Sunday, April 30, 2006

Is that all they could come up with, or: Fisking a so-called Fisking

Kate Sutton's speech during AUSA's Womensfest caused quite a stir over at Red Confectionery, attracting a substantial amount of comments from those who took issue with the modernist feminist undertones. Unsurprisingly, there wasn't a great deal of effort that went into truly analysing what was in the speech, but rather attacking the messenger herself...

I don't understand this. I honestly don't see how grown men can feel so viscerally threatened by this speech, or more tellingly, the person who delivered it. It is unfortunate that Mr Graham Watson, who so often rails like Moses to the Israelites from the moral high ground about the folly of ad hominem attacks (remember, it's two words), is so quick to use them, as the comment below illustrates:

"What an idiot to have to use hyperbole to attemt[sic] to create sensation out of nothing. The same woman who [sic] I am told there now exists documentary[sic] testimony of her making false rape claims against people. I am also told court papers are being prepared by her victim, to call her to account for her vivid imagination, so well expressed here again in her speech.

Honestly, Graham. Ian Wishart himself couldn't have pulled off these kinds of faux conspiratorial undertones. Rather than calling to account the actual problems that Mr Watson has with Kate's points, he spends bandwidth attempting to mar Kate's character with hints and innuendo about hypothetical future legal action against her. If there truly are such allegations, they should be argued in court, not brought into a discussion about feminist issues by a man who is obviously having difficulty elucidating the problems he has with Kate's speech. The arguments just come across as hysterical and irrelevant.

As usual, questioning gender inequality leads some to conclude that it's just a fact, a biological fact of life, that men do the work and women stay at home looking after the kids. Rick attempted to explain this with the term 'sexual dimorphism', a common biological term used to describe biological differences between sexes. Of course, this contains two implicit and flawed assumptions about the relationship between sex (which goolies you have), gender identity (whether you identify as male or female, both or neither, both and neither) and gender roles (what males and females are supposed to do within their respective societies). Those assumptions are that Sex = Gender Identity = Gender Roles, that is that the constructs are somehow interchangeable, and that Sex/Gender Identity/Gender Roles are somehow blindly biologically determined - that those who are born with vaginas must identify as females and further that the traits they exhibit, their 'femininity' and all that that entails, is somehow an immutable biological artefact.

Gender Theory is a complex one, and there isn't space to go into a great deal here, but suffice to say that, while there is substantial evidence that gender identity has a strong biological correlation with sex, it is not an absolute relationship. Otherwise, we wouldn't have transgendered individuals. Even more dubious, and central to the discussion of gender equality, is the supposed relationship between sex and gender roles, or even gender identity and gender roles. While the tragic experiments of John Money/David Reimer have shown us that biology is a powerful force in these processes, we need to remember that societal norms, cultural mores and the need of those in power (whomever they may be) to justify, perpetuate and protect the status quo, has played and continues to play a significant role in defining what people will do and how people will act.

Unsurprisingly, those wishing to justify the poor participation rates of women leading in the private and indeed public sector, trot out the pseudo-scientific arguments of 'hormones', or as one commenter amusingly put it 'hormonal flux'. Of course! Elevated levels of progesterone and oestrogen means that women are incapable of interpreting statutes (judges), undertaking peer review (professors) or co-ordinating aquisitions (Chief Executives), while testosterone means that men can't use dictaphones (secretaries), or change nappies (child care).

This is a laughable fallacy. There is simply no empirical evidence to suggest that the subtle behavioural effects of sex-hormones is the reason that men are 'better' in leadership roles, while women are 'better' in support and administrative roles. Some evolutionary psychologists have attempted to explain (justify?) these disparitiess through reference to our evolutionary history and the division of labour among males and females in early hominid groups. However, like much of what evolutionary psychologists propose, there are very few data to support it. It's almost as if the proponents see a correlation that (a) women are in lower paid jobs (b) women have eostrogen and therefore that (a) and (b) somehow have some causative link. Utter. Bollocks.

As well as being a logical and empirical fallacy, these arguments are incredibly dishonest. By claiming 'hormones', proponents of this point of view have no responsibility to justify what is essentially their own prejudice:

"Hey! Don't look at me; it's not my fault that women are stuck in hormonal flux. I'm all for equality, but you know, biology means that women just can't cut it in the corporate world. They don't have the constitution. It's not their fault, it's just the hormones. We shouldn't set them up to fail."

But I digress! What I really wanted to do was have a look at a so-called fisking produced by Rick Giles. I like a good fisking, almost as much as I like a good frisking, and much more than I like a good fisting. Needless to say, I was a little underwhelmed by what transpired on Rick's blog. Rather than a good fisking, Rick's piece was short on substance, and devoid of any good refutation. It was, in fact, a nasty piece of work. Since I'm feeling cheated of a good fisking, I thought I would have a look at what Rick said; hey it's a veritable menage a trois a la fisk (Kate in Blue, Rick in Red, My own thoughts in black):

"I shall now quickly fisk Kate Sutton's Womensfest speech to The Quad at AU a few days ago.

Of course it would have been better to be there, because it was a speech and not a piece of literature. These are just speech notes released on Red Confectionery. The hook, the catch, and the swearing make more sense as a speech. However, the non-facts can be shot down here on equal terms weather
[sic] they be spoken or penned. So,-"

"I was invited to speak because I am a successful woman. I must say that this is very flattering, as I do not yet feel successful."

"You're not a successful woman. Success is reward for dealing in values but political power is a reward for penalising, for dealing in fear. You are a successful paracite,
[sic] if successful at all, but not a successful woman."

