[recycled material - first appeared here]
Yesterday I listened to a podcast that featured a personal hero of mine, Neil deGrasse Tyson, in which he responded to questions from the audience. Before answering one, he objected to the word “prove” in the question, saying he didn’t like that term. Right on! Neither do I. And he explained why he didn’t like the word, paralleling something I wrote here roughly a year ago.
Rather than providing proof, scientific findings support hypotheses; they boost our confidence in a theory; they increase the probability that our understanding of how things work is accurate.
To read more of that post, click here: Prove, Shmoove
Groan. Why the trumpets, why the tinsel?! When discussing and disseminating science news, shouldn’t we aspire to be, you know, a little more scientific?
The following release of a science finding strikes me as akin to having a party to celebrate sobriety.
I bet the headline that appeared on my screen last December elicits at least a small groan from most of you:
Oh holy kazoos — is that for real? Alas, it wasn’t a parody or a joke. It was “science.” In this case, the strongest of the science part was some actual data collected. That said, get ready for another, minor groan:
The researchers conducted 41 in-depth, in-home interviews with Muslims, Jews and Christians in the United States, Israel and Tunisia to examine consumers’ behavior when their given religion represents either a majority, minority or immigrant faith.
That 41 number is kinda small, especially considering the three countries of origin and the three religions involved. How could you come to any type of reasonable conclusion from that sample? Not to mention questions about how the subjects were . . . recruited?
Are you ready for some of the actual “finding”? Put down any sharp object you may be holding, because if you slap your forehead you don’t want to hurt yourself.
In countries where a religious group was in the majority, the researchers found that the dominant religion experienced “consumption mass hysteria,” which led to consequences of debt, drunkenness and overeating.
Wait. Was this study a joke? Have I been duped into attempting to take something seriously that isn’t serious? Sadly, it wasn’t a joke. But fortunately, I wasn’t duped. Were others?
What we have in this study is another case of a little bit of (poor) data being amplified into a supposedly revelatory finding.
A new study has found there are physiological and cognitive differences between people of the political left and right persuasions. What’s more . . . well, I’ll let the news release headline tell it:
Wow, liberals in their selfish hippy-trippy fashion “roll with the good,” while conservatives, in their buttoned-up, business-like fashion “confront the bad.”
Hmm. If “confronting the bad” means going after potential threats to national and neighborhood security . . . I guess I could see that. But what’s “rolling with the good”? If liberals truly roll with the good, what’s behind their concern over hunger and poverty and a slew of social inequalities? Why are they more inclined to spend money to combat the threat of global warming? How is that “rolling with the good”?
Likewise, how is the conservative’s penchant for wanting to keep as much of their profits as possible not “rolling with the good”?
Fortunately I read the entire article and discovered what all the fuss was about. Little, actually.
The experiment tracked the reaction of self-reported liberals and conservatives to visual images. And the results:
While liberals’ gazes tended to fall upon the pleasant images, such as a beach ball or a bunny rabbit, conservatives clearly focused on the negative images – of an open wound, a crashed car or a dirty toilet, for example.
Okay, that’s interesting. The news release, however, not only failed to provide information on two important experimental elements–number of subjects and degree of difference (i.e., what “tended” means)–but it also failed to provide links to that information. Tsk, tsk.
Too often, when some study succeeds in sending a single wood chip flying from a tree of interest, there comes a yell of “timber!” While it may be exciting and entertaining to do so, exaggeration isn’t good science.
The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of. – Blaise Pascal
It is Super Bowl Sunday. I am a fan of football. Perhaps a bigger fan of the enjoyable hoopla involved, starting with the food. I find a good party to be invigorating, if not cathartic. But perhaps that’s just my justifying a favored idiocy. Maybe loving football is crazy.
I realize that my love of football isn’t “rational.” But it seems to me that holding just about any aspect of life to a ruler of cold logic sucks the life out of it. For good and bad. Couldn’t the origin of biological life itself be seen as a bit of a quirk, a happenstance detour from the straight and narrow?
