I’ve been wondering about right and wrong recently. I always conceived of these concepts as absolutes. Certain, self-evident. It turns out, according to a recent study, that the same brain regions are active when we think about facts and when we think about morals. We think we’re right, regardless of what we believe. This casts a fair amount of doubt about actually is right.
(Quick caveat before we move on: brain region activity imaging studies have recently come under some criticism in the neuroscientific community. Asking what and where, it turns out, are fairly uninformative questions, because we all use different bits to process different things, other than in the sensory cortices and a few other areas. I like to think of it as the encryption used by God/the Universe/whoever originated these four [and more] dimensions, solely for the purpose of confusing biologists. The small size of fMRI and PET imaging study participant groups makes it very hard to determine these things without meta-analyses of a range of studies on a topic, which, as far as I know, hasn’t been done on the ‘moral brain areas’ sub-field. However, it’s a thought experiment that bears exploration, since the data fit what we know from Twitter and other arguments.)
Do we need to think about morals in motorsport? It’s a sport. It’s meant to be fun. As we all know from our childhoods, the fun stuff is usually banned, so now that we’re adulting reasonably successfully, can’t we have our little indulgences?
Sorry for this, but we need to spend a bit of time on religion. I’m going somewhere with this; stay with me. I was raised in a fairly fundamentalist Christian church and school. We were told we were Evangelical, but later explorations into the theoretical underpinnings of my faith showed that I had been fed a lot of subtleties that mainstream Evangelical theology disagreed with. As a function of the fundamentalism, I was raised with a high degree of certainty. I was taught that truth and facts were the same thing, which therefore meant that, if I believed the Bible was true, I would logically need to believe it was fact as well.
This meant that all the fun was banned. Caffeine and sugar were permitted as drugs for public consumption, but everything else was off limits, at least at church. Nobody talked to the people who came for Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous meetings in the back room. Hugging too tight for too long (between a boy and a girl, because queerness was also off limits) on church property earned a suggestion that we should leave room for Jesus. Also, doubting or questioning anything the authorities said could get you on the highway to Hell, so sit down and shut up.
I then studied science at one of Africa’s most liberal universities. Like, the botanic garden on our campus was often the site of a pot-fuelled drum circle within smelling distance of the botany department. That liberal. There was no room for six-day young-earth Creationism. There wasn’t even room for intelligent design, which was what I had been sneeringly offered as a substitute for SDYEC. In part, I had chosen this university because of its reputation as a den of sin. I knew fundamentalism wasn’t for me, and needed a different, more kind of truth.
In my resulting decade away from the faith, I came to discover that not all opinions were created equal. I came to realise that I needed ethical, empirical, peer-reviewed evidence to believe something. JSTOR became my magazine subscription, the obscure sections of biology became my Bible, and I mainlined my new drug as I had mainlined Fundamentalism as a teenager. Science was relativistic enough to leave room for “what if?” I could justify any decision, as long as I could find some evidence to support it. This led to my using science as my map to navigate the murky and morally relativistic waters of the business world, into which I was rudely thrust at the end of undergrad.
There was one small snag: there’s no certainty in science. There's also no certainty in ethics. We all have morals, but, unlike science, we don't need facts to build these on. We can come up with a story that makes sense to us, and decide that's the truth. We have freedom of opinion and speech, and those count in lieu of facts.
Business likes to give people certainty. You’ve seen the ads on Facebook. “The course guaranteed to 10x your business!” “The skin cream guaranteed to [fix whatever normal biological process – eg. wrinkling – the beauty industry has decided to pathologise this week]!” “This person uses it, so it must be fantastic!” (They probably don’t use it.)
It’s no different in boardrooms. “We project an eight percent capital growth in the next three years, given our current market share. If we capture a new customer base in [this demographic], we can increase this by a further six percent.” I guarantee you the person saying that has no idea where the business will be in three years. Even if they think they do, let’s just leave it at “chaos theory”. A disruptive technology could blow their game wide open, change up their whole industry, and leave them scrambling to retain ten percent of the market share they had before.
