I like Chinese, I like their tiny little trees…

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A Chink in the Armour by White Light Films

Via one of my friends, A Chink in the Armour is a light hearted documentary that explores the stereotypes about Asians (specifically Chinese) in North America (specifically Toronto). There was a lot of fluff in it, but I think it would make a nice segue into talking more about racism against Asians in Western culture. (Hint, hint)

Newsflash: Religion is harmful to society

Finally, people are researching the claim that I’ve observed anecdotally for years: all this “god” stuff hurts more than it helps. An article in The Times reports on a new study recently published examining the assertion that religion is necessary for a healthy society.

The study comes from a US academic journal called the Journal of Religion and Society and was authored by Gregory Paul. From the article, it seems that he took data from several respected research bodies and used them to create correlational data between several social factors and religion. Without the study, I can’t verify for myself how strong of a correlation he would have been able to draw, but before anyone gets too excited, I want to point out that there’s too many variables to be able to prove a causational model in this area.

From the article:

According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.

The study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society.

It compares the social peformance of relatively secular countries, such as Britain, with the US, where the majority believes in a creator rather than the theory of evolution. Many conservative evangelicals in the US consider Darwinism to be a social evil, believing that it inspires atheism and amorality.

Many liberal Christians and believers of other faiths hold that religious belief is socially beneficial, believing that it helps to lower rates of violent crime, murder, suicide, sexual promiscuity and abortion. The benefits of religious belief to a society have been described as its “spiritual capital”. But the study claims that the devotion of many in the US may actually contribute to its ills.

I highly recommend reading the entire article. I would love to get my hands on the paper itself, as I’m very interested in this learning more study. (Darn you, UBC library!) Heck, I’m very interested in the journal itself, seeing as the title of it leads me to believe that it focuses on the examination of how religion and society interact. I hope that Paul’s research here leads to a more in-depth examination between the impacts of various belief systems on societies and the people who live in them.

Via Pandagon.

Update: Found the study, it’s available for public viewing on the Journal’s website: Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look.

Sidenote: I am so pissed at WordPress right now. I was having some trouble updating this, and it had gone through, so I closed the unsaved file that I was keeping my update in and logged out. Guess what? The entire post went from published to unpublished status and lost the update I had written! ARGH.

The Gender Similarities Hypothesis

Janet Shibley Hyde is my hero. No, seriously. You may have read about her in the BBC, The Times, or The Guardian. I did (via Mind the Gap) and, for once, the coverage didn’t make me want to beat my head against the wall. But, pop-science is pop-science, no matter how good the reporting may be; if I’m ever in doubt of that all I need to do is read the uninformed opinion espoused by David Schmitt that The Times thought was worthy of printing. Suffice it to say, in order to learn about the article I had to go to the source.

What follows is part summary of Hyde’s paper, part critique of the pop-science articles. I hope to give a better understanding of Hyde’s work while showing how inadequate even good reporting can be when conveying complex ideas such as the gender similarities hypothesis. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations come from Hyde (2005)1.

Before I go into the study itself, I’d like to explain the term “meta-analysis” that’s been thrown around and vaguely defined in the articles.

From the published study itself:

Meta-analysis is a statistical method for aggregating research findings across many studies of the same question (Hedges & Becker, 1986). It is ideal for synthesizing research on gender differences, an area which often dozens or even hundreds of studies of a particular question have been conducted.

Basically, this method uses the findings of a bunch of studies and runs them through a size effect equation (to measure the magnitude of an effect). These individual effects are averaged to obtain overall effect sizes that reflect the magnitude across all of the studies. I’m neither a psychologist nor particularly up on my math, but logically meta-analysis seems to be a fairly reliable measuring system. However, keep in mind that it is only as accurate as the studies it relies on.

The Hypothesis:

The gender similarities hypothesis holds that males and females are similar on most, but not all, psychological variables. That is, men and women, as well as boys and girls, are more alike than they are different.

See, I told you science was on my side when it comes to supporting a gender democracy. Hyde goes on to say that most psychological gender differences are negligible (close-to-zero and small), while some fall into the moderate range, and very few into large/very large in the (roughly) six categories she studied. Those categories are cognitive variables, verbal/nonverbal communication, social/personality variables, psychological well-being, motor behaviors, and miscellaneous constructs.

