Friday, May 02, 2014

A Friday Small Thought on Twitter and Writing

My ability to write and Twitter are mortal enemies.  Just realized that.  If I spend time reading tweets I somehow cannot write.  This may be because the format of Twitter is 180 degrees from the way I think  or it may be because tweets, when arriving at my place from all over the universe, cover everything and ultimately cover nothing very deeply, yet they make me leap and dance and jump and pirouette all over the intellectual space until my energy has all been poured out. 

That thought might be of no interest for anyone who isn't trying to write on one single topic and at greater length than 140 characters, and it's not intended to be a criticism of Twitter or a denial of its benefits.  Just that everything has a price, so from now on I will write before reading tweets.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Rand Paul's Abortion Views

I get letters from all sorts of people, including a recent one from Rand Paul (probably from his minions).  It asks for money, in support of the egg-Murkans-human-rights initiative* (justifying it like this (quote from the email)):

Dear Ms.,

For over 40 years, nine unelected men and women on the Supreme Court have played God with innocent human life.

They have invented laws that condemned to painful deaths without trial more than 56 million babies for the crime of being "inconvenient."

There ya go!  It's all about convenience, nothing else, and the painful  baby deaths can be assumed to take place, even if science disagrees about whether zygotes, say, can feel pain.

Just to make sure that I understood that "inconvenience" argument correctly, I checked what Rand Paul himself thinks about when abortions should be banned:

Paul is opposed to abortion, even in cases of rape or incest.

Which sorta clashes with the idea that abortions are all about "inconvenience."

Then to the politics behind this:  Paul has angered forced-birthers by seemingly showing some ambivalence about abortion.  Hence the firm correction towards the right edge.

*This initiative means that a fertilized egg has all the legal rights not-pregnant already-born people have,  but pregnant people have far fewer rights, given that they are also the aquaria for the fertilized eggs.

Where's The Next Alexander Fleming*? Or Why Corporations Don't Have Incentives to Create New Antibiotics.

The recent predictions that we are entering a post-antibiotics age, an age where a small scratch can, once again, mean death, must be added to those archives where the environmental end of the world, all those wars based on religion and greed for power etc. also live and procreate.  The "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we shall die" archives.

One part of me has that very reaction.  The wiser (or more optimistic) part notes that apocalyptic news and fears are not exactly uncommon in human history and that the proper reaction to such news is to invest resources in combating whatever the direst threats are.

So what are the resources we need to combat the threat that antibiotics will no longer work because of their overuse in "meat production" and in the treatment of human illnesses? 

Research into new antibiotics and into antibiotic resistance.  Here's the problem with the corporate model of such research: 

There have been no new classes of antibiotics for 25 years, he said.
Pharmaceutical companies cannot cover the costs of research and development because new antibiotics have to be used sparingly, for fear of resistance developing – and when that begins, they have a short lifespan. "New antibiotics coming on to the market are not really new," he said. "They are variations of those we already have." That means that bacteria are likely to develop resistance to them that much sooner.

Translated to everyday language:  Governments should put a lot of money into this research**.  The benefits are wide-spread but cannot be captured by profit-making units. 

*Alexander Fleming is credited with the formal introduction of penicillin into our medical cupboards.

**Another reason for governments to address this market of pharmaceuticals is that the use of antibiotics has strong external effects which the market hasn't internalized: My consumption of antibiotics has a direct effect on whatever condition I'm treated for but it also has an indirect effect:  to increase the likelihood that the same antibiotics won't work on some future condition you might develop.  Yet that side-effect does not enter my calculations or the calculations of animal farmers, which means that the use of antibiotics has been higher than would have been socially optimal.

This is similar to the anti-vaccination decisions where parents, say, refuse to vaccinate a child because any side-effects from the vaccination will fall on the child but the protection the vaccine gives to the rest of the society doesn't enter the family's calculations.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Today's Research Topic: Wide Hips and Promiscuity

I've got a backlog of studies I should write about, but in some cases the popularizers didn't dare to touch them (women have an evolutionary adaptation to get sexually abused)  and in a couple of other cases I haven't figured out what's going on with the methods yet (70-page articles take time).

But a recent evolutionary biology/psychology study about how narrow-hipped women are less likely to engage in one-night stands than their wider-hipped sisters is kind of fun to talk about, because all the popularizations are about that finding.  The researchers argue that this is because narrow hips are a health hazard in giving birth and so women with narrow hips would have some hard-wired evolutionary chip turned on to avoid situations where they might end up pregnant without a committed male partner.  Presumably the idea is that if the woman dies then the baby is more likely to survive if its father is around.

Or so it all sounds, superficially.  But if you read the research paper itself, things get a bit murkier, and that is clear (if murky things can be clear) from the very title of the paper:

Evidence to Suggest that Women’s Sexual Behavior is Influenced by Hip Width Rather than Waist-to-Hip Ratio.

So the researchers, Victoria J. Simpson, Gayle Brewer and Colin A. Hendrie, actually wrote about something a bit more complicated.  They wanted to see if the mythical albatross theory still hanging around the necks of evolutionary psychologists, about the presumed universal male preference for a certain waist-to-hips ratio, predicted which women would have more one-night stands.  Here the hypothesis is that the closer a woman's waist-to-hip ratio is to the ideal, the more potential bees would be swarming her flowers, so to speak.

