Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Wager

I was not at Skepticon, and I'm not acquainted with anyone involved in the incident that a large section of the atheist blogosphere has been talking about. Lots of other people have written about what actually happened, and so I'm not going to rehash it here – I'll put links to some of those posts at the end for those who don't know what I'm talking about. I'm also not going to presume to speak for anyone who was directly involved in this, since I don't know them personally.

One thing I've noticed is that some people are assuming that Rebecca Watson is being overly sensitive about this – because she was uncomfortable at being approached by a man she didn't know in a hotel elevator, and invited up to his room, she was being unreasonably cautious. Some people have pointed to the use of the term "potential sexual assault" as evidence that she and her supporters view all men as potential rapists; in any case, she had no evidence that this man had any intention to do her any harm at all, and so any assumption she might have made about him was ostensibly paranoid and sexist. I disagree with all of this, and after thinking about it a while I think I've thought of a good way of explaining my reasons.

If you're an atheist, chances are you're familiar with the concept of Pasal's Wager. If you're not, the short version of it is that since we can't be certain of whether there's a God or not, it's better to believe that there is one. This is because of the possible consequences of being wrong. If you believe and it turns out you're wrong, then you'll be just as dead as you would have been otherwise, and no worse off. If you don't believe and you're wrong, then God's going to be ticked off by your impertinent skepticism and send you straight to hell. Of course, most atheists know that there are a lot of things wrong with these assumptions – maybe you decide to worship the wrong god. Maybe God values honest skepticism. There's also the fact that believing in God typically does come at a cost, in the form of time and resources spent worshiping him/her/it that could have gone to other things.

Now let's imagine that we live in an alternate universe. In this universe, we have some kind of proof that hell exists, and that some people do go there after they die. We even know who these people are (a regular feature of the obituaries in this universe is a mention of whether so-and-so went to hell or not.) The problem is that we're not completely sure of how these people are chosen. It seems to have some correlation with belief in god, and so in this universe, Pascal's wager would seem more like "Pascal's sensible advice". Every other factor seems to be completely useless for making predictions, but this doesn't stop people from speculating and forming their own "theories" about how to avoid damnation. "Well it's a shame that Jim got sent to hell, he was such a great guy – but you know, I told him that he should've joined the Downtown Second Reformed Southern Methodist Church like I did, we haven't had anyone get sent to hell in over ten years!"


In reading the comments section of Jen McCreight's post at Blag Hag , I noticed that a lot of the commenters were describing the kind of "safety precautions" that many women take to avoid being assaulted – not being alone with men they don't know, keeping one eye on their drink at all times, carrying mace, and so on. They don't actually believe that all (or even most) of the men they meet actually intend to harm them... but it's better to be safe than sorry, right? Some of the commenters referred to this as a "rape schedule", in reference to the fact that women who do these things are (consciously or not) planning their movements and activities to minimize their risk of being raped. One commenter (in the thread I linked in the previous paragraph) said this:

...most of what I do is usually what gets called "smart safety tips", like calling a friend before I go out on a first date and giving her the name of the restaurant, or letting someone know that I'm going out, or avoiding "bad" neighborhoods, or abstaining from alcohol when I'm not with a trusted friend, or being home by a certain time. ...When I didn't do those things, I was told I was being "foolish" and should have taken "proper precautions". But when I do take proper precautions, I'm paranoid?

The analogy isn't perfect, but to me this situation seemed like the messed-up Pascals' Wager Universe that I described earlier. You can choose to take these precautions, or not. Either way you might still fall victim to what you're trying to avoid, but if you didn't hedge your bets on the side of caution then the assumption is you're at least partly to blame for it.

Some people may be aware that most rapists vitimize people who know them, and that some rape victims are men. Yet most of the "rape prevention tips" are aimed at women and focus on avoiding rape by strangers, and it's not hard to see why. Even though acquaintance rape is more common, trying to avoid it would entail becoming a virtual shut-in, and I sincerely hope that no one reading this thinks that this is a good or workable solution. Nevertheless, "stranger rape" still makes up a fairly large minority of all rapes, and women make up the majority of rape victims, and so it's completely understandable that this is something they'd worry about. It's absolutely true that many of the "prevention tips" implicitly require them to assume that any man they meet might try to harm them. But by asking them to do otherwise, we're asking them to take a risk that very few men would be willing to take if we were in their shoes, which is unfair.

I don't have a perfect solution to this, and I don't know that one exists. But dismissing people's concerns as unreasonable and paranoid isn't going to lead to any solution at all.


As promised, some links to blog posts (most of which contain more links within them):

Rebecca Watson: made a video post right after Skepticon, another post following the CFI conference at which the Skepticon events came up again, and a third regarding some comments that Richard Dawkins made on the whole thing.

P.Z. Myers: wrote an initial post after the CFI conference, a criticism of some comments Richard Dawkins made in that post, and "The Decent Human Being's Guide to Getting Laid at Atheist Conferences" (IMHO, you could remove the last three words from the title and it would still be accurate.)

Hemant Mehta: summarized his thoughts on the whole thing in an easy-to-read series of bullet points, because he's just nice like that.


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