Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Hello Again, Hal

Since Scipio blogged about gender issues today...


  1. Holy crap there are some dumb unreasonable people in that comments thread. One guy even said he would have hurt Scipio if he said anything to his face. These types of comments threads make me fear for humanity.

  2. One gal. Gal.

    Which was quite possibly a satirical point made to show that Scipio's thesis is crappy.

    Seriously, where was he getting this idea that women are biologically wired to think in certain ways?

    His thesis is that absent the social factors that prevent women from acting mindlessly aggressive, they still wouldn't act that way, because they don't think in that way.

    And, morover, that this fact is so blindingly obvious that he can't possibly imagine how anybody could think it was controversial.

    I mean, where's he getting this from?

    Also, I found him to be really pompous in answering the comments. I hate that pompous "Ahaha, your criticisms are so off-base they serve only to amuse me, you pathetic urchin. I could lower myself to answer them, but it should be self-evident that you're wrong".

    Well, if it was self-evident, they wouldn't've asked the question in the first place.

    The combination of condescension and refusal to assume good faith on the part of people who disagree with you is an internet debate technique that drives me batty.

    Now, I'm not saying don't call people morons, I'm saying call them morons and then explain why.

  3. I don't see anything wrong with the way (most) people reacted, personally. Whether he meant it to be taken that way or not, it seems pretty clear to me that he's making the assumption that behavioral differences between the sexes are biological. And the way he chose to do it, presented just smacked to me of the kind of faux-feminist language used in 50s "get back in the kitchen, Rosie--that's the most important job of all!" propaganda.

    I'm being extreme, but hopefully you can see my point. It just read to me like using "feminine qualities are better" to bar women from the more agressive areas of public life. Essentially, it felt to me like he was saying he likes steps being taken toward equality, but hates it because genetically we really aren't equal.

    I like Scipio's blog, and I understand he was trying to make a girl power/more women with good motivations point, I just think he failed miserably and maybe needs his attention called to a few attitudes he probably isn't aware he has (as do a lot of people in that thread).

    I usually prefer to lurk, as I read far too many blogs to be commenting all the time, but reading that earlier today just pushed a few of my angry buttons. I think I'm better now.

  4. I find the extent to which people look to the sciences for meaning or, much more common I suspect, to bolster their own biases disheartening. There are good arguments from psychology, anthropology, and biology on *both* sides of the nature/nurture debate as it applies to gender roles. The problem I see is that it has little to do with the gender roles within fictional stories, especially those featuring superheroes and supervillains.

    Superheroes and superbillains are, by definition, non-normative in behavior and mentality. Their biology is atypical. Their experiences are atypical. Their relationship with society is atypical.

    It's possible that the average woman is less aggressive than the average man. But if the average woman were given a mutant healing factor, adimantium bones and claws, and a genetic predisposition to animal like fury, I would expect her to more aggressive than the average male. This also goes for women raised in on magical isle in which only women warriors reside, women who are a form of god and are forced to fight in an apocalyptic environment since childhood, women whose bloodstream is a breeding ground for toxins and poisons, and women who date psychotic clown mass-murderers.

    He's right: normal women don't slap on spandex, grab a high tech weapon, and rush out to fight crime.

    Why? Because no normal person - male or female - would do something like that.

    ~ Anon, a moose

    PS: In the real world, the 0.00001% of humanity who'd be so batf--king nuts as to do so just might have more men. But as women are so much more "thoughtful" and "less impulsive," perhaps the men in that percentage would die off faster, leaving women in the majority.

  5. "Which was quite possibly a satirical point made to show that Scipio's thesis is crappy. Seriously, where was he getting this idea that women are biologically wired to think in certain ways?"

    It'a called science. Neurobiology, in fact. You should try it some time.


    In fact, start with studying double Y chromosomals and why so many of them are in prison.

    I find the extent to which people look to the sciences for meaning or, much more common I suspect, to bolster their own biases disheartening.

    Not as disheartening as I find people forming their opinion without regard to science at all.

