Bias

Bias Is Constant

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Please consider the implications of a study from Yale that shows that science professors in the United States are consistently biased toward men and against women:

Discussions of gender bias in science and mathematics have long been complicated by a host of factors — including whether women receive preferential treatment through affirmative action or whether innate differences indeed exist between men and women.

To avoid such complications, the Yale researchers sought to design the simplest study possible. They contacted professors in the biology, chemistry and physics departments at six major research universities — three private and three public, unnamed in the study — and asked them to evaluate, as part of a study, an application from a recent graduate seeking a position as a laboratory manager.

All of the professors received the same one-page summary, which portrayed the applicant as promising but not stellar. But in half of the descriptions, the mythical applicant was named John and in half the applicant was named Jennifer.

About 30 percent of the professors, 127 in all, responded. (They were asked not to discuss the study with colleagues, limiting the chance that they would compare notes and realize its purpose.)

On a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being highest, professors gave John an average score of 4 for competence and Jennifer 3.3. John was also seen more favorably as someone they might hire for their laboratories or would be willing to mentor.

The average starting salary offered to Jennifer was $26,508. To John it was $30,328.

Some thoughts:

1)  Sexism is one of the fundamental problems in society.  Bias against women is so deeply rooted that it becomes part of many things that seem unrelated, like autism.  Girls are less likely to be diagnosed with autism, and less likely to be diagnosed early.  Women are expected to be the primary caretakers of children and end up being disproportionately impacted when a couple has a child with special needs. 

2) Most bias is unconscious.  These professors were probably not motivated by a deliberate desire to hurt "Jennifer" or to reward "John."  They just saw John as more qualified and worth investing more in than Jennifer, when the only difference between them was gender.  Most of us see ourselves as being above that kind of sexism.  Most of us believe that we never act out of racism.  Most of us are wrong.  And most of the time, when we subtly favor one group over another, we are not aware that we are doing it.

3) Members of less favored groups are biased against themselves.  One of the most striking and important conclusions of the study is that women were just as biased against Jennifer as their male colleagues.  Women can still hold the unacknowledged belief that men are better scientists.  Gay men can still get attention by declaring themselves opposed to gay marriage or gay parenting.  Autistic people carry the same bigoted beliefs that we are dangerous and incompetent that neurotypical people do.

4) Gender still matters.  We all need to see more images of women as scientists.  We need more women in elected office.  And we need to make sure that, when we talk about autism, we listen to both men and women. 

 

HuffPo Still Calling Autistic People Broken, Scaremongering about Vaccines


The Huffington Post used to be one of the worst places to read about autism on the internet, giving a forum to irresponsible  vaccine opponents like Jenny McCarthy and David Kirby.  In recent months, they have published some excellent work by parents like Jess Wilson and Todd Drezner, but today's piece by Franco Antonello takes us back to the bad old days of insensitive neurotypical parents telling the world what it's like to be "broken" by autism and throwing in some anti-vaccine scaremongering for flavor (emphasis mine):

While thinking about what I could write for this blog to describe what autism is, and disability in general, for a child that faces life, I thought of this: imagine that you are driving a car. The car is your body and it is through this car that you move to achieve anything in life. You are very aware that you need to turn on the engine, get started and spin the steering wheel to get on the road. But what happens is that when you start the engine, the horn sounds... and when you adjust your seat, the car starts moving forward... when you accelerate, the car goes backwards... you hit the turn signal and the doors open... you know what you have to do, you see everything, but nothing works the way you want it to. You try again and again, you kill yourself trying, you cry, you scream out of desperation... people look at you like a fool, they treat you like a fool because you act strange... and you try again and again but this car they gave you doesn't work. Maybe they gave it a wrong additive (a vaccine maybe?) and it broke down, no one knows how to fix it, people look at you and pass by with their own perfect cars -- machines that respond perfectly to their every command. You decide to get out of the car... you start opening the door, but the car starts moving at a furious speed... Help!!! Then at night, your tears wrinkle your pillow, you can't fall asleep and you wonder about how to get out of this confusion. You wake up and the nightmare is still real, for your entire life. Forever! No. Not forever?!? That is how I would describe autism.

 

On Emily Bazelon, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Bullying, Bias, and Me


Video version of this post at the end.

