Category: Human Rights

Bias, Bias Everywhere

By Sean Carroll | October 8, 2012 2:00 pm

Admitting that scientists demonstrate gender bias shouldn’t make us forget that other kinds of bias exist, or that people other than scientists exhibit them. In a couple of papers (one, two), Katherine Milkman, Modupe Akinola, and Dolly Chugh have investigated how faculty members responded to email requests from prospective students asking for a meeting. The names of the students were randomly shuffled, and chosen to give some implication that the students were male or female, and also whether they were Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, Indian, or Chinese.

And the inquiries most likely to receive positive responses were the ones that came from … white males! You should pause a minute to collect yourself after hearing this shocking news. Here are the fractions of students who didn’t even get a response to their emails, and the fractions who were turned down for a meeting. (Biases aside, can you believe that over half of the prospective students who asked for a meeting were turned down?)

The results pretty much speak for themselves, and help to highlight the kinds of invisible biases that are impossible to detect directly but can end up exerting a large influence on the course of a person’s career. As previously noted, the first step to eradicating (or at least lessening) these kinds of distortions is to recognize that they exist. (Although a quick perusal of our comment sections should suffice to convince skeptics that the biases are very real, and oftentimes proudly defended.)

Interestingly, the studies didn’t only look at scientists, but at academics from a broad variety of disciplines, with dramatically different results. Read More

Fang Lizhi

By Sean Carroll | April 12, 2012 11:22 am

We’re a little bit late here, but I wanted to note that Chinese physicist Fang Lizhi died on Friday in Arizona at the age of 76.

Fang’s research area was quantum cosmology, but he was most well-known for his political activism, fighting against repression in China. Originally a member of the Communist Party, he was expelled for protesting some of the government’s policies. The NYT obituary relates an amusing/horrifying story, according to which Fang attracted the government’s censure by co-authoring a paper entitled “A Solution of the Cosmological Equations in Scalar-Tensor Theory, with Mass and Blackbody Radiation.” Seems pretty innocuous from where we are sitting, but in Communist China the Big Bang model was considered to be a challenge to Engels’s idea that that the universe was infinite, and therefore was deemed heresy. Googling around brought me to this 1988 article in Contemporary Chinese Thought, which shows what Fang was up against. The abstract quotes Lenin, and says in all seriousness “with every new advance in science the idealists distort and take advantage of the latest results of physics to “prove” with varying sleights of hand that the universe is finite, serving the reactionary rule of the moribund exploiting classes.”

In the late 1980’s Fang helped organize resistance to China’s authoritarian regime, in the lead-up to the Tiananmen Square protests. He was fired from his job as a professor, and sought refuge in the American embassy. He was finally permitted to leave the country and emigrate to America in 1990. He finally settled down at the University of Arizona, but continued his work campaigning for human rights.


By Sean Carroll | November 19, 2011 6:36 pm

You’ve probably heard that protestors at Occupy UC Davis were pepper-sprayed by police during a non-violent protest. (It’s very likely that you have heard but it hasn’t registered, as there have been many similar events nationwide and it’s hard to keep track.)

After the incident, UC Davis police chief, Annette Spicuzza, had this to say:

“There was no way out of that circle. They were cutting the officers off from their support. It’s a very volatile situation.”

Imagine in your mind the kind of “volatile situation” to which this description might apply. Now here’s the picture:

Having never been pepper-sprayed, I have no idea what it’s like, although it doesn’t seem pleasant. But these protestors can take some solace in the idea that this kind of display will bring more support to their movement than a million chanted slogans. The police were obviously badly trained, but the ultimate responsibility lies with UC Davis Chancellor Linda Kaheti, who ordered them in. It’s a horrifying demonstration of what happens when authority is unchecked and out of touch. I’m not sure where the propensity of local authorities to call in police dressed like Storm Troopers started, but it has to end. This isn’t what our country is supposed to be about.

Here’s the video:

Update: On the question of since when are all protests met with police in riot gear freely dispensing pepper spray, Alexis Madrigal has researched the answer, which is: since the 1999 WTO/anti-globalization protests. Apparently police training is not flexible enough to accommodate the fact that different situations call for different responses.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, News, Politics

Life Under Dictatorship

By Sean Carroll | March 26, 2011 2:13 pm

As the fighting continues in Libya, the Gaddafi government has invited foreign reporters to Tripoli, as long as they stay in the Rixos hotel. They are barred from leaving to report on actual events, but occasionally get to hear government statements or get taken on organized tours for propaganda purposes.

