Friday, January 22, 2010

Reflections on Proposition 8 Trial

I've had the privilege of sitting in for part of the proposition 8 trial (Perry v. Schwarzenegger), yesterday and this morning.
The trial has been incredibly interesting, although I have to say, the parts I sat in on were kind of slow.

I'm not a big fan of similar-gender marriage as a goal. And I'm dubious about the chances that this trial will succeed. But I have to say, it is doing an amazing job of revealing what the debate over similar-gender marriage is really all about: the prejudice that Evangelicals (and various allies) have against queers.

I'm convinced that this wouldn't be a big issue item on "the gay agenda" if the Evangelicals hadn't shoved it on us. An excellent book Courting Justice describes how individual queers have for decades (at least back to 1963, if not before) have tried to get some sort of official recognition of similar-gender marriage rights in the courts. But the issue didn't take off for the wider queer population.

Even after the Hawai'i decision in 1993, it still didn't take off. Even in 1998, when Alaska and Hawai'i were the first states to vote to restrict marriage, the wider gay community wouldn't touch marriage. A few people wanted it, but many of us thought of it as a badge of heterosexuality, a cowardly dodge from realizing one's full queer potential. A very bizarre "right" to demand.

But by 2000 there were the beginnings of a shift, and by 2004, it was absolutely clear we were being attacked with this thing, and we'd better start defending ourselves. Tell someone loud enough that they can't do something, and you know what they'll want to do next.

immutability, identity/behavior/desire
At any rate, here we are, many not excited about similar-gender marriage, but pissed off by being attacked as pedophiles, unfit parents, mentally deranged, sinful, and the certain cause for the ruin of Western Civilization.
In today's grueling 5+ hour cross-examination, Prop 8 lawyer Nielson badgered anti-prop 8 witness Gregory Herek with hundreds of variations on the same theme, trying to get him to say that homosexuality is neither definable nor immutable.
It is fairly clear that what the pro-prop 8 side was trying to do today is to make two claims. First, that homosexuality can't be clearly and unambiguously defined in the same way for all contexts, so homosexuals shouldn't be considered for equal protection under the U.S. constitution.
Second, that people's sexual orientation can change over time, and if so, which "class" a person fits in is ambiguous, making it impossible to consider equal protection under the U.S. constitution.

This seems like a pretty risky strategy on their part, since the exact same logic would lead one to conclude that religious affiliation should not be a basis for seeking equal protection. After all, one of the central tenets of Evangelical Christianity is that one's religious affiliation can change, and even ought to change in order to become 'saved'. Furthermore, it is not possible to define religious affiliation in clear and un-ambiguous terms.
Nielson hammered away at the themes of "identity, behavior, and desire" or words to that effect, as being multiple dimensions along which one could define sexual orientation, for research purposes.
Identity: "What do you call yourself?"
Behavior: "What have you done?"
Desire: "What do you want?"
A nearly-perfect analogy could be applied to religious affiliation, and the first two dimensions are routinely differentiated by sociologists studying religious affiliation. So should religious affiliation not be considered for equal protection because some people might define themselves as "Catholic", but not attend services, while others would decline to identify any particular denomination while attending services regularly?

Also, another category traditionally considered for equal protection would also fall apart under this logic, namely marital status. One's marital status can change over time (by becoming married, or becoming widowed, separated or divorced). Should it not be protected as a result? In this case, it is a change that is clearly under conscious choice (one certainly hopes that marriage doesn't happen by accident, or for unknown reasons).

The plaintiffs lawyers, for reasons I don't understand, haven't yet gone for the jugular on these points. Why not freely admit that sexual orientation changes over time, and is devilishly difficult to define in unambiguos terms? That doesn't seem to have much to do with whether a "class" of people should be protected from discrimination. Then come right back at 'em. Instead, the plantiff's witnesses have mentioned, from time to time, that ethnicity and race aren't easy to define either, and what "class" one "belongs" in can change over time. True, but the analogies between religious affiliation and sexual orientation seem more apt to me, and have the added advantage of putting it right back on their plate.

why get hung up on choice?
Another issue that Nielson fought over with Dr. Herek was the degree to which people's changing sexual orientation is under conscious control. Knowing what I know now, I would choose to be gay. But back in high school, when I was struggling to figure it out, I would have done anything to "choose" heterosexuality. It would have been easy. It would have made my parents happy. Heck, I even tried to be heterosexual - on my second "date" the girl laughed out loud when I said I thought it was a date, saying "But Bill, you're gay!" Sigh, I miss Rachelanna.

