Sunday, 4 October 2009

On the move....

Hi All

I've moved sites, to a pretty wordpress blog site with a url of my very own:

Please change your bookmarks and RSS feeds - I would hate you loose you :)

I'll keep this address for a few more months but it won't be updated.

Thanking you.

Naomi Mc

Monday, 21 September 2009

Looking at boobs. Saving the world.

Boo-hoo. My Mac is not well and I have to wait till Wednesday to see a Genius to cure the little mite. In the meantime, read this fabulous blog by Dr Isis on misogynistic breast cancer campaigning.

This reminded me of PETA campaigning which has been frequently branded sexist. Feel the anger from Feministing (Vote for the worst PETA ad), Jezebel (PETA explicit ad "banned" but actually not), Opposing Views (Save the Whale ad), Julie Bindel. A colleague of mine used to work for PETA and said that their strategy was to be as shocking as possible regardless of the fall-out - all publicity being good publicity. Defence from the President of PETA, Ingrd Newkirk here and audio here.

Hilarious The Onion take on this:

Advocacy Group Decries PETA's Inhumane Treatment Of Women

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Science reporting: is it good for you?

The Royal Institution in London was packed to the rafters last night (I know because I was in the rafters) with bloggers, academics, journalists, bloggers, science communicators and bloggers for the Drayson/Goldacre face-off (watch the full debate here or read New Scientist's report).

Less rumble in the jungle, more grumble in the letters page of a peer-reviewed journal (come on, it half rhymes if you say it quickly).

The debate didn't really set the world alight and neither of them strayed away from their (after numerous radio interviews) well-trod arguments. My issue, as ever, is the trouble with gender and on this Lord Drayson used a pretty annoying headline to illustrate his point on the benefits of sensationalism. The front page story from The Sun on HPV and cervical cancer has a killer headline...

[thanks Kate Arkless Gray @radiokate]

What I found interesting is the sub-heading 'ALERT TO ALL WOMEN'. To all those who read the Daily Mail, you will know that the Government has been rolling out a comprehensive HPV vaccine to girls and young women. The Daily Mail is running a series of scare stories about this continuing a rich tradition in anti-vaccination journalism.

(As an aside: If any of the researchers I know from my old alma mater who did some work on Cervarix and Gardasil are reading this, please do comment/link to your research).

One thing that this policy decision does is put the responsibility for sexual health again squarely with females. And before, you roll your eyes and exclaim 'boys can't get cervical cancer', they can and do pass on HPV and they do get genital warts. I acknowledge that there is a cost-effectiveness argument but this call did get passed at the last BMA ARM - not the most rabidly feminist organisation I've ever come across.

My point is not to get into the ins and outs of the HPV vaccine, but more to take issue with Drayson's, and to some extent Goldacre's, view that sometimes 'sensationalism isn't such a bad thing', that it can publicise an issue that should get a high profile. Drayson used the Sun headline above to illustrate the benefits of sensationalism. My concern is that there are negative fall-outs from such an approach to medical or scientific PR; namely, that sensationalist stories can reinforce and feed society's prejudices, stereotypes and negative attitudes.

This is infuriating for those who campaign to challenge social attitudes whether on gender, race, immigration status, sexuality etc. It is hard enough to combat the Melanie Phillips' and Richard Littlejohn's of this world, without having scientists 'proving' that immigrants are coming over here stealing our women, eating our swans AND giving us HIV and TB.

I'm not advocating censorship, I'm pleading for responsible reporting. Sensationalism can and does regularly undermine scientific reporting of delicate and nuanced findings. This can both lead to health scares and dangerous health practices but can also feed negative stereotypes about social groups being diseased, stupid, promiscuous or all of the above.

However much we might point to outstanding examples of science journalism in certain papers, all newspapers are writing for their specific audience, influence their audience and have a political bias.

Plus there is a huge amount of research into the way people read newspapers and news online. Using eye-tracking and socio-semiotic research, we know that people tend to read the headline and first couple of paragraphs if you're lucky (this is a fascinating article on some eye-tracking research). Which means that if you leave the caveats, the nuances or other statistical 'health warnings' to the end of the article - they'll rarely be read.

Science reporting doesn't happen in a vacuum. It takes place in a society with historical legacies, prejudices, tensions and pretty low levels of scientific understanding and critical thinking. Journalists and scientists need to take responsibility for the presentation of findings (assuming it's good research in the first place) that can fuel discriminatory or unhelpful attitudes.

I only picked on one small aspect of the talk, coz I knew the blogosphere would do the rest. Here's some more on the talk and arguments:
From Ben Goldacre himself
Basheera Khan at The Telegraph
New Scientist
Nathan Chantrell
Skeptic Barista
And many many more.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

More Periods.

