Radical feminists’ objection to sex work is profoundly un-feminist

 Criminalising an entire industry because 
of isolated examples takes away choice from free-will participants based 
exclusively on the behaviour of abusers.

While women’s libbers have spent decades fighting to get us dominion over our own bodies, radical feminists have spent almost as long trying to insert caveats.

Apparently there are right and egregiously wrong ways to use our bodies – more specifically our genitals – particularly when dollars are involved.

For “radfems”, sex work is a metonym for the sins of patriarchy and something that can only ever lead us away from equality.

Sex work – not that radfems would ever use the phrase – isn’t viewed simply as a commercial transaction but rather, as blood money exchanged for abuse that can only ever happen in a world where women are unequal. That selling sex somehow reduces every woman to a commodity, valued exclusively for the extent to which we’re found fuckable.

I not only vehemently disagree with the radfem position, but I view it as fundamentally un-feminist.

If the sisterhood can support my decision to swallow contraceptive pills or terminate an unwanted pregnancy, then there is a duty for them to support my choice to have as much or as little sex as I like and, if I so choose, put a price tag on that sex.

For me, it’s a matter of consent, of bodily autonomy. If feminists aren’t fighting for my right to use my body how I choose, then they’ve dramatically detoured from their mission.

In this article I counter three assertions made by radfems about sex work. While there isn’t a simple opposition to such views, nonetheless, liberal, third-wave, intersectional and sex-positive feminisms are united around the importance of choice and agency, and each opposes radfem’s frequently conservative, knees-together rhetoric.

The re-victimisation narrative

Radfems love to present testimony of industry “survivors” who were abused as children, have substance abuse problems, mental health calamities, or have experienced bad industry treatment and are now abolitionists. Heavy reliance on such testimony is severely problematic.

As revolting as it is, every industry is full of women who were abused as children. Why? Because the numbers of abused women the world over is deplorable.

Scores of women enter every industry as victims of abuse, with mental health problems or substance abuse issues. Or any combination thereof. This is a byproduct of gender inequality as well as dozens of other issues that dole out to women complicated – if not sometimes completely tragic – back-stories.

But the “broken woman” who’s preyed upon by a dreamcoat-wearing pimp and who is reliving her pain as a sex worker is a narrative indicative of too much Special Victims Unitand ignores the reality that people enter the sex industry for an abundance of reasons. Just as they do any other profession.

Interviews with women who have exited sex work is a problematic dataset: talk to anyone who has left any job and they’ll have war stories.

No, this doesn’t make these stories invalid. But it does remind us that the tales of former sex workers don’t speak for all sex workers. Every experience is an individual one.

Abhorrent work practices

Be it about sex work in the form of pay-to-play intercourse or participation in pornography, radfems are abolitionists.

Coerced participation, trafficking and lacklustre working conditions are used to pad out the claim that no sex worker has truly chosen their toil. Not only is such an argument predicated on the false-consciousness argument so intoxicating for radfems, but it pretends that sex work is some kind of special case; that sex work shouldn’t exist because there’s certain labour that simply shouldn’t be sold.

Point to any industry and there will be examples of bad practices, abused workers, and unsafe conditions.

Welcome, my friends, to capitalism. This doesn’t make trafficking or coercion unimportant issues, but equally, it doesn’t make their presence in the sex industry a special case. There are no shortages of industries that need better oversight. But equally, in no other industry where bad practices exist do we ever talk of abolition.

Criminalising an entire industry because of isolated bad examples takes away choice from free-will participants and justifies doing so on the behaviour of abusers. Doing so is victim-blaming and paternalistic.

It also provides another hint that the radfem position isn’t truly based on worker safety at all, but is about sex. About the radfem problem with sex.

The tyranny of the cock

In the radfem imagination, for the selling of sex to be understood as so very horrible sex is understood as having special properties; that it can never just be labour like any other, seemingly because no other job necessitates so much cock.

There’s more than a little puritanical blood in the water here.

Radfems apparently find it inconceivable that women could actually chose to have contact with a penis they’re not in love with. That having random-cock-contact could actually be found fun or lucrative or even a preferable use of one’s workday than toil in a factory, a lecture theatre or a coal mine.

Such views aren’t grounded in women’s lived experiences. They fail to recognise that quite a few of us not only really like the cock, but that having contact with it doesn’t necessitate “giving ourselves away”. Instead, they rely on a moralistic opposition to any sex that’s had in quantities greater than every second Tuesday.

And they use terms like “sell herself” as though, at the end of the transaction, a woman has sold off a body part. Cue Catholic school metaphors about virginity loss.

My worth isn’t determined by how much sex I’ve had. Equally, having sex for money doesn’t change me as a person any more than teaching for money or writing for money does: we each sell our time – our labour – to the market.

Sex work isn’t an industry you have to love, nor is it an industry you have to find empowering. But love and empowerment aren’t things we ever expect of any other industry either. The sex industry doesn’t need your admiration, but nor does it deserve your condemnation.

If there is anything feminists should be in agreement on, it’s our right to make our own decisions about how we use our bodies.


This article was written by:
Image of Lauren RosewarneLauren Rosewarne – [Senior Lecturer, University of Melbourne]





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Marriage equality lobby and Labor must decide how to handle postal ballot

 Malcolm Turnbull has bought himself immediate 
relief from the backbench revoltLukas Coch/AAP

When it comes to the Liberals and same-sex marriage, each “solution” seems to lead to a new problem.

Tony Abbott’s plebiscite became bad news for Malcolm Turnbull; now Turnbull’s postal vote – to ask people “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” – is mired in controversy even before it is formally launched.

The cost will be hefty – up to A$122 million. To be able to conduct the ballot without Senate approval the government is reaching back to a partial precedent from the Whitlam days, when a telephone poll of about 60,000 tested opinion on a national anthem.

The postal ballot will be run under the auspices of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which will have Australian Electoral Commission officers seconded to it. The money will come from the Finance Minister’s Advance.

