Carol Tavris on accusations vs. skepticism

After this post I’m going back to atheism, cats, food, and biology—at least for a while; but I thought that this talk, given by Carol Tavris at this year’s The Amazing Meeting, was a good complement to the discussion we had about Dawkins two days ago. Not all will agree with what she says, of course, but I hope to inspire civil discussion.

Tavris is a well-known social psychologist who has worked at UCLA, the New School, and has published widely. Twof her better-known public books are Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me):Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (with Eliot Aronson)—a book I’ll read soon—and The Mismeasure of WomanBecause both her academic and feminist credentials are strong, she’s one of the few people with the credibility to pull off a talk about such a hot-button topic: skepticism around claims of sexual abuse.

The YouTube notes say this:

The Woody Allen sex scandal of 2013 triggered a national conversation on who to believe, with people lining up on each side as if they knew what really happened. Based on recent research on how people navigate the often tricky waters of sexual negotiation, Dr. Carol Tavris shows that it is entirely possible in some sexual assault cases neither side is lying, but instead both sides feel justified in their positions. This talk was considered one of the best ever given at The Amazing Meeting.

My friends who were there agree with the last sentence. What I like about this talk are two things. The first is the emphasis on skepticism. Presumably many of us lost our religious faith through skepticism—the absence of evidence supporting religious claims—or are skeptics because that is the prime characteristic of the scientific attitude.  I think Tavris’s emphasis on maintaining skepticism whenever the issue of evidence is relevant is an important one.

For many years I worked (without fee) for public defenders (lawyers representing indigent defendants for free), trying to make sure that the DNA evidence presented against accused criminals was used accurately. In the early days of such evidence, state and federal governments would regularly present “match statistics” (i.e., “the chance that someone other than the accused did this is one in 2 billion”*) that were not only misrepresented (as in the quote I just used, which was used often by prosecutors but is dead wrong), but also miscalculated. The possibility of lab error, which could give false matches at frequencies as high as 2%, was never taken into account, which of course would grossly reduce the match probability. There were many other types of calculation errors made by the prosecution. But., as I found to my dismay, the prosecution didn’t care about accuracy: they wanted a conviction. After all, we need to convince the public that offenders are caught and incarcerated.

From this I learned a few things. The first is that evidence must be used properly, and not twisted to fit one’s preconceptions, which is partly what Tavris’s talk is about. The second is that the prosecution’s brief is to obtain justice, but gets twisted by public opinion and their bosses into their real aim: convict the accused.  That’s just wrong.

The brief of the defense, for whom I worked, is not to ensure that justice is done but to ensure that the system of justice is maintained: that the prosecution must be able to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. Public defenders (the vast majority of lawyers I worked with) told me that their assumption was that about 85% of their clients were guilty.  But they rarely knew for sure, and I never did. But it didn’t matter, really. We were trying to preserve those standards of evidence that the justice system mandates are required to convict.

Maybe this is all irrelevant, but it’s given me an enormous respect for the need for evidence when there is an accusation, and for certain standards to be preserved, standards that are easily eroded by emotion, personal bias, and so on. This is what Tavris’s talk is about, but she’s applying it to accusations of sexual misconduct.

A brief precis: the talk is summed up by her statement, near the beginning, that “As skeptics it is our intellectual obligation to tackle big complicated, emotionally charged issues as well as the easy ones we all agree on.” Some of those questions involve these: What is sexual assault? How common is it? How reliable are the statistics? Do those stats “anchor” people in their views, in the way Daniel Kahneman describes in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow? How can two people, or two groups, see the same facts and draw such different conclusions? What preserves the divide between such people?

Based on her work, and that of others, Tavris shows three ways that different people can present conflicting narratives of the same event—not because any of them are lying, but because they are presenting what she calls “honest false testimony.” That is, their views of what really happened aren’t made up, but are tinged by several factors that makes them believe they are telling the truth. Tavris pinpoints three factors causing honest false testimony. The first is the “dance of ambiguity” that occurs in conjunction with so-called “normal” sexual relations. As Tavris says, ” by being vague and indirect, each party’s ego is protected in case the other says no, . . . one can thus can reject offer without rejeccting the suitor. . . The price of all of this ego-protection is possibility that each partner misunderstands the other’s wishes.”

The second reason for “honest false testimony” is alcohol, which, says Tavris, facilitates and increases miscommunication, and impairs memory.

The third reason is the kind of normal errors of memory that Elizabeth Loftus apparently discussed at TAM.

Perhaps I’ve said too much, but I offer the video to promote discussion. Please leave comments below, don’t call your fellow commenters names, and try to be civil and temperate, please.

