Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Mismeasure of Man, 21st Century Style

Mark Shea posted a reader email with a link to an article about a book that I haven't read. I read the article. Newspaper articles on research usually end up making scientists either gnash their teeth or add the lurid headlines to their conference powerpoints for a good laugh with their fellow nerds, so it's quite possible that Rosin's work was WAY better than this article would have me believe. The article...failed to affirm me in my womanly splendor, though it sure did try! Not enough data, article. But it's ok. I got all the data about my womanly splendor RIGHT HERE.

I found most interesting the story of how men and women responded differently to work in Alabama; the women learned different jobs, and the men "sat around" waiting for their old jobs to return. The conclusion is that the women are more adaptable.

I wonder what the specifics are, though.

Were the men and women working the same jobs for the same number of years? Or had the women already dipped in and out of the workplace multiple times between kids, and worked for multiple employers, while the men had been working at the same company for years? In that case, it would be the prior habit of employment flexibility that made the difference. Did the men have longer investment in their prior careers (courses, licensure) and are their jobs likely to return when the economy improves? Sinking money into courses might be a poor investment IF their business picks up again. New businesses fare better when started by women rather than men, but are the rates of starting new businesses the same for both sexes? If only the most gung-ho, business-minded women start new business, while a larger percentage of men with a broader range of skills start them, you could expect the same result, regardless of the "flexibility" of the entire population. Also of interest was the observation that men and women in finance (same career) who switch to a new firm (same action) end up with different results; most of the men do worse, and most of the women do better. I wonder what the reasons for their moves are. What if men switch because they are not fitting in very well and are low performers and the really high-performing men tend to stay with one company? The low performer is now the new guy at the company AND not too great at his job, and people are quick to be unimpressed. What if the women switch because they are doing amazingly well and get offered a higher salary/benefits elsewhere, while the low-performing women are not wooed and decide they are better off with their annual percent raises? That would mean that, rather than women being "more flexible," the workplace is treating high-performing men and women differently.

Imagine a graduating high school class in which both sexes are equally represented and have an equal range in intelligence, work ethic, and skills.

Case A: The women are more flexible and adaptable on average than the men.
Case B: The flexibility and adaptibility is the same for both sexes.

Now I throw in totally made up statistics.

1. A recession hits. Women and men have equal unemployment. 95% of the women go back to school and get different jobs, while 95% of the men wait patiently for their old jobs to return. Now I change the stats. 37% of the unemployed women go back to school. 30% of the unemployed men go back to school. The rest wait patiently for their old jobs to return (or find other jobs in the same field as before, with no extra training). Now make it 43:41.2 and no, you don't get to see the data distribution or the standard deviation. Now make it 7.5:5 who go back to school and over 90% of both sexes who take the dole until it runs out. How impressive (sorry, I would say "significant," but this is journalism we're doing here) does the statistical difference have to be to conclude something about the difference between men and women? In any of these cases, could we use these statistics to tell whether we are in Case A or Case B?

2. Men and women start businesses, and the women's do better (they make more money, they last longer, higher clientele, franchising, whatever). Only 5% of the women start new businesses, while 20% of the men do. Are we in Case A, Case B, or both? Let's say at 15% of both sexes start businesses, but the women all open ice cream parlors (with homemade flavors that change each week) and the men all open gun stores (and they sell that fancy ammo that bursts apart when it hits the human body). These men and women are in a very big town, so the ice cream and guns are spread out. Can we learn that women are better at starting new businesses than men if the ice cream stores are more popular and make higher profits? If so, can we also learn (from these business stats alone) because the women have succeeded because they are more adaptable and in tune with modern society? Let's say that 70% of the ice cream parlors fold in the year, and 80% of the gun stores fold. What if it's 90%:95%? What if it's 5%:95%? What if we are in NYC? What if we are in Dallas? What if we are in Nome, which has been populated by masochists? Again, do these statistics tell us more about the differences between the sexes-in-general or the differences in a town's appetite for ice cream and guns, and the entrepreneurs ability to discern this appetite? Discerning what other people want -- a classically girly trait -- hmm, maybe there is a book in here for me, too! Now imagine that each man and each woman starts a different business -- restaurants, stores, tech support, handicrafts, skilled labor. Does that change the conclusion? Do you just ignore this factor because it is so complex? Does the difficulty of analyzing the business factor mean that it isn't the primary reason for success or failure? What if it isn't the business type, but the way it's run? Will you be able to tell? Will those data teach you about the differences between the sexes? What kind of data would you need?