One of the reasons that I am angry about producer Lee Hirsch's decision not to mention Tyler Long's Asperger's syndrome in the movie Bully is that doing so gave Emily Bazelon an excuse to trash another kid who killed himself.

Bazelon's point of view is that people who kill themselves are the only ones who have any responsibility for their suicides, and that no one else should ever have to take legal or moral responsibility for that action.  Because I spent fifteen years teaching in public schools, I know that Ms. Bazelon's efforts could not be more misguided:  the problem in America's schools is not the half dozen cases where bullies have arguably been prosecuted too rigorously but the thousands of cases where nothing at all is done and everyone looks the other way.

In this article, she may not realize how blunt she is being about the fact that she has no sympathy for kids like Tyler, who are unable to stand up to bullying:

I was prepared to love this movie for offering an in-depth take on a difficult problem that I’ve been covering for a few years. And I did love parts of it—the parts about children who face troubles from their peers but also show inspiring resilience.

Tyler doesn't inspire her.  So she pulls out from the court records the one mean thing she could find that he said-- it's not relevant, but it makes him look bad.  She criticizes Hirsch for taking Tyler's parents side too much, but actually paraphrases the school district's brief and pretends that she is just giving "more of the story."

She even calls into question the idea that Tyler was really bullied at all:

The suicide note has seemingly nothing to do with bullying. By now, you must be wondering: What bullying did Tyler Long experience? Honestly, after watching the movie and reading all of the legal papers filed by Tyler’s family and his school, I’m not sure. In the film, David Long says that kids banged Tyler’s head into a school locker a day or two before his death. No one has said who those kids are supposed to be. Murray County High has 42 video cameras installed throughout the school and grounds. They cover the hallway where Tyler’s locker was. The police looked at the tape on the relevant days and saw no one pushing Tyler’s head into a locker or doing anything else to him. This allegation also disappeared from the family’s lawsuit after it was challenged by the school. In the movie and in the suit, Tyler’s family says that he was bullied daily. Nine students quoted in the Longs’ brief say things like “students spit in his food in the cafeteria,” and “he was pushed in the back of his head in the cafeteria and would yell ‘leave me alone’ and then throw his plate away and leave,” and “they’d call him retarded, slow, faggot,” and “people would pull his pants down in the bathroom and throw stuff at him.”

She changes what are cited as specific incidents in the Longs' brief into vague-sounding generalities, and pretends that's all they are.  She also chooses to leave out the more disturbing and specific allegations: that Tyler had things thrown at him while he was attempting to use the toilet and that another boy rubbed his genitals on him.  She leaves out the specific things that Tyler complained about (that other students said he was gay and looked at gay porn, for one) and then pretends that those things just weren't there.

What matters to her is that there is no obvious trigger from a bully that happened immediately before Tyler's death.  Also he did not say "A bully made me kill myself" in his suicide note. And those are fair points.  Which she could have made without suggesting that there was no real evidence that he was bullied.

Because she leaves out fact that after Tyler died, other students celebrated his suicide and were not stopped or disciplined in any way.  They wore nooses around their necks to school.  The school let them.  They don't dispute that fact in their own brief.  The idea that such a hostile culture could have grown up after Tyler's death without being there before it is absurd.  To write such an environment off with "maybe kids were mean and unfriendly in Tyler’s junior year" is dishonest at best. To tell Tyler's story to a general audience and leave out the reaction to his death at the school is despicable.

But so is bringing in an "expert" to drive home her own belief that people with Asperger's syndrome are unsympathetic.  Ann Haas from the  American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is astonishingly bigoted:

". . .If Tyler had been accurately portrayed as a kid with mental health challenges that were very hard for him to manage, he wouldn’t seem so attractive. We might feel sympathy for him, but he wouldn’t have the emotional pull of a character who is being romanticized. When you turn a real person, who had a very painful, distressing life, into a kind of fairytale character, that’s something young people are much more likely to identify with. And identification is at the heart of contagion.”

Got that?  They needed to say he was an aspie because that would make him less sympathetic. Tell that to the people who voted for James Durbin on American Idol last year.

I had an enormously painful and frustrating conversation with Ms. Haas yesterday.  She told me this:

It is our belief that in most cases people commit suicide because of an underlying disorder, a mental disorder or, in the case of Aspergers, a developmental disorder.  It is very difficult to convey this without stigmatizing people who have those disorders.