What kind of argument is that? Barely into the first paragraph, and already Rick starts the name calling complete with novel approach to spelling. How could Rick possibly judge whether Kate is a successful woman or not? I would consider a 24 year old, first time election to a community board, highest majority in the ward for those elections, now chair of that board to be at least to some extent successful. Call me crazy, but hey, just maybe. "Political power is a reward for penalising, for dealing in fear". What on earth is that supposed to mean, and how is it relevant to the discussion at hand? Would Rick then claim that Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi gained political power as a reward for penalising, dealing in fear? Very Odd.

Ad hominem, inconsistent and irrelevant.

"When told this I started to think about what success is – Sure I do many things. I am a former president of this student union, a current University of Auckland councillor, I am the chairperson of the Tamaki community board and I am a project manager for a charitable trust in South Auckland as well as sitting on about 4/5 other boards and committees."

"I rest my case."

Again: ad hominem, and irrelevant.

"I wanted to speak about women overseas and their plight – the feminisation of poverty and how vital it is for us to understand what is happening overseas,"

"Note the abstract reference to women outside New Zealand and some kind of plight. What women? Where? What's their boggle? If it's vital for us to understand why is it left to the imagination? Are you talking about Australian woman? Who? What? Where?"

I was disappointed that Kate didn't talk further on this, as we've had many personal discussions about it, and it something that I am keenly interested in. However, for Rick's benefit, let us look at the very real plight of women overseas. In Kenya, male legislators vote against rape laws, because in their culture, when a woman means no, she actually means yes. In the Dafur region, pro-government militias systematically use rape to control and intimidate non-Arab Sudanese communities. In India, 10 million female foetuses and babies have been killed over the last 20 years, because boys are better. Not to mention Pakistan (and India), where women are routinely murdered by family members for bringing dishonour to their families by being raped.

"the HIV/AIDS epidemic which affects mainly heterosexual females and their children."

"So do hickups! So does getting hair in your soup and forgetting where you put your shoes! Some vast patriarchal conspiracy, Kate? No. It's just that most members of every population are hetrosexual[sic] females and their children. Think about it, you're talking crap."

What Rick fails to understand from Kate's point is that heterosexual women are mainly affected by HIV/AIDS, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, because they do not have the ability or the power to prevent it. In these areas, women do not control any aspect of the sexuality: it's easy for us to say that women should just say no, but many, indeed most, simply can't, despite the fact that their communities demand that they remain virgins until marriage. Not only are most women in these African communities forced to surrender control of their sexuality to males, but they are traditionally blamed as the root of sexual evil, promiscuity and 'looseness', despite the fact that, particularly in South Africa, the spread of HIV is predominatly the result of a highly mobile, sexually careless mobile labour (male) workforce; it is these men who then return to their villages, and infect their wives. It is women who co-ordinate the care for HIV positive AIDS Orphans. It is HIV positive women that are shunned from their villages and communities, and HIV positive women who experience barriers to receiving retroviral drugs, even to condoms. And it is these women who are taking the power back. It is these sisterhoods that will help stem the spread of HIV among Africa's poorest and most disempowered.

"it is not an equal or fair world for women overseas in our poorer countries who are raped, mutilated, tortured and without homes – they are victims not perpetrators."

"Ohhhh, they're victims not perpetrators? Thanks for the correction, as if we needed to be corrected for thinking your poor abstract mutilated mystery women you haven't identified were guilty for being homeless and tortured. Shame on us. You really got us good with that one, Kate."

I don't understand what Rick is trying to prove with this point. Yes, they are the victims. The majority of discrimination, rape and mutilation is directed towards women by men. That is something that we should be concerned about; we're supposed to believe in equality, which means in an equality in the right not to live in fear. The mutilated Woman is not an abstraction, Rick: she's very real.

"ask most women if they are discriminated against and most pakeha women will say no. The problem is that the statistics tell a different story 24.2% of judges, 19.2% of newspaper editors, 17.2% of legal partnerships, 18.9% of mayors are women."

"What is this fascination with making men and woman homogenous in all industries?

People find their own place in the world without some Stalin conforming every pocket of society into a microcosmic duplicate of the national statistics. If 50% of New Zealanders are woman does it really follow that 50% of magazine editors need to be men? Does the number of percentage points by which we fall short of this really measure sexist discrimination as Kate suggests?"

If women are being barred from entry into those industries on the basis of their gender, then yes. It's quite simple. And here we witness the massive inconsistency in Rick's argument. Rick comes from a libertarian background that says we shouldn't discriminate on the basis of gender: every individual is equal, and should be judged on their merits. If that were so, then that null hypothesis should lead us to a prediction: The probability of finding a person of a certain gender in specific job, given that the null hypothesis of gender equality is correct, should be close 50%. However, we see that this prediction simply doesn't play out. Ergo Individuals are not equal for some reason on the basis of gender. Rick attempts to justify this by saying that there are innate gender role differences between men and women which are manifested in these differences: that across the board, men are found in leadership roles because they prefer them and women don't AND that men are innately better suited (hormonally, of course), to leadership roles while women are innatelybetter suited to support roles. He illustrates this with his response to Kate below:

"Why is it that 17% of professors and associate professors are women? But it that over 50% of general staff are women – its because there is still a hierarchy of jobs and there is a still a system where women have choices to move ahead - the boys network still exists in this university."

"Sexual dimorphism exists, celebrate it Sutton! Maybe "most pakeha women" don't wish they were judges, newspaper editors, and politicians? Men and woman have different abilities and tastes that don't happen to conform to what your numerical model demands they should be.

You just want to change the world into one giant game of Sutton Says."

