Monday, 31 August 2009

Saying girls are rubbish at maths makes girls rubbish at maths

Very interesting interview with two researchers into the affects of stereotypes on women in their performance in maths tests.

This is based on their study (pdf) published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

See I'm not just wittering on about gender stereotypes, be they a love of pink or the *need* for women to remove every inch of hair from their body, because I find them irritating (physically and mentally); they can also be harmful.

And immensely aggravating to those of us who can long divide. Again, I give you xkcd on this subject.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

The Game The Whole Family Can Play!

[Click image to enlarge, via the indefatigable The F Word]

Seriously, I'm getting a little upset by all the pseudo-evolutionary (Just So) psychology bullshit now. Oh yeah, and the Daily Mail. A work colleague today warned me that the Daily Mail might consider taking a restraining order out against me.

OK then, this one is from the Daily Telegraph: Men prefer websites designed by men. The very first sentence of this article?
The differences spring from our caveman ancestors, said Gloria Moss, a specialist in human resources.
Frankly, I am not going to dignify this article by pulling it to shreds. That first sentence is enough to condemn it to the shit heap it sprang from.

JOURNALISTS LISTEN: Just because it is the bicentennial year of the birth of Charles Darwin does NOT mean that you have to get the word 'evolution' into every science story. If your writing about evolutionary biology or evolutionary psychology firstly, know the difference between the two and secondly, find out if the researcher you're quoting/cut n' pasting does too.

RESEARCHERS LISTEN: Just because you work in Buck-Nowheresville university (or a further education college) do you really NEED to use nonsense, sexist, pseudo-evolutionary failytales to get your research into the papers? If the answer is yes, then kiss your credibility goodbye.

I'll be tweeting all future pseudo-hunter-gatherer 'science' stories with the hastag #bullshitbingo

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Ruthless, sex-fiend, testosterone-fuelled women gamblers found by scientists

The reporting of a particular study in the last couple of days sounded more like an ad for a kinky fetish party. “Risky women are ‘hungry for sex’” panted the Press Association over the newswires of the world. “'Traders' testosterone' fuels female financial flutters” was Nature’s lame attempt. “Even female investors juiced by testosterone” was Daily Finance’s rather damp contribution.

And I’m just generally baffled as to why The Med Guru felt the need to use a picture of Scarlett Johansson with this story.

So yes “researchers” have “found” that women with greater levels of testosterone are “greater risk takers” (notice my subtle highlighting of certain words there). And of course testosterone is a SEX hormone so some journalists thought it would be a good idea to talk about SEX a bit as frankly SEX is more interesting than financial trading which is what the study was actually about.

The “researchers” were in fact an Associate Professor in Finance, a Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance and a Professor of Comparative Human Development and Evolutionary Biology (who lists press cuttings and press releases on web page rather than journal articles, but that’s just a particular prejudice of mine which has frequently been supported by evidence).

They used the results from a cohort of 460 (320 male, 140 female) MBA (management qualification) students at Chicago University of their levels of testosterone and compared this to their risk aversion and the careers that they went on to do after graduation (which were rated as ‘risky’ or not on the basis of whether they were in the financial sector).

Now, I’m not in a position to judge the accuracy of the testosterone testing (saliva collection and digit ratio), so I’ll assume they’re sound.

The risk aversion test and career choice data have huge confounding factors. The risk aversion test was a computer simulation where participants were asked to choose between a fixed cash amount (from $50 to $120) or to ‘gamble’ for a lottery prize or either $200 or zero. I do not believe that this is a credible test because it was 15 questions in a non-real life example, where participants were selected as ‘professional financial decision makers’ and were not intended to be representative.

Students are a specific type of people, MBA students are even more specific, and MBA students having their risk aversion measured when fully aware of the concepts of risk aversion and financial decisions are likely to give specific answers. (BTW you can actually re-read the above sentence substituting the word ‘specific’ for the word ‘wanky’ and it is still true).

Secondly, the career data was collected two years after the test with no follow-up interview. Therefore, it was assumed that graduates chose certain "high risk" professions (in the financial sector) because they were risk-takers and the risk-averse would take low risk jobs outside of the sector. In fact, there may have been many reasons why certain jobs were taken; offers, opportunities, location, having children, redundancy, not wanting to be surrounded by trading wankers, etc. That is not a measure of risk aversion, for me it would be a measure of bullshit tolerance.

