Thursday, October 30, 2014

Whom Shall I Trust?

Let's face it, most of us couldn't science our way out of a paper bag (it's considered cool to use science as a verb now if you didn't know). And for those of us who could, we're often left without the ability to do so. If we take the supposed controversy over vaccines, for example, I know the proper method to test them and verify them, and I know if my results are acceptable or not. That doesn't help me, however, unless I can actually perform the studies myself--which I can't. Instead, I must rely on the data presented to me. But what of conflicting data? What about lack of data? How do I know if the data was obtained properly? There's truly so little to go on sometimes that it turns into a gigantic spat of "nuh uh" and "uh huh". How can we possibly make sense of any of this whether we can science or not?

I would like to think that we can trust the official governmental sources. If we can't trust them, who can we trust? And yet, how can we trust them when they are clearly more moronic at times than my 9-year-old son? Even he knows that the temperature on Mars is vastly different than Earth and yet we get such gems as "I will simply point out that I think in academia, we all agree that the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here. Nobody will dispute that." This was quipped by Kentucky State Senator Brandon Smith. This is someone who has influence on the direction of the state of Kentucky and even in the United States. And yet he failed third grade astronomy?

It is possible to take Brandon's remark to mean that the temperature behaves the same as it does here and not that the temperature itself is the same value, but even that is quite the stretch and could not possibly be backed up scientifically. And yet, he appealed to academia as if everyone agrees with his position in order to strengthen his words in the eyes of those who will not question if indeed everyone agrees. We do not have such long-term data regarding temperature for Mars. We hardly have such data for Earth. There is no possible way to determine that they are the same in behavior. All we really know right now is that Mars is extremely cold compared to Earth. This, of course, due to its distance from the sun and lack of atmosphere.

Or do we even know that? I never personally went to Mars. In fact, I've never even seen it. As far as I truly know, Mars does not exist. I take it upon trust that people are not lying to me when they say it exists. I am told that Pluto is orbiting our sun and even Eris beyond that. I could not possibly know these things except by scientists telling me it is so. I take their word for it. And not even their word directly, but the word of others who claim on behalf of the scientists that they have evidence to prove its existence. The data and knowledge I receive are far too removed for me to make claims of absolute knowledge. And yet I am willing to claim these things as true simply because the majority of people have tended to agree and there seems few people willing to dispute the claims.

This removal from the words of the scientists may not be a huge deal when it comes to the physical existence of a dwarf planet circling our flaming ball of gas in the sky, but when it comes to vaccines, autism, and spurious correlations, it becomes an increasingly huge deal. A statement that there seems to be a link between ice cream consumption and drowning is often twisted by our media with the phrase, "ice cream might lead to drowning." This is nowhere near the truth. This is correlation and not causation. Summer months lead to hotter temperatures. Hotter temperatures lead to increases in both swimming and consumption of ice cream and thus they rise together. It is the weather that leads to more drownings since there are more people swimming when it warms up. Ice cream aside, this removal from the literal words of the scientists can have severely detrimental effects when it comes to things as important as vaccines and autism.

In the end, we tend to believe as the majority of people around us believes. But we need to rethink this principle. For important matters, we cannot simply trust those near to us without further thought. The chances are too great that they also simply trusted the people around them and they, too, trusted those around them, and so on. And yet, we can't trust our Senators to know that the temperature of Mars is colder than Earth, so who should we trust? Specialists. And not just any specialists. We need to trust the majority of specialists in their particular field. It's also important to trust the majority of specialists in their field who are not financially or egotistically motivated. That makes things rather difficult since we then need to trust the data we receive that tells us whether or not a person is financially or egotistically invested in an opinion. And to trust them, we need to know if they, too, are financially or egotistically compromised.

