Posts Tagged ‘Sociology’

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.

Mathematical Malpractice Watch: A Trilogy of Error

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Three rather ugly instances of mathematical malpractice have caught my attention in the last month. Let’s check them out.

The Death of Facebook or How to Have Fun With Out of Sample Data

Last month, Princeton researchers came out with the rather spectacular claim that the social network Facebook would be basically dead within a few years. The quick version is that they fit an epidemiological model to the rise and fall of MySpace. They then used that same model, varying the parameters, to fit Google trends on searches for Facebook. They concluded that Facebook would lose 80% of its customers by 2017.

This was obviously nonsese as detailed here and here. It suffered from many flaws, notably assuming that the rise and fall of MySpace was necessarily a model for all social networks and the dubious method of using Google searches instead of publicly available traffic data as their metric.

But there was a deeper flaw. The authors fit a model of a sharp rise and fall. They then proclaim that this model works because Facebook’s google data follows the first half of that trend and a little bit of the second. But while the decline in Facebook Google searches is consistent with their model, it is also consistent with hundreds of others. It would be perfectly consistent with a model that predicts a sharp rise and then a leveling off as the social network saturates. Their data are consistent with but not discriminating against just about any model.

The critical part of the data — the predicted sharp fall in Facebook traffic — is out of sample (meaning it hasn’t happened yet). But based on a tiny sliver of data, they have drawn a gigantic conclusion. It’s Mark Twain and the length of the Mississippi River all over again.

We see this a lot in science, unfortunately. Global warming models often predict very sharp rises in temperature — out of sample. Models of the stock market predict crashes or runs — out of sample. Sports twerps put together models that predict Derek Jeter will get 4000 hits — out of sample.

Anyone who does data fitting for a living knows this danger. The other day, I fit a light curve to a variable star. Because of an odd intersection of Fourier parameters, the model predicted a huge rise in brightness in the middle of its decay phase because there were no data to constrain it there. So it fit a small uptick in the decay phase as though it were the small beginning of a massive re-brightening.

The more complicated the model, the more danger there is of drawing massive conclusions from tiny amounts of data or small trends. If the model is anything other than a straight line, be very very wary at out-of-sample predictions, especially when they are predicting order-of-magnitude changes.

A Rape Epidemic or How to Reframe Data:

The CDC recently released a study that claimed that 1.3 million women were raped and 12.6 million more were subject to sexual violence in 2010. This is six or more times the estimates of the FBI’s extremely rigorous NCVS estimate. Christina Hoff Summers has a breakdown of why the number is so massive:

It found them by defining sexual violence in impossibly elastic ways and then letting the surveyors, rather than subjects, determine what counted as an assault. Consider: In a telephone survey with a 30 percent response rate, interviewers did not ask participants whether they had been raped. Instead of such straightforward questions, the CDC researchers described a series of sexual encounters and then they determined whether the responses indicated sexual violation. A sample of 9,086 women was asked, for example, “When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever had vaginal sex with you?” A majority of the 1.3 million women (61.5 percent) the CDC projected as rape victims in 2010 experienced this sort of “alcohol or drug facilitated penetration.”

What does that mean? If a woman was unconscious or severely incapacitated, everyone would call it rape. But what about sex while inebriated? Few people would say that intoxicated sex alone constitutes rape — indeed, a nontrivial percentage of all customary sexual intercourse, including marital intercourse, probably falls under that definition (and is therefore criminal according to the CDC).

Other survey questions were equally ambiguous. Participants were asked if they had ever had sex because someone pressured them by “telling you lies, making promises about the future they knew were untrue?” All affirmative answers were counted as “sexual violence.” Anyone who consented to sex because a suitor wore her or him down by “repeatedly asking” or “showing they were unhappy” was similarly classified as a victim of violence. The CDC effectively set a stage where each step of physical intimacy required a notarized testament of sober consent.

In short, they did what is called “reframing”. They took someone’s experiences, threw away that person’s definition of them and substituted their own definition.

This isn’t the first time this has happened with rape stats nor the first time Summers had uncovered this sort of reframing. Here is an account of how researchers decided that women who didn’t think they had been raped were, in fact, raped, so they could claim a victimization rate of one in four.

Scientists have to classify things all the time based on a variety of criteria. The universe is a messy continuum; to understand it, we have to sort things into boxes. I classify stars for a living based on certain characteristics. The problem with doing that here is that women are not inanimate objects. Nor are they lab animals. They can have opinions of their own about what happened to them.

I understand that some victims may reframe their experiences to try to lessen the trauma of what happened to them. I understand that a woman can be raped but convince herself it was a misunderstanding or that it was somehow her fault. But to a priori reframe any woman’s experience is to treat them like lab rats, not human beings capable of making judgements of their own.

