Saturday, August 15, 2015

More Saturday Night Music

Camille Saint-Saƫns - Danse Macabre :

I often think of that as the music of war.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Uber. On "New" Alternatives To Traditional Worker-Employer Arrangements. A Re-Posting

(From last November.  More material has since cropped up about Uber, both good and bad.  See what Dean Baker plans to study when it comes to Uber, and this article about another firm in the so-called sharing economy.)

Go here to read the original post.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

From My Classics Archives: The Rotherham Report on Child Sexual Abuse

(This mini-series of classics covers a few of my recent long posts, the ones that required a lot of hard work.  Each of them is of value about the individual phenomenon it covers, but I hope that each of them is also of value in a more general sense.  This post is about criminal gangs which exploit young girls, about the response of local government to that exploitation and about the role cultures play in all this)

Read the original post.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Why Statistics Is Sexy. Or The Need to Distinguish Between Large and Small Numbers. A Re-Posting

(Originally posted here.)

I've always liked statistics as a science  but never thought it hawt and sexy.  Now I wish we could make statistics more sexy (bare more skin?) in order to save more of us from falling into those hidden wolf traps of the net.  They don't have sharpened sticks, those traps (holes in the ground, covered by branches), but they do hurt our understanding in somewhat similar ways.

An example of the wolf trap:  Someone writes on, say, racism or sexism in recent events and then gets attacked by trolls.  Suppose that in one scenario there are five very active trolls hammering at the poor writer, in an alternative scenario there are five thousand such trolls.

The two scenarios are not the same, they don't tell us the same story about the likely number of people "out there" believing whatever those trolls believe.  That's why it's very wrong to argue that the presence of five Twitter trolls in one's mentions means that the troll-opinion is extremely common in the real world.  Yet in the last week I've seen several people take that view of events:  The mere existence of any nasty trolls (and nasty they are) means that those trolls have sizable backing in the world of opinions, ideas and values.

So that is about proportions or percentages.  There will always be people with extreme nasty values, there will always be some who troll.  To unearth a troll comment and then to write about it as if it represents a sizable number of people in the real world is lazy and just wrong.  Even utopia would have a few trolls, hankering for life in hell.

It matters whether 0.1 percent or 60% of Americans believe that broccoli should be banned.  Those who don't get that difference are going to create "the-sky-is-falling" stories, and they are not ultimately helpful.

Add to all that the problem of self-selection, which means that those who comment on any particular incendiary topic are much more likely to be the ones who hold the extreme opposite view of the one any particular writer has used in a piece (broccoli haters, whether 0.1% or 60%, will be much more likely to be in the comments section of your Broccoli Is King article than anyone else).

That's why the comments sections, especially if not moderated, are dominated by angry voices and often opinions better suited to critters who just crawled out of the primeval slime*.  You know, the way any article about gender inequality that focuses on women gets comments from angry meninists.

People who agree with the writer tend not to waste time scribbling that down under the article, and people who aren't that bothered either way tend not to spend time in the comments, either.  The Twitter discussions work on somewhat similar principles, though the fact that people have followers makes them less hostile to the imagined writer here.  But those who hated what you wrote are the ones with real energy to look up your handle and then enter the "discussion."

These two problems I've described above are a) ignoring the actual prevalence of various beliefs  and b) ignoring self-selection on the net.  That double-ignorance can have bad consequences:  We may be misled into believing that a molehill is a mountain, we may initiate much larger angry fights with an imaginary enemy (windmills?) and we may misunderstand the scope of the problem altogether.

A similar problem is born when someone writes an article starting with the planned plot.  Suppose that the plot is how much people hate broccoli.  The intrepid journalist will then go out and interview people.  What if the vast majority of those interviewed aren't bothered about broccoli at all?  That statement will not have a prominent place in the planned story.  Instead, even if it takes a very long time, the journalist will find a few people who reallyreally hate that green tree-pretender among the vegetables, and it is the opinions of those few people that we all will then read.

The next stage (and believe me I've seen this stage recently, though not about broccoli hating) is for people to talk about the vast camp of broccoli haters and mention the opinions of the interviewed few as representative of what that vast camp thinks.

