False rape accusations

January 25, 2015

The issue of false rape accusations is an emotionally charged one. Rape is the unspeakable crime. It is one for which the evidence often relies on one person’s word against another’s. Rape conviction rates are notoriously low. Just 6% of all reports of rape result in a conviction. The police have frequently come in for criticism for how they dealt with these cases. Now society’s mores have changed, but until relatively recently a woman could not be raped by her husband. And women who went to the police claiming that they had been raped were not taken seriously or even disbelieved. The lawyer and Fox News commentator Susan Estrich argues that, “the myth of the lying woman is the most powerful myth in the tradition of rape law.” Such attitudes have been challenged in recent years. But we need to be careful that we don’t create a counter-myth: that of the woman who never lies. I tend to believe Doctor Gregory House: everybody lies. I do feel uneasy about some feminist perspectives on this question. The subject came up on a BBC Radio Four programme, The Report, which was broadcast late last year. It featured two famous cases of fabricated rape accusations – Eleanor de Freitas and Rhiannon Brooker.

Eleanor de Freitas had met Alexander Economou in London just before Christmas in 2012. They slept together but 11 days later she went to the police and accused him of raping her. But as police began to investigate her they discovered all was not as it seemed. The day after the alleged rape CCTV footage showed de Freitas and Economou laughing and smiling together while shopping in an Ann Summers lingerie shop. What’s more she had sent him a number of SMSs. In the end it was Economou who brought a private prosecution against de Freitas. The case of perverting the course of justice was subsequently taken on by the CPS. It had tragic consequences as de Freitas, who suffered from bipolar disorder, killed herself three days before her trial. She was just 23.

Rhiannon Brooker, a 30-year old law student, claimed Paul Fensome, 46 a railway signalman, heavy metal fan and former roadie for Iron Maiden and Metallica, had forced her to have sex with him on 11 occasions. This is very different to the de Freitas case. Given her knowledge of criminal law and procedure she was not the typical rape complainant. Brooker faked text messages and injuries. She told a friend she was pregnant but six weeks later claimed she had lost the baby because her boyfriend punched her in the ribs. Fensome was arrested, charged and held in custody for 36 days with rapists and other sex offenders before police realised there was no evidence against him. In June last year Brooker was found guilty of perverting the course of justice and sentenced to three and a half years in prison

I am sure these cases are extremely rare. I am sure that false accusations are rare. A 17-month Crown Prosecution Service study showed 5000 prosecutions for rape and just 35 prosecutions for false rape in this period. Figures for false accusations are said to range between 2% and 12%. But in such a complex area it is impossible to know. Moreover, people also lie in cases of robbery or fraud. Nevertheless, I think a lot of radical feminist advocates are forgetting William Blackstone’s classic formulation: It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer. There are ideas that I have reservations about. One is the culture of the victims will be believed. You hear this said a lot now in relation to rape and other sexual abuse cases. The word victim, as opposed to accuser, implies the presumption of guilt.

Seeking justice for female victims should make us more sensitive, not less, to justice for unfairly accused men. The wrongly accused, such as Alexander Economou and Paul Fensome were real victims too. Guardianista Julie Bindel, who appeared on the programme, called the prosecution of Rhiannon Brooker a waste of time.

The conviction rate is very low for rape, but it is also low for robbery or fraud. You cannot assume that the only fair verdict in a rape trial is a conviction. Trials are messy processes. The guilty do not always get their just desserts. Someone may be guilty, but the evidence may just not be enough. It is an inevitable fact in the case of it being one person’s word against another there may be a reasonable doubt; you have to be sure before you convict. We must try to eradicate this vile crime but it cannot be at the expense of sending innocent people to jail. Once someone has been convicted, then I do feel they should face the full brunt of the law. The case of Ched Evans, the footballer convicted of rape is outrageous; he served just two and a half years in jail. I’m all in favour of toughening sentences on those found guilty, but let’s not sacrifice due process.


Who’s Lying, Who’s Self-Justifying?

