Friday, May 09, 2014

The Pew Survey On Stay-At-Home Mothers: Problems of Definition and Data For Comparisons

I wrote this post some weeks ago.  It's delayed, because I contacted the Pew researchers for further information.  I never got it, so here is the post, just in time for the US Mothers' Day.


The recent Pew survey on the percentage of mothers (with children under eighteen) who are now stay-at-home mothers begins:

After Decades of Decline, a Rise in Stay-at-Home Mothers

The rest of the long report is mostly about the details behind that sentence.   Except, my friends, the details turn out fuzzy for some very boring reasons.  Here's the first boring reason:

What that beginning really should have said is this:

After Decades of Decline, a Rise in Women Not Having Paid Work Who Also Have Children Under Eighteen. 

That looks like I replaced a clear sentence with researchy gobbledegook, though that's not so.  To see why, note that the mothers in this survey can be single mothers, the mothers in this study can be married to a partner who also has no paid work (which could make that partner into yet another stay-at-home-parent),  and the mothers in this survey can have all sorts of reasons for why they don't have a job in the labor market.  Some of those reasons are that they can be enrolled in school, too sick to work or unable to find paid employment.

They can also state that they are at home because they are taking care of their minor children, and the majority of the mothers without paid employment surveyed by Pew do give that answer.  But all those other answers could have been given by women (or men) who don't have children under eighteen at home, too.  Thus, it's the presence of children at home that is being used to distinguish between different groups of adults here.

For many valid purposes this doesn't matter.  But it matters greatly if we are going to analyze these findings against the background of the cultural debates about proper gender roles and about the question whether mothers of young children should stay at home or not. 

My Last Post on Monica Lewinsky

Partly because I didn't follow the events when they happened, but partly because others have written the more interesting stuff.

But there's a lesson to be learned from the "Monica Lewinsky scandal," beginning with the fact that it was called that and not the "Bill Clinton scandal."  Such "love or sex triangles" do not have equal sides, in terms of negative consequences, and neither did this one.

If I had to make an uninformed judgment I'd say that Lewinsky's life and career have truly suffered from what happened, but Bill Clinton's life and career have not.  His approval numbers went up with the impeachment attempts, his career didn't suffer and he even kept his marriage intact.  If anything, his hounddog reputation has enhanced him in some minds.  How much Hillary Clinton might suffer depends, to some small extent, on this latest go-around.

The point is that women do tend to bear the burden of such sex "scandals."   But is it because of our sexual scripts about women's responsibilities for both keeping their husbands sexually sated and for keeping the gate closed in extramarital relationships?  Is it because of that ancient slut-archetype, applied to women who cannot prove that they were forced to have sex?  Or is it, perhaps, that the blame is passed down the hierarchy and because women, on average, stand on lower rungs of that hierarchy they are most likely to be stuck with it?

I also find the way agency seems to have been treated in this case fascinating.  Many of the questions that are raised in the above links to other writings are about Lewinsky's agency.  But the agency of Bill Clinton appears to be treated as something akin to a switch in his hind-brain overwhelming everything else.  Yet he was the person with the most power of all types in this case. 

Why is all this the talk of the week again?  Because of Lewinsky's book, of course, and the timing of that book is most likely based on there still being a likelihood that Hillary Clinton might run for the president of the United States.  I don't grudge Lewinsky the money her book might make, by the way, but much of the political discussion about these events has to do with how to stop Hillary Clinton, not with the questions we appear to be debating. article in the Vanity Fair.  My apologies for the initial mistake.  I have no idea why I thought she had written a book!  Perhaps it's time to stop blogging...

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Women And Their Eggs. How Ovulation Makes You Act And Other Tales From Evolutionary Psychology.

A new meta-study looks at the vast field of evolutionary psychology studies into menstrual cycle and women's impregnation preferences*.  That term is mine, to cover the field where women are argued to prefer pictures of rough male faces when they ovulate and pictures of smooth and babyish male faces when they don't, and so on.  These preferences are seen as indications of the type of man the woman would prefer to be impregnated by, trading different unconscious objectives:  The rough face provides the best genes but the baby-face is more likely to hang around and help in childcare etc, so women are more likely to pick the rough face to be the baby daddy but let the baby face wear the horns.  And so on.

