Category Archives: Society

Is It Offensive?

the-interview

North Korea’s recent reaction to American mockery, a trailer for “The Interview,” is overwhelmingly regarded as comical and immature. Our freedom of speech clearly includes the freedom of mockery, and NK’s reaction shows just how insane their leaders are. (There are a very few of those “But what if Seth Rogen actually starts World War III?” people, but it’s hard to tell whether they are trolling or serious.)

In 2012, we put up a trailer for “The Innocence of Muslims,” and after international bloodshed and attacks on our embassies, we blamed the victims and told them they should have known better than to create works that offended such people. (Related are the 2006 Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons, or Salman Rushdie, for a couple more famous examples.)

So in one case, parody is considered a completely harmless comedy, and in the other, it is considered such words as “offensive” or “disrespectful” or “Islamophobic.” Why are we so hypocritical at choosing what is offensive and what is not? Why do we support one tyranny (i.e., by denouncing those who criticize it) while condemning another?

Are First World Problems Justified?

first-world-problems

One thing that often happens in debates I’ve seen is when someone points out a problem with the world, another answers that there is something worse.

Depending on its context, this is the fallacy of relative privation:

A well-known example of this fallacy is the response “but there are children starving in Africa,” with the implication that any issue less serious than that is not worthy of discussion; or the common saying “I used to lament having no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”

On one hand, you’re giving attention to a bigger problem, but on the other, you’re derailing the discussion from the current one. To one extreme, we should only be concerned with the absolute core problems of humanity such as poverty, and to the other, we could be perfectly content with giving significant attention to first world problems. How much moral obligation must you have to problems outside your circle?

I’m interested in what people’s opinions are on this problem.

One Second Left

I really enjoyed Edge of Tomorrow (an 8 on my movie list), but one plot detail really bugged me. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’m not going to spoil anything directly.

countdown-timer

(Image link—pretty funny.)

It’s part of a larger category that happens in most action movies actually. This particular example doesn’t happen in Edge of Tomorrow: every time there is a countdown timer where something really, really bad will happen (typically an explosion), the protagonist will save the day with one second left til destruction, whether the timer was originally set to five minutes or five hours. In every action movie there are several of these “just in time” moments. And yes, I understand, this is what makes the movies suspenseful.

That really annoys me.

Did the aliens annoy me? Nope. Time travel loops? Nope. But impeccable luck and timing? Yes.

Is there any deeper meaning behind this? People have said that I over-criticize movie meanings, but I think this does have some harmful effects. The “protagonist always gets the girl” cliché is the worst in terms of social damage for obvious reasons, but “one second left” has its own issues. It distorts our views of luck and chance, thereby affecting our risk judgment, and it turns the extremely improbable into the probable.

A bigger issue still is that the “protagonist wins” cliché, which is in 99% of movies, may warp our sense of justice. There is a known cognitive bias called the just-world bias, where we falsely expect justice to be served (we unconsciously believe in karma), and movies can really take advantage of this. How do you explain why the good side was able to defuse the bomb at the last second? Easy, the good side deserved it. (How might this translate into real life? We feel that we deserve something great, so instead of trying for it, we wait for the universe to give it to us.)

Of course, I still enjoy action movies and TV that use “one second left.” But it just gets difficult to keep up suspension of disbelief when the most absurd chance events happen over and over again.

On the Video Games and Violence Discussion

With three recent deadly shootings (one in Isla Vista and the second in Seattle; a third in Las Vegas as I was writing this post), I’ve once again heard many ignorant statements thrown around regarding video games and violence. Much of the ignorance comes from making blanket statements completely lacking in nuance, from both sides.

huffpost-videogames-vs-guns

Here is what’s wrong with the current discussion:

1. The anti-video game side ignores the actual crime statistics.

Whether you look at the past decade or past two decades (when video games arose and flourished), you see that general crime, violent crime, and juvenile crime are all down significantly.

video-games-crimes

Violent juvenile crime in the United States has been declining as violent video game popularity has increased. The arrest rate for juvenile murders has fallen 71.9% between 1995 and 2008. The arrest rate for all juvenile violent crimes has declined 49.3%. [1]

Of course, this does not mean that (violent) video games are causing the reduction in violence. Here is a graph that goes forward by several more years [2]:

video-game-sales

The point is that even if a study comes out demonstrating a link between video games and aggression, it is another step to go from aggression to actual violent crime, which is hard to measure because we can’t just run experiments on violent crime. To show that video games have a strengthening effect on the crime rate, you must show that in the absence of video games, the crime rate would be decreasing faster than it already is (or something equivalent to that).

2. Both sides have a wrong assumption about overall crime.

Because our media gives plentiful attention to violent crimes—the more deaths, the better—we get a sense that the nation is becoming more violent, and we desperately look for any changes that could have caused this increase in violence.

