Friday, April 26, 2013

Wikipedia and Women Novelists

Amanda Filipacchi's NYT article on the treatment of women novelists in Wikipedia's spring cleaning is worth reading.  A taste:

I JUST noticed something strange on Wikipedia. It appears that gradually, over time, editors have begun the process of moving women, one by one, alphabetically, from the “American Novelists” category to the “American Women Novelists” subcategory. So far, female authors whose last names begin with A or B have been most affected, although many others have, too.
The intention appears to be to create a list of “American Novelists” on Wikipedia that is made up almost entirely of men. The category lists 3,837 authors, and the first few hundred of them are mainly men. The explanation at the top of the page is that the list of “American Novelists” is too long, and therefore the novelists have to be put in subcategories whenever possible.
Too bad there isn’t a subcategory for “American Men Novelists.”
I just checked the page for "American Novelists" at Wikipedia, and the women novelists appear to have been put back in those categories of last names beginning with letters A and B.  Perhaps this happened because of Filipacchi's op-ed piece?   And there now is a tentative category called "American Men Novelists" though it has very few names.

Those two changes are probably good, though it looks as if Wikipedia cannot make up its mind about whether women novelists belong in the overall group of novelists or whether men novelists should be removed from that group, too.  If they remove both women and men from "American novelists", that category will be somewhat empty.

Duh.  In any case, Filipacchi's piece was about that general cultural rule which makes women into a sub-category while men, in most applications, are viewed as just individuals who belong to the main category. 

I've written about that before.  This particular example shows how that treatment can also create a ranking of the type the lower picture in my earlier post happens to demonstrate:

Deanna Zandt has more on Wikipedia and gender stuff. 

As a complete aside, the Finnish Wikipedia version of family and intimate partner violence is created by an MRA activist and includes stuff about the general characteristics of women in prison and all sorts of completely unrelated material as well as very biased sources.

There are warnings about the need for a complete re-writing (with less biased sources, I hope), but nobody seems to have done anything about that re-writing.  One can debate the reasons but a cursory peek behind the curtain suggests to me that anyone who takes that task will face a lot of aggro from the MRAs.

Today's Action Alert: Save Beatriz' Life

Via Rheality Check:

Beatriz wants to live. She's 22 years old and the mother of an infant, but the 18 week pregnancy she's carrying is killing her -- right now as you read this -- and the government of El Salvador has refused to permit an exception to their abortion ban to save her life.
The fetus Beatriz is carrying is anencephalic; it has no brain and won't survive birth even if her health allowed her to carry to full term. More to the point, Beatriz has lupus, worsened by a kidney malfunction, and it's very dangerous for her to be pregnant. But under El Salvador's abortion ban, both Beatriz and any medical staff involved in providing a therapeutic abortion would face criminal charges, carrying penalties as high as 50 years in jail for her and 12 years in jail for her doctors.
Both El Salvador's Minister of Health and Attorney General for Human Rights support allowing an exception to save Beatriz' life, yet the Supreme Court has delayed making this literally life and death decision. Now this impoverished young mother has entered early stage renal failure as her pregnancy steadily destroys her kidneys.
Sign now to stand with Beatriz' husband and infant son today in asking the Salvadoran government to allow her doctors to save her life and their future together as a family.
El Salvador bans abortion in all cases.  You can join a petition to save Beatriz here.

But That's Different! On the Horror of Air Traffic Delays And Related Matters.

I've followed with some dark mirth the recent complaints about the flight delays caused by the sequestration law in the US.  From Huffington Post:

Lawmakers passed a bill Friday to ease air traffic delays before catching their own flights home for a week off, leaving unchanged other painful effects of the across-the-board spending cuts mandated by Congress' sequestration law.
While the legislators likely improved their chances for on-time flights when they return to work next month, cuts that are harming care for cancer patients, closing children out of preschool and ending food programs for the elderly remain in place.
The $85 billion in mandatory cuts this year are a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which Congress passed after its standoff over raising the nation's debt limit. The sequester was proposed as a fallback in case Congress could not come up with a more rational way to achieve at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over a decade -- the theory being that sequestration would be so painful that Congress wouldn't let it happen.
But Congress and the "super committee" tasked with the budget-cutting job failed anyway.
Why would flight delays be something to fix while the cuts to cancer patients are not, hmh?