Further to an earlier period post (which interestingly has been the most commented on post both here and from friends in person) I've only just stumbled upon the fantastic blog by the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.

I particularly liked the post on the hidden nature of menstrual blood in film and TV as opposed to the graphic depiction of blood via fighting, shooting and crashing.

Oh, and having just moved into a new flat, THIS is the shelving unit I've been looking for!

Periods and science: a veritable wellspring of menstrual blood!

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

My outfit does not consent on my behalf

[a metal cilice, kind of thing worn by Opus Dey faithful for 'corporal mortification']

Inspired by a blog sent to me about EA Games ‘Booth Babes’ at ComicCon, I thought I’d write a blog about spanking. You know, as you do. Issues of Bondage, Discipline/Dominance, Sado-Masochism (BDSM), pornography and objectification are so huge I’m not going to pretend that I’ve done them justice here, but these are my initial thoughts so lets get, erm, cracking….

I’ve written before about misogyny in the gaming industry (here and here frinstance), which is ridiculous when 40% of (US) gamers are female. There was also a lot written recently about EA Games employing ‘Booth Babes’ and then asking for them to be sexually harassed by ComicCon delegates. But the most interesting blog (not worksafe) I have read on this was from a submissive model on the UK spanking scene.

This was interesting because it challenged me and my preconceptions about women engaged in BDSM. It wasn’t what she said on the EA Games issue, all of which I agree with: this objectifies women, ‘Booth Babe’ is a demeaning term, it encourages sexual harassment not just of the ‘Booth Babes’ but all women attending ComicCon etc.

There are two things that I find challenging about this: empowered feminists being sexually submissive and BDSM models criticising the objectification of women.

Now I’ve read a couple of blogs by sexually submissive feminists (such as the very good Girl With a One Track Mind) and it’s something I’m really trying to get my head around. It seems counter-intuitive to me because my instinct is to encourage women to be powerful and assertive against a historical backdrop of oppression. But this blogger dresses up in school uniforms and other costumes, and is spanked, dominated, tied-up and sexually submissive.

Plus she is a model on the BDSM scene and so is photographed in these situations and yet identifies the fact that encouraging men to get dodgy pictures with some ‘booth babes’ crosses a line into objectification.

I realise that finding these two things ‘challenging’ is an emotional response rather than an intellectual or philosophical one. So here’s why my emotional response is wrong….

What is definitely unfeminist, is a feminist telling another woman how to have sex and what she can and can’t get her kicks out of. I want my feminism to include, for example, those women who have a gendered analysis of the world, they campaign for women’s rights, they challenge people’s everyday sexism and yet they're also down with consensual arse-slapping.

The counter argument is: these women are perpetuating rape myths, they’re playing out their own internalised misogyny and they are making it harder for other women who are fighting against patriarchy. I simply do not think that this is true.

Firstly, I have found that those involved in the BDSM scene or burlesque tend to have far greater social rules and sexual etiquette than in society at large. Because of the nature of the activities, trust, self-awareness and boundaries are far more strictly defined. These are people with a greater awareness of their own sexuality and the concept of empowerment through sexuality than your average non-handcuff owner.

Secondly, if you believe in the empowerment of women you have to accept that they should be empowered to do things you personally wouldn’t want to do. This sometimes manifests itself as ‘feminism going too far’ or ‘women just acting like men’. Well yes, because if you want to give women choices you can’t then try and make those choices for them.

If a woman chooses to engage in a bit of ol’ spanking then that is her choice. To say that I have a greater analysis of her motivations and am more aware of her sexuality than she is herself is deeply patronising, condescending and simply wrong. And it is particularly wrong when the women in question clearly demonstrate their political awareness, identify themselves as feminists and critically engage with debates around consent, sexual freedom and privacy.

This doesn’t mean that non-spankers can’t engage in debate about the issues, but it does mean you have to do so from an informed position and with a sophisticated understanding of human sexuality which goes beyond ‘sexual practice A is wrong, sexual practice B is alright - says me’.

Finally, I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea that individual women are responsible to women at large for their personal sexual proclivities. Women regularly bear the burden of their gender; if they succeed they are personally responsible for breaking down social barriers. If they fail, it in some way implicates all women in that failure.

The second ‘thing I found challenging’ was a BDSM model criticising the objectification of women in the EA Games example. The simple question being “isn’t that what you’re doing?”. Again this needs a little more sophistication on my part.

Two (linked) issues involved in the 'pornography: right or wrong' debate are female sexuality within the broad context of patriarchy and whether all porn is therefore objectification.

