Archive for June, 2009

What is the essence of womanhood?

June 8, 2009

The New York Times can’t decide.

Maybe it’s nonviolence.

I propose curbing gun violence not by further restricting the availability of guns but by expanding and reorienting it. Men would still be forbidden to walk the streets armed, in accordance with current laws, but women would be required to carry pistols in plain sight whenever they are out and about.


Even if some women prove imprudent with firearms — that is, act like men — feminizing gun ownership could ultimately reduce its appeal to men, making gun-toting as unmasculine as carrying a purse. There are occupations whose status (and pay) declined once they were taken up by women: secretaries, telephone operators, teachers. We already endure the mischief of such sexism; why not harness it for good? 

Or could it be hormonality?

When your testosterone is being throttled, there are bound to be side effects. So, with the help of Lupron, I spent a few months aboard the Good Ship Menopause with all the physical baggage that entails. It’s a trip that most men don’t expect to take.


Even though I only got to spend a brief time on the outer precincts of menopause, it did confirm my lifelong sense that the world of women is hormonal and mysterious, and that we men don’t have the semblance of a clue.

Further evidence that the essence of man is to Other women, which is okay as long as it’s all in good fun!!

Thanks, Double X, for the guns link.


Girls and boys equally good at math

June 3, 2009

From 80beats:

The researchers […] found that in countries with the greatest gender equality, as many girls as boys scored above the 99th percentile–and in a few countries, there were more girls in that elite rank than boys. The “scarcity of top-scoring females in many, but not all countries .. . must be largely due to changeable sociocultural factors,” the scientists write, “not immutable, innate biological differences between the sexes.” If the differences were innate, they should show up in every culture [Newsweek]. 

Damn, I’m gonna have to read more Newsweek.

If schools really care about test results, they should have kids read a series of stereotype-defusing affirmations before taking standardized tests.

Oprah’s abuse of cultural power

June 3, 2009

Read the Newsweek article.

Oprah would do more good for women if she could strip away the bullshit. These two bits encapsulate the danger:

In real life, [Oprah] has almost nothing in common with most of her viewers. She is an unapproachable billionaire with a private jet and homes around the country who hangs out with movie stars. She is not married and has no children. But television Oprah is a different person. She somehow manages to make herself believable as a down-to-earth everywoman. She is your girlfriend who struggles to control her weight and balance her work and personal life, just like you. When she recently related the story of how humiliated she felt when she arrived for a photo shoot to find that she couldn’t fit into the clothes she was supposed to wear, she knew she had every member of the audience in her hand. 

Which is great, except when it isn’t.

[A]fter the first two shows on The Secret, Oprah invited a woman named Kim Tinkham on the program. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and her doctors were urging surgery and chemotherapy. But Tinkham wrote Oprah to say that she had decided to forgo this treatment and instead use The Secret to cure herself. On the show, Oprah seemed genuinely alarmed that Tinkham had taken her endorsement of The Secret so seriously. […] A few weeks earlier, Oprah could not say enough in praise of The Secret as the guiding philosophy of her life. Now she said that people had somehow gotten the wrong idea.

I’m focusing on the pitfalls of Oprah’s message because they mirror our larger public confusion over the value of subjective experience. I live my life a lot more intuitively these days. I’m sure Oprah would be proud. But without a critical eye, intuition leads you astray. This is why some people need to be talked down from an intense drug experience. I guess what I’m saying is, Oprah is a powerful narcotic. Approach with caution. Don’t operate heavy machinery.

See also:

Coastal intellectuals were so uptight about human pheromones

June 3, 2009

And by “were,” I mean in 2006.

Remember the story from that year about an interesting link between smell and sexuality? Well, I was working last night on my single-mechanism theory of male sexuality — how’s yours coming? let’s compare notes — and I got to the end of the theorizing — which is the fun part, involving chemicals — and then started looking at the data — which is the equally fun part, involving telecommunications — and the most salient bit of data I knew of was that 2006 study.

So I reread the NYTimes‘s coverage and was shocked by the unreasonable amount of hedging that in any other beat would be like saying, “This is study is pointless and possibly bogus.” 

The big data point:

Lesbians react to the smell of certain bodily odors in ways similar to heterosexual men and different from heterosexual women, new research suggests.

Interesting. Go on.

The substances involved are a progesterone derivative produced in male sweat and an estrogenlike steroid that has been detected in female urine. The two smells are processed in the brain differently from ordinary odors.


In the experiment, 12 lesbians [small study, I grant you] smelled the two substances while researchers observed blood flow in their brains with PET scans. The scents activated parts of the brain that ordinarily process odors, but the estrogenlike compound also activated a part of the hypothalamus, as it does in heterosexual men.

Animal studies suggest that the hypothalamus is important in sexual behavior. So when that part of the brain lights up under the stimulus of an odor, a sexual response, rather than simply an olfactory one, is implied.