I think we meet two old friends here.  Let me introduce you to this tall guy with safety pins through his cheeks and ears.  He's called Lack Of Empathy,  and he often sits at the Congressional Bar and works out at the gym there.  He finds the poor undeserving because he is not poor and he is deserving!  He is proud of his logical thinking and his good work ethic, but he seldom dwells on the trust fund he grew up with.  It's possible that he used to pull wings off flies as a little boy to study what they would do without wings.

And here's Lack of Imagination!  She looks almost exactly like a human-sized Barbie doll, and cannot possibly imagine why any woman wouldn't.  All you need is some silicone, a diet of lettuce leaves and discipline!  She doesn't know anybody who is poor or really sick.  When she tries to think about how poverty might feel she comes up against an inner wall.  If she hasn't experienced something it doesn't exist, and so far she has experienced very little, having been cushioned by money and lots of family help and good connections.  Because her family helped her, that help is now invisible, just the way all families obviously automatically work.

Both of these critters find political decision-making very easy, and neither has any trouble with ethical or moral judgments about other people. 

You may have met them.  Their genders can be reversed, because Lack of Empathy and Lack of Imagination can be both male and female names, and often one individual carries both names.

When one of these types of politicians disapproves of gays and lesbians but then  learns that his (or her) son is gay, suddenly being gay is no longer an abomination but simply one form of sexuality.  Suddenly that politician no longer opposes same-sex marriage, suddenly that politician opposes discrimination against gays and lesbians.  Because it is different.

A pro-life politician with either or both of these names may regard abortion as murder when other people choose it but  a necessity when it is chosen by a family member of that politician or the politician herself.   Because it is different.

And although such politicians might deem the evil consequences of the sequestration law as lamentable, intellectually speaking, the emotional message only hits home when it...hits home.  When the plane they must take is delayed, for example, and they cannot get home.

That was a political fairly tale (better leave the typo in).  An alternative interpretation of all this is to point out the bubble our politicians live in, a bubble made out of money and sycophants and comfortable protection from such hunting monsters out there as Unemployment and No Access to Health Care.  Even politicians with empathy and imaginative abilities might get used to living in that bubble, might forget the other realities and might then complain about those few consequences of the sequestration act which hurt even them.



Thursday, April 25, 2013

Today's Action Alerts

First, the Accreditation Council of Graduate Medical Education in the US is considering dropping the requirement that family doctors know how to prescribe contraceptives.  That would not be a good thing. 

Today is the last day you can comment on the idea.  The link.

Second, the Koch brothers (sorta like Sauron in the Lord of the Rings or at least extreme conservative money boys) are considering buying the Tribune Company, the owner of such newspapers as the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.  If that idea makes you a bit concerned, you can express our views here.

I haven't carefully scrutinized the actual danger in those initiatives but the time spent opposing them (if you are in the US) is very little. 

But just imagine a world where our news come from two or three of the richest guys on the planet!

The Bitch From Hell?

Now that's a controversial title for a blog post!  A piece by Dylan Byers about the reign of Jill Abramson, the executive editor of the  New York Times, subtly hints at the possibility of Abramson's bitchiness.