So how can we know? How can we really, really, know? Ultimately, we cannot know anything beyond our own existence from the mere fact that we think. This should be more comforting than it sounds. Clearly we are comfortable with the amount of knowing that we have for many things. We are comfortable with our perceptions of existence, the people around us, the sun, the grass, the moon. Sure, we could be in one intensely creative matrix being ruled by machines as we dream in a collective universe, but not many people are all that concerned with this potential. In a similar fashion, we probably shouldn't be so concerned with absolute knowledge of anything. No solution for whom to trust is going to be a perfect one, but it can be an effective one that is more likely to come up with good results than any other.

My personal trust mechanism works by asking the following questions and tallying up the pluses and minuses:

1. Is the person logically sound in their own right?
2. Is the person equally knowledgeable about the subject as his opposition?
3. Does the person lack financial ties to his position?
4. Does the person lack prestige for his position?
5. Do the majority of specialists in this field agree with him?
6. Is the science behind the opposition inconclusive, illogical, and/or irrational?
7. Has the person demonstrated himself as trustworthy and/or correctable?
8. Do the belief's benefits outweigh the risks?
9. Does the person's opposition respond with hate and emotion rather than logic?
10. Was the sample size of the data large enough to warrant significance?

Not one of these items are a standalone reason to believe a person or a position and some of them weigh heavier on the decision than others. If a person is not logically sound, they may still be right but not for the reasons they think they are. If they are logically sound, they may still be missing data or falsely attributing a value that makes it appear sound even though it is false. A person may not have equal knowledge about a subject, but if they are sound in their argumentation with what knowledge they have, and if it appears the argument is not soundly refuted by those more experienced, then it may be worthwhile to give it a listen. If people tend to get angry with someone's position rather than responding rationally, then there's a good chance there is little logical refutation to be had. There are probably many other factors that I use in determining the truth of what I hear, but these are the ones that come quickly to mind.

It's probably wise to also include a list of what NOT to heed for making a decision:

1. Anecdotes--a person's experience is not proof of anything on its own
2. Appeals to History--just because it's been perceived this way doesn't mean it should be.
3. Straw Men--is the argument really against what it claims to be against?
4. Power--a single person in a powerful position does not equate to knowledge and understanding
5. Faith--people lie about their faith all the time and many are deceived by their own faith
6. Hearsay--just because someone heard that a study showed something doesn't mean it happened or was accurate
7. Appeal--just because something is appealing doesn't mean it's true
7. Politicians--not just that they lie, but they're very skilled at being appealing and mangling words to deceive
8. Lawyers--they need to win their case and they'll misconstrue data or insert doubt to do so
9. Marketing--they know what makes you tick and spurs your brain to desire. Keep away!
10. Single-Source News--viewers make them money. They show and say what makes them money. You don't get the full story, you get entertainment.

These things should not even be part of an assessment. Not that we should ignore all politicians, but we should not believe them simply because they are. And just because someone advertised it on TV doesn't mean it's true by any stretch of the imagination and it should require that much more evidence since it is likely lining someone's pocket. Only the rich can advertise effectively and easily. And they're rich because they know how to make money off people. Do not ever listen to advertising. Do your own research. Advertisers lie, cheat, and steal. Politicians and lawyers do the same. They're out to make money or to obtain votes. They are highly compromised in what they say. Don't ever take anything for granted from them.

Lastly, keep in mind the ridiculousness of non-entities. Concepts like "Big Pharma" act as if doctors and scientists all benefit from lies. The people doing the studies on things like vaccines are often not the people who will benefit from the sales of vaccines. Or if there's some huge governmental conspiracy, the people doing the studies are generally not going to be the ones in on it. Putting a name on something that doesn't exist serves only to confuse. There might be a particular company that benefits from vaccines so it would be wise to look into whether or not that specific company is the one doing the research or if people independent of them are gathering the data. Every single doctor and researcher cannot be considered one giant entity that all benefits. Get specifics, and reject generalities.

That's my two cents, but... can you trust me?!