As a society we tend to make a direct link between female sexuality, what women wear, how they behave and how the rest of society should therefore react to them. This is the basis of the ‘she was asking for it’ rationale for rape, as though an outfit can consent to sex on behalf of its wearer. Just try and think what a man would have to wear in order to be asking for rape or sexual assault.

Putting aesthetics and scaring little children aside, a woman should be able to walk down the street naked without the risk of being raped. Clothes, lack of clothes or the wearing of sexualised clothing (for want of a better phrase) does not over-ride your ability to consent to sex. Your clothes do not remove the ability of another human being to stop themselves committing an assault.

Plus, I don’t think there is something intrinsically wrong with looking at sexual images of people. Yes there is a historical legacy of oppression of women, of women exploited by a male-dominated porn industry. That is context, not intrinsic so we try and change the context. This comes down to what sexual objectification means and its impact. Do all sexualised images, female or male, necessarily separate the physical appearance from their existence as an individual?

I think not. And while I understand the corrosive effect that pumping out degrading images of people can have (whether women or indeed, starving Africans) that is not true of all representations or all ‘consumers’. There is no getting away from the class, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, age etc etc aspects of this. But they simply make this more complicated rather than less as many marginalised groups, identities and sexualities find great empowerment in representations of their sexual liberation.

All pornography and/or erotica is exploitative, sexist, racist, homophobic, size-ist? I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.

In sum, if there is any walk of life where I want there to be feminists it’s in the BDSM scene.

So, ahem, more power to your elbow.

I am genuinely interested in debating this issue and am open to different points of view on it. Just don’t be pervy – I’ll just not publish your post and regard you a sad wanker.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Damien Hirst is a cock

I think we get the artists we deserve, which is why our money-grabbing, commercialised, shallow, turn of the millennia, Western society has produced Damien Hirst.

Last century, and for century's before, most artists died in poverty usually syphilitic, earless, reputationless - apart from a reputation for opium and shagging prostitutes - they were on the fringes of society. OK not the court artists, but you get what I mean.

Now they are multi-millionaires, who employ people to produce their art in three factory workshops for them and swagger around threatening to sue 17 year old artists who make collages of their work and then getting them arrested.

Art has always involved copying and appropriating. It's how the Greats learnt their craft. Mentors would encourage their protege to learn from them.

But not today. Today we live in a world where art is brand and brand is money and all that matters is how much Saatchi will pay for your pile of shite (which is my idea fuckers - any of you try and sell your own pile of shite I'll sue!). In 2009, we get a multi-millionaire shitty brand artist like Hirst with a righteous desire to stamp on a 17 year old street artist.

So what happened? Street artist Cartrain made some collages using an image of Hirst's disgustingly expensive diamond-encrusted skull, For the Love of God. These collages were put up for sale on an art website. Hirst reported him to the Design and Artists Copyright Society and sent a bundle of legal letters to Cartrain's art dealer, Tom Cuthbert, at

After the legal threats, surrendered the offending pictures to Hirst with a verbal apology. Cartrain, the artist in question took this all very well, and in the spirit of the Dadaists went to Tate Britain and stole a box of pencils part of Hirst's £50m Pharmacy installation. Cartrain was arrested, released on bail, and is waiting to find out if he will be formally charged with causing damage to the artwork. His father was also arrested in connection with the theft from Tate Britain, on suspicion of harbouring stolen pencils probably.

It doesn't feel a lot different from McDonald's stopping local family-run businesses using the name 'McDonald's'. In fact there are a lot of similarities, as the McLibel Two will tell you.

So Twitter has been buzzing with #hirstisacock and some have been debating whether Hirst is a shit artist or Cartrain is a shit artist. Both may be true but neither are important. What is important is a rich, establishment, art figure trying to stamp on a child artist because he can. This is why Hirst is a cock. He is a bully, a hypocrite and a sickening anti-competition capitalist.

Cartrain and have asked that bloggers and twitters bring attention to this story. Woop here it is.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

New "Scientist" at it again

[Jessica Drew was down with the spiders, that's radiation for you]

At the risk of copyright infringement, I would like to quote directly from the BBC story on girls being afraid of spiders. This is a report on an article in the New Scientist which has a worrying habit of reproducing this kind of shite.

A new study in the US suggests that women have a genetic aversion to dangerous animals, such as spiders.
Let's focus on the words 'genetic aversion', what kind of evidence do you think you would need to establish a 'genetic aversion'? I would, for example, expect a geneticist to perhaps be involved in the research or maybe for it to be a twin-based study. But...