Some snippets from Byers' article:

One Monday morning in April, Jill Abramson called Dean Baquet into her office to complain. The executive editor of The New York Times was upset about the paper’s recent news coverage — she felt it wasn’t “buzzy” enough, a source there said — and placed blame on Baquet, her managing editor. A debate ensued, which gave way to an argument.
Minutes later, Baquet burst out of Abramson’s office, slammed his hand against a wall and stormed out of the newsroom. He would be gone for the rest of the day, absent from the editors’ daily 4 p.m. meeting, at which he is a fixture
In recent months, Abramson has become a source of widespread frustration and anxiety within the Times newsroom. More than a dozen current and former members of the editorial staff, all of whom spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity, described her as stubborn and condescending, saying they found her difficult to work with. If Baquet had burst out of the office in a huff, many said, it was likely because Abramson had been unreasonable.
“Every editor has a story about how she’s blown up in a meeting,” one reporter said. “Jill can be impossible,” said another staffer.
Just a year and a half into her tenure as executive editor, Abramson is already on the verge of losing the support of the newsroom. Staffers commend her skills and her experience but question whether she has the temperament to lead the paper. At times, they say, her attitude toward editors and reporters leaves everyone feeling demoralized; on other occasions, she can seem disengaged or uncaring.

If Abramson is disengaged, Baquet is just the opposite: He cares about newsroom morale and he cares about being liked, staffers say. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his own issues. As Washington bureau chief, he got so upset when a story didn’t make the front page that he drove his fist through the wall. (“I never lose my temper at a person,” he said. “I lose my temper at walls.”) But even this anecdote is recalled fondly.

Bolds are mine.

Note the different characterization of Abramson and Baquet.  I'm wondering how that characterization would have sounded if Baquet had been a woman who stormed out of the room bashing walls and Abramson her male boss.  It's not difficult to assume that the female Baquet could have been seen as overly emotional, unable to control her feelings, going as far as punching the walls, and that the male Abramson would have been seen as a decisive and cool boss type.  Ann Friedman thinks so.

I don't know these people which means that I have no way of judging whether Abramson's gender affects the way she is judged in Byers' article.  Perhaps not.  On the other hand, if we have different patterns for men and women in the world of work, as we seem to have, then it's not impossible that Abramson is expected to act more kindly and to be more accessible than the case would be for a male boss.  That expectation, if we hold it, will be a subconscious one and doesn't preclude the aware assessment of her as "impossible."  Even if she wouldn't be regarded as impossible with a first name like Dylan.

This is what makes it  difficult to judge arguments about individual female and male bosses.  Of course there are terrible  bosses of both genders, but it's also likely that female bosses are held to higher and contradictory standards:  Be kind!  Be motherly!  But if you act that way you are indecisive, dithering, not strong enough.  

And we may weigh the requirements of kindness and accessibility more when the boss is female, given that on some level we believe those are "natural" for women to possess.

In any case, several studies have demonstrated that women leaders are held to contradictory standards.  Ultimately this is because the pattern for a leader has to do with characteristics we associate with men, not with women.

Those contradictions are not so present when we assess male leaders.  A man can show kindness and that's a bonus because it is in some ways not what his pattern makes us demand.  It's just an extra nice aspect of an otherwise ambitious and firm boss.
For more on this, see Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


I was cleaning the yard the other day, raking together the ghosts of last summer's plants, pulling out the ivy aiming at world domination and so on.  As usual, I ended up sitting on my heels in the dead flower beds, with my hands muddy and full of thorns. 

I heard a rustling sound, turned my head, expecting a neighbor, and looked up into the face of a wild tom turkey.  Polite good days were exchanged.

The Reinhart-Rogoff Paper And Steven Colbert

If you are one of those people who think economics is about the most boring thing since spreadsheets, watch last night's Colbert show from 3:23 to 15:16.  That segment is all about how a UMass economics graduate student, Thomas Herndon, tried to replicate a very influential paper by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff.  That paper has been used as one of the launching pads for the current austerity policies.

