Archive for the 'Society' category

Depression and Geeks

Jan 15 2013 Published by under People, Personal, Society

Since this weekend, when the news of Aaron Swartz's suicide, there's been a lot of discussion of the goverments ridiculous pursuit of him, and of the fact that he suffered from depression. I can't contribute anything new about his prosecution. It was despicable, ridiculous, and sadly, all too typical of how our government works.

But on the topic of depression, I want to chime in. A good friend of mine wrote a post on his own blog about depression in the tech/geek community., which I feel like I have to respond to.

Benjy, who wrote the post, is a great guy who I have a lot of respect for. I don't intend this to be an attack on him. But I've seen a lot of similar comments, and I think that they're built on a very serious mistake.

Benjy argues that the mathematical/scientific/logical mindset of a geek (my word, not his) makes us more prone to depression:

Someone whose toolkit for dealing with the world consists of logic and reason, ideals and abstractions, may have particularly weak defenses against this trickster disease.

You realize that it’s lying to you, that there are treatments, that that things aren’t objectively as bad as they feel. But you know, on some level deeper than logic, that there is no point, no hope and no future. And to encounter, maybe for the first time, the hard limits of rationality, to realize that there’s a part of your mind that can override the logical world view that is the core of your identity, may leave you feeling particularly helpless and hopeless.

You can’t rationalize depression away, a fact that people who’ve never suffered from it find hard to comprehend. But if someone you care about is struggling with it, and it’s likely that someone is, you can help them find a new way to access their mind.

Tell them that you care about them and appreciate them and are glad to have them in your life. Show them that you enjoy being around them and that you love them. And above all, spend time with them. Give them glimpses of an alternate future, one in which they are secure, happy and loved, tear away the lies that depression needs in order to survive, and in that sunlight it will wither.

Most of what Benjy wrote, I agree with completely. The problem that I have with it is that I think that parts of it are built on the assumption that our conscious reasoning is a part of the cause of depression. If geeks are more prone to suffering from depression because the way that our minds work, that means that the way that we make decisions and interpret the world is a part of why we suffer from this disease. The implication that too many people will draw from that is that we just need to decide to make different decisions, and the disease will go away. But it won't - because depression isn't a choice.

The thing that you always need to remember about depression - and which Benjy mentions - is that depression is not something which you can reason with. Depression isn't a feeling. It's not a way of thinking, or a way of viewing the world. It's not something that you can choose not to suffer from. It's a part of how your brain works.

The thing that anyone who suffers from depression needs to know is that it's a disease, and that it's treatable. It doesn't matter if your friends are nice to you. It doesn't matter if you know that they love you. That kind of thinking - that kind of reasoning about depression - is part of the fundamental trap of depression.

Depression is a disease of the brain, and it affects your mind - it affects your self in a terrible way. No amount of support from your friends and family, no amount of positive reinforcement can change that. Believing that emotional support can help a depressed person is part of the problem, because it's tied to the all-too-common stigma of mental illness: that you're only suffering because you're too weak or too helpless to get over it.

You don't just get over a mental illness like depression, any more than you get over diabetes. As a friend or loved one of a person with diabetes, being kind, showing your love for them doesn't help unless you get them to get treatment.

I'm speakaing from experience. I've been there. I spent years being miserable. It nearly wrecked my marriage. My wife was as supportive and loving as anyone could dream of. But I couldn't see it. I couldn't see anything.

The experience of depression in different for different people. But for me, it was like the world had gone flat. I wasn't sad - I was just dead inside. Nothing could have any impact on me. It's a hard thing to explain, but looking back, it's like the world had gone two-dimensional and black-and-white. Eventually, I was reading something in some magazine about depression, and it talked about that flat feeling, and I realized that maybe, maybe that was what was wrong with me.

When I started taking antidepressants, it was almost frightening, because it changed the world so much. ANtidepressants didn't make me happy. In fact, for a while, they made me very sad, because I was realizing how awful I'd been treating my wife and daughter. But they made me feel things again. A few weeks after I started taking them, I realized that I was noticing colors. I hadn't done that for years. It wasn't that I couldn't see colors when I was depressed, but they didn't mean anything.

