the worst kind of “pussy policing” from the Washington Post

Ah, women. You know how it is: if we’d just tone it down a little, be more respectful, less emotional, less colorful, less pink, then men would take us seriously. If we just didn’t wear that short skirt, if we wore that longer skirt – but not that long a skirt – we wouldn’t be raped. If we just wore enough makeup to not be wearing makeup, if we just were clear about our interests in guys but not so clear to be sluts…

If we just lived under a constant set of rules that are ever-shifting the target, but boil down to the same thing: if we just twisted ourselves into the way men see other men, they’d treat us with respect.

Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak is the latest accuser in this salvo of women-not-doing-it-right: c’mon, ladies, why are you wearing pink cat ear hats to a march? That’s so frivolous! How can you expect anyone to take you seriously like that! You want to be taken seriously, don’t you?

Dvorak’s afraid that pink pussy ears are too fun, too distracting – after all, media took a photo, once, of a mohawk’d family at a climate change protest, and now that’s what we all thing of when we think of climate change. What hockey sticks? Michael who?1

But this is the norm, right? Dvorak’s just reiterating a constant social message about what women need to do and take care of. We have to be careful that women’s bodies and what they do with those bodies don’t distract men from The Important Things. Women should be careful that their actions can’t be misinterpreted, at any time; we wouldn’t want a photographer taking a picture of a few women wearing pink pussy ear hats and think this was just some kind of fun get-together for knitting enthusiasts!

It’s not too many steps over from making sure you dress the right way so men don’t misunderstand your intent in a bar, is it?

Because ultimately, the messaging is being placed on women. It’s not up to men or journalists or historians to make sure they understand the message; nope, women must properly convey their intent and any error in inference is their fault, and no one else.

Hedwig Reicher as Columbia, and other suffrage pageant participants. Guess dressing up is okay if it’s called a pageant? (Picture via Library of Congress.)

Possibly the funniest thing about the whole piece, in that sort of “historical revisionism is funny when people try to use the past to guilt us in the present” kind of way, is Dvorak’s insistence that the suffragettes protested properly:

Protests are successful and effective when they have a clear message, a clear mission. That’s part of what made the 1913 march by the suffragettes seeking the right to vote so memorable

Yes. Those suffragettes. They never had any fun in their rallies.

They never did anything unseemly.

They were never, ack, violent.

Why, they just nicely asked for the right to vote, and since they were so rational and level-headed about it, they just got it! Isn’t that a nice historical fiction we can all learn from?

What’s With NASGOF2 and House Ferret?


If you’ve been watching my Twitter account, you’ve undoubtedly seen my parody of Game of Thrones over the last week: NASGOF2 is Coming/NASEM. And if you’re a Game of Thrones fan who works in or around gain-of-function/dual-use research of concern, then you likely giggled and nodded and probably planned to if not be at today’s meeting, at least watch it live on the internets.

If you’re a dual use person who isn’t familiar with Game of Thrones, I can’t help you–I don’t watch the show, either. All I know are the memes from the first season’s “Winter is Coming” advertisements, and I happen to both have Photoshop and be married to a fan of the show who is also one of the dual use experts. So when he offered his suggestion (instead of what I was working on), I jumped.

What was this remarkably funny suggestion? The profile of a ferret, because ferrets are what started this all.[note]Ron Fouchier and Yoshi Kawaoka published a series of experiments passing H5N1 through ferrets, ultimately making it very, very transmissable and very, very deadly. While DURC/GOF studies have been going on for a long time–Ramshaw’s mousepox is probably the most famous–this whole brouhaha can really be traced back to 2011/2012. You can read the start of it here.[/note] And because we’re talking the flu, naturally, the ferret is licking it’s sniffly nose (a detail I added and I’m grateful at least one person noticed and laughed about–oddly, not the husband).

So today, the ferrets have come home to do whatever the ferret equivalence of “roost” is, and the summary of a lot of hard work, arguing, publications, and general debate will be presented in front of a divided group of people. And me. I’ll be there with my gifs and giggles, rolling my eyes at the entire process and wondering if it’d help if I just made everyone read All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

Lying Liars Who Lie & the Internet is Forever, CDC Edition

What, did you think no one would notice, CDC?

