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Posted by on Jul 12, 2014 in Skepticism | 6 comments

Day 2 at #TAM2014

10522439_10204090633403483_1996658285948963115_nAs was the case last year, the second day of TAM is rather brutal – there was a complete day of programming, running from 09:00 until around 18:30, followed by various dinners and then concluding (for some, of course) with Penn & Teller’s Bacon and Donut party.

We left the bacon madness at 01:00 or so, meaning that the phone call at 07:00 was rather unwelcome. It was also rather pointless, seeing as it was from some Spanish person who has been calling us since the early days of July, even though our Spanish has not improved one iota since the first of her 8 or so attempts to share her thoughts with us.

After some initial tech problems, which somewhat compromised a highly entertaining skeptical version of “Happy” (with the line “because he’s Randi” replacing the chorus), we got underway with a typically humorous and slick intro from the MC, George Hrab, and welcomes from DJ Grothe, Randi, and Michael Shermer.

The first panel, on whether rationality can be taught, was superb, as was the later one on the psychology of pseudoscience in medicine. Most of the featured talks were on the brain and neuroscience, and as I tweeted at some point in the day, TAM2014 is impressing me with the high intellectual caliber of many of the talks – you might sometimes think you’re at an academic conference, rather than a gathering of skeptics from all walks of life.

The talk that’s going to attract most of the attention is Carol Tavris’s presentation on allegations of sexual mispropriety and assault, and how we should deal with “he said she said” sorts of situations. Her talk was provocative, and certainly met with a receptive audience, but I need to wait until I can watch it again before forming a view on whether I’d endorse it as strongly as many of the folks I’ve been chatting to did.

Tavris clearly thinks that the idea of a “rape culture” is hyperbolic, and that the pendulum has swung far too far towards a sort of prudery which doesn’t allow for people to simply make mistakes, and to navigate through those mistakes without having to be guided by fear, restrictive policies on sexual conduct at universities and particularly, assumptions of (mostly male) guilt when accused of sexual assault.

The problem for me is this: while the statistics she presented on how risks are being overstated seemed compelling, as did her analysis of how a selective (and small) set of cases are being used to construct a misleading narrative, the talk seemed uncharitable towards those who are convinced by that narrative.

As I say, I need to watch it again, but I don’t feel that she gave the most charitable account of either their arguments or their motivations. The talk preached to a particular choir, and the choir lapped it up – and there’s no doubt that it’s going to inflame the choir of the opposing congregation – but I don’t think it’s going to help us achieve any sort of resolution, or get us talking more than we already are.

But then, I’m in the minority here in terms of thinking that these disputes are capable of resolution. As is typical for me, my thoughts on hearing the talk were regarding the politics of the message in a context of trying to find a consensus or middle-ground, but others (on both sides) might be right when they say that there’s no chance of any sort of consensus. As I said before leaving for TAM, those politics are not things I want to get into, but I can assure you that Tavris’s talk is worth watching for various reasons, so look out for it once the videos start being released.

Dennett’s keynote was good, if a little dry – and those of you who track what he has been speaking about over the last few years won’t find much new in it. He focused on the evolution of religion, and the future role of the church (in short, he thinks they will become more akin to social clubs in the future).

Today promises to be good – Eugenie Scott, Steve Novella, Bill Nye, Elizabeth Loftus and more are on the programme. I hope to stay awake for all of it, as well as to get more sleep than on the previous nights, seeing as I’m going to be alone out there on the main stage (relatively) early tomorrow morning

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    I’m having fun birding rather than listening to people enthuse about a talk which relates to internet drama. Sounds like you are enjoying TAM. That’s great!

    A non-dramatic shot I took on Thursday (It’s a California Quail not any type of grouse. ;-):

  • Hj Hornbeck

    Your skepticism was justified, though I’m a bit disappointed you didn’t notice the over-use of anecdote. Ah well.

    • jjramsey

      There was one sort of good part of your attempted rebuttal, which was that Tavris’ statistics of 9% completed or attempted forced penetration and 3% drug-facilitated penetration pertain to rape by intimate partners rather than rape by any perpetrator. I say “sort of” good because you seem to have avoided pointing straightforwardly to the actual survey results, and because it isn’t so clear that your claim that the rape by intimate partners doesn’t include rape by dates is true. My charitable guess is that Tavris was attempting to focus on statistics related to date rape, since it was date rape rather than stranger rape that was thought to be the problem on college campuses.. That’s certainly more plausible than your hyperbolic assertion that “Tavris doesn’t even understand what the term ‘sexual assault’ means.”

      The rest of your attempted rebuttal was far worse. For example, your treatment of Tavris’ “pickpocket” analogy amounted to using the old trick of highlighting the irrelevant aspects of an analogy in order to distract from the part of the analogy used to actually illustrated the intended point. In this case, the point is quite simple: there is nothing wrong with advising preventative steps to avoid being victimized by a would-be criminal. Tavris illustrated that point by using a lesser crime, namely pickpocketing as an example. You also seemed to be bound and determined to misunderstand what Tavris says here,

      Both sexes, often, do not in fact understand “no.” It can mean “no,” but occasionally it means “maybe” or “in a little while.” It can mean “I want to, but I don’t want to appear too easy because then you’ll call me a “slut” and I’ll have to go through all that “slut-shaming” thing. It can mean “persuade me.” …

      People rarely say directly what they mean, and they often don’t mean what they say. They find it very difficult to say what they dislike. They don’t want to hurt the other’s feelings. They may think they want intercourse, and then change their minds. They may think they don’t want intercourse, and then change their minds…

      I made a lot of mistakes, as I learned to play what Deborah Davis called “The Dance of Ambiguity,” which protects both parties, and the relationship. By being vague and indirect, each party’s ego is protected in case the other says no. She can say “yes,” without having to explicitly admit it’s what she wants. Either one can subtly reject the
      offer without rejecting the suitor. It’s a terrific system, really, except for the fact that it gets both parties into so much trouble; as Davis says, “there’s a price for all of this ‘ego-protection’.”

      You described this as a “perversion of consent,” when this is merely a warts-and-all description of how humans all too often interact.

      I don’t want to waste time by making this comment into a full essay and fisk your would-be rebuttal. Instead, I’ll summarize by saying that it had the makings of one good point (Tavris’ use of the CDC statistics), but the rest was evasion and misdirection.

      • Hj Hornbeck

        Thanks for the link! That section originated even before I’d finished Tavris’ talk; the 20% figure sounded too big to refer to just rape, so I started Googling her sources while I was listening. As a result, though, I never proof-read that section as well as I did the rest. At minimum, I’ll tack on a comment.

        As for the rest… as much as I’d like to argue back, I don’t think Rousseau wants to turn this comment section into a feminist vs. SlymePit slugfest. Head on over to Brute Reason if you’d like feedback on your critiques.

        • Indeed, thanks!

        • jjramsey

          I don’t think Rousseau wants to turn this comment section into a feminist vs. SlymePit slugfest.

          Fixed that for you. I’m not a Pitter.