Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Trouble with SciAm

I don't know if this is true or not, but I've encountered the notion in several places - it is said that if you place a frog in hot water, it will promptly, and sensibly, jump out. If, however, you put it in cold water and then slowly heat it up, it will happily sit there until it cooks. Is this what is happening to men? Have we been complacently sitting in what we take to be comfortably cool water while the fire is stoked from below?

In 2001, Doris Lessing, the latest Nobel laureate for literature said: "I find myself increasingly shocked at the unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture that it is hardly even noticed". This is the hot water I'm talking about.

Some of us have noticed - check out my blogroll and the links in the news ticker at left, especially Glenn Sacks. Sometimes, one might even think we're perhaps a little oversensitive. But overall, I think it's pretty clear that dumping on men is now so trendy, it's completely acceptable just about everywhere in the western world. We are the butt of everyone's jokes now, guys, even our own.

But I become particularly alarmed when no-one is joking, such as when Glenn posts a series of items on the critics of the critics of the domestic violence industry, as he has done recently. I put it that way because I think that these men and women are not defending the victims of domestic violence, but are instead having fun bullying some of them themselves. For the women, it has clear consequences for their sense of power, for the men, well, I think they're preening for the girls. Petty of me, I know.

But when I find the hot water soaking into that supposed bastion of even-handed objectivity, mainstream science, I become more alarmed still. No, not "feminist" science, whatever that is, I'm talking about Nature and New Scientist, or, across the pond in Scientific American.

Tell me, do you think SciAm's David Biello has some sort of agenda when he titles an article "The Trouble with Men"? No? Then how about the byline which begins "Deadbeat granddads, life-shortening sons and genetically bullying brothers"? It seems unlikely that old Y chromosome is going to come off well out of this, even if the author himself presumably possesses one, don't you think?

Would SciAm ever publish an article title "The Trouble with Women"? With a byline beginning "Deadbeat grandmas, life-shortening daughters and genetically bullying sisters"? I suspect it would be a short-lived editor who did that.

Under this headline is reported some research by a blond bombshell of a Finn, Virpi Lummaa. (Sorry, I guess if I'm going to maintain credibility I should be more objective than to draw attention to her physical appearance, but follow the link and you'll see what I mean. 'Seems she has a thing for big, black dogs, though, so I guess we guys had better keep our raging torrents of testosterone under control. Besides, she's a boring old academic guys, probably too smart to be interesting to the likes of us. Nah, better to go trolling for bimbos, like we're supposed to, so they can complain at how shallow we all are. Whatever.)

But anyway, Virpi's been keeping herself busy digging through piles of dusty old books researching a pre-modern population of Finns. (She's been doing this from the UK, which strikes me as curious, but I guess she gets plenty of free trips home on her grant money.)

SciAm is thin on specifics, as one might expect for an article that leaps into the misandrist fray, but her own web page tells us that she's got a sample of 15,000 people although we have to go to Nature and New Scientist to learn the dates span 1734 to 1888. Nature and New Scientist restrict themselves to reporting her discovery of a correlation between the number of children had by a girl twin and the gender of her sibling.

It seems that a Finnish brother rather cramped his twin sister's style for the production of future generations of Finns. Nature says that Fred vom Saal (it seems surnames with double-"a"'s in them count for something in this field) of University of Missouri-Columbia is unsurprised because he sees the same thing in mice: "If you give a male mouse a choice between a female who hasn't been exposed to testosterone in the womb and one who has, he will always choose the female that was exposed to the lower levels of testosterone".

Now I admit, this is interesting. But on its own, I find it hard to extend it to "girls good, boys bad". All that has been shown is that a twin brother will reduce the genetic productivity of his sister. If you stop your investigations there, and allow your imagination to run riot, you might be able to take a wild running jump and get all the way to claiming that having brothers, or men in general, limits the genetic productivity of the human race, which is kind of counter to the whole evolution thing and therefore surely a bad thing. That is to say: men baaaaad. If you did make that claim, then I'd seriously have to lay into you, because it's obviously flawed by evolution's creation of the situation in the first place. That is, you're missing something, chum.

Nevertheless, there's a definite undercurrent of this conclusion to the SciAm article.