______

* A forensic note: The real way to present a match statistic is to say “The probability that a randomly selected person would have a DNA profile that matched the sample from the crime scene is one in X.” [This happens when the victim’s DNA matches the blood or semen at the crime scene, and a probative value must be assigned to the match]. X is usually huge, but the statistic should really revert to 1 in 50 if the DNA testing lab makes false positive errors at a frequency of 2%.  (In the days when I testified, contamination that could cause such false positives was fairly frequent: I myself contaminated samples when sequencing DNA). And, of course 2% plus 0.00000000001 is still 2%.

Also, one has to take into account what ethnic group one is talking about when you do those calculations, as groups differ, sometimes markedly, in the frequency of DNA markers. If the defendant is Asian, what database do you use to calculate the statistic if you don’t know what ethnicity of the criminal? All you know is the ethnicity of the defendant. Some way of making conservative estimates has to be concocted, and that was once an issue of great controversy.

77 Comments

  1. wildhog
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    I watched the video last night, its very good.

    “But., as I found to my dismay, the prosecution didn’t care about accuracy: they wanted a conviction.”

    Yes, I served on a jury for an attempted murder trial and thats what I saw too. I already thought our legal system sucked, and think even less of it since that experience.

    • gluonspring
      Posted August 7, 2014 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      “the prosecution didn’t care about accuracy”

      The system has come to make extortion and bribery on the part of prosecutors routine business (via plea deals and offers of leniency to witnesses). What can you expect about the ethics of a profession that sees no problem with that?

      The defense, even if it were allowed to bribe witnesses, could never produce a bribe worth as much as the prosecution’s offer of 20 fewer years in prison. But, of course, is illegal for the defense to so much as offer a toaster to a potential witness, and a defense lawyer who did so would be fairly likely to find himself at least out of a job if not in jail.

      Of course, the prosecutors are only doing what the public wants of them. They are a mere symptom.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 7, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      It seems it starts right when you are brought into the police station – it is very true that the police will and can use anything you say against you. Anything. They are under pressure to close cases. This is why you shouldn’t say a word until you get a lawyer.

      Sad. We assume people work logically but they all have their pressures.

  2. d4m10n
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Blue Ball Skeptics and commented:
    Brace yourselves…rageblogs are coming.

  3. Grania Spingies
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    I watched this yesterday too, and thought she covered some very interesting material. It’s a challenging subject to approach and although I sometimes found her style of delivery a bit awkward, the talk is full of useful and constructive information.

  4. Trophy
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    This sounds very exciting. I also enjoyed the post and the background about the work on DNA investigation. It clearly shows where your position comes from.

    How can two people, or two groups, see the same facts and draw such different conclusions?

    I’ve been always fascinated by this and the phenomenon is extremely common: Just watch any sporting event and see how the fans of each team arrive at completely opposite conclusions by watching the same replay.

    • Chris Walker
      Posted August 7, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      I feel like your sports analogy is very apt! As I’m not much of a sports fan, it’s always been odd to me when I sit in a bar and watch people get in a screaming argument over a call that seems to be unambiguous to me. Then again, other people could surely say the same thing about me when it comes to topics I am passionate about.

  5. eric
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    The second is that the prosecution’s brief is to obtain justice, but gets twisted by public opinion and their bosses into their real aim: convict the accused. That’s just wrong.

    I think you’re putting too much burden on prosecutors. Their job is to collect and lay out all the evidence and argument in favor of prosecution. It’s not their job to highlight the holes or problems in that evidence. It is the defense’s job to lay out the holes. This is quite different from science, where we are each, individually, supposed to highlight both the pros and cons of our research conclusions.
    A scientist would get drummed out of their profession for acting like a prosecutor, because such lop-sided reporting is unethical under the scientific methodology. But a prosecutor would likewise get drummed out of their profession for acting like a scientist, because poking holes in your own client’s case, volunteering information against them when the law says you don’t have to, is highly unethical for them. There are, of course, legal limitations…and something like intentionally miscalculating a probability goes beyond them.

    X is usually huge, but the statistic should really revers [sic] to 1 in 50 if the DNA testing lab makes false positive errors at a frequency of 2%.

    Oh, the “1 in X” reporting that prosecutors do is even more misleading than that. If the police have a suspect that is related to the actual criminal, or a suspect that could be reasonably placed at the scene where DNA is collected for other reasons, the chances of an accidental match go WAY up. And this is going to be fairly common. Say my brother is hanging out at a bar, and he kills someone (leaving DNA in the wound). The police suspect me, so they take me in and take a DNA sample. There is not a 1-in-umpteen-billion chance that the DNA sample the police take from me will match DNA left in the victims wound; there is something like a 50% chance it will do so. In short, DNA is wonderful for telling you that some person or family member was there, at some time. But beyond that, it’s not going to distinguish “beyond a reasonable doubt” between close family members or between people who were just there at some point and the actual criminal.

