Saturday, January 15, 2011

I Dare You Not To Comment [Anthony McCarthy]

Cows & Cows & Cows

Mentally Ill People Live In the Real World [Anthony McCarthy]

The corporate media consensus on Jared Lochner is that he was merely a crazy person who had some unspecified fixation on Congresswoman Giffords and that he was entirely uninfluenced by the poisonous political atmosphere in Tuscon, Arizona or the United States in general. That was the word I heard minutes after the shooting had been announced, before anyone knew anything about Jared Lochner, before there was any evidence of motives in the mass murder. That immediately delivered scenario, mixed with the repeated exculpation of Republicans or tea partiers or right-wing-hate-talk radio, FOX TV, etc, proves that protecting themselves and the Republican-right was the media's motivation in twisting the story in that direction. In order to believe it, though, it is necessary to believe that the ubiquitous corporate media hate campaign against Democrats in congress was inaudible and invisible to Lochner by virtue of his insanity.

A while back I posted a piece about a niece of mine who was severely mentally ill and who died of her illness. She lived with me for ten months during one of the periods during which she was severely delusional, before moving in with one of the series of men who preyed on her. She was quite ill but she was not ignorant of the news, able to comment on the First Gulf War, while taking in a high degree of information about it. Mental illness doesn't wrap its victims in a hood of silence, they are often quite aware of what's said about politics and politicians in the media. Lochner knew who his congressional representative is. I'm not sure of whether or not that puts him in a minority in Tuscon, it is far more than many people who aren't considered irrational know about contemporary politics.

As posted here last week, since the Supreme Court issued their pro-NRA Heller ruling in 2008, there have been many obviously political murders embedded in a massive campaign by the NRA and others to stoke right wing paranoia, often explicitly of, by and for the Republican right. The murders in Tuscon are only the most recent ones. Here, from the time line I linked to last week:

March 21-22, 2009—Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) states that she wants residents of her state to be “armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back. Thomas Jefferson told us ‘having a revolution every now and then is a good thing,’ and the people—we the people—are going to have to fight back hard if we’re not going to lose our country.”

April 4, 2009—Neo-Nazi Richard Poplawski shoots and kills three police officers responding to a 911 call to his home in Pittsburgh. His friend Edward Perkovic tells reporters that Poplawski feared “the Obama gun ban that’s on its way” and “didn’t like our rights being infringed upon.” Perkovic also commented that Poplawski carried out the shooting because “if anyone tried to take his firearms, he was gonna’ stand by what his forefathers told him to do.”
April 25, 2009—Joshua Cartwright, 28, a member of the Florida National Guard, shoots and kills two Okaloosa County sheriff's deputies attempting to arrest him on a domestic abuse charge. Cartwright is killed in an enusing gun battle with police. Cartwright's wife reports that he was "severely disturbed" that Barack Obama had been elected president. Okaloosa County Sheriff Edward Spooner states that Cartrwight was "interested in militia groups and weapons training."

April 15, 2009—Daniel Knight Hayden, 52, is arrested by FBI agents after he openly states on Twitter that he is going to turn the upcoming Oklahoma City “Tea Party” into a bloodbath. Two months earlier, Hayden had written online, “The only thing that is keeping the New World Order from destroying this nation is the presence of over 100,000,000 guns in civilian hands. When guns are outlawed, only criminals will have guns. Since we are already criminals in the eyes of the New World Order, and they intend to enslave us all, and to kill those of us who will NOT submit to their slavery, I say to IGNORE gun "laws" and keep your guns (AND ammo) handy.”

May 2009—Data released by the U.S. Marshals Service indicates that threats to the nation's judges and prosecutors have more than doubled in the past six years, from 592 in 2003 to 1,278 in 2008. Federal officials blame a number of parties, including the "sovereign citizen" movement—an unorganized grouping of tax protesters, white supremacists, and others who don't respect federal authority.

May 21-22, 2009—We The People Chairman Bob Schultz hosts a gathering of 30 "freedom keepers" in Jekyll Island, Georgia. The meeting plays "a key role in launching the current resurgence of militias and the larger anti-government 'Patriot' movement." One of the participants, former Texas militia leader Jon Roland, claims the federal government has "been engaging in warlike activity against the American people."

The killers and potential killers in most of the cases listed are clearly aware of the blanket of right wing and pro-gun propaganda that covers the United States. Even Daniel Knight Hayden's arrest, which apparently was due to threats to the Tea Party, is saturated with right-wing paranoia.

The idea that irrational people are going to take in right-wing propaganda and act as you expect them to is pretty irrational, in itself. It's the defining quality of irrationality that it doesn't make sense, it's unpredictable. That a crack pot whose head is swimming with the promotion of paranoia and violence that defines hate-talk radio and the cabloids, will act as the wingers hope is, in itself, irrational. The consumers of their kool aid are armed to the teeth with automatic weapons BUT they are not a well regulated militia, they are not under the direct command of any authority and they are not subject to supervision or control. The army they've set upon us is a far greater danger to the left and federal authorities, as the body count proves, but they are also a danger to Republicans, Republicans holding office and in the judiciary. Which is something the right-wing Republican majority of the Supreme Court might want to consider as they blithely extend the insanity with further constitutional innovations, pleasing to the NRA and its allies. If they haven't noticed before, they don't have any control over who is absorbing the paranoia campaigns and how the less stable in the audience understand it.