Alas, they found no correlation with the waist-to-hip ratio and the proportion of a woman's sexual history which consisted of one-night stands.  Hence the focus on the hip width and its correlation with that number. Here the approach does a kind of a u-turn.  From the paper:

In this context, where opportunities for sexual encounters exist, it is women who decide, in all but the most extreme of circumstances, whether mating takes place or not (Clark & Hatfield, 1989). Signals of fertility and attractiveness, such as WHR, serve to influence the number/quality of men available to them (e.g., Hendrie, Mannion, & Godfrey, 2009). However, variations in hip width per se have a direct impact on women’s risks of suffering serious birth related traumas and these have the potential to lead to permanent gynecological damage or even death. Therefore, it was predicted that there may be some relationship between women’s hip width per se and their sexual behavior.

It's a bit muddled, I think, and gives short shrift to the mutual negotiations of sexual interactions.

Why aren't the men making choices here?  After all, they either swarm around the ideal waist-to-hip goddess or they don't, and that swarming is a choice, right?  If no bees are humming around a woman, her choice is meaningless.  Then there's the fact that the research this paper discusses didn't find any correlation between the waist-to-hip ratio and the number of one-night stands as a proportion of the woman's total sexual history.

More generally, I find the idea of "sexual history" slightly odd when the study subjects had an average age of first intercourse of sixteen years and when the age distribution in the study was from 18 to 26 years.  What would happen if studies like this were done on women in their eighties, say?

The study also omitted women who had never had intercourse.  That omission is most likely because the original idea was to study the waist-to-hip theory of attractiveness, and virgins don't provide information on that.  But once we move to the hip width theory, virgins would have been an important sub-group to include, because, following the logic of the researchers, they should contain the women with the narrowest hips.

The study measured hip width (based on bones) and it measured hip and waist circumference.  But other than those measurements, variable collection looks really minimal to me.  We know the women's ages, but we don't know anything else about them.  Yet the environment matters for casual sexual encounters, and not controlling for that may affect the findings. 

For instance, students living on campus have more access to one-night stands than women living in the countryside, cultural and religious norms may differ in studying something like casual sex and they should have been somehow controlled for.  And so on.  --  This is a common problem with evolutionary studies which simply ignore social and demographic data, because it's not in their model and they are not really familiar with the alternative models because they belong to different disciplines.

None of this means that the finding might not be a real one, but it suggests that better studies are needed to study it.  Such studies should look at the actual width of the birth canal, not the distance between the extreme ends of the hipbones, and they should collect all the relevant social-and-demographic data.

More on the Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls

It's difficult to find out what is happening (my earlier post is here).  The rumors are that the kidnapped teenagers have either been sold as wives outside Nigeria or that they have been forced to marry some of the Boko Haram extremists.  Relatives have tried to find the girls, without success so far, but it's not clear what, if anything, the Nigerian government is doing.

The crime of the girls was to be at school.  Boko Haram is opposed to all Western-style education, but not apparently to the kidnapping and rape of young girls.


Added later:  Two stories relevant for understanding what the Nigerian government is doing and should be doing.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Speed-Blogging 4/29/14: On Rights For Guns, Religious Education and How One Gets To Be Judged As Outnumbered

1.  This is the sort of thing liable to happen when guns must have rights to be carried everywhere.

2.  A Republican candidate for South Carolina's lieutenant governor wants to end public education and replace it with religious schools.  He hasn't figured out yet how madrasas would be built into that system, because in his mind it's about Christian schools only.  I always find it fascinating how much brethren-under-the-skin the extreme religious people of the right-wing type are.  They want their religion to provide all the information anyone could acquire and they are always, always into caging up wimmenfolk.  Yet they hate each other, too.

3.  Fox News has a brand-new show called "Outnumbered!"  It's based on the idea of four women and one man talking gender wars.   I got a good laugh out of that, because of course a show having four men and one woman as hosts would not be seen as anyone being outnumbered. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

A Biased Snapshot of Campus Rape: Rod Dreher Opines

Lawyers, Gun and Money discusses  Rod Dreher's conservative ideas about why Swarthmore College has been accused of covering up sexual assaults.  Because Dreher is a conservative, what's wrong at Swarthmore College are bad liberal values.  Obviously.

That Dartmouth College, the alma mater of so many famous conservative pundits, has been in the news recently for apparently having a big problem with college rapes  and for not doing enough about them is not mentioned in Dreher's article, because he is taking biased snapshots.

Indeed, Dartmouth, and many other colleges of various political stripes (even, or perhaps especially,  religious colleges), have been accused of very similar things as Swarthmore:

Dartmouth is currently under federal investigation for potential violations of Title IX, the federal gender equity law that requires universities to ensure a safe learning environment for students. A group of Dartmouth students and alumni have also filed a Clery Act complaint alleging that administrators have failed to accurately report incidences of sexual violence and hazing on campus.
Thus, Mr. Dreher picks a case and addresses it, assuming that the specific aspects of Swarthmore College explain what might be happening there, when in reality the problem is independent of the political or religious stance of a college.