on the sexiness of testosterone and unquestioned assumptions

Last weekend I was listening to a program on “Testosterone” on “This American Life” (archive) and, predictably, my interest in the topic was equaled or surpassed by my exasperation and annoyance at its handling. “This American Life” is a one-hour show, that aims to do something rather cool: Shed some light on a topic by telling several different stories related to the topic. But at the end of this nuanced hour, all I wanted to do at the end of it is say, “Jesus, it’s more complicated than that.”

First of all, on some level, the mere existence of a show on this topic annoyed me. Testosterone is just so over-exposed. Testosterone is a sexy hormone, and by that, I don’t mean that it is a sex hormone or that it is responsible for the sex drive. I mean that people love talking about it, thinking about it, writing about it, and attributing all sorts of amazing qualities to it.

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the eternal verities of fashion preferences

christ what a crock: The London Times reports that:

We all know that women like pink and men prefer blue, but we have never really known why. Now it emerges that parents who dress their boys in blue and girls in pink may not just be following tradition but some deep-seated evolutionary instinct.

I guess “evolution” waxes and wanes with the fashion trends of the centuries, because in the US in the 19th & early 20th centuries pink was the boys’ color (because it was a type of red, a strong masculine color!) and blue was the girls’ color.

So many possible responses to this utter blithering idiocy. I don’t know whether I’m madder at the Times (and other press) for reporting this crap uncritically, or whether I’m madder at the evolutionary psychologists who, in all seriousness, confirm their own social prejudices as eagerly as did the phrenologists and racist European skull-measurers of the 19th century.
update: of course, the bloggers & commenters of the world have already hit this one: the comments on the London Times article are largely insightful; bad science.net is snarky & gives historical context also; broadsheet @ salon.com had a little detail & a lot of commentary, but surprisingly, didn’t jump on the stupidity quite as much as they really could have.

best NYT on sex differences EVER

Some mathematicians have finally pointed out the really, really obvious problem behind a popular theory of sex differences: Men are purported to have more sex partners than women … but the math doesn’t add up. Folks loving the idea that men and women are intrinsically, inherently, biologically, different have long loved to cite things like the fact that men have more sex partners than women, which shows up in virtually any survey. It’s not logically possible, but people still cite the numbers as if they mean something. (“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”) Gee, I wonder if people studying and proclaiming numerous sex differences could be infected by any other forms of biased thinking?

update: broadsheet had the best headline: Chaste women + promiscuous men = impossible and some good commentary too in the article and one or two helpful points in the comments. Unfortunately, most of the commenters are stuck on arguing about the differences between median and mean (average), quibbling about the math professor’s take, and failing to understand that (a) the NYT article just did a sloppy representation of what the math professor said; and (b) at least some part of what the math professor is really getting at is the popular understanding and use of such studies (including frequent media stories). (Many of the commenters have fallen into the trap of never going back to the source to try to figure out what they’re talking about, so they’re arguing about misquotes and misunderstandings of third-generation reports about data. No wonder there’s confusion about median and mean.)

The NYT article of course didn’t help clarify anything about median or mean (that is after all part of the problem that leads to the necessity of the math professor speaking up) but they did, to their credit, get the lede implication right: The thing this really casts doubt on is the big, all-encompassing theories of human nature that argue that men are inclined to X, and women inclined to Y, because of their y and x genes respectively. So, the numbers in the surveys could be right or wrong, but the conclusions about “women’s nature” and “men’s nature” are not well-supported by relying on the median. It would have been cool if they had talked about the implications of mean and median for social sciences behavior: Are averages or medians more susceptible to social pressures, for instance? Seems plausible that those numbers would have different artifacts but I don’t know, and the NYT didn’t help.

Anyway, as the professor suggested, the numbers have to be off somewhere, because while, yes, mean and median are different, you’ve still gotta make those numbers reconcile somehow. In other words, if median and mean are different, then there have to be differences in mean among subgroups that generate the median. In other words, if most women are more chaste than most men, then some women have to be having a lot more sex than either most women or men.