January 25, 2015

Watch this video of  author Carol Tavris speaking at James Randi’s The Amazing Meeting. The subject is the he said/she said gap in sexual communications.


Doc Martin’s medical case notes

January 18, 2015

This week’s blog is a departure from what I normally do. There is not one theme to this week’s post. Rather I will be looking at a couple of stories relating to medicine have heard a couple of fascinating podcasts recently. It is from these that I got the ideas for this week’s post.

The first story comes from the excellent Freakonomics podcast. It was about how the CIA organised fake vaccination drive to get Osama bin Laden’s family DNA. Dr Shakil Afridi was recruited by the CIA to do a number of vaccination drives in Pakistan. Afridi was in the pay of the CIA, and in 2011 they asked him for help in capturing America’s number one terrorist target Osama Bin Laden. The means was a hepatitis B vaccination campaign in Abbottabad. They wanted him to gain access to houses in an area where they thought the terrorist might be present. Indeed they had one particular house in mind and their goal was to obtain DNA from the fugitive al-Qaida leader’s family.

The doctor went to Abbottabad in March, saying he had procured funds to give free vaccinations for hepatitis B. Bypassing the management of the Abbottabad health services; he paid generous sums to low-ranking local government health workers, who took part in the operation without knowing about the connection to Bin Laden. Health visitors in the area were among the few people who had gained access to the Bin Laden compound in the past, administering polio drops to some of the children. Afridi had posters for the vaccination programme put up around Abbottabad, featuring a vaccine made by Amson, a medicine manufacturer based on the outskirts of Islamabad.

The CIA were not able to confirm that Bin Laden was hiding there. We now know that he had been living there and on May 2nd 2011 he was killed by U.S. forces. The Pakistani government, who had been kept in the dark about the operation, was furious and went in search of any locals who had collaborated with the Americans. The CIA gave Afridi money and recommended that he escape to Afghanistan. The doctor felt that he was safe and decided to stay. However, he was picked up by the notorious Pakistani secret services, the ISI. The CIA director at this time, Leon Panetta demanded that Afridi be released. However, as of 2014, Afridi is still in prison.

I have no doubt about the collusion between the Pakistani government and terrorists. Moreover, I can understand the desire to get Bin Laden. Nevertheless the decision to use a vaccination campaign as a cover for an intelligence-gathering operation was a deeply flawed one. Everyone involved in vaccine campaigns was under suspicion. Save the Children were forced to close down their anti-polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban banned polio vaccinations entirely. And they began to target health workers in the country. 65 health workers administering polio vaccines in Pakistan have been murdered since the end of 2012. Consequently polio is on the rise in this troubled country. In 2014 there were 214 cases of the disease, the highest figure in 15 years. All of these unintended consequences were highly foreseeable. At the end of the Freakonomics piece they make a nice point. In the US there are, as in the UK, a lot of people paranoid about vaccines. Now the CIA has exported the problem. Couldn’t they have sent a fake cable TV guy, or an encyclopaedia salesman?

One of the most fascinating cases in medical history must be that of Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary. Born in 1869 in Cookstown, County Tyrone, Ireland, Mary emigrated from Ireland to the United States at the age of 15. She became the first

first documented case of an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen associated with typhoid fever United States. In her capacity as cook she worked for a number of affluent families, many of whose members would subsequently be afflicted with typhoid.

One family hired a sanitary engineer named George Soper to investigate. He believed Mallon might be the source of the outbreak and set out to find her. When he finally approached Mallon about her possible role in spreading typhoid, she refused to provide him with blood, urine and stool samples. Put yourself in Mary’s shoes. You feel perfectly healthy and then one day a man accuses you of infecting people with this illness and making strange demands. You probably wouldn’t welcome him into your home. Indeed, she chased the investigator out of the building wielding a serving fork.

