Evil and influence

[Content warning: post covers news stories about sexual abuse]

We’ve covered the right wing trad-catholic obsession with demons as an explanation for un-hellish activity before. This time the news of demons up to no good comes from the musician/game designer/columinst/author/publisher/film producer and hypothetical litigant Vox Day (link for reference http://voxday.blogspot.com/2020/04/a-ferocity-and-intensity.html ) Day is not a trad-Catholic but he flirts with a lot of the ideas that come out of that milieu, particularly the fetishising of Thomas Aquinas and by extension (of course) Aristotle.

Day’s source “Life Site” I won’t link to but is a kind of Catholic version of the evangelical protestant far right “news” websites that people may be more familiar with. The article is basically an over wrought man ringing up his friends all of whom confirm that they also think demons are everywhere and are behind the pandemic:

‘I phoned an exorcist in Washington D.C. I asked if demonic activity had increased since the Eucharist had been held back and many church doors had been locked. “Exorcists and those gifted individuals with insights into the spiritual realm have seen more intense demonic activity now. There has been a definite uptick,” he said, “Satan’s taken advantage of this crisis to meet his own ends, It seems demons have been given a free hand now.”’

Priests reveal how coronavirus crisis has unleashed ‘intense demonic activity’
Kevin Wells, LifeSite Fri Apr 3, 2020 – 3:49 pm EST

I always felt that it was a kind of patronising cliche to claim that pre-modern people invented demons as a way of grappling with notions of mental illness and emotional trauma. I also don’t want to belittle people’s coping mechanisms in a time of genuine fear but the examples I’ve (e.g. the ones quoted above) don’t present as people finding a way of coping. Quite the opposite, it is a sustained pressure to begin Church services again. I can see that there is a genuine trauma there — a crisis like this would, in other circumstances, bring people together for collective worship but most mainstream church leaders get why that would be disastrous both in the short term (it will imperil everybody) and the long term (church attendance skews older and would lead to the virus disproportionately hitting people who go to church).

Meanwhile, SF authors more overtly trad-catholic than Day are delighted that previously convicted paedophile Cardinal George Pell has been acquitted after a second appeal to the Australian High Court (news story here: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-07/george-pell-wins-high-court-appeal-what-happens-next/12126266 ) The case, like many sexual assault cases, rested on the testimony of one victim who was testifying many years after the event. A jury and and the first panel of judges to hear Pell’s appeal found him guilty on the strength of the testimony but this final appeal (after substantial lobbying from the Australian right) ruled that the case against Pell was not strong enough to find him guilty.

What is undisputed though is that as a powerful figure within the Australian Catholic Church, Pell protected abusive priest and demonised victims. Nor are Pell’s legal troubles over. Some civil cases against him had been on hold until his criminal cases had been resolved.

Dragon Award Winner for Best Horror Novel that Isn’t a Horror Novel, Brian Niemmeier is delighted that Pell has been released: https://www.brianniemeier.com/2020/04/pell-acquitted.html

‘Now, this blog has never shied away from calling out members of the Church’s hierarchy when they betray Jesus’ command to tend His sheep. That said, digging deeper into Pell’s case turned up pretty strong evidence that his conviction was a miscarriage of justice prompted by the Enemy’s attack on a sincere servant of Christ.’

Whatever the court’s finding maybe there is no doubt that this ‘sincere servant of Christ’ throughout his meteoric rise through the echelons of power within the church, repeatedly failed to protect children and repeatedly went out of his way to protect abusers. We don’t need to invent demons to discover malign influences in the world.

It is not ethical to pirate an author’s work without their permission

I wanted to expand on a tweet I posted yesterday evening.

The context is an on-going argument about changes Internet Archive made to how they allow people to borrow in-copyright books online in response to the Covid-19 crisis (see https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/30/internet-archive-accused-of-using-covid-19-as-an-excuse-for-piracy and IA’s explanation here https://blog.archive.org/2020/03/30/internet-archive-responds-why-we-released-the-national-emergency-library/ ) In response to an article on NPR about the changed policy Chuck Wendig posted this tweet:

…and that set of a whole host of counter-reactions.

I’m not going to get into the details of Internet Archive’s move or whether what they are doing amounts to piracy or not. That’s been hashed out elsewhere and some of the arguments depend on the murky waters of Intellectual Property law about which almost any opinion has an uncanny ability of being wrong. Rather, what has been bugging me has been responses to Chuck Wendig’s post (and posts radiating out from there on the same topic) that take a generic pro-piracy stance with regard to written works. In particular what is bugging me is people claiming that their pro-piracy position is somehow progressive or of the left.

The argument goes along the lines of Intellectual Property isn’t real property or to take it a step further, property itself is a regressive concept and therefore by authors claiming ownership over texts they are setting themselves up as landlords/rent-seekers and by attempting to prevent piracy authors are setting themselves up as police. The argument being that authors objecting to piracy amounts to authors acting as the repressive aspect of capitalism.

I’m more than happy to concede that there is much merit in the idea that IP is a deeply flawed concept. I’m also happy to accept that the concept of ‘property’ itself (even in its less abstract physical variety) is problematic. The analysis of nineteenth century anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon into the nature of property (‘What is Property?‘ from which the slogan ‘property is theft’ is coined https://www.gutenberg.org/files/360/360-h/360-h.htm ) is still pertinent today and remains a challenge to how our modern society is organised.