Yes, when there are problems to confront, full-strength rationality can be one heck of a tool. In many situations, an indispensable tool. But to apply it to all of life . . . maybe that’s crazy.
As for the Pascal quote, I might revise it this way:
The unconscious has its reasons of which the conscious is largely unaware and has little comprehension.
Whatever you do today, I hope you enjoy it.
[recycled material - first appeared here]
Roughly twenty years after the birth of the term, I still don’t like homophobia. The word. But before arguing against the use of this term, let me emphasize that by taking a position against the word I am by no means taking a position in support of any or all behavior the term is used to categorize. The issue I address here is solely the perceived misuse of language.
Why quibble over “homophobia”? First, as popularly employed, homophobia implies a diagnosis, and supports a perspective, that rests upon a tenet of pop-psychology. The tenet asserts that behind all aggression, anger, and resistance, exists the true causal emotion — fear. But does fear underlie all aggression, all anger, all opposition?
As Andrew Ortony and Terence J. Turner, researchers specializing in the psychology of emotion, long ago outlined in the pages of Psychological Review, anger is a distinct emotion that has its developmental roots in the infant’s experience of frustration. The infantile experience of frustration, especially that of restraint, develops into the adult emotion of anger. Furthermore, the expression of anger emerges prior to that of fear. Hence anger does not develop out of fear.
What underlies adult anger?
In a 1993 edition of another psychological journal, Cognition and Emotion, renown authority on human emotion Nico Frijda wrote, “As for anger: The most elementary elicitors…are acute goal interference.”
For the above and other reasons, the fear-as-primary-motivator tenet of pop-psychology seems to me to be more than highly questionable. It is likely outright false.
Returning to the specific case of homophobia, opposition to the increasing presence and political clout of homosexuals cannot and should not be written off as a mere symptom of widespread phobia. It is more complicated than that.
If you think about it, the reasoning behind “homophobia,” “homophobic,” and “homophobe,” is almost absurd. With similarly applied reasoning, one could diagnose anti-abortion activists as choice-phobic, environmentalists as development-phobic, and republicans as tax-phobic. As an even more ridiculous example, I myself could be called “creamed-corn-phobic,” for I intensely dislike this canned vegetable and resolutely oppose its inclusion into my diet.
Why not diagnose as phobic all aversive and oppositional behavior? Because the underlying reasoning is defective, and because a term as serious as phobia should not be used to categorize a person or people with reckless abandon.
The second and perhaps primary reason why the popular use of homophobia concerns me is that behind this term lurks moral and political bullying. All too frequently individuals employ the term in an attempt to pathologize opposing perspectives. To force values. To close issues. By labeling and defining people as “homophobic” you easily discredit their concerns. Calling someone homophobic is equivalent to saying, “You are sick. Your feelings and beliefs have absolutely no place in this society.”
True, the “other side” is frequently guilty of the above, but does that justify it?
The questions of homosexual rights (the extension of civil rights to people with differing sexual orientations), and how and to what degree society should accept and accommodate homosexuality, are controversial and complex. Personally, I’m for homosexual rights such as the right to marry and adopt children. However, using words that discredit the holders of opposing opinions and values, and thus, indirectly, the opinions and values themselves, is a strong-arm political tactic–a tactic that undermines the effort to make our communities and nation more free-thinking.
Language is a powerful tool. Sure, it would be nice if we could classify all behavior and persons we didn’t like as pathological, hence undeserving a legitimate place in the world. But it just isn’t that simple. Furthermore, by doing so we undermine a better understanding.
The headline tells it: Queen’s study finds religion helps us gain self-control
It seems that three cheers are in order for religion. At least if you accept things on face value. And read no further than the headline. What did the study actually find?
“After unscrambling sentences containing religiously oriented words, participants in our studies exercised significantly more self-control,” says psychology graduate student and lead researcher on the study, Kevin Rounding.