Soper would need to find alternative evidence, compiling a five-year history of Mallon’s employment. Of the eight families for whom Mallon had worked as a cook, members of seven claimed to have contracted typhoid fever. The health authorities declared her to be a carrier and under sections 1169 and 1170 of the Greater New York Charter, Mallon was held in isolation for three years at a clinic located on North Brother Island. Mary Mallon never believed that she was sick or dangerous. Here is a letter she wrote while she was “imprisoned” on the island:

“When I first came here I was so nervous and almost prostrated with grief and trouble. My eyes began to twitch, and the left eyelid became paralyzed and would not move. It remained in that condition for six months. There was an eye specialist [who] visited the island three and four times a week. He was never asked to visit me. I did not even get a cover for my eye. I had to hold my hand on it whilst going about and at night tie a bandage on it.

… I have been in fact a peep show for everybody. Even the interns had to come to see me and ask about the facts already known to the whole wide world. The tuberculosis men would say “There she is, the kidnapped woman.” Dr. Park has had me illustrated in Chicago. I wonder how the said Dr. William H. Park would like to be insulted and put in the Journal and call him or his wife Typhoid William Park.”

Eventually, it was determined that disease carriers should no longer be kept in isolation and that Mallon could be freed if she agreed to stop working as a cook and take reasonable steps to prevent transmitting typhoid to others. After being released Mallon found employment as a laundress. Unfortunately this paid less than cooking and after changing her name, she soon returned to her old profession. For the next five years, she worked in a number of kitchens in restaurants inns and a sanatorium. The inevitable result was further cases. It was only after another major outbreak at a New York maternity hospital. 25 people were infected and two died. I did feel some sympathy for her the first time she was quarantined, but now she was wilfully putting people’s lives at risk. Mallon was arrested and spent the rest of her life in quarantine back on the island. On November 11, 1938, she died of pneumonia at age 69. An autopsy found evidence of live typhoid bacteria in her gallbladder. We do need to put the cased in context. At the time Mary was being quarantined, there were hundreds of men who were also asymptomatic carriers. Indeed many of these worked in catering. But Mary was the only one on the island. She was undoubtedly a scapegoat. The authorities had to seen to be doing something.

I had head about this case before but I was reminded about by Patient Zero, a programme in the excellent Radiolab series.  In medical science patient zero refers to the initial patient in the population of an epidemiological investigation. The etymology is interesting it was originally patient used for patient O (standing for out of California), referring to Gaëtan Dugas, a superspreader of AIDS. The letter O was later misinterpreted as a zero. In fact, Mr. Dugas was not patient zero. According to the programme, the origin could be in 1908 from an African man who had eaten an infected monkey. Who knows if this true? And then we would to know who chimp zero was.

With the recent outbreaks of Ebola, plagues are very much back in the news. Before the virus wreaked havoc in West Africa and spread around the planet, Ebola struck a toddler named Emile Ouamouno, who is said to be the first person to contract the disease in the current outbreak almost a year ago. He is patient Zero. What is worrying is how far the disease has spread this time. Ebola has been around since the 1970s, but previous outbreaks have tended to be confined to small areas. I remember an interview with Desmond Morris before the Cold War was over. He said that he was far more worried about some kind of plague than a nuclear Armageddon. Let’s hope that neither of these catastrophes befalls us.


House MD – 177 Episodes in 7 minutes

January 18, 2015

It’s been just over two years since my favourite TV doctor abandoned our screens. Here is a compilation from YouTube.


The rise and rise of simultaneous interpretation

January 11, 2015

Nearly five years ago I did a post, Translation: the other side of the tapestry, which looked at the difficulty of this enterprise. Three years ago In Translation goes to the movies I looked at the fascinating world of dubbing and subtitling in the world of cinema. Today in the final part of this epic trilogy I will be looking at translations smarter younger sibling – simultaneous interpretation.