The prior finding:

Heterosexual women responded to the male sweat odor in the hypothalamus rather than in the olfactory portions of the brain, and heterosexual men responded to female estrogen in the hypothalamus. Homosexual men processed the smells in the same way as heterosexual women.

Huh? I can barely follow that. He’s kludging it up so nobody will get what he really wants to say: Here’s another consistency check on whether these chemicals are pheromones, a puzzle we’ll only solve for sure if we knock out a few key control experiments, such as tracking the natural history of these patterns from a young age.

Despite the similarities, lesbians do not respond to these two odors in exactly the same way as heterosexual men, so the analogy with gay men and heterosexual women is imperfect. “This observation could favor the view that male and female homosexuality are different,” said Dr. Savic, an associate professor of neurology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

The doubletalk:

The researchers also emphasize that their findings have no clinical application. “It is very important to make clear that the study has no implications for possible dynamics in sexual orientation,” Dr. Savic said.

What?? Seriously? Please show me other kinds of research that would have implications for “dynamics in sexual orientation” without using methods like these! It’s a scent that permits heterosexual members of one sex to recognize those of the other sex! Geeeyaaaaad.

Ok, look, I know it’s all correlation equals causation. Maybe we’re witnessing neural correlates of learned patterns of sexuality. And she did say “dynamics,” which every lay reader knows means change over time. And no, I haven’t Googled any single other thing on the subject. And yes, maybe NIcholas Bakalar had a long day that day.

I want nevertheless to record my first reactions upon revisiting that small bit of history.

The mere way the information was framed indicated a high (if only perceived) level of defensiveness on everybody’s part. From reading and talking to everybody, I feel says saying the evolutionary psychologists refuse to understand the subtleties of sexism, so they won’t acknowledge smart arguments by post-structuralists. And the post-it crowd sure as shit is not going to be having the mass media perpetuating the idea, foisted on us by undersexed nerds, of pheromones — human pheromones, for God’s sake! — when Times readers? women the world over are being treated like this and this.

In microcosm, the above is the bottom line message of Fistful of Science: Masculine and feminine; objective and subjective; scientific authorities and critically oriented academics — neither one knows how to talk to the other in this culture. It’s like a stereotypically bad marriage. One side is empowered but whines whenever he has to do anything; the other side is marginalized and forced to lash out to get fair treatment. Both sides have way, way more in common than they want to admit.

Now, regarding the specific issue of human pheromones, the authoritarian in me says, Yes, some people will misuse the likely fact (does anyone have a better, non-ridiculous explanation?) that human sexual orientation has a strong inborn biological component (to say “genetic” would imply single-gene causation; “hereditary” makes it sound like a disease that strikes both sexes).

The libertarian in me says people have nothing to fear but their chains.

And the empiricist in me says, I need more data. Seen any studies?

How to tell Ray Kurzweil and Suzanne Somers apart?

June 2, 2009

Easy: Ray Kurzweil doesn’t inject hormones into his vagina.

From Newsweek‘s Oprah takedown:

In addition, she [Somers] wears “nanotechnology patches” to help her sleep, lose weight and promote “overall detoxification.” If she drinks wine, she goes to her doctor to rejuvenate her liver with an intravenous drip of vitamin C. If she’s exposed to cigarette smoke, she has her blood chemically cleaned with chelation therapy. In the time that’s left over, she eats right and exercises, and relieves stress by standing on her head. Somers makes astounding claims about the ability of hormones to treat almost anything that ails the female body. She believes they block disease and will double her life span. “I know I look like some kind of freak and fanatic,” she said. “But I want to be there until I’m 110, and I’m going to do what I have to do to get there.”

Compare with Wired‘s profile of Ray Kurzweil:

Though both Grossman and Kurzweil respect science, their approach is necessarily improvisational. If a therapy has some scientific promise and little risk, they’ll try it. Kurzweil gets phosphatidylcholine intravenously, on the theory that this will rejuvenate all his body’s tissues. He takes DHEA and testosterone. Both men use special filters to produce alkaline water, which they drink between meals in the hope that negatively charged ions in the water will scavenge free radicals and produce a variety of health benefits. […] Kurzweil and Grossman justify it not so much with scientific citations — though they have a few — but with a tinkerer’s shrug. “Life is not a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study,” Grossman explains. “We don’t have that luxury. We are operating with incomplete information. The best we can do is experiment with ourselves.”

I respect Seth Roberts. Kurzweil and Somers? Oy. Have some grace.

Docs want WHO to condemn homeopathy for infectious disease

June 2, 2009

Artist-trickster Derren Brown posts this press release from the U.K. group Sense About Science:

In a letter to the World Health Organisation today, early career medics and researchers are calling for the body to issue a clear international communication about the inappropriate use of homeopathy for five serious diseases. They say they are frustrated with the continued promotion of homeopathy as a preventative or treatment for HIV, TB, malaria, influenza and infant diarrhoea. The Voice of Young Science network has joined with other early career medics and researchers working in developing countries to send the letter, in advance of a ‘Homeopathy for Developing Countries’ conference in the Netherlands on 6th June.

