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“The Female Brain” 31 August 2006

Posted by Todd in Cognitive Science, Gender.
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I just listened to an interview with Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain, a neuropsychiatrist who has just published a sort of survey of research into the way female brains work. Although there were a couple of things that I questioned, in general I found her discussion fascinating, as she, like many cognitive scientists, kept talking about the diversity of outcomes and the interaction of environment with brain development and the way the statistics overlap.

1. Probably obvious to most people, it struck me this morning that each individual trait that you can study actually has a different statistical distribution among males and females and that the bell curves would overlap differently.

2. She emphasizes the importance of social reward systems that encourage different behaviors, and cites iceland as an example, where men are funneled into fishing and women are funneled into engineering, so in Iceland, girls score higher on math and science scores.

3. She also emphasized individual differences within genders and insisted over and over that they are talking about statistical averages when they talk about “the genders”.

Some specifics that interested me were the way men and women “do sex,” where women have significantly more brain connections in the area of the brain devoted to attracting mates and men have more connections in the area devoted to persuing mates.  I’m still digesting that bit of information.  One problem or question that I had was her discussion of the visual arousal of men, simply because it contradicts some stuff I read a couple years ago.  Dr. Brizabine said that men have far more highly wired visual cortexes in general (which is interesting, given that women can actually have more color receptors than men) and that they are immediately visually stimulated sexually by an attractive potential partner, and that this leads men to form emotional bonds much more quickly to their potential partners (i.e., love at first sight) than do women.  What I questioned was about the sexual arousal, because of some studies I’ve read that showed the women were not only equally aroused by visual representations of sexual activity, but that they were often aroused by sexual images in general, whereas men were only aroused by particular acts or particular types of women.

I also was disappointed that she didn’t spend more time talking about cognition and learning itself.  She did mention that female brains and male brains will both come up with the same answer to a problem, but that in studying how they do so, they use different neural pathways and processes to come up with the answer (still, of course, in the overlapping bell curve).  She also points out that personal preferences and social reward systems play a huge role here.  And she also mentioned in passing that male and female IQ points are virtually equal (that is, there’s no difference in intelligence outcomes between the genders).  However, in other research I’ve read, they emphasized that male and female brains all can learn the same things; in other words, they emphasized the plasticity of the brains, regardless of the gender of the brain.  I really wanted her to talk about that.

Ultimately, I really wanted it to be more comparative, because as she talked about the nurturing processes in a female brain, I wanted her to say what that was in men, but she simply said that both males and females are ‘hard wired’ for reproduction and caring for young.  I also, as usual, was left with the question of whether or not gay people’s brains are different (the pheromone studies of this past year give clues that say yes they are, and not just that they respond sexually like the opposite sex).

Listen to the interview here, on KQED.org.


How to Spot Bad Science a Mile Away 22 August 2006

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Philosophy of Science, Science, Teaching.
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The Chronicle of Higher Education published a brief article in 2003 describing a rubric for determining the legitimacy of scientific claims made in public. As I read through the seven points by Dr. Parker (a physics professor), my students kept coming to mind, as they resist everything I give them. Admittedly, social science has a different dynamic, given that because of its very nature, everyone thinks they are automatically experts—you know, like, they live in society already. This semester, I’ll be teaching quite a bit of evolution and cognitive science in a course on how different cultures developed their particular views of and relationship to the ecosystems in which they live (a.k.a., nature; a.k.a., the environment), so I am braced for irritating evolution conversations and am considering using this list to discuss the issues of science in culture tomorrow on the first day of class.

1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media. The integrity of science rests on the willingness of scientists to expose new ideas and findings to the scrutiny of other scientists. Thus, scientists expect their colleagues to reveal new findings to them initially. An attempt to bypass peer review by taking a new result directly to the media, and thence to the public, suggests that the work is unlikely to stand up to close examination by other scientists.

