Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Do Lad Mags really talk like rapists?

The university of Surrey has recently reported that it is publishing a research paper in the British Journal of Psychology dealing with whether study participants could tell the difference between statements made by convicted rapists and those made by men's magazines.  There was one giant glaring problem I immediately saw with this study allowing for giant bias--the researchers were the ones choosing the quotes and thus could choose what quotes participants were reading.  Why is this problematic you may ask.  The reason is that if you select the proper quotes from two sources you can make any two groups look alike.  So long as you keep the quotes short and obscure enough it will be hard to determine who made a statement.  Of course, I have not seen the research because it has not been released yet, so I qualify my following arguments with the fact that the research may adequately address my complaints.

So, what did the study find... it turns out participants couldn't accurately guess which statements were made by rapists and which were made by men's magazines.  Now, without any further ado I will address the large potential problems I see with this research and the press release by University of Surrey and why I think this conclusion is misleading.  I will address 3 main problems I see: 1) guilt by association fallacy, 2) misleading selection of quotes, 3) cherry picking quotes.

1.  Guilt by Association Fallacy
The first problem is that the whole study is just a big guilt by association fallacy.  The guilt by association fallacy is an argument where you show that your opponent and some disreputable group hold similar traits and thereby imply that your opponent is also disreputable.  This is an invalid but tricky argument because it makes your opponent look bad even though they did nothing wrong.  Here is an oversimplified example:  Joe is a scientist, the Nazi's had scientists too, and Nazi scientists did horrible things so who knows what Joe will do.  In this example it is obvious that the fact that Joe is a scientist does not mean he will do horrible things.  But by associating Joe with Nazi's he creates a seed of doubt in his readers minds making them wonder if Joe is like a Nazi and will do horrible things.

This guilt by association technique is being used by the researchers in their new paper.  The paper's authors are essentially saying: "look rapists and men's magazines both use similar language, isn't that disgusting, men's magazines are just like rapists."  Well, the problem is you could probably find quotes by those same rapists that when put side by side with quotes by police officers or politicians would be indistinguishable.  What this comes down to, is that just because men's magazines may use some similar language that rapists use does not mean that they are rapists or that they are horrible. 

However, I would like to point out that both groups are using demeaning, rude, sexist language.  See this article here for a list of some quotes.   These quotes I would say on their face appear very demeaning to women.  If the study had just looked at whether men's magazines used demeaning language that would have been appropriate.  However, the researchers have used this deceitful guilt by association technique to try and make men's magazines look bad.  I suppose if you believe its ok to use any means to an end then maybe you support the researchers deceit.  However, I think its better to address issues of sexism by logical and correct arguments rather than fallacious ones.

2.  Misleading Selection of Quotes
As I discussed above, in many cases, if you select the right quotes from any two groups of people you could likely make them indistinguishable.  Of course, there may be exceptions where writing style is sufficiently different to be noticeable.  But, in many cases it would be easy to select similar enough quotes to make any groups look similar.
When looking at some of the quotes selected by the researchers to be presented to participants I immediately began to wonder whether the researchers intentionally picked misleading quotes.  Look for example at this quote:
Mascara running down the cheeks means they've just been crying, and it was probably your fault . . . but you can cheer up the miserable beauty with a bit of the old in and out
 If I was told to determine whether this came from a rapist or a men's magazine I would likely think rapist, because this quote, when in the context of rape, creates an implication that the girl is crying because she is being raped.  The problem here is that the quote contains alot of ambiguity.  It is unclear why the girl is crying; is it because: she was raped... she was cheated on... or he accidentally ran over her cat...  The problem is, in the context of rape every reader will likely assume the girl is crying because she was raped and thus assume it came from a rapist even though it turns out this came from a men's mag.  By selecting ambiguous quotes like this without further context of where the quote is from they have tricked the reader.  Here is another misleading quote:
You do not want to be caught red-handed . . . go and smash her on a park bench. That used to be my trick.
 Again, this is ambiguous; what doesn't he want to be caught doing?  In the context of rape any rational reader would assume that the person doesn't want to get caught raping.  But maybe he doesn't want to get caught in his act of mutually desired public sex with his girlfriend.  Again by choosing an ambiguous quote the author's appear to be trying to make the readers mistakenly attribute this to a rapist when in fact it came from a men's mag.  This is hardly an honest techinque.  The researchers have done their very best to make these quotes look like they come from rapists when if taken in their proper context they might look nothing like rape.

This is a rhetorical technique called quote mining.  Quote mining is used to make a writer appear to say something they are not saying by using a quote out of context.  It is a technique often used by creationists with the following quote:
To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree
this quote looks like it comes from a creationist, when in fact it comes from Darwin.  If you read two lines further however, you find out that Darwin explained immediately afterward why even though the evolution of the eye seems absurd, it is in fact not absurd at all.  Thus, people who use this quote to promote creationism have quote mined Darwin by taking his comment out of context.

The researchers at the university of Surrey have quote minded just like the creationists who quote Darwin.  By choosing these biased quotations they are almost forcing the participants to make mistakes.  Hopefully, when the research comes out I will read it and find they found some way to eliminate this bias, but I will have to wait and see.

3. Cherry Picking Quotes
The researchers picked quotes from four different monthly magazines and used issues of each from a three month period thus giving them tweleve magazines to work with.  The rapist quotes were taken from one book with interviews of rapists that has 215 pages.  I can't know for sure how the quotes were picked from each source but these are fairly large publications and thus would give the authors a large amount of quotes which they could use in their study.  I would assume the researchers then just picked the most similar quotes they could and thus they could have cherry picked all the bad quotes while at the same time not using any of the obviously different quotes contained in the magazines and rapists statements.  Thus, if the researchers did pick similar quotes on purpose they again appear to be trying to force a connection between rapists and men's magazines by using similar quotes.

Again, I don't yet know how they selected quotes, so I could be wrong.  But if they intentionally selected similar sounding quotes then of course readers would have a hard time differentiating the quotes.  I mean, seriously, if the researchers thought the quotes sounded similar you can be darn sure the participants would think they sound similar also.  Thus, this appears to be a case where the researchers said, hey lets find some similar quotes and then see if these participants agree with us.

Of course, this means that rapists and Men's magazines use similar language but as I said before, if you pick the right quotes you can make anyone sound alike.

In conclusion I want to say that I believe the quotes selected from the men's magazines were disgusting, inappropriate, and sexist.  However, I bet the magazine's writers know that and know that this type of controversiality sells.  Thus, perhaps the researchers at the University of Surrey were right to criticize the men's magazines.  However, their method of criticism appears to be inappropriate and misleading.  The use of quote mining and guilt by association are not valid argumentative techniques and shouldn't be present in research papers.  Once I read this paper, I will find out if they really have made these mistakes, hopefully they fixed these problems.

On a final note, I think an interesting follow up study would be to take quotes from the researchers and compare them to the same rapists.  I would be willing to wager that if we picked the right quotes from each they would be indistinguishable.

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