Apr 3 2010

The Male Brain – see how you like it…

Men! Ha! Aren't they stupid!

So, men eh? Always thinking about sex, leer at women, lie, can’t communicate, fall asleep after sex – you’re all the same and it’s hardwired into your brain. It’s like the punchlines from those dull, unfunny ’10 Jokes About Men!!’ emails I get forwarded every-so-often (and then think less of the person who sent it to me). But this is all coming from Dr Louann Brizendine in her new book ‘The Male Brain‘.

This book looks like the perfect example of how lazy, boring gender stereotyping harms men as well as women. Dr Brizendine already targeted women in the imaginately titled ‘The Female Brain‘ back in 2006 where she wrongly claimed that women use an average of 20,000 words a day compared with only 7,000 for men (link to a funny article from The Guardian on this). Indeed, she removed this claim from the paperback version after the journal Nature said that she had failed “to meet even the most basic standards of scientific accuracy and balance”. So its not looking good.

First up, I haven’t read the book and am not sure whether I’m really prepared to stump up £12.99 to read it and, importantly, check out her sources. On the otherhand, I don’t have much of a life…

However, on the basis of what I can glean from the articles about the book (which obviously contain no references), it seems like ‘men’ are portrayed somewhere between an Andy Capp cartoon and a vile concoction from the minds of Loose Women (for Americans; this is like The View but the co-hosts are replaced with all-female gnashing, orange cruise-ship singers and Fox News pundits).

This is probably the most telling two sentences from The Times piece:

“[Brizendine] a US talk-show regular, draws her sweeping conclusions from a wide array of scientific data as well as her 25-year experience as a practising psychiatrist. To make her book palatable for the non-scientific reader she mixes established scientific fact with more recent untested theories.”

And there in lies the problem. Fact mixed in with some bullshit.

I have no doubt that there is variation between male and female brains. At the very least females menstruate and estrogen is critically involved in the sexual differentiation of the brain. The problem I have is the massive, culturally-blind leap that is made from differences in brain morphology and neurochemistry and men shouting while they’re driving or leering at women in public.

This very interesting review study in Biological Psychiatry, looks at sex differences in brain structure, function and chemistry and finds that there are many simiarities but significant differences including regional differences, blood flow and hormone receptors. The significance of these differences is in the treatment of disorders NOT shopping traits:

“These sex-specific differences in the healthy brain highlight the need to evaluate sex differences in neuropsychiatric disorders especially those that differ in prevalence and symptoms between men and women.”

Therefore, it is important to understand sex differences in the brain in order to understand neuropsychiatric disorders better while, as the paper states, taking into account genetic and environmental influences.

But more than anything, I really hope that any self-respecting man reading these articles is dismayed. Those that can communicate, aren’t violent and aren’t ‘pervs’ (according to The Times of India) do exist. I’ve met them. Moreover, I am more than a little unsettled when supposed ‘male’ behaviour is very familiar to me such as when someone tells you they have a problem you try and come up with a solution. Surely that’s just rational?

Also the heady mix of fact and bullshit leads to terrible reporting in the press and headlines such as: ‘Why your man will NEVER understand how you feel‘ and ‘Men Fib, Cheat and are Obsessed with Sex‘. Really not particularly helpful and very far from scientific.

Sep 17 2009

Science reporting: is it good for you?

The Royal Institution in London was packed to the rafters last night (I know because I was in the rafters) with bloggers, academics, journalists, bloggers, science communicators and bloggers for the Drayson/Goldacre face-off (watch the full debate here or read New Scientist’s report).

Less rumble in the jungle, more grumble in the letters page of a peer-reviewed journal (come on, it half rhymes if you say it quickly).

The debate didn’t really set the world alight and neither of them strayed away from their (after numerous radio interviews) well-trod arguments. My issue, as ever, is the trouble with gender and on this Lord Drayson used a pretty annoying headline to illustrate his point on the benefits of sensationalism. The front page story from The Sun on HPV and cervical cancer has a killer headline…

[thanks Kate Arkless Gray @radiokate]

What I found interesting is the sub-heading ‘ALERT TO ALL WOMEN’. To all those who read the Daily Mail, you will know that the Government has been rolling out a comprehensive HPV vaccine to girls and young women. The Daily Mail is running a series of scare stories about this continuing a rich tradition in anti-vaccination journalism.

(As an aside: If any of the researchers I know from my old alma mater who did some work on Cervarix and Gardasil are reading this, please do comment/link to your research).

One thing that this policy decision does is put the responsibility for sexual health again squarely with females. And before, you roll your eyes and exclaim ‘boys can’t get cervical cancer’, they can and do pass on HPV and they do get genital warts. I acknowledge that there is a cost-effectiveness argument but this call did get passed at the last BMA ARM – not the most rabidly feminist organisation I’ve ever come across.

