Scientific sense and hurt sensibilities

A few of my students are working on pornography detection for video sharing social networks (an early draft of our work is available on ARXIV). Pornography is a contentious issue, littered with polemic, fallacies and rethorical traps. We have tried, as much as possible, to keep away from those. We refrain, thus, from value judgements, which are the realm of Philosophy and Social Sciences, way outside our jurisdiction.

An interesting difficulty I have faced for reporting on this work was showing representative images, without hurting the sensibilities of reviewers and readers. So far, my (admittedly coward) choice has been taking the tamest images that are still representative of the phenomena I want to illustrate. For example: to illustrate that the dataset is ethnically diverse, I would chose frames where only the faces of the actors are shown; to illustrate that the dataset contains gay porn as well as straight porn, I would show a frame with the actors kissing instead of having sex; etc.

But recently, I had a tough choice to make. A student was to submit his Master disstertation to the viva-voce committee, and, as it usually happens in Brazil, he has sent me a draft for corrections and suggestions. His “Results” chapter contained, among cold graphs and tables, several very explicit images, illustrating in detail the cases of success and failure of our algorithm. The only thing is: all images contained censor bars.

I returned the draft with several corrections, among which, a note begging him to remove the bars:

Don’t censor the images — it’s extremely distasteful: this is a scientific work for an adult audience. Either remove the images entirely (if they are not needed), either keep them uncensored (don’t mess up with the data !). In the worst case, put them in an Annex or in a separate suplement.”

In the end, he’s decided to keep the images uncensored, which I feel was the right scientific decision.

Nevertheless, everytime I open his “Experimental Results” chapter I cringe a little bit. Againg admittedly cowardly I am looking forward for the defense, when I’ll be able to share the responsibility for the final decision — keeping or taking away the images from the definitive version — with the rest of the committee.

* * *

Taking a (superficial) look in the literature, I noticed that many authors (including myself) practice a form of “partial self-censorship”: choosing “tame” images, making them tiny in the page, or using washed out grayscale reproductions — a compromise between scientific truth and respect to the taboo ? Or just plain cowardice ? Most authors simply don’t include images, and a few choose to employ the censor bars. The full-fledged honesty of my student is rare.

The censor bars, IMHO, are the worst choice — at once hypocritical and unscientific. Hypocritical, because the reader can perfectly imagine what is behind them, so any of the “dirtiness” from which they would be supposedly “protecting” the reader is still being created in his or her mind. The effect is exactly the same as when using euphemisms like “f-word”: the  correct word is still created in the listener mind. Unscientific, because they count on the reader imagination (with its distortions, imprecisions, and, often, amplifications) instead of depicting precisely the phenomena at study.

Interestingly, in one paper, the authors censor the faces of the actors (by pixelization). This is an interesting choice and raises a question I have not considered: since we collect our dataset from pornography sharing social networks, we cannot assume that everyone in the video is a professional actor. I hope that none of our examples have Computer Vision scientists unaware that their amateur videos have escaped to the net !

* * *

In the end of the day, this is 2011 — 64 years since the first Kinsey report ! Shouldn’t science have got some guts by now ?

7 thoughts on “Scientific sense and hurt sensibilities

  1. Eventually, such dissertation will end-up in a library, in a technical section. Even worse: imagine this sits on a table along with other dissertations at a teacher’s home, and a child browses through it. It is already hard enough for parents to manage to filter sites known to have pornography. Now, how would we do if having to filter out technical sites due to the risk of hitting a dissertation about pornographic content?

    • But isn’t this already true of Wikipedia, the Louvre museum, the National Archives and the Library of the Congress (just to cite a few respectable examples) ?

      Where does our role stop in making everything “safe for children” ?

  2. Bold post…
    Well, as a mother I think Alisson has a point. It’s difficult to understand this when you don’t have kids, believe me!
    Yet, I think all people have the right to have their “sensibilities”. Yes, we are adults and completely able to understand and cope with the professional context of such technical material, but we are human beings of our time too.
    For example, I’ve had the unfortunate “opportunity” to see a couple of these videos at the lab, and although I have no “trauma” from the experience, I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t feel comfortable with those videos, and would rather avoid such “visions” whenever possible.
    Anyway, I agree in one point: the censor bars don’t prevent the shock. Maybe the best solution is to show an image just if it is completely fundamental to make a technical detail clear. If your point is to stress that your base is diverse enough, I guess that citing (in text) some situations would make it. In any case, ONE gay porn or “with-oriental-people” example does not prove anything, don’t you think?

    • I think that everyone is entitled to their sensibilities, but I would argue that our scientific work would be impossible if we would take everyone’s sensibilities in consideration (some people are deeply offended by the idea of “artificial intelligence”, for example). Then, why give some sensibilities more importance than others ?

      But I agree with your position that those images should be used only if needed, and that’s exactly what I’ve told the student: “Do you really need those images ? Are they essential to get your point across ? If you do, keep them uncensored; but if not, get rid of them altogether”.

      In the end, I was (as usual) coward and asked the committee to take a collective decision (other then censor the images, to which I was adamantly opposed): keep the images as they were, take out the images completely, or put them in a separate downloadable supplement. We’ve considered the separate supplement as a good compromise between scientific truth and protecting sensibilities.

      * * *

      One important consideration I pointed to the student is the “surprise effect”. Pornography is not his mais object of study, and thus the title of the dissertation does not suggest that the reader might stumble upon this kind of content inside the work. I think that if someone opens a text titled “Detecting Pornography in Videos and Images”, they cannot complain if they find some examples; but if they open a text titled “Video and Image Classification” and on the middle of the text they find this huge porn pic, they have the right to feel somewhat betrayed.

      • “why give some sensibilities more importance than others ?”
        Well, some sensibilities simply are more wide-spread than others… Sex is still a huge issue in the vast majority of contemporary societies. “Sex” X “artificial intelligence” sounds like anything but a fair comparison to me…
        I don’t think you were coward. Instead, you found a good compromise between respect for others’ sensibilities and free-expression of your views. This “phenomenon” is sometimes called “maturity”…

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