An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

June 29, 2010

Science Still Can’t Solve Everything, and Other Breaking News

Filed under: Blogging about Blogging,feminism — Tags: , , , — Ethan @ 8:54 pm

Thanks to Samia for linking to this fabulous, somewhat disjointed series of ruminations from skeptifem about sexism and science. I think she’s neatly summed up a lot of what bothers me about the vilification of science for it’s own sexist ills–science is a morally neutral, but very damn handy set of tools for understanding the universe. Yeah, it’s been used for a lot of truly horrible ends, including holding down women in all sorts of ways. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing worthwhile there, and that feminism and science are inevitably at odds.  She puts it much more eloquently than I have here:

I personally think that the lack of science understanding that most people (especially girls) have in western countries is part of the damage of patriarchy. They kept all the tools for understanding the universe away from us, and some feminists decided that must mean that they aren’t worth anything at all. Nothing could be further from the truth. Science is the most reliable and most successful tool for understanding the nature of the universe around us, and I am sad that so many people have decided that it is worthless because men monopolized it. Men monopolized that whole deal where they get to not be raped or be owned as property too, you know. Science is one of the things we should reclaim as a part of the human experience- of curiosity and knowledge, of awe at the universe. Radfems who are anti science are missing the fuck out, and it depresses me.

I do think she take it a bit too far though in denigrating the idea that the non-formally-scientific ways of managing knowledge left to women are always less valid. This is a minor criticism, but hey, I hate to just throw up a link with IAWTC.
I agree that there has been some serious patriarchal baiting and switching to try to get women to lose interest in the tools men have traditionally hoarded. But I don’t know that the patriarchy-approved alternative is always inferior. Just as some things have been put down because they were the domain of women (novel writing  and computer programming, until men decided they wanted it, separating ‘crafts’ from art, etc) some pursuits have been unduly puffed up through their association with manliness.
Reading Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool  (yes, I’ve been on a Frank kick, ok?), I kept chuckling at the 50′s obsession with ‘scientific’ advertising. By which they mostly meant rote, boring and focused-grouped, honing design principles through sciency looking studies and then sticking with them at all costs.  From the sounds of it, ad design is just not an activity that lends itself well to quantification. I say this mostly because the folks who eventually abandoned strict design SOP’s fucking destroyed their competition. I’m loathe to use corporate revenues as a proxy for creative victory, but hell. That was the stated rubric for the ‘scientific’ camp, so we might as well do them the courtesy of judging their failure by their own rules.
And ultimately, why did that happen? Because they’d fallen away from seeing science as a tool set for answering certain types of questions, and had assumed it was a universal improvement over any other way of doing things. And frankly, there’s no obvious excuse for that, beyond fetishizing the ‘rational’ until it doesn’t make sense anymore. Some questions don’t have universal or objective answers. Science still has trouble dealing with unpredicatbility, let alone subjectivity. Standing back while others puff it up into more than it is just keeps us from using tools that do.

June 14, 2010

Not just a favor post

Have I mentioned my friend Samia is awesome this week? Yes? Tought shit, I’m doing it again.

She has a new post up about broadening the whole women-in-science ‘debate.’ Moving past single lens approach, especially when that one perspective is white, straight, cis and married. She points out that the problem may not be getting a new generation of girls ‘interested’ in math or science so much as changing the atmosphere of those fields to welcome and respect women. I’m not gonna run the whole thing down, you should just read it.


June 4, 2010

Propaganda for your Pants

Filed under: feminism,gender,media and pop culture — Tags: , , , , , — Ethan @ 7:31 pm

A little while ago, I got the chance to tour parts of the CDC. While waiting for our contact to come and lead us through the impressive maze of the place, we killed a few moments wandering around the main attraction of the Visitor’s Center: the CDC’s museum to itself.

At the time, their temporary exhibit was a retrospective of STI public health campaigns. It was fascinating stuff, from the now-quaint syphilis scares to the deep, deep disgust with women’s sexuality.  (Note: all these images are from Mother Jones recent retrospective of military propaganda The Enemy in Our Pants, which inspired this post. Check it out)

Yeeeeah. I love a good pun, but seriously. Booby Trap? Are you fucking kidding me? There are pulp novels from the same time period with classier covers. This is a hairs breadth away from suggesting that woman’s vagina is a spear-lined pit covered in palm fronds. And they go on like that, one after another, warning innocent men of the horrible, horrible things that could befall their precious wieners, should they get too close to any of the local ladies.

