April 30, 2011

Saturday Storytime: When It Changed

Joanna Russ died yesterday. You might not know who she is, but you should. Annalee has a post at io9 that explains why she was important (and she was), but she was also simply one of the most imaginative of the early science fiction writers. Beyond that, unlike many of the classic writers, she could write.

"When It Changed" is a deceptively simple piece. A simple meeting, but what the characters stand to lose tells us so much about what we've never had. An excerpt:

"Plague?" he said. "That's most unfortunate."

"Yes," I said. "Most unfortunate. We lost half our population in one generation."

He looked properly impressed.

"Whileaway was lucky," I said. "We had a big initial gene pool, we had been chosen for extreme intelligence, we had a high technology and a large remaining population in which every adult was two-or-three experts in one. The soil is good. The climate is blessedly easy. There are thirty millions of us now. Things are beginning to snowball in industry do you understand? give us seventy years and we'll have more than one real city, more than a few industrial centers, full-time professions, full-time radio operators, full-time machinists, give us seventy years and not everyone will have to spend three quarters of a lifetime on the farm." And I tried to explain how hard it is when artists can practice full-time only in old age, when there are so few, so very few who can be free, like Katy and myself. I tried also to outline our government, the two houses, the one by professions and the geographic one; I told him the district caucuses handled problems too big for the individual towns. And that population control was not a political issue, not yet, though give us time and it would be. This was a delicate point in our history; give us time. There was no need to sacrifice the quality of life for an insane rush into industrialization. Let us go our own pace. Give us time.

"Where are all the people?" said the monomaniac.

I realized then that he did not mean people, he meant men, and he was giving the word the meaning it had not had on Whileaway for six centuries.

"They died," I said. "Thirty generations ago."

I thought we had poleaxed him. He caught his breath. He made as if to get out of the chair he was sitting in; he put his hand to his chest; he looked around at us with the strangest blend of awe and sentimental tenderness. Then he said, solemnly and earnestly:

"A great tragedy."

I waited, not quite understanding.

Keep reading (including the author's afterword).

April 29, 2011

True Equivalence

J. J. Ramsey, in a comment on a recent post, suggests that accommodationists aren't being extra harsh and burdensome to confrontational atheists because the accommodationists treat fundamentalists poorly too. Specifically, he responds to a comment by Jason:

I suspect what Stephanie actually meant was that accomodationists don't take the same pains in treating "New Atheists" with the same kid gloves they treat religious folks.


But "accommodationists" don't even uniformly treat the religious with "kid gloves," as you put it. Toward the creationists, fundamentalists, and other denialists, they are quite willing to be aggressive. The NCSE has, for example, even mocked Expelled.

I'd really just like to put my head down now and say, "We've had that discussion. Get over it." But hey, we've got to do what we've got to do. Once more, with feeling.

This is what we call "false equivalence." The fact that two positions within an argument are the most polarized you, personally, have seen doesn't make them the same thing. Nor does it make the point somewhere between them a moderate position. This is particularly true when one "side" is distinctly in the minority, with the majority in control of most of the channels available for distributing messages. Even more true when the minority is heavily stigmatized.

That false equivalence is the only reason to compare "New Atheist" communications to fundamentalist positions. Confronting religion head on is no more "mean," "distorting," or "prejudicial" toward the religious than mainstream religious messaging is toward atheists. Need examples?

New Atheist: Religion is a delusion.
Mainstream: None so blind as those who will not see.
Fundamentalist: Satan resides in your heart.

New Atheist: Religious experiences and belief are the products of cognitive processes. They do not constitute evidence of god(s). Denying that denies science.
Mainstream: I believe in God because I have had these religious experiences. Denying that denies me.
Fundamentalist: Doubt is a personal failure to be fought against.

New Atheist: Religion requires assumption of facts not in evidence and/or contradicting our knowledge of reality.
Mainstream: Atheism requires assuming that what is tangible is the sum of what there is.
Fundamentalist: Denying your god is evil.

New Atheist: Raising a child to believe in sin and hell is a form of child abuse.
Mainstream: It would be cruel to deny your child the experience of God's love.
Fundamentalist: You risk damning your children to eternal torment by allowing non-religious influences into their lives.

New Atheist: Religion provides a source of authority that is used to hurt others. It is also used to define an outgroup, who are "fair game" for persecution.
Mainstream: Religion provides the source of morality that keeps others from harm. It also provides a sense of brotherhood.
Fundamentalist: Our authority is God's authority. Those who would threaten that authority must be dealt with or excluded in God's name.

New Atheist: We must not allow any religion to use the political sphere to promote itself.
Mainstream: We must not allow other religions or atheists to use the political sphere to promote themselves.
Fundamentalist: We must root out all other influences in the political sphere.

And the one most important to the accommodationist promotion of science.

New Atheist: Science undermines the idea of religious myths as a rational interpretation of the world.
Mainstream: We recognize that science reveals the metaphorical nature of our texts but hold that faith is paramount.
Fundamentalist: Science is wrong because our texts tell us so.

People who buy into and pass on this notion that somehow "New Atheism" is equivalent to fundamentalism are perpetuating a narrative that privileges liberal religious thought as the non-extreme, non-confrontational position. They're placing a burden on atheists to be more conciliatory toward religion than mainstream religion is toward atheism, simply by not recognizing that this is where the equivalence lies.

"New Atheists" are no more judgmental, dismissive, or offensive than the adherents of mainstream religions. They're certainly not louder on a collective basis, and I doubt that they are on an individual basis either. The only reason that isn't obvious is that the mainstream anti-atheism narrative is a constant background to life in our society. But really, it doesn't take much work to stop and look at the evidence. It takes even less to find the true equivalence.

April 28, 2011

Taking It Downhill

As biodork (love that handle) pointed out in the comments on my last post, the complaints about "New Atheists" being too...too are hardly any newer than the behavior of confrontational atheists.

In 1969 it was the flamboyant cross-dressers and the in-your-face gays and lesbians who changed the GBLT civil rights movement forever. 40 years later (omg - 40 years???), we're seeing opinion letters from straight-laced gays and lesbians (pun not intended when it flew from my fingers, but now I'm totally keeping it) who complain about these same people being over the top in the Pride parades with their short leather shorts, glittery, colorful costumes and their loud, effervescent personas.

In her talk at the U of MN Greta Christina touched on the mainstreaming of an identity like being gay or being an atheist. At first the leaders are courageous, spectacular, FABULOUS!, and willing to take fire from the haters. As time goes on more and more "regular joes" who just want to live their lives without making their identity the center of everything will rise up.

When this happens, I think there is a feedback loop that starts to encourage the quieting of these original noisy upstarts by the community that they originally fostered. "Shhh...we don't need that anymore. They noticed, now be quiet."

There are many more parallels than this, of course. There are those "radical" feminists who keep insisting on raising a stink because there are plenty of things still broken. They make it so tough for women who have to keep defending themselves from the title in order to go make their comfortable lives a little bit more comfortable. There are those socialists who persist in demanding that poor people be treated like people. It's so annoying that they won't just disappear for a bit so the label won't be applied to those people who want a better tax break on their kids' educational expenses.

All these pesky crusaders, who just won't shut up, who won't just go with the flow for a bit so things can get done, so the people with the keys to the kingdom will give us just a little bit more. Ugh! What is to be done with people so rude, so demanding, so mean?!?

This really shouldn't be any news to anybody, but those people at the top? The ones who are telling you it would all be okay if you could just get the noisy people to be quiet? They're not on your side. That stuff they're telling you? It's today's excuse. If you make it go away, tomorrow's excuse will just be different.

A gatekeeper's job is to keep people out, not to let them in.

No matter how much you suck up to the people with power (money, position, conformity to the rules), no matter how much you shape yourself to look like them, no matter how much you do the gatekeepers' jobs for them, you're never going to receive more than a token award. People in charge didn't get there by deferring to others. Power is shared grudgingly, if at all.