But it is a fallacy to leap from a left-wing tradition of scepticism about property to justifying pirating books. Property maybe a concept used to prop up the injustice of modern capitalism but that doesn’t make it OK to eat your co-worker’s sandwich. Likewise, even if we accept the broad notion of property but reject the notion of intellectual property the underlying logical fallacy remains.

The fallacy is this:

  • Say the standard argument for why it is wrong to do X is because of some principle Y.
  • Say we can show that principle Y is itself fallacious, immoral or otherwise wrong.
  • It does not therefore follow that is NOT wrong to do X.

Although the framing is in terms of ethics, the fallacy is just a basic fallacy of implication. IP or maybe even property in general may be wrong, or false or fictional but that doesn’t demonstrate that it right to pirate written works. You need to show a positive case with an alternative moral framework. Sure, authors describe their opposition in terms of copyright and IP because that is how compensation for labour is set up within our current capitalist system. That doesn’t make them landlords any more than any worker looking for their pay-check.

It’s fine (indeed right) for people on the left to reject the moral framing of capitalism as far as they can and likewise it isn’t hypocritical to recognise that this is the system we are currently stuck in and have to work with. However, you can’t justify an act by rejecting moral arguments framed in capitalist terms. If you reject those terms then you have to demonstrate that it is ethical within an alternative framework.

So put aside intellectual property for a moment. Consider the ethics of written work. There is more to it than IP.

Firstly it is work. It is undoubtedly work. We do not need any kind of legal fiction to define creating writing as work. It takes time and effort. It is of benefit to others. I know of no progressive, left-wing, socialist moral framework that denies that a person should be compensated for their work or that the worker should have a say in how and how much they should be compensated.

Yes but…I can hear a person say, there are other ways authors could be compensated and…Sure, sure but that’s not what we have now and that isn’t the system that is in place. Might we find better ways of compensating writers for their labour in some future, better society other than copyright? Absolutely, the copyright system stinks. However, currently that is how authors ARE compensated. It’s rather like saying that because the modern banking system is corrupt, exploitative and unethical that is therefore OK to steal my credit card. It isn’t and nor are you liberating me by doing so.

But, but…by undermining copyright the system is being subverted, a person might claim. Well no. There are many roads to a better future and I don’t know which is best but I can guarantee that book piracy isn’t an effective way of destroying capitalism, not even at a micro-level.

But, but…compensation is still about property! Sort of. We can frame arguments about labour in terms of property but that’s because it is a concept that is designed to do that. Capitalism isn’t wholly incoherent or nonsensical. That doesn’t mean either that property must be ‘real’ or that showing it isn’t real means the points above fail (I’ll come back to that because it is the punchline of this blog).

Secondly it is about self and identity. In my tweets above I mentioned plagiarism. Off Twitter somebody took that to mean that I was saying that piracy and plagiarism are the same thing. I should be clear, they are different things. My point about plagiarism is to show that there is a moral dimension to written works that exists independent of concepts of property.

If I were to pass off Proudhon’s essay above as my own work then that would be recognised as plagiarism even though it is not legally copyright theft. We could call it ‘stealing’ but it would be a very strange kind of theft as the work is public domain and Proudhon is long dead. I’m still doing something wrong though but it is an immorality of dishonesty rather than theft.

Creative works are an extension of a person’s thoughts beyond themselves and as such an extension of themselves as a thinking being. Too appropriate somebody’s creative efforts is a form of dishonesty. Even if you give credit to the author, you are still asserting control over an aspect of the author’s self. Yes, we can translate that idea into concepts of property (particularly libertarian notions of self-ownership) but we aren’t obliged to do so nor does the claim fail if the notion of property were to magically vanish.

What about J.K.Rowling? I’ll swing over to a different argument if I may. J.K.Rowling is fabulously wealthy (although not as wealthy as the very wealthiest people) and it is hard to see her as just an ordinary working person just looking out for weekly pay check. Likewise, there’s an easy argument to make that her books are derivative and surely that undermines my second point about extension of the self. Surely, there’s no moral case against pirating Harry Potter? Well, Rowling isn’t going to suffer if you do but that’s not the point. Ad-hoc piracy isn’t the issue, the issue is creating frameworks for mass piracy and distribution of pirated works and any framework that can do that for Harry Potter can do that for works by authors who are barely making ends meet.

The impact of systems for pirating works don’t hurt J.K.Rowling, they hurt the less wealthy (what a surprise). Famous, ‘best selling’ authors are not typically rich and many notable authors are barely making do. Mass piracy is exploitative both in the sense of exploiting other people’s labour for your own benefit and in the sense of appropriation. Authors objecting to that doesn’t make them cops or landlords, it makes them workers standing up for being paid for their labour.