Oh. Okay. But wait. Is this effect exclusive to religion? The answer: Can’t tell.
Rather than having a control condition involving the unscrambling of sentences neutral to religion, why not test to see if other terms have an equally pro-self-control effect? I can think of a few sets, including family (and/or other social-group-oriented words) career-aspirations, dangers in the world, etc.
My alternative headline: Compared to complete ambivalence, religion kinda moves people.
Note: My comments are based upon the news release of the finding. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a link to more in-depth information about the study.
Sometimes the rational thing to do can be a distasteful thing to do. A couple examples come to mind:
> Encouraging a protesting child to leave a security blanket behind.
> Euthanizing an ailing, elderly pet.
If we always ‘followed our heart’ and ignored what sober reasoning informs us is the right thing to do . . . our life might be easier, emotionally, in the short term. But in the long? And what about the lives of others? Don’t we sometimes need to shoulder a distasteful load to make the lives of others better?
I got to thinking about his subject over the weekend, when taking a sharp knife to a fish just pulled from the water. The fish certainly didn’t like that jolt of pain (judging by it’s brief struggle). But then it was dead and went into the ice-filled cooler. Sure, I could have circumvented the blood and personal experience of killing another creature by just letting it die on its own time, so to speak. But that, I imagine, is less compassionate than what I’ve taken to doing with the fish I catch and plan on eating.
Yes, I am a carnivore. But I believe I am at least somewhat ethical in my flesh-eating. For one, I will and do honestly confront the pain and blood that is a consequence of how I feed myself and my family. For another — at least when it comes to fishing — I fish waters that have minimal “fishing pressure.” Meaning I go where the fish populations are healthy. And I take only enough for a good meal or two.
This weekend my fishing partner and I brought home 4 fish. We had caught more fish, but didn’t keep them. Not the right size and/or species.
Slow-baked over turnip greens and yellow squash, and served with lemon-pepper butter — my, they were good. Actually, my 3-person household only finished two. No need to be gluttonous. The other two fish we’ll enjoy later this week. As part of a balanced diet.
Of course I realize that returning the the vegetarian diet I once adhered to (in my early 20s, when else?) would eliminate some death and suffering that comes because of my dietary choices, directly or indirectly. But would that impetus come from my heart or my head? I wonder.
In the meantime, I’ll enjoy what I consider to be a philosophically tenable and personally fulfilling diet.
[recycled material - first appeared here]
Evolution has been, and still sometimes mistakenly is, portrayed as a grand parade to the new, the better, the more complex. But two things, at least, make this flatly untrue.
First, the failures are an undeniable yet indispensable part of the parade. Sure, they tend to be fleeting and thus partly invisible — joining the parade for a mere half block before veering off to nowhere — but to overlook them is sheer folly. The numbers, were we to count them, are staggering.
Second, there is no force pushing evolution inextricably toward the bigger and the better. None that seems more than a human projection, in my opinion. Consider this recent science news headline:
That’s right, the male “Y” has been losing size (and hence complexity) over time. It’s shrinking. And not due to immersion in cold water.
With evolution, whatever works in one form or another, persists. Whatever doesn’t, disappears. Sometimes. If we are talking organisms, that is absolutely true. But non-working (non-functional) characteristics of organisms can persist if there is no cost the selective pressures can subtract. Sometimes.
I’m not an evolutionary biologist, so don’t take my word for it. I also wouldn’t advise taking any single thinkers word for anything. I suggest aiming for a deeper education.
I remember watching an episode of Penn and Teller’s HBO series “Bullshit!” and reacting to something Penn Jillette said with an enthusiastic “huzzah!”
What had he said? That more people should read the Bible. Because we need more atheists.
Which made sense to me. The first time I read the whole dang thing through as an adult I was amazed by what was in it. And further amazed that people could consider it a holy book.