Fairfax’s Peter Martin writes: “At a cost of $122 million, the postal plebiscite would become the second-biggest project [the ABS has] ever undertaken, after the $350 million census.” In light of the shambles of the last census, there would be a good deal of breath-holding.

The postal ballot has all the hallmarks of being tied together with bureaucratic and legal hayband, but the government insists it will withstand legal challenge.

Whether it will withstand the political challenges is another matter.

An Essential poll taken before the announcement and published on Tuesday shows a postal vote has reasonable though not majority public support. When people were asked whether they approved or disapproved of holding “a voluntary postal plebiscite followed by a vote in parliament”, 43% were in favour and 38% against.

Turnbull has bought himself immediate relief from the backbench revolt. At Tuesday’s Coalition parties meeting, all five rebels indicated they were backing off action in parliament.

But senator Dean Smith, one of the five, continues to make the case against a postal vote in the media. “I do think the history books will look back on this as not the brightest moment in this government’s history. Not the brightest moment in our democratic practice,” he told Sky.

“Plebiscites are a bad idea. But I have to accept that my colleagues – my great bulk of colleagues – don’t agree with me on that.”

The government is setting a timetable that’s both fast and slow. Legislation for a plebiscite, as distinct from a postal ballot, on November 25, will be voted on (and, we presume, defeated) in the Senate, probably this week. Then the postal vote would run from September 12, when the letters start getting posted, to November 7, with the outcome announced on November 15.

In the event of a “yes” vote, there would be two parliamentary weeks left to get a bill through before Christmas.

The slow part of this timetable is the nearly two months for the postal vote. It hard to judge which side, if either, that long period would favour.

In its conduct, this campaign would be out of the ordinary.

No public money would be allocated for campaigning. Turnbull has made it clear that while he’d be urging a yes vote he has lots of other things to do and wouldn’t be giving too much time to this issue.

Many other politicians would likely take a low-key attitude, though outspoken Liberal senator Eric Abetz was quick to say: “I look forward to engaging with Australians and advocating why marriage should remain as it is”.

The postal vote provides an opportunity for the burgeoning Australian Conservatives. Their leader, senator Cory Bernardi, says: “The Australian Conservatives are the only party that has a policy to maintain marriage in its current form. We’ll be campaigning very hard to win a no vote.”

The pro- and anti-change activists outside parliament would be doing most of the heavy lifting.

Important – indeed, possibly crucial – to the result would be what stand the marriage equality lobby adopted.

Advocates are presently reserving their position. Alex Greenwich, co-chair of Australian Marriage Equality, said on Tuesday the group was “not ruling anything in or out”.

Views are likely to vary in the lobby – from those who feel it’s best to seize even a bad opportunity to hardliners inclined to boycott.

The attitude of the lobby will be central to Labor, once again. The opposition of the gay community was a decisive consideration in Labor’s voting against the plebiscite legislation when it was in parliament initially.

The ALP has a tricky line to walk – it is attacking the process but would it really want to lay itself open to some blame for a negative outcome?

Turnbull defends the postal ballot, which he privately would believe is the least desirable way of dealing with this issue, as fulfilling his election pledge to give the people the say.

Asked at his news conference, “Isn’t a postal plebiscite just a way to have the parliament follow? Why aren’t you leading?”, Turnbull replied: “Strong leaders carry out their promises. Weak leaders break them. I’m a strong leader.”

It was an unconvincing “Me Tarzan” moment.


This article was written by:
Image of Michelle Grattan
Michelle Grattan – [Professorial Fellow, university of Canberra]





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How a charter of rights could protect Australians’ fundamental freedoms


 Concerns have been raised about whether 
Australia adequately protects human rights given multiple reports of abuses, 
including mistreatment of juvenile detainees. AAP/Lucy Hughes Jones

Australia’s record of human rights protection in areas such as Indigenous people, asylum seekers and freedom of speech are perennial topics of debate. The focus of these discussions is now shifting to whether Australia can take steps to establish a stronger legal framework for protecting human rights.

One reason for this is Australia is in the final stages of defending its record in a bid to secure a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. Another is that Australia’s recent experience on human rights is beset with deep flaws and inconsistencies.

Matters of concern

Concerns have been raised about whether human rights are adequately protected in the wake of reports of mistreatment of juvenile detainees in the Northern Territory, the endemic issue of elder abuse, and the startling prevalence of modern slavery in Australia.

Each of these issues has prompted federal inquiries. And there are still many more human rights issues that have not moved the government to act. These include the treatment of asylum seekers at regional processing centres, and the inexplicable jailing, sometimes for up to ten years, of people charged with crimes for which they are deemed unfit to stand trial because they suffer from mental illness.

The outgoing president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, was right when she said Australia’s human rights record is “regressing on almost every front”.

Another disturbing trend is the speed with which Australian parliaments are enacting laws that diminish human rights.

In 2016, the chief justice of the New South Wales Supreme Court, Tom Bathurst, found 52 examples of laws in that state alone that impinged on the presumption of innocence.

In February this year, the Institute of Public Affairs think-tank identified 307 laws that infringed just four rights: the presumption of innocence, natural justice, the right to silence, and the privilege against self-incrimination.

Another 2016 study found 350 current laws that infringe democratic rights such as freedom of speech.

How a charter might work

Against this backdrop, many argue the time has come for Australia to adopt a national charter of rights. Australia is the only democratic nation in the world without such a national law.

The idea has been gaining traction, particularly at the state and territory level. The Queensland government recently announced it would enact a human rights act, based on the ACT and Victorian models, which have been in force for 13 and 11 years respectively. There are also pushes for NSW and Tasmania to adopt such legislation.

These developments raise the questions: if a charter or human rights act was to be enacted at the national level, what would it look like? And how would it protect human rights?

Our new book, A Charter of Rights for Australia, discusses what such a charter would look like at the national level, and explains how it could benefit Australians.

The starting point should not be a constitutionally entrenched bill of rights in the vein of the US Bill of Rights.

