Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sexual assault statistics aren't a feminist conspiracy.

The controversy surrounding rape and rape statistics is unlike that of any other crime. The available data on sexual assault inspires not only criticism but willful ignorance, leading some to dismiss it without presenting any evidence to the contrary. Thankfully, surveys that report sexual assaults are largely transparent so if you have any questions you can look them up, as I did. The stats look legit, so let’s review this HOT TOPIC.

Perhaps no other Canadian columnist has added more fuel to the “I have inklings contrary to statistical findings” fire than Barbara Kay. If you were to read only Kay’s columns on the topic you would conclude that not only is the rape crisis nonexistent, but that all available data on sexual assault comes from her collection of vintage magazines. Though statistical conclusions are always open to scrutiny, there are three criticisms in particular that amount to nothing more than myth.

The first is that surveys exaggerate the number of sexual assaults that occur because their reports don’t match police statistics. In reality all violent crimes have “dark figures” (incidents that never come to the attention of police) and rape is the darkest of all. According to Statistics Canada’s 2004 General Social Survey (GSS), only 8% of sexual assaults, compared to about 33% of crimes in general, were reported to police.

Examining these unreported crimes is what makes surveys so important. They shine light on the dark figures to yield more accurate data for smarter law enforcement. Instances of underreporting are not isolated or spurious, but rather are one of the most persistent patterns in crime statistics.

Further controversy stems from a simple misreading: findings like those published last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which concluded 1 out of every 5 women will experience a completed or attempted sexual assault, refer to lifetime prevalence. Other sources, like police records and the GSS, report far fewer sexual assaults because they refer only to incidents reported within a single year.

The internet is littered with articles comparing the results of different types of analyses as if one discredits the other, when in reality the well-established pattern of underreporting and the considerably different time horizon of each study explains the discrepancy between results.

In other words, police records and surveys are not at odds, they compliment each other. The number of studies that confirm underreporting is a problem is so large that insisting the trend does not exists amounts not to healthy skepticism but to a silly conspiracy theory.

The second myth is in regards to what “consent” means. Kay, along with a large number of Canadians, insists that a good deal of responsibility for preventing rape rests on how women behave. The idea is that certain ways of dressing or acting might reasonably be mistaken for consent. However, it’s clear that a little education on what constitutes "agreeing to have sex with someone" would go a long way.

Scott Berkowitz, president of the American Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), told MSNBC that one of the most frequent question they receive is “is date rape illegal?” The idea that dating someone does not entitle you to their body proved so confusing that RAINN retired the term.

If you are looking for a way you might help reduce sexual assaults, explaining what consent actually is, rather than condemning behaviour that might be mistaken for it, is a good place to start.

One must have very low expectations of men to conclude the most productive campaign against rape is to teach women, who are disproportionately victimized, how to dodge their aggression. You don’t need to plumb the depths of violent crime to know the problem lies with violent people, not their victims. These people have agency and deserve to be held to a higher standard.

Finally, there is the idea that prohibiting sex while incapacitated due to intoxication somehow victimizes alleged perpetrators; as if requiring consent is a feminist ploy to expand the definition of rape by criminalizing regrettable sex. 

In reality, intoxication complicates sexual assault charges in a way that favours aggressors. If a person is willfully intoxicated when sexually assaulted they are less likely to report the incident to police, and if they do report the incident it is less likely to lead to a conviction.

People who are assaulted while intoxicated face a number of hurdles to finding justice, partially because so many people, from the police to judges to the victim herself, are inclined to assess the blameworthiness of the victim alongside the perpetrator. While moderation in all things is advisable, the unrelenting, one-note emphasis on the role victims' drinking plays in sexual assault is unconscionable so long as there are people walking around wondering if date rape is illegal.