But I’m not your average reader. In fact, there is no such animal as an average reader. As new research suggests. In, How you read the Bible is tied to fellow worshippers’ education, Baylor researcher finds, I read:
Regardless of a person’s educational background, he or she is less likely to approach the Bible in a literal word-for-word fashion when surrounded by a greater number of church members who went to college, according to a Baylor University sociology researcher.
Oh. So blunt familiarity with the Bible may not help liberate folk. Notice that the finding was not about the individual’s education level, but that of their peers. Social environments matter.
For me this reinforces the idea that atheists and humanists need to speak up more. Why? We are members of many social groups. And a social group can influence the thinking of others, even if it is ever so subtly.
Yes, it is conventient to write-off bullying as merely a case of one bad apple messing up things for others… As if the entire social phenomenon can be entirely accounted for by the influence of one anti-social personality.
But maybe there is more to it than that — as the following quote from a scientific news-release proposes:
“People have traditionally framed bullying as social incompetence, thinking that bullies have low self-esteem or impulse problems,” said Patricia Hawley, KU associate professor of developmental psychology. “But recent research shows that bullying perpetrators can be socially competent and can win esteem from their peers.” [source]
Oh-oh. Looks like we can’t pin 100% of the blame on the bullies themselves. Damn. Don’t you hate it when things get complicated?
The following quote further argues that bullies aren’t simply warped individuals, but are fundamentally like you and me. It may be that they different strategies and opportunities for winning social status:
“It changes the rewards structure,” Hawley said. “At the end of the day, the goals of the bully are like yours and mine — they want friendship and status. They have human goals, not pathological ones.”
Hmm. So maybe if bullies were capable of winning blue ribbons for something else, their victims could rest easier.
Food for thought, certainly.
Holy smokes, Batman! And by smokes I mean “Lucky Strikes.” Check out this heading and subhead to a research finding:
Lifestyles of the old and healthy defy expectations -
Einstein researchers find centenarians just as likely as the rest of population to smoke, drink and pack on pounds. [source]
Damn. That doesn’t fit in with our mantra of “you are what you eat” and “you are what you smoke and drink, or don’t.”
By the way, the Einstein researchers aren’t necessarily brilliant. Rather they are affiliated with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University.
Okay, this was one study. And the data isn’t fantastic. But in some regards, it’s not bad either. The researchers interviewed nearly 500 Ashkenazi Jews, living independently and more than 95 years old, about their health and lifestyle. Ashkenazi Jews were chosen as the subject pool both due to their alleged longevity and their relative genetic uniformity. They then compared this to previous information gathered from roughly three thousand cohorts. In brief, this what they found:
Overall, people with exceptional longevity did not have healthier habits than the comparison group in terms of BMI, smoking, physical activity, or diet.
What? Really? Okay, so maybe those really long-lived individuals benefit from good genes. Yet lifestyle might matter more for those with so-so genes. Might.
[recycled material - first appeared here]
In a freethought essay by Valerie Tarico, Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science: Part 5.5 of 6, I came across a quote that caused me to emit a silent huzzah!
The scientific method has been called, “What we know about how not to fool ourselves.”
No, science is not one belief system among many. In fact, it may just be an antidote to belief. At least bogus belief.
What is science? Too often science is presented solely as the products of a process/enterprise. This strikes me as akin to pointing to a sack of rice and calling it agriculture.
We need more words!
There are the products of science and there is the enterprise or process of doing science.
Here is my spur-of-the-moment definition of “science.” At least the part I think needs to be emphasized.
Science is a set of thinking and information-gathering strategies developed to reduce error.
What differentiates science from non-science? The types of thinking and information-gathering processes used to come to a conclusion or form a belief.
Some fundamentalists view science with hostility, claiming it leads to atheism. There may be something to this, actually. In a sense, science is the process of subtracting the bogus to arrive at the more real (what we can more confidently know). When you apply scientific thinking to religious claims . . . they tend to fall away. In the area of supernatural belief, the atheist is one who has let fall away ideas unsupported by the best methods and technologies of thought.
The audacity! Dropping to the cutting floor another person’s cherished ideas!
Scientists aren’t arrogant or close-minded. They are confident that their cognitive tools are a prophylactic against bogus belief. And they are willing to put ideas to the test! And so they continue to advance, in part, by subtraction.
Girls and boys are different. But is it culture that does it? Or are they “naturally” different? My guess is that, generally speaking, nature slants the field of possible behavior and culture does the rest.
New research into friendship dynamics among elementary age girls and boys seems to muddle the question of gender differences more than it clarifies it. But maybe any previous, presumed clarity was premature, anyway.
A lead paragraph to the news release states:
In a Duke University study out Tuesday, researchers found that pre-teen girls may not be any better at friendships than boys, despite previous research suggesting otherwise. The findings suggest that when more serious violations of a friendship occur, girls struggle just as much and, in some ways, even more than boys. [source]
Okay, so boys and girls are similar in that they don’t like violations of friendships. The researchers did find a difference, however, in the strength of their dislike.
The girls also reported they were more bothered by the transgressions, felt more anger and sadness, and were more likely to think the offense meant their friend did not care about them or was trying to control them.
In reading the news release a second time I was left with a number of questions, including these: What type of friendships are we talking about? What type of transgressions and conflict of interests? Would the results be the same in different settings, in different cultures, and for different age groups?
As for this one study, I have no strong feeling about its significance. What I do take away from it is that we should be cautious when we nod in agreement to simplistic stereotypes about males and females.
[recycled material - first appeared here]
Video games = bad. Right? Wrong. Why? Because it is a hasty answer to a bogus questions: Are video games good or bad?
Critical thinkers will examine and critique a question before answering it. Video games–which video games? Good or bad–in what ways? And, importantly–good OR bad? Is this black/white thinking helpful?
While the vast majority of research into video games has focused on the violent type and how they might influence human beings to be more aggressive/violent, there have been a few studies on other types of video games having a more beneficial affect on behavior. But there are a few. A new one has just been published in the June 2009 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. And the science behind it seems relatively solid.
The article presents the findings of three separate studies, conducted in different countries with different age groups, and using different scientific approaches. All the studies find that playing games with prosocial content causes players to be more helpful to others after the game is over.
Co-author Brad Bushman said,
These studies show the same kind of impact on three different age groups from three very different cultures.
Good. I like that. But then I think Brad got a bit carried away with this statement,
The resulting triangulation of evidence provides the strongest possible proof that the findings are both valid and generalizable.
Boy do I hate the word “proof.” Fine, use it in mathematics. But for forensics and psychology and virtually all of science, I find the term inappropriate. Proof has too much certitude and finality infused into it. Evidence is better.
That said, we can now see how the question, “Are video games good or bad?” is a bogus question, particularly if we expect a brief answer.
[source] University of Michigan (2009, June 18). Some Video Games Can Make Children Kinder And More Likely To Help. ScienceDaily.
New research proves it: herbal medicine works. Check out the news release headline -
But wait a minute. I think a neglected to put an “an” before “herbal medicine works.” For it was one Chinese herbal treatment, right?
Yes and no.
Yes, in that the ‘herbal medicine’ was the plant Hoventia.
No, in that it wasn’t administered as Chinese medicine is. Rather, the experiment used a component isolated from the plant, the chemical dihydromyricetin.
The research team determined that dihydromyricetin may provide a molecular target and cellular mechanism to counteract alcohol intoxication and dependence, leading to new therapeutic treatments — all based on an ancient “folk medicine” treatment that has been used by humans for at least 500 years.
