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Debunking a Viral Internet Post About Breastfeeding Racism 350

Bennett Haselton writes: A editorial with 24,000 Facebook shares highlights the differences in public reaction to two nearly identical breastfeeding photos, one showing a black woman and one showing a white woman, each breastfeeding an infant. The editorial decries the outrage provoked by the black woman's photo compared to the mild reaction elicited by the white woman's photo, and attributes the difference to racism. I tried an experiment using Amazon's Mechanical Turk to test that theory. Read on to see the kind of results Bennett found.

You can see the side-by-side pictures in the November 10 editorial by Ruby Hamad. My first thought, upon seeing the pictures, was that this is not a controlled experiment -- the woman on the left is breastfeeding in public, while the woman on the right is breastfeeding against a blank wall inside a presumably private room. While I think breastfeeding in public should be completely normalized, it's not the same thing as breastfeeding in private, and so that might have accounted for the difference in reactions, if there was any.

My second thought was that the data on people's reactions was not collected in a systematic way. According to the editorial, the black photo of the black mother, Karlesha Thurman, was posted on the Facebook page Black Women Do Breastfeed, and "[w]hile Karlesha received many supportive comments, the backlash was so severe, she eventually deleted the photo." The photo of the Australian woman, Jacci Sharkey, was posted by the University of the Sunshine Coast on their Facebook page, where it received 275,000 Facebook "likes", but also, according to the editorial, "more than a few detractors, proving that breastfeeding in public is (still!) a contentious issue for women of all races." There's no apples-to-apples comparison gauging people's reactions to the two photos under similar conditions.

But just because the methodology was imprecise, doesn't mean that the underlying phenomenon might not be real. Maybe Internet users really do have different gut reactions to pictures of black women and white women breastfeeding.

One quick way to get a rough answer is Amazon's Mechanical Turk service, where you can pay legions of workers some small amount of money per person to complete some menial task that can't be automated by a computer. I've used it dozens of times for surveys (such as gauging whether people would strongly prefer slideout keyboard phones) and for amateur psychological experiments (including one experiment which suggested that people who answered a math problem correctly were more likely to disagree with an attorney general's dubious legal argument). So I created a poll on Mechanical Turk, limited to U.S. users and with a payout of 25 cents for each person who answered. The poll asked:

Our academic department has asked everyone to submit a "fun" photo of themselves, so that our photos can be displayed together on the department home page. One of our employees submitted a photo that has caused some internal debate about whether the photo is inappropriate. I wanted to do a poll to get the opinion of a random sample of Internet users of different backgrounds.

Do you think this is an appropriate picture to be used in a photo collection on our academic department home page?

Since the original photos had been published in different contexts anyway, I tried to find a middle ground for the wording of the survey question, to emphasize that the photos were going to be published in a "fun" setting, but still integrated into the women's professional environments. The survey-takers were then (randomly) shown either the black woman's photo or the white woman's photo, and answered "Yes, the image is fine" or "No, the image is inappropriate". Then respondents were asked to fill in their age, gender, ethnicity, and education level.

(One thing that I've found with all of my previous surveys on Mechanical Turk, is that there is strong evidence that survey-takers are not answering randomly. Strong correlations often occur where you would expect them to -- for example, in a survey about what are the greatest causes of global strife, the same people tend to select "Energy shortages" and "Environmental damage" above other options, whereas another subgroup will tend to select both "Atheism" and "Decline of traditional values". And any survey where I've added a textbox for users to enter "more thoughts", most users enter something reasonably thoughtful which corresponds to the multiple-choice answers they've selected. Formal research by the psychologist Samuel Gosling has similarly found that Internet surveys can be useful for psychological research and are not plagued with bot-responders or random answers. So I'm working under that assumption.)

The results: Out of 47 respondents who saw the black girl's picture, 36 said the image was inappropriate (77%). Out of 54 respondents who saw the white girl's picture, 38 said the image was inappropriate (70%). For such a small sample, that's not enough to definitively say whether the small difference is due to random chance, or due to small differences in opinion in the population being surveyed. What it does show, even with such a small sample, is that in the underlying population there's almost certainly no huge gap between people's opinions of black women vs. white women breastfeeding in photos.

