Responding to #metoo

Over the past week or more I have watched with a great depression but no great surprise as many of my friends have been posting abut their experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

I have been unsure how to best engage with this – I am an ally, I recognise that there is a real problem here, and want to treat the discussion seriously. I also don’t want any contribution to make it look like I am making it about people like me – straight white men have plenty of opportunity to have conversations without needing to jump in on the conversations of other groups. I’m also not a knight in shining armour able to ride to the rescue, and I don’t want a cookie for being super-woke.

But I realised when I saw a friend asking why men weren’t engaging that we have to say something, even if just to offer another voice to the support for women and other vulnerable minorities. Silent support is not the most noticeable. I don’t have anything groundbreaking to say, but a message of support and a hopefully clear and patient explanation of why there is a problem and why people like me might not notice it, from someone like me, might be a Good Thing.

So, to all the people who I have seen posting their experiences, I want to say thanks for sharing and helping shed light on the situation, well done for being in a position where you can share, and I’m sorry that you have had the experiences you have. I understand that many of these stories have been difficult and painful to share, and I have disappointed by some of the reaction I have seen.

To all the people that have a story that they *haven’t* shared, that is fine too. People shouldn’t feel pressured to join in, but hopefully seeing the outpouring has been helpful, whether in finding mutual support or realising that you are not to blame.

From my position, I think I can most usefully talk to men to help them understand that there is an issue, and a couple of thoughts about what we should be doing about it. I see a number of my female friends not being listened to or taken seriously, and I don’t think we should accept that.

 

Good Men – this is a real problem. I understand that you are probably like me, and never really been exposed to harassment, but *look around you* and *listen to people*. It is clearly happening to at least the majority of our female friends, family and partners. I understand that using anecdotes can be problematic in terms of demonstrating robust evidence, but trying to say there is no problem based on this reasoning is self-protecting nonsense. I think some of the problem in accepting this is to do with our not being able or inclined to see it.

I’m sure you don’t see much that you would consider dangerous, but it’s worth bearing in mind that you likely *wouldn’t* if you are not involved. Most instances aren’t like Harvey Weinstein, with a network of people enabling predation, and a lot of the worst instances happen in private. There is also a strong observation bias called the Bystander Effect, where as outside observers we tend to assume situations are fine, if to the people involved they aren’t – we are likely missing things that are happening right in front of us. I think back to nights out with groups of women, the constant invasion of their physical space and the way men just hover around them.

There is an issue of perspective. I am a middle-class white man, about 6 feet, and physically capable. I’ve not often had to ‘fight or flight’, but I am pretty happy that there is a relatively minor proportion of people I couldn’t at least escape from. Most women have a different experience – the groups overlap for sure, but men are in general bigger, stronger and more physically aggressive than women, and as an overall group have a distinct tendency to rape them. So in terms of feeling endangered and reacting based on that, the equivalent for me would not be receiving unwanted advances from a medium build woman. It would be more like getting attention from a muscular 6’6″ suspected violent criminal. Sure – they may be happy with a clear rejection, but I would certainly feel very threatened in case they didn’t. What they think of as harassment might be very different from me.

We say anecdotes about cancer cures are not that reliable – this is in part because ‘having cancer’ is an objective outcome not accessible subjectively, with a really good evidence base built on RCTs, and the cancer cures proposed have low or no prior plausibility. ‘Being harassed’ is a subjective experience, with a really good evidence base built on collected and consistent accounts from victims, with a really high prior plausibility based on any understanding of how humans tend to behave to each other.

The fact that all we can base our judgement on is a huge number if anecdotes doesn’t mean that the evidence base is easily dismissed. And actually, in spite of the popular skeptics phrase, the plural of anecdote is data – you just have to evaluate the extent to which you think that data provides compelling evidence. For example, the Australian Human Rights Commission recently published a report on sexual harassment and assault in Universities.