The most recent survey (NCHS 2007 survey of sex & drug behavior of US adults) that precipitated this discussion showed that 29% of US men report having 15 or more female partners, and 9% of women report having 15 or more male partners. It’s a little difficult to imagine that the 9% of women have so many more partners than the 29% of men, on average, that they make up for the 91% of women who had fewer … My guess is that there is greater variability among female sex habits, that there is some real, intentional fudging in the self-reported data, and that there is some methodological and definitional problems in how men and women define sex (I’m thinking of rape: I know that some people forced to have sex nonconsensually would not “count” that person as a sex partner, whereas it seems plausible that the rapist might well count their victim as a sex partner, especially if the rapist didn’t so self-define).

The greater variability point, if true, is itself interesting: Since “greater variability” shows up so frequently in sociobiological arguments about there being more male geniuses and idiots, you’d think the “greater variability” argument would be of interest to them in the realm of sexual behavior, too.
update: slate covered it too, with the mean/median point. while focusing on the trees, slate managed to notice the forest in a single paragraph toward the end.

Wiley copyright imbroglio at science blog

Last week a copyright imbroglio broke out at a science blog which had written a post critiquing mainstream coverage of a science article; the blog had posted a figure from the paper to demonstrate bad science writing in the mainstream media. Wiley sent a C&D; the blogger agreed to take the material down (actually took the data and recreated the figures herself) but posted about the incident; a blogstorm erupted (see also coturnix); THEN Wiley apologized … and the blogger as far as I can tell just left her own recreated figures on the blog post, and who can blame her? It’s a (relative) pain in the ass loading images on a blog.

So some good will come out of this incident: that a bajillion people will have heard the words “fair use” and been inspired to participate in discussions about open content, fair use, control of information, etc.

I really, really hope that people do *not* take the lesson that if the publisher had not apologized and “granted permission” that the original figures would have had to stay down. This was a classic example of the chilling effect that comes from cease and desist letters. In other words, a classic example of the growth of copyright paranoia.

The law is actually on the blogger’s side on this issue. That blogger would have been well within rights to completely ignore the C&D to begin with because this was as fair use (as many people pointed out). Wiley would have then had to do a s.512 notice to the ISP (scienceblogs.com) which would also have been within its rights to ignore the notice. They could have then filed a 512(f) suit against Wiley for a bad faith s.512 notice, and EFF or any number of attorneys would have been delighted to take them on as pro bono clients, I’m certain.

My point: These incidents raise questions about the growth of copyright and whether copyright should be usefully applied to certain kinds of knowledge and how public investments in scientific research should be monitored. But they also raise simple questions of the abuse and misuse of copyright law — misuse which is illegal in some circumstances and can cost the misuser a lot of money.

I’d like to see in-house counsel advising their “junior staff” about the possible liability for misusing its copyrights. A few more high-profile cases might put that in their list of important topics to cover in their in-house trainings.

if the evidence doesn’t fit, ignore it

Years ago, my partner read some of Nicholas Wade’s NYT articles and shook her head at the shallowness of his analysis. It hasn’t gotten any better since. The NYT is running a lot of articles right now about sex, gender, and sexuality, and Nicholas Wade’s latest article is crap. He writes like the answers have been found, and, surprise, they’re exactly what people a hundred years ago thought, too. Conflicting evidence? Why bother? This is the New York Times, not actual science.

Sigh. Remember Gina Kolata? She was good. Why can’t we have good science writing again? (In fairness, the single line from the Wade article that annoyed me the most wasn’t Wade’s, but a quote from J. Michael Bailey: “If you can’t make a male attracted to other males by cutting off his penis, how strong could any psychosocial effect be?” Indeed. Because when I think about how to raise a gay man the first option that occurs to me is cutting off his penis. Jackass.)

The video is also annoying: My invisible lesbian partner and I sat with open-jawed amazement as they talked about straight boys, gay boys, straight girls, and … let’s move on to another topic altogether, the sweaty t-shirt experiment (No, not the menstrual cycle-synching armpit sniffing experiment; the women sniffing men’s sweaty tshirts that shows that women may develop even emotional attachments to men with different immune systems.) So a total fluff piece with little useful content.