The research, published in the New Scientist, says women are born with character traits that were ingrained in our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
FACT. This research PROVES that women (i.e. all) are born with character traits (presuming manifesting in behaviours) that were ingrained (genetically pre-programmed?) in our hunter-gatherer ancestors (a catch-all term but where our character traits were cemented and untouched by 10,000 years of agricultural and pastoral society). Again, for this assertion I would expect an archeologist, palentologist, ethnographer, paleoanthropologist, or someone with some understanding of prehistoric societies to be involved in this research.

Previous research suggested women were actually up to four times more likely to be afraid of creatures like spiders.
Previous research. Not this research. Not credited research. Just other research.

The new research was headed up by developmental psychologist, Dr David Rakison, from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, 10 baby girls, and 10 baby boys were subjected to a number of pictures of spiders to gauge their reactions.
OK, so let's recap shall we: no geneticist, no archeologist, no paleontologist, no ethnographer, no paleoanthropologist. A study on 20 babies where they GAUGED their REACTIONS to PICTURES.

A sample of 20 individuals who cannot adequately communicate were show pictures of things that they may have never seen before and the claim is that this research shows that women have a genetic aversion to dangerous animals.

First the babies were shown a picture of a spider with a fearful human face, followed by images of a spider paired with a happy face - alongside an image of a flower twinned with a fearful face.
This is supposed to be science. They are showing babies pictures of spiders with happy and sad faces (learnt behaviour) and stating that this in any way contributes to evidence for genetic aversion.


The results showed that the girls - some as young as 11 months old - looked longer at the picture of the happy face with a spider than the boys, who looked at both images for an equal time.

The researchers concluded that the young girls were confused as to why someone would be happy to be twinned with a spider, and were quick to associate pictures of arachnids with fear.

The boys, it seems, remained totally indifferent emotionally.

"The researchers concluded that the girls were confused". Seriously, why do these people bother working in a university when they could just prop up a bar somewhere shouting "I reckon..." into the air? Oh yeah, its on the BBC website...

I particularly like the caveat "it seems" in the last sentence. Because of course they don't know, they weren't even measuring heartbeat never mind any other tests of emotion. They just reckon.


Mr Rakison attributes this genetic predisposition to behavioural traits inherent in our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Men, he purports, were the greater natural risk takers, the ones who took greater risks were more successful when going out to hunt for food.

With women, in their role as natural child protectors, it made sense for them to be more cautious of animals such as snakes or spiders, Mr Rakison adds.

By contrast, the research concludes that modern phobias such as the fear of hospitals - or that of flying - show no differences between the sexes.

Only at this stage in the article do words like 'attributes' or 'purports' come into play. It is interesting to compare what Dr Rakison is quoted as saying above and what he says when he is interviewed on the BBC's The World Today. The interview is worth listening to for the vox pops they do with a few women at the beginning (none of whom are afraid of spiders) where one says she's not frightened of spiders but is of men. Anyway, Mr Rakison says in his interview explicitly that this is a learnt response and that "its not that we're born with the fear".

Also the study is published in Evolution and Human Behaviour and is about fear learning.

So where does the 'genetic' and 'hunter-gatherer' bullshit come from? It's made up. It had no basis. It's just a cultural meme perpetuated by repetition. I'm not saying that humans do not have 'instincts' or that everything is environmental. I'm saying that the hunter-gatherer concept pisses me off. It invokes an image of big strong men hunting mammoths and home-bound women collecting berries which feeds cultural stereotypes about male and female characteristics which are false.

Apparently Dr Rakison thinks men are greater risk takers despite later stating that the is no gender difference in things like the fear of flying.

And on the point that this was a study of 20 babies, I came across this fascinating article in The Psychologist about psychology's problematic relationship with empiricism.

Oh, and this was another one for #bullshitbingo and its sister game #BSbingo (bad science bingo).

periods. Periods. PERIODS. P.E.R.I.O.D.S.

[Carrie, the period horror film]

It is about time, in human evolution – in Western society’s evolution – that we started talking about periods. We talk, joke and laugh about shitting, farting and puking but not about women bleeding for a week a month. Why? Because it’s dirty that’s why - Biblically unclean.

We don’t talk about menstruation - and by ‘we’ I definitely mean men AND women - yet pretty much all women do it all the time. Its something that looms large in our lives. We fear, expect and will it when it starts. It mortifies us when it leaks. It ruins romantic weekends and when you’re in an intimate relationship with a woman it is something you both have to bear (x2 for lesbians).