Did you think no one would oh, I dunno, save the image?

Eight days ago, the CDC used this infographic in a Vital Signs post about women and alcohol:

A closer view of the top part of the image:


You don’t have to take my word for it, as it was the outrage heard ’round the feminist internet:

Today, that same Vital Signs post has this infographic:


And to further add insult to injury, they’re trying to pretend that this is the way it always was. See, the CDC actually has a little count down at the bottom of the page that’s supposed to change when they update things, and yet,…


Click here to see the full image, including day/time stamp, if you want proof I took it today. Or just look at their website. Tomato, tohmahto.


Edited to add: And Jess Beasley offers this wonderful point:

3:05 pm Addendum: Apparently when BuzzFeed calls, CDC listens, blanches, and then takes down the offending graphic. …proving that yet again, the CDC does not understand that the internet is forever.

The Centers for Disease Control & Hypocrisy?

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a highly contentuous new Vital Signs post on women, pregnancy, and alcohol. The main message was, essentially “don’t drink, ever, if you could possibly be using your uterus to store more than endometrial tissue, fibroids, or intrauterine devices.”

Oh, nice try CDC. I see they finally changed their graphic, a week after the uproar. Unfortunately for them, the internet is forever. This is the original, infuriating, graphic.

Oh, nice try CDC. I see they finally changed their graphic, a week after the uproar. Unfortunately for them, the internet is forever. This is the original, infuriating, graphic.

The impetus for the post appears to be the fact that roughly 52% of pregnancies in America are unplanned, and many women are pregnant for 4 to 6 weeks before they realize they’re pregnant; in that time, there’s the possibility of consuming alcohol.

Now, while studies don’t support the idea that mild drinking while pregnant will harm a fetus, the CDC (and many commentators) have latched onto this rather ludicrous THE RISK IS REAL DON’T TAKE ANY RISK approach for alcohol and pregnany, even going so far as to say it’s not worth risking a single IQ point.[note]Which makes me wonder: really? Given we know that socioeconomic status can affect significantly more than a solitary IQ point, would the recommendation be not having children if you’re below a certain SES? Hmm.[/note] Let’s say we accept this fearmongering approach, ignoring the lack of scientific support for the assertions, ignoring the victim-blaming nature of the infographic,[note]Someone abuse you while you drank? WELL WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? …yeah, the CDC went there.[/note] even ignoring the fact that the CDC conveniently forgot not only a man’s role in conception but the damage drinking can do to sperm and how that can affect fetal development.[note]Designer Chris Giganti kindly provided an updated graphic for men.[/note] Any risk is bad. Wrap pregnant women up in cotton, leave them in a padded room, and don’t let them do anything in case they happen to be in the process of 9.5-odd months of gestation.

Really don’t let them smoke, right? I mean, the risk is real! Smoking while pregnant can cause fetal death, low birth weight, preterm birth, affect the integrity and function of the placenta, is a risk factor for sudden infant death syndrome–oh my gosh! This list is just as bad, if not worse, than the risks of pregnancy and drinking for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Certainly with the release of new data on the risks of smoking and pregnancy–completely separate from the other known risks that smoking has on health, such as cancer, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and death–the CDC has created an equally dire infographic and message saying that the risk is real, so quit smoking, why take the risk?

Yeah, nope.WaitWhatYoureKidding

We didn’t even get an infographic.

Instead, we got a very sensible, calm, factual question-and-answer style statement from the CDC explaining how smoking can harm a pregnancy and baby, the number of women who smoke while pregnant, benefits of quitting, effects of second-hand smoke, and further resouces, with various facts hyperlinked within the article itself.

It’s almost an ideal example of how to present facts about a risk in order to allow women to do an analysis of the situation based on their own agency and autonomy.

