Friday, September 07, 2007

Women Who Won't Cover

Southwest Airlines decided that a female passenger was inadequately clad for a "family airline":

Her outfit aboard a Southwest Airlines plane two months ago first earned her a flight attendant's reprimand and now has sparked a decency debate that may result in a lawsuit.

Kyla Ebbert, a blond, shapely 23-year-old San Diego coed who also works shifts at a Hooters restaurant, boarded the flight to Tucson, Ariz., on a one-day round-trip visit to an Arizona doctor's appointment. She had settled into her seat when a flight attendant confronted her about what was later described by the airline as "revealing attire."

Ebbert's so-called objectionable attire included a white, tight-fitting shirt, a green cropped sweater, and a white denim skirt cut high on her thighs.

Ebbert appeared on NBC's "The Today Show" today wearing the same outfit and said that she was asked by a male flight attendant to come to the front of the plane by the door to the jetway. There, Ebbert said that she was told she would have to catch a later flight because she was showing too much skin and Southwest is a "family" airline.

Here is a picture of Ebbert in the offending outfit:

What should I say about this topic? So many different arguments jostle in my head. One of them has to do with the idea that Ebbert worked at a Hooters restaurant ("hooters" being a slang term for breasts), where she was probably expected to dress in a way which would cause sexual thoughts among the male customers and perhaps some female customers, too. Then, suddenly, a similar way of dress is regarded as unacceptable from a "family values" point of view. Are children not allowed into the Hooters restaurants?

Another argument of course has to do with our great need to regulate female clothing, from burqas to bikinis. I drove past a jogger last night. He was clad only in rather-too-short shorts, but I doubt anyone would go to him to complain about family values. (It's with great effort that I abstain from some additional comments about the jogger here.)

A somewhat less central argument has to do with whether we as a country have lost a general dress code for both sexes and whether there might be a need for one. This is a dangerous argument, of course, because dress codes can be used for cultural policing purposes, and countries which do have rigorous dress codes tend to care almost solely about how women dress.

Get This Gag Out Of My Mouth!

There are good news and bad news. Which do you want first? Here are the good news:

The Senate succeeded last night in passing, 53-41, a complete repeal of the Global Gag Rule, which bars American foreign aid from supporting organizations that provide contraceptives, abortion services, or teach a sexual ideology other than abstinence.

The bad news is that president Bush will veto it.

For more on all this and the reasons why Bush's veto reveals his great contempt of the majority of human beings (that would be us ladies), read this post at Rhealitycheck and watch the attached video. Also see Bushvchoice.

Friday Critter Blogging

The blue moth picture is by Doug. I don't remember the photographer of the deer but it might be Doug, too. No, it's FeraLiberal.

Who also took the third picture, and your task is to spot the cat in it.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Popularizing Research in the Conventional Media

Being a journalist with the task to write about research results for the general audience must be very hard. You are supposed to have the statistical skills to understand all kinds of methods, you are supposed to understand several fields of sciences and social sciences well enough to distil them into simpler sound bites, and you are supposed to write the popularization pieces in a few days' time.

Anyone who has done academic research in a field knows that the task is pretty much impossible. There are no Renaissance scholars with the whole toolkit hanging off their belts, no geniuses instantly aware of every single new study in every obscure academic journal, no Doctors of General Criticism out there. Certainly not with the job of popularizing social science research, say.

Add to that the usual restrictions journalists face. Where's the hook for this piece? Why would anyone want to read it? Where's the sex? How can you write the piece so that it presses all those emotional buttons which will guarantee maximal readership numbers? If you write a decent and careful analysis, won't the competing newspapers or websites steal the show from you?

I'm not envious of the jobs of popularizers. Still, I'm going to criticize the results of popularized versions of academic research. I see at least four major problems in what the media tells us about social science research.

The first one is that the need for a journalistic hook biases the studies which are given more publicity. A study which finds, say, that women and men are pretty much the same in some behavior will not be covering the front pages of any major magazines or newspapers. A study which finds, say, a 9% gender difference in something will not attract all those readers like a magnet. Much better to ignore the number and just talk about the chasm that separates men from women.

That the studies are selected for reasons which have little to do with how well they were constructed, how general the conclusions are that can be drawn from them or how much they are in agreement with the mainstream thoughts in an area of research is a serious problem. It makes the general audience draw faulty conclusions about what such studies in general find.

The second problem is also related to the journalistic need to find a hook, and that concerns the fact that issues become stale very fast. Hence, if a popularization of a bad study makes the headlines this week, the corrections and criticisms of that same study will not make the headlines next week. The story is old and stale, let's move on. Never mind that the story was also a false one, yet now remains in the memory banks of many in the audience.

