Tag Archives: how-to

How to Fact-Check Science

From deciding which soap to use or which light bulb to buy to discerning which politician is telling the truth about things like climate change or the proper approach to Covid-19 concerns, science is a big part of our daily lives. Most people, though, aren’t scientists. Chances are, you don’t have the time or money to just go out and get yourself a degree in a science field.

How do people go about fact checking scientific information when most people don’t have a background in science? In my experience as a scientist, frankly, most people do it rather badly. The worst part is how many people don’t realize that they are doing it badly and consequently both draw horribly incorrect conclusions and profess their false ideas to others, spreading misinformation.

And yet, as a tutor, I also recognize that people are genuinely doing the best they can with the information available to them. It is very easy to draw the wrong conclusion when the information one has is incorrect or insufficient. My intention with this piece is to provide information and context to support the non-scientist reader in spotting bad science, incorrect science reporting, and the outright lies so many politicians are fond of spouting.

Comic from XKCD; permalink: https://xkcd.com/1217/
Description: A scientist in a lab coat stands on a chair, aiming a handgun down at a Petri dish on a lab bench near a microscope. Text reads, “When you see a claim that a common drug or vitamin “kills cancer cells in a Petri dish,” Keep in mind: So does a handgun.”

Part 1: The Scientific Method and Experiment Design

“Science” refers to a method for discerning truth, to a body of knowledge collected by generations of scientists, and in many ways, to a culture. The scientific method is the process by which scientists determine which facts are true.

The general steps of the scientific method are as follows:

  1. Propose a question.
  2. Do background reading about relevant known information.
  3. Form an hypothesis (an informed guess as to the answer of the question).
  4. Create an experiment to test the hypothesis.
  5. Run the experiment.
  6. Collect data.
  7. Analyze the data.
  8. Form a conclusion about the hypothesis, or go back to step 4 and repeat the process as needed to have enough information to form a conclusion.
  9. Communicate the conclusion.

If you are new to the scientific method, check out this site for more details in an interactive format. It’s designed for kids doing science fair experiments, which makes it easier to read regardless of your age. In fact, science materials designed for kids are great for all ages for just that reason. If you want something more detailed, the kids version will give you enough context to be able to find and understand it.

Each one of the steps in the scientific method has its own standard set of rules intend to guide the scientist toward truth while circumnavigating the scientist’s own biases. Experiment design is a big part of this.

Controls are necessary. Scientists use an experimental group and a control group when doing experiments in order to have a basis for comparison.

For example, when I was in sixth grade, I tested my fifth grade teacher’s running program to see if it impacted lung capacity. I measured the lung capacity of her entire class of students periodically throughout the term. This showed a growth in lung capacity, but that alone was not enough information to determine whether there was a correlation between the running program and the changes in lung capacity. Other variables abounded, such as the changing seasons, the natural growth of children over time, and so on. In order to determine whether there was a correlation, I needed to use a control group which had all the same variables except the running program. I used the next door fifth grade class in the same building, which did not have a running program. This group did not show any growth in lung capacity, making the data I collected far more useful.

Note: If the class I used for my control group had been kids of a different grade, or at a different school, or if I had collected the information during a different part of the year, then it would not have been a good control group because here would have been more than just one variable that was different between the experimental group and the control group.

When evaluating scientific information, claims, and journalism, keep an eye out for problems with the scientific method or with control groups. If you can’t determine whether these things were done properly, it’s best to disregard the information as unverifiable. It may be true, or it may not be. Not knowing is part of science. Get comfortable with not knowing.

Part 2: The Reality of Science

The reality of science is a bit imperfect compared to what popular media has to offer. Have you ever watched a science fiction show where a character uses a handheld device or other instrument to “scan” something, and instantly finds out a whole pile of information about the object in question? That is pure fiction. The real world doesn’t have that kind of technology yet, and likely won’t in our generation’s lifetime. If a scientist needs to test a water sample for contaminants, for example, that scientist will need to run a separate test for each potential contaminant, and each of those tests takes time. The length of time ranges from minutes to days depending on the procedure. For bigger projects, such as studying a new phenomenon, science takes months or years, sometimes even decades, to produce reliable conclusions.