In fact, the violence rate was fairly constant until 1994, when it began dropping steadily [3]:

gallup-violent-crime-rate-graph

The public does not see it this way. According to the same Gallup poll [3]:

Despite a sharp decline in the United States’ violent crime rate since the mid-1990s, the majority of Americans continue to believe the nation’s crime problem is getting worse, as they have for most of the past decade. Currently, 68% say there is more crime in the U.S. than there was a year ago, 17% say less, and 8% volunteer that crime is unchanged.

Not as relevantly, but shockingly, even our long-term historical assessment is wrong. A poll was done in the UK on perceptions of violence [4]:

When I surveyed perceptions of violence in an Internet questionnaire, people guessed that 20th-century England was about 14 percent more violent than 14th-century England. In fact it was 95 percent less violent.

This flawed assumption significantly changes the way we approach the video games and violence discussion. Instead of asking, “What is responsible for the recent rise in crime rates?” and noting that video games exist now whereas they didn’t exist before and then drawing the facile conclusion, we should ask, “Do video games hold back an even greater decline in violence?”

3. The pro-video game side ignores the link between video games and aggression.

Just like ignoring crime statistics, one can also ignore psychological effects of violent video games.

In a meta-analysis of the psychological literature, Craig A. Anderson and Brad J. Bushman, violent video games were generally found to be associated with aggression [5].

One concern of violent video games is that violence is often rewarded. A study [6,7] shows a difference in player aggression between a game where violence is rewarded and one where violence is punished.

videogames-aggression

It would be nice if psychological results were not ignored by the pro-video game side. On the other hand, psychological results are often tenuous and likely to be wrong. So it would also be nice if the anti-video game side took these results with a bit more caution. After all, some studies are skeptical of the video game-aggression link [8,9].

Finally, even if we assume that violent video games definitely lead to increased aggression, this is one step removed from deducing that video games actually lead to violent crimes such as shootings.

4. Mechanisms are argued instead of statistics.

I wrote about this topic before in my blog post “Mechanisms vs Statistics,” which incidentally used video games and violence as the example.

The gist is, if you don’t use statistics or real evidence, then you can argue anything you want. If you are anti-video games, you could argue that gamers imitate the characters they play, hence they become more prone to going on shooting rampages. If you are pro-video games, you could argue that someone who otherwise would have committed a violent crime satisfied their aggression in video games instead of in real life, thus decreasing crime. Without data, it’s hard to say which of these stories is more correct, or correct at all. (And you could come up with dozens of such plausible-sounding stories for either side.)

Even with statistics, we have to make sure to interpret the data carefully. Being relaxed with statistics will lead us to believe the wrong things.

[1] http://videogames.procon.org/

[2] http://marketshadows.com/2013/04/23/dear-america-heres-why-everyone-thinks-you-have-a-problem-with-guns/

[3] http://www.gallup.com/poll/150464/americans-believe-crime-worsening.aspx

[4] http://stevenpinker.com/publications/better-angels-our-nature

[5] Anderson, C.A. & Bushman, B.J. (2001). Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behavior, Aggressive Cognition, Aggressive Affect, Physiological Arousal, and Prosocial Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Scientific Literature Psychological Science September 2001 12: 353-359.http://www.soc.iastate.edu/sapp/VideoGames1.pdf

[6] Carnagey, N.L., & Anderson, C.A. (2005). The effects of reward and punishment in violent video games on aggressive affect, cognition, and behavior. Psychological Science, 16(11), 882-889. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/16/11/882.abstract

[7] http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2005/11/23/punishing-video-game-violence/

[8] Williams, D. & Skoric, M. (2005). Internet fantasy violence: A test of aggression in an online game. Communication Monographs, 72, 217-233. http://dmitriwilliams.com/CMWilliamsSkoric.pdf

[9] http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2005/08/31/more-on-video-game-violence/

Can Geometry Be Racist?

I recently stumbled upon this article by the Daily Mail: “Why every world map you’re looking at is WRONG: Africa, China and India are distorted despite access to accurate satellite data.” The article’s main beef is with the Mercator projection, a map which you have definitely seen and which looks like this [from Wikipedia]:

Mercator_projection

Here is a political map in the style of Mercator [source, with watermark]:

MercatorProjection-2

The point of the Mercator projection is to preserve straight lines and compass orientation (i.e. very useful for navigation). For example, Atlanta and Los Angeles have roughly the same latitude, and are separated by 2173 miles. However, if you go up straight north from both cities, the distance starts getting smaller and smaller, until it eventually reaches zero when you’re at the north pole. To account for this change in distance, the Mercator projection exaggerates areas that are far from the equator.

