Saturday, April 16th 2011

The Scorpion and the Frog: don’t try and tell me why I do this

On April 8th, I was fortunate to be in the company of Matt Richtel, Scott White, Diana Yates and Dan Simons as part of a talk and panel discussion sponsored by the Beckman Institute and the College of Media at the University of Illinois. Matt Richtel is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist for the New York Times who has written on distracted driving, your brain on computers, and, as many of you know, neuroscientists on a raft. Matt also writes a comic and has published two works of fiction. It was a pleasure getting to know a journalist so committed to respecting scientists and getting the story, and the science, right.

Matt began the event with a short, engaging talk on the interaction between scientists and journalists. He started with the fable of the scorpion and the frog, yet never quite resolved for the audience whether he saw the scorpion as the journalist or scientist. He shared several experiences with scientists who were uninterested in talking to the press, some who pushed him to add complexity or uncertainty to a story, and some who managed to convey simple, compelling ideas in their quotes. I want to briefly describe what he said about these three populations.

For those uninterested in talking to the press, Matt suggested that, for some, this may be due to a distrust of the press, or fear of how one will be represented to colleagues. He described a time that a female scientist agreed to talk to him, on the condition of not having her picture taken for the story. She was a former model, she explained, and didn’t want her image associated with her science, lest her colleagues take her less seriously. Unfortunately, I think there are plenty of fields where this is a legitimate issue, if past issues in the science blogosphere are any indication. That said, I think he makes a good point that while you do take a risk in talking to the press, and there may be times where your work isn’t perfectly represented (and even times where it is grossly misrepresented), most of our colleagues know not to just blame the scientist. Besides, if you have a colleague that is that punitive, they aren’t a very good colleague!

Matt told a story about a scientist who worked with him on a piece, then backed out and asked that all of his material be removed. Over the course of a difficult conversation, the scientist revealed his fear that his colleagues would judge his quotes as overstating the results of the evidence. Eventually, they worked out an alternative quote that simply added in a qualifier (I believe it was the word “almost” but I don’t remember). Keeping the qualifier, or pushing for its inclusion, can satisfy a lot of scientists talking to the press, and in doing so it adds a necessary element of uncertainty. The scientific method s not about proving things, it is about disproving them. You want to disprove the null hypothesis (an example of this would be that your hypothesis is that estrogen varies with lifestyle, and the null hypothesis is that there is no difference in estrogen based on lifestyle). And, when you get evidence that supports your hypothesis, this doesn’t prove a thing. All it does is support the hypothesis in the context of that particular study’s parameters. Given this understanding of the scientific method, perhaps journalists could see how much scientists chafe at bold conclusions or words like “proof” or “fact!”

Finally, Matt described a class of scientists who are not only good to work with, but provide statements that convey complex ideas in an engaging, easy to understand way. He calls these scientists Quote Monkeys. Quote Monkeys not only distill a difficult idea for a lay audience, yet convey excitement and delight in science. He used the example from his “your brain on computers” series where one scientist said “Bring back boredom!” This captures the idea that not multi-tasking all the time, that having downtime to process events rather than always being plugged in, is good for our brains. (So, if you’re reading this on your phone in the bathroom, put the phone down. You know who you are!)

After Matt’s wonderful talk, Scott, Diana and I served as panelists, with Dan Simons moderating. Scott White is a professor in Aerospace Engineering who has had some media attention for his supercool self-healing materials. I appreciated his approachable, dry style. Diana Yates is a journalist who covers the life science beat for the University of Illinois News Bureau, and she has done an amazing job over the years showing the rest of the world why the science that happens here at Illinois is so exciting. Dan Simons co-authored a great popular science book The Invisible Gorilla (I bought it for my brother in law this past winter before I realized Dan was on campus), and has a social media presence as well, curating interesting material mostly on cognitive psychology. We each gave a little introduction to ourselves regarding our experiences with journalists; I largely talked about how social media is what has connected me to science journalists, and my experiences with and USA Today writers (both positive).

