Friday, September 19, 2014
Today's mood: Grumpy
If my blog writing was based on paper sources, I would now be invisible behind skyscraper-tall piles of paper and books. That's because so many huge and important issues are happening at the same time and each and every one demands real research, real thinking and gives me such migraines that I end up hiding under the covers. For instance, my internal judge demands that I write on intimate partner violence, on the ethical codes of American football, on women and the Islamic State, on police power and its relation to race and sex of the people the police lords over.
So what's stopping me? Not that this interests anyone else but it's my blog, after all, and the question interests me. Partly what stops me is the speed with which What We Argue About changes. By the time I've done the research and enter the room to give my speech everybody else has moved on to the bar a couple of streets away. The work is somewhat pointless. But the alternative (of blurting stuff out quickly) doesn't seem very pointy, either.
The other reason it seems pointless is that very wide public debates on issues such as intimate partner violence tend not to lead to sharper conclusions or agreements. The same arguments fly past each other. Indeed, confusion often increases, and I have a natural allergy (scales itching and falling off) to circular debates of no real intention to clarify anything.
So that's why you are getting an analysis of Rush Limbaugh's views on rape and intimate partner violence. It's not because our Rush matters very much anymore and it's not because he is like the puppet sitting in the lap of some manipulator, made to blurt out the most extreme arguments so that other arguments look less extreme or so that his audience can feel that wonderful elation hearing their own thoughts firmly stated.
It's because what Rush says does show us one extreme stand in the debates about sexual violence, and that is concentrated in two of his utterances.
Thursday, September 18, 2014
Because good things do happen in this world. The news we read focuses on the problems, the wars, the epidemics and the suffering. This is natural and important, but once a problem has been solved, an epidemic conquered or a war ended we don't have a resting period to enjoy that. Then the next problems, epidemics, wars and types of suffering are presented for our attention.
This is my attempt to provide a little balance.
First, the UN reports that
...the number of children under five who die each year fell by 49 per cent between 1990 and 2013, from 12.7 million to 6.3 million, saving 17,000 lives every day.This is huge. And wonderful. More progress is needed, but progress has taken place.
"There has been dramatic and accelerating progress in reducing mortality among children, and the data prove that success is possible even for poorly resourced countries," said Mickey Chopra, head of global health programs at the UN Children's Fund, better known as UNICEF.
The report, titled Levels and Trends in Child Mortality 2014 and compiled by UNICEF, the World Health Organisation, the World Bank, and the UN's Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said that the rate for deaths of children under five fell from 90 deaths per 1000 live births in 1990 to 46 in 2013.
Overall, in developing regions, the rate fell from 100 per 1000 live births in 1990 to 50 in 2013, the report said. In rich, developed regions, the rate fell from 15 per 1000 live births in 1990 to six in 2013. In the United States, the decline was somewhat less dramatic, from 11 per 1000 live births in 1990 to seven in 2013.
Second, the Raiderettes, the Oakland Raiders cheerleaders, won a lawsuit about their earnings. They finally get minimum wages for their work!
The two Raiderette cheerleaders who revolted against the team this year—suing the Oakland Raiders for paying them less than minimum wage, withholding paychecks until the end of the season, and never reimbursing them for business expenses—have declared victory. Lacy T. and Sarah G., who filed a class-action suit on behalf of their fellow Raiderettes this spring, have reached a settlement with the NFL franchise. The team will pay out a total of $1.25 million to 90 women who cheered between 2010 and 2013. That translates to an average $6,000 payout per cheerleader per season for the first three seasons covered by the suit, and an average of $2,500 each for the final season. (Right before Lacy’s lawsuit hit, the Raiders unexpectedly padded the 2013 cheerleaders’ checks with additional cash). According to Sharon Vinick, lawyer for the Raiderettes, future Raider cheerleaders will be paid minimum wage for all hours worked, receive checks every two weeks, and be reimbursed for business expenses they incur in the course of the job.Similar suits have been filed against the Bengals, Bills, Jets and Buccaneers. What's so very grating about the way these cheerleaders are being paid is the contrast to the very affluent teams and the size of the paychecks they otherwise dispense. Another lesson to note is that the small specks in the market which are individual workers cannot, all on their own, negotiate work contracts with powerful behemoths on the other side of the market, the way conservatives seem to think wage negotiations work.