The takeaway elements of those reports were that 51% of students were sexually harassed in 2016, and 7% were sexually assaulted in 2015 or 2016. Women were more than twice as likely to be harassed, and more than three times as likely to be assaulted. that’s in one year. I understand student days may be the highest risk, but extrapolating that result out to a lifetime risk suggests we’re looking at a figure approaching 100%. Frustratingly, but understandably,  I’m no expert, but that seems a) in keeping with the reports of friends b) a large enough effect size that quibbles about methodology will make it go away, and c) absolutely horrifying.

You are likely not a serial harasser, and don’t see much of it, and don’t believe your male friends are capable of it. But even if we say the problem is limited to a small number of active people, it doesn’t take many men harassing people before pretty much everyone will have had been on the receiving end.

 

Good Men – we are part of the problem, but we can be part of the solution. I am a good man – I am in a monogamous marriage where I see my partner as an equal, and support her in whatever she wants to do. I am trying to raise a good son, aware of gender politics and the structural inequalities in society. I am in a position of relative privilege, and should use that where I can to support others with less privilege. My feminism has tended to express itself in treating women with the appropriate respect, supporting those close to me, and tutting along at social inequality. This is a great start, but we all need to do a bit more.

I have been thinking a bit recently about whether I always have been such as good man. I am pretty confident that I have always respected women in principle – I was *incredibly* pleased when a high school friend I hadn’t seen for years said I had always been a good feminist. But I wonder if in my younger days a combination of enthusiasm, social and physical clumsiness, and sometimes a drink or two, I always was. I have likely been inappropriate, but hopefully nothing more. Further, I apologise for the many more instances where I have been inactive. I am sure I have stood by when I should have intervened. Either way, I apologise sincerely for both my actions and any consequences of them.

For a start, we should treat reports of harassment, assault and rape seriously. This doesn’t mean just believing reports, as there is a small phenomenon of false reporting, but it means not dismissing reports and trying to build a narrative to shift blame from men to women. If someone reports something to you, listen, sympathise and work with them to understand what they need to do to safeguard themselves and others.

Second, recognise that the rate at which this happens is a *massive* problem, and focus on that. Sure, there are some interesting discussions to be had about how we enumerate the issue, or how we draw definitions between different kinds of offence morally and in law. But we have easily sufficient evidence to think it’s a problem worth acting on, and when people are asking for recognition of that, someone coming from outside the conversation to drag it on to minor technical points looks like an attempt to avoid the issue. It isn’t necessarily misogyny or intentional obfuscation, but the two can be very difficult to differentiate. This is basically the problem with #notallmen.

As people in a position of strength and privilege we should challenge things we think people are not comfortable with. This means both structural pervasive problems, such as expected gender roles and imbalance in the home and workplace, and individual instances, where someone appears to be in distress. Men normally risk much less by challenging other men than women do, and are likely to have better outcomes. Of course, we need to be careful not to assume we know what others want and act on their behalf without confirming – assuming that as a man you can rescue the damsel in distress comes across badly, even with the best of intentions. But that doesn’t mean standing by inactively while female colleagues get talked over and ignored in the bar or office, or when they get catcalled and followed in public.

Proactively, we should intentionally design places, organisations and systems to improve the situation. There are some great programmes around social education, and I liked the old advert aimed at teens which shows a youngster getting carried away because I can imagine that being a really common problem that would happen much less with a little more understanding and perspective, and properly describing consent is vital. However, that’s just the obvious surface stuff – abuse comes in many more forms than just rape, and we need to be developing a culture in which none of it is acceptable. Setting up spaces and actively engaging can get to be complex, including in terms of concrete actions that benefit people without inadvertently causing other problems for groups elsewhere, such as people of colour, people of various sexualities or trans folx. But we have to embrace that complexity by actively engaging with these groups to ensure that what we are doing works for everyone – it is pretty clear that when straight white men built the world alone we made it work only for us.

 

I’m painfully aware that I don’t really have solutions beyond trying to support women and make men recognise the scale of the problem, which is why it took me so long to respond to #metoo. But hopefully that’s enough to be starting with.

