How a Rebellious Scientist Uncovered the Surprising Truth About Stereotypes

This post was published on Quillette on December 4 2015. Read the original article here.

The Sydney Symposium

At the back of a small room at Coogee Beach, Sydney, I sat watching as a psychologist I had never heard of paced the room gesticulating. His voice was loud. Over six feet tall, his presence was imposing. It was Lee Jussim. He had come to the Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology to talk about left-wing bias in social psychology.

Left-wing bias, he said, was undermining his field. Graduate students were entering the field in order to change the world rather than discover truths.1 Because of this, he said, the field was riddled with flaky research and questionable theories.

Jussim’s talk began with one of the most egregious examples of bias in recent years. He drew the audience’s attention to the paper: “NASA faked the moon landing – therefore (climate) science is a hoax.” The study was led by Stephan Lewandowsky, and published in Psychological Science in 2013. The paper argued that those who believed that the moon landing was a hoax also believed that climate science was a fraud. The abstract stated:

We…show that endorsement of a cluster of conspiracy theories (e.g., that the CIA killed Martin-Luther King or that NASA faked the moon landing) predicts rejection of climate science as well as the rejection of other scientific findings above and beyond commitment to laissez-faire free markets. This provides confirmation of previous suggestions that conspiracist ideation contributes to the rejection of science.

After describing the study and reading the abstract, Jussim paused. Something big was coming.

“But out of 1145 participants, only ten agreed that the moon landing was a hoax!” he said. “Of the study’s participants, 97.8% who thought that climate science was a hoax, did not think that the moon landing also a hoax.”

His fellow psychologists shifted in their seats. Jussim pointed out that the level of obfuscation the authors went to, in order to disguise their actual data, was intense. Statistical techniques appeared to have been chosen that would hide the study’s true results. And it appeared that no peer reviewers, or journal editors, took the time, or went to the effort of scrutinizing the study in a way that was sufficient to identify the bold misrepresentations.

While the authors’ political motivations for publishing the paper were obvious, it was the lax attitude on behalf of peer reviewers – Jussim suggested – that was at the heart of the problems within social psychology. The field had become a community in which political values and moral aims were shared, leading to an asymmetry in which studies that reinforced left-wing narratives had come to be disproportionately represented in the literature. And this was not, to quote Stephen Colbert, because “reality had a liberal bias”. It was because social psychology had a liberal bias.

Jussim explained that within the field, those on the left outnumbered those on the right by a ratio of about 10:1. So it meant that even if left-leaning and right-leaning scientists were equal in their bias, there would be at least ten times more research biased towards validating left-wing narratives than conservative narratives. Adding in the apparent double standards in the peer review process (where studies validating left-wing narratives seemed to be easier to publish) then the bias within the field could vastly exceed the ratio of 10:1. In other words, research was becoming an exercise in groupthink.

***

Jussim appears to have had an anti-authoritarian streak since day one. Born in Brooklyn 1955, his family moved to Long Island when he was twelve. He lost his mother the following year from illness, and after that, he lost his father as well, although this time not from illness, but from grief. It was at this tender age that Jussim entered into a life of self-reliance. Ferociously independent, Jussim describes having little respect for, or deference to, authority figures. In high school he says he purposely made life miserable for his teachers, and later he would become an anti-war activist.

In 1975, at the age of 20, he was a university dropout. He did not return again to study until four years later, when he began undergraduate psychology, and it was not until 1986, at the age of 30, that Jussim achieved his first publication. By this stage he was already married with a baby.

Jussim may not have known at this point that he was destined to continue living a life of non-conformity. He was a reformed delinquent and anti-Vietnam war activist. He had his PhD and a publication under his belt. He had settled down. His former life of rabble rousing and trouble making was over.

Or so he thought.

Very early in his career, Jussim faced a crisis of sorts. An early mentor, Jacquelynne Eccles, handed him some large datasets gathered from school children and teachers in educational settings. He tried testing the social psychology theories he had studied, but consistently found that his data contradicted them.

Instead of finding that the teachers’ expectations influenced the students’ performances, he found that the students’ performances influenced the teachers’ expectations. This data “misbehaved”. It did not show that stereotypes created, or even had much influence on the real world. The data did not show that teachers’ expectations strongly limited students’ performances. It did not show that stereotypes became self-fulfilling prophecies. But instead of filing his results away into a desk drawer, Jussim kept investigating – for three more decades.