I said there was a punchline. There is but it is a punchline for this blog as a whole because it is a common theme from posts on mathematics, atheism, Hugo awards or talking cats. Lots of things are fiction. The range of things I regard as fiction is broader than most people’s. However, the counterpoint to that is that fiction is also powerful and not just in the sense of being emotionally moving. Yes “intellectual property” is not ‘real’ but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a powerful concept that is *currently* how the economic system of capitalism has hacked how to compensate creative work. It’s confusing and flawed and a legal mess and is exploited by powerful business but it is *currently* the means by which authors get paid and pirating books won’t change that.

The Romance Writers of America confusingly rule against criticising books for racism

The world of romance writing has fallen into a major dispute after an official ruling was made against author and advocate Courtney Milan apparently for criticising racist tropes in a book. News coverage here https://www.thewrap.com/romance-writers-courtney-milan-suspension-racist-mess/ I say “apparently” because the gist of the finding against Milan is very unclear in the report of the committee.

Continue reading “The Romance Writers of America confusingly rule against criticising books for racism”

It’s cosmological arguments all the way down

For those keeping score not only has Inaugural Dragon Award Winner for Best Horror Novel Not to Feature an Actual Horror Novel, Brian Niemeier got a new post about the existence of god up (https://www.brianniemeier.com/2019/04/a-proof-for-god.html ) but in a outbreak of morphic resonance John C Wright has a post up about the cosmological argument as well (http://www.scifiwright.com/2019/04/an-uncaused-first-cause/ ). There’s an excellent take down of the Wright post in the comments that’s well worth a read.

I’ll stick to Brian’s post:

“What we mean by God is the uncreated, all-powerful, and absolute Being who transcends the created order.”

OK but does he transcend time? Does he transcend mathematics? Does he transcend logic? Earlier Brian dismissed discussion about a god “making boulders he cannot lift” but there’s a reason why such cliched argument keep cropping up. What the heck does “all powerful” mean and what are the limitations to that. “No limitations” is fine and a god that can (but chooses not to) do paradoxical things is also fine but if we have a being that transcends logic then any argument about the necessary properties of that being is hogwash. On the other hand, if the being does not transcend logic then, sorry, you’ve still got to deal with tiresome questions about unliftable boulders and who shaves God’s beard if he doesn’t shave himself

“Anyone who says God’s existence can’t be proven is either ignorant or lying. The deception usually lies in moving the goalposts regarding what constitutes evidence. Materialists are fond of demanding physical proof of God while they themselves required no physical proof for materialism.

The claim that God’s existence can’t be proven contains another subtle a priori bias. It assumes that God exists in the same way that a hydrogen atom, a pencil, or an aardvark exists; that is, contingently within the order of creation. God does not have existence per se. It’s more accurate to say that God is Being. The Bible sees eye to eye with Aristotle here. “I Am that I Am.”

That last bit is the Popeye argument: I yam what I yam. It no more demonstrates god’s existence than it demonstrates Popeye’s.

The deception lies in moving the goalpost, says Brian, as he busily digs up the posts from one end of the field and moves them to the parking lot. ‘Exist’ normally means to exist physically but fair enough, there’s other kinds of ‘existing’. Popeye has tattoos (you can see them in the picture) so they ‘exist’ in a narrow sense but we all get that Popeye isn’t real and niether are his tattoos. Gods clearly can ‘exist’ in the sense that fictional beings exist. They exist in the sense that we can have discussions about them. Ficitional beings can have fictional truths about them: Popeye is a sailor and a man. How do I know? Because he is Popeye the Sailor Man!

But if I concede that ‘exist’ can mean something other than physically exist then maybe God exists in someway that is more real than fictional but a the same time not the same as physically existing? Sure! I really can’t prove that’s not the case and it’s not intrinsically irrational if that’s where your faith takes you. However, Brian wants to prove that God exists really real and that’s going to take more effort.

But before we go any further it’s worth pointing out an issue Brian has skipped over. Brian is dismissing God existing in a materialist physical sense. Brian also thinks *JESUS* existed in a physical sense. He’s half a step from demonstrating that Jesus was not God. There’s ways around that but I think most of them are heretical from a strict Catholic perspective. I digress.

“In truth, absolute, uncaused, necessary Being is self-explanatory. The physical universe is more in need of an explanation–both from its origins and at every moment–than the eternal, transcendent God.”

Brian is nodding back to the ontological argument: god is a necessary being and therefore exists because he necessarily exists because we said so. See Popeye above. However, today’s “proof” will be the cosmological argument instead:

“The most elegant and time-tested arguments for absolute Being are the cosmological arguments refined by St. Thomas Aquinas. Moderns and Postmoderns will glibly scoff that these arguments have long been discredited. But each attempt to refute the classical arguments from cosmology, such as David Hume’s, is revealed as a straw man under scrutiny.”

Yes, moderns, post-moderns et al will glibly scoff at the cosmological argument, also there was some scoffing at in the Middle Ages. The link is to a post by Edward Feser who I have discussed before and is a key source for a lot of this necromantic attempts to revive Thomas Aquinas. That link is worth following but it doesn’t adequately deal with the objection, it just points out that the objection has similar problems rather than making the problems go away.