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The Samaritans Radar app – the problem is right there in the name.

I am distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of a system to alert people to any mental health related terms that I have not consented to.

I would be supportive of an opt-in system, where people who might know they are likely to have crisis moments might set something up to alert certain trusted friends and family, and having Samaritan volunteers contactable through twitter in the first instance makes a lot of sense.

I strongly suspect that this is a very well intentioned, but very poorly thought through system.

EmsyBlog

**This entry is about the Samaritans Twitter app and has brief references to stalking and suicide**

It’s always been assumed that in large organisations, the higher-ups don’t really know what the lower-downs are doing and decisions often get made that leaves those who do the work shaking their heads at what’s going on.

Full disclosure: I used to be a Samaritans volunteer. I worked on the phone line, the email and face to face. I did this for roughly three years. Samaritan volunteers get very good training on how to do their job.

Today the Samaritans released information about a new app – the Samaritans Radar. It’s designed to monitor the tweets from the people the app-user follows on Twitter and flags up any Tweets with specific key words and phrases  that might be concerning, and reports them to the app-user. At first glance a nice way to make sure…

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A Response to ‘Women Against Feminism.’

iwantedwings

Imagine this:

The year is 2014. You are a white Western woman. You wake up in the morning in a comfortably sized house or flat. You have a full or part-time job that enables you to pay your rent or mortgage. You have been to school and maybe even college or university as well. You can read and write and count. You own a car or have a driver’s licence. You have enough money in your own bank account to feed and clothe yourself. You have access to the Internet. You can vote. You have a boyfriend or girlfriend of your choosing, who you can also marry if you want to, and raise a family with. You walk down the street wearing whatever you feel like wearing. You can go to bars and clubs and sleep with whomever you want.

Your world is full of freedom and possibility.

Then you…

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Outing

I have decided to sync my WordPress account with my Blogger account. This isn’t very exciting at all except for the fact that the Blogger account is attached to my Google account, and so will come out with what is basically my real name. My old posts won’t transfer over, but new ones should post to both.

I had to have a quick think about this before doing it, as I know that people are concerned about internet anonymity. I was for a while but am much less so now – I don’t do or say anything sufficiently controversial for it to be a problem, and would be happy to stand by, explain or perhaps change my mind on anything I have said previously, or anything I would willingly say now. I have been meaning to talk about internet anonymity for a while, and at some point I may actually get round to doing it.

I guess the main thing for me to be concerned about is the fact that I have spoken about my strong dislike for the reforms of the NHS under the coalition – as a middle manager in NHS England, there is a risk that this is career limiting. I should make it clear that while there are major elements that I massively disagree with in the new structure, I am determined as always to make it work as well as possible for the people who require and rely on the NHS. I have a suspicion that Hunt, Cameron and Lansley aren’t that taken with that approach, but I am certain that anyone who ever has a real say on me getting a job or not would be pleased.

The second thing that concerned me was talking more openly about mental health issues under my name. I suffer from depression, and am often a little guarded in discussing this in real life. However, I have decided that the benefits of demonstrating that it is OK to talk about these things outweighs the discomfort I may have from people knowing that it is an issue. With respect to work, I don’t think this should be a problem – any organisation that I would be interested in working for would be able to accommodate that – especially given that it isn’t a threat to my work anyway.

So anyway – online me, pixie359, is now much more easily associated with my offline identity, Miles Taylor. And here is my face.

 

Miles mug shot

Abortion

I recently supported my wife through a pregnancy and birth with some, but by no means terrible, complications. My wife was largely immobile in the weeks beforehand, and my son took 36 hours and a caesarian section to be born. Since then he has mostly fed and slept quite well, after a testing few days when he wasn’t getting enough milk and we weren’t topping up with formula milk. I love them both very much, and am very proud and pleased to be a father.