The third problem has to do with the excessive reliance popularizations place on the authors of a study. Every single popularization I have read contains several direct quotes from the study authors. But the authors of a study are going to sell it. Their quotes are not going to be those of a neutral observer. The neutral observer is supposed to be the popularizer who, in general, does not have the expertise to actually provide the necessary counterweight.

This is assumed to be solved by the academic system which screens studies before they get into print. But the screening system has its problems. For instance, suppose that I started an academic journal called "Echidne Studies". To get published in it you must find good things about Echidne. I can gather together several like-minded people, people who appreciate the true essence of Echidne, and I can use those people as my anonymous referees, to make sure that all the articles published in the journal will be of interest to us Echidneites. Don't you think that some of those reviewers might let a few statistical problems slip through, assuming that the anonymous reviewers I picked contained any familar with statistics?

Then academic reviewers are busy people, in general, the number of journals that need reviewers is very large and some journals have a better reputation than others. All this means that anyone who really tries can find quite silly articles printed in some reviewed journal. Not all of those are equally worthy of public attention.

The fourth problem has to do with the way expert assessment is usually added to the popularizations, at least the better ones (the not-so-good popularizations skip this part altogether). This consists of asking someone else, presumably another researcher in the same field, for a quote about the study to be popularized. The problem in many of these quotes I've read is that they appear to be by someone who has not read the article at all. Whether this is actually true is impossible to state but mostly I learn nothing new from the additional expert statements. And these are always kept very, very short, certainly in comparison to the space the study authors are given.

I'm sure that there are more problems than these four. But even these four are serious problems, because the way most of us learn about new research findings is from those popularizations. As a result, we will end up distorted ideas about what research actually has found.
I have written more on some of this in the context of gender research.

Beautiful People Revisited

This is yet another post on evolutionary psychology studies, this time on the subclass I call Evolutionary Psychology (EP), a political endeavor rather than a scientific one. Professor Satoshi Kanazawa is an ardent proponent of EP, with a large number of relevant studies under his belt. I earlier wrote a series of posts on his recent Psychology Today article (this link will take you to the last one which links to the earlier ones).

Now Kanazawa (with Alan S. Miller) has come out with a new book about, among other things, why beautiful people tend to have more daughters than sons. The reasons are naturally to do with evolutionary psychology.

The snag is that Professor Kanazawa's studies have not actually proven that beautiful people have more daughters. Never mind, that is no hindrance for writing a book about the theory, I guess. But it should be a hindrance for arguing that empirical evidence supports his theory. It should also be a hindrance for the general popularization of Kanazawa's ideas as something supported by evidence. Not that any of these hindrances seem to have mattered much so far.

Professor Andrew Gelman has written an article on what is wrong with Kanazawa's empirical research into various EP topics. A shorthand-way of understanding some of the problems can be gained from Professor Gelman's blog post on the "beautiful daughters" topic. The post is provoked by one of those popularizations which argues that Kanazawa has indeed found that beautiful parents have more daughters, by simply listing some celebrities who are good-looking and also have daughters. Gelman's answer:

Actually, we looked up a few years of People Magazine's 50 most beautiful people, and they were as likely as anyone else to have boys:

One way to calibrate our thinking about Kanazawa's results is to collect more data. Every year, People magazine publishes a list of the fifty most beautiful people, and, because they are celebrities, it is not difficult to track down the sexes of their children, which we did for the years 1995–2000.

As of 2007, the 50 most beautiful people of 1995 had 32 girls and 24 boys, or 57.1% girls, which is 8.6 percentage points higher than the population frequency of 48.5%. This sounds like good news for the hypothesis. But the standard error is 0.5/sqrt(56) = 6.7%, so the discrepancy is not statistically significant. Let's get more data.

The 50 most beautiful people of 1996 had 45 girls and 35 boys: 56.2% girls, or 7.8% more than in the general population. Good news! Combining with 1995 yields 56.6% girls—8.1% more than expected—with a standard error of 4.3%, tantalizingly close to statistical significance. Let's continue to get some confirming evidence.

The 50 most beautiful people of 1997 had 24 girls and 35 boys—no, this goes in the wrong direction, let's keep going . . . For 1998, we have 21 girls and 25 boys, for 1999 we have 23 girls and 30 boys, and the class of 2000 has had 29 girls and 25 boys.

Putting all the years together and removing the duplicates, such as Brad Pitt, People's most beautiful people from 1995 to 2000 have had 157 girls out of 329 children, or 47.7% girls (with standard error 2.8%), a statistically insignificant 0.8% percentage points lower than the population frequency. So nothing much seems to be going on here. But if statistically insignificant effects with a standard error of 4.3% were considered acceptable, we could publish a paper every two years with the data from the latest "most beautiful people."

You might want to re-read that quote, because it's a very good example why we are supposed to not pick data for studies by looking at it and selecting the bits that look good to us. Random sampling and large sample sizes are requirements which exist for a very good reason. In their absence it is very hard not to be guilty of data mining or data phishing, and once we start on that road we can "prove" an awfully large number of things.