That tightly-controlled system was violated this morning when Eman al-Obeidy, a Libyan woman from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, escaped from two days of imprisonment at the hands of Gaddafi’s militia. She managed to flee to the Rixos, where she told reporters about her ordeal. According to Obeidy, she was tied up, beaten, and raped by 15 men, who also defecated and urinated on her. She pleaded for her friends who are still in custody, and showed a number of bruises and injuries on her body.

Being surrounded by international media did not keep her safe, as she was soon confronted by security forces as she told her story. Despite resisting frantically and some attempts at intervention by journalists, she was taken away in a car. Hotel employees sided with the security forces, threatening Obeidy and using knives to hold off journalists who were trying to help her. Soon thereafter, government spokespeople accused her of being drunk and mentally ill, claiming that her story of rape and abuse was a fantasy.

Here’s a video of Obeidy being taken away. Warning: intense and very real.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, World

A Mixed Day for Basic Human Decency

By Sean Carroll | December 18, 2010 2:36 pm

Nothing focuses the mind of an elected representative like the prospect of their vacations being cut short, and Congress has been busy in the days leading up to the Christmas holiday. The big news today:

  • “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is being repealed. DADT was the ugly political compromise that allowed gay and lesbian soldiers to serve in the military, as long as they stayed in the closet. It was opposed by the military, most Americans, and even most members of Congress. Repeal was only difficult because of the bizarre filibuster rule that allows 40% of the U.S. Senate to gang together to block legislation they oppose on the basis of fundamental principles, such as the principle that homosexuals should be discriminated against. Oh, and the energetic opposition of Crazy John McCain, who was a longtime opponent of DADT until he decided it was politically expedient to switch sides. (“There will be high-fives all over the liberal bastions of America,” he said, taking the nonpartisan high road.) The legislative strategy for repeal is a hard-won victory for Obama, who could have overturned the policy by executive order, but argued that passing a law would yield a much more solid and lasting result.
  • The DREAM Act has failed. Again, not because it couldn’t get a majority, but because it couldn’t muster the votes to overcome a filibuster. (A handful of Democrats joined with the Republicans on this one.) In this case, the principled objection was to a bill that allowed non-citizens who were brought to this country illegally as children (when they were younger than 16) to attain citizenship if they graduated from high school and either completely two years of college or joined the military. Obviously we wouldn’t want people like that in our country.

Sorry to be snarky, truly. I much prefer having polite discussions about honest disagreements. But these aren’t examples of that; opposition to these measures arises from combinations of craven political posturing and straightforward bigotry. Nothing principled about it; just politicians preying on people’s fears. And I honestly believe that we have a more healthy political dialogue by admitting that outright, rather than pretending that opposition to bills like this is in any way honorable.

DADT repeal is a big deal. Congratulations to all the servicemen and -women who no longer have to live a lie (at least not because of official government policy; informal discrimination is harder to eradicate). High fives all over!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Politics

Witnessing suffering

By Daniel Holz | January 21, 2010 10:01 am

While we’re on the topic of charities, it seems appropriate to note that this is a particularly opportune time to donate to an exceedingly worthwhile charity: Doctors Without Borders. They are doing amazing work around the world, and the current tragedy in Haiti is no exception.

port-au-prince exodus (Maggie Steber for NYT)Note that Doctors Without Borders (more generally known as Médecins Sans Frontières) is not the same as Doctors of the World (Médecins du Monde; now called HealthRight). It’s somewhat ironic, but the Doctors couldn’t agree about how to go about saving the world. So MDM split off in 1980 (and is roughly 1/40th the size). The critical issue was the degree to which “witnessing” was a part of their mission. On the one hand, if you want to be able to go anywhere that you’re needed, it’s wise to be explicitly apolitical. Your goal is simply to help the sick and relieve suffering. On the other hand, if you witness atrocities, it seems incumbent upon you to tell the world what has happened. If you are on the ground in the midst of genocide, is it really appropriate to stay silent? Both groups “bear witness” to atrocities, but MSF is more conservative, while MDM is more aggressive.

I think strong arguments can be made for both approaches, and I don’t think you can go wrong supporting either organization. As always, it makes sense to check out any intended recipient of largess on Charity Navigator. Both organizations get essentially identical, stellar scores (implying that the vast majority [~90%] of what you donate goes to people in need, and not to fatten the pay of executives, or into the pockets of Madison Avenue).