 I say younger sibling because, unlike written translation, which has been taking place for millennia, simultaneous interpretation is a relatively modern. The League of Nations and other international fora had used simultaneous interpretation before WWII. But it was in 1945 at the Nuremberg Trials that this method really came to the fore. Before this interpretation had generally been consecutive; the interpreter speaks after the source-language speaker has finished his segment. So it’s talk, translate, talk, translate, talk, translate…. This is easier but it can be painstakingly slow. At Nuremberg the goal was to judge 23 of the most prominent members of the political, military, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany fairly and expeditiously. It was imperative to speed up the translation of the four official languages of the trial – English, French, Russian and German. For each of these languages there was a team of six interpreters, twelve translators, and nine stenographers – 108 people in total working under the direction of two Americans, Colonel Leon Dostert and Commander Alfred Steer. Dostert, who was been born in France and was a native French speaker, became an American citizen and was a foreign language expert for the US Army. He believed that multitasking was possible – that these professional would be able to listen and speak at the same time.

There were other auxiliary translators for other languages, such as Polish and Yiddish. Trial proceedings took place at the dictation speed of 60 words per minute — much faster than consecutive translation. There was even a traffic light system; a yellow light flashed to warn speakers that they were going too fast, a red one meant that they should stop and repeat what they had said. Dostert brought IBM in to develop a system of microphones and headsets to transmit the four languages.

Despite all the difficulties Dostert’s system somehow worked and it was subsequently adopted by the United Nations with its six official languages. However, it is the European Union, and not the United Nations, which is the largest employer of interpreters in the world. The United Nations may have more members, but the European Union currently has 24 official languages, which must be a logistical nightmare.

On the surface the difference between translation and interpreting is merely the medium: the former is written, whereas the latter is spoken. But it seems to me a completely different world. The skills you need for the interpreters’ booth are vastly different from those of a traditional translator. As I pointed out in Translation: the other side of the tapestry you have to be constantly making decisions about how you want to render a word, phrase or passage. You tend to agonise over the choice of words which will best allow you to render the idea in the target language. Obviously this is not an option in interpretation. You have to be decisive because any delay and you may lose a few words (and possibly a thought) that the speaker uttered. Once it’s gone there is no way for you to get it back. I am in awe of interpretation. There is a one-second delay between what the speaker says and the interpreter translating it. I just can’t get my head around how anyone could translate at the same time as someone is speaking, I would just freak out. But I guess it’s a skill that somehow people learn. Here we can see Richard Fleming, who used to work for the EU Commission, explaining his craft:

My final question is whether it would be possible for machines to provide automatic simultaneous interpretation. In Star Trek Captain Kirk and the crew the Starship Enterprise were able to converse in fluent English with any of the aliens they encountered when they were boldly going where no men had been before. Apparently wore tiny, computerised Universal Translators that could scan alien brainwaves and simultaneously convert their concepts into appropriate English words. We haven’t quite got that far. What we do have is Skype Translator. From what I could see, it was a bit basic, but who knows what technology will bring us in the future?


More untranslatable words

January 11, 2015

Lost in Translation : An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World is a book by Ella Frances Sanders which was published last year. It is an “artistic collection of 52 drawings featuring unique, funny, and poignant foreign words that have no direct translation into English” Here is a selection of the words:

Akihi  n. Listening to directions and then walking off and promptly forgetting them means that you’ve gone “akihi.” Hawaiian

Iktsuarpok  n. The act of repeatedly going outside to keep checking if someone (anyone) is coming.  Inuit

Jayus n. This refers to a joke so terrible and so unfunny that you cannot help but laugh. Indonesian

Kabelsalat n. A word to describe a mess of very tangled cables, literally a “cable-salad.” German

Mamihlapinatapai n. A silent acknowledgement and understanding between two people, who are both wishing or thinking the same thing (and are both unwilling to initiate). Yaghan

Meraki  adj. Pouring yourself wholeheartedly into something, such as cooking, and doing so with soul, creativity, and love. Greek

Nunchi  n. The subtle, often unnoticed art of listening and gauging another’s mood. Korean

Poronkusema  n. The distance a reindeer can comfortably travel before taking a break.  Finnish

Razliubit v. To fall out of love, a bittersweet feeling.  Russian

Resfeber n. The restless beat of a traveler’s heart before the journey begins, a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. Swedish

Tiám n. The twinkle in your eye when you first meet someone.  Farsi

Tíma  v. Not being ready to spend time or money on a specific thing, despite being able to afford it.  Icelandic