A slightly different example might help in understanding some of these problems. Suppose that you want to prove how careful you are with money and how well you stay within your budget. You look at your old records for, say, ten years, and find that you have done much better during some years than other years. Wouldn't it be nifty if you could cut out some of those bad years from your study altogether? Yes, it probably would be nifty, but it would not be good statistics.

Now, Professor Gelman does not argue that anyone is doing this sort of stuff. His point is that a weak statistical analysis should make people stop and think before generalizing the results to wider populations.

Gelman's pdf article, well worth reading even if you are not statistically trained, mentions several other statistical problems which the "speculative studies" professor Kanazawa has carried out contain. A snippet from the end of the piece should whet your appetite (or wet it):

Why does this matter? Why are we wasting our time on a series of papers with statistical errors that happen not to have been noticed by reviewers for a fairly obscure journal? We have two reasons: first, as discussed in the next section, the statistical difficulties arise more generally with findings that are suggestive but not statistically significant. Second, as we discuss presently, the structure of scientific publication and media attention seem to have a biasing effect on social science research.

Before reaching Psychology Today and book publication, Kanazawa's findings received broad attention in the news media. For example, the popular Freakonomics blog (Dubner 2006) reported,

"a new study by Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, suggests...there are more beautiful women in the world than there are handsome men. Why? Kanazawa argues its because good-looking parents are 36% more likely to have a baby daughter as their first child than a baby son - which suggests, evolutionarily speaking, that beauty is a trait more valuable for women than for men. The study was conducted with data from 3,000 Americans, derived from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, and was published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology."

ruling that such research is dangerous and out of bounds, an attitude deplored by Pinker (2007). The aforementioned Freakanomics article concluded, "It is good that Kanazawa is only a researcher and not, say, the president of Harvard. If he were, that last finding about scientists may have gotten him fired." It should be possible to criticize large unproven claims in biology and social science without dismissing the entire enterprise.

Gelman then points out that the "36% more likely" figure mentioned here isn't correct even if correctness is defined by the faulty findings of Kanazawa's actual study. But that's the figure the popularizations eagerly accepted.

Why am I writing about this particular topic again? Consider the facts: A new book by Kanazawa has just come out, a book with a title all about why beautiful people have more daughters. Yet all the time Kanazawa's own research cannot even prove the title he uses. What's more, the discussions about the book are likely to just start with the assumption that Kanazawa must have the empirical support on his side. After all, anonymous reviewers approved his papers for publication! Science cannot err! And so on.

Well, anonymous reviewers are human beings, and anonymous reviewers of a possibly EP journal may share the same underlying desires to find certain theories proved. Anonymous reviewers may also not be experts in statistics. More importantly (and as Professor Gelman also notes), no journal really wants to publish an article with the title "Beautiful People No More Likely To Have Daughters". I believe that the academic publishing process has an in-built bias against studies which appear to find no difference.

What they should have is an in-built bias against publishing iffy research.

From My "Rejected" Files

I found some old rejected articles tonight, written over a year ago. Poor little babies. Nobody loved them. At least I can post them here.

On Media Bias

The conservatives are right to worry about liberal media bias. I worry about it every day, because there just isn't enough of it. Political talk radio airs mostly right-wing anger and hatred, political debates on television match several fire-breathing Republican dragons against one centrist Democrat who had milquetoast for breakfast, and Fox News has taught us all that "Fair and Balanced" is just a trademark. A recent study by Media Matters for America confirmed my suspicion that "liberal" or "lefty" has a new meaning: centrist or neutral journalists are selected on panels to keep company with right-wingers just a tad to the left of Attila the Hun and this is viewed as balance. If you doubt this, tell me when someone from, say, the American Prospect last took part in these debates.

How did we get into this mess in the first place? It may have started when Ronald Reagan killed the Fairness Doctrine in electronic media. This paved the way for the Limbaugh revolution in talk radio and for the Fox News in television as fairness and balance were no longer important.. At the same time, the conservatives launched their successful campaign of painting the media liberal.

And what a curious campaign it has been. Illogical, even. For consider one of the lodestars of conservative thought: that unencumbered markets bring good things to life and that there should be minimal interference with market forces. After all, this is how Ronald Reagan justified the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine: its controversy-chilling effect would be gone and all voices would harmonize in the new vibrant market-based debates. But somehow this didn't rid us of the liberal bias in the media. Conservative ownership of most media couldn't do that, either.

The explanation for this is even curiouser: Conservatives blame the foot soldiers of the media for the bias they so deplore. More journalists define themselves as liberals than as conservatives, and this supposedly explains why markets have been unable to balance themselves. Never mind that most media outlets are owned by conservatives, never mind that journalists are trained professionals who might even be able to distance their own political views from the topic they are working on, and never mind that in no other firm do conservatives regard the floor-level labor force as responsible for the design and marketing of the firm's products. None of this matters as much as the party attachment of journalists.