The menstrual cycle studies even argue that women vote for manly men when they are in the ovulatory part of the cycle.  Or that women wear red or pink when ovulating.

Anyway, the meta study abstract tells us something interesting:

In evolutionary psychology predictions, women’s mate preferences shift between fertile and nonfertile times of the month to reflect ancestral fitness benefits. Our meta-analytic test involving 58 independent reports (13 unpublished, 45 published) was largely nonsupportive. Specifically, fertile women did not especially desire sex in short-term relationships with men purported to be of high genetic quality (i.e., high testosterone, masculinity, dominance, symmetry). The few significant preference shifts appeared to be research artifacts. The effects declined over time in published work, were limited to studies that used broader, less precise definitions of the fertile phase, and were found only in published research.

Bolds are mine.  As PZ Myers notes in his write-up of the study, the work that was not published may have been lower in quality.  But it may also have remained in the file drawers because it found a negative.  Research journals still favor new-and-shocking findings over no-effect findings.

Whether this meta-study gets it right or not, future studies, better done, could find such ovulation effects.  Though I personally doubt that.  Or rather, I doubt that any such effects would be large enough to matter when studied within the complicated context of human cultures.

The reference to "less precise definitions of the fertile phase" in that study abstract is also significant.  For example, if the fertile stage is defined widely enough, then those who want to see when women wear red or pink might be actually (and by accident) measuring women's desire not to wear red or pink when they are menstruating or close to that phase in their cycles.  The reasons for such avoidance (not saying it exists) are rather different from evolutionary explanations.

But what about the guys and ovulation?  Evolutionary psychology has something to say about that, too.  Remember the 2010 study which found that men could smell female ovulation by sniffing at women's sweaty t-shirts?   It was widely popularized, especially by John Tierney of the New York Times:

It may seem hard to believe that men could distinguish a woman who’s at peak fertility simply by sitting next to her for a few minutes. Scientists long assumed that ovulation in humans was concealed from both sexes.
But recent studies have found large changes in cues and behavior when a woman is at this stage of peak fertility. Lap dancers get much higher tips (unless they’re taking birth-control pills that suppress ovulation, in which case their tips remain lower). The pitch of a woman’s voice rises. Men rate her body odor as more attractive and respond with higher levels of testosterone.

It's that body odor stuff which comes from the 2010 study.  But a 2012 study didn't find any such testosterone effect.  That study wasn't an exact replication of the earlier one.  For example, it didn't prime the men by telling that they were going to smell the t-shirts worn by women and it didn't use shirts at all.  On the whole, it looks to me like a more carefully done study.  From the abstract:

Here, we collected axillary sweat samples from women on days near ovulation. In a crossover design, men who were not explicitly aware of the specific stimuli smelled the sweat samples in one session and water samples in a second session. There were no differences in testosterone responses across the experimental conditions.
 Now make a guess.  Did John Tierney write about that 2012 study or not? 

Sigh.  One reason I criticize the coverage of these kinds of studies is the easy pass they get from science pundits such as John Tierney (who has his own views on us wimminfolk).  Another reason is something I've spotted when I read through the articles.  Far too often the literature reviews in evolutionary psychology omit the critical studies, the studies which found nothing, the studies which were unclear.  That makes the edifice look formidably strong but writing the review that way is not ethical, in my humble opinion.  I hope to see this practice change in the future.

 *Thanks to Latverian Diplomat in the comments for the first three links.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

While Reading About The Stagnant Race Gap in Reading and Mathematics Scores

At MSNBC website, the right-hand column listed most recent comments attached to this topic.  The one I saw at the time of my reading was:

Liberals Scumbags get a job17 minutes ago
In reply to: Frank from Victoria #3
Thats becaus most liberals are like all commies...corporatist elitests that want a 2 class technocratic system ...,.
Where these people are the proletariat.
Platos Republic.