This post has been inspired by a conversation I have just come from in the pub with two men (can you tell?). They took it well. One of them admitted that the first time he spoke about periods at the age of 8-ish he said he was confused about the blue stuff that came out of women. I have had a handful of conversations in the past mostly with women about periods but it’s only ever come up with good friends and sometimes in hushed tones.

This is the point. Girls and boys are rarely told about the ‘stuff’ that happens to the opposite sex during puberty and beyond. It leads to fear, misunderstanding, shame and repulsion. The natural functions of women has for millennia resulted in the notion of women as fundamentality ‘unclean’. The woman who shouldn’t be touched during her monthly period or you will be unclean till evening (Leviticus, which is all about the periods, and sleeping with animals). It has spawned a fascination and abhorrence with female functions and feminine ‘dirt’.

It is 'the curse' and the ‘sin of Eve’. It has as many euphemisms: having the painters and decorators in, on the blob, got the curse, Aunt Flo is visiting, time of the month, on the rag, women’s problems, riding the crimson wave, closed for maintenance, ketchup on the burger (OK, I made that one up).

I’m not the biggest fan of Tracey Emin, but I admire the fact that she brought dirty femininity to the fore in her art. The visceral reaction to her work is often due to her use of things like used-sanitary products in her ‘self-confessional’ work. Yeah, you might not like it and think its lazy and attention-grabbing – but what attention! The reaction to a woman laying bare her ‘filth’ and remnants of menstruation still has the ability to shock.

Menstruation is something that punctuates women’s lives, a regular reminder of your potential fertility. I’m not saying that it puts me in tune with the earth or the moon but it is a regular reminder to me that I’m a mammal.

There is interesting research around blobbing and contraception where randomised controlled trials have been conducted on extended oral contraceptive cycles. The fact that most women on OC take the pills in 21 days followed by a pill-free and bleeding week is not medically necessary. Women can stay on OC pretty much permanently with minimal spotting and few ill effects over the general OC side effects and recommendations for use over time (i.e limit to 8 years [pdf]). And yet many choose, if made aware of the choice, to allow for a pill-free period if not monthly than every three or so months. This suggests that there may be a desire to menstruate which may be for a number of reasons: confirming no pregnancy, excuse for not having sex, the ancient Greek feeling of menstrual catharsis?

There are gruesome facts about perioding that rarely get mentioned: that you shit differently, sometimes it hurts so much you vomit, it can make you uncoordinated and bump into things/knock things over, your breasts can swell and hurt, you get incredibly hot at night and can’t sleep, you get water-retention and go up a dress-size (BTW these things don’t happen every time or all at once, that would be really inconvenient).

All women have had to make make-shift sanitary towels out of bog-roll at one time or other. We’ve all had to get blood stains out of our favourite pants and or jeans. We all have the stories about when we found out about what periods were, when we started, the chats with our mothers, sisters or teachers. But those chats were always hushed and never involved men.

We have to pay (albeit reduced) VAT on ‘sanitary products’ or ‘feminine protection’ (the euphemisms upset me more than the bleeding) despite them being very far from ‘luxury products’.

Sometimes it makes you emotional, sometimes it doesn’t – so it’s not alright to assume women are ‘over-emotional’ because of their ‘hormones’. Women are called ‘over-emotional’ and men are said to be ‘in a bad mood’. They both might be true, or it might be that they’re arseholes. There may be a chemical reason for it but it’s not necessarily because of a wandering womb or meandering testes.

And then there’s sex and periods. There might be a few jokes about men becoming men when they get ‘blood on their helmet’ but what about women masturbating to relieve periods pains – (messy but it works). Some lesbians make a sexual act out of blobbing – anointing themselves on with menstrual blood – more power to it, even if it does make you look like Nosferatu.

When do we ever talk about the blood clots, the changing colour of the blood over the period, heavy month followed by light month, sanitary towel – tampon transition, and let’s not even get started on moon cups (sorry, I’m a green but I draw the line here I’m afraid).

Plus I can’t think of any better argument against intelligent design – bleeding every month, intelligent? No. Where’s our endometrium reabsorption?

As it is such a regular function for half the world’s population, let’s stop pretending it doesn’t happen. If we do talk about it let’s not use it as yet another misogynistic insult (in a past workplace a twatish manager said of a woman: “Not sure if you can say this these days, but it was probably her time of the month!” NB: if you start a sentence with “Not sure if you can say this these days…” then you can’t say those kind of things these days).

So please talk about periods. Let’s destroy the myths and stop pretending its not happening. If you’re a woman ‘of child-bearing age’ its happening. If you are a man who sleeps with women, works with women, is related to women or knows women, you are in the proximity a woman who is, was, or is about to bleed.

There definitely are periods. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.

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.