In the paper, Hyde gives data for 128 effect sizes, 4 of which were unable to be classified due to the wide range for the estimate. In support of her hypothesis, 30% of the effect sizes were close-to-zero and 48% were small. In essence, 78% of the data shows little to no support for gender differences, while the remaining 22% shows moderate to large. Again, this is the raw data without any interpretation; variables such as context have not been taken into account at this stage.

Hyde devotes a small section to discussing the moderate to high differences. The areas she addresses are motor performance, sexuality, and aggression. I’d like to take this opportunity to point out where The Times is misleading in its reporting.

First, they said of the gender differences that, “in aggression – men were more prone to anger.” Having read the study, I did not see any evidence or conclusion to that effect. Hyde says that “the evidence is ambiguous regarding the magnitude of the gender difference in relational aggression.” She cites differences in effect sizes between physical and verbal, as well as significant differences between direct observation, peer ratings, and self-reported aggression. Later on, in her discussion of context, she cites a significant difference in individuated (ie. highly personal environments) studies of aggression, but in the deindividuated ones (ie. anonymous environments) that difference disappeared. According to Hyde’s research: “In short, the significant gender difference in aggression disappeared when gender norms were removed.” The BBC, it should be noted, picked up on this study and portrayed it in a way accurate to the text.

Second, The Times claimed: “Men were also, the psychologists found, better at skills involving co-ordination such as throwing.” While it is true that one of the moderate to high differences was motor performance, particularly throwing distances, claiming that men are “better at skills involving co-ordination” is misleading. Indeed, since age was definitely a factor (the sizes significantly changed “after puberty, when the gender gap in muscle mass and bone size widens”), it is necessary to note that the physical differences between the genders is as, if not more, important a contributor to this difference as the psychological ones. None of the three news sites pointed out age and physical differences as a significant factor in the throwing example, but The Times is the only one that used different language than the one in Hyde’s paper to describe the difference in throwing distance.

I’d also like to point out that Hyde misses the connection between measures of sexuality (masturbation and attitudes about casual sex) and context. While I have no doubt that the reporting of such attitudes reflected a moderate to high gender difference, there are large bodies of research devoted to examining how socialization affects such attitudes. From research, as well as my own experiences as a woman, I am confident that the gender differences noted in sexuality are largely, if not completely, due to socialization rather than an innate difference. I would be surprised if we were to achieve a gender democracy and not see sexuality become another area that supported the gender similarities hypothesis.

Going back to the news articles, I found it disappointing that all three of them chose to ignore one of the big parts of Hyde’s research: her section on developmental trends. Her findings are key to understanding the problems inherent in our educational system. In addressing the stereotypes surrounding girls and math (in this case, males being better at high-level computations and girls being better at low-level ones), it was found that there was a slight gender difference in favor of the girls for low-level calculations until high school, when no difference in computation was found. For complex calculations, the opposite was found; up until high school no disparity existed, but after that a slight difference in favor of the boys emerged. Clearly, age difference was the driving factor in the magnitude of the gender effect.

She also examines a disparity that forms before high school with girls and computer self-efficacy:

This dramatic trend leads to questions about what forces are at work transforming girls from feeling as effective with computers as boys do to showing a large difference in self-efficacy by high school.

Hyde concludes this section by stating that the fluctuations seen at different ages does not fit with the differences model nor the idea that gender differences are large and stable. Again, this section is an important one for interpreting the data provided by the meta-analysis method, especially with application to education and socialization.

Another important factor in interpreting the data is context. Hyde gives the aggression example (described above), as well as further deconstructing the girls-are-bad-at-math stereotype, examining the impact of socialization using the social-role theory, gender-based interruptions of conversations, and looking at smiling differences. I won’t go into detail about every one of them, but I would like to highlight her findings on women and mathematics.

In one experiment, male and female college students with equivalent math backgrounds were tested (Spencer et al., 1999). In one condition, participants were told that the math test had shown gender differences in the past, and in the other condition, they were told that the test had been shown to be gender fair – that men and women had performed equally on it. In the condition in which participants had been told that the math test was gender fair, there were no gender differences on the test. In the condition in which participants expected gender differences, women underperformed compared with men. This simple manipulation of context was capable of creating or erasing gender differences in math performance.

Proof that one doesn’t have to hold a gun to your head in order to influence you. Though not particularly surprising or novel, it is nonetheless disturbing to see such a visible example of how deeply affected we can be by our socialization.

As if the above weren’t a good enough example alone to prove the “costs of inflated claims of gender differences”, Hyde devotes an entire section to it. Citing, job discrimination, the girls and math stereotype, problems in heterosexual relationships, and lack of recognition of male self-esteem problems, she does a pretty thorough job of proving her assertion that gender essentialism does, indeed, have a high cost. I won’t go into detail here either, The Guardian article did a good summary of her points, but I can’t resist quoting one part: “Meta-analyses… indicate a pattern of gender similarities for math performance.” In your face, Larry Summers!

I am, obviously, in support of the gender similarities hypothesis. However, I dare any naysayer to find as convincing a body of evidence, supported by previous meta-analyses as this one is, that shows the opposite. No matter what one may want to believe about gender, this is not one woman’s lonely study being touted as The End All, Be All. This is a compilation of 46 different meta-analyses (covering many studies each) over the past 20 years. That’s huge.

All I can say is that I hope Hyde’s study continues to be elaborated on and that the media takes a hint from her warnings and stops printing pop-science crap. Okay, I shouldn’t hold my breath on the latter, but I firmly believe that the former is a sign of progress towards a true gender democracy. And, really, progress is really all that matters in the end.

1. Hyde, Janet Shibley. September 2005. ‘The Gender Similarities Hypothesis’. American Psychologist 60 No. 6: 581-592.

"He's a man", "she's a woman"… So what?

While I’m on my mental vacation I’d just like to point ya’ll to a post by alley rat entitled Why Do Women Cheat?. It’s a critique on a pop-science article that uses essentialism, bad evolutionary science, and a big dose of idiocy to say that since “monogamous” female birds cheat for supposed “reasons”, human women do it for the same “reasons”. Yeah. Right.

Anyway, the conclusion of the article caught my eye. It gave me a warm fuzzy, so I wanted to share it:

While I’m at it, I’ll just mention that I think that the absolute weakest explanation for anything people do is “well, he’s a man” or “well, she’s a woman, that’s how women are”. No, people. That may be how YOU are, but don’t include me in that. The reason I got interested in feminism when I was a teenager was because people kept telling me what I was like, and they kept being really, really wrong. People told me that I wanted to get married and have kids; people told me that I couldn’t enjoy sex without love; people told me that I was a romantic, delicate creature. People told me lots of shit that was supposed to be true because I was female, and that wasn’t true at all. And it wasn’t true of most of my female friends, but a lot of it was true of my male friends. And I realized that people had been telling me a bunch of lies, things that were “social convention” and things that were stupid rules that I was suposed to follow whether or not they actually suited me. And the same thing applies to every boy I’ve ever been close to, only probably to a more severe extent. They got told all kinds of untrue things about themselves too, because when you’re born people look at your genitals and they think they know who you are. But they don’t. And so, to close this rant, I’d just like to say a big “Fuck off!” to all the lies. Human beings are infinitely more complicated than our biology (whatever that may be, anyway) and if you ignore or downplay the role of culture in behavior, you are doomed to telling lies.

Right on, alley rat.

Stop saying video games cause violence or I'll kill you!

Surprise! A new study shows that video games don’t make kids violent. I know, it’s hard to believe that after all the wild speculations, conflation of correlation and causation, and lack of any real evidence that a scientific study pops up to say, “Nope, sorry folks. Video games = violent kids hasn’t been proven yet.” But, that’s exactly what Dmitri Williams (University of Illinois) and Marko Skoric (School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore) are saying about their recent study.

Results from the first long-term study of online videogame playing may be surprising. Contrary to popular opinion and most previous research, the new study found that players’ “robust exposure” to a highly violent online game did not cause any substantial real-world aggression.

The study was a month long and followed Asheron’s Call 2 players for about 56 hours of playtime. Of the 75 players, none of them any MMO background although it is not clear whether or not they were gamers. The control group was 138 people who did not play the game at all, although again it is unclear whether or not they were allowed to play other kinds of games. The ages ranged from 16 to 48 with an average of 27.7 years. The gendered makeup of players was not mentioned.

Players were not statistically different from the non-playing control group in their beliefs on aggression after playing the game than they were before playing, Williams said.

Nor was game play a predictor of aggressive behaviors. Compared with the control group, the players neither increased their argumentative behaviors after game play nor were significantly more likely to argue with their friends and partners.

“I’m not saying some games don’t lead to aggression, but I am saying the data are not there yet,” Williams said. “Until we have more long-term studies, I don’t think we should make strong predictions about long-term effects, especially given this finding.”

Many of the obvious flaws in the study were acknowledged in the article: using Asheron’s Call (a fantasy-based, not particularly violent MMO) as the studied game, the way aggression was measured meant that only moderate to high changes would be noted, and using a broad range of ages made it harder to measure the impact on children/teenagers specifically.

Instead of merely assuming that violent games must be directly responsible for violence in teenagers, or assuming that violent games have no impact on the players, Williams calls for better research on video games in general.

“If the content, context, and play length have some bearing on the effects, policy-makers should seek a greater understanding of the games they are debating. It may be that both the attackers and defenders of the industry’s products are operating without enough information, and are instead both arguing for blanket approaches to what is likely a more complicated phenomenon.”

Nor do researchers know much about the positive effects of gaming, Williams said.

“Based on my research, some of the potential gains are in meeting a lot of new people and crossing social boundaries. That’s important in a society where we are increasingly insulated from one another.”

Some game researchers believe that video-gaming leads to substantial gains in learning teamwork, managing groups and most important, Williams said, problem solving.

Despite the flaws, I think that Williams’ study is a step in the right direction. I especially agree with what was said on the potential positive effects of video games, as I noted in my Shrub.com article Gaming Communities: Real or Imaginary? Bottom line, and I think this article captures this quite well: stop jumping to conclusions and start doing more, quality research on the subject.

Via Game Girl Advance

Don't be such a girl, even if you are one

From Gender and Computing:

According to Ph.D. student Robb Willer, men have a tendency to change their opinion if they are told that their opinion ‘is feminine’. Men who were told that they had given ‘feminine’ answers to a test “changed their opinion to be more homophobic, stronger support for the Irak war and a tendency to buy gas-hungry SUVs.” (And for the ‘feminine’ readers, that’s a Sports Utility Vehicle.) Women, on the other hand, did not have the same tendency to change their opinion, neither if they were described as feminine nor masculine.

See also: Masculinithy Challenged, Men Prefer War and SUVs, media girl, and The Countess.

If this study is accurate (I was unable to find information to verify the testing methods and sample sizes beyond “undergraduate students”) then this represents yet another confirmation that the fight for equality has thus far only succeeded in allowing women to “rise” to the position of men without actually elevating “womanhood” up to be on equal ground as “manhood”.

This represents to me another reason why feminists need to step out of the male-normative frame. By “male-normative frame” I mean men and the “male sphere” being the default, characterized most visibly as the “women must work to be valid human beings” mindset used by anti-feminists/non-feminists to decry feminism. I wrote a bit about this here and here.

I think this also clearly illustrates the link between homophobia (especially male homophobia) and sexism. Male homosexuality is seen as “feminine” – when a guy starts acting in traditionally “feminine” ways (like caring about his hair and clothes, oh no!) he’s immediately thought of as “gay”. Of course, all he needs to do these days is cry out, “No, no. I’m metrosexual not retrosexual!” Because, you know, we can’t just accept that it’s “ok” and “normal” for a man (regardless of sexual orientation) to not fit into the macho mould. No, we need to have two words that not only degrade a person’s sexuality by likening it to a choice in the way someone acts, but also reaffirm the man’s “maleness” by setting him apart from gay men. We need a word that a person can use to say that he’s “cool” instead of “womanly”. It’s a compliment for a woman to be told she’s like a man, but an insult for a man to be called girly. Coincidence? I think not.

At the core, feminism is about giving people the ability to live their lives as they see fit without their very personhood coming under attack. If we’re ever to achieve that, we need to break out of the oppressive male-normative frame that we’ve been lumbering under for years. Feminism isn’t about making women into men, no matter what the Rush Limbaugh-types tell you. Forcing people to be something they don’t want to be doesn’t work; if you don’t believe me look at the feminine backlash in China after Mao’s death. Heck, look at the backlash against “feminism” that we experience today in the Western world. That says it all.

If we’re ever going to win the war against the institutions that force us to be what they want us to be, we need to fight for choice on all fronts. We need to support not only the working women, but the stay-at-home moms and dads. We need to illustrate the links of oppression – feminism can’t just be about the straight, white, rich women. The perception of feminism can’t be about them, either. What I’m saying isn’t new, or novel, but it needs to be said and spread. Are you with me?