3. Women and men go into finance, and some of them switch firms. The women do "better" and the men do "worse." Let's say the women make more money. No, wait, they get promoted faster. Pick your favorite. The women get it. I've already hinted that the reason for switching could have little to do with innate flexibility and could be critical for understanding performance. Maybe the study "controlled" for the age of the person and the reason for switching -- and the financial situation of both companies at the time of the switch (imagine the difference between leaving to join a young firm, or to start one, or to go from a small firm to a huge firm, or to go to a competitor, or to leave right before a big layoff, or to leave at the peak of financial success and Business Weekly articles featuring oneself and the old firm). Forget all that. The study has "controlled" for it. Not sure how, because they will never tell us, even in the supplemental figures of the original peer-reviewed article, but they have. I swear. Now let's just think about the ratio of men to women in finance. If the finance world were evenly divided between the sexes, would the information about higher success in a new firm tell us that women are more adaptable? What if the financial world is more like 70% men, 30% women? What if it's 90:10? Can we, without ever interviewing the bosses who gave out the raises and promotions, figure out their reasons for doing so, based simply on income tax reports?

I get that Mark, being a dude, read this article and thought "Gee, another article about how great women are and how men just won't get with the program." I got that too, to an eyeroll-inducing degree. But I, being a lady scientist, and therefore privileged in this particular case, was WAY more intrigued by the mishmash of "science," "math" the lack of hard information presented, and the grandiose conclusions drawn from tests that did not set out to test adaptibility, rigidity, flexibility, enthusiasm, or really anything other than employment and finances.

What if a misogynist had interpreted these dry financial facts? Would he have written about men's fortitude and women's flightiness? Would he have implied that the women at new firms had new lovers (and all that extra money and promotions prove it, because look at how the men -- the normal, appropriate workers -- fare at new firms)? Would he have concealed the fact that women's businesses do better and reported that men start more businesses, concluding that they are bolder and take more risks (which of course pay off) and have a better head for business? Probably, because I've read a bunch of articles that have gone on and on about the bold risk-taking man and the reason for his greater success. You don't often hear articles about the bold risk-takers who end up failing and going under -- unless they are being compared to the sensible, flexible women who start SUCCESSFUL businesses. I wonder. How many of the men who grew up reading those articles like I did now feel they need to be BOLD and start NEW BUSINESSES and DROP OUT OF COLLEGE just like STEVE JOBS? And don't check themselves for Steve Jobs' skill with computers and his vast intelligence? Or themselves for actual business sense? Or the world around them for successful men who went to business school and took entrepreneurship classes? Maybe we timid little risk-averse ladies just are reaping the benefits of not getting set up for failure by articles, movies and books that showed the rewards of risk-taking without ever emphasizing the risk part other than as a fun obstacle. Men in the 70's presumably had just as much testosterone and adrenaline (mustaches HEYO!), but were better at staying in school and learning the skills needed to succeed in their desired goals. Of course, they got laid off a lot then, too. Maybe the men of my generation got suckered by the propaganda. Maybe the economy sucks, life is cruel, random bad things happen to people, and God blesses the just and unjust alike. Or women are just awesome.

Makes me think. Now women are being lauded to the skies. Pride goes before a fall. There could be a lot of girls and young women out there who will think, "Hm, I guess I am great at being adaptable and flexible, and that is a winning strategy. Time to quit my job? Time to shell out lots of money for extra classes that I might end up not finishing?" The virtues that come easily to us -- if indeed we possess them and are not merely deluded by flattery -- are not the only virtues we should focus on.

The question of why so many men are dropping out or hurting in their finances needs to be addressed, but I don't think that poorly drawn conclusions help.

When you have the idea that one sex is superior in character at all times and in all ways, it can lead you to conclude things about cause and effect that have not actually been tested.

It can lead you to conclude what you expected to find.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Today's EF Gospel is how Jesus cured a deaf and mute man by touching his ears and touching the man's tongue with a spit-moistened finger, and saying "Ephphatha," be opened.

That is gross, but totally worth it, and much less invasive than modern-day surgery for cochlear implants.

"Ephphatha" is a very weird way to write a word with two f-sounds; what would be so terrible about writing "Effatha?" It is an Aramaic word, and as we can't use the Aramaic letters, why not use the letters that would look less bizarre? I kept thinking there was a missing vowel in there somewhere.

