Sunday, August 27, 2006

Going through my old files there was this piece which was intended as the first post on this blog. While I was trying to get my courage up I saw Echidne had written a better piece on the same study so it was posted as a comment on her blog that day. It is given here as light End of Summer entertainment.

The Smell Study as reported on by the AP

Is this another case of a very preliminary, very small study finding a very small difference about which the authors make very modest claims but which the American press reports as conclusive and earth shaking? And if it is first reported by the researchers with some discretion, will it be one of those studies inflated out of all recognition by the fellows of well known think tanks in their future, bulk-buy, bestsellers about the evils of feminism? I don’t know but considering that the study consisted of 12 subjects each of straight women, lesbians and straight men - who we are reassured are “healthy, unmedicated, and right-handed” - I doubt that the sample is large enough to represent a significant part of the respective populations over a significantly long period of time. The media reporting, the real focus of my piece, doesn’t give any numbers so we don’t know. The brain scans done as part of the study are interesting but the researchers apparently relied heavily on reporting by the subjects to come to their conclusions.

One of the problems going into this study would be that the period for testing individual subjects be sufficiently long to account for possible variations in response over time. This would seem to be obvious. People often don’t respond to the same smell in the same way on different occasions. Sometimes there are changes during different times of life. When I was a child ham smelled wonderful to me, now it drives me out of the house. And just about everyone finds some smells alluring one day but disgusting the next. Scotch, for example. There is a very commonly observed situation which may have direct relevance to this aspect of the of the subject. Most of the subsequently declared straight women I’ve known report at some point during their childhood that “boys stink”. Boys who turn out to be straight often report a reciprocal sensory stimulus.

What does this all mean in the end? I haven’t noticed that most straight women are repelled by close and confined association with other women in their social lives. Many of the straight women I’ve known have seemed to derive more pleasure from their close social interactions with women friends than they do with men. Often their own husbands. Especially on long car trips. If, as the AP report says, heterosexual women found male and female pheromones about equally pleasant any difference in gender preference for social interaction would seem to be due to reasons not tested for.

But straight men and lesbians are reported to find male hormones more irritating than female ones. This is puzzling. I’ve never noticed that straight men living in close proximity have a demonstrated need for a heightened level of personal hygiene or fresh air in their shared abode. This might lead to a suspicion that the pheromone samples used in studies of this kind, isolated and, perhaps, concentrated don’t mimic real world conditions. Could it be that even with sufficiently large numbers of test subjects superbly chosen and observed over a long enough period that this highly artificial sensory situation tells us relatively little? To be fair, most lesbians I’ve known do not seem to enjoy prolonged associations with men. Bur there are more obvious emissions than highly dilute moles of “male” pheromones sufficient to explain that result.

Also as reported, all three groups indicated that the male hormone was “more familiar than the female one”. One really wonders why two-thirds of the subjects would find their own hormone less “familiar” than those of the other gender. And if it was due to some kind of sensory habituation why the males would find “their own" hormone “familiar”. Could a variation the level of self-absorption account for this difference?

So, as you hear this and similar studies cited to explain the enormous gulf between the brain structures of the genders and gender preferences and why women don’t make as much as men for work of similar value, ask these embarrassing questions. And consider the further possibilities for business and economics. If further testing found a variation in odor preference, it could justify a pay cut for south paws.

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