Instead, a charter of rights for Australia should be enacted by parliament as ordinary legislation. This would have the advantage of flexibility: future parliaments would be able to update the charter as needed to match changing community values and expectations.

A charter of rights in this form would not transfer sovereignty from parliament to the courts, and would not give courts the power to strike down laws.

Rather, following the models adopted in the ACT, Victoria and the UK, the courts’ role should be modest, limited to functions such as endeavouring to interpret legislation consistently with human rights, and identifying laws that breach human rights and which parliament should consider again.

This model puts the focus on improving human rights protection by way of parliament making good laws and government agencies applying those laws fairly.

One useful feature of the ACT and Victoria charters is that parliamentary committees scrutinise proposed laws for compatibility with human rights prior to being passed. For example, in 2014 alone, the ACT government moved almost 100 amendments to seven bills in response to comments and suggestions made by its human rights parliamentary committee.

The existence of a charter of rights can make it more likely that human rights concerns are raised – and fixed – before a law is passed.

The primary responsibility for ensuring human rights are protected under a charter should fall to the government, rather than the courts. The Australian Federal Police, for example, would have day-to-day responsibility for applying human rights in protecting the community from crime and safeguarding the rights of the accused.

This would mean that if the police chose to detain you as part of an anti-terrorism operation, it would be their responsibility to ensure you are treated humanely while detained. And the charter would provide for consequences should they fall short.

Finally, like instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a charter of rights could also have a symbolic force that would promote important values like freedom, community responsibility and cultural diversity.

One of the most important contributions a charter of rights can make is not the benefit it brings to the small number of people who succeed in invoking rights in court. Rather, its main value lies in how it can be used to educate, shape attitudes and bring hope and recognition to people who are otherwise powerless.


This article was co-authored by:
Image of George Williams George Williams – [Dean, Anthony Mason Professor and Scientia Professor, UNSW Law School, UNSW]
Image of Daniel ReynoldsDaniel Reynolds – [Legal Researcher, UNSW]





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Our healthcare records outlive us. It’s time to decide what happens to the data once we’re gone.

 You create a lot of healthcare data during  
your life. What happens after it? 

Death is inevitable. The creation of healthcare records about every complaint and ailment we seek treatment for is also a near-certainty.

Data about patients is a vital cog in the provision of efficient health services.

Our study explores what happens to those healthcare records after you die. We focus on New Zealand’s legal situation and practices, but the issue is truly a global one.

Previously, healthcare records were held in paper form and stored in an archive. Next came the advent of digital storage in on-site databases. In both of these cases, when you died your records were either shredded or erased, depending on the technology.

But it is now increasingly common for healthcare records to be digitised and held in a central repository. They can potentially be held for an indefinite period after someone dies, depending on the jurisdiction.

Should we be worried?

A question of value

Large, population-based healthcare data sets have immense value.

This is particularly true of records that include genomic information alongside other healthcare data – a phenomenon that will only increase as information about a person’s genes is more widely used in clinical treatment.

These posthumous healthcare data sets, which will grow in size and detail over the coming decades, could tell us a great deal about diseases and heritability. Data sets from generations of families and communities may well be available for research, and able to be analysed.

Information on this scale is worth a lot, especially for data storage companies and those with a financial interest in these data sets, such as pharmaceutical companies. Imagine, for instance, if a company could quickly analyse millions of genomes to isolate a disease that could be cured by an engineered pharmaceutical, and the commercial value this would create.

So how will this affect the individual whose data is held and their surviving family? Many people would be willing to donate medical records if the downstream result was beneficial for their community and country.

Yet the lines become easily blurred.

Would it be acceptable if data sets were sent to foreign companies? What if they provided a cure free of charge to the families of citizens whose data they used?

How about if the cure was half price, or full price, but the other option was having no cure at all? Would it be all right for companies to make millions of dollars out of this information? There is no easy answer.

I(mage of Medical information
Every time you visit a doctor’s office, you create data. Keith Bell/Shutterstock

What’s the legal situation?

It’s impossible to talk about the long term fate of healthcare data without considering privacy and consent.

As part of medical research, for example, participants are required to provide informed consent and often the gathered data are anonymised. Access to posthumous medical records, on the other hand, is not highly regulated or protected in most countries, and the laws surrounding access are incredibly unclear.

In New Zealand, a deceased person has no privacy rights under the Privacy Act. And while healthcare data has to be held for a minimum of 10 years after death, the regulatory body which is then custodian of that data may decide – broadly – what purposes it may be used for.

Given that the custodian can be anyone from a health board or local doctor to a commercial institution that stores health records, the situation is exceedingly vague.

Read More: Human embryo CRISPR advances science but let’s focus on ethics, not world firsts

It is often argued that use of anonymous data sets do not require consent from an individual – in our case, a deceased person cannot provide this anyway. However the lines of true “anonymity” are becoming more blurred, particularly thanks to genomics.

Your own genome is partly that of your family and relatives. They may also have an emotional stake, and possibly a legal stake, in any action or research where the genome of a deceased family member is involved.

The medical profession has not always dealt well with consent and ethics issues. In one infamous case, the cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks – a 31-year-old American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951 – have been used thousands of times in research projects.

She unwittingly made an invaluable contribution to global health, yet she never consented and her family was not consulted.

Then there is the fact that if large data bases are readily available, the possibility of data linkage increases – matching data sets that may belong to the same person – potentially undermining the ability to maintain true anonymity for the individual and their family.

What happens now?

The New Zealand and Australian governments have signalled that healthcare data are a widely underused resource. Commercialisation of such data is a possibility.

At some point, large posthumous healthcare data sets from these countries could potentially be accessed by researchers and private institutions around the world.

It is time for the public to decide what they think is reasonable. If the use of posthumous healthcare data is not aligned with the wishes of society, especially its desire for anonymity, the trust between our healthcare providers and patients may become compromised.

Healthcare data sets have immense value, but the public must be consulted about their use. Only then can the potential of posthumous healthcare data sets be properly realised.