Got Called To Fill In At A Funeral [Anthony McCarthy]

A sick friend called me to play a funeral for her. Not her funeral. Got to go over the music, so I'll be out this morning.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Pregnancy Policing

Here's a fun story for you:
A bar in suburban Roselle could end up in a legal battle after forcing a woman to leave because she was eight months pregnant.
Michelle Lee, a 29-year-old Chicago native now living in Denver, came into town for a baby shower last week and her friends talked her into a night out afterward, ABC News reports.
Lee and her friends went to the Coach House in Roselle--about 30 miles northwest of Chicago--where she planned on drinking some water and having a slice of pizza, until a bouncer approached.
"He said to me, 'I have a personal question to ask you, are you pregnant?' I said yes. Then he said, 'I'm going to have to ask you to leave,'" Lee told ABC.
Why would the bouncer ask her to leave? He implied that the bar would be responsible if anything happened to her, without explaining how that differs between pregnant and not-pregnant people.

In an odd coincidence, I read the above story right before reading about this:
Research published this morning in Environmental Health Perspectives analyzed data for 268 women from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES) from 2003-04, checking for the presence of 163 different chemicals in the women's blood, urine and serum. Many chemicals (such as PCBs, organochlorine pesticides, PFCs, phenols, PBDE flame retardants, phthalates, polycyclic 14 aromatic hydrocarbons and perchlorate) that are associated with adverse health effects were found in 99 percent to 100 percent of pregnant women, and nearly all women carried multiple contaminants.
When something is found in essentially ALL the pregnant women it's pretty hard to make any other conclusion than that the same chemicals would be found in all of us, right? Which implies that we should do something about our environment and about the food we eat and so on, right?

Nope. The story continues:
So what's a woman to do to protect herself and her baby? I asked the study's lead author, Tracey Woodruff, director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, who responded via e-mail


I'd like to hear from pregnant women: Are you concerned about chemicals to which you and your baby may be exposed? Would you consider taking the steps Woodruff recommends to help protect your health and your child's?
That is just plain silly, because it is extremely likely that at least some women in that study sample did do all the "right" things already, and even if none of them did it is extremely UNlikely that those individual acts would drastically reduce the number of those chemicals in our bodies.

What these two stories share is the idea of singling out pregnant women. It is pregnant women who should somehow be able to detox their bodies, all on their own! If they don't do that, add to the mother-guilt. And it is pregnant women who shouldn't go out to places where other people drink alcohol!

Has Feminism Gone Too Far in Sweden????

The headline of an MSNBC blog post about Assange and all that crap. The actual post doesn't give a reason for an affirmative nod-of-the-head as an answer to that question, because the headline is meant to give one clicks, not to actually relate much to the post itself, and because the only part of the post which argues that feminism has gone too far is statements by an MRA guy in Sweden.

Don't read the comments. I didn't, this time, and so I might not have a migraine tonight!

But how astonishing that I just recently discussed the sermons of one Catherine Hakim here! She argues elsewhere that the Nordic countries have completely failed in their attempts to make the societies more gender-equal. We can have that and we can have this MSNBC post, too! It works both ways.

Nobody beats Suzie's post on this particular topic, and you should read it again, just to set your head back straight about this world in which, somehow, feminism can go too far, but no amount of patriarchy appears to be too far.

The Stereotype Threat. Or Priming Gender

This is the sixth post in my series about the science of sex differences, and the first one not really about gender differences which some argue to be innate and unalterable sex differences.

Instead, this post discusses the consequences of gender stereotypes, both correct ones (in the sense of averages) and incorrect ones, on the actual performance of girls and women in various tests, in schools and colleges and at work. Studies of sex differences have an impact on sex stereotypes, as we all know. Those sex stereotypes, in turn, can affect the ability of a person to perform as well as she or he can. The way this happens is through something called stereotype threats.

Wikipedia defines the stereotype threat as follows:

Stereotype threat is when a person who belongs to a group that has a negative stereotype attached to it subconsciously conforms to the negative stereotype by performing a task to a lesser degree than they would otherwise.
It turns out that stereotype threats can be created quite rapidly. All it may take is a test-giver's initial announcement that a particular subgroup in general fares poorly/well on that particular test. Stereotype threats exist or can be created about race or ethnicity, and it is quite possible to create a stereotype threat which affects men/boys rather than women/girls, as was shown in my post about three-dimensional mental rotation.

The important word in the above definition is "subconsciously." Cordelia Fine reports on the many ways this priming happens in the context of gender (Delusions of Gender, pp. 7-8):
Some psychologists refer to whatever self is in current use -- the particular self-concept chosen from the multitudes -- as the active self. As the name implies, this is no passive, sloblike entity that idles unchanging day after day, week after week. Rather, the active self is a dynamic chameleon, changing from moment to moment in response to its social environment. Of course, the mind can only make use of what is available -- and for each of us certain portions of the self-concept come more easily to hand than do others. But in all of us, a rather large portion of the Wardrobe of Self is taken up with the stereotypical costumes of the many social identities each person has (New Yorker, father, Hispanic American, vet, squash player, man). Who you are at a particular moment -- which part of your self-concept is active -- turns out to be very sensitive to context. While sometimes your active self will be personal and idiosyncratic, at other times the context will bring one of your social identities hurtling towards the active self for use. With a particular social identity in place, it would not be surprising if self-perception became more stereotypical as a result. In line with this idea, gender seems to have exactly this effect.
In short, if something reminds a woman of her gender while she is undertaking a task in which women are regarded as less capable, her own negative gender stereotypes might be activated.

Why would this matter? Activating stereotype threats may cause physiological stress reactions, reduce working memory capacity or even create a disruptive mental overload. Or to give you an example, when you work into a math exam room and someone yells at you "Hey, token tits!", not only might you have trouble settling down and focusing on your exam paper because of your overt anger, but your subconscious self may also be busy filling up your working memory with stereotype crap while pumping up your blood pressure to cope with the threats in the situation.

Some researchers argue that it's the very activity of trying to repress the negative stereotypes that causes the lower performance of individuals once the stereotype threat has been activated. Some part of the person's brain has to battle the stereotypes, to keep them submerged, and this battle consumes energy which is then not available for thinking about the questions in the test.