Those noisy, persistent, aggravating people? What they actually are is threatening. They are the people who have what it takes to grab and hold onto a piece of that power. They're the ones who aren't going to wait for it to be shared, not by you and not by the people above you. They don't have a lot of respect for gates, and less for gatekeepers.

Do they have a chance? That's hard to say for any given movement at any given moment, but the last couple of centuries suggest that they win in the long run. When they do have setbacks, they aren't dealt out by the people at the top, either. They come from that complacent, uncomfortable middle. They come from the people who think that getting a couple of inches closer to the gate constitutes a gain worth stepping on others to protect. But in the long run, they're winning.

So when you find yourself on edge around these people, when you find yourself thinking they're making your life harder, stop. Think.

Remember that you have a choice. You can stay a part of the gatekeepers' army, turning around and stomping on those below you. Or you can look at the gatekeepers, step to one side, and say, "These people coming up the hill behind me? I'm with them."

April 26, 2011

Argumentative, Aggressive, and Generally Dickish

What to remember when you've said that confrontational atheists have made it harder for you to make progress on your shared goals, and some atheist has gotten (eek, gasp, shock, horror, blah, blah, blah) rude with you. This is particularly true for the endless argument over promoting science.

It's worth remembering where this debate came from. Atheists, only recently starting to stand up and be counted in any number, are seeing the people who have been saying the same things that atheists have been saying for centuries (as noted in comment 5, then largely ignored) being told to hush up because they're being noticed for once and that's making trouble. These are frequently also the people who gave your rank-and-file atheist the courage to come out and who provide sympathy when coming out results in the crap it always results in. But hush, because what these other people are doing is really important.

Of course, it is important. But so is being supported and encouraged as an out atheist. So is being able to tell people how religion hurt you or those you love without having to put bows on it. So is being able to tell other people that they have a real choice to get out of abusive religions. So is being able to run for public office. So is being able to keep your job. So is being able to keep your kids.

But hush. And be really nice to the people who are telling you to hush. Be nice to the people who are telling you that you matter less than what they're doing. Be nice to the people who are doing good work but only talk about why people like you are bad. Be nice to the people who might, someday let you eat at the grown-up table if you stay quiet enough at the children's table first (and when there are no more grown-up problems you might interfere with). Hush and trust them, despite the fact that they're calling you the problem.

Yeah, no. Atheists are being aggressive, in part, because they're being told to go back to being passive. They're being argumentative because there's a constant onslaught of messages leveled at them and everyone they have to deal with that becomes the unquestioned social background if they don't. They're being rude because everybody is rude sometimes, and they're not going to be left out if you're not. They're being condescending because you've been told this before in some form, but you can't seem to move past the fact that someone insulted you in order to hear it. [from my comment here]

If you happen to be an atheist whose life is arranged so that it never causes you any problems, rejoice. If you're religious and don't see why atheists should behave that way in our "Christian nation" or a country with a state church, take a deep breath and two steps back from the argument (particularly if you happen to be a middle-class or better white male to boot). If you don't know what all the fuss is about, shut up and listen for a bit. Either way, understand what you're demanding of atheists and figure out why you're placing the burden for good behavior on them.

Further Reading
The Support of New Atheism
Whither Allies

April 25, 2011

My God Can Beat Up Your God

Are you done, done, done with Easter? Were you unable to keep it a holiday of chocolate bunnies, Peeps, and zombie songs? Then perhaps it is time to spend this Friday or Saturday night with Vilification Tennis, for a couple of hours of religiously themed insults.

That’s right, it is time for Vilification Tennis to talk about religion. Think your religion can withstand the withering spotlight of Vilification Tennis? Come and see! Free graven images for all audience members!

Just remember, if you're not offended, they're not doing it right.

April 24, 2011

Readings for Sexual Assault Awareness Month

April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month in the U.S. It's been a while since that hasn't been the case on this blog, but now is a good time to pull some of my posts together in one place.

Of course, if you'd like to do more than read this month, there are opportunities. Claudia Lefeve is dedicating the proceeds of the sale (from April 15 to May 15) of her novella, "The Fury," to Pandora's Project (Twitter), which provides resources to survivors and researchers. Wrestler Mick Foley is targeting an unusual audience in his fund-raising efforts for RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Tax-deductible donations to RAINN during April are also being matched up to a total of $30,000. Neil Gaiman is also supporting RAINN through the purchase of his story, "Blueberry Girl."

If you want to help out but don't have funds to spare, or have donated and want to do more, RAINN also provides information on how to get involved in shaping public policy. Currently, they're asking people to support the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry (SAFER) Act, which will require better tracking of DNA evidence in rape cases. You can follow them on Twitter for news.

Now for posts. Note that a lot of these were written in the context of ongoing discussions. I wrote many of them, however, so I wouldn't have to keep making the same points over and over.

U.S. Rape Statistics
As part of the ongoing discussion regarding Silence Is the Enemy (go read, click, donate), there is a commenter, Thomas, in this thread who is terribly concerned that rape statistics in the U.S. are inflated. He's citing this article by Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers (PhD in philosophy) suggesting that several studies on rape prevalence shouldn't be quoted because, well, you can read the reasons if you feel like it.

However, one helpful thing that Sommers does point out in this 2004 article is that the Bureau of Justice Statistics annual criminal victimization survey was revamped to ask about rape and sexual assault directly. It hadn't before 2004. Really. This means that the numbers are available, although Thomas didn't go out to find them himself.

So I did.

Why "No Means No"
The way that our culture talks about sex--or, more importantly, doesn't--is fundamentally screwed up. We're not really talking, most of us. We're role playing. We're taking the things that we're supposed to think and feel about sex and repeating them to one another in the place of figuring out and talking about our own feelings.

Religion hasn't helped, of course. The inequality between the sexes and mistrust of pleasure that the dominant religions of our society have promoted place particular pressure on women to deny enjoyment of sex, to deny desire. That means that "no" has frequently meant something other than "no." This is not a new concept.

However, it is a concept that came to be used by men as a justification for rape. As a means of excusing nonconsensuality, it came to be accepted and enshrined in a not insignificant portion of our media and our cultural mythos. That acceptance had to change.

Caring About Abuse
To those implying* that your friendly local atheist is taking some new-found interest in fighting child sexual abuse because it involves the Catholic church or because Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are supporting the effort to explore legal options:

Oh, there are plenty of things I could say here. Short, pithy, pointed. Angry. Satisfying…but unhelpful. So I'll settle for this: Are you listening to yourselves?

Do These Social Skills Make My Ass Look Creepy?
A while ago, over at Skepchick, Elyse asked for suggestions for dealing with the "creepy dude factor" as a barrier to women's participation in skeptic and atheist events. A (thankfully small) number of guys asked whether their geeky lack of social skills or someone else's would be classed as part of that problem. I would love to be able to say that if you think to ask, then no, you're not part of the problem. But...

Yes, guys, sometimes your social skills are part of the problem. However, it isn't in the way that you think it is. It isn't because you're awkward or not sure how to manage your body language. It isn't because you don't say the same things everyone else is saying.

It's because you can't set aside being self-conscious long enough to notice that someone just asked for your help with something really damned important.

Assange and the Presumption of Innocence
The presumption of innocence is a standard that's incorporated in many, if not most, Western, industrialized legal systems. It is, in fact, a good thing, allowing people to retain most of their rights while allegations are being examined. I say most, because people are generally required to cooperate to a certain extent in determining the truth behind an accusation--to participate in trials either directly or through a representative, to be subject to certain questions, whether they answer them or not.

Even here, however, there are procedures in place that require a generally independent judiciary to make some preliminary evaluation of the credibility of the accusation before cooperation can be compelled. Whether you agree with the decisions of judges in Assange's case, those procedures are being followed in Sweden and in the UK.

However, the presumption of innocence has also been adopted, to varying degrees, as a social standard for protecting the reputation of those accused of a crime. It's in the conflation of the legal and social standards that the problem arises here.

Assange and Real Rape
Before I get into more substantive matters, I do have to take a moment to note that I personally can't conceive of a better way to trivialize rape and its victims than to turn the whole thing into some kind of contest. Right. Onward.