But it also illustrates a mathematical malpractice problem: changing definitions. This is how 10,000 underage prostitutes in the United States becomes 200,000 girls “at risk”. This is how small changes in drug use stats become an “epidemic”. If you dig deep into the studies, you will find the truth. But the banner headline — the one the media talk about — is hopelessly and deliberately muddled.

Sometimes you have to change definitions. The FBI changed their NCVS methodology a few years ago on rape statistics and saw a significant increase in their estimates. But it’s one thing to hone; it’s another to completely redefine.

(The CDC, as my friend Kevin Wilson pointed out, mostly does outstanding work. But they have a tendency to jump with both feet into moral panics. In this case, it’s the current debate about rape culture. Ten years ago, it was obesity. They put out a deeply flawed study that overestimated obesity deaths by a factor of 14. They quickly admitted their screwup but … guess which number has been quoted for the last decade on obesity policy?)

You might ask why I’m on about this. Surely any number of rapes is too many. The reason I wanted to talk about this, apart from my hatred of bogus studies, is that data influences policy. If you claim that 1.3 million women are being raped every year, that’s going to result in a set of policy decisions that are likely to be very damaging and do very little to address the real problem.

If you want a stat that means something, try this one: the incidence of sexual violence has fallen 85% over the last 30 years. That is from the FBI’s NCVS data so even if they are over- or under-estimating the amount of sexual violence, the differential is meaningful. That data tells you something useful: that whatever we are doing to fight rape culture, it is working. Greater awareness, pushing back against blaming the victim, changes to federal and state laws, changes to the emphasis of attorneys general’s offices and the rise of internet pornography have all been cited as contributors to this trend.

That’s why it’s important to push back against bogus stats on rape. Because they conceal the most important stat; the one that is the most useful guide for future policy and points the way toward ending rape culture.

The Pending Crash or How to Play with Scales:

Yesterday morning, I saw a chart claiming that the recent stock market trends are an eerie parallel of the run-up to the 1929 crash. I was immediately suspicious because, even if the data were accurate, we see this sort of crap all the time. There are a million people who have made a million bucks on Wall Street claiming to pattern match trends in the stock market. They make huge predictions, just like the Facebook study above. And those predictions are always wrong. Because, again, the out of sample data contains the real leverage.

This graph is even worse than that, though. As Quartz points out, the graph makers used two different y-axes. In one, the the 1928-29 rise of the stock market was a near doubling. In the other, the 2013-4 rise was an increase of about 25%. When you scale them appropriately, the similarity vanishes. Or, alternatively, the pending “crash” would be just an erasure of that 25% gain.

I’ve seen this quite a bit and it’s beginning to annoy me. Zoomed-in graphs of narrow ranges of the y-axis are used to draw dramatic conclusions about … whatever you want. This week, it’s the stock market. Next week, it’s global warming skeptics looking at little spikes on a 10-year temperature plot instead of big trends on a 150-year one. The week after, it will be inequality data. Here is one from Piketty and Saez, which tracks wealth gains for the rich against everyone else. Their conclusion might be accurate but the plot is useless because it is scaled to intervals of $5 million. So even if the bottom 90% were doing better, even if their income was doubling, it wouldn’t show up on the graph.

Mathematical Malpractice: Focus Tested Numbers

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

One of the things I keep encountering in news, culture and politics are numbers that appear to be pulled out of thin air. Concrete numbers, based on actual data, are dangerous enough in the wrong hands. But when data get scarce, this doesn’t seem to intimidate advocates and some social scientists. They will simply commission a “study” that produces, in essence, any number they want.

What is striking is that the numbers seem to be selected with the diligent care and skill that the methods lack.

The first time I became aware of this was with Bill Clinton. According to his critics — and I can’t find a link on this so it’s possibly apocryphal — when Bill Clinton initiated competency tests for Arkansas teachers, a massive fraction failed. He knew the union would blow their stack if the true numbers were released so he had focus groups convened to figure out what percentage of failures was expected, then had the test curved so that the results met the expectation.

As I said, I can’t find a reference for that. I seem to remember hearing it from Limbaugh, so it may be a garbled version (I can find lawsuits about race discrimination with the testing, so it’s possible a mangled version of that). But the story struck me to the point where I remember it twenty years later. And the reason it struck is because:

  • It sounds like the sort of thing politicians and political activists would do.
  • It would be amazingly easy to do.
  • Our media are so lazy that you could probably get away with it.
  • Since then, I’ve seen other numbers which I call “focus tested numbers” even tough they may not have been run by focus groups. But they cross me as numbers derived by someone coming up with the number first and then devising the methodology second. They first part is the critical one. Whatever the issue is, you have to come with a number that is plausible and alarming without being ridiculous. Then you figure out the methods to get the number.

