Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Taslima Nasreen and Risk Assessment

Taslima Nasreen

Taslima Nasreen is a medical doctor, secular humanist, prolific author and an international human rights advocate. Despite fatwas calling for her death and being forced into exile, she has been a staunch critic of religion and the oppression of women. She has won numerous awards, from the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament to the UNESCO Madanjeet Singh prize for Promotion of the Tolerance and Non-violence. She has multiple honorary doctorates and has been a research scholar at Harvard and New York University.

Recently, Nasreen wrote about her reflections regarding the murder of physician Autumn Klein by cyanide poisoning. According to the CNN articles she links to, the husband Robert Ferrante (a professor of neurological surgery) has been arrested. Nasreen imagines herself in the position of Klein and wonders what their life looked like. It is a very powerful and emotionally gripping description:

I told him about my happiness and sorrows, about my childhood and my youth, and about my love and my dreams, he listened to me and planned to kill me, I was cooking the food he liked and I was serving him dinner, while he was sitting on a dinning chair and was planning to poison me. I was passionately making love to him while he was planning to eliminate me. And one day he finally murdered me.

As the blog post title indicates, Nasreen feel safer by not living with a boyfriend or husband and she finishes the post by pointing out that men murder their female intimate partners all over the world. A commenter by the name of Phillip Helbig claimed that Nasreen was making a sweeping generalization and that this could hurt her credibility as a feminist activist. Helbig also takes an unfair cheap shot and complains about her English reading comprehension. Here is what Nasreen responded with:

Taslima and risk analysis

Nasreen is correct that we should be much more upset at men who murder their female intimate partners than we should be at her alleged over-generalizations. From my perspective, we should be seething with anger and rage against people who murder their intimate partners and do as much as we can do prevent it and bring offenders to justice using the criminal justice system. In comparison, something along the lines of minor annoyance is appropriate towards the problematic risk analysis performed by Nasreen.

There were at least two problems with the statements made by Nasreen: (1) her claim that women do not marry evil men is empirically false and (2) her risk assessment is probably psychologically motivated and not epistemically rational (although it is certainly psychologically understandable and could very well be instrumentally rational for her).

Do no women marry evil men?

Pragmatically, I take “evil man” to be defined as a man who commits a violent crime against another person. This is not the best possible definition (what about other crimes like large thefts from charities or destroying property used by a children’s hospital etc.?), but it is good enough for the purpose of this discussion. Just so we roughly know what we talk about when we use the term “evil man”.

Nasreen states that “no woman marries an evil man” and instead, “a woman marries a man and that man becomes an evil man later”. A fairly convincing counterexample to this statement is the existence of women who date and/or marry convicted murderers who are currently serving a prison sentence or are on death row. According to an article in the Guardian, over 100 women living in the U. K. are married to men on death row in the United States. Many serial killers, such as Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez, “attracted gangs of admiring groupies”. The article states that these women are not insane, but generally “decent, well-meaning and it is easy to see why they find their relationships fulfilling.” Additional articles at ABC News, The Atlantic and The New York Times provide similar stories.

Thus, Nasreen’s claim that women do not marry evil men but only marry men who become evil has been falsified by empirical data.

Rational risk analysis, conditional probability and base rate neglect

Nasreen states that she does not live with a male partner because she does not accept the risk increase associated with it. She claims that she is not over-generalizing (i.e. not making a non-rational risk analysis) and appeals to the fact that when a woman is murdered, the perpetrator is most often their intimate partner. Nasreen is correct that the intimate partner is most often the murderer when the women has been murdered. However, her inference is statistically invalid.

Nasreen is performing what is known as the base rate neglect fallacy (and she has probably misunderstood conditional probability as well). She does not take into account the fact that very few males are going to murder their female intimate partner. Just because an intimate partner is most often the murderer given that the woman has been murdered does not necessarily imply a substantial (or even non-negligible) risk increase of getting murdered just by having a male intimate partner. In other words, Nasreen is confusing two distinct probabilities: the probability that the intimate partner of a murdered woman is guilty and the probability of getting murdered given that you have a male intimate partner. A high value on the former does not automatically mean a high value on the latter. As an analogy, just because all bananas are fruits does not mean that a majority of fruits are bananas. Presumably, bananas (males who murder their female partners) constitute a very small percentage of all fruits (men with female partners).

