Category Archives: Science

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.

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.

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.

#Respect #MassExtinction #CretaceousPaleogene

#NeverForget

Time for some space yoga for astronauts?

space-astronaut-yoga

The assumption has been astronauts experience back pain during, after space flight because of swollen disks. Turns out relief may come from space yoga:

In a new study, researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to observe the spines of six NASA astronauts before they landed, at the time of landing and about two months after they had spent upward of seven months on the International Space Station. The researchers found that the prolonged exposure to weightlessness weakened the muscles supporting the astronauts’ spines.

The discovery runs counter to the theory that the astronauts’ back pain is caused by the swelling of their spinal disks, the shock-absorbing cushions between the vertebrae, the researchers said. The findings, which were published today (Oct. 25) in the journal Spine, suggest that special back-strengthening exercises, including yoga, could help astronauts minimize or avoid back pain, the researchers said.

Now your friend who always tries to get you to take that yoga class with him has more proof of its benefits — even in space.

 

 

In Illinois, it’s as if Sarah Palin ran against Bill Nye the Science Guy

Democratic Illinois Congressman Bill Foster.
Democratic Illinois Congressman Bill Foster of the 11th Congressional District.

The headline in the Chicago Tribune says it all: “DuPage County Board member trying to unseat lone scientist in Congress.”

Yes, the only Ph.D. scientist in all of Congress, a body which could sorely use people who know something about science and scientific research,  is being challenged by a pro-Trump Republican. (Click here for audio of Foster defending scientific research and science on NPR.)

And not just any run-of-the-mill Ph.D., as this passage from Democrat Bill Foster’s campaign web site shows us:

Bill’s scientific career was as a high-energy physicist and particle accelerator designer at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). Bill was a member of the team that discovered the top quark, the heaviest known form of matter. He also led the teams that designed and built several scientific facilities and detectors still in use today, including the Recycler Ring, the latest of Fermilab’s giant particle accelerators. When Bill first ran for Congress, his campaign was endorsed by 31 Nobel Prize Winners.

The GOP on Capitol Hill has managed to pack once respected committees dealing with medicine and other branches of science with Tea Party fanatics who deny global climate change and evolution.

Given that, do you think we need at least one research scientist in Congress?

Foster’s challenger is Republican Tonia Khouri, a Donald Trump supporter who, as recently as the aforementioned Oct. 20 article in the Trib, was trying as best she could to finesse her support for the Orange Dunce (whose latest horror is pissing off a ballroom full of right-wing Catholics, including his arch-conservative Eminence NYC Cardinal Timothy Dolan).

It was in that Oct 20 article that the Trib noted Khouri’s lame yet somehow still inappropriate defense/criticism of Trump’s remark about grabbing a woman he did not know “by the pussy.”

While Khouri said she plans to vote for the Republican nominee, she did speak out against what she called “locker room banter” after the revelation of Trump’s lewd comments about women in a recording for a 2005 segment on “Access Hollywood.”

“I am personally offended by the comments made by Donald Trump even though they were made 11 years ago,” she said in a statement this month. “Locker room banter is something I, and many other hardworking women, have been subjected to throughout our lives. It is unacceptable and demeaning to those of us who have worked tirelessly to better our families, our community and the businesses we lead.”

Unacceptable and demeaning perhaps, but not so much so that she will withdraw her endorsement of Trump.

Khouri is a Trumper through and through, saying all manner of terrible Tea Party-ish things about Foster, yet whining when Foster has had the audacity to fire back at her with facts instead of right-wing talking points.

Despite running in a district with a huge Latino population, Khouri steadfastly maintains her support for building Trump’s fantastical, magical Wall along the Southern border that is so stupid and expensive it would never be built anyway by America or Mexico (HA!) even if Trump sailed to victory in the presidential contest. 

Yet, Khouri still sticks with him and some form of every Tea Party fantasy available. She’s just an all-around terrible choice in a district which could put her away decisively.

Do read the entire article and do get out and vote (use this link) to make sure that Foster, who would be far and away better than Khouri even without the scientific background, will retain his seat in a District 11 that could bury Khouri if progressive, African-American and Latino voters chose to do so. (As an alternate to find out your voting info, use this link from Google.)