Haiti is a tragedy of epic proportions. Here is a way to help.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Humanity

The Lion Sleeps

By John Conway | August 26, 2009 1:29 pm

Ted, we will miss you.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, News, Politics

Abortion and the Architecture of Reality

By Sean Carroll | June 4, 2009 7:55 am

George Tiller, a doctor and abortion provider in Kansas, was shot and killed outside his church on Sunday. The large majority of people on either side of the abortion debate are understandably horrified by an event like this. But it sets up a rhetorical dilemma for anyone who takes seriously the claim that abortion is murder. If George Tiller really was a “baby killer” comparable to Hitler and Stalin, it’s difficult to express unmitigated sadness at his murder. So we get Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, admitting regret — but only that Tiller was a mass murderer who “did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God.”

On those rare occasions when they attempt to actually talk to each other, people on opposite sides of the abortion debate usually end up talking past each other. Supporters of abortion rights speak in the language of the autonomy of the mother, and her right to control her own body: “If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one.” Opponents of abortion speak in terms of the personhood of the fetus. (Yes, Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! — “A person’s a person, no matter how small” — is used to teach this point to Catholic children, over Theodor Geisel’s objections.) Opposition to abortion rights can also be a manifestation of the desire to control women’s sexuality, but let’s concentrate on those whose opposition is grounded in a sincere moral belief that abortion is murder.

If someone believes that abortion really is murder, talk of the reproductive freedom of the mother isn’t going to carry much weight — nobody has the right to murder another person. Supporters of abortion rights don’t say “No, this is one case where murder is completely justified.” Rather, they say “No, the fetus is not a person, so abortion is not murder.” The crucial question (I know, this is not exactly an astonishing new insight) is whether a fetus is really a person.

I have nothing original to add to the debate over when “personhood” begins. But there is something to say about how we decide questions like that. And it takes us directly back to the previous discussion about marriage and fundamental physics. The upshot of which is: how you think about the universe, how you conceptualize the natural world around us, obviously is going to have an enormous impact on how you decide questions like “When does personhood begin?”

In a pre-scientific world, life was — quite understandably — thought of as something intrinsically different from non-life. This view could be taken to different extremes; Plato gave voice to one popular tradition, by claiming that the human soul was a distinct, incorporeal entity that actually occupied a human body. These days we know a lot more than they did back then. Science has taught us that living beings and non-living objects are the same kind of things, deep down; we’re all made of the same chemical elements, and all of our constituents obey the same laws of Nature. Life is complicated, and rich, and fascinating, and not very well understood — but it doesn’t obey separate rules apart from those of the non-living world. Living organisms are just very complicated chemical reactions, not vessels that rely on supernatural essences or mystical élan vital to keep them chugging along. Except “just” is a terribly misleading adverb in this context — living organisms are truly amazing very complicated chemical reactions. Knowing that we are made of the same stuff and obey the same rules as the rest of the universe doesn’t diminish the value or meaning of human life in any way.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Philosophy

Silence is the Enemy

By Sean Carroll | June 1, 2009 10:27 am

Sheril at the Intersection has put up a brave post, using her own experience with sexual assault to bring attention to the plight of victims of sexual violence in Africa and elsewhere. She and Dr. Isis are organizing a campaign of bloggers to urge people to speak out, write to Congress, and donate to charities that working to help victims of sexual violence.

Rape is a problem no matter where it happens, but conditions in Africa have grown desperate, especially in the Congo, Sudan, Rwanda, and Liberia. In Liberia alone, over the course of the civil war, it is estimated that 75% of women were raped. Three out of four. Children are especially vulnerable: in Liberia, 28 percent of rapes involve children 4 or younger. These aren’t typos.

The numbers are from a recent column by Nicholas Kristof. Sexual violence isn’t about sex; it’s about power and domination, and in this case it’s being used as an instrument of war. And it’s nothing peculiar to Africa; rape has always accompanied war, and was a major part of violence against Muslims in Bosnia, not to mention Japan’s invasion of China. It’s an ancient tradition; as the Bible says in Zechariah 14:2:

For I [God] will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses looted and the women raped.

Here is Kristof’s report on Jackie, a 7-year-old girl who was raped by a security guard at her school.

As Kristof says,

The evidence is overwhelming that the best way to deal with rape — whether in Darfur or Liberia, or even in the United States — is to demystify it, dismantle the taboos, and address it directly.

Let’s do that.


Trying Not to Care

By John Conway | May 28, 2009 8:35 pm

Last night, watching a recorded episode of the Daily Show from last week, where Jon Stewart interviewed Elizabeth Edwards, Stewart took the conversation in the direction of health care. At one point, Edwards mentioned that “the President of UnitedHealth made so much money, that one of every $700 that was spent in this country on health care went to pay him.” I was totally floored by this statistic – could our for-profit health insurance industry be that twisted?