It would be interesting to compare the additional risk of death for a woman living together with a man with other risks that Nasreen might accept without much issue in her daily life (such as traveling in motor vehicles etc.). Then we could empirically evaluate whether or not Nasreen’s risk assessment was rational. The conditions under which the provided risk assessment would be rational include (1) if the increased risk of death of having a male intimate partner is substantially higher than the risk of death from e. g. traveling in a motor vehicle and/or (2) the combined risk of death from using motor vehicles and having a male intimate partner is too large to be acceptable.

Instrumental rationality and psychological understanding

It may be the case that the risk assessment provided by Nasreen is not epistemically rational (i.e. does not correspond that well to reality) but instrumentally rational. That would mean that it could be the case that her decision to not live with a husband or boyfriend may efficiently attain her goals, in this case feeling safe. Furthermore, she might rate the benefit of feeling safe on this issue higher than the drawback of not living with a male intimate partner. Then her cost/benefit analysis of the situation would be instrumentally rational for her.

It is also completely psychologically understandable (but not always epistemically rational) for a women not to want to live with a boyfriend or husband out of fear. If a person feels less safe in a certain situation and wants to avoid it, then that person should be able to do that.

Conclusion

Taslima Nasreen is correct that we should be more upset about women being murdered by their intimate partners than we should be about her alleged over-generalization. She is also correct that, when a woman is murdered, there is a high probability that the male intimate partner of that women has murdered her.

However, Nasreen is wrong when she claims that no women marry evil men. Quite a few women marry convicted male murderers. Her risk assessment of living with a boyfriend or husband is flawed because it is based on the base rate neglect fallacy and a misunderstanding of conditional probabilities. However, her decision might be instrumentally rational in the sense of making her feel safe and the benefit of this feeling of safety might outweigh any potential drawbacks with not living with a boyfriend or husband.

6 responses to “Taslima Nasreen and Risk Assessment

  1. ksolway July 27, 2013 at 15:36

    Nasreem says “a woman marries a man and that man becomes an evil man later”.

    There might just be some truth to that. If the man wasn’t already evil, then marrying a woman might just do the trick!

    • Emil Karlsson July 27, 2013 at 16:07

      What evidence can you present for the idea that being married is a risk factor for male criminal behavior?

      A quick Google search results in a couple of studies that may be relevant: Zoutewelle-Terovan et al. (2012) and Theobald and Farrington (2010), both indicating that marriage has a crime-reducing effect.

    • ksolway July 27, 2013 at 16:26

      “marriage has a crime-reducing effect”

      Evil is much bigger than standard crime. Violence against logic is an even greater crime, and it’s my experience that married men are more likely to commit crimes of violence against logic and truth than single men.

    • Emil Karlsson July 27, 2013 at 17:11

      You seem to be performing the fallacy of moving the goalposts. The post and her statement discussed “evil” as violent crime. Now you are saying that what you really meant was “violence against logic and truth”, which of course has no relationship (other than a semantic one) to actual violent crime.

    • ksolway July 27, 2013 at 17:28

      “no relationship to actual violent crime.”

      You and I have a different concept of what constitutes violent crime. I consider violence against logic and truth to be the most violent crime.

    • Emil Karlsson July 27, 2013 at 18:03

      Do you honestly believe that irrational arguments are the worst violent crime imaginable? Worse than rape, physical assault and even murder?

      The problem here is not that you and I have different conceptions of violent crime. The problem is that you have a personal conception of violent crime that radically differs from the way the criminal justice system conceives violent crime.

      That means that you have the burden of evidence to demonstrate why you think that your personal conception, that “violence against logic and truth” (presumably meaning irrational arguments) should not only be considered to be in the same category as violent crime, but be considered as the worst possible kind of violent crime (worse than physical assault, murder etc.).

      Your assertion is also ironic as you performed the fallacy of moving the goalposts earlier in this conversation. That would, according to your own position, mean that you have just performed the worst violent crime possible.

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