The reality of the timing involved in science is one of the key concepts you can use when fact checking science articles. Claims of detailed knowledge of brand new phenomena are probably not based in evidence, whether or not they end up turning out to be correct guesses. Think back to when Covid-19 first started. Remember all the firm claims that ended up being wrong? Be wary of science reporting about new phenomena, especially if the reporting doesn’t take into account the concept that “we don’t really know for sure yet” in the language.

In addition to limitations, science is subject to bias. This is true both of scientists when conducting science, and of reporters when engaging in science reporting. Scientists are products of our own cultures, which means our biases influence the way we think, and therefore the way we design experiments and interpret the results. This is especially prominent in anthropology (the study of humans), but all other scientific disciplines struggle with this as well.

In order to help prevent biases and other issues from harming the validity of the scientific body of knowledge, scientists participate in something known as “peer review.” When science journals publish scientific research, the process involves having other scientists who did not work on the project review the documents, procedures, and conclusions for proper scientific method and accuracy. This process is very rigorous. When fact checking science, look for peer reviewed articles.

And finally, be aware of the limits of scientific observation. There is a lot we don’t know about, due in part to simply not having the technology to allow us to observe it. Not knowing is part of science. Get comfortable with not knowing, with being willing to hold space for an unknown rather than trying to fill it in without having enough evidence to do so.

Part 3: Understanding The Numbers

Numbers are a big part of science. We use them to describe our observations so that other people can understand what we witness. We also use them to do calculations to figure out more information about our observations.

As you might already know, math can get very complicated. However, you don’t have to go learn calculus or statistics in order to be a discerning individual when it comes to evaluating scientific claims. That said, the most important math to understand for this purpose is probably statistics. Statistics are often twisted, misrepresented, and simply misunderstood in science journalism and by politicians.

Please pause after this paragraph to watch the 12-minute video embedded below to start to get a basic idea of how statistics works. If there are vocabulary words you don’t understand, then pause the video and look them up before continuing. This video contains example problems to do on your own. You can use them to evaluate your understanding of the concepts. If you can do them, then you have a grasp of this knowledge and can use it when evaluating scientific claims. If you can’t, or if you choose to skip them, that’s okay too – it means that you know you don’t have a strong enough grasp of these concepts to evaluate related claims. If this is you, then it is important to remember to put any statistical information you see in the “I do not know if this is true because I am not able to evaluate it” box in your head rather than immediately believing or disbelieving it. Again, get comfortable with not knowing.

When you are reading about science, activate your critical thinking whenever you see numbers. Are units provided? If something went 13 kilometres, that’s a lot farther than 13 feet. Are numbers presented in a way that makes sense? For example, looking at the total number of deaths due to Covid-19 between countries is not as useful as looking at the total number of deaths per capita. “Per capita” means “per person.” This is how to adjust for population size. Think of it this way: If 1,000 total people die in Rhode Island, that’s a lot different than if 1,000 total people die in California because California has so many people in it. If 1,000 people die per every 5,000 people in Rhode Island, then it is the same rate of death as if 1,000 people die per 5,000 people in California. This is why “per capita” numbers are often more useful than total numbers.

Part 4: Reading Scientific Literature

If you have never read a scientific study before, it can look daunting. Studies are filled with scientific jargon making them difficult to read, even for scientists. The key is to read them more than once, look up words you don’t know, and focus on specific parts of the study.

The abstract is a good place to start. This section summarizes the process and results of the study. Sometimes the abstract has all the information you need to fact check the article or meme which was supposedly based on the study. The other parts of the study are valuable if you wish to gain a detailed understanding of how the study was run, especially if you wish to evaluate whether it was done properly.