So, the hypothesis proposed by Rick is that women would innately prefer to be lawyers, not judges; that women innately prefer to be teachers, not prinicipals; that women innately prefer to be general staff and not academics. This hypothesis presents a prediction: If we were to go out and survey University of Auckland students, female law students would probably on average indicate more than male ones that they would want to be a low-level lawyer than a Partner, or a Judge, or similar predictions in Medicine, or similar predictions in Education. It hasn't been done, but I doubt that in a controlled study these predictions would hold up. Anecdotally at least, evidence suggests that women are just as keen, on average, about taking up senior or leadership roles as men. Given that we've had to reject that hypothesis, what are we left with as an explanatory model for these gender disparities that we observe? There is only one alternative, as unpalatable as it may sound: systemic discrimination against women in leadership roles (incorporating also the possible propensity of many women to accept the social norms and gender roles that have been prescribed to and imposed on them)

"I am passionate about good governance and directorship and I am trying to break the mold of these statistics and bring my sisters with me, but it’s a long slow battle."

"I always ask people who produce this bullshit if they would also like to apply their golden median to the crime statistics. Is it also a problem for you, Kate, that insufficient violent offenders are females? Not enough drink drivers? Not enough white collar crime comming
[sic] from skirts? Should we try to equalise those statistics too for the same reason you have for equalising it in the legal workforce? A television campaign or schools programme to get more little girls to go crooked? Well why not? Or could it be that there are other considerations to the desirability of this kind of equality you have neglected to include in your stupid inferences? Hmmm."

That's just silly. Who would in their right mind, propose attempting to increase the number of female inmates? Kate's point referred to the lack of women in senior or leadership roles in the public and private sectors. That doesn't ipso facto imply that males are never discriminated against: it is perfectly reasonable to suspect that our current education system is not providing the educational quality to groups of boys that it does to some girls, or to consider that our health system is not geared towards the prevention of sex-specific cancers in men (prostate, testicular) as it is in women (breast, cervical, uterine, etc). Or that our Family Court may be biased towards mothers. Or that men are overrepresented in crime statistics. But that doesn't mean that there isn't discrimination towards women that needs addressing.

"Date rape, gang rape, sexual violence are all a norm here – it’s a joke because men make it so and they are the blokes, the boys club and they are putting us down and taking our jobs."

"Well you've got us there. But for a man to get to the bins where Craccum is kept you have to sometimes push girls out of the way, and down a flight of stairs. And as for gang rape, what else is there to do while waiting in those huge queues at the cafe? It's the norm, what can I say?

But, hey. I say again- they're not *your* jobs, Stalinette.

So the stats look bad, the story is still bad - what do we do?

Cut cafe queue times and hand out Craccum magazine to those who are kept waiting. Then I wont have any excuse for all this normalised raping I've been doing all the time and you wont have to think twice before going to luch."

Why is it that the vast majority of rapes, sexual assaults, batteries and violations directed by men towards women? Of course men get raped by women, and such cases are deserving of equally punitive measures. But if we were all equal, if there was no discrimination, if the power dynamic was balanced, then you would expect that there were equal numbers of people being raped of either gender. This is not the case; women are predominantly, though not exclusively, the victims of rape. We must all ask the question: WHY? Kate is not saying that all men are rapists. What Kate is showing is that the culture of rape goes deeper than just the actual act; it goes to the paradigm of unequal power relationships; rape is not about sexual desire, rape is about power, and the use of sex and physical force, predominantly by men, to exercise that power. Women need to take the power back, and men must be willing to share it. The question is whether or not either gender is playing their part in doing that. When you hear this joke:

Q: What's Black and Blue and doesn't like sex?
A: A rape victim

Spoken by men, and not challenged by either men or women, you have to think that we've both got a long way to go.

I am not a rapist, but as a man I do benefit from rape, as much as I don't wish to: I can walk down the street at night and feel completely safe, without the fear that I will be raped by a woman. A woman doesn't have that ability, but she has that right. It goes further than just saying that rape is unacceptable, which we all do, or even that joking about rape is not acceptable, which I suspect that the majority of us also do. It means looking at the power structures that exist that result in the majority of sexual assaults and rapes being directed at women. Looking at the power structures that allow the majority of rape victims to be women.

"We must encourage a culture of diversity and this starts with accepting women as equal in our society by providing them with equitable opportunity"

"Well they're not equal, unless you mean politically equal but you do not. "Equitable oppertunity"
[sic] means whatever you want it to mean, which is clearly that girl% is supposed to go up and boy% down so we're all nice and symmetrical like."

Well, yes, women should be equal, in every sense of the word: sexually, socially, politically, educationally. How could one justify otherwise? Because an individual has lactiferous mammaries, or a uterus, they are somehow not equals? By equals we don't mean identical, we don't mean homogenous, as feminists we mean equal to mean not having any rights, opportunities or potential hindered because of either genitalia or gender identity.

"You all have an obligation to wake the fuck up and realise how every thing that you have now, all the rights to be free to earn money to marry when you want, to gain an education, to control your sexuality and bear children when you want – all of these rights have been fought for by women and they can be taken away"

"Well that's it right there, isn't it Kate? You think you're Kate Sheppard and it's the 1800s, or that you're Betty Friedan and it's the 1960s. These were times for a'changin', for pushing the system the way you're still pushing now. But guess what Kate? It worked.

You are living in the past, still pushing. You still think the right to work, to learn, to invidivual sexuality, to mating and marriage choice are in immanent danger of being snuffed out. But they are not in any such danger, because we fought and won that battle together before you and I were even born.

And why did we fight for those thing? Wasn't it so we could enjoy them? Take your place in the world, woman. Stop squarking. Nobody is trying to make you have babies and steal your jobs, okay? Relax babe. You live in New Zealand in 2006. There are people who love you and could use your help and offer you theirs and share a community with you but if you can tell such people by the shape of their gender you're a better person than I am."