Anyway the next step is the interesting one:

“Here’s a common cosmological argument. An apple ripens on a tree branch. That means the apple had the potential to move from unripeness to ripeness, and that potential was put into act. We can rightly ask where the impetus to actualize that potential came from. Apples aren’t self-sufficient. They need water, sunlight, and a host of other conditions to grow. You can try locating the source of the apple’s actualization in any or all of these contingencies, but that just kicks the can a little farther down the road since water, the sun, etc. all contain potentialities requiring external contingencies to actualize.”

You’ll note there’s another assumption of existence there: “the apple had the potential to move from unripeness to ripeness”. The assumption is that potentials are also things that exist in some sense or other. Brian then asks us to imagine what made all these dominoes of potentiality knock each other over.

“Positing that it’s contingent beings all the way down doesn’t do any good. That just gets you an infinite train of boxcars with no locomotive. Such a train would be incapable of motion. Similarly, an infinite chain of contingent causality could never move the apple from unripeness to ripeness.”

Except it doesn’t. The added hidden assumption here is that there can be no cases of something happening FOR NO REASON. “Reason” in the sense of things having a reason to happen is central to understanding how the term “cause” is used in these arguments. A bunch of random stuff just happening because of no reason at all is regarded as axiomatically not possible. Of course LOGICALLY we cannot assume that. It has not been established that everything happens for a reason and there’s good (ahem) reason to think the opposite. Sure, random effects at a quantum level MAY have hidden causes but there’s no logical reason to think they must. It’s an assumption, a reasonable and appealing and maybe even aesthetically nice assumption but not one that we can prove. If anything, it’s a habit of mind that we adopt because it is handy at the macro level and has a survival advantage when dealing with other human beings.

[Ed. Why not? Because there would be an infinite number of preceding steps that would have to be completed before the apple could ripen. But by definition, an infinite series of steps can never be completed.]”

Eeek. This is just an unforced error. I’d pick on it but Brian doesn’t need this point for his argument. Having said that over at John C Wright, he’s also trying to be moderate with his views on infinity:

“Infinite is a word that causes endless confusion. All it means is that there is no boundary, no stopping point, or, in this case, no starting point.
We call the number line infinite not because any real human being in real history ever counted all the numbers that exist and discovered that there were an infinite number of them: no, that is nonsense.
What we mean is that there is a rule of mathematics that says that for any given number, no matter how big, you can always add one and get a bigger number. There is no end point to the process of adding.”

Good grief, if I was going to start believing in a god it would be precisely so I wouldn’t need to be so mealy mouthed about actual infinities. Having said that, I think this is in line with Aristotle’s view on infinities, as in no limits to extension rather than there being an actual thing called infinity.

Except…well you can see the problem. Infinities don’t ‘exist’ in the materialist sense of exist as far as we can tell. We don’t find them in nature and either at the very big or the very small. Everywhere we have looked we find very big finitudes or tiny granularities. But we’ve admonished to take off our materialist spectacles and consider existence from the perspective of things with NECESSARY properties. Well in that sense of ‘exist’, the mathematical sense, we have not just infinity but infinities — an infinite number of infinities.

Circling back to both Wright and Niemeier, they want their version of god to exist in the mathematical sense of existing (which may not be existing at all) and also be a thinking person even though the are no examples of thing that only exists in the mathematical sense being a thinking person and all examples of thinking people exist materially.

Ye Olde Skull & Lobster: Reading Vox Day So You Don’t Have To: Part N+1

When P.Z. Myers is cited positively and unironically by Vox Day, you know there’s something amiss with the universe. There’s heresy in the air and right-on-right attacks going down.

On the one hand, we have Jordan Peterson: transphobic right-wing purveyor of semi-coherent self-help books for people frightened by women going to university. On the other hand, we have Vox Day: a man who regards the terrorist child-murder Anders Brevik as a hero and who pushes a violent nationalism based on pseudo-scientific race theories. While we could see Peterson as at least being more moderate than Day, we can’t ignore that Peterson is a kind of gateway drug into the morass of confused thinking based on male resentment at a changing society. What Vox has in toxicity, Peterson has twice as much in reach.

Who is the more appalling of the two? Perhaps we need another candidate…

[more appalling people after the fold]

Continue reading “Ye Olde Skull & Lobster: Reading Vox Day So You Don’t Have To: Part N+1”

CoOrDiNaTeD aTtAcKs!

Cast your minds back to April 7 2015. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish were beaten by the Connecticut Huskies in the NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship and Senator Rand Paul announced he was going to run for the Republic nomination for President of the United States. Meanwhile, in Sad Puppy related news, Larry Correia posted this: https://monsterhunternation.com/2015/04/07/addendum-to-yesterdays-letter/

“To the the SMOFs, moderates, new comers, and fence sitters I addressed yesterday, yes, we have disagreements with you. We’re happy to discuss them. We are not, however, happy to be libeled as the vilest forms of scum to walk the earth, and we are not happy to live in fear of career destruction. You want my part of fandom to coexist peacefully? You want to work out our differences and keep the awards meaningful? So do we. Though we disagree on the details and the issues, we also love this stuff. But coordinated slander campaigns, lies, character assassinations, threats, witch hunts? No… We won’t stand for that.” [CF: my emphasis]