The district includes all or parts of Aurora, Bolingbrook, Darien, Joliet, Montgomery, Naperville, Lisle, Downers Grove, New Lenox, Shorewood and Woodridge. I will be contacting anyone I know in those communities to give them a heads-up about this race.

The map below gets larger if you click on it.

illinois_us_congressional_district_11_

Aversion to gambling could be hard-wired in your brain

Gambling addition problems jefferly.com risk taking

You’re the careful type when it comes to financial and life planning. You reject risky get-rich-quick schemes in favor of long-term, safe plans for savings and investments. A trip to the local riverside casino or playing the state lottery are the last ways you’d spend your leisure time.

Yet you know someone — a sibling or best friend perhaps — who can’t seem to stay away from the lottery or slot machines or any number of other high risk activities designed to part fools from their money.

You’ve tried everything to stop this other person’s risky ways. You’ve cajoled, you’ve argued, you’ve stopped giving them money in an attempt to keep them from from gambling away what little financial security they attain.

It might be small comfort for you (or your friend who tries to stop but hasn’t yet) but researchers at Stanford are investigating one brain pathway that they think might be involved in a person’s propensity for many risky activities, from gambling to drug addiction.

One person’s risky bet is another’s exciting opportunity.

The difference between those outlooks comes down to more than just disposition: It turns out that people with a stronger connection between two brain regions have a more cautious financial outlook.

“Activity in one brain region appears to indicate ‘uh oh, I might lose money,’ but in another seems to indicate ‘oh yay, I could win something,'” said Brian Knutson, associate professor of psychology. “The balance between this ‘uh oh’ and ‘oh yay’ activity differs between people and can determine the gambling decisions we make.”

Researchers have tracked activity in those two brain regions – known as the anterior insula and nucleus accumbens – for the past decade, but Knutson was curious how the two work together. Are they directly connected, or do they both influence a different brain region that makes the ultimate decision?

Knowing this could help scientists and policymakers who want to better understand risky decision-making in the context of gambling and addiction and develop more effective interventions.

Knutson’s team employed a technique developed at Stanford that identifies tracts of neurons that connect brain regions and measures the strength of those connections in terms of how well insulated they are.

Using that technique, called diffusion-weighted MRI, Knutson and graduate student Josiah Leong found a tract that directly connects the anterior insula and nucleus accumbens – something that had been seen before in animals but never in humans.

What’s more, they found that the thicker the sheath of fatty tissue insulating the bundle – an indicator of the strength of the connection – the more cautious the study participants’ decisions were in a gambling test. The neuronal connection appears to be a conduit for the more cautious brain region to dampen activity in the more enthusiastic region.

“Most people love the small chance of a huge win,” Knutson said. “But people vary. Some people really, really like it. But people who have a stronger connection don’t like it as much.”

I know people who’ve gone to Las Vegas for a conference and played the slot machines once and walked away bored and never gambled again. Many people might dabble in Powerball lottery drawings as a lark only when the payouts approach record sums, but never play any lottery at other times.

Yet for others, the draw is too strong. The feeling that, if they only keep playing the lottery or hitting the blackjack tables, their lucky break is going to come.

Research into why some people might be inclined toward risk-taking behaviors such as gambling could one day point toward therapies of some kind.

All Mars rovers together, with scientists for scale

Mars rovers jefferly.com scientists for scale
“‘Sup?” “Nuttin’ much. Just chillin’ with the Mars rovers.”

Pretty cool.

(EDIT: Sorry, I missed the tiny one in the foreground in the first post. Corrected to reflect that there are three.)

Google Doodle on Lucy steams the wingnuts

Christian conservatives are unhappy with the Google Doodle (see above) celebrating the anniversary of the discovery of Lucy.

Witness the stupidity. Someone call the waaahmbulance:

Lucy jefferly.com Google Doodle wingnuts

Astronaut snaps night pic of Chicago, Great Lakes

 Scott Kelly jefferly.com ISS International Space Station Great Lakes Chicago