I know Kung-Fu

Clearly the best baby

 

And it all made me think a little bit about abortion. My view hasn’t changed, but has been strengthened. I am even more strongly pro-choice than I was.

Having seen how difficult pregnancy, childbirth and very early parenthood are, it is strikingly clear that women should be allowed to abort unwanted or problematic pregnancies. Our baby was planned, we are secure in our relationship, housing and finances, my wife was lucky enough to have a healthy baby, and has been supported (hopefully well) by me and a wonderful set of family and friends. And still we struggle. Because it is *hard*.

Forcing this on someone against their wishes is awful, and a hugely disproportionate punishment for carelessness, changes to circumstance or worse.

I don’t think that early stage abortions should be restricted at all, by which I mean before the foetus is likely to have developed a nervous system. Until that point, it can’t even feel basic sensation, so can’t suffer, and so I don’t think has intrinsic value. It is literally no different from any other lump of cells, except it is parasitic and disruptive, with massive mid and long-term consequences if left unchecked.

However, that doesn’t mean that women should just be left to it. I suspect women who have an abortion without being significantly impacted are few and far between, and with abortions should come support. It is difficult to make sure this role doesn’t get taken over by organisations with an anti-choice agenda, but I think it’s important that support is offered.

I am not particularly well versed on baby development, and can’t say anything about how they experience sensation in the early stages of neural development or when they start to develop a sense of self, and I’m not particularly interested in viability as a criteria for parental responsibility. The main consideration for me in this sort of situation is suffering, of all parties, and for all decisions.

I think I would take a fair bit of convincing that a foetus suffers sufficiently at most points in development to make a case against abortion when there is a serious disability or health risk to either party.

I am still a little conflicted about elective late term abortions. Theoretically I think there should probably be a cut off in intentionally killing a foetus at the point where it could, by an equivalently traumatic or invasive procedure, live. So, for example, a woman carrying a 30 week old baby would likely have to give birth to the baby or have a C-section, and whether the baby is dead or alive would not affect that process much. At that point, I think the woman should still be allowed to terminate the pregnancy, but perhaps not by killing the child.

The complexities really come in the time between viability as in ‘could just about survive but with high risk of long term problems‘ and viability as in ‘could survive in the wild on its own‘. How reasonable is it to ask that a woman at 28 weeks pregnant, carrying a baby that may well be viable, but with a higher risk of health problems, carry to at least 34 weeks, making it very likely that the baby could survive just fine? I suspect that the additional few weeks would be a toll on the mother, but I am not sure how this weighs against the likelihood of long-term effects on the baby.

 

What the result of all this, and how that would be enacted legally I have no idea. Translating principles based on theoretical limits like the point of sentience into laws for society is basically impossible, and there are a million practical problems that I haven’t thought about. I don’t have a massive problem with elective abortions only being allowed up until a certain point in normal cases, although I think there should be room for exceptional circumstances such as diagnosis of complications and, perhaps most controversially, not knowing they were pregnant.

Of course this might then start a rash of babies being delivered early by mothers that don’t want them, but A) I very much doubt it would be in any real numbers and B) aren’t there loads of gay or infertile couples after small babies to adopt?

Plagiarism

I have a slight suspicion that I am being plagiarised. Every so often I get a spike of people looking at my posts about free will and the criminal justice system, often from America. I have wondered if that is related to people getting set an essay question that makes them google for info, and that brings up that post somewhere near the top.

A couple of days ago I noticed that one of the referrals came from a plagiarism checking site.

So, for people tempted to plagiarise, here is some advice:

  • Plagiarise from somewhere better. Seriously, the stuff here is brain-drippings, and while I got a First at uni, it wasn’t through producing stuff like that.
  • Plagiarise better. Don’t plagiarise directly from anything that is findable by google. Much of the web is unindexed, and while a lot of this is spam and porn, there are some great nuggets. For example, http://www.badscience.net/forum has lots of interesting discussion and is not googleable.