Trying to say both f-sounds distinctly does give the word a very slushy feel that goes well with the salival message of the day.

The crudeness of our corporeal reality was indeed shared by Christ. Sometimes, when I hear the phrase "spiritual but not religious," I am tempted to say that I am "religious but not spiritual," because I am so rooted in the corporeal realm. I am only tempted to this thought, because I know that I am also a spiritual being.

I am fascinated by the interconnections of spirit, soul, and body. How do traditional thoughts about our souls, the seat of our consciences, work considering how much our physical brains affect our ability for decision-making and self-control? Damage the brain in the right place, and the personality may change; maybe the person will have less ability to control his temper or speak politely -- or no ability. How does the development of a well-formed conscience coincide with the development of the pre-frontal cortex, which is involved in foreseeing the consequences of our actions, and doesn't finish developing until age 25? A child, though, may have a better-regulated temper than an abusive parent. Who and what are we, at the depths of our being, both dependent and independent from our neurons? How does the Holy Spirit really speak to us?

I enjoy reading scientific studies about the brain's activity during prayer, especially those that involve asking nuns to pray while hooked up to EEG or MRI. Of course they use nuns -- what loser researchers want to ask ordinary laypeople to pray when they can peek into the neural activity of the Catholic Church's ultimate prayer champions! So far, researchers have discovered that nuns who claim to feel a sense of peace during prayer actually do have a change in emotional state; they ain't lyin'! I would be even more interested in the brain activity of nuns who ONCE had intense spiritual/emotional responses to prayer but now feel nothing. What did Mother Teresa's brain look like when she was in the Dark Night of the Soul for decades, all while praying throughout the day and working with the poor? Her soul was growing closer to God, but this growth was not reflected in her emotions. What about when prayer does NOT give a "sense of peace?"

How can we be open to God showing us the way?

I think it is fascinating to be a Christian, and to believe that there are so many possibilities for what we can experience in the world.

If we "feel inspired/called" to do something:

1a) We might just feel that way because we like or dislike something
1b) We can make stuff up to back up (1a) (see: pattern finding)
2) We can be feeling the inspiration of the Holy Spirit
3) We can be misled by demons

I am quite interested in the interplay of 1a, 1b, and 2. I think #3 can usually be avoided by not doing anything obviously sinful ("I feel called to tell you what a B**** you are..." is probably NOT the prompting of the Holy Spirit, people")! I believe that God answers prayers and the He can guide us, but I also believe that people are very good at justifying what they want to do anyway by talking about God and that we are very good at looking for "signs" in nature to support our desires. I also believe that we are supposed to use our rational minds to make decisions, and that not every choice needs to be madly discerned in the hopes of a voice from Heaven speaking out to us. I do pray before all my big decisions, and I pray for their success, but when I feel myself turning from petition to anger or resentment at God for not answering me quickly enough, I realize that I am trying to avoid adult responsibility in choosing the good. If only God could just tell me what college to go to or where to live! But, perhaps, He has simply called me to go to a college at all -- anywhere -- and to live out the Gospel while there.

I think we put a lot of store on the big life decisions, the first of which for most American Catholics is deciding on our college &/or major, but the Gospel is lived out in all of the daily moments of our lives. God may be more intent on calling us to take time for the people who need us and to change our hearts toward the people who annoy us than He is on the particular place in which we might serve. We want God to call us by solving our problems for us; but he may have another call for us entirely.

We want to be open to the call of God and to our consciences.

I have found the best way to be open is during Adoration. Somehow, the truth of my life is revealed to me there, and it is there that I feel most aware of my failings and blessings. It is in quiet meditation that I realize something is bothering me -- how I get so angry when I drive, for example. By the way, the only way I've found to prevent road rage is to take a less busy road or drive at a calmer time of day. Praying the rosary while driving almost led to a crash!