Tsundoku n. Leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books.  Japanese

Ubuntu n. Essentially meaning “I find my worth in you, and you find your worth in me.” Can be (very) roughly translated as human kindness. Nguni Bantu

Ya’aburnee  n. Meaning “you bury me” a beautifully morbid declaration of one’s hope that they will die before another person, as it would be too difficult living without them.  Arabic


A real life Pygmalion – Thomas Day

January 4, 2015

Pygmalion saw women waste their lives

in wretched shame, and critical of faults

which nature had so deeply planted through

their female hearts, he lived in preference,

for many years unmarried.–But while he

was single, with consummate skill, he carved

a statue out of snow-white ivory,

and gave to it exquisite beauty, which

no woman of the world has ever equalled:

she was so beautiful, he fell in love

with his creationOvid’s Metamorphoses: Pygmalion

NPG 2490; Thomas Day by Joseph Wright 

The story of Pygmalion, whose disgust at the shameful lives of the women of his era, leads him to create Galatea, a beautiful ivory statue more perfect than any living woman. Indeed, he actually falls in love with the statue and goes to the temple of the goddess Venus to pray for a lover like his statue. Venus is touched by his love and brings Galatea to life. And they all lived happily ever after. But it is a rather perverse story. It is the idea of the man creating the woman of his desires to meet his needs. It reminds me of those avatars that I wrote about a few weeks ago.

This is not just the stuff of literature. One such case is that of Thomas Day, a British children’s author and abolitionist, whose portrait hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in London. I have been there many times, but I have to admit I had not noticed this one. I had no idea of the extraordinary life of Day. I learned about Day when I recently finished reading Wendy Moore’s How to Create the Perfect Wife – Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate, a book which came out in 2013.

Thomas Day was born on June 22 1748. He was the only child of Thomas and Jane Day. His father died when Day was just a year old, leaving him fatherless but wealthy, a fortune he would inherit when he became 21. His education included Charterhouse School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He became a member of the Lunar Society, a club of prominent members of the Midlands Enlightenment, whose members included Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, Erasmus Darwin and James Watt. It got its name because the members would meet during the full moon.  In the absence of street lighting, the full moon made the journey home easier and safer

It was 1769 and the 21-year-old Day, a man with a considerable was determined to find a wife. He was baffled that women just did not seem attracted to him. He was tall and dark, and was not unattractive. However, his face was marked by smallpox. He had no time for Georgian fashions. Indeed, he was a bit of a scruff, who didn’t wash his hair very often. But his biggest drawback was surely his personality He was uncomfortable with small talk, preferring to pontificate. Having been jilted a couple of times Day had a decidedly misogynistic view of women. He was looking for a woman untainted by society.  According to one of his friends, his demands were modest:

He resolved, if possible, that his wife should have a taste for literature and science, for moral and patriotic philosophy. So might she be his companion in that retirement, to which he had destined himself; and assist him forming the minds of his children to stubborn virtue and high exertion. He resolved also, that she should be simple as a mountain girl, in her dress, her diet and her manners, fearless and intrepid as the Spartan wives and Roman heroines.”

If he could not find such a creature ready made, he would have to create the wife he wanted, all by himself. Inspired by a suggestion in Rousseau’s Sophie. Where could he find the raw material from which to mould his perfect wife? The place he chose was a foundling hospital. First, he went to one in Shrewsbury. He went there with a friend, John Bicknell, who was a lawyer. They would not have been allowed to pick up a young orphan for a single man, so they claimed to be looking for an apprentice maid for a friend of theirs, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, who knew nothing of their ruse. The “winner” was Ann Kingston, a 12.year-ol girl with chestnut hair, who he renamed Sabrina Sidney. Not content with one orphan, Day and Bicknell repeated the operation, this time in London with Dorcas Car a blonde 11-year old orphan with blue eyes. Maintaining the Roman heroine theme he named her Lucretia. All of this is rather shocking. Protected by his wealth, Day was able to purchase two vulnerable girls, in the words of Moore, “as he might buy two shoe buckles“. No system of follow-up checks existed. From the moment they left the foundling hospitals, these two children, ages 12 and 11, became Day’s property, to do with as he pleased. His friends, rather shockingly, raised no objections to the project. Significantly,his mother and stepfather remained in the dark. Of course neither of the girls was told about the arrangement.