I can’t offer you certainty. I can't give you facts that are irrefutable on which to form an opinion about whether certain topics that are regular themes in motorsport news are helpful or moral. The best I can do is, “It’s likely that, if the abovementioned experimental evidence is valid when extended from the specific to the general, and if external circumstances remain constant, then the following is a good course of action.” And that’s only when there’s evidence of something. There’s absolutely nothing comparing the cognitive processing speeds, courage, or physicality of male and female racers. There isn’t even an all men study of the physicality required to handle a race car. There’s no evidence to support or refute the claims made by journalists, racing drivers, and other men with opinions regarding the fitness of women to race.
There is a body of work from the social sciences and philosophy about how we the public, advertisers and marketers, and journalists frame women in motorsport. The work is almost always about drivers. However, if you have access to a JSTOR subscription (or use the contact form below to have a selection of PDFs shared via email or WhatsApp), check out the academic work on women in motorsport.
Google Scholar “grid girls”. I dare you. We’ve had them for around fifty years, and not one shred of evidence has been published to support their efficacy as marketing aids. There’s nothing on women racers and stereotype threat (it’s an unconscious bias, not something we know we’re affected by) induced by the rhetoric around women racers combined with consistent imaging of non-participatory women. There’s some vaguely related work about images of women’s bodies making men more likely to purchase, and some vaguely related work about the effects of sexual arousal on moral choices. But nothing about grid girls or whether they are morally positive, neutral, or negative.
Now, let’s just be absolutely clear about something: I don’t think that whether or not we have grid girls is the biggest moral or feminist issue of our time. Female genital mutilation (a problematic term in its own right) is a bigger feminist issue. Child marriage (with attendant problems, like teen pregnancy, school dropouts, etc.) is a bigger feminist isssue. Poverty. Climate change. Sanitation. The intersection of poverty, climate change, and sanitation, which disproportionately affects girls and women of colour. (We typically put the poor neighbourhoods near where we treat sewage and/or leave the unofficial neighbourhoods to deal with their own sewage, pay women less than men, find ways to institutionally punish single mothers, etc., and when floods happen, it’s the poor people in those neighbourhoods who are the first to die of cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and the other shit diseases and the least able to afford medical care.) Grid girls don’t even blip on the radar of ethicists and feminists in the mainstream.
So, if science and ethics are no help, how do we justify our opinions? How do we decide who’s right and who’s wrong, who to hate and who to direct our outrage at? Do we roll with utilitarianism and let the majority decide what makes them happy? Is happiness even the best metric for measuring good morality? Do we adopt compassion as a guiding principle, and hope for the best?
We can use the scientific method. We can test whether what we say about what we believe – that the outrage over F1’s doing away with grid girls is moral because we care about grid girls as human beings not sex objects, that women are being treated equally to men in motorsport, etc. – is true. I have included a screenshot of an excel spreadsheet.
Image search the term in bold and inverted commas. Please indicate which image search engine you used (Google, Bing, etc.) at the top of the spreadsheet. Narrow the search to the dates at the top of the column (the week of Monaco GP/Indy500 for the last five years, Wednesday to Wednesday inclusive). Click each photo, and note who or what is in the photo. If the name/s of the person/people in the photo are included in the description, or you recognise the subjects, insert a line and count them individually. Similarly, if their role is obvious (eg. driver, mechanic, journalist, grid girl, WAG) but they haven’t been named and you don’t recognise them, insert a line (as in the example of “anon engineer” or “anon grid girl”) under the appropriate gender and pose. Stop when you have a total of two hundred images for each search term and date range.
If you would like to log your impression of the results and compare to what other people found, feel free to copy the attached Google Sheet. Email the contact form below to receive a participant agreement and the inbox where the data will be processed. This is entirely voluntary, and you can withdraw from participation at any point. You choose whether your name and email are recorded in the respondent database for follow-up and classification, so please indicate if you want to contribute anonymously and not receive a summary paper. I haven’t got IRB approval for this, so it’s not usable as research data. It’s simply for curiosity to show you the proportion of images of how we view women, so you have a data point to justify your opinion. Feel free to sub-divide the genders into ethnicity, race, and/or nationality (if known), and/or sexual orientation (if known) to explore those demographic details and get some facts for yourself.
I would argue that, in interpreting your findings, compassion should be a guiding principle. Photographers/editors are loading huge photo sets onto the internet, and don't have time to Google everyone they don't recognise. People posting to social media with the #womeninmotorsport hashtag (which pings in the search results, especially if you narrow your search by network, or search the hashtag specifically) This is merely an exercise in spotting the unconscious bias of people who upload pictures to the internet. If you're curious...