This version of the "real" rape argument requires two things. (1) There is no confusion about what rape is. (2) All rape is the one thing or it isn't rape.

I'd like to think this whole discussion would be evidence for the widespread confusion over rape and leave it at that, but I believe it's important to understand the ongoing change in legal and societal definitions of rape that has happened within the lifetime of many people discussing this situation.

Should Have Known
I want to return to one of those stupid things that people are saying about the sexual assault of Lara Logan. It's the idea that "I'm not saying she deserved to be assaulted, but she should have known that her hair/her clothes/traveling to a country where (insert Middle Eastern or Muslim stereotype here) would make it more likely that she'd get raped."

Of course she knew.

We all know. Women can't avoid being aware of any of the standard trappings of rape, real or fictional. That's what living in a rape culture is all about. There's no escaping this.

Transcription "Journalism" Fails on Rape
We know that. We've known for decades that most people get things wrong about crime, and we sure as hell know that they're worse on the topic of rape. We know that people misassign blame. We know that they tend to treat perpetrators as something short of criminals. We know that there's a lot of special pleading that goes on that makes what happened "not really rape."

That, my dear friends, is why we employ experts. We employ them in training law enforcement personnel, because they don't get rape on their own. We employ them to talk to juries in rape cases, because juries don't know what constitutes evidence of consent or trauma on their own. We employ them to set up programs to prevent rape and to deal with the aftermath, because rape is so entwined in our culture that very few of us really understand all of what we're looking at when we look at rape.

We don't--I emphasize--do not let any old schmuck off the street do any of that. Never. We just don't. Because they get it wrong, as this article demonstrates so thoroughly.

This "reporter" did just that, though.

Rape Myth #1: She's Probably Lying
It doesn't happen. We're not told that people lie about these things. We're told that women lie about rape.

The implication in the "women lie" narrative is that we must be particularly on our guard against false accusations of rape, that any particular accusation is unlikely to be true. But is it?

The Rate of False Report
The standard figure passed around by victim advocates suggests a rate of false reports of 8% based on FBI crime statistics from 1997. This is comparable to rates for other crimes. However, citations can be found for rates as low as 1.5% and as high as 90%. In other words, huh? How do we deal with a range that big?

Luckily for those who want to sort out the truth of the matter, two papers came out in 2010 that shed considerable light by examining how false rape report rates are generated.

Skepticism and Rape Adaptations
Now, the problem is not that Dr. Shackelford is an evo psych researcher. There are people doing good work in evo psych. The problem is that Dr. Shackelford isn't doing good work on this topic. In particular, the work he is presenting, relating female infidelity to rape of female partners by male partners, doesn't tell us anything that the already robust scientific literature on rape hasn't already told us.

In the 2006 paper that Shackelford will be presenting tomorrow, "Sexual Coercion and Forced In-Pair Copulation as Sperm Competition Tactics in Humans," (pdf available) Goetz and Shackelford demonstrate a correlation in heterosexual couples between the likelihood of female infidelity (past or present, rated by the male or female partner) and the likelihood of male sexual coercion, up to and including rape via physical assault. This isn't news. We already know that men who endorse rape myths and the acceptability of sexual violence against women under certain circumstances are more likely to rape. One of the common attitudes that predicts rape is that "sluts" lose the right to say, "No." ("Nice girls don't get raped.") Non-monogamy is used to excuse rape, and not merely rape by prior sexual partners.

April 23, 2011

Saturday Storytime: Masks

I've referred to my friend Naomi Kritzer on this blog before, but generally to point to her political research. What I might not have done is mention that she writes kick-ass short stories. This is very silly of me, since she does just that. On the occasion of her releasing her first collection of shorts for Kindle (other formats and a second collection soon to come), let me rectify my oversight by featuring one of the stories from the collection.

"Masks" is set in the same world as Naomi's first two books. It is a story of hidden identities set within the context of a masquerade, but there is nothing crudely metaphorical about it. An excerpt:

"What about his Lordship?" That was Marietta, the priestess who'd looked at me earlier.

"Well, we've heard unfortunate things about his reluctance to seek out the Lady's blessing."

"Perhaps he's just waiting for the right girl," Marietta said.

"I'm sure. But he might look harder for the right girl with some encouragement." Gemino licked his lips. "There are rumors that he has a preference for -- other company."

"You're not seriously suggesting that we threaten the son of the Emperor with a heresy charge?" Marietta rolled her eyes.

"Is the son of the Emperor above the law of the Lady?"

"Of course not. But while of course the Lord and the Lady wish to see Prince Travan honor them, so that they can bless him with a child, that doesn't mean he must find himself a girl to bed on a nightly basis. Prince Travan is known to be a bit shy; I'm sure the Lady understands that." She turned to refill her wine glass and Falco caught her eye. "You seem quite interested in this conversation, Falco. I suppose that's not surprising -- aren't you always the one we send in to terrorize the fichi?"

My shoulders tensed; fico, fig, was slang for a man like me. Or like Falco.

Keep reading.

April 22, 2011

The Support of New Atheism

Chris Mooney has a new post up about a study showing positive anti-prejudicial effects of the message that atheists exist, in number, in society. He sees this as a plus for New Atheists, but still adds cautions:

The tactic finding support here is not necessarily being confrontational–that would tend to prompt negative emotional reactions, and thus defensiveness and inflexibility towards New Atheist arguments–but rather, making it more widely known that you’re actually there–as “out” atheists try to do:

Josh Roseneau expands on that point:

But New Atheism is hardly the only way for atheists - or nontheists more generally - to get the word out that they're here and want to be taken seriously. It's a myth that there's no such thing as bad publicity: if no one knows who you are, it's all the more crucial to present yourself well. And for the reasons Chris alludes to above, and for reasons I've laid out ad nauseam, I don't think New Atheism is the best way to present atheism.

All right. Here's the thing. Actually, no, let me tell you a little story first.

I work in an office where people around me routinely talk about their weekend plans with their church groups. I can walk into the kitchenette for water for tea, hear someone talk about the bad influences their kids are hanging with, and know that by the time I'm done (our hot water is glacially slow) I'll hear that the reason is that these kids just don't go to church!

It's the only place I've ever worked where someone visibly prayed before meals. Sexual minorities are underrepresented and pretty well closeted. Despite the fact that I hosted an atheist radio show for six months, two people in the office know I'm an atheist.

Then, yesterday. We have a whiteboard outside the kitchenette that can be used for announcements. Usually it's used for silly questions like, "Have you filed your taxes yet?" or "Who's your pick to win the NCAA tournament." Yesterday, the question was, "What are your Easter/Passover traditions?"

It hadn't been answered. The hallway was quiet, but people would be grabbing and heating lunches soon. Quickly, I wrote, "None. No religion."

Shortly, I needed more water. Someone had written underneath, "Eating ham." Someone else had drawn an arrow to my comment from theirs. "That's okay. Diversity is for all."

Yes, I know. Even for me. When I'm willing to go to the work to make that happen. Glad it's "okay," though.

When I washed my lunch dishes, someone else had answered. "Celebrating our lord and savior. Christ is risen!!!" The first sentence is a paraphrase. The last, including all three exclamation points, is not.

By about 2 p.m., the board had been erased and the content replaced with information about texting while driving. There was an article in yesterday's paper about enforcement, but the law isn't new.

Did I increase someone's awareness? Probably. Did I leave a mark on someone's prejudices? Maybe. Did I deal with stupid crap, from patronage to a defensive Christian to erasure, in doing it? Yeah.

It happens, but that's my point. As part of the least trusted demographic in a country where the populace is being continually fed a line about how we are attacking them, this stuff always happens. It's annoying. It's nervous-making. It's tiring. And it's really damned hard to find people who think the responses aren't just something I should expect if I answer a question about religion--even at work--with an answer that questions the assumption of religion.

