Be Aware of Your Perspective

May 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

Updating your opinion in light of new, relevant data (which is a simplified way of talking about Bayesian probability) is something that you likely consider yourself doing everyday, right? In fact, it’s something you probably do do every day. But do you always do it? Do you always update your opinions in light of relevant data?


Well, may be not always. But surely you do so when considering the most important opinions in your life.


Or maybe not.

A few months ago, I read this article, which highlighted our tendency to discount the credibility of certified experts when they do not align with our preconceived opinions. Then, recently, I came across the Cultural Cognition Project (CCP) at Yale University (see second video below).

Cultural cognition (according one article that I will discuss) refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.

This video (though it doesn’t explicitly mention culture) is an introductory version of the general idea that we often match our perception to our preconcieved opinions:

(As an important aside, this video showing is not meant to be anti-religious. I, myself, am religious. I hope that Bell Tolling never conveys an anti-religious sentiment or disinvites people of any religion. At the same time, I hope that Bell Tolling encourages everyone to learn more about what they think/believe and why…hopefully there is more to it than what is or isn’t left after a natural disaster).

But….getting back to the point about Cultural Cognition:
To give a bit more applicative detail, here is a summary from an interesting paper recently published in the field of cultural cognition.

No means…?

Imagine a case of law in which a man is charged with having raped a woman. More specifically, the man is charged with having initiated sexual intercourse with a woman after she had repeatedly verbalized “No.” The man did not use physical force or threat of force, however, and the woman did not physically resist or try to escape.

Now, you may say that the verdict of this case is clear: if the woman said “No” and the man proceeded, then the woman was raped. Or in other words, “No means no.”

But others might point out that “No” doesn’t always mean “No.” Sometimes “No” means “Yes” or “Maybe.” This would be what we call “token resistance.”1Essentially, a girl saying “No” to add intrigue and excitement to the relationship.

If it’s possible that token resistance took place in the case above, then a simple verdict of rape may become more complicated.

Called the “No means…?” debate, this question of how we define and determine rape is traditionally brought into the classroom by discussion of the case Commonwealth v. Berkowitz, which took place in 1992 and largely mimics the circumstances described in the imaginary case above (accept that there is much greater nuance to Commonwealth v. Berkowitz).

Investigating the “No means…?” debate, Dan M. Kahan of Yale Law School and the Cultural Cognition Project set out to determine why our opinions of what constitutes rape vary. Do they vary according to gender? According to the definition of rape being used? According to something else?

To find out, Kahan conducted a mock jury study (N= 1,500) in which individual subjects read a detailed vignette patterned after Commonwealth v. Berkowitz. They were then asked to indicate their views of the key facts and the correct verdict. Participants were randomly assigned different definitions of rape by which to make their verdict2, but the vignette that they read was exactly the same.

In abstract, the conclusion of Kahan’s findings can be summarized thus:

Individuals (particularly older women) who hold a hierarchic worldview, as opposed to an egalitarian worldview, were more likely to perceive that a woman meant “Yes” when she said “No” and that the defendant had reasonably mistaken her intentions when initiating sexual intercourse. Now, by itself, this finding doesnt seem all that exciting. After all, of course someone’s worldview effects their opinion. But what was particularly interesting about this finding is that, not only did worldview matter, it was a better indicator of a jurist’s verdict than their gender, or even their definition of “rape.” In fact, Kahan concludes that, “cultural predispositions exert such a powerful influence over perception of consent and other legally consequential facts that no change in the definition of rape is likely to affect results.”

Kahan and his colleages have found similar findings for issues such as gun control, the HPV vaccine and the death penalty. It may seem like they are just rehousing old politics in new clothes, or stating the obvious, but they’re not. Worldview is an even better indicator than politics–which has grand implication for how we interpret decisions and how we deliver our messages to individuals.

In recent days, I’ve continued to absorb and contemplate the readings of the CCP. My interim conclusion is this: though my opinions may be affected (or even determined) by my culture, this does not, necessarily, mean that they are wrong. However, in order for me to be confident that my opinions are not insularly naive, it is incumbent upon me to remain conscious of my cultural proclivities and to seek actively to engage with opposing viewpoints.

Video 2.

1As described by Kahan: “Token resistance” is a social script—a form of behavior recognized and performed because of its cultural meaning—that is distinctive of the hierarchical style.  It is not, however, normative within that way of life. On the contrary, it is conceived of as a behavioral strategy of evading the adverse consequences properly visited on those who defy its norms of female sexualty. It is saying “no” when you actually mean “yes,” and can be used both as a means to mitigate the stigma of a female who wants sex and as a means of thrill and heightened passion in the pursuit of sex. There is even more complexity to “token resistance,” however, as described in the abstract of this recent paper.

2The definitions given to participants:

1.       Common law: a man is guilty of rape if he (a) uses force or the threat of force (b) the engage in sexual intercourse with an woman (c) without the woman’s consent and (d) knows or can reasonably be expected to know the woman does not consent

2.       Strict liability: a man is guilty of rape if he (a) uses forcer or threat of force (b) to engage in sexual intercourse with a woman (c) without the woman’s consent; this group was also informed that the “mistaken belief that the woman consented” cannot be used as a defense.