I also liked learning about Jesuit discernment. I am not all that great at it, but I liked very much that it was rooted in a good understanding of human psychology. One of the best parts about it, in my opinion, is to avoid making important decisions in a time of of spiritual desolation. That is often a time I WANT to make important decisions -- when I feel depressed and lonely, I like to try to figure out where I could move instead. I usually just end up more stressed than ever. When I am happy and feel very content in my life, I don't usually think about the next move, but I am better equipped to assess my life accurately. Our emotions, hormones, and physical well-being have a HUGE effect on the way we perceive the world, and I appreciate that good Catholic discernment requires us to assess our physical state before we try to assess our call. By acknowledging that we are biological, rather than ethereal, beings, we are embracing our reality, which is the only way we can move forward in a truly rational way.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Trouble Praying the Rosary

Last year, I figured out that my mysterious recurrent eczema was coming from my rosary.

It had taken me 4 years to finally put the pieces together.

I generally say the Office of Readings, but when I go in the field, I don't like to pack the breviary, which at that time was already fairly battered. My rosary is much more portable, so I would say that.

My hands tended to break out in little weird bumps during field season, but since I was spending 10 hours a day digging, often in clumps of poison ivy, I figured it might be ant bites or a contact allergy from soil or plants. I also had to wash my hands multiple times a day and of course couldn't bring my GOOD lotion in the field because it is in such a big, terrorist-y bottle that it can't get through security.

Then I started noticing that even when I was back working in the lab, I would get what a couple of friends identified as eczema.

I switched lotions from my fun, scented lotions to Aveeno unscented products, and that helped cut down on a lot of it. However, there could still be weeks of this weird, moderately annoying skin condition.

I finally figured out it was my rosary because the eczema was now confined to only those spots on my hands that the rosary beads touch. I was using one of those rose-petal ones, and since fragrances can irritate sensitive skin, I switched to a plain wooden one. Sorry, Confirmation sponsor!

All was well, but when I started saying the Rosary every day recently, I found myself breaking out again, though to a much smaller extent than before. I don't break out the second I pick up a rosary, just if I use it for more than a few days.

I am still praying it every day! I just alternate days with the actual rosary beads, using my fingers, and the excellent website

I thought it might be a classy move to just use gloves, but the only ones I have available are lab gloves -- and I do get tired of wearing them all day long.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The time to stop cleaning up glass...

is when you kneel in it and your leg starts to bleed.

That is all.

Monday, July 23, 2012


How am I supposed to relax in the evenings when I take a shower to relax and end up thinking about statistics? Seriously???

I got off work "early" at 5:30, got home, and was all excited about reading books and watching TV. Instead I spend several hours freaking out over work.

Then I took a shower to relax and transition to bedtime, ended up drawing all over my mirror to try to crack a problem I'm having with serial dilution statistics.

That worked about as well as one might have expected, but at least my mirror got cleaned when I wiped all the dry-erase ink off. Hey, at least I didn't waste paper.

Except then I sat down and worked on paper.

Then I started looking up articles on statistics for serial dilutions. It doesn't look promising. Whenever you see the words "Bayesian" or "Maximum Likelihood" in the titles, you know you're not likely to get to just take the mean and standard deviation and go for a walk or something.

My brain needs to learn to turn off or something.

At least tomorrow, I get "MasterChef." Ah, the fury of Gordon Ramsay, sending my brain into sweet, sweet oblivion.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Experiments in Virtue

I just got done reading "The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment," by A. J. Jacobs. It was a quick read and quite entertaining.

Jacobs, also the author of "The Year of Living Biblically," and "The Know-It-All," frequently tries out different modes of living and then writes essays or books about them. For one month, he was Radically Honest, saying absolutely everything that came into his head. Another month, he outsourced all his email and shopping to India. He went a month fully concentrating on the present task, rather than multitasking. Another month, he was completely obedient to his wife.

He is a likable and humorous writer, but what I had not expected was how, from each experiment, he succeeded in holding on to some lesson. He decided to go back to giving "white lie" compliments, but to stop lying to get himself out of trouble. He started closing his eyes during phone calls so he could concentrate on the conversations. He and his wife discovered they had been getting way too snarky with each other, and both started treating each other with more consideration.

I think all Catholics can relate to this life of experimentation, because we do it at least every Lent. Read the whole Bible. Say the Rosary every day. Go on a retreat. Start saying the Office of Readings. Volunteer. Give alms.

We enter these actions with as little intent on lifelong commitment as Jacobs does, but with the hope that we will find some lasting benefit.

Outside of Lent, we can have other experiments in virtue when we join parish groups or start volunteering. I think this area is a little more scary; Lent ends every Easter, but we could keep on teaching that 3rd grade Bible class until we die (or move). SCARY!!! OH NOES!!! But, really, it's not like we're taking vows to these activities.