The CDC did everything right this week with their publicization of new information about smoking and pregnancy data and risks. As Sarah Richardson and Rene Almeling noted in the Boston Globe on Monday, “[w]omen are constantly bombarded with advice about what to eat and drink and how to behave during pregnancy,” and rather than add to the growing list of simplistic injunctions of an “omg if you do that you will kill the baby” variety, the CDC provided pregnant people with credible information about how to weigh reproductive risks.

And yet. And yet. In the light of last week’s NO RISK IS ACCEPTABLE message regarding women and pregnancy, it’s a stark difference in approach and messaging, and both underscores the hypocrisy of their “ABSTAIN OR ELSE” message regarding alcohol while further damaging their credibility as a trusted source of health information and regulation.

Google demonstrates people dismiss philosophy when they don’t understand it

This is pretty much how I generally feel about the trolley problem. (Comic by xkcd.)

This is pretty much how I generally feel about the trolley problem, and it makes me cranky to end up defending it so often. (Comic by xkcd.)

Earlier this week, Chris Urmson, chief of Google’s self-driving cars project, made a pretty big mistake for someone so high up at Google: he dismissed philosophers and the trolley problem as irrelevant to self-driving cars.

Now, people dismissing philosophers as irrelevant isn’t terribly unusual (see: Pinker, deGrasse Tyson, Dawkins, et al). But it is a bit unusual to see Google make such a novice mistake, especially a representative so highly (and publicly) placed in the company. Speaking at Volpe, National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Urmson said:

It’s a fun problem for philosophers to think about, but in real time, humans don’t do that. There’s some kind of reaction that happens. It may be the one that they look back on and say I was proud of, or it may just be what happened in the moment.

It’s pretty rare to see someone so clearly make a mistake like this, but I’m not one to make light of gift horses. So yes, technically, Urmson is right: no one (not even those useless philosophers) think that your mother is carefully evaluating all options when she slams on her brakes and throws her arm across your chest, pinning you to your seat, even though you’re 32 years old. No one actually thinks a driver is thinking “hmm, that moose is headed right for me, but there are a bunch of kids waiting for the bus stop where I’d normally veer, so should I go ahead and hit that moose and avoid the kids, or should I swerve towards the kids and hope I can miss them all? and then weighing out costs, risks, benefits, and so on. That’s just silly.

Furthermore, as Ernesto Guevara noted on Twitter, while Urmson is quick to dismiss philosophy and ethical decision-making, he goes on to discuss the engineered decisions on who a Google car will try to avoid hitting: vulnerable road users (think pedestrians and cyclists), then other vehicles on the road, and lastly things that don’t move. Hmm. A hierarchy of decisions about who a car will or will not hit… sounds an awful lot like moral decision-making to me.

Which brings us to what the trolley problem is: it’s an acknowledgment of the fact that people make these decisions, it’s not an example of how people make these decisions. By trying to figure out how people react to choosing to hit one person vs five, or pushing a person to their death vs pulling a lever[note]One of the things these thought experiments look at is the distinction we draw between doing and allowing harm.[/note], and other permutations of the thought experiment,[note]You can find a good overview of the trolley problem and the thought experiments built on it here.[/note] philosophers are trying to detangle the instantanious “some kind of reaction” that Urmson just vaguely dismisses.

Yes, drivers just react in the moment, but those reactions a driver makes–and how we think about them when faced with thought experiments–are reflections of values, culture, society. Trying to discern the nuances of those values and how we get to them is at the heart of the trolley problem, and in the case of those who are building self-driving cars, it seems like it would be a pretty good idea to understand why a mother might throw her arm over her child and swerve to the right (in order to protect her child and take the impact of an oncoming car herself) vs a teenager swerving to avoid hitting a dog that darts into the street but ends up hitting or endangering people playing on the sidewalk, instead.

That Urmson thinks philosophers believe people make these kinds of decisions on the fly, and that’s what the trolley problem is about, highlights his lack of familiarity with the idea of not just the trolley problem, but applied philosophy–which should worry anyone who is watching not only the development of self-driving cars, but Google’s continued branching out into all aspects of our increasingly wired lives.