Well, that's a nice ending isn't it? All warm and fuzzy. A compassionate ending, it would seem. We aren't quite there yet, Rick. People assumed that the right to vote, the right to go to work and the right to marry as one pleases meant the end of gender discrimination. The power structures that exist, and their manifestations in earning statistics, statistics relating to sexual violence, to domestic violence, mean that women and men are not equal partners: the opportunities and rights, despite the ideals and the theory, are not equally available. The fact of the matter is, in many communities, people are trying to change that, and we should all embrace it, men and women. Kate's speech called on men to play an active role in trying to deconstruct and reform those power structures so that gender is not a determinant of what you are able to do, or what people are able to do to you. What on earth have we got to be afraid of?

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Who's that socially liberal party again?

This is so exciting!!!
At the Auckland/Northland regional conference of the labour party tonight these motions were passed:

That a system of voluntary euthanasia for the termanilly ill be legalised

That labour in government decriminalise the personal use of marijuana so that it is deal with as a health and social issue rather than a law and order one.

Both of these motions were put forward by Princes St and supported by others in the conference to get it through - with over 100 people present it was an awesome feeling.
Now the remits go to a policy committee and then to national conference in October. At this stage it is unliekly to pass at a national level but its traction and its super progressive.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The politics of nothing

Often I get emails from friends who are thinking about the world we live in. I recieved this email yesterday and thought it sufficently interesting enough for it to be shared with the blogosphere.
A debate would be interesting and useful to pull this apart and see what we can find together.

More is better

Now that I am in my final year of an economics degree I am beginning to ask some serious questions about the underlying ideas of the dismal science of economics. If you have ever completed any first year economics papers, you will be well aware that every assumption that an economic model makes is utterly flawed in one respect or another rendering each model somewhat useless.
The particular model that is known most well to everyone is the one based on consumption. How does an economist know where to locate the output of his economy? At the point where consumption is maximised of course (A big thanks to Solow for this model)! That is because one of the four axioms of economics is the idea that more is better. If you consume x units of something, and if all else held constant, you then consume x + 1 units, then your satisfaction will be better greater with the secon bundle. This is a fundamental cornerstone of every economic model.

Capitalistic Tendencies

The most important requirement of capitalism is that a person can never be satisfied. Because of this, there simply is no limit to what growth can be achieved. We can keep producing more, earning more and more money, living a higher and higher lifestyle and still never really be satisfied. This is a requirement of growth under capitalism
The one great outcome from capitalism, as we are told, is choice! We have more choice now than we have ever had. More choice in food, in luxury items, and even in necessity items. Choice is one thing that we should never have to complain about in our modern societies. But for all the choice that capitalism has given us, it has failed to give us the choice of less, or further still, of nothing. For if x + 1 is better than x, how can x ever be demanded. To place demand for x in an economic system would prove very difficult because there is no incentive for an organisation to market ‘x’ (when x+1 is on the market). You don’t see too many advertisements for video players anymore. And what if instead of ‘x’, we were to suggest that we should go further, and actually market ‘nothing.’
Even if we were able to prove that ‘nothing’ did infact have some inherent value, how could we entice the great capitalistic machine to provide an incentive for firms to offer it as an option. It’s a difficult proposition for anyone to find a solution for, probably especially difficult for the modern economist, who is taught the economic cornerstones from his/her first lecture.

Option Nothing

Imagine this. You own a 1986 ford escort. Its beaten up, its green, and it aint gonna attract any girls! You watch the TV and you see advertised brand new Subaru’s with at least 10 girls in bikinis hanging off an ugly looking guy. Your lonely feeling self peers down the TV screen thinking how things could be so different, if only you had that car. What does the escort have going for it that the Subaru doesn’t? Nothing right? . . .
Don’t be so quick to fall for advertising… As chuck Blore from American advertising giant Blore incorporated admitted to, “advertising is the art of arresting the human intelligence just long enough to get money from it.” So lets start here; can you lend your brand new Subaru to your friend? Probably not . . . you’d be too scared that he would smash it up. Would you lend the Escort? Hell yes! It’s already got dents galore, what would another one harm it? This simple analogy makes the point of disconnection. Disconnection from your friends, disconnection from your neighbours, disconnection from social contact. The more possessions you have the more security you need from the very people you live beside. Car alarms, house alarms, gates, guard dogs, the list is simply endless. Whether it is self inflicted security, or external security, the result is a disconnection from the people around you!
Have we lost what really fulfils the life of a human being? Human contact is paramount to our existence and central to our happiness. How can we possibly be happy in a system that continually brings out products that will make you happier? Of course as I have mentioned, there is no incentive for the markets to make us aware of this because no growth can come from it.
(sidenote: Why is it if someone thinks they are overweight, but is of normal weight and wants to lose weight we call it anorexia, a psychological disorder; But for someone who has lots of possessions, but doesn’t feel they have much, and then buys more, we call it rational consumer behaviour? Is consumerism then a psychological disorder)

An economic model based on, well, . . . nothing

So as an economist, how can we incorporate this theory into an economic model? Firstly we would have to find a way to measure ‘nothing.’ On an individual level this could be done using a level of utility (associating utility with levels of fulfilment). However while these are helpful in MicroEconomics 101, they are somewhat simplistic and limited in that you cannot compare utilities between people (Utility levels are cardinal not ordinal). This is the very reason that growth is measured in dollar values. Its not perfect, but its all we’ve got. So how would we measure ‘nothing’ in dollar values. It seems counter-intuitive to give ‘nothing’ a dollar value. Infact it would seem to undermine the entire notion of money as a measure. But that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t work! Rather measuring things in dollars, we could use a proxy measure, and call it something crazy like ‘cruns’ (suggestions on names will obviously be accepted). Cruns will obviously closely simulate dollars with the exception that they are slightly more abstract and therefore can give ‘nothing’ a value.