    • Posted August 7, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      You do realize that if the prosecution has exculpatory evidence, they cannot withhold it from the defense? Yes, they are to lay out the evidence in favor of prosecution, but if they have evidence that the defendant is not guilty, they must present it to the defense, and they’re not supposed to prosecute if they are convinced by such evidence.

      I did not say that their job was to point out holes in the evidence; I said that their job is to ensure that justice is done, which means not prosecuting UNLESS they think they have evidence that the person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Their brief is NOT to convict whoever has been arrested.

      Your last statement is a bit erroneous, because if you use enough markers, the chances that you will match is way, way below 50%. Whole genome sequencing, of course, would exculpate anybody but the criminal (and perhaps an identical twin).

      • eric
        Posted August 7, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

        I do understand about exculpatory evidence. They must work within the law; but within the law, it is their ethical duty to present the strongest case they can for guilt. It is not their duty (and in fact would violate their legal ethics) for them to do what a scientist would do, which is present that exculpatory evidence to the audience themselves.

        their job is to ensure that justice is done, which means not prosecuting UNLESS they think they have evidence that the person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

        I think it’s the job of the judge and jury to ensure that justice is done. The job of the prosecutor is to see that one side of the issue is presented in the best, strongest manner (within the limits of the law). It’s the juries’ job to assess whether the evidence is beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor is going to try and make that case, yes, but (IMO) yes they can bring a case that is weaker than what their own personal estimation of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ would be. I don’t think that prosecutors have to be personally convinced of guilt to do their job any more than defense attorneys need to be personally convinced of innocence to do their job – the P is merely the rhetorical advocate for the executive branch in the same way the D is merely the rhetorical advocate of the accused. That may seem callous, but the state has hired them to do the job of presenting one side of the issue. They need to do that job to their best ability, regardless of their personal feelings about the person under investigation. I am fully in agreement with you that they should not deceive the jury or defense about evidence, because that subverts the way the system works. But when prosecutors and defense attorneys start second-guessing the system – not prosecuting people they personally don’t think should go to jail, or not defending people they personally think should go to jail – they are acting as judge and jury. They are undermining the system.

        • darrelle
          Posted August 7, 2014 at 11:57 am | Permalink

          I don’t understand what it is you have issue with regarding the OP or Jerry’s reply to your first comment.

          When reading your first comment as a reply to the OP it seems that what you are saying, in addition to trying to teach Jerry to suck eggs, is that you think it is appropriate for prosecutors to lie, misrepresent, be seriously negligent and to pursue convictions for political reasons. These are the types of things that Jerry criticized in the OP. You seem to be saying that it is the defenders job to catch all that and counter it. That if the defenders don’t, it is their fault that the justice system failed.

          Then you say you are fully in agreement with Jerry that prosecutors shouldn’t deceive. I am left wondering what your point was.

          • eric
            Posted August 7, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

            I am absolutely not telling Jerry to suck eggs! And I apologize (to you, Jerry) if that’s how it sounded.

            My point is best summed up by saying I think it’s the judge and juries job to see justice is done. Its the prosecutor’s job to take one side of the issue and present it as strongly as the law allows, just as it is the defense’s job to take one side of the issue and present it as strongly as the law allows. No lying for either. No cheating for either, but one-sided rhetoric and argument? Yes, by both.

            • darrelle
              Posted August 7, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

              That sounds reasonable and ethical, and is how it is supposed to work. It seems to me, though, that our (US) justice system does not come very close to that ideal.

              Though there are bad examples on both sides I think our system is heavily skewed in favor of procecutors. The state has enormous resources compared to the typical defendent / defender, and enormous political power comparatively as well. And a culture in which the major measure of success is often convictions per unit of time. And it is routinely abused.

              Jerry pointed out certain problems of that sort, and gluonspring made some good points in a reply to comment 1 above.

              • eric
                Posted August 7, 2014 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

                Yes I would agree with those complaints, and add one other: the common and very broad immunity given to prosecutors further corrupts the system. They basically know that if they get caught breaking the law in a way related to their job (like withholding evidence), they will get a slap on the wrist at most. Prosecutors, like the police, should be held to a higher standard. When they break the law in a way related to their job, it should come down harder on them, not softer.