So I don’t think the research was great, but the reporting of the research was atrocious. None of the problems with the research were alluded to, they tried to sex it up by using words like ‘gambling’ and ‘excessive drinking’ and, er, ‘sex’. And they just made false and misleading statements:

Daily Telegraph: “[The study] found that testosterone-driven women who liked to gamble went on to choose careers in finance”

Press Association: “Women with an appetite for risk may also be hungry for sex, a study suggests.” (No, it really doesn’t)

I am most concerned by this quote from one of the researchers:
"This is the first study showing that gender differences in financial risk aversion have a biological basis, and that differences in testosterone levels between individuals can affect important aspects of economic behaviour and career decisions," said Professor Dario Maestripieri.
Now I have met enough academics who have been misquoted in the press to treat quotes with some suspicion. However, what is important is that this study DOES NOT show that gender differences in financial risk aversion have a biological basis. Even if the methodology was perfect it is still a small study on a select group of individuals who are members of an elite in a Western capitalist society. That is a long way from establishing a ‘biological basis’ for individual attitudes and behaviours.

This also feeds into the argument that women are not making it into top financial or commercial sector jobs because they are risk averse and non-competitive: only women with unusual ‘male hormones’ can make it to the top and the fact that men are over-represented is “natural”. This is wildly reductionist. There are huge environmental and social determinants of managing and evaluating risk and humans are notoriously bad at doing it.

So sorry to those who had hoped that scientists had found a bunch of sex-fiend, testosterone-fuelled women (you know who you are), you’ll probably find they’re too smart to be working in finance.

Thanks to the ever-wonderful Dr Petra for the tip-off on this.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Science on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

I LOVE the Daily Show and I LOVE Jon Stewart. It is frankly, where I get all of my information about American politics. I watch Fox News for the laughs. Anyway, inspired by After Elton which did a great round-up of Daily Show Greatest Gay Moments, I thought I'd put together a Top Ten Great Science Moments list.

This is by no means exhaustive and it would be easy to sub-divide and do a Top Ten Evolution clips, Top Ten Bush-being-stupid-about-science or Top Ten Woo (which I may well do). But here are some of my favs....

  1. John Oliver on the evil that is the Large Haldron Collider.

  2. The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
    Large Hadron Collider
    Daily Show
    Full Episodes
    Political HumorHealthcare Protests

  3. Just to remind us of the bad ol' days: science under Bush

  4. Otherwise known as The Endarkenment (ref. David Colquhoun)

    The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
    Chris Mooney
    Daily Show
    Full Episodes
    Political HumorHealthcare Protests

  5. THIS is the kind of science communicators we need. The amazing Neil deGrasse Tyson

  6. The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
    Neil deGrasse Tyson
    Daily Show
    Full Episodes
    Political HumorHealthcare Protests

    Also watch an earlier interview with him here.

  7. Stem cell research, only slightly more crazy debate in the US than here

  8. The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
    Headlines - War on Terrorble Diseases
    Daily Show
    Full Episodes
    Political HumorHealthcare Protests

  9. Michelle Obama promotes organic propaganda. Or not.

  10. The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
    Little Crop of Horrors
    Daily Show
    Full Episodes
    Political HumorHealthcare Protests

  11. In the bicentenery year of Darwin's birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, let's have a bit of dinosaur-denying

  12. BTW, I didn't know about the Scopes Monkey Trial before watching this film. If you don't either, here's the wiki on it.

    The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
    Evolution Schmevolution - A Heritage Tour
    Daily Show
    Full Episodes
    Political HumorHealthcare Protests

  13. Ah, we were so optimistic about Mars missions in the olden days

  14. And look you can have actual scientists on mainstream TV and people will be interested.
    The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
    Catherine Weitz
    Daily Show
    Full Episodes
    Political HumorHealthcare Protests

  15. Theories based on evidence vs theories based on Discovery Channel documentaries slug it out

  16. The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
    Human's Closest Relative
    Daily Show
    Full Episodes
    Political HumorHealthcare Protests

  17. A little more optimism as scientists advise and enter the Obama administration

  18. Very interesting interview about science/public policy interface.

    The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
    Harold Varmus
    Daily Show
    Full Episodes
    Political HumorHealthcare Protests

    And for another Nobel Laurate actually in the Obama cabinet, an interview withSecretary Steven Chu. More importantly a member of the Nerds of America Society.

  19. Finally, the critical question is who owns space

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Colbert - Outer Space Available
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

Feel free to add your favourites if I've missed them....

Sunday, 23 August 2009

The trouble with pink – you’re being manipulated

I am a woman and I don’t like the colour pink.