So here are some facts. In 2007, according to HHS, total health care expenditures in the US were $2.2 trillion, and expected to grow at a steady 6.1% to $2.33 trillion in 2008. Others, like the National Coalition for Health Care, estimate that in 2008 it was $2.4 trillion, fairly close. Now, 1/700 of that is $3.4 billion, which is actually a thousand times larger than Stephen Hemsley, the CEO of UnitedHealth Group, makes.

So was Elizabeth Edwards wrong? Turns out, she might have been referring to UnitedHealth’s former CEO, Willim McGuire, who was ousted in late 2006 after an options backdating scandal. McGuire made $125 million in 2005. That’s a mere 1 in every $20,000 spent on health care I guess. Taking into account the stock options he sat on, it might bring the ratio down…but I must conclude that there was some hyperbole on Edwards’ part.

I forgive her, mainly because this isn’t the point. What I find truly impossible to accept is that we have a for-profit healthcare insurance system at all. As I have pointed out in the past in CV, this seems to me to be one of the clearest conflicts of interest that you could devise: reward health insurance companies and their shareholders for giving as little actual health care as possible for every dollar received. What other way is there to maximize profits? Oh, right, I almost forgot: keep the costs of health care rising so that this industry grows out of control as a fraction of GDP.

The system where we rely on our employers to provide health care coverage is broken. The rising costs have driven some employers, like the big automakers (who spend more on healthcare than steel) to the brink of bankruptcy, and have driven others to continually pare back the level of coverage for their workers. Underinsurance is as serious a problem as the nearly 50 million not covered at all. Should the particular disease you get wipe you out financially just because it’s too rare a situation to be covered by your plan? Should companies and their shareholders be making profits while our loved ones are being denied treatment? Or even denied coverage at all due to a “pre-existing condition”?

The health care companies have realized that change is coming, quite possibly in the form of a government-run alternative plan with much smaller administrative costs and no profit motive. A report appeared recently in The Washington Post that Blue Cross Blue Shield is launching a large PR campaign against the possible government-sponsored public insurance option. In addition, the health cartel has put forth a plan a couple weeks ago promised to reduce the rate of growth of costs by 1.5%, to about 4.5% presumably. Whoopie.

The right wing is fearful of rationing, long waiting times, or being unable to choose a doctor. The problem is that they simply don’t seem to give a hoot about the 50 million un(der)insured, who wait until they are terribly ill and then show up in ER’s. Guess who pays for that.

Another huge factor in the exorbitant cost of health care in the US is a topic that seems to be very seldomly discussed in the media: the end of life. Something like 27% of Medicare costs go to the last year of a patient’s life. How much of this is simply due to the fact that the patient, and their family, wants to try anything possible to achieve a cure, when in fact the doctors and the nurses know full well that the patient is terminal? Greater emphasis on counseling patients and families, plus a change in our culture that would make us more accepting of death, and an increased focus on preventative and palliative care rather than heroic but clearly futile and expensive late-stage treatments could save our society hundreds of billions of dollars per year.

I am not saying that no one should make a profit performing or delivering health care. Doctors, nurses, hospitals, medical suppliers do what they do to make a living. (Let’s leave Big Pharma out of it for a moment – that deserves a whole post by itself.) What I *am* saying is that no one should turn a profit by adding an unnecessary and bloated layer of bureaucracy. As Donald Cohen pointed out in March at the Huffington Post, the for-profit players are crying foul at Obama’s plan, essentially for a government-run Medicare-like option, because they don’t want the competition. As Cohen points out:

Private insurance overhead and profits eat up 20% and more of health care premiums while Medicare overhead (and no profit) is closer to 3%. There is big money to be made in health insurance. The top 7 “for profit” health insurers made a combined $12.6 billion in 2007– an increase of 170.2% from 2003. The same year, the average CEO compensation package for these health insurance companies was $14.3 million. Pay packages ranged from $3.7 million to $25.8 million.

Government-sponsored single-payer healthcare, which succeeds admirably in many other countries around the world, is probably not a realistic possibility in the US. I think that the next best thing in the long run is that an array of private, not-for-profit companies like Kaiser Permanente could run the for-profits into the ground. The government can encourage the non-profits in any number of ways, with little cost to taxpayers. One way or another I hope that Congress and the Obama administration can create a viable option for the 50 million uninsured, soon.

Access to quality health care should be a basic human right in a civilized, technologically advanced society like the US. It has become our greatest shame in the world that we cannot provide that for one in six of our people.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health, Human Rights

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