This article was written by:
Jon Cornwall – [Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Health, Victoria University of Wellington]





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The Goldwater rule prevents psychiatrists diagnosing Trump from afar but some say there’s too much at stake

 People have diagnosed Donald Trump with all  
sorts of disorders — but is this ethical? JUSTIN LANE/AAP

In the late 19th century, Sigmund Freud’s colleague Wilhelm Fleiss successfully diagnosed an illness in one of Freud’s relatives, without even having met them. Freud was so impressed by Fleiss’s “diagnostic acumen” that he went on to advocate the method in certain circumstances.

Freud would write that diagnosing someone without personally examining them was acceptable where the features of certain disorders, such as paranoid schizophrenia (then known as dementia paranoides), made the interview process counterproductive. Here, Freud noted that “a written report or a printed case history can take the place of personal acquaintance with the patient”.

Now, a controversial debate about the ethics of diagnosis at a distance or long-distance diagnosis has arisen in the US. It has come about as commentators have proposed that President Donald Trump suffers from narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), among other conditions.

Image of Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud believed diagnosing people without examining them was appropriate in some circumstances. Wikimedia Commons

Health professionals have weighed in as well. Psychotherapist and former assistant professor of psychiatry John D. Gartner has been particularly vehement in his assessment of the President. Gartner asserts that Trump suffers from malignant narcissism, a specific manifestation of NPD.

According to the DSM-5 — the authoritative psychiatric manual — this condition is characterised by various “traits of antagonism”, including “manipulativeness, deceitfulness, [and] callousness”.

Notably, the DSM-5 names the condition only once throughout its hundreds of pages; and some academic psychiatrists say the disorder is understudied and its features largely unsettled, with no treatment yet established.

Despite this, Gartner is convinced that the president’s conduct fulfils the criteria of malignant narcissism — even without having interviewed him:

We’ve seen enough public behaviour by Donald Trump now that we can make this diagnosis indisputably.

Recently, the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) issued a memo to its more than 3,500 members, advising they were “free to comment about political figures as individuals”, and that the APsaA did not regard “political commentary by its individual members an ethical matter”.

By contrast, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has long maintained a strict ethical stance on the open discussion of public figures’ mental states. Enshrined in the so-called Goldwater rule, the APA’s prescription cautions psychiatrists against diagnosis at a distance.

As former APA President Herbert Sacks put it, psychiatrists should avoid engaging in “psychobabble”, especially when it comes to politicians. He said that, when “reported by the media”, such diagnostic speculation only “undermines psychiatry as a science”.

Image of barry Goldwater
The Goldwater rule is named after former Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, who was defeated in the 1964 election. Wikimedia Commons

Although the Goldwater rule is not enshrined in Australian law, a code of ethics provides guidance to Australian psychiatrists about their conduct in the media.

What is the Goldwater rule?

The Goldwater rule is named after an incident involving Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. Having been defeated in the 1964 US election, Goldwater sued the editor of the short-lived political magazine “Fact” for defamation.

Just one month before the election, Fact’s front page had printed a controversial declaration:

1,189 psychiatrists say Goldwater is psychologically unfit to be president!

Fact had conducted a broad but clinically invalid survey, providing questionnaires to more than 12,000 psychiatrists whose details the magazine had obtained from the American Medical Association’s membership list. Of the 2,417 responses it received, some 1,189 psychiatrists asserted Goldwater was unfit for office.

In the feature article, Fact purported to quote many of the psychiatrists it had surveyed, and used their words to suggest that Goldwater was a “megalomaniac, paranoid, and grossly psychotic”, and even suffering from “schizophrenia”.

In the trial that followed, Goldwater was awarded some US$75,000 in punitive damages — enough to ensure that Fact never published another issue.

Fact magazine’s last issue, and the headline for which Goldwater sued. Courtesy FLAT File magazine at the Herb Lubalin Study Center, New York.

The ruling raised disturbing questions for the APA, threatening not only the reputation of the psychiatric profession, but the future livelihoods of practitioners. In slightly different circumstances, a psychiatrist might face similar civil action, whether “for invasion of privacy or defamation of character”.

In 1973, some four years after the trial, the Goldwater rule was first published in the APA’s professional ethical code. In the most recent 2013 edition, the rule reads as follows:

On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general.
However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.

The rule in dispute

Many academic psychiatrists disagree with the rule. Some have suggested that breaking the Goldwater rule is ethical when it’s necessary to diagnose “mass murderers” from afar, or when “the importance of the diagnosis of an individual … rise[s] to the level of a national threat”.

Others have criticised the rule more generally, calling it “an excessive organisational response” to “an inflammatory and embarrassing moment for American psychiatry”. And one psychiatrist has recently described the prescription as “American society’s gag rule”.

In February this year, the New York Times published a letter signed by some 33 psychiatrists who blamed the rule for silencing them at this “critical time”. They wrote that “too much [was] at stake to be silent any longer”, and that Donald Trump’s “emotional instability” had made him “incapable of serving safely as president”.

Image of Donald Trump
Some psychologists believe Donald Trump too unstable to be president. SHAWN THEW/AAP

The tension between the APA and its members, and between the APA and the APsaA, partly reflects the history of the two disciplines. Since the 1940s, psychiatry has increasingly focused on medical interventions, while tending to neglect the “in-depth talk therapies” which, despite their general decline, remain central to the psychoanalytic method.

But the situation is still more complicated than this. After all, the methods of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts often overlap. In many practices, for instance, psychiatrists employ intuitive reasoning in the diagnostic process.

For some diagnosticians, the so-called “Praecox-Gefühl” or “praecox feeling” remains at the “clinical core” of diagnosing schizophrenia, despite the method’s varied reliability. First described in the 1940s, the praecox feeling is a complex, emotionally charged intuitive sensethat a psychiatrist sometimes gets when detecting the subtle symptoms of an emergent psychosis.

What now for the Goldwater rule?