In both surveys, both male and female respondents voted the photos "inappropriate" with about the same frequency. For the black woman's photo, 22 out of 26 men (86%) and 14 out of 21 women (67%) voted the photo inappropriate; for the white woman's photo, 19 out of 30 men (63%) and 19 out of 24 women (79%) voted it inappropriate. There also didn't appear to be any correlation between the age of the respondents and their responses. (You can view the breakdown of answers in terms of respondent demographics here for the black woman's picture and here for the white woman's picture; the crummy layout is because I just copied-and-pasted the output from my own custom-written survey-taking tool, where I usually just view the results for myself.) As for the gap between black and white survey-takers, in the case of the black woman's photo, 24 out of 34 white survey-takers (70%) and 5 out of 6 black survey-takers (83%) voted it inappropriate, while for the white woman's photo, 25 out of 36 white survey-takers (69%) and 4 out of 4 (100%) of black survey-takers voted it inappropriate -- but those discrepancies probably don't mean much, since the population of self-identified black respondents was too small in both cases to draw any conclusions.

Even with small samples, though, I would argue that this is a better way to answer the question of latent racism than to draw fuzzy conclusions based on the trolling comments posted on a Facebook photo. My guess is that even if there was an underlying difference in the frequency of negative comments posted to the two photos, part of it could have been due to the photo being posted in a Facebook group titled "Black Women Do Breastfeed", a group name that is practically begging for trolls to wait for a chance to try and provoke an outraged response. The white woman's photo, on the other hand, was posted on the University of the Sunshine Coast Facebook page, which is not the kind of place that maladjusted nitwits hang out trying to start a flame war. And for the trolls who did post on the white woman's photo, their natural inclination would be to make some immature comment about b00bs; whereas for the trolls posting on the black woman's photo, the easiest cheap shot would be to make it about race. But that doesn't mean that there is actually a racially motivated difference in people's reactions to the photos.

Besides, if you want to use Facebook to raise awareness of racism, there are properly controlled scientific experiments that have demonstrated the extent of prejudice, such as the infamous 2003 resume callback experiment which showed that resumes with white-sounding names on them received about 50% more callbacks than resumes with black-sounding names. A viral story with 24,000 Facebook shares, about two isolated incidents under different circumstances, is not necessarily evidence of racism. It might be. But you have to do some kind of controlled experiment to check first.

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Debunking a Viral Internet Post About Breastfeeding Racism

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  • First we'll post a video of ISIS beheading an innocent hostage.

    Then we'll post a video of ISIS beheading Bennett Hasselton.

    Afterwards, we'll look at the massive differences in the level of outrage, which is to say we'll have a kegger to celebrate Bennett's demise.

  • Shut up Bennett! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Pretty please?

    • Seconded. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by khasim ( 1285 ) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Thursday November 13, 2014 @01:46PM (#48379967)

      Really. He's offended by a FACEBOOK posting.

      So he decides to write his own "survey" or whatever. Except he knows NOTHING about writing them. Or how to conduct them.

      And then he puts it up on Amazon's Mechanical Turk site. Further evidence that he knows NOTHING about conducting a survey.

      Which leads him to "analyize" the crap "data" that he has "collected".

      The only "News for Nerds" here is how badly this was done. Anyone who publishes is (that would be you, Timothy) is an idiot for doing so. If anyone else had conducted this at any other site it would have been mocked here.

      • Re:Seconded. (Score:4, Interesting)

        by pz ( 113803 ) on Thursday November 13, 2014 @02:27PM (#48380451) Journal

        You forgot to mention that he has an embarrassingly small sample size and doesn't do any sample correction. He doesn't publish any significance values, so we have no way of knowing if 70% is the same or different than 77%, to the accuracy of the methodology (as well or as poorly thought out as it may be). Then he considers 86% and 67% to be about the same, and subsequently 63% and 79% to be about the same.

        I am not a professional statistician -- I hire people to do that sort of work for me when I need definitive answers because I don't know the details. But I know enough to recognize handwaving, and that's all the long-winded original posting is.

        • Re:Seconded. (Score:5, Informative)

          by bluefoxlucid ( 723572 ) on Thursday November 13, 2014 @03:00PM (#48380787) Journal

          Actually, his sample sizes are small. He says this about your 70% to 77%:

          For such a small sample, that's not enough to definitively say whether the small difference is due to random chance, or due to small differences in opinion in the population being surveyed. What it does show, even with such a small sample, is that in the underlying population there's almost certainly no huge gap between people's opinions of black women vs. white women breastfeeding in photos.