This doesn't mean that anecdotes cannot reflect majority views or the views of an important numerical minority.  But strictly speaking an anecdote, if true, tells us only that one particular person held a particular opinion.  It doesn't tell us how common that opinion is.  For that we need the collection and analysis of statistical data about the whole relevant population (all vegetable eaters in the case of broccoli).

So all this was what has stopped me from writing on various interesting topics yesterday.  Aren't you glad I shared?
*With all due apologies to critters from the primeval slime who are probably charming and empathic ones.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Moltherhood Tuesday 2: On Potential Motherhood And Research Biases in the Field

This late 2013 post talks about a study which, among other things, tells us the reasons why almost all parenting studies are really about women, not about men, and what problems this creates:  Little attention is paid to the influence of fathers, and in some cases the stubborn focus on mothers has delayed research in areas such as Down syndrome and autism.

More recent research shows that the age of the fathers matters about as much in both Down syndrome and autism fields as the age of the mothers, and in some cases more.

But for decades research focused only on mothers.  When I asked one researcher in the field for the reasons he answered:  "Surely the period of pregnancy matters more than the production of sperm." That this  assumption then turned into "let's not study sperm" was something he didn't get.

The more recent emphasis as women always being potentially pregnant is of great concern from a human rights point of view.  The above linked post talks about those issues, too.

Note that I'm not at all opposed to informing people about the potential impact of their choices on their future fertility.  I'm, however, very opposed to the assumption that it's necessary to tell women to view themselves as just temporarily empty aquaria for future fetuses and to maintain that aquarium carefully,  because this gives scope for dramatically unequal lived experiences for men and women, increases the likelihood of further controls on the behavior of women and might even become one of the issues that forced-birthers promote. 

It's also useful to keep in mind that the studies arguing for behavioral changes in today's men and women (presumed to be potentially procreating) are actually done on mice and rats, not on humans.

The only thing I would change in that post now is to note that all men are finally included among the potential parents.  That's because the new rodent studies find effects being passed from granddad rats to grandson rats and daughters.  So now men, too, get to be told that they should eat their spinach, not for their own sake, but for the sake of future generations, whether imaginary or not. And they won't be released from that even by a menopause!

But women are not yet released from the view that they are all pretty much just potential mothers, as this recent post demonstrates.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Research Monday 2: Back to Girl And Boy Brains

You might begin by reading a 2013 post I wrote about an extremely influential study and its reception.  Those argued that we have finally figured out why girls have pink brains and boys have blue brains, and that post is my response to the tidal wave of similar popularizations in all sorts of places.

More about why they were a tidal wave can be learned in this post (which also has useful stuff about Simon Baron-Cohen's work).  And this post talks about one of the many pertinent studies which never get reported at all.  They don't qualify for the tidal wave, because they are not about sex or gender and don't necessarily support innate views of gender.

Finally, Anne Fausto-Sterling writes about the question whether girls innately like pink and boys blue (we know the answer to that, of course, given that the colors were assigned to the genders quite recently).  But more importantly, she notes:

My research shows that, even at a young age, “nature” and “nurture” already interact.3 The first three years of a child’s life mark a period of extraordinary brain development and synapse growth. Like a sponge, the child absorbs everything around it, etching a record of its sensory experiences in its developing neurons. Social and cultural cues children experience during this period can influence their physiological development, establishing bodily patterns that set the stage for later phases of development.
One of my studies focuses on the belief that boy infants are more physically active than girl infants.4 While the babies in the study show no sex-related differences in their own spontaneous activity, we discovered through detailed observation that the mothers interact with the boys in a more physically active way. They move boy infants, help them sit up, and touch them more often than they do girls.
The impact of the mothers’ behavior may go much deeper than just setting cultural expectations – it could actually have biological consequences. While more testing is needed to understand these biological effects, it is possible that the sensory, motor, and neuromuscular systems of boys develop differently than those of girls, at least partly in response to different patterns of maternal handling.
If biological development is influenced by a child’s environment in this way, “nature” and “nurture” are no longer distinct. They are a developmental unit, two sides of the same coin. Rather than talking about nature versus nurture, we should ask: How is nature being affected by certain kinds of nurturing events?(c) And instead of viewing gender as something inherent and fixed, we should understand it as a developmental process involving the ongoing interaction of genes, hormones, social cues, cultural norms, and other factors.5
Moving beyond the nature versus nurture dichotomy allows us to have a more nuanced, accurate understanding of gender.