Natalie Angier’s article on sexual desire, as ever, is much better. (I especially liked the quote from the psychologist in her 50s: “Listening to Noam Chomsky always turns me on.” I hear ya, sister.) Angier treats some of the same subjects as Wade, but much more reasonably. Wade reports that scientists have found X, we now know Y, and other very definitive statements of Objective Scientific Truth. He describes the experiment in the terms of the conclusion, thus making it appear foregone, unquestionable, certain. By contrast, Angier describes experiments in detail, pulling out the findings, and then labeling the assumptions and hypotheses. She reports the uncertainties as well as the findings and (tentative) conclusions. The reader has a chance to understand the experiment and draw their own conclusions, and compare those to the conclusions of the scientist or commentator or writer of the article. … And she’s not just a better science writer, she’s actually a better writer. Her prose is actually enjoyable to read.

bi lies, reprised

Remember the kerfuffle about the stupidly titled NYT article on bisexuality? (Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited) The study, to be published in Psychological Science in Aug. 2005, was described by NYT science writer Benedict Carey as suggesting that there are no truly bisexual men, and indeed it seemed as if the study’s authors fostered that interpretation.

Bay Windows (the New England lgbt paper), and the Ottawa Citizen, got a different perspective from one of the authors, grad student Meredith Chivers, who described it as “ludicrous” to “reduce sexual orientation to a question of sexual arousal”. She also added that she and her coauthors “disagree[d] about the definition of sexual orientation. … I think the study shows that sexual orientation is a multifaceted and complex psychological construct and sexual arousal is only one part of that construct.”

Finally, commenting directly on the NYT coverage, she said:

I think the negative response to the New York Times article headline is warranted. I hope that people who are active in this controversy will also read the original article with an unbiased mind, so that they can decide for themselves, rather than unequivocally accept the information the media has provided thus far.

I hope so, too, but in fact most people won’t have access to Psychological Science ["The page you requested is only available to APS members"]. Without open access to the scientific literature, we must rely solely on science reporting. Which is why accurate reporting that captures nuance rather than elides it is so crucial.

update 8/15: americablog posted on 7/6 some interesting details about the study’s main author, Dr. J. Michael Bailey.

Related posts: Bi Lies (7/5)

tech mandates and reproductive care

I never cease to be astonished by how smarmy politicans can be: today, leaders in the Smarm Community, the anti-choice people (‘pro-lifers’). The latest RU-486 story in the NYT, sensationalistically titled “2 More Women Die After Abortion Pills”, covers two recent RU-486 deaths (two, for a total of five; four of which were probably infection-related). Naturally the pro-lifers jumped on it, using the opportunity to pontificate piously and misleadingly. Here’s “Concerned Women of America” policy director Wendy Wright:

“Sadly, people who support RU-486 apparently believe the risk of death is preferable to having a child.”

Wright’s politicized sorrow obscures the facts, some of which are included in the NYT article. It turns out that these two deaths are from infection after RU-486 abortion, and, statistically, the deathrate from infections after childbirth and abortion remains consistent across procedures and methods. [The NYT article fails to mention anything in response to this misleading quote; I would have thought that the risk of death from 'having a child' would have been appropriate here. The risk of long-term health problems, considerably greater for childbirth than for any method of abortion, might also have improved the article. But ranting about the NYT is a task for another day. For many other days.]

Politicized Research

The statistics are unsurprising, but in the politicized world of abortion statistics you would have difficulty verifying the data, or trying to flesh out Ms. Wright’s statement. For instance, if you googled something like ‘childbirth abortion mortality rates’, you could see that Google has been successfully bombed by a flood of political sites on the topic (largely anti-abortion). You have to get to the second page of results before you actually start seeing any material from the medical community.

A search of PubMed proved much more helpful. The scientific literature largely treats abortion, pregnancy, and birth control as part of a continuum of family planning and reproductive outcomes — what I’ll call the reproductive medicine approach. This makes sense. Research that seems tailor-made to proving somebody’s point about abortion (from whatever perspective) is just inherently less trustworthy.

The reproductive medicine approach makes clear that when the government gets involved in restricting women’s reproductive choices there are clear medical consequences: Whatever the risks of specific procedures, techniques, and reproductive outcomes, what’s really risky is lack of access to family planning and contraception. Unplanned pregnancies are, ultimately, the cause of most pregnancy & childbirth-related mortality, by leading to high-risk pregnancy, or in many countries, illegal or quasi-legal abortion. In the US, for instance, restrictions on abortion delay many women’s access to the very safe first trimester abortion, perversely leading to more late-term abortions. But the message from those who would politicize and involve the government in individual medical decisionmaking, is never about healthcare or policy, probably because the healthcare policies they would propose would be unacceptable to most people. Instead, they focus on particular technologies, techniques, and procedures — effectively establishing technological mandates and prohibitions.

