The Real Reason You Don’t Know The Truth About Everything Ever…It’ll Surprise You!

The above is a fantastic info-graphic and gets to the heart of what makes a lot of so-called “science” unfalsifiable or otherwise hard to prove in one direction or the next. A particular pet peeve of mine is the sensational headlines which seem to be in vogue today for one reason or another. Everyone seems to think that they know “the truth” of the situation or that the truth will come out via this one study that had a really small sample bias but never mind the results because pop culture!

You see it in the Huffington Post among other places like the always obnoxious Buzzfeed always talking about how they seemingly found the one answer to an incredibly complex issue that has been debated for hundreds of years. But thanks to these few studies we’re citing from (of course) prominent institutions we can just lay the topic to rest.

Oh, and please mail the check to…

So yes, this an issue in fairly mainstream or at least widely-received publications that should know better. But how does this relate to articles? I think we can relate this practice to some similar problems with articles, maybe enough to sketch up a rough guide to notice some warning signs that the article in question may not be the best at telling you what the truth of the matter is.

Review of, “Eek! A Male!”

Recently someone on my friends list on Facebook (two actually) posted this which tackles a pretty serious issue: how society deals with child predators.

Now, my own opinion is that society goes a bit nuts when it comes to “the children” whatever the case may be. Which makes sense to some degree since children are seen as a given society’s “future”. And if the children are harmed physically or otherwise on a grand enough scale then repercussions might indeed be catastrophic for the given society. So I can see why things like child predators and other exploiters of children may be seen more harshly than others.

Besides this common notion of children being “the future” it’s also worth noting that adults typically see children as much more vulnerable, innocent and (frankly) cuter and thus may tend to have more compassion for them then, say, an adult who had to deal with these problems. It’s this sort of visceral reaction that also informs us while some people take abuse of pets less non-nonchalantly than domestic violence. Domestic violence, on some level, is much more expected than a pet’s owner being very abusive.

The problem in trying to rectify how viscerally people react so that children can actually be protected more often is that you run into the trope of, “well if you’re against the current way of protecting children you must not care yourself!” or worse still you’re accused of being a child predator yourself. The latter, potentially, could hold a lot of social power over your head if the right people are convinced of that and report you to the police or something.

I don’t have any statistics on hand for how often the above happens and I’m not about to claim it’s some systematic problem when I don’t have said data and could only vaguely refer to intimations, vague anecdotes and so on. But I do think the above situations are entirely possible in a society that seems to treat “safety” (whatever that means) as more important than the children themselves.

A less auspicious example of taking safety more seriously than children is when people build parks out of “safer” equipment or when an old park that’s now deemed “dangerous” is covered with safer material so the children won’t get hurt.

Of course, I’m all in favor of children having an environment that is less likely to harm themselves on and in general protecting people who are probably going to be more vulnerable to harm than you (on average anyhow) is usually a good idea. But these sorts of changes don’t strike me as particularly helpful. It’s giving the children the idea that if life ever becomes tough or there’s even a risk of it that someone can just bail them out or make it safer. It’s also fairly infantalizing to some extent to expect most children to be so reckless that they’re going to seriously injure themselves in a park.

Again, I have no statistics about how often kids get seriously (and by that I mean needing to go to the ER or the like) injured at playgrounds. But I’m going to engage in some speculation here (so grain of salt please!) that more kids get injured in car accidents and cars in general than they do at playgrounds. That’s speculation but it seems fairly intuitively right for whatever that’s worth.

In the cases I’ve cited above, you’ll note that I’ve given some individual examples, common cultural perceptions and so on without any statistics. But that’s fine because I’m not claiming this is a societal issue or an issue that happens any number of times. I’m just claiming it’s a thing that happens and has happened and that we ought to be suspicious about it inasmuch as that is possible.

Where the article that I link above goes wrong is that, from some anecdotes and no larger evidence or study, it concludes that men are seen de facto as predators in many places. It seems to repeatedly imply that men are seen as the problem. For the author, Lenore Skenazy, it doesn’t seem like a problem of predators themselves but who predators are associated with.

But how does she prove this? She seems to rely on various news stories and personal stories but as I said before has no larger proof of evidence that this is a societal problem that happens often and in many places. She just extrapolates from the handful of situations she cites that this is something that needs to be stopped.

Indeed, if Skenazy was right and this was a larger issue about men and does happen often then I’d probably agree that it needs to be rectified. But what happens if we take some of my advice from above? Stop infantalizing children, treat “safety” as more of a spectrum than a binary of “safe” and “unsafe”and so on. I speculate that if we did that then it’d also stop the persecution of men that Skenazy is deriding without even specifically addressing the part about men.