Part 5: Evaluating Articles

As mentioned above, research journalism is rife with bias and outright error. Be skeptical of headlines designed to evoke an emotional response. Here are some practical questions to ask yourself when evaluating articles that make scientific claims:

  • When was this article written? If it was written a long time ago, have there been new breakthroughs since then?
  • Who wrote it, and why? How might that bias the writing?
  • Does the article site its sources, including links to any scientific studies the article claims as sources? If not, disregard the entire article as it is not credible.
  • Do the abstracts of the original studies actually support the claims in the article?
  • If the article uses numbers, does this article use them in a way that makes sense?

Part 6: Sharing Information

If you struggle with holding space in your mind for the unknown, it may be difficult to read false information without absorbing some of it into your belief system. There is a big difference between believing something yourself and asking others to believe it. To ensure that what you share with others is true, it is a good idea to create a system for determining what you will share. Consider these questions:

  • Have I actually fact checked this, or am I only sharing it because it fits with what I already believe?
  • Am I sharing this because it is true, or because I would be allowing my anger, hope, or another emotion press the share button for me?

Sometimes you won’t be able to fact check something. Maybe it relies on statistics you don’t understand, or maybe there is a paywall between you and the original study. If you can’t fact check it, then what? What do you do with that informational meme or science article which makes a really good point, but which you are struggling to fact check? In my opinion, you scroll past it, or you find an expert to ask about it. Don’t share what you can’t fact check.

This post topic was selected by the author’s Patreon patrons.

Intro to Personal Anti-Racism in America

I want to preface this by saying that I am a white American, and the target audience for this particular piece is any white adult in the USA who is against racism but may not have really dived into racial dynamics and anti-racism very much yet. If you’re a kid, you can still read this, but some things may not quite apply to you, and you may not have some of the information this piece assumes the reader has, which might make it difficult to understand in some places.

With that context established, I would like to invite you to take a moment to prepare yourself for this content. Remember that America was in a very real and literal sense built on the backs of slaves on land stolen through genocide of several different groups, many of whom are still here and fighting for the return of their ancestral lands, because unlike Africa, this continent was never decolonized. Remember that as history progressed, the powers that kept people of color down persisted, changed forms, and were enacted on every nonwhite racial group to arrive here.

These powers and influences are still all around us. We are steeping in them. Remind yourself that you are merely human, which means these influences have impacted the way you think in ways beyond your awareness. Remind yourself that it is up to us, today’s white people in America, to do whatever we can to correct the way we think about and handle race, because no one is going to do it for us. We can’t usually do that while feeling comfortable. That means this piece will likely be uncomfortable to read at times, and that’s okay, because that is part of how progress towards racial equity happens. This kind of discomfort doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It means you’re an improving person, which is truly the best you can do. Ready? Here we go.

The first prerequisite for doing anti-racist work on a personal scale is this: We must acknowledge the extreme levels of racism swirling all around us in the USA.

Our culture, society, and government are racist in function and value white people above people of any other race. We can see this in the numbers, with black people being disproportionately turned away for jobs and promotions, indigenous women being murdered at an astounding rate, black men and boys being disproportionately murdered by police, and so on. We can see it in the actions of our government during the lifetimes of today’s population, such as the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, and of course the Trump administration’s despicable handling of immigrant and refugee families at the southern border, enacting atrocities which aren’t being applied to white immigrant and refugee families arriving from predominantly white nations.

We can also see the pervasiveness of racism by opening our eyes and following Americans of color on blogs and social media, and by opening our hearts to the truth of what people of color are saying about their daily experiences with racism of various scales both to our faces and all over the internet every day. Too many of us brush these things away as exceptions, as not true, or as not significant. Until we accept the fact that people of color experience racism daily on scales that range from racist comments, to systemic threats to one’s livelihood and home, to various forms of racially charged murder and other bodily harm, we cannot begin to do our necessary work because we are limiting ourselves through willful ignorance. The evidence is there; there is no valid excuse to ignore it now that we are adults and responsible for our own knowledge.