Herndon was assigned the task of replicating the Reinhart-Rogoff paper in his econometrics class.  He tried and could not reproduce the original results.  Some background:

From the beginning there have been complaints that Reinhart and Rogoff weren't releasing the data for their results (e.g. Dean Baker). I knew of several people trying to replicate the results who were bumping into walls left and right - it couldn't be done. In a new paper, "Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff," Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst successfully replicate the results. After trying to replicate the Reinhart-Rogoff results and failing, they reached out to Reinhart and Rogoff and they were willing to share their data spreadhseet. This allowed Herndon et al. to see how how Reinhart and Rogoff's data was constructed.
They find that three main issues stand out. First, Reinhart and Rogoff selectively exclude years of high debt and average growth. Second, they use a debatable method to weight the countries. Third, there also appears to be a coding error that excludes high-debt and average-growth countries. All three bias in favor of their result, and without them you don't get their controversial result.
The Reinhart-Rogoff paper wasn't peer reviewed because it appeared in the Papers and Proceedings section of the American Economic Review (AER).  Ordinary papers in the AER are peer reviewed but not the Papers and Proceedings ones.

But a peer review would not have caught those spreadsheet mistakes, given that the "peers" rarely (never?) review studies by replicating all the calculations.  The reasons for that are many:  In many cases such replication would be a giant amount of work,  peer reviews are unpaid, and, until quite recently, the original data was rarely made available by the researchers.

What are needed are more replications of studies, and not only in economics but in all sciences and social sciences.  The snag is that replication is time-consuming and academics have few incentives to spend time on repeating already existing findings, given that neither promotions nor tenure are likely to drop into the laps of replicators (unless they happen to disprove famous findings). 

But at a minimum, data used in such studies should be made available on the Internet.

This is not because I  think that researchers  do sloppy work or carefully stitch bias into their calculations and observations and so on, although that, too, probably happens.  It's because the incentives we provide for research will be improved if it is understood that any particular study can be subjected to scrutiny and replication.

While I'm writing about this topic, I also want to make a plea for assigning more value to studies which do not find anything startlingly different or new.  Indeed, finding that, say, a new treatment in medicine is no better than the old treatment is valuable information.  Similarly, finding that one's pet theory is rejected is important to publish, however painful that might be.  The file drawer effect is bad for real scientific advances.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Meet James Taranto

James Taranto has uttered something nasty again*:

TARANTO: One fascinating thing about this is this piece was published no later than 9:03 PM on Wednesday evening, because that's when it first appears on the New York Times' Twitter feed. The last Senate vote on amendments to the gun bill was a bit after 6 [PM]. Giffords appeared at the White House at 5:35 [PM] when we saw that enraged rant by the president. The Manchin-Toomey [background check] provision was the first vote. That was at 4:04 PM. So if you read this piece it's presented as a cry from the heart, as Giffords' personal reaction as somebody who's been wounded by gun violence to the betrayal of these Senators. So we are supposed to believe that somehow in less than five hours a woman who has severe impairments of her motor and speech functions was able to produce 900 publishable words and put in an appearance in the White House in the course of it. So I think that's a little bit odd.

Taranto is pretty good at nastiness.  I keep coming across his writings on us wimminfolk, on minorities and on various other groups he detests.  He is a believer in evolutionary psychology views of women as gold-diggers who are not really interested in having mutually enjoyable sex, only in marrying upwards and such.

But that's not especially nasty, just the usual crud.  This, however, IS nasty:

On July 25, 2012, Taranto sparked outrage online by posting the following comment to his Twitter account, in reference to the victims and survivors of the July 2012 Aurora, Colorado mass shooting: "I hope the girls whose boyfriends died to save them were worthy of the sacrifice".[18][19]
Taranto then tries to explain that tweet:

We intended this to be thought-provoking, but to judge by the response, very few people received it that way. The vast majority found it offensive and insulting. This column has often argued that a failure of public communication is the fault of the public communicator, and that's certainly true in this case. What follows is an attempt to answer for this failure with a circumspect accounting of our thoughts.

