YOU MAY PASS… WITH CORRECTIONS

 

Today I had my long-awaited End-of-Year-One progression viva. And when I say long-awaited, I mean that it took me three years to get here. I study part-time, I have a demanding full-time job, I’ve been seriously ill, and there was a death in my family. Oh, and I also volunteer for a local charity, I’m working towards Chartered Engineer status, and I’m attempting to purchase a house. So three years isn’t bad going, really. The plan is that I complete the next two years by 2020, so let’s hope life doesn’t throw too much more at me in the intervening period. Anyway, I’ve not yet received the formal nod, but I can proceed to Year Two subject to some amendments. I basically need to better define my research question, filter out a ton of irrelevant sections, and rein my enthusiasm in a little.

My report had the following problems to be fixed:

The Research Question had changed.

The title now bore little resemblance to what my report was about.  The project had begun with the general subject area of “ventilation in hot climates”, with many of the researchers in my study group looking at ventilation solutions for the Middle East.  However, no-one in my department was looking at the effects of hot weather on British homes, and we know that things are going to heat up a little with projected climate change, so I saw my niche and jumped right in.  And ended up studying something completely detached from what I’d originally signed up for.  So I changed the title of my thesis; I suppose it’s a good thing that I did it now rather than at final submission time…

What the hell am I doing here?

The aims, objectives and central question were vague, but what I presented in the viva voce exam was clear and focussed enough to convince the examiners that I deserved a chance.  My literature review was somewhat meandering, and because my new specialism was still an incredibly broad subject, I’d read up on just about everything.  There was no stone unturned, but all I had was a lot of stones.  When presenting at conferences, I ended up in discussions with people from just about every discipline (I am not joking, I’m talking Archaeology right through to Sociology, with a bit of Medicine and Architectural History thrown in.  Did I mention that I’m doing an Engineering degree?).  And I thought at the time, “wow, my research is so relevant, what a blessing to be studying an interdisciplinary subject”.  The only problem is that a Ph.D is about depth, not breadth.  The idea is that you create new knowledge in your very specialised topic, so that you become an expert on that one thing.  I was in a position where I’d developed a reasonable level of understanding of many, many, interconnected things, but my supervisors needed to be sure that I was ready to specialise and produce work that was still relevant and useful to society, but had a clear focus.

The Curse Of Boundless Enthusiasm

I am far too excited about my research. Ok, this may seem like a contradiction – Ph.D candidates need to have enthusiasm for their subject to the point of obsession, right? Well, yes, but I took this to a whole new level. As well as an extensive and expansive literature review, I also had Grand Plans For The Future.  I wanted to do everything, basically.  One of the examiners said that I had planned a project large enough to employ a post-doc with a team of 5 research students.  So I needed to scale it down a little, and focus on an initial project to get me through my Ph.D.  It is a bit strange that I’ve already thought ahead to the “Further Work” section of my thesis already, but at least I can envisage my future in academia.  Only problem is that I might have seen another intellectual butterfly to chase by that time.

How did I get through unscathed?

The entire point of the oral exam is to demonstrate to the examiners that you know your subject, have researched it in depth, and that you have a credible plan for the next two years’ worth of study.  Your research must be original, and bring something new to the table.  While you’re unlikely to make a ground-breaking new discovery during your Ph.D years (but you never know!), you will still be contributing something to the overall body of knowledge.  And your research will go far further than just your lab – it will cross borders, be cited by others, and lay the foundations for someone else’s Ph.D.  And my job was to prove that I was capable of all that.

The leading paragraphs may have seemed like a catalogue of failings, but this is par for the course as a research student.  Yes, you can’t be the best at everything.  Yes, you will get knocked back.  But you will also gain valuable experience and produce work that challenges the existing knowledge and challenges you.  You can list out all your failures as an academic, but they are part of a process.  Part of doing a Ph.D is learning how to do a Ph.D – how to learn, analyse and produce work of a high academic standard.  It prepares you for more – for a career in academia, which is essentially a method for filtering good information.  Papers get rejected, new ideas replace what we thought was immovable, people change their research focus.  It happens and you have to get used to it; the worst thing you can do is pretend you’re perfect.  Take these setbacks in your stride, they will inform your future work and career development.