One notorious example is the claim made in 1989 by two chemists from the University of Utah, B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, that they had discovered cold fusion — a way to produce nuclear fusion without expensive equipment. Scientists did not learn of the claim until they read reports of a news conference. Moreover, the announcement dealt largely with the economic potential of the discovery and was devoid of the sort of details that might have enabled other scientists to judge the strength of the claim or to repeat the experiment. (Ian Wilmut’s announcement that he had successfully cloned a sheep was just as public as Pons and Fleischmann’s claim, but in the case of cloning, abundant scientific details allowed scientists to judge the work’s validity.)

Some scientific claims avoid even the scrutiny of reporters by appearing in paid commercial advertisements. A health-food company marketed a dietary supplement called Vitamin O in full-page newspaper ads. Vitamin O turned out to be ordinary saltwater.

2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work. The idea is that the establishment will presumably stop at nothing to suppress discoveries that might shift the balance of wealth and power in society. Often, the discoverer describes mainstream science as part of a larger conspiracy that includes industry and government. Claims that the oil companies are frustrating the invention of an automobile that runs on water, for instance, are a sure sign that the idea of such a car is baloney. In the case of cold fusion, Pons and Fleischmann blamed their cold reception on physicists who were protecting their own research in hot fusion.

3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection. Alas, there is never a clear photograph of a flying saucer, or the Loch Ness monster. All scientific measurements must contend with some level of background noise or statistical fluctuation. But if the signal-to-noise ratio cannot be improved, even in principle, the effect is probably not real and the work is not science.

Thousands of published papers in para-psychology, for example, claim to report verified instances of telepathy, psychokinesis, or precognition. But those effects show up only in tortured analyses of statistics. The researchers can find no way to boost the signal, which suggests that it isn’t really there.

4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal. If modern science has learned anything in the past century, it is to distrust anecdotal evidence. Because anecdotes have a very strong emotional impact, they serve to keep superstitious beliefs alive in an age of science. The most important discovery of modern medicine is not vaccines or antibiotics, it is the randomized double-blind test, by means of which we know what works and what doesn’t. Contrary to the saying, “data” is not the plural of “anecdote.”

5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries. There is a persistent myth that hundreds or even thousands of years ago, long before anyone knew that blood circulates throughout the body, or that germs cause disease, our ancestors possessed miraculous remedies that modern science cannot understand. Much of what is termed “alternative medicine” is part of that myth.

Ancient folk wisdom, rediscovered or repackaged, is unlikely to match the output of modern scientific laboratories.

6. The discoverer has worked in isolation. The image of a lone genius who struggles in secrecy in an attic laboratory and ends up making a revolutionary breakthrough is a staple of Hollywood’s science-fiction films, but it is hard to find examples in real life. Scientific breakthroughs nowadays are almost always syntheses of the work of many scientists.

7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation. A new law of nature, invoked to explain some extraordinary result, must not conflict with what is already known. If we must change existing laws of nature or propose new laws to account for an observation, it is almost certainly wrong.

My favorites are Nos. 1, 2 and 5.

Mormon Homophobia: The Oaks/Wickman “Interview” in Redux 20 August 2006

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, Ethics, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Inequality & Stratification, Mormonism/LDS Church.
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[Summary of thoughts from Mormon Homophobia: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.]

After mulling over the arguments presented by Oaks and Wickman, I think they basically boil down to this:

1) You should love homosexuals because they are struggling with a temptation; but you should always make it clear that homosexuality is evil. Your love of them must always be accompanied by stern insistence on their sinful nature. Because God said so.

2) Parents who choose to defend their children have forsaken the Lord. It is acceptable for parents to bar their children from coming home if they are in a homosexual relationship.

3) Homosexuality may or may not be biological, but regardless, it shouldn’t be acted upon.

4) If same-sex marriage were allowed, it would change the definition of marriage, which is bad, really really really bad. Society might crumble and everything! God told us what marriage is, and it isn’t that.