Well, except maybe for this one. Made for the British public just before the US sent a massive wave of troops in to prepare for D-Day, it puts the blame squarely on the hoards of apple-cheeked, sex crazed GI’s.

The other thing that really caught my attention was the  stark difference between a lot of the first-generation PSA’s and the ones that came later–the first syphillis treatment ads basically just said “Hey, did you know you could stop having syphillis? Ask your doctor!” Which, given all the havoc untreated syphilis can cause, was probably all they needed to say.

Similarly, the posters from the pan-African smallpox eradication campaign all translated to variations on “If you go to your local clinic and get vaccinated, you won’t ever get smallpox. Bring the kids!” with matching illustrations of a friendly-looking man in a lab coat holding a minimally intimidating vaccine gun, followed by happy families celebrating their smallpoxlessness. I mean, that shit pretty much sells itself, right?

But by the 60′s, one US ad for the oral polio vaccine mentioned its ‘great taste.’ Which is nice and all (I’m guessing it was for the polio vaccine carried on sugarcubes ) but seriously? Even if it tasted like rotting shark asshole, it keeps you from getting polio. There’s no question about whether it’s worth it.

Yeesh. Americans.


December 18, 2008

Bloggers 1, Evolutionary Psycology 0

Filed under: feminism,gender — Tags: , — Ethan @ 12:32 am

Thomas at the Yes Means Yes blog has the tidiest take-down I’ve ever seen of human sexual selection psudoscientific fairytales, and mainstream media reposting thereon:

I give you this. Apparently, men are “hardwired” to spend to attract mates because, somehow, some pre-consumer society behavior that developed before agriculture magically transmogrified directly to behavior at the mall. And the scientists are in no way simply imposing a “just-so story” on their observations. At least not any more so than is standard in their field.

This is worthless in and of itself. People who don’t understand science tell us something about the findings of a discipline that is pseudoscience.

The intro, though, is what cracked me up:

We all know the stereotype: the “goldthrower.” The guy who spends profligately looking to attract female partners, whether he can afford it or not.

Wait … did you miss that one? Me too.

But we all know what a “golddigger” is.

But, while we’re neologizing, (look! I verbed!), I’d like to cast my vote for ‘goldflinger’ instead. I think it comes closer to matching the indignity implied by ‘golddigger.’

It’s not like there’s no value in trying to suss out how humans pick who we make babies with, or how that’s shaped human evolution. But there seem to be a couple big flaws in the reasoning the researchers (or the journalists reporting, to be fair, I can’t seem to find the original journal article anywhere handy) apply to modern dating, let alone the way they assume that human mating strategies have remained fixed, with only the tactics shifting to match current culture.

I mean, really, who believes that sleeping with more people equals having more babies these days? Shit, the more people I sleep with, the more careful I am to avoid makin’ the babies. And I’m sure lots of women and men are out there doing the same–using condoms like flac jackets when we’re single, letting the BC slip when having a kid would be more of a surprise than an accident. Second, assuming that today’s conspicuous consumerism is directly decended from cave men giving cave women cave jewlery to get in their cave pants is, well, fucking stupid. In a society where women gather the large bulk of everyone’s calories, gifts of food would be more of a gesture than a survival aid. Money didn’t exist for the bulk of human history. And today, men who get laid more buy what, supposedly? Doesn’t say. Gifts for women? Fancy status-symbol possessions for themselves? Paying off medical bills? Supporting their aging parents? Student loans? Supporting their meth habit? Don’t those things sound kinda…different to you, in terms of whether or not someone’s spending to get laid?


December 13, 2008

Good News and Bad News

Bush is trying to tack a loophole onto the Endangered Species Act on his way out the door. Meanwhile, Obama’s (likely) picks for Secretary of Energy, head of the EPA, and the new ‘Energy Czar’ position suggest we’ll be seeing a science-and-reality-ward shift in environmental and energy policy. If anyone out there has a time machine, please go ahead and fast-forward to Jan. 20th before Bush can do any damage.

(And thanks to Rachel Maddow for dubbing the proposed HHS regulation the Amish Busdriver Rule: extending freedom of religion to protect folks who take jobs and then refuse on religious grounds to do tasks central to that job.)