3.       Reform: a man is guilty of rape if he (a) engages in sexual intercourse with a woman (b) without the woman’s consent. This group was also advised that the “mistaken belief that the woman consented” cannot be used as a defense. In addition, “consent” was defined as “words or overt actions indicating a freely given agreement to have intercourse”

4.       No means No: a man is guilt of rape if he (a) engages in sexual intercourse with a woman (b) without the woman’s consent. In this case, subjects were told that “without a woman’s consent” can include simply uttering the word “no.” This group was also advised that the “mistaken belief that the woman consented” cannot be used as a defense.

5. No definition provided


Maternal Mortality Halved: Celebrate success and recognize room to improve

May 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

I very  much appreciated the transparency of this report. Not only does UNFPA present different methods for assessing maternal mortality, they also describe their own methods in detail.

As an important aside, “maternal mortality” is defined as : the death of a woman while pregant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, irrespective of the duration and site of the pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggrevated by the pregnancy or its management but not from accidental or incidental causes.

For those of you who are visually inclined, there is also a video:

Communicating Data

Exciting news for data enthusiasts & global health advocates: the UNFPA has released new trends on maternal mortality (1990-2010), with positive news.

The report shows that from 1990 to 2010, the annual number of maternal deaths dropped from more than 543,000 to 287,000 – a decline of 47 percent. While substantial progress has been achieved in almost all regions, many countries particularly in sub-Saharan Africa will fail to reach the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of reducing maternal death by 75 per cent from 1990 to 2015. In happier news, ten countries have already reached the MDG target of a 75 per cent reduction in maternal death: Belarus, Bhutan, Equatorial Guinea, Estonia, Iran, Lithuania, Maldives, Nepal, Romania and Viet Nam.

In 2010, the global maternal mortality ratio was 210 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. Sub-Saharan Africa had the highest maternal mortality ratio at 500 maternal deaths per 100,000 live…

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If Your Friends Were

May 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Amnesty International has developed a unique way to help the bell toll more clearly for all of us. They have created a web app (which is very quick and easy to use) that connects to your Facebook account and summarizes how many of your friends would suffer various human rights violations if you lived in the given country that you select (e.g. Syria, North Korea or the DRC). It only takes about a minute to complete, and suddenly you see the faces of your friends matched up against titles such as “murdered,” or “could die from lack of medical care,” “battered,” or “illiterate.”

Yes, there are broad generalizations being made here and things are a bit out of context, but the point of the app is clear. Would we care more if it really were our friends and families suffering human rights violations?

Of course we would.

When I ran the app, one of my friends who just had a baby was assigned to the “died in childbirth” category. Suddenly affect kicked in.

See if you can make the conceptual link between the video above and the video below (there is one cuss word, for those with kids around):


The Bell Tolls. This time, from Antarctica.

May 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Antarctica is a desert. It’s the coldest continent on earth, with world record low of -128.6 °F (−89.2 °C). It’s one and a half time the size of the US and 98% covered in ice that averages 1 mile in thickness. It’s home to about 1150 species of fungi and numerous other invertebrates, penguins and marine life (but not polar bears).

Antarctica is more than just an animal habitat or a geographic oddity, however. It’s also one of the world’s most important natural labs. Antarctica has a profound effect on the Earth’s climate and ocean systems, and it plays a crucial role in our understanding of global climate change. Locked within its ice is record of what our planet’s history over millions of years. We need to preserve it.

The National Science Foundation funds an incredible amount of Antarctic research (watch their live webcam of the Southern Lights and South Pole here, and learn about general living conditions in the South Pole here). Researchers in Antarctica include biologistsgeologistsoceanographersphysicistsastronomersglaciologistsmeteorologists…and even artists. Their subjects of study range from nothing less than “the history of the universe” to marine life and dinosaurs, and from the ozone to global warming and waterproof glue. In fact, many astronomical observations are better made from the interior of Antarctica than from most surface locations. This is because of high elevation, low water vapor in the air, and the absence of light pollution.

(Antoher great link to Antarctic research, from the San Francisco Exploratorium)

The view of space from the interior of Antarctica is clearer than anywhere else on Earth.

In 1959, 12 nations signed the Antarctic Treaty (now there are 49 signatories), which provides the legal framework for land beyond 60º South latitude. It regulates  environmental protection measures for expeditions, stations, and visitors; waste-management provisions; a ban on mining; establishment of specially protected areas; and agreements for the protection of seals and other marine living resources. But in recent years, tourism to Antarctica has drastically increased, with 33,824 visitors in 2010/2011. Compared to, say, the Sistine Chapel (at about 10,000 visitors/day) Antarctica is still untouched. But considering its pristine climate and fragile atmosphere, 33,000+ is massive. We must be careful. There are certainly caps on tourism and heavy regulation, but the onus is largely upon us as visitors to this solitary place to be careful.

