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Category Archives: Random thoughts

Today I want to talk about rape. More specifically, I want to talk about certain reactions to rape that seem to be prevalent in our society. I’ll start by addressing the issue of blame/responsibility. You’ve all heard the comments: “It’s her fault for being out that late, and dressed like that, too” – that sort of thing. How are we to interpret such statements? What exactly does it mean when you place the blame for a crime on the victim of the crime?

 

Deconstructing the Blame for Rape
Let’s look at it this way – the act of rape is something we as a society disapprove of. We are so averse to rapes that we ascribe to them the status of criminal acts. This means that we have decided that after an act of rape occurs, someone involved in the rape must be punished. Thankfully, though, the vast majority of people who “blame” women for rapes do not mean that after the rape has occurred, it is against the woman that criminal proceedings should be initiated. The few exceptions to this would probably consist entirely of Taliban-style religious fundamentalists. Since I am no miracle-monger, I shall make no efforts to try to change the beliefs of this set of people.

There is another way to “blame” a woman for being raped, though – by placing what I’ll call primary causal responsibility upon her, rather than on the rapist. Causal responsibility is different from criminal responsibility in that the person with causal responsibility does not automatically qualify for punishment. However, that person is the one whose actions caused the rape to occur.

Once we’ve made the distinction between causal and criminal responsibility, those borderline-misogynistic comments start to make a little more sense: what (most) people mean when they blame women for being raped is that they believe that the rape occurred primarily because of the women’s actions. If those women had acted differently – if only they had been a bit more prudent in their sartorial choices for instance, the distasteful act of rape would have been avoided.

This is ridiculous, but unfortunately, it seems that it is not obviously ridiculous, since so many people feel this way. Hence, I feel the need to go into some detail in trying to explain why it is ridiculous.

 

Debates over Causal Responsibility Encourage Rapists
But before doing that, let’s acknowledge that, while not nearly as bad as placing criminal responsibility on women, placing causal responsibility for rape on them also results in extremely undesirable consequences. It does so in at least three ways.

1. You’re Letting Rapists Go Free
Firstly, it results in half-hearted pursuit of punishment for the rapist. The police officers refuse to acknowledge that a rape has occurred (“She obviously wanted something like that to happen”), the judge feels that “under the circumstances, the man’s actions were somewhat understandable”, and so on. Amidst all the obsessing about what the victim did or did not do, people lose sight of the perpetrator, the rapist, who deserves to be punished.

Now, anyone with a modicum of common sense will realize that severe punishments for rapists would go a long way towards drastically reducing the occurrence of rape; and conversely, that lackadaisical prosecution of rapists is no way to deal with the problem. To reiterate, my point is this: regardless of who or what causes the crime, swift and severe punishment of the perpetrators is one of the best ways to reduce further occurrences; and that tends not to happen when people are more concerned about the victim’s behaviour than the criminal’s.

2. You’re Providing Justification for Rape
The second reason why we should not be assigning causal responsibility for rape to women is that by doing so, we provide moral justification for rape to the sort of mind that contemplates rape. Please read that last sentence again, because I think it’s really, really important.

Assertions such as “Women in skirts get raped”, or “Women who go out alone get raped”, are likely to become self-fulfilling through their influence on the minds of would-be rapists. They are a way of encouraging rapists, and justifying their actions.

Presumably, there comes a moment in which a potential rapist must decide whether he should actually go through with rape or not. At such a moment, a refrain such as “Women in skirts get raped” would act as a confidence booster, a way for the potential rapist to tell himself that this woman deserves to be raped; that it is natural, inevitable, and not his fault.

We cannot let people think that way. We must not make it ever seem that there are circumstances in which it is natural for a woman to be raped.

3. You’re Hindering Efforts to Prevent Rape
The third pernicious effect of placing causal responsibility for rapes upon women is that that it misdirects efforts to prevent rape. Although there is some overlap, prevention and punishment are, of course, separate issues. When a society comes to believe that things like the length of a woman’s skirt are the primary causes of rape, its knee-jerk reaction will usually be to curtail the freedoms of women in one way or another, as a means to prevent rape. Such moves are undesirable in and of themselves, but in this case, I believe that they are made worse by the fact that they are not the best way to prevent rape.