This diagnosis is sometimes followed by an even less conservative recommendation for treatment: affirmative action based on the journalist's political views. The New York Times should make an effort to recruit religious conservatives from the red states, for example.

The horror of it all! Liberal media bias is such a problem for conservatives that they are willing to give up all their conservative free market and anti-affirmative-action principles if that is what is needed to get fair treatment of right-wing policies and views. Or what they regard as fair treatment.

And what is it that they demand, exactly? Well, according to the websites which criticize the left-wing slant of the media what is needed are more positive appraisals of George Bush's job-performance, more coverage of success in Iraq and more positive coverage on religious fundamentalists (though only of the Christian sort). On one randomly picked February day these sites also criticized newsreaders for not using the term "partial birth abortion" without the qualification that it is a conservative term, berated certain television presenters for not exhibiting the "correct" emotions when reporting on a story and even speculated on the possible hidden motives these presenters might harbor.

It's tough to weed out liberal media bias of such depth! The very facts themselves might be liberal and the innermost thoughts of journalists are fair game for spotting bias. The media can bend over backwards to appease these right-wing critics. It can even adopt the ultimate "neutral" stance of impartial commenting on the most inane assertions ("Some argue the moon is made of green cheese. Others disagree."). But this will not satisfy those who can see the wild liberal glint in the eye of the newsreader or those who can discern the real leftist thoughts of an apparently objective journalist or those who equate criticism of the government with treason.

No, the only solution to our current problems with media bias is to reintroduce the Fairness Doctrine. This will protect the conservatives against the dreaded liberal bias in the media and it will protect the liberals from the right-wing hate radio. Fair and balanced?


Well, I also wrote it as this version, also rejected:

Three fire-breathing Republican dragons on one side of the conference table; one insipid centrist who had milquetoast for breakfast on the other side. This is not a plot for a bad science-fiction movie but a common occurrence on political talk shows such as Meet the Press, according to a new study by Media Matters for America. It is the new face of the liberal media bias.

Liberal media bias does worry me, a lot. For one thing, there isn't enough of it. For another, no amount of bias in the other direction will silence the conservative complaints. Rush Limbaugh and his clones rule in the world of political hate radio. Doesn't this point to a right-wing bias? Well, no, because what goes on in the world of radio is just the market forces working as they should. What goes on in the world of television is bias, unless we mean the Fox News and its "fairandbalanced" take on the world events. That, too, is market forces doing their job. But the mean print journalists are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans (we knew it!) and it is these foot soldiers of the media who decide what is published and disseminated, not the conservative owners of the highly centralized media industry. Strange, isn't it, how the markets only work in one direction?

Ronald Reagan probably predicted just such an outcome when he killed the Fairness Doctrine in electronic media, opening the doors and laying out the red carpet for the right-wing radio talk shows, Fox News and these novel political debate shows where we all watch the conservative boas being fed their daily neutral rabbit dinners.

We liberals and lefties are not even rabbits; we are rabid extremists, and also boring and predictable. Nobody wants to hear what we have to say. That is why we cannot sit on the talk show panels but must be represented by the muddy middle. But don't think for one moment that we are harmless! Far from it: We are rabbits full of unfocused anger and the danger of liberal media bias is ever present in our fangs.

I found this out from conservative media watchdogs and bloggers, people who spend their waking hours looking for the dreaded liberalism in the media. And boy do they find it. Any criticism of George Bush's job-performance is bias, paucity of good news from Iraq is bias and the media's inability to give more praise to the good fundamentalists (Christians) as opposed to the bad ones (Islamists) is bias, too. So is the media's refusal to unquestioningly accept right-wing framing, such as the term "partial birth abortion". Even the emotions newsreaders show or don't show matters. I never realized that there are correct and incorrect emotions, which only shows how blinded I have become by this liberal media of ours. Most worryingly, the invisible thoughts of television presenters are fair game for these media critics. After all, it's always possible that a seemingly neutral presenter is harboring deeply liberal, nay, treasonous thoughts about our administration.

Combating all this bias is a Herculean task. How can you cleanse the media from evil influences if even facts have liberal bias? How can you adequately monitor the brain waves of the people on the television? One interesting proposal for achieving this advocates affirmative action. Yes, affirmative action, but this time to benefit Republicans. For example, the New York Times should endeavor to hire journalists who just happen to be religious right-wingers from predominantly red states. I must admit that my jaw dropped when I read that. How fragile is the conservative ur-value of free markets if it can be dispensed with to promote the airing of this very value in the media! Bizarre.