This shows to me that the issue isn’t about men or at least not per se’, it’s about how society thinks and deals with children and their safety. And I think that’s definitely an issue that I can see needs to be rewritten.

That idea of children and safety certainly hurts men but it can also hurt women just as well. It can make women who trust their kid to be by themselves for a minute to be a bad mother because maybe women are supposed to “always be close” to their kids. That opinion depends heavily on what counts as “close” though. Being on a park bench while your kid plays a bunch of feet away isn’t anything new and is often depicted in media. Is that “close” enough. What if you only live across the street and watch from your porch or look out the window every 10 minutes or so?

All of this is just to say that Skenazy’s points here aren’t well argued for and I think we should take a look at her article more closely to get a sort of study case on spotting bad articles.

Response to, “Eek! A Male!”

Let’s first notice the subtitle: “Treating all men as potential predators doesn’t make our kids safer.” (emphasis added)

So is Skenazy’s claim that all men are actually being treated as potential predators? I doubt it and in an attempt to reconstruct her premise as charitably as possible I’ll presume that she’s just going for a sensational headline (or in this case, subtitle) which is a part of spotting bad science and perhaps a bad (or at least problematic) article.

So Skenazy thinks that most men or at least a large percentage of the population’s male section are being treated as potential predators. Okay, so what is her evidence for this?

Skenazy starts with a story:

Last week, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Timothy Murray, noticed smoke coming out of a minivan in his hometown of Worcester. He raced over and pulled out two small children, moments before the van’s tire exploded into flames. At which point, according to the AP account, the kids’ grandmother, who had been driving, nearly punched our hero in the face.

Why?

Mr. Murray said she told him she thought he might be a kidnapper.

It’s not clear from this story the sequence of events. Did the grandmother see Murray? Did she know it was a man? She clearly didn’t see the smoke so if the smoke was in her line of vision somehow would it have been possible that she did what most people would do if someone came racing at your car and picked out your kids? I think that’s entirely possible.

The problem here more fundamentally is that we don’t know whether the grandmother almost punched him because he was male or because she thought he was going to steal her grandchildren. And if that’s not exactly clear then this story doesn’t do much for Skenazy’s case. She could have almost punched him out of a visceral reaction or more specifically a reaction to adrenaline to her body and not be thinking.

And where exactly did Murray come at from the car?

I know this sounds like I’m nitpicking but it is actually pretty important to the story to know whether the grandmother could tell it was a man to begin with. Maybe asking her a question like, “would you have had the same reaction if it was a woman or a non-binary person?” or something would be a good way to control for outside factors. Otherwise we just have no good way to know or conclude that she did it because Murray was a man.

Skenazy continues:

And so it goes these days, when almost any man who has anything to do with a child can find himself suspected of being a creep. I call it “Worst-First” thinking: Gripped by pedophile panic, we jump to the very worst, even least likely, conclusion first. Then we congratulate ourselves for being so vigilant.

Notice even Skenazy doesn’t say male panic even though the whole point of her article is that this is a male problem and not a problem with how society sees pedophilia and children. It’s possible I’ve misinterpreted Skenazy’s point but if so then why does she only mention males? Why not have pedophilia and children in the main title and not just the subtitle? Why only use examples that include men? It seems hard to me to interpret Skenazy’s argument any other way.

But regardless I think Skenazy points out something here that’s certainly true in my experience: people love having the moral high ground.

Consider the game, The Walking Dead. There’s a scene where someone saves their kid instead of someone else’s kid and runs away to safety. The player has the choice to moralize, shame and guilt the already explicitly guilty NPC who is trying to deal with his demons. When I considered my (time-sensitive) options the solution seemed fairly obvious: why would I shame him anymore than he already feels shame? I should console him as he is no good to the group (or less good to the group) if he’s feeling shitty about himself and his life choices.

And besides that, uh, it’s the zombie apocalypse…what the hell does having the moral high ground have to do with surviving?

Don’t get me wrong, in some cases being able to tell someone they’re wrong or make them reconsider their past actions might help you not associate with unreliable or otherwise not pleasant people. These are the sort of people who you wouldn’t want to survive with and you may even be better off without them in some cases.

…So yeah, I’ve been playing a lot of The Walking Dead lately, sorry.

