ‘sentimental hedonist’, steps up to advocate for the experiential self. A self, he argues, that often does not have a voice.

In 2004–2005 Dolan took up an invitation from Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman to be a Visiting Research Scholar at Princeton; a decision, he says, that set him on the path of subjective wellbeing research. Originally trained as an economist, Dolan has worked in the UK office for National Statistics and the UK Government’s Behavioural Insights team – also known as the ‘nudge’ unit – and currently holds a Chair in Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

In Happiness by Design, Dolan synthesizes the two research areas of subjective wellbeing and behavioural economics. First, he points out that the research literature on subjective wellbeing suffers from methodological limitations (e.g. Dolan, Peasgood, & White, 2008). We do not have an accurate picture of how people feel moment-to-moment because we generally only ask global questions of individuals’ evaluative selves, and we fail to monitor experiential selves ( Kahneman & Riis, 2005). We also fail to recognize the production processes which transform inputs (such as money, marriage, more sex) into outputs (such as happiness). This production process, Dolan argues, is the process of what we pay attention to.

The first half of Happiness by Design describes how in the past two decades, research across multiple disciplines has shown us that automatic processes guide our behaviour (e.g. Kahneman, 2011, Ouellette and Wood, 1998 and Webb and Sheeran, 2006). In this context it should not be surprising that most glib self-help advice such as “be positive” almost always fails to work. The simple observation of behavioural economics that to encourage behaviour one ought to make that behaviour easier guides Dolan’s book. Making simple changes to one’s environment (such as eating on smaller plates in order to eat less, or installing music apps on one’s computer) do not require the brain to use extra resources. Dolan’s theory is that if attention is allocated efficiently, our mental energy will not be tied up with making difficult choices – and can focus on the pleasurable instead. By designing our environments in a certain ways we can allocate more attention to that which makes us feel good, and less attention to making hard choices which bring about worry, guilt, shame and remorse.

The second half of Happiness By Design departs from the first in that it is much less theoretical and much more practical. Dolan explains ways in which pleasure and purpose can be maximized using data from controlled experiments as well as personal anecdotes and stories. The second half is more proscriptive, but in general, Dolan avoids telling his audience what they should be doing. Instead, he simply offers an open-ended and rather flexible evidence-based toolkit.

Dolan’s proposal is that shifting our attention away from constructed narratives to actual experiences is likely to make us a lot happier. For some people this might sound a lot like mindfulness and Dolan concedes that there is a certain level of overlap between his observations and the gentler, “fourth wave” editions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (e.g. Hayes, 2004). But while the empirical differences between the proscriptions of Happiness by Design and fourth wave CBT approaches may be relatively minor, it is important to note that Dolan does not propose ‘shoving’ the mind into certain states. There is no recommendation to sit for 20 min a day just ‘paying attention’. He says that attention is allocated efficiently by switching off one’s phone when at dinner with friends, and turning off email notifications when working.

Modern technology seduces us with the promise that it will make our lives more expedient. Yet research from neuroscience is showing us that multi-tasking, including surfing the Internet and constantly checking our phones can lead to mental fog and fragmented thinking (e.g. Levitin, 2015 and Zhou et al., 2011). When we multi-task, we assume we are engaging in multiple tasks at the same time, but in actuality we shift attention from each task rapidly. Each shift in attention drains our mental resources. Even more ominous, multi-tasking has been associated with addictive dopaminergic feedback loops (Levitin, 2015). So distraction can make us feel good in the short-term, but in the long term it robs us of our cognitive performance. Dolan makes the point that mental fog and fragmented thinking also robs us of our happiness.

While the distinctions between the evaluative and experiential selves, and pleasure and purpose in Happiness by Design are useful and easy to grasp, one is still left with some unanswered questions. For example, the activities which Dolan says he finds purposeful – such as working and exercising at the gym – no doubt have long term payoffs which are going to be pleasing to Dolan’s future evaluative self. So it’s hard not to see these two ‘selves’ as having significant overlap. It also seems plausible that what we find purposeful is simply that which we know will give us pleasure in the long term. Despite this, Dolan warns against putting off pleasure today in the hopes of securing it tomorrow. “Time is our most precious resource”, he says. “Happiness is not a fungible commodity”, he warns. When opportunities to enjoy life today are gone, they are gone forever.

Overall Dolan’s prose is clear and relaxed. Happiness by Design is brimming with ideas that can breathe, without being weighed down with unnecessary detail. Footnotes of the hundreds of studies used for the book are provided in the appendix, but the main text does not get sidetracked. It will be interesting to see how research in this area unfolds over the next few years, and how subjective wellbeing measures will start to include the experiential self.

Despite Dolan’s cheerful optimism, Happiness by Design is not unrealistic. It points out that having a sunny disposition relies in part on our genes ( Lykken & Tellegen, 1996) and that individual differences are likely to play a large role in how we balance our attention. Nevertheless, he makes the case well that pleasure – whether it is aesthetic, hedonic or eudemonic – is a human need that requires sating and ought to be treated as such. Happiness by Design is persuasive in arguing that small, bite-size changes to one’s environment and can go a long way in maximizing quality of life. Most importantly, Happiness by Design is also pleasure to read.

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References

Dolan, P., Peasgood, T., & White, M. (2008). Do we really know what makes us happy? A review of the economic literature on the factors associated with subjective well-being. Journal of Economic Psychology, 29(1), 94-122.

Hayes, S. C. (2004). Acceptance and commitment therapy, relational frame theory, and the third wave of behavioral and cognitive therapies. Behavior Therapy, 35(4), 639-665.

Kahneman, D., & Riis, J. (2005). Living, and thinking about it: Two perspectives on life. The science of well-being, 285-304.

Kahneman, D., & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(38), 16489-16493.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

Levitin, D. (2015). The organized mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload. Penguin UK.

Lykken, D., & Tellegen, A. (1996). Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon. Psychological Science, 7(3), 186-189.

Ouellette, J. A., & Wood, W. (1998). Habit and intention in everyday life: the multiple processes by which past behavior predicts future behavior. Psychological bulletin, 124(1), 54.

Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Does changing behavioral intentions engender behavior change? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 132(2), 249.

Zhou, Y., Lin, F. C., Du, Y. S., Zhao, Z. M., Xu, J. R., & Lei, H. (2011). Gray matter abnormalities in Internet addiction: a voxel-based morphometry study. European Journal of Radiology, 79(1), 92-95.

 

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/

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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.

 

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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.

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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

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