Finally, an activated stereotype threat may change the test-taker's attention from a focus on seeking success to a focus of failure-prevention. The latter approach means being cautious, conservative and careful. Astonishingly enough, this behavior would also produce the thinner tails of many female test score distributions, something I discussed in the previous post.

The dampening effect of gender stereotype threats on women's and certain minorities' test performance is now well known from many studies. Stereotype threats exert an independent effect on the performance of the members of the group with negative stereotypes. Though not all individuals are equally susceptible to, say, gender stereotypes, their impact is enough to affect the average performance women and girls in various tests. Cordelia Fine, in Delusions of Gender, discusses many such findings in the first three chapters.

She also points out that stereotype threats are not only elicited by formal testing situations with gender or racial priming. Women who work in male-dominated fields may face stereotype threats on an almost routine basis, especially if they are the lone women in their departments, the ones who have to "represent" the whole female sex in various arguments, the ones whose whole behavior is interpreted as proof of "what women can't do." To the extent such stereotype threats are long-term, they may even explain why some women leave fields such as engineering after a while. It gets tiring to have your blood pressure rise or your working memory decrease because of "disruptive mental loads", as Wikipedia describes the effects of gender priming.

Oddly enough, stereotype threats may be more powerful when they are subtle. Subtle reminders might pass our conscious brain and dive straight into the subconsciousness, whereas we might spot and question coarser stereotypes.

And resisting the stereotype threat doesn't really work, at least if the resistance takes place during the test itself.

This is quite dismal, right? The reason I write about it is that gender stereotypes are created, and the findings from various studies about sex differences certainly contribute to that creation!

To the extent those findings are flawed or biased, to the extent similarity studies are not published and to the extent popularizers let fly with any study which seems to prove the existence of gender differences as innate and unchangeable, it is to that extent that new and possibly false stereotype threats are created.

Thus, bad research in the field of sex differences may have real world consequences. Indeed, if bad research changes the gender stereotypes sufficiently, the new changed stereotype threat could alter reality to match the flawed initial findings!

It is for this reason that any study of sex differences should be carefully scrutinized and even more carefully popularized.

The current practice is the very opposite of that. ANY real or imaginary sex difference is instantaneously plastered over newspapers and web pages, with hyperbolic summaries of the research findings. Indeed, that would be the very way to manufacture stereotype threats if they didn't already exist.
This post is largely based on Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender, chapters 2 and 3.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Conscience Clause and Idaho

From Idaho Press Tribune:

Idaho Board of Pharmacy Executive Director Mark Johnston confirmed that the board received the complaint alleging that on Nov. 6 a Walgreens pharmacist refused to fill a prescription ordered by one of Planned Parenthood's Boise-based nurse practitioners. The prescription was for a Planned Parenthood patient for Methergine, a medicine used to prevent or control bleeding of the uterus following childbirth or an abortion.
An inquiry to Walgreens' Corporate office seeking comment was not immediately addressed.
Planned Parenthood officials said the complaint states that the pharmacist inquired if the patient needed the drug for post-abortion care. The nurse refused to answer the question based on confidentiality of health information.
According to Planned Parenthood, the pharmacist then stated that if the nurse practitioner did not disclose that information, she would not fill the prescription.
As is pointed out here, not controlling such bleeding could kill the patient. My impression is that the conscience clause was never supposed to cover life-saving care but I may be mistaken in that.

A Note About My Sex Science Series

When I have finished it I will provide a post with links to all the posts in one place. My apologies for not doing that consistently.

The reason for the omissions is that I can't link to the ones that haven't been posted yet and also that the three posts this week (one to come tomorrow) were written last Sunday (all together and hence clumsy, sorry) and pre-posted when I thought I had to be on the road this whole week.

Here is the series so far:


On Ballerinas And Football Players: The Failure of Gender-Neutral Parenting

Looking For Sex Differences. The Complications

Studying The Sex Differences In Science: A Story

Three-dimensional Mental Rotation

The Greater Male Variability Hypothesis

There will be at least two more posts in the series. Note, also, that the posts are not presented as some logical series. They are based on my first ideas after reading three books.

The Greater Male Variability Hypothesis

This is the fifth post in my series about the study of sex differences. The previous one discussed the mental rotation test because it's the one most often brought up as an "explanation" for why women are scarcer in science and engineering than men.

This post addresses a more recent argument for the scarcity of women on top everywhere, not just in mathematics, science and engineering! Yes, it's a powerful argument and so neat, because it applies even if women score as well as men on some cognitive test. It even applies if women score higher, on average, than men, because it's based on the extreme tails of the distribution of scores.

Here's a graph of two distributions, taken from Eliot's book Pink Brain. Blue Brain.

One (very informal) way to interpret the picture is to imagine the two mountain shapes as describing the outlines of piles of men and women: The higher a point on a mountain is, the greater the number of either men or women that are described by the score under that point on the horizontal axis. Thus, both men and women score the same on this test, on average, because the two mountain peaks coincide.

But note that the male mountain has thicker tails (the areas to the far right and far left in the picture). This means that more men than women score both high and low in whatever test this picture represents.

Another way of saying the same is that men exhibit greater variability. Their scores are scattered further around the mean value than the scores of women.

Now to the arguments of the essentialists. These go as follows:

It is well known that male animals show greater variability than female animals on all sorts of characteristics. Therefore, male variability in human test results is based on similar reasons and probably something innate. Unfortunately, and with great sadness we must report that women and men cannot be equal on the very top, because more men score in the upper tails of various test distributions and it is those upper tails from which people at the top come from.

Now, that is my summary of the relevant opinions, made clearer by the condensing. But the basic argument, pretty much, is that the generally equal average scores of men and women don't really matter if men are more likely to be found in the upper tails of various distributions.