Back to the point though, I do think that Skenazy is right to point out that sometimes we get so caught up in having morality on our side that we forget that morality involves other people too. And even if they’ve done something wrong this doesn’t always mean they’re a bad person (I could make another TWD reference here but I’ll stay my tongue…).

Skenazy cites another example however:

Consider the Iowa daycare center where Nichole Adkins works. The one male aide employed there, she told me in an interview, is not allowed to change diapers. “In fact,” Ms. Adkins said, “he has been asked to leave the classroom when diapering was happening.”

Now, a guy turned on by diaper changes has got to be even rarer than a guy turned on by Sponge Bob. But “Worst-First” thinking means suspecting the motives of any man who chooses to work around kids.

I disagree with the Iowa daycare center’s decision, for whatever that’s worth. I think that it may be, at least in part, based in the sexist notion that only women can take care of children and men are too “rough and tough” or whatever to handle children delicately like they need to be (do you see the infantalizing returning and now intersecting with sexism?).

Yes, sexism hurts men.

But, again, is Nichole choosing this because Ms. Adkins and others see him as a man? Or is it because of the scare of pedophilia that, I agree, seems overblown in this specific case?

It’s not clear why but I can certainly understand why Skenazy would reach this conclusion. I could certainly see it being the case but if all we have to go on are insinuations and implications then this evidence seems weaker then Skenazy is hoping it will be.

And even though I tried to reconstruct Skenazy’s argument more charitably she again says “any man” instead of “some men” or “most men”. I’m not sure if she’s just doing it for rhetoric purposes (likely) or actually believes it’s all men which seems to be a apriori ridiculous claim or assertion to make. Regardless her evidence so far isn’t compelling enough and mostly seem to rely on knee-jerk emotional reactions than cautious study and analysis of his reasoning.

Further, what do all of these single cases prove? Just because someone in Worcester and someone in Idaho (allegedly) targeted someone because they were male (which isn’t clear to me, but even if it was I would require more evidence on a larger scale to accept Skenazy’s conclusion) doesn’t necessarily entail that this is a larger societal issue.

That conclusion just doesn’t seem to follow to me. There are other explanations (which I’ve tried to give above) such as inftalization of children, panic over pedophilia and so on.

Skenazy is determined to prove her point though, she says next that:

Maybe the daycare center felt it had to be extra cautious, to avoid lawsuits. But regular folk are suspicious, too. Last February, a woman followed a man around at a store berating him for clutching a pile of girls’ panties. “I can’t believe this! You’re disgusting. This is a public place, you pervert!” she said—until the guy, who posted about the episode on a website, fished out his ID. He was a clerk restocking the underwear department.

Okay…so let me get this straight.

Someone carries panties in stores while other customers are around…how often exactly? Like, would this be something someone would expect? And why weren’t the panties like…in a box? I’ve done retail before and I’ve never seen them done while customers are in the store (specifically girls and women’s underwear).

I’m not saying that the story isn’t true (I’m sure it is) but it just seems like something someone wouldn’t expect to see. You can also usually tell a clerk is a clerk because they’re often dressed in a certain way that the customers may not tend to be.

Regardless, let’s accept this as true and presume that it was because he was a man (a safe assumption here, perhaps)…so what? Does a guy who gets called a pervert for carrying around girls panties in a store somehow mean that all (or even more charitably, most) men are presumed perverts?

Could anyone see this situation and think,

“Wow that woman only targeted him because he was a guy! What a jerk!”

Like, if I saw someone carrying around girls panties and they were a full grown man with no children nearby and they didn’t look like an employee maybe I’d be weirded out and maybe I wouldn’t, I don’t know. It’s never happened to me or anyone I know.

But, like, I don’t think it was unreasonable for this woman to presume something was going on. I probably wouldn’t have said anything and just thought it was a bit weird…but either way does this situation prove much? I’m not really convinced it does. I mean, it can prove people are quick to judge in certain situations but honestly I don’t see how this woman is blame-worthy let alone indicative of some bigger social issue Skenazy has yet to prove.

We’re going to move on though:

Given the level of distrust, is it any wonder that, as the London Telegraph reported last month, the British Musicians’ Union warned its members they are no longer to touch a child’s fingers, even to position them correctly on the keys? Or that a public pool in Sydney, Australia last fall prohibited boys from changing in the same locker room as the men? (According to the Daily Telegraph in Sydney, the men demanded this, fearing false accusations.)

Skenazy’s case may seem stronger here because now she’s citing examples outside of the US which maybe makes her claim stronger than most (all?) men are suspect of being pedophilic. But it’s really just the same sorts of “evidence” she has cited before. Individual and story/news based cases that have gotten a lot of attention and are therefore indicative of a larger problem in some way.