            • Thanny
              Posted August 7, 2014 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

              You couldn’t be more wrong. The defense counsel’s duty is to provide the best possible defense for the client. The prosecutor’s duty is nothing like the reciprocal of that.

              The prosecutor is suppose to charge only those believed to be actually guilty. If there is any evidence which the prosecutor believes undermines the theory of the defendant’s guilt, then the prosecutor’s duty is to not prosecute at all.

              That’s how the system is set up to work. Jerry’s point is that too many prosecutors are acting as if your flagrantly wrong description of the system is the one they’re supposed to be adhering to.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted August 7, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

                I agree that eric simply has it wrong in thinking that the two roles are symmetrical.

                It’s ethical to defend a client you think is guilty because even the guilty are entitled to a good defense.

                It’s unethical to prosecute a suspect you think is innocent, because innocent citizens have a right to be free of bad-faith prosecutions.

              • eric
                Posted August 7, 2014 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

                I am the prosecutor’s client. When someone robs, rapes, or murders a family member, and the prosecutor decides despite all the evidence not to prosecute because they personally don’t think the person is guilty, I am being just as poorly served by the system as a defendant who gets a lawyer that doesn’t try to defend them because they personally think their client is guilty.

                They are not the judge or jury. It is not their job to decide guilt or innocence prior to (or absent) a trial. When they do that, they corrupt the system. It is their job to represent state, the “we the people” who have an interest in putting guilty people behind bars and not letting murderers go free. It is certainly their job to narrow the field, and not go after people for which there is no evidence of guilt. But once the state has a strong or viable suspect, they need to represent the victims of that criminal to the best they can by making the best argument they can, and allowing the jury to determine guilt or innocence. Half-assed lawyering by a defense attorney puts innocent people behind bars, and that’s horrible. Half-assed lawyering by a prosecutor allows murderers to go free to murder again, and that is also horrible and needs to be avoided.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted August 7, 2014 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

                It is not their job to decide guilt or innocence prior to (or absent) a trial.

                Of course it is, just as it’s an oil prospector’s job to decide with high confidence that there’s actually oil down there before drilling.

                It is emphatically not the prosecutor’s job to find a “viable suspect” to pin the crime on, regardless of their personal misgivings about the guy’s actual guilt, and then rely on the jury to sort it out.

                Giving victims’ families a scapegoat is not the goal. If a competent prosecutor who knows the case better than anyone else finds it unconvincing, then it’s their ethical duty to drop it rather than going forward to trial.

                (Incompetent prosecutors damage the system whether or not they think the suspect is guilty.)

      • Alex T
        Posted August 7, 2014 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        You do realize that if the prosecution has exculpatory evidence, they cannot withhold it from the defense? Yes, they are to lay out the evidence in favor of prosecution, but if they have evidence that the defendant is not guilty, they must present it to the defense, and they’re not supposed to prosecute if they are convinced by such evidence.

        That’s certainly the theory but with qualified immunity, prosecutors in the US virtually never face any penalties if they withhold exculpatory evidence and in the short term there are strong incentives to gain convictions. There have been hundreds of cases where prosecutors have violated these laws.

        http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches/2012/04/20/doj-hid-exculpatory-evidence-in-hundreds-of-cases/

        They shouldn’t. But they can, have and probably still do.

      • kieran
        Posted August 7, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        Out of curiosity are identical twins 100% identical at the genome level? After split can there be copying errors or mutation unique to one twin. I know there is phenotypic variation between twins it’s how I tell my nieces apart. That and calling them bob

        • Posted August 7, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

          You’re right; there can be “somatic mutations” before and after birth that make the twins genetically different. These mutations would not be common, but DNA analysis would surely show quite a few sequence differences between “identical” twins.

          • mecwordpress
            Posted August 7, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

            I understand what you are saying, Dr. Coyne, but for those somatic mutations to show up in sequencing wouldn’t they have had to have spread? What I mean is a somatic mutation in, say, my gut wouldn’t necessarily show up in a mouth swab. Correct?

            In fact, it seems to me (correct me if I’m wrong) even a somatic mutation in a blood cell -a cell type that disperses, so blood from my gut will have the same cells as blood from my mouth- would have to propagate extensively in order to show up against the “background” germline, no? Wouldn’t it show up in sequencing data as chimeric?

            Thanks

            • GBJames
              Posted August 7, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

              Presumably the mutations occur early in cell division and get propagated throughout the body.

              • mecwordpress
                Posted August 7, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

                Ah, yes. Of course.