Creating Incentive

This leads me to the final problem of creating incentive for business to market ‘nothing’ as a viable choice for consumers. Surely if capitalism is “all that”, it wouldn’t struggle to incorporate ‘option nothing’ as part of its subset. The closest I have heard to an idea that incorporated ‘option nothing’ was in America (where else). Walt Disney actually charged people extraordinary amounts of money to live in a suburb that had strictly controlled advertising. In fact there was no advertising allowed. Because of this there was actually no pressure to continually upgrade your possessions. People had the option to choose nothing . . . and Walt Disney cashed in with relative success. Of course then we are back to our problem of growth, which ‘option nothing’ is not so good at accommodating. If we only thought of measuring growth differently! But that’s probably another essay.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

NZ Listener now to be available as soothing Gel

Following top-level discussions at APN Media, it was today announced that the New Zealand Listener would now be produced in three formats: print, web and gel. Editor Pamela Stirling commented: "our market research shows that readers can find it quite stressful to read about the dangers of botox poisoning, the imminent decline in house values or the worrying trends in garden design. So what better way to relax than with Listener Gel? It rejuvenates the skin, removes unsightly blemishes and calms aching muscles. Best of all, it removes middle-class anxiety in an instant."

Responding to criticism that this new format represents a dumbing down or smoothing out of the long-established literary and political magazine, Stirling commented, "New Zealand Listener readers are not the same demographic as they used to be and our paradigm must achieve synergy with their lifestyle priorities. We like to call our product range New Listener, because we have responded to focus groups just like that nice Mr Blair has done with his New Labour, which of course is not the same as that grumpy old New Labour we once had here."

Warming to her theme, Stirling continued: "our readers enjoy the finer things in life. They are achievers and trend-setters, who want to spend their high disposable incomes on products that make them look good and feel good. They deserve it. They have worked hard and played hard. Now it is time to unwind."

"Since I became Editor," she continued, "we have managed to remove almost all traces of the difficult stuff which used to fill up the old Listener's pages. It really used to be quite hard work reading all that political commentary and those cranky reviews of difficult books that nobody I knew ever bought. I don't think our readers want all those boring, intellectual things cluttering up their aspirational lives. I know our advertisers don't!"

"Still, the Listener is not all about holiday destinations and tasty treats for summer barbecues. Many of our lead articles are very challenging. Some are really quite icky. This could be a problem. The consumers who fit our readership profile like to chill-out after an invigorating pilates session by enjoying a glass of unoaked gewurztraminer and the company of some business friends. We would not like their sparkling conversation to be impaired by the thought that some hair products might cause cancer or that the costs of vein replacement therapy are spiralling out of control. We try to make all our stories about boomers positive and uplifting, but the reality is they still fear their lives are effectively past them and they will die embittered and lonely."

"That's where Listener Gel comes in. Its special compounds, suffused with aloe vera and hand-pressed extra virgin olive oil, simply take away all sense of existential crisis. It removes the worry and makes you feel like a consumer again."

"Best of all, add it to pan-fried snapper on a bed of wilted spinach and it makes a delicious meal for friends and family alike. Listener Gel: it beats thinking every time."

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Insidious Creep of Idiocy

Well, it's official. At least 25% of New Zealand are certified brain dead...

Twenty Five Percent of New Zealanders believe that the earth was created in six days. That's right. 1 in 4 New Zealanders have officially disengaged their neocortex, and are simply running on bible/qu'ran fuelled autopilot. I just want to pull my hair out. The creep of stupidity, commonly known as "Christianity", "Spirituality" or "Religion" is in full force. Ian Wishart and his deluded ilk will no doubt be pleased.

We have assumed too long that the religious idiocy (there's a two word tautology, if I've ever seen one) of the States would never make it here. "Oh! That couldn't happen here", we've smugly asserted. "We're far too liberal and progressive! We have the Civil Union Act and secular education!" But we've seen the warning signs. We've already seen a war started against progress, reason and science. We are not immune to mass stupidity. What makes it even worse is that modern liberals themselves have been part of the problem; we've created the perfect culture for a new Dark Age by developing a world dependent on pluralism, relativism and equal validity of truths.

I went to a seminar a while back by Associate Professor Allan Rodgrigo on the Intelligent Design movement. Afterwards we had a chat about the movement in New Zealand and he expressed a belief that it is something that we should be worried about here. Firstly because we have this culture of equal truth, which intelligent design hacks and charlatans cynically exploit to push their 'teach the controversy' mantra. It is the grossest of ironies that this very group who rally against the relativism of secular liberalism are using that very paradigm in an attempt to destroy it.

Secondly, we should be worried because scientists have spent far too long hiding in the bunkers of academia, and specifically academic language; not through arrogance, but simply through tradition. It is time for scientists to reclaim the language of design. Life is designed - not through any supernatural intelligent force, but through the synergy of chemistry, physics and biology to be the exquisitly adapted world we see around us. It is time that scientists started engaging in a public sphere to show what they do, why they do it and why science is the best thing we have to describe, explain and explore our world. Science is not only for scientists: it is for everyone. It is not difficult, you don't have to be smart to do it. Most scientists are normal people of normal abilities doing what they do.

There is no controversy. We would only need to look to other "explanations" (or should I say, look towards a frontal lobotomy) such as creationism, if evolutionary science was losing its explanatory, predictive and innovative powers. It is not. It has never been a more exciting time for evolutionary science, or any scientific field for that matter, than now. We continue to push the boundaries of our understanding, of our innovation, of our technological abilities; it has never been a better time to be a scientist.