5) Mormons practiced polygamy, but didn’t like it, and were glad when they came to their senses and went back to One-Man-One-Woman marriage. So there’s no contradiction in Mormons being against same-sex marriage.

My responses:

1) Religious beliefs are irrelevant in the public sphere, where in a pluralistic society you must make rational, substantiated arguments demonstrating harm in order to abridge individual rights or to privilege an entire class of people over another (in this case, heterosexuals). You are entitled to religious beliefs and practice, but in the public sphere they are not sufficient justification for enacting law, and other people who disagree are free to respond and critique your beliefs. And so on the whole, this propaganda piece might serve well to help believing members feel better about their own homophobia, and to think they are being ethical and loving without regard to the actual consequences of their behavior, but is irrelevant in a debate in a democratic society with a pluralism of religions. In the end, Oaks and Whitman add nothing new to the debate and instead rehash old and tired arguments that, although powerful among the majority of Americans, hold no rational water.

2) Their appeals to history and tradition are rhetorical and not supported by the any data known to me. In order to make them, they have to pretend that marriage has remained unchanged in any culture for as long as we have recorded history.

3) They make ethical propositions which make sense from within mormonism, but which in fact are deeply harmful to people they purport to love. They divide families and teach people to hate themselves. These kinds of social pressures have been amply demonstrated to be the cause of most of the psychological and emotional adjustment problems experienced by gay men and women prior to “coming out.” They think they are advocating love and compassion, but the consequences of their proposals would be a continuation of the status quo which is deeply harmful to gay men and women in their midst.

4) Finally, they are continually at best disingenuous and at worst outright liars about mormon beliefs and history, as they refuse responsibility for the grossly negligent and unethical practices of the church vis-a-vis homosexuality in the past (e.g., reparative therapy) and they fudge the facts on gay members’ participation in the church (e.g., in missionary service).

Mormon Homophobia, Part Three 20 August 2006

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, Ethics, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Inequality & Stratification, Mormonism/LDS Church.
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[Continued from Part Two. My comments in bold italics.]

PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Let’s fast-forward again. My son has now stopped coming to church altogether. There seems no prospect of him returning. Now he tells me he’s planning on going to Canada where same-gender marriage is allowed. He insists that he agrees that loving marriage relationships are important. He’s not promiscuous; he has one relationship. He and his partner intend to have that relationship for the rest of their lives. He cannot understand that a lifetime commitment can’t be accepted by the Church when society seems to be moving in that way. Again, if I am a Latter-day Saint father, what would I be expected to tell him?

WICKMAN: For openers, marriage is neither a matter of politics, nor is it a matter of social policy. This is simply not true, as the most cursory study of the history of human relationships or the anthropology of marriage reveals. Ignorance.Marriage is defined by the Lord Himself.Religious belief. Irrelevant. It’s the one institution that is ceremoniously performed by priesthood authority in the temple [and] transcends this world. It is of such profound importance… such a core doctrine of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, of the very purpose of the creation of this earth. One hardly can get past the first page of Genesis without seeing that very clearly. It is not an institution to be tampered with by mankind, and certainly not to be tampered with by those who are doing so simply for their own purposes. There is no such thing in the Lord’s eyes as something called same-gender marriage. So what? Whose Lord? What does this have to do with a pluralistic democracy at all?Homosexual behavior is and will always remain before the Lord an abominable sin. They are careful now to say “behavior”, aren’t they? But ultimately, in practice, you’re calling a homosexual person an abomination because for someone whose sexual desires are homosexual, it is part of who they are. They desire abomination. Calling it something else by virtue of some political definition does not change that reality. It is a religious belief, not a reality.


Mormon Homophobia, Part Two 20 August 2006

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, Ethics, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Inequality & Stratification, Mormonism/LDS Church.
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[Continued from Part One. My comments in bold italics.]

PUBLIC AFFAIRS: If we were to look back at someone who had a ‘short fuse,’ and we were to look at their parents who might have had a short fuse, some might identify a genetic influence in that.

