The mind-boggling science of gender

We’ve come a long way from the recent time when scientists insisted they had hard evidence that boys were smarter than girls and that science knew why girls liked dolls and boys liked trucks and women could never be soldiers or businesspeople.

Gender and sex difference are hotly debated both in the body politic and in academia, helped along by an increasingly vocal and defiant trans community and its supporters.

The physical sex-related differences in the brain, when corrected for a body mass ratio — a two percent difference in the gray matter to white matter ratio, for example — are thought to be not totally insignificant, but also not convincing evidence of an all-important dimorphic brain difference between men and women.

Yet some differences exist which are still a mystery.  Early onset neurological disorders — autism spectrum, attention deficit, etc. — are more common in boys. Primarily late onset diseases — including depression and anxiety — are seen more in girls.

Adding to the social mix are trans people and their advocates, some of whom insist that gender (as opposed to sex) is a totally made-up construct which should be done away with entirely — including the pronouns long used to identify gender for boys and girls, women and men.

Into this fray steps the venerable magazine Scientific American with a special issue for September devoted to research into sex and gender.

I finally got around to reading mine today and it blew me away. Anyone not steeped in this research already who reads this issue with an open mind will come away having learned something.

Topics include:

The New Science of Sex and Gender
Why the new science of sex & gender matters for everyone

Promiscuous Men, Chaste Women and Other Gender Myths
The notion that behavioral differences between the sexes are innate and immutable does not hold up under scrutiny

Is There a “Female” Brain?
The debate over whether men and women have meaningfully different brains could have profound implications for health and personal identity

When Sex and Gender Collide
Studies of transgender kids are revealing fascinating insights about gender in the brain

Beyond XX and XY: The Extraordinary Complexity of Sex Determination
A host of factors figure into whether someone is female, male or somewhere in between

Doctors Must Dig into Gender Difference to Improve Women’s Health Care
Researchers and doctors must dig deeper into gender differences before they can provide women with better treatments

Lessons from before Abortion Was Legal
Before 1973, abortion in the U.S. was severely restricted. More than 40 years later Roe v. Wade is under attack, and access increasingly depends on a woman’s income or zip code

The Brilliance Paradox: What Really Keeps Women and Minorities from Excelling in Academia
How a misplaced emphasis on genius subtly discourages women and African-Americans from certain academic fields

Coding for Gender Equality
Early intervention is crucial to close the gender gap in computer science

Rewriting the History of Women in Science
Turning online harassment into a force for good

How to Close the Gender Gap in the Labor Force
As more women contribute to the economy, life gets better for everyone. Why are the barriers to opportunity so hard to change?

The Persistent Problem of Gender Inequality
The gender gap remains a global phenomenon

Why Girls Are Coming Back in Some Asian Countries after Neglect
Traditions that favor sons in Asia—resulting in millions of dead or neglected girls—have started to change.

Neuroscientist Dr. Daphna Joel, a researcher at Tel Aviv University, says her work suggests that there are not so much male and female brains as there are some combination of both depending on the person.

Whether these differences she found are hereditary, due to normal genetic variability or affected by outside social forces is anyone’s guess at this point, along with what they mean.

Some researchers disagree with her findings — in the way scientists disagree with one another, not in the way people fight in comments sections online — saying her research is skewed. Yet even among some who say her methods need to be refined to be more scientifically rigorous, there is some agreement that she may be onto something.

Another article, on the latest research into trans kids, reinforces the notion that, instead of learning to think they are trans — the “poisoning the minds of little kids with trans ideas” concept — tiny children can begin showing important and lasting cross-gender behaviors without family members ever pushing them to like “girl things” or “boy things.” Sometimes in spite of parents pushing mightily to prevent their small sons from wanting to go as a princess for Halloween.

Unfortunately, the magazine is behind a paywall. (Good magazines are like that.) To read it you need either a subscription  or to buy the single issue on the newsstand (or online here).