My point is not to get into the ins and outs of the HPV vaccine, but more to take issue with Drayson’s, and to some extent Goldacre’s, view that sometimes ‘sensationalism isn’t such a bad thing’, that it can publicise an issue that should get a high profile. Drayson used the Sun headline above to illustrate the benefits of sensationalism. My concern is that there are negative fall-outs from such an approach to medical or scientific PR; namely, that sensationalist stories can reinforce and feed society’s prejudices, stereotypes and negative attitudes.

This is infuriating for those who campaign to challenge social attitudes whether on gender, race, immigration status, sexuality etc. It is hard enough to combat the Melanie Phillips’ and Richard Littlejohn’s of this world, without having scientists ‘proving’ that immigrants are coming over here stealing our women, eating our swans AND giving us HIV and TB.

I’m not advocating censorship, I’m pleading for responsible reporting. Sensationalism can and does regularly undermine scientific reporting of delicate and nuanced findings. This can both lead to health scares and dangerous health practices but can also feed negative stereotypes about social groups being diseased, stupid, promiscuous or all of the above.

However much we might point to outstanding examples of science journalism in certain papers, all newspapers are writing for their specific audience, influence their audience and have a political bias.

Plus there is a huge amount of research into the way people read newspapers and news online. Using eye-tracking and socio-semiotic research, we know that people tend to read the headline and first couple of paragraphs if you’re lucky (this is a fascinating article on some eye-tracking research). Which means that if you leave the caveats, the nuances or other statistical ‘health warnings’ to the end of the article – they’ll rarely be read.

Science reporting doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes place in a society with historical legacies, prejudices, tensions and pretty low levels of scientific understanding and critical thinking. Journalists and scientists need to take responsibility for the presentation of findings (assuming it’s good research in the first place) that can fuel discriminatory or unhelpful attitudes.

I only picked on one small aspect of the talk, coz I knew the blogosphere would do the rest. Here’s some more on the talk and arguments:
From Ben Goldacre himself
Basheera Khan at The Telegraph
New Scientist
Nathan Chantrell
Skeptic Barista
And many many more.

Aug 27 2009

The Game The Whole Family Can Play!

[Click image to enlarge, via the indefatigable The F Word]

Seriously, I’m getting a little upset by all the pseudo-evolutionary (Just So) psychology bullshit now. Oh yeah, and the Daily Mail. A work colleague today warned me that the Daily Mail might consider taking a restraining order out against me.

OK then, this one is from the Daily Telegraph: Men prefer websites designed by men. The very first sentence of this article?

The differences spring from our caveman ancestors, said Gloria Moss, a specialist in human resources.

Frankly, I am not going to dignify this article by pulling it to shreds. That first sentence is enough to condemn it to the shit heap it sprang from.

JOURNALISTS LISTEN: Just because it is the bicentennial year of the birth of Charles Darwin does NOT mean that you have to get the word ‘evolution’ into every science story. If your writing about evolutionary biology or evolutionary psychology firstly, know the difference between the two and secondly, find out if the researcher you’re quoting/cut n’ pasting does too.

RESEARCHERS LISTEN: Just because you work in Buck-Nowheresville university (or a further education college) do you really NEED to use nonsense, sexist, pseudo-evolutionary failytales to get your research into the papers? If the answer is yes, then kiss your credibility goodbye.

I’ll be tweeting all future pseudo-hunter-gatherer ‘science’ stories with the hastag #bullshitbingo

Aug 25 2009

Ruthless, sex-fiend, testosterone-fuelled women gamblers found by scientists

The reporting of a particular study in the last couple of days sounded more like an ad for a kinky fetish party. “Risky women are ‘hungry for sex’” panted the Press Association over the newswires of the world. “’Traders’ testosterone’ fuels female financial flutters” was Nature’s lame attempt. “Even female investors juiced by testosterone” was Daily Finance’s rather damp contribution.

And I’m just generally baffled as to why The Med Guru felt the need to use a picture of Scarlett Johansson with this story.

So yes “researchers” have “found” that women with greater levels of testosterone are “greater risk takers” (notice my subtle highlighting of certain words there). And of course testosterone is a SEX hormone so some journalists thought it would be a good idea to talk about SEX a bit as frankly SEX is more interesting than financial trading which is what the study was actually about.

The “researchers” were in fact an Associate Professor in Finance, a Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance and a Professor of Comparative Human Development and Evolutionary Biology (who lists press cuttings and press releases on web page rather than journal articles, but that’s just a particular prejudice of mine which has frequently been supported by evidence).