That's because it is a stigmatizing, biased belief.

I think anyone who takes seriously the idea that people with Asperger's syndrome should be safe at school or have a place in the world would immediately see the bigotry in this article.

So it pained me tremendously that Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is one of my favorite writers, could not see it, and recommended it without reservation.  He does not see that she matches perfectly the formulation of bias I recently quoted him as giving on Up with Chris Hayes:

Absolute sympathy for some people, and absolute skepticism for others.

Emily Bazelon shows absolute sympathy for the people accused of playing a role in the suicides of other people.  She shows absolute skepticism to people like Tyler Long.  She fails to notice that the school district references the money his special education cost the general population and uses that to suggest that he could not have been a victim of discrimination because he is a member of a privileged group-- that's the thinking of people who would argue that Affirmative Action proves that African Americans are members of a privileged group, and, thus, racism cannot exist.

And Mr. Coates, who I respect tremendously, holds that up as a model to his readers.  He was more eloquent than anyone else for me on the smearing of Trayvon Martin after his death, but he fails to see that Ms. Bazelon's career is based largely on finding the equivalent of that irrelevant empty marijuana bag, and letting everyone know it was in the backpack of some kid who killed himself.

Mr. Coates recently asked his readers why it is that white people think that any accusation of racism means that the accuser is saying the person doing a racist thing is all bad.  I think one of the reasons is that they have not had an experience I have often had as a gay person and as autistic person, that I think people who are members of ethnic minorities often have, and that I have today with Mr. Coates: I know he is good, I know he is smart, and I know he thinks I am less than him.

Click here to watch the video.

Talking About Trayvon Martin


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I have been thinking a lot about Trayvon Martin this week (If you aren't familiar with the case, please start by watching the clip from the Chris Hayes show embedded below).  One reason I've been thinking about Trayvon is the danger that our own autistic men of color face.  Most recently, Stephon Watts was killed by police for attacking them with what his family says was a butter knife.  Ernest Vassell was killed by police last year for carrying a toy gun. 

I especially wanted to show the above sequence from Melissa Harris-Perry, which features young black men reacting to the tragedy.  They are the people I am most interested in hearing from, just as I want most to hear from autistic people about events that affect us.

After the jump, I also include a clip from my favorite MSNBC show, Up With Chris Hayes.  One of the other reasons I've been thinking about Trayvon Martin so much this week is that Ta-Nehisi Coates, my current favorite writer on the web, has been writing brilliantly and passionately about him.  Coates appeared on Hayes' show yesterday to discuss the case, and the entire panel ended up talking about bias in a very nuanced and intelligent way that I wish we could bring to similar discussions about autism. 

Coates talks about how we think of racists as "evil trolls who live under the bridge." We do not recognize that we all carry bias, that we are all guilty of bigotry.  We want to say these things exist only in the other, and only when they approach cartoon villainy (like The Help). He says that bias also operates in this way:

Absolute sympathy for some people, and absolute skepticism for others.

Click here to watch.

Wandering Toward Racial Hygiene


I know Godwin's Law.

I used to teach a course on the history of the Holocaust-- I know a lot about it. 

I know a lot of gay people compared the passing of laws forbidding same sex marriage to the anti-Jewish laws passed in Nazi Germany, but I never felt they were anything like that.  Anti-marriage laws enshrine an unequal situation.  The anti-Jewish laws took away existing rights and constricted the freedoms of an already marginalized people.  As angry as I am about the treatment of gay people in the United States, it has never struck me as similar in any significant way to what happened to Jewish people in Germany in the 1930s.

But the Wandering Code feels like the Nuremberg Laws, even though I know it is really nothing like them.  It still scares me to death.

The Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935. They removed German citizenship from Jewish people and made it illegal for them to marry or have sexual intercourse with non-Jews and to participate in civic life.

Clearly, on a rational level, the Wandering Code is much more similar to the racial hygiene laws that the Nazis passed:

The July 1933 "Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring" prescribed compulsory sterilisation for people with a range of conditions thought to be hereditary, such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, Huntington's chorea and "imbecility". Sterilisation was also mandated for chronic alcoholism and other forms of social deviance.[16] This law was administered by the Interior Ministry under Wilhelm Frick through special Hereditary Health Courts (Erbgesundheitsgerichte), which examined the inmates of nursing homes, asylums, prisons, aged care homes and special schools to select those to be sterilised.