I am angry, incredibly angry. It is time for people with some neurons firing to actually get out and stop it. We've rested on our laurels for too long, smug in a knowledge that the secular world is secure. During that complacency, we've indulged ourselves with the intellectually lazy half-baked idea of the relativity of truth, that two ideas can be equally valid at the same time for their explanations of the world. In the end, it is this that will be our achilles heel. It is this idea that is being exploited by Islamic groups to try and implement Sharia law in otherwise secular democracies such as Canada. It is this idea that has resulted in increasingly vocal calls from hardline religious idiots, both Christian and Muslim, to try and justify homophobia, misogyny, self-righteous hypocrisy about abortion and euthanasia, and of course biblical creationism. It is this idea that is exploited by mysticist Maori to try and justify attitudes towards women, used by some religious Pacific Island leaders to justify beating their children. All the while, the generally tolerant public are lulled into a sense of compliance: those views are ok. They are valid, because all ideas are valid. How fucking postmodern. How fucking wrong. Here's an idea: religion and supernaturalism got it wrong. Not only about how the world works. Not only about how we're supposed to live our lives. Religion got it wrong on everything. You'd think at the height of our 'advancement' as a species, we'd stop acting so primitively. It appears not. No matter how many things we are able to do, know and create because of Science, people still need their witchdoctors and sky fairies.

It would be funny if it wasn't so damn worrying. We've only got ourselves to blame. I don't know how we're supposed to stop it, but we need to start doing it now.

Homosexuality Part III: Pink Sperm and Designer Babies

Final Part of a three part series. Part I and Part II can be read here and here

To what extent does our biological understanding of sexual orientiation now inform our ability to critically assess the issue of gay sperm donation What about the wider issues of queer rights, or whether or not parents could or should choose the sexuality of their children?

From the outset we need to dispel this fallacy inherent in the queer rights movement that the ‘natural’ status of homosexuality, or for that matter transsexuality which I do not deal with here, somehow lends weight to quest for legal and civil rights for queer people. This is inconsistent for three reasons. (1) as we’ve seen, no behaviour is truly ‘natural’ in the deterministic sense of the word; (2) asserting that homosexuality is innate sets up the possibility of falsification, which isn’t helpful for the queer rights movement; and most importantly (3) legal and civil rights are not granted or based on the basis of being natural or unnatural. Our basis for rights in a secular democracy is that of the right of the individual to live his or life has he or she pleases. Religious freedom is not granted on the basis of religion being natural, but rather on the basis that a person has the right to express faith without interference or discrimination. The same argument must apply to sexual orientation, rather than some half baked idea about ‘natural rights’, for our system of rights to be consistent. Sure, use the arguments about the biological basis of homosexuality to broaden the public’s understanding of the issue, but keep it away from the rights argument; it has no justifiable basis there.

News that gay men can be sperm donors must be welcome to couples requiring assisted reproductive technology. However, evidence is accumulating that sexual orientation is the result of gene-environment interaction; sexual orientation has a heritable component.

Thus, using sperm from gay donors may have the potential of passing the gay gene(s) to the next generation. Patients requiring such service should be informed of such potential.

--Assoc. Prof. Frank Sin, The Press, 13 March 2006.

We can conclude that the Associate Professor Sin’s argument that the sperm of gay donors may somehow result in gay children is, to put it bluntly, crap. Of course, such a mechanism may be technically possible, but there is no reason to assume it is probable or even likely, since thousands of studies have failed to show a paternally based inheritance pattern of sexual orientation.

Given this lack of direct inheritance via sperm, we must question what the purpose or utility is of requiring disclosure of homosexuality on the behalf of sperm donors. If there is no evidence to support that homosexual men produce homosexual children, such a disclosure would be logically unnecessary.

Our knowledge of homosexuality’s biological underpinnings is ridiculously limited, to extent that our ability to predict when it will occur in individuals is close enough to zero to be discarded. The probabilities that we have are either relative to base population rates, (and therefore have no real predictive power), or based on correlations for which we have no real causal mechanisms. As a result, actions taken by parents to avoid conceiving or raising homosexual children are, based on current knowledge, logically fallacious and, on average, likely to fail. They are scientifically flawed.

Are they, however, ethically flawed? Disclosure may be both logically unneccessary and scientifically irrelevant, but that doesn’t ipso facto make it wrong. While I understand and sympathise with While I understand and sympathise with Allan-John Marsh’s (Spokesperson for the Wellington-based Gay Association of Professionals) comments that the implications could be perceived to be insulting, that in itself does also not restrict the parents’ right to know such information. And here we get into the realm of parental rights.

Let’s assume a world in which we could predict, with 99.99% certainty, whether or not a fertilisation will result in a homosexual child. Do parents then have the right to prevent that fertilisation? Do they have the right to prevent the existence of that individual based solely on the fact that the individual will be a homosexual? Do parents have the right to abort a foetus based on the fact that it is going to be a homosexual?

I am personally not very sure. My initial and visceral reaction was no. However is that response rational or consistent with my own personal view of abortion in general, or is it unduly and irrationaly influenced by my views on homosexuality? Much of my unsureness stems from the arguments presented by Aaron Greenberg and J Michael Bailey in their paper Parental Selection of Children’s Sexual Orientation*. In the article, the authors examine and question many of the assumptions and propositions surrounding the arguments put forward by those who oppose such selection. While not necessarily agreeing with all of the conclusions of the paper, it nonetheless presents some compelling arguments about the potentially irrational basis of opposing such rights. It also presents quite compelling rational arguments that, yes, parents do have such rights, irrespective of their motives.

I am a budding biologist. I am not an ethicist, I am not a philosopher, and I am not a logician. With all the arguments surrounding the rights of parents to select the sexual orientation of the children, I am rationally out of my depth, as I suspect the majority of mankind probably is. I am human, though - a queer one at that. This means I don’t have to be rational all the time. I can be logically inconsistent, because my life is informed by more than rationality.

As a queer person, I am happy to be the result of probabilities, genetics, my social experience and my development. I know my parents wouldn’t choose for me or my lesbian sister to be anything other than what we are, and my blood boils at the idea that some parents would. Ideally our parents would let 4 billion years of evolution and the universal dice have their way, rather than choose which box we’re going to fit neatly into before we’re even conceived. Because in the end it shouldn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.

