Friday, April 11, 2014

Blog Housekeeping Questions And Other Adventures in Cooking

First blog housekeeping question:  Are you, my sweet (and possibly nonexistent) readers interested in the more granola-type dissection of news which are not exactly studies?  For instance, the new Pew survey about the rise of stay-at-home-mothers in the US from 2000 to 2012?  I have a long piece about it stored in my brain, but I'm not typing it out if it's not of interest to anyone else.

And a related question:  Are the longer posts readable or not?  Should I chop up stuff more or not do long-form writing at all?  I have two posts which would become very long, one on the question what is rape culture and the other one on the question of what feminists think about prostitution.  Both of these topics have been recently much debated in articles, books and on Twitter, but, as is the case usually, I first do long debates inside my skull and then people are onto other games.

Then the cooking adventures:  A beetroot loaf recipe came to me much praised, so I decided to try it last weekend.  The ingredient list called for three beetroots, to be grated.  I chose what I deemed to be medium sized ones, not knowing the weight which the recipe didn't state. 

After grating them, I had grated beetroot in all the bowls in the kitchen, I looked like someone who had just carried out a mass murder, and most surfaces in the kitchen were covered with red droplets.  The more serious problem was how to adjust the other ingredients, given that I just may have grated too many beets and given that I pretty obviously didn't have enough of the other ingredients.

For reasons not known to anyone, I decided not to discard any of the grated beets but just to stretch the rest of the recipe to three large beet loaves.

The result wasn't appetizing.  And beetroot loaves go bad really fast even inside the fridge.

This is probably a metaphor about life and the need for balance between work and family and such.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

On Body Hair And Gender

I was going to write a funny post about the spring fashion trends in armpit hair:  do you bleach it, curl it, braid it or do you just use it as a noose to kill all those men you so obviously hate if you have armpit hair.  That's because of the new Veet ads which tried to argue that not having armpit or leg hair is an innate female characteristic.  But Veet, the honorable rat, pulled the ads, which left me nothing to write about.

Why waste a good post?  Topics having to do with leg hair or armpit hair or shaving off all your pubic hair don't rank terribly high in feminist importance, certainly not compared to stories like this one or this one or even this one.  Still, it is good to understand how we decide what being a woman should look like in various cultures, and body hair enters those definitions in pretty significant ways.  The most common rule is that women should have long hair on their heads and long eyelashes.  The rest of their bodies should preferably be completely hairless (with the exception of lines for eyebrows).

The same rules implicitly define what it means to look like a man in those same cultures, though you cannot get the male conventions as simply reversals of the female rules.

Several things about such rules are worth pointing out:  

First, the societal conventions turn incredibly rapidly into the kind of rear-brain loathing reactions towards anyone who has violated the rules.  This makes people interpret them as natural, as something that has always been true and always will be true.

As an example, I have read several recent Internet comments where the idea of pubic hair on women is used as an insult and as something revolting and disgusting, yet adult women usually do grow pubic hair, just as adult men do.  Likewise, in the US the assumptions that men should have very short hair and that women should shave their legs are both quite recent when put into a historical concept.  But the power those expectations have or have had is out of proportion to their purely cultural nature.

And I think the reason for the strength of such feelings is that they help in making men and women look more different from each other.  They can be added to the list of things one can use to tell someone's gender, and once they are in that list they become identified with biological differences.

Second, what is odd about the way body hair is conflated with secondary sex characteristics is the fact that women and men can both grow armpit hair, that women and men can both grow leg hair and pubic hair.  In some sense the way women ought to look, as biological creatures, is not the way biology has built women!  And that must be fixed.

The usual explanation for that tendency is to exaggerate biological average sex differences.  While I agree that there's something to that theory, it doesn't explain the whole process.  For example, men naturally have quite a lot more facial hair than women.  Why don't we have enormous pressure (outside the group of Islamic fundamentalists) for men to grow luxuriant beards? * Why don't we have beard care creams and beard perms and beard decorations (little swords or baseball team logos?) 

I think cultures assign women most of the work of exaggerating of sex differences, from Victorian wasp waists to 1950s pushup bras to silicone breast implants and the need for Brazilian waxes.  Not all the work, but most of it.

Third, the reason why violating the rules is met with such revulsion by many is not only because they have been merged together with secondary sex differences but also because those violations are then seen as attempts to deny the existence of secondary sex differences and ultimately to fight against the existing gender roles and norms. 

Thus, the so-called feminazis who refuse to shave their armpits or legs are not viewed as biologically natural women (which would be the actual definition) but as not-real-women, because what that rear-brain in some people tells them is that these women are rejecting the social norms for womanhood altogether, and by doing that they are threatening the social norms for manhood, too.  It's an attack, my friends, on everything some hold dear!