The questions we received were good ones, ranging from how to keep from looking like a fool while talking to journalists to how to write science stories without resorting to clichés or self-help hooks. For the first issue, we discussed the importance of asking a journalist for her/his timeline (is your story due in 20 minutes, hours or days?) and that one should request seeing the quotes that will be used before the story goes live. You also don’t have to say yes to every request; if the timeline is too short or you have looked up the journalist and they or their employer aren’t reputable, just move on. For the second question, I talked about reframing the question that captures the audience’s interest from “how does this affect me?” to “why should I care?” or “why is this cool?” I mentioned Ed Yong as an excellent example of a writer who delights the reader, regardless of whether he is discussing algae, racism, or bat fellatio. He shares his excitement and is a guide, not a sage; I think Ed’s work is compelling for the same reasons NPR’s Radiolab is so good. You get the sense the narrator is learning along with you, though in Ed’s case I think you also get the sense that he has scientific expertise to add credibility to his analysis and what he chooses to cover.

One audience member made a rather bold, critical claim that journalists and scientists were in cahoots to promote the journalists and get the scientists tenure. The other panelists handled this one delicately. I did not (what, you are surprised?). Academic readers of this blog are likely aware that writing a blog is a professional risk, as is talking to journalists, especially when one is a junior faculty member. As John Hawks said in his panel on blogging in the academy at Science Online 2011, blogging is at best a tertiary activity. But if you use your blog not only to reach out to layfolks but also to make broader claims about your field, you may have critics as well as fans. I know the risks I take every time I put up a new blog post or agree to talk to a journalist. But I have also decided that my enjoyment, and the benefits to my own goals of scientific outreach, far outweigh the risks. I want women to read my posts and pass them on to their daughters. I want readers of sites like Jezebel and Feministe getting excited about biology. And I want every person who has found evolutionary psychology claims intuitive to think on the bias that produces that false intuition.

When I was a child, my parents had the following Man of La Mancha quote in our bathroom, on a poster directly opposite the toilet:

Too much sanity
May be madness
But the maddest of all
Is to see life as it is
And not as it should be.

I learned to read with that quote. I sang it in my head. And when I was younger, it meant absolutely nothing to me. I don’t remember the moment exactly when it went from something I chanted in my head to something that defined my own outlook on the world. But I want to make this job into the job it should be, not the job it is. To me, that means blogging, talking to laypeople about science, and interacting with science communicators and journalists.

But don’t tell me I do it to get tenure.

Wednesday, April 6th 2011

If I objectify you, will it make you feel bad enough to objectify yourself? On shopping, sexiness and hormones.

Found here.

When I was younger, periods were not a fun time, and I was plagued with dysmenorrhea, which is a fancy term for really bad cramps. In high school, I would often take 1000 mg of ibuprofen every four hours to alleviate symptoms to get through all my classes, band, sports practice, and homework (what, it took you this long to realize I was, and am, a dork?).

After having my daughter in 2008, and the thirteen months of lactational amenorrhea that followed it (lactational amenorrhea means absence of periods due to lactation), my periods resumed. Pain during my periods has almost totally ceased, but I have noticed more cycle-related variation in emotion. In particular, my patience and tolerance for rude behavior, and my tendency to cry sentimentally at even the lamest greeting card, skyrocket in my premenstrual phase. I already have low tolerance for rudeness, and I already cry easily. But something about progesterone decline — which is a normal process towards the end of ovulatory cycles — seems to make it harder for me to repress these behaviors in order to fit in culturally with those around me.

I tell this to you to say, I don’t doubt that hormones, and hormonal variation through the cycle, plays some role in variation in female behavior and emotion. And I find this kind of work inherently interesting. I hate to repeat myself, but you will find echoes of my structural and methodological concerns with evolutionary psychology in this post as well.

* * *

Durante et al (2011) observe that women spend more money on their appearance than men, and claim that this sex difference is cross-culturally consistent (I wonder, is this consistent across cultures without money?). In order to understand this sex difference, they wish to see whether spending or shopping behavior is dependent on cycle phase. Therefore the authors hypothesize that women choose sexier clothing during ovulation — “even if the women themselves are not consciously aware of this biological fact” (Durante et al 2011: 922), a problematic turn of phase if I ever saw one, but I’ll get to that later. They also consider the effects of priming a shopping woman with images of attractive women and hypothesize there is a greater effect of this priming on high-fertility women.


The participants were female undergraduates and were compensated with course credit or money. The authors claim the participants had no idea the study had anything to do with the menstrual cycle, but the participants had to use LH strips at midcycle to see when she was ovulating (this is a urine test to check for a luteinizing hormone peak, which comes before ovulation).