David Biello digs our hole deeper still in the first paragraph with the claim (he says it's "proven") that a son reduces a mother's lifespan by an average of 34 weeks. Do you suppose future researchers might look back and wonder that we seemed more worried about a son costing an 18th century Finnish woman 34 weeks of life than we were about the 7+ year hit of 21st century male lifespan compared to the female?

Let me take a quick aside and make a couple of points which will doubtless be obvious to my erudite readers. First, not having a son will not automagically increase your life span by 34 weeks ladies, it'll only do that on average, and then only if you're a 18th or 19th century Finn. Since you're reading this on the internet which wasn't invented until all those premodern Finnish women were dead anyway, I think I can probably safely assume you're not one of them, so don't try using Dr. Lummaa's results to claim your brat is reducing your life expectancy, you'll need other data for that. And hey, even if you could, who knows, a son might be worth more to you than 34 extra weeks drooling in the old folks home.

Second, correlation is not cause and effect. Otherwise, we might be allowed to argue that having a double-"a" in your surname qualifies you for the study of the effects of testosterone in twins. Hey, but wait, an "l" looks like it might help too!

Third, hands up who can read Finnish and has a complete understanding of the social dynamics of 18th and 19th century rural Finland and might be able to confirm or rebut Dr. Lummaa's results based on a complete picture of any other relevant effects?

Yeah, I thought so.

Biello tries to cover a few other effects, mentioning "competition for food, regular beatings or the practice of primogeniture, in which the eldest brother inherits everything". Regular beatings? Where did that come from? Oh, I forgot, men nasty, bad, violent things.

Just a couple of paragraphs later, Biello sins again when he says "mothers of opposite-sex twins end up with 19 percent fewer grandchildren". Do you see it? Did you see that present tense slip in there?

At least Kenneth Weiss of Penn State gets to slip in a word of caution: "there are dangers in overinterpreting ‘fitness’ effects, even if the observation is correct.” Indeed there are. Eugenics, anyone? Final solution?

A little later on, another suspect claim: Lummaa's "group’s previous research has shown that grandmothers provide direct aid in ensuring the survival and reproduction of their grandchildren. The same records revealed, however, no such benefit from fathers and grandfathers." Huh? Again, even if this is true: correlation, not cause and effect. But the conclusion you seem driven to draw is that fathers and grandfathers are just useless when it comes to survival of subsequent generations. One is left wondering what possible good they are for. How, in any reasonable world, can this claim possibly be true? Who the hell was it who went hunting reindeer in the snow? I don't know about you lot, but I find the idea to be patently absurd and I am given to wonder even more about the rest of the claims in the article.

But it gets worse. "'If anything there’s a negative effect,' [Lummaa] concludes. This could be because of the cultural tradition of catering to men, particularly old men. 'Maybe if you had an old grandpa, he was eating your food,' she speculates."

"If anything"? Either there is, or there isn't. Don't equivocate or cast innuendo, Virpi, you're a scientist, not a gossip. Besides, aren't the old grandmas eating your food too?

But we men should be bloody well grateful because "...possibly, longevity in men is simply a by-product of selection for longevity in women." and we're asked "What, if any, benefits do men get from reaching old age?” Which is an interesting question because it doesn't make sense in the evolutionary paradigm - men don't get a benefit from reaching old age, the genes do, and that is the subtext, because what she's really asking is why does everyone else benefit from men getting old? It's evolutionarily necessary that they do otherwise they'd all die off sooner rather than be a drag on all the girls.

No, don't try to use that to justify the current disparity between male and female lifespans in the developed world, because now, and indeed, in premodern Finland, there are a myriad of other effects involved. In fact, the situation is so complex that we're really not able to do much more than try to help everyone equally (wouldn't that be novel) or otherwise pick out odd correlations and make wild stabs in the dark at what they might mean, publish smug articles in popular science journals and try to convince a gullible public that we know what we're talking about.

But, no, scientists don't ever do that, do they?


Anonymous said...

It's scary how often scientists these days tend to confuse correlation with causality. It reminds me of a graph the religious parody "Pastafarianism" created, that showed the correlation between global warming and the number of pirates sailing the seas.

Anonymous said...

The SciAm article is appalling. And the pervasiveness of misandristic rot is astonishing.