This is because, as I mentioned earlier, it is ridiculous to believe that a woman’s actions/ behaviour/ speech/ appearance could be the real cause of rape. Let me return to that point now.

 

The Primary Cause of Rape
Rape is not new, and it was never restricted to any one population or region. Rape occurred before the words “Westernization” or “modernization” made any sense, it occurred before the Internet and TV and co-educational schooling. I suppose it even occurred before the invention of chow mein.

To put it in the terms of an experimentalist: If effect Y (rape) occurs both in the presence of and in the absence of treatment X (e.g. short skirts), then treatment X cannot possibly be the primary cause of effect Y.

The one thing that is common to every rape, everywhere, that has ever occurred is a man who has decided to gain sexual gratification through coercion of another human being (be it another man, woman or child). Rape cannot occur without this one ingredient. This is the cause of rape.

Let’s repeat that, in bold:

Rape is caused by men who decide to gain sexual gratification through coercion of another human being.

In order to prevent rape, it is this primary cause that we must aim at, rather than at various (and varying) contingent circumstances. We must reduce men’s willingness/ability to use coercion to gain sexual gratification.

 

Rape and Women’s Rights
That brings me to my next point: I’m tired of the whole “let’s imprison the victims – that’ll keep them safe!” mentality that rears up every time the occurrence of rape comes into the limelight. It is men’s behaviour that must be changed if we want to prevent rape, so if we have to enact restrictive laws, they should be targeted at men (the perpetrators), rather than women (the victims). Isn’t that common sense?

Are men unable to restrain their sexual desires when they catch sight of a woman on the street? If so, it is much more sensible (and fairer) to force men to wear blinkers than it is to force women to wear burkas. Forcing women to change the way they dress while not simultaneously imposing any restrictions on men is like saying to the men: “We trust you to act responsibly… even though you’re the culprits here, as you’ve proved time and time again.” Like I said, it’s crazy.

Your daughters are not the problem – keep your sons locked up if they’re a danger to society. Hell, if that’s what it takes, put them in chastity belts.

Anyway, this has turned into a bit of a rant. I’ll stop here.

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Gender inequality in triplewart seadevils : Females are more typical in appearance to other fish, whereas the males are tiny rudimentary creatures with stunted digestive systems. A male must find a female and fuse with her: he then lives parasitically, becoming little more than a sperm-producing body

A series of recent studies has shown that, on average, a woman is likely to score significantly higher than a man on several different tests of general intelligence. These studies all controlled for factors such as age, level of education, and socioeconomic background. Although men proved to be consistently better than women in very specific areas, such as tests of spatial reasoning, women’s average scores across a variety of tests were higher. This result is probably related to…

Gotcha!

No, seriously, I made all that up. As far as I know, there is no evidence that women are generally smarter than men; or that men are generally smarter than women. However, the premise I outlined above did strike me as a very interesting “What-if?” scenario. To spell it out, What would happen if it became clear that women were generally more intelligent than men? In particular, I am interested in whether such a finding would in any way counter prevailing gender inequalities. (I should, of course, state at the outset that I believe that gender equality is something worth pursuing regardless of differences between men and women in characteristics such as general intelligence)

CATEGORIES OF INEQUALITY

In much of the world, there are significant differences in basic well-being between women and men. These differences can be broadly divided into the following categories: survival inequality, unequal facilities, ownership inequality, and unequal sharing of household benefits and chores.

I think gender inequalities in all of the above categories might start to decrease rapidly if societies came to recognize women as being more intelligent than men. To begin with, take the fact that women are often denied access to facilities such as basic or higher education, or to the opportunity to work in certain occupations. They are also often not seriously considered for promotion to the highest levels of management in private and government organizations. All of that might change if people, including women themselves, came to really believe that women should be able to do as well as – if not much better than – men in all of those contexts.

The reduction in inequality in access to facilities should, in turn, result in a decrease in the survival inequality that results from the fact that women and girls’ health and nutrition are often considered to be of less importance, because of the belief that they are not as productive as the male members of the family. Similarly, there would also probably be a reduction of the inequality in sharing of household work, and in ownership of assets.

THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN WELL-BEING AND AGENCY

Apart from thinking about general well-being, I think it might be a good idea to focus on the difference between “well-being” and “agency”. [1] “Agency” refers to an individual’s ability to pursue goals that he/she has reason to value, regardless of whether or not they contribute to his/her personal well-being (which relates to access to basic necessities, such as adequate nutrition, healthcare, education and employment). In many parts of the world, women’s rights movements began by concentrating on the general well-being of women, but have now moved towards focusing on women’s ability to exercise their agency.

Some of the most interesting aspects of the “what-if” scenario in which the world comes to see women as significantly more intelligent than men concern the effects that this would have upon women’s agency in “conservative” societies such as that of Saudi Arabia. [2] Surely laws such as the one that prohibits women from driving cars would be repealed almost immediately? But what else? Would they begin to refuse to assent to the arranged marriages that their families set up for them? Would women claim a right not to wear a burka in public, just as men don’t? Going in a different direction, but sticking with the theme of religion, would a woman one day become the Pope?

THE MALE PERSPECTIVE

I think it’s very interesting that many men react with a certain amount of discomfort to the idea that women might, in general, be smarter than men. I wonder why this should be so. Most men would be quite willing to accept that there must be at least a few women who are much more intelligent than they are – but I suppose they see them as exceptions, rather than the norm. But then again, many individuals are even willing to accept that whole classes of people (e.g. “the Chinese”, or “the Indians”) are, in general, smarter than they are. So what’s wrong with accepting that women, in general, might be smarter than men?

The most obvious candidate for an answer to that would, I suppose, be that the average (heterosexual, non-Indian and non-Chinese) man doesn’t expect – or particularly wish for – a great deal of interaction with Chinese or Indian people (or any other similar group), but would probably one day want to win the heart of some woman. And the assumption is probably that this would be harder if the woman proved to be smarter than him.

Somehow, I can’t get very excited about that perspective. I’m quite happy with how intelligent I am, and I don’t think that would change if I found out that the average woman is smarter than me. In general, I don’t like adversarial conceptions of human identity (male vs female, believer vs non-believer, Western vs non-Western, etc), and I don’t think  my sense of self depends on seeing men as superior to women in any particular way.

NOTES

[1] For more on this perspective, see Amartya Sen’s essay Women and Men (published as part of a collection in The Argumentative Indian)

[2] Somehow, I think “conservative” may not be the right word to describe these societies, because all societies are conservative about some of their traditions. It is the particular traditions that a society chooses to “conserve” that should be used to define it, rather than the simple fact that it wishes to conserve certain values/traditions.

Therefore, rather than using the word “conservative” to describe the societies that are understood as being “not liberal”, I suggest the word “premodern”. The reason for this is that the values associated with the societies currently labelled as “liberal” – values such as gender equality, egalitarianism, religious tolerance, pluralism, etc were mostly seriously argued for only after the onset of the Modern Age.

I think I might have a real self-control problem when it comes to books. The latest manifestation of this malady came when I just couldn’t keep myself from delving into Living High and Letting Die, by philosopher Peter Unger – even though I was already reading three other books at the time (and had an examination the next day). But then again, the central message of the book can hardly fail to attract attention. In a nutshell, it argues compellingly that if ordinary middle- and upper-class people like you and I thought clearly about the moral demands of living in a world in which literally hundreds of thousands of children starve to death every year, we would realize that just about every single one of us fails quite miserably at meeting those demands.

I’ll probably go into a few details on some of the book’s most important ideas in a later post, but right now I want to talk about a very interesting discussion I had with a friend after I told her about Living High and Letting Die. She responded with considerable skepticism to the idea that relatively well-off people should donate significant portions of their income to organizations that provide life-saving aid, such as UNICEF and OXFAM. Much of this skepticism stemmed from the fact that, in all probability, you will never know exactly what an organization such as UNICEF does with the money you donate to it.

This wouldn’t be much of a problem if you were confident that every single dollar you donated was spent on things such as oral rehydration therapy (ORT) packets, and hence directly responsible for saving the lives of children in many parts of Africa and Asia. But that’s clearly not true. There are administrative costs involved in keeping UNICEF standing, and some of the money donated to it must be used to cover those costs. This may still not seem like anything objectionable, but what if we focus on one particular administrative cost: the salaries of the top officials at UNICEF?