“Coordinated slander”, oh my golly gosh! The issue being that the Sad Puppy campaign had become notable enough that its impact was being covered by the mainstream media. You’d think that was predictable — make a loud enough noise, eventually pay attention — but no, for Larry the news coverage must have been because of some hidden layer of coordination. A week later he was on the same theme: http://monsterhunternation.com/2015/04/14/george-r-r-martin-responds/

“So here is a question for you.  What term would you use to describe the shared politics of the dozens of reporters, columnists, and bloggers who have run similar articles this week with obvious false accusations that Sad Puppies supporters ran an anti-diversity slate, motivated by racism, sexism, and homophobia? Jerks? Yes, they are, but that is a bit too coordinated for mere jerkage. That was a political attempt to establish a political narrative.” [CF: my emphasis]

Changing topics but not themes and sticking with a Sad Puppy outlet for a moment, fast forward to February 3 2017. Milo Yiannopolous’s star had risen high with an invite to the Conservative Political Action Conference and a book deal with Simon & Shuster when anti-Trump Republican group The Reagan Battalion released an edited version of a 206 video in which Yiannopolous justified sex with 13 year olds. At Mad Genius Club, Kate Paulk was unhappy about Yiannopolous’s book deal being cancelled: https://madgeniusclub.com/2017/02/23/the-inadequacy-of-silence/

“What I care about is that someone who has – objectively – done not one damn thing wrong is the subject of a coordinated effort to not merely silence him, but disappear him. I’ve seen this happen in the past. It happened to Larry Correia. To Brad Torgersen. I didn’t get the full force of it last year, but instead got the cold shoulder of people doing their best to pretend I’d already been disappeared.” [CF: my emphasis]

The theme being coordination obviously, the idea that if multiple sources are saying similar things it must be because of hidden coordination. Of course, some people really do plan things and approaches. Obviously the Reagan Battalion planned their media campaign against Yiannopolous but the “coordination” claim is stronger than that and proposes that the subsequent fuss and related outrage was also somehow coordinated.

I was initially planning this post yesterday after I read a series of tweets from Ethan Van Sciver, the right wing comic book artist who claims the mantle of ‘ComicsGate’®™. EVS was the guy who had the big falling out with Vox Day in September. In a series of tweets he disappointed me slightly by using the word “organized” instead of “coordinated”. I shan’t link to the tweets because it messes with the WordPress layout but the combined message was this:

“This Wave of Organized Attacks on ComicsGate consisted of:
1. The rise of @sinKEVitch as leader of AntiCG!
2. Jeff Lemire calling pros to arms against us!
3. Darwyn Cooke’s widow baiting CG!
4 Three Bleeding Cool hitpieces on me!
5. Hit pieces in the Washington Post, & INVERSE
6. Hit piece in The Guardian! The Daily Dot!
7. Robbi Rodriguez sending me a photo of his anus!
8. Vox Day trying to co-opt ComicsGate for the Alt Right!
9. Patton Oswalt condemning ComicsGate!
10. Pablo Hidalgo of Lucasfilm compares ComicsGate to the KKK!
11. John Layman spews bile at 21 year old CG writer Nasser Rabadi for 21 consecutive tweets!
12. Kieran Shiach penned hitpiece in POLYGON!
13. Marvel Comics Chief Creative Office Joe Quesada weighs in to debate @DiversityAndCmx and EVS: Loses debate.” [CF: my emphasis]

Rather like the Yiannopolous defence, the charge of coordination here crosses political lines. EVS suggests a conspiracy between a disperate group that includes the Guardian and Vox Day. The Yiannopolous piece suggested coordination between the left and the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Like I said, this post was going to concentrate on a theme among culture wars and be a break from writing about the nomination process of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. However, the morning news presented this to me: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/09/24/politics/read-brett-kavanaugh-letter-senate-judiciary-committee/index.html

“These are smears, pure and simple. And they debase our public discourse. But they are also a threat to any man or woman who wishes to serve our country. Such grotesque and obvious character assassination—if allowed to succeed—will dissuade competent and good people of all political persuasions from service. As I told the Committee during my hearing, a federal judge must be independent, not swayed by public or political pressure. That is the kind of judge I will always be. I will not be intimidated into withdrawing from this process. The coordinated effort to destroy my good name will not drive me out.” [CF: my emphasis]

It’s an interesting principled-tone Kavanaugh strikes whilst simultaneously accusing two different women of inventing ‘smears’ against him. And there is that tic again. Of course, yes, clearly the Democrats coordinate their opposition to his nomination just as the Republicans and other conservative groups have coordinated their support of him but the ‘coordination’ here is intended (as it does in the examples above) to imply that criticism is not just illegitimate but sinister and underhand.

“They” are out to get me and it doesn’t matter who ‘they’ are or that ‘they’ are a superfluous hypothesis to describe events. By casting events in this way, a call to action is made against the shadowy Them — who, to quote Kavanaugh, are a threat “any man or woman who wishes to serve our country”.

Personally I like to believe Them are giant ants. I prefer the classics.

 

 

 

 

Claims and false claims

[A content warning: this post discusses sexual assault reports.]

