Wednesday, March 9th 2011

Around the web: sex, birth, brainz

This semester I have decided not to do weekly roundups of links useful to the courses I teach, because last semester it was exhausting to me, and as it turns out only minimally read by my students. However, I continue to bookmark stuff I find interesting, and I have reached such a critical mass that I’ve decided to share it. Some of what I want to share is focused on the ladybusiness, but I also want to share some links on brainz, and for students.

Let’s talk about sex

A few posts have come out recently on sex: who wants it, who gets it, and the sexual health of adolescents. Mark Regnerus writes “Sex is Cheap: Why young men have the upper hand, even when they’re failing at life,” which I thought was reductive and pretty disparaging to both young men and women. I was surprised at how the author talked only about heterosexual sex (why is this ok? why is this interesting?), and how he shared a single quote for each woman he interviewed, and magically it fit nicely into his own narrative. It seems like the story here is in the choices young women and men are making… so it would make sense to share the more nuanced results of the interviews Regnerus says he conducted. That said, I did learn a few things, the most disheartening related to unwanted sex:

“Finally, as my colleagues and I discovered in our interviews, striking numbers of young women are participating in unwanted sex—either particular acts they dislike or more frequent intercourse than they’d prefer or mimicking porn (being in a dating relationship is correlated to greater acceptance of and use of porn among women).”

Unwanted sex is one of those gray areas where the sex is technically consensual… but one partner doesn’t really want to do it. How have we gotten to the point that more young women don’t feel it’s ok to say no to their partners? I don’t think it’s because of a poor dating pool as seems to be the working hypothesis of the author, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.
To contrast, Yes Means Yes is an anthology edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti that became a blog to continue the conversation on rape culture and female sexual empowerment. In a post on said blog, Gender Differences and Casual Sex: The New Research they look at some of the same material as the post above, as well as a new paper by Terri Conley showing that men and women aren’t that different in their perspectives on casual sex as was once thought. The blog contributor, named Thomas, does a great rundown of the study’s findings and explains how earlier studies of casual sex — like the study many of you have likely heard of, where men and women are randomly propositioned in public — is both unlikely and particularly repulsive to women given rape culture, and therefore sets up a sex difference that a more nuanced study easily demolishes.
Birth and babies
Randi Hutter Epstein, author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank, wrote a short but sweet piece on labor inductions in Psychology Today. She shares some of the shortcomings of a medical model that thinks that any labor over thirty seven weeks can be safely induced. This relates to a recent story about a March of Dimes initiative to reduce early inductions, and some hospitals in the Chicago area are taking part.
And, while I wrote this a little while ago, it seems important to link the above to the kerfuffle that arose when a study came out last year claiming that home births were far more dangerous than hospital births, and the editors of the Lancet used the study as a chance to jump up and down on home birth. Given that only half of a percent of women in the US do home births, it makes more sense to use this as an opportunity not to bash home births but have a frank conversation about whether the cascade of interventions guaranteed by stepping into a hospital to give birth leads to a safer delivery for mom and baby.

Next, Scicurious of tag-team blogging fame and general awesomeness, has a real winner. Today, she reviewed cool research on sex roles from the seventies. She shows how our perception of the gender of a baby impacts how we treat it (and how dolls might make better toys than footballs for babies, no matter what).

And then, for your dose of cute (well, cute if you don’t mind amniotic sacs and vaginas, which I don’t), here are Five Miraculous Animal Births (don’t know why they are miraculous, but they are certainly cool).
First, Sci has another great post, this time on research on exercise, hippocampus size and memory in the elderly that made me vow to play derby until I need a cane to skate.

You might have seen the recent buzz about PKMZeta, a protein that may aid in strengthening old memories. Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science (check out the spiffy new banner!) has a three-part series on it. I also loved David Dobbs’s piece exploring problems in cognitive science: Is Cognitive Science Full of Crap? (Yes. Well, sometimes. Maybe. Except sometimes not and then it’s really very cool.) John Hawks also has an interesting piece called Numbers as Cognitive Technology: this post explores how we understand numbers, at a population variation (regarding language), developmental (regarding John’s twins, who I imagine to be very cute, with thought bubbles of fingers and toes above their heads) and even comparative (Alex the Parrot!) level.

Then, a more devastating piece that, to me, highlights some of the problems with the medical metaphor of humans as machines: Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology writes about a New York Times piece about how the field of psychiatry has changed with time.