There is only one real solution that offers a modicum of real balance in the media, and it is not to adopt the ridiculous stance of "neutral" journalism where the most inane comments are reported uncritically: " Some say the moon is made of green cheese. Others disagree." No, what we must do is to bring back the Fairness Doctrine. It will save our right-wing brothers and sisters from the need to microscopically scrutinize all media and it will save the rest of us from Rush Limbaugh and his ilk.

But don't expect this to silence the shrill voices blaming the media for liberal bias. That is politics and will continue until the day when all other voices have been shushed into permanent silence.

I'm sure the originals had links, too. The versions with the links are hiding from me, though.

This might turn into a series!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Keith Olbermann's Special Comment

Today's Talking Action Figure

Is Ann Coulter. Fascinating stuff one can buy on the net. Via emphyrio.

Today's Deep Thought

This is on evolutionary psychology (ep), given that it's ep week on this blog, and the deep thought or thoughts have to do with the great difficulty one faces when trying to criticize any study that resorts to an ep explanation. For example, I have been accused of being anti-science if I don't accept bad science or of being anti-evolution if I don't accept every iffy theory about some specific human characteristics and its possible evolution.

Well, I am not anti-science at all. Indeed, I respect it too much to sit quietly while it is being exploited for political purposes, including the validation of any unfairness in the current status quo as most likely just the way biology has made us.

Neither am I anti-evolution. But note that while physical evolution can be proven with fossil findings, for instance, we have no such evidence on the psychological evolution of human beings. The speculations ep uses are just that: speculations, and currently not testable. Vague references to genes are not the same thing as actual genetic findings and the general theorizing about how prehistoric humans might have lived and acted and what adaptations they might have undergone is not the same thing as "proof."

Chesterton put this best:

"It is necessary to say plainly that all this ignorance is simply covered by impudence. Statements are made so plainly and positively that men have hardly the moral courage to pause upon them and find that they are without support. The other day a scientific summary of the state of a prehistoric tribe began confidently with the words 'They wore no clothes!' Not one reader in a hundred probably stopped to ask himself how we should come to know whether clothes had once been worn by people of whom everything has perished except a few chips of bone and stone. It was doubtless hoped that we should find a stone hat as well as a stone hatchet." (G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man)

As an example, consider the study I discussed earlier on this page, about women developing good food-related navigational skills because of their gatherer-role in prehistoric tribes. Men are assumed to be better general navigators because as hunters in that prehistoric society they had to be able to learn to read movement and random directions. I'm paraphrasing here. But the bit that just slides past us in these explanations is that nobody living today can actually positively state that the prehistoric women did all the gathering and the prehistoric men all the hunting. That this is not something that can be proved is pretty much ignored. We all now "know" that women used to gather and still go shopping like mad, and that men used to spend all their time hunting and now miss it badly.

The evidence that exists on this division of labor is from recent nomadic tribes, and there is a fairly good possibility that our prehistoric ancestors might have done something similar in some areas and at some times. But always? Was there always enough game to hunt? Or could there have been seasons of the year when the game was plentiful and all the members of the tribe worked setting traps and hunting in various ways? What about times when all there was to eat were roots and berries? Did the men just lounge about, waiting to be fed? - We can't answer these questions but we should ask them, I believe, especially considering that the 1970s ep stories assumed that the women sat in caves cooking and minding children while the men were out killing mammoths. I'm not kidding.

It is this non-testable and hypothetical nature of the basic theories that is far too often given a pass. But more worryingly, many popularizations of ep research interpret the empirical findings, having to do with human behavior today, as proof of the underlying speculations. Even more worryingly, I have met some people who believe that the findings or "findings" of ep studies are from actual research into our genes. We have been "hard-wired" to act a certain way, they tell me. Never mind that the genetic research needed for backing ep theories does not yet exist, to my knowledge and never mind that genes may not actually "hard-wire" us to only a few rigid forms of behavior.

Hence, one reason I so often write about ep studies is because I am unhappy with the lack of proper scientific criticism in that field. A second reason is that many of the studies I have read demonstrate poor empirical work and often ignore the obvious alternative explanations, simply concluding that any empirical correlation in the right direction must support the researchers' initial ep thesis. I should note, though, that later ep studies often benefit from the criticism of the mistakes in the earlier studies. From that point of view my amateurish criticisms may in fact benefit the field.

The third reason for my critical stance has to do with the political uses of a certain type of evolutionary psychology, the type I call Evolutionary Psychology. The capital letters are to remind me that we are talking about an ideology in this case and not a science. A prime example of this type of work is Satoshi Kanazawa's Psychology Today paper. I quote from him:

The implications of some of the ideas in this article may seem immoral, contrary to our ideals, or offensive. We state them because they are true, supported by documented scientific evidence. Like it or not, human nature is simply not politically correct.

Note the conservative shorthand "politically correct" in that sentence. It sets the stage on a long litany of ways in which women are destined to always be the way they were in the 1950s United States. Note also how we are asked to accept the truth of his assertions because they are based on "documented scientific evidence".