Here’s the important part, for me:

“The first urine test was scheduled 2 days before the expected day of ovulation. If an LH surge was not detected, women came back each day until an LH surge was detected or six tests had been completed, whichever came first” (Durante et al 2011: 924).

Here are my questions: what is 2 days before the expected day of ovulation? The follicular phase — that’s from menstruation to ovulation — is the most variable phase of the menstrual cycle (Fehring et al. 2006; Lenton et al. 1984). I wonder how many ovulations they missed because of this. Perhaps even worse, how many participants had six LH tests and didn’t have a detectable LH surge? It sounds like they were included in the project. But, they either ovulated before the authors started testing, or they had an anovulatory cycle. That means the authors were including participants in their study that weren’t ovulating… in a study of behavior during ovulation.

Participants viewed a made-up shopping website on a high-fertility (near the LH surge) and low-fertility (about eight days later) day, where they had to select ten items they would like to buy that day. They were randomized into two groups: one shown a site featuring casual clothes, the other featuring clothes and accessories. The clothing on these made-up sites were “pretested to be sexy” (Durante et al 2011: 925). While that is a phrase I never expected to write on this blog, the separate validation they did to determine sexy versus nonsexy clothing seems fine.


Hypothesis 1: Near ovulation, women should be more likely to choose sexier and revealing clothing and other fashion items rather than items that are less revealing and sexy (Durante et al 2011: 923).

Women chose a greater percentage of sexy clothing and accessory items near ovulation: 59.8% ± 21.6 during ovulation, 51.3% ± 22.4 during low fertility. This was a statistically significant difference, but they did a repeated measures ANOVA, and I don’t understand why they didn’t do a paired t-test. Further, statistically significant or not, I question how meaningful it is when the averages are so close and the standard deviations almost completely overlap.

H2: Ovulation should lead women to be especially likely to choose sexier products when women are primed to compare themselves to attractive female rivals (Durante et al 2011: 924).

H3: There should be no differences in product choice between ovulating and nonovulating women when women are primed with unattractive women or men (Durante et al 2011: 924).

Follow-up studies primed sub-sets of participants (so a different cohort, same recruitment methods as above) to think about 1) attractive local women, 2) unattractive local women, 3) attractive local men, 4) unattractive local men. They did this by showing photographs of people who they claimed to be local and asking participants to rate their attractiveness.

When primed with attractive women, the percentages of sexy items chosen were 62.7% for ovulating women and 38.2% for low fertility women (I could not find standard deviations for these values so have no idea how much the two groups overlap). Priming with unattractive women, attractive men, or unattractive men produced no significant difference between low and high fertility women.

H4: Ovulation should lead women to choose sexier products when primed to think about local attractive women who constitute potential direct rivals. However, ovulation should not influence product choice when women are primed to think about women from distant locations because such women do not constitute direct rivals (Durante et al 2011: 924).

The authors used a different method for assessing fertility this time; they asked women their normal menstrual cycle length and counted back from menses to estimate when ovulation would be. So AGAIN, we don’t know how many women actually ovulated in this study, and we don’t know whether a significant portion of women were then grouped in the high-fertility group who shouldn’t have been.

This study is like the previous one in terms of photo priming, but this time the photos were said to be local or distant, and were of women only (so the four groups were local attractive, local unattractive, distant attractive, distant unattractive).

The authors claimed that the relationship between fertility, photo attractiveness and location was “marginally significant,” but the p-value was 0.09. That is, in fact, not significant, as significance is generally only considered under 0.05 unless you cheat and say your study is special and should consider a different limit (they don’t say this in their study).

That said, the only significant effect found of photo priming on high versus low fertility women was in the local attractive women group: high fertility women chose 65.8% sexy items versus low fertility’s 39.1% (I could not find standard deviations for these values so have no idea how much the two groups overlap). These results are almost identical to those found when priming women with attractive women without saying if they are local or not.

How biological are we talking here?

The authors claim a biological cause for the differences found above. And maybe there is, to some extent. But there are two major issues with the authors’ conclusions.

First, there is the major methodological flaw of including women who probably aren’t ovulating in their high-fertility group. Heads up to people who don’t study female physiology: women, even healthy women with “normal” cycle lengths, don’t ovulate every cycle. So if understanding a behavior during ovulation is important to your hypotheses, you need daily hormones on top of that LH test. Then, you know, if you can’t document ovulation, you need to exclude those women from your sample. Oh, and while we’re discussing methods, the authors don’t mention whether the participants were in a relationship or not, or what their sexualities were, or their races or socioeconomic statuses. These are all important to understanding variation in female-female competition (Campbell 2004). And since ornamentation is likely related to honest signals of health, it would be good to know waist to hip ratios, or BMI, or facial symmetry (Streeter and McBurney 2003) (hello, I’m handing someone a dissertation here! Just remember to cite me correctly).