Monday, October 27, 2014

For Women's Sake, Keep the Tropes

Equality for women is an important and extremely touchy subject. Let's start off by defining the problem. The number one problem for women is being treated as inferior than men as a person. They are treated as objects to be owned or possessed as opposed to human beings with rights and value in and of themselves. I would like to clarify that we are talking about value or inferiority as a human being. Inferiority can come in many ways. I am an inferior cook to Alton Brown. I am an inferior chess player to Bobby Fischer. I am stupendously inferior in strength to Brian Shaw. When it comes to value, however, this is not how we rate people. I don't see Alton Brown, Bobby Fischer, or Brian Shaw as better people than others simply because they excel at a particular skill set. This is not (or at least should not be) how value is prescribed. Thus, the statement that women, in general as a collective, are weaker than men is not a value judgement. It's a fact. In our culture nowadays, however, my simply having stated this fact causes outrage and opposition from many people both men and women alike.  This demonstrates the ultimate failure of the movement in my eyes.

I am currently devoting my life toward improving equal treatment for all of humanity. This includes women, of course. I do not appreciate the belittling of women and their being treated as objects any more than the next feminist. But we need to recognize the root causes and ensure we are fighting the proper fight. Again, the problem is women being treated unfairly and being viewed as inferior. The problem is not that we recognize a weakness. Men, as a collective whole, have many weaknesses as well. They tend to be more prone to emotional displays of anger. They tend to be more susceptible to crime accounting for 90% of all homicides. This is neither sexist nor misandrist to mention. It's simply and neutrally true. Women tend to be weaker in strength and more prone to emotions that result in crying. This is not misogyny, these are facts and they may or may not be true for any one particular person. It's what we do with the facts that is important.

People can use any of these facts against men or women and proclaim superiority. Women can proclaim they are better than men because they are not going around getting so angry and killing each other. Men can proclaim their superiority because they can lift a microwave up three flights of stairs with ease. But our value is not defined by our skills nor by our majority group's propensities. I am not a murderer even if 90% of all homicides are conducted by men. My wife is not an unlovable weakling simply because the vast majority of women are not very strong. My wife is loving, caring, honest, and an overall good person. I do not care one iota if she is weaker than me. I do not define her value in this way. It's important that we recognize the problem against women as a problem of values. It's a problem of treatment. It's not a problem of depiction of skills. It may be a problem of stereotyping untrue facts, but this goes back to how we treat women based upon the stereotypes whether true or not.

Unfortunately, the current course of feminism focuses on many unimportant things in my opinion, and this is causing a pendulum swing so hard that it has negative consequences. I have found that merely mentioning differences between men and women is akin to an act of murder. People gasp, glare, point fingers and accuse me of misogyny. People are blinded to rationality because they fear offending someone with facts. It is my take, however, that we can only learn to live in harmony when people start looking squarely in the face of facts. We cannot be so emotionally charged or worried that it causes facts to be ignored. Looking at the facts can enable us to be all the more kind by covering for the weaknesses of another. Knowing that men are prone to anger, perhaps a woman can better diffuse the situation. This is an hypothesis, not a statement of fact. It's a potential example. Similarly, if a man sees a woman carrying something up a flight of stairs, he can use his knowledge of women to recognize that she might be struggling more than she is letting on and that it would be extremely kind to help her even if it seems she is handling it just fine. Due to the current fear of sexism, some people even take this as an insult. It's not a value judgement to help or to offer help to someone; it is called kindness. This is what we want more of in our society and we're making it go the other direction by reading into things that aren't there.

So what does this all have to do with tropes? Tropes are common or overly-used themes. Anita Sarkeesian focuses a lot of her attention on tropes in video games such as women being captured and having a man come to the rescue. This is indeed pretty common and Super Mario Brothers is a good example. King Koopa kidnaps Princess Peach as she helplessly flails in Koopa's grasp while Mario comes to the rescue time and time again. Prince of Persia is a game about a prince rescuing a princess. Star Fox Adventures is a game about Fox McCloud saving the helpless female Krystal who had been captured. Seemingly even worse is that the game was originally designed such that Krystal was the heroine of her own game, Dinosaur Planet, until Shigeru Miyamoto decided to turn it into a new form of Star Fox and made a male fox the star role.