Antidepressants aren't a panacaea. They don't work for everyone. But there are treatments that can help. The way to defeat depression is to do something that changes the way the brain is functioning. For some people, the exercise of therapy can do that. For others, it's medication. For still others, exercise. The key is to get to someone who understands the disease, and who can help you find what will work for your brain.

My point here is that when we're talking about depression, we need to realize that most of the time, no one is at fault. People don't suffer from depression because they did something wrong, or because they're weak, or because they're flawed. People don't suffer from depression because their friends and family are inadequate. Depression is a disease - a treatable, chronic disease. It needs to be recognized, and it needs to be treated.

In my case, my depression wasn't caused by my wife and daughter. It wasn't their fault, and it wasn't my fault. No amount of support, love, and appreciation could have helped, because the nature of my depression meant that I couldn't see those things. The only thing that anyone could have done for me is recognized that I was suffering from depression, and pushed me to get treatment sooner.

If someone you know is suffering from depression, then they need help. But the help they need isn't any amount of love or appreciation. It isn't instilling any kind of hope, because depression kills hope in your brain. The thing that you can do to help is to help them get the treatment that they need.

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Gender Bias, Sexism, and the Science Cheerleaders

Nov 25 2010 Published by under Meta, sexism, Society

My dear friend Sci seems to have stirred up a bit of a hornet's nest by posting something less than entirely complimentary about the science cheerleaders. That sounds like a sarcastic way of saying that she wrote something taking them down - but actually it's an accurate description of what she did. What she wrote wasn't entirely negative or entirely positive. It was an honest, balanced assessment of just what she thought about the idea of the science cheerleaders and why they made her feel uncomfortable.

I think Sci's assessment was dead-on. But over at Labspaces, there's a whole discussion about it which has largely devolved into a bunch of people shouting at each other (complete with a sub-discussion about which dudes successfully banged hot but crazy smart chicks).

I don't have much too say about the basic issue that hasn't already been said. Personally, I'm very much behind Sci's take on it. I've got a daughter who loves science, and I'd be very proud if she grows up to become a scientist; but I don't like the message that I think the science cheerleaders actually deliver.

What I think gets missed in discussions like this is that there's an awful lot of societal context that you need to consider in things like this. An awful lot of the criticism that's been aimed at the people who aren't thrilled with the science cheerleaders is, I think, based on ignoring that context.

We live is a highly patriarchal society. In our society, there is a constant message that men are important, and that women exist in order to serve men. A woman who isn't attractive, who isn't dressing in ways that show off her fuckability, is considered less valuable as a person.

This isn't just an attitude of the misogynistic assholes in our society. This is an attitude of our society, reinforced virtually everywhere. It's something that's virtually impossible to avoid. No matter how much you think you're better than that, that you don't believe that you're a sexist or a misogynist, you've still absorbed that message. Living in this society, it's pretty much impossible to not absorb that message. Whether you're a man or a woman, whether you're young or old, whether you're smart or stupid, whether you're straight or gay, it doesn't matter. This is a very deeply engrained attitude in our society, and you can't avoid it.

I'm not saying this to insult men, or to insult women. But I am saying that if you deny that you've been influenced by the society you grew up in, if you deny that you've internalized the incredibly strong messages of sexual and gender roles that are such a part of your society, then you are fooling yourself.

Just, for a moment, think about cheerleading as a sport.

Cheerleading is the most popular sport for young women in high school. There are thousands of girls who want to be cheerleaders, with huge competition for the few available spots. As a sport, it's extremely demanding and difficult physically. It takes a tremendous amount of effort, practice, skill, and strength to be any good at it.

But what does a cheerleader actually do? What is their role as an athlete? It's not to go out and win. Not even to compete. The primary role of a cheerleader is to support the male athletes. Cheerleaders are dressed up in impractical costumes - tiny skirts even in the coldest weather - and to dance, jump, and do all sorts of rythmic gymnastics while men are competing at the real sport. The women's sport is very much subservient to the men's, and the women's sport is highly sexualized.