Here’s a visualization of this distance getting smaller as you go further from the equator [source; just focus on the triangle on the globe; the picture was demonstrating non-euclidean geometry where the angles of a triangle don’t have to add up to 180 degrees]:

triangle-globe

So what’s the point?

Now that the geometry lesson is out of the way, here is the point of the Daily Mail article. If you look at the Mercator maps, you’ll note that Greenland looks at least as big as Africa, when it is actually 14 times smaller (836,000 sq miles vs 11,670,000 sq miles). It also notes that the Scandinavian countries look bigger than India, when, in fact, India is 3 times larger. These are all great points.

However, one statement sounds strange: “It gives the right shapes of countries but at the cost of distorting sizes in favour of the wealthy lands to the north.” Another statement is, “Much of this is due to technical reasons, said Mr Wan, while other inconsistencies are caused by ideological assumptions that can change the way we see the world.”

“The wealthy lands to the north”? Ideological assumptions?

I’m not sure if the author is just using these phrases sensationally, but there is an issue here. The Mercator projection is not racist or imperialist or north-ist. It is simply a geometric application.

In fact, it is physically and mathematically impossible for a 2-dimensional map to accurately portray the globe.

The author even concedes this point in the article: “The biggest challenge is that it is impossible to portray the reality of the spherical world on a flat map – a problem that has haunted cartographers for centuries.”

Then hasn’t the author figured out the solution to the title? “Why every world map you’re looking at is WRONG: Africa, China and India are distorted despite access to accurate satellite data.” Answer: because of geometry, it is, has always been, and always will be, impossible. The only way to look at the globe truly accurately is via… a globe. Or Google Earth.

So what then is the point of the Mail article? A refresher course on history?

Anyways, it is an interesting topic to think about; I just thought the implied arguments were severely flawed. Namely,  the statement that “other inconsistencies are caused by ideological assumptions that can change the way we see the world” implies that perhaps the Mercator projection causes us to think more of “big” countries far from the equator, which happen to be richer, and less of “little” countries nearer the equator, which happen to be poorer.

Also, the fact that this pseudo-explanation is even implied seems to weaken the real answer to the question, why every world map is wrong. Look at the phrasing again: “Why every world map you’re looking at is WRONG: Africa, China and India are distorted despite access to accurate satellite data.” The northern racism explanation (latitude-ism?) makes it seem like we can make accurate maps because of accurate satellite data but we don’t because we want to perpetuate northern superiority and oppress the southerners. (Of course, the Mercator projection equally distorts southern countries, but most of Earth’s landmass is in the Northern hemisphere.) Thus, I argue the article is extremely misleading and is another example of taking some of the views of postmodernism too far, while discounting mathematical knowledge.

The objective facts—the impossibility of accurately representing a sphere on a plane—are right there and we even see them, but some of us just choose to ignore them.

Also, the comment section of the Mail article seems to share this sentiment of critique. Plenty of factors contribute to racism, but geometry is not one of them.

A Single Cause For Everything

Our society loves to pin each problem on one cause. The most recent example is Elliot Rodger. Some say he was a misogynist (Huff Post) and others that he was mentally insane (TIME). Others blame the system instead, claiming that he was operating under a grander systematic male privilege (Salon) or that therapists and law enforcement are inadequate to detect signs mental illness (Slate). And here is yet another pair of conflicting reports in the misogyny (Washington Post) vs mental illness (National Review) debate. Despite the variety of voices in the debate, they all seem to agree on one thing: their reason is the only reason.

The title of the TIME article says blatantly, “Misogyny Didn’t Turn Elliot Rodger Into a Killer,” and the first sentence reads, “Yes, Elliot Rodger was a misogynist — but blaming a cultural hatred for women for his actions loses sight of the real reason why isolated, mentally ill young men turn to mass murder.”

Besides this acknowledgement, the articles all present evidence that furthers their own theories while not considering evidence that might support other theories. It’s very difficult to dig up an article that discusses, for instance, with nuance how much of it was caused by misogyny and how much by mental illness, or how the two factors behave in tandem. (Or whether there is a third factor: this article (Salon) talks about the role of race in Rodger’s motives.)

In case you’ve already made your mind on which side of the misogyny vs mental illness debate you fall on, here is a simpler, non-politically-charged example. Suppose we want a theory to predict where there is snow and where there isn’t snow. The first theory I’ll propose is the latitude theory: higher latitudes are colder and should thus have more snow (assuming we’re in the Northern hemisphere).  If this theory were completely true, the snow distribution might look something like this.

latitude-us-map

Everywhere north of the latitude line, there is snow, and everywhere south, there is no snow. Clearly this isn’t true.