            • Mark Sturtevant
              Posted August 7, 2014 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

              Everyone is a mosaic of slightly different genotypes, due to mutations cropping up in different cell lines. I think the mutations are unlikely to cause confusion in a DNA fingerprinting test b/c those look at a few standard genetic markers, however.

        • colnago80
          Posted August 7, 2014 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

          The DNA tests that are done in connection with criminal cases or paternity cases don’t look at the entire genome. They look at certain locations that are known to have high variability among the human population. Thus, if none of the mutations occur at any of those locations, the genomes of identical twins would appear to be identical to the evaluator.

    • wildhog
      Posted August 7, 2014 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      If attorneys on both sides care only about winning and not about arriving at the truth, then the verdict will often go to the side with the most talent, the most time to spend on the case, the biggest staff, etc. I assume I dont have to explain the problem with that.

      • darrelle
        Posted August 7, 2014 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        Money.

        • Doug
          Posted August 7, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

          This reminds me of another point that has occurred to me–lawyers have written books attempting to disprove evolution: “Darwin on Trial,” Anne Coulter’s “Godless,” there was another one that I can’t remember. The arguments may seem convincing to lay people, but it is a lawyer’s job to be convincing, not to find the truth. Proving a point in law is not the same as proving it in science, a point that people probably don’t realize.

      • eric
        Posted August 7, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but the problem with them trying to arrive at the truth and not win is that it leads to defense attorneys telling the court their client should be found guilty, and not defending them to the best of their ability. I assume I don’t have to explain the problem with that.

        • reasonshark
          Posted August 7, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

          The problem is the existence of an adversarial format to begin with. By design, it encourages bias, not objectivity, and encourages them-us thinking. Hardly a system worth maintaining.

          An independent, impartial committee of experts with no pressure to reach an unanimous vote strikes me as a more defensible format. If a scientist would get drummed out of their profession for behaving like a lawyer, perhaps that’s an indictment on the current systems lawyers work in.

          • Posted August 7, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

            I think you’re right. The current format is too susceptible to iniquity. My father worked as a paramedic for 34 years. In his tenure he worked very closely with the Sheriff’s Dept. It was fairly routine for his colleagues to be called into court to testify in a criminal trial. My father was hardly ever called. When I asked him why, he said “they don’t like the testimony I give.”

            There were two ironclad rules my father had as a result of his tenure as a paramedic. First, always wear your safety-belt (which is just sound advice.) Second, and this one started when I was about fourteen, I was never, under any circumstances, to ever speak one syllable to the police about anything without my parents and an attorney present. That’s how concerned he was, and still is, about the credibility of our justice system and his was not an unqualified opinion.

          • Posted August 7, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

            I wonder, is there any evidence that the inquisitorial approach used in some European jurisdictions results in fewer wrongful convictions?

            /@

        • Posted August 7, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

          I’m not sure that follows.

          The prosecution could dispassionately lay out the evidence for guilt to the best of its ability without seeking to win. Likewise the defense could dispassionately demonstrate the problems with that evidence to the best of its ability without seeking to win.

          Do I think humans can actually behave like this? That’s a different question.

          • darrelle
            Posted August 7, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

            Yep. Is there a way to experiment with other systems? I think an advocate biased in favor of the defendent is probably a good idea to keep, but it sure seems like we could devise a better system for figuring out the guilt or innocence of the accused. Something more along the lines of a scientific investigation as opposed to which side can talk the best line of bullshit to a jury.

    • Posted August 7, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      volunteering information against them when the law says you don’t have to…

      I believe the law requires prosecutors to divulge exculpatory evidence. It doesn’t require them to argue for the defense. But provide information? Yes.

  6. Posted August 7, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Saw it today. It was a level headed and solid talk, but not as “amazing” as ppl who attended TAM said.

    Then again, in these times, when the far-left part of the A/S is frequently going bananas over people doubting their beloved feminist narratives, maybe this talk should be considered “outstanding”.

    • Posted August 7, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      While I agree with your statement, I don’t consider that cohort as a legitimate part of either the skeptic community or the progressive left. Anyone whom responds to a request for empirical support for the claims that they make with a personal attack is no kind of skeptic. Anyone whom would project the criminal actions of an individual (ie Elliot Roger)onto an entire gender is no kind of progressive.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 9, 2014 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

      the far-left part of the A/S

      Who, what, when, or why is (or was, or will be) an “A/S”? I know “S.A.”, but not that one.

      • Posted August 9, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

        I presumed “Atheist/Skeptical [movement]”.

        /@

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted August 11, 2014 at 11:34 am | Permalink

          UDAs (*) : TBA AAC.
          UDA : UnDefined Acronym
          TBA : To Be Avoided
          AAC : At All costs
          Cross reference : TLAs, ETLAs, FETLAs and Pratchettian acronymphomania.

  7. Posted August 7, 2014 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    🐾

  8. Posted August 7, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    A really famous case of “honest false testimony” is documented in David Edmonds and John Eidinow’s book Wittgenstein’s Poker.

  9. Mal
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    sub

    • GBJames
      Posted August 7, 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      sub2

  10. Posted August 7, 2014 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Thanks. A rational talk about a very touchy subject. I enjoyed hearing it.

  11. moarscienceplz
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    There are two separate questions that have to be answered in any consideration of possible rape:

    1. Was a sexual act committed, and was it done by the person(s) in question?

    2. Was the sexual act competently agreed to by all parties?

    Jerry’s comments seem to me to mostly pertain to question #1 and the video mostly pertains to #2, and thus I feel this post contributes more to muddying the waters rather than to help clarify.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 7, 2014 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      There seem to be some pertinent points raised in the post. I do not suspect that this particular post is meant to communicate the standard by which all will ultimately agree on some common ground with regard to the complex issue of rape. Dialogue is useful on these issues, especially when speaker and audience of WEIT usually broadcast reasonable arguments.

  12. colnago80
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    A perfect example of a prosecution witness making a mistake in his/her calculations was the hapless Prof. Bruce Weir in the O. J. Simpson case. His calculation error was pointed out by none other then our distinguished host. As a commentator snidely remarked, Bruce Weir was the mathematician who couldn’t add.

  13. J Smith
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    It’s an excellent discussion on how to think and approach issues, not what positions to hold on those issues, a very key distinction. She really hits home on how small initial differences one may have are magnified once a person takes a stand on a given issue due to biases and reinforcing one’s views to support these biases that takes place afterwards. The Woody Allen pedophile allegations provide an excellent example of how this takes place. I confess I’ve been guilty of this plenty of times myself. Applies to all topics not just hot buttons.

  14. Posted August 7, 2014 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Great video, and it’s related to such an important topic. Thanks for sharing!

    “Mistakes Were Made”, by the way, is a fantastic but depressing book. It underlines how much better we all need to be at accepting when we’re wrong. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, so I for one would be happy to see some blog posts on things you found noteworthy!

    • Posted August 7, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      Yes, I heard good things about that book and that’s why I want to read it soon.

      • Daniel Engblom
        Posted August 7, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        If you want another great book on the psychology of self-deception and biases, see Robert Kurzban’s Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite.
        Truly terrific.
        (I think Pinker has recommended it a few times as well… Also in The Better Angels, that’s where I got it from.)

      • eric
        Posted August 7, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        I’ll second Tim’s recommendation. Definitely a book worth the short list.

        • Posted August 7, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

          The trouble is, my short list is already very long …

          /@

  15. Chris Walker
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Much thanks to Jerry both for posting this and for providing (and policing, when necessary) a space for thoughtful discussion on very difficult issues.

    I found much of the talk very interesting, particularly the segments toward the end regarding studies on the ambiguity of certain signals and the reason for giving the ambiguous signals in the first place.

    I smirked a bit when she mentioned overperception bias, as I was reminded of a friend who is pretty much the walking example of it. He’s the kind of guy who thinks that pretty much any woman who makes eye contact and/or smiles at him is ready to jump into bed with him (to put it more politely than he would.)

    This is often a difficult subject for me, as there are people very close to me who have suffered sexual abuse, and who didn’t report it for fear of not being believed and being dragged into a he said/she said situation. I often find myself automatically siding with the accuser in these situations, and it is tough to remind myself to remain open minded and skeptical while still being sensitive and not seeming dismissive. I suppose we are all like that about certain topics, but this one ways more heavily on me than most. I don’t know that I’ll ever find the right balance, or if such a balance even exists (better to take things on a case by case basis, maybe?) but I’m going to keep trying. Opportunities like this help me to work it out, and for that I am thankful!

    • Mal
      Posted August 7, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Nice post. My best friend had a similar experience. It changed my view of the world. I’m not sure whether for better or worse.

  16. Alex T
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    I finished it and took a little walk to digest. It’s a very interesting talk with a lot of details that we often don’t talk about enough.

    I found a couple things troubling. I’m not sure where I stand on these so I wanted to toss them out to the crowd.

    First, she seems to be scrupulous about pointing out how communication is a human problem that affects men and women. That in rape allegations, both sides may be honest and both sides may have confounding factors. While that’s undeniably true, the impression I kept getting is that getting the truth may be well nigh impossible and there are faults on both sides, a narrative that plays strongly to the status quo and the powerful (typically the men).