June 6, 2008

Learn Calculus, Smash Patriarchy: Gender Equality Linked to Math Skills

Filed under: feminism,gender — Tags: , , , — Ethan @ 5:50 pm

Check out this Ars Technica post about a recent worldwide study on teenagers math and verbal skills:

It’s widely recognized that, in the US at least, there’s a gender gap in performance on tests of basic skills: boys tend to perform better at math, while girls get superior reading scores. It has been suggested that these gaps are the result of biological differences, as males tend to have better spatial reasoning skills and females better word recall. But a new study suggests that, when it comes to math, we can forget biology, as social equality seems to play a dominant role in test scores.

Students from 40 countries took the same math and reading test, and girls and boys average scores in each country were compared against an index of women’s social equality. On the whole, girls outscored boys on the reading test, and boys outscored girls on the math bits. But the difference in math scores was closely linked to women’s status within each country:

The researchers, noted, however, that the math gap wasn’t consistent between countries. For example, it was nearly twice as large as the average in Turkey, while Icelandic girls outscored males by roughly 2 percent. The general pattern of these differences suggested to the authors that the performance differences correlated with the status of women. The authors of the study built a composite score that reflected the gender equality of the countries based on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, data extracted from the World Values Surveys, measures of female political participation, and measures of the economic significance of females.

Go Iceland!* The article gets oddly bogged down worrying that further advances in women’s status will eventually render men illiterate (I exaggerate, but it was strange), as the margin by which girls outscored boys in reading comp. also widened with increased social equality. So maybe you should just grab a copy of the current issue of Science instead, and read about it for yourself.

Full Disclosure: I have some family from Iceland, but I’d congratulate them anyway.


May 18, 2008

The Moral Panic of BPA and the Feminized ‘Boy’

As a follow-up to yesterday’s rant post about the anti-feminine fear-mongering often present in media coverage of endocrine disruptors, Rebecca Hammond was kind enough to give me permission to republish the following essay. She says it far better than I could.


I can see it now. 2008 will go down as the year that polycarbonate, the durable tough clear plastics we were all nursed on, the little plastic #7, takes the fall as the culprit responsible for emasculating our males for the past half century.

more specifically, it seems that everywhere – from blogs to the eco-media to the earnest conversations that happen on play dates around swingsets – talk is fixated on the horrors of BPA (biphesnol-a). BPA is found in polycarbonates as well as in the lining of canned foods (as well as in other non-food goods).

i’ve had this unease about the growing clamour around BPA. now, there are many stories within this story to catalyse unease: the discrepency between publicly and privately funded studies into the health effects of low-dose exposure to BPA; the nonaction by global and national bodies to stem the 7 billion pounds of BPA that’s created on an annual basis; the growing body of research highlighting potentially harmful effects on human health at exposure levels far below what’s considered ‘acceptable’.

yes, these are all troubling. i, however, am as much troubled by the panicked response to this chemical as i am by the chemical itself.

now, there is steadily mounting, and increasingly irrefutable, evidence linking BPA to breast, and possibly prostate cancer in adults. but a chemical linked to cancer, particularly one that is only marginally linked at the present time, has never been ganged up on like this. then *what*, i’ve wondered, is driving this unprecedented reaction? what has shifted in the eyes of moms across the continent to suddenly see the innocuous sippy cup as an object that incites panic about the health of their children?

i’ve come to conclude that such a sudden, complete reaction without a definitive health outcome means that concern is going beyond health concerns alone. sippy cups have become an object of moral panic, tweaking deep seated fears that our ‘boys’ are becoming weaker, more sensitive, and ultimately more feminine.

what is important to understand is that BPA is a chemical that mimics the effects of estrogen in the body. this estrogen masquerade it plays is why, in particular, concerns have been raised about long-term BPA exposure (as well as exposure at a young age) and the development of breast cancer – many forms of which are triggered by, and dependent upon, estrogen exposure.