    Let’s just take an example. The first time I became aware of the work of Maggie McNeill was her thorough debunking of the claim that 200,000 underage girls are trafficked for sex in the United States. You should read that article, which comes to an estimate of about 15,000 total underage prostitutes (most which are 16 or 17) and only a few hundred to a few thousand that are trafficked in any meaningful sense of that word. That does not make the problem less important, but it does make it less panic-inducing.

    But the 200,000 number jumped out at me. Here’s my very first comment on Maggie’s blog and her response:

    Me: Does anyone know where the 100,000 estimate comes from? What research it’s based on?

    It’s so close to 1% [of total underage girls] that I suspect it may be as simple as that. We saw a similar thing in the 1980′s when Mitch Snyder claimed (and the media mindlessly repeated) that three million Americans were homeless (5-10 times the estimates from people who’d done their homework). It turned out the entire basis of that claim was that three million was 1% of the population.

    This is typical of the media. The most hysterical claim gets the most attention. If ten researchers estimates there are maybe 20,000 underage prostitutes and one big-mouth estimates there are 300,000, guess who gets a guest spot on CNN?

    —–

    Maggie: Honestly, I think 100,000 is just a good large number which sounds impressive and is too large for most people to really comprehend as a whole. The 300,000 figure appears to be a modification of a figure from a government report which claimed that something like 287,000 minors were “at risk” from “sexual exploitation” (though neither term was clearly defined and no study was produced to justify the wild-ass guess). It’s like that game “gossip” we played as children; 287,000 becomes 300,000, “at risk” becomes “currently involved” and “sexual exploitation” becomes “sex trafficking”. :-(

    The study claimed that 100-300,000 girls were “at risk” of exploitation but defined “at risk” so loosely that simply living near a border put someone at risk. With such methods, the authors could basically claim any number they wanted. After reading that analysis and picking my jaw up off of the floor, I wondered why anyone would do it that way.

    And then it struck me: because the method wasn’t the point; the result was. Even the result wasn’t the point; the issue they wanted to advocate was. The care was not in the method: it was in the number. If they had said that there were a couple of thousand underage children in danger, people would have said, “Oh, OK. That sounds like something we can deal with using existing policies and smarter policing.” Or even worse, they might have said, “Well, why don’t we legalize sex work for adults and concentrate on saving these children?” If they had claimed a million children were in danger, people would have laughed. But claim 100-300,000? That’s enough to alarm people into action without making them laugh. It’s in the sweet spot between the “Oh, is that all?” number of a couple thousand and the “Oh, that’s bullshit” number of a million.

    Another great example was the number SOPA supporters bruted about to support their vile legislation. Julian Sanchez details the mathematical malpractice here. At first, they claimed that $250 billion was lost to piracy every year. That number — based on complete garbage — was so ridiculous they had to revise it down to $58 billion. Again, notice how well-picked that number is. At $250 billion, people laughed. If they had gone with a more realistic estimate — a few billion, most likely — no one would have supported such draconian legislation. But $58 billion? That’s enough to alarm people, not enough to make them laugh and — most importantly — not enough to make the media do their damn job and check it out.

    I encountered it again today. The EU is proposing to put speed limiters on cars. Their claim is this will cut traffic deaths by a third. Now, we actually do have some data on this. When the national speed limit was introduced in America, traffic fatalities initially fell about 20%, but then slowly returned to normal. They began falling again, bumped up a bit when Congress loosened the law, then leveled out in the 90′s and early 00′s after Congress completely repealed the national speed limit. The fatality rate has plunged over the last few years and is currently 40% below the 1970′s peak — without a speed limit.

    That’s just raw numbers, of course. In real terms — per million vehicle miles driven — fatalities have plunged almost 75% of the last forty years, with no effect of the speed limit law. Of course, more cars contain single drivers than ever before. But even on a per capita basis, car fatalities are half of what they once were.

    That’s real measurable progress. Unfortunately for the speed limiters, it’s result of improved technology and better enforcement of drunk driving laws.

    So the claim that deaths from road accidents will plunge by a third because of speed limits is simply not supported by data in the United States. They might plunge as technology, better roads and laws against drunk driving spread to Eastern Europe. And I’m sure one of the reasons they are pushing for speed limits is that they can claim credit for that inevitable improvement. But a one-third decline is just not realistic.

    No, I suspect that this is a focus tested number. If they claimed fatalities would plunge by half, people would laugh. If they claimed 1-2%, no one would care. But one-third? That’s in the sweet spot.

    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.)

    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.

    Peak Human

    Sunday, February 17th, 2013

    Now that I’ve (sorta) got internet back in Australia, it’s time to catch up on a passel of backlogged posts. Some of these will address issues that bobbed into my mind months ago, but … that doesn’t bother me with my personal blog. On RTFLC, I try to keep up with current, mostly political events. On this blog, I’m more interested in deep thoughts.