Money can buy so much, but I hope that it never buys big ships that are vulnerable to sinking and spreading waste in a place like Antarctica. Money can buy so much, but I hope that it never buys a candy bar whose wrapper ends up on the shore of Deception Island.

The photos here are some that I captured on a recent trip (larger if you click on them). Yes, I was one of the tourists–a member of a photo expedition. I hope now, however, to act as journalist and advocate. I tried very carefully to scrub my boots in the antimicrobial liquid each day. I kept my distance from the wildlife, and I kept my mittens close at all times. You have to take these things seriously. Little as they seem.

One of the things that amazed me most about Antarctica (in case you’ve not yet been captured by its importance), was it’s flux. On my trip there, passing through the Drake doped up on Dramamine, I wondered why so many of my fellow passengers were on their third, fifth, or fifteenth trip across that most rugged stretch of water. At the time, it seemed like an awful lot of money, an awful lot of effort, and an awful lot of rocking to get somewhere. But as the sea settled and the ice began, my opinion quickly changed. The place was so martian. So majestic. So secluded. And, yes, so pristine. I’d go back a million times if it didn’t hurt the place (and if money weren’t an issue). The most amazing part, however, is that no two trips would ever be the same.

Yes, every day is different. But in Antarctica the world is made of ice. So imagine a place in which the shapes of buildings and trees changed from hour to hour and moved from week to week. That is Antarctica. Watching the icebergs was like watching a slowly shifting sky of clouds.

If you still aren’t convinced and awe-struck at its import and beauty, I suggest watching the BBC’s breath-taking Frozen Planet.

We have very few sanctuaries left in this world that have not been touched and tainted by our own hands. Although few of us will ever make it to Antarctica, I promise that its silence and its strangeness, to say nothing of its scientific significance, would be a shame on us all to spoil.

Even if none of us ever went there again–even if all the studies and research stopped-I would still believe that Antarctica is precious and imperative to protect.

Because it is.


See Antarctica from googlearth

For those averse to cold or vulnerable to sea sickness, there are sanctuaries for you to protect as well:

Brass Tacks – Poem (reblogged from

May 10, 2012 § 3 Comments

I am one who loves the process of learning. I’ve been hurt by the information gleaned in this process, more than once, but I don’t regret it.

(Human rights is a topic that can grant stories you’ll wish you could wish to forget. But you can’t.)

 I still welcome new ideas and new information, and I hope to meet them with discernment. However, I also recognize that it is a proclivity (subconscious?) among us, to at times prefer ignorance and the status quo above the inconvenience of a fact.

This poem is  meant to wake us if we’re humming in feigned ignorance around facts (i.e. brass tacks) that we cannot bare to believe. It’s here to ask us to listen and look for truth wherever it is, with real intent to listen, humbly, and to remember…not to just swallow what we’re told or stop with what we see in our tiny spheres. This is a task that requires us to seek with many versions of our eyes, and from many perspectives, time and time again. It’s a task that must be done with a strong heart.

“Getting down to the brass tacks.”

 It’s a saying the grandfathers would have used; striking deals for broken wheels on their handcarts or for hearty meals while they walked with sunken eyes shining.

If you reach the bare facts—the fundamentals of an issue—you’ve reached the brass tacks.

Yes, tacks:

Those penny pins, used to prick walls and hang like creeds the posters of our periodic table in the classrooms of our youth.

And brass:

Alloy of copper and zinc; maker of zippers and locks…the bullets of a loaded gun and ting ringing of a bell.

Brass tacks.

our palms will bleed as they sink in slowly.

Brass tacks puncturing our eyes and blinding us even to the pain it causes.

Brass tacks scattered on the paths we choose,

stuck in the rubber soles of our manufactured shoes—made we know not where, by whom, or how.

Brass tacks we compare to another’s—asking them to be the same, wanting them to be the same, and then screaming insane from the pain of no gain and hating to know that they’ll never…be…the same.

Brass tacks upturned on every letter of the sleep-deprived, masochism of a graduate student’s keyboard; typing truth as they know it now, while the child in the playground by the park plays Jacks with brass tacks and twigs for arms, preparing in years to come to type truth as they know it then.

You see, brass cannot rust.

So it shines bright on the red dust floor of the thatch-roofed home burned by rebels in the war.

And it clinks in the empty purse of the woman—worn, ravaged, and ripped by the rape that called her whore.

Clinks to the sound of her cadence—sharp enough to pierce the heart and bleed it dry, withered and crisp like a dessicated fly.

Soft enough that we never hear it in the drowning of our clinking coins.

Brass tacks in the beds we’ve made, which is where we’ll be laid, and our memories will fade.

Brass tacks all along the way—real or make believe, undenied or inconcieved.

Brass tacks we can use to scratch the surface, if we choose.

May 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

Photoessay by Stephanie Sinclair

May 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

Muchtaran Mai, 33, went against the Pakistani tradition of committing suicide when she brought charges against the men who gang raped her nearly three years ago.  She has also started a school, citing that education is the only way to prevent such acts from happening in the future. One of her students is the nephew of one of her accused rapists.
See the story at the website of Stephanie Sinclair, a phenomenal photojournalist

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