That psychoanalysts may wish to distinguish themselves from psychiatrists on the Goldwater rule, and vice versa, is unsurprising. In countless ways — more than can be named here — psychoanalysts and psychiatrists adopt different views of their roles in the diagnostic process. This is the result of their different training backgrounds, histories, and professional cultures.

Less expected, however, is the growing feeling among psychoanalysts and psychiatrists alike, that today, more than ever, the Goldwater rule should be set aside. While neither group may wish to admit it, the Trump era may have brought psychiatrists and psychoanalysts closer together — at least on this point.


This article was written by:
Image of Chris RudgeChris Rudge – [Postdoctoral researcher, University of Sydney]





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How do you know that what you know is true? That’s epistemology

How can you justify your knowledge? 
Epistemology has a few answers.

How do you know what the weather will be like tomorrow? How do you know how old the Universe is? How do you know if you are thinking rationally?

These and other questions of the “how do you know?” variety are the business of epistemology, the area of philosophy concerned with understanding the nature of knowledge and belief.

Epistemology is about understanding how we come to know that something is the case, whether it be a matter of fact such as “the Earth is warming” or a matter of value such as “people should not just be treated as means to particular ends”.

It’s even about interrogating the odd presidential tweet to determine its credibility.

Epistemology doesn’t just ask questions about what we should do to find things out; that is the task of all disciplines to some extent. For example, science, history and anthropology all have their own methods for finding things out.

Epistemology has the job of making those methods themselves the objects of study. It aims to understand how methods of inquiry can be seen as rational endeavours.

Epistemology, therefore, is concerned with the justification of knowledge claims.

The need for epistemology

Whatever the area in which we work, some people imagine that beliefs about the world are formed mechanically from straightforward reasoning, or that they pop into existence fully formed as a result of clear and distinct perceptions of the world.

But if the business of knowing things was so simple, we’d all agree on a bunch of things that we currently disagree about – such as how to treat each other, what value to place on the environment, and the optimal role of government in a society.

That we do not reach such an agreement means there is something wrong with that model of belief formation.

Image of someone demonstrating
We don’t all agree on everything. Flickr/Frank

It is interesting that we individually tend to think of ourselves as clear thinkers and see those who disagree with us as misguided. We imagine that the impressions we have about the world come to us unsullied and unfiltered. We think we have the capacity to see things just as they really are, and that it is others who have confused perceptions.

As a result, we might think our job is simply to point out where other people have gone wrong in their thinking, rather than to engage in rational dialogue allowing for the possibility that we might actually be wrong.

But the lessons of philosophy, psychology and cognitive science teach us otherwise. The complex, organic processes that fashion and guide our reasoning are not so clinically pure.

Not only are we in the grip of a staggeringly complex array of cognitive biases and dispositions, but we are generally ignorant of their role in our thinking and decision-making.

Combine this ignorance with the conviction of our own epistemic superiority, and you can begin to see the magnitude of the problem. Appeals to “common sense” to overcome the friction of alternative views just won’t cut it.

We need, therefore, a systematic way of interrogating our own thinking, our models of rationality, and our own sense of what makes for a good reason. It can be used as a more objective standard for assessing the merit of claims made in the public arena.

This is precisely the job of epistemology.

Epistemology and critical thinking

One of the clearest ways to understand critical thinking is as applied epistemology. Issues such as the nature of logical inference, why we should accept one line of reasoning over another, and how we understand the nature of evidence and its contribution to decision making, are all decidedly epistemic concerns.

Just because people use logic doesn’t mean they are using it well.

The American philosopher Harvey Siegel points out that these questions and others are essential in an education towards thinking critically.

By what criteria do we evaluate reasons? How are those criteria themselves evaluated? What is it for a belief or action to be justified? What is the relationship between justification and truth? […] these epistemological considerations are fundamental to an adequate understanding of critical thinking and should be explicitly treated in basic critical thinking courses.

To the extent that critical thinking is about analysing and evaluating methods of inquiry and assessing the credibility of resulting claims, it is an epistemic endeavour.

Engaging with deeper issues about the nature of rational persuasion can also help us to make judgements about claims even without specialist knowledge.

For example, epistemology can help clarify concepts such as “proof”, “theory”, “law” and “hypothesis” that are generally poorly understood by the general public and indeed some scientists.

In this way, epistemology serves not to adjudicate on the credibility of science, but to better understand its strengths and limitations and hence make scientific knowledge more accessible.

Epistemology and the public good

One of the enduring legacies of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that began in Europe during the 17th century, is a commitment to public reason. This was the idea that it’s not enough to state your position, you must also provide a rational case for why others should stand with you. In other words, to produce and prosecute an argument.

This commitment provides for, or at least makes possible, an objective method of assessing claims using epistemological criteria that we can all have a say in forging.

That we test each others’ thinking and collaboratively arrive at standards of epistemic credibility lifts the art of justification beyond the limitations of individual minds, and grounds it in the collective wisdom of reflective and effective communities of inquiry.

The sincerity of one’s belief, the volume or frequency with which it is stated, or assurances to “believe me” should not be rationally persuasive by themselves.

Simple appeals to believe have no place in public life.

If a particular claim does not satisfy publicly agreed epistemological criteria, then it is the essence of scepticism to suspend belief. And it is the essence of gullibility to surrender to it.

A defence against bad thinking

There is a way to help guard against poor reasoning – ours and others’ – that draws from not only the Enlightenment but also from the long history of philosophical inquiry.

So the next time you hear a contentious claim from someone, consider how that claim can be supported if they or you were to present it to an impartial or disinterested person:

  • identify reasons that can be given in support of the claim
  • explain how your analysis, evaluation and justification of the claim and of the reasoning involved are of a standard worth someone’s intellectual investment
  • write these things down as clearly and dispassionately as possible.

In other words, make the commitment to public reasoning. And demand of others that they do so as well, stripped of emotive terms and biased framing.

If you or they cannot provide a precise and coherent chain of reasoning, or if the reasons remain tainted with clear biases, or if you give up in frustration, it’s a pretty good sign that there are other factors in play.

It is the commitment to this epistemic process, rather than any specific outcome, that is the valid ticket onto the rational playing field.