While I applaud this scientific finding, I question the misleading language used in the write up. For example, this title would be more accurate:
“Treatment based on a Chinese herbal remedy may provide . . . “
Once a laboratory isolates the active chemical in an herb, extract or manufactures it, and then applies the methods of science to that chemical, I no longer consider it a Chinese medicine. Rather, it is traditional/conventional medicine working off an idea for a new treatment from Chinese medicine.
A recent news release posted at Eurakalert has supported what psychologists have known for awhile: our conscious mind is not all-knowing. And I don’t mean about the world, I mean about oneself.
In research that highlights the limitations of data generated by self-reports, it was found that while human beings may say they are most attracted to, say, intelligence or a sense of humor, their behavior indicates otherwise. In You say you don’t care about dating a hottie?, the use of a new methodology (one that measures implicit attraction vs. explicitly stated preference) reveals a mis-match in “the talk and the walk” of individuals in the arena of attraction to members of the opposite sex.
This echoes several findings on racism and other psychological phenomena. We can think one thing while perceiving/feeling/behaving another way. Sometimes we can even believe two, contradictory things. We just try not to recognize both thoughts at the same time. Maybe one is held by our ‘social self’ the other by our ‘private self.’ So to speak. And maybe that private belief is so private, we don’t even know it’s there.
So when you or someone else says, “I am X” about some social preference, we should probably remember to insert “as far as I am aware.”
As regular readers of this blog are aware, while I believe that there are significant average differences in male and female traits, those differences tend to get blown out of proportion. Furthermore, average differences don’t apply all that well to individuals. For example, there are many women on the leading edge of the bell-curve of one trait or another that are actually stronger in the allegedly ‘manly’ trait than the average man. Etc.
Yesterday some new research caught my eye that seems to challenge my “Yah, we’re definitely different, but more similar than different, and only relatively different” position.
Lead researcher Marco Del Giudice of the University of Turin concludes from the study that, “the true extent of sex differences in human personality has [therefore] been consistently underestimated.” [source]
What data was the opinion based upon? Good question.
The researchers used personality measurements from more than 10,000 people, approximately half men and half women. The personality test included 15 personality scales, including such traits as warmth, sensitivity, and perfectionism.
Of course, these larger differences could be largely cultural. I first assumed that the subjects were Italian, and further assumed that Italian culture may have more distinct gender roles and expectations than American. But the subjects were U.S. citizens.
Interesting. At this moment, I don’t know what to think. Besides, “I need to read the entire study.”
[recycled material - first appeared here]
When I see simplistic, one-size-fits-all, plans for perfect physical health and/or optimal mental happiness, my bologna detector goes off. Unfortunately, health is a very complex topic. Part of the complexity is a lag time between cause and effect. It can take days, weeks, months, and even many years for health to take a turn for the worse or better. What’s more, a singular black-and-white use of the word cause can be problematic. Why? It is nearly impossible to isolate single variables. And effects can have multiple causes, as can causes have multiple effects.
Consider the findings from the following two studies.
While I don’t outright doubt a link between the two variables, I wonder if “moderate alcohol intake” can be cleanly isolated from others. Lifestyle factors can come in clusters, one factor confoundingly entwined with others.
Accurate science is reductionistic in methodology. So in the above study we find a link between two variables: cohabitation and marital harmony/strife. Yet we must not be overly simplistic when we evaluate results. Does the above mean that cohabitation causes marital strife? Well, no, it doesn’t. While it may suggest it, we have to remember that other factors are likely involved. Personality traits and relationship dynamics for two. Because this wasn’t an experiment, with couples randomly assigned to either cohabit before marriage or not, we cannot know who decides to cohabit under what circumstances.
This second study did include a questionnaire element, in which subjects were asked about the reasons they decided to cohabit before marriage. These I would take with a huge grain of salt because people are far from perfectly aware of why they do what they do.
In summary, simplistic answers are appealing. But our world is a very complex one.
I recall once hearing an adage that went something like this:
Most of the time, the doctor’s job amounts to entertaining you while your body heals itself.