          This is correct: for around 20 or 30 people, you can expect random chance of e.g. 20% (I don't care to remember how to do the math here). That's 20% of the value: if 70% of group A respond one way, then you would be within random chance if group B's responses fell within 56% and 84%, and not have any conclusion. Bennett says here that groupings of 70% and 77% don't conclude a difference due to random chance, but they DO indicate a small magnitude.

          Let's say that the actual numbers are 72% and 71.5%. If you performed a properly controlled experiment with tens of thousands of people on each side, you'd find one group showing 72% and one showing 71.5%. Your alpha value would be around 0.001%, so you'd expect an identical population to show something like 72% and 71.93% A value of 71.5% would be conclusive of a nearly 0.4% difference between populations.

          With the small sample size, you'd need a bigger gap. If the numbers were 70% and 20%, you'd have conclusive evidence of a significant difference between populations. At 70% and 77%, you have no evidence for any difference at all; a small difference could exist, but it is exceedingly unlikely that a LARGE difference exists.

          Following this logic, 86% and 67% are about the same, and 63% and 79% are about the same. If you want these values to be different from each other, you need bigger sample sizes. Small sample sizes like this are only good for striking divides such as "is your skin more like a banana or chocolate?" surveying black vs white people.

          To put this into perspective: out of 14 trials with a deck of 20 red/black cards shuffling 5 times and then predicting the top card, I am 68% likely to predict the correct card drawn from a deck; out of 180 trials, I am 54% likely; out of 700 trials, I am 53.8% likely to correctly predict the card. I did better on early trials, consistently getting 2/3 or more correct. Even hundreds of trials in, I haven't closed on random chance; but we also have about a 5% confidence value at 700 trials, and 53.8% - 5% is less than 50%, so it's quite possible I'm exactly 50% likely to select correctly.

          • There is no power. (Score:5, Informative)

            by FhnuZoag ( 875558 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @06:42AM (#48384579)

            I am actually a statistician. And this 'study' looks pretty worthless.

            The problem is the issue of a 'huge gap'. What gap is huge? Well, we can try and do a power calculation. How big does the gap between the black and white targets *need* to be, to have a good chance of showing up in this test?

            This is simple enough to calculate. Plug in some numbers:
            1. Sample size in each group - 50
            2. Level of Significance - 0.05
            3. Power - i.e. the desired probability of finding there to be a significant difference, *if a difference exists*. I've chosen a standard number of 0.8 - i.e. allow for a 20% chance of missing a true effect by accident.

            Fixing the proportion of inappropriates for the white woman at 70%, we find.... 91.8%.

            In other words, with this sample size, we actually only rule out a difference of 70% vs 91.8%, or in other words, an over 2/3rds drop in the proportion of people finding the picture appropriate.

            To rephrase: if the truth was that 2/3rds of the people who think a white woman is breastfeeding would *not* think a black person breastfeeding is appropriate - a situation that I think you'd agree is very racist - then we'd miss such an effect in an experiment like this over 1/5th the time. Even assuming the experiment was conducted ideally, and no one was just randomly clicking to earn money.

            This article is meaningless.

        • Umm, he gave you enough information to do the significance test yourself under standard polling assumptions.

          No, he didn't use a particularly large sample size. But the way the sampling distribution works means that you pretty quickly reach the level of diminishing returns so his survey is a pretty good guide to whether there is a substantial difference in reactions.

          Are his respondents trully selected at random from the population under examination (as all the statistical tools assume). Well no, not really

      • Well, hold on. He made a lot of good points about statistics, sample size, and research into study of surveys; as well as some insightful analysis of credibility of answers. This person clearly has a passable grasp of statistics, at least; having myself gained a perfect score on the AP Statistics and Probability exam, I still evaluate him as having further exposure to structured statistics education than I have. I'm familiar with a few credibility models used in psychology as well; he used a very statis

  • by ruir ( 2709173 ) on Thursday November 13, 2014 @12:59PM (#48379457)
    us fed up for good with slashdot? this is clearly going downhill.
  • Somehow the tasks would involve reading Bennett Haselton essays and harvesting the scintillating nuggets of shared wisdom to...