BPA and cancer: here the link is inconclusive but strong enough to warrant serious attention. what has happened though is that BPAs estrogenic properties have triggered a fear that goes far beyond this. buoyed by studies in rats, such as this, many in both mainstream media, as well as in progressive ecological publications, are selling magazines and papers by stoking fears that BPA may be closing the gap between the genders by altering the gender-normative behaviour of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’.

now, before i go further, i want to say that I certainly would not dispute that limiting exposure to is a positive effort. we certainly should not wait for final and conclusive evidence linking BPA to breast cancer and other health outcomes, we should act now. what i worry about though is what fears are we reenforcing by playing up on enduring cultural fears of feminized boys (and, to a lesser degree masculanized girls)?

selling science stories is hard. and it appears that scientists have, perhaps unwittingly, found an effective route to catalyse change around BPA. media outlets are keenly are of this: mothers worry less about their own health and more about the health of their children; in particular, they worry about the social health and status their child will have. thus, even raising suspicions that they could be unwittingly poisoning their ‘boys’ by exposing them to estrogens has proven, in the case of BPA, to be the ‘story that sells’.

what is somewhat ironic is that mothers of appear to be *more* distraught about their ‘sons’ BPA exposure than their ‘daughters’. this is despite the much stronger evidence showing that BPA is going to affect the health and cancer risk of females more than males. this inversion of concern appears to be (yet another) irrational fear of the feminized male.

articles are promoting that BPA may not just alter behaviour but the bodies of ‘boys’. two days ago, the widely-read journal Discover chose to focus an article less on the links of BPA to cancer than on the effect that BPA and similar chemicals have on the size of baby ‘boys’ penises, on the distance between their anus and genitals (a sexually dimorphic trait, i.e. it’s longer in males than in females), and on suppression of testosterone within these ‘boys’. in its conclusions, the article *does* strongly highlight the mounting research linking BPA to cancer. but, by this point the reader has been whipped into a panic having images of micro-penises and fey little boys burned into their minds, the cancer data is icing on the cake.

scientists and media are thus seemingly eschewing evidence in favour of tapping into deep fears of femininity, specifically as its expressed in males, as a way to means to an end: to ban BPA. with sensationalist images like those in the Discover article, it’s not surprising mothers are tossing their lattes and reaching for protest signs in support of a ban on BPA.

and the results from this recent change of tactic are dramatic. the canadian government has recently (and the first country in the world) declared BPA as potentially harmful to human health. not waiting for government regulation, stores that sell themselves on being ecologically aware have pulled products with BPA off their shelves in many other Western countries. it seems that the fear of possibly emasculating the males of our nations overrides the drive for corporate profit. who knew?

the question that remains is ubiquitous: does the end (that being a partial or complete ban on BPA) justify the means we’ve used to get there?

the fear, perhaps even abject horror, affixed to feminization is a prevailing and shameful cultural cornerstone. it stands at the root of phobic outlashes against many queer men and trans women. trans men (and many cis men as well) who may not match up to external markers of masculinity can also experience bashing because of a perceived insufficiency of masculinity . ‘gender-variant’ ‘boys’ are referred at a rate of 20:1 to the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health’s Gender Identity Clinic – highlighting a broader cultural belief that being a feminine boy is *such* a problem that we have to treat it, nip it in the bud. and, of course, we all know the fate of a ‘boy’ choosing to wear a dress to school.

taken more broadly, our prioritization of masculine traits over feminine ones has helped to create a society where power, aggression, and authority are the currencies of power. women are perenially kept out of power and, like men who don’t match up to masculine norms, are subjected to violence and socio-economic penalties. being feminine is a handicap in the Western world, there is no disputing this.

the public reaction to BPA is a story about panic. and, while awakening to the health consequences of BPA are without-a-doubt important, it is also important to challenge our cultural prioritization of the masculine over the feminine and to address the panic that is instilled in us when our boys express femininity. the backlash against BPA has given strength and legitimacy to that panic. it may even catalyse a new wave of trying to (re)masculanize ‘boys’ that may have supposedly been ‘exposed’. this whole ordeal may *even* trigger the medicalization of femininity.

perhaps this is why i feel great unease.

*N.B. I have used quotes around ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ to call attention to the cisnormative way that male and female children are raised in our society. given that approximately 1 in 1000 of these boys will go on to be girls, and women, one day (and vice versa) i wish to stress that these labels are applied without first allowing the child to form and name their gender identity, and thus, these labels of ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are both assumptive and transient.


May 8, 2008

Cocktail Party Bibliography: The Homophobia Study

Filed under: feminism,funny,gender,Uncategorized — Tags: , — Ethan @ 7:53 pm

For years now,  the UGA homopobia study has been one of my favorite pieces of social science, but I’ve never bothered looking it up before. A friend of mine’s dad worked on it, so I first got the rundown from her. Now, I’d like to sum it up for you, and give y’all the citation for the original article in case you want to look it up. I think I’ll do this from time to time, post a review/summary of a study I love or hate.