But when the last part of his article discusses sexual harassment at work and argues that it is a natural consequence of the different mating strategies of men and women and of men's competitive nastiness no documented scientific evidence seems to be necessary.

It is this little school of EP, attached to the body of evolutionary science like a nasty canker sore that I mostly criticize. It has a very specific political agenda, a conservative one, and it demands acceptance solely because of its quasi-scientific dress. Not surprisingly, most of those who criticize my criticisms belong to this particular school of thought. Or ideology.

Now that was a long deep thought. Sorry about it.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Today's Second Evolutionary Psychology Critique

Well, the second critique of the way these studies get popularized in the mainstream media. This seems to turn out the evolutionary psychology week on my blog. Keep checking it for more posts on the topic.

You may have heard about this study, given that popularizations about it crop up among "the most e-mailed articles" lists on various newspaper websites. It's a study about instant dating in Germany:

Science is confirming what most women know: When given the choice for a mate, men go for good looks.

And guys won't be surprised to learn that women are much choosier about partners than they are.

"Just because people say they're looking for a particular set of characteristics in a mate, someone like themselves, doesn't mean that is what they'll end up choosing," Peter M. Todd, of the cognitive science program at Indiana University, Bloomington, said in a telephone interview.

Researchers led by Todd report in Tuesday's edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that their study found humans were similar to most other mammals, "following Darwin's principle of choosy females and competitive males, even if humans say something different."

Isn't it comforting to know all this for sure! How wonderful science is!

Let's look at the science. The study consisted of 26 men and 20 women. The study subjects were asked to fill in a questionnaire about what they were seeking in a possible dating partner: wealth, status, physical attractiveness, family commitment.
They then went through speed-dating which consists of short meetings (three to seven minutes with one partner, then move on to the next one and so on). At the end of the session the researchers compared the study subjects' choices for those they'd like to date again with the list of desirables the original questionnaire, and -- surprise! -- they found that people didn't really act the way the questionnaire suggested that they would act:

Men's choices did not reflect their stated preferences, the researchers concluded. Instead, men appeared to base their decisions mostly on the women's physical attractiveness.

The men also appeared to be much less choosy. Men tended to select nearly every woman above a certain minimum attractiveness threshold, Todd said.

Women's actual choices, like men's, did not reflect their stated preferences, but they made more discriminating choices, the researchers found.

The scientists said women were aware of the importance of their own attractiveness to men, and adjusted their expectations to select the more desirable guys.

"Women made offers to men who had overall qualities that were on a par with the women's self-rated attractiveness. They didn't greatly overshoot their attractiveness," Todd said, "because part of the goal for women is to choose men who would stay with them"

Note that we are never told how women's choices deviated from what they wrote in those original questionnaire answers, only how men's choices deviated, so it's not clear how Todd "knows" that the women wanted the men they chose to stay with them.

This is one of those cases where I should read the original study. But even goddesses have 24 hour days and limited budgets for buying silly articles on the web.

But I'm concerned about the very small sample size and the fact that speed-dating strangers is not how humans have traditionally determined whom they might take to bed or to marry. I'm also not at all certain how one can find information on family commitment or status or wealth in a three-to-seven minute conversation, and I'm also wondering how "attractiveness" is measured here. How do the researchers decide that certain women were attractive or that certain men were? They must have used some sort of a ranking system to determine this, given that they argued the women were "more realistic" in their choices. But how does one devise such a ranking system? And let's not even mention cultural conditioning on the question of dating etiquette.

Whatever. There are hundreds of not-so-careful studies published every week in this world. It's only certain types of studies, though, that get pushed into our attention in bad popularizations. Go back and re-read the first quote again to see how bad this one is. Note the way women are interpreted as being "choosy". Usually the evolutionary psychologists interpret this as meaning that women would demand more from a mate in all the desirable characteristics, because these psychologists use the metaphor of the plentiful sperm and the relatively scarcer eggs to explain why mate selection would matter more for women: They don't get as many repeat chances to make more children than men do.

But in this case being "choosy" is something slightly different! It's not about being picky in that sense. It's about picking someone that might not leave!


The Rumors About the Iran Campaign

Sometimes reporting rumors is necessary. Indeed, it might even be irresponsible not to report them (can you place that quotation?). I believe this is true concerning the rumors that a marketing operation for a war against Iran is scheduled to begin this week. George Packer:

If there were a threat level on the possibility of war with Iran, it might have just gone up to orange. Barnett Rubin, the highly respected Afghanistan expert at New York University, has written an account of a conversation with a friend who has connections to someone at a neoconservative institution in Washington. Rubin can't confirm his friend's story; neither can I. But it's worth a heads-up:

They [the source's institution] have "instructions" (yes, that was the word used) from the Office of the Vice-President to roll out a campaign for war with Iran in the week after Labor Day; it will be coordinated with the American Enterprise Institute, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, Commentary, Fox, and the usual suspects. It will be heavy sustained assault on the airwaves, designed to knock public sentiment into a position from which a war can be maintained. Evidently they don't think they'll ever get majority support for this—they want something like 35-40 percent support, which in their book is "plenty."