The controversy over sexual assault statistics, the meaning of consent, and the realities of prosecuting rape cases represents an unusually large gap between what has been established by the social sciences and what is assumed by conventional wisdom. While the march of science continues to generate new data and correct misleading conclusions the old-guard digs in their heels. It’s time we smarten up. No matter how unsavoury the statistics, denial will not undo a single crime.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A short lesson on old media

Theory: Old media tends to craft institutional morality tales out of individual failings. They draw broad lessons from silly scandalous stories to distinguish themselves from tabloids. 

For a serious journalist, an indiscrection can’t be wholly personal. It has to be publicly meaningful, or else why report? They have to turn soft news to hard news.

Example: Ford and Lohan compulsively lie, so a Globe columnist concludes that truth has disappeared and twitter has ushered in a Dark Age of accuracy. 

Please, columnists, leave these stories to Ben Mulroney.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Quick note: the Alberta floods

The Frontier Centre for Public Policy recently published a report I authored on the Alberta Floods. You can read it here.

Takeaway: mitigation measures pay. I know it's tempting to write-off post-disaster spending as altogether extravagant (boggling recovery costs!), but the berms, dams, land-use regulations and relocations are sound investments. It's just too bad they didn't happen sooner.

Friday, September 27, 2013

On whistleblowers and recognizing goodness.

Peter Ludlow blogged about “The Banality of Systemic Evil” for the Times last week. He argued that Edward Snowden, Jeremy Hammond, Aaron Swartz and Chelsea Manning’s actions were based on a moral principle greater than the institutions that employed them, one that was grounded in the individual rather than the institution.

Systemic evil is a difficult problem to solve because it challenges the connection in our minds between lawfulness and goodness, and lawlessness and badness. Though we tend to trust our governing institutions and distrust those that act against them, “there can be no expectation that the system will act morally of its own accord.” And “If legitimate authority leads in the direction of administrative evil, it will certainly not provide legitimate outlets for resistance.

In other words, we rely on individuals like Snowden et al. to break ranks and speak out when they see something wrong. Though it is an act of disobedience, it is the only thing that can plausibly keep errant organizations on track.

What struck me most about Ludlow’s post was a quote from John Bolton that so perfectly expressed the root of the confusion over judging whistleblowers:
Snowden thinks he’s smarter and has a higher morality than the rest of us … that he can see clearer than the other 299,999,999 of us, and therefore he can do what he wants. I say that is the worst form of treason.
Bolton’s idea of what goodness looks like is useless in a situation where an entire system has erred. His moral compass is not internal, but external -- calibrated to the opinions of 299,999,999 other people. 

You don’t need to condemn the NSA, the US Army or the judicial system, nor defend the latest batch of dissidents, to see how Bolton’s thinking is a problem. You only have to acknowledge that systemic evil is a possibility and that amoral institutions make poor moral benchmarks.

Ludlow turns to Hannah Arendt’s report on Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann to illustrate how deferring to institutional norms can lead one astray. Eichmann sent millions to their deaths while asking “who am I to judge?”, leading Arendt to describe him as “neither the first nor last to be ruined by modesty.” He personified the difficult-to-accept fact that the scale of the destruction caused by the Nazi State could not have been possible without the widespread cooperation of ordinary people who could have resisted but chose not to.

Much has been written about how the Nazis used propaganda to deceive, but the bureaucracy offered its own kind of deception, one I suspect was more persuasive. The bureaucracy retained order while leading in the direction of evil. This appearance of banality was essential to the unprecedented crimes committed and the party did everything they could to preserve it.

For example, in 1943 the bureaucracy sent a memo reminding their murderers that they had “no right to take a single fur, a single watch, a single mark, a single cigarette, or anything whatever,” from the people they were sending to their deaths, “so that in the end [they could] say “we have not been damaged in the innermost of our being, our soul, our character.”

These token gestures of civility within the radically evil regime helped maintain the order people wrongly associated with goodness.

However, not everyone was so deluded. There were people who resisted and acted as rescuers. Kristen Monroe’s series of interviews gives an idea of what these people were like. On the whole, they reported feeling as if they could not have acted any differently. One rescuer, Otto, said his actions were “rooted in outrage.” That he simply “got mad.” He even admitted to having a “rather high opinion" of himself.