So sure, parents have the right to do choose - absolutely, rationally, logically, empirically. But what I would want to know is this: what would happen to a child who was specifically selected to be a heterosexual, but turned out, by some fluke of nature, to be gay? What would knowing you were, through no fault of your own, exactly what your parents did not want, in fact actively tried to avoid, do to you? What effect would it have on your intrinsic feelings of self-worth, your validity as a human being? Who would love that child? It’s hard enough for many to be gay in a world where parents can’t decide. A world where nature blindly defied that decision on your behalf is one I don’t want to envisage, and one I certainly don’t want to live in.

*Greenberg A and JM Bailey. 2001. Parental Selection of Children's Sexual Orientation. Archives of Sexual Behaviour 30(4):423-437

Disclaimer: This last paper was very controversial, as has been some of the subsequent work of J. Michael Bailey. In 2003, Bailey was investigated for potentially unethical research and reporting practices for his book The Man Who Would Be Queen, about the transgendered community. The complaint was upheld and Dr Bailey resigned his position as Chair of Psychology at Northwestern University. I have considered these factors before referencing his work. I am still of the opinion that the arguments raised by Bailey and Greenberg are valid and worthy of addressing. I have a copy of the journal article and a response to it if readers would like to examine in it for themselves.

Friday, April 07, 2006

A Vision of Britain

London: new Government legislation passed last night by Parliament has sparked controversy among constitutional experts. In a sparsely-attended House of Commons, The Governance of Britain (Emergent Provisions) Bill was given its first, second and third readings, passing through all the legislative hoops in a record twelve-and-a-half minutes. Opposition MPs were said to be 'down the pub' at the time.

The Bill, which was included on the Commons order papers in very small print that appears to be written in Sanskrit, has raised eyebrows among some of the elder statesmen of British political life. At issue in particular is the introductory paragraph, which states:

WHEREAS, Parliament is the Sovereign law-making body of Her Majesty's Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Her Majesty's Government (that's us) holds the following truths to be self-evident:

1. We are in charge.
2. We can do what we like.
3. Blair is bigger than Beckham
4. Democracy is like SO Twentieth-Century
5. We will, we will, rock you.

The Bill proceeds to give sweeping powers to the Executive of a kind that has not been seen in Britain since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Government has abrogated to itself the power to do whatever it wishes, so long as those decisions are "cool" and "geisty." Parliament will no longer have the right to review or amend Government legislation. Instead, Members will be required to listen to focus groups and attend PowerPoint demonstrations given by creative entrepreneurs.

Other measures included in the legislation include a complete interior design package for Parliament, to a concept devised by Anouska Hempel, with installations by Damien Hirst and an ambient sound-loop by Brian Eno. The Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Blair, has created a "cleansing ceremony" based on Tibetan prayer chants that will replace Prime Minister's Question Time. The official colour of Parliament will be Taupe.

Instrumental in devising the legislation is Sir Mark Ellen, the newly-appointed Cabinet Secretary who was formerly Editor of Q Magazine and once a member of the college band Ugly Rumours with Tony Blair. Speaking in a podcast delivered from his fur-lined office in a penthouse high above Whitehall, Sir Mark said, "government just got hip. We have had Brit Art and Brit Pop; now we have Brit Pol. What we are conceptualising here is a new vision for the government of NewBrit. Parliamentary Democracy is fusty, stuffy and dusty. It is OldThink. We have replaced it with NewGov, which is syncretic, synaesthetic and synergetic. And, hey, nobody has to bother voting anymore."

One novel feature of the new Bill is that Prime Minister Tony Blair chose not to use the services of the Parliamentary Counsel, which usually drafts all Government legislation. Instead the task was given to indy-pop icon Miss Sophie Ellis-Bextor, in a move that has been described by media pundits as "post-ironic." She not only wrote the Bill, but made an accompanying collage and an interactive DVD. Her influence can be seen particularly in section 54(i) of the Bill, which states " DJ, gonna burn this goddamn House right down."

No member of the Government was available for comment today, as all Ministers are attending a spiritual encounter workshop hosted by Cherie Blair at an undisclosed location in Cornwall that is noted for its congruence of ley-lines. However, Mr and Mrs Blair's son Euan spoke with waiting reporters, telling them "all your base are belong to us."

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Homosexuality Part II: What is it with gay men and their mothers?

Part II in a three part series on the biological basis of homosexuality. (Part I can be read here or here)

One pattern has emerged that suggests that male and female homosexuality may have very different causes, a pattern that has been replicated and observed across numerous studies: the fraternal birth order effect. If you are a gay male, there is a greater probability that you have older brothers. In fact, each prior born male increases the probability of subsequent males being homosexual by 33%*, according to the most statistically robust studies. The same effect is not observed in boys with older sisters, or in girls at all. One proposed mechanism suggests that each male pregnancy promotes and reinforces a maternal immune response to certain proteins produced by the Y chomosome (the H-Y complex), meaning that later male pregnancies are subjected to stronger immune responses from the maternal system. This potentially disrupts typical foetal development and prenatal hormone action, or upsets the symmetry of body development, which is significantly correlated with the occurence of homosexuality in both males and females...

Again, there are problems here: there have been no studies in humans illustrating the actual mechanism of maternal immune response or its effect on the foetus. Further, there are youngest brothers that are not gay, and older brothers that are. As a result, this is at best one factor that may influence sexuality in only a subset of genetic males. The studies also don't take into account the possible behavioural effects of older brothers on the development of sexual identity in their younger brothers, although recent research has discounted this possible factor. The pattern is nonetheless informative: the fact that no such effect is found in females again underlies that male and female sexual orientation are probably not mirror images of each other, but rather the result of different developmental and social processes.