Postscript: Barnett Rubin just called me. His source spoke with a neocon think-tanker who corroborated the story of the propaganda campaign and had this to say about it: "I am a Republican. I am a conservative. But I'm not a raging lunatic. This is lunatic."

It sounds like a tinfoil theory to me, but as I wrote earlier on, this particular rumor cannot be ignored.

Today's First Evolutionary Psychology Critique

Now here is a fascinating popularization of a study about the gender difference in orienteering abilities:

MEN might be better at reading maps, but women have an in-built sense of direction for good food.

Research suggests that, contrary to the stereotype, women's navigation skills can be better than men's. But this ability comes to light only when there is food to be found — in particular, items laden with calories.

It is thought the gender differences may be a legacy of the ancient hunter-gatherer way of life on the African savanna.

Men, the hunters, honed their spatial skills as they chased their prey "over erratic and unpredictable courses". But women, the gatherers, had to remember the locations of stationary food resources, such as fruits and berries, more accurately than men.

Isn't that fascinating? Do you think that someone has actually tested women's navigational abilities with every possible non-food item? I don't.

I also love those last two paragraphs. The beginning "It is thought that" is all we have to remind us that none of what follows has any actual proof. It's a speculation about prehistoric sexual division of labor and could be off in all sorts of important ways.

Can you guess what the female navigational superiority in this study amounts to? Guess. Where the women 60% better than the men? Thirty percent better?

They were nine percent better in that study (consisting of 86 individuals). Put that into your pipe and smoke it.

I also wonder how exactly the research can control for the experience women have gained by being responsible for the bulk of food shopping. They supposedly did so, but it's difficult to see how that can be done in a way which would eradicate all the advantage practice conveys.

Further criticism of the study and the point that it is not actually based on genetic knowledge can be found here.
For the sake of fairness I should notice that the popularization also contained this short sentence of criticism:

But Dr Monica Minnegal, a senior lecturer in anthropology at Melbourne University, is sceptical about suggestions humans have stopped evolving. "To reduce everything to what happened on the savanna way back then is, for me, problematic," she said.

See how strong and clear that was?

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Dialectics of Anti-Feminism

Probably not dialectics, but that makes for a good and ponderous title for this post which is about a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece about what the Republican Party can offer for women: In short, less government interference in their lives, more overtime and less taxes.

The op-ed piece, by Kimberley Strassel, is called "What Women Want. How the GOP can Woo the Ladies", and it employs many of the usual wingnut frames on feminist issues. Like this one:

The Democrats' own views of what counts for "women's issues" are stuck back in the disco days, about the time Ms. Clinton came of political age. Under the title "A Champion for Women," the New York senator's Web site promises the usual tired litany of "equal pay" and a "woman's right to choose." Mr. Richardson pitches a new government handout for women on "family leave" and waxes nostalgic for the Equal Rights Amendment. Give these Boomers some bell bottoms and "The Female Eunuch," and they'd feel right at home. Polls show Ms. Clinton today gets her best female support from women her age and up.

I have bolded some of the key terms in that quote. The terms are important, because they point out the gist of this polite form of anti-feminism: Ideas about equality of the sexes are stale, outmoded, not fashionable. They are like disco music or bell bottom trousers, something from the musty pages of history.

Hence Ms. Strassel can call married women the secondary workers in their family without asking why that would be the case, and hence she can also argue that what women really want is more flexibility in the labor market so that they can do the job of childrearing AND the job of working for money, though naturally only as the secondary worker. All women really want in Ms. Strassel's view is a kinder, gentler patriarchy, but somehow that turns into a more jungle-like labor market with fewer worker protections in general.

That's it. It's not necessary to discuss the deeper issues, because the deeper issues are "stale", overdiscussed, water under the bridge. In the present time we live post-feminism, we dress differently, we don't care about fairness or justice or any of those oh-so-stale fashions of the past. So come with me, ladies of the present, and demand that overtime protection be taken down. Us new women don't need it! Or equality, come to that.

Happy Labor Day!

In its honor I will give you -- voila! -- a bad poem!


Do not lean against the door
Do not hesitate to enter
Do not mind the sound of protest.