Even when you have co-ed cheerleading, you'll find that the men typically wear long pants and a loose sweater, while the girls wear miniskirts and tight clinging, revealing tops.

In the male sports that have cheerleaders, the primary role of the male participants is to show off their strength and skill at the sport. The primary role of the chearleaders is to show how a group of attractive, fuckable women are supporting the talented male athletes.

This is basically the problem that many people have with the science cheerleaders. It isn't that there's anything intrinsically wrong with cheerleaders - but the societal context of cheerleading is that the cheerleaders aren't part of the thing they cheer - they're outsiders who support it by showing off how hot they are.

The "science cheerleaders" don't actually cheer about science. They don't show off their scientific skills. They don't show that they know or care anything about science. Taken in the context of the society that they're part of, and the traditional role and purpose of a cheerleader, they're basically removing themselves from any role as an actual participant in science. Cheering isn't part of the activity being cheered. A football cheerleader doesn't play football; she supports the football player. A science cheerleader isn't doing science; she's supporting the scientists. And in our society, when you put together a group of hot women in hot costumes nad have them cheer about science, the basic message isn't "Women can be interested in science" or "Women can be scientists". It's "science is cool, and you girls can support it by showing off how fuckable you are to all those smart science dudes".

At best, what the science cheerleaders do is say "You can be interested in science and still be hot". But put in context, that's a very sad message: what it says is "As a woman, your primary responsibility is to be hot; you can be a scientist too, as long as you're hot."

Most people don't want to think of themselves as being sexists or racists. Our self-image is that being a racist or a sexist is bad, and we're not bad people. So we reject the idea that we've got these deeply ingrained racist and sexist attitudes. The problem is, we are sexists. We are racists. We're not deliberately racist or sexist - but we all share the common context of our society, and it is ridiculous to pretend that we have somehow overcome that. And that causes some of the most pernicious problems of discrimination. The majority of discrimination today isn't conscious and deliberate. It's subconscious: it's the attitudes and beliefs that we have internalized, which color our perceptions in ways we don't even recognize.

I've done a lot of work recruiting, interviewing, and hiring people. And when you look at that, it becomes ridiculously obvious just how strong those subconscious biases are.

For example, in an experiment I've actually witnessed: Give a guy a bunch of resumes with names removed, and stripped of any content which could show the gender of the candidate, and they'll pick out a bunch of resumes. If you look at the resulting selection, you'll typically find that the number of women's resumes who get selected are slightly above the proportion of women in the population. (This is another manifestation of sexism; in order to succeed, women need to be better than the corresponding male candidates; in a technical job, the average woman candidate will have better qualifications than the men she's competing with, and in a blind resume search, that will result in the women being selected at a higher rate, because they have better qualifications.

Now, take the same batch of resumes, and an equivalent batch of screeners, but leave the names/gender identifiers on the resumes. You'll get a dramatically different result. In the resulting pool of selected resumes, you'll find that nearly all of the top male candidates from the initial round - better than 90% - were also selected in the open search. But of the women selected in the blind search, less that 20% will get selected in the open search.

And it's not just men who do this. Use women as screeners, and you'll see something similar. It's not quite as as extreme - with women screeners in the open search, about 40% of the women from the blind search will also get selected. But still, the majority of women will be excluded, when the only additional piece of data is gender.

That's the problem with the science cheerleaders. Not that there's something wrong with cheering about science. Not because it's impossible to be both a cheerleader and a scientist. The problem is that given our societal biases, the science cheerleaders play right into gender stereotype, and end up reinforcing the message that the primary role of women in science is sexual and supportive. You can be a female scientist - but if you are, it's important that you do it in a way which shows your sexual subservience to the men. You can be a female scientist - as long as you're also a hot chick who's sexually available to male scientists.

As a closing point, before you start flaming me: just ask yourself, honestly: what would you think if a group of men dressed up in speedos and filmed a video cheering about science? Not doing any science - just dancing in their speedos chanting "science is cool." In fact, can you even imagine a bunch of really great male scientists agreeing to dance in speedos while cheering?

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