All in the family?

Recently, genetic studies on sexual orientation have gained some momentum and favour among researchers. This is in part due to the ability of some types of genetic studies to expose patterns of the heritability of sexual orientation, but also due to the rapid advances in genetic and molecular techniques that have produced such comprehensive studies as the Human Genome Project.

The application of genetic study to sexual orientation has proved more contentious than the application of developmental studies, given the shackling of the discipline to the ghosts of eugenics, genetic engineering, cloning and designer babies. Genetic factors are also assumed to be more deterministic, more rigid, than pre- and post-natal environmental influences, a common but frustrating misconception. Indeed, the study of sexual orientation using genetic techniques - family studies, twin studies and molecular studies - has revealed just as much variation, just as many general trends and probabilities, as our developmental approaches.

Studies across and within generations of have shown a moderate but still significant pattern of the behaviour in some families. That is, patterns of homosexuality do tend to run in certain families (contrary to the assertion of Allan-John Marsh), higher than you would expect by chance alone; if you are homosexual, the probability of one of your siblings also being homosexual is higher than if you are heterosexual. There is evidence to suggest that this statistical relationship is stronger between pairs of gay brothers and pairs of gay sisters than between the gay brother/lesbian sister relationship (which this author incidentally falls into), although that particular relationship is still significantly stronger than a straight brother/lesbian sister or gay brother/straight sister relationship. Again, these are just observable trends, not rules.

Twin studies have proved useful because they allow researchers to tease apart the effect of shared environments from genetic effects within families. Fraternal twins, which share identical environments but are only genetically related to each other to the extent of normal siblings, on average exhibit less shared homosexuality than identical twins, which share identical environments and identical genetic makeup. The difference between the rate of shared sexual orientation allows us to estimate how much of the variation in sexual orientation has a heritable component - estimates which from 14% to 76% depending on which study you look at.

Of course, we need to remember that not all identical twin sets share the same sexual orientation; some members of identical twin sets are gay while their twins are not. This means that even when we control for social and genetic factors, some further factor is influencing sexual orientation. We are again, at best, left with a trend, an estimate, a correlation.

All in the genes?

As previously mentioned, there are no ‘gay genes’, just as there are no ‘schizophrenia’ genes, no ‘alcholic genes’, no ‘violence’ genes. However, modern molecular studies combined with family and pedigree analysis allows us to try and narrow down which particular chomosomal locations, termed loci (singular locus), are associated with the occurrence, though not the cause, of homosexuality.

The most interesting discovery in this field was made in 1993 when a group of genetic researchers based at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland** reported on a familial and molecular study of 40 families of gay men. A certain point on the X chromosome, labelled Xq28 was found to be common to 33 pairs of gay brothers within these 40 families. It was the first definitive study which identified a possible genetic marker of homosexuality in males. No such marker was or has since been found in the familial studies of lesbians. Naturally the press had a field day, and the term ‘gay gene’ was born.

The identification of Xq28 in gay familial studies has been subsequently replicated with varying degrees of statistical significance. What needs to be considered is that, in these studies, not all gay men had Xq28 and not all males who possessed Xq28 were gay. More interestingly, there was a significant pattern of maternal male inheritance. That is, the study suggested that if you were gay, it was more probable that your mother’s brother was gay, rather than your father.

In fact, no paternally inherited chromosomal marker has been identified that is associated with homosexuality. Gay fathers do not statistically produce more gay children of either gender than heterosexual fathers. Similarly, lesbian mothers do not statistically produce more gay children of either gender than heterosexual mothers.

So where do we find ourselves at the end of all this, biologically? What do we think we know, what do we know we don’t?

1. Human sexual orientation is correlated with non-social biological factors. These include pre-natal developmental processes and genetic influences.

2. There is evidence that pre-natal testosterone levels play a role in the development of adult sexual orientation, but this differs both between gay males and lesbian females, and within gay male and lesbian female groups themselves.

3. There is evidence that the causative mechanisms of male and female homosexuality, and sexual orientation in general, are fundamentally disparate.

4. There is evidence that fraternal birth order is correlated with occurrence of homosexuality in males, but not in females.

5. There is a higher sharing of homosexuality between siblings than would be predicted by chance alone. Evidence therefore suggests that there is a familial component associated with homosexuality in both gay males and gay females.

6. Identical twins have a higher sharing of homosexuality than fraternal twins. Evidence therefore suggests that there is heritable component of human sexual orientation.

7. One maternally inherited chromosomal marker has been identified that is statisically but not causatively associated with the occurrence of male homosexuality in some individuals in some families.

8. There is no evidence to suggest that parent sexual orientation has any role in determining, or influencing their childen’s sexual orientation.

Finally, and most importantly: There are exceptions to every trend, link, association and relationship that has been identified. As a result, no line of evidence, alone or in conjunction with any other, or in conjunction with environmental factors, is sufficient as a causative model for human homosexuality in either males or females.

That, in a nutshell, is our understanding of the ‘biological’ basis of human sexual orientation. In essence we have nothing more than theories and hypotheses about some of the developmental mechanisms and genetic patterns that may be involved. We have no hard and fast rules, we have no easy answers. We just have a good idea.

We now face the question: Can we approach the social and ethical issues of homosexuality from a position informed by biology, by nature? If we can, how do we make sense of this sensational mess?

Next Week - Part III: Pink Sperm and Designer Babies

*Ellis L and R Blanchard. 2001. Birth order, sibling sex ratio, and maternal miscarriages in homosexual and heterosexual men and women. Personality and Individual Differences 30(4):543-552

**Hamer DH, Hu S, Magnuson VL, Hu N and AML Pattatucci. 1993. A Linkage Between DNA Markers on the X Chromosome and Male Sexual Orientation. Science 261(5119):321-227