What makes the stories of Jansen Young, Samantha Yowler and Amanda Lindgren especially poignant is that their boyfriends' dying acts simultaneously dealt them an unfathomable loss and gave them an invaluable gift—a gift of life. Their loss is all the more profound because the gift was one of love as well. In instinctively making the ultimate sacrifice, each of these men proved the depth of his devotion. They passed a test to which most men, thankfully, are never put—and then they were gone.

These three women owe their lives to their men. That debt can never be repaid in kind, because life is for the living and cannot be returned to the dead. The closest they can come to redeeming it is to use the gift of their survival well – to live good, full, happy lives.

People live on after death in the memories of those who loved them. Sometimes when this columnist does something we consider worthwhile, our thoughts turn to our father, who died four years ago: "Dad would be proud." That is our hope for Young, Yowler and Lindgren: that in the years to come, each of them will have many opportunities to reflect that Jon or Matt or Alex would be proud of her.

But that doesn't work, because he used the past tense of the verb "to be."  The obvious reading of his tweet is an MRA one:

Men sacrifice themselves for women All The Time, then a mention of the Titanic and not a mention of the fact that the Titanic was a very unusual shipwreck in that sense.  Therefore, women, as a group,  should be grateful to men, as a group, and probably should graciously subjugate themselves as a way to show that  gratefulness.

Or this is what I've read on many, many MRA sites, and Taranto's tweet fits right into that ideology.

The problem with his tweet is not the incredible acts of self-sacrifice of those young men.  That is astonishing and worth respecting.  The problem with Taranto's tweet is that the girlfriends (who probably had no say in what took place) should now be judged as to whether they were worthy of such a final sacrifice.  Apply that same thinking to any other disaster where someone saves a life at the cost of his or her own.  Do we then read anyone writing to ask whether those who were saved are worthy of the sacrifice?

We do not.  And that's what is so nasty about Taranto's view.  It's sexist at the least, perhaps even misogynist.  On the other hand, his tweet says nothing about the shooter in that massacre or the shooter's gender.  Just like the MRA sites never mention whom it is that the brave men are defending women against.  Because it is very very rarely against other women.

I have no interest in framing such questions as part of the battle of the sexes or any other ridiculous term people use for sexual politics.  But that's how Taranto's tweet reads to me, and the only way to explain why it is nasty is to clarify the background.

Then to this most recent Taranto nastiness:

His insinuation that Gabrielle Gifford couldn't have written her op-ed herself,  in the time window she had, given her brain damage.  Now, I suspect that most politicians don't actually write the op-eds that bear their names all on their own.  Never mind.  Let's suppose that they do.

Media Matters does mention that she could have written her op-ed earlier.  But the op-ed itself mentions that she has trouble speaking, not that she has trouble thinking:
Speaking is physically difficult for me. But my feelings are clear: I’m furious.
She says nothing about how difficult or easy writing is for her.  It is Taranto who decides that because she has difficulty speaking she must not be able to write, either.  And therefore, what?

That she doesn't hold the opinions stated in the piece?  That she is a marionette operated by someone else?  What is it, exactly, that Taranto intends to say with that quote which began this post?
*Via Eschaton.

Gender Similarity Studies

This is a pretty sparse field, given the human tendency to look for and to magnify any gender differences and the similar tendency to ignore gender similarity as a similarity.  When the two sexes are the same, the category "gender" drops out of the analysis altogether.

Usually.  But I spotted two studies which are about gender similarity.  I haven't vetted either one of them, but the point is to popularize some studies from the other side of the fence, so to speak, the types which tend not to get popularized much.