Enter the New Atheists. Enter the loud-mouthed confrontationalists who aren't going to see people behave that way without doing their best to make it quite clear that this behavior in unacceptable. Enter the support team, the cheering squad, the clearers of obstacles. Enter the people who, as PZ Myers' described his role last year at CONvergence, get angry for those of who aren't allowed to. Enter the people who make others angry so I don't have to. Enter the people who put all these topics into the mainstream in ways that can't be ignored so I don't have to explain myself endlessly every time I identify myself.

Without them, you would hear less from me. Without me, you would hear less from a rather large number of my friends. Far too many of them had no support for the idea that being nonreligious doesn't have to mean being invisible when the subject is discussed.

Do the New Atheists do the kind of work that the study says is effective in dismantling prejudices? Well, that largely comes down to how you define New Atheists. But even at the most restrictive, strident, obnoxious definitions, the New Atheists support that work.

If they don't do it themselves, it still wouldn't happen without them.

April 20, 2011

Alcohol and Rape: Twice the Standards

From Melissa McEwen comes a story of an unusual rape conviction appeal:

In what might be the most perfect, clear, hideous example of how rape culture interacts with actual acts of rape, an appellant brief (pdf) was filed last March in the Montana Supreme Court on behalf of Duane R. Belanus, who had been convicted (pdf) of "of sexual intercourse without consent involving the infliction of bodily injury, aggravated kidnapping, burglary, tampering with or fabricating physical evidence, and misdemeanor theft" after beating and anally raping his then-girlfriend. The brief [...] bases its appeal almost entirely on the premise that Belanus was drunk and therefore should not be held responsible for his actions[.]

Yes, you're reading that right. A legal brief in defense of a convicted rapist was submitted quoting real-life convicted rapist Mike Tyson's character in a movie in order to argue that if real-life convicted rapist Mike Tyson's character in a movie can forgive a bunch of drunk characters in a movie for stealing his pet tiger, then a real jury in the real world should be able to consider, and forgive, a real-life convicted rapist who really raped someone in the real world.

Can you not see the perfect logic?

As Jason puts it, "Wharrgarbl." However, lest you think this is one attorney acting egregiously in an effort to help his client, let me direct you to a 2007 study by Sarah McMahon exploring the shape of modern rape myths in college athletes.

A related and important finding was the belief that rape sometimes happens accidentally or unintentionally. This view reinforced the finding that the participants were able to avoid assigning blame to the perpetrators. It also revealed a clear lack of understanding of consent because, most of the time, by accidental rape they were referring to occasions when alcohol was involved. Alcohol played an interesting role in the explanations given for sexual assault. Some of the men believed that it was not fair to label an act as rape if the two parties were intoxicated, and this is how they believed accidental rape occurs. Yet at the same time, many of the men also admitted to using alcohol to get women drunk at parties to loosen them up and get them to have sex. Again, a lack of consistency and responsibility emerged.

Yes, people believe that rape is an "accident" if those involved are drunk, even if it's no accident that someone has gotten drunk. Imagine (as you should any time talks about rape) if the same "reasoning" were used for any other crime. "My client is appealing his conviction for criminal vehicular homicide on the basis that he was drunk. These things just happen."

Of course, if the victim is drunk, that's a whole different matter, as the New York Times so helpfully points out. Then alcohol isn't a problem for the victim. It's a...oh, wait. No, it's still the victim's problem.

Prosecutors have revealed no physical evidence linking either officer to a rape, although the officers were caught by a surveillance camera entering her apartment four times. Still, the prosecution’s case may rely heavily on the credibility of a woman who was admittedly drunk at the time she says she was sexually assaulted, and cannot recall large portions of the evening.

I'll let Stephanie Hallett handle this one, as she did it very ably.

Not so fast.

First off, alcohol causes memory loss, not false memories. When drinkers try to fill in the lost time, they generally assume positive experiences–unlike, say, rape.

Second, the victim’s so-called “credibility” had not yet entered into legal question at the time of the newspaper’s report, so the above statement is purely editorial. The defense had yet to cross-examine the witness or make its case. In fact, according to an earlier Times report, the defense’s opening statement had pointed to the woman’s ability to direct the cab driver to her apartment as evidence of her coherence and ability to “think and have normal conversations” on the night of the assault. The question of her credibility–on account of her level of intoxication–didn’t come up in trial until after it was questioned in print by The New York Times.

Despite this admission, which the defense argues was fabricated in an effort to end the confrontation, The New York Times saw fit to turn the case on its head and put the victim’s credibility on trial. If a woman’s “credibility” is publicly questioned because she was drunk when she was assaulted, it sends a message to attackers that they can get away with raping drunk women, and it sends a message to such victims that their stories won’t be believed.

So remember, kids. If a rapist is drunk, it's a way to excuse him. If a victim is drunk, it's a...way to excuse him.


Related Posts
Rape Myth #1: She's Probably Lying

McMahon, S. (2007). Understanding Community-Specific Rape Myths: Exploring Student Athlete Culture Affilia, 22 (4), 357-370 DOI: 10.1177/0886109907306331

April 19, 2011

Juniper Rants

Juniper Shoemaker is a very busy woman. She's working on her biomedical PhD while filling in the gaps that an B.A. in English will leave in one's science education. Plus she's got her own set of personal challenges she's meeting at the same time. I admire that woman beyond words.

And oh, the words. She doesn't have a lot of time to blog, but when she does, or even when she leaves a comment somewhere, she is always worth reading. Her latest blog post is no exception.

Juniper is tired. Yes, I know. She's a grad student, but even here, she's remarkable. You see, it isn't so much the lab hours or the academic load that's leaving her exhausted. Juniper's tired because she's continually dealing with people who can't or won't think outside their own circumstances, even when their own experience gives them the tools to do just that.

I'm tired of white feminists who don't give a damn about bigotry against black people even as they're castigating "the black community", which doesn't fucking exist, for not giving a damn about bigotry against gays and lesbians. No, wait. It's more specific than that. I'm tired of white feminists who refuse to condemn bigotry against black people with the same compassion and attentiveness with which they condemn bigotry, namely sexism, against white women. In order to get taken seriously, I must confine myself to discussions of explicit statements of bigotry against black people, but you don't have to do the same when it comes to bigotry against white women? You get to talk about "context", "tone" and "implication", but I don't? You're capable of developing a nuanced understanding of manifestations of sexism against white women, but you still think that my anger and hurt and frustration are only legitimate if they're in response to cartoonishly overt manifestations of racism against blacks?

And this:

I'm tired of the idea that you have to be indifferent to an issue in order to skeptically evaluate it. By the way, why does this rule never seem to apply to skeptics who crow fervently about their opposition to "political correctness"-- whatever the hell that is-- and who eagerly accept every sensationalist claim ever made by someone styling himself as an evolutionary psychologist? Why does this rule only seem to apply to "liberal" skeptics, skeptics who are angry about sexism against women and skeptics who are angry about racism against brown people? Anyway, this idea is poppycock. It is entirely possible to fairly and skeptically evaluate an argument while simultaneously harboring intense feelings about the issue in question. There is even a neurological, not a sociological, hypothesis that the brain's ability to generate emotions is inextricable from its ability to logically evaluate the world. Moreover, you are fucking insulting me by asking me to be indifferent towards questions such as "Are blacks really dumber than whites?" By ignoring my efforts to treat all questions as worthy of investigation and support intellectual and academic freedom in favor of condemning me for so much as one quiver of my mouth, you are being hypocritical, you are being irrational, you are being breathtakingly cruel, and you are insulting me to the very bone.

This. Because the idea that those in the majority don't have any stake in these questions is ridiculous. Because thinking so is a marker of an idea that hasn't been even superficially examined, much less had real critical analysis turned on it. Because the people who talk like this ignore the analysis presented to them in favor of whining that their territory is being invaded and their freedoms threatened. Because the position that the burden of proof lies with the social minority to show that cultural context is behind the poor treatment they receive is just an appeal to tradition, and one generally made from an extremely limited viewpoint.

Because no one should feel "surrounded by an abject lack of introspection," invisible, worthless, alone, particularly not Juniper.