Maybe a better wording would be “distracting you” or “comforting you.” I might also include, “monitoring your condition.”
Indeed, most ailments are self-correcting. The body heals itself. That said, I don’t pooh-pooh the profession. There are those times that what a doctor does goes well beyond placebo effects. A lot of medication really does work, and surgery does not perform itself.
Does the above adage similarly apply to psychotherapists? Like physical ailments, the majority of psychological ailments are self-correcting. But it takes time. And having a person to “hold your hand” during that time can be a welcome thing, if not an expensive thing (regardless of co-pay arrangements).
But compared to the medical health field, the theories and methods of the mental health field are far sketchier. Less informed by hard science. For years one of my beefs with the field is the notion of licensing mental health professionals. Yes, we are told it is to protect the consumer. For licensing assures a level of education and experience. But what does some education in a fuzzy field really bring?
Sure, the licensure hurdle probably keeps a number of hacks and charlatans away from innocent consumers of mental health services. But the licensing also drives up and justifies greater cost. At what over-all benefit?
Two recent studies into the treatment of depression highlight the largely non-specialist nature of psychotherapy.
The sub-head shares this -
Programs in which patients and volunteers share information were found to reduce depression symptoms better than traditional care alone and were about as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy, study finds
I do wonder about the “about as effective.” No elaboration was provided.
Lead author of the study, David Ekers . . . said: “This is a small-scale study and certainly more research with bigger trials is needed but it shows some very promising early findings. The results indicate that with limited training, generic mental health workers can be trained to deliver clinically effective behavioural activation to people with long-standing depression.
“With limited training.”
I suppose nurses could by-and-large do the same for medical doctors, with lesser training. At least for the entertaining and hand-holding part.
Among this uncertainty about the current state of psychotherapy there is some good news. Research continues to be conducted; knowledge is growing by small bits. Maybe at some point the “educational” component to psychotherapy licensure will be justified. At this point I have my doubts.
Is Wikipedia biased? A “gap” in male-female contribution and editing behavior at Wikipedia has been highlighted by researchers from the University of Minnesota. But is a gap always the result of bias?
Here’s the relevant information:
In their research paper, “WP:Clubhouse? An Exploration of Wikipedia’s Gender Imbalance,” the researchers from the University of Minnesota’s GroupLens Research Lab present a scientific exploration of gender imbalance in the English Wikipedia’s population of editors. Using self-reported gender information from more than 110,000 editors over a period of time from 2005 to January 2011, the researchers explored three broad areas related to the gender gap.
First, they looked at the nature of the imbalance itself. Their research showed that only 16 percent of new editors joining Wikipedia during 2009 identified themselves as female, and those females made only 9 percent of the edits by the editors who joined in 2009. To make matters worse, female editors are more likely to stop editing and leave Wikipedia when their edits are reverted as newcomers. [italic and bold mine]
Hmm. A few questions. First, is Wikipedia really a clubhouse? No, this word choice isn’t a huge deal, but if the authors title their paper that way I kinda wonder about their own biases. A clubhouse is something you join and generally does have membership and can be exclusive. Wikipedia strikes me as far more democratic. Socially ‘organic,’ even. A better question might be, “Do the males who contribute to Wikipedia bring a clubhouse-like attitude to it more than the females do?”
Secondly, is a gender imbalance always bad? No. There is certainly one in body-building behavior (more men) as there is one in studying foreign languages (more women). Do these differences qualify as imbalances that need to be balanced? I don’t think so.
Lastly, and reflecting the core of my concern, the “to make matters worse” wording implies a problem. Importantly, it seems the problem resides in the outside world. Ah yes, it is always the world that causes a person to behave as he or she does. Because we all know that there is nothing in the person him or herself at all. No, we are all merely empty vessels blown about by the social and cultural winds.
Of course, if biased behavior on the part of Wikipedia were documented, constituting a social wind strong enough to impede the progress of women wanting to contribute — that would be another issue.