The anger of dissidents is often lost in the way we heroize them, a well-meaning but damaging lie. Monroe’s interviews brought to mind the controversy surrounding the release of “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” a biography that published some of Parks' journal entries and by doing so revealed how her story had been sanitized.

Parks had experienced systemic evil personally. Before she refused to give up her seat, she had spent two decades fighting against the laws that treated her as less than human. She encouraged others to disobey these unjust laws and hated those who enforced them. Her actions were rooted in an entirely justified anger.

Everyone loses when we edit the stories of our heroes to suit our own taste for ordered goodness. When you sanitize people and hide their arrogance, when you paint Rosa Parks as a saintly figure instead of the righteously angry individual she was, you end up with a world full of people who have no idea what goodness looks like. A bunch of Boltons who figure the majority is a sound indicator of moral rightness.

The circumstances of each of the dissidents Ludlow considers are unique. You can judge their actions but ought to admire their nerve. In the context of systemic evil, they are what goodness looks like.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Thinking aloud on abortion

Richard Johnson for the National Post.
I've had this draft on my dash for *ages,* but never hit publish because it is so far from perfect. Consider this the starting point for my thinking on abortion, not the conclusion.

The National Post published this graphic on December 7th 2012 that I think is really useful (click the link in the caption for the best view). There’s something so grounding about data, isn’t there? Particularly for controversial topics. I was tempted to tape it to the wall across from my toilet to force guests to look at it.*

Presently, Canadians have unrestricted access to abortion. There are no legal limits, though as the graph illustrates, late-term abortions are rare. This is unusual, and troubling for abortion moderates who have moral qualms about late-term or sex-selective abortions.

Talking about abortion is taboo. Harper thinks bringing up the issue in parliament is “unfortunate,” parties promise to avoid the issue altogether, and pro-life student groups have to fight for funding.

Which is why I keep thinking, silently, to myself, that Canadians need to have a rational discussion about abortion -- that both sides of the debate need to acknowledge the limits of their knowledge and the difficulty of the decision.

So here’s my contribution: I do not know when human life begins, and I think the ironclad certainty of the pro-life and pro-choice movements is rootless and destructive. Both sides have deluded themselves into thinking they know the Truth, and in doing so have shut down debate.

Personally, untangling my feelings surrounding the abortion issue is trying. Politically, it’s nearly impossible. I really can’t think of a good, public, universal defense of the lives of fetuses/babies until they’re like, seven years old and smarter than the average jay bird.

On one hand, women should be at liberty to do whatever they want to their own body. The baby is within them, so the mother is sovereign. Governments have a history of denying women sovereignty over themselves and this is a continuation of that history. A fetus is simply tissue that grows within a woman's body, and no one has any right to tell women how to treat their tissue.

On the other, have a look at that fetus. It looks like a baby, no? From very early on. It certainly becomes a baby -- we were all once fetuses. Looks like a baby, acts like a baby, just what exactly makes you doubt it's a baby? Particularly when the fetus is viable. Sure, it's still dependent, but have you met babies? They stay dependent for a really long time. Seems like a silly distinction. A fetus is a baby, and killing a baby is murder, so abortion is murder.

Both positions are persuasive if you accept their definition of when a person’s life begins. The problem is that drawing that line in the sand is a crap shoot.* For you, for me, for anybody.

Frankly, I can’t even decide who ought to be in charge of determining personhood. A judge seems a poor choice. A philosopher or biologist seem incomplete. Certainly not a preacher -- Canada is a diverse society, there isn't any mention of abortion in the Bible (even though in Jesus’ time infanticide was common. I like to imagine Jesus was all “woooaah not touching THAT issue people need to love me”) and the church’s position is historically inconsistent. No one expert seems to possess the authority needed to state "personhood starts here."

The good news is, impossible issue like these are what politics is all about. When life begins is, for lack of a better word, a matter of opinion.