At a time when political rhetoric is riven with irrationality, when knowledge is being seen less as a means of understanding the world and more as an encumbrance that can be pushed aside if it stands in the way of wishful thinking, and when authoritarian leaders are drawing ever larger crowds, epistemology needs to matter.


This article was written by:
Image of Peter EllertonPeter Ellerton – [Lecturer in Critical Thinking, Director of the UQ Critical Thinking Project, The University of Queensland]





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As a coastal defence, the Great Barrier Reef’s value to communities goes way beyond tourism

 Parts of the Great Barrier Reef’s 
outer reefs can form a natural barrier to coastal recession, 
thus protecting urban centres

Rising sea levels are widely recognised as a threat to coastal communities worldwide. In Australia, the Climate Council estimates that at least A$226 billion of assets and infrastructure will be exposed to inundation if sea levels rise by 1.1 metres. Another report recommended that global mean sea level rise of up to 2.7 metres this century should be considered in planning processes.

The Queensland state government has commissioned the QCoast2100 program. This program aims to help with the development of coastal climate adaptation plans for Queensland communities exposed to sea-level rise.

Although the largest population centres in Queensland are in the state’s southeast, several of the most populous regional centres in Australia are located along the Great Barrier Reef coastline between Gladstone and Cape York. These include Townsville, Cairns, Gladstone, Mackay and Port Douglas.

A major task in developing coastal adaptation plans under the QCoast2100 program is to model inundation from a range of scenarios for sea-level rises and assess how assets will be inundated in the future. However, another threat is on the horizon.

How urban centres are protected

Urban centres along the reef’s coastline, which forms the majority of the Queensland coast, are protected from major ocean storms by natural deposits of coastal sediments. These include dunes and associated vegetation such as coastal forests, wetlands and mangrove systems.

These natural features continue to exist largely because the Great Barrier Reef’s outer reefs dampen incoming ocean waves. Although exposed to the occasional cyclone – which can lead to short-term erosion at specific locations – much of the coastal zone inside the reef is slowly growing out into the sea.

This increasing buffer zone can form a natural barrier to coastal recession.

recently released report estimated the total economic, social and icon asset value of the Great Barrier Reef at A$56 billion. By design, this report did not include many of the ecosystem services the reef provides. One of these is its role in reducing the energy of waves that impact the coastline behind the reef.

However, an earlier assessment of the total economic value of ecosystem services delivered by the reef estimated the present coastal protection benefit is worth at least A$10 billion.

Despite the inherent uncertainties in such assessments, it is clear the reef acts to reduce incoming wave energy and its impacts on cities and towns along much of the Queensland coastline. The total economic value of these benefits is in the billions of dollars.

What role is bleaching playing?

The Great Barrier Reef’s ability to keep protecting the Queensland shoreline, and communities living along it, depends upon the ability of individual reefs in the system to grow vertically to “keep up” with rising sea level.

The jury is still out on whether the outer reefs will be able to keep up with predicted rises. This is an active area of research.

However, it is clear reefs that are extensively affected by coral bleaching will struggle to maintain the essential processes required for productive reef-building. Many reefs are now experiencing net erosion.

Predictions of ocean warming suggest that bleaching events will become even more common in coming decades. Increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are also making the oceans more acidic, which makes it more difficult for organisms such as corals to maintain their skeletons, which are made of calcium carbonate. This mineral dissolves more rapidly with increasing acidification, reducing the reef’s capacity to recover from storm damage and coral bleaching.

Therefore, as bleaching events and acidification continue, the outer reefs that protect the Queensland coast from ocean waves will increasingly struggle to perform this function.

In turn, over time the Queensland coast will potentially suffer from more coastal erosion, which may increase the vulnerability of coastal infrastructure. This effect, combined with rising sea levels leading to more coastal inundation events, multiples the risks to coastal settlements and infrastructure.


This article was written by:
Image of Mark GibbsMark Gibbs – [Director, Knowledge to Innovation; Chair, Green Cross Australia, Queensland University of Technology]





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Grattan on Friday : Marriage on the rocks in divided Liberal Party

 Malcolm Turnbull has called a special 
Liberal party meeting for Monday afternoon. Richard Wainwright/AAP

Within the week, they’ve become the Famous Five. Four gay men and a colourful, tough-talking straight guy from north Queensland who for years has held aloft the rainbow banner.

Their cause is same-sex marriage, their modus operandi the crash tackle. At one level, what they are trying to do is simple. They want the government’s commitment to a plebiscite on same-sex marriage ditched in favour of an early free vote in parliament.

But the push by the five Liberals has unleashed an existential battle that goes to the heart of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership. It has consumed the government for days, mobilised the Liberal conservatives and raised talk of a National possibly defecting to the crossbench, wiping out the government’s majority.

Even acknowledging that Australia is lagging internationally and that same-sex marriage should have been delivered yesterday, the implosion around the issue is extraordinary.

Turnbull has been left flat-footed. All week he has been out and about in Western Australia, where polling shows the Coalition could lose several seats at the next election and the state’s GST revenue deficit is a source of bitterness. Turnbull’s public responses to questions on the crisis over the marriage issue have been dismissive; he was irritated at being asked. Whatever he might be doing behind the scenes, his public stance is one of following, not leading.

On Thursday he called a special Liberal party meeting for Monday afternoon, a day before Parliament begins its spring session. Options before MPs range from sticking with the plebiscite policy, through having a postal vote, to wiping the slate and settling the matter in parliament.

While the Liberals will meet separately, Turnbull pointedly noted that “ultimately Coalition policy is determined in the Coalition party room”. In other words both parties, as a collective, need to end up on the same page, in his view.

As he struggles in this quagmire, memories of that 2009 brawl over carbon pricing which triggered his demise as opposition leader must niggle at his mind. Then, however, he was digging in behind his belief. It’s not so simple now.