It diverted me from the article for a second or so and turned me into that favorite channel of wondering why comments are so stupid and why they exist at all.  But it also made me see an example of the failures of the US school system.

Returning to the actual topic:  The disparities in the achievement numbers by race and ethnicity are linked to lower incomes, less access to resources, racism and the way residential segregation follows both income and ethnic/racial lines. 

The best resource-based solution to this is to stop funding schools from just local taxes.  When the average incomes of areas differ the quality of the schools will, too, because some areas have a lot less money to spend per student.  I'd also like to see more resources steered into poorer areas and higher teacher pay in them.  Positive discrimination, to counteract the negative effects of poverty in early childhood.

Of course trying to affect the lower incomes and income inequality in general would work even better but that really is too radical a proposal in this country.  The next best thing is to focus on the schools, because everyone agrees that the children themselves are not to blame for their bad lottery results in life.


Back To The Nineties: Monica Lewinsky And "You Women's Rights Ladies."

It may shock some political pundits in the US, but eighteen years is a long time, when measured by human experience.  I  recall reading about the sex scandal involving Bill Clinton, then the president of the country, and Monica Lewinsky, then a White House intern.  I even remember thinking that Lewinsky was treated most unfairly and that the whole scandal was framed in archetypal terms as a triangle drama between the Frigid And Controlling Wife, the Impossible-To-Change-Hounddog and The Other Woman, A Slut.  Which leaves the hounddog free to sniff around and lift his leg wherever he wishes.

Now Lewinsky has written a book about her experiences during that time, and naturally all the pundits discuss the events again.  Joe Scarborough, a conservative pundit on US television, blew a gasket in this context.  To quote him:

The "Morning Joe" panelists were discussing a column by the New York Post's Andrea Peyser, titled "Self-pitying Lewinsky should go away," when Scarborough became incensed.
"This is not about Bill Clinton. This is about the women who were eviscerating Monica Lewinsky, who for 18 years was quiet and, by the way, lived a life of shame and her entire existence reduced to a punchline," Scarborough said. "And she stays quiet, shows a lot of dignity, a lot more dignity than people who preyed upon her and tried to turn her into a slut or a nut. A 22-year-old daughter, really? And now they're coming out kicking her in the face?"
"Please, you all are sick. You 'women's rights' ladies, you were sick in the '90s," he continued. "You all went around, you defended the wrong person time and time again. Whether it was Juanita Broaddrick, whether it was Monica Lewinsky, you defended [Clinton]. And you're doing it 18 years later. You're pathetic."

The writer of that column, by the way, is a conservative, anti-woman columnist.  She once compared the female Danish prime minister to a tart or a piece of Danish pastry.

What is interesting about Scarborough's reaction is the use of group guilt.  Every feminist is sick, because of Scarborough's opinions about how Lewinsky was treated.  It doesn't matter if I was doing anything feministy in the 1990s; the same accusations apply to me.  I'm sick.  Indeed, it doesn't matter if some feminist was then still in diapers/nappies, that person is every bit as sick as all the other "ladies" for "women's rights."  Men for women's rights would perhaps be a concept so sick that it doesn't even occur to Scarborough.

The use of group guilt is a topic which deserves a much more fine-tuned treatment than I'm giving it here.  This example differs from many others in important ways, but it brings home the point that large groups are seen by humans as having a life, as having a history and as being responsible for that history.  But large groups consist of mortal individuals and the actual identity of those in the groups change over time.  And it is the individuals now in that group we rant at.