Third, it's good to remember, given the recent revelations about intimate partner violence and family violence in the NFL, that US statistics suggest intimate partner violence has been getting less common over time:
From 1994 to 2011, the rate of serious intimate partner violence declined 72% for females and 64% for males.Statistics on sexual violence can be difficult to interpret when many victims don't report crimes etc., but reporting probably has not become less frequent during the last two decades. This suggests to me that the trend is in the right direction. Even the very widespread and sometimes acrimonious discussions we have about intimate partner violence today are a sign of that change. It was the silence in the past which allowed us to remain ignorant about the true extent of intimate partner violence and domestic violence.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Ian Millhiser writes about a new case which uses the Hobby Lobby decision to suggest that
Citing Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court’s decision last June holding that the religious objections of a business’ owners could trump federal rules requiring that business to include birth control coverage in its health plan, a federal judge in Utah held last week that a member of a polygamist religious sect could refuse to testify in a federal investigation into alleged violations of child labor laws because he objects to testifying on religious grounds.
So you open the snake box and out come snakes. Then you have to lure some of the snakes back, giving them legally different names, stating that certain rights (such as the right of children to be protected) matters more than other rights (right to hide behind your religion in everything). And all the snakes are in a big pile and refuse to move because they were comfortable out of the box.
Which is shorthand for me not being a lawyer etcetera. But the point stands: You really cannot make laws about just them little ladies and you really cannot favor some religions over others when you decide that religion is a get-out-of-jail card or a substitute for taking the fifth.
Monday, September 15, 2014
Why Can't A Woman Be More Like A Man? My Review Of A UK Telegraph Article on Biological Sex Differences
This is the title of a new book about biological sex differences. The first I heard about the book is today's article in the UK Telegraph. The bolded bit at the beginning of the article gives us all the clickbait anyone would wish for:
Yes, it's official, men are from Mars and women from Venus, and here's the science to prove itAfter all that the article itself is quite disappointing, because everything in it is pretty old hat. Wolpert argues that men are more promiscuous than women because of that evolutionary biology "hard science" which took a time machine and went back to prehistory and decided that the most promiscuous men left the largest numbers of children, all with hard-wired promiscuity gene. Oh, except for the female children, of course.
In his fascinating new book the developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert argues that there is actually hard science behind many of our stereotypical gender roles
Then there's the problem of trying to figure out who the men are promiscuous with if they are heterosexual. Either women, too, are promiscuous (which even the more recent evolutionary psychology stuff admits to) or a small number of women are extremely promiscuous.
Wolpert places a lot of weight on Simon Baron-Cohen's research in this piece. For instance, the mechanical mobile vs. face study is one in which Baron-Cohen participated:
A few hours after birth, girls are more sensitive than boys to touch, and 40 hours after birth girls look longer at a face than boys, while boys look longer at a suspended mechanical mobile.Perhaps this study (on very young infants) has been replicated by someone later, but when I looked into it a couple of years ago I didn't find any evidence that it had ever been replicated. The study was been criticized by Elizabeth Spelke in 2005 and by Alison Nash and Giordana Grossi in 2007. I strongly recommend reading those criticisms, because one of the magical tricks in the writings of this field is to present a particular piece of research as the very-final-and-confirmed scientific truth when, in fact, the debate in the field continues.
Can you spot the difficulty of responding to something like this piece by Wolpert? Almost every sentence he writes makes me think of references that show otherwise or at least cast doubt on his statements. For instance, the stuff about women being better at empathy than men doesn't necessarily mean (if true) that the differences are inborn, and distinguishing between reported empathy and other measures of empathy may matter.
