"I'm cute, not smart", an explanation [Intent versus Message, Part 2]

If you haven’t yet, go read the first part of this series.

So now for some context. I was contacted by a representative from Spielerz.com not so long ago about me writing a promotion post for their site in order to try to generate interest with a female audience. So I, not willing to promote something without first knowing if what I was promoting would be a good community for my readers, asked some questions.

As part of the response, the representative linked me to the T-shirt design from the previous post. She did this in the interest of full disclosure, and I’m glad she did. From there ensued a small discussion on the shirt and I found that I was interested in critiquing it, and moreover that I was presented with the rare opportunity to get an explanation from the designer, a friend of said representative.

So, I asked if the designer would write up her reasoning behind the design and here’s what she wrote:

So, the idea behind this shirt was inspired by my friend who is very cute and very smart. She says “I’m cute, not smart” whenever she has missed something obvious or made a mistake of some sort. This always gets a laugh because, well, it’s funny and anyone who knows her is well aware of her intelligence (she recently earned a full scholarship to law school and is working toward her goal of becoming a judge).
She is also a gamer – she plays RPGs – and in one notable Call of Cthulhu game, her character went insane and killed the entire party. So, using that idea I made the very cute character (who resembles my friend) quoting her saying after having presumably wiped out her fellow adventurers.

The intentions behind this shirt aren’t to degrade women in any way, or to perpetuate any negative stereotypes. For example, I chose not to give the character blonde hair, because the “dumb blonde” stereotype annoys me to no end and I did not want the shirt to be another blonde joke. It is more subtle than that. The fact is, some women (and men) are cute, but not smart, and some are both or neither – people shouldn’t be judged on gender or looks and I would love to live in a world where they weren’t. But reality is that humans classify, compare and judge others, and so there is a stereotype in our society that “pretty” girls lack intelligence. Some women play to this idea to get what they want, others fight it, others ignore it and some are it. I’ve found that smart women tend to like this shirt because it pokes fun at the stereotype – it says that the “cute” girl could be playing dumb so you won’t know that she’s a force to be reckoned with till it’s too late, or that the girl who’s “not smart” shouldn’t be written off.

So, now, fully armed with context, what do you think of the shirt? I’ll put it behind the cut for those who want to refresh their memories. Continue reading

"I'm cute, not smart", first impressions [Intent versus Message, Part 1]

Cute Not Smart

I would like all of your help on doing an experiment. This will be part of a short series that, among other things, will look at how intent and message interact. But in order to make my arguments, I need input from my readers. Even if you normally don’t comment, even if you don’t consider yourself to be a feminist, please take a couple minutes to participate in this series. It would mean a lot to me.

So, what I want you to do is first to look at the image. Without any context, what does it say to you? Is your impression a positive or negative one?

Now, have some context: this is a shirt design for a gaming site. Does that change your perception at all? If so, is it a positive, negative, or neutral influence? What has changed?

If you want, include whatever about your personality, politics, or anything else that you find to be relevant to your reading of the image.

Within the next few days, I will be posting the “intent” part of this series and I hope that all of you who participate here will add your voice to that post as well, because seeing what changes (and what doesn’t) is an important part of what I’m trying to understand/illustrate.

Edit (2007.07.18): I would appreciate if people could be more sensitive in the way that they phrase their analysis. A real person designed this shirt and there is nothing gained by being insensitive to her feelings while criticizing the image. On that note, I will also not be publishing any more comments that are about the quality of the artwork, unless they are constructive criticism.

X-posted: Iris Forums.

IMPACT Defense Against Multiple Assailants class

Good afternoon, Shrub.com!
My name is Katie, and I’m a white cisgendered female heterosexual able-bodied blogger.

Andrea gave me a Shrub login a few weeks ago so I could post ideas that I thought fit the thoughtful “breaking out of roles we’re supposed to have based upon our social categories” theme I often see here. I never did post the original piece I meant to, but it wasn’t critical. This is. Everyone should know how to defend his or her body to the maximum extent he or she can, and those who know owe it to those who don’t to responsibly pass on whatever they can by word of mouth.

Therefore I’m reposting here a summary of my experiences in IMPACT’s “Defense Against Multiple Assailants” course. (If you want more details about “defense against a single assailant,” click here.)

I look forward to hearing your comments and engaging with you here on Shrub.com for a long time to come!

     Fighting multiple unarmed assailants bore some similarities to fighting single unarmed assailants. Firstly, the premise of the attack was sexual assault or some other act that implied the assailants wanted you alive and aware of what they were doing until they felt that they had managed to perform this act. Therefore, assailants were more likely to grab and restrain us than to throw a deadly punch.

     As in Single Unarmed Assailants class, the presumption was that they were out to

  1. convince us to stop hitting them but not “fight” the way men fight each other and
  2. do sexual things we didn’t want them to do (or, as I said, something like that).

     This class is not adequate preparation for fighting multiple henchmen in a Jet Li movie whose only goal is to kill you as fast as possible.

Multiple Padded Assailants

Continue reading

Embracing Your Inner Skeptic

I am a big fan of science. Studies, statistics, innovations in technology, you name it. Probably because I grew up in a family interested in debate and discussion and opinions only get you so far in those instances. In recent years, my mother in particular has embraced her Inner Skeptic and has encouraged me to do the same.

And, really, I think it’s high time for me to share the love of the Inner Skeptic with the world. Yes, that’s right. I am sharing the love. Sharing it. With you. So you’d better read on to see how this love will be shared.

I. Embracing Your Inner Skeptic

I’ve been embracing my Inner Skeptic for quite some time. I have peppered some of my posts with skepticism, and even have the small category specifically devoted to skepticism. But I’ve never really written one (or more) posts devoted specifically to looking critically at science. Not through lack of want, but rather because I didn’t have anything to push me into writing on the subject.

That is until one man, Scipio, decided to write about how “evil” women in comics are unrealistic because women aren’t as aggressive as men. He then backed his assertion of this innate state of women with a 2002 study on the neurobiology of aggression conducted at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn). I read the article (which doesn’t even link to the original study [PDF]!), which in no way was a blanket endorsement of Scipio’s views, and decided it was high time for me to write an article on embracing your Inner Skeptic.

I know that all of us — myself included — can get super excited over the latest study and go overboard in supporting it without looking at important things like sample size and if it has been reproduced yet or not. This is, I think, part of human nature. But it’s important not to get so caught up in thinking of science as “facts” that we forget that most of the time the “facts” are our interpretation of the evidence, especially when the information on the studies comes only from news articles.

I’m saving the lecture on why not to confuse an article with a study for its own post, but here I will be discussing how to ask the “right” questions and why it’s valuable to understand the layers of interpretaiton, and how that differs from the empirical data. The point is not to discuss the relative merit of Scipio’s, or even the UPenn study’s, points, but rather to use this discussion as a springboard in order to excersise those critical thinking muscles that we all have.

II. Asking the Right Questions

One study does not evidence make. One study is merely a beginning. The UPenn study, for instance, is far from a definitive blow for innate differences. The title of the article itself even uses the word “possible” in it. Later on, it emphasizes that this was the “first time” such a thing has been measured. It even goes on to state that “[t]he findings provide a new research path” — meaning that more research needs to be done before anything else.

But the age of the study and if it has been reproduced yet are only two of the questions that should be asked. Sample size is another. The age, races, social background, ethnic background, and gender and sex of the participants is important too.

On the Evil Woman! post, Ragnell asks these questions as well as ones specific to the type of the study and the way that Scipio uses it to “prove” his point:

Are there other parts of the brain that can compensate for this particular part?

Is this a section of the brain determined by biological hardwiring alone, or can it be influenced to develop differently at an early age?
If it is the second answer, can the early social conditioning given to a little girl have nutured this area of the brain? What about the social conditioning given to boys? Is it possible that our cultural mores are causing early harm to young developing male minds?

How many times has this hypothesis been tested? Just once? Twice? Numerous times over several years? Or is this just one study, likely to be overturned by the next study as so many scientific studies are overturned?

How biased were the researchers? Was it a blind comparison or did they know before they accumulated the results which scan belonged to which person? Or which group? Or which gender?

[From Evil Woman!, comment by by Ragnell]

The article answers some of the basic questions. The sample size was 116 people, 57 male and 59 female. The age breakdown wasn’t given, but it was stated that they were “healthy adults younger than 50 years of age”. The measurements were adjusted to “allow for the difference between men and women in physical size” — though I wonder if that means if they allowed for individual size differences, or imposed one size as the “normal” male size and another as the “normal” female size. The only other information mentioned is that all of the subjects were right-handed. Nothing mentioned about social background, race, or any other factor that may have contributed to socalization factors in brain development.

Kalinara raised another important question (one I wouldn’t have thought to ask, personally) [formatted from an IM conversation]:

Did they record anything about diet? Because diet’s been known to effect brain development and chemistry…at least according to a study. 😛

[D]iet’s a big thing. In a lot of “primitive” societies, there are foods that promote aggressive behavior that only the men eat…if they eat it while growing up…would that effect the size. So if we don’t know what all these people eat, it’s hard to say.

I looked up the study and came across this article which links to the full study here (click on the Full Text (PDF) link to see the study). There may or may not be a link between this issue and the UPenn study, but given that they are both interested in aggression I would say that the lifetime diet of the UPenn participants is defiintely something that could have affected the study.

III. The Layers of Interpretation

The finding itself was that MRI scans revealed that “women’s brains had a significantly higher volume of orbital frontal cortex in proportion to amygdala volume than did the brains of the men.” This is what I’d call the “empirical data” of this study, although even that cannot be confirmed until the study is reproduced by other teams and hopefully with some larger sample sizes. Still, this data is the objective findings of this particular study. From here, several layers of interpretation are created, some of which are built upon themselves.

Interpretation 1:

The amygdala is involved in emotional behavior related to arousal and excitement, while the orbital frontal region is involved in the modulation of aggression.

If you’re wondering why this is under the “interpretation” heading, that’s because it’s a correlational behaviour. It’s presented as fact here, and the article itself states that the above data has come from “established scientific findings”. If this interpretation was a mere hypothesis I would be surprised. Because the assumption the amygdala and the orbital frontal regions influence arousal, excitment, and agression is the entire basis for the interpretations that follow. And, really, I have no problem assuming that — at least until proven otherwise — it’s true that those parts of the brain influence what the study says that they do.

I just want to point out that in Greek medical science, it was given that women were prone to having their womb wander around their bodies. Sure, our technology is better than back then, but it’s important to keep in mind that emotional reactions are notoriously hard to measure with accuracy. Which is not to debunk this interpretation, but rather to recommend a cautious, versus wholehearted, acceptance of it.

Interpretation 2:

This study affords us neurobiological evidence that women may have a better brain capacity than men for actually ‘censoring’ their aggressive and anger responses.

While the Interpretation 1 was one of the foundational variables for the study, Interpretation 2 is based on the outcome. Assuming the accuracy of Interpretation 1, Interpretation 2 is a logical conclusion based on the empirical data.

But, as Jenn points out on Ragnell’s thread, bigger doesn’t always mean better [emphasis mine]:

First of all, the conclusion drawn (a sex difference in emotional control) is not directly addressed — what was actually found was, boiled down, that the women surveyed had a significantly larger amygdala then men. That, itself, may not mean anything — any conclusion towards emotional control is based upon the assumption that increased tissue size leads to greater tissue function. In fact, in the brain, function is correlated to complexity of neural tissue (e.g. folding of the cerebral cortex), not just size. Although having more tissue might mean you have greater function, this may not be the case. The authors, themselves, note in the discussion that they haven’t measured the complexity of the tissue, and further research must be done to characterize what exactly makes up for this increase in tissue, affecting whether or not this indicates a functional difference.

[From Hello Again, Hal, comment by Jenn]

I’d also like to draw attention to the qualifiers that are used in Interpretation 2: That the study is evidence (not proof) “that women may” (again, not proven) “have a better brain capacity than men” (capacity is potential, which does not always correlate to the actuality of the issue). It is important to note that these words are emphasizing the tenuous nature of the links; putting the hypothesis out there but not claiming that their study “proves” such a thing.

Interpretation 3:

Because men and women differ in the way they process the emotions associated with perception, experience, expression, and most particularly in aggression, our belief is that the proportional difference in size in the region of the brain that governs behavior, compared to the region related to impulsiveness, may be a major factor in determining what is often considered ‘gendered-related’ behavior

Again, I’d just like to point out that Interpretation 3 depends on the accuracy of Interpretations 1 and 2 (the whole idea of layered interpretations). I don’t believe that it compromises the potential usefulness of the study, or even of these particular interpretations, but rather that we — as the people who use the study — need to be aware of how the interpretations build on each other, and that interpretations like 3 are farther away from the emperical data than, say, Interpretation 1.

I’d also like to address the conclusion drawn by Gur, who I should point out tempers it with the word “belief”, that this is a major factor in determining “gender related” behaviour. This is the opinion of Gur, who is representing his team. It is the team’s interpretation, and the team’s bias, and when he says that it is their “belief” he is acknowleding that. But it’s not enough for him to acknowledge it, we need to as well. Could he be right? Of course. But he could also be wrong.

Turning to Jenn’s comment once again:

Secondly, the brain is a wonderfully fluid organ. Regions of the brain can shift its connections compared to degrees of use. *If* it is found that women have greater emotional control due to increased amygdala tissue, this may not indicate a genetic or biological difference so much as an adaptation to increased use.

[From Hello Again, Hal, comment by Jenn]

The empirical data of this study measures only the ratio of the two parts of the brain that we currently believe are linked to certain emotions and the ability to control aggression. It is possible that female brains are naturally better suited to developing the parts of the brain that regulate this stuff. It’s also possible that levels of testosterone play a role. But it’s also possible that women’s brains tend to develop this control because women in American society are encouraged to repress their aggression more than men are.

Not only is the “nature versus nurture” debate far from settled in the scientific community, but there’s no rule saying that all of the above can’t play a role. It doesn’t have to be nature or nurture. But, even then, it’s important to remember that modern science doesn’t give us the evidence for this — deciding whether something is nature, nurture, or both is completely up to our own interpretation of the data.

IV. Conclusion

Embracing your Inner Skeptic doesn’t mean disbeliving every study you come across. It doesn’t mean that we should never use studies to back up our opinions. What it does mean is turning a critical and — dare I say it? — skeptical eye to everything that we encounter. Studies we like, studies we don’t, news articles… there is always something to be gained from asking questions and separating interpretation from data. Science is possibly one of the most useful tools at our disposal, which makes it that much more important for us to be on our toes when its used by us or others.

(Hat tip to Jenn for doing the footwork in finding the original UPenn study.)