They used the results from a cohort of 460 (320 male, 140 female) MBA (management qualification) students at Chicago University of their levels of testosterone and compared this to their risk aversion and the careers that they went on to do after graduation (which were rated as ‘risky’ or not on the basis of whether they were in the financial sector).

Now, I’m not in a position to judge the accuracy of the testosterone testing (saliva collection and digit ratio), so I’ll assume they’re sound.

The risk aversion test and career choice data have huge confounding factors. The risk aversion test was a computer simulation where participants were asked to choose between a fixed cash amount (from $50 to $120) or to ‘gamble’ for a lottery prize or either $200 or zero. I do not believe that this is a credible test because it was 15 questions in a non-real life example, where participants were selected as ‘professional financial decision makers’ and were not intended to be representative.

Students are a specific type of people, MBA students are even more specific, and MBA students having their risk aversion measured when fully aware of the concepts of risk aversion and financial decisions are likely to give specific answers. (BTW you can actually re-read the above sentence substituting the word ‘specific’ for the word ‘wanky’ and it is still true).

Secondly, the career data was collected two years after the test with no follow-up interview. Therefore, it was assumed that graduates chose certain “high risk” professions (in the financial sector) because they were risk-takers and the risk-averse would take low risk jobs outside of the sector. In fact, there may have been many reasons why certain jobs were taken; offers, opportunities, location, having children, redundancy, not wanting to be surrounded by trading wankers, etc. That is not a measure of risk aversion, for me it would be a measure of bullshit tolerance.

So I don’t think the research was great, but the reporting of the research was atrocious. None of the problems with the research were alluded to, they tried to sex it up by using words like ‘gambling’ and ‘excessive drinking’ and, er, ‘sex’. And they just made false and misleading statements:

Daily Telegraph: “[The study] found that testosterone-driven women who liked to gamble went on to choose careers in finance”

Press Association: “Women with an appetite for risk may also be hungry for sex, a study suggests.” (No, it really doesn’t)

I am most concerned by this quote from one of the researchers:

“This is the first study showing that gender differences in financial risk aversion have a biological basis, and that differences in testosterone levels between individuals can affect important aspects of economic behaviour and career decisions,” said Professor Dario Maestripieri.

Now I have met enough academics who have been misquoted in the press to treat quotes with some suspicion. However, what is important is that this study DOES NOT show that gender differences in financial risk aversion have a biological basis. Even if the methodology was perfect it is still a small study on a select group of individuals who are members of an elite in a Western capitalist society. That is a long way from establishing a ‘biological basis’ for individual attitudes and behaviours.

This also feeds into the argument that women are not making it into top financial or commercial sector jobs because they are risk averse and non-competitive: only women with unusual ‘male hormones’ can make it to the top and the fact that men are over-represented is “natural”. This is wildly reductionist. There are huge environmental and social determinants of managing and evaluating risk and humans are notoriously bad at doing it.

So sorry to those who had hoped that scientists had found a bunch of sex-fiend, testosterone-fuelled women (you know who you are), you’ll probably find they’re too smart to be working in finance.

Thanks to the ever-wonderful Dr Petra for the tip-off on this.

Aug 2 2009

How to get your project in the news around the world: say that women are a bit crap at something

[Hunter from Neverwhere. Female]

This is one of the worst articles on gender and brains I’ve seen in a long time. A piece was written by an AFP agency journalist, has been cut n’ pasted into news sites across the globe. As far as I can tell, its only appeared in The Telegraph in the UK, but has made it to Russia, India, Spain, Australia, Japan and Playboy (and many many more).

It is a terribly written article about a yet-unpublished paper on a study of 48 people by an A Level teacher.

Now, I’m not being dismissive about the researcher from Hammersmith and West London College, but this study has got more coverage than most research from the most eminent professors in the country.

The article gives the impression that men are better at judging distances than women and that this is because of our hunter-gatherer past. Men would hunt and therefore have to throw spears long distances, women would gather berries and whatnot at close quarters. (And yes before all the archaeologists and anthropologists start jumping up and down on me, I know this is simplistic rubbish too, but that’s another story).

Firstly, men being better at judging distances than women wasn’t really the finding of the ‘paper’ (i.e. what was contained in the abstract of the yet to be published paper). The article in fact contradicts itself internally:

Men were more accurate than women when the target was placed far away at a distance of 100cm.

And then

In a second study, volunteers were asked to carry out the same tasks using a stick rather than a laser pointer. This time women were significantly better than men at judging both distances.

Secondly, this is a study of just 48 people (24 men, 24 women) presumably from one locality (probably Hammersmith or West London) and unlikely to have been controlled for other factors (age, occupation, experience of archery etc). But I don’t know, and nor does anyone else, because the paper hasn’t been published.