But back to the issue at hand, I think it's perhaps too easy to say that Evangelicals often believe homosexuality is a choice (conscious or otherwise) because their understanding of the Bible is that it is a sin, and that much like stealing, one may choose to "do" or not "do" no matter how strong the urge.

But I wonder if there isn't another reason that's just as strong. By enacting and re-enacting, and re-enacting, and
re-enacting stories about "coming to the Lord", Evangelicals narrate to themselves and each other a story of conscious choice about a fundamental aspect of their being. I've listened to enough religious right radio to know that spontaneous conversion isn't nearly as common as stories of spontaneous conversion, which are ubiquitous.
Perhaps the belief that homosexuality is chosen reflects these continuously repeated narratives about choosing to be saved. Perhaps insisting that homosexuality is chosen despite all available evidence is really another means to re-inforce their own narrative of choice in matters religious.

In the past, I've pondered the fact that gay men tend to reinforce innate-ness and lack of choice in their coming-out stories. Mirroring the process above, when we tell and re-tell our stories to one another, these characteristics of innate, unchosen immutability become more and more central to our sense of self and identity. I think that's a lot of how I became gay, anyway.
I was Bill, then I became gay Bill. I didn't become gay out of being straight, I became gay out of unformed nothing-ness because it was the social construct available to me that best fit who I was, innately. In another setting, I might well have become celibate, or str8, or something like it, depending on what was available to me in the way of social role narratives.
Now that my gay identity is fully formed, I no longer need to tell coming-out stories to reinforce my sense of who I am, and rarely do. Part of that is that everyone who
needs to know already knows, but mostly it's because I don't need to tell that story any more to know who I am.

Hate crime statistics
Yesterday, one of the prop 8 lawyers tried to run an event in the Oppression Olympics by comparing the number of crimes reported as being bias-motivated around sexual orientation to the number reported as being bias-motivated against Judaism.
I was shocked when the witness seemed to fall for it. He ended up giving a fairly reasonable response, but the premise that these numbers would be in any way comparable I find ludicrous.
As I covered at length in a previous post, the numbers of
reported bias-motivated crimes appear to indicate, if anything, an environment that is relatively less hostile to queers.
Perhaps a minor point, but I was surprised that the plantiffs' lawyers didn't seem to latch on to it.

History in the making
The most exciting thing about it, for me, was the feeling of being at the moment of "history in the making". This trial is big. In the league of the Scopes monkey trial, Bowers v. Hardwick, Lawrence v. Texas. It may not be Roe v. Wade or Brown v. Board of Education, but it's up there, a massive culmination of social forces distilled into one bundle (that
this Supreme Court will likely fumble). It will be a major reference in the evolution of queer history, no matter the result.
When similar-gender marriages were first issued in Massachusetts, I went up to Boston and sat on the steps of City Hall, chatting with a handsome stranger. I was moved far more than I thought I would be.
When similar-gender marriages were re-legalized in California, I went to City Hall, and snapped hundreds of photos, mostly of a pair of handsome strangers getting hitched. I was moved to tears repeatedly that day.
I feel fortunate, to have been in the right place at the right time, to bear witness these momentous events.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Cool Word Trick

Don't ask me how I know, because I don't know how, but copied work in a student's paper just jumps off the page. I usually detect it in under two seconds, and not because I'm looking for it, it just looks wrong immediately.

At first, when I was looking for the original source that a student copied from, I would guess what the most unique combination of words was, picking two or three multi-syllabic scientific-sounding words, and then do an internet search for them.
But I noticed a curious thing. In most cases, those unique words I was looking for often weren't particularly unique. But what did tend to be very unique was the "packaging" of banal words around them.

I've been shocked to find that, given about 5-6 words in sequence, it is almost always possible to find the one unique occurrence in the history of the English language that those particular words occurred in that particular order.

So now, I just type in the first 5-6 words of a sentence, no matter how banal and mundane the sentence structure sounds, and it almost always uniquely identifies the source. Neat trick, eh?
Try it at home. Grab a few words from anywhere nearby. Type them into your favorite web search. Watch the magic unfold.
See how many words you can get rid of, especially the words that sound most unique, and still have that one source pop up to the top of your list. (Hint: using quotes around the words to hold them in their original order makes it a lot easier.)

Somebody needs to write a paper about this phenomenon.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Obesity is NOT levelling off in the US

If anything, we're getting fatter faster.

Over the past few days, I've been seeing and listening to reports in credible news sources, the New York Times and National Public Radio, repeating a claim by CDC researchers that the obesity epidemic in the U.S. is leveling off.

I was suspicious. I had heard essentially the same story two years ago and found that claim to be less than credible, so I decided to investigate more closely.