OAKS: No, we do not accept the fact that conditions that prevent people from attaining their eternal destiny were born into them without any ability to control. That is contrary to the Plan of Salvation, and it is contrary to the justice and mercy of God. It’s contrary to the whole teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which expresses the truth that by or through the power and mercy of Jesus Christ we will have the strength to do all things. Fine. These are your religious beliefs. Great. I don’t really care what you believe about sex and sin. What I want to know is why a democracy should enact and enshrine your religious beliefs into law. That includes resisting temptation. That includes dealing with things that we’re born with, including disfigurements, or mental or physical incapacities. None of these stand in the way of our attaining our eternal destiny. The same may be said of a susceptibility or inclination to one behavior or another which if yielded to would prevent us from achieving our eternal destiny.


Mormon Homophobia, Part One 18 August 2006

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Mormonism/LDS Church.
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The bloggernacle [the Mormon blogosphere] is abuzz with a recently released “interview” with two of the hierarchs of the Momon church about homosexuality. Of course, it’s not an actual interview, but a PR device orchestrated by the “Public Affairs” office of the church. In the “interview”, Dallin Oaks (an apostle) and Lance Wickman (a seventy (obscure new testament reference)) explain the church’s current position on homosexuality. In many ways, it’s pretty much the standard line of most anti-gay religious reasoning, and merits little attention, except by believing members of the church. Who has the time to respond to every piece of homophobic propaganda that comes down the pike?

But I have chosen to respond in detail for a few reasons. First, this is the religion of my birth and my family, so I have a more personal stake in addressing the issues that come from the church hierarchy. Second, the LDS church spends millions of dollars fighting gay rights around the country, and so warrants careful monitoring. Third, the kind of pseudo-rational homophobia is more dangerous than the raving lunacy kind because it is cloaked in the guise of reasonable consideration and compassion. The original “interview” can be found on http://www.lds.org, but I’m not linking to it because I don’t want ping backs from the church. In what follows, i have excerpted the pertinent parts and responded (my comments are in bold italics).


What happens when a coddled child goes to college? 7 August 2006

Posted by Todd in Cognitive Science, Teaching.
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Edited 03/07/08: The MSN link to the Psychology Today article referred to below is now broken. Here’s a link to the article in the “Way Back Machine”. 

I have noticed a distinct uptick in the amount of disconnected apathy I get from my students. Not just that they, like normal young people, would rather party than do homework, but a real disconnect from life. I have also been frustrated by a seeming lack, among some students, of a willingness to take responsibility for their actions. When they get a C, they blame me; they don’t want to work for a grade; and they feel entitled to an A, regardless of the quality of their work. I have been trying to unravel this shift in student attitudes (we GenXers had our own problems, to be sure), and was directed to an article from Psychology Today on a message board I frequent.

In sum, the author and experts assert that there was a dramatic shift in parenting styles in the 1980s to a hypervigilance among parents, to protect children from all pain and discomfort, even to the point of manufacturing disabilities for their children to get them ahead. Apparently, our brains develop basic cognitive abilities (memory, problem solving, and planning) through normal social interaction. This makes sense, given that our brains developed in conjuction with our growing sociality. But children who basically have their whole lives planned and coordinated by their parents end up as dysfunctional adults who, like deer in headlights, are unable to cope with normal life problems, like minor failures or a disagreement with a stranger. My own experience as a professor seems that this is much more a problem among the middle class and professional class. There doesn’t seem to be a racial or ethnic component, however; it’s about the class of the parents. Interestingly, my older and/or poorer students complain to me about their middle-class and/or younger students’ participation in class.

Of course there are other influences as well, that the article doesn’t talk about, such as cultural shifts (e.g., video games) and class stresses of their parents (e.g., cost of living is higher, incomes are lower in all but the top 15% of american households).

Here’s the full text of the article. And here’s an interview with a researcher who found stark differences between middle-class and lower-class parenting styles, published in a book called Unequal Childhoods.