Thirdly, in a study about spacial awareness, comparing abilities over 50cms to 1m is fair enough. To define it as hand-reach (near space) and beyond hand-reach (far space) is clear. But leap from 1 metre being called ‘far space’ to the distance over which a ‘hunter’ would throw a spear at a mammoth, is more than a little ridiculous.

Fourthly, as a psychology experiment on visomotor performance why is there an urge to link this randomly and in an ill-informed way to primitive human society and evolutionary biology?

But lastly, this is an experiment conducted at a further education college which is about to be published in the Journal of Psychology. My problem is not with Stancey, seriously well done (as long as you take from this experience the media manipulation of science and how best to give comment to a journalist).

My problem is with a media that doesn’t check its facts, that doesn’t do anything but cut n’ paste a poorly written article into their newspaper. Stancey is quoted as “Psychologist Helen Stancey, from Hammersmith and West London College”. Googling Hammersmith and West London College you realise it is a further education college that runs A Levels, BTECs and the like.

So how does this happen? We live in a world of lazy gender stereotypes: women can’t read maps, men take risks, girls like pink etc. When ‘science’ journalists come across a crappy story about women not being able to judge distances (which cognitively signifies women not being able to drive/play sports/walk past a shoe shop…) because they ‘were gatherers’, it makes culturally sense to us. Not scientific sense, but it fits in with society’s general assumptions, stereotypes and bullshit common-sense.

This is why I think these kinds of reports are so damaging, they serve as the wallpaper of patriarchy. The constant mundane assumptions about male and female differences that support gender inequality.

And for the record, I’m a dab hand at archery.

Jul 25 2009

New Daily Mail Scientist

[Daily Mail ad run in the Metro. Yes, in 2009]

This may well be a foolhardy adventure, a titanic battle, an Icarian endeavour, I cannot help myself but carefully and scientifically dissect another Daily Mail article. After I’m long dead I hope that the fossilised remains of my blog will be found so that others will know that there was resistance to this cancerous newspaper.

I’ll address most paragraphs in turn.

Fathers DO matter: Scientists claim they play crucial role in child’s development

In a world where advances in cloning and genetics are threatening to make men redundant, scientists finally have some reassuring news.

No dipshit, it’s only in your paper that claims like this are made.

A study has shown that fathers play a crucial in family life – and that without a dad present in the crucial first stage of life, offspring grow up to be less sociable.

Let’s pick out the crucial words in this sentence: “father”, “family life”, “dad”. We all know what those words refer to don’t we. Yes, humans.

Although the findings come from a study of animals, it adds to the growing evidence that fathers influence the way children develop.

Right, so in fact a study HASN’T shown anything about “fathers” or “family life”. And given the variety of parenting models in the animal kingdom you are going to have to show applicability (who thinks they will?…)

Previous studies have shown that girls reach puberty younger, become sexually active earlier and are more likely to get pregnant in their teens if their father are absent when they were young, New Scientist magazine says.

I will address these ‘previous studies’ at the end and the problems with them. I will also take the New Scientist out the back for a damn good thrashing.

Other work has suggested that sons of missing dads have lower self-esteem later in life.

Other work? What like that paper I wrote with my own shit through the motion of wiping my arse? Obviously no need to reference, it is accepted wisdom.

The latest study looked for biological changes in laboratory mice when they were raised without fathers.

Here we go. Paragraph 6 and we find out you’re talking about mice. Five paragraphs on vague conjecture with a clue that this is a completely rehashed article from the New Scientist and we culminate in fucking lab mice.

A team at McGill University, Canada, used a strain of mice which, like people, are usually monogamous and tend to rear their young pups together.

A strain of mice, which like people, live in cages in laboratories, have tails and run around on wheels all day.

They removed the fathers from some of the mouse pups three days after birth until they were weaned at 30 to 40 days old.

The scientists, led by Dr Gabriella Gobbi, then analysed the behaviour and brain cells of the pups – and compared them to mice brought up with both parents.

Brain cells in the ‘single parent’ mice had a muted response to the ‘cuddle hormone’ oxytocin, a feel-good chemical released in the brain during sex or moments of intimacy.

‘Cuddle hormone’ is a technical term I’ll have you know. And given that the Daily Mail are anthropomorphising these mice to an alarming degree, does them talking about them having sex make this article paedophilic?

That meant they were less likely to feel positive when in the company of others. The fatherless mice were also more anti-social.

They found that they were feeling less positive through a survey where the mice were asked to rate their positivity on a scale of cheese to incontinence on a first date. Indeed fatherless mice are more likely to be Goths.

‘Usually if you put two animals in the same cage they investigate and touch each other, but when we put to animals deprived of a father together they ignored each other,’ said Dr Gobbi.

Maybe its because the offspring of divorce parents have less expectations of long-term relationships and decide not to get involved in an intimate relationship that will inevitably end in heart-break and despondency. Oh, wait a minute, they’re FUCKING MICE.

The scientists are unsure whether the same biological changes take place in human children raised without a father – and whether the findings are applicable to people.

But we’ll keep the headline and everything we’ve written up until this point because no one is really going to read this far and what can science tell us about the moral decline of Britain anyway.

In the strain of mice used in the experiment, the fathers lick and groom the young pups more than the mothers do. Because grooming affects the development of pups, it could be the lack of physical contact that cause the changes in the brain, the researchers say.

It seems that mice feminism has also gone to far and these mothers aren’t even looking after their children properly. OK, this paragraph does seem to entirely undermine the preceding drivel showing that mice parenting does seem to differ from human parenting somewhat, but apart from that the similarities are uncanny.

The finding follows another study which showed that men experience a huge surge in oxytocin after a child is born.

Let’s just randomly chuck this study in. Totally unconnected, but shit who cares?

Dr Ruth Feldman of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel tested oxytocin levels of 80 couples before a child was born and six months afterwards. She found that levels of the feel-good chemical rose in mothers and fathers after the arrival of a child.

‘Feel-good chemical’ is another technical term, keep up.

The chemical affected the parents in different ways.

Banal sentence of the entire article. Congratulations.

Mothers with the highest levels spent much longer gazing at their children, stroking and kissing them and speaking in a “sing song” voice, she found.

i.e. become insufferable to be around.

Dads with the highest levels played more with their child than fathers with the lowest levels.

‘Fathers and mothers contribute in a very specific and different way,’ she told the magazine.

She believes fathers may be ‘biologically programmed’ to help raise children.

This is a very very bizarre statement.

Right so let’s look at the studies the Daily Mail randomly chose to cite and how they arbitrary chose to report them. Sadly this Daily Mail article is a pretty much direct rehash of the New Scientist article it refers to. New ‘Scientist’ Fail.

I’ve been warned before that the New Scientist can be sexist, but this is the first time I’ve come across such a biased and unscientific article.

I have blogged here about the studies looking at early female pubescence and absent fathers when Oliver “bad-parenting-causes-schizophrenia” James tried to peddle his social-conservatism as caring liberal. (In summary; “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that”).

There are a number of social determinants that affect girls becoming sexually active earlier and teen pregnancy. Education, access to information, aspirations, abuse, gender inequality, coercion, poverty – can all play a role and interact with each other.

The two studies referred to directly in the article are by Dr Gabriella Gobbi of McGill University Health Centre and Dr Ruth Feldman of Bar-Ilan Universit, were both unpublished studies from Conference Posters presented at the World Congress of Biological Psychiatry and the Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting, respectively. Dr Gobbi’s: The fatherless brain: Impact of paternal deprivation in Peromyscus californicus on social behaviour and on Oxytocin, NMDA and monaminergic synapses in the prefrontal cortex, poster, WCBP (pdf of programme). Dr Feldman‘s: Maternal and Paternal Bonding in the Postpartum: Hormones, Parenting Behavior, and Mental Representations.

I therefore doubt very much that the article reflects what these researchers will have concluded in their studies. Even if they themselves did make these giant leaps, the work is unpublished and there has not been an opportunity to peer-review.

Reporting ideology rather than science is what the Daily Mail does. Which is why I am more annoyed with the New Scientist for this crappy article. Of course the Mail was going to pick it up and use it as more evidence to espouse its socially conservative and judgmental propaganda. But for a scientific publication to use a study in mice to comment on human social interaction, is willfully ignorant.

May 24 2009

Women and CAM

I was reminded of the women and complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) ‘problem’ by this blog about Professor Edzard Ernst’s talk at the last Skeptics in the Pub (which I missed, slap wrists). He mentioned that he had been talking to a female homeopath and as an aside said that most homeopaths are women. When quizzed on this later on he said:

All surveys show that the typical user of complementary medicine (more specifically homeopathy) but complementary medicine is… I call it “The Four F’s” – Around forty, female, fertile… and I was going to say “fucking mad”

Now I have blogged on this before and do concede that indeed women are the bigger consumer of CAM, and it seems many are practitioners. So as I asked last time – why?

