Power, science & media bias
Lots of people have objected to Mad Mel’s whine about “the seemingly all-powerful gay rights lobby” and Dominic Raab‘s claim that it is men, rather than women, are “victims“ who get a raw deal. But I don’t think anyone has quite nailed the problem here - that both are guilty of an anti-scientific ignorance of the nature of power.I’m thinking of something Sir Paul Nurse said last night - that a scientific attitude looks at the whole body of evidence, and does not cherry-pick a few anecdotes. This, though, is what Phillips and Raab do not do. Of course, there are individual instances of men getting a bum deal and of gays brow-beating straights. The question is: are these instances representative of the wider, fuller sample of experience? There are good reasons to think not, in two ways:1. There’s an availability heuristic at work here. The gobby gay and the “obnoxious bigot” of a feminist get noticed by virtue of being loud. But the gay who is tormented by the threat of homophobic bullying, or the battered wife, are quiet and go unnoticed. There’s therefore a natural tendency to over-estimate the power of the gay and feminist lobbies, and to under-estimate the extent of their victimhood.Right-wingers who look at a few gay or feminist activists and infer that gays and women generally have power are as daft-headed as left-wingers who look at Toby Young or James Delingtwat and infer that all right-wingers are whiny, vacuous, self-promoting little pricks.2. Power does not operate only - or even mainly - through visible, newsworthy, channels. It works more subtly, in unseen ways - for example by generating and sustaining social norms in which gays feel guilty for being who they are, or in which women are dissuaded from entering careers for which they would otherwise be suited.Given these problems, the only way to assess whether gays or women have power is to look at the totality of evidence. Do gays (pdf) and women suffer (pdf) more discrimination in the workplace? Are they disproportionately likely to be victims of serious violence? Do they, on average, suffer worse life chances?It is only statistical evidence that can adjudicate here. Anecdotes cannot be sufficient because they are highly likely to come from an extreme end of the statistical distribution.Herein, though, lies the problem. It is in the very nature of the media to prefer the anecdote over statistics: human interest wins over numbers every time. This preference, however, generates a systematic distortion in the way the media portrays inequality.