And it is not very much like those.

Because while those laws were passed by people who wanted to protect society from the genetically inferior, the Wandering Code was put in place to protect vulnerable people from danger.

I do not doubt for a minute that the intentions of the people who pushed hard for it were very good.

But it feels like the Nuremberg Laws to me, even though I know that is irrational.

 

The second time I had a significant conflict with Kim Wombles, it was over the way that she wrote about the Wandering Code.  I initially contacted her on her Facebook page, which was a mistake, because it made her very annoyed.  But I tried that venue because comments had been so unproductive the last time, not because I wanted to be aggressive or intrusive.

I'll quote at length from what I wrote then, because it matters:

On the other hand, I am a teacher who understands how terrifying it can be when someone with autism slips away.  So I understand why Kim Wombles, a parent and advocate, would disagree with that position.

I wish that Kim would have focused her disagreement on the thing she does well: detailed analysis of the facts.  Instead, she tried to attack ASAN on the basis on their rhetoric-- the way they expressed their ideas.

I have a problem with that.  A serious problem.

People with autism have, by definition, a communicative impairment.  People who claim to care about, to be experts on autism, should not attack people with autism for expressing fears clumsily.  When the worry that you might be unfairly treated by authorities is as real as it is for people with autism, and when fear and worry make it especially difficult to communicate without hyperbole, it hurts for "friends" to attack you for saying things in a way they find overblown.

And, as someone who taught English for many years and studied rhetoric at the graduate level, I find Kim's critique odd.  She calls the rhetoric used by ASAN inflammatory and sensationalized, based primary on these two sentences:

Will you help us stand up for disability rights?

And

If approved, this new coding promises to label hundreds of thousands of children with "wandering" diagnoses that would make it easier for school districts and residential facilities to justify restraint and seclusion in the name of treatment.

In order to offer a meaningful critique, you need to understand the genre the author is working in.  I do not find those sentences inflammatory or sensationalized at all-- using the correct standard of other change.org petitions.  This is what Kim would have had the author do instead:

Rather than reacting in a knee-jerk manner, why not approach this from a rational, evidence-based perspective, asking that the CDC operationalize the definition of wandering (which would have to happen for it to become a diagnostic label); conduct better research into the number of individuals in institutions and group homes who wander, and the number of children with ASDs at home who have wandered; and make safeguards to ensure that a diagnostic label of wandering will not result in unnecessary restraint and that individuals' autonomy will be respected?

Because, Kim, this is a petition asking for political action, not a research paper. 

And she has a different standard for people with autism and people, like her, who have kids on the spectrum.  In her second post on the matter, she quotes Wendy Fournier making this statement about Ari Ne'eman:

His arguments for self-determination are unfounded and prove that he has no understanding of individuals who are severely affected by autism - and no desire to protect them from harm.

Kim doesn't distance herself much from this statement, either, noting only that she doesn't think Ari needs to be removed from the IACC. 

So "Stand up for disability rights" is over the top, but a direct statement that someone does not care about kids with autism is fine.

Kim is free to disagree with the petition.  What bothers me is her willingness to attack people with autism for using strong language but tolerating it in parents of kids on the spectrum, who do not have impaired communication, but agree with her.  That's not right.

Please note that I have not attacked Kim for expressing her point of view or for disagreeing with my opinion.  My critique is based on the same things that bothered me the first time I contacted her: attacking autistic people for failures of communication which strike me as being related to the disability of autism and allowing a range of expression to parents that she does not allow to self-advocates.

If you really think the ASAN petition is more offensively worded than Wendy Fournier's direct attack on Ari, please explain to me why.  Otherwise, I'll stick to my belief that Ms. Fournier's statement is outrageous and mean-spirited in a way that is obviously infinitely more inflammatory than what ASAN published.

And I'll stick with my opinion that this incident matters, because it will happen again.  The next time parents get an idea that will limit the freedom of autistic people in the name of safety, the autistic people who dare to speak up for the idea that we should have anything to say about our own bodies will be branded bullies and drama queens.

An autistic woman in England was legally banned by a judge from having sex last month.  The reasons were good-- to keep her safe. 

But how close to racial hygiene are you willing to wander?

 

 
 
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