The Crisis in Social Psychology

Some months after Jussim’s presentation at the 2015 Sydney Symposium, the results of the Reproducibility Project in psychology were announced. This project found that out of 100 psychological studies, only about 30%-50% could be replicated.

The reproducibility project follows in the wake of a crisis that has engulfed social psychology in recent years. A slew of classic studies have never been able to be fully replicated. (Replication is a benchmark of the scientific method. If a study cannot be replicated, it suggests that the results were a fluke, and not an accurate representation of the real world).

For example, Bargh, Chen and Burrows published one of the most famous experiments of the field in 19963. In it, students were divided into two groups: one group received priming with the stereotype of elderly people; the other students received no priming (the control group). When the students left the experiment, those who had been primed with the stereotype of the elderly, walked down a corridor significantly more slowly than the students assigned to the control. While it has never been completely replicated, it has been cited over 3400 times. It also features in most social psychology textbooks.

Another classic study by Darley & Gross published in 1983, found that people applied a stereotype about social class when they saw a young girl taking a math test, but did not when they saw a young girl not taking a math test.5 Two attempts at exact replication have failed.6 And both replication attempts actually found the opposite pattern – that people apply stereotypes when they have no other information about a person, but switch them off when they do.6

In the field of psychology, what counts as a “replication” is controversial. Researchers have not yet reached a consensus on whether a replication means that an effect of the same size was found. Or that an effect size was found within the same confidence intervals. Or whether it is an effect in the same direction. How one defines replication will likely impact whether one sees a “replication” as being successful or not. So while some of social psychology’s classic studies have not been fully replicated, there have been partial replications, and a debate still rages around what exactly constitutes one. But here’s the kicker: even in the partial replications of some of these stereotype studies, the research has been found to be riddled with p-hacking.4 (P-hacking refers to the exploitation of researcher degrees of freedom until a desirable result is found).

***

When I went through university as a psychology undergraduate Jussim’s work was not on the curriculum. His studies were not to be found in my social psychology textbook. Nor was Jussim ever mentioned in the classroom. Yet the area of study Jussim has been a pioneer of – stereotype accuracy – is one of the most robust and replicable areas ever to emerge from the discipline.

To talk about stereotypes, one has to first define what they are. Stereotypes are simply beliefs about a group of people. They can be positive (children are playful) or they can be negative (bankers are selfish), or they can be somewhere in between (librarians are quiet). When stereotypes are defined as beliefs about groups of people (true or untrue), they correlate with real world criteria with effect sizes ranging from .4 to .9, with the average coming in somewhere around .8. (This is close to the highest effect size that a social science researcher can find, an effect size of 1.0 would mean that stereotypes correspond 100% to real world criteria. Many social psychological theories rest on studies which have effect sizes of around .2.)

Jussim and his co-authors have found that stereotypes accurately predict demographic criteria, academic achievement, personality and behaviour.7 This picture becomes more complex, however, when considering nationality or political affiliation. One area of stereotyping which is consistently found to be inaccurate are the stereotypes concerning political affiliation; right-wingers and left wingers tend to caricature each others personalities, most often negatively so.7

Lest one thinks that these results paint a bleak picture of human nature, Jussim and his colleagues have also found that people tend to switch off some of their stereotypes – especially the descriptive ones – when they interact with individuals.7 It appears that descriptive stereotypes are a crutch to lean on when we have no other information about a person. When we gain additional insights into people, these stereotypes are no longer useful. And there is now a body of evidence to suggest that stereotypes are not as fixed, unchangeable and inflexible as they’ve historically been portrayed to be.8

A Cool Reception

Studying the accuracy of stereotypes is risky business. For many, investigation into stereotypes is tantamount to endorsing bigotry. To understand why this is the case, one has to take a long view of the discipline’s history.

Social psychology arose from the ashes of World War 2. An entire generation had to come to terms with the legacy of the war, and the study of prejudice and authoritarianism naturally captured their imaginations. Gordon Allport, a mentor of Stanley Milgram, conceptualised stereotypes in his 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice as inaccurate, pernicious and unshakeable, and influential in shaping the social world9. From this point onwards, this conception has largely remained unchallenged.