As a writer I’m not ready to give up my gender pronouns, and I’m not sure I ever will be. There is too much that is important in works of non-fiction and fiction that can be transmitted by their use. I also think it is too soon and politically self-defeating to push this issue too far in the public’s consciousness. 

Nonetheless, I think most people with open minds will find the magazine worth the time and effort to shell out a few bucks for the single issue.

Making it seem as if anyone said anything you want

I was having a conversation recently with some acquaintances, one of whom is a doctrinaire Tea Party type — let’s call him TP — and the subject of the Civil War came up.

“The Civil War was not fought over slavery,” TP said.

“If the president who was shot in the back of the head in a theater could speak, he might differ with you,” I said. 

“No, it’s true,” TP said. “Lincoln said it in a letter to some newspaper editor.”

What TP was referring to was the Aug. 22, 1862, letter from President Lincoln to the the famed newspaper editor Horace Greeley, in which Lincoln stated: 

“If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

The letter, when read verbatim, out of context, to someone not familiar with all that was going at that time could then be used as it is being used now by Tea Partiers looking to defend Confederate monuments and the honor of the Confederate cause.

Of course, Lincoln was readying to deliver the Emancipation Proclamation in just just four months on New Year’s Day 1863, an action which should have forever put to rest any notion of whether the war eventually ended up being about slavery in Lincoln’s mind. 

His letter to Horace Greeley is widely seen by historians as Lincoln playing politics, trying to convince everyone that, no matter how much of a tyrant the Confederacy tried to say he was, he really just had the best interests of the Union in mind. (Some also believe that words such as these by Lincoln were anticipatory in trying to lessen the blow of the Emancipation Proclamation.)

Yet he we are 154 years later and the forces who would defend the Confederacy for whatever reasons are using Lincoln’s words (all just in text form, mind you) to convince entire swaths of the population that he really didn’t care about freeing the slaves.

It really is so easy to do in an age where people on both sides of the political divide increasingly get their news only from sources which match their political sensibilities, left or right.

As I listened to this acquaintance continue to try to convince me that I was wrong about the Civil War, I was taken back to an episode of the Radiolab podcast I heard this summer, and meant to mention in this space then, but never got around to it.  (You can just hit the play button below to listen to it yourself.)

The hosts of Radiolab said of making this episode that the more they got into the subject matter, the more if sent chills down their spines. I thought that might be hyperbole when I first read the words.

Not so after I listened to the podcast, titled “Breaking News.” I thought it was worth sharing with you if you did not get a chance to hear it a couple months ago.

Imagine if it were this easy to get anyone you want to say anything you want by using just an audio recording of their voice.

If you the think the news is broken now and people believe strange things they read, just wait until everything you say in audio recordings can be changed as easily as moving around some text in a transcript.

No, New York Times, Irma predictions were not wrong

The graphic above is from the NY Times home page just now. Notice the suggestions that storm predictions were wrong. They were not.
 
It’s important to note this not only to point out that whomever writes the Times home page does not have a clear understanding of hurricane path prediction, but also important because people living on the West Coast of Florida also did not understand these same concepts and might be in danger because of it.
 
A meteorologist on CBS-N (don’t recall his name) made a very good point last night about the media reporting on this issue.
 
The forecasted path of a hurricane is usually represented on maps by a single line with points of time along the line where the hurricane might be.
The predicted path of a hurricane (black line with circles) and the wider cone of a possible path in which all residents should be ready to evacuate.
 
The cone of the storm’s path is the likely area a storm will affect. It is represented by, just as it sounds, a cone on the map. It is less specific than the single line but is no less important.
 
Hurricane forecasters have always said the cone of the storm — the area most likely to be hit hardest — was different than the apparent path at any given point in time.  The Gulf side of Florida was always included in Irma’s cone. Using that information, residents of the state’s Gulf coast should have been ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice, even if they were not under an evacuation order because early on the storm looked to be heading up the east coast of the state. But western Florida was always considered high risk.
 