April 17, 2011

Tickling a Penguin

Because today is a day to recover from yesterday and prepare for tomorrow, not a day to get into more rants or serious topics, may I present, for your enjoyment, a baby penguin getting tickled. (Warning: noisy.)

Via Jason, who would like to see this go viral.

April 16, 2011

Saturday Storytime: All Cats Are Gray

I was ten. I was still terrified of what might be hidden under the bed or in the closet or anywhere else that made hiding easy. What I knew of the world that didn't hide from the light was bad enough. What concealed itself must be worse.

I was in my bedroom. Somewhere outside of that, my parents were probably fighting. They might have been taking a break. Somewhere beyond that was a new school, a new set of kids who didn't like the same things I did, who didn't talk the same way I did, who didn't even play the same games I did. Nowhere around me were the water and the trees that always accepted me.

All that mattered less than it had an hour or two before, because I was reading Lore of the Witch World by Andre Norton. I'd been reading fantasy all my life--mythology, the creatures and deeds tales of writers like C. S. Lewis, fairy tales--but this was the first time I held grown-up fantasy in my hands. This was the first time I saw people, and particularly women, dealing with both the trials of daylight (war, displacement, rape, disability, being outcaste) and the half-seen creatures of shadow. And they succeeded. Not easily, but they succeeded.

I needed that just then, perhaps more than anything in the world.

Now, I write fantasy sometimes. At that point, it was written into me. Nor am I alone, which I think is part of the uproar over Ginia Bellafante's dismissive comments about sex being used to pander to women, who would otherwise turn up their pretty little noses at fantasy. We're being told to chose which part of our identity is the valid part. Are we women, or do we like fantasy? It's a silly, impossible question, and we're not going to stand for it.

There is a bit of irony in this for me. The woman who wrote fantasy into my consciousness started writing at a time when "women didn't write fantasy". They did actually write it, of course, and publish it, but they did so under male names. Even Andre Norton, whose name is ambiguously gendered, published her early, science fiction stories as Andrew North.

So in honor of the woman who taught me that fantasy isn't just for children and that the dark can be managed, here is one of those early stories. An excerpt:

Steena was strictly background stuff and that is where she mostly spent her free hours—in the smelly smoky background corners of any stellar-port dive frequented by free spacers. If you really looked for her you could spot her—just sitting there listening to the talk—listening and remembering. She didn’t open her own mouth often. But when she did spacers had learned to listen. And the lucky few who heard her rare spoken words—these will never forget Steena.

She drifted from port to port. Being an expert operator on the big calculators she found jobs wherever she cared to stay for a time. And she came to be something like the master-minded machines she tended—smooth, gray, without much personality of her own.

But it was Steena who told Bub Nelson about the Jovan moon-rites—and her warning saved Bub’s life six months later. It was Steena who identified the piece of stone Keene Clark was passing around a table one night, rightly calling it unworked Slitite. That started a rush which made ten fortunes overnight for men who were down to their last jets. And, last of all, she cracked the case of the Empress of Mars.

All the boys who had profited by her queer store of knowledge and her photographic memory tried at one time or another to balance the scales. But she wouldn’t take so much as a cup of Canal water at their expense, let alone the credits they tried to push on her. Bub Nelson was the only one who got around her refusal. It was he who brought her Bat.

Keep reading.

April 15, 2011

Is This a Bad Day?

Yesterday morning, I left for work dressed for the temperature, not the windchill. Since I walk to work, this makes a difference. At one point, I thought, This is stupid. If I had to do anything more than walk a mile and a half, like stop walking at some point, being dressed like this would kill me. Ah, Minnesota spring.

Still, chilly weather is good for something. In this case, it was pushing my heart rate without sweating to death (or even beyond the requirements of office etiquette). Spring and fall, between icy sidewalks and saunas, is a good time to get in aerobic exercise instead of just movement on my commute.

That put me going at a good clip as I rounded the last corner before the office, which put me a few feet in front of a couple of guys talking as they walked together. One of them sped up to (I assume) try to pass me. He couldn't. I walk pretty quickly for a short woman.

So, instead, he decided to tell his friend that I walked "too fast" to show off my ass. Then he proceeded to describe what ought to be done with my ass "right here." From three feet behind me. Loudly. With hand gestures I could partly see out of the corner of my eye.

I tweeted about it. Why? These things should be documented for those who don't see them because they don't happen when said people (i.e., guys) are around. Not that my friends don't trust me when I say that this happens to me, but here, now, and details all matter when you want to provide a visceral understanding. If you stand next to me, it won't happen, but I'll cheerfully put you next to me when it happens.

People on Twitter were suitably supportive, and I went about my day.

Later, I was chatting with one of my twitter friends about this post on whether there are "hot" authors in science fiction. I was annoyed with "pretty pretty versus scifi pretty" and particularly with the idiots who decided to discuss how one woman rated while she stood in front of them. To the best of my reckoning, "scifi pretty" is nothing more than "I'm so simultaneously drawn to and terrified by your smarts that I can't see straight enough to fully engage in my normal judgmental, anti-social behavior." Let's just say the discussion says far too much about the people trying to make the decision.

My friend and I were talking about why we wouldn't even want to touch a discussion that seemed designed to reinforce boring stereotypes, elevate the importance of superficial criteria, and make people feel bad about themselves. Instead, we held our own private appreciation fest over those in F&SF who are hot in all sorts of ways (not an insignificant number of people).

At one point, I complimented his partner. He agreed enthusiastically. Then he asked, "Is this a bad day to compliment your looks?"

Never mind what the compliment was. I'm not going to tell you--not that and not the compliment I paid him. Because as nice as it was, being asked about how I was doing after my morning was an even bigger compliment.

It told me he was paying attention to my day. It recognized that paying me a compliment was supposed to be a benefit to me. It recognized that my needs of the moment might not include validation of my appearance. It was risky in a society where we have few templates for that kind of behavior, particularly since he and I have never had that sort of chat. In short, it was tailored to me in a way that compliments almost never are.

I love having friends who are that adult, that adept. And I love that a day that starts with that kind of crappy personal interaction can end with some of the best. Not a bad day at all.

And sorry, boys and girls, but I'm pretty sure that his current romantic relationship means he's not available for more.

April 14, 2011


Because there are a few people who read this blog who wouldn't find this any other way. And really, that would be a shame.

April 12, 2011

Skepticism Is a "How," Not a "Who"

On Thursday, I noted the attempt of certain proponents of evolutionary psychology (specifically that dealing with matters of gender and sexuality) to position themselves as skeptics resisting the dogmatic pressures of societal group think. I contrasted that with actual, procedural analysis of evolutionary psychology practices and claims. I also documented how one set of researchers is spending time selectively looking into evolutionarily adaptive reasons for behavior, when we already know that behavior looks much like other behavior with no reasonable adaptive value. (Yes, that's vague. The post itself it much less so. I promise.)

I wrote all this in the context of a web page and email that the CFI Michigan put out promoting a lecture by one of the researchers I critiqued, hosted by a local student group. Then I ended the post with this sentence: "That is what makes it disappointing that CFI Michigan has chosen to uncritically promote his work."

The objections have been interesting, both to my post and to Bug Girl's post at Skepchick, which is a rantier take on the same topic. I covered the discussion of the science on Friday.

Now we come to my single sentence about Michigan CFI, which has produced its own interesting responses. Two people from the group commented on my post, one of whom also commented at Skepchick. One of these invoked his title with CFI Michigan, lending his comments here official weight (whether intended or not). A note was posted to Facebook as well by another member, where it generated several comments and a signed response from the group's president. The Reasonable Doubt podcast reposted that note, where it generated even more comments. And one of the CFI Michigan officials who commented here made a (public) snarky comment on her Facebook profile (which is used for skeptical networking) about being as rational as we claim to be and "liked" a comment using the term "femi-nazi" and suggesting that rape is "too emotional" a topic for some people to handle.

You can catch all the drama aspects at Jason's post at Lousy Canuck. I'm generally going to lump it all together in this post under the umbrella of "unprofessionalism," because I want to focus on the promotion of skepticism and critical thought. According to their About page, this is also an area of focus of CFI Michigan.

