How the government uses dirty data to legislate morality
So what's a standard deviation?
When it comes to sex and censorship, Government's insistence that laws are "evidence-based" is little more than hot air.
The statistics quoted in support of any given case are frequently misleading, partial, and - according to one expert in this field - subject to highly unethical collusion of interest between government and researchers.
From rape to lap-dancing, from internet harm to obscure sexual practices, "evidence" is used to back a narrow politicised agenda, rather than as a basis from which to develop policy.
A good – or bad example – of this approach can be found in the Lilith Report on Lap-dancing, produced in 2003, which sought to link sex crime in Camden with the opening of local lap-dancing clubs.
Sponsored by Eaves Housing For Women – of whom more later - the report quoted, without full context, some selected figures: over a three-year period, the level of sexual offences in Camden fell by less than in two allegedly comparable boroughs, and the level of recorded rape and indecent assault in Camden increased by 50 and 57 per cent following the establishment of two mainstream lap-dancing establishments.
As "research" goes, this contains more holes than the proverbial Swiss cheese. We asked the Eaves Project for comment, but at time of writing had not received an answer.
It is an absurdly simplistic "correlation equals effect" argument, with virtually no controls of any kind. Yet such is the political desire that this report be true, it is quoted frequently and as gospel – from the Guardian to Amnesty’s official site - whenever a journalist wishes to take a pop at lap-dancing.
But then, it was ever thus. The first and ground-breaking research into sexual behaviour was the 1948 Kinsey report in the United States, followed by Mass Observation’s "Little Kinsey", whose findings – including a high level of homosexual experimentation and marital infidelity - were considered so shocking that they were, in typical UK fashion, kept secret for decades after.
Kinsey came in for serious academic criticism on the grounds of sample selection (volunteers who came forward for interview were mainly self-selected) and sample bias (a high proportion of prison inmates and prostitutes). This in turn led critics to argue that both Kinsey’s focus and findings were coloured by his own interest in masochistic and promiscuous sex.
However, a subsequent re-working of Kinsey’s data suggested that the sample bias had little effect and that in general, people’s sex lives were more colourful and more varied than conventional moralists liked to imagine.
Next page: Convenient categories
The failure of Rationality
I have to laugh a little at the "extreme porn" legislation. Could there be anything more blatantly manipulative than that title? Oppose this law will you? All in favour of extremism please stand up! Ok, now all you MPs out there who want to oppose this legislation, please reveal the sordid details of your porn obsessions!
The government has swapped activity for usefulness as a metric of what it thinks people will vote for. They'll pick on an issue which is emotive but only actually affects a few people (so the fight will be one-sided), work out the popular view and push through legislation to "deal with it." It has nothing to do with morality and everything to do with rational pragmatism - pushing an agenda, any agenda, which they think they can "win." Whether its necrophilia, foxhunting or a "war on terror" , its all just fuel for the administrative fire.
In an effort to make myself premier flame-bait and increase the page impressions for the benefit of El Reg, it would like to depart from what is probably going to be the consensus. Usually the introduction of morality into politics is seen as an attack on rationalism. I would suggest that it isn't. What we have is politicians making very rational decisions about which policies they should present and pursue. Why would you pick an issue where the side you oppose might contain a large number of voters when you can, instead, pick and frame your opposition as extremists and tiny unsupportable minorities?
The problem with rationalism is that the rational behaviour for a politician (attempting to pick vote winners) leads to incoherent overall policy. Thus much time is spent protecting foxes in England from one particular type of death, whereas humans in Iraq are opened up to all sorts of lethal and non-lethal abuse (not a vote-winner now, but it was thought to be so at the beginning).
Likewise, rationalism for newspapers involves publishing shock-horror-think-of-the-children stories because that is what sells newspapers. It feeds off the self-righteousness of the electorate and directly affects the rational behaviour of politicians. Sex also sells, so rational corporations publish both conservative and pornographic papers in the pursuit of profit, with no hint of embarrassment that decrying its own behavour might be considered irrational.
What we need is rational morality both in government and society in general. Pragmatism (evidence/results-based action) leads to surprisingly incoherent policy. We need less "evidence-based" policy and more morally principled behaviour. This does not mean more legislation of morality, but it does mean that we need people with coherent moral principles framing coherent legislation. It needs some honesty and explanation. We seem to have almost totally lost the idea of tolerance. Tolerance is not celebratory permissiveness or the acceptance of values which contradict your own, it is allowing people to behave differently from your own standards. It seems that there is a rush to legislate or crush everything that is deemed bad or incorrect by the electorate or the daily mail.
I may totally agree with the idea that "extreme porn" is a bad thing. I also happen to think trying to legislate against it is quagmire of illiberality and the whole thing is a waste parliamentary time. My moral compass tells me to tolerate its rather small and puny existence and get on with saving some starving people.
Not another law
I fail to see why the government has this obsession with drafting new laws to cover specific offences, when there are plenty of current statutes to cover the situation.
The author raises the issue of necrophilia; it need not be a crime in itself as there are any number of offences relating to grave robbery, failing to notify authorities of dead bodies, not to mention the old favourite health and safety regulations which would be used without stretching them too far.
The law on sexual conduct should be drastically simplified to the point where it simply says that all consensual sexual relationships which do not cause any long term harm to those involved is non of the business of the state. It could solve prostitution by only regulating matters which it should be involved in i.e. the health and safety of those involved and ensuring the government taxes the income.
Similarly, it could avoid dithering about how dangerous drugs are by decriminalising and taxing them according to risk, making them a purely medical matter, and ensuring problems with dirty needles, purity of supply etc are solved by having dispensation from pharmacists.
The extreme porn law and cartoon sex law is another prime example of the governments desire to interfere in matters which again should be none of its business. Poor Mr Timney is soon not going to be able to charge anything at all to expenses when his wife is hard at work at the Home Office, for fear of criminal charges.
Theres only one test
government policy has to pass - The Sun/Daily Mail test.
Nothing else really matters.