It's good to be aware of all this because it teaches us about the cultural coding of gender.  At the same time, we don't have to take it too seriously in our own lives.  Shave if you like the idea.  Leave stripes if you wish!  The body hair will not beg you to live or scream when the razor cuts, and you could always save the cut-off bits for years until you have enough for a pair of nice woolen socks.
*Or bald heads.  That would work, too.  That men often fight against the arrival of baldness is probably not linked to the way we assign gender to people but to the desire to come across younger.  Both men and women spend effort and money on that.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Autism And Obese Fathers. Today's Research Popularization Critique.

A Norwegian study has found a statistically significant correlation between autism in children and their  fathers'  obesity:

A Pediatrics study finds the risk for autism spectrum disorder strongly associated with paternal obesity (that is, with a BMI of 30 or more).
Investigators examined the relationship in a Norwegian cohort of some 93,000 children, whose health was tracked in national databases. By the end of follow-up, at a mean age of 7 years, the odds ratio for autism spectrum disorder among children of obese fathers was 1.53, compared with those of normal-weight fathers. Maternal obesity was not significantly associated.
The authors express surprise at the findings, which suggest an unidentified genetic or epigenetic mechanism.
I would be a bit hesitant about interpreting the results at face value until they have been replicated in other studies.  The reason, oddly, is that very large sample of data (93,000) that they work with*.  Even though a larger sample is usually  better than a smaller sample, analyses which use very large samples can sometimes be too good a thing.  For instance, they can find differences which are tiny or unimportant in practical terms statistically significant, because (from the comments to the linked post by its author):

In short, it happens because a large sample size greatly increases the power of an analysis to detect a difference. And THAT occurs because the test statistic that determines statistical significance is based on a formula that, in effect, gets multiplied by a value based on the sample size (such as the square root of the sample size). So, assuming a given difference and a given standard deviation for the data, increasing the value of sample size (n) increases the test statistic and results in an increased likelihood of statistical significance. Therefore, a humongous sample size can "override" a difference of very small size, inflating the test statistic, and result in statistical significance, even though the difference is so small that it has no practical consequence.
Indeed, the head researcher warns us about taking the results as definitive, though he also seems to believe in a genetic or epigenetic explanation.

But what I really wanted to talk about is the tentative interpretation of what to do IF the results are meaningful in practical terms.  An example from Fox News site:

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

What To Read On Equal Pay Day: A Delicious Smorgasbord of My Writings!

Today is the National Equal Pay Day for 2013 earnings.  The day is defined like this:

Throughout our Nation's history, brave women have torn down barriers so their daughters might one day enjoy the same rights, same chances, and same freedoms as their sons. Despite tremendous progress, too many women are entering the workforce to find their mothers' and grandmothers' victories undermined by the unrealized promise of equal pay for equal work. On National Equal Pay Day, we mark how far into the new year women would have to work to earn the same as men did in the previous year, and we recommit to making equal pay a reality.

I have written vast mountains of text on the gender gap in earnings, on the question what "equal pay for equal work" means in contexts such as the one above and so on and so on.  Rather than rewriting all of that, I'd like to propose a short program of reading.  It's all on this blog, so you don't have to go anywhere!  And I've tried to make it clear and simple.

If you are very interested in the gender gap in earnings, you might wish to read my 2006 seriesThe first part is about the theories trying to explain why women, on average, earn less than men, on average.  The second part shows one example of how economists analyze the evidence, and points out that the answer is never a simple one.  Though the data in that example is now outdated, the methods of analysis are not.  The third part addresses some of the common conservative counter-arguments, the kind you will see pasted all over the net today, too.

What's the role of labor market discrimination in explaining the gender gap in earnings?  The basic answer can be found in the above series.  Two additional posts, written expressly as responses to the conservative argument that such discrimination cannot exist or doesn't exist, come recommended by me:

The first one cracks the old chestnut which goes like this:  If men and women are equally productive workers but men cost more, why would any profit-focused firm hire men?

The second one answers a question I was posed, which was to "prove" that gendered labor market discrimination exists.  It covers several types of studies on that phenomenon.  Many more could be found in my archives.

Here are two posts I wrote in response to a  2011 anti-feminist piece that came out around the National Equal Pay Day then.  The first post is about gender differences in unemployment, the second post about misconceptions concerning how to interpret the gross gender gap in earnings.

Last, but certainly not least, I have written a lot about occupational segregation by gender recently, especially in response to Christina Hoff Sommers'  piece on the topic which was entitled "No, Women Don't Make Less Money Than Men."  I recommend the whole three-post series.  Different posts in it address slightly different questions. 

The first post is a get-to-know-the-different-types-of-gender-gaps and has lots of important stuff about what can legitimately explain such gaps and what cannot.  The second post  is a long (and interesting?) treatise on the meaning of occupational segregation by gender and how that segregation relates to the gendered earnings gap.  The third post is all about the choice of college majors, about STEM careers and so on, mostly because Hoff Sommers chose to go there as an explanation of the overall gross gender gap in earnings.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Virgin Toothbrush Looking for A Mate. Or Conservative Views on Premarital Sex.