Most of us white Americans grew up not seeing any of this, perhaps even being taught that racism was a thing of the past. Indeed, many American high school history and sociology textbooks happily point out the “post-racial” nature of America as if this concept was somehow true. But, as white adults, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves and make sure we understand reality now. We have the most power out of any racial demographic to uphold or change the way systems work here. We have so much power, in fact, that both our actions and our inaction matter and have real consequences for ourselves and others. We must use this power responsibly and with intention. To do that, we need to learn about and acknowledge the reality of racial inequity in America. We cannot bury our heads in the sand, or our neighbors and community members of color will continue to suffer. Their continued suffering will be on us, just as the suffering of their ancestors was on our ancestors.

The second prerequisite is this: We must understand that we (white Americans) all enact racism, often without even realizing it.

The idea that we white people could grow up surrounded by so much suffering and not even see it astounds me, and yet this appears to be a frequent experience. We don’t suffer due to our race, so we don’t know what it is like and have no personal evidence that it happens to others. We weren’t adequately educated about racial dynamics in school, so we have little to no academic knowledge of it. We were raised by generations that believed racial blindness was the answer to fixing racism (it’s actually racist), so we have little to no immediate community culture that supports the concept of racial harm being real.

So, it makes sense that when we were growing up white in America, we didn’t really have any way to know about the existence of racial inequities, much less which specific actions or systems cause racial suffering for people of any given nonwhite race.

If we don’t know which actions or systems cause people of color to suffer, then it is impossible to conclude that we are avoiding doing or contributing to those actions or systems. We can’t fix what we can’t recognize, so we are given no means by which to prevent ourselves from inadvertently furthering the racial harms in America. In other words, the system we were born into creates racism within ourselves beyond our own awareness, regardless of our good intentions. This in turn means that inaction with regards to our own self-education as adults supports racism, both within ourselves and the structures in place around us.

On the occasion that a person of color tries to explain the existence or experience of racism to us before we have done the work to educate ourselves, and before we have accepted that racism real and “post-racial America” is a myth, that person’s words are so at odds with everything we think we know that we tend not to believe them. Nobody likes being treated as if their experiences didn’t happen, and it’s got an extra layer of oppression when there are racial dynamics involved like this. This is a common example of a way in which white people are directly racist to people of color without even knowing it. This particular kind of racism makes many people of color understandably less inclined to talk to white people about racism.

Here is a more specific example of unwitting racism from a study described in a post from Psychology Today:

Race can also play a role in evaluations of performance and achievement. In one experiment, law firm partners were asked to evaluate a memorandum supposedly written by a third-year associate named Tom Meyer.  Half of the partners were led to believe the Meyer was black and the other half that he was white. The partners found twice as many spelling and grammatical errors in the memorandum they thought was written by “black” Tom Meyer than “white” Tom Meyer. And their comments suggested very different assessments of the associate’s capacity:  White Tom Meyer was described as having “potential” and “good analytical skills”;  black Tom Meyer  by contrast, “needs lots of work” and is “average at best.” One partner stated he “couldn’t believe [the associate] went to NYU.” It is doubtful the partners who read and commented on the memorandum saw themselves as racist, but subconscious ideas about academic ability clearly guided their appraisals.

Excerpt From “Racial Dynamics in Education and Health Care” by By Rachel D. Godsil and Linda R. Tropp

You and I, being mere humans, are not immune to this phenomenon. Accepting that we have these internal biases allows us to seek them out and work to dismantle them. We can’t do that work without accepting and recognizing our biases for what they are.

With all that in mind, we can begin to do the work to discern and dismantle racism in ourselves and our immediate spheres of influence.