Oh, and this one was absolutely nothing to do with brainz, but it’s written by Dr. Zen of NeuroDojo so I’ve shoehorned him in here :). Dr. Zen looks at the two peer-reviewed papers to come out after the #arseniclife fiasco and shows how one in particular intentionally miscategorizes the great post-peer review that happened on blogs as “anonymous electronic communications,” since in fact the majority of the commenters were using their own names (and even if they weren’t, again, there is a big difference between anonymous and pseudonymous). This sounds an awful lot like the response that came out after #aaafail, where, rather than addressing the many critical, thoughtful bloggers, it all got labeled as “outside commentary.”
Learning links
First, for graduate students: Mamacademic: How I hack parenthood, grad school, etc. A nice piece on the perils of parenthood, because it is constructive. Then, a related post both on pregnancy style and how to deal with questions around parenting in graduate school. And while this next post isn’t directly about grad students, GayProf discusses a disturbing panel he attended where faculty recommended having children in order to achieve work/life balance, a way that was clearly not situated in the context of whether one wants to have children, and who ends up doing most of the work of childrearing. Not to mention, you know, the rampant heterosexism.

But on to the links you actually expected under this heading. Dan Simons, fellow prof here at the University of Illinois and co-author of The Invisible Gorilla, wrote a great piece on study habits and what students think they know versus what they actually know. Read it, then study the way he tells you to! Hint: re-reading the text is not how you learn the material.

Then there is this perspective over at Observations, a Scientific American blog, that posits we should teach kids more about the process of science. How can this translate into better science ed in higher ed as well? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Most of what I do centers on having students do actual studies, or assist in research in my lab, or sometimes propose avenues of research as part of a project. But maybe there are more fun things we can be doing in a classroom setting that would lead to more students understanding the scientific method and the process of science.

I also want to share this great tutorial on how to choose a research project. This is useful for students at all levels… and post-docs and faculty, too.

Your dose of random

Steve Silberman interviews Seth Mnookin regarding his new book The Panic Virus. I’ve been avidly reading all of Mnookin’s press materials and look forward to reading the book, but as always Silberman does an exceptional job so I particularly recommend his post.

This article made the rounds in the twittersphere on how to improve comment sections. I just liked it a lot and found it a great tutorial on fostering online communities.

Then, for my anthropology peeps, an important article on problematizing the thrifty gene, particularly around race and racism. Something to share with your students.

People have been rocking out in the SciAm Guest Blog. Check out this book review of Tabloid Medicine: How the Internet is Being Used to Hijack Medical Science for Fear and Profit by Valerie Jones.

If you haven’t had enough counter-evidence to the idea of science blogs as an echo chamber, check out Colin Schultz’s treatment of a recent paper on linking patterns in science blogs versus traditional journalism.

Finally, check out this interactive map on well-being in the US in the New York Times. I found a lot of the patterns really interesting, in terms of what portions of the US lit up when.

[11:26am CST: Edited to add two links for Scicurious, because the links were on my list but then I forgot.]

Wednesday, January 26th 2011

The women scienceblogging revolution

At least, that’s what it feels like to me.

You’ve commented on my last post, you’ve written your own posts, you’ve tweeted and retweeted. You’ve been insightful, brilliant, and kind. You have been allies to each other. You haven’t fed the trolls.

The people of the science blogosphere are good, thoughtful people. If a real conversation about eliminating sexism was going to happen anywhere, in a way that emboldened women and made allies of men, it was going to be here. I think the combination of meeting in person, having those many women-only conversations, having such smart people in the women scienceblogging panel, and bringing the conversation back online, to where we all met in the first place, has been really good for us.

So I want to share two last things. First, I’d like to link to as many posts people have written on this topic as possible. If you don’t see your post here, link to it in the comments and I’ll put it up here. (I looked at hits in my statcounter to come up with the list, so I could have easily missed yours.)

Second, I am slowly (because it is the start of the semester and I have a million other writing projects far more important for tenure than this blog) writing a post reflecting on the MLK, Jr session I attended at Science Online 2011. I hope that as we continue talking and reflecting on issues of women in the science blogosphere, we broaden the conversation to talk about race, ethnicity, sexuality, and other related identities that are not represented or supported as strongly as they could be.

Posts related to #scio11 or the #scio11 conversation

The biology files: Women who write about science

Observations of a nerd: I’ve never been very good at hiding

The Intersection: Sex in the Blogosphere

This is Serious Monkey Business: Raison d’etre of the female undergraduate primatology blogger

Almost Diamonds: Hidden Women, Hidden Writers

The Happy Scientist: Just Ask

Fumbling Towards Tenure Track: Self-promotion tour 2011

Neuron Culture: Hey You Men Who Yell “Nice Tits”: STFU

Neuron Culture: Guest post (my original post, crossposted)

Blue Lab Coats: Linky linky… blogging and doing science while female

Neuroanthropology: Wednesday Round Up #139 (the post gets a mention here)

Science in the Triangle: Why scientists (should) blog

The Loom Room: Are men who do textiles superheroes or spoilt? (a post about a totally different field, but a commenter brings up our conversation)

Only the Educated are Free: How I cannot fight sexism because I am afraid of men

Neuroanthropology: Women and Science Blogging

Outdoor Science: Why are female science writers invisible?