Tellingly, the row is exposing Turnbull’s penchant for inconsistency. Everyone recalls the 2015 row over same-sex marriage, when then prime minister Tony Abbott was thrashing about and Turnbull was spruiking a parliamentary vote. Amid the present talk of a possible postal ballot, there surfaced a 1997 Turnbull article, written in another context but with all his characteristic passion, that declared voluntary postal voting “flies in the face of Australian democratic values”.

Usually it is oppositions that are more vulnerable to ill-discipline. But this government too often resembles a pack of fighting dogs. A little while ago its members were scrapping over energy policy. Now that battle is temporarily on hold, while they turn their energies to this one.

The test of strength that exploded into public view on Monday has been coming for months. There was a plan to bring it on in the last parliamentary session. When that didn’t happen the talk – which was reported – was that it would probably come back in the spring session.

So Turnbull should have been prepared. Instead he looked to be taken by surprise.

Backbench revolts occur even in the tidiest of governments but circumstances make this one more dangerous than most.

Same-sex marriage has become a core issue for the five; at the same time, it is totemic for the hardline conservatives, and also a symbol of their wider discontents with Turnbull.

It strikes all the harder at Turnbull’s weakened authority because he is defending the plebiscite position he condemned just two years ago. The imbroglio is exposing him as a man who compromised his principles to win leadership and now can’t manage his party or, for that matter, his faction, because most of the advocates for change are moderates.

If the government lands on the postal vote (perhaps preceded by putting the plebiscite legislation to the Senate again) as the way ahead, the Famous Five face an invidious choice. Do they reluctantly accept as a step forward what for them personally would be a humiliating step backward? Or do they point to its flaws and go ahead with their private member’s bill, which has been spearheaded by West Australian senator Dean Smith, one of their number?

If all four who are in the lower house pushed on in parliament, the numbers would likely to be there to get the issue to a substantive vote.

Of the four, Warren Entsch, in what is expected to be his last term, has the least to lose. For the other three, Victorian Tim Wilson, Queenslander Trevor Evans, and Trent Zimmerman, from NSW, the stakes are much higher. They are early in their parliamentary careers. Defiance of the party would bring a huge blowback. They might land their cause, putting their crazy brave stand into the history books, but with consequences to themselves, Turnbull and the government that are, at this point, impossible to predict.

The contrast this week between a riven government and a united, policy-centred opposition was dramatic.

Bill Shorten might have been a little nervous about the ALP’s Sunday announcement of a crackdown on family trusts. But the government’s counter-attack, difficult anyway because the Labor measure is relatively mild, was overshadowed by the Liberal infighting.

Labor, with a policy that says it would legislate for same-sex marriage in its first hundred days, is waiting and wondering about the implications for it of the barney within the government.

If a postal ballot resulted in a “yes” vote, that was followed by a bill bringing in the change, Shorten would have lost a useful issue at the election – as he would if the five delivered an early parliamentary result.

For most people same-sex marriage is not a vote switcher. Those for whom it is would probably not be voting for the Coalition anyway. So if legislation were passed this term it would be unlikely to turn votes Turnbull’s way.

But the issue is a rallying point for Labor, projected as a future achievement for an ALP government. Don’t totally believe Shorten when he says he’d like to see same-sex marriage as soon as possible. He’d prefer to see it when he delivered it.


This article was written by:
Image of Michelle Grattan
Michelle Grattan – [Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra]





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Australians left to monitor their own NBN broadband speeds


 A simple broadband speed test   
fromspeedof.me. Shutterstock/garagestock/Screenshot from http://speedof.me

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has pledged to get tough on any Internet Service Providers that mislead consumers about National Broadband Network speeds.

But how do you know if you’re getting a good deal when you connect to the NBN? How do you know if you’ll be getting the high-speed connection you were promised?

NBN Co is building the infrastructure, with 5.7 million premises now able to connect to the network via fibre, hybrid cable, wireless or satellite. To make that connection though, you have to deal with one of almost 150 listed ISPs.

Customers are ‘confused’

The ACCC’s chairman Rod Sims says we should expect a healthy and competitive sector. But he also says many consumers are “confused about broadband speed advertising” and the industry has been “inconsistent in making clear, accurate information available”.

So it is crucial for the ACCC to ensure that companies do not mislead consumers about the speeds offered by their ISP.

The Australian market is different to that in the United Kingdom, where the regulator Ofcom actively provides accurate information to consumers to enable a comparison of services.

Australia takes a different approach, relying on protections available via consumer law, and encouraging industry self-regulation to provide the right information to the consumer.

The experience you get really depends on a range of factors relating to transmission quality, reflected as speed of connectivity and latency (delays) in exchanging information across the internet. Key factors include:

  • how you connect to the internet router in your house (such as by Wi-Fi or ethernet)
  • the transmission quality from home to the Point of Interconnect (where the ISP’s network connects to the NBN)
  • transmission quality within the ISP network
  • transmission quality of the content delivery network.

Measuring the speed of your internet connection

A basic speed test of any internet connection is a measure of the time it takes to transfer a fixed file from a server. The result is usually given in Mbps (Megabits per second).

Many ISPs, such as TelstraOptus and iiNet, currently provide internet speed tests for their customers.

But speeds measured this way tend to reflect the connectivity from the ISP to the consumer. The speeds you experience in general use can be significantly lower than the “peak” speed advertised by the service provider.

To get a better idea of the real speed of your internet connection you should use another speed testing service, in addition to the one recommended by your ISP.

You should also repeat this measurement at various times of the day and keep detailed notes of any results. Some typical speed tests are:

Speeds can change over time for even the fastest NBN connection.

Currently most ISPs offer a higher speed for downloading and lower speed for uploading. As many users often download the same content, the network can be optimised to take advantage of this and offer higher speeds.

But users also upload unique content, such as photos to social media accounts or files to cloud storage. This does not have the advantage of scale and thus speed of access could be lower.

As cloud-based storage and content-delivery networks – such as Netflix, Foxtel and others – become more highly trafficked, our requirements are changing. Many users now prioritise more symmetrical internet connectivity, with similar download and upload speeds.