That's how we get into the kind of situation where Echidne is responsible for what made Scarborough angry.  If she took all this seriously, of course, and ignored the political hay that was being made both then and now.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

A Pretend-Review Of New Evolutionary Psychology Research

This is a pretend-review, and mostly about the write-up of the study,  because I couldn't read the study without paying for it, so all I have to go is the abstract and the one write-up I found.  Let's begin with the write-up:

Big eyes and full lips may turn male heads in Japan, but in Nepal, men aren't as interested in pretty, girly faces.
Those are the findings of a new study of men's preferences for female faces in 28 nations. The results reveal that guys are drawn to feminine looks – large eyes, pillow lips and a soft jaw — to a greater extent in countries that are the healthiest.
The reason for this difference isn't clear, but scientists suspect that evolution may drive these attractions, at least subconsciously. Men in harsh conditions may have a better chance of fathering children who survive if they mate with a woman who can hold on to resources, said study researcher Urszula Marcinkowska, a doctoral candidate at the University of Turku in Finland.
There ya go!  Except that big eyes and full lips are not defined exactly the same for different racial and ethnic groups, right?  The study is one of those look-at-photographs-and-decide-whom-you-want-to-mate-with ones, and the photographs are manipulated to get versions which the researchers (but perhaps not the subjects of the study?) deem to be more or less feminine or masculine.  I fervently hope that the photographs showed women of the racial or ethnic group the men belonged to, by the way, and that they didn't define "feminine" features on the basis of white faces only.  I'm going to assume that they did all that correctly.

So what were the findings?  We are told that men in Japan, Australia and the United States preferred "feminine" faces whereas the men in Nepal, Nigeria and Colombia didn't, or at least not to the same extent.  If "feminine" means big eyes and full lips, then that's what Japanese men like the best, right?


What are we going to do with these findings?  Here's where my pretend-review turns into nothing but questions, because we are told a) that women with more feminine faces are more fertile and b) that women with less feminine faces are more dominant in the society and have more access to resources:

Feminine looks are an evolutionary signal of fecundity, said Dan Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan. In healthy environments, men may subconsciously look for women who can bear lots of children.
In unhealthy environments, however, it might be more important that your potential mate survive to have any children at all. Social dominance — marked by relatively masculine features — might signal that a woman can do just that.
"It seems like there's a trade-off going on, where in the harsher environments, men are putting less preference on femininity," Kruger, who was not involved in the research, told Live Science.

Is there an actual study somewhere in the archives of evolutionary psychology which conclusively demonstrates that women with more feminine faces indeed are more fecund?  Likewise, is there a similarly well-done study in those archives which proves to us that women with more masculine features indeed are socially dominant?

I have no idea.  But Dan Kruger does seem to suggest that all this is the case.

The problem I have with these deep-dives from data to some fundamental explanation is not just the possibility that the data we need to prove relationships between social dominance and masculinity in women or between feminine features and greater female fecundity might not exist, but also that had the findings been reversed (so that more feminine faces would have been preferred in the poorer countries) the obvious explanation would have been that having lots of children is important when most of them are going to die young!  Along the lines the leading researcher speculated:

Earlier cross-cultural research found that "macho" men with stereotypically masculine faces are most preferred in less-developed nations. A strong jaw, squinty eyes and a dominant brow might signal that a guy has strong genes to pass to his child, researchers suggested in March 2013 in the journal Biology Letters. [5 Things Your Grin Reveals About You]
Marcinkowska and her colleagues were interested in turning the tables and examining male preferences for female faces. It was possible, she said, that harsh conditions might promote a preference for sexual dimorphism: Women would want masculine dudes, and men would want girly-girls.

Bolds are mine.

Who knows what studies of this kind mean?  Perhaps the researchers are correct, though I'd truly like to see some sort of controls for the cultural impact of Western ideals of female beauty.  Those ideals are by now fairly widely spread, though they may not be as common in Nepal, Nigeria or Colombia as they are in Japan, Australia or the United States.  That alternative cultural theory is worth keeping in mind when evaluating studies of this type. 



Good News/Bad News On US Pregnancies

The bad news first, because the good news at the end leaves you feeling better: 

A World Health Organization report on maternal mortality rates notes global improvement in those rates.  The annual number of women who died due to childbirth or pregnancy fell from 523,000 in 1990 to 289,000 in 2013.

That's great, though we can do better.  What's not so great is the trend in the United States: