Category Archives: sciencey goodness

*did* men evolve to be overconfident?

This coming week’s lecture is going to be about reproduction and mate selection. It’s a really good night, full of complicated ideas and the opportunity to cull a bunch of bullshit from students’ minds, and even to teach them how to be critical consumers of sexuality-related science in the media.

Like this Discovery News article about a speed-dating study that showed men thought women were more interested in them than they were.

The study was conducted by a psychology faculty member at Williams College who, on investigation, did her PhD at UTexas Austin. She now teaches Evolutionary Psychology among other things. Would I be surprised if she studied under David Buss? I would not. Because this is precisely the kind of just-so story conflation of history with evolution (TWO DIFFERENT TIMESCALES = TWO DIFFERENT CAUSAL MECHANISMS) that makes me need a drink and a night of reading Sarah Blaffer Hrdy that Buss’s work causes in me.

(I’ve just checked and it turns out I’ve never actually written a post about eye-rollingness of David Buss, though I’ve mentioned him several times. Must get on that.)

Now, one of the problems with my point of view on the evolutionary forces that shaped human sexuality – and evolutionary forces DEFINITELY DID shape human sexuality, that’s just inevitably true – is that it’s just a lot more complicated than the straightforward “men are promiscuous, women are choosy” argument.

And complicated arguments take patience and thought to understand.

For example, mathematical modeling has shown that males actually have to be TWICE as reproductively successful with a promiscuous mating strategy than with a partnered mating strategy in order to make it worth its energy expenditure. So men are not “naturally promiscuous;” if anything, they’re promiscuous conditionally.

You really needn’t – and indeed I think oughtn’t – invoke an ultimate cause (evolution), when a proximate cause (social dynamics) meets the case perfectly well. In this case, there is truly no need to look to evolution to explain men’s behavior. Culture accounts for it perfectly well, with evolution playing only a peripheral and distant role.

The article quote Peter Todd of my alma mater, whose work I love, and whose quote brings an important but unmined insight:

“The research in this area is important because it provides insight into some of the sources of potentially harmful misunderstandings regarding sexual intent between men and women,” Todd said. “This paper in particular gives more support for the idea that men over-perceive the sexual interest of women, and it indicates which men paired with which women are most likely to show this over-perception.”

Notice he makes no mention of selection pressure or reproductive success.

Seeing evolutionary roots in modern human behavior is REALLY REALLY HARD; our origins are buried deep under 10,000 years of agriculture and written language.

But the media luuuuuuuuvs a good (that is to say, bad) evolutionary just-so story about why men and women are the way we are. There’s something so appealing, so comforting, in the idea that we evolved to be this way, that is is Who We Naturally Are.

As if nature had a plan for how we would behave at speed-dating events.

I want my students to finish the class with pretty good bullshit-o-meters; I want them to be able to tell the difference between interesting thinking about the evolution of humans as sexually dimorphic large apes and simplistic storytelling that conflates cultural selection with natural and sexual selection. Cultural selection is important, but it is not even a little bit the same.

As Douglas Adams says, “The thing about evolution is, if it hasn’t turned your brain inside out, you haven’t properly understood it.”

In other words, it’s all really much more complicated than that.

what your dog needs, your partner needs

Ugh. So this has been me sick in bed with some horrible plague that’s going around campus. TWO WEEKS of snot and aching and struggling to keep my lungs where they belong, in the face of great resistance on the part of said lungs. UGH!!

Anyway. That’s how I’ve been lately. How are you?

calm submissive

While I’ve been lying in bed, I’ve been listening to John Bradshaw’s Dog Sense, which is chock full of fascinating stuff about the science of dogs, how they evolved, how they develop, how they learn, etc. It’s not a training book, isn’t trying to be a training book, but it does offer critiques of various training methods, inevitably supporting Ian Dunbar’s positive reinforcement approach and maligning Cesar Millan as scientifically deficient. Which is true, Dunbar totally has the science and Cesar has no science.

Then yesterday I completed a mandatory online sexual harassment training and I had the response that I imagine Ian Dunbar has when he hears Cesar talk about dog psychology: “GAAAH! NOOOOO, THAT’S NOT RIGHT OH MY GOD THIS IS GONNA MAKE PEOPLE WHO DON’T KNOW BETTER THINK ALL KINDS OF WEIRD THINGS!!!”

But. I mean. Maybe it’s okay?

A while ago I wrote me and Cesar Millan. I read his stuff and watched his show when I got a dog. I read Ian Dunbar’s book too, and watched lots of his videos, and it was helpful – ish. He taught me how to shape my dog’s behavior through reward and denial of reward. Nice.

But Dunbar’s advice was to get a puppy that had had lots of contact with humans, and train it from scratch. Which I didn’t do. I did what every dog advocate in the world would want me to do: I adopted a 7 year old dog that had been tortured and then had lived in an orphanage for 5 years. He had fears and insecurities and poor social skills and worse leash manners.

So what did I learn from Cesar Millan’s book that I didn’t learn from the science? I learned that my dog needs me to create a stable, secure psychological structure, so that he knows where he belongs in the world. I learned that needs me to stay calm. I learned WHY being calm and patient is important, which motivated me to do it. It turns out that reason is technically wrong, but it’s close enough to be very very helpful.

As a person who is wrapping up writing a guide about relationships (it’ll be available sometime in February I think, at goodinbed.com), this is a really useful bit of insight:

Just because something is grounded in the best science (Ian Dunbar) doesn’t mean it’s the thing that will be most helpful to people in an imperfect situation. And just because something is technically wrong doesn’t mean it doesn’t carry the important message.

It’s weird for me because I LOVE science and I share with John Bradshaw a puzzlement that the people who get TV shows as “experts” are hardly ever the people with academic credentials and scientific expertise. Yet the guy with the credentials and the expertise (Dunbar) hasn’t been anything like as helpful to me in having a positive relationship with me dog as the guy with unsubstantiated ideas but a dazzlingly useful approach (Millan).

So maybe – maybe – the sexual harassment program, despite being wrong, is actually helpful for people who don’t know about these kinds of things.

I can’t even tell you how foreign that idea is to me.

My guide is all science. I think (I hope!) it’s also really helpful. It happens to have very much the same message about human relationships as Cesar has about dog relationships: stay calm, listen, don’t assume that what your partner needs is the same as what you need, and don’t make your feelings more important (or less important) than your partner’s.

And if the science doesn’t work, turn to folk wisdom. I’ve also been watching a lot of West Wing, and there’s a whole episode grounded in Ephesians: “Be subject to one another.”

If you can’t do it because the science says so, maybe do it because it’s in the frackin’ Bible.

*sigh*

how often you think about sex… or food or sleep

A neat blog post from Brian Mustanski over at Psychology Today, about a study on frequency of thoughts about sex. It’s a neat study that asked participants to press a clicker each time they thought about either food, sex, or sleep – depending which group they were in. (Brian is another Kinsey alum, so I have a natural bias toward his work. I really like his stuff.)

My favorite part is on page two of the Psychology Today article, where Brian talks about problems in the media’s coverage of the study, which parallels my thinking on mainstream journalism reporting science:

1. Writers were either confused or deliberately choosing the more extreme, less representative central tendency (the mean rather than the median) to report.

2. Writers emphasized the central tendency, to the exclusion of standard deviation, when one of the most compelling results of the study was the wide variability among subjects.

3. Writers also emphasized the sex part, paying inadequate attention to the fact that thoughts about sleep and food were as frequent as thoughts about sex.

4. Writers emphasized population-level differences between men and women, neglecting to clarify that there was lots of overlap so that, even though the men on average reported more thoughts about sex (and food and sleep), many of the individual women had more thoughts about sex (and food and sleep) than many of the individual men.

5. Writers generalized the results to All People, rather than recognizing the delimitations of the population studied: college students, who are likely to be WEIRD.

What can we really conclude about frequency of thoughts about sex? We think about sex about as often as we think about food and sleep, and we vary a great deal from each other in all three topics.

I wanted to insert another thought here, too:

Hunger and sleep are both drive motivation systems, with a powerful homeostatic mechanism punishing an organism for failing to get adequate food (hunger) or sleep (fatigue). Sex, in contrast, is an incentive motivation system, pushing an organism toward appetitive stimuli, rewarding the organism for exposure to positive experiences rather than punishing it for not getting enough.

(This is not so simple a binary as I’ve made it sound.)

So I wonder how frequency of sex thoughts compares with other incentive motivation systems, like exploration (what’s a thought about “exploration”? Heck, what’s a thought about “sex”?)

more variation on objectification

My cousin has discovered that my Facebook page is a handy repository for all the interesting sexuality-related stuff he reads on the internet, and since his actual job involves the internet, he reads a lot of stuff.

One example from this morning: this recent article in Wired, which says, in short, that seeing photos of people without clothes on changes the viewer’s perception of that person’s mental capacities – specifically decreased ratings of “agency” (“the capacity to act, plan and exert self-control”) and increased ratings of “experience” (“the capacity to feel pain, pleasure and emotions”).

Given my recent mental perambulations about objectification and the media, it sparked my interest, so I went and read the whole paper. ‘Cz, nerd.

The authors’ point is that rather than causing “objectification” – i.e., perceiving someone as having less overall mind – focus on bodies actually results in a “redistribution of mind,” causing them to be perceived more in terms of experience and less in terms of agency.

Which to me sounds like an important but ultimately minute point – to me, objectification means decreased perceived agency, and indeed the research they cite in their lit review confirms this, for the most part. They write, in part:

In one discussion, for example, Nussbaum (1995) outlines a number of components of objectification, among them “denial of autonomy,” which is failing to ascribe the capacity for choice and self-determination; “inertness,” which is failing to ascribe the capacity for agency and action; and “denial of subjectivity,” which is failing to ascribe the capacity for experience and feelings.

The part they’re refining/refuting has to do with “denial of subjectivity.” It turns out, according to this series of experiments, that when you break down assessments of “mind” into these two variables, agency and experience, nakedness decreases perceived agency but increases perceived experience. However, in the results of experiment three, they do report that “there was an overall less mind ascribed to naked targets” (i.e., people in the photographs) than to clothed subjects, though this is a mathematical artefact of the fact that subjects rated the people in the images overall as having less agency (“mind”) and more experience (“body”).

In relation to my Body of a Blogger post, they confirmed previous research that found that ratings of attractiveness increase ratings of both agency and experience. In other words, pretty people are viewed as both more capable and more sensitive.

So the important question for me is, “Does this matter? Does this change how we consider the problem of objectification?” To which I can’t help thinking, “No. My conceptualization of the problem remains the same.”

And why is that, Emily? Well. They do definitely TRY. The final experiment (out of 6) explores the “up side” of increased experience attribution. It involved subjects believing that they’re shocking their partner, with the goal of protecting their partner from harm and therefore only shocking them as much as they felt their partner could tolerate. In the conditions where subjects were shown images of their male “partner” (actually a confederate) with their shirt off, they shocked the person at a lower level than when they were shown a picture of their partner with their shirt on. So participants inflicted less harm, conclude the researchers, when people are perceived more as bodies than as minds.

And that kinda sounds like bullshit to me. In the photographs, the “shocking” nodes are either attached to the person’s skin or to the person’s clothes, so couldn’t they be responding to the basic physics of the problem, that shocks to your clothes are less direct and therefore less painful than shocks to your skin, rather than to their perception of the person as “more able to experience pain”? They are more able to experience pain because the nodes are taped to their skin rather than to their shirts, surely.

So. Does this idea that people are perceived more as “experiencers” and less as “actors” when they have their clothes off change how I think about objectification? Does it help me to talk with my students (or with anyone) about this phenomenon? Er, nope.

An important thing to note that hardly anyone ever bothers saying out loud so let me just take this opportunity: all the results are about PERCEPTIONS OF PHOTOGRAPHS OF BODIES, not perceptions of bodies per se. This is also a primary shortcoming of mate selection research in humans: people rate images – photographs or even stimuli as impoverished as LINE DRAWINGS. What relationship does the perception of a line drawing have to a person’s perception of a human body? Fuck knows. If there is research that compares how people’s attributions of mind are the same or different depending on whether they’re seeing bodies or photographs, I would love to hear about it.

Another important thing to note is that “mind” is a cultural construction and therefore varies from culture to culture, so the whole idea of “attribution of mind” and the impact on behavior or judgments can only be interpreted in the context of culture.

So I suppose this is another example of interesting but unhelpful.

“meant to be” monogamous

I want to teach you all a vocabulary word – or a vocabulary phrase, actually:

phenotypic plasticity

The reason I want you to know this is that I’ve been attempting to read “Sex at Dawn,” a book that argues (as far as I can tell) that we are not designed for monogamy but rather for, I guess, non-monogamy in whatever form that might take. I can’t tell you specifically what it is the book says we’re meant for because I’m having a really hard time getting through it. Because it pisses me off.

It pisses me off because we live in this moment of cultural awareness, where people are ditching their running shoes and running barefoot, like we did on the savanna, in our earliest evolutionary days; we’re ditching bread and eating “paleo,” like our pre-agricultural revolution evolutionary forebears; and apparently we’re looking to our pre-historic, pre-agriculture ancestors for tips about love and relationships.

It makes sense for nutrition and shoes in a way that it does NOT, for love and relationships. It is both lacking in science and hopelessly misguided. Lacking in science: our social structure doesn’t leave a fossil record, so anyone who proposes an idea about how we lived on the savannah is basically just making up a plausible story. Misguided: welcome to phenotypic plasticity.

Phenotypic. As in phenotype. The observable manifestation of a genotype. The color of your eyes, your height, your immunity to infectious disease, your temperament.

Plasticity. Flexibility. Adaptability. Changeability.

Phenotypic plasticity, then, is the capacity for a phenotype – the observable expression of a gene – to vary depending on the context in which is develops and expresses itself.

Imagine if the color of your eyes were determined not just by your parents’ genes but by your level of nutrition early in life. That’s the kind of thing.

It turns out that, very approximately, the more complex a trait is, the more plastic it is likely to be. Unsurprisingly, human sociosexual systems are MASSIVELY plastic.

What influences human sociosexual systems? Christ, a BUNCH of things. Population density and resource abundance are two biggies – and resource abundance appears to be relative rather than absolute, so even the unprecedented abundance of the C21st western world can be interpreted biologically as scarcity, if you’re among the “have nots.”

The result is that for most (about 80%) of human history (and I do mean history), we’ve been a nominally polygynous species. That’s our mid-level abundance structure. When resources became more abundant, we transitioned into a model of nominal monogamy. And in circumstances of extreme resource paucity, we generate polyandrous cultures. (There’s only one example that I’ve read about, the one in Tibet, in which multiple brothers marry one woman.)

Before then, what social structure did we have? FUCK KNOWS. I enjoy Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s picture of us as tribes of women and children, visited by wandering males. But there’s no more reason to believe that theory than any other.

And extant pre-literate cultures don’t provide one helpful model to follow, they simply VARY. Just one example: the Canela of Brazil include in their wedding vows, “Don’t be jealous of your spouse’s other sex partners.”

This is easy to understand in the context of nutrition: traditional Esquimo diet consists almost exclusively of fish and other sea-dwelling animals, because that’s what’s available, right? Until we developed agriculture, we ate what we could get.

With sex and love, it’s less directly about what our environment affords and more about how the affordances of the environment shape resource distribution among the population of humans.

(Obviously it’s all much more complicated than this.)

So no. We are not “meant” to be monogamous, nor are we meant to be polygynous or polyandrous or polyamorous or anything else. We are meant to be successful at bearing, birthing, and raising offspring to reproductive age, who then bear us grandchildren. And we, as a species, will do whatever it takes to make that happen.

the body of a (female) blogger

In reading other women blogger’s responses to the disappointingly stupid piece, Womanspace, I ended up watching the video, Perils of Blogging as a Woman under a Real Name, and generally reading about women’s experience as bloggers, especially about science.

While I deliberately limit the personal stuff I put on the blog, like Kate Clancy (whose blog, Context and Variation is AWESOME), I view my own life and experience as inextricable from my work. This post is one example of that.

See, a number of bloggers told stories about being told they were hot, and that their hotness contributed to their legitimacy or interestingness as writers.

My own experience has been being told that I’m NOT attractive and therefore it’s not a surprise that I’m wrong.

Which. I mean.

In reality, it’s the same phenomenon, two different version of having our voices minimized because of our bodies, our appearances.

But.

I mean.

Suppose you got to choose: you can have your voice minimized by people’s perception of you as attractive or you can have your voice minimized by people’s perception of you as unattractive.

Yeah… so… I had this really complicated internal reaction, like bodies don’t matter and haters gonna hate, and at the same time I wanna be a pretty girl too! and is it a coincidence that these women are this successful and happen to be the pretty ones? and will I fail to advance professionally because I fail to conform to conventional standards of beauty and femininity?

(This is me officially hoping that no one decides to comment, “But gosh Emily, you’re pretty!” My attractiveness or lack thereof isn’t relevant to my blog content, which is exactly the point!)

I have had the good fortune of always feeling like I was being taken seriously by my mentors in the academic world – even at times when, in retrospect, I didn’t necessarily deserve it. My appearance and my gender never entered in to it. It is a gift I try to pass on to my own students, to hear their voices without assessing it in terms of their bodies or gender display. Because my looks were not my identity, I viewed them as irrelevant, and nothing in my academic experience made me feel otherwise.

Until I started blogging.

I put a photo on the blog because a friend told me that it helps people recognize that there’s an individual human being sitting in her living room writing these posts, that there’s a face behind the typeface, if you will. A person.

And according to a few anonymous folks on the interwebs, who comments don’t make it past the trash bin, I am an ugly cunt, so no wonder I’m wrong about whatever it is I’m wrong about.

And what I want to know is: if I had shorter hair and were wearing blue instead of pink, and had stubble, would I be told I’m an ugly motherfucker so THAT’S why I’m wrong?

I doubt it. I think my appearance is a justification for dismissing me only because I’m female.

And here’s another complicated feeling:

Have you noticed the phenomenon that most of the women “sexperts” you see in the media are thin, with long shiny hair, big eyes, and a pretty smile? I find myself thinking, “Is it that the people who know the most about sex or are the most effective educators also happen to be conventionally attractive?” Or, “I wonder if the sexperts who are least likely to disturb Big Pharma happen to be conventionally attractive, and what causal mechanism might be at work there?…”

Not to say that pretty, thin, young, long-haired, big-eyed women can’t also be outstanding researchers and educators! But I can’t help thinking that the reason they have the gig is not that they’re especially good at the job, but instead because they’re especially rich masturbation material.

And I feel VERY BAD about the fact that I have these thoughts. It feels totally unfeminist for me to judge them in this way. I actually know a number of them in person, went to school with them, and know that they’re genuinely good at what they do.

An example of someone I don’t know: Take Cara Santa Maria, over at Huff Post’s “Talk Nerdy to Me.” Remember my three criteria for writing about sex science: good science, good prose, good advice. Her’s is perfectly fine science and perfectly fine, if a bit dull, prose. She doesn’t so much do the advice part, so no worries there. Her credentials, too, are unfaultable. And yet I find myself thinking, “She would not have this gig if she weighed 30 pounds more, were 10 years older, or had a less feminine, symmetrical face.”

And then I think, “Is this just jealousy about not being so thin/pretty? Is it professional jealousy that she has a gig like that and I don’t? Is it TRUE? Is it MEAN? Can it be true and mean at the same time? Isn’t it just to be expected that the media will select for conventional beauty?”

So basically I have A Lot Of Feelings about physical appearance and being a sex educator in the public sphere. It feels very complicated and I don’t know what the solution is.

one sentence summarizes why the pharma industry is hopelessly misguided.

In looking up something unrelated, I stumbled into this 2010 British Journal of Pharmocology article. You don’t have to read it, I’ll tell you why it’s bullshit.

It’s the first sentence in the abstract, that’s why. It reads:

Female sexual arousal consists of a number of physiological responses resulting from increased genital blood.

Aaaaaaaand, that’s why the pharmceutical industry is stupid.

See yesterday’s post for details.

Happy Friday everybody. Have a funny condom commercial:

interesting, but unhelpful

It’s inevitable that a brain scan of a woman having an orgasm would be in the news. The combination of orgasms and brain scans makes it totally irresistable. I get that.

And when I read about it, my first reaction was, “We need massive, expensive technology to tell us that orgasm “lights up the brain’s pleasure centers.” And indeed that is how it is being reported (as in, “During orgasm, activity… peaks in the nucleus accumbens, an area linked to reward and pleasure.”)

Apart from that, there are a couple errors in the article that I need to point out.

1.) Women don’t have a refractory period. This matters because it’s one crucial example of the ways in which we assume male sexual functioning is default the model of “normal” sexuality and interpret women’s sexuality in that context, rather than thinking about women in their own biological terms.

2.) Oxytocin is released in massive quantities at high levels of sexual arousal; orgasm is not the trigger for this. This matters because it counteracts claims that “orgasm is for bonding.” No, if anything AROUSAL leads to bonding; orgasm is not required. See Elisabeth Lloyd’s excellent Case of the Female Orgasm for details.

A broader difficulty with this kind of research is the very problem that Kaplan, with her Triphasic Model, attempted to counteract in the 70s, and which Laan, et al have been trying to counteract with their research on spontaneous versus responsive desire, viz., this kind of study can only show us “how the orgasm builds up from genital stimulation.” In real life (which is the life where human sexuality evolved) orgasm doesn’t just build up from genital stimulation, it builds up from relationships and interpersonal connections and how your day has gone and whether or not the kids went to bed on time.

I don’t mean to be a curmudgeon. I’m as entertained as anyone by the idea of jilling off in a fMRI machine, and I’m probably MORE entertained than most people by pictures of brains changing color. It’s just that I work so hard every day to persuade people that women’s sexuality doesn’t have to be like MEN’S in order to be okay, and that sexuality happens in and is influenced by the context of a whole life, a whole body, a whole relationship.

Do I think this research is interesting? Hell yes. Do I think it’s important? In the end, I think it’ll be really important for us to understand how the brain operates during arousal and orgasm, yes. Do I think this article is doing its readers any good? No. I think it’s reinforcing the idea that sexual arousal and orgasm are products of the mechanical stimulation of genitals, rather than being processes that are crucially couched in a larger emotional, physical, and relational context.

But it’s the most viewed and the highest trending article at the Guardian. So.

You’re swimming upstream, Emily.

I know, I know.

genitals and epistemology

I desperately want to assign my class Susan Frost’s Implications of the New Materialisms for Feminist Epistemology, a dense, challenging, 15-page work of feminist philosophy of science.

It’s stuff like this:

Feminist scientists and historians have done a marvelous job of breaking down the modern binary of nature and culture by showing how the natural environment or aspects of biological processes and behavior are shaped by the social and cultural. Non-scientific feminists, however, have been wary of if not downright resistant to reconsidering biology or materiality as anything but discursive formations, as historically specific products of power relations, linguistic practices, and cultural beliefs….To put the point differently, feminists have been more comfortable with denaturalizing nature than with what we mnight call “deculturalizing culture” – or admitting that matter or biology might have a form of agency or force that shapes, enhances, conditions, or delimits the agency of culture. Yet, this wary reluctance, understandable as it is given historical precedent, is structured by an understanding of causation that binds feminists to the binaries they have otherwise been constructing.

Does a reading like that have a place in a 100-level class?

The reason I want to assign it is because it is very, very hard to explain the idea of “new materialism” in the context of a lecture – I haven’t even been very successful explaining it on the BLOG (despite trying various times, including here and here) – and yet it MUST be explained to them because (a) apparently no one else on my campus is teaching it and (2) it’s integral to my entire approach to the class and to the science of sexuality.

But on a deeper level, does a conversation about the nature of science belong in a 100-level class? Easily the least popular lecture from last fall’s class was the 100 Years of American Sex Research night, when I talked about who and how and what disciplines generated the knowledge I was teaching them. What they liked best in the class is when I explained stuff they’d always wondered about – why some penises are curvy, why orgasm is sometimes difficult and sometimes easy, why it felt like they had to pee during intercourse, how to break a hymen, all the things that are most popular on the blog – and they really kinda didn’t much care about where the answers came from.

It would totally fair of me to boil the entire argument of New Materialism down to, “This is a 100-level, two-credit survey course, and therefore everything I’m teaching is, in fact, vastly more complex than I have time to go into.”