Technological Mandates Are Bad Government

It’s almost never a good idea for the government to establish technological mandates. Technological developments are notoriously difficult to second-guess or steer; tech mandates all too often exemplify the law of unintended consequences [Library of Economics, WikiPedia]. Whenever Congress or state legislators try to take aim at specific technologies, they end up effecting a lot of other changes, scattershot. And any technologically specific law is bound to be out of date very quickly.

We usually think of tech mandates & prohibitions in geeky areas, like copyright: the DMCA (thou shalt not tamper with copy protection measures, etc.); DAT (digital audio tape recorder manufacturers shall include copy protection schemes); broadcast flags (thou shalt include broadcast flag recognition technology in video recorders). But the same impulses are clearly at play in the politics around abortion and birth control. And as in copyright, politicians’ attempts to mark out this or that technology, technique or method as sinful and wrong is bad policy. The politicization of this or that reproductive medicine technique (most recently emergency contraception and intact dilation and extraction, or so-called ‘partial-birth abortion’) only hampers attempts to improve reproductive medicine and outcomes for women, infants, and their families.

Abortion is only the most obvious example. Legislators do nobody any favors when they start toying with technological mandates in any field.* Look at the recent Congressional hearings on stem-cell research. Saletan in Slate tried to put a good spin on it: These guys are working really hard & exploring the issues; isn’t that nice? Yeah, that’s nice from a personal growth standpoint, but the problem is these guys are making laws about very specific techniques, and they have no clue what they’re talking about, much less doing. They don’t understand biology, they don’t understand genetics, they don’t understand development.

But Congress members do understand policy-making, and one might argue that they understand ethics. Well, err, anyway, they understand policy-making. So if Congress members feel they must Take Action, then I have a suggestion for them: Do what you know — make policy. Set out broad principles of respect for life (which includes the lives and health of women as well as the lives of their potential children) and autonomy. Fund research into family planning methods that enhance autonomy and health. Make principled statements that are general about no wanton cruelty (or whatever) in harvesting stem cells. Skip the specific tech mandates.

Then Congress could let the NSF & NIH apply those guidelines when funding specific grants. That’s what regulators & grantors are good at: reviewing specific proposals to see if they fall within general guidelines. And Congress could let the courts interpret those terms in the course of litigation. That’s what courts are good at: reviewing the facts of particular cases, heartwrenching, difficult cases, and figuring out how to apply broad principles. And Congress could stop grandstanding and micromanaging cases (like Schiavo) and technologies (anything to do with biology, family planning, and copyright protection is by definition a Bad Idea for Congress to muck with — others no doubt will occur).

follow-up: 2005/7/25: The AP version of the story also pointed out that the women who got the infection and took the drugs may not have followed FDA-approved instructions.

The agency also said the four deaths occurred among women who were treated at clinics that didn’t follow FDA-approved instructions for the two- pill regimen. Although the FDA stressed that it could not prove that the “off- label” use was to blame, its new public health advisory warns doctors of the possible link to such use.

The fifth death followed a ruptured tubal pregnancy, a dangerous condition and type of pregnancy that the drug does not terminate.

Geez. Could the NYT article have been any less informative?


* For that matter, technological mandates & prohibitions really might be considered a subspecies of micromanaging generally. The Terri Schiavo fiasco demonstrates why legislators should stay out of individual cases, and far, far out of medical decisionmaking.

Bi Lies

The NYT profiled a new study that claims that bi-identified men really are either attracted exclusively either to men or women. And another new study is reported in The Scotsman about sex differences in the experience of and tolerance for pain.

As a rule I don’t think very highly of research on sex differences; research on sexual orientation is even worse, perhaps rivaled in its awfulness only by research on “race” differences. The methodological problems in any study I look at usually dwarf the value of any results. This one, I have no doubt, has similar problems. I predict that in a hundred years all the “gay science” of the 90s & early 2000s will prove to be as fraught with of-the-times misconceptions and ideas as the science of Havelock Ellis and Freud.

… I was going to babble on about the questions & criticisms I had about the results of this research (at least as reported by the NYT) but — well, I really have other things to do. In the meantime tho I get to be amused by snarky comments that point out hilariously obvious problems with research like this. For instance, Avedon Carol, who commented on the bi-lies study by noting that “every dyke I know says gay male porn is the hot stuff.” Yeah.

Related posts: Bi Lies, Reprised (7/27)