    *laughs until cries* Man, this guy is so much fun to hate...
  • by sinij ( 911942 ) on Thursday November 13, 2014 @01:01PM (#48379475)
    Unless you can find a way to network breastfeeding or find a way to run Lunix on it, I don't see how the topic is appropriate for /.
    • by xaxa ( 988988 )

      Unless you can find a way to network breastfeeding or find a way to run Lunix on it, I don't see how the topic is appropriate for /.

      The interest is using Amazon Turk for a quick survey.

    • by enjar ( 249223 )

      apt-get install breastmilk

      The following extra packages will be installed:
      antibodies lipids fluids newdiaper nutrients

      The following extra packages will be purged:
      olddiaper poo pee

  • by tomhath ( 637240 ) on Thursday November 13, 2014 @01:01PM (#48379479)
    First photo (black woman) breastfeeding in public with a race-baiting headline ("Black women do...") draws negative comments. Second photo of a woman apparently in private and wearing a wedding band draws positive comments. The editorial has both pictures cropped so you can't see if either woman is wearing a wedding band.
    • If the presence or lack of a wedding band influences your reaction to that picture then it sounds like you're just trying to justify your bias. Breastfeeding in public has exactly zero to do with marital status.

      • by Teun ( 17872 )
        It's indeed a scary thought people with this wedding band fetish:

        1. Have computers.
        2. Post on Slashdot.

      • by tomhath ( 637240 )

        Whether it offends me or not is irrelevant (I didn't post on either of the women's FB pages). It does offend many people. Not sure how you are connecting that to marital status, I agree they are not connected

        The wedding band is important though. Are you really saying there's no difference between a married couple having a baby and a single woman having a baby?

    • I find it astonishing that someone is actually reading Bennett's drivel. And parsing it.

      I mean, it's still drivel, but your user# doesn't suggest you're so new that you haven't seen his 6000-word screeds before?

    • Obvious is not scientific. It's obvious the sun revolves around the earth.
  • by gurps_npc ( 621217 ) on Thursday November 13, 2014 @01:01PM (#48379481) Homepage
    The original article was clearly click-bait. It was either designed poorly and published because of the perceived racism or more likely designed to elicit the racist response from the get go.

    That is the difference between journalism and science. Journalism needs to get attention, science works best with little attention.

    You can't trust science articles if they have any outrage.

  • by myrdos2 ( 989497 ) on Thursday November 13, 2014 @01:01PM (#48379485)

    "For such a small sample, that's not enough to definitively say whether the small difference is due to random chance, or due to small differences in opinion in the population being surveyed."

    Then you haven't shown anything. Without statistically significant data, your survey is meaningless.

    "What it does show, even with such a small sample, is that in the underlying population there's almost certainly no huge gap between people's opinions of black women vs. white women breastfeeding in photos."

    No, it doesn't. You cannot draw conclusions from your results without significant data, because as you just said, your results could be due to random chance. I see this all the time in papers submitted for peer review. They'll say something like, "our technique showed benefit over the other techniques, even though the difference was not significant", and try to claim this as a win.

    • Then you haven't shown anything. Without statistically significant data, your survey is meaningless.

      No, by taking those photos so far out of context and asking a question about them that is so far out of context, his survey is made meaningless.

      If the question is about general reactions to a photo, then trying to put those photos into a "fun photo on an academic website" you've already changed the question so much that it cannot answer the first. What you found out is that NATURALLY, 3/4 of people think a picture of a woman breastfeeding on an academic website is inappropriate. It's not about black or wh

    • Then you haven't shown anything. Without statistically significant data, your survey is meaningless.

      Look, let's be honest here.

      Bennett isn't doing a survey. He isn't doing science. He isn't even doing journalism.

      He looked at pictures of tits on the interwebs, wrote a blog entry about an article someone else did, and looked at more tits on the interweb.

      Timothy, who apparently is the dedicated handler for this click-baiting automaton which is Bennet Haselton, duly posts the crap onto Slashdot so he can tell

      • Look, let's be honest here.

        Bennett isn't doing a survey. He isn't doing science. He isn't even doing journalism.