How fast should the internet be in Australia?

In Australia, premises with fibre connections to the NBN can theoretically get a peak rate of 100Mbps. In fact, in Australia there are 5 tiers of NBN connections, varying between Tier 1 (12Mbps download/1Mbps upload) to Tier 5 (100Mbps download/40Mbps upload).

But the measured speeds can often be slower than promised by your provider.

There are various reasons for this. It could be that there is a problem between the premises and the NBN network, or there could be delays or oversubscription within the ISP network.

There can be congestion and delays in national and international networks due to inadequate investment by various stakeholders to keep the capacity of the network in scale with the increasing number of customers.

Your experience can also vary across the day and from one service to another. As the number of users varies quite markedly over 24 hours, the state of the network (NBN, ISP network, Content Delivery Network) can change with various levels of congestion.

This leads to different speeds of connectivity at different times when accessing different types of services. For example, web access might be slower given the location of a server, compared with an internet video streaming service that might be optimised to deliver the most popular content within the region.

While many internet service providers advertise a typical speed, in Australia there is no expectation that they should indicate the variability (the range of minimum and maximum speeds).

When so slow is too slow

If you think your NBN connection is too slow and not what you were promised, you should raise the problem with your ISP. If they fail to resolve the issue you should report it to the ACCC.

To improve information about broadband speeds, the ACCC is currently running a A$7 million trial of NBN speed monitoring and it wants consumers to be part of it.

Australia could have anticipated these speed issues and established a broadband performance reporting framework as part of access to the NBN infrastructure by providers.

The Australian Communications Consumers Action Network (ACCAN) has been crying outfor a scheme to monitor the performance of ISPs.

But this hasn’t happened yet. So for now it’s left to you as a consumer to monitor your NBN connection speeds, and report any ongoing problems to the ACCC which hopes to start publishing speed and performance data later this year.


This article was written by:
Image of Thas Ampalavanapillai NirmalathasThas Ampalavanapillai Nirmalathas – [Director – Melbourne Networked Society Institute, Professor of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Co-Founder/Academic Director – Melbourne Accelerator Program, University of Melbourne]







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Like a TARDIS in your head, memory helps you travel through time

  Climb on board - it won’t take a minute.
 Dean Lewins/AAP

Doctor Who’s TARDIS and human memory have a lot in common: both seem small, but are able to transport you through time to many possible worlds.

We often assume that memory is primarily concerned with the past, and that we need it to create a sense of identity and our own story in life. But actually, we use memory everyday to help us evaluate our options, make choices such as which films to watch, and to think about the future. In order to do this we engage in mental time travel.

According to my nephew Miles, who’s five, the reason you need memory is:

So you can tell your mum and dad if something bad has happened to you.

And he’s really grasped the main issue here – we need memory to survive. Research shows our ability to reflect on the past allows us to make beneficial decisions and choose the best actions to take.

Back to the past

How do you choose where to buy your morning coffee? One way is to use memory to draw on individual past experiences in order to evaluate your current options and make the best choices. Should you visit the cafe that burns the milk or should you take a ten minute detour, buy your perfect flat white and risk being late for work?

When we think about specific experiences in the past, such as a holiday, there are certain moments we are more likely to remember – usually the most intense moment (the peak) and the more recent moments (the end). These characteristics bias our memories of the event and we give them more weight when evaluating the experience as a whole.

Research has shown that memories affect how we evaluate everything from our enjoyment of a meal to pain during a colonoscopy.

They also influence how likely we are to choose similar experiences. For example, when you think about your most recent holiday, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Perhaps it’s a particularly enjoyable meal you had, or maybe it’s the day you got sunburnt. Given what you know now, would you choose to go on this holiday again?

Image of a couple on holiday at the beach
What do you remember from spring break – getting sunburnt, or the gorgeous young man you met on the last day? jsolomon/Flickr

Researchers asked a group of US students going on Spring Break exactly this question. They were asked to rate their enjoyment both during their trip and four weeks after they returned.

Although the ratings they made during the trip provided a more accurate reflection of their overall enjoyment, it was the evaluation they made when they returned that best predicted whether they would repeat the experience.

In addition to having a bias for remembering more recent and intense moments, certain other events are more likely to stick in memory. We encounter hundreds of places, smells, sounds, faces and objects every day, yet we can recall relatively few of these.

Our research has shown that linking events to rewards helps us to prioritise certain events in memory. We also know that emotional and novel events are better remembered than neutral ones.

And interestingly as we get older, our memory capacity does decline, but our ability to use this important information to help us select which information to remember remains relatively intact.

Back to the future

In the same way that we draw on past experiences to evaluate our current options, we also use memory to evaluate future options and to “pre-experience” events. This gives us a way of mentally testing the water before committing to something new.

Imagine instead of offering you a cup of tea, a friend offers to make you something completely new like a raspberry-avocado-smoothie (that’s actually a thing now – but it wasn’t at the time of this research). Assuming you’ve never tried one of these, you will use your memory to imagine the consequences of the new experience.

This act of imagining new events forms associations in the same areas of the brain involved in forming and storing memories – the hippocampus and the medial prefrontal cortex.

Frozen in time

Being able to virtually travel through time makes us well adapted to our environment and helps us to plan actions such as how much food to eat.

The ability to use specific past experiences to imagine the future has been found to be impaired in several patient populations, including in people with Alzheimer’s disease and others with depression .

In a recent study we found that compared to lean individuals, people with obesity tended to disregard how long it would be until their next meal when choosing how much to eat. This lack of planning could be linked to difficulties in using memory to simulate future events.

In highlighting the importance of mental time travel, it is important not to detract from the benefits of focusing on the present moment. There is evidence that mindfulness is an effective tool for improving well-being and mental health .

So next time your mind wanders back to the past, or heads off into an alternative universe, enjoy the ride. You may just be preparing for your next action, and working out which decision is best for your survival.


This article was written by:
Image of Alice MasonAlice Mason – [Research associate, University of Western Australia]





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