So here's the data as they present it - the red line that they want you to focus on represents the proportion of the adult population who are overweight, but not obese - you can see that in recent years it has turned down a bit. But the blue and green lines, which represent obese (but not extremely obese), and extremely obese have been increasing, with no sign of slowing down whatsoever.

I used exactly the same data, from the same table in their report to generate this graph.
You can see a little more clearly here (at least I think), that the proportion of people who are overweight, obese, or extremely obese has been increasing, not leveling off.

Taking a closer look at the last few years, the proportion of the population that was some degree of overweight in 1999-2000 was 69.5%. It increased 1.6% to 71.1% in 2001-2002, 0.3% to 71.4% in 2003-2004, and 2.1% to 73.5% in 2005-2006. So the latest two years of data show the largest increase in overweight in the U.S. population so far documented. (the steepness of the little lines between the bars on the graph tell the same story)

So how could the esteemed news agencies I mentioned at the top of the blog gotten the story completely wrong? Not only that, but they were able to find a plethora of obesity experts to proffer explanations and predictions based on the erroneous conclusion that the obesity epidemic in the U.S. is leveling off.

There were two fundamental misunderstandings, as far as I can excavate: first, almost everyone involved seems to have mis-understood the term "statistical significance", and second, there seems to have been a widespread (excuse the pun) misunderstanding of looking at changes in the middle of the weight distribution.

As to mis-understanding the term "statistical significance", here is the sentence from the original CDC report:
The NHANES 2005-2006 data for persons age 20 years and over suggest an increase, between the late 1980s and today, in obesity in the United States, with the estimated age-adjusted prevalence moving upward from a previous level of 23 percent in NHANES III (1988-94) to approximately 34 percent. The change between 2003-2004 and 2005-2006, however, was not statistically significant. {emphasis added}

This little phrase "not statistically significant" was mis-interpreted to mean "no change", that is, a leveling off, between the data collected in 2003/2004 and that collected in 2005/2006.
Interestingly enough, that exact same mis-interpretation was made when comparing the 2001/2002 data to the 2003/2004 data in this CDC report. Apparently, the last time they got it right was in comparing the 1988-1994 data to the 1999-2002 data, when they didn't invoke the problematic concept of statistical significance at all, in this CDC report.

But obesity rates didn't level off in their data - as I showed above - in fact it was the largest increase seen yet in this data set.

The other mis-interpretation seems to have arisen from how this report discussed being overweight as something distinct from being obese, and being obese as something distinct from being "extremely" obese. That is, when the broke up the overweight population into three sub-groups, the proportion of people who are "just" overweight has decreased in the last few years (the red line in the top graph)
Here's the offending sentence from the original report cited above:
Although the prevalence of obesity has more than doubled since 1980, the prevalence of overweight has remained stable over the same time period.

Which only makes sense if you completely ignore the fact that lots more people are becoming more than "just" overweight (i.e. obese), and many fewer people have been at a "normal" weight (the tan bars in my re-graphing). That is, they have pulled the middle of a rapidly shifting distribution out and claimed that it isn't changing, but that is misleading because the size of the weight distribution on either side of it is changing

I'm afraid I may sound like some punctuation-correcting nag, nipping at the heels of our most esteemed news outlets for some petty transgression all the while making it sound like the English language is on the verge of collapse into a ruin of uninterpretable gibberish.

But this isn't a punctuation or spelling error. It's getting the story completely backwards.
And I don't really blame the NYT or NPR for screwing it up. They were, after all, following the lead of our most esteemed public health agency. They were able to find plenty of esteemed experts willing to line up and go on at length about the implications of this erroneous interpretation of the findings.

I trace it back to the deeply ingrained mis-training that scientists get about what the phrase "statistical significance" means. When the British eugenicists who were followers of Darwin coined the phrase "statistical significance" in the late 1800's, they intended it to mean (at least as far as I can interpret their meaning over 100 years later) something like "significant in a statistical sense only, and quite possibly not in any other sense". So to them the phrase "not statistically significant" wouldn't have had any particular meaning at all, perhaps a study that was "not statistically significant" wasn't looking at a big difference. Perhaps there was some sort of bias hiding a real difference. Perhaps there just wasn't enough of a sample size to reveal the real difference in a statistically striking manner.
At any rate, over the years and in order to simplify the concept of "statistical significance", it has been taught as "an unlikely probability of a finding arising from chance alone", and the phrase "not statistically significance" has increasing become mis-interpreted as meaning "no difference".

And that, my friends, is why you'll find that I seldom, if ever, use the phrase "statistical significance" - because in the end it doesn't really mean anything - it's only about the statistical interpretation of a dataset, which is only one small window for understanding and interpreting numbers.