        Hardly. His effort, this one time, was a lot more thorough[1] than the numerous womens studies "research" that we routinely get here on slashdot. What exactly can you fault him for above, other than using MT? What would you do different?

        [1] IOW, He didn't start with a conclusion and then try to find evidence to support it. He started with a question ("Is this about race or context?") and attempted to honestly find an answer using the cheapest method known to man. Could he have done this better? Sure - if h

    • Then you haven't shown anything. Without statistically significant data, your survey is meaningless.

      You misunderstood. Read it again.

      He's saying, there is no significant difference between the two groups. This contradicts the hypothesis; the hypothesis being that there would be a difference between the two groups.
      He phrases it that way to remind the reader that there might still be significant difference, but if there is, it's smaller than the margin of error for his poll.
      An actual weakness here is that he didn't establish a margin of error.

      In any case, this is a huge improvement from previous Benne

      • You read it again.

        He's saying, there is no significant difference between the two groups. This contradicts the hypothesis

        And everyone with a clue is saying that the conclusion doesn't hold, because the sample size is ridiculously, uselessly small.

      • He's saying, there is no significant difference between the two groups.

        But the issue is "groups of what"? The original groups were "people who are racist and don't like seeing pictures of black women breastfeeding because they are black" and "people who aren't etc." He converted the groups being tested into "people who think pictures of women of any color breastfeeding posted to a faculty webpage is inappropriate" and "people who don't...".

        You can't ask a radically different question and expect to get statistically significant information about the original question out of

      • No, you don't understand how real research and statistics work, try reading these: https://explorable.com/statist... [explorable.com] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S... [wikipedia.org] http://stats.stackexchange.com... [stackexchange.com] http://www.sciencebuddies.org/... [sciencebuddies.org] It's obvious Bennett has no academic credentials beyond a bachelor's degree or maybe even High School Diploma given his drivel above.
  • Ugh (Score:3, Insightful)

    by astro128 ( 669526 ) on Thursday November 13, 2014 @01:09PM (#48379567)
    Another TL:DR useless article by Bennett - please add a feature so we can block his boring, unending essays that no one cares about.
  • by enjar ( 249223 ) on Thursday November 13, 2014 @01:12PM (#48379587) Homepage

    "Bennett Haselton writes"

    Yep. Checks out. But I don't believe it.

    I also don't understand the point of this post. Is Slashdot hoping to get picked up on HuffPo and on a bunch of mommy blogger sites? I don't really see how Bennett's keyboard diarrhea this week is anything remotely related to "News for Nerds".

    • The idea was that it's about Internet culture (not technology-specific) and the problem of clickbait that can be easily debunked.
      • by enjar ( 249223 )

        Clickbait is now the dominant business model for most of the internet, as far as I can tell. People don't really give a damn about debunking, they just hit the "Share" button and pass it on to the echo chamber of their $group_of_friends who echo it back to each other and agree wildly with each other.

        It's pretty much the evolution of the chain letter -> MMF/forwarded urban myths -> google finds people just like me -> FaceTwitterInterest helps even more - BuzzFeed,Upworthy,et. al generate content fro

    • Perhaps Timmy's puppeteer thought the basement dwellers needed some titillation.
    • I don't really see how Bennett's keyboard diarrhea this week is anything remotely related to "News for Nerds"

      They knew that Haselton's horrible grasp of statistics would prompt the nerds to click frantically to point out what a tool he is.

  • by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Thursday November 13, 2014 @01:12PM (#48379593) Journal

    OK

    People here like to poke fun at the long posts by Bennett Hassleton. This one is actually pretty good.

    He saw something, constructed an experiement using readily available resources, got statistically significant results (just about) and made an intereesting post detailing the methodology.

    To my mind this is interesting in comparison to more formal academic studies as it shows that you can get reasonable results as a lone wolf with a limited budget and no research institution.

    I like this post. Go Bennett.

    • by enjar ( 249223 )

      Is it relevant to Slashdot's audience? No. Perhaps Bennett should go peddle his wares at sites where people care about racism and/or breastfeeding. What if Bennett tried shopping this post to engadget, Linux News or other popular tech/gadget/science blogs? He'd be told to go away and come back with something relevant.