We cannot do this work until we give ourselves a basic understanding of what the heck is going on. We must give ourselves the education that the public system failed to provide. Once you begin to have an understanding of racial dynamics, you will be better equipped to direct your own re-education, and to have enough context to do things like look up answers to why a person of color told you that something you did or said was racist. This will be a lifelong process with a steep initial learning curve. Why not get started now, with everything shut down anyway?

Here is your initial homework to get you started:

  1. Look up the racial demographics of your state, county, and city.
  2. Find out which indigenous people lived in your area before colonization, and which do now.
  3. Pick one of the racial groups you found above.
  4. Look up “what is it like to be [x] in America” on the internet. Find something written on the subject by someone of that race, and read it.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you have an initial idea of the racial situation of your city.
  6. Bonus: Repeat steps 3 and 4 for your the races in your whole county or state.

For those who prefer books, check your local library’s online catalog for downloadable e-books and audio books to maintain isolation to fight this global pandemic. A suggestion to get you started: “Racism in American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandito,” by Brian D. Behnken and Gregory D. Smithers (part of the “Racism in American Institutions” series).

Activism 101

If you can tell something needs to change, and you are ready to help make that happen, but you feel lost about what to do and where to start, then this post is for you. There are several key components to activism. I am going to discuss four of them. Each one is really just a different form of accountability, and you never stop doing any of them.

1. Self-Education

This is the root of everything. You cannot make a difference at all if you do not know what is wrong or how to fix it. Your choice to read this means you have already started engaging in self-education. Good job!

There are lots of different issues out there and each one has its own nuances. There are lots of things that are similar for activism for all minorities, but there are also key differences in how we go about supporting each minority. Non-visible minorities (such as gay people or transgender people who are passing as not-transgender or Muslims who do not look like stereotypical Muslims) face an entirely different set of obstacles than visible minorities (such as black people, or transgender people who are visibly transitioning their gender). Reading about all of these things will help you help them.

Gay people and tend to like to answer questions about being gay. Black people tend to resent answering questions about being black unless you are close friends with them so they know you are coming from a  genuinely supportive place, or they are working at an activist center and on the clock when you ask. Disabled people seem to have no trends regarding this that I have noticed. “Tend to” means not always; no single group of minorities holds some sort of blanket set of beliefs/needs/desires. That is probably one of the biggest keys to activism: Remember that a person who is a minority is a unique individual first and foremost. And regarding that question thing? Ask first if it is okay to ask questions. The burden of educating others is actually a super heavy one for minorities to bear. Never, ever assume that someone is okay with educating you. Instead, use things like blogs written by minorities, minority-specific museums, and centers designed for activism and education.

2. Peer Education

This is something that overlaps a bit with “holding others accountable.” I sincerely believe that most people do not want to be assholes. Most people want to be nice. That means that the vast majority of racism, homophobia, ableism, and so on is purely accidental. As you educate yourself, you will begin to see people doing these things all around you (and notice it in yourself as well). They will not even realize that they are doing it. Part of activism is calling people in (as opposed to calling them out), to let them know that what they are doing is hurting people. If you say “That is actually racist because X,” for example, someone who is already an educated activist will thank you and adjust, but most people will balk at the big scary R word and respond by saying they are not racist. That is why calling people in as opposed to out is, in my opinion, the most successful form of activism when we are talking about dealing with typical individuals on a typical day. “I know you do not want to hurt people, so I thought you would like to know that X is actually kind of mean,” for example, will be more likely to get people to listen to you.

3. Holding Yourself Accountable

Everybody has got a different idea of what it means to be an activist. A lot of people use call outs as their standard form. If someone calls you out, don not get defensive. Or if you do, just let that feeling rest inside you and listen anyway. Holding yourself accountable means listening to people who call you in or out, no matter whether you like the way they are doing it. If someone calls you in or out, take some time – however long it takes, really – to process it. Maybe even go search online for more information about it. Use it as an excuse to educate yourself. Then, make any necessary changes. This can be a long process, and that is okay. Keep with it. You might find more stuff in your self-education that allows you to hold yourself accountable to things before anyone calls you out on them. Every time you do that, it is a triumph because it means that is one less person who had to take on the burden of educating you.

