I have a habit every morning to take a cursory glance at Yahoo to make sure the world is still in one piece. I read the top few stories about the world attempting to commit suicide, and then usually turn to the bottom story, which is usually something light hearted, such as "Man Trains Snake to Tie Itself into Pretzel!". If it is not something in a human interest vein, you can often find a story on a new scientific study or finding. Some of these are cool stories about new shiny objects being discovered in space. But quite often, they are studies advocating some new health food, or trying to explain psychological theory. One of these finally annoyed me enough that I felt I had to write something. These articles, I suspect, have a way of slipping into people's memories when people don't think them through.

The news headline states: "Women see paternal clues in men's faces", and although they don't seem to link to the original article, they do provide a nice synopsis, and lots of speculation. The details I can find on the article, on Yahoo News, and on the University of California Santa Barbara (where the research was done) newspaper's webpage is scarce and badly presented. I hardly know how to describe their findings so I can take them apart. So, perhaps I will just present the scattered facts as scattered facts:

  • The men were given pictures of "silhouettes" and "photographs" of "adults" and "infants", and were asked to rate their preferences.
    "About nine out of 10 men chose the baby picture, roughly 12 percent expressed no interest in the baby picture, and the remaining subjects had a range of interest."
    I don't know how these pictures were presented to the men. Was it given in such a way that the man was being asked his absolute opinion, or just what his whim directed him to? Say you presented someone with, say, a picture of a goldfish and a kangaroo, and asked him which was more likable or interesting. Would you assume that a man wanted a kangaroo as a housepet if he chose the kangaroo picture? Although, the UCSB article also mentions the men's "self-expressed interest in children", although it doesn't mention exactly how those conclusions were arrived at.
  • "and those they rated masculine generally had higher testosterone levels than the others"
    I have a very small understanding of the science behind sex hormones, which means I am fairly knowledgeable about the matter. The chemistry and biology of sex hormones, which are several interrelated molecules that bounce through human metabolism like a very slow pinball game, is something that is not well understood. I think the unstated premise here is: "testosterone=manly man", something that I don't think is as scientifically supported as it may be in the conventional wisdom. At the very least, half of all men will have above average testosterone. Did these men have levels that were clinically abnormal? At what level above normal does testosterone start affecting the body and the mind? This survey certainly doesn't seem to say.
  • "For example, the men who indicated they liked children the most were rated as above average in liking children by 20 of the 29 women. The men who showed no interest in children were correctly rated as below average in that category by 19 of the women".
    Have I failed to mention the small sample size yet? I was about to get to that. But right now we are just looking at the percentages. This seems to be the heart of the survey: that 70% of women were able to deduce who was above average at saying they liked pictures of kids, and about the same number guessed who wasn't. I would have to see a much larger sample size and a much clearer methodology before "19 out of 29" became anything convincing.
  • The sample size of this study was 39 men, ages 18 to 33, who "represented a variety of ethnic backgrounds" and 29 women, ages 18-20, who were all students at the UCSB. How much variety of ethnic backgrounds can you get in to 39 people? For that matter, how much variety of testosterone level could you get in a sample size of 39 men? Out of a sample that size, would you find a man whose testosterone differed significantly from the clinical norm? And were the women perhaps able to guess the man's interest in children by their age, and not something more occult? Did they just guess that a 33 year old man might have a stated interest in babies greater than an 18 year old boy? And on the subject of our female sample, we have 29 women, mostly teenagers, all of whom are going to the same college. How accurate of a sample is that?

So, to sum up the study: 29 teenage girls were shown pictures of 39 men, and were able to guess at a rate that may be slightly statistically significant that the men might have had some vague preference for looking at pictures of babies, and might have had levels of testosterone that were above average, although perhaps not meaningfully so. And from this, we get "Women Get Paternal Clues in Men's Faces"

And the speculation made from this is even greater:

"What this study illustrates is that there are genetic programs that increase survival of the species because there are hormones in women that are cuing their reactions to the hormones of the men," said Dr. Daniel Alkon
There is a Calvin & Hobbes in which Calvin explains at length to Hobbes how the slow grind of the cosmos was meant to finally produce him, the pinnacle of evolution. Hobbes asks him what he is going to do after all this work went into making him, and the next panel has Calvin watching cartoons. This quote is perhaps slightly less ridiculous than that. The grand and glorious purpose of the survival of the species can be ascertained because some teenage girls in California can maybe guess what men liked looking at pictures of!

There are many different ways that the ideology behind the idea that people are "genetically programmed" can be deconstructed, and I think the ideological underpinnings behind this dogma should be investigated. However, the study of how our culture got to where it is, and the rather complicated debate that would probably have to involve an investigation of Western metaphysical thinking, is perhaps more trouble than it is worth, if the people who support these ideas keep on making studies with this type of shallow methodology.

I picked this particular study. I could have actually waited until next week, when there will be another bad scientific study on men and women. I hope that, if nothing else, those who read my words here will read beyond the summaries of scientific studies that are released to the public.

See if you can make any more sense out of these than I can!

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