Do you know what having too many sex partners does to you?  It makes you icky and yucky and disgusting.

Imagine you are a wet lollipop which has fallen on the floor and rolled around in all that dust and grit and pet hairs.  Would anyone like to lick that lollipop now, hmh?

This is a common conservative metaphor when it comes to premarital sex and young women, the idea that you are food and if other people have been salivating on you or nibbling at you then nobody in their right mind would wish to have a monogamous long-run relationship with you.  Some misogynist sites make the point much more nastily, by calling women who have had more than one heterosexual partner cumbuckets.  They have no comparable term for men who have had more than one heterosexual partner.

The most recent example of the use of food metaphors in abstinence education comes from various conservative sex education classes:

According to the Los Angeles Times, teachers in Oxford, Miss., are asking “students to unwrap a piece of chocolate, pass it around class and observe how dirty it became.” Says Marie Barnard, a public health worker and parent: “They're using the Peppermint Pattie to show that a girl is no longer clean or valuable after she's had sex—that she's been used. … That shouldn't be the lesson we send kids about sex.”


Last year, a school district in Texas instructed teachers to compare people who have had sex to dirty toothbrushes and sticks of gum. “People want to marry a virgin, just like they want a virgin toothbrush or stick of gum,” the guide read. 
Neither of the quoted cases seem to single out women, which is a reason to rejoice, because now we can all be disgusting hair-and-dirt-covered half-chewed lollipops.  Or lollipops still inside the cellophane wrappers.

Except that this doesn't quite work, because virginity has never been a requirement for men and everybody knows that the dirty lollipop really is the slutty girl.

The food metaphors in abstinence education (and elsewhere) are pretty lamentable, because it turns at least one potential partner in a relationship into a dinner dish and the other one, possibly, into the diner, and when it is applied to only women it reinforces the idea that a woman's value is pretty much in her unopened gift package of sexual and fertility services.

But consider hotel beds.  Consider the eating utensils and glasses and cups we are given at restaurants and coffee bars.  Consider touching door handles in public places.  The metaphors collapse really rapidly, unless one actually sees women's bodies as a type of sexual food, something that can be unwrapped, the lid removed and then heated quickly in the microwave.

Note, also, that none of the metaphors quite work unless one regards sex as inherently filthy and nasty and degrading, as something that leaves its marks on the participants, as something that turns them into used goods.  All this is a tango between the objectification of women's bodies and the simultaneous transfer of sexuality to market-type circumstances.  Love doesn't enter into it.

Speed-Blogging, April 7 2014. On Bodies, Sexual Harassment And How Politics Makes Us Stupid

These pictures about the bodies of elite athletes are fascinating.  They show the variety of what it might mean to be fit, or perhaps fit for something.

It's hard to study the prevalence of unpopular opinions, for obvious reasons (people cover them up because of social stigma).  One recent study on male college students argues that those students which blame women for becoming the objects of sexual harassment are more likely to identify with sexual harassers themselves.  I haven't looked at the study itself so I cannot comment on how well it was done.

The new site, by Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias and Melissa Bell has an interesting piece by Ezra Klein:  How Politics Makes Us Stupid It's about the way humans might interpret information which conflicts with their prior world view. 

I say "might," rather than "do," because the real-world way of acquiring that information is somewhat different from the research Klein describes.  For one thing, people debate data with other people, and they might also read different interpretations of the same data, and these consecutive rounds might change any initial interpretations.

But the basic argument in Klein's piece does apply:  Politics is no more based on the kind of "believe-the-best-evidence" thinking than any other field of human endeavor where our fears, our relative societal rankings and our whole world view can be threatened.

On the other hand, the comparison the article makes, in the words of the researcher Dan Kahan makes ignores something important:

Kahan is quick to note that, most of the time, people are perfectly capable of being convinced by the best evidence. There’s a lot of disagreement about climate change and gun control, for instance, but almost none over whether antibiotics work, or whether the H1N1 flu is a problem, or whether heavy drinking impairs people’s ability to drive. Rather, our reasoning becomes rationalizing when we’re dealing with questions where the answers could threaten our tribe — or at least our social standing in our tribe. And in those cases, Kahan says, we’re being perfectly sensible when we fool ourselves.

What is that important point the comparison ignores?  The fact that politics is full of propaganda, studies twisted out of shape, studies carefully hand-picked to present one side of the aisle as correct and the other side of the aisle as deluded, sound bites which are intended to be taken as deep wisdom, surveys with loaded questions and so on.  Not all political information is propaganda and not all political studies are biased.  But a sufficient number are, and knowing this might play some minor role in explaining the findings of Kahan et al..