But none of that is visible in Wolpert's arguments:
Emotional differences are also manifest. Almost the opposite of aggression is empathy, an emotion that marks a fundamental difference between the two sexes, being much stronger in women. Empathy is the ability to share others’ feelings, to take a positive interest in them and to decode non-verbal emotional cues. Simon Baron-Cohen’s theory is that the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, while the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for systemising, that is, for understanding and building systems.The problems with Baron-Cohen's systemising vs. emphatizing theory are many and serious. I have written about them before, but in case you missed it, a VERY long excerpt from my files is attached to the bottom of this post. It's important to understand what the evidence for Baron-Cohen's theory really looks like, so do take a few minutes to read that excerpt after the asterisk.*
1. A new journalistic fashion is to write a short piece about what people say on Twitter on some issue. The piece begins by setting out the point of the debate or describes some recent event. It then goes into a list of Twitter comments and presents them as --- what? As evidence? As opinions?
The latter, usually. But what are we to conclude from those opinions? That they are generally held? That they are the most common opinions on some question? That they are important opinions? That they are unusual opinions? Given by famous people?
The process of picking the Twitter opinions for such a piece is opaque. First, Twitter opinions are not like an opinion survey. The people who include themselves in a conversation are a self-selected bunch, to use statistical language, not a cross-section of all affected individuals.
Second, the actual opinions in some Twitter conversation don't always give the flavor of the final post. That's because the journalist picks the interesting opinions or wants to bring out a particular point by showing the support or criticism it received. That selection process (which is probably subconscious) means that the final sample in the piece may not look like the Twitter conversation in the actual numbers of tweets which are in support of or opposing some opinion or person.
Third, what those two points mean is that the overall meaning of what is covered in the piece is unclear. We can't conclude that the opinions in it are common among some general population of interest, we can't conclude that the opinions in it are even the most common among Twitter users or the people in that particular discussion.
Using Twitter as a source can also be valuable, in the sense that it brings out opinions which might not otherwise be included, and writing about Twitter opinions is also meaningful when the story consists of those opinions, i.e., is about what someone famous said on Twitter etc.
That's not what I am irked by here, but the kinds of stories which add Twitter opinions as if that was additional data, not opinions, as if that was a way to show the widespread significance of some issue.
2. The parallel use of "males-and-women" or "females-and-men" in stories about gender. I see this a lot. It's annoying because one could write "women-and-men" or, if absolutely necessary, "females-and-males."
And guess what's really weird? This particular mistake is by far most common in pieces by meninists and others bent towards that way of thinking. So common that I wonder if it's a coded message or something! Here comes the biological essentialist telling us why men rule and women drool.
3. The last but certainly not the least of my current irritations is the way political fronts arrange themselves neatly by opinion into camps on the Islamic State question. Bomb that demonic area back into stone age goes the right-wing message, just a little sharpened by me. And the equally sharpened-by-me left-wing message seems to be that the US is every bit as bad as the Islamic State or if not the US then Saudi Arabia so what's the difference?
There's a prior readiness for those fairly absolute stances, and some of that is because of the way the right-wing belligerence of the past has fed into the discussion by creating "Islamophobic" prejudice which then has created a particular defensive response from the left-wing which has contributed to the right-wing arguments and so the circle continues.
The problem with such absolute stances is that they impede the analysis of more detailed data or arguments and make nuanced debate almost impossible. They can also create very odd ethical bedfellows. For instance, suddenly women's rights matter to some in the US extreme Christian fringe or matter less to some in the US social justice left-wing because different fears are weighed in those cups of the scale and some fears take precedence.
I get the great difficulty of trying to have a more nuanced conversation. Our hind-brains have been triggered to take over (danger!danger!). Sadly, that tends to result in dualistic thinking of good and evil, of what matters and what doesn't, and often a forcing of everything to line up with either good or with evil.