Debunking rumours: Chinese MMO's anti-genderbending policy

Doubtless many of you have heard (from Kotaku or other sources) about Shanda Entertainment, a Chinese MMO publisher, requiring photographic proof of a person’s sex in order to allow them to play a female avatar.

This information is most likely false! Joystiq has done some digging into the issue and turned this up:

The source of story in the English-speaking world seems to be a painfully short, two sentence “editorial summary” on Asian business site Pacific Epoch. Besides containing scant details or supporting information on Shanda’s policy, the summary contains the eyebrow-raising assertion that players with female avatars would have to “prove their biological sex with a webcam.” While this isn’t impossible, we find it hard to believe that a publicly traded company would start encouraging its customers to send in pictures of their naughty bits for any reason. Besides being ineffective (what’s to stop a player from sending in a picture of someone else?) the system seems overly complicated when a National ID card number could easily provide proof of gender (much as it already does for age confirmation in other MMOs).

Pacific Epoch cites popular Chinese MMO web site 17173 as the source of its information, and while we couldn’t find the original article on their site, we did find a story about some obviously fake Halo 3 branded condoms, which 17173 presented as fact. Combine the questionable editorial judgment with the translation problems inherent in citing information from a Chinese site and you have a perfect recipe for an erroneous story to spread across the internet.

The moral of the story? Just because something looks official doesn’t mean that it actually is. Especially regarding areas in which there are language barriers where we can’t easily verify the source of the information ourselves.

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.)

Glamour: The new lies about women's health (No, really?)

In a move that is surprisingly good, Glamour has published an extensive and well written article that covers the governmental assault on women’s health. From the FDA to government funded abstinence only ed, the article is a long read, but well worth it.

An excerpt:

“Abstinence is a laudable goal,” says Deborah Arrindell, vice president of health policy for the nonpartisan American Social Health Association, an STD-awareness group. “But it is not how young women live their lives—the reality is that most women have premarital sex. Our government is focusing not on women’s health but on a moral agenda.” Consider this a wake-up call.

[From The new lies about women’s health by Brian Alexander]

Now I just want to know why the editors thought that a naked woman’s backside was the most appropriate picture they could think of for a health related article. I mean, maybe it’s just me, but when I think “assault on women’s health” I just don’t think “woman butt.”

Via Ragnell.

Bonding Through Video Games

PBS has a cool website up called The Video Game Revolution with a lot of fun and informative sections on video games. I especially like Henry Jenkins’ (any relation to Leeroy? Ha. Ha.) article Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked.

He debunks a lot myths, anything from video games leading to violence among youths to the claim that girls don’t play video games. I have to say that I was vaguely disappointed with a few of his explanations, such as the one that discusses the misconception that “scientific evidence” supports a causal link between video games and aggression. He did a good job of picking the flaws in these studies, but didn’t mention that tentative evidence from long-term studies on video game playing are not finding even a correlational link between video games and raised aggression.

His #7 myth, that of video games and isolation, has been addressed on this blog a few times when talking about online communities. I’d just like to highlight this part:

Much video game play is social. Almost 60 percent of frequent gamers play with friends. Thirty-three percent play with siblings and 25 percent play with spouses or parents. Even games designed for single players are often played socially, with one person giving advice to another holding a joystick.

Before I played video games with my friends, I would spend countless nights playing with my mom. I was a bit young to be using the controller, so I would tell her where to go and what to do and it turned into a great bonding experience for us. I often think that it’s one of the reasons we’re so close today. And, I have to say, as much as I like being the one behind the controller, I also love “watching” story-oriented games with my friends as well. Although these days we usually switch who has control every so often, unless it’s a survival horror, where I tend to hole up in one spot and let the enemies come to me. That really annoys people. Can’t imagine why, ke ke ke.

Via New Game Plus.

Trading one set of chains for another

More ranting via midlife mama. Libby critiqued an article from the American Prospect Online and asked for opinions. I was foolish enough to think that I could contain my opinion in one little comment. I know, I know, I should be used to the Attack of the 50-line Comment by now. So, I decided to turn my rant/fisk into its own post.

First off, I’m going to steal Libby’s summary of the article:

It’s an article in American Prospect Online that takes all those “opt out” articles seriously. The author, Linda R. Hirshman, a feminist professor, is working on a book about “marriage after feminism.” She interviewed 30 some-odd women whose weddings were announced in the Sunday NY Times over three Sundays in 1996. Most of them, she says, were staying home with their kids 7 or 8 years later. (Actually, 50% were no longer working for pay, and a third were working part time.) : Conservatives contend that the dropouts prove that feminism “failed” because it was too radical, because women didn’t want what feminism had to offer. In fact, if half or more of feminism’s heirs (85 percent of the women in my Times sample), are not working seriously, it’s because feminism wasn’t radical enough: It changed the workplace but it didn’t change men, and, more importantly, it didn’t fundamentally change how women related to men.

Just because I can, I’m going to use the same style of breakdowns as Hirshman uses in her article. Well, also I want to mock her section heads. And we all know I love mocking people and things. Also, all further quotes (unless otherwise noted) come from the article itself.

I. The Truth About Bad Science
Although Hirshman does offer up her own data on the matter, she (as Libby said), “takes all those ‘opt out’ articles seriously”. Given that, I must admit that I question the validity of her own research because of her horribly low standards. I fail to see how it’s helpful to downplay the importance that bad science and bad journalism play in the continued oppression of women.

People who don’t like the message attack the data.

And this, my friends, is why America is still debating whether or not to teach evolution in schools. Apparently, sloppiness is the new black. The next time I talk about how flying pigs are taking over the city and we need to stop them, I’ll just accuse my dissenters of attacking my data because they don’t like the message. Take that flying pig lovers!

Seriously, though, without proper data a proper discussion cannot take place. The articles Hirshman cites are crap, even if the message they send may have a grain of truth. There is nothing to be gained by validating their improper methodologies, flawed logic, and misuse of data. If you want to discuss the message, then both sides need to approach the issue with data that was gathered and analyzed properly, otherwise it’s fair game to discredit the message by discrediting evidence provided.

What evidence is good enough?

I don’t know, how about properly researched studies that aren’t out to prove their bias by any means necessary? How about not using articles from newspapers that care about being entertaining and therefore will go for sensationalism over facts? How about real evidence versus made up evidence? You know, ’cause that’s how adults argue things.

But, apparently, it is too much for Hirshman to think that it’s worthwhile for us to want real evidence of those kinds of trends so we can have a real discussion on them and what they mean about our society and our future. Using bad science is good enough for the Intelligent Design proponents, and – gosh, darn it! – it should be good for us feminists, too!

II. The Failure of Female-Only Responsibility
One thing I can agree with her assertion that the belief that women are responsible for child-rearing and homemaking was largely untouched by decades of workplace feminism. One of my biggest criticisms of some popular feminist movements in the past is that they focused so much on “earning” the right for women to be like men, that womanhood (and traditional women’s work) remained the lesser to manhood’s default normalcy.

Don’t get me wrong; I think the battles that were fought were necessary ones. I owe my bright future to the feminists who campaigned for workplace equality, access to birth control, and giving women a place in the public sphere. It is not their fault that we haven’t broken out of a male-normative mindset, but it will be ours if we don’t get our heads out of our asses and realize that women’s liberation isn’t just for women anymore. We live in a society with people who are not women and no amount of changing ourselves will change our lot if those around us don’t change as well.

For her brave start with criticizing “workplace feminism”, Hirshman just doesn’t seem to get it:

Women must take responsibility for the consequences of their decisions.

Why, oh, why do feminist conversations about how far we still need to go always come down to female responsibility? I’m responsible enough already, thanks, I’d like to see some of that responsibility levied on the patriarchy for once. And, while we’re at it, maybe we should start encouraging men to pick up the slack in the domestic arena, too. Just a thought.

Thereafter, however, liberal feminists abandoned the judgmental starting point of the movement in favor of offering women “choices.”

Oh, yes, screw people’s ability to choose a life from themselves. Let’s tell the women what they should do, and if they try to do anything different let’s shame them until they do what we want! Oh, wait, that’s what misogynists do!

It all counted as “feminist” as long as she chose it.

No. Just… no.

Such ignorance really makes me angry. The point of “choice feminism” is that we must recognize a woman’s right to make her own choices, even if those choices are anti-feminist, bad for her, or just ones we don’t agree with. It is her right as a human being to live her life the way she sees fit.

It is our job, however, as feminists to see where women’s choices are taken away from them and to broaden the path. For example; there are different-sex couples for whom the choice to take a partner’s last name is just that –a choice. But if they have sat down with their partner and truly discussed and considered all options, then they are privileged. In many societies (especially Western ones), women don’t really have a choice in the matter; they will take their husband’s name or be punished for it.

Does that mean that I should blame my eldest sister for taking her husband’s name? Or berate my middle sister if she chooses the same? Of course not! Not everyone can be a one woman army, and it is wrong of us to attack those who have chosen the easier path. I put the blame where it belongs: the patriarchy and its sexist traditions.

To “prove” her point about choice, Hirshman goes on to say:

(So dominant has the concept of choice become that when Charlotte, with a push from her insufferable first husband, quits her job, the writers at Sex and the City have her screaming, “I choose my choice! I choose my choice!”)

Someone has missed the point of that scene. In an earlier conversation with Miranda, Charlotte was berating her friend for not supporting her. Miranda, in typical fashion, did the “thou doth protest too much” comment. The whole message behind that was that it wasn’t Charlotte’s choice; it was the choice that society, and her husband, had made for her.

Speaking of robbing people of choice, Hirshman furthers the impression that it’s her way or the highway with this criticism of feminism:

Great as liberal feminism was, once it retreated to choice the movement had no language to use on the gendered ideology of the family. Feminists could not say, “Housekeeping and child-rearing in the nuclear family is not interesting and not socially validated. Justice requires that it not be assigned to women on the basis of their gender and at the sacrifice of their access to money, power, and honor.”

Not interesting to you and me, perhaps, but there are people out there who take great pride in the running of the household and the raising of children. Heck, the latter should be interesting to both partners, otherwise maybe they shouldn’t have had kids! But I guess the only woman that matters to Hirshman is herself!

Honestly, her contempt of women truly disgusts me. She has bought into the victim blaming, male-normative bullshit that continues to plague us despite feminism’s continuing efforts to achieve equality. The whole statement she makes is one that devalues women by calling traditionally women’s work boring and implying (with her last sentence) that it’s useless (because money, power, and honor are the only things in life that matter).

III. What Is To Be Done?

I’ve kept the exact section head for this one, and I’d like to give an answer to that question before I proceed the section itself. For starters, stop blaming women for the patriarchy’s chains. Then you can follow it up with a healthy dose of “you’re not the boss of me”. Meaning, forcing women to be what you want them to be is no different than what’s been forced upon us for centuries.

Here’s how Hirshman starts her section:

Here’s the feminist moral analysis that choice avoided: The family — with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks — is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less-flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women. Therefore, assigning it to women is unjust. Women assigning it to themselves is equally unjust.

And there we have it, folks, Hirshman employs the same tools of the patriarchy: women’s work (and the women and men who do it) is not as good as men’s work (and the women and men who do it). Thanks, Hirshman, for continuing to prove your contempt for your own sex. ‘Cause I haven’t gotten enough of that from ignorant, privileged males recently. Really, I appreciate it.

In so doing, feminism will be returning to its early, judgmental roots.

Hirshman, meet the Christian Fundamentalists. Christian Fundamentalists, meet Hirshman. Once you get past the differences in your surface agendas, you’ll find that your moral values are exactly the same. Death to those who think differently than us!

IV. Does Hirshman Really Care?

Honestly, I never though I’d meet someone ostensibly on my side that was more sanctimonious than I. Hirshman, my hat goes off to you. I’ve never met a feminist who could spin a militant ideology that is about controlling women’s choices and blaming them if they want something different as “caring” about these women.

Hirshman plays the benevolent matriarch in the grand old tradition of the “benevolent” patriarchy:

We care because what they do is bad for them, is certainly bad for society, and is widely imitated, even by people who never get their weddings in the Times.

It’s for your own good, sweeties! You’d better just stop trying to find your own personal happiness because you’re hurting society with all this “choice” nonsense. You should just listen to Mommy Hirshman with a smile on your face. Your life doesn’t belong to you, after all; you’re a woman!

As for society, elites supply the labor for the decision-making classes — the senators, the newspaper editors, the research scientists, the entrepreneurs, the policy-makers, and the policy wonks. If the ruling class is overwhelmingly male, the rulers will make mistakes that benefit males, whether from ignorance or from indifference.

Wow. That’s… wow. The classism in that statement is so thick, even to a privileged person like me, that it leaves me without anything coherent to say; whether it be real criticism, witty snark, or even not-so-witty snark.

Worse, the behavior tarnishes every female with the knowledge that she is almost never going to be a ruler.

Yeah, those stay-at-home sluts moms. They are ruining it for all of us chaste, moral virgins working women. No sex until marriage! Er, I mean, keep working after marriage!

A good life for humans includes the classical standard of using one’s capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way, the liberal requirement of having enough autonomy to direct one’s own life, and the utilitarian test of doing more good than harm in the world. Measured against these time-tested standards, the expensively educated upper-class moms will be leading lesser lives.

Wow, thanks Mom, for educating me on how when one leaves the public sphere they lose any opportunity to exercise their brains because they stay on the couch eating bon-bons all day. Seriously, what does Hirshman think homemakers and stay-at-home parents do?

But, you know, things like raising the future generation definitely doesn’t count as “doing more good than harm in the world”. The only importance of babies is in the making of them! It’s not that fathers should be encouraged to step up to their responsibilities, but that mothers should opt-out of them because that kind of work just isn’t worthwhile. The kids can raise themselves just fine.

Although it is harder to shatter a ceiling that is also the roof over your head, there is no other choice.

Not for Hirshman’s women, anyway.

And, just for giggles, I’d like to draw attention to the little “about the author” blurb at the bottom of this article:

With almost no effort, she landed spot No. 77 on Bernard Goldberg’s “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America.”

It’s a sad, sad day when I agree with someone like Goldberg. Although 1) for vastly different reasoning; and 2) truth be told I don’t think she, by herself, has that much power. It’s rather her espoused discourse that is “screwing up America” because it continues to perpetuate the myth of feminine inferiority.

On Being An Oversensitive, Man-Hating, Embarassing Feminist/Progressive/Whatever

If you told me several years ago that I would be accused of being an “oversensitive feminist”, an “embarrassing liberal”, a “lesbian man-hater”, or “self-righteous” to the point of ignoring dissenting viewpoints, all simply because I unapologetically stand up for what I see as right and wrong, I would have laughed at you. Of course, back then I thought all people, except for ones who wanted to hurt others, were feminists and believed in equality of the sexes. What can I say? I was, and still am to a large extent, a naive idealist.

Sure, I can be sanctimonious. Sure, I’m self-righteous. But when did it become a crime to passionately believe in ideals? Why does my criticizing an organization, idea or belief, or espousing my own personal view on the matter translate into me telling everyone that they must believe as I do or die? Why is it okay for other people to dehumanize a group I belong to, such as the GLBT crowd, but ridicule me when I ask them to give me some consideration because the pejoratives make me uncomfortable? And why, oh why, do people feel the need to engage in a divisive discourse simply because they personally think the arguments are extreme? I’m not telling you what to do with your time, bodies, minds, or anything else, people! I’m just asking you to respect mine.

While this post was inspired by some recent events in the blogsphere, I don’t want to specifically name them because I don’t want the posters involved to feel that I’m targeting them. This isn’t about any one poster, this is about the common divisive discourse that critiquing anything from a company to a set of beliefs is tantamount to attacking the individuals within. And, again, if any readers see this and want to discuss/dispute their potential part it in, feel free, but my point is not to single out any individual; I’ve gotten this not only from the blogsphere, but from my ex-WoW guild, my friends, and even my family.

Under this discourse, if you say “[group y] did bad thing [x]” then they tell you how “not all people who belong to [group y] do [x], so stop attacking them!” Does this mean that people shouldn’t voice their opinion on things because someone might think that they’re unfairly targeting an individual? Do we all really need to put a disclaimer up every time we talk negatively about a group to assure people that “not all [group y] are part of [x]”? If someone is talking about male dominated areas, are they attacking all men? What about speaking out about homophobic hate crimes, are they accusing all straight people of hating gays? Is it hard to see the difference between criticizing an idea or practice and engaging in an ad hominem attack?

Another argument I’ve come across is the “[group y] has done some really good things, so lay off them already.” If I do something good, then, does that make me exempt from criticism too? I have no problem with someone saying, “I hear your point, but don’t ignore the good things that [group y] has done.” To use a specific example, Anika, on the American Apparel thread, called me out on ignoring that AA had some good practices, like employing 60% women in their upper levels. I acknowledged this point, although I argued that it didn’t negate the gender relation problems that they had. It is important to note that, just as doing something good doesn’t mean covering up the bad, so does doing something bad not mean covering up the good.

Yet another aspect of the divisive discourse is dismissing an argument simply because one has not seen the criticism in action. We all should step back and recognize that our own privilege will shelter us from things. Yes, I realize the need to make sure that the argument isn’t accusing all people of [group y] of holding [x] stance. All conservatives don’t hate gay people, but it’s still a valid thing to discuss how the conservative stance often marginalizes the rights of people in the GLBT community. All feminists don’t think male abuse victims are faking it, but it’s a valid thing to discuss how the feminist stance has in the past, and in some ways continues into the present, marginalized the experiences of men who are victims of abuse. All Men’s Rights Advocates don’t hate women, but it’s a valid thing to discuss how the MRA position can sometimes marginalize the rights of women. It is not helpful to derail a conversation about oppression/privilege/exploitation/etc. by implying that the subject isn’t worth discussing because you’ve met people who aren’t like [x]. Bring it up, sure, but in a way that acknowledges the validity of the original argument while emphasising that the criticism should remain confined to the idea, not the individuals who belong to the group espousing that idea.

And, finally, another tool of this discourse is to distance oneself from one’s opponent’s position by ridiculing their beliefs as so extreme they’re laughable. In this case I’m going to pull from a comment I made on a thread discussing this discourse in the feminist community. Sour Duck actually recommended that I make it a post in itself, although I’m not sure this is what she intended. It’s certainly not what I thought of when I said I would do it. Heh.

Anyway, pertaining to a conversation I was having with Darth Sidhe, I said:

I may not agree with spellings like “womyn” and whatnot, but I do understand their underlying point. Words have power.


The negative conntation to the term “politically correct” is also rooted in conservatism. I have no problem discussing the merits (or lackthereof) of using certain words, but to dismiss the arguments (and the women using them) as merely trying to be “politically correct” is offensive. It’s the same tactic used on us to try and shut us up any time we step outside the box that the men in power have tried to shut us in. Think reproductive freedoms are important enough to challenge the dems support of “Democrats for Life”? You’re just one of those PC, humourless, women’s studies types, aren’t you?


I guess what I’m saying is that you don’t have to understand, or agree with, everything these people say. I, certainly, don’t agree with the feminists who believe that all (female) homemakers are brainwashed zombies. I have run into some of them who, in other areas, are quite sane. But that does not mean that I’m going to use the stereotype that they fit to defend against women-haters, or even sit by and be silent while other people use the stereotype.

My example of disagreeing with an assertion without belittling an entire group is not limited to feminist stereotypes. In the Great Parent Debate (yes, I’ve given the kerfluffle a grandiose name) that I blogged about, part of what I was trying to convey was that agreement, or full understanding, of a point is not necessary for respecting the other side and their argument. Just because non-parents can’t understand how hard it is to raise a child doesn’t mean we should belittle the job that parents do. On the flip side, parents should also not belittle us because we non-parents don’t have, and sometimes don’t want, kids. If we cannot respect those who have differing opinions from us, how can we expect anyone to respect us?

What do we gain by pointing the finger at others who may share similar values as us and go, “At least I’m not like hir. Sie’s crazy!”? All we’re doing is adding fuel to the fire of our ideological opponents’ ad hominem attacks against our blanket movements, and making enemies where we should be forging alliances based on our common goals. It does not always have to be an either/or argument! We can disagree with each other and still work together. We can debate points back and forth without dismissing and belittling the other side.

What I’m trying to say is that if we don’t enter into arguments with respect and the intent to understand, then all we’re doing is pissing each other off.

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.