You, too, shall be seated at the table
You, too, have the right to ask for more
To gravitate towards the center
To partake of all the best

But it's only in a fable
That Cinderella gets the prince.
In the story we live here
She is still the servant maid
Scorned and scolded ever since
The well-off felt the faintest fear
When their table had been laid
For one more china setting
And the doors were opened, letting
In the wind and soot.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

A Blog To Read

Via the U.K. Guardian:

She is billed as the world's oldest blogger. At 95 years old and with a worldwide following that has seen more than 340,000 hits on her blog, Spaniard María Amelia López has achieved the kind of status that millions of younger internet chroniclers can only dream of.

López, who was introduced to the world of blogging by one of her grandchildren just eight months ago, has become such a global hit that she receives posts in languages as strange and impossible for her to understand as Russian, Japanese and Arabic.

"My name is Amelia and I was born in Muxía (A Coruña - Spain) on December the 23rd of 1911," she wrote as her first post on "Today it's my birthday and my grandson, who is very stingy, gave me a blog."

She may not be the oldest blogger in the world (I'm thousands of years old), but she is quite funny.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

On Greed

Greed is one of the deadly vices in old-time Christianity. Not so much in some of the newer interpretations seen among the fundamentalists in the United States. I've read about churches where the sermons are all about how Jesus will give the faithful more stuff in this life, too. Does that remind you of the old Janis Joplin song about her asking God for a Mercedes Benz and a color tv?

When did greed turn into a virtue? Probably quite a long time ago, because capitalism does require it to be rehabilitated. But it's the combination of greed and ignorance that has fueled the housing markets crisis; greed mostly on the side of the sellers of loans and ignorance mostly on the side of the buyers of loans, though not completely.

What IS greed? I'm sure there are good definitions to be found by the click of the mouse, but I don't want to know what they are because then this post would end right here. It's more fun to try to figure a definition out of the pure air that floats inside my head.

The first aspect of my definition would be that greed doesn't really apply to, say, a starving person's dreams about fantastically excessive meals. That person is not being greedy; only starving. In a similar vein, a poor person wanting to buy a modest house he or she can't really afford is not greedy. Thus, wanting something very much is not in itself a sign of greediness. We all have dreams and desires and needs.

The second aspect then has to do with the inappropriateness of certain dreams or desires. If you already have enough food and enough shelter and so on but you still want more then you are probably greedy. Now, this is not a definition from traditional economics course where a consumer is always assumed to be on the road to ever higher levels of consumption and only held back by the inevitable constraints of money and time. But in reality people do sometimes sit down and say, in a quiet and zen-like voice: "I have enough material possessions."

Note that the question of what is "enough" is not something easily determined from the outside. But clearly one can have too many cheesecakes and even too many Rolls-Royces. The sad part of greed is that a genuinely greedy person will never be satisfied, by definition. Perhaps that is what made the early Christians view greed as a vice: it hurts.

How do greed and ignorance dance together, then? I pointed out those two as the culprits in the housing market collapse. Ignorance in that context has to do with three things: First, most mortgage-seekers have very little understanding of interest rates and defaults and so on. Those are hard topics to understand without some training. Second, humans tend not to take the long view in general, and even less so when times are hard right now, say. If you live in a crisis, you want to struggle your way through that crisis and then think of the rest of your life. But if life is nothing but a crisis after crisis, well, you will live in the short-term by necessity. Focusing on the near future makes things like balloon loans seem harmless, and an adjustable rate mortgage something really helpful. But today turns into tomorrow and so on, and suddenly you can't afford the new higher interest rates and bankruptcy beckons.

Third, the mortgage lenders also suffer from ignorance. They may be aware of their greed, at least some of them. But they may be ignorant of the overall effects of their individual acts. It wouldn't matter if one lender seduced borrowers into bad loans, but it does matter when many, many lenders do that at the same time. The outcome is a lot of people working in the lending industry losing their jobs.

If you watch commercials on television or ads on the net you know that greed is encouraged every day of our lives. There is always a solution to something that should bother you, and the solution is achievable by just paying some money. It was only a few days ago that I learned I could get a 500,000 dollar mortgage for less than a thousand a month! Honest. Of course I didn't read the small print on the offer, and by now the offer has disappeared into the Orwellian Memory Hole.

The short point of all these musings is that we have to decide how to deal with greed. Is it the engine that drives the society? Or is it a vice? And whose greed is it that matters here?

Stolen Hope Blogging And Some Saturday Echidne Musings

From Phila.

Did you ever see the Woody Allen movie called Zelig? It's a mockumentary about a man named Zelig in the 1920s America who supposedly had the ability to mirror the people he was with. Thus, when he was among gypsies he turned into a gypsy. When he was among psychiatrists, he started talking like one, and when he was next to a fat man he also became fat. Except that he didn't do any of these very convincingly.

I think my writing is like Zelig, always trying to bend itself to some rules but never quite making it. That's why I like this here blog. No writing rules, heh.

The deeper message of Zelig is valid for many of us, especially for many women. It's hard to know who you really are when the environment keeps demanding that you mirror something else altogether.