All reports of a crime have potential consequences. We live in an age where false reports of crimes lead to death and where “SWATting” is a murderous prank. However, only one class of crime leads to constant concern from conservatives that false allegations are sufficiently common to require a kind of blanket scepticism. Amid the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, conservatives are pushing back against treating allegations of sexual assault at face value. This is part of a long history of people demanding that sexual assault crimes, in particular, require additional scepticism and scrutiny. That history pushed an idea that rape claims are made by women to ruin a man’s reputation even though historically the consequences of speaking out have always fallen more heavily on women than men*.

A piece by David French at the conservative magazine National Review attempts to pushback against modern feminist advocacy for supporting victims of sexual violence:

“It happens every single time there’s a public debate about sex crimes. Advocates for women introduce, in addition to the actual evidence in the case, an additional bit of  “data” that bolsters each and every claim of sexual assault. You see, “studies” show that women rarely file false rape claims. According to many activists, when a woman makes a claim of sexual assault, there is an empirically high probability that she’s telling the truth. In other words, the very existence of the claim is evidence of the truth of the claim.” https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/09/brett-kavanaugh-accusations-rape-claim-statistics/

The tactic here is one we’ve seen in multiple circumstances where research runs counter to conservative beliefs. FUD, fear-uncertainty-doubt — everything from cigarettes to DDT to climate change has had the FUD treatment as intentional strategy to undermine research. Note the ‘how ridiculous’ tone of ‘In other words, the very existence of the claim is evidence of the truth of the claim.’ when, yes the existence of somebody claiming a crime happened to them IS evidence that a crime happened to them. It is typically the first piece of evidence of a crime! It isn’t always conclusive evidence of a crime for multiple reasons but yes, mainfestly it is evidence. The rhetorical trick here is to take something that is actually commonplace (i.e. a default assumption that when a person makes a serious claim of a crime there is probably a crime) and make it sound spurious or unusual.

The thrust of the article rests on an attempt to debunk research that has been done on the issue of false rape allegations. To maintain the fear of men suffering from false rape allegations, the article aims to emphasise the uncertainty in the statistics to provoke doubt (and uncertainty) amid its target audience.

After a broad preamble, the article focuses on one study in particular and to the article’s credit it does actually link to the paper. The 2010 study in question is this one False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases by David Lisak, Lori Gardinier, Sarah C. Nicksa and Ashley M. Cote. The specific study looks at reports of sexual assault to campus police at major US Northeastern university. However, the study also contains (as you might expect) a literature review of other studies conducted. What is notable about the studies listed is that they found frequencies of flase allegations were over reported. For example a 2005 UK Home Office study found:

“There is an over-estimation of the scale of false allegations by both police officers
and prosecutors which feeds into a culture of skepticism, leading to poor communi-
cation and loss of confidence between complainants and the police.”

The space were David French seeks to generate uncertainty around these studies is two-fold:

  1. That sexual assault and rape are inherently difficult topics to research because of the trauma of the crime and social stigma [both factors that actually point to false allegations being *less* likely than other crimes, of course…]
  2. That there are a large numbers of initial reports of sexual assault were an investigation does not proceed.

That large numbers of rape and sexual assault reports to police go univestigated may sound more like a scandal than a counter-argument to believing victims but this is a fertile space for the right to generate doubt.

French’s article correctly reports that:

“researchers classified as false only 5.9 percent of cases — but noted that 44.9 percent of cases where classified as “Case did not proceed.””

And goes on to say:

“There is absolutely no way to know how many of the claims in that broad category were actually true or likely false. We simply know that the relevant decision-makers did not deem them to be provably true. Yet there are legions of people who glide right past the realities of our legal system and instead consider every claim outside those rare total exonerations to be true. According to this view, the justice system fails everyone else.”

The rhetorical trick is to confuse absolute certainty (i.e. we don’t know exactly the proportion of the uninvestigated claims might be false) with reasonable inferences that can be drawn from everything else we know (i.e. it is very, very, unlikely to be most of them). We can be confident that cases that did not proceed BECAUSE the allegation was false (i.e. it was investigated and found to be false) were NOT included in the 44.9% of cases precicesly because those cases were counted in false allegation. More pertinently, linking back to the “fear” aspect of the FUD strategy, the 44.9% of cases also led to zero legal or formal consequences to alleged perpetrators.

I don’t know if this fallacy has a formal name but it is one I see over and over. I could call it “methodological false isolation of evidence” by which I mean the tendency to treat evidence for a hypothesis as seperate and with no capacity for multiple sources of evidence to cross-coroborate. If I may depart into anthropoegenic global warming for a moment, you can see the fallacy work like this:

  • The physics of carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect imply that increased CO2 will lead to warming: countered by – ah yes, but we can’t know by how much and maybe it will be less than natural influences on climate and maybe the extra CO2 gets absorbed…
  • The temperature record shows warming consistent with the rises in anthopogencic greenhouse gases: countered by – ah yes, but maybe the warming is caused by something natural…

Rationally the the two pieces of evidence function together: correlation might not be causation but if you have causation AND correlation then, well that’s stronger evidence than the sum of its parts.