    The other thing that kept going through my head were the accounts of women trying to report sexual harassment or assault only to be met with “skepticism” from officials. Are they really being good skeptics? Even though we remember the gist and not details, does that mean we should discount reports? Tvaris says alcohol impairs memory – should we discount reports where the woman was drinking?

    I don’t think anything she said was wrong or especially misleading, just that I felt like there wasn’t enough done to put them in perspective. And the perspective she did offer (faults on both sides) doesn’t seem to generalize well even though it may apply to some cases.

    Thoughts? Am I too sensitive?

    • nickswearsky
      Posted August 7, 2014 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      I also thought it was very good mainly because she was very clear about what she was describing. She is well aware her comments will be met with hostile reaction from some. But she has not yet set the internet on fire. I suspect that is because she is very measured and careful to make herself clear.

      I do agree that in the current climate, the narrative may play to the status quo favoring men. But, the solution to that is to listen carefully to both sides. In the example she gave of 2 drunk freshman, the details were not really in dispute. Still, the young man was expelled. To suggest that was perhaps unjust too often is met with accusations of defending rape culture.

    • Posted August 7, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      I think you’re sensitive to just the right things, though for *this* particular talk, I think these points were of lesser importance. A lot of people are defensive when it comes to rape allegations (say, of their friends, or prominent people that they look up to), and they present their defensiveness as skepticism. They confabulate reasons why so-and-so isn’t guilty, or why the victim shouldn’t be trusted.

      I think what Tavris wanted to do was show what actual skepticism should look like – that it looks like careful thinking, rather than a fervent certainty. Tavris also highlighted that things might not be as cut and dry as they seem, and it’s easy to be wrong sometimes.

      But I do agree that this talk isn’t a cure for or rebuttal of hyperskepticism (of the kind depicted here). And perhaps one is necessary.

  17. Trophy
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    It was a fantastic talk, both on delivery and the contents.

    On the topic of ambiguity when it comes to matters of sex and romance, to me, the movie “The Notebook” is a great example because it provides such a very lucid example of a completely unacceptable behavior from a guy who does not take screams of “NO” for answers but at the same time, this behavior is completely justified and whitewashed by (some) people who end up liking the movie. Noah unacceptable behavior is deemed ok because he was “destined” to be with Allie and he was right to insist because he would have been the perfect parter for her. So apparently, “the argument from faith” is another reason we humans like to provide for adding ambiguity to these issues.

    Some Links:
    “Noah meets Allie”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gDTFygaSws

    As for whitewashing, there are many articles that one can find by googling, for example this one curiously titled: 10 Qualities Women Want In Men – Based On “The Notebook”: http://datingadvicefromagirl.com/10-qualities-women-want-in-men-based-on-the-notebook_26/

    Excerpt: “2.) Men who are persistent. Unless she is completely turned off by the sight of you from the initial meeting, she will warm up to your persistence. You can tell if an initial “no” really means “keep trying” if she is unable to hide some form of a smile or smirk. It shows us that you are not easily discouraged, that you are willing to work hard for what you want, that you are ambitious, and most importantly, that you really want us.”

  18. nickswearsky
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this topic. I found the talk very interesting. It goes to show you can discuss sensitive topics.

    “The opposite of liberal debate and analytical argument is the cult. ” Juan Cole.

  19. Gordon
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    On decisions to prosecute. Many systems try to avoid some of the problems by ensuring that there is some independent review of the police case before a prosecution is commenced – usually by the body that will be responsible for the prosecution. That body will be concerned to ensure that there is a sufficiently strong case to be put to a jury remembering that the defence in most systems can apply to have a prosecution stopped if there is insufficient evidence for the matter to be put to a jury (no case to answer).

    Generally this works best the greater the distance between the police and the prosecuting authority. My knowledge of the US system comes entirely from TV and newspapers but it seems that there is fairly close involvement with the police from an early stage, much greater scope for “deals” and with elected (and ambitious) DAs the scope for less than disinterested decision making increases rapidly.

    • colnago80
      Posted August 7, 2014 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      One of the problems with the current US system is that the police and prosecutors are charged with directing investigations. The direction of investigations should be taken away from law enforcement and given to a panel of specially trained judges who have no axe to grind and no incentive to get convictions just to close cases. It is my understanding that this is the system in France.

  20. madscientist
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    I think it was John Paulos who pointed out in one of his books that claims such as “the chance that someone other than the accused did this is one in 2 billion” is a fallacy that has a special name: The Prosecutor’s Fallacy. I’d given up on trying to explain basic statistics to the general public.

    Thanks for the link; I’ll go watch the video.