Opinions are trivial, but can be made valid through discursive thinking, persuasive and dissuasive arguments, and ultimately the consent of the community they govern.

For example, when Jefferson declared in the Declaration of Independence, “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal...” the significance of the statement did not come from the expressed “truths,” but in the consensus between individuals: that they held it to be true.

That all men are created equal cannot be proved. It is our collective preference that it be treated as true. It is our common sense of opinion that created this laudable ideal.

By refusing to argue publicly about abortion, we deprive society of the opportunity to determine and entrench the ideals surrounding it. Regardless of your position on abortion, if you desire consensus you will first have to embrace argument.

I’m still undecided on many aspects of the abortion debate. I think it ought to be legal, but I can see the value in limitations.  At the same time, I know personally I could never choose abortion.

I’m also certain that abortion is an emotional, intensely personal yet necessarily political issue that deserves a sensitive and caring approach. So please, please stop acting like the other side is stupid or evil. If Canadians think abortion is important enough to protect or forbid, Canadians need to feel confident enough to talk about it.

* Stop by sometime, I am an excellent host.
* “Mixed metaphors lighten the mood!” I thought to myself.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Us vs. Them

Happy post-Presidential election day! I hope you all kept your wits about you and didn’t descend into the throes of American partisanship. You’re too smart for that, yes? Yes.

My pick (courtesy of The Browser) for the most interesting (i.e. infuriating) post-election article comes from Jonathan Haidt at the New York Times.

Haidt’s article is one of many lamenting the hyperpartisan nature of American politics.  Few rifts are as animated as the one between the substantially similar Democrat and Republican parties. Even levelheaded Canadians from their lofty Northern perch go absolutely nuts over the party divide in the United States.

This enthusiasm is surely a feather in the cap of both parties. They work hard to whip up that superficial partisan spirit.

Alas, the fruit of this divisive cheerleading complicates matters post-election, when the country has to work together to get things accomplished.

Haidt asks: “How will our still divided government deal with our mounting threats and challenges?”

Haidt answers: “shared fear.”

He lists a few things we ought to be afraid of, if any of you are in a cooperative mood and wish to join him in his quaking: Rising entitlements, temperatures, inequality and births to unmarried women would all, in Haidt’s opinion, make worthy causes to recast as common enemies.

Never mind that the “us vs them” worldview bears no resemblance to reality. Never mind that the part of group psychology that searches for, and if need be, conjures up, enemies and allies on which to project the aggression of the many is nearly always destructive.

It appears that, in Haidt's view, the “us vs them” mentality is so pervasive that the only solution to the problems it inevitably causes is for a smart person (and uh, I believe this is Haidt volunteering) to sit America down and tell her who the real bad guys are.

It's assumed that experience and evidence, thought and debate, are beyond the reach of the average American. Therefore, what America needs to push beyond the partisan fray isn’t a little self-awareness, but another psychological defense against the blurred lines and uncertainty of reality.

Or, as Haidt says,

“Let’s unite with our cousins to fight the stranger!”

Really. He wrote that. It's like freaking Gustave Le Bon reincarnate.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Despite Sandy's best efforts, price gouging is really rare

Via Planet Money:

Even in states without price gouging laws, most stores won't raise prices for generators or bottled water or canned food. Which raises a question: Why? Why doesn't price go up when demand increases? Why don't we see more price gouging? 
The people Kahneman surveyed said they would punish businesses that raised prices in ways that seemed unfair. While I would have paid twice the normal price for my groceries yesterday, I would have felt like I was getting ripped off. After the storm passed, I might have started getting my groceries somewhere else. 
Businesses know this. And, Kahneman argues, when basic economic theory conflicts with peoples' perception of fairness, it's in a firm's long-term interest to behave in a way that people think is fair.

Isn't that something? I am constantly astounded by collective intelligence.

Now that we're all happy, I suppose we can get rid of those superfluous regulatory pricing laws, no?