And so, I acknowledged the areas in which I needed to improve, and came up with a plan for success during the Q&A:

Be Specific.

I narrowed down my research question to a rather long-winded, yet single, sentence that actually reflected what I am studying, rather than the all-encompassing “ventilation in hot climates”, which could be spun to cover just about anything.  My subject is still an interdisciplinary one, but it’s a far more specific and manageable one, too!

Make it testable.

It was made clear during the exam that I had studied a lot of literature in a lot of depth, but it wasn’t so clear what I wanted to use this knowledge for, or how I would demonstrate an answer to the question.  So I need to come up with a testable hypothesis that my research could use to channel its direction.  It’s a single sentence, but it is a question that will take a lot of time and resources to investigate thoroughly.  About one thesis’s worth, happily.

At this juncture, we also spoke about the possibility of the hypothesis being found to be false – what would I do then?  Turns out it’s ok.  As long as my method is sound, and the results are valid, they still matter.  We’ll know something that we didn’t know before.

Ask Questions.

The viva voce exam is a time for you to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of your subject.  But a major part of the exam is the Q&A after the presentation.  And it’s not a one-way street.  I wanted to know from the examiners: what do you expect to see in a good thesis submission?  Obviously, it’s different if it’s an interim review like mine – it’s a bit late to be asking this in your final Ph.D defence (unless you are expecting a serious amount of corrections)!

An interesting debate opened up when one of the external examiners revealed a difference of opinion with my supervisor over referencing styles.  I know how fastidious the examining board can be, so I will make sure I have this one sorted prior to final submission (I do not want to have to go through 90,000 words changing my references from Vancouver to Harvard style!)

PHD Comics: The Thesis Committee
This was how my viva was, except without the cookies.

 

FEMINIST CATFIGHT: TRANS* RIGHTS VS. MALE PRIVILEGE

 

Meow!  Controversial “debates” abound this week with the argument (mainly from radical feminists) that trans women can’t be “real” women because they experienced male privilege while growing up.  First off, this is a complete non-argument; it’s like saying I can’t identify as disabled because I was healthy up until my teens, or because I had a brain tumour that others couldn’t see, that I experienced “able privilege”.

So you’re probably able to summarise my thoughts on the matter quite succinctly.  I am: it’s utter bollocks.  But let’s delve a little deeper to highlight some of the errors, contradictions and downright fantasies that make up this viewpoint.

The male privilege argument

This is the most controversial of all the points, for me, because there is a grain of truth behind it.  We don’t choose to have privilege in any given situation.  It is as much about people’s perceptions of an individual as it is about the actual characteristic that is said to be responsible for the advantage.  So while a trans woman may have experienced terrible suffering and marginalisation as a child due to their gender identity, it doesn’t mean that they weren’t perceived as male, and therefore treated like a boy (and this will have added to their problems).

Privilege doesn’t cancel itself out

There isn’t a scorecard of oppression that we use to decide who gets the most points in any given situation.  Intersectionality is a wonderful frame to consider complex relationships between different axes of privilege.  And it’s for that reason that it’s not a totting-up exercise.  A trans woman who was once considered male doesn’t lose the trauma and dysphoria of her earlier years due to the concept of male privilege.  It’s not Top Trumps, people!

There is no universal standard of womanliness

You’ve often heard it said that there’s more variation within a population than between populations.  And it’s true in this case!  There’s so much variability in people’s experiences of childhood, that I couldn’t tell you what a typical childhood even is, let alone a typical “socialised female” childhood.  If we’re going to say that trans women never had the experience of growing up as a girl, we’re going to have to exclude a lot of “real” girls from that as well.

Trans women are women

There are so many different facets of what it means to be a woman.  we can pick and choose the criteria in whatever way we like, but they will never give a complete picture, and every single definition we choose is going to unjustly exclude somebody.  Perhaps the problem is that we are looking for too rigid a characterisation, like a Girls Only club with secret passwords and a ladies-only treehouse.  I feel that this is one of the failures of trans-exclusionary arguments: that because historically women have been oppressed as a class, we must protect the definition of “woman”.  But what then?  We have our perfect definition that can never be challenged, and this is going to help us to fight the patriarchy… how?  Isn’t it better to expand the definition of “woman” to reflect the entire female experience and to increase the number of allies?