Now, I know most of you will think that I am therefore some kind of mutant whose ovaries must have shriveled up and dropped off, but I’ve never been much of a fan of the colour.

And yet, we seem to be told regularly that females are in some way genetically programmed to prefer pink and that they would prefer that every inanimate object they come into contact with was in fact pink.

You may be aware of the stories a few years ago when scientists ‘proved’ that girls prefer pink. Except that’s not what they found, both males and females preferred blue but that hardly matters when you have gender stereotypes to uphold.

What was fascinating was the bullshit evolutionary biology/psychology (not sure which as the researchers involved were neither) tacked on to this misreporting of a study’s findings. I forget who once likened evolutionary psychology to ‘Just So Stories’ but I wholeheartedly agree. The ‘girls prefer pink’ story was padded out with rather implausible assertions that female hunter-gatherers (yes that old chestnut again) needed to be able to differentiate red berries when foraging.

But the study wasn’t about female/male abilities to differentiate colours but about preference. And anyway, colour significance is entirely socially constructed. Pink was a boy’s colour and blue a girl’s as recently as 1914 (warning: includes pictures of highly spoilt children).

“But,” I can here you cry, “my daughter/niece/friend’s kid loves pink and her parents have not forced it on her at all.” My first reaction would be really? Really have they not bought her pink things, not accepted gifts from friends and family that were universally pink? Did they not when she was under 1 year old and therefore indistinguishable from any other baby male or female, dress her in pink clothes and put a bow in her hair so that strangers wouldn’t say “Oh, what a lovely little boy”. Did they really? Really? Really, did they?

If you’re answer is yes, then fine but the little cretin will still go to nursery with little pink fluffy Shirley Temples, be bombarded with pink advertising and be generally encouraged, corralled and forced into liking pink.

This blue/pink thing has been largely manufactured by the advertising industry as a way of enabling product differentiation.

Companies can sell more of their product and charge more for it if they put pink on it, say its ‘specially designed for women’ and point out that if women don’t buy it they will be fat, ugly and hairy.

Look at razors. Only a few years ago the only ones both men and women bought were the orange and white bic razors. Yeah so they hacked half your face/legs off but progress in razor innovation has included marketing essentially the exact same product differently towards men and women. It has also *become important* to shave more and more bits of you, whether women needing to trim their bush:

Or men wanting to make their ‘tree’ ‘look’ ‘bigger’ (quote from Gillette website: “If you wanna see a tree you shouldn’t have to blaze a trail to get there. Trees look taller when there’s no underbrush”)

But who cares? I hear you cry. Well, apart from me… more and more gender stereotypes are less being propagating by the old forces such as religion, and more by rampant consumerism. For the nutritionist-bashing constructive critics out there, this is reflected in Vitabiotics different vitamin supplements for women and men, the women’s one advertised with the slogan “We are of course very different from men in many ways - so why take the same general multivitamin as them?”

Why indeed?

Pink Stinks
is a campaign for real role models for girls.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

When we’re talking about geniuses we’re not talking about you

Ah, Harriet Harman. I really wish I could support you, but you are far too crap (great analysis on this from Laurie Penny). Harman has reignited the debate about representation of women in politics which after years of looking at gender balancing political party selection procedures, makes me want to gouge my own eyes out.

It really is this simple: we live in a society governed by a form of democracy which is tasked with responding to the needs of the population. That population has women in it, therefore those tasked with governing need to represent that population. While there have been great successes brought about by feminist men, giant leaps in social policy positively affecting women has been put on the agenda by women MPs.

Equality campaigners of all equality strands see political representation as an important part, albeit only one, of their struggle. Indeed the representation of women in the governments of the world is cited by international human rights instruments (CEDAW and committee recommendations) as an objective in the campaign for equality.

Strange then, that a call for equality always gets dragged down into a discussion of either female intelligence (or lack of) or the ‘fact’ that women just aren’t cut out for politics.

I won’t get into the in-depth debate about the nature of intelligence here and will just stick to IQ. The evidence obviously varies often depending on how the test is weighted but in general there is no mean average difference between men and women. Where there is evidence of a sex difference it is in IQ variance, where there are findings (such as this 2006 study) of more men than women in the top and bottom 2%, although this could also be due to sampling bias.

As with a lot of science, it doesn’t give people the definitive, unchanging and universal answer that they want. At the moment the very most that we can say is that there is some gender variation at the extremes and some gender differences in different cognitive abilities, but even that may be refined by new evidence.