Besides, that they are also found in the lower tails of those distributions demonstrates how fair all this is to women: They may not end up on top of various careers but neither are they likely to end up as criminals!

Don't believe those last two sentences? Cordelia Fine in Delusions of Gender (p. 179) quotes Lawrence Summers:
It does appear that on many, many different human attributes -- height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability...there is a difference in the standard deviation and variability [statistical measures of the spread of a population] of a male and a female population. And that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly culturally determined. If one supposes, as I think is reasonable, that if one is talking about physicists at a top-twenty-five research university...small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool.
So beautiful! Though I do wonder with Fine how something like "propensity to NON-criminality" might express itself, I wonder even more about some questions which Summers seems to regard as answered:

Are various tests the same as human attributes?

As men, on average, might take a riskier approach to test-taking, why couldn't that be the reason for the fatter tails of the male distributions? Suppose that men and women have the same average knowledge on some test but that men guess more often than women. Based on how guessing is punished, one possible outcome is exactly the one of fatter tails for the male distributions.

Finally, I wonder if anyone has actually studied whether people on the top of their fields actually scored in the extreme upper tails of some appropriate test earlier in their lives.

An important aspect of the greater male variability hypothesis as an innate explanation of sex differences needs further analysis. That is the need for that greater male variability to be constant. If it varies by, say, countries or over time, then it cannot measure innate variability differences alone (if at all).

Here new research poses problems for the essentialists. From Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender (pp. 180-1)
More recently, several very large-scale studies have collected data that offer tests of the Greater Male Variability hypothesis by investigating whether males are inevitably more variable in math performance, and always outnumber females at the high end of ability. The answer, in children at least, is no. In a Science study of over 7 million United States schoolchildren, Janet Hyde and her team found that across grade levels and states, boys were moderately more variable than girls. Yet when they looked at the data from Minnesota state assessments of eleventh graders to see how many boys and girls scored above the 95th and 99th percentile (that is, scored better than 95%, or 99%, of their peers) an interesting pattern emerged. Among white children there were, respectively, about one-and-a-half and two boys for every girl. But among Asian-American kids, the patterns were different. At the 95th percentile boys' advantage was less, and at the 99th percentile there were more girls than boys. Start to look in other countries and you find further evidence that sex differences in variability are, well, variable. Luigi Guiso's cross-cultural Science study also found that, like the gender gap in mean scores, the ratio of males to females at the high end of performance is something that changes from country to country. While in the majority of the forty countries studied there were indeed more boys than girls in the 95th and 99th percentiles, in four countries the ratios were equal or even reversed. (These were Indonesia, the UK, Iceland and Thailand.) Two other large cross-cultural studies of math scores in teenagers have also found that although males are usually more variable, and outnumber girls at the top 5 percent of ability, this is not invariably so: in some countries females are equally or more variable, or are as likely as boys to make it into the 95th percentile.
All this matters for the Greater Male Variability Hypothesis to be taken as an innate one. If such tests truly measured nothing but an innate characteristic then we should find the difference in variability between male and female test-takers identical across different countries.

And over time. Probably the most famous of all studies of greater male variability is the early 1980s study by Camilla Benbow and Julian Stanley. It was based on giving the mathematics SAT test to seventh and eighth graders and then analyzing the top performers in that test.

The results were dramatic (Eliot, Pink Brain. Blue Brain, p.212):
Benbow and Stanley found that within this talented pool, many more boys than girls scored at the highest level on the math SAT exam: a four-to-one ratio for scores above six hundred and a thirteen-to-one ratio for scores above seven hundred. But they made the bigger splash by speculating the high ratio was a consequence not of math education but of "endogenous" or innate, sex differences in mathematical talent. Newsweek seized upon their conclusion with the headline "Do Males Have a Math Gene?" while Time magazine declared, "a new study says that males may be naturally abler [in mathematics] than females."

Such fun. My next post on the sterotype threat explains why headlines like those can actually decrease girls' ability to do well in math tests! But note how those popularizations moved from upper-tail findings to all men and all women just like that!

What came next? In fact, the Benbow-Stanley study has been repeated since the early 1980s. The 2005 repetition found that there were 2.8 boys for each girl in the group which scored over seven hundred. Remember that the numbers were 13 boys to one girl in the early 1980s.

Innate sex differences have not changed in those fifteen-or-so intervening years. Instead, the smaller ratio of super-talented boys-to-girls must be caused by something environmental or cultural, and there is nothing to suggest that the most recent ratio is the lowest possible one.

It seems pretty clear to me that the male upper-tail advantage cannot be regarded as an innate explanation, given the above findings. Whatever may drive the observed gender differences has at least a sizable chunk of environmental causes.

Note, also, that those who advocate the essentialist form of the Greater Male Variability hypothesis rarely discuss what the fatter lower tails in various score distributions might mean for men. It's as if men (as a class) should be content with belonging to the group with the fatter upper tail, even if they themselves happen to fall into the fatter lower tail. Likewise, it's unclear what the practical consequences of scoring in the lower tail might be for men, as compared to women. The debate has focused almost completely on the upper-tail differences.

The main point of this and my previous post on mental rotation is that the phenomena we are speaking about in these two cases clearly can be changed or clearly do change. Thus, they are not stable or impossible to change. Yet that is the way the essentialists use them.

My next post will be on the stereotype threat: The reason why making arguments about mental rotation tests or greater male variability in tests as impossible to change (when they are changing) can be hazardous to girls and women. Indeed, it turns out that making arguments about gender differences or ethnic differences in tests can actually create those differences.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Stupid, It Burns

I had to check that it indeed was the year 2011 and the United States when I happened across this:

Us Weekly has a photo of Brad and Angelina's little girl dressed in a boy's swimming trunks last weekend while taking a dip with her siblings last weekend in Berkeley, Calif. Sister Zahara appears to be in a girl's one-piece suit.
The child is four years old.

