Wednesday, August 15, 2007

from More Just So Stories

Gina Kolata of the New York Times New Service began a recent piece in the usual way, with an explanation steeped in the current fashion for explaining everything as being an expression of an ancient and adaptive genetic heritage:

Everyone knows men are promiscuous by nature. It's part of the genetic strategy that evolved to help men spread their genes far and wide. The strategy is different for a woman, who must go through so much just to have a baby and then nurture it. She is genetically programmed to want just one man who will stick with her and help raise their children.

Surveys bear this out. In study after study and in country after country, men report more, often many more, sexual partners than women.

Which is an odd way to start when you go on to read the rest of the article which is about the surveys which show that heterosexual men, on average have had about three to four more sexual partners than heterosexual women. You might have seen similar “scientifically conducted” polls bandied about on the blogs, on TV and perhaps even mentioned as yet another prop for biological determinism of gender roles.

However, there is a huge mystery about all this. Who are the extra women these men are having sex with and why are they apparently keeping silent about it. Otherwise, it just couldn’t figure.

- It's about time for mathematicians to set the record straight, said Dr. David Gale, an emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley.

"Surveys and studies to the contrary notwithstanding, the conclusion that men have substantially more sex partners than women is not and cannot be true, for purely logical reasons," Gale said.

Dr. Gale goes on to give a simple demonstration with equation anyone with fourth grade math could master. But not most of those in the media and even on some "Scienceblogs".

Despite all the confident assertions that the reported disparities are “proof” of a genetically programmed difference between mens’ and women’s brains apparently the original reporters of those illogical numbers know that what they’re reporting is bogus.

"I have heard this question before," said Cheryl D. Fryar, a health statistician at the National Center for Health Statistics and a lead author of the new federal report "Drug Use and Sexual Behaviors Reported by Adults: United States, 1999-2002," which found that men had a median of seven partners and women four.

But when it comes to an explanation, she added, "I have no idea."

"This is what is reported," Fryar said. "The reason why they report it I do not know."

While they’re noticing these seldom mentioned lacunae in today's common received wisdom perhaps they might want to notice something else.

Despite the reservations I’ve expressed here about polling and, even more so, the reporting of polls and surveys I do know one thing with absolute certainty. The methods of polling today are much, much more reliable than those of the Pleistocene period, the period about which the stories like the one at the top of this piece, are told with such confidence by biological determinists. We have no idea at all if our early ancestors were swingers, none. If men today, most of whom seem to be able to count, at least on their hands, are unsure about how many women they have had sex with, why would men at the dawn of humanity be more credible? Even with the techniques of modern polling? Maybe cavemen were liars and it is the propensity to lie about such things to people like pollsters (and other interviewers) which is the actual heritage we have from them. At least we know with some confidence that the lie is real.

In the end of Ms. Kolata’s article is this:

Ronald Graham, a professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of California, San Diego, agreed with Gale. After all, on average, men would have to have three more partners than women, raising the question of where all those extra partners might be.

"Some might be imaginary," Graham said. "Maybe two are in the man's mind and one really exists."

Maybe the stories of evolutionary psychology need to be subjected to similar levels of scrutiny.

P. S. For all anyone knows it could have been males with strong pair bonds who had a competitive advantage in the Paleolithic period. Maybe men who spent their time hankering after the, one assumes, sparse population of women instead of working were less likely to reproduce. Maybe women thought guys like that were creepy lounge lizards. It seems to me that the evolutionary psychologists, who, perhaps, have more leisure time to spend among college students less than half their age could just be projecting their longings back in time. Stranger things have been known to happen.

Saturday, August 04, 2007


Irresponsible Corporate Media Makes Responsible Government Impossible

Note: I was going to write a followup to this piece in light of this weeks bridge disaster and the soon to be laid aside interest in bridge inspection and repair. However, that wasn't possible. The reason the matter, clearly a matter of saving lives this week, will be laid aside is due to the collusion of conservative politicians and the media which supports them. It is the "tax and spend" chanters who have brought us to this. While it is profitable for their campaign supporters to build an enormous and complex infrastructure, it costs money to do do it right in the first place and to maintain and eventually replace a superannuated structure. That's when the howls of the right wing begin and responsible voices are silenced.

The Boston Globe had a column by David Luberoff last year which clearly explains the origins of the emerging Big Dig disaster. He points out that the project, originally funded through the federal highway system, lost a lot of its federal support half-way through. Instead of facing that reality, the politicians in Massachusetts didn't make up the difference with state and local taxes and tolls. One of the truest things in life is that while you often don't get what you pay for, you never get what you don't pay for. You know that's true when you are dealing with a large corporation like Bechtel with armies of bean counters making sure that they get maximum profits from their projects.

What went wrong in the face of warnings by people who knew what they were talking about - Massachusetts has probably the highest percentage of those on the continent- is just beginning to be studied. While they are looking at that I hope someone will look into the more general political atmosphere that led to the bad decisions. I don't only mean the steady stream of Republican governors during most of the Big Dig.

Given their refusal to monitor themselves for accuracy and responsibility, we won't get the media's role in promoting gross irresponsibility in politicians. At least not from them. But it really does largely fall on the media. Through call-in shows, wise-guy on-air personalities, connected owners and those who have created today's media sewer, anyone who steps up and tells the truth, "You want this done, you are going to have to pay for it," gets their head handed to them. They make lying and dereliction of duty requirements for retaining a political office or civil service job. Reporting with enough time or column space to really explain an issue costs more while the truths uncovered are insufficiently entertaining to maximize profits. And some of those truths might be most unwelcome at the club.

The Republican Party, who used to pride themselves on responsibility, now specialize in this kind of winning through lying. With the media fully in support they tell lies designed to win elections. Most people have a weakness for believing what they want to hear. The busy public, without the technical knowledge or time to look at the details buys the lies until reality strikes and they can't ignore it any longer. How else do you think Bush I lost to Bill Clinton despite the insane press adulation following Bush War I and the war they waged against Clinton as soon as it was clear he had a chance to win?

But if you want good government, safe and effective civil engineering projects, the rest of the benefits that only government can deliver, then we can't wait for the disaster to deliver the real news. The cost in lives, time and remedial action are multiplied many times by the lies and propaganda spread by the media.

The often repeated line, "Good, fast or cheap. Pick two." sums up the current political climate that this irresponsibility has produced. But as the Big Dig is beginning to prove, good is the only way to get faster and cheaper. Maybe the same applies to news media getting it right. But getting it right isn't what today's profit-driven and cynically self-interested media is all about.

The Globe had an article in which Michael Dukakis defends his administration's role in the Big Dig. Having read about the project from its beginning, he makes a good case. But Dukakis is just a boring detail guy the press rejected two decades ago

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Science Without Physical Evidence, Dawkins Brings Us Back To The Middle Ages.

"Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his birth? Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide it, this is still a strictly scientific question." Richard Dawkins, quoted by H. Allen Orr in the New York Review of Books, Jan.11, 2007.

he first thing to notice about this odd passage is “Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide....”. Why “whether”? Its an absolute fact that there is no physical evidence available. None. No medical records, not even skeletal fragments. No physical remains of the woman or son or possible father in question are available nor is their possibly surviving lineage known. It's unlikely in the extreme that those will ever be identified. Why try to obscure the fact that there is none of the evidence necessary to examine the question with science when it is indisputable that there isn’t? So, Dawkins proposes examining the question scientifically without any physical evidence. He proposes determining the paternity of a child without anything to go on, whatsoever.*

Perhaps somewhat more understandable, since it’s Dawkins, he says that you can deal with the assertion of something that is claimed to have happened miraculously, outside the usual order of things and exactly once in the entire history of the world in the remote past, with science. With the claims made by those who believe in the Virgin Birth, even argument by analogy can’t address it. When an event is claimed to be unique, there is no possibility of making a comparison with another or even every other event proposed to be similar. Any scientific comparison with any other event would be irrelevant to the claims of a miracle unless you had physical evidence of it**

The total lack of evidence and the claim of uniqueness renders it clearly and most certainly NOT a question science can deal with. And this from the Oxford University Professor of The Public Understanding of Science. Certainly among the first things to understand about science are when there isn’t enough evidence to practice it and when there is. That is something that hasn’t stopped Dawkins in the past, however.

Much as it must frustrate those who would like to deal with some religious questions with science, much cannot be. They might not like that fact but that is just too bad. When the physical evidence necessary to study those is lost to history or non-existent, that is simply impossible. Pretending that you can proceed without the evidence it is dishonest and, beyond doubt, unscientific. You can believe or not believe the claims but using the prestige of the name science to back up your assertions can be done honestly only under specific conditions. It also carries a serious responsibility.

No one has to believe in the Virgin Birth, this short piece isn’t about that. This is about how one of the most famous and arrogant personalities of science can get away with saying something so stunningly absurd. With his status in contemporary culture, it’s just amazing that a person holding a position like Dawkins’ conveniently ignores something so basic to science.

If biologists are content with having Dawkins being the face of their science, they are exchanging short term glamor for long term problems. It is growing clearer that in the political climate in democracies that science can’t support the dead weight of extraneous ideologies unnecessary for it. I will make a prediction that you can check out later, if Dawkins truly becomes the face of evolution it will continue to face fierce opposition by many of those he insults gratuitously. Its research funding will not be secure. In the face of his arrogant condescension, a large percentage of the public will not understand the science or want to.

* While it might be fun to point out, going into the need to give God a paternity test only heightens the apparent absurdity of Dawkins claim that this is “a strictly scientific question. Science not only can't deal with these kinds of things, it makes a mockery of science to try it.

**. Your only hope to determine the accuracy of a claim of a miracle is to look at whatever evidence of the specific event is available and see if the claimed result happened. Modern claims of, for example, miraculous cures of physical diseases, could, very possibly, be investigated by science but only by examination of the physical evidence. Without that, science can’t be used to investigate the claim.

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