Scicurious: Where are the female science bloggers?

Neurotypical? On self-promotion

One Small Step: Some thoughts, a poll, and an invitation

Denim and Tweet: We need to hear what we’d rather not

Almost Diamonds: Writers don’t spring from Zeus’s forehead either

Athene Donald: Unwritten Rules

The Intersection: Rising against the wind

Nature Network: Women in science – where are we now?

Alice Rose Bell: The politics of online science

Thus Spake Zuska: But I want to earn everything all on my own merits! #scio11

Broader posts about gender and scienceblogging: more must-reads

There and (hopefully) back again: Gender and blogging (and everything else)

Purely Anecdotal: The good

The Incubator: A pregnant postdoc in the 21st century

Child’s Play: On becoming Birkin and letting go of Gainsbourg

Scicurious: Let’s talk about sex in science

Young Female Scientist: Be the visible bitch

The Hermitage: How gaming makes me a better graduate student: gear

Tuesday, January 4th 2011

Around the web: cognitive sex differences

The “Around the Web” series highlights informative websites, and also targeted blog posts and news articles, relevant to the courses I teach. Last semester I taught Anth 143: Biology of Human Behavior, an introductory-level course that covers the basics of evolution, behavioral biology, and the interaction of biology and culture. My hope is that these posts are useful not only for my current students, but other people hoping to gain background or insight into these topics.

ResearchBlogging.orgAh, cognitive sex differences. Here we often find a mix of explanations for why we don’t need to try to achieve equity in the sciences, or for why women are simply less interested in the sciences. There are plenty of examples trotted out of men’s superiority in spatial ability, and the few where women are sometimes found to be superior put women on a pedestal without gaining her any real power or advantage in society (look at lovely woman, so able to verbally communicate that it makes her a good mommy and wife!).

This year has been a good year to critically evaluate cognitive sex differences, thanks to Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender and the many spaces online that have reviewed her book. I have yet to read it and it didn’t turn up under the Christmas tree, so I’ll be buying it for myself. The reviews have me very excited.

So, I’ll start there, then work my way through the other cool stuff that’s been covered this year.

Delusions of Gender

Slate reviews the book and interviews Fine. Here is one of my favorite quotes from her:

We look around in our society, and we want to explain whatever state of sex inequality we have. It’s more comfortable to attribute it to some internal difference between men and women than the idea that there must be something very unjust about our society. As long as there has been brain science there have been misguided explanations and justification for sex and inequality — that women’s skulls are the wrong shape, that their brain is too small, that their head is too unspecialized. It was once very cutting-edge to put a brain on a scale, and now we have cutting-edge research that is genuinely sophisticated and exciting, but we’re still very much at the beginning of our journey of understanding of how our brain creates the mind.

New Scientist also has a review in CultureLab. This article also reviews Jordan-Young’s Brainstorm, which looks like a similarly excellent book on the topic of sex differences. It is published with Harvard University Press rather than a press that tends to attract a wider audience, so maybe that’s why Fine’s book has received more attention.

Katherine Bouton reviews the article in the New York Times. The last line was my favorite: “It’s really not just a few steps from looking longer at moving objects to aptitude in math, from gazing at faces to mind reading.”

This Language Log post refers to the Bouton one and makes some interesting parallels between the Connellan et al (2001) article Fine dismantles and the Hauser misconduct case. I love teaching the Connellan et al (2001) article, and have been for many years — it’s such a great example of reductionist wording, flawed methodology, and incorrect conclusions off the authors’ own evidence. I have used it in particular in introductory writing courses, as a way to show students they can be critical thinkers, since they quickly pick up on most of the paper’s errors.

The Language Log post already dismantled the flawed methodology. I just want to briefly mention the flawed conclusions off the results they get. Remember, Connellan et al are using Connellan’s face, and a mobile comprised of a broken up photo of her face, as the two objects the infants are gazing at. Staring at Connellan implies a preference for faces and eventual social superiority, where preference for the mobile implies a preference for physical-mechanical objects.

Below, I’ve reproduced Tables 1 and 2.