But the second issue relates to the theme I saw throughout this paper, that changes in mood or choice behavior due to ovulation or presence of attractive women is a “biological fact.” Female-female competition is certainly found within human behavior, and behavior changes through the menstrual cycle. But is it fair to call these behaviors strictly biological, or should we have a more nuanced understanding of the interaction between biology and culture?

There are alternative cultural theories out there. Objectification theory proposes that there are consequences to living in a culture that sexually objectifies women: when women are continually appraised based on their looks, it leads to a disconnect between their body and individual (Moffitt and Szymanski 2011). This disempowers women and leads to them feeling as though their bodies exist for the pleasure of others. And if this is what women learn they have to offer others, and they seek affirmation, praise or attention from those around them, it makes sense for women to compete around attractiveness, particularly sexiness.

I would posit that shopping, particularly when primed with the image of an attractive woman, is a kind of objectification. So really, what Durante et al (2011) are measuring are the results of objectifying their study participants. Under these circumstances, a woman is more likely to start treating herself as an object to be evaluated on the basis of her appearance, so it makes sense that she would choose sexier clothing, in an effort to produce a culturally-appropriate, attractive body.

As the study stands, there is no way to parse out the impact of biology or culture — and many cultures encourage objectification, female-female competition and female attractiveness towards men. As for how that interacts with high versus low fertility samples… that’s the interesting part of this paper. If we can trust how the women are parsed. Which we can’t, since some of the high-fertility sample might not have been ovulating.

These high heels are made of deer antlers

Antler booties from Camilla Skovgaard.

The authors also seemed enamored with the idea of comparing their female participants to male animals. Twice they mention the idea that they want to determine whether sexy clothing is analogous to a peacock’s tail, a deer’s antlers, or a lion’s mane (really). These three examples, according to the authors, reflect a courtship function, a same-sex competition function, or both functions respectively. The authors go on to say that their results suggest that sexy dressing in women is like deer’s antlers, or, a same-sex competition function.

First, since when are a deer’s antlers only a same-sex competition function? Second, doesn’t it say something that they couldn’t find any examples of this kind of display in a female animal? This begs the question of why female humans do so much more displaying and maintenance of their appearance compared to other female animals, and again, this suggests interactions between biology and culture (Smuts 1995).

We can spin all the stories we want to explain why many human females make efforts to be physically attractive. And I do think Durante et al (2011) are on to something here as, despite methodological concerns they did find differences in high- and low-fertility choices. But if we continue to do this research on undergraduates in western contexts without sufficient hormone analysis, I’m unsure that its meaning extends beyond the participant pool.


Campbell, A. (2004). Female competition: Causes, constraints, content, and contexts Journal of Sex Research, 41 (1), 16-26 DOI: 10.1080/00224490409552210

Durante, KM, Griskevicius, V, Hill, SE, Perilloux, C, & Li, NP (2011). Ovulation, female competition, and product choice: hormonal influences on consumer behavior Journal of Consumer Research, 37 (6), 921-934

Fehring, R., Schneider, M., & Raviele, K. (2006). Variability in the Phases of the Menstrual Cycle Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, Neonatal Nursing, 35 (3), 376-384 DOI: 10.1111/j.1552-6909.2006.00051.x

Lenton EA, Landgren BM, Sexton L, & Harper R (1984). Normal variation in the length of the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle: effect of chronological age. British journal of obstetrics and gynaecology, 91 (7), 681-4 PMID: 6743609

Moffitt, L., & Szymanski, D. (2010). Experiencing Sexually Objectifying Environments: A Qualitative Study The Counseling Psychologist, 39 (1), 67-106 DOI: 10.1177/0011000010364551

Smuts, B. (1995). The evolutionary origins of patriarchy Human Nature, 6 (1), 1-32 DOI: 10.1007/BF02734133

Streeter, S. (2003). Waist–hip ratio and attractiveness New evidence and a critique of “a critical test” Evolution and Human Behavior, 24 (2), 88-98 DOI: 10.1016/S1090-5138(02)00121-6

Thursday, March 24th 2011

Around the web: put attention where it needs to be put

Yesterday I submitted a book chapter and a journal manuscript. I have two substantial blog posts I’m working on, but neither will be ready for this week. However, I have been slowly accumulating Posts of Awesome that I’d like to share. I want to highlight people, writing, and topics that need and deserve more attention in the science blogosphere. I mention a lot of these things on Twitter, but I know a lot of my followers don’t use Twitter. So here goes.


