Posts Tagged ‘Science’

A Fishy Story

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Clearing out some old posts.

A while ago, I encountered a story on Amy Alkon’s site about a man fooled into fathering a child:

Here’s how it happened, according to Houston Press. Joe Pressil began dating his girlfriend, Anetria, in 2005. They broke up in 2007 and, three months later, she told him she was pregnant with his child. Pressil was confused, since the couple had used birth control, but a paternity test proved that he was indeed the father. So Pressil let Anetria and the boys stay at his home and he agreed to pay child support.
Fast forward to February of this year, when 36-year-old Pressil found a receipt – from a Houston sperm bank called Omni-Med Laboratories – for “cryopreservation of a sperm sample” (Pressil was listed as the patient although he had never been there). He called Omni-Med, which passed him along to its affiliated clinic Advanced Fertility. The clinic told Pressil that his “wife” had come into the clinic with his semen and they performed IVF with it, which is how Anetria got pregnant.

The big question, of course, is how exactly did Anetria obtain Pressil’s sperm without him knowing about it? Simple. She apparently saved their used condoms. Gag. (Anetria denies these claims.) [tagbox tag="IVF"]

“I couldn’t believe it could be done. I was very, very devastated. I couldn’t believe that this fertility clinic could actually do this without my consent, or without my even being there,” Pressil said, adding that artificial insemination is against his religious beliefs. “That’s a violation of myself, to what I believe in, to my religion, and just to my manhood,” Pressil said.

I’ve now seen this story show up on a couple of other sites. The only links in Google are for the original claim and her denial. I can’t find out how it was resolved. But I suspect his claim was dismissed. The reason I suspect this is because his story is total bullshit.

Here’s a conversation that has never happened:

Patient: “Hi, I have this condom full of sperm. God knows how I got it or who it belongs to. Can you harvest my eggs and inject this into them?”

Doctor: “No problem!”

I’ve been through IVF (Ben was conceived naturally after two failed cycles). It is a very involved process. We had to have interviews, then get tests for venereal diseases and genetic conditions. I then had to show up and make my donation either on site or in nearby hotel. And no, I was not allowed to bring in a condom. Condoms contain spermicides and lubricants that murder sperm and latex is not sperm’s friend. Even in a sterile container, sperm cells don’t last very long unless they are placed in a special refrigerator. Freezing sperm is a slow process that takes place in a solution that keeps the cells from shattering from ice crystal formation.

And that’s only the technical side of the story. There’s also the legal issue that no clinic is going to expose themselves to a potential multi-million dollar lawsuit by using the sperm of a man they don’t have a consent form from.

So, no, you can’t just have a man fill a condom, throw it in your freezer and get it injected into your eggs. It doesn’t work that way. This is why I believe the woman’s lawyer, who claims Pressil agreed to IVF and signed consent forms.

I’ve seen the frozen sperm canard come up on TV shows and movies from time to time. It annoys me. This is something conjured up by people who haven’t done their research.

Now You See the Bias Inherent in the System

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

When I was a graduate student, one of the big fields of study was the temperature of the cosmic microwave background. The studies were converging on a value of 2.7 degrees with increasing precision. In fact, they were converging a little too well, according to one scientist I worked with.

If you measure something like the temperature of the cosmos, you will never get precisely the right answer. There is always some uncertainty (2.7, give or take a tenth of a degree) and some bias (2.9, give or take a tenth of a degree). So the results should span a range of values consistent with what we know about the limitations of the method and the technology. This scientist claimed that the range was too small. As he said, “You get the answer. And if it’s not the answer you wanted, you smack your grad student and tell him to do it right next time.”

It’s not that people were faking the data or tiling their analysis. It’s that knowing the answer in advance can cause subtle confirmation biases. Any scientific analysis is going to have a bias — an analytical or instrumentation effect that throws off the answer. A huge amount of work is invested in ferreting out and correcting for these biases. But there is a danger when a scientist thinks he knows the answer in advance. If they are off from the consensus, they might pore through their data looking for some effect that biased the results. But if they are close, they won’t look as carefully.

Megan McArdle flags two separate instances of this in the social sciences. The first is the long-standing claim that conservatives are authoritarian while liberals are not:

Jonathan Haidt, one of my favorite social scientists, studies morality by presenting people with scenarios and asking whether what happened was wrong. Conservatives and liberals give strikingly different answers, with extreme liberals claiming to place virtually no value at all on things like group loyalty or sexual purity.

In the ultra-liberal enclave I grew up in, the liberals were at least as fiercely tribal as any small-town Republican, though to be sure, the targets were different. Many of them knew no more about the nuts and bolts of evolution and other hot-button issues than your average creationist; they believed it on authority. And when it threatened to conflict with some sacred value, such as their beliefs about gender differences, many found evolutionary principles as easy to ignore as those creationists did. It is clearly true that liberals profess a moral code that excludes concerns about loyalty, honor, purity and obedience — but over the millennia, man has professed many ideals that are mostly honored in the breach.

[Jeremy] Frimer is a researcher at the University of Winnipeg, and he decided to investigate. What he found is that liberals are actually very comfortable with authority and obedience — as long as the authorities are liberals (“should you obey an environmentalist?”). And that conservatives then became much less willing to go along with “the man in charge.”

Frimer argues that conservatives tend to support authority because they think authority is conservative; liberals tend to oppose it for the same reason. Liberal or conservative, it seems, we’re all still human under the skin.

Exactly. The deference to authority for conservatives and liberals depends on who is wielding said authority. If it’s a cop or a religious figure, conservatives tend to trust them and liberals are skeptical. If it’s a scientist or a professor, liberals tend to trust them and conservatives are rebellious.

Let me give an example. Liberals love to cite the claim that 97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is real. In fact, this week they are having 97 hours of consensus where they have 97 quotes from scientists about global warming. But what is this but an appeal to authority? I don’t care if 100% of scientists agree on global warming: they still might be wrong. If there is something wrong with the temperature data (I don’t think there is) then they are all wrong.

The thing is, that appeal to authority does scrape something useful. You should accept that global warming is very likely real. But not because 97% of scientists agree. The “consensus” supporting global warming is about as interesting as a “consensus” opposing germ theory. It’s the data supporting global warming that is convincing. And when scientists fall back on the data, not their authority, I become more convinced.

If I told liberals that we should ignore Ferguson because 97% of cops think the shooting justified, they wouldn’t say, “Oh, well that settles it.” If I said that 97% of priests agreed that God exists, they wouldn’t say, “Oh, well that settles it.” Hell, this applies even to things that aren’t terribly controversial. Liberals are more than happy to ignore the “consensus” on the unemployment effects of minimum wage hikes or the safety of GMO crops.