Privilege works both ways

Transgender people are disadvantaged on just about every scale you can think of.  More likely to be unemployed, more likely to be the victim of  crime, more likely to attempt suicide, more likely to live in poverty, more likely to experience direct and indirect discrimination, etc, etc.  I could sit here listing these all night.  It makes the male privilege argument rather redundant when you consider the unending torrent of disadvantage many trans people have to wade through every single day of their lives.  And let’s not forget that those making the trans-exclusionary argument are almost always white, middle-class and wealthy.  Have they checked their privilege recently?

Men aren’t the problem, either

This “debate” inevitably ends up with someone claiming that trans women are men.  Well, that ain’t so, and even if it was, it’s a fallacious route to head down.  While it is true that the majority of gendered violence is perpetuated by men, it is by a minority of men.  We hear so much about them because they create a toxic culture that often goes unchallenged and causes numerous disadvantages for women.  There are feminists who believe that all men are a threat, and they are wrong.  There are plenty of things that we are all guilty of, like bias, stereotyping and sexist language, but they aren’t the same as rape and murder.  This is a bit like comparing all the arguments against Islam to terrorism – it’s just nonsense. [“You don’t want a bacon sandwich? You are worse than Bin Laden”]  Oh yeah, one more thing.  I’ll say it again: trans women are not men.

What about the (trans) men?

Oh, look, a huge f*cking elephant in the room.  Well, I suppose we’d better address it.  Trans-exclusionary arguments always, without fail, ignore not only the issues that trans men face, but that they exist at all*.  There’s no moral panic over where trans men go to do their business; it’s almost like it’s not really about bathrooms.  Shouldn’t we be going after these chaps with our pitchforks for betraying the sisterhood?  No? Why not?  Is it like Queen Victoria refusing to believe that lesbianism existed because she couldn’t imagine it?  How simple-minded the anti-trans brigade must be.

It’s not a zero-sum-game

I’m sure that if you’ve read this far, you don’t need this explaining to you, but here it is anyway: there’s not a finite amount of rights to go round.  In protecting the rights of one group, we don’t need to take rights away from someone else in case we run out of human decency.  There’s enough to go round for everyone.  And if we then come back to the idea that women are suffering because our society chooses to treat transgender people with dignity and respect, I’d really like to see some evidence to support that claim.  It’s ok, take as long as you need – the last 40 years or so haven’t yielded anything, so I’m in no rush.

So what am I allowed to debate then?

Well, you’ll have you consult your self-awareness guide for that one.  I’m not going to tell you what to think.  But I am going to tell you that you should think.  We can criticise gender roles, gender-based violence and discrimination, while still supporting equal rights for transgender people.  Indeed, many transgender people will have views on these topics, and they are worth listening to.  It’s not an either/or problem.  Yes, men in general start off from a more advantageous position than women in almost every area of life.  But that’s not a Get Out Of Jail Free card that we can whip out every time a new feminist topic comes up.  We didn’t just do feminism up until the 1970s and then it was job done.  The world is changing and it’s not going to wait for us.  Feminism isn’t simple, and nor should it be.

*NOTE: while trans men get conveniently hushed out of the room, some trans-exclusionary folk do have a problem with non-binary identities.  I’m not completely sure what their “academic” argument is, but it quite often descends into insults like “trans-trender”, and it’s really ugly.  I can only assume that they feel threatened by AMAB (assigned male at birth) people adopting identities that are more feminine, but at the end of the day it comes across as a dogmatic belief rather than anything backed up by evidence or a solid argument.

 

MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL, OR IT WILL BE…

 

BULLSHIT.  That’s right, if it ain’t inclusive, then it ain’t equal.  Intersectional feminism strives for equality for all genders, recognising that while gender oppression is a huge factor in an unequal society, it is also more complicated than that alone.  There are numerous other influences that are oppressive in their own way, or that combine with gender discrimination to create an even worse problem.  For example, a black woman is more likely to experience both racism and sexism, whereas a white woman is likely to only experience sexism, and a different expression of it.  Disabled and transgender women are at a similar junction – there are feminist issues specific to minority women that arise because of the traits that make them a minority.  It’s really not that difficult to understand, unless you’ve got your head stuck in the 1970s.