Purely on anedoctal experience it tends to be either or both based on a) bad experience of ‘orthodox’ medicine and b) out of desperation. One woman I know was having trouble conceiving and so went for fertility treatment. This treatment was ultimately unnecessary because the cause of their infertility was, as it is for most 30-something professionals, a lack of sex (I’m not medically trained but I believe that is key). The treatment did however result in alapecia for her. Both of these events are pretty high on the scale of emotionally devastating and led her to go to a snake-oil salesman to treat the hair loss and later to a Chinese herbalist for fertility ‘things’. A combination of these treatments not working and me suggesting that it might take less effort if she just set fire to her money in the comfort of her own home, she now accepts that they weren’t the best course of action but that in both circumstances she was distraught and needed help from somewhere.

Postscript: she now has two children and her hair grew back albeit completely white, which I think is rather cool.

In a previous job I also attended a seminar on Do Not Resuscitate orders arranged by the then Disability Rights Commission. I was representing a certain medical professional body and was therefore treated with suspicion bordering on contempt. This was because the politicised disabled people involved in the seminar had had awful experiences of the NHS and at the hands of doctors hence their admirable drive to get involved in disability rights work. These people would have been badly treated, misdiagnosed, ignored, possibly abused and so were aggressively opposed to doctors deciding on their fate when they were incapacitated. They did not trust doctors to make decisions that they felt would be based on prejudiced views of a disabled patient’s quality of life. The health professionals in the room discussed the nature of resuscitation and how rarely it even works but it was difficult to shrug of the, in many cases well-founded, suspicion of doctors.

So my point is, that although these anecdotes may illustrate experiences that may lead people towards CAM or at least away from the NHS, not all women have had terrible experiences of doctors, feel alienated from the experience of the NHS or are in an extreme health situation. This makes me wonder whether gender inequality in society as a whole has some bearing on this. Is CAM more empowering for women? Is it because CAM sells you the facade that you are taking your health into your own hands? Is the communication of CAM better i.e. the therapeutic relationship is more important to many women? These are genuine questions, because I really don’t know.

Also, given Prof Ersnt’s suggestion that users of CAM are “around forty, female, fertile and … fucking mad” could there also be something in – now bear with me here – the tradition of the witch? The Witch has been a potent symbol for centuries and although it has been interpreted as a sexist stereotype of old, ugly women, the witch has also be reclaimed by feminists as the symbol of a strong, powerful if maleficent woman. (It important to point out the various cultural variations, e.g. in Central and Eastern European during the Middle Ages witches were believed to be male or female, witches being predominantly female is mostly a Western European conception, but that aside…)

Do female CAM practitioners fit in somewhere in the tradition of strong female ‘healers’? Is there any connection to the reclaiming of the ‘witch’ by feminists in the 60s/70s and its reinvention into the emancipatory goddess rituals? Of course I’m not blaming feminism for CAM, but it does seem likely that there is some connection between people feeling marginalised from ‘orthodox’ medicine and therefore veering into what are perceived as empowering alternatives. My only hope is that with the vastly increased number of female doctors coming up through the system this may have an affect on women’s perception of medicine.

May 23 2009

Abortion is about public health not morality

I haven’t blogged about abortion for, oh, 3 or 4 posts so thought I’d revisit. Prompted by a great blog about the horrendous Nadine Dorries MP on Liberal Conspiracy from the Lay Scientist.

I written quite a lot about this in the past particularly at the time of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (now Act) and the activism I was involved in then (I’ll get around to posting some of that information here at some point).

This blog is going to focus on abortion as a public health issue, but I’m also working on a post about data on abortion in the UK and the oft repeated claim that ‘there are too many abortions’ which I believe is based on flawed logic. But that post requires some graph compiling so will take me a little longer. In the meantime…

I personally do not see abortion as a moral issue but primarily as a public health issue. As a medical procedure we treat it differently to any other, such as the continuing need for two doctors’ signatures which seriously undermines the concept of women’s consent to medical procedure. No other procedure puts the authority squarely with the medical profession rather than the female patient, and this is not an authority that health professionals are comfortable with and have repeatedly called for this to be changed.

Globally approximately 67,000 women every year due to unsafe illegal abortions. The deaths of women due to unsafe abortions are counted among the staggering statistics on maternal mortality where it is believed that a woman dies every minute due to reproductive related issues. The vast majority of these deaths are preventable easily and cheaply and primarily through empowering women through access to information, education and even the most basic healthcare that their predominantly developing world country can offer (99% of maternal deaths happen in the developing world).

Plus, all of these statistics are at best an educated guess because statistics on maternal mortality are notoriously terrible. The fact is that we don’t count dead women and we particularly don’t count those who have died after a botched abortion.

The best way to prevent deaths through unsafe abortion, is unsurprisingly, to offer access to safe and legal abortion. This has had a dramatic affect on the maternal mortality and morbidity stats for Bangladesh.