The sub-heading on the Times home page both misrepresents the actual storm predictions, but also does a disservice because it reinforces the notion that science is somehow to blame for not knowing the shift of the storm from east to west.
 
Science had predicted that a hit to the Gulf side was highly possible. Because people did not understand that some people are at additional risk.

Drone footage of nearly deserted Miami Beach

Normally bustling Miami Beach has a pre-apocalyptic feel to it in the drone footage of an area waiting for Irma to make landfall.

Signing your rights away over Equifax data breach?

People are insisting that enrolling in Equifax monitoring if you are affected by the company data breach takes away your right to sue. The truth is more nuanced.

As did many Americans, I went to equifaxsecurity2017.com to see if my personal information was compromised in the company’s massive data breach that exposed millions of Americans’ credit information to cyberhackers

The web site told me it does not appear my information was part of the breach.

Sigh of relief. Millions will not be so lucky.

If my information had been part of the stolen data,  I can sign up for free credit monitoring through Equifax’s TrustedID, a service that usually costs you a hefty fee. 

But soon a story began circulating that, should you choose to sign up for TrustedID, you were also signing away your legal rights to sue the company over the data breach and would instead have to avail yourself of forced arbitration with the company.

The clause in the terms you agree to when you sign up for TrustedID at any time as a paying or free customer says this:

This arbitration will be conducted as an individual arbitration. Neither You nor We consent or agree to any arbitration on a class or representative basis, and the arbitrator shall have no authority to proceed with arbitration on a class or representative basis. No arbitration will be consolidated with any other arbitration proceeding without the consent of all parties. This class action waiver provision applies to and includes any Claims made and remedies sought as part of any class action, private attorney general action, or other representative action. By consenting to submit Your Claims to arbitration, You will be forfeiting Your right to bring or participate in any class action (whether as a named plaintiff or a class member) or to share in any class action awards, including class claims where a class has not yet been certified, even if the facts and circumstances upon which the Claims are based already occurred or existed.

That seems to me as if it might force you into arbitration over any potential damage done to you by the data breach, instead of you retaining the legal right to insert yourself into any single or class-action lawsuit which might arise over the incident.

The language also seemed fuzzy enough for New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to get involved in discussions with company officials over the clause.

After those talks, Equifax added this to their web site:

The arbitration clause and class action wavier included in the TrustedID Premier Terms of Use applies to the free credit file monitoring and identity theft protection products, and not the cybersecurity incident.

So the forced arbitration clause does apply to anyone who signs up for TrustedID at any time, and it does indeed require you to choose forced arbitration over lawsuits against that service EXCEPT for the data breach incident in this week’s headlines

This incident speaks to one important issue: Absent any meaningful leadership on the national level on these consumer financial issues in a Congress (Democrats and Republicans) that is mostly in the pockets of Wall Street, certain state attorneys general continue to be the watchdogs that protect millions of us from the worst abuses of industry.

If you want to know more about the issues of arbitration (which can be a good thing) and forced arbitration clauses (which can be bad things) read this excellent information from the National Association of Consumer Advocates.

Now you know

I can see a couple of my more fashion high-minded friends doing this to someone before those friends have had their coffee. 

People believe falsehoods despite new factual info

This is not news, but it turns out can be replicated in carefully designed experiments, as researchers at University College in London have observed in a submission to the journal PLOS: Computational Biology. And it turns out this bias toward old facts we thought were true over new facts showing the opposite can still exist even when choosing the old beliefs costs us something in return.

This last presidential election was a watershed moment for many of us in terms of politics, and not in a good way. No matter which candidate one supported, the amount of false news being passed about online was staggering and, if you value credible news, disheartening.  I witnessed perfectly intelligent people — some with advanced degrees — sharing articles which most any informed person would immediately assume to be factually incorrect.

Part of this is because the purveyors of false news — whether they are simply offering clickbait to make money or because they are spreading political propaganda — have become much better at making fake news seem real.

But part of it is because the false news being spread on both sides simply confirmed the biases of the person sharing it — confirmation bias.  If an article confirms our previous beliefs it seems true for that very reason no matter how outlandish it might seem when held up to scrutiny.