    • Gordon
      Posted August 7, 2014 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

      The Sally Clark case in the UK (search for her name on Wikipedia) was another egregious use of statistics, in this case on likelihood of two sudden infant deaths in the same family. The figure given to the trial was 1 in 73 million, the more likely odds seems to have been less than 9:1. Hilarious if it hadn’t been for the consequences.

  21. Marella
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    Very good video. I must read some of her books.

  22. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted August 8, 2014 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Very good. Just what we need, an authoritative voice encouraging a sceptical, sophisticated, nuanced approach to evaluating claims that can have such enormous consequences for those involved.
    Just one possible criticism. All the cases she cites as ‘all too clear’, for which there is only one way to go off the pyramid, men were the perpetrators. A nod to the fact that women can and do rape may have aided the balance she was aiming for.

    • GBJames
      Posted August 8, 2014 at 7:32 am | Permalink

      If there’s only “one way to go off”, is it a pyramid?

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted August 9, 2014 at 6:22 am | Permalink

        Well it was her analogy and her words but yes, pyramid, or triangle. For what she was trying to explain.

        • GBJames
          Posted August 9, 2014 at 7:00 am | Permalink

          I was thinking it would have to be a pole, or perhaps a pedestal for there to be only one way off… down.

  23. Manzibe
    Posted August 8, 2014 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Watching the first part of this talk now and wondering if PZ’s insane posse has come here to whine yet?

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted August 9, 2014 at 6:31 am | Permalink

      I wondered the same thing.

  24. Posted August 10, 2014 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    I know there is a wide range of viewpoints on this topic with the commenters here and elsewhere on “he said / she said” situations.

    In terms of finding common ground, I would propose that high-quality comprehensive sexuality education would be a good first step.

    This type of education promotes affirmative consent and awareness of the risks from making sexual decisions while drunk.

    This would help reduce the number of “he said / she said” situations and other negative outcomes (e.g. unplanned pregnancy or STIs because the couple was too drunk to use safer sex protection).

    “Affirmative consent” is the idea that the person who initiates sexual contact must receive a verbal “yes” (affirmative consent) from the other person before engaging in any sexual activity — and that consent must be ongoing throughout the sexual encounter.

    Two religious denominations (Unitarian Universalist Association and United Church of Christ) have developed an excellent secular sexuality education program that would provide this preventive education called “Our Whole Lives” or “OWL.”

    While it was developed by two religious organizations, it’s a non-religious program (the supplemental religious materials for use in church are provided in separate supplemental books that are not part of the core OWL curriculum).

    This type of comprehensive sexuality education is something that even atheist and freethinker groups could support the same way we support other public health preventive measures like immunization.

    The OWL curriculum was developed using secular public health guidelines from Planned Parenthood, SIECUS, American Sexual Health Association, etc.

    Any thoughts?

  25. JimV
    Posted August 11, 2014 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    “X is usually huge, but the statistic should really revert to 1 in 50 if the DNA testing lab makes false positive errors at a frequency of 2%.”

    Yes, “if”, but the if clause seems incredible to me. To restate what I think you are saying:
    a) the chances of a random innocent individual’s DNA matching DNA from a crime scene (at which the individual was not present) are on the order of 1 in billions; b) the chances of (accidental) contamination of a sample producing a match to that individual are 1 in 50. These two statements seem contradictory to me – perhaps because I don’t fully understand the mechanics of DNA testing.

    To me it seems that the effect of contamination would be to let the guilty go free (due to lack of a match) rather than to convict the innocent (by producing somehow a spurious match).

    • Posted August 11, 2014 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      No, the problem is that if you have the suspect’s and the crime-scene DNA in the same lab, they might not really match but one could preferentially amplify in DNA tests so they both look the same. Or there could be mislabelling or simple error. Believe me, I’ve amplified what I thought was fly DNA but it was my own–because a few of my stray cells must have gotten into the prep and preferentialy amplified. If that happened with suspect and crime-scene DNA, they could appear to match just because of lab error.

      This isn’t just speculation; that figure (which is an old one and probably no longer applies) was derived from blind testing.

      The way around this is, of course, to deal with the crime scene DNA in one lab and the suspect’s DNA in another, so they don’t have a chance to be near each other. This is why the Simpson defense made such a big deal about how the evidence was collected and treated.

      There are lots of chances for false matches.


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] After this post I’m going back to atheism, cats, food, and biology—at least for a while; but I thought that this talk, given by Carol Tavris at this year’s The Amazing Meeting, was a good complement to the discussion we had about Dawkins two days ago. [Read more] […]

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