    A couple of months ago, Pew indicated that our birth rate has fallen to historical lows. More alarmingly, it’s fallen among immigrant populations, who have usually made up for the anti-reproductive attitudes of native-born Americans. This is part of a global trend of falling fertility rates that have exploded (pun intended) hysteria about overpopulation. Indeed, people are now openly worried about potential under-population:

    That might sound like an outrageous claim, but it comes down to simple math. According to a 2008 IIASA report, if the world stabilizes at a total fertility rate of 1.5—where Europe is today—then by 2200 the global population will fall to half of what it is today. By 2300, it’ll barely scratch 1 billion. (The authors of the report tell me that in the years since the initial publication, some details have changed—Europe’s population is falling faster than was previously anticipated, while Africa’s birthrate is declining more slowly—but the overall outlook is the same.) Extend the trend line, and within a few dozen generations you’re talking about a global population small enough to fit in a nursing home.

    I must admit that this is a concern I share. Part of it is my penchant for “end of the world with a whimper” type concerns. Part of it is my own decision to reproduce (and thus far frustrated desire to reproduce again). It may be egotistical, but I feel I have a responsibility to create future generations, especially given the lucky hand of genetic cards I was handed (good health, etc.) But I’m also interested in this as a generalized demographic issue. Are we not having enough children?

    Expressing concern over this trend is thorny, as Ross Douthat found out last year. He wrote an article about it and was promptly slammed for wanting women to be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. But as McArdle notes:

    This shouldn’t need saying, but apparently it does: those who say that this is not a real problem, just something that Douthat made up because he thinks that wives should be barricaded in the kitchen until they’ve birthed at least a basketball team, are just wrong. They’re wrong because, well, if you’ve mett Ross’s wife, you know they’re just wrong, is all. But that’s a sidenote. They’re wildly wrong about the policy side. Population decline presents us with big, big problems–ones that we have in no way figured out how to solve.

    Our whole economy and social system are designed for a growing economy, and a growing population. Without future growth, savings and investment become more necessary, but less attractive. Without growth, people become less generous towards strangers and more unhappy about their own circumstances. And without the growth around which all of our modern welfare states have been structured, the modern safety nets that governments have spent the last century establishing may not be politically or economically sustainable.

    If you think that population decline is going to be a net boon to society, take a long hard look at Greece. That’s what a country looks like when it becomes inevitable that the future will be poorer than the past: social breakdown, political breakdown, economic catastrophe.

    You should read the entire McArdle post, but it boils down to this: a society that has no children has no future. Saying so is not sexist; it’s simply reality.

    (There’s another ugly aspect of this that comes up frequently in these discussions: the racial/national component. White people are declining far faster than any other race. And various pundits have expressed concern that European countries will soon be dominated by ethnic minorities or that Israel will one day be a majority-Arab state. I really have no idea what to make of these issues. I see the point. I also see that such points have been raised historically and have often turned out to be overblown. That is, unless you think 19th century pundits were right and our country really was ruined by all the Irish and Italian immigrants who came to our shores.)

    So are we doomed? Is there a solution? I have no idea but I find concerns over things projected to occur centuries in the future to be a bit dubious. Worries about underpopulation are a little more realistic than past worries about overpopulation; we’re seeing real-life negative consequences of declining fertility in Europe and, very soon, China. But there are a number of things that could change the game dramatically. Medical advances could extend reproductive age (in theory, indefinitely). We could see a Brave New World type society in which children are primarily bred in labs. The state of our population problems five hundred years ago is as murky to us as our problems would have been to Martin Luther.

    The fact is that almost all doomsday scenarios — be they overpopulation, underpopulation, global warming, pollution or whatever — rely on humanity not adapting to deal with the problem. So far, we have always found a way to keep going.

    Some steps have been taken to fight this trend but I’m dubious of their utility. European countries have massively expanded paternal and maternal benefits and leave. Australia is paying bonuses to women who have children. But these countries have lower reproductive rates than the cold, unhelpful United States. The problem is not financial, it’s cultural. No matter how much money or leave you give someone, that’s going to have a weak effect on their willingness to take on a life-long obligation.

    No, I think the changes are going to be cultural and technological. One advance might be group families, as shown in the works of Robert Heinlein, where multiple couples can pool time and resources in the way that extended families once did. Grandparents, living longer and better than ever before, can step in to effectively be stay-at-homes for working young people. As mentioned above, fertility tech that extends the time of child-bearing into the forties or beyond is already combatting the declining fertility trend by allowing women to build a career and then have a family. Improvements in robotics might ease the crushing burden that a newborn places on a young family.

    And the ultimate X-factor is space exploration, which could potentially create a baby boom that would dwarf anything that’s come before.

    But that’s in the future. And there’s little government can do about it, other than stand out of the way. In the meantime, we’ll just enjoy what might be “peak human”. Right now there are more people than there have ever been and those people are richer, healthier and happier than they’ve ever been. That’s something worth celebrating, whether it is the peak before our inevitable decline or just the resting point on a journey that ends with quadrillions of us spread across the Galaxy.

    Thursday Linkorama

    Thursday, January 24th, 2013

    I think I’ve spent the entirety of this week either on the phone or having a meeting or curled up in bed with a migraine. Sigh. Some weeks are like that.

  • I can’t say that I enjoy the retuning of some songs to different keys, per se. I do, however, find it utterly fascinating how important key is to the mood and feel of a song or musical piece. I knew a woman back in college who had a variety of health issues that would eventually take her at a young age. But she was an amazing pianist who could shift the key on a song instantly and play it perfectly. Somehow, it never changed the tone like these retunings do.
  • Cracked looks at lines censored by TV. My brother and I used to get great amusement from watching movies like The Breakfast Club and Police Academy on Channel 46. The dubbing was so bad and the lines so hilariously stupid, we almost preferred them. My favorite comes from Police Academy: “Mahoney …. nobody plays with me.” with “plays” delivered about an octave and a half lower than Bailey’s register.
  • This article, which tries to argue that Southern dominance of Miss America is a result of racism, is so idiotic, so filled with PC bullshit and is such an inaccurate assessment of Southern history, culture and tradition, that it could only possibly have been published in the New York Times.
  • Eerie pictures of Chernobyl and amazing pictures of World War I.
  • Jacob Sullum details some of the concerns about allowing the CDC to do research into guns. I’m in favor of lifting restrictions on scientific research, even if it does mean politicized work. I just hate restrictions too much. But it is worth noting that the public health experts have a bad history of cooking the books to reach their conclusions, as seen in the EPA’s study of second-hand smoke and the CDC’s own study of obesity deaths.
  • A woman drives 900 miles out of her way and through several countries due to a supposed GPS error. Maybe it’s me, but I doubt the GPS was the only malfunctioning thing in that car.
  • An environmentalist admits he was wrong on GMO’s. Thanks a lot.
  • How much do you want to bet that most of the people involved in these idiocies were not fired?
  • I can’t vouch for the accuracy, but if these people really have recreated a hairstyle from the Roman Empire, that’s pretty damned cool.
  • Post-Xmas Linkorama

    Sunday, December 30th, 2012
  • Godspeed.
  • Heh heh. It turns out that some of those tests that say newborns have pot in their systems may be bullshit. Don’t you just love the War on Drugs?
  • You know, I actually think this guy gets it right. The whole “we’re miserable during the holidays” things always did cross me as a load of dingo’s kidneys. We see the stress of family and travel; ignore the absent stress of work.
  • As much as I respect the idea of building an ideal language, the idea is going precisely nowhere as Zamenhoff found out. Language is not about utilitarian efficiency. It’s about culture, history, nuance and tradition.
  • One thing I wondered while taking Sporcle’s blurred faces quiz is if the results would show a racial component: i.e., would white people be more likely to recognize the blurred features of other white people. This wouldn’t be about racism but about the way our brains process facial features.
  • The Hormone Vote

    Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

    CNN has an article up that is … kinda dumb:

    While the campaigns eagerly pursue female voters, there’s something that may raise the chances for both presidential candidates that’s totally out of their control: women’s ovulation cycles.

    You read that right. New research suggests that hormones may influence female voting choices differently, depending on whether a woman is single or in a committed relationship.

    Please continue reading with caution. Although the study will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science, several political scientists who read the study have expressed skepticism about its conclusions.

    Basically, this new study claims — actually, rediscovers — that women in relationships favor Romney by 19 points and single women favor Obama by 33. Their new claim is that when those women are ovulating, those percentages jump by as many as 20 points.

    This has, for obvious reasons, caused quite a stir in the blogosphere and Twitter. Unfortunately, the primary reaction is for people to clutch their copies of McKinnon and scream at some Texas professor for daring to suggest that women are nothing but hormone-addled idiots, even though the professor in question says nothing of the kind. And that reaction is kind of unfortunate. Because in their zeal to proclaim that women are completely unaffected by their hormones, people are missing the real reason why the article is dumb and should just be snickered at and then ignored.

    First, the number of women we are dealing with is small. I don’t have access to the study and their exact numbers but they studied 502 women total. If by “change of 20 points*” they mean that women in relationships went from 59-41 Romney to 69-31 Romney, that’s a total of about 25 women changing their minds. And a similar number among single women. That … really doesn’t strike me as a statistically significant sample, especially given how volatile polls are known to be anyway and how uncertain the date of ovulation can be.

    (*A critical point that is missing from the article is whether that jump is 20 points in differential or absolute (i.e, from 59-41 to 69-31 or 79-21). It’s the difference between 25 women changing their minds — a small number — and 50, a more interesting number. I also note the phrase “as much as 20 points”, which suggests that 20 points is at the outer edge of a very large statistical uncertainty and the actual difference is much smaller. This is why I would like to see the actual study.)