We don't mostly notice the gender-policing, but it's pretty obvious in something like this.

That we don't notice it may be the reason why this article at Salon by a woman who somewhat regrets having been a stay-at-home mother for fourteen years provoked so many comments by people who argued that nobody forced her to do that and that she should grow up and take responsibility for her own choices.

Which is really very interesting because I read about women's proper place being at home with the children every single day while fishing in the bottom mud of the Internet.

Sure, nobody chained the writer of that piece to the kitchen stove. But this is not the same as the society exerting no pressure on mothers' employment choices (guilt!), and neither is it the same as the society cheerfully making sure that the women (and men) who do take time off for child-rearing don't get financially punished for it later on. Indeed, the reverse is closer to the truth.

This gendering of roles is in the very air we breathe, and it seems to begin when we are about four years old.

Three-Dimensional Mental Rotation

This is the fourth post in my series concerning the science of sex differences. The earlier ones can be found here, in the order of the links, including an introduction to the whole series.

This post, and the next one are about the "big guns" of those who advocate innate differences for why women do worse in mathematics and sciences, "worse" being interpreted in various ways, such as lower average test scores, smaller extreme tails on those tests, fewer women entering engineering or science and so on.

Three-dimensional mental rotation is a common test, and one which consistently shows gender differences. Men and boys do better on it, on average, than women and girls. It may be one candidate (together with tests of some verbal abilities in the opposite direction) for a biological sex difference on cognition. On the other hand, we don't test newborn babies on this ability, and neither have we controlled for the influences of the environment before such tests are interpreted.

Let's take one step backwards to notice that tests like this one are tests, not actual evidence for the innateness of whatever is tested, only evidence for differences in average test scores. Let's also note that another spatial test which shows gender differences, the object-location-memory test, gets very little attention, perhaps because it shows a consistent female edge.

Back to three-dimensional mental rotation. The test usually consists of pictures, one showing a structure comprised of building block-type cubes at various angles, and a group of other pictures showing how that initial structure might look after it was rotated some amount of degrees. Only some of that group show the correct outcome, and the task is to match those to the original picture. Here is an example of the test:

Building blocks! Which are now stocked in boys' aisles at toy stores. Lise Eliot (Pink brain. Blue Brain. p. 218)on this topic:
Whether it emerges in infancy or late preschool, the sex difference in mental rotation is known to grow larger through childhood and adolescence. Spatial skills, like all mental tasks, improve with practice, so it's likely that boys' mental rotation ability is honed by the many hours they clock in spatial pursuits. Boys begin with trucks and blocks in pre-school and continue with their games of catch, hoops, and all manners of virtual driving and shooting games, so it's not too surprising that the sex that spends most of its leisure time watching objects flip, rotate, and fly through space ends up a lot better in mental rotation.
Though I thought that girls are every bit as likely to play catch and hoops, Eliot does have a point. In fact, the birth of video games (such as Tetris to which I was addicted some time ago) may work to further strengthen this difference because most games are for boys.

On the other hand, something fascinating has cropped up in that context: A very short intervention seems to have the power to change the mental rotation scores of women. Rebecca Jordan-Young (Brainstorm, p. 287-8):
Feng, Spence and Pratt (2007)identified a basic information-processing capacity that underlies spatial cognition and showed that differences in this capacity (the distribution of spatial attention) are related to differences in the higher-level process of mental rotation ability. They then showed that a remarkably brief intervention -- just ten hours of practice with an action video game -- caused "substantial gains in both spacial attention and mental rotation with women benefiting more than men." The ten-hour training did not completely eliminate the sex-difference, but it came extraordinarily close -- the mean scores after training were no longer statistically distinguishable between males and females.
This suggests that the mental rotation test is amenable to learning. What it measures can't therefore be defined as something which cannot be changed. Yet that seems to be the implication of those who explain the scarcity of women in science and engineering by the results of the mental rotation test. The underlying concept must be that the test measures something innately different and stable.

What has always struck me about this test and the focus on traditionally male fields when discussing it is that there is one traditionally female field which requires excellent mental rotation skills: Dressmaking.

The pattern pieces are two-dimensional, the final product distinctly three-dimensional, and anyone trying to alter patterns or making new ones must have good three-dimensional mental rotation skills.

Eliot mentions other typically female professions in which such skills are necessary: interior decoration and fashion design (Pink Brain. Blue Brain. p.230)
....a recent study of university students in London found that female fashion-design majors performed even better than male engineering and computing majors on a test of mental rotation.
Whether their performance was a result of the studies they were taking or whether this group already had strong mental rotation skills before their studies is unclear from this quote in Eliot's book. Yet knowing the answer to that question would be of great value. If the test results of these female fashion-design majors were high due to the content of their studies, then practice clearly plays a very strong role in the mental rotation scores.

Given the great focus on this one particular test, it may come as a shock to you that this just might be the only test for which schools offer no formal training. Eliot (Pink Brain. Blue Brain. p.230):
Every other ability -- verbal, math, music, interpersonal, and even kinesthetic (athletic) -- has its own slot in the curriculum or its own box for teachers to check off on report cards. Not so for spatial skills, for which the only real training comes from the video games, building toys, and targeting sports that are almost exclusively the preoccupation of boys.
Mental rotation tests are also susceptible to the stereotype threat. This refers to the priming effect of evoking certain stereotypes on a test-taker. An example from Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender (p. 27-8):
People's mental rotation ability is malleable; it can be greatly enhanced by training. But there is a far quicker, easier way to modulate mental rotation ability. By now you already know what these methods involve: manipulating the social context in such a way that it changes the mind that is performing the task. For example, you can feminize the task. When, in one study, participants were told that performance on mental rotation is probably linked with success on such tasks as "in-flight and carrier-based aviation engineering...nuclear propulsion engineering, undersea approach and evasion, [and] navigation," the men came out well ahead. Yet, when the same test was described as predicting facility for "clothing and dress design, interior decoration and interior design...decorative creative needlepoint, creative sewing and knitting, crocheting [and}flower arrangement, this emasculating list of activities had a draining effect on male performance.