    You know, I really sorry that so many people like to think biology has nothing to do with their behavior,as if we were all-angle and no-ape, as if we weren't animals at all.

    But it doesn't change a thing.

  6. Scipio -- That's running under the assumption that the observer is unbiased when collecting observations.

    That's why I run on the social instead of the biological when looking at gender, because we can't get a clear picture of the biological until we've left our social bias behind us.

  7. Scipio:

    I think the problem is that it's very hard to differentiate biological differences from societal ones.

    A certain study will say one thing about how men and women's brains are wired, then the next says something totally different. And naturally there are always outliers. Aggressive women, passive men, women who are better at spatial mechanics, men who are better at temporal...

    And really, while we are animals still, as primates go, we actually do fall on the low end when it comes to sexual dimorphism.

    Not to mention that most of the percieved differences between us tend to be determined by men. Honestly, while I'm sure there are differences, I've yet to see a study detailing them that didn't make me go "Um, what?!"

    The thing about analyzing the differences between men and women is that neither of us are really in the position to glimpse into one another's brains. We're stuck with outside observation. I do know though when reading fiction written by men, I find myself having a lot more in common with the male characters than I do with those weird Others that they consider to represent female characters.

    So I'm stuck basically taking everything men say about women with a grain of salt. If that's what the majority of men think a woman is like, well...how the hell can we really trust you guys to make an adequate evaluation?

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  9. I didn't mean to imply that I think biology has nothing to do with the differences between men and women, Scipio--clearly it does. I just mean to say you were making assumptions about which differences can be attributed to nature and which nurture, when there's really no way to know. From my own personal experiences with women and growing up with a gay brother and being slightly effeminate myself, I really do feel you're off base in your theories about believable amounts of impulsiveness and agression. But like I said in your thread, I guess it's just my worldview versus yours there, and I guess we can't resolve that.

    And James, I really fail to see how finding out were all basically the same would fuel racist/sexist fires. I don't mean to sound condescending, but I am going to have to have this explained to me. My brain doesn't work that way at all.

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  11. Maybe that refusal to accept is a good thing, James.

    Maybe the refusal to accept contemporary wisdom is what keeps Science going, what Science was built on. Someone saying 'Wait, that's not universal, so there must be something that ties it all together.' Maybe that rejection inspires people to question things, think for themselves, push themselves past their percieved limitations, prove the rest of the world wrong, break out of conventional roles, Strive for Excellence rather than Mediocrity. Maybe that's what causes all of the great achievements of humanity. The refusal to let the rest of society define you as a person. The refusal to let someone else determine your fate for you. Maybe the blind acceptance of such differences is what makes some people average, and the questioning these differences is what makes some people extraordinary.

    I worry about people who try to pin their personality traits on biology. It's like avoiding responsibility for their actions. It's an excuse. Saying "My brain's not wired that way!" It's no good at all.

    I mean, I know we get accused of throwing responsibility aside when we dig into social conditioning, but seriously, social training you can throw off, a physiological condition is an excuse for anything. I mean, I've heard people who intend to use PMS as a murder defense.

    If you're chemically programmed to be some way, that's the way you are. No one can help it, and you can stay the way you are and never change. If you're socially programmed, it means you just don't have the desire or the willpower to overcome it. You're not making the necessary effort to change your behavior.

    What you guys are mainly forgetting, when you cite these scientific studies, is the Scientific Method. A Hypothesis is Just A Hypothesis. It can work for a while, but if they think of a new variable to change and it doesn't hold, it's tossed out. Once it's been tested and proven over and over and over again, it's a Theory. Then again, it's tested and retested and proven over and over until someone, somewhere thinks of a New Variable. Then it's tested. And if it fails, it must be replaced.

    Science is a beautiful and wonderful thing, but it's main strength is in flexibility. Science is not a catalogue of facts that can never be challenged. It's a series of ideas that you can build upon as you search for the truth. It must change as more is learned so it can accomodate the learning.