Here is another theory: water proximity theory. Snow needs water to freeze, so snow will form near bodies of water. If this theory were completely true, then we should only find snow near water. Clearly this isn’t true either.

Here is an actual picture of snow cover from NASA:

snowcover

And here is an animated gif of world snow cover:

Earth-satellite-snow

As one can see, neither theory is true as an absolute statement. The correct way to think of these theories is as probabilistic theories. That is, the more north you go, the higher the chance you will encounter snow. The same goes for being near bodies of water, to a lesser extent. Even then, snow cover cannot be explained as a combination of these two factors alone: mountainous regions have more snowfall as well.

The debates in our current-day media are akin to one side saying that latitude determines everything and the other side that proximity to water determines everything. Neither side is willing to look rationally at the cold facts around them.

History is another subject where it is more clear that everything has multiple causes. In just less than two months from today, it will have been 100 years since the beginning of World War I. One might argue that the cause of WWI was the assassination of an archduke, but this simplistic explanation misses all the political tensions and alliances at the time. Similarly, one could argue that it was purely due to the political landscape and that war would have broken out regardless of the assassination. Both causes were necessary to an extent. If Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated in a less tense time, war might have been averted. Similarly, if no assassination had occurred, the great powers might not have had a proper excuse to actually go to war.

So why can’t we use scientific or historical reasoning on sociological issues?

Religion is a great example of this single-cause mentality. The honor killing of Pakistani woman Farzana Parveen last week was unanimously condemned in the US, similarly to the Elliot Rodger shooting. However, whenever someone tried to posit a cause that could have contributed to the honor killing, the other side would knock it down, saying it couldn’t be the right cause, and they give examples. For instance, if you go to the comment section of any major news story about this event, you’ll invariably find that someone criticizes Islam for condoning honor killings and promoting misogyny, and then someone else responds by pointing out that honor killings sometimes happen in other cultures (e.g. Hindu) as well.

Both sides make decent points but such conversations are useless since they are both saying true things but ignoring what the other side is saying. Just as “more north = more snow” is not always true, it is also not false. So sure, Islam might not be the only reason that honor killings occur so much in Pakistan, but it’s a pretty strong factor. Just because a cause is not the only cause does not mean that it is not a cause at all.

With religion in general, people very often make absurdly simplistic statements themselves and assume other people’s views of religion are absurdly simplistic (perhaps by projection). This might also be reflected in the general media and American culture as a whole. We love simple answers to complex problems. I’m not advocating that we personally conduct full academic research for every problem we face, but we are clearly too far on the simplistic side. The problem is that we’re thinking too little, not too much.

Elliot Rodger’s event, just like any other event, has a variety of causes. Both misogyny and ill-handling of mental illness are to blame. Snow cover depends on several conditions. World War I had a complex background, as do honor killings and suicide bombings.

Solutions to oversimplification of causes?

  • Prefer depth of news, not breadth. Instead of gaining a superficial understanding of many stories, try to understand one story really well. Read 10 different articles on Elliot Rodger and look at the issue from all sides.
  • Look at the statistics yourself. Numbers don’t oversimplify themselves.
  • Acquire more information. Have an opinion on Russia’s involvement with Ukraine? See if your opinion changes if you read up on past involvements.
  • Read the comments section of the article. While 90% of it may be trash, someone might point out something worthwhile.

How Do Honor Killings Still Happen in 2014?

Earlier this week, Pakistani woman Farzana Parveen was beaten to death by her own family, an act justified as honor killing. Was it a rash response to some possibly offensive event, such as the 2006 Danish cartoon controversy or the 2012 embassy attacks in response to a film portrayal of Muhammad? (Not that offensiveness justifies murder in response, but many people at least partially blame the victims in these cases.) Nope. Much worse:

“I killed my daughter as she had insulted all of our family by marrying a man without our consent, and I have no regret over it,” Mujahid, the police investigator, quoted the father as saying.

Even worse, this is not an isolated incident. It is estimated that about 1,000 women die each year from honor killings in Pakistan alone. Globally, between 5,000 and 20,000 women suffer this fate every year. How does this kind of thing still happen? It’s not like this is a difficult engineering problem like sustainable energy. It’s an outdated socio-cultural norm. We’re not in the Dark Ages anymore.

Flag_of_the_United_Nations

The good news is, violence is overall gradually declining, and there is little in the way to stop this trend. However, we should always be wary of efforts to demodernize (the link is to a story of Sharia law’s being added into the British legal system, reinforcing this kind of religious discrimination against women) and lose the progress in civil rights that humanity has fought for centuries to achieve.

Edit: Additional stats (5/30/2014). “Four-in-Ten Pakistanis say honor killing of women can be at least sometimes justified.” This isn’t a fringe. This is a sizeable chunk of the population.