With these statistics we are not operating in a vacuum. They need to be read an understood along with the other data that we know. Heck, that idea is built into the genre of research papers and is exactly why literature reviews are included. Police report statistics are limited and do contain uncertainty and aren’t a window into some Platonic world of ideal truth BUT that does not mean we know nothing and can infer nothing. Not even remotely. What it means is we have context to examine the limitations of that data and consider where the bias is likely to lie i.e. is the police report data more likely to OVERestimate the rate of false allegations or UNDERestimate compared to the actual number of sexual assaults/rapes?

It’s not even a contest. Firstly as the 2010 report notes:

“It is notable that in general the greater the scrutiny applied to police classifica-
tions, the lower the rate of false reporting detected. Cumulatively, these findings con-
tradict the still widely promulgated stereotype that false rape allegations are a common occurrence.”

But the deeper issue is the basic bias in the data that depends on reports to the police.

“It is estimated that between 64% and 96% of victims do not report the crimes committed against them (Fisher et al., 2000; Perkins & Klaus, 1996), and a major reason for this is victims’ belief that his or her report will be met with suspicion or outright disbelief (Jordan, 2004).”

Most victims of sexual assault do not report the crime at all i.e. most victims aren’t even the data sets we are looking at. Assume for a moment that the lower bound of that figure (64%) is itself exaggerated (although why that would be the case I don’t know) and assume, to give David French an advantage, that 50% of actual sexual assaults go unreported and that half of the 44.9% figure were somehow actual FALSE allegations (again, very unlikely) that would make the proportion of false allegations compared with (actual assaults+false allegations) about 14% based on the 2010 study’s campus figure. It STILL, even with those overt biases included, points to false allegations being very unlikely.

It makes sense to believe. The assumption that rape in particular is likely to draw malicious allegations is a misogynistic assumption. That does not mean nobody has ever made a false claim of rape, it just means that we do not place the same burden of doubt on people when they claim to be robbed or mugged etc. People make mistakes and some people do sometimes maliciously accuse others of crimes but such behaviour is unusual and, if anything, it is particulalry unusual with sexual crimes where, in fact, the OPPOSITE is more likely to occur: the victim makes no allegation out of fear of the consequences and because of the trauma involved.

Somehow it is 2018 and we still have to say this.

*[I don’t want to ignore that men are also victims of sexual violence, perhaps at far greater rates than are currently quantified, but the specific issue here relates to a very gendered view of sex and sexual assault.]

How big is a mob anyway?

While I had more important things to post about today, I couldn’t let this post by Brad Torgersen go by without some comment. Having said that, this isn’t a Brad bashing piece. Rather, some of his comments got me thinking about some of the language we use (as well as touching on some questions about truth and evidence which is very much my briar patch).

Brad, somewhat late to the party, discusses Larry Correia’s disinvitation as Guest of Honour at Origins Game Fair. He summarises the problem as this:

“What’s concerning is that conventions — indeed, almost all institutions of various descriptions — are being placed in the position of either bending to the will of what are essentially mobs, or facing threats of both bad PR and, potentially, painful legal annoyance. In each case, the institutions almost always take the path of least resistance. It’s far easier to eject a guest who has attracted the mob’s attention, than stand your ground and endure the mob’s ire; as a “defender” of the alleged wrong-doer.”

‘Mob’ is doing a lot of work here. It is partly a way of making those who complain faceless & depersonalised and partly a way of making them seem irrational, angry & threatening. It is easy to characterise groups of people doing something as a ‘mob’ – for example, it would have been easy to call Sad Puppies ‘a mob’ or the Tor Boycott the action of a mob but the ease with which it can be done also demonstrates why it is largely an empty term.

But what about something like Gamergate? I can see why people use a term like ‘mob’ there but I am still worried that the term clouds issues more than it describes actions. The actual decisions made by people in Gamergate (or if you prefer some leftwing incident of many people acting on social media) were not those of an actual mass of people in physical proximity but rather many separate individuals making distinct decisions over long periods of time. I’m not trying to play dictionary definitions on the word ‘mob’ but rather trying to point out that ‘mob’ creates a misleading impression of the psychology and the community dynamics here.

In the case of the Origins Game Fair, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of a mob of any kind. Larry Correia himself is blaming one person as the source of complaint but I’ve seen evidence of other, quieter concerns raised to the con.

“Mob” as a term primarily obscures. It hides the way social media forms out of individual action both negatively and positively. An individual who is told they were part of a social media mob can look back at their actions and think “No, I just made that one comment and it was a reasonable one” and yet the subject of the comment may genuinely feel mobbed. At the Gamergate end of this spectrum, direct, individual acts of malice are made to look like individual responsibility played no part.

The (often genuine) feelings of being mobbed comes from the volume and the individuals making comments are often unaware of how they contribute to that volume.

An examples that crosses the Puppy/Puppyologist divide would be the recent brouhaha concerning the Romance author who is attempting to trademark the word ‘Cocky’ for her book series. I’ve written about it and Mad Genius have written about it and I don’t think there is much of a difference between our views on the issue. I’m sure the author concerned is feeling mobbed by the sheer scale of the response. It is unlikely she has read the Mad Genius posts on the topic and even more unlikely she has read my post but to some extent those posts all contribute. If our answer is ‘well she deserved it’ then I can see how that is a reasonable conclusion but that feeds into a different issue.