There are many such games which is why it is called a trope. Anita, as well as many feminists, find this despicable. I would like to change the perception, however, and say that it is actually beneficial for women. Fighting such tropes is partially detrimental to their cause. I say partially because it at least opens a conversation and begins the healing process. However, I think it attacks the wrong problem which harms their cause in multiple ways. The first way it is harmful is by expending energy on something that is not the problem while the energy could be better utilized somewhere else that actually does address the problem. The second way this is harmful is that people who do not see this as a problem will be quick to judge the efforts as futile, petty, and even as an unwarranted attack against men. Allow me to explain further.

Star Fox Adventures, as Anita points out in one of her videos, was originally Dinosaur Planet and had a female Fox named Krystal as the main protagonist. Shigeru Miyamoto, upon seeing the game, made the decision to re-purpose it for a new Star Fox Adventures game. This gave Krystal a back seat stuck, ironically, in a crystal, and awaiting her male hero to arrive and rescue her. In expressing disdain for this decision as upholding a trope against women and giving women a back seat, this is clearly accusing Shigeru of foul play to some extent. Shigeru is an amazing producer who has produced such games as Donkey Kong, Super Mario, Mario Kart, Zelda, Kirby, Star Fox, and Metroid. These accomplishments are not to devoid him blame, of course, but these extremely popular and best-selling games indicate that Shigeru knows what is good for the business. Of course, what is good for the business is also not to remove them of responsibility. The point I'm making is that he may not have had any intention whatsoever to devalue women. It likely did not cross his mind that it's terrible for a woman to be the hero and we'd better nip that in the butt before women start getting ideas. I'm willing to bet on it. After all, Samus Aran is the heroine of Metroid which he also produced.

Likely, what was going through Shigeru's mind was that the game, Dinosaur Planet, would be greatly supported by running with the franchise of Star Fox. It was already similar and would probably sell hundreds of thousands more be leveraging an already successful game. This is business intelligence. In fact, I purchased Star Fox Adventures with enthusiasm in order to run around as Fox McCloud in third person beating up bad guys. I loved Star Fox as a kid and I was thrilled to continue my adventures with him. I was a college student with very little money. I would not have purchased a game called Dinosaur Planet because it would not have appealed to my familiarity and childhood experiences and would have been a larger gamble as to whether or not I would enjoy it. I would not have rejected it for the protagonist being female. It had nothing to do with women and yet Shigeru is now being accused of treating women poorly. There is a real problem with misogyny where women are beaten, mistreated, raped, threatened, and forced into submission. And here we're worried about Shigeru of all people? This is a slap in the face to Shigeru and is entirely unwarranted by this evidence alone. But what of the trope itself? Perhaps Shigeru is unwittingly a mere pawn in this game of misogyny and encourages misogynistic behavior even if he is not a misogynist himself?

At this point, we need to honestly ask the question, "Is the trope of capturing women and rescuing them good, bad, or neutral for women's rights?" I think this question deserves an honest look. On the surface, feminists seem to rally around it as a clear-cut obvious fact that this demeans women. But we need to really look at it and ask the followup question, "How?" It is an historical fact that women were and even are treated as property. Religions seem to propagate this concept extensively. A quick glance in the east shows no secret that women are treated unfairly. A quick reading of the book of Job in the Bible shows how Job underwent all kinds of property loss including his wife and children as a simple test, but since God gave him a new wife and kids this clearly made up for it. They were replaced and all was forgiven. On top of this, God often gave women (the unused ones) as prizes for his people as they won in battle. This isn't merely a trope, this is real life. Since the beginning of time, men have ruled over women. Do not mistake me for saying this is acceptable. It is not. This is a derivative of primal nature that the strongest survives and propagates. It no longer needs to be this way and we indeed need to combat this prevalence.