If you have any interest in pregnancy, labor and birth, I do hope you’re reading Science and Sensibility. S&S is a evidence-based blog written by practitioners and scientists, sponsored by Lamaze International. I really like their more technical, informative posts on labor and birth, and today’s post on positioning during the second stage of labor is a winner. The writing is always accessible for layfolks, yet still provides great information for scientists and medical folk.

Remember that Wax et al (2010) article showing homebirth had a mortality rate three times higher than a hospital birth (and the sensational Lancet editorial)? A lot of folks came down hard on the article when it first came out, myself included, but two more pieces came out yesterday that call into question the authors’ conclusions. The first issue is that there were actual mathematical errors in the data (meaning, the data was probably entered into an excel sheet incorrectly), the second is that they fundamentally did the meta-analysis wrong. Wrong. As in, according to one statistician who had no stake in the story or topic, so wrong as to overlook all its other problems.

A few more spicy tidbits: cosmetic breast surgery is on the rise, and one county in Florida has a 70% cesarean rate. Seventy. Percent. Due to some smart marketing and bad decisions, a treatment to prevent pre-term birth that used to be affordable is now more expensive than gold.

Something a little more fun: older female elephants make better leaders. Here’s a video to go with the paper.

Finally, this is sort of ladybusiness, but as Dr. Isis points out, it should really be family (or even just human) business: Why it’s alright to not be your mother, a guest post on AGORA.

Queering biology

The reverberations from Jesse Bering’s post on homophobia as an adaptation continue. And the responses have been brilliant. I especially love Jeremy Yoder’s take over at his blog, Denim and Tweed: An adaptive fairytale with no happy ending.

And then today, DeLene Beeland shared this great post on Twitter: How to Queer Ecology: One Goose at a Time over at Orion Magazine. This is a beautifully-written, thoughtful takedown of the naturalistic fallacy.

Other things to read right now

Danielle Lee has two great pieces worth reading (and I found them both because of Greg Laden): an article on the contribution of Henrietta Lacks, and the Black community, to cell culture, and a profile on Danielle in a natural hair series at

I read this article today by Gina Trapani on her work to make the technical world more friendly to women and other underrepresented or new folks.

An interesting interview and review of the book Consumption, by Kevin Patterson: How western diets are making the world sick.

A piece on Impostor Syndrome at SciAm (behind a paywall). I don’t want to pathologize all underrepresented groups in science (because frankly, these feelings make sense in the context of environment, even if it’s desirable to move beyond them), but issues around impostor syndrome resonate with me.

The video for the MLK, Jr session from Science Online 2011 is now up. Alberto Roca, Danielle Lee and David Kroll are the fabulous panelists.

Things I wish I didn’t have to link to

Our amusement with Charlie Sheen just demonstrates how little we care about violence against women — especially certain kinds of women. Read The Disposable Woman.

Skepchick Rebecca Watson shares some of her hate mail, and why she doesn’t feel like internetting today: Why I deserved to be called an offensive bitch.

Pat Campbell reposted a twelve-year-old manifesto on gender and education that still holds true: The Gender Wars Must Cease.

Some LOLz and some cutes: a section I added because the last three links were so depressing

This first link doesn’t exactly bring the LOLz, but is an enjoyable read: Female Science Professor continues her series on Academic Novels.

Some great apes from Zooborns: a two new baby orangs, and baby chimp. They put my maternal instinct into overdrive.

And a LOLcat via Scicurious: I’z in yer papers, messin’ wit yer stats.


Wax, J., Lucas, F., Lamont, M., Pinette, M., Cartin, A., & Blackstone, J. (2010). Maternal and newborn outcomes in planned home birth vs planned hospital births: a metaanalysis American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology DOI: 10.1016/j.ajog.2010.05.028

Editorial staff (2010). Home birth–proceed with caution. Lancet, 376 (9738) PMID: 20674705