The purpose of Center for Inquiry | Michigan is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.

Center for Inquiry (CFI) is an international, nonpartisan, nonprofit 501©(3) organization that encourages evidence-based inquiry into science, pseudoscience, medicine and health, religion, ethics, secularism, and society. The Center for Inquiry is not affiliated with, nor does it promote, any political party or political ideology.

Through education, research, publishing, and social services, CFI seeks to present affirmative alternatives based on scientific naturalism. The Center is also interested in providing rational ethical alternatives to the reigning paranormal and religious systems of belief, and in developing communities where like-minded individuals can meet and share experiences.

There is also a statement on this page about the calendar that brought Shackeford's talk to Bug Girl's attention, and then to mine.

We host numerous educational and social events throughout Michigan. Our events are open to the public. Visit the Event Calendar to learn about upcoming events.

Event topics include: science, religion, philosophy, social issues, politics, atheism, humanism, agnosticism, skepticism, deism, evolution, morality and ethics, secularism, rationalism, psychology, and others.

That is the sum total of CFI Michigan's contextual statements on the purposes of their calendar. They host events on topics that are associated with their mission in a positive way. It's little wonder that Bug Girl was originally confused over who was hosting Shackelford's talk. And this would be the answer to Jennifer Beahan's question at Skepchick:

How is it okay for you to say “my views are NOT the views of Skepchick, or the other writers, hence the edits above” …

But, when I say “CFI does NOT endorse the views or research of Dr. Shackelford” – that’s not okay. How is that any different?

The difference, of course, is that Bug Girl's disclaimer is attached to the original post. Jennifer's disclaimer only appears where anyone is already being critical of Shackelford. There also seems to be some confusion about the official position of CFI Michigan on Shackelford's work, given the statement from the executive director:

We respect and value Dr. Shackelford and his work, and his role as a faculty adviser to the Atheists at Oakland University student group. I have previously invited Dr. Shackelford to speak to CFI and he was unable because of scheduling conflicts. We welcome the opportunity to host a talk with him when schedules align.

There may be some distinction between not endorsing his research and making a statement about respecting and valuing his work, but I'm not sure what it is. At this point, we appear to have gone from passive uncritical promotion to active endorsement, whether that was the intent or not.

The difference between intent and actions was a big part of my discussion with Jason Pittman, Advisory Board Chair in the comments as well. Jason objected, at length, to my single sentence quoted at the start of this post. His position:

Stephanie, we have encouraged and facilitated criticism of Dr. Shackelford simply by promoting the event. CFI has provided info about the event so that you and others can provide the criticism. Your post about Dr. Shackelford proves my point. We promoted the event. You have provided criticism. When we promote an event, we are encouraging critical thinkers to attend (sometimes to the detriment of the speaker at said event!) Skeptical criticism of ideas is what CFI is all about.

It's...an interesting thought. There's just one little problem with it. As I pointed out to Jason, there is nothing about the CFI Michigan website, the calendar item, or the email promoting the event that would look any different if they were intending everyone to take Shackelford's work and word as gospel. Why? According to Jason, CFI just acts as a conduit to match up skeptics with material about which they can be skeptical ("We provide a forum for people to address controversial topics and our audiences are extremely critical.").

Let's unpack the assumptions required for Jason's statement to work in this context.
  • The CFI Michigan website and email list reach people who understand CFI's intent in promoting events and speakers.
  • The CFI Michigan website and email list reach people who have the tools and knowledge to effectively challenge speakers.
I've covered most of the first point already, but I'll add one thing. The people who receive these emails sign up at events or through other skeptical organizations. However, the simplest way to get on the list is to provide your email address through the same website that includes the misleading description of the events calendar. There is a high likelihood that both the website and the email reach people who have no idea what's meant to be going on. They reached at least one already.

To address the second assumption, I'll note that I'm not on that list. My participation in this discussion is a fluke, brought about because Bug Girl was thoroughly frustrated with the lack of responsiveness from CFI Michigan. It's also only because of Bug Girl that my post ended up anywhere that CFI Michigan members would see it. She posted it to their Facebook page. Counting on a situation like that--a highly motivated recipient who knows someone familiar with the scientific literature on a topic--is a bit of a stretch in terms of organizational planning. Also, given CFI Michigan officials' unprofessionalism and retrenchment in response, I wouldn't count on it happening again.

While I'm sure there are plenty of members of CFI Michigan who have excellent critical thinking skills and who are wise in the ways of argument, that simply isn't enough. You also need good information. This is a problem that becomes noticeable any time you're dealing with topics that haven't been hashed over by skeptics for ages. Critical thinking can't cut it without information. When it tries, we get James Randi being very publicly wrong on climate change. We get Lawrence Krauss suggesting that guessing the age of girls he saw with his friend is enough to tell that his friend is innocent of having sex with trafficked, underage hookers. We get Penn and Teller having to retract the claim that there's no connection between secondhand smoke and cancer. We get Brian Dunning repeating DDT chestnuts in a skeptical podcast.

It just doesn't work, no matter your skeptical credentials or pedigree. You can't "do" skepticism without knowledge of your topic. So CFI Michigan can have all the critical thinkers it wants. Unless those critical thinkers are provided with information about the subject of rape and background on the questions and disagreements in the field, they have no way of evaluating a speaker on the topic. That is particularly true with this speaker, whose research relies on an incomplete understanding of the topic. No one can train critical thinking on information the speaker, host, and promoters don't provide them.

A good example of this came up at the event itself. A comment from someone who attended:

As someone who has just participated in the event, I wish to point out that whether or not someone is swayed by his arguments, we must at least take his data into account. Shackleford acknowledges that there are limitations in his studies; he also acknowledges rightly that just because we study something that is deplorable does not mean we endorse the act. Somehow, people always seem to forget that. Studying rape as it happens, and looking for an explanation, is not the same as justifying it

This completely misses the actual objections to Shackelford's work. It isn't that people don't want him following the evidence. The problem is that he is following only those tiny bits of the evidence that point the direction he wants to go. If he were following all the evidence, he'd be headed somewhere else. But CFI Michigan's promotion of the event, made with an assumption that somehow effective criticism would just happen because they were CFI Michigan, left people unable to do more than nod at the line they were handed.

If that weren't enough, the treatment of a reasonable criticism as a personal attack left those affiliated with CFI Michigan apparently feeling that the right thing to do was support their friends rather than pay attention to the real, scientific criticisms Bug Girl and I both offered. None of the postings on Facebook engendered any engagement with our points, just comments like, "
Well, just as we are expected to clear all speech and art with Muslims first to avoid giving them offense I guess the Skepchicks also feel they deserve a veto over ideas. An important lesson to remember - it isn't just right wingers who dislike freedom of speech."

That's not how you promote reason on a topic. I stand by my original statement.

April 11, 2011

Context Is Everything

Along one of the streets in downtown Minneapolis, there is an ad on a bus kiosk. It wants people to support concrete as a paving decision.

Looking to the right, it's certainly easy to see potholes. In concrete.

Next time, they might want to consider just where they want their ads to appear. Oops.

April 09, 2011

Saturday Storytime: Fragments of a Painted Eggshell

Alexander Jablokov writes fiction that is...odd. That's a compliment. Futuristic science fiction is supposed to be odd, in ways you don't quite expect. An excerpt:

"But she'd be someone else then. Not Rue."

"Contrary to what you might have heard," he said, "it's not actually that easy to change a personality by sticking in false past memories. The old personality wants to continue to exist somehow, like a vampire that won't be killed. The new memories get rearranged to justify the old personality. Sometimes people contract for memories that make them make sense to themselves. Gives them an excuse for being what they are. Obnoxious, unpleasant, distant from those who love you? Create memories of mistreatment by your parents. It all makes perfect sense then."

His despair hung around him like a swarm of gnats, making him squint and squish up his face. He had real memories back there somewhere. He seemed very attached to them: an odd, regressive sentiment.

"We all do that," she said. "Freelance and untrained. We have to...."