Processing through self-accountability can be an extremely taxing process emotionally. It is important to find a support network for this. If you have close friends who are minorities, it can be okay sometimes to ask first if they’re okay processing this with you. Generally, though, that creates an undue burden on someone who is a minority. Find non-minority activist friends you can process your emotions with. Join activist groups to help you with self-accountability, self-education, and processing related emotions.

Remember: Every person who is a minority has a right to be utterly furious. They may express their anger when calling you in or out, or simply in general. Anger is one of the best triggers for defensiveness. Do not fall into that trap. Let a minority person’s anger elicit your compassion and introspection, and set any defensiveness aside where you can process through it later.

4. Holding Others Accountable

This is the hardest part of activism, and you cannot do it unless you have been doing the first and third parts. This can be educating peers as mentioned above, or fighting for policies/laws to change at work, in your city, in your state, and in your nation, and everything in between. But you will not know what changes to fight for unless you have been educating yourself, befriending minorities, and holding yourself accountable.

Putting It All Together

As you may have noticed, there are two general halves to activism: Internal activism within ourselves, and external activism for educating others and holding them accountable. The first one is the most important because the second one is meaningless without it.

Know that this is a lifelong process. You will make mistakes, and that is okay. You cannot be a genuine activist without risking getting it wrong sometimes because it is a learn-by-doing process. Be okay with mistakes. Own them, apologize, and then make your apology valid by changing your behavior accordingly.

Dealing with Creepers 101

Edit: Somehow I managed to leave off one of the most effective methods in the original post. To correct this on 12/31/15, I added #11: “Playing Dumb.”

People find themselves on the receiving end of behavior that sits somewhere in the creepy/annoying/scary/violent cloud on a regular basis, but we don’t seem to talk very much about ways to handle it that don’t involve violence, defensive weapons, or relying on others. Below are ten simple strategies that I’ve seen used effectively by myself or others to cut things short before such things are necessary, along with some discussion of when they work best. Some of these will work better for some people than others. It is important to note that some of them may fail even in the best-possible context, which would require a change in strategy. My hope is that readers will take what they want from this list, and dismiss what they don’t.

1. The Invisibility Wall

This strategy involves completely ignoring the antagonizer as if the person does not exist. It seems to work best when in confined spaces that one cannot leave (such as on a bus) or when the interaction is purely digital (blocking features are excellent). Some people who come off as creepy and/or annoying are really just starved for attention. Cutting off what they want can cause them lose interest and move on to other things. This may not be an effective choice in some cases, especially in open public areas where the person can follow you around. When using this method, It is important to keep the corner of your eye on the person in question to ensure that you don’t need to do something else to ensure your safety. Do not use this method if you suspect physical attack may be eminent. That will just make it harder to defend yourself.

2. The Smile and Nod

Many people don’t realize they are being creepy. Sometimes folks are actually staring off into space. Sometimes they don’t realize you could tell they were staring at you. Greeting the person with a quick smile and nod of interpersonal acknowledgement can, in these cases, put an abrupt stop to the staring. I use this method a lot when walking alone. I do not use it in closed spaces (such as on a bus) as it seems to be taken as an invitation for conversation in that context.

I have seen someone try to use this on a bus. For 25 minutes, the gracious smile and polite nod prompted more and more flirting from someone who seemed to misunderstand the terror in the other passenger’s eyes, and either didn’t notice or didn’t care that personal questions were continuously returned with empty answers. Whenever the flirting person looked away, the terror filled the smiler’s face until a grimace reversed the curve of the lips and the three nearest people shook their heads and made sad eyes in solidarity but did and said nothing. From this, we can learn a few things. Sometimes strategies simply fall flat and just don’t work. When a strategy isn’t working, pick a new one. Finally, while you are developing your personal toolkit of strategies, remember not to rely on strangers to stand up for you.

