Tag 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.

Paxil and teenagers: when science makes mistakes

Paxil jefferly.com

The New York Times has this article up on its web site:

Fourteen years ago, a leading drug maker published a study showing that the antidepressant Paxil was safe and effective for teenagers.

On Wednesday, a major medical journal posted a new analysis of the same data concluding that the opposite is true.

That study — featured prominently by the journal BMJ — is a clear break from scientific custom and reflects a new era in scientific publishing, some experts said, opening the way for journals to post multiple interpretations of the same experiment.

It comes at a time of self­-examination across science — retractions are at an all-­time high; recent cases of fraud have shaken fields as diverse as anesthesia and political science; and earlier this month researchers reported that less than half of a sample of psychology papers held up.

“This paper is alarming, but its existence is a good thing,” said Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who was not involved in either the original study or the reanalysis. “It signals that the community is waking up, checking its work and doing what science is supposed to do — self-­correct.”

Of course, scientologists (who generally oppose all psychiatry and psychiatric medications) will have a field day. So will all the voices out there — from climate deniers to vaccine opponents — who will say, “A-ha! This proves it! Scientists don’t know what they are doing with Paxil so how can we trust them on global climate change and childhood vaccinations?”

These kinds of scientific about-faces are confusing for many members of the general public.

First: butter is good for you. Then it was bad for you. Now it’s not bad for you again except if you eat too much of it. To many non-scientists it seems as of scientists have no idea what they are doing and you just can’t trust any of it.

I always tell people who are put off by all this switching and changing that the first thing they can do to put themselves on the road to being a scientifically aware person is this: All of this is perfectly normal. Science makes mistakes. Other scientists correct those mistakes.

Think of when you were first learning how to do something relatively simple — say, drive a car. You were likely not perfect the first time you got behind the wheel. You drove too slow or too fast. You ran over a curb. You could not parallel park. You mowed over your mother’s prized rose bushes.

But you got better at it the more you did it. This is called trial and error and it’s the best way many people learn. Just do it yourself, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. Nobody said, “Well, you made too many mistakes. This is proof you are an unreliable driver and we cannot ever trust you to do any better.”

Broadly speaking, science is no different. Think of how simple driving a car is now for you. Yet you made mistakes in the beginning anyway. Now think about a mathematically and logistically complex scientific experiments can be, involving highly technical measurements and calculations taken over years with thousands of variables. Then that mountain of data has to be analyzed by (one hopes) very smart people with years of education and training. But they are still, after all is said and done, just humans. 

Does anyone really expect that there will never be any errors in work like this? It’s naive to think so. 

But then someone else comes along — other scientists — and they take a new look at old data (as with Paxil) or they design a new study which uses better, more modern methods than an older study. 

This trial and error, the catching of old mistakes, is a sign that all is working as it should in the world of science. And some science is easier to quantify, which probably partially accounts for much of the high error rates in the psychology papers mentioned above.

The hard sciences — chemistry, much of physics, etc. — are relatively easy when it comes to getting more exact measurements.  You have known constants and specific end points which you can measure. In the simplest terms, say you wanted to test a substance to see if it turns water blue. You gets the substance, some water and you put the substance into the water. Does it turn blue? That is the end point.  Simple.

But the social sciences, psychology and psychiatry included, can be difficult to quantify because you are relying on self-reported behaviors and feelings. Does this drug make you feel less nervous? Well, that would depend on the person and how they define “less nervous.” Some people are nervous all the time. Some people tell researchers what they think that researcher wants to hear.

Many people — a very great number of people — are susceptible to the placebo effect. You give someone a pill that is nothing but sugar and tell them it’s to increase their energy. Viola! Many people will say they have more energy because they believed the pill is an energy pill. Just believing something is enough to make some people feel as if it is true. Some of those people might even show physical symptoms which suggest they are less sluggish despite the fact that they were only given a sugar pill. The mind’s effect on the body can be incredibly powerful.

Also, it can be difficult to design experiments with humans when it comes to psychiatric issues because you are playing science with people’s mental health, broadly speaking. Suicidal people, for example, deserve the best treatment available. They cannot be dropped into some study where some suicidal people are given something scientists think might help them not kill themselves, and others are given nothing, just to compare the suicide rates of the two groups.

However, advances in brain imaging are moving at an incredible pace. The day is coming when brain scans can be used on a regular, relatively low-cost basis to actually measure whether a person is happy or depressed or telling a lie. They are already being used to measure what effects advertisements have on the brains of the people who see them and judge which types of ads are better at causing the positive feelings that businesses hope will cause you to take that extra step to actually purchase their product.

The point of all this is that if you feel confused about issues where science says one thing one year, and a totally different thing five years later, relax.  This is how it is supposed to work. Eventually the system — coming to an initial conclusion and then having other scientists all from all over eventually test your methods, data and results — is supposed to correct itself. 

Just as science did with Paxil.

And a few mistakes don’t call into question all of science, as many conservatives are trying to convince people in order to cast doubt on global climate change and other issues.

Paxil jefferly.com scientific-research
Much of scientific research is built around trial and error and mistakes are bound to happen. The important part is that they are caught eventually




Pluto! Science!

Source: XKCD

What we should learn regarding Nobel prize winners who say ridiculous things about women

Tim Hunt, the Nobel laureate on whom young female scientists apparently throw themselves — right before their friends plead with them to get eye exams. Yes, intelligence can be sexy. But it doesn’t burn your retinas off.

It’s an enduring question but one that is probably easily answered: How can some men (it’s almost always men) with impressive credentials and educational attainments ignore what the rest of the peer-reviewed scientific community sees as plainly evident; that human-induced climate change is real, and vaccines are not causing autism?

I will guess that some male egos are particularly suited toward believing they know best, and deciding that terms such as “outlier” do not apply to them as they are just words that mainstream science uses to marginalize those with whom it disagrees.

After all, if a Nobel laureate can say with utter conviction the things below, and then give a half-apology that indicates he’s learned nothing from the gaffe, is it any wonder a run-of-the-mill engineer thinks he knows better than terabytes of climate data proving he is wrong?

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” the Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt reportedly said on Monday at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea. “Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.”

Those are the only three things that happen. Romance and tears. What does not happen, apparently, is science.

Following a backlash from conference attendees, on social media, and in regular media, Hunt offered a half-hearted apology on Wednesday, speaking to BBC Radio 4.

“I’m really sorry I said what I said. It was a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists,” he said. “What was intended is a light-hearted ironic comment. Apparently it was interpreted deadly seriously by my audience.”

Then he added, “I did mean the part about having trouble with girls. It’s terribly important that you can criticize people’s ideas without criticizing them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing but getting at the truth.”

On Thursday, Hunt, a biochemist, resigned from his faculty position at University College London.

Men will be men, and some men will always be boys on the playground boasting of their own superiority and conquests.

via What Tim Hunt’s Resignation Should Teach Us About Sexism in Science – The Atlantic.