"Bah," he said. "That's childish. All of it is. You're just avoiding the main issue. Tell me. Do you love your daughter?"

He barked the question, and thrust his face into hers like an interrogator in a concrete-walled basement cell trying to extort a confession. His eyes were flat planes of meanness, and for an instant she couldn't think of an answer, as if the reply was something complicated, easily screwed up.

"Yes!" She choked in a breath. ''Yes, I love Rue. I love my daughter!"

"Why?" His voice was suddenly gentle. The interrogator was sure he had broken his prisoner.

"Why? Because ... I do." She looked away from his harsh gaze. A streetlight had been captured in the countless independent drops on the window. Each had its own vision of the light, and each was exactly the same.

He shook his head. ''You love your daughter because you were programmed to. It's...natural." He lingered contemptuously over the syllables. "A complex preset behavior evoked by a releaser. Evolution, survival. Well, you know the drill."

Keep reading.

April 08, 2011

More on the Science of Rape "Adaptations"

In yesterday's post, I noted the attempt of certain proponents of evolutionary psychology (specifically that dealing with matters of gender and sexuality) to position themselves as skeptics resisting the dogmatic pressures of societal group think. I contrasted that with actual, procedural analysis of evolutionary psychology practices and claims. I also documented how one set of researchers is spending time selectively looking into evolutionarily adaptive reasons for behavior, when we already know that behavior looks much like other behavior with no reasonable adaptive value. (Yes, that's vague. The post itself it much less so. I promise.)

I wrote all this in the context of a web page and email that the Michigan CFI put out promoting a lecture by one of the researchers I critiqued, hosted by a local student group. Then I ended the post with this sentence: "That is what makes it disappointing that CFI Michigan has chosen to uncritically promote his work."

The objections have been interesting, both to my post and to Bug Girl's post at Skepchick, which is a rantier take on the same topic. Today, I'll summarize the objections to how we dealt with the science, although the one I got here was not exactly helpful:

You have a very poor understanding of evolutionary psychology, evolutionary theory, and human origins. I suggest going to Shackelford's talk or contacting him for more information and explanation. I would not consider him a "rape expert" nor do I think he considers himself as such either, but he is a very well-respected evolutionary psychologist. You are misinterpreting his research and related research.

It doesn't note anything in particular that I'm supposed to be wrong about, acknowledge that I read his papers, or seem to understand that not being familiar with the literature on rape while studying the topic is a rather large problem. It makes it incredibly difficult to design studies, much less understand what your results are telling you.

Comments both here and on Skepchick, as well as Bug Girl's post itself, note that there are a rather large number of rapes (non-vaginal, involving males or females outside reproductive age ranges) that have no chance of increasing the rapist's odds of reproduction. One Skepchick commenter attempted to address this criticism:

If we’re talking about rape as an evolutionary strategy, then it would be as a built-in instinct. As such, it would need to do little more than create a forced copulation with a subject to be useful in that manner. In that context, a child rape and etc. could be thought of as a misfire of the rape instinct.

My response, which also applies to those who criticize Bug Girl's statement that rape is not an adaptation, was that, yes, it is possible that there could be an instinct for rape that misfires, is warped by cultural pressures, etc. It is also possible that there is an instinct for sex that misfires, is warped by cultural pressures, etc. In fact, that would be the parsimonious explanation. However, scientists working on this rape adaptation theory are advancing their theory without doing the work that would be able to support something more than the parsimonious explanation. Until they produce some work that does counter the simple explanation, or even a testable theory that encompasses all of what is already known about rape, the simple explanation is the more reasonable one.

There also seems to be an idea that criticizing these researchers is somehow limiting the topics that it is acceptable for science to touch. I addressed that yesterday at Skepchick.

There are a number of comments that seem to be suggesting Bug Girl is making a moral argument in the place of a scientific one. There are a couple of problems with that. First off, she’s linked to three people (me included) discussing the scientific problems with this research. Any moral argument is being made on top of a scientific argument.

The second problem is that there’s absolutely nothing wrong in making an argument for the moral practice of science. We do this already. That’s why institutional review boards exist--to (ideally) ensure that the fewest people and other organisms are put at risk or injured by research. Bug Girl certainly isn’t saying that no research should be done on rape. What she is pointing out is that this research is bad (badly designed, badly reasoned, and badly represented–as supported by her links), and that the quality of this research puts people at risk, making it even worse research. It’s nifty to point out that the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy, but that won’t prevent the idea that rape is promoted by evolution from becoming just another excuse to rape–unless someone knows how to abolish the naturalistic fallacy.

Rape is an issue that touches an incredibly large number of people. I fully support researching rape, and I highlight the results of that research on this blog. I also demand, and intend to keep demanding, that this research be of as high a quality as we can manage. Scientists can, and many of them do, do much better than to produce studies and statements that completely ignore vast swaths of our knowledge of rape and of victimization in general. We produce good science on this topic. There is no reason to tolerate bad science and every reason to sharply criticize those who produce it.

In a day or two, I'll come back to this issue to talk about the response to my one sentence about the promotion by Michigan CFI. The issues and people involved are different enough that it warrants a separate post.

April 07, 2011

Skepticism and Rape Adaptations

It isn't terribly difficult to find well-written, skeptical pieces on evolutionary psychology. In fact, several have come out quite recently. They examine current evo psych theorizing in the light of scientific requirements for proof of any such theory.

Kate Clancy wrote a post on the variety of human behavior that evo psych studies attempt to represent by using mostly college undergraduate research subjects. In addition to her concern over undergraduates' WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) demographics, she notes other ways in which these research participants aren't representative of the whole of humanity they're being used to study:

Another problem is that most work on relationships in EP tends to be heteronormative, meaning that they think nothing of assuming that either everyone is straight, or the universally best behavioral strategy is to be straight. They also tend to assume that the best strategy is to be monogamous, with occasional sneaky infidelity permitted if one can get better genes or more offspring that way (keep in mind that there is a difference between what might be biologically advantageous in a certain context, and what is culturally appropriate – the argument here is not against the culture of monogamy).

But heterosexual monogamy is only one reproductive strategy of many that humans employ. Depending on how you measure it, monogamy and polygyny (single male, multi female marriage) vie for the most frequent strategy – in fact, polygyny occurs in about 80% of modern human societies (Murdock and White 1969). There are even a few rare populations that practice polyandry, which is the marriage of a single female and multiple males. And, even in those populations where monogamy is practiced, serial monogamy is far more frequent than lifetime monogamy: this means that individuals have a series of monogamous relationships rather than find one mate for life (so no, divorce is not a modern human invention).

And that's not even getting into the nonhuman primates with whom we share a fair amount of evolutionary history. In short, Clancy makes the case that if we wish to describe a behavior as evolutionarily adaptive in humans as a whole, we need to consider more than a subset of the behavior in a single culture.

Also looking at the challenges that evo psych must meet in order to scientifically determine the adaptive value of a behavior is Jeremy Yoder. In a multipart series examining the evidence that homophobia is an evolved trait, he breaks down the multiple lines of evidence required:

When evolutionary biologists say a trait or behavior is "adaptive," we mean that the trait or behavior is the way we see it now because natural selection has made it that way. That is, the trait or behavior is heritable, or passed down from parent to child more-or-less intact; and having it confers fitness benefits, or some probability of producing more offspring than folks who lack the trait. Lots of people, including some evolutionary biologists, speculate about the adaptive value of all sorts of traits—but in the absence of solid evidence for heritability or fitness benefits, such speculation tends to get derided as "adaptive storytelling."

A few particularly interesting points were brought up in these posts. One, which should be obvious but often seems not to be, is that evo psych is talking about biological mechanisms for behavior, which means that a demonstration that the behavior is widespread is not enough to support claims that a behavior is evolved.

To recap: Gallup proposed that homophobia could be adaptive if it prevented gay and lesbian adults from contacting a homophobic parent's children and—either through actual sexual abuse or some nebulous "influence," making those children homosexual. In support of this, he published some survey results [$a] showing that straight people were uncomfortable with adult homosexuals having contact with children.