I’m drifting from the point. The point is that the studies showing the conservatives are more “authoritarian” were biased. They only asked about certain authority figures, not all of them. And since this was what the mostly liberal social scientists expected, they didn’t question it. McArdle gets into this in her second article, which takes on the claim that conservative views come from “low-effort thought” based on two small studies.

In both studies, we’re talking about differences between groups of 18 to 19 students, and again, no mention of whether the issue might be disinhibition — “I’m too busy to give my professor the ‘right’ answer, rather than the one I actually believe” — rather than “low-effort thought.”

I am reluctant to make sweeping generalizations about a very large group of people based on a single study. But I am reluctant indeed when it turns out those generalizations are based on 85 drunk people and 75 psychology students.

I do not have a scientific study to back me up, but I hope that you’ll permit me a small observation anyway: We are all of us fond of low-effort thought. Just look at what people share on Facebook and Twitter. We like studies and facts that confirm what we already believe, especially when what we believe is that we are nicer, smarter and more rational than other people. We especially like to hear that when we are engaged in some sort of bruising contest with those wicked troglodytes — say, for political and cultural control of the country we both inhabit. When we are presented with what seems to be evidence for these propositions, we don’t tend to investigate it too closely. The temptation is common to all political persuasions, and it requires a constant mustering of will to resist it.

One of these studies found that drunk students were more likely to express conservative views than sober ones and concluded that this was because it was easier to think conservatively when alcohol is inhibiting your through process. The bias there is simply staggering. They didn’t test the students before they started drinking (heavy drinkers might skew conservative). They didn’t consider social disinhibition — which I have mentioned in studies claiming that hungry or “stupid” men like bigger breasts. This was a study designed with its conclusion in mind.

All sciences are in danger of confirmation bias. My advisor was very good about side-stepping it. When we got the answer we expected, he would say, “something is wrong here” and make us go over the data again. But the social sciences seem more subject to confirmation bias for various reasons: the answers in the social sciences are more nebulous, the biases are more subtle, the “observer effect” is more real and, frankly, some social scientists lack the statistical acumen to parse data properly (see the Hurricane study discussed earlier this year). But I also think there is an increased danger because of the immediacy of the issues. No one has a personal stake in the time-resolved behavior of an active galactic nucleus. But people have very personal stakes in politics, economics and sexism.

Megan also touches on what I’ve dubbed the Scientific Peter Principle: that a study garnering enormous amounts of attention is likely erroneous. The reason is that when you do something wrong in a study, it will usually manifest as a false result, not a null result. Null results are usually the result of doing your research right, not doing it wrong. Take the sexist hurricane study earlier this year. Had the scientists done their research correctly: limiting their data to post-1978 or doing a K-S test, they would have found no connection between the femininity of hurricane names and their deadliness. As a result, we would never have heard about it. In fact, other scientists may have already done that analysis and either not bothered to publish it or publish it quietly.

But because they did their analysis wrong — assigning an index to the names, only sub-sampling the data in ways that supported the hypothesis — they got a result. And because they had a surprising result, they got publicity.

This happens quite a bit. The CDC got lots of headlines when they exaggerated the number of obesity deaths by a factor of 14. Scottish researchers got attention when they erroneously claimed that smoking bans were saving lives. The EPA got headlines when they deliberately biased their analysis to claim that second-hand smoke was killing thousands.

Cognitive bias, in combination with the Scientific Peter Principle, is incredibly dangerous.

Absolutely Nothing Happened in Sector 83 by 9 by 12 Today

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

Last night, the science social media sphere exploded with the news of a potential … something … in our nearest cosmic neighbor, M31. The Swift mission, which I am privileged to work for, reported the discovery of a potential bright X-ray transient in M31, a sign of a high-energy event. For a while, we had very little to go on — Goddard had an unfortunately timed power outage. Some thought (and some blogs actually reported) that we’d seen a truly extraordinary event — perhaps even a nearby gamma-ray burst. But it turned out to be something more mundane. My friend and colleague Phil Evans has a great explanation:

It started with the Burst Alert Telescope, or BAT, on board Swift. This is designed to look for GRBs, but will ‘trigger’ on any burst of high-energy radiation that comes from an area of the sky not known to emit such rays. But working out if you’ve had such a burst is not straightforward, because of noise in the detector, background radiation etc. So Swift normally only triggers if it’s really sure the burst of radiation is real; for the statisticians among you, we have a 6.5-σ threshold. Even then, we occasionally get false alarms. But we also have a program to try to spot faint GRBs in nearby galaxies. For this we accept lower significance triggers from BAT if they are near a known, nearby galaxy. But these lower significance triggers are much more likely to be spurious. Normally, we can tell that they are spurious because GRBs (almost always) have a glow of X-rays detectable for some time after the initial burst, an ‘afterglow’. The spurious triggers don’t have this, of course.

In this case, it was a bit more complicated There was an X-ray source consistent with the BAT position. The image to the right shows the early X-ray data. The yellow circle shows the BAT error box – that is, the BAT told us it thought it had seen something in that circle. The orange box shows what the XRT could see at the time, and they grey dots are detected X-rays. The little red circle marks where the X-ray source is.

Just because the X-ray object was already known about, and was not something likely to go GRB doesn’t mean it’s boring. If the X-ray object was much brighter than normal, then it is almost certainly what triggered the BAT and is scientifically interesting. Any energetic outburst near to Earth is well worth studying. Normally when the Swift X-ray telescope observes a new source, we get various limited data products sent straight to Earth, and normally some software (written by me!) analyses those data. In this case, there was a problem analysing those data products, specifically the product from which we normally estimate the brightness. So the scientists who were online at the time were forced to use rougher data, and from those it looked like the X-ray object was much brighter than normal. And so, of course, that was announced.

The event occurred at about 6:15 EDT last night. I was feeding kids and putting them to bed but got to work on it after a couple of hours. At about 9:30, my wife asked what I was up to and I told her about a potential event in M31, but was cautious. I said something like: “This might be nothing; but if it is real, it would be huge.” I wish I could say I had some prescience about what the later analysis would show, but this was more my natural pessimism. That skeptical part of my mind kept going on about how unlikely a truly amazing event was (see here).

My role would turn out to be a small one. It turned out that Swift had observed the region before. And while Goddard and its HEASARC data archive were down, friend and fellow UVOT team member Caryl Gronwall reminded me that the MAST archive was not. We had not observed the suspect region of M31 in the same filters that Swift uses for its initial observations. But we knew there was a globular cluster near the position of the even and, by coincidence, I had just finished a proposal on M31′s globular clusters. I could see that the archival measures and the new measure were consistent with a typical globular cluster. Then we got a report from the GTC. Their spectrum only showed the globular cluster.

This didn’t disprove the idea of a transient, of course. Many X-ray transients don’t show a signature in the optical and it might not have been the globular cluster anyway. But it did rule out some of the more exotic explanations. Then the other shoe dropped this morning when the XRT team raced to their computers, probably still in their bathrobes. Their more detailed analysis showed that the bright X-ray source was a known source and had not brightened. So … no gamma-ray burst. No explosive event.