    Second, it’s difficult to pin down an a priori reason why a woman’s menstrual cycle might affect her voting. In the absence of clear information, we can only speculate. And this is where CNN and the researchers really flounder badly:

    Here’s how Durante explains this: When women are ovulating, they “feel sexier,” and therefore lean more toward liberal attitudes on abortion and marriage equality. Married women have the same hormones firing, but tend to take the opposite viewpoint on these issues, she says.

    “I think they’re overcompensating for the increase of the hormones motivating them to have sex with other men,” she said. It’s a way of convincing themselves that they’re not the type to give in to such sexual urges, she said.

    It’s true enough that women feel “sexier” when ovulating and are known to change their behavior (more likely to have sex, more likely to wear skimpy clothing, etc.). That’s all well-established biology. How this translates into political behavior isn’t clear at all. It seems that the researchers came up with one half of a dubious idea (“women feel sexier so they want abortion to be legal”) and then had to scramble to find the other half (“um, so married women are … repressing?”). That’s nice spit-balling but it’s no more valid than saying that when women are menstruating, they get mad and say, “Screw that guy, I ain’t voting for him any more!” You can basically shove anything you want into that information vacuum and call it “science”.

    Something important jumped out at me on a second reading: no one quoted in the article is a biologist or any other kind of scientist. The study author is a Professor of Marketing. They also quote Professors of Political “Science” and Women’s and Gender Studies. I would hazard that maybe the Professor of Marketing knows something about statistics. But this whole things reeks of the Scientific Peter Principle: poorly done studies are the ones most likely to get attention because their flaws produced amazing results.

    Here’s $0.02 from someone as equally unqualified to look into this as anyone quoted in the article. I suspect this effect, such as it is, is small, even smaller than the 10% they are claiming. I also suspect that this study was conducted some time ago when a lot of the voters were undecided and might have been a little torn between the two candidates. Undecided voters have a tendency to sway with every breeze that blows. Under those circumstances, it’s possible that the hormone kick at ovulation and the resulting surge in self-confidence might make women a little firmer in their political convictions one way or the other. Or, conversely, that the effects of PMS and/or menstruation make women a little less confident in their choices. One test you could do? See if “ovulation effect” diminishes as we get closer to the election and more people learn about the candidates and make up their minds.

    The gripping hand here is that this entire thing is pointless trivia as far as elections go. You see, women’s menstrual cycles tend to be random. So the percentage of women who are ovulating at any one moment is a constant. So the net effect of this on the vote?

    Zero.

    Update: I just slapped myself in the head for not saying this in the main text: where the hell was the group of menopausal women used as a control?

    Gender Skew in Olympic Coverge

    Sunday, July 29th, 2012

    See, this is why I point and laugh at sociologists:

    [N]early three-quarters of the women’s coverage was devoted to gymnastics, swimming, diving and beach volleyball. Notice anything they have in common? The researchers did. “It is now customary for the participants in all of these events … to wear the equivalent of a bathing suit,” they note in their analysis, which appears in the journal Electronic News.

    Track and field, where the clothing is almost as minimal, made up another 13 percent of the women’s prime-time coverage. “The remaining sports represented—rowing, cycling, and fencing—are not, by traditional standards, ‘socially acceptable’ sports for women, and make up approximately 2 percent of coverage,” the researchers write.

    First of all, it’s common to wear the equivalent of a bathing suit in almost every Olympic event. They cherry-picked this study to 14 events, leaving out things like Tennis, Sailing, Synchronized Swimming and Rhythmic Gymnastics that might dispute their theory. They also made the odd choice of putting cycling in the “non-sexy” category despite the skin-tight outfits that are worn. I’m sure if cycling got more coverage, they’d flip it back into the sexy category.

    Second, they ignored that Americans prefer to watch events where they are likely to medal and the events they list are where we tend to clean up. We don’t win a lot of medals in rowing, cycling or fencing. Softball and soccer get lots of medals and little coverage, true. On the other hand, there have been numerous complaints from the public about the lack of coverage and they only recently became medal events (1996 for both).

    Third, if you look at the study’s graphs, you’ll see that men’s coverage is equally skewed, with almost all the coverage going toward … beach volleyball, diving, gymnastics, swimming, track and volleyball. In short, no one wants to watch fencing. It doesn’t matter if it’s men or women doing it. I don’t want to watch fencing and I used to fence! Maybe if the US started dominating those events, they would be watched.

    Fourth, notice the catch-22 underlying the study. If we aren’t watching women’s events, it’s because of sexism. But when do watch them, the most popular event, by far, is women’s gymnastics. But this just proves our sexism because they’re in leotards!

    Fifth, notice that exceptions to their theory — Lindsey Vonn, Picabo Street, Bonnie Blair, Jackie Joyner Kersey, Wilma Rudolph, etc. — are just ignored. Their theory is deliberately made plastic enough — defining “socially acceptable” sports arbitrarily — that they can sneak any damn conclusion they want into it. I skimmed through the study and found numerous references to track and field being socially unacceptable for women — these studies published at a time when Marion Jones, Flo-Jo and Jackie Joyner Kersey were some of the most popular and recognizable women in the games. I was personally at the 1996 women’s 100m final when Gail Dever and Gwen Torrence finished 1-3. The build-up was huge; the coverage extensive and the stadium exploded when they won.

    What the fuck are these people talking about?

    Now I will let on about one thing. People tend to pay less attention to women when they play sports that were designed by men and emphasize masculine traits like strength. They pay more attention when women play sports designed with women in mind that emphasize feminine traits like grace, coordination and beauty. Gymnastics is popular precisely because the people who designed the sport understand this. The events are very different for the two genders. The men’s events emphasize strength and endurance; the women’s coordination and grace. Both are entertaining, grueling and incredible displays of athleticism; but they are also expertly tailored to the sexes.

    Really, the more I look at this, the more it sounds like someone started out with their conclusion and trolled the data to support it. This is what passes for research in sociology.

    Update: One last point. They complain that women only get 48% of media coverage despite winning 50% of the medals. That … doesn’t really cross me as significant. And breaking the coverage down by athlete is ridiculous. The media’s coverage of the Darling of the Games is notoriously fickle.

    Breasts

    Sunday, July 15th, 2012

    For some reason, breasts have been in the news lately. Not one but two scholarly works are out, one of which is nicely skeptical about all the received wisdom about their form, function etc.

    Apart from my Y-chromosome issues, I find this subject interesting because of the discussions about precisely why men are attracted to women with large breasts. It’s simply amazing to read all the debates in evolutionary psychology which pass themselves off as science but are often little more than speculation (check out this baby for an example). I’ve heard all the “theories”, few of which are actually falsifiable. And all of them sound like rubbish to me.

  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because they want their young to be well-fed. This is likely to be garbage as there is little, if any, correlation between breast size and the ability to nurse.
  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because it indicates higher body fat and better nursing of children. See my response to the first explanation. I’d also note that breast size and body fat are not perfectly correlated. The most common body types are the “banana” and “pear” shapes.
  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because they resemble women’s buttocks. This is a popular explanation but it also sounds like rubbish. First of all, it only deflects the question: “OK, wise guy: why are men attracted to women’s butts?” Second, this was clearly derived by people who have no idea what breasts looks like in the wild. Corsets and bras have only existed for the last half a millenium.
  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because they swell during ovulation, signaling fertility. This swelling is subtle to anyone who is not experiencing it; far more subtle than the breast fetish tends to be. Moreover, many women do not experience breast swell during ovulation. And breast swell is far greater during pregnancy, when a woman, by definition, is not fertile. For our primate ancestors, it’s likely the very presence of breasts indicated a female was pregnant or nursing.
  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because of socialization. Now this one really annoys me. Socialization doesn’t just happen on its own. Breast fetishism had to come from somewhere. It’s not like someone woke up one day and decided to tell all the men to eroticize boobs for some sort of oppressive reason. Breast attraction must have a long and deep history in our species to have affected our very evolution (humans females are the only mammals to have large breasts when they aren’t lactating).
  • To be honest, this debate tends to fill me with anger. All of these theories are presented with an incredible certainty, as though something had been proven. But none are supported by scientific evidence. They are mere conjecture and bad conjecture at that. Among other things, none allow for the fact that some men are not attracted to busty women. In fact, some men have a particular preference for women with small chests. Many cultures have a far less intense breast fetish than our own. And some men — like me — are attracted to a variety of physical types. So these explanation that big boobs appeal to something deep in our psyches or our genes leave me a little cold.

    These theories also ignore something very important: there may not be a reason. One of the things we’ve learned from evolutionary science is that we are not perfect creatures. We have many flaws which have been genetically selected over the generations. The reason we have these flaws is that they came along with something so useful that, on balance, we were better off. So intelligence may have come with bad eyesight. We are, and always have been, patchwork creatures. And the idea that evolution is a uniform process producing predictable results and that every aspect of our existence has some survival benefit is inconsistent with the known facts.

    In sum, men may be attracted to big boobs because of some random bit of programming that came along for the ride with something else. Or it may be an unusual manifestation of something that is useful. Looking for a definitive explanation is, in my view, dangerous because it implies that all our traits, all our behavior, have to have an explanation. They don’t.

    That having been said, I recently encountered a theory that makes some sense to me.