Here’s the thing: it’s quite possible that the top-ranking officers of a multinational organization like UNICEF draw relatively large salaries. And those salaries are paid, indirectly, by people who donate to the organization. But surely the people who donate to UNICEF do so out of concern for children at risk, rather than out of concern for whether or not top-ranking officials at UNICEF get to live in nice houses, buy expensive cars, and so on? Does this constitute a valid argument against donating to UNICEF?

My own instinctive reaction was that it did not. I tried arguing that running UNICEF is important and difficult work, and that no one should feel bad about paying the salaries of the people who do that work. I tried to focus on the fact that since nearly no one else does the work that UNICEF does, you have to make a choice between helping needy kids while paying large salaries; or doing nothing at all to help needy kids – which had to be worse.

But it still didn’t feel right.

The people who are supposed to be saving the world’s poor are themselves living very comfortable lives, with money that could have been directed to the poor instead of to them.

I could tell that this was definitely something worth thinking about. But I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory argument either way, so I’m glad I came across this, towards the end of Living High and Letting Die:

“If it’s all right for you to impose losses on some particular person with the result that there’s significant lessening in the serious losses suffered by others overall, then, if you’re to avoid doing what’s seriously wrong, you can’t fail to impose equal losses on yourself when the result’s an equal lessening of serious losses overall.”

[slightly paraphrased for clarity]

Unger calls this the Reasonable Principle of Ethical Integrity, and uses it to argue for his central idea that well-off people like you and I should donate significant amounts of our income and wealth towards the people who are most in need of it. But even without following through to that conclusion, I think this points towards a very satisfactory answer to our conundrum regarding rich UNICEF employees.

Let me try to explain. Basically, the Reasonable Principle of Ethical Integrity argues that you’re not special, and that if morality imposes certain demands on UNICEF employees, it imposes the same demands on you. Hence, it might be okay for you to demand that UNICEF employees should have caps imposed on their salaries “because there’s kids starving in Africa”. But this would only be fair if you accepted a cap on the salary you may earn, wherever you work, “because there’s kids starving in Africa”, and because your employer (rightly) is more interested in keeping them alive than keeping you living lavishly.

Do you see what I mean? The gut feeling that UNICEF employees should not be living lavishly does have a lot of moral weight, but only in the sense that you should also not be living lavishly, regardless of whether your job is to help poor kids or not.  In fact, it’s crazy to penalize the people who are actually doing something to save the starving kids, when you refuse to penalize yourself in the same way. They’re the ones who’ve already given their professional lives to lessening serious loss, which is something you haven’t done. Therefore, they’ve already met a moral standard that you haven’t.

If you’re really interested in lessening serious losses (such as the loss of children’s lives), you must first somehow meet that same moral standard, before asking that it be raised only for the people who’ve already met it.

So, no, we are certainly not in a position to demand that UNICEF employees must live ascetic lives.

If there’s anyone who feels that this is somehow vaguely demoralizing, I offer the following comforting truth: UNICEF employee or not, we are all in an equal position to make personal sacrifices to help the poor and needy; this means that anyone who draws a large salary from whatever organization he or she works at has the ability to give away most of that money towards helping the poor.

 

 

 

About two posts back (“What Am I” – a short play) I mentioned the question “Does the evidence of our eyes tell us about the true nature of the world?” as one that philosophers have been mulling over for more than 2500 years. I think the question itself might require a bit of explanation.

Let’s say you’re looking at an orange (there’s one right here for your convenience). I know that it’s perfectly natural to believe that your eyes aren’t lying to you about the fact that its colour is, well, orange. It feels as though the evidence of our eyes is enough for us to say something completely non-subjective about the orange – that it is, in fact orange.

An orange.

But that’s not quite true. What is non-subjective (or at least a little more so) is that the orange is reflecting light mainly in the 635-590 nm wavelength range. Your brain perceives that light as being orange in colour, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that “orange-ness” is in any way a fundamental property of that light.

Consider this: visual information is not carried from the orange in front of you to your brain through fibre-optic cables in your head; it’s converted to electrical charges in your eye and then sent along nerves (in a process called phototransduction; and by the way, isn’t it astounding that we actually know this stuff? Three cheers for medical science!) to the brain, where it’s processed to form visual imagery.