What is the real problem, as ever, is not the science but its interpretation. Specifically, the dumbass reduction to ‘men are cleverer than women’. It is as silly as using the same ‘logic’ at the other end of the scale and saying ‘men are stupider than women’, interesting how this flip side is never used….

There are such things as female geniuses*, there are just more male ones. Conversely, there are females who are cognitively, er, challenged (?), there are just more males who are.

There is a greater difference in IQ within sexes than there is between them.

There are not many geniuses in politics (believe me I know a lot of politicians, hopefully none of whom read this blog…), indeed nor should they be over-represented. Our democratic institutions are intended to consist of laypersons. There are no qualifications to be an MP (other than eligibility issues; over-18, British citizen, not a bishop – seriously…) which is to enhance the diversity and experience of our representatives.

So I get a little tired of the inference being made that because of a over-representation of males in the higher IQ tail, we shouldn’t aspire to gender balance within politics. That argument misplaces the significance of statistical significance.

The interpretation of information of this nature must be handled responsibly. We can’t look on wide-eyed and say ‘Look, I’m just saying there are more extremely intelligent men than women. It’s just a statement of fact, you are doing the interpreting not little ol’ me’ It’s like Fox News just saying that some of those responsible for the Glasgow terrorist attack were doctors in a socialised health system. Or The Sun was just saying that the numbers of swans in London had gone down in the same time-frame that numbers of asylum seekers had gone up.

In a society riddled with gender inequality, where women are paid less than men, where traditionally ‘women’s work’ is undervalued and where women’s infuriating habit of reproducing is getting them sacked and publicly bollocked, just saying that geniuses are more likely to be male than female is used by bigots to call women stupid and incompetent.

I’m not calling for censorship here and I am not trying to shut down debate. I am saying that facts and debates do not happen in a vacuum unfettered by discriminatory attitudes and values. We have learnt the need to contextualise a debate about young black men and crime and not cherry pick statistics and pretend that the stats we use will not have insinuations and ramifications.

Primarily, I’d like to point out that its unlikely that those who use the stat on male IQ are in the upper tail themselves and that you can’t get there by association. The Dunning-Kruger effect frequently takes hold.

*I’m using the (yes, sloppy and lazy) shorthand ‘genius’ to signify the top 2% on IQ variation.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Mitchell and Webb on lady adverts

OK, apologies for being quiet on the ol’ blogging recently. But I’ve been moving flat. Here’s something to make up for it…

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Rent-a-quote psychologists

Now Dr Petra Boynton is a professional, eminent in her field and because of that is bound by professionalism and, er, eminence to talk euphemistically about a celebrity psychologist that she calls 'Psychologist A' in her blog here.

I, on the other hand, have no such shame and so can fairly confidently say; "Come on, Dr Petra, we all know you're talking about Dr Linda Papadopoulos." This shameless rent-a-quote academic will put her name to anything when not embarrassingly fronting a government campaign on the sexualisation of girls in British society (blogged on previously) or seemlessly moving to comment on Big Brother or My Big Breasts and Me. (Believe me I am aching to divulge her government 'research' but its not public, bites lip)

Dr Petra's blog was inspired by a great article by Martin Robbins on celebrity psychologists, so I thought I'd return to Dr Linda and share a few more gems from her academic-reputation-for-hire.

Dr Linda, Celebrity Psychiatrist (sic), is naturally concerned by our consumerist-obsessed society that is fueling dissatisfaction and alienation. Her remedy? Why Lacoste's new perfume 'Love of Pink' for women of course. Just as Dr Linda says:
“The color pink is, in a lot of ways, the essence of what it means to be a young woman – love, romance, femininity and youth are all punctuated by this color. When a young woman wears LACOSTE Love of Pink, she wears the color of love.”
Yeah, Linda, you are totally right. And I realise now that you are the PERFECT person for the government to employ to look into gender stereotypes which are fueling inequality and violence against women.

But it doesn't stop at perfume, oh no. Remember, this woman is a serious academic. She does SCIENCE. And by science I mean research. And by research I mean stuff that a company makes up to sell shoes. Stuff like, the FACT that women's heart rate increases when they buy shoes:
"Shoes have a particular draw to women as they are emotionally evocative items to them and they bring out women's socializing and nurturing instincts," the Mirror quoted [Dr Linda], as saying.
You know she's right. A cute pair of Jimmy Choo's actually makes my womb ache (sorry, she was actually being paid by Brantano, er, who?). In fact there is a direct link between the shoe part of my brain and my genitalia because I'm a woman and therefore incapable of abstract thought.