    To use such an amazing philosophy, such an incredible ability of humanity, to justify fitting People into Neat Little Categories is Wrong. It just is. It's practically blasphemy.

    So, a study shows that women may tend to be less aggressive than men. That's just one thing. That article doesn't say why those areas of the brain are different. It doesn't show the variables used, or take into account what preconcieved notions the observers may have. It does say "possible basis" in the title. It does say "our belief." It does say "sample of 116 right-handed, healthy adults younger than 50 years of age; 57 subjects were male and 59 were female."

    You really want to base your ideas about women on a sample of 59 of them who all live in the same place?

  12. Just 'cuz I was already pub-meding when I started procrastinating and reading blogs, I did a "quick" pub-med search for this article (... it took a little time because the summary write-up actually didn't give the citation for the article).

    Here it is in all it's .pdf glory. (it should be free for access at the moment).

    Not delving too deeply into science and politics intermixing since everything I want to say on that subject has already been said, I would take this study with a grain of salt.

    First of all, the conclusion drawn (a sex difference in emotional control) is not directly addressed -- what was actually found was, boiled down, that the women surveyed had a significantly larger amygdala then men. That, itself, may not mean anything -- any conclusion towards emotional control is based upon the assumption that increased tissue size leads to greater tissue function. In fact, in the brain, function is correlated to complexity of neural tissue (e.g. folding of the cerebral cortex), not just size. Although having more tissue might mean you have greater function, this may not be the case. The authors, themselves, note in the discussion that they haven't measured the complexity of the tissue, and further research must be done to characterize what exactly makes up for this increase in tissue, affecting whether or not this indicates a functional difference.

    Secondly, the brain is a wonderfully fluid organ. Regions of the brain can shift its connections compared to degrees of use. *If* it is found that women have greater emotional control due to increased amygdala tissue, this may not indicate a genetic or biological difference so much as an adaptation to increased use. For example, blind people typically have shrunken optic regions and larger, more complicated regions associated with other senses -- is it hard to imagine that women, trained by society to be more restrained in emotion, might display a correspondingly large amygdala?

    With neuro, several studies have shown differences between different groups using MRI (e.g. men vs. women, gay vs. straight, etc...). For example, there was a group recently that showed that lesbian women "think like straight men". They have never been able to resolve whether these findings are a result of nature vs. nurture.

    Just a few thoughts to consider before taking the summary at its face-value.

  13. oh, and in case you're lazy, here's the paper in html format:

    html paper

  14. I think the most important thing to remember on both sides is that significant in the scientific sense does not necessarily mean important--lots of things are significantly related in a sample of adequate size, but not in any meaningful way. So women's amygdalae may be larger than men's, but that might mean exactly fuck-all when it comes to putting on tights and beating people up. (The true test, of course, is getting those guys in Cincinnati under an MRI.)

  15. thanks, ragnell. ^_^

    a.h., what are you defining as "important"?

  16. In this case, "important" refers to meaningful differences that cannot be overcome or influenced by other processes. To take a related example, male animals of many mammal species (us included) have better spatial abilities than the females. It's been replicated many times, and appears fairly resistant to conditioning (unlike verbal ability, where the female advantage can be lessened or obliterated with training). So it's a significant difference. However, if you look at the meta-analyses on the subject, the differences are very small in absolute terms, and there's considerably more variation in ability within a gender than between them. Overall, women are worse, but not THAT much worse, and there are plenty of individual women whose abilities are on par with or exceed most men. More than that, a lot of the differences come from a different, gendered choice of navigational strategy--which hurts your ability to dead-reckon in a sterile lab, but in a cue-rich environment like the real world, performance is equivalent because there's sufficient raw material for both strategies to work effectively. (Mapquest gives you maps and instructions, after all.) So differences in spatial ability are statistically significant and pervasive, but I strongly question how important they are.

    I think the same thing is true here. Accepting the Penn lab's results as true (which I will, having no good reason to doubt their methods), there's no real way to tell how much of a difference having a bigger OFC has on aggression or general jackassery. They don't even know what the cause of the larger OFC IS at the moment--volume is too crude a measure. This is clearly a preliminary study that's gotten trumped up and misunderstood yet again by an idiotic lay press.