Brad raises other questions:

“None of this — in 2018 — happens without social media, of course. One might argue that Social Justice Zealotry could not exist without the anonymity and virility that social media provides. Pick your target from behind the safety of your keyboard, light the digital torch, rally your friends to the cause, and off you go to pillory whichever offending party suits your fancy this week. Proof? A preponderance of evidence? P’shaw!”

I’m not going to pick through the obvious hypocrisy of Brad’s complaint there — if we lived in a world in which Brad reflected on the faults he sees in others and whether they applied to themselves, then I’d have far fewer blog post topics.

Rather, it is worth asking about standards of evidence. Rather absurdly, Brad compares the con’s decision to the work of a military ‘seperation board’:

“Thank goodness separation boards don’t rely on the mob’s methods. Because when I am sitting down with my fellow officers to review a case, we’re all poignantly aware of the fact that we’re holding somebody’s career in our hands. We are not a court martial, so we can’t determine anyone’s guilt or innocence of a crime. But we can determine if the evidence of misconduct — not necessarily criminal in nature — does warrant severing the servicemember, and what the character of that severing should be. Because any discharge below honorable carries potentially life-long, negative consequences for the servicemember in question. And when something’s going to stick with somebody for the rest of their lives in a bad way, there better damned well be plenty of proof that it’s necessary, and justified.”

Again, self-reflection would probably help Brad see that, no, the standard of evidence that people should feel they need to have before commenting on social media about a con’s choice of guest should NOT be required to be of the same standards of evidence as a board convened to determine whether somebody should lose their full-time job. But that does not imply we should have no standards of evidence or truth.

Baseless accusations are not a good thing but we also can’t hold all truth claims to some sort of court-of-law standard either or even the standards of a HR function of a major institution*. To shift contexts slightly, there is a problem of regress here – imagine a company with some sort of grievance policy. The policy has to have at least two standards of evidence:

  • The standard used for the company to act on a complaint by one employee about another.
  • The standard used by the company to regard an employee’s complaint as reasonable.

The second standard has to be less than the first standard because employees need to be able to make complaints without undertaking the same due-process/evidence gathering/discussions that the complaint process uses. Indeed, there needs to be a third standard: the evidence needed for the company to regard a complaint as malicious or frivolous.

The same is true for reporting something to the police. It’s unreasonable to demand that somebody reporting something to the police should have ascertained the level of evidence needed for a trial. It’s unreasonable (indeed absurd) for the police to need that level of evidence to decide whether to investigate a possible crime. However, there has to be SOME standard because people make malicious complaints to harass others and there are obvious (and sometimes deadly) instances of the police acting on the basis of very poor quality information and/or prejudice.

There’s no easy answers at the end of this. To not just be truthful but to be concerned about the truth is a moral imperative. To consider the collective impact of our individual actions is also a moral imperative. That there are social consequence for bad (but not illegal) behaviour is part of how societies work. That there is no one-size-fits-all standard for evaluating the truth of a claim before commenting on the claim is a logical necessity.

*[Only afterwards did I see that calling the US Army a ‘major institution’ was a pun.]

The trope that changed my mind

Major spoilers for Get Out and lesser spoilers for Six Wakes follow below. This got long and warnings around topics that touch on (but don’t discuss in detail) body image.

Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes occupy different genres of speculative fiction. One is a contemporary horror film that examines privilege and alienation and the other is a space adventure set in the future. Such differences do not preclude similarities – both deal with violence, mistrust, secrets and the abuse of power. In both wealthy characters use their position to manipulate people into losing autonomy over themselves both in terms of their overall identity and their physical bodies.

Continue reading “The trope that changed my mind”

That John Ringo Thing

I don’t have much to say about writer John Ringo withdrawing from the ConCarolinas con. It isn’t just that most things have been better said elsewhere, it is also that most of the relevant issues have been discussed here in depth already but with different examples. You could probably do one of those fake bingo cards with the talking points that came up.

But while we are here:

  • People on the left or perceived as being left SAYING things? That is treated by the right as an attack.
  • People on the right saying things? That is a valuable expression of free speech.
  • The right are champions of liberty…but not the liberty of people to choose not to go to a con because they are concerned about the harassment.
  • The left objecting to somebody’s poor behaviour is bullying and harassment according to the right but bullying and harassment is simply being “not PC” if you are on the right.

It’s not consistent, its not sincere (no matter how passionately it is expressed) and it certainly isn’t anything to do with liberty.

Is he being punished for his “politics”? Yes but only in the sense that the right have made being obnoxious and unpleasant to other people a political issue and have re-badged people objecting to rude behaviour as an attack on liberty. Nobody was objecting to Ringo because of party allegiance, who he voted for, his views on taxation, his economic theories, his attitude to labour law or trade unions, his view on trade, capitalism, the merits of public healthcare, deficit reduction or electoral reform. As far as I can see nobody was objecting to him on the grounds of more contentious issues such as abortion or gun control.

As for his “safety” that is a very odd explanation for why the con asked him to withdraw. The con was facing other guests not attending and potentially other fans not attending. Are we to believe John Ringo’s safety was imperilled by people NOT turning up?