But is the depiction of such acts or treatment benefiting or harming the cause to eradicate it? This should clearly be answered with, "It depends." A woman being captured in a video game or movie does not itself benefit or harm the cause. It is a depiction of something bad that happens in real life but what does the game or movie uplift? Does it indicate that this is a good action or a bad action? Our media has the power to influence our perception of good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral. Most media tends to have the viewers or players relate themselves with the protagonist rather than the antagonist. This means that we are putting ourselves in the shoes of the good guy and we want the good guy to win. Unless the good guy, the protagonist, is doing the maligning of women, I believe it will have the effect of making us abhor the antagonist's actions more. There will be outliers, of course, but people aren't generally identifying with the actions of King Koopa and wishing to capture and demean women. In fact, quite the opposite.

Let's remember that depicting women as weaker or more susceptible to kidnappings does not immediately put a value on them. It's simply a fact as is demonstrated throughout history. So that in itself does not demean women. What is uplifted, however, is the rescuing of such women. When women are oppressed or captured, I have a strong desire to rescue them. The women in the east, for example, I wish to rescue. If my wife is ever captured, my years of playing Mario will put me on the offensive to go rescue her. This is a good thing and a positive thing. It recognizes the inherent susceptibility of women which is all too real and it uplifts protecting, saving, and cherishing them. If anything we need more games to depict this reality and engage a true feeling and motivation to do something. We should have games about overthrowing the men that are oppressing the women in the east so that we better identify with the real-world problem and wish to take more action. It would identify who the bad guys are and what the good guys do in response. This is a good thing.

If we hide the facts, we're simply lying to ourselves and causing more problems. We need to fight against oppression and that is what most video games do with their tropes. Games that uplift violence and misogyny are games where the main character is encouraged to do violent things against non-violent bystanders or to commit acts with women as if they are objects. These games are much fewer and far between. Grand Theft Auto and Mortal Kombat are the only games that comes to mind for me. These are games which I refuse to play for the simple fact that they uplift unnecessary gore, violence, and criminal activity. If anything, these are more worth our efforts to discourage over Mario saving Princess Peach. The mere thought of focusing on Mario when there are literally women being beheaded or lit on fire because they drove a car, wrote poetry, or performed dental work is absolutely disgusting. Not only does it appear to be the wrong fight to worry about tropes involving (not against) women, it appears to be a detrimental fight while there are far more devastating things to focus on.

Our media has a lot of power in its hands. It has the ability to shape opinions and culture. And I think this is what the feminist movement tries to focus on for removing the devaluation of women in our culture. I believe this is likely an effective method, but it cannot be done by removing the conflicts revolving around women. More games that empower women can be good for women, and more games that have men treating women with due respect can be good for men. But fighting against a perfectly noble cause of defending the weak is just silly, useless, unwarranted, and detrimental to the true problems facing our world today. I would like to see our media focus intently on the upbringing of our culture into a more modern and moralistic perspective. I think some people do that wonderfully while others simply pander to the current culture rather than trying to improve it.

James Cameron, for example, used the trope of white man's oppression against a tribal nation with a white man falling in love with a tribal woman in his hugely successful movie Avatar. But did the movie uplift the oppression or did we wish to root out the evil, money-hungry business jerks? I presume most everyone felt the latter and were disgusted with people who wish to line their pockets at the expense of others. The trope was used but it didn't uplift the torment of native people. To say that it works just the opposite for the capturing of women and being rescued by men goes against the evidence. We could modify it slightly by having more women save a women, but we need to realize that this will help women stand up for women but have little effect on men standing up for women. Since men are generally the problem, we need more games where men are standing up for the rights of women. One such method is saving them from oppression as is the trope being fought against, but perhaps there are other tropes yet to be discovered such as standing up against abusive parents or other abusive men for the sake of a woman. We need to make the viewers identify with the protagonist doing heroic and moral things. So don't ditch the tropes and certainly don't fight them. The tropes are what will help us win the battle. I, like many people, spent years with the trope of rescuing women and it did not corrupt us to believe women are physical objects of inferiority. Religion and cultural examples of mistreatment do that--not games that uplift saving those in need and fighting against those who mistreat others.

For women's sake, keep the tropes.