Alternatively, instead of changing the gender of the task, you can keep the task the same but push gender into the mental background. Matthew McGlone and Joshua Aronson, for example, measured mental rotation ability in students at a selective liberal arts college in the northeastern United States. One group was primed with gender, while another group was primed with their exclusive private-college-identity. Women who had been induced to think of themselves as students at a selective liberal arts college enjoyed a performance boost, scoring significantly higher than gender-primed women. Likewise, Markus Hausmann and colleagues found that although gender-stereotype-primed men outperformed gender-stereotype-primed women, men and women primed with an irrelevant (geographical region-based) stereotype performed similarly on the mental rotation task.

Why such a long post on one specific cognitive test? Because this is the test which shows the largest and most consistent differences between men and women, and because this is the test which is usually mentioned in explaining a possible ability-related reason for women's scarcity in science, mathematics and engineering.

That even this test lends itself to learning and is affected by the stereotype threat emphasizes the need to keep societal influences in mind when the essentialists employ this particular argument.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Content Provider! That Would Be Me.

I find the term "content provider" hilarious. It's getting more common as a definition of what writers do on the net, sorta like viewing birthday gifts from the point of view of how to sell the largest possible amount of wrapping paper and bows. To sell those, you gotta put something in the box itself.

Butterflies Taking Turns in Attracting Mates

Jennifer Armstrong provided the link to a story about the squinting bush brown butterflies. From the article:
Squinting bush brown butterflies use reflective "eye spots" on their wings to attract potential mates.
Males born in the wet season beat their wings to flash their spots but in the dry season females grow brighter spots instead and take the lead.
This behaviour could benefit females, allowing them to control mating when fewer food resources are available.

Published in the journal Science, the study is the first to show that butterflies develop sexual ornamentation in response to their environment.
This study is an example of the new strain of writing about nurture and nature which does not see the two as additive, totally separate influences. The interplay is more complicated as the above example shows.

This complicated type of interplay is still under-represented in studies about human behavior but that is likely to change in the future.

The Arizona Killings And The Tea Party

The Washington Post:
The Tea Party Express says blaming the constitutionalist movement and Sarah Palin for the Arizona shooting that killed six people and wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is "outrageous."
The California-based group says liberals are trying to exploit the shooting for political gain and place the blame on society for embracing the tea party movement, but the 22-year-old charged in the shooting is the only person responsible for the violence.
In a statement Monday, the Tea Party Express says if the suspect, Jared Loughner, has a definable political ideology, it is that of a far-left anarchist, nothing close to the tea party movement.
Writing about this topic is like boxing with shadows, to some extent pointless, because there will be no long-term change. The paths of the various debates are also predictable: Events are interpreted to go along with a particular political stance. Thus, Loughner's book list at his YouTube site (which really looks like the reading list for some course) is mined for impressions about his possible political leanings:
Loughner’s YouTube profile page includes a long list of his favorite books. On the list are “Animal Farm,” “Brave New World,” “The Wizard Of Oz,” “Aesop Fables,” “The Odyssey,” “Alice Adventures Into Wonderland,” “Fahrenheit 451,” “Peter Pan,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “We The Living,” “Phantom Toll Booth,” “One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest,” “Pulp,” “Through The Looking Glass,” “The Communist Manifesto,” “Siddhartha,” “The Old Man And The Sea,” “Gulliver's Travels,” “Mein Kampf,” “The Republic,” and “Meno.”
People do this because information on Loughner is scarce. But if we are going to decide from this list that Loughner is a far-left anarchist (as many on the right now argue) or an acolyte of the tea party (as many on the left have argued), why not suggest that he is infantile, liking tales for children and stories about a little girl falling down a well or climbing through the looking-glass?

That the Tea Party Express calls him a far-left anarchist doesn't mean that he is one. Neither does it mean the reverse, of course. Though anyone who thinks that reading Mein Kampf is an equal sign of leftiness with reading Das Kapital should take a refresher course on history. And of course listing certain books as one's favorite reading does not mean that one agrees with their conclusions or their world-view. I have read most of the books on that list, by the way, and I bet many of you have, too.

I have spent so much time on that one little snippet to point out the shadows we are boxing and also to describe the formulaic reactions to the killings. Whenever something like this happens the formulas are activated. Hence the assertion that liberals seek political gain but the killer is really one of them, and many similar ones.

Is the tea party guilty of these particular killings? Without some totally new evidence, probably not. Whether even the killer himself can be regarded as legally guilty in the sense of being able to stand trial remains to be seen.

But this does not mean that there aren't precipitating factors to these killings. If I had to make a guess of them, I'd list the lack of proper mental health care combined with lack of funding for the same, the ease with which a semi-automatic Gluck could be bought by someone who shouldn't have had access to guns and, finally, the cultural cues about who might be a suitable victim for slaughtering.

These causes didn't rise from a political vacuum, and in many ways it's the question of the semi-automatic in the hands of Loughner and the support of this kind of unregulated access by many right-wing groups that we should talk about. But that is not yet the topic that is debated. Instead, we are to discuss the culture of hatred.

It is in creating those cultural cues that politicians and radio talk show hosts bear some moral responsibility. This is not limited to those on the political right but strongly tilts that way, in terms of the numbers of comments and their severity, perhaps because violent words and warlike images about other Americans as the enemy are what angry people wish to hear and see, but perhaps also because violent words and warlike images create those angry people who are then easier to manipulate for political purposes. And anger has been the predominant emotion of the American political right since at least the 1990s.

Is the tea party innocent of fanning the flames of political anger?