    I recently heard an interview with one of the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, which applied the first objective analysis not to what people claim to consume on the internet, but to what they actually do. For example, far more men are attracted to women who are overweight than women who are anorexic. While the authors go too far in some of their conclusions, the interview did have one idea that resonated. The author was talking about why men fetishize things like dainty feet. He said, quite simply, that these are signs of femininity. They are things male brains — because of evolution, socialization or hormones — recognize as “this is a female; I can mate with her.” It is sexual signaling, no different from the bright feathers on a bird or the pheromones of an insect.

    This is probably the most sensible explanation for the breast fetish I’ve heard. It’s straight-forward and explains much of what the other theories don’t. Under this paradigm, men are attracted to anything their brains have decided is feminine. And breasts are just one of the easiest things to fetishize because they are such an obvious secondary sex characteristic; something women have that men don’t. A man can see a busty women from far away and recognize that it’s a woman. There doesn’t have to be a rationality behind it. He doesn’t have to be thinking about her ability to lactate or anything. It’s just something that his brain has latched on to.

    The real beauty of this theory, however, is that it does not have to be true of all men. If a man associates femininity with being small and petite, or having long hair and soft skin, or having a high-pitched voice — that’s what he finds attractive. He can be completely indifferent to mammary glands simply because his brain does not process that as a particularly feminine trait. Breast fetishism would simply be part of the larger paradigm that encloses all fetishes. Call it the General Theory of Ogling.

    (I should note that women are not immune from this sexual signaling, hence the preferences for broad shoulders, deep voices, etc. However, women tend to be less visual and their sexuality is more oriented around mate selection than mate identification. So if wealth or self-confidence or humor or whatever is what they regard as a signal of masculinity, that’s what they find attractive. This may also explain why women are often attracted to men who are obnoxious or even violent, since these can be masculine characteristics.

    I’ve often felt that natural selection, at least in humans, is something that women play a much larger role in than men. Men try to have sex with everything, superior or inferior. Women are the ones who are selective.)

    Of course, I would be remiss if not noting that this conjecture makes me feel better about myself. While I have always been very physically attracted to women, I don’t really have a “type”. My wife is blonde and curvy. My previous girlfriend is tall, brunette and slender. Before that was short and petite. Before that was short and absurdly busty (and possible artificial). And so on. I’ve been attracted to blondes, brunette and redheads; to tall and short; to slender and curvy. But I would define all of them as physically attractive in some way. In fact, I would say that I find most women attractive in some way. But if you narrowed it down just to the women to whom I have felt a strong physical attraction, you would still find a wide physical variety.

    That I am physically attracted to women of a wide variety of appearances used to bother me. But now it just means that my brain, for some reason, defines a broad spectrum of physical characteristics as female. Maybe it’s some subconscious “with your luck, you can’t be too picky” thought stream. But I suspect it’s just the way my brain works. I have broad interests in everything, hence the blog, hence the career in a massively interdisciplinary profession, hence the liberal arts education, hence the huge library. My interests tend to wander. And so does my eye.

    We are animals. And we are fools when we forget this. We are double fools when we have degrees in scientific disciplines and deliberately forget this. Our rational thinking selves are just the placid surface of a broiling animalistic mix of desires, passions and fears. We can’t pretend that every aspect of our lives — and especially the most basic aspect of our lives: our need to reproduce — are the product of reason and rationality. Nietzsche said that the degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit. Our spirits are animals. And our attractions are no different than an animal’s attraction to a set of big antlers or a particularly shimmery coating of scales.

    Monday Linkorama

    Sunday, April 15th, 2012
  • Did Fata Morgana sink the Titanic?
  • Nowadays, it takes ten years to build a sidewalk. Didn’t used to be that way.
  • You know how women were supposed to never get married if they were still on the shelf at 30? Yeah, that was bullshit.
  • Moore’s real law.
  • Mathematical malpractice watch: Mitt Romney.
  • Sunday Linkorama

    Sunday, February 26th, 2012
  • Now this is cool. A plant is brought back to life after 30,000 years. I once wrote a very cliched short story about a human having the same thing happen; being woken up millennia after our extinction by intelligent insects.
  • Continuing in that vein: let’s go back 298 million years.
  • I knew that kids understood words at much younger ages than we thought. They’re sorta like cats: they just can’t be bothered to talk back until they need something.
  • Mathematical Malpractic Watch: the financial crisis. They have one outlier data point. And it seems much more likely that men move back in with their families because they economy is in the shitter, not the other way around.
  • A wonderful note about overcoming racism and Sidney Pottier.
  • An amazing story about a man surviving two months in the snow.
  • This graph-laden article is probably one of the more intelligent analyses I’ve read of the trends in marriage in our society. Long story short? People are still getting married; they’re just waiting longer. That’s not entirely a bad thing.
  • Monday Linkorama

    Monday, November 14th, 2011
  • 11 sounds children have never heard. Not included: that Mike Siegel is so attractive. Sadly.
  • Sexy dances moves for men. Really?
  • The physics of angry birds: Seriously.
  • The steroid era was not all that. Totally.