And you’d think, what with them being a switched-on feminist publication, that this would be easy-peasy for Jezebel (they’re often criticised, but the conversations they generate are usually important ones).  But they have really let themselves down today:

 

Did you really think this through, Jezebel?

 

The headline reads “The FBI, Which Still Won’t Address Online Threats Against Women, Arrested Someone For Tweeting a GIF at a Male Journalist”.  This is complete intellectual dishonesty.  That headline, while technically true, doesn’t talk about what actually happened.  The GIF was sent to the recipient, Kurt Eichenwald, specifically because the sender knew he has photosensitive epilepsy, and with the intention of causing him to experience a seizure.  Besides that, it’s possible for the FBI to concentrate on more than one problem at a time – they are a national government-backed organisation with plentiful resources.

This was investigated and prosecuted because there was enough evidence to bring a case, and because this crime crossed the line from threat to assault.  There is an issue of female journalists (and, generally, females) suffering disproportionate and gendered harassment online, and it needs to be taken seriously and investigated.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prosecute other crimes, and arguably this case works towards creating a safer online environment for women anyway, because there is now precedent for dealing with online abuse.

And then, back to the bullshit.  The article (click if you dare) and its headline are worded in such a way as to take a story about an individual, trivialise the main issue, turn it around and make it about women.  This is the exact derailing tactic used by the “what-about-the-men” trolls, and we shouldn’t be giving sexist knobheads any ammunition by behaving like sexist jerks ourselves.  Not to mention the intersectionality fail.  Mr Eichenwald was targeted for his disability (although it’s probably no coincidence that the person who did this had the Twitter handle @jew_goldstein).  It had nothing to do with his gender, until Jezebel decided to make it so by throwing the disabled under the bus.  Thanks a bunch, Jezebel.

 

WEALTH, HEALTH, AND WOO

 

Very often when skeptics discuss alternative medicine, they look at the problem only from their own perspective.  We know the facts, why won’t people listen, etc, etc.  But that ignores the real reasons why people choose alternative medicine.  The evidence is enough for us, but it isn’t for some people.  And those people tend to be at the more affluent end of the scale.  I don’t know whether anyone has studied or theorised on this previously, but there’s a few reasons that I think are behind this:

Wealth is the best single indicator of healthcare outcomes

There are many factors that contribute to this whole, most of them related to the opportunities made available to those with more money.  Richer people can afford to partake in more physical and enriching activities, can afford to eat better food, are generally better educated, and are more likely to have access to private health treatments.  The rich are already at an advantage, health-wise.  Because of this, they’re more likely to pay attention to their health and avoid unhealthy environments, and therefore are already going to be healthier overall.  If they don’t experience any medical catastrophes (life threatening illnesses, accidents) then they might suffer the odd minor thing here and there that can be treated at home, and these are the kind of things that clear up by themselves in a few days anyway.  These are also the types of ailments for which there is a booming market in alternative remedies.  It’s not difficult to see how one might think that taking one of these remedies has “cured” the illness – because it would get better by itself anyway.

Alt med is a luxury product

Homeopathy, herbal treatments, and spiritual healing aren’t offered by the NHS.  There’s a damn good reason for this – they don’t work.  But manufacturers and vendors of these products and services market them as a life-enhancing extra.  The NHS is there for emergencies, they say.  But this is the good stuff.  And given how expensive it is, it gives the illusion of quality.

High-profile celebs endorse it

The Royal family are mega-homeopathy fans, and the Queen’s 90, so it must be good right? (bear in mind what I said about affluence above)  Not to mention the polished and glowing celebrity wellness gurus hawking their latest juice cleanse or fanny rocks.  As well as being a luxury product, alternative medicine is a fashion accessory.  Fashions tend to spread within peer groups, and alt med crap is marketed almost exclusively to middle-class women with traditional responsibilities and high disposable income (yep, the marketing is sexist as well as elitist).  Which explains the tendency for lovers (and pushers) of alt med to be female.