I am famous for once saying:

Plagiarize!
Let no one else’s work evade your eyes!
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes!
So don’t shade your eyes,
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize –
Only be sure always to call it please ‘research’.

Celebrity skeptics

I wrote this ages ago, and just got prompted into thinking about it by a recent news story. I meant to read it and edit it, but haven’t bothered. I can’t even remember if it was finished.

First up, I would like to get my little nerdgasm out of the way. This week I met a some geeky heroes of mine, and had a great couple of nights out. I saw the night of 200 billion stars, or Uncaged Monkeys, at Manchester Apollo on Tuesday, and hosted Simon Perry at Lancaster Skeptics in the Pub. A wonderfully geeky couple of days, and as nice a set of people as you could hope to meet. However, it did get me thinking a little about the role of ‘celebrity’, and especially in skepticism.

It seems that the common usage of celebrity now refers to anyone who appears or has appeared on TV, for whatever reason. I have no interest in the vast majority of this – I don’t care whether you qualified from tool academy, vajjazzled a princess, or slept with more than one footballer at once. For this discussion I am talking about people in and around science and skepticism who have become known by either doing science well, communicating science well, or debunking pseudoscience. All of these things should be celebrated, and with the advent of The Skeptic Awards, hopefully will be.

I have not been around very long, but it seems to me like the skeptical movement is making some real headway – there have been big wins in the advertising of alternative healthcare, live popular science shows are selling out large venues, and more and more blogs that give good scientific analysis of complex issues are springing up. Science TV shows and radio programmes are consistently among the highest consumed. It’s rarely, if at all, that science and critical thinking have had a bigger presence.

However, I am a little concerned that skepticism is developing a celebrity culture, in which people who are of note are not given the challenge the sometimes deserve. People are often led by the people they most respect, and there is a strong reason for this. If a particular source has shown over time to be reliable, honest and correct, it makes sense that you should tend to guardedly agree with them when talking about a topic you don’t understand or know enough about. However, this does not mean they are correct, just that the caveated assumption that they are correct is a reasonable working position until more information is known.

The reason I am mentioning any of this is because I have, over the last couple of weeks, noticed myself changing my mind without the evidence or arguments that I would expect myself to require. Recently, the Conservative government announced the plans to make public data available to pharmaceutical companies. My immediate reaction is to be distrustful of most things this government does, and especially around bringing private enterprise into public services. I was aware that I was being biased, but I disliked the proposal on instinct.

Then Ben Goldacre said something in praise of the move on Twitter. Immediately my perception of the situation changed. Admittedly this just shows that I have a bias toward believing Ben in addition to my bias toward disbelieving the Conservatives, but it is the bias at I am a little more concerned with. Tending to disbelieve until given adequate evidence is a safer position logically than tending to believe unquestioned, and it is this approach that is at the heart of skepticism.

I doubt very much that I am alone in this, but I think there is a potentially dangerous tendency to treat the most noteable skeptics as reverentially as religious groups do. Of course, our celebrities tend to have earned the right to have their positions respected by being involved somehow in science or science communication, but no more so than anyone else who has the equivalent expertise in the relevant area.

One of my main concerns is the unbalance that we see in the representation of science in the mainstream. There is a tendency to use a limited number of sources that you see approached in the media – if there is a hard physics breakthrough talk to Brian Cox, if there is interesting biology ask Attenborough, for medicine talk to Ben Goldacre, and so on. What I would like to see more of, and this is a point I have heard Neill DeGrass Tyson make, is the original researcher. Name and promote the people who do the work. This helps to make sure that the work is properly represented, as well as ensuring that too much credibility isn’t placed into one source.

Overall I am happy with the level of attention our best skeptics get, and think they do a good job, but I fear that we all get defined by a small number, and that we risk building our beliefs on them too much. I’m not sure this is a massive problem, and have tended to find that the skeptical community is quite happy to challenge itself, but it’s something I am aware of affecting my own views, and I’m sure subconsciously affects others too.