3. Serious Questioning Face

For the leering, not just staring sort of person, sometimes the smile and nod fails to put an end to the creeping. In those cases, I look directly at the person and raise my eyebrows with flattened lips. “Serious Questioning Face” has put an end to every leer I’ve used it with except two. With one, I mouthed, “what do you want?” from across the room. (Similar to “Direct Verbal Response” below.) That put an end to it. With the other, I got raised eyebrows in return to my “serious questioning face” and the person continued to follow me from room to room at the event, somehow managing to sneak up right behind me twice despite my best efforts. I altered strategies. I went and (with permission after an explanation of the situation) sat on the lap of my muscle-covered friend who also happened to have a black belt in karate. (This is a variation of “A Strong-Looking Friend” below.) The leerer continued to creep on me, so my friends and I left, made sure the creeper was not following us, and had an awesome night somewhere else. (This is “Disengage and Depart” below.) Notice that I continued to switch strategies until I found one that worked.

Side note: Notice how my friends totally had my back? Get friends like that if you don’t have them already. Be that kind of friend.

4. Direct Verbal Response

For the people who touch too much, for those who find the more subtle strategies as invitations rather than “go away” statements, and for people who are really just confusing, direct verbal response is my go-to strategy. Here are some of the things I have used effectively, chosen based on context:

  • “Do you want something?”
  • “I can’t understand what you’re trying to say, because you aren’t using any words.”
  • “I’d like some space to be alone with my thoughts right now.”
  • “Leave me alone,” or “LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE.”
  • “Stop touching me,” or “STOP FUCKING TOUCHING ME.”
  • “Do not touch me again,” or, “KEEP YOUR FUCKING HANDS TO YOUR GOD-DAMN SELF.”
  • “That’s not okay. Stop it.”
  • And my personal favorite for people who are being mean and think it’s somehow flirting, “How often does that work for you?”

The loud versions full of profanity are meant for situations where the person seems to be capable of pending violence. The loudness does two things; it draws the attention of passersby who might otherwise not stop to help, and it intimidates your potential opponent. The stares of onlookers and the profanity add to this intimidation, building up a situation where you are less likely to be attacked and more likely to have witnesses and potential help if you are. Draw yourself up with confidence even if you don’t feel it. You might be able to intimidate the idea of assaulting you right out of someone’s head (see “Intimidation” below).

Be prepared to have an actual conversation if you use the calmer lines, especially the questions. Some people find the idea of initiating a conversation with someone creeping them out to be intimidating. Personally, I find it empowering. It usually seems to catch the other person off guard, which allows me to regain control of the situation. The last one on the list above is one of my favorites because it typically prompts a short conversation which can either turn into a longer, more pleasant conversation or end the interaction altogether. It also seems to make creeps stop and think about what they’re doing. I like to think they learn from it.

5. Disengage and Depart

Sometimes the safest strategy is to simply leave the situation. Leave the party, leave the couch, leave the event, what have you. Doing so safely is important. Make up excuses if you feel the need to have one. Be careful that no one is following you. If you are leaving a party alone due to someone who seems to be stalking you there, for example, have someone walk you to your vehicle if possible. Many bars have bouncers who will walk you a short way.

6. A Strong-Looking Friend

Sometimes just hanging close to someone with muscles is enough to keep creepers away. Inviting such friends out with you when you go out to fun places where you might encounter creepers can be an effective prevention tool. It can be wise, however, to talk with these friends about this and be sure they are comfortable with it. No need to make your friends feel blindsided by the sudden presence of creepers and/or used. Besides, if you talk about it ahead of time, you can make a game plan together to be on the samge page later.

7. The Fake Cell Phone Call

Some strangers just want way too much time and attention. A phone call can be an effective shield. You can pretend to be on the phone, or call a real friend and chat about your day so someone knows where you are.