Alt med gives you the warm feels

Science and medicine deal in evidence and cold, hard facts.  Our health service is underfunded and overstretched, and there just isn’t the time to give every patient a cuddle.  There are strong arguments for improving communication, bedside manner, and making care more compassionate, but the present political climate doesn’t allow it.  As a former private patient, I know that private healthcare offers more in terms of personalisation, time for the patient, and looking after one’s feelings.  This offers benefits in terms of how patients view their recovery and illness; it’s certainly more pleasant to feel like you are “looked after”.  Most private hospitals are completely legit, offering speedy, effective, and dignified care.  But the one thing they share with the woo-woo clinics is the compassion.  Paying for alternative medicine satisfies the yearning that people have to fell like they are “treating the whole person”.  Trouble is, that’s all the alt-med will give you.  If you want a genuine treatment, you have to defer to the science, sorry.

It’s deceptively alluring

All of the above reasons are driven by emotion, and emotion is an extremely difficult thing to bypass.  People cling to delusions and snake oil because it satisfies their need for empathy, and because to shun it would mean leaving behind a part of their identity.  Alt med is a lifestyle choice.  Based on this, our current tactic of blinding adherents with science is obviously not working.  Now that knowledge of the Backfire Effect is spreading, we know that we could be making their views even more entrenched.  So what do we do?  Whatever technique we use, we have got to remain true to the evidence.  Lose our integrity and we’ve had it.  Promoters of alt-med are well-versed in persuasive argument techniques and will pounce on the slightest slip-up.  I feel that bearing the emotional factor in mind, acknowledging it and discussing that with alt-med users could work.  It addresses the issue honestly and would give them something to consider about why they really use alternative remedies.  Another tactic is effective science communication, done in a conversational way, involving scientists from a similar societal group to the audience.  They need to be relatable, and they need to demonstrate an ability to understand.  Simply throwing facts at people and not engaging with those who “disagree” achieves nothing.  We need to at least start those conversations, because the most effective way of changing someone’s mind is to get them to reach the conclusion on their own terms.  You can sow the seeds and nurture them, but you cant force a change in mindset.

 

(NEW) ATHEISM (PLUS)

 

I feel that I’ve missed the boat somewhat here, as this is a conversation I had way back in the days of my first steps in the skeptical movement.  But it came to mind because I had a question that I wanted to pose to the Atheism+ people, and I just discovered that their website no longer exists!  I am disappointed, because I feel that their movement has a lot to offer atheists, humanists and skeptics.  I hope that they still exist in some incarnation, because it would be a shame to lose a more compassionate atheist angle.  As well as that, they seemed to be the ones actually doing critical thinking about social and skeptical matters, unlike the self-proclaimed rationalists who would tear them down at every opportunity that they see someone tapping on their glass case of privilege.

But the conversation I had was about the dichotomy of New Atheism vs. Atheism Plus.  And, you guessed it, all dichotomies are false dichotomies.  Most of my social circle would err more toward the New Atheist end of the spectrum, and I do criticise their arguments and pose questions that their brand of atheism doesn’t always have a satisfactory answer for.  They’re free to do the same in turn for my atheism, but very often they would come at the argument from an extreme position “calling out” the other end of the scale – assuming that I was querying their viewpoints because I was some fringe lefty.

But this is not an either/or problem.  I find much of what the New Atheists say in terms of ideas to be useful, and I find the way it is presented to often be extreme and repugnant.  In terms of Atheism Plus, I find their philosophy far more welcoming and pragmatic, yet the practice is often exclusionary due to its adherents jumping to conclusions about atheists who don’t exactly fit their mould.

Very often, New Atheists make sole claim to all that is reasonable and rational, and then jump on whatever bandwagon is steamrollering itself over an oppressed minority (because down with social justice – booooooooo!).  But I’ve found Atheism Plus to be too defensive when genuine questions are asked.  I know that this stems from the phenomenon of “Just Asking Questions“, which New-Atheist trolls are very good at, but it unfortunately spills over into suspicion of people who are genuinely curious.

In my response to the question of whether one is “better” than the other, or whether they can even co-exist, I sort-of said that I thought it was the wrong question.  Because I do think that they can co-exist, but more than that, that they aren’t mutually exclusive philosophies.  There are going to be disagreements between these groups on certain, nay many, points.  But that’s half the fun of thinking skeptically – you ask two intellectuals a question and you get five different answers.  Atheism, skepticism & humanism aren’t any different, and it shouldn’t be seen as a problem if there are disagreements, or divergent viewpoints on some issues.  I suppose we come into difficulties when extreme views are involved; say a New Atheist with anti-feminist views wants to “debate” Atheism Plus, well that’s obviously going nowhere.  But then we get into absolutes again – many progressive people would say that to be anti-feminist is a right-wing and backward ideology, but the counter-argument is that to be feminist is an ideology (no, no, no, it isn’t – but that’s how the arguments go).