Now Skenazy is just extending her weak foundation for basing evidence to other parts of the world. But the fact of the matter without knowing more about these situations, without having empirical evidence or studies and even just without only flooding the reader with news stories Skenazy just doesn’t have much to offer here.

There is an interesting part which is contained in the last part about false allegations. If the men were concerned about false allegations then that begs the question: was that a reasonable concern? How often do false allegations for pedophilia happen in Australia, exactly? Elsewhere? Skenazy doesn’t give us any references or citations to determine for ourselves which is another sign of a troubling article.

I can’t find a good claim from a quick Google search, at least for Australia. In case anyone is wondering why I’m not giving you any statistics to munch on.

Skenazy continues by referencing (of all things) Fox News to make his point:

What’s really ironic about all this emphasis on perverts is that it’s making us think like them. Remember the story that broke right before Christmas? The FBI warned law-enforcement agencies that the new Video Barbie could be used to make kiddie porn. The warning was not intended for the public but it leaked out. TV news celebrated the joy of the season by telling parents that any man nice enough to play dolls with their daughters could really be videotaping “under their little skirts!” as one Fox News reporter said.

It’s unclear who “celebrated” by telling parents about men playing with dolls but this is a pretty common way to keep the gender binary in line anyhow. So I suppose I wouldn’t be too surprised if a bunch of places did this.

But…I mean, are we surprised that Fox News said that? Are they a representative sample of the larger media reaction? I don’t know, Skenazy is, as usual, not very helpful with the details. I think she just wants emotional reactions and outrage.

And sure I’ve got a small amount of outrage…but it’s more to do with this poorly argued article than anything else.

Skenazy tries to close up his case further by citing the “climate” these attitudes

This queasy climate is making men think twice about things they used to do unselfconsciously. A friend of mine, Eric Kozak, was working for a while as a courier. Driving around an unfamiliar neighborhood, he says, “I got lost. I saw a couple kids by the side of the road and rolled down my window to ask, ‘Where is such-and-such road?’ They ran off screaming.”

Well…did they run off because he was a guy or because stranger danger?

One of the other huge problems with Skenazy’s “evidence” is that a lot of it has pretty easy alternative explanations you could draw from the situations. Thus making her conclusion seem a lot less likely than she’d like it to be.

Another dad told me about taking his three-year-old to play football in the local park, where he’d help organize the slightly older kids into a game. Over time, one of the kids started to look up to him. “He wanted to stand close to me, wanted approval, Dad stuff, I guess. And because of this whole ‘stranger danger’ mentality, I could sense this sort of wary disapproval from the few other parents at the playground. So I just stopped going.”

And that’s not the worst.

Here, Skenazy’s “evidence” is reduced to an individuals vague feeling of disapproval from a few of the other parents. So instead of, like, explaining the situation he just stopped going?

At this point I’m just flabbergasted. It isn’t even that her examples don’t prove her premise in the least (even if charitably interpreted) but her evidence is just poorly argued from start to finish and often aren’t conclusive enough to obviously and clearly only point to her interpretations of the events.

Let’s finish this up:

In England in 2006, BBC News reported the story of a bricklayer who spotted a toddler at the side of the road. As he later testified at a hearing, he didn’t stop to help for fear he’d be accused of trying to abduct her. You know: A man driving around with a little girl in his car? She ended up at a pond and drowned.

We think we’re protecting our kids by treating all men as potential predators. But that’s not a society that’s safe. Just sick.

Okay, that’s just plain irresponsible. I understand the reasoning but holy crap, what would you rather have, a toddler being abducted by an actual child molester or you who know you know isn’t one?

Again, I get not wanting the stigma but it’s debatable whether that would have happened to begin with and what’s much more likely is that a toddler might accidentally do something to hurt themselves.

To finish up, Skenazy seems to double down on the worst possible iteration of her claim which is “all men” and again she seems to hold to it. But even if I downgraded his premise via guarding terms (e.g. most and many instead of all) nothing she’s said has really proven that much.

Wrap-Up

Some of the problems I noticed in that article were:

  • Sensationalism
  • Small sample size
  • Misinterpreted Results
  • Lack of empirical research/studies/data
  • Overly news-worthy based and anecdote based (“the plural of anecdotes isn’t evidence”)

A lot of this adds up to a really underdeveloped and poorly argued for article.

Hopefully my review of it and me pointing out the particular problems helps you realize what makes an article better or worse in some capacity.