8. Calling the Cops

Threatening to call the cops can intimidate people into leaving you alone (see “Intimidation” below). Actually calling them can help when a person is clearly a danger to themselves or others, or is making verbal or nonverbal threats. When cops arrive on scene, you will have a choice. You can file a police report, or not. If you do, you will also have the option to press charges, but you can file the police report without pressing charges if that is your preference. Make whatever choice you prefer for whatever reasons you believe in.

Edit: This information about your rights with police officers is based on USA laws.
Edit the second: This information as written before I understood the dangers many people who aren’t white face when calling the police. Decide ahead of time where your line is for when you will call the police, if ever.

9. Lying

This is a strategy I do not use and therefore cannot personally vouch for it, but many of my friends find the following to be quite effective. Note that the first and third bullets are genuinely useless when it comes to putting a stop to come-ons in polyamorous and/or swinger communities unless you specify closed/monogamous when you fabricate your relationship partner.

  • Answer, “Do you have a [boy][girl]friend?” or, “Are you married?” with, “Yes,” regardless of the truth. This can prompt some people to immediately leave you alone.
  • Answer, “Come here often?” with, “No,” even if the true answer is yes if you get bad vibes. It is often wise to prevent letting strangers know what your habits are, especially if you find them to be creepy or intimidating.
  • Claiming to have a romantic partner or spouse to go meet can help prevent someone from following you when you “Disengage and Depart.”

10. Intimidation

It’s easy to feel intimidated by people who are being creepy. It is surprisingly easy to turn that around. Confidence is highly intimidating, as is yelling (see “Direct Verbal Response” above). Studies have shown that most folks who want to prey on other people want an easy target. Standing strong in the face of someone who sets off alarm bells in your head can be all it takes to make them back down.

I remember a Hallowe’en party where my best friend at the time was dressed as a bumble bee and I was dressed as an early hominid. We were talking to two people, one of whom was very drunk and continued to violate my friend’s personal space as we talked. Despite my friend repeatedly saying “no” and physically dodging hands trying to reach inside that bee costume, this fellow kept at it. I am tall, yet this person was a head taller than me and probably weighed another 100 pounds in muscle. I put myself between them with a strong stance and yelled at him to “BACK THE FUCK OFF!” The big, drunk, 6’+ creeper got scared, and stumbled backwards with wide eyes. My friend and I were then able to “Disengage and Depart” (above). There was a chance that could have turned into a fight I very probably would not have won. To me, it was worth that risk to stop my friend from being violated any more than had already transpired. The “Intimidation” technique is often a bluff, but so far no one has ever called my bluff. I don’t think most people really want to deal with hand-to-hand combat when all they really want is to fondle someone’s body.

11. Playing Dumb (added on 12/31/15)

When people make indirect yet inappropriate comments, such as a stranger making a dirty joke about you without being completely blunt, playing dumb can be an effective defense tool if “Direct Verbal Response” (above) is not something you’re in to. This can be done by silently portraying confusion in your body language, or verbally. For playing dumb verbally, try something like one of the following:

  • “Huh?”
  • “I’m sorry, I don’t think I understand.”
  • “I don’t get it.”

Some people who come off as creepy are genuinely attempting to hit on people. Playing dumb can make them feel like their attempt fell flat, and they will often depart in embarrassment. Others are specifically looking for people who actually find their jokes to be funny. Regardless of the reason for the initial comment, playing dumb can often effectively utilize the other person’s social fears to disarm any intentions towards you. Sometimes, it also means that person will take you less seriously, which can give you an advantage if you need to continue manipulating the person into leaving you alone.

A Note on Gender

Gender does not dictate who is an agitator/creeper/assailant and who is a target/opponent, nor does it dictate who is capable of standing up for others. Look out for your friends, all of them, and find friends who will do the same for you if and when these strategies fail.