Not only does a restriction on access to abortion put women seeking an abortion at risk, it also regularly creates a chilling effect that prevents doctors performing therapeutic abortions for ectopic pregnancies and even from performing routine gynaecological examinations. This is most starkly apparent in Nicaragua where the complete ban on abortion has even lead the State being taken to the UN Committee against Torture on the basis of their abortion laws amounting to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

The chilling effect can extent to women being criminalised when they suffer a miscarriage and are accused of abortion as has been documented in West Africa (currently unpublished).

All of these examples put the UK situation into context but we also need to be vigilant against unscientific attacks on women access to health services in the UK. The attempts to reduce time limits in this country during the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill were based on bad science and instigated by those morally and religiously entirely opposed to abortion.

What is worse is that it would have put particularly vulnerable women at risk of being excluded from vital health services in this country. So what was the evidence?

UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008
Forty years on from the passing of the Abortion Act, the Westminster Science and Technology Committee examined whether advances in science require a change in the law. Many advocating reducing time limits did so on the basis of “advances in medical science”. This was not however, supported by the evidence or medical establishment. (This is where in fact the Nadine Dorries story started, see Ben Goldacre’s blog on this at the time)

The British Medical Association and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, neither known for their radical feminism, both submitted evidence in support of the 24 week time limit and a liberalisation of access to abortion in the first trimester (e.g. removing need for doctors signatures among other things).

So where are the medics and scientists marching in the streets asking for the law to be changed? Well, there were submissions to the Science and Technology Committee advocating time limit restrictions from medical professionals who have not declared their religious affiliations. Luckily the press can do this for us. The majority of them are activists from the Christian Medical Fellowship, an organisation which is opposed to abortion (unlike most Christians) and had made its own submission as an organisation

The scientific case hinges on the principle of the “viability” of the foetus outside the womb. It is claimed that foetuses that have been born prematurely at 24 or 22 weeks have be kept alive by ‘science’. As stated by the BMA, it is only a fraction of births at this gestation that survive, and most of those are severely disabled. A study in the British Medical Journal reiterated the point – the latest stats indicate that survival pre-24 weeks has not improved since 1995. It is also important to draw attention to the conflation between the theoretical viability of a foetus at 22 weeks and the viability of a foetus that a woman chooses to abort at this time – these are two distinct situations.

Women get a scan at 20 weeks which can show up problems with the pregnancy. Obviously we can’t be certain, but it is very very likely that those being terminated at this late stage have serious problems. Let’s remember that 20 weeks is half way through a pregnancy, women would have a very good reason for going through what is a particularly invasive surgical procedure. Either the foetus is in fact not viable or these are particularly vulnerable women. Restricting their rights further is hardly the answer.

So if the evidence didn’t back up the claim that there had been ‘scientific and medical advancements”, why were we talking about time limits? Suspicions rise further when we start looking at how many abortions we are actually talking about – in England and Wales 1.5% of all abortions in 2008 were over 20 weeks (that percentage is even lower in Scotland and abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland). So we are talking about a fraction of the abortions that take place in the UK which became a lightening rod for the abortion debate.

Why? Because this is a tactic, part of a wider strategy to chip away at the right to abortion. Banning by increment. This isn’t my wild paranoia; this is exactly the course of action taken by the Anti-Choice movement in the USA. Lowering time limits, reducing services, enforcing health professionals read out ‘warnings’ to women before a termination, ‘cooling off’ periods, parental consent, arguing against the licensing of drugs for chemical terminations with the regulators – all of these mount until it is effectively banned in some States and restricted to 13 weeks in others.

Abortion laws in the global North affect not only women in those countries, as Bush’s global gag rule demonstrates. Not only is this about public health and women’s access to safe and legal health services, it is also fundamental to the principle of female reproductive autonomy and about women’s rights over their own physical integrity. Women and girls are brought up in a global society where their bodies are open spaces for public debate. Where individuals believe their morality justifies a violent imposition on another female human being. I do not believe that I have the right to tell a woman what to do with her body and that is why I am a pro-choice campaigner.

Apr 30 2009

A Sow’s Ear

Do NOT share cups with pigs

OK, I can’t have a science blog without mentioning swine flu. Is there a gendered analysis? Well probably in the access to healthcare for women, particularly poor women but there’s no data at this time. Generally, women do worst in natural disasters – most shocking stat I’ve come across is that between 70%-80% of the people who died in Southeast Asia after the tsunami of 2004 were female.

But also on searching for swine flu and women, I can across this hilarious conspiracy theory from Wendy Wright of Concerned Women of America (Unconcerned Women of America never really got off the ground). The ironically named Wright opined that Obama’s declaration of a state of emergency was a ruse for appointing Kathleen Sebelius as health secretary by stealth. Will this man stop at nothing?

Of course, the interesting thing is not Wright’s lunacy but the fact that she opposes the appointment of Sebelius because she is pro-choice. Sebelius has a great record of vetoing anti-abortion legislation in Kansas where she was Governor and she has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood which has fund-raised for her. All this and she is a Catholic too! Maybe she’s a fan of Catholics for Choice.

Wendy Wright on the other hand is staunchly anti-abortion which has included challenging the Food and Drug Administration’s licensing of emergency contraception, trying to stop the appointment of anyone who has had anything to do with any organisation that has advocated for women’s access to safe abortions, and she also went to Kosovo to lobby against specific articles in the constitution of the emerging state which provided:

  • the right to make decisions in relation to reproduction in accordance with the rules and procedures set forth by law.
  • the right to have control over his/her body in accordance with law

Apparently these are ‘bad things’. Shockingly arrogant but at least unsuccessful.

(She’s also opposed hate crime legislation and marriage equality so obviously sidelines in homophobia)

What is most concerning for feminists and the rational, is the language Wright uses to oppose reproductive rights and other politically motivated positions on science such as all forms of human cloning; saying that this is about women’s safety and protections against exploitation and the harvesting of eggs. The Right are very adroit at using feminist language when it suits them (see arguments made for the invasion of Afghanistan), but this is particularly dangerous when sisterly language is used to undermine women’s access to safe and legal healthcare and drugs:

“When a drug is easily available, it is a public health hazard to women.”
Wendy Wright talking about FDA licensed emergency contraception

OK, so it wasn’t about swine flu. But you’ve gotta love that quote.

Apr 28 2009

May The Open Source Be With You

(image from the fabulous xkcd)

Righty ho. I’ve been tardy at blogging of late, well blogging here anyway as I do also blog for work here. But I came across this very interesting study via Women Who Tech about the numbers of women who use Open Source software. OK, when I say interesting you’re going to have to bear with me…

I was first exposed to OS (and by that I mean enforced) by a dear friend, Patrick Harvie MSP. He would go on and on and on and on and on about it and I would smile and nod (because I was brought up correctly) while actually thinking about what I was going to drink that night. It went a bit far when he tried to get me to watch a DVD of Eben Moglen.

Then I started my Masters in global healthcare financing and got more and more into pharmaceutical financing and intellectual property rights. I had a eureka moment – this was what Patrick was droning on and on and on and on and on about, now I get it, now I care!

To be honest, software doesn’t float my boat. But the principles are incredibly important and they are important for women. Which brings me back to this study which explores the reasons why a tiny 1.5% of F/LOSS community members are female and many of these reasons are as equally applicable to other scientific/skeptical arenas as to OS. Some reasons summarised here:

  • Women are actively (if unconsciously) excluded rather than passively disinterested. The exclusion happens among people who often do not mean to appear, and who do not interpret their own actions, as hostile to women.

  • F/LOSS communities actively perpetuate a ‘hacker’ ethic, which situates itself outside the ‘mainstream’ sociality, but equates women with that mainstream seen in a contrast to the ‘technical’ realm ascribed to men. Women are treated as either alien Other or (in online contexts) are assumed to be male and thus made invisible.
  • F/LOSS rewards the producing code rather than the producing software. It thereby puts most emphasis on a particular skill set devaluing other activities such as interface design or documentation which women often engage in.
  • F/LOSS production and infrastructure is designed and built assuming contributors have a long history with computers, but women tend to engage later in their lives with computers. In order to join women have a larger amount of catching up work to do, which they must do in an environment that almost exclusively values independent discovery.
  • Inflammatory talk and aggressive posturing (‘flaming’) is accepted within many F/LOSS projects as a key means of developing reputation. This is often off-putting for newcomers and less experienced contributors who are not yet familiar with the community, its norms, or its real hierarchy and is therefore particularly pronounced in the case of women.

These reasons such as exclusion through an imposed hierarchy of skills, advancement through aggressive posturing and equating dynamism against a mainstream that is identified as feminine are all eerily familiar to most spheres of life, be it work, politics or the family.

I’ve spoken to many many male bloggers who are really interested (or pretend to be) when I talk about a feminist analysis of science and mainstream media reporting but then say “Yeah, as a bloke I don’t really do or understand gender.” This is the same as people saying they don’t really have an accent. It is not just women’s responsibility to engage with science and scientific reporting (which in fact they are doing and have done in increasing numbers for decades). Men have to acknowledge the extent to which they are excluding women, however unconsciously this is claimed to be.

This isn’t just women harping on about wanting to be involved in your little subculture, it will actually benefit the F/LOSS community, lead to a richer understanding of the power dynamics involved in media reporting and foster greater creativity and energy. And who knows, you might even get laid more often.