Let's see. Here is an announcement by Gabrielle Gifford's opponent in the last elections, a tea party candidate called Jesse Kelly.

Kelly may not have written that announcement himself, but whoever wrote it certainly used violent imagery in the context of a political election.

Other examples of violent imagery from tea party meetings:
When conservative Florida radio host Joyce Kaufman went to a Tea Party rally on July 4, she got so fired-up that she was moved to make a fairly incendiary statement: "If ballots don't work, bullets will." Kaufman's statement was caught on camera and shown on The Rachel Maddow Show—and ironically, it inspired people who don't agree with her to threaten violence in response. As a result, Kaufman has announced that she will no longer be serving as Republican Rep.-elect Allen West's Chief of Staff

Then there is this picture from the big tea party demonstration in Washington, D.C.:

I understand that such signs may not be somehow "approved" by the tea party itself but they are a visible part of the movement, not just an aspect of a tiny extreme fringe.

Violent metaphors or direct statements about violent options in the public debate, especially any statements of acknowledged leaders, can fan the flames of violence in different ways. One of those is the validation which is offered by public individuals openly stating something that someone else may have only thought in silence. Suddenly talking about gunning politicians down sounds just fine because others agree! And in public! And once it sounds just fine and natural, it becomes the way many speak about politicians.

A second way is through the "othering" of the opposition, by making them look inhuman, loathsome or frightening. Neither political side is completely free of this, but by far most of this comes from the right, and in particular from the talk show host Glenn Beck. Examples:
Beck: "The army ... of the extreme left is gathering" and they are saying "cops are bad, kill the cops."

Beck portrays Obama, Democrats as vampires, suggests "driv[ing] a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers." On his March 30, 2009, Fox News show, Beck aired a graphic portraying Obama and Democrats as vampires and said: "The government is full of vampires, and they are trying to suck the lifeblood out of the economy." Beck then suggested "driv[ing] a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers." Beck returned to that imagery on his January 19 radio show, warning listeners that progressives are "vampires" who now have a "taste of blood" and are "gonna start getting more and more violent."

Beck suggests that progressives support "armed insurrection."

Beck suggests Pelosi and Obama support "pick[ing] up a gun" to advance "revolution."

Beck suggests Obama administration may kill him.

Beck suggests progressive coalition will become violent and riot "a year from now."

Beck connects U.S. progressives to the Holocaust, says they "have not changed their viewpoint."

Beck: "Violence will come. And violence will come from the left. Violence is part of the plan."

Beck warns of violence: "Trouble" by the "most violent" progressives "is coming."

Beck: "They're trying to beat it out of you slowly. Boil you, basically, like a frog."

I have mostly ignored Beck's hallucinatory rants. That may have been a big mistake. Note how he manufactures a frightening enemy to his supporters there, a left which will attack in violent ways. What should a person do who is under the risk of such an attack? Granted, Beck also sometimes argues that violence is not the answer to the "violent threats" of the progressives and liberals. But the constant "othering" by Beck certainly makes it easier for his audiences to regard liberals and progressives as vampire-like frightening enemies who are going to attack one day unless one does something.

This post isn't really about the guilt or innocence of the tea partiers, in some ethical or moral terms, but it suggests a more multi-layered way of looking at the horrible killings in Arizona and reminds us that all speech has consequences. Politicians and talk-show hosts should remember that.

Monday, January 10, 2011

How A Nonexisting Gender Study Got Its Wings

I have followed write-ups of Catherine Hakim's nonexistent new study all over the UK mainstream media.

What's astonishing about the write-ups is that very few popularizers seem to have actually read Hakim's sermon/diatribe/essay to notice that she hasn't made any new study at all! Or any new survey!

What's equally astonishing is that people appear to have turned their logic sections off while reading some type of a press release. If, indeed, it were the case that more and more women marry for money (money!!!, even though Hakim looked at only education data), then what happens to all the men without money? We should see pronounced statistical hints of all this in the form of low-education men not getting married at all, for instance.

That something of this sort is eagerly publicized does tell us that anything which supports traditional sex roles as ingrained gets an easier pass to popularization than alternative kinds of studies. A nonexistent new study is exciting to talk about, actual existing new studies are not.

What is driving this? Mostly the bias of people "knowing" what they "know." There's a very strong prior belief bias among the audience of these pieces, created by the common popular myths of women as gold-diggers and/or frustrated housewives or nasty feminist harpies.

One example of the blinders that we all put on when it comes to gender comes from the Sunday Times article* which on the whole discusses Hakim's non-study quite well (including pointing out that it got rejected by an academic journal, probably because it's not a new study). Yet the survey data the article quotes is based on only surveying women:

Most mothers would prefer not to have the competing demands of family and job As the arguments rage, a YouGov survey for The Sunday Times suggests Hakim may have a point. It reveals that 64% of women of all political views, ages and locations, would have preferred to marry a man who earned more than them. But only 19% want a better educated man (against 62% who sought men with the same sort of education). More women (31%) think they are better educated than their spouses than vice versa (19%).

Asked whether, if money were not a worry, they would prefer to stay at home with their children, 55% said yes. And 53% agreed that society puts pressure on women with children to go to work.
Nothing wrong with using such data, EXCEPT as proof of a gender difference. When there's no data on how men might answer these questions, the women's answers cannot be used as proof of an existing difference between men and women.

But they are. Thus, we do not learn what percentage of men would stop working if money wasn't a worry**, for example, or what percentage of men might wish to marry a woman who earns more (though given that women still earn less, on average, than men, that question probably cannot be presented to men stripped of that context).