Table 1. Number (and percent) of neonates falling into each perference [sic] category
Face preference Mobile preference No preference
Males (n = 44) 11 (25.0%) 19 (43.2%) 14 (31.8%)
Females (n = 58) 21 (36.2%) 10 (17.2% 27 (46.6%)

Table 2. Mean percent looking times (and standard deviation) for each stimulus
Face Mobile
Males (n = 44) 45.6 (23.5) 51.9 (23.3)
Females (n = 58) 49.4 (20.8) 40.6 (25.0)

Let’s pretend for a minute that there were not significant methodological concerns and just look at the data. What I notice are a few things. First, females primarily exhibit NO preference, not facial preference. If half my subjects exhibited no preference, I’d probably have to say the methods and stimuli were flawed. Males might have a slight mobile preference, but even if that were statistically significant, I’m not sure there is a lot of biological meaning to 19 vs 11 individuals’ preferences. Further, they mention that their statistical significance derives entirely from the greater male preference for the mobile (not a greater female preference for the face), yet their conclusions indicate female superiority in social cognition skills.

Table 2 is perhaps more damning. First, the difference in percent looking time is not really different between any of the four groups (male/face, male/mobile; female/face, female/mobile). This becomes more obvious when you consider the standard deviations. Again, it is important to place statistical significance in the context of biological usefulness. Do these few seconds’ difference in looking time tell us something, or not? My bet is on the latter.

Other delightful bits

Coverage of Fine’s book wasn’t the only time I got to read about cognitive sex differences, prejudice, and social conditioning. Most of the posts and articles I link to this section should provide very strong evidence for social conditioning playing a primary role in cognitive and behavioral sex differences. I am quite sure there are some genetic and/or biological differences between the sexes; however, I am unconvinced that they would amount to much of anything if we didn’t seize upon them and nurture them from birth. Further, meta-analyses of cognitive sex difference studies have found very small effect sizes, which means that overall, even when differences are found in empirical studies, those differences are tiny (Hyde 2005).

Check out Greg Laden’s great post: Why do women shop and men hunt? He does a nice job criticizing the idea of some sort of universal Pleistocene environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA), which already does a lot to undermine arguments that humans have evolved certain sex-specific behaviors over the last few million years due to foraging in the savannah. He also discusses the huge amount of variation in social structure among modern humans, which helps us understand why this idea that there is essential male and female behavior is flawed.

Here’s a neat Time Magazine article on pink toys. It discusses the Pink Stinks campaign, which I follow on Twitter.

This article discusses the damage that can be done to a woman’s cognitive ability when she is objectified. I know I have trouble thinking when I receive comments on my physical appearance in my student evaluations, and the few times this has been done to me professionally by colleagues.

Related to this, Communicate Science discusses a study that had male and female actors give scripted 10-minute physics lectures and then had real physics students give evaluations (the students thought they were lecturers). The males received higher evaluations overall — when broken down by student gender, the female students gave slightly higher evals to the female lecturers, but the male students gave MUCH higher evals to the male lecturers. This is the sort of study that keeps me up at night, thinking about going up for tenure as a female scientist.

More on physics teaching: Ed Yong writes about a writing exercise that helps reinforce students’ values and their sense of self, which then appears to close the gender gap in physics assessment. I had my students do this assignment on the last day of class as a way to help them with their finals (though we only did it for about 2 minutes — I encouraged them to do more at home). A really neat piece!

Pharyngula is a blog I read often, and was one of the first science blogs I ever read, but I don’t think PZ’s work has ever made it into one of my Around the Web posts. However, this post, “Attention, perversely assertive women! You are abnormal!” really resonated with me. He covers a recent news story about using dexamethasone to pre-treat normal girl fetuses (and those with the legitimate genetic disorder CAH) to prevent masculine preferences and behaviors.

Next, an article in the New York Times Business Section on why more women aren’t the boss. There are some interesting thoughts shared on mentorship and risk-taking behaviors.

The always-brilliant Jennifer Ouelette discusses the idea that “boyz will be boyz” in her post that dismantles the idea that female science teachers are feminizing science classes and increasing the dropout rate for boys.

Finally, I don’t know how to introduce this piece, “The Rise of Enlightened Sexism” by Susan Douglas up at On the Issues, except to say: read it. Read it now.

Random interesting tidbits

I had intended to finish this post in time for the end of 2010. I had wanted to send you in the direction of some pretty pictures as a way to close out the year, so let this be some eye candy to start you off well for 2011. Myrmecos (who I feel privileged to know in person through his fantabulous wife) offers up “The Best of Myrmecos 2010.” I will be honest here and say that, before this blog, I had close to zero appreciation for insects and mostly thought of ways to keep them out of my house and office, or kill them if they came in. I pay a lot more attention to them now, and wish I knew more.

And, Jerry Coyne put together some images from National Geographic that I liked from the 2010 contest.

Happy new year to all!


Connellan, J. (2000). Sex differences in human neonatal social perception Infant Behavior and Development, 23 (1), 113-118 DOI: 10.1016/S0163-6383(00)00032-1

Hyde, J. (2005). The Gender Similarities Hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60 (6), 581-592 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.6.581