Racism This, Sexism That

Kali Ranya:

A commenter on my Facebook once lamented that my feed was full of “soapbox” topics, that it had become always “racism this, sexism that.” At the time I was so gobsmacked that I’m unsure of the quality of my response. The basic thrust was that I wasn’t about to stop talking about these things, so folks should get used to it.

It occurred to me recently (the incident was a while ago) that I could better articulate why the flood of ‘ism posts in a blog entry than a Facebook comment, anyway. Let this then be an answer to the question that nobody’s asked recently, but might be thinking: what good does it do to keep up such a stream of shares, comments, blog posts, etc., about these topics?

I do these things to change myself:

I come from privilege. White, middle class, Catholic, educated, cisgender, etc. etc. These things come with deep, unconscious, largely inadvertent but still poisonous assumptions and habits. I can count on one hand the occasions I was ever face-to-face with a person of color as a child. Blackness was associated with crime, gang violence, “the bad part of town.” I believed that homosexual activity was sinful all the way through college; queer was an epithet. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I grasped what transgender even meant, much less recognize the prejudice and vulnerability that accompanies it.

Human beings are trainable animals. “We are what we repeatedly do;” perhaps moreso what we repeatedly think. Even now that I consciously and intellectually reject my youthful attitudes and ignorance, old, hard-to-dislodge reflexive patterns of thought persevere. The automatic tension that springs up when in proximity with a dark-skinned person I don’t know on the street. A twitch of skepticism when someone I’d come to know as one gender transitions to another. I recognize and rebuke myself for these things, but they still happen. Some piece of me still holds on to them.

Constant engagement with these topics helps me, however slowly, undo those ancient ingrained Othering habits. When I get a supportive comment on a feminist article, a Like, a reshare, those reinforcement mechanisms tickle my lizard brain. They tell that deep distant me, “this is rewarding. This is the right way to think.” And if I end up discussing the topic, arguing and defending the point at hand, that hones and practices a mindfulness toward equality as well.

I will never be perfect in these respects. But I keep up the reading and sharing and discussion in hopes of drawing ever closer to an ideal.

I do these things to change the world:

If I find it difficult to undo my own ignorance and prejudice, being a willing participant in the process, how much harder it must be to effect that change in a whole society! There are millions more like me whose privilege blinds them to true things and whose upbringing has entrenched false ones. There are unknowable numbers who actively fight back against changing these attitudes. Multiply the inertia of one person times how many people there are alive, then add still more for active bigotry… suffice to say my little-read feed is a teaspoon to the ocean at best.

But the only way we can hope to see change is by flooding the airwaves. We need to call out bigotry and expose it, mock it, demonstrate how foolish and outdated and uncool it is. We need to recognize positive forces and trends and praise them, celebrate them, recognize them as the way of the future for humanity. Why? To create such a pervasive atmosphere of truth and good that the next generation gets a different, better set of ingrained habits than I did. If every Twitter feed, every billboard, every odd conversation on the street, celebrates respect for the whole human person, then bigots will feel alone, out-of-touch, ashamed. People are social creatures who desire the validation of their fellow beings. The more isolated and kooky a hateful attitude appears, the fewer people will find it appealing, and the better the world becomes for all of us.

I can’t bring that about on my own, of course. But I can bring up the average, do my part to build that sussurus of positive voices. Seeing frequent posts affirming what’s right can help others like me, seeking to burn out old prejudices, make progress on that task. And maybe, every once in a while, someone actually resistant to or uncaring about ideals of equality might see a signal I boosted and think, “huh, that never occurred to me before.” Without realizing it, they get a little closer to leaving their problematic attitudes behind. My own audience is small (and probably doesn’t include any active bigots, hah), but in the wild world of Internet social media where things go viral and reach unexpected audiences, I never know what good a shared post might do.

That’s why the soapbox, that’s why racism this sexism that. It’s something I can do, here and now, every day, to make myself and the world around me better. And if that isn’t the purpose of living a life, I don’t know what is.

Reversing the Arrow of Causation

Mijara T’ran:

You’ve likely heard the skeptic’s cautionary advice that correlation is not causation. We should be wary whenever someone observes that two things occur together, therefore one causes the other. Unfortunately, this kind of shaky logic is extraordinarily common these days. Rigorous experimentation, where you hold as many variables constant as possible and then change the factor you’re studying to observe its effects, is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. This holds especially true in the area of health, where the subjects are people with their myriad habits and lifestyles (lots of variables to control for!), and the effects under study might not change in measurable ways for years or decades.

To get around these difficulties, researchers turn to an easier, cheaper, faster alternative: data mining! We have accumulated a wealth of data on innumerable facts of people’s lives, especially their health. By comparison to clinical trial and experiment, it’s easy to sift that data and narrow down to the variables we’re interested in and see how they are interrelated. The drawback, as you might have guessed, is that the output is all correlational data. We can see which lines on the graph climb at the same pace, but without isolating them and seeing what happens to one when we change the slope of the other, it’s very difficult to be sure which one of them is causing the other. Indeed, they might not be related by cause and effect at all, but could both be effects of some third variable.

Here’s a trick I’ve adopted to help spot bad correlation-causation claims, a critical-thinking shortcut that’s quick to apply and often insightful. Ask yourself: “Is it plausible that what they’re claiming is the cause might actually be the effect, and vice versa?” People doing correlational studies frequently don’t consider the possibility, simple though it is! Here are a few examples to get you thinking.

The correlation: People who are overweight eat a lot and don’t exercise much.
The claim: Overeating and lack of exercise cause weight gain.
The flip: Gaining weight causes you to eat more and exercise less.

If you’ve read any of this blog up to now, you’re familiar with this one. It looks weird at first, since we’re so inundated with the message that fat people are fat because of their bad behavior. But it turns out this flip brings immense insight when investigated. In fact, there’s a different cause to weight gain: the hormone insulin, whose action ramps up when we eat carbohydrates, the type of food energy found in staples like bread and pasta. The metabolic effects of weight gain in turn slow down our desire to exercise and prompt us to eat more. Stop eating carbs, insulin quiets down, you lose weight, and your appetite decreases and your energy for exercise returns!

The correlation: People who sit a lot during their days have higher incidence of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
The claim: Sitting makes you more prone to get sick.
The flip: Getting sick makes you sit more.

A while ago, a scary infographic made the rounds of the Internet, saying how sitting is killing you. Its message prompted me to get a standing desk at work and to set one up at home. But after learning about the causation-flip trick, I came back to the topic and tried it out: great Primes, it’s so obvious! People who are obese, diabetic, or have weak hearts are going to have more trouble getting up and staying active than people not suffering from those conditions. So of course you’re going to see sitting time climb along with the incidence of those conditions. Now, there are valid points in that article, notably the pieces that come from experimental observation rather than correlational leap. But the graphic’s biggest punch comes from something that, having engaged this trick, seems sketchy.

Try it out on your favorite topics! What if we’re not getting stupider because of our cell phones, but we’re more enthralled by our cell phones because some third factor is weakening our brains? What if your shiftless cousin didn’t stop looking for work because he was lazy, but got lazy (depressed, lethargic) because of his inability to find work? It won’t always yield some new insight, but the occasions when it does may surprise you!