OK now, what's missing? I've got my shoes. I stink like the changing rooms in Top Shop on a Saturday afternoon. But I'm still not happy. Dr Linda knows why:
"There is evidence that people are malfunctioning because they are not enjoying enough pleasure on a regular basis to be healthy happy people"
It appears that I have 'Pleasure Deficiency Syndrome' which is something that only exists when drinks company Bailey's pays for a survey from YouGov and then pays Dr Linda to endorse the findings of the survey, make up a 'syndrome' and get people to drink more Bailey's. Now I am actually not getting enough pleasure on a regular basis but the one thing that will make this fact inexorably worse would be having to drink Bailey's.

Seems Dr Linda is frequently hawking her academic wares around to the highest bidder, be they Boots the Chemist, Tate & Lyle (pdf) or The National Lottery. And of course her own line of psychological face creams.

To think of the women who sacrificed so much to break through the glass ceiling of academia, who were the first to be admitted to male-only universities and colleges. And all so that in years to come, a lady psychologist can sell shoes, perfume and a creamy vomit liqueur.

Does this increase the public's understanding of psychology and is this ethical as Dr Petra asks? Well no, I would argue that this devalues science, makes the public suspicious that academics will say whatever they are paid to say and perpetuates embarrassingly shallow gender stereotypes. However, when the government buys into the academic-PR complex that is Dr Linda, we achieve new heights of incredulity.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

How to get your project in the news around the world: say that women are a bit crap at something

[Hunter from Neverwhere. Female]

This is one of the worst articles on gender and brains I've seen in a long time. A piece was written by an AFP agency journalist, has been cut n’ pasted into news sites across the globe. As far as I can tell, its only appeared in The Telegraph in the UK, but has made it to Russia, India, Spain, Australia, Japan and Playboy (and many many more).

It is a terribly written article about a yet-unpublished paper on a study of 48 people by an A Level teacher.

Now, I'm not being dismissive about the researcher from Hammersmith and West London College, but this study has got more coverage than most research from the most eminent professors in the country.

The article gives the impression that men are better at judging distances than women and that this is because of our hunter-gatherer past. Men would hunt and therefore have to throw spears long distances, women would gather berries and whatnot at close quarters. (And yes before all the archaeologists and anthropologists start jumping up and down on me, I know this is simplistic rubbish too, but that’s another story).

Firstly, men being better at judging distances than women wasn’t really the finding of the ‘paper’ (i.e. what was contained in the abstract of the yet to be published paper). The article in fact contradicts itself internally:
Men were more accurate than women when the target was placed far away at a distance of 100cm.
And then
In a second study, volunteers were asked to carry out the same tasks using a stick rather than a laser pointer. This time women were significantly better than men at judging both distances.
Secondly, this is a study of just 48 people (24 men, 24 women) presumably from one locality (probably Hammersmith or West London) and unlikely to have been controlled for other factors (age, occupation, experience of archery etc). But I don't know, and nor does anyone else, because the paper hasn't been published.

Thirdly, in a study about spacial awareness, comparing abilities over 50cms to 1m is fair enough. To define it as hand-reach (near space) and beyond hand-reach (far space) is clear. But leap from 1 metre being called ‘far space’ to the distance over which a ‘hunter’ would throw a spear at a mammoth, is more than a little ridiculous.

Fourthly, as a psychology experiment on visomotor performance why is there an urge to link this randomly and in an ill-informed way to primitive human society and evolutionary biology?

But lastly, this is an experiment conducted at a further education college which is about to be published in the Journal of Psychology. My problem is not with Stancey, seriously well done (as long as you take from this experience the media manipulation of science and how best to give comment to a journalist).

My problem is with a media that doesn’t check its facts, that doesn’t do anything but cut n’ paste a poorly written article into their newspaper. Stancey is quoted as "Psychologist Helen Stancey, from Hammersmith and West London College". Googling Hammersmith and West London College you realise it is a further education college that runs A Levels, BTECs and the like.

So how does this happen? We live in a world of lazy gender stereotypes: women can’t read maps, men take risks, girls like pink etc. When ‘science’ journalists come across a crappy story about women not being able to judge distances (which cognitively signifies women not being able to drive/play sports/walk past a shoe shop…) because they ‘were gatherers’, it makes culturally sense to us. Not scientific sense, but it fits in with society’s general assumptions, stereotypes and bullshit common-sense.

This is why I think these kinds of reports are so damaging, they serve as the wallpaper of patriarchy. The constant mundane assumptions about male and female differences that support gender inequality.

And for the record, I’m a dab hand at archery.