In other words, not a single ray of light has ever reached your brain (well, unless you’ve had a lobotomy, but let’s ignore that possibility for now). Light is something that we cannot experience directly. It’s as though we’ll never be able to listen to an opera, but we can make some sense of its sheet music. And more than that, it isn’t even true that the notation in our sheet music is somehow the “right” one and that there’s no other way to record the opera. Many animals see colour very differently from how we do; some can even see ultraviolet light, which we can’t.

As a matter of fact, colour as a whole is an illusion that our brains create in order to help us deal with the world around us. Look at the table below, and consider the “border” between orange and red light – the wavelength of 635 nm. Truth is, it doesn’t really exist. It’s not as though light with a wavelength of 634 nm has a property of orange-ness whereas as we cross over to 636 nm, the light acquires a property of red-ness. That’s just how our brains perceive things, for some evolutionary reason.

This is how human beings perceive light of adequate intensity between 450 and 700 nm in wavelength

Finally, here’s a treat for having stuck around for all this: a black-and-white photograph of a rainbow. Notice that there’s no way to tell that there are different colours in there – black and white cameras don’t have brains like ours, which lump different wavelengths into fixed categories of colour. A rainbow spans a continuous spectrum of colours; the distinct bands that we normally see are an artefact of human colour vision, and no banding of any type is seen in this black-and-white photo (only a smooth gradation of intensity to a maximum, then fading to a minimum at the other side of the arc).

A black-and-white image of a rainbow

A friend recently brought to my attention the LHC@Home project, a distributed computing project dedicated to analyzing the data generated by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (data totaling 15 million gigabytes a year!), and possibly even finding the Higgs boson. A distributed computing project is basically one that attempts to solve a problem using a large number of autonomous computers that communicate via a network (in the case of LHC@Home and other “citizen science” projects, this network is, of course, the Internet). The overall problem is divided into several small tasks, each of which is solved by one or more computers.

Modern PCs are powerful enough to be useful in solving extraordinarily complex problems, such as modelling the paths of beams of protons. And it’s not even like you’ll notice that your computer seems a bit sluggish and distracted (as human beings often get when thinking about things like the origins of the universe and the Higgs boson), because distributed computing projects use software platforms that only allow your PC’s resources to be shared when your system is idle – i.e. when you’re not doing anything. So you only really notice anything when you’re PC’s been idle for long enough for a screen saver to start up.

I had the Rosetta@Home project (more on that later) installed on my old PC, and I can tell you this: the visualizations that the software creates as a screensaver while working on the distributed project are actually quite mesmerizing. I expect the same will be true of the LHC@Home project.

Rosetta@Home screen saver

If you’re interested in joining a distributed computing network, I’d recommend first installing a software called BOINC – the Berkely Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. The BOINC was developed by the University of California, Berkely, and was first used as a platform for the SETI@Home project, but now it’s used in nearly all distributed computing projects.

The BOINC platform is used by many distributed computing projects

Finally, here’s a list of a few other notable distributed computing projects that you might consider joining:

1. Rosetta@home: Geared mainly towards basic research in protein structure prediction, but the results of this research have vast potential in curing dozens of diseases. Implemented by the University of Washington.

2. Folding@home:  Created by Stanford University to simulate protein folding. Note that this is one of the few distributed computing projects that does not use the BOINC framework.

3. SETI@home: The SETI Project does exactly what its name suggests- Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence; it does so by analyzing radio telescope data.  Like the BOINC interface, it was created by the University of California, Berkeley.

4. Einstein@home: Analyzes data from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in USA and the GEO 600 (another laser interferometer observatory in Germany) in order to confirm direct observations of cosmic gravitational waves, which Einstein predicted, but have never been observed.

5. MilkyWay@home: Milkyway@Home uses the BOINC platform to create a highly accurate three dimensional model of the Milky Way galaxy using data gathered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. This project enables research in both astroinformatics and computer science.

So there you have it: you can help cure cancer, discover alien life or radically change our view of the physical universe. What’re you waiting for? Screen Savers of the world, unite!

UPDATE: Here’s a more complete list of BOINC projects: http://lhcathome.web.cern.ch/LHCathome/Physics/

UPDATE 2: I now have Rosetta@Home installed again. Yay, I’m making an actual (although tiny) contribution to Science! I’ll just go put a tick on my List of Things To Do in Life next to that.