Day took them to Paris and later Avignon. As well as helping him cover his tracks, it was an excellent way of isolating the girls. Neither of them spoke French so Day would be their only teacher, their only contact with the world. The subtitle of Moore’s book mentions the enlightened quest to train the ideal mate. This is where the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau come in. I am not a fan of Mr. Rousseau. His treatment of his own family was despicable. And more importantly many of his ideas about society were wrong-headed. The idea that we were all noble creatures until we were corrupted by civilisation is not one I subscribe to. Day, though, was a true believer. He declared in 1769 that the two tomes he would save, if all the world’s books were to be destroyed, would be the Bible and Rousseau’s Emile. The idea was for a progressive education. Children should not be forced to study. Rather they should discover things for themselves. Day was converted by his friend to Rousseau by his friend Edgeworth, who had educated his son Dick a la Rousseau.

This would be an ideal method for creating the perfect wife. But things didn’t go very well. He decided that Lucretia was too stupid and stubborn to train and had her apprenticed to a milliner on Ludgate Hill in London.  Soon, she married a draper and received her dowry, as stipulated in the contract that had been drawn up by John Bicknell.

Now only Sabrina was standing. The second phase of the Rousseau method was now about to begin. This involved making her stronger and better able to suffer. However, it sounds more Marquis de Sade. She had sealing wax poured on her arms and pins stuck into her. She had to learn not to flinch when pistols were fired near her and she was thrown into a lake, even though she couldn’t swim. This was all too much for Sabrina, who just couldn’t get with the programme. In early 1771 he sent her off to boarding school in Sutton Coldfield. He had failed to train her successfully. This was of course nothing to do with the training methods; He just hadn’t had the right quality raw material to work with.

He went back to more conventional methods for looking for a mate. The results were equally unsuccessful. He was jilted another two times. He even tried to change for one of these women by becoming the perfect Georgian gentleman, with disastrous results. He tried one more time with Sabrina, but it was not to be. In the end he found someone who could put up with his eccentricities – Esther Milnes, a rich heiress. They were married on August 7, 1778. They lived a very ascetic lifestyle and Esther was never allowed to contact her family. He would constantly criticise her, but she was in love with him. They worked together on a philanthropic project to improve the conditions of the working classes around them.

Sabrina married John Bicknell. Only then did she learn the full extent of the experiment. She demanded an explanation from Day. His reply was typical of the man:

“… whether those intentions were wild, chimerical, & extravagant … that object relates to myself alone & you are the last person in the world to whom I owe any apologies“. Bicknell died a few years later leaving her with xxx children to bring up. Luckily she soon found a job as a housekeeper at private boys’ school. She died at the age of 86.

Day would go on to write a book at the time would be a children’s children’s classic Sandford and Merton, which tells how a lonely, spoilt, rich boy is befriended by a farmer’s son, and becomes a hero by saving a poor family from the bailiffs. Day never lived to enjoy his fame. In 1789, the year of the French Revolution, he was thrown from a horse. Day, an animal lover, had refused to break in the young colt.

This is the contradiction of this man. Here was a man who loathed cruelty to animals, campaigned against slavery, supported American independence and was a follower of progressive thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. A member of the Lunar Society, he was a respected member of Georgian society. Therein lies the reality. He was a product of the class and gender relations of that society. In a previous post I mentioned The Expanding Circle, how we have gradually extended sympathy to more and more groups, including animals. Day had extended his circle of sympathy to working people, slaves and animals but not to females. Women, especially if they were poor orphans were just property. Another man who lived at this time, Thomas Jefferson wrote something called The United States Declaration of Independence in which he stated: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He was also a slave-owner. Such is the human ability to hold mutually contradictory ideas. Thomas Day certainly is an example of this.