We must walk a fine balance between fickleness and slavish loyalty. We do not take vows to stay in the choir forever, or even to lead Newman Center retreats until graduation day.

When we are children, we want to quit activities as soon as our fantasies crash up against our real limitations. We can't play the piano (even after 1 week) like the prodigy on the latest musician-worship movie, so we want to quit. Well, so we've discovered it won't be all that easy for us. It's in those moments that our parents encourage us to keep going.

It's an important lesson, but I think that for some people, it needs to be re-examined.

On Seraphic's blog, a lot of college women write in worried about some romantic drama in their lives with a guy in their Newman Center. The women are involved, he's involved, and they can't stand the sight of him anymore, but feel obligated to keep going to all the same activities. I've met women like this in my own life too, and I thought of them when I read A.J. Jacobs' book.

We can get a lot out of things and activities that we quit.

There can be excellent reasons for backing out.

Maybe the choir you joined has changed directors, styles, music, and just isn't that challenging or fun anymore. It used to make you happy, but now it's something you dread each week. You aren't getting paid to be there; you don't need to keep going. The musical skills you learned there will still be with you in the next choir you join.

Maybe the Newman Center Bible Study used to be a fun place where you deepened your faith and made great friends. Now you are supposed to be a "leader," but you don't really like being the organizer, and you don't like going because you have to watch your ex-crush flirt with his new crush. What used to pick you up after a tough week is now the worst part of it.

So stop going.

Look, if you are a "leader" in college, you already know that life will move on for the organization after you graduate. You are allowed to move that day up a little bit. Try Mass at the nearby parish. Go to one of the other groups at the Newman Center. Start a prayer group instead. If you go for 1 semester to the nearby parish, you could just go back to being a participant, rather than dealing with the stress of planning and cajoling your fellow students.

If you are frustrated with your current schedule, make a little experiment. Drop the extracurriculars you don't enjoy and replace them with something. Just for a month. Or a summer. Or a semester. Plunge in whole-heartedly, and reassess at a specific date. If you miss the old group, the drama will have died down, and you can go back with less worry.

If you have actually been sitting on the sidelines and are bored or lonely, make an experiment of joining some group. Purposely decide on a time to evaluate whether you should stay in or leave.

I like the Jacobs way of life, and I realize I've been following it for a long time. I tend to stick with things, but the freedom in beginning new ventures without making a big commitment has helped me be more social and creative.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Total Gift of Self?

Seraphic recently wrote on her blog that she and her husband don't really like the phrase "total gift of self" from John Paul II's theology of the body. They think it is weird, kind of funny, and rather unsexy, but that perhaps it is a phrase that sounds better in Polish than in English.

When I think of the total gift of self, I think of spider mating habits and the "nuptial gift" of the spermatophore.

The spermatophore, also produced and given away by many different male insects, is a ball of fatty, protein-rich food mixed with sperm that is made of most of his body weight. That little male spider on the left in my blog photo is holding a white spermatophore, about to offer it to the big brown female. He gives this to his mate. The food may be essential for her to get the nutrition to make all the eggs that will become their 1000s of adorable baby spiders. Alternatively, eating the food may just be a big distraction that keeps the female from mating with other spiders.

Either way, the male has just given away most of his body weight in the form of a big ball of food and sperm. He doesn't get to mate again (usually). He doesn't get to live very much longer.

Praying mantises and black widow spiders, who kill and eat their mates, are an obvious cliche, but though it's a little more total, it doesn't seem much like a gift.

When you know all of this stuff about weirdo invertebrates, it's hard not to think that human sex pales in comparison (in terms of the self-gift idea). That's not to say that I want 75+ lbs of fat and sperm placed in my ovipore by a spouse in his last minutes of life!

Speaking of which, I really must get to writing "The Ovipore Monologues" some day.

I'm just sayin' that it's a lot easier for me to conceptualize "self-gift" as the acts of charity and service that take place throughout a marriage than to be very impressed with the gift of semen. Or is that not what the Pope meant? Perhaps I have interpreted his writings too literally. Wouldn't be the first time that's happened. Human men have to give other stuff to their wives to keep them happy. The engagement and wedding rings, a significant portion of the man's salary, could be seen as a nuptial gift. Oh, because it is! Riiiight, the spider thing was named AFTER the human marriage convention.

Now I am more confused about sex than ever.