So I suppose the problem here is that there are people who decide that they are very much on one side or the other, and that they quite like there being two “sides”.  New Atheism and Atheism Plus can coexist in the same brain, so I don’t see why there’s so much unease at them existing in the same movement.  If we adhere to one school of thought too rigidly, or define it too narrowly, we’ll come up against conflicts both internally and externally.  It is one thing to be able to hold two contradicting ideas simultaneously (which we can all do), and another to simply hold an array of beliefs that have no contradictions, but come from different sources.  Um, isn’t the second one actually easier…?

 

MEDIA REPORTING AND PERCEPTIONS

 

Yesterday, there were a couple of items in the local news from back where my parents live. A man had been stabbed outside Tesco’s, and a body was found in a park just 300m down the seafront from there. Sadly, this isn’t unusual for the area. One of my numerous (and tenuous) claims to fame is that my parents’ house made it on to the national news – because our next-door neighbours got busted in a drugs raid.

I had no reason to believe the two events were linked. There’s enough violence to go round for discrete butcherings. But when they said that a body had been found, it did have some ideas in my head about who it might be. I’d assumed that it was probably an adult, maybe a homeless person dying from a preventable cause, or some alky or junkie succumbing to their vice.

However, today they announced that the body was that of an infant, a girl. This to me seemed more shocking, not because I believe younger lives are worth more than older lives, or that babies are more ‘precious’, but because this is really unusual. Oh, and it challenged my assumptions.

I wonder what that person’s story is.

How did they get there?
How did they die?
Were they loved?

Maybe we’ll find out in time. Maybe we won’t. I’m sure that I’ll be wrong about a lot more.

 

UNDERSTANDING EMOTIONAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL ABUSE

 

When we speak of Intimate Partner Violence, we inevitably think of battered wives and outward signs of abuse.  Yet much of the control and domination is more difficult to see from the outside, and as a result it can be difficult to put a name to that type of violence.  Indeed, there are some who don’t believe it’s that serious at all.

Ironically enough, gaslighting falls into this abuse category, and it is perpetuated by doubters by making the victim question if they’re really sure it was abuse.  I’ve had a difficult past, and there are many things that have been left unresolved that affect me to this day.  A friend who works with survivors of abuse sent me some factsheets that are used in recovery programs, to help me make sense of what I experienced.  Links are available by clicking on the subheadings below.

Biderman’s Chart of Coercion

Biderman’s Chart of Coercion is a tool developed to explain the methods used to break the will or brainwash a prisoner of war.  Domestic violence experts believe that domestic abusers use these same techniques.

This second link contains the original language used by Biderman specifically regarding PoWs; I have included it here for context and comparison. Click Here

The Duluth Model

The Duluth Power and Control Wheel is a visual representation of the concept that Domestic Abuse involves a wide range of behaviours which are reinforced by actual or threatened physical/sexual violence with the purpose of having control over a victim [Source: Newcastle Women’s Aid].

Often, emotional abuse and control is a precursor to actual violence.  Even if it never reaches that point, it can break a person’s spirit and have profound & long-lasting consequences for their mental health & wellbeing.  It’s important that we take this form of abuse seriously, not just in its own right, but as an indicator of the likelihood of worse to come.

When I left, things had started to become violent.  I’m sure that I would have left sooner if I had the confidence to trust my instincts, and if I knew that there was a recognised pattern of abuse that I was experiencing.  When I was going through this, I just wasn’t sure how to describe what was going on, and because I’d only been hit once or twice, I thought “it wasn’t really proper violence, was it?”  Friends and relatives downplayed my worries, and put it down to arguments, or me being “difficult”.  We need to educate people on the reality of domestic abuse – that it takes many forms and it isn’t all physical.  Please share this post widely – the more knowledge available to ordinary citizens, the more we can take control of our own lives.