Reactions to Jussim’s findings about the accuracy of stereotypes have varied on the scale between lukewarm and ice cold. At Stanford this year after giving a talk, an audience member articulated a position reflected by many within his field:

“Social psychologists should not be studying whether people are accurate in perceiving groups! They should be studying how situations create disadvantage.”

Jussim has heard this position over and over again. Not just from students, but also colleagues. One might find it surprising that psychology researchers would become so invested in shutting down research they find politically unbearable. But one shouldn’t be.

It is not uncommon for social psychologists to list “the promotion of social justice” as a research topic on their CVs, or on their university homepages. One academic, John Jost at New York University, who argues that conservatism is a form of motivated cognition, runs what he calls the Social Justice Lab. Within the scientific community, the blending of science with political activism is far from being frowned upon. One only has to take a brief look at Twitter to see that scientists are often in practice of tweeting about “white privilege”, “women in STEM”, “structural disadvantage”, “affirmative action”, and “stereotypes”. For many scientists, the crusade to change the world is seen as part of one’s job description.

Jussim has weathered aloof, and at times openly hostile attitudes to his work for virtually three decades. In an email to me earlier in the year, he wrote that he felt like his work life has been lived in solitary confinement. It is possible that Jussim’s citation count – or impact factor – has been artificially suppressed. And for renegade academics such as Jussim to get published, they often must resort to sugar-coating and camouflaging their results, leaving important findings out of journal titles and abstracts.

Yet he points out that despite the hostility towards stereotype accuracy, he has been well treated by social psychology – having been given an American Psychological Association Early Career Award in 1997 – and being cited by his peers over 6000 times. Jussim also points out that while doing research that breaks taboos and undermines political narratives is hard, it is not impossible. Ultimately the scientific method wins.

It is too early to know how research into stereotypes will unfold in the future. And we do not know yet if social psychology will ever be able to achieve ideological diversity, or realistically address its left-wing bias. What is certain, however, is that despite producing work that has been unwelcome and unpopular, Lee Jussim has remained a faithful servant to the scientific method. Even in the face of great personal costs.

Quillette has a Patreon page

Quillette has a Patreon page

My website, http://www.quillette.com, now has a Patreon page!

Quillette has been proud to offer an independent source of unorthodox commentary since November 2015. With your support we wish to increase the frequency and variety of commentary available to readers.

Jerry Coyne has described us as a site you should be bookmarking. Think of it as Slate, but more serious, more intellectual, and without any Regressive Leftism.”

We’ve hosted distinguished writers such as Jamie Palmer, Brian Boutwell, Jeffrey Tayler, Toni Airaksinen, Brian Earp, Cathy Young, Sumantra Maitra, W. Kevin Campbell and Heather Mac Donald. We’ve published articles on a range of challenging political issues including free speechpolitical correctness, Islam, immigrationfeminismforeign policy, and crime. And we’ve published a number of expert articles on scientific topics such as genetics, evolution, psychology, Bayesian statistics and technology.

An open-minded readership has found Quillette and we are grateful to you for your loyalty and feedback to writers. But we are now asking for small contributions to grow and improve the website. And we would also like your input. We would like to know what works and what doesn’t, and which type of content is most valued.

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Road map for 2017

With your help we will endeavour to continue to provide a high quality reading experience, including:

  • a greater number of articles concerning popular topics such as feminism and Islam
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  • your suggestions here

We’re excited about what 2017 will bring. Have a wonderful new year.

Quillette + my latest piece in The Drum

Quillette + my latest piece in The Drum

This month there have been a range of interesting articles on Quillette, including The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit by a talented young bioethicist of the name of Brian Earp, and How To Have An Opinion Worth Hearing by the fearless Brian Boutwell.

Other articles of note have been on FGM and male circumcision, the validity of the so-called Ferguson Effect in America, and how the philosophy of Herbert Marcuse has inspired a particular kind of”New Left” intolerance.

We have also transferred the infrastructure of Quillette from BlueHost to Amazon Web Services. Hopefully technical issues will be reduced now that this change has been made.

