An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

August 2, 2010

Prepare to Have Your Mind Blown by Dinosaurs

Filed under: Education — Tags: , , — Ethan @ 11:00 am

A new study concludes that Triceratops weren’t a genus at all. They were young members of the genus Torosaurus, previously thought to be a related, larger, but less awesome genus. The confusion came about, they say, because Torosaurus species had different shaped head frills from Triceratops. John Scannella and Jack Horner, the authors of the study, put together a series of skulls (illustrated here) showing ‘Triceratops’ morphing toward a Torosaurid skull shape as they get larger and older. They say the bone in that frill stayed immature, and was thus exceptionally able to change shape much more than previous paleontologists thought possible.

The good news is Torosaurus have long been known to be totally badass-looking. Check out this 1905 rendition.

h/t to Boing Boing.


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.

April 23, 2009

Adorable Bioluminescent Puppies will Haunt your Dreams

Filed under: funny,media and pop culture — Tags: , — Ethan @ 11:20 am

Researchers in South Korea have cloned a beagle, complete with an added gene that makes the dog glow bright red under UV light.  Why? Well, it’s mostly a proof-of-concept; bioluminescence genes are commonly used as markers in genetic research, since they’re fairly easy to work with and can be added without interfering with other cell functions. Head researcher Byeong-Chun Lee (his name may be familiar, as he was caught falsifying results in other cloning studies) says this is the first step toward engineering dogs that are better subjects for human disease studies. Which, frankly, sounds a lot less cute than glow-in-the-dark labrodoodles.


May 29, 2008

Good PR Indeed

After decades of running of being a terrible magazine, perennial Mad Magazine imitator Cracked has metamorphosed  into a sometimes funny, sometimes annoying web publication. Check out their 6 Most Badass Stunts Ever Pulled in the Name of Science, or at least the first page. No. 5, “Drs. Warren and Barry Marshall Drink Stomach-Eating Germs,” is one of my favorite semi-apocryphal science stories, second only to the laboratory urban legend about the undergrad who inadvertently overfilled an autoclave with still-frozen severed monkey heads.


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 17, 2008

The Right Wing Says Soy Makes You Gay

Thanks to Bria for sending this my way. The article is old, but it’s some pretty amazing fear-mongering from a popular right-wing news blog thing. I’d never heard of ‘em before, but Wikipedia says it’s big. The guy says he’s warning parents about the risks of endocrine disrupters, but he gets it all wrong. For starters, apparently soy foods are the only source of estrogen mimics out there. Not biphenol-a, not DDT, not whatever DES might still be floating around out there. Just soy. Take a look:

Soy is feminizing, and commonly leads to a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality. That’s why most of the medical (not socio-spiritual) blame for today’s rise in homosexuality must fall upon the rise in soy formula and other soy products. (Most babies are bottle-fed during some part of their infancy, and one-fourth of them are getting soy milk!) Homosexuals often argue that their homosexuality is inborn because “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t homosexual.” No, homosexuality is always deviant. But now many of them can truthfully say that they can’t remember a time when excess estrogen wasn’t influencing them.

So, what is all that hippy food doing to our children? He mentions the toll endocrine disruptor can do to one’s fertility, and the sharp uptick in cancer amongst people who have been exposed to synthetic estrogens (not naturally-occurring phytoestrogens, like those in soy) early in life. But all of that pales in comparison to the fear of effeminizing little boys. And, apparently, here’s not difference between beingintersex, being a ‘feminine male’ and being gay. No matter that the assertion that gay men have a testosterone deficiency/estrogen surplus was disproved the moment someone developed a handy way to test hormone levels. Giving gay men extra testosterone just makes them want to have more gay sex, since testosterone tends to up your sex drive.

Honestly, I couldn’t stomach reading all 5 parts. I have a short attention span, and I’d need to artificially extend it to wade through all that psudoscience. Plus I can’t even figure out who this guy’s misinterpreting, because all his citation either lead back to the home page of the site, or to a 404 error. Which I guess says it all.


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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