June 4, 2012

Elementary, My Dear

Back when I was in college, I took an Intro to Psychology course in order to fulfill my core requirements.

As part of the class, all students had to sign up for and take part in a number of "experiments" being conducted by more advanced students in the department. Naturally, the time commitment involved in each of these tasks varied as did (as I discovered) the quality of the subterfuge involved in accumulated data.

For example, one of the tasks required me to answer some questions about my personal views on a topic which I don't recall exactly, but it was probably along the lines of teen drinking and whether the legal age should be lowered or not.

After taking a look at my answers on the survey, I was placed in a private room and told in about fifteen minutes, I would be asked to debate my views with a professor and would be asked to take the contrary position to his, which happened to be pretty much in line with my response to the survey.

They also gave me a research package to study to help me shape my remarks, and the upshot of all of this was that after the fifteen minutes had elapsed, they told me the professor was not available after all, but would I mind taking an additional survey in order to get credit for volunteering?

The survey was similar to the original one, and the upshot of the whole experiment, I gathered, was they wanted to see if my opinion would change after being told I had to advocate the other side and was given all sorts of information that countered my pre-existing point of view.

Perhaps if I actually believed for an instance the scenario I was placed in I would have been a good subject, but as I never once truly thought that I would have to go through with the debate, the whole exercise seemed worthless to me.

In fact, the last thing they asked me was whether or not I believed the scenario, and when I said I did not, they thanked me for my time (and honesty) and said they couldn't use my data.


The "easiest" way to fulfill the obligation to volunteer for experiments was to take part in a survey. You'd go in, answer a few questions, and then you'd be done. These tended to fill up quickly, however, and I was only able to sign up for one such activity, one that was only open to males.

As it turns out, this survey dealt with the male attitude towards women. It was around 100 statements long. For each one, we were told to put a number from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) that corresponded to our level of agreement with the statement.

And so, I quickly worked my way through the document, strongly agreeing with sentences like "Women should be paid the same as men for doing the same job" and strongly disagreeing with "When a man sees a girl dressed in a way that turns him on that means she wants him to make sexual advances."

Then I got to a statement that simply left me flummoxed: "Any woman can be raped."

I had no idea how to respond to that question, because I couldn't figure out the context of what exactly the statement was trying to say. Obviously, if it meant that it was "It is OK for any woman to be raped" then the clear only answer that should be selected is "1 - strongly disagree."

However, given some of the surrounding sentences, I suspected that perhaps what was really being asked was if there was a certain kind of woman who was "immune" from rape. In other words, I thought the intention of the statement might have been better phrased as "It is possible for any woman to be raped." 

If that were the case, then the answer would have to be (sadly) "5 - strongly agree."

When I went up to the proctor of the survey to ask for clarification, he said he wasn't allowed to give me any, nor could I leave it blank and receive credit.

Since it was anonymous, though, I had a pretty good sense that failing to answer that question would not result in any repercussion, I did leave it blank rather than skew the data in a way that (due to the ambiguity I perceived) didn't represent my world view.

But all these years later, I still think back to that survey whenever I am witness to an argument between two people who appear to be at war over an issue on which they actually are on the same side, but due to a similar seeming ambiguity in something one of them said, battle lines have been drawn.

Imagine the following exchange:

Person A: Women who attend conferences like yours are not safe from sexual assault. Agree or disagree?

Person B: If by not safe you mean that it is possible for sexual assault to take place, then I agree. If by not safe you mean that the mere act of attending our conference makes it more likely that they will be sexually assaulted, then, I disagree. I worry that the way you phrase the statement may lead people to think the latter is true.

Person A: How dare you blame ME for the problem and not those who would commit sexual assault in the first place. I am not a liar! These things happen! I am not going to your conference. I do not feel safe.

While not exactly the conversation that is going on, that's my humble view of the current kerfuffle between Rebecca Watson and DJ Grothe, in the simplest of terms. It saddens me that these two people, and the supporters of each who have lined up on both sides, all seem to agree that sexual assault is a bad thing and should be eliminated. Yet rather than continue a dialogue on the real issue, the bile and hatred directed at each side by the other that I'm witnessing dismays me. 

All I can say is, I'm done with this survey and will be leaving my answer to this question blank. 


  1. I think you need to go re-read the discussion if you think that you have described anything even remotely like the current debate.

  2. I support DJ 100%. This American Girlyban movement has jumped the shark. There are too many women in the world with REAL problems to spend any time focusing on the sexual preoccupations and imagined fears of Skepchick. I will believe a casino environment is unsafe for women when I fail to see dozens of old women in walkers toting about large canisters of coins with no worries. Enjoy.

  3. The Tim Channel, Really? The sad and tired "No true Scotsman" argument? Yes, there are lots of people in the world with problems worse than being groped, confronted or demeaned. That does not mean that the minor problems go away and should not be dealt with. And what makes you deny that the problems and discomforts expressed by these girls are imagined? Then a poor attempt at diversion about old ladies and containers of money. The community deserves better than this.
    If you were groped by a large man, who fancied having sex with you, who failed to take "No" for an answer, I hope there would be quick recompense and protection for you.

  4. Really UNKNOWN? You prefer to hide in the shadows and lob straw men my direction? This is not an intelligent design forum. The community deserves to hear from those who are willing to stand up and be counted, even in the face of Girlyban misdirection. I give you all the credibility I give all the other ANONYMOUS hacks on the internet. Enjoy.

  5. Again, this is the core of the problem.

    Watson is using the term "safe" in the sense of "uncomfortable and unwelcome" which, while completely appropriate to be used, she (and her supporters) do not seem willing to accept the fact that this usage of the word is shrouded in jargon and not the definition that comes to mind when most people (including those not already involved in their community) think of when hearing the word.

    A large number of people, including very educated people, will hear the word safe and think she means "not likely to be harmed" which puts a very different connotation on her description of how TAM and other such conventions make her feel.

    In terms of "Elevatorgate" there were no witnesses to the confrontation. Yet what Watson described rings completely true to me and even if you don't agree she has a right to feel uncomfortable with the events, if she felt uncomfortable, that's all that matters. And when she said, "Guys, don't do that" she didn't mean you can never ask a woman out for coffee. She meant it in the full context of the experience -- the time, the place, the confined space, the professional nature of the event, the content of her presentation -- everything. That was "that."

    But, on the Internet, reading comprehension is typically not that great and anonymity certainly leads to people feeling the freedom to launch into horrific hate speech. Blog comments are clearly not safe spaces.

    My point is that, taking all the other context out of the equation, the disagreement between Watson and Grothe has become a war over semantics. I fully believe that the vast majority of proponents of both are in agreement that there is a problem with sexual harassment and that steps should be taken to make things better.

    Watson's use of the word "safe" and Grothe's use of the word "misinformation" (which can easily be construed as implying intent and malice to Watson's actions) have each caught on as rallying points for the other side to latch onto and pound into the ground. So rather than focusing on the real issue, and fueled by the continued Internet trolling that dominates the discourse, the rift widens and time and effort that could be spent on focusing on the problems now has to be wasted on this folly.

  6. Hello,

    "My point is that, taking all the other context out of the equation, the disagreement between Watson and Grothe has become a war over semantics"

    I agree with your evaluation of the debate so far.

    Skeptically yours,

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