On Tuesday I had another piece in ABC’s The Drum, this time about why it is OK for Australia’s Minister for Women to abstain from the label of “feminist”. It was a commissioned piece, which I had to turn around in a matter of hours, so it is not my best work. Nevertheless you can read it here.

If you have any articles you’d like to pitch to Quillette, please send them through: claire@quillette.com. Otherwise get in touch with me over Twitter: @clairlemon.

Recent Work

Gender politics & individualism – ABC’s The Drum

This was a piece I wrote for ABC’s The Drum in January. I was asked to write about whether it was possible to be sexist towards men. However, instead of answering the question directly, I used it as an opportunity to reflect on how group identity politics tramples on the sovereignty of the individual. (Click on the link below to read the piece).

When gender politics treats individuals as pawns in a political game

Lee Jussim, stereotypes and left-wing bias in social psychology – Quillette

I met with social psychologist Lee Jussim when he visited Sydney, Australia, in April 2015. I did not know anything about him, or his work, but was interested in a talk he was giving at a symposium about left-wing bias in social psychology. I subsequently learned that his own empirical work (on stereotype accuracy) was just as interesting as the subject of left-wing bias. So in my essay — for Quillette Magazine — I tried to intertwine the two topics into one coherent piece. So far, it is the second ‘most viewed’ article on Quillette; it was also quoted by the Wall Street Journal in Notable and Quotable which was both a delight and an honour. Click on the link below to read the piece.

How a rebellious scientist discovered the surprising truth about stereotypes

Germaine Greer and censorship

This was an article I was commissioned to write by ABC’s The Drum, in Australia. It was about Germaine Greer’s no-platforming by students due to her apparent transphobia. You can read the article by clicking following link below.

Germaine Greer and the scourge of no-platforming

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 11.37.13 am

Why are biosocial criminologists shunned by their field?

What is a “biosocial criminologist”. It is a scholar that studies the genetics and biology of criminal behaviour.

It is not easy being a biosocial scholar in criminology. The field is heavily dominated by left-wing academics, and there is animosity towards research areas that undermine the traditional narratives perpetuated by the field, (i.e. that social injustice, poverty and material inequality is the root cause of all crime).

Over at Quillette, Brian Boutwell, writes candidly about being a biosocial criminologist. He writes:

Everyone faces the trials of peer review but it is decidedly different for biosocial criminologists. The simple reason is that many in the field are unqualified to review your research [1]. Why? They have a minimal (and I’m being generous) understanding of biological concepts. Criminological curricula do not require biology classes to be taken. Does this stop them from trying to evaluate your work? It most certainly does not.

I recommend you read the rest of the article: How criminologists who study biology are shunned by their field.

A platform for free thought

A platform for free thought

I have a new online magazine coming out called Quillette. 

http://quillette.com

“At Quillette we respect ideas. Even dangerous ones. Our writers are a collection of individuals from across the political spectrum, with different life stories and backgrounds. We aim to bring our expertise together into one platform – to create an organic group committed to free thought.

How to Submit

We aim to provide a platform for original thought, dissident voices, and quality cultural criticism. We will feature writing from non-journalists including scientists and artists, and will strive to give writers freedom to take risks and express dangerous ideas.

But we can’t do it alone. We need you, the reader, to join us in creating a groundswell. At Quillette, we believe this is achieved through story. If you have a story to tell, that is original and exciting, please send it through to claire@quillette.com and it will be considered for publication. It may be a personal narrative, a scientific hypothesis, an opinion piece, or investigative journalism. The best pieces will be chosen, and featured on Quillette. Writers who are published will be remunerated for their work.”

Feminism Must Be Reclaimed From Radicals

Feminism Must Be Reclaimed From Radicals

Few serious thinkers will argue that the women’s movement is no longer necessary. Few would argue that the movement does not have a noble history. Liberal feminists however, need to reclaim it.