I pointed out that all Gallup did was document the existence of a common stereotype about homosexuals—he presents no evidence that believing this stereotype can actually increase fitness via the mechanism he proposes, or that it is heritable.

The next item of interest didn't come from Yoder, but from Jesse Bering, who wrote the article to which Yoder was responding. Bering described his affection for research that is done "without curtseying to the court of public opinion." Yoder points out that a study providing a rationale for homophobia didn't exactly run counter to public opinion in 1983, when it was done.

Later, in a response to Yoder's first post, plus those of others, Gallup himself suggests that his critics "tip-toe around the fact that my approach is based on a testable hypothesis" and "go out of their way to side-step the fact that the data we’ve collected are consistent with the predictions" because the hypothesis is "politically incorrect or contrary to prevailing social dogma." Given that Yoder specifically discussed the relevance of his data to his theory, it's difficult to award Gallup the mantle of abused maverick he and Bering both claim for him.

Earlier this year, Jerry Coyne wrote (in response to another Bering article), a caution about building strong evo psych edifices on slim foundations. In this case, he examined the idea of the "rape module"--a genetic, inherited predisposition among human men to commit rape--and of specific, genetically programmed, inheritable behaviors in women designed to avoid this "rape module."

Well, one can debate whether reading a story about rape is the same thing as being sexually assaulted, or whether a marginal increase in handgrip strength would have been sufficient in our ancestors to fight off a rapist. But the important part of these studies is that they were apparently one-offs—they have not, as far as I know, been replicated by other researchers. Do we accept single results, based on surveys of American undergraduates at a single university, as characterizing all modern women?

As we know, many studies in science, when repeated, fail to replicate the initial results. Think of all the reports of single genes for homosexuality, depression, and other behavioral traits that fell apart when researchers tested those results on other groups of people! And if an author did an initial study (not a replication) of handgrip strength that didn’t show the relationship with ovulation, would that even be publishable? I think not.

I suggest, then, that the results of evolutionary psychology often reflect ascertainment bias. If you find a result that comports with the idea that a trait is “adaptive,” it gets published. If you don’t, it doesn’t. That leads to the literature being filled with positive results, and gives the public a false idea of the strength of scientific data supporting the evolutionary roots of human behavior.

In addition to critiquing the studies themselves, Coyne also notes that this is not the first time the "rape module" idea has been criticized.

Thornhill and Palmer’s book was controversial, with many critics claiming that the authors were trying to excuse or justify rape. Bering takes after these critics, properly noting that “‘adaptive’”does not mean ‘justifiable’,” but rather only mechanistically viable.” But what he doesn’t mention is that there were strong scientific critiques of the “rape module” idea as well. I produced two of them myself, a long one in The New Republic and a short one with Andrew Berry in Nature, pointing out not only scientific weaknesses in the evolutionary scenario but Thornhill and Palmer’s unsavory fiddling with statistics, distorting what the primary data on sexual assault really said. Bering doesn’t mention the scientific controversy, noting only that “it’s debatable that a rape module lurks in the male brain.”

The New Republic article is itself a strong skeptical look at the science used to bolster the concept of the "rape module." I recommend reading it in its entirety. Coyne discusses the various versions of the idea that rape is a product of evolution (one trivially vague enough to be meaningless--but intuitively acceptable--and one stronger and requiring proportionally more evidence) and how they are played against each other in such a way that they could describe any evidence. He also applies a broader understanding of crime to provide alternate explanations that don't require a biological predisposition to explain patterns of victimization, and he explains how the evidence in three studies used depend on statistical manipulation. He also examines claims that rape can only be prevented properly using an evo psych framework for understanding it.

Given the availability of people like these, with the tools and inclination to turn a skeptical eye on the topic of evolutionary psychology, it is perhaps no surprise that Center for Inquiry Michigan is promoting a speaker tomorrow night on the topic of evo psych and rape. What is surprising, however, is the identity of the chosen speaker. Dr. Todd Shackelford is the director of the Evolutionary Psychology Lab at Oakland University.

Dr. Shackleford will present a talk on the competing theories of rape as a specialized rape adaptation or as a by-product of other psychological adaptations. Although increasing number of sexual partners is a proposed benefit of rape according to the "rape as an adaptation" and the "rape as a by-product" hypotheses, neither hypothesis addresses directly why some men rape their long-term partners, to whom they already have sexual access. He will present the findings of two studies that examined these hypotheses, discuss the limitations of this research and highlight future directions for research on sexual coercion in intimate relationships.

Now, the problem is not that Dr. Shackelford is an evo psych researcher. There are people doing good work in evo psych. The problem is that Dr. Shackelford isn't doing good work on this topic. In particular, the work he is presenting, relating female infidelity to rape of female partners by male partners, doesn't tell us anything that the already robust scientific literature on rape hasn't already told us.

In the 2006 paper that Shackelford will be presenting tomorrow, "Sexual Coercion and Forced In-Pair Copulation as Sperm Competition Tactics in Humans," (pdf available) Goetz and Shackelford demonstrate a correlation in heterosexual couples between the likelihood of female infidelity (past or present, rated by the male or female partner) and the likelihood of male sexual coercion, up to and including rape via physical assault. This isn't news. We already know that men who endorse rape myths and the acceptability of sexual violence against women under certain circumstances are more likely to rape. One of the common attitudes that predicts rape is that "sluts" lose the right to say, "No." ("Nice girls don't get raped.") Non-monogamy is used to excuse rape, and not merely rape by prior sexual partners.

Non-monogamy also isn't alone among excuses for rape (Scully and Marolla, 2005, pdf available). The idea that women secretly want the sex is common. Rapists claim that the circumstances of the rape were beyond their control due to drugs, alcohol, or emotional problems. People see demands for sex as more reasonable in circumstances where financial contributions to a date or relationship are uneven. None of these, however, are examined whether they similarly contribute to rape within an existing relationship. Without that, the 2006 paper tells us nothing about whether potential female infidelity triggers "sperm competition tactics."

Nor is this Shackelford's only study that ignores our broader knowledge of crime in a way that selectively supports evo psych explanations for violence against women. In the 2002 paper, "Understanding Domestic Violence Against Women: Using Evolutionary Psychology to Extend the Feminist Functional Analysis," (pdf available) Peters, Shackelford, and Buss note the trend toward fewer domestic assaults of post-menopausal women as support that domestic assault is evolutionarily selected as a means of controlling fertile women. They do this using New York City police incident reports for assaults against women only.

They don't use data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, despite the fact that they cite the survey in the paper. Nor do the results for female victims don't look substantially different than those they do use. From the NCVS:

Then there is the NCVS data for males:

There are fewer assaults overall, but the pattern isn't much different. In fact, the pattern isn't much different if you look at other types of crimes, either.

Given this information (the report on the age of crime victims dates to 1997), the challenge isn't to explain why the rates of domestic assault fall off near menopause, but to explain what is common to all crime experienced by females in the U.S. that produces that age curve, whether the crime is sexually motivated or not. This study, by again ignoring the data on the broader topic, fails to tell us anything about what it purports to be studying.

In order to actually present a skeptical view of a topic, it is not enough to assert, as some evo psych advocates do, that yours is the minority viewpoint or not widely accepted. That is simple contrarianism. Skepticism and honest inquiry require that one deal with all the information available on the topic. They also require that we not use the absence of information that would allow us to choose between explanations to argue for only one of these explanations.

The studies produced on this topic by Dr. Shackelton don't meet either criteria. That is what makes it disappointing that CFI Michigan has chosen to uncritically promote his work. [ETA: This topic is discussed at some length in the comments. They're worth reading.]


Goetz, A., & Shackelford, T. (2006). Sexual coercion and forced in-pair copulation as sperm competition tactics in humans Human Nature, 17 (3), 265-282 DOI: 10.1007/s12110-006-1009-8

Peters J, Shackelford TK, & Buss DM (2002). Understanding domestic violence against women: using evolutionary psychology to extend the feminist functional analysis. Violence and victims, 17 (2), 255-64 PMID: 12033558