I doubt that the use of this study as somehow supporting Hakim's arguments is an example of an overt bias. It's much more likely that we are so utterly accustomed to juxtaposing family and work for women while completely ignoring family when it comes to men that the presentation of data on only one gender doesn't strike us as odd, even when it is used to make inferences about a gender difference.
* I had to pay for access to that one.
**That 45% of the women appear to have stated that they would continue working if money wasn't a worry seems a lot more surprising to me.

Heroic Acts

At the Arizona massacre:

The officials talked about a woman in the crowd who grabbed the shooter's magazine as he was about to reload and was shot in the process.

Then, Dupnik said, the shooter inserted another magazine with 31 bullets, but it didn't fire. Two men then grabbed the gun from him.
Added later: A more correct interpretation appears to be that the woman who grabbed the shooter's magazine was not shot. Thanks for Guest in the comments for this correction.

Deep Thought Of The Day

If a non-study stated that women are utter crap it would take about an hour for a thousand popularizations of it to hit the mainstream media sites.

This thought was caused by the Daily Mail write-up of an imaginary new study by a writer who refers to data from the 1990s or earlier. Especially note the pictures!

Writing in the other direction is like rowing a water-logged boat upstream, because of those media appetites.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

No Further Comment [Anthony McCarthy]

This story about comments appearing on Sarah Palin's Facebook Page, those which are quickly removed, those which aren't removed is damning. I will warn you that there is a horrible comment about the young girl who was a victim, which was kept as comments critical of Palin and her posse were removed.

My thanks to J.S. at Eschaton for pointing it out.

Applying the Louis Farrakhan Standard [Anthony McCarthy]

One of the interesting results of the assassination in Arizona was the speed with which Sarah Palin's operation took down her map of the United States with cross hairs over Gabrielle Giffords' district, and many others. The model could have been the infamous post on an anti-choice site that listed abortion providers whose assassinations were crossed off in celebration. It is not credible that no one responsible knew about that and that no one who saw it didn't inform Palin's operation about the similarity.

And hers was far from the only site which took down morally incriminating evidence, one which I found with a Google search was taken down minutes later.

How much of this blithe advocacy of violence and assassination on the part of the Republican side of things will stick, is clearly one of the more pressing issues for Republicans and the Palin fans in general. Looking for information this morning, Googling, the first pages in a number of searches were full of right wing denial of responsibility, trying to blame the violence, so clearly in line with what they advocated, on the left, trying to deny that clear resonance between their two-years long campaign and the act of violence. This is an issue that has been thoroughly Google bombed by the far right, in their own interest.

Back when Louis Farrakhan made some of his more outrageously anti-Semitic statements, it became practically de rigeur for anyone who was black who appeared in the media to be forced to condemn him. I remember all kinds of people with no connection to Farrakhan or his ideology put through that degradation ceremony. The eminent poet Gwendolyn Brooks was one of those I remember especially.

As Juan Cole points out, the standards applied to white terrorists is not the same applied to other people, terrorist or not. The media, NPR, ABC, CNN, FOX, etc. will not be demanding of right wing Republicans that they denounce and condemn Sarah Palin and the hoard of official Republican candidates, office holders, their staffs and the professional members of the Republican Party who have endorsed Palin, Angle and any number of others AS THEY WERE ADVOCATING ASSASSINATION in the most unambiguous language, with hardly a fig leaf to cover it.

What we ill hear instead of the outraged demands that the allies of Palin and Angle and the rest of those who have advocated the murder of Democratic politicians and others repudiate their promotion of political violence, are scolds telling Democrats and progressives that we must bend over backward to be fair to Republicans. This is absurd. Fairness isn't an absolute standard, it depends on the standards that prevail and those are set by the Republicans and their kept media. Allowing them to apply a standard which they don't apply to themselves allows them to set up a double standard in their favor. We are under no ethical or moral obligation to do it, certainly not in this issue where the facts are clear and fully documented and they have been going back years. It is fairness to hold people accountable for their words, their actions and their endorsements.


Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), a friend of Giffords since she was elected to the House, said Sunday that she told him just a week and a half ago that she was worried about the potential for violence back home.

"Gabby did tell me that she was concerned," Moran said, using Giffords's nickname. "She did say it's really bad out there, particularly in a district like [hers]. She was very much troubled that\ Sarah Palin put her in the crosshairs."

Moran said Giffords explained that, unlike in his Northern Virginia district, "a substantial percentage" of her district was "anti-government and pro-gun" - a potentially dangerous mix.

False Equivalence Is The Big Lie of the Day [Anthony McCarthy]

In wading through the mire of the Sunday morning talk shows, the "both sides do it" talking point is prevalent. Here is an extremely important time line of violence in recent years - including a large number of clearly political murders- from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Read it and save it, it's extremely important. The part that FOX news plays in it couldn't be clearer, nor could the part that the Supreme Court conservatives. That is something a number of us have been talking about since the ruling cited at the beginning of the list. It must be brought up at every possible opportunity.

The silence of the free press on this crime wave and their part in promoting it is a crime against democracy.

My thanks to Digby for linking to it and a commentator at Eschaton for drawing my attention to it.

Waiting Before Saying More [Anthony McCarthy]

The news from Tuscon is still confused and incomplete. What is known is that there was an attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, that she is reported to be alive after extensive surgery on her brain, that she will require more surgery. We know that the assassin killed U.S. District Judge John Roll, 63; Christina Greene, 9; Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman, 30; Dorothy Morris, 76; Dorwin Stoddard, 76; and Phyllis Scheck, 79 and that a number of other people were injured. A suspect was stopped at the scene by civilians who brought him down, that his weapon had more bullets and that if they hadn't done that, he probably would have kept killing people. Their action was heroic.

We also know that one of the most eloquent statements so far was given by the local Sheriff, Clarence Dupnik who talked about the violent political rhetoric that had poisoned the atmosphere in Gabrielle Gifford's district.

One of the other insightful things I've read is this post by Ruth Calvo at Firedog Lake.

There will be more to be said later.