    Much as you might hate to think so, men and women are wired differently--our bodies and diseases are different, and there's no reason that this wouldn't extend to our brains to some extent. However, that doesn't mean that these differences are insurmountable or even meaningful, and it certainly doesn't mean that writers of fiction should avoid putting stupid, venal women in their stories.

  17. ....

    Did that guy hit Hal with his tail?

    Kris (badficwriter)

    PS: Word verification of the Day: pifkn. Sounds like Pikachu's little brother. Wasn't that a rabbit from Watership Down?

  18. So what you're saying is that while men and women are "wired" differently, this can't be "overcome" by training?

    It seems a rather fluid or convenient defintion of importance to me -- it's only important under medical circumstances, but not under political ones? I'd like to think that sicentific findings would carry slightly more meaning than that.

  19. It depends on what we're talking about--boys can match girls' verbal performance, while girls have a much harder time matching boys' spatial performance. But again, female rats can match males' performance on certain mazes given the proper circumstances. Humans being clever, though, what cannot be overcome by brute force can be compensated for in a roundabout way--a girl who gets lost isn't doomed to starve to death in a forest, and a businesswoman doesn't have to fail if she's uncomfortable slitting her opponents' throats.

    There are physical differences, and they are measurable, but their social and political importance is completely out of proportion to their actual biological importance. Scientific findings have the unfortunate habit of being wrenched completely out of shape by laypeople--the article everyone's wanking over is a prime example. Nature vs. nurture is a false and overly simplistic dichotomy, one that most psychologists no longer adhere to (preferring instead to determine the relative contributions of genetics and environment), but the way this debate has been framed, it's either "WOMEN ARE ADDLED IN THE BRAINS" or "You made me this way, Daddy!" The truth lies somewhere in between--there are gender differences, but they are mediated and moderated by environmental and cultural influences. I suspect that the environmental and cultural influences are more important, but I don't know that for sure.

    Scientific findings carry no meaning on their own; they're simply (if ideally) a description of the way the world works. It's humans that assign meaning, and frequently isolate and co-opt findings to support whatever dumbass thing they happen to believe.

  20. AH -- I agree with what you said -- there are differences, and they are mostly negligable. But one part of your comment irks me:

    Much as you might hate to think so, men and women are wired differently--our bodies and diseases are different, and there's no reason that this wouldn't extend to our brains to some extent.

    See, that you felt a need to say that tells me I misworded my argument. My whole problem wasn't with the study itself, but with the cited interpretation of it. It's obvious that the researchers and the newspaper itself see this as a preliminary thing, a first round of tests. They don't know the whys, they don't know all the variables. It's fine for a first study. It's just not usable for evidence of anything at this point. That's what I meant to put forth.

  21. So what you're saying is that while men and women are "wired" differently, this can't be "overcome" by training?

    Am I misreading again? I thought she said "could be overcome" by training. And, big thing would be "so slight as to not matter when Nuture takes over."

  22. Kris -- That's what I read it as -- a tail.

    I sincerely hope it's a tail.

  23. sorry... I meant "can"....

    "can be overcome by training"...

    my bad!

  24. See, that you felt a need to say that tells me I misworded my argument. My whole problem wasn't with the study itself, but with the cited interpretation of it.

    I was going off of one of your comments on Scipio's thread, where you implicitly accused the researchers of bias--that's a tactic that I last saw on a Fox News article that attempted to discredit an article the author didn't like by claiming that the researchers were not only dishonest, but stupid, so I assumed you were doing something similar. Thank you for clarifying; I'm glad I was mistaken.

  25. Jenn -- :)

    AH -- Yeah, I just tossed that out there as a list of things a well-proven theory has been tested against that an initial study might not have fully covered, or been able to cover. Didn't mean to imply that the researchers did bad science, was overcompensating I supposed.