      If you buy that the survey methodology is relevant, you need to read a lot more about making relevant surveys. The world is awash in "studies" like this one, that would have trouble getting thr

    • OK

      People here like to poke fun at the long posts by Bennett Hassleton. This one is actually pretty good.

      He saw something, constructed an experiement using readily available resources, got statistically significant results (just about) and made an intereesting post detailing the methodology.

      To my mind this is interesting in comparison to more formal academic studies as it shows that you can get reasonable results as a lone wolf with a limited budget and no research institution.

      I like this post. Go Bennett.

      He posted an ad hoc, anecdotal, unscientific "survey" and generated 101 responses and then claims credibility, and you commend him?!?! You must have been dropped on your head, too, then, yes?

    • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Thursday November 13, 2014 @04:36PM (#48381503) Journal
      Yeah, I agree with you. We can encourage people who are willing to experiment, as it's a clear step above what you normally find on the internet.

      The biggest complaint I have with this post is that the prose needs to be tightened, it's kind of stream-of-conciousness writing, and thus a lot of people commenting have missed his main points.
  • by mr.mctibbs ( 1546773 ) on Thursday November 13, 2014 @01:14PM (#48379613)
    We're happy to hear your stories. But, listen: maybe they should go on the fridge, instead of the front page of Slashdot.

    Ok, bud?
    • We're happy to hear your stories. But, listen: maybe they should go on the fridge, instead of the front page of Slashdot. Ok, bud?

      I didn't know Mom posted the "F" graded assigments on the fridge?

  • by ThatsNotPudding ( 1045640 ) on Thursday November 13, 2014 @01:23PM (#48379685)
    I recall stories tagged with OhNoItsFlorian; well past time for a OhNoItsBennett tag.
  • Your question mentions a work context and already suggests that the image is inappropriate. The wording is hardly impartial and may sway respondents who might otherwise be unsure how to answer and thus influenced by internalized/unconscious bias.

    Also, this is a delicate topic. If you want to people to take your writing seriously, you should work hard at using respectful language. Referring to to the two graduates/mothers as "girls" is belittling.

  • Anther issue that you bring up is that people who perform mechanical turk tasks see the world differently. Energy shortages are a problem in places like India where a lot of the "turks" live. Having not grown up in America their view of race is completely different than ours and they're not going to bring the usual prejudices with them.

    Simply stated, there's no good way to get useful results in this manner.

    • In this case, the survey on Mechanical Turk was limited to U.S. users only. I did say that in the article :) ("...limited to U.S. users...") But you certainly make a good point generally.
    • This is a good point. I wanted to make it. i'll just piggyback on your comment. Mechanical turk seems like a terrible place to try to quantify the views of a society. Unless, of course, you are trying to get statistics on the views of the society of mechanical turk.
  • And this is news for nerds how? Because he used Mechanical Turk?
    Seriously, stop with the drivel from this Miley Cyrus looking boob, with his winking and mouth gaping. Go ahead. Image search him.
  • While the methodology used for the original inquiry (I hesitate to use the word study) is non-statistical and therefore impossible to validly extrapolate from, so is the methodology used to debunk the original. At best, both reports provide anecdotal evidence, but without a statistically valid approach, either could be correct or both could be wrong.

  • "Outrage Pornography".

  • Oh noes! B(.)(.)Bies and _natural_ instinct of a mother feeding their child. /sarcasm Quick! Get out the pitchforks and pull the racism card out of your ass!

    If people are so damn uptight how about a big dish of:

    "Grow the fuck up and get over yourself."

    This is a NON ISSUE.

  • Fuck Bennett Haselton and the idiots that promote his idiotic posts! Yes, you timothy! and any other "editor" that posts his crap!
  • This is educational for us Nerds as breasts have another, all natural and nurturing use not at all related to their common portrayal as fun bags.

  • by jdeisenberg ( 37914 ) on Thursday November 13, 2014 @04:58PM (#48381629) Homepage
    Given the data (36 out of 47 found one photo inappropriate, 38 out of 54 found the other photo inappropriate), a chi-squared test without Yates's correction shows X2(1, N = 101) = 0.497, p = .481; thus, not significant. It would be nice if Mr. Haselton had posted a link to the raw data so we could look at it for ourselves. (Sorry for not using the Greek letter and superscript, but Slashdot didn't seem to like them.)

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