Finding bias in discussions of campus sexual assault data

When science is used to support proposed changes to public policy, it isn’t uncommon for opponents of the policy changes to question the legitimacy of the studies cited. This often leads to rejection of scientific studies for completely unscientific reasons, and can even devolve into outright scientific denialism.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration proposed controversial policy changes related to sexual assault prevention on college campuses. As evidence of the need for reform, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault cited the statistic that one in five women attending college are sexually assaulted at some point during their time on campus. Unsurprisingly, those opposed to the sexual assault policy changes are questioning the legitimacy of both the statistic and the study that produced it.

Recently, Emily Yoffe published an article in which she argues that the statistics on sexual assault presented by the Obama administration are misleading. Yoffe describes herself as “bringing some healthy skepticism to the hard work of putting a number on the prevalence of campus rape.” The thing is, skepticism in and of itself isn’t really that helpful unless you understand how to think critically about scientific studies. Yoffe’s article presents a good example of how misconceptions about research methodology and statistics can derail an otherwise productive conversation and steer it towards the territory of science denialism.

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Don’t Buy This

One of the co-founders of the structure of the DNA, James Watson, is selling his Nobel Prize medallion.

And since he’s bringing himself back into the media spotlight, an article at slate reminds us all of some of his verbal gems.:

“Whenever you interview fat people you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them.”

When speaking about women in science, “I think having all these women around makes it more fun for the men but they’re probably less effective.”

What else did the resident bad grandpa of science say recently? Read more here. 

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Down Syndrome Awareness Month

This month is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and while this is the most common chromosomal abnormality, there is still a lack of social understanding.

So this week’s link(s) are all going to be about the efforts to raise awareness of Down Syndrome.

As NiB has talked about raising money for scientific research (watch Jeremy get soaked with water) I’d like to encourage you to call your congress person and lobby for increased funding for scientific research.

Or make a donation to Down Syndrome research here 

Or please read this article about a parent trying to raise awareness.

Or read about and/or sign up for one of the Down Syndrome Buddy walks here.

Atlanta Falcons Jake Matthews posted a photo of his favorite Falcons fan, his sister Gwen, who has down syndrome.

Or read about other ways to become an advocate at the National Down Syndrome Society.

Or just enjoy these photos of  my adorable friend Charlotte, who is growing up beautifully.

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Science and Religion Blah Blah Blah

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A perennial question, a constant product of the click-bait-and-outrage factory known as internet, that has been, and perhaps forever will be posed, answered, yelled about, and generally used to beat the life and enthusiasm out of so many reasonably evolutionary biologists is “CAN RELIGION AND SCIENCE (PARTICULARLY EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY FOR SOME REASON) COEXIST??!?!!?!!?”

The answer is a simple no, and yes. That’s it. No, because religious belief systems often tend to include specific factual claims about the material world that turn out to be total nonsense. For example, the earth and everything on it was not created in 7 literal days. Therefore, one cannot hold both this belief and the belief that scientific inquiry was a fantastic way of generating useful, more-or-less objective knowledge about the world, because actual scientific evidence absolutely refutes such a notion.

On the other hand, yes, because arguably the most important elements of religious belief systems involve claims about immaterial things, such as the existence and nature of the human soul. On these topics, science literally has nothing to say. One cannot measure with calipers, a telescope, a mass spec, an Illumina Hi-Seq or any other tool devisable by humanity, a divine presence purported to pervade all existence. The hypothesis that a God of any sort exists can be rescued from any and every contradictory empirical finding.

Perhaps you can tell, but I’ve written this rant because I’m sick and tired of the web-traffic generating mutualism that exists between religious fundamentalists and atheists claiming to champion science. They both make equally absurd and unsupported claims about religion and science. Their statements are always absolute.

This was supposed to be a link post, so if you’d like to see the New York Times opinion piece that got me all in a rage about this, here it is. But I don’t recommend reading it.

Postscript: I am in no way religious. I also recognize that certain specific religious beliefs are both widely held, harmful, and in direct contradiction to established scientific facts. I think these beliefs ought to be combated. This does not in any way change my overall tolerance of religious belief.

Thanks, Bush and Obama!

President Obama is expanding the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument today from the wonderful 86,888 square miles President George W. Bush set up in 2009, to about 490,000 square miles. I gotta love anything involving ocean conservation. Thanks, Bush and Obama!

“This is a great moment,” said Greg Stone, chief scientist for Conservation International. “This is some of the last real tropical ocean wilderness left on the planet, so it’s good put some of these kind of reef systems aside. On top of that there are the protections for the open ocean and I’m assuming for the sea floor from mining,” he said.

From the Guardian article: “Tarawa atoll. Photograph: Richard Vogel/AP”

Best. Broader impact. Ever.

Like everyone with an Internet connection, earlier this month I heard a fair bit about U.S. 7th Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner’s ruling striking down bans on same-sex marriage in Indiana and Wisconsin. As Mark Joseph Stern put it at Slate, “Posner … sounds like a man who has listened to all the arguments against gay marriage, analyzed them cautiously and thoroughly, and found himself absolutely disgusted by their sophistry and rank bigotry.” Here’s a choice sample from the full opinion:

The challenged laws discriminate against a minority defined by an immutable characteristic, and the only rationale that the states put forth with any conviction—that same-sex couples and their children don’t need marriage because same-sex couples can’t produce children, intended or unintended—is so full of holes that it cannot be taken seriously.

What I hadn’t heard before is that Posner’s opinion also includes a short run-down on research about the biological basis of sexual orientation, and it has more than one familiar citation:

Although it seems paradoxical to suggest that homosexuality could have a genetic origin, given that homosexual sex is non-procreative, homosexuality may, like menopause, by reducing procreation by some members of society free them to provide child-caring assistance to their procreative relatives… There are other genetic theories of such attraction as well. See, e.g., Nathan W. Bailey and Marlene Zuk, “Same-Sex Sexual Behavior and Evolution,” forthcoming in Trends in Ecology and Evolution

That’s actually a reference to a 2009 review, which is online in PDF format—it covers the diversity of same-sex sexual behaviors across the animal kingdom. It hardly mentions Homo sapiens, but it is one of the sources I give to people who want a solid introduction to current scientific thinking about how same-sex attraction could have evolved. If you ask me, one could do a lot worse than having a paper cited in a groundbreaking legal ruling. And it’s a reminder to those of us studying the history of life in general that our work can have unexpected consequences beyond the lab.