Phil again:

I imagine that, from the outside, this looks rather chaotic and disorganised. And the fact that this got publicity across the web and Twitter certainly adds to that! But in fact this highlights the challenges facing professional astronomers. Transient events are, by their nature, well, transient. Some are long lived, but others not. Indeed, this is why Swift exists, to enable us to respond very quickly to the detection of a GRB and gather X-ray, UV and optical data within minutes of the trigger. And Swift is programmed to send what it can of that data straight to the ground (limited bandwidth stops us from sending everything), and to alert the people on duty immediately. The whole reason for this is to allow us to quickly make some statements about the object in question so people can decide whether to observe it with other facilities. This ability has led to many fascinating discoveries, such as the fact that short GRBs are caused by two neutron stars merging, the detection of a supernova shock breaking out of a star and the most distant star even seen by humans, to name just 3. But it’s tough. We have limited data, limited time and need to say something quick, while the object is still bright. People with access to large telescopes need to make a rapid decision, do they sink some of their limited observing time into this object? This is the challenge that we, as time-domain astronomers, face on a daily basis. Most of this is normally hidden from the world at large because of course we only publish and announce the final results from the cases where the correct decisions were made. In this case, thanks to the power of social media, one of those cases where what proved to be the wrong decision has been brought into the public eye. You’ve been given a brief insight into the decisions and challenges we have to face daily. So while it’s a bit embarrassing to have to show you one of the times where we got it wrong, it’s also good to show you the reality of science. For every exciting news-worthy discovery, there’s a lot of hard graft, effort, false alarms, mistakes, excitement and disappointment. It’s what we live off. It’s science.

Bingo.

People sometimes ask me why I get so passionate about issues like global warming or vaccination or evolution. While the political aspects of these issues are debatable, I get aggravated when people slag the science, especially when it is laced with dark implications of “follow the money” or claims that scientists are putting out “theories” without supporting evidence. Skeptics claims, for example, that scientists only support global warming theory or vaccinations because they would not get grant money for claiming otherwise.

It is true: scientists like to get paid, just like everyone else. We don’t do this for free (mostly). But money won’t drag you out of bed at 4 in the morning to discover a monster gamma-ray burst. Money doesn’t keep you up until the wee hours pounding on a keyboard to figure out what you’ve just seen. Money didn’t bounce my Leicester colleagues out of bed at the crack of dawn to figure out what we were seeing. Money doesn’t sustain you through the years of grad school and the many years of soft-money itinerancy. Hell, most scientists could make more money if they left science. One of the best comments I ever read on this was on an old slash-dot forum: “Doing science for the money is like having sex for the exercise.”

What really motivates scientists is the answer. What really motivates them is finding out something that wasn’t known before. I have been fortunate in my life to have experienced that joy of discovery a few times. There have been moments when I realized that I was literally the only person on Earth to know something, even if that something was comparatively trivial, like the properties of a new dwarf galaxy. That’s the thrill. And despite last night’s excitement being in vain, it was still thrilling to hope that we’d seen something amazing. And hell, finding out it was not an amazing event was still thrilling. It’s amazing to watch the corrective mechanisms of the scientific method in action, especially over the time span of a few hours.

Last night, science was asked a question: did something strange happen in M31? By this morning, we had the answer: no. That’s not a bad day for science. That’s a great one.

One final thought: one day, something amazing is going to happen in the Local Universe. Some star will explode, some neutron stars will collide or something we haven’t even imagined will happen. It is inevitable. The question is not whether it will happen. The question is: will we still be looking?

Low Class Cleavage

Monday, March 31st, 2014

It’s the end of the month, so time to put up a few posts I’ve been tinkering with.

No, just give the Great Unwashed a pair of oversized breasts and a happy ending, and they’ll oink for more every time.

– Charles Montgomery Burns

A few months ago, this study was brought to my attention:

It has been suggested human female breast size may act as signal of fat reserves, which in turn indicates access to resources. Based on this perspective, two studies were conducted to test the hypothesis that men experiencing relative resource insecurity should perceive larger breast size as more physically attractive than men experiencing resource security. In Study 1, 266 men from three sites in Malaysia varying in relative socioeconomic status (high to low) rated a series of animated figures varying in breast size for physical attractiveness. Results showed that men from the low socioeconomic context rated larger breasts as more attractive than did men from the medium socioeconomic context, who in turn perceived larger breasts as attractive than men from a high socioeconomic context. Study 2 compared the breast size judgements of 66 hungry versus 58 satiated men within the same environmental context in Britain. Results showed that hungry men rated larger breasts as significantly more attractive than satiated men. Taken together, these studies provide evidence that resource security impacts upon men’s attractiveness ratings based on women’s breast size.

Sigh. It seems I am condemned to writing endlessly about mammary glands. I don’t have an objection to the subject but I do wish someone else would approach these “studies” with any degree of skepticism.

This is yet another iteration of the breast size study I lambasted last year and it runs into the same problems: the use of CG figures instead of real women, the underlying inbuilt assumptions and, most importantly, ignoring the role that social convention plays in this kind of analysis. To put it simply: men may feel a social pressure to choose less busty CG images, a point I’ll get to in a moment. I don’t see that this study sheds any new light on the subject. Men of low socioeconomic status might still feel less pressure to conform to social expectations, something this study does not seem to address at all. Like most studies of human sexuality, it makes the fundamental mistake of assuming that what people say is necessary reflective of what they think or do and not what is expected of them.

The authors think that men’s preference for bustier women when they are hungry supports their thesis that the breast fetish is connected to feeding young (even though is zero evidence that large breasts nurse better than small ones). I actually think their result has no bearing on their assumption. Why would hungrier men want fatter women? Because they want to eat them? To nurse off them? I can think of good reasons why hungry men would feel less bound by social convention, invest a little less thought in a silly social experiment and just press the button for the biggest boobs. I think that hungry men are more likely to give you an honest opinion and not care that preferring the bustier woman is frowned upon. Hunger is known to significantly alter people’s behavior in many subtle ways but these authors narrow it to one dimension, a dimension that may not even exist.

And why not run a parallel test on women? If bigger breasts somehow provoke a primal hunger response, might that preference be built into anyone who nursed in the first few years of life?

No, this is another garbage study that amounts to saying that “low-class” men like big boobs while “high-class” men are more immune to the lure of the decolletage and so … something. I don’t find that to be useful or insightful or meaningful. I find that it simply reinforces an existing preconception.

There is a cultural bias in some of the upper echelons of society against large breasts and men’s attraction to them. That may sound crazy in a society that made Pamela Anderson a star. But large breasts and the breast fetish are often seen, by elites, as a “low class” thing. Busty women in high-end professions sometimes have problems being taken seriously. Many busty women, including my wife, wear minimizer bras so they’ll be taken more seriously (or look less matronly). I’ve noticed that in the teen shows my daughter sometimes watches, girls with curves are either ditzy or femme fatales. In adult comedies, busty women are frequently portrayed as ditzy airheads. Men who are attracted to buxom women are often depicted as low-class, unintelligent and uneducated. Think Al Bundy.

This is, of course, a subset of a mentality that sees physical attraction itself as a low-class animalistic thing. Being attracted to a woman because she’s a Ph.D. is obviously more cultured, sophisticated and enlightened than being attracted to a woman because she’s a DD. I don’t think attraction is monopolar like that. As I noted before, a man’s attraction to a woman is affected by many factors — her personality, her intelligence, her looks. Breast size is just one slider on the circuit board that it is men’s sexuality and probably not even the most important. But it’s absurd to pretend the slider doesn’t exist or that it is somehow less legitimate than the others. We are animals, whatever our pretensions.

Last year, a story exploded on the blogosphere about a naive physics professor who was duped into becoming a drug mule by the promise that he would marry Denise Milani, an extremely buxom non-nude model. What stunned me in reading about the story was the complete lack of any sympathy for him. Granted, he is an arrogant man who isn’t particularly sympathetic. But a huge amount of abuse was heaped on him, much of it focusing on his fascination with a model and particularly a model with extremely large and likely artificial breasts. The tone was that there must be something idiotic and crude about the man to fall for such a ruse and for such a woman.

The reaction to the story not only illuminated a cultural bias but how that bias can become particularly potent when the breasts in question are implants. The expression “big fake boobs” is a pejorative that men and women love to hurl at women they consider low class or inferior. Take Jenny McCarthy. There are very good reasons to criticize McCarthy for her advocacy of anti-vaccine hysteria (although I think the McCarthy criticism is a bit overblown since most people are getting this information elsewhere and McCarthy wasn’t the one who committed research fraud). But no discussion of McCarthy is complete until someone has insulted her for having implants and the existence of those implants has been touted as a sign of her obvious stupidity and the stupidity of those who follow her.

McCarthy actually doesn’t cross me as that stupid; she crosses me as badly misinformed. And it’s not like there aren’t hordes of very smart people who haven’t bought into the anti-vaccine nonsense even sans McCarthy. But putting that aside, I don’t know what McCarthy’s breasts have to do with anything. Do people honestly think it would make a difference is she was an A-cup?

To return to this study and the one I lambasted last year: what I see is not only bad science but a subtle attempt by science to reinforce the stereotype that large breasts and an attraction to them are animalistic, low-class and uneducated. Bullshit speculation claims that men’s attraction to breasts is some primitive instinct. And more bullshit research claims that wealthy educated men can resist this primitive instinct but poorer less-educated men wallow in their animalistic desires. And when these garbage studies come out, blogs are all too eager to hype them, saying, “See! We told you those guys who liked big boobs were ignorant brutes!”

I think this is just garbage. The most “enlightened” academic is just as likely to ogle a busty woman when she walks by. He might be better trained at not being a jerk about it because he walks in social circles where wolf-whistles and come-ons are unacceptable. And he lives in a society where, if a bunch of social scientists are leering over you, you pretend to like the less busty woman. But all men live secret erotic lives in their heads. It’s extremely difficult to tease that information out and certainly not possible with an experiment as crude and obvious as this.

Once again, we see the biggest failing in sex research: asking people what they want instead of getting some objective measure. There are better approaches, some of which I mentioned in my previous article. If I were to approach this topic, I would look at the google search database used in A Billion Wicked Thoughts to see if areas of high education (e.g., college towns) were less likely to look at porn in general and porn involving busty women in particular. That might give you some useful information. But there’s a danger that it wouldn’t enforce the bias we’ve built up against big breasts and the men who love them.

Rush is Wrong on Religion

Friday, September 20th, 2013

I see that Rush Limbaugh has dived into the latest climate nontroversy. That makes this is a good time to post this, which I wrote several months ago. Sorry to make this Global Warming Week. I hate that debate. But with the way the Daily Fail’s nonsense is propagating, I have no choice.

(more…)

Bulbs

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

I have quite a few posts in the queue that will come out in the next few weeks but this has been my quietest month ever on the blog. One thing I did want to post on, however, came to a head tonight. While working in the basement, I knocked over a basket of bulbs and one shattered. Of course, it was a CFL with mercury in it so I had to follow the EPA’s elaborate instructions for cleaning up. Because it was the basement, I couldn’t take the most important step — airing out the room.

Of course, the amount of mercury in CFL’s is very small — a couple of mg. I probably got ten times the exposure when I dropped and broke a mercury thermometer as a kid and then played with the mercury for a while. But still, these things were foisted on us and encouraged before anyone had really explained the potential danger (in parts of the world, they’re now mandatory). The EPA has done an analysis showing that, on balance, less mercury will be released into the environment because of the decreased amount of coal burnt to power the bulbs. However, I’m not sure this analysis is accurate since 1) history shows that greater energy efficiency mostly results in us using more powered devices: energy use tends to rise or be flat; 2) coal is slowly dying an industry. Powered by gas or nuclear, it’s likely that CFL’s will put more mercury into the environment. It also ignores the aspect that having mercury in the air from power plants is a little different from having it on the floor where your children play.

LED bulbs are better but … they have their own concerns, which no one talks about.

Global warming is real — one of my queued posts is on that subject. But the environmental movement has become fixated on it almost to the exclusion of all else. There is no such thing as perfect technology. Wind and solar require dirty manufacturing techniques and extensive use of rare-earth elements (that have to be mined). Nuclear has its obvious dangers. Fracking is less carbon-intense than coal, but doesn’t come without its own set of risks.

The problem is that we do not talk about these trade-offs. We don’t balance rare-earth mining versus radioactive waste versus carbon emissions. We simply get into tizzies about global warming or nuclear waste and stampede toward something that looks good. And that extends into the home. On balance, I might take an LED or CFL light because it saves money, saved energy and the toxin risk is low. But that choice should not be mandated. People should be free to make their own evaluations of the tradeoffs.

Late May Linkorama

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013
  • A brief bit of mathematical malpractice, although not a deliberate one. The usually smart Sarah Kliff cites a study that of an ER that showed employees spent nearly 5000 minutes on Facebook. Of course, over 68 computers and 15 days, that works out to about 4 minutes per day per computer which … really isn’t that much.
  • What’s interesting about the Netflix purge is that many of the studios are pulling movies to start their own streaming services. This is idiotic. I’m pretty tech savvy and I have no desire to have 74 apps on my iPad, one for each studio. If I want to watch a movie, I’m going to Netflix or Amazon or iTunes, not a studio app (that I have to pay another subscription fee for). In fact, many days my streaming is defined by opening up the Netflix app and seeing what intrigues me.
  • We go into this on Twitter. The NYT ran an article about how little nutrition our food has. Of course, they have defined “nutritional content” as the amount of pigment which has dubious nutritional value (aside from anti-oxidant value; so, no nutritional value). As Kevin Wilson said according to the graph, the value of blue corn is that it is blue and not yellow.
  • While we’re on the subject of nutrition, it turns out that low sodium intake may not only not be beneficial, it may even be harmful. I’m slowly learning that almost everything we think we know about nutrition is shaky at best.
  • Ultra-conserved words. I am fascinated by language.
  • Wine tasting is bullshit.
  • How the peaceful loving people-friendly Soviet Union tried to militarize space.
  • The most remote places in each state.
  • Porn is not the problem. You are. More on how “sex addiction” is a made up disorder.
  • Meet the coins that could rewrite history. Every time we learn more about the past, we find out that our ancestors were smarter and more adventurous than we thought they were. And some people think they needed aliens to build the pyramids.
  • The Law of BS

    Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

    Some time ago, I talked about my Rule of Expertise. I’m in the process of catching up on old posts from Bill James’ website. The article I refer to is behind a firewall. It’s about the Jeffrey MacDonald case. But in the course of it, Bill says something utterly brilliant:

    There are certain characteristics of bullshit, and there are certain characteristics of the truth. The truth tends to be specific; bullshit tends to be vague and imprecise. The truth tends to involve facts that can be checked out; bullshit is always built around things that you have no way of checking out. The truth tends to be told consistently, the same from one day to the next; bullshit changes every time it is told. Stable, responsible honest people tend to tell the truth; unstable, dishonest, unreliable people tend to bullshit. The truth is coherent and logical; bullshit is incoherent and illogical.

    Almost everything I said in my Law of Expertise post could be considered a subset of that general rule. When an “expert” tells you what a great expert he is, he’s spewing vague bullshit. Real experts tend to be specific, consistent and verifiable.

    However…

    I think the equation has changed a bit in the Information Age. The internet has a long memory and this has forced the bullshitters to be more consistent and more specific. The result is that BS now gets debunked faster than ever. However, it has also allowed BS to assume a facade of truth that fools some people.

    Think about vaccine hysteria. The lies are specific, consistent and seem to involve facts. That makes people believe it, even after thorough and unremitting debunking.

    (I should note, in passing, that the MacDonald case is of particular interest to me. My dad was — and still is, as far as I know — convinced that MacDonald was an innocent man railroaded by a biased judge, a vindictive prosecutor, a slimy writer and a vengeful father-in-law. I was convinced of that myself until I read Weingarten’s post, which pointed out that there is almost no evidence to prove MacDonald’s contention that his family was murdered by a bunch of hippies and that all the extant evidence — including recently tested tissue under the wife’s fingernails — supports the prosecution case. It’s kind of rare that I disagree with my dad on something like this, but … I do. The prosecution was able to put together a scenario consistent with the evidence (although I don’t buy the amphetamines angle). The defense wasn’t.

    However, while I am mostly convinced that MacDonald probably did murder his family, I’m not as sure that he should have been convicted. The crime scene was not properly secured, for one and exculpatory evidence might have been destroyed. The judge did seem biased against MacDonald. And I do think Bill James (and Megan McArdle) make a good point about prosecutions — once they focus on a suspect, they develop a tunnel vision which sees everything in light of that suspicion. James’ makes what I think is the most important point: the prosecution’s case fits together extremely well … if you assume that MacDonald was the killer.

    It’s an awful case and probably one of the reasons it fascinates so many people. On the one hand, you could have an innocent man convicted of one of the most heinous crimes a man can commit. On the other hand, you have a man committing one of the most heinous crimes a man can commit, including the deliberate murder of a sleeping toddler.

    In any case, you should subscribe to James’ site if you have even a mild interest in baseball. Baseball analysis is only part of what he offers.)

    Sunday Linkorama

    Sunday, April 28th, 2013
  • A fascinating look at how dollar bills move, courtesy of the Where’s George website. I find it fascinating the Pennsylvania is divided in half.
  • This is what I mean by Sports Media Twerp. They are never wrong and everybody else is just an idiot.
  • Really interesting blog on the least visited countries in the world. The writer is trying to visit every country at least once. Wish I had the resources for that.
  • I wish climate scientists would not overstate their conclusions. It makes it so much easier for people to pretend global warming is a hoax.
  • John McWhorter has a great article disputing the notion that texting is destroying the English language.
  • The contention that FDR was anti-semitic does not really surprise me. Years ago I read a book called While Six Million Died that detailed, point by point, how FDR did almost nothing to stop or prevent the Holocaust. It was only when members of his own Administration confronted him over foot-dragging on the issue of saving Romanian Jews that he did anything. He defeated Hitler, of course, which was why he became a hero to my grandparents’ generation. But the idea that he was immune from the anti-semitism that gripped much of the country and the world is absurd.
  • Fascinating and kind of frightening photo essay of high-density living. Think of all the stories you see in each picture.
  • Arguments Against the Paleo Diet

    Monday, April 22nd, 2013

    This video makes some fantastic points about the so-called “paleo diet”:

    This post, which I wrote months ago, was originally much longer and incorporated many of the points Dr. Zuk makes, in particular my belief that evolution proceeds in a haphazard random way and does not necessarily lead to some supreme state.

    She also puts some science behind the principle objection I have always had: that there is unlikely to be some idyllic point X at which our diet was perfectly suited to our physiology then and forever more. We have evolved with our diet. Our diet has been evolving since we were primordial slime. Claiming that our ancestors’ diet at some time X — even making the huge assumption that we know what our ancestors ate at point X — is arbitrary. Why go back to that point? Why not go back to the time when we were primordial slime eating protozoans?

    Moreover, how do we know that our ancestors were eating the right foods in the first place? That’s a gigantic assumption to make based on what we know about evolution. Isn’t it possible that their paleo diet was actually bad for them? That they only ate it because they had no choice in the matter? That our technology and diet has evolved toward something better suited to us?

    All that having been said, I’m not slamming the paleo diet, per se. Some people seem to have improved their health with it and I’ve found that cutting carbs benefits me. I do think the current received wisdom of cutting fat and protein and emphasizing carbs is not nearly as supported by the science as our government likes to pretend it is. But let’s not swing the pendulum too far back and pretend that the paleo diet has more science behind it. Or that any one-size-fits-all diet is appropriate. I think the point to take away is that diet is a lot more complex and a lot less well understood than we would like.

    Big Damn Linkorama

    Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

    It’s been a while and I’ve been accumulating links. You’ll have to forgive me if I ramble on a bit.

  • This article, about the potential for solar-powered roads, reminded me of Robert Heinlein’s The Roads Must Roll. But I am deeply skeptical that the kind of durable materials could be manufactured in the quantities needed. When people talk about alternative energy, they never seem to take into account the expense — financial and environmental — of manufacture and maintenance.
  • See, I told you Christopher Ryan was full of shit. He writes about our bleak future with sexbots taking over (or something). But Maggie McNeill — who knows a thing or two about sex — has frequently pointed out that people want intimacy for sex, not just pleasure. And a device capable of reproducing that would have rights of its own. Masturbation doesn’t cut down on the amount of sex people have. And I also haven’t noticed that the proliferation of dildos, vibrators and fleshlights has remotely cut down on the amount of sex going on (and reminder, dildos date back thousands of years). We have sex for intimacy as well as pleasure.
  • An impressive study reveals the age of the Iliad. Seems it was written about four or five centuries after the events.
  • This study disputes the idea that people’s political preferences change with age. You can clearly see that Democratic/Republic preferences are often based on who was in charge when the voter came of age. This doesn’t surprise me at all. As you can see in the graphs, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, Ford, Bush I, Clinton, Obama and Ike were respected and made lifelong supporters. Truman, Johnson, Carter, Nixon, and Bush II were hated and made lifelong opponents. I knew teachers who would never vote Republican because of Nixon. And I know people who will never vote Democrat because of Carter. It will be interesting to see how history judges Obama. I suspect he will create more lifelong supporters than opponents.
  • The opposition to GMO’s grows ever more absurd. We now have a golden rice that could literally save millions per year. And the opposition to them is increasingly based on lies and distortions.
  • Boobs Again

    Saturday, March 16th, 2013

    In a rather grammatically- and stylistically-challenged article, the Atlantic talks about the latest study:

    Viren Swami and Martin Tovée at the Universities of Manchester and Newcastle, respectively, look into the intricate world of why physical ideals are ideals, and in turn why they drive people beyond reason and morality in the current Archives of Sexual Behavior.

    Stylistic note: this lead make it sounds like the study is unique. But I’m guessing that the Archives of Sexual Behavior have published dozens if not hundreds of articles on why physical ideals are ideals. Indeed, the abstract says as much. So why are we talking about this one in particular? Is it the best done so far? I’m going to make the case below that it isn’t even close. What we’re about see is what I call the Scientific Peter Principle: poorly designed studies usually have the most attention-getting results.

    (Also, do ideals drive people beyond reason and morality? That’s an awfully loaded statement.)

    The problem is primal, so the research methods are not to be outdone. 361 white British men were “taken to a quiet private location” to look at women. Not real women; 3D computer renderings. The men were allowed to rotate them 360 degrees. The only difference among the women was breast size.

    The men were then asked to “make their ratings on a paper-and-pencil survey.”

    Emphasis mine. “Not to be outdone”? I can think of about a dozen ways I could outdo this study.

    Swami and Tovée compared the results with the men’s preferences in breast size, which showed that “men who more strongly endorsed benevolently sexist attitudes toward women, who more strongly objectified women, and who were more hostile toward women idealized a large female breast size.”

    The study’s abstract, which is all I have access to, is rather stunning in its lack of humility. After noting that previous studies have been ambiguous, they boldly proclaim their results and then say:

    These results were discussed in relation to feminist theories, which postulate that beauty ideals and practices in contemporary societies serve to maintain the domination of one sex over the other.

    Even if we were to accept the conclusions of this article — and I don’t — it’s a long way from there to beauty ideals maintaining the domination of one sex over the other. Would you like some science with your ideology? Actually, we don’t even need to go to the abstract to see the boldly stated ideological bias. The title is: “Men’s Oppressive Beliefs Predict Their Breast Size Preferences in Women”.

    So, yeah.

    You probably know that I’m not going to be sympathetic to this and not just because of my distaste for ideology. In my previous post, I stated my hypothesis that the breast fetish is just like any other fetish — something that the male mind has latched onto as a way of identifying potential mates. It’s commonality is simply because of its obviousness — visible breasts are the easiest way to identify the female of our species. It’s not a social construct, per se. It is a preference that arises within a social construct. If it weren’t breasts, it would be something else (and almost always is). But the key point here is that fetishes are not really chosen. They just happen. It’s just something that, on a very primal level, the human sexual id locks onto.

    Still, even without my prior assumptions and biases, we can easily see that this study, which has now been widely cited by various mainstream sites (and not just because they like to talk about breasts), has some big problems.

    First, the study was of 361 men. 361 men who were willing to be taken to a “private, quiet location”. 361 whose age, employment and marital status is not exactly clear. That’s an awfully small and demographically narrow number to be drawing conclusions from.

    Second, if the 3D drawing in the Atlantic article is an accurate reproduction of what they were shown, this wasn’t a reasonable test at all. I hate to break this to the authors, but the average bust size in the Western World is quite large and increasing: at least a 36C by old standards and probably larger if the lamentations of bra fitters are to be believed. This is partly rising obesity, marginally because of implants and mostly for reasons that aren’t really clear. This has had a significant effect on the landscape in that men’s perception of what constitutes a big bust has changed. Looking at the figures, even the last one didn’t really cross me as “very large”. Were these informed by some statistical survey of women’s breasts sizes? That’s one way you could improve this “not to be outdone” study.

    There’s a related issue of body type. Critics of male sexuality often claim that men want big breasts on skinny bodies. Certainly, there is a subset of men who like that but most men who prefer busty women actually prefer curvy women. They like big hips and curvy backsides just as much as they like big breasts. Asking these men to look at 3-D computer models — frankly, none of which look like a real woman — is problematic at best.

    (Aside: as I argued in my previous blog, male preferences are not monopolar. All things being equal, a man may prefer a woman with bigger breasts. But in the real world, things are rarely equal. He may be fine with a woman with smaller breasts if she has other features he finds attractive — enchanting eyes, a warm smile, a slender frame, beautiful hair. And — this is a critical point — if a man likes a woman, finds her interesting, enjoys her company — he will begin to see her as attractive. She will become beautiful to him. He will see the beauty in her even if there really isn’t that much to see on an objective level.

    I would posit that there are very few men who date or are attracted to women entirely on bust size. Their preference in models and pornography — situations in which there is no interaction — may reflect a preference (although even then there is probably a broad range). But their behavior in real life can be wildly at variance with this. I would bet you that a significant fraction of the men who preferred “very large” breasts are dating or married to skinny women. And I would bet that some of the men who preferred “very small” breasts are dating or married to busty women. And I would further bet that they find the women in their lives attractive despite not conforming to their preferences in zombie-like computer models.)

    Third, the questions. I don’t have access to the study, but here are the sample questions they provided:

    Attitudes Toward Women Scale (sample prompt: ”Intoxication among women is worse than intoxication among men.”)

    Hostility Towards Women Scale (sample prompt: ”I feel that many times women flirt with men just to tease them or hurt them.”)

    Benevolent Sexism subscale of the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (sample prompt: “Women, as compared to men, tend to have a more refined sense of culture and good taste.”)

    Whoa, really? Those are your sample prompts? Those three prompts are all judgements. You would probably find lots of women who would agree with at least a couple of those. You would probably find that a man would agree or disagree based on his emotional state (if he’s just had a bad break-up, for example). And prompt three (and many of the questions on Ambivolet Sexism Inventory from which they are taken) aren’t clearly sexist. Many of even the most blatant ones probably probe misanthropy far more than they probe misogyny specifically.**

    (Another aside: the Atlantic author illustrates sexism by quoting a lawsuit in which a boss constantly commented on a co-worker’s breasts and once shook her breast as a substitute for shaking her hand. This is not the behavior of a man who likes big breasts or thinks women have a more refined sense of cultural taste. This is the behavior of a sociopath.)

    But I think the real flaw is highlighted by Ann Althouse:

    They were taking a science-y survey, so deference to authority and desire to be socially acceptable would be an influence along with real-world sexual preference.

    The scientists found “men who more strongly endorsed benevolently sexist attitudes toward women, who more strongly objectified women, and who were more hostile toward women idealized a large female breast size.” Were these men really the ones who “idealized a large female breast size,” or were they simply the ones who didn’t feel as strongly compelled to moderate their opinions to conform to the perceived demands of polite society?

    Exactly. I keep harping on this in the social sciences: there is a huge difference between what people think and do and what they tell a group of leering scientists that they think and do. Most people do not want to be perceived as abnormal (or sexist). This is a big problem with this study since, if I read it correctly, the men were shown all five images at the same time. This creates a very obvious social pressure that is different from if five groups of men were shown five different images separately. Hell, if I were put in a room and asked which image I liked, I might say 3 or 4 even though I would prefer 4 or 5 (and would actually prefer a real women with real physical proportions).

    How would I improve this “not to be outdone” survey? First of all, I would have a lot more than 361 white British men. Second, I would show each man only one image and ask him to rate her on a scale of 1-10. Second, I would get images of real women and digitally alter them, using some statistical model based on women’s actual bust sizes. Third, I would make a second axis by having some women altered to have both bigger hips and bigger breasts and others to just have bigger breasts. Breast size and hip size are correlated, as anyone who has seen real women instead of 3-D models knows. Fourth, I would use something a little less ambiguous than these prompts. For example, I might give the men two different job applications and just change the gender and see how they rated the applicant. Or have some people enact a job situation and ask them what they thought of the woman’s behavior. Something a little more direct, at any rate.

    Or I might go to the gigantic database compiled by the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts who gathered data from Google when men didn’t know they were being studied. The only problem is that I would probably find — as those researchers did — that men actually prefer curvy women, not just just busty ones. And that would ruin my thesis that a preference for big boobs is a results of sexism.

    So, let’s sum up: a small and poorly designed study asked men to look at unrealistic images of women. They were then asked leading questions of dubious utility. And from this, we conclude that men who like big boobs are more likely to be hostile to women and that feminist theory is vindicated.

    That makes me feel some hostility all right. But it’s not directed against women.

    **Update: Michael Talarski alerted me that there are links to the questions in the Atlantic article. Here is the attitude toward women quiz. The other triggers a download. The questions are mostly reasonable probes of attitudes toward women (although a few are bit ambiguous). But I would be curious to see how women score on that test. And I would be especially curious to see if these attitudes correlate with actual behavior.

    An Owl in A Lark World

    Friday, March 15th, 2013

    This article, about sleep, has been particularly relevant to me lately. Since returning from Australia, I’ve been struggling to sleep. It reached an awful nadir the past weekend when I was able to get only about two hours. Since then, I’ve been rebuilding things with better sleep hygiene (i.e., turning the computer off no later than 10:30) and was able to get five straight hours last night, which was a huge relief.

    What jumped out at me was this, which is relevant to my perennial struggles with sleep:

    Each of us has an internal clock, or, to use Roenneberg’s term, a “chronotype.” Either we’re inclined to go to bed early and wake up at dawn, in which case we’re “larks,” or we like to stay up late and get up later, which makes us “owls.” (One’s chronotype seems to be largely inherited, although Roenneberg notes, not altogether helpfully, that the “genetics are complex.”) During the week, everyone is expected to get to the office more or less at the same time—let’s say 9 a.m. This suits larks just fine. Owls know they ought to go to bed at a reasonable time, but they can’t—they’re owls. So they end up having to get up one, two, or, in extreme cases, three hours earlier than their internal clock would dictate. This is what Roenneberg refers to as “social jet lag”—each workday, owls fall asleep in one time zone and, in effect, wake up in another. By the time the week is over, they’re exhausted. They “fly back” to their internal time zone on weekends and sleep in on Saturday and Sunday. Then, on Monday, they start the process all over again.

    For larks, the problem is reversed. Social life is arranged so that it’s hard to have one unless you stay out late on Friday and Saturday nights. But, even when larks have partied till 3 a.m., they can’t sleep in the following day—they’re larks. So they stagger through until Monday, when they can finally get some rest.

    The moral equivalence here is staggering. First of all, the problem for “larks” is non-existent for most people. If you have a family or are past the age of 30, it’s rare to stay up partying late on weekends. But the problem for “owls” never ends. No matter what age you are, you are expected to be at work at 9 am or earlier.

    The simple fact is that the larks set the rules for the rest of us. And moreover, they cast their larkness as a sign of their virtue and industry (see Franklin, Ben). Those of us who are owls are seen as lazy sluggards. And this prejudice is only strengthened by our schools, government and military setting lark schedules (an especially odious practice in schools where, as the article notes, children are biologically prone to be owls but forced to live on adult lark schedules).

    But, in a way, I’m being too harsh on the larks. The problem is partially them but also our insistance, as a society, on conformity. Everyone has to go to work at the same time, everyone has to come home at the same time. This makes some sense — businesses have to be open simultaneously to interact. But we carry it to a ridiculous extreme. It manifests not just in the owl-lark problem but in the absurdity of Daylight Savings Time (it would make far more sense for businesses to adjust their hours to the season on an individual basis, rather than forcing uniformity on all of us; astronomers understand this).

    Mike’s Rule of Expertise

    Sunday, February 17th, 2013

    Shortly after I graduated from college, I was on a kick to try to get healthy and lose weight. It still hasn’t worked, 19 years la- … holy crap, 19 years?! … let me see … 1994 .. good God, I’m old … anyway, it still hasn’t worked 19 year later.

    At one point, I tried Herbalife. This was not something I came to of my own accord. A friend’s husband was into it on the lowest tier of their multi-level marketing. I was too young and stupid to know just how idiotic herbal supplements were, so I figured “what the hell” and jumped.

    It was a big mistake. The compound contained ephedra and it caused my first incident of Premature Ventricular Contractions — a common harmless arrhythmia that nevertheless is scary as hell. Some time later I tried a prescription weight loss pill that also caused PVC’s. They went away after I stopped, mostly. I still get them occasionally, most notably right after my wedding and when I haven’t been getting enough sleep. I had a full cardio workup six years ago and everything looks fine. But I still wonder if the ephedra did any permanent damage.

    The thing is that I’m not normally into that sort of thing. But it was sold to me because I wasn’t terribly familiar with high-pressure marketing techniques and certainly didn’t expect them from a friend’s husband. I’ve since … well not wised up, exactly. I’ve gotten confident enough to tell people to fuck off. In fact, high pressure sales pitches are the surest way to drive me away. When we bought our first home, I literally walked out on people who tried to get me to buy right then with “if you buy right now” incentives. The home we bought was sold in a low-pressure way. We felt — correctly as it happened — that this reflected the salesman’s confidence in his product.

    I’m rambling. Let me get to the point. Part of the sales pitch I got for Herbalife went like this:

    Mike, I’m telling you, I’ve investigated all kinds of supplements. I’ve looked into everything. And I’ve researched this product really thoroughly. I wouldn’t take anything I didn’t know everything about. So trust me: this is the real deal.

    Standard stuff, right? But hidden within that is something I’ve come to recognize as the mark of a shyster. If someone spends an inordinate amount of time telling you, in a vague sense, how much experience they have and how much expertise they have and how they’ve really researched this and they’ve looked at everything out there, they are, to be blunt, full of shit.

    This instinct has served me well. When Neal Boortz began flogging the Fair Tax, he talked about how much research had been done and how he’d looked at every plan out there (really? every plan?). That pinged my radar and I did some research and found out that the Fair Tax had giant gaping problems (documented here). When a contractor came by and gave me a pitch about how he’d tried everything and he was the best expert, I went with someone else.

    And you see this constantly in the alternative medicine crowd. Sellers and promoters will constantly tell you how extensively they’ve surveyed things, how much research they’ve done, how much experience they have and, inevitably, it turns out not to be the case.

    So, in my roundabout way, here is Mike’s Rule of Expertise: Experts don’t constantly reassure you of their expertise; they simply dole out facts and data.

    Let cite some good examples from my blogroll: Radley Balko doesn’t talk about what an expert he is on criminal justice matters; he tells you specifically what he’s learned, seen and read. The Bad Astronomer doesn’t talk about how much experience he has in astrophysics; he points you at research and researchers who’ve done the work. Maggie McNeill doesn’t pontificate about her extensive background in the sex industry; she links every study and opinion piece she can find. Joe Posnanski doesn’t talk about how many athletes he’s interviewed or how much Bill James likes him; he crunches the numbers, gets the quotes and presents the facts.

    I’ve been to hundreds of science talks. Not one has centered around the speaker’s credentials and how they’ve explored every alternate theory. They present hypothesis, data and conclusion. The best ones acknowledge their limitations and possible alternate theories. The kind of dead certainty you will encounter in, say, a homeopathy practitioner, is minimal in any good scientist and absent in the best ones.

    This is how real experts do it. Experts want you to trust the facts; con men want you to trust them.

    (In a related note, I, like most astronomers, rarely affix “Ph.D.” to the end of my name unless I’m applying for a grant where the credential is required. I also only refer to myself as “Dr. Siegel” when yelling at the cable company. And the only time I’m called that at work is either as part of a running gag or when being addressed formally (grant correspondence, for example; and I usually encourage them to call me Mike). This is partially because astronomers are an informal bunch. It is also related to my time at UVa, where everyone except Ed School professors and medical doctors takes the moniker of “Mr.” and “Ms.” as a sign of respect to Mr. Jefferson.

    But I also I think this flows from the same skepticism of over-credentialing. A real scientist wants you to trust the data, not them. The only academics I know who use the Ph.D. suffix or the Doctor prefix are either a) pretentious; b) medical doctors, where I think it’s appropriate, and c) women or minorities in disciplines where they have trouble being taken seriously and it’s hard to begrudge them. And anyone who refers to themselves as “Dr. Smith, Ph.D.” is almost certainly full of it.)

    What brought this to my frontal lobe was a re-eruption (a few months ago now) of controversy over Sex at Dawn. I find the premise of Sex at Dawn — that humans are naturally polyamorous — interesting if flawed. But what has long bothered me is the certainty with which this supposedly scientific premise is discussed. Every time I hear Christopher Ryan speak, I feel like he’s about to sell me herbal supplements. He’s not quite as bad as my friend’s now ex-husband. He actually does know some stuff. But he seems stunningly unaware of what he doesn’t know or of what facts are inconsistent with his thesis. Is he right? Dammit, if this comes down to me reading his book, I give up.

    Anyway, there is some controversy over Christopher Ryan’s credentials. I took a look at his wikipedia page and this is what I found:

    He received a BA in English and American literature in 1984 and an MA and Ph.D. in psychology from Saybrook University, in San Francisco, CA twenty years later. He spent the intervening decades traveling around the world, living in unexpected places working odd jobs (e.g., gutting salmon in Alaska, teaching English to prostitutes in Bangkok and self-defense to land-reform activists in Mexico, managing commercial real-estate in New York’s Diamond District, helping Spanish physicians publish their research). Drawing upon his multi-cultural experience, Ryan’s academic research focused on trying to distinguish the human from the cultural. His doctoral dissertation analyzes the prehistoric roots of human sexuality, and was guided by the psychologist, Stanley Krippner.

    Ryan has guest lectured at the University of Barcelona Medical School, consulted at various hospitals, contributed to publications ranging from Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Cambridge University Press) to a textbook used in medical schools and teaching hospitals throughout Spain and Latin America and makes frequent mass media appearances. Ryan contributes to both Psychology Today and Huffington Post.[

    I read that and I heard, “I’m telling you, I’ve been all over the world and met all kinds of people and read all the papers. And this polyamory thing; this is the real deal.” Maybe Ryan is right. I’ve got an 80-book backlog right now, but I’m hoping to get to his at some point. But a Wikipedia entry filled with such a wide array of credentials combined with his “I’m such an expert” public statements make me suspect the work has flaws. And what I’ve read indicates this perception is correct. If and when I get to his book, I’ll know for sure.

    (I wrote the above a couple of months ago. When I went to it today, I was reminded of a recent post at Popehat that mocked a legal spammer for doing the same thing: talking himself up as some modern-day renaissance man. Ken has a lot more experience in dealing with shyster lawyers, obviously. His approach to this is different because he gets a lot of legal spamming. But the basic tenet is the same: a real hot shot lawyer doesn’t try to wow you with his credentials.)