Long story short, this study looked at homopohbia in men, and asked the question we’ve all been thinking: are homophobic guys secretly into men?

The short answer is yes.

The researchers took a number of men (all white; I assume they didn’t want to bother controlling for cultural differences) who described themselves as fully heterosexual in preference and experience. They had the subjects fill out a questionnaire which asked them how they’d feel if they found out various people around them were gay, if a guy were to hit on them, etc. Using the results of that questionnaire, they chose  2  study group:  35  men who  were  homophobic, and a control group of  29  who did not have negative  emotional responses to  homosexuality.

Then, the hooked their volunteers up to a plethysmograph (a loop that fits around the penis and measures changes in its circumfrence, as a proxy for sexual arousal) and showed them porn. Both groups had similar responses to straight porn and lesbian porn, but there was a distinct gap in the way they responded to gay male porn.

The non-homophobic men were pretty bereft of hard-ons, with 66% having ‘insignificant’ arousal. Out of the remaining third, 10% were moderately aroused, and 24% had definite boners.

The homophobic men were much more into it. A mere 20% of them had insignificant changes in their penis metrics, while 26% were moderately aroused and a whopping 54% were definitely turned on. That’s some serious statistical significance.

What’s better, when the participants were asked later which videos had aroused them, all participants gave answers that matched the peter-meter measurements, with one major exception: the homophobic men consistently underestimated their response to the gay porn. Either they were lying, or they were in enough denial to not notice they  were turned on despite having their pants around their ankles and a bonerometer on their dicks. You be the judge.

Now, before the gloating goes too far, there’s a couple of points I want to cover. It’s possible, though less likely, that the homophobic guys got hard-ons because the gay porn made them nervous, or because a bunch of them were exhibitionists. Also, the study tells us noting about homophobic women. And lastly, I’d be interested in seeing a breakdown by religion–I want to know if people who are told by their clergy that gay folks are going to hell really internalize that message all the way to their crotches.

Anyway, I couldn’t find the article anywhere on the open web, so I’ll just give you the citation:

Henry Adams, Lester Wright Jr. & Bethany Lohr. “Is homophobia associated with homosexual arousal?”, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 105 (1996), P. 440-445

Next time you find yourself arguing with a homophobe, you’ll have a handy trump card.
You can thanks me later.


May 4, 2008

Let’s Kick Things Off

Filed under: feminism,gender,media and pop culture,Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Ethan @ 7:54 pm

The current issue of Bitch magazine has an article entitled Mad Science: Deconstructing Bunk Reporting in 5 Easy Steps that I just love. the author, Beth Skwarecki, lays out a great framework for spotting dubious science reporting in mainstream media. To pile on the awesome, she colors the whole deal with studies about gender, from whether male monkeys prefer trucks over dolls to the ‘housework prevents breast cancer’ debacle. It’s not the most fun part of the article, but this part pretty much sums up her thesis:

Ben Goldacre, who writes the “Bad Science” column for the UK’s Guardian, speculates that science stories come in three varieties: the wacky story, the breakthrough story, and the scare story. Most widely reported studies on gender seem to fall into the wacky category—the supposed innate preference for pink is one of them—and their media strength is that they tend to support existing stereotypes of women, reassuring readers that social stereotypes do, in fact, reflect reality.

We can’t put all the blame on mainstream media, of course. Scientists are part of the same culture as the rest of us, and they too have biases that shape their hypotheses and interpretations. The scientific community can also be as fad-driven as popular culture, creating a climate in which many researchers simultaneously geek out over one specific theory while competing ideas get lost or abandoned. So let’s learn how to read between the lines of these dubious articles. Next time you see an article reporting that women are happiest when they’re picking up their man’s dirty socks, try asking these questions:

1 Do the Conclusions Fit a Little Too Well With Cultural Stereotypes?
2 Does the Study Agree With the Headline?
3 Can You Spot the Double Standard?
4 Is There Another Conclusion That Would be Just as Valid?
5 Is the Study Even Science?

Each point gets  a little mini-essay of it’s own. Really, though, you should just go read the whole thing.I’ll be testing you on it later.


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