First,  one study has analyzed whether sex differences are something that can be analyzed as taxonic:

But what of all those published studies, many of which claim to find differences between the sexes? In our research, published recently in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we shed an empirical light on this question by using a method called taxometric analysis.
This method asks whether data from two groups are likely to be taxonic — a classification that distinguishes one group from another in a nonarbitrary, fundamental manner, called a “taxon” — or whether they are more likely to be dimensional, with individuals’ scores dispersed along a single continuum.
The existence of a taxon implies a fundamental distinction, akin to the difference between species. As the clinical psychologist Paul Meehl famously put it, “There are gophers, there are chipmunks, but there are no gophmunks.”
A dimensional model, in contrast, indicates that men and women come from the same general pool, differing relatively, trait by trait, much as any two individuals from the same group might differ.
We applied such techniques to the data from 13 studies, conducted earlier by other researchers. In each, significant differences had been found. We then looked more closely at these differences to ask whether they were more likely to be of degree (a dimension) or kind (a taxon).
The studies looked at diverse attributes, including sexual attitudes and behavior, desired mate characteristics, interest in and ease of learning science, and intimacy, empathy, social support and caregiving in relationships.
Across analyses spanning 122 attributes from more than 13,000 individuals, one conclusion stood out: instead of dividing into two groups, men and women overlapped considerably on attributes like the frequency of science-related activities, interest in casual sex, or the allure of a potential mate’s virginity.
Even stereotypical traits, like assertiveness or valuing close friendships, fell along a continuum. In other words, we found little or no evidence of categorical distinctions based on sex.
The authors point out that some other characteristics indeed seemed to be taxonic in their study: physical size, athletic ability and sex-stereotyped hobbies like playing video games and scrapbooking. 

Though I think the reasons for the sex-stereotyped hobbies themselves may not be taxonic but based on complex societal influences and individual interests and the dance between the two of them.  For example, video games have been coded as male and they also mostly have topics which are traditionally male-linked.  Likewise, scrapbooking has been coded as female and is largely about children.  Yet it would be easy enough to think of topics for scrap books which would appeal to men or boys and it would also be easy to create video games that would appeal to women and men.  In short, it's not that there is something inherently sex-linked about the acts of  playing video games or scrapbooking.

In any case, this study seems to me to repeat something that might be obvious:  Individuals differ in all sorts of ways and very few schema allow us to put all women into one class and all men into another class.  But of course those who believe that men and women are inherently and eternally two different types of creatures altogether will never be persuaded by anything of this sort.

Another study of interest in this context has to do with whether fathers can tell when it is their child who is crying, rather than some other child.  Past studies have suggested that mothers are better at this than fathers.  This study finds no difference.  Here is the abstract:

Previous investigations of parents’ abilities to recognize the cries of their own babies have identified substantial and significant sex differences, with mothers showing greater correct recognition rates than fathers. Such sex differences in parenting abilities are common in non-human mammals and usually attributed to differential evolutionary pressures on male and female parental investment. However, in humans the traditional concept of ‘maternal instinct’ has received little empirical support and is incongruous given our evolutionary past as cooperative breeders. Here we use a controlled experimental design to show that both fathers and mothers can reliably and equally recognize their own baby from their cries, and that the only crucial factor affecting this ability is the amount of time spent by the parent with their own baby. These results highlight the importance of exposure and learning in the development of this ability, which may rely on shared auditory and cognitive abilities rather than sex-specific innate predispositions.

The whole question of how human mothers differ from other animal mothers is fascinating.  I haven't read enough in the field to say much, yet, but it seems that some applications to human child-rearing from the rest of the animal kingdom are based on theories which might not apply to primate mothers in the first place. 

For example, the early theories of the importance of bonding seem to have come from species where bonding (almost an imprinting, along the Konrad Lorenz lines)  is crucial for proper mothering.  But those species are not primates, and primate studies suggest that cultural learning is an important part of learning how to mother in chimpanzees, for example. 

As I mentioned above, I haven't looked at this study in detail.  But what it seems to suggest is that those parents who spend time with their children get good at recognizing that child's cry, whether they are mothers or fathers.  If earlier studies did not take into account the time spent with the child, their results could have followed from the fact that most infant care is done by mothers, not from some difference in parenting instincts between mothers and fathers.