But… I mean, these students are so smart. They’re so hungry. They’re so INTERESTED in critical thinking.

So I’ll ask you nice folks:

If you were in the class, would you rather I dismissed the details of multi-level, reciprocal interaction across biology and culture and instead spent more time on basic health stuff? Or would you rather I skip some of the basic health stuff (which you can find online more or less anywhere) and instead spent more time talking about the theoretical underpinnings of the class?

on monkeys, bullshit, and scale

I was feeling smugly knowledgeable and clever, and then I started reading Stephen Hawkings’ Grand Design. I understand, oh, maybe half of it? He loses me at field theories.

But there’s one bit that I found to be a wonderfully clear description of something that I’ve struggled to make clear.

In 1922, a Russian mathematician named Friedman found the galaxies are moving away from each other, and he did it by making two assumptions:

…[T]hat the universe looks identical in every direction and that it looks that way from every observation point. We know that Friedman’s first assumption is not exactly true. The universe fortunately is not uniform everywhere. If we gaze upward in one direction, we might see the sun, in another the moon or a colony of migrating vampire bats. But the universe does appear to be roughly the same in every direction when viewed on a scale that is far larger – larger even than the distance between galaxies. It is something like looking down at a forest: if you are close enough, you can make out individual leaves, or at least trees and the spaces between them. But if you are so high up that your thumb covers a square mile of trees, the forest will appear to be a uniform shade of green. We will say that, on that scale, the forest is uniform.

And what good could come from making such a sweeping assumption that wipes out every variegated leaf, every inch of bark, every mammal and bird and lizard the dwelled there? Why, this:

Based on his assumptions, Friedman was able to discover a solution to Einstein’s equations, in which the universe expanded in a manner that Hubble would soon discover to be true.

Which is, ya know, IMPORTANT.

And it just doesn’t matter if there are a million brown monkeys living in the forest; it’s still true that from space, the forest is green.

Ya’ll know that my my dissertation looked specifically at interactions across levels of analysis, so this question of “scale” is very, very important to me, particularly as it relates to sex research.

Many of you will consider me embarrassingly naive when I say that I was surprised, when I talked about things that are true about populations – for example, that human populations contain two general categories of people, males and females – that people reacted negatively.

And by “negatively,” I mean people felt personally insulted, “erased,” oppressed, and generally like the scientific establishment was deliberately trying to tell them they don’t exist.

Truly, I was like, “… Huh?”

Because I know that science about populations has no particular meaning for individuals. Like: On average, humans are 5’6″, brown-eyed, and east Asian. Should I therefore think, “Phew, I’m 5’6″, but crap, I’ve got blue eyes and I’m this northern European mutt! There’s something wrong with me!” No.

Or should I think, “I’m not brown-eyed and I’m not east Asian, so therefore that’s BULLSHIT!” No. It’s not bullshit just because it’s not true about ME; it’s not TRYING to be true about me, it can only be true about the POPULATION.

No, the sentence, “On average, humans are 5’6″, brown-eyed, and east Asian,” is both true and fair. FROM SPACE (according to the metaphor). At the largest scale.

What’s not true is, “Every individual human who ever existed was 5’6″, brown-eyed, and east Asian.” At the human-level scale, that’s simply wrong.

And making a LAW that says, “People are 5’6″, brown-eyed, and east Asian; to be anything else is against the law,” is both untrue and unjust – a.k.a., ACTUAL “bullshit.”

And I want everyone to be able to tell the difference between those things, between science, what’s true about you, and bullshit.

The basic point that something can be true about the population you live in without being true about you as an individual is something I’ve struggled over and over to persuade people to take for granted, even to the point of considering giving up on the idea.

Social science at the population level is an important reality-check, bringing us out of our on-the-ground perceptions and lifting us into orbit to see the bigger picture. The bigger picture is powerful and important. Each of our little micro-pictures also is important, in different ways and for different reasons. And science at the population level is NOT a weapon; it’s a tool. As the Dog Whisperer tells us, “It’s not the tool, it’s the person holding the tool,” that makes it a weapon.

(I wonder if we could train all journalists writing about science to include not only the means but the variability, just to help remind people that the very concept of “average” necessarily implies variability.)