But what if choosing the wrong answer we knew to be true previously would cost us something in return?

Researchers at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, set up an experiment whereby individuals were shown symbols worth varying amounts of money. After a while, participants learned which symbols were worth most and began choosing those symbols as expected.

In a second experiment,  however, participants were shown the same lucrative symbols from the first experiment. Added to these were new symbols worth more money, making the choosing of the old symbols cost participants in terms of potential earnings lost.

An interesting thing happened: participants would still choose the old symbols even though they were plainly shown doing so would cost them money . 

This all sounds exceedingly simple, but the researchers controlled for all sort of variables in the participants and in the way they crunched their numbers.  I don’t know exactly what “dimensionality reduction and model comparison” and “parameter correlation and parameter recovery” are, but the trained scientists who do these sorts of experiments know exactly what they are and that is what elevates research like this from something you might do with your friends into the realm of accepted scientific research.

Of course, this will all have to be confirmed with more experiments by other scientists who read these results in this respected journal and try to replicate them, which is how science works and why it is so important that it be done properly.

These same kinds of results keep appearing in similar studies. If these findings are confirmed down the road it raises interesting questions for our everyday life, in education, and in understanding why people continue to hold onto false beliefs.

The researchers from University College have some ideas as to why people might still hold onto false information even when still believing it to be true might cost them something. 

Some of it might be simply the satisfaction of thinking we are correct and refusing to let go of that feeling that we are smart.

It also might hold some evolutionary reasons which translate into today’s world, such as the mere fact that, as other research has shown, being supremely confident in your own abilities and choices can often make a person with few facts and low ability more successful that a person with more facts, greater abilities but possessing chronically low self-confidence.

I have a friend, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, whose grandparents are staunch supporters of President Donald Trump despite the latter being tied to, and refusing to immediately condemn, Nazis and other forms of anti-Semitic rabble.

This has, of course, caused great pain among for the grandparents and some of their progeny who cannot understand how the grandparents could support such a man — especially considering the background of the grandparents with Nazi Germany.

There has been much shaming of the grandparents and hurt feelings on all sides. Through it all, grandpa — the self-made business success story — has dug in his heels with grandma the dutiful follower.

Grandpa the self-made man likely has much emotional real estate invested in his stubborn support of Trump.  Plying him with facts and condemning him for his choices has gotten nowhere.

Perhaps the best approach to grandpa — and anyone else we are trying to dissuade from contradictory beliefs which alarm us — is to find a way of helping them to save their ego while still choosing the the thing that is true over the thing they want to be true.

How one might do that is an open question and will likely vary from person to person.

In the real world, it is clear that telling a person how stupid they are for not acknowledging the plain-to-see (for most of us, anyway) facts in front of them simply doesn’t work with many people.

Never forget

There is historical precedent for beating back Nazis in the streets.

The Battle of Cable Street

Funds eliminated for Life After Hate program

The wife of a Trump official with ties to Nazi groups has cut funding to one of the few programs meant to rehab home-grown terrorists.

File under: you can’t make this shit up.

Trump official Seb Gorka in one of his many media appearances where he dismissed the notion of “lone wolf” terrorists — one person acting alone — taking matters into their own hands without direct supervision.

Some of the Unite The Right Nazis are “fine people”

At least that’s what Trump said today in a press conference where he reverted to what we must now accept he is: a Nazi sympathizer. That’s not hyperbole. What other conclusion can be drawn from his bizarre behavior today?

Watch this shocking, frightening video and make up your own mind whether the Nazi marchers are “fine people.”

All of this Nazi marching takes on a more sinister tone if you realize, as much as you might not have wanted to believe it before, that an office that once represented as the leader of the free world because of World War II is now held by a guy who, in effect, smears the memories of all who died in World War II.

Nazis march in American streets in 2017.

Just because you want to be informed doesn't mean you can't laugh along the way. Science, politics, religion, pop culture and the law.