The letter:

  • Explains that medics working with the most rural and impoverished people of the world already struggle to deliver the medical help that is needed. The promotion of homeopathy for serious diseases puts lives at risk.
  • Lists some of the examples of recent and planned developments of homeopathic clinics offering treatment for these five conditions.
  • Asks the WHO to make clear that homeopathy cannot prevent or treat these five conditions.
  • Thanks, BoingBoing.

    Are scientists perceived as unwise?

    June 2, 2009

    Rounding out my NYTimes tribute, here’s science writer Dennis Overbye, who isn’t sure what to do with science vs. spirituality in Angels and Demons:

    Mr. Hanks as the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon has just exposed the archvillain who was threatening to blow up the Vatican with antimatter stolen from a particle collider. A Catholic cardinal who has been giving him a hard time all through the movie and has suddenly turned twinkly-eyed says a small prayer thanking God for sending someone to save them.

    Mr. Hanks replies that he doesn’t think he was “sent.”

    Of course he was, he just doesn’t know it, the priest says gently. Mr. Hanks, taken aback, smiles in his classic sheepish way. Suddenly he is not so sure.

    This may seem like a happy ending. Faith and science reconciled or at least holding their fire in the face of mystery. But for me that moment ruined what had otherwise been a pleasant two hours on a rainy afternoon. It crystallized what is wrong with the entire way that popular culture regards science.


    After all is said and done, it seems to imply, having faith is just a little bit better than being smart.

    It’s interesting how often us science types perceive non-scientific values as an attack on our chosen way of knowing the world.

    David Brooks has my attention

    June 2, 2009

    The theme of my 2009 is paying attention to what I’m paying attention to.

    It turns out David Brooks predicted my year back in December:

    Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.

    See also the excellent New York magazine article, “In Defense of Distraction.”

    David Foster Wallace was concerned about how we construct meaning in real time. Driving home his point for me was the Kid Rock video, “Warrior,” which I watched a couple times in the theatre waiting for a movie to start.

    Jonah Lehrer’s been sniffing around this subject, too. I’ll have to read his New Yorker piece on self-control.

    Nicholas Kristof has my (old) number

    June 2, 2009

    In my early 20s, you couldn’t get me to swig from somebody else’s drink. You also couldn’t get me to call myself a liberal.

    Nicholas Kristof connects the dots: “People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.”

    Thanks, 3 Quarks Daily

    See also: Conservatives are more easily disgusted.

    Cop shootings and implicit racism

    June 1, 2009

    I wanted to find something this morning to say about the murder of George Tiller, the abortion doc, but when I went to Tapped, The American Prospect‘s group blog, what I first stumbled on that caught my attention was this:


    Over the weekend, there’s been a minor uproar over New York Rep. Charlie Rangel‘s remarks about President Obama‘s visit to New York. When a reporter asked Rangel what Obama should do when he visits the city, Rangel replied, “Make certain he doesn’t run around in East Harlem without identification.”

    The remark was a reference to the killing of police officer Omar J. Edwards by fellow officer Andrew Dutton. Edwards was in plainclothes, and chasing after someone who was breaking into his car. He had his weapon out. Three other plainclothes officers arrived and yelled for them to stop. One, Dutton, shot Edwards three times as he turned around.

    The posting, by Adam Serwer, was forceful but even-handed, and it linked to a NYTimes story, “On Diverse Force, Blacks Still Face Special Peril.” And in that piece I read too many quotes like this:

    “We tend to pretend in the police force that we don’t see race, we don’t see ethnicity, but we do,” said Senator Adams, the [black] former police captain. “One of my cops once said that if he sees a non-uniformed black man with a gun, he takes precautions for himself; if he sees a white guy with a gun, he takes precautions for both because he knows it could be a fellow cop.”

    Obviously, the broader concern is how the internalized prejudices of cops — be they black, Latino or white — affect what they do in the field. Which meant I had to revisit Sally Lehrman’s great Sci Am article, “The Implicit Prejudice,” about psychological tools for uncovering our cognitive biases, including racial ones.

    We may intend to be fair, she [social scientist Mahzarin Banaji] explained, but underneath our awareness, our minds automatically make connections and ignore contradictory information. Sure enough, in a paper quiz, the [media] executives [meeting with Banaji] readily associated positive words with their parent firm, Time Warner, but they found it harder to link them to their top competitor, the Walt Disney Company. To their chagrin, they discovered the same tenden-cy to pair positive terms with faces that have European features and negative ones with faces that have African features.

    Read the whole thing. There’s a series of implicit association tests (IATs) you can take online:

    Maybe the NYC police force could start having recruits take these tests, if that’s not something they do already. Better: make them run a mile flat out, have them take a bump of meth — or shoot their guns in the air, whatever — and have them take the tests a second time. The Times story talked about cops undergoing “training” but didn’t give detail. Anybody know, or seen a link?