Although feminism has a noble history, it was hijacked in the 1970s, with motley crews such as the New York Radical Women and the Redstockings stealing the show. After that, “radical” feminism was propelled by the likes of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine Mackinnon. Dworkin, whose contempt for women matched her hatred of men, famously wrote that women who enjoyed heterosexual sex with men were “collaborators, more base than other collaborators have ever been: experiencing pleasure in their own inferiority.”[1]

These radical feminists incited a backlash against all of feminism, despite only ever representing its lunatic fringe. In contrast to radical feminism–built on the dubious theory of sexual castes– the philosophy of liberal feminism is empirical and straightforward. Under classical liberalism, women have the inalienable right to be educated, employed and self-determining, and within the broader feminist canon, there is a treasure-trove of pragmatic work done by women such as Arlie Hochschild, Mary Ann Mason, Janet Yellen, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The list goes on. 

Some years ago in 1991, Susan Faludi drew attention to a ‘backlash’ against feminism in a book of the same name. She argued that conservative media was biased against the movement, caricaturing feminists as family-destroying, man-hating shrews. Her thesis was that conservative commentators built a strawman out of feminism, which then contributed to an unwarranted pushback[2]. Faludi’s argument was strong, yet it was incomplete. It is true that all forms of media build strawmen out of certain targets. Often the most polemic and blustering voices on any topic are published, because editors know what mass audiences like. Subjects are simplified and nuance is tossed in the trash. Yet backlashes against feminism cannot be dismissed as mere media confections. To characterise them as such is intellectually lazy.

In 2013, and Amanda Marcotte wrote

There is no such thing as a “radical feminist” anymore. Don’t get me wrong! There was. In the 60s and 70s there were radical feminists who were distinguishing themselves from liberal feminists. Radical feminists agreed with liberal feminists that we should change the laws to recognize women’s equality, but they also believed that we needed to change the culture. It was not enough to pass the ERA or legalize abortion, they believed, but we should also talk about cultural issues, such as misogyny, objectification, rape and domestic violence. In other words what was once “radical” feminism is now mainstream feminism.

Despite her assertions, Marcotte’s description of ‘radical feminism’ is simply a dumbed-down, euphemistic trope of what radical feminism actually was. Talking about cultural issues is not, and has never been, radical. What defined it in the ‘60s and ‘70s was the radical view that society was split down the middle by sexual castes[3]. In this philosophy, nothing about gender roles is natural – not even sex or having children. According to the radicals, the male caste has oppressed the female caste to the point where anything that can be described as ‘feminine’ is evidence of oppression; from make-up to high-heels, to breastfeeding and pregnancy. The radicals wrote books such as Lesbian Nation[4], and argued that a nation state along the lines of a Zionist Israel should be set up just for women[5]. While liberal feminists wanted to ensure women and girls had equal opportunities to succeed in life, radical feminists were motivated by an unquenchable will to power.

The perception that radical feminism was ‘anti-male’ never came from conservative media. It was never a strawman argument. Anti-male ravings came from the women who stole feminism from the rest of us. And it must be taken back again. More than ever, we need to distinguish liberal feminists from the radicals who’ve hijacked the cause.

[1] Dworkin, A. (1987). Intercourse. Basic Books.

[2] Faludi, S. (2009). Backlash: The undeclared war against American women. Random House

LLC.

[3 Firestone, S. (2003). The dialectic of sex: The case for feminist revolution. Macmillan.

[4] Johnston, J. (1973). Lesbian nation. Simon and Schuhster, New York.

[5] Dworkin, A. (2000). Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel and Womens’ Liberation. Simon and Schuster.

Activists should calm down. Science is not so sexist

Activists should calm down. Science is not so sexist

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Ibid.

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

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

[11] Ibid.

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

[13] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

[18] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happiness by Design – Paul Dolan (2014)

Happiness by Design – Paul Dolan (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Video-games: a first world obsession

Video-games: a first world obsession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And stupid ideas get to live another day.

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Links

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

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

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

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

False claims undermine good causes

False claims undermine good causes

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

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

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

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

1. Suicide                                 2,769 deaths

2. Accidental poisoning        1,534 deaths

3. Transport collisions          1,388 deaths

4. Heart disease                        915 deaths

5. Breast cancer                         509 deaths

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

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

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

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

Source of the Claim

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

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

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

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

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

Methodological Concerns

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We decided”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Update

Reader Stu makes the following comment.

More data from the ABS here:

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

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

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

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

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

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Further Links

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

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

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

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

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

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

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