Friday, December 15, 2006


In Which Razib Opens Up a Can of Blogospheric Worms

Recently, Razib of Gene Expression made a short post in which he expressed his surprise on seeing an attractive woman recommend a few science fiction books to another, as he puts it, "far less attractive". Insofar as this is a typical your-average-blog post (short, confirms a cliche, tongue-in-cheek), it obvously doesn't merit much attention. What's more interesting is this: Several women science bloggers have taken issue with the post and its expression of a tired gender stereotype, and challenged it. And this is where the fun begins. All the above posts are full of comments that can serve as a useful reminder that the supposedly enlightened community of science bloggers does have its share of... somewhat less enlightened people.

Let's take a look at some typical responses to illustrate my point:

#1. The Ignorance and Confusion of the Privileged:

"If you can't express why you disagree with what Razib actually said, or you can't actually take what Razib said and show how it implies your straw man version, then just leave it alone. Let people who can read the post without putting entire essays in between the lines criticize it. As it is, you just look reactive and silly, and the last thing the blogosphere needs is another reactive, silly feminist that the reactive, silly right wingers can use to represent all feminists (they're already good at making rational feminists look reactive by parodying them, but this sort of post needs no parody -- it's its own parody)."

This comment, by Chris of Mixing Memory, is a very common reaction from "nice guys" in a feminist discussion. They just can't understand what all the fuss is about. So many feminist discussions end with the woman being fuming with anger, and the man just going "Huh? What a shrill bitch" and shrugging it off. To Chris and other men who respond like this I present a thought experiment.

Say you are a member of a frequently stereotyped and discriminated minority, such as blacks or women. While instances of outright racism/sexism are rare, you are surrounded by people who, every day, drop small comments that reveal their ignorance and prejudices. Day after day you are faced with the task of correcting these comments, of ensuring that you are treated as an individual, not a stereotype - or to let them stand unchallenged and be reduced to "the girl" or "the brotha". Every time you meet a new person or enter a new setting, this Sisyphan task must be performed again, and kept up, requiring you to invest time and energy, while the people who belong to the privileged majority never need to exert themselves in such a fasion and are thus free to spend these resources on other, more rewarding activities. This is (part of) what "privilege" or lack thereof means.

While perhaps harmless in itself, it's easy to see why Razib's comment infuriated someone like Zuska, who spends a lot of her time fighting sexism on so many fronts already, and who didn't expect to see that crap on her "doorstep" from a fellow ScienceBlogger. So, for the people who respond with #1: I recommend some empathy.

#2. The All Nerds Are Ugly Response

"You are right, Tara, but let's be realistic. Women who are REALLY into sci fi can be generalized as not-so-attractive. But then again, regardless of the gender there is a whole lot of ugly going on at those things."

"I wonder what her high school yearbook photo looks like. Maybe she was an ugly growing up. That would explain it. Either that or you've wandered into bizarro land."

You know, this is obviously just my naivete speaking, but ever since I decided on becoming a scientist (about age 7), I always imagined scientists as being nerds. I figured no one who is not passionately interested in the subject would want to go near a job that is so unrewarding, hard and tedious (not to mention the pay is crap). But, surprise, wherever I go, there are still people who act like they're still in high school and they have to be "cool" by dissing knowlege and bragging about their ignorance. Recently, I overheard a masters student bragging about how she made her end-project report by plagiarising (copy-pasting whole paragraphs) from papers, because she couldn't be bothered to learn the theory behind her work. Often, the subject of conversations among postdocs or PhD students is how they hate reading papers or how they just see their projects as a 9-5 job that they don't really care about. Sure, some detachment is a good thing; but why diss knowlege? Why stigmatize people who do have a burning passion for their work?

Embedded in this is also the intellectual contempt for science fiction, which is somehow seen as low-brow and unworthy literature, read solely by society's rejects, fit only for ugly people. To all those who respond with #2: Grow up, please. You don't have to regurgitate your adolescent hangups.

#3. The "It's a Statement of Fact, Deal With It" Defence

"This seems to confuse is-ought. Razib did not make a statement of "ought" regarding stereotypes. He seemed to simply make a statement of "is".

And I think in taking that in, most people will cool their heels and realize the intrinsic difference between saying one and the other."

"I find it a little uncomfortable when people object too vigorously to stereotypes of the form: People of type X are generally of type Y. What's wrong with being a Y, anyway?"

Some people seem to believe that there's nothing wrong about perpetuating a stereotype, or embodying it. Obvbiously, someone who is attractive and stupid is not doing anything wrong per se; he/she is choosing an identity and lifestyle like everyone else. The problem that with stereotypes is when everyone is reduced to only live the stereotype; when the idea of the "hot chick", or whatever, becomes entrenched in the minds of people and restricts choices and behaviour. Words and ideas have power over people, and when you are expressing prejudice and playing along without challenging it, you're not doing anything particularly constructive. Fair enough, not everything has to further a cause; but expect to get called out by people who care. It's not that surprising that you'll get roasted on the blogosphere for being prejudiced.

Razib is a blogger I like to read: he has a lot of interesting posts, and he's not as sexist as some of the commenters seem to think (read this, for example), but this time he got his ass kicked for a good reason. My hope is for people to get their stereotypes challenged more frequently. It's nothing but a good thing.

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Cannabinoids, neurodevelopment, and treatments of difficult children: part I

Recently I've been reading a lot about cannabis and the endogenous cannabinoid system in regards to schizophrenia. A quick Google search got me to the Journal of the California Cannabis Research Medical Group, and an interesting case report of prescribing medical marijuana to an adolescent to treat behavioural problems (by Tod H. Mikuriya, M.D):

"Alex and Barbara P. were seen by the author at a follow-up visit in February 2006. Alex reported dramatically improved mood and functionality with only one migraine attack in the past year, not severe enough to require a trip to the hospital for a Dilaudid injection. He is in an independent study program at a small public school and getting straight As and Bs. “They love me at school,” Alex asserts. His teacher is aware that he medicates with cannabis with a physician’s approval. He smokes approximately one ounce per week and would use 50% more if it were cheaper to obtain. He does not vaporize because a vaporizer is “too expensive” (although he has taken up the guitar and purchased several models). He summarizes his status thus: “I use(d) to use a lot of medication like Klonopin and other pain medication but I haven’t had to since the use of cannabis.”"

According to the article, Alex had started using cannabis at the age of 11. At this age, he was also diagnosed with ADD for apparent concentration difficulties in school and prescribed Ritalin. The article doesn't state whether cannabis use preceded diagnosis or vice versa. According to his mother, Alex "wasn't acting wild in school"; however, he befriended some older peers with whom he shared his stimulants, smoked marijuana and stole a car. Following arrest, he "began a four-year sojourn through institutions of the Central Valley juvenile justice system and Kaiser-affiliated hospitals and clinics". During this time, Alex was prescribed, at various times, a cocktail of stimulants, antidepressants and anticonvulsants that I find simply horrifying.

"Alex P., accompanied by his mother, first visited my office in February 2005 at age 15 years, 6 months. At that time he had been prescribed and was taking Fioricet with codeine (30 mg, 3x/day); Klonopin (1 mg, 2x/day); Ativan (1 mg, 2x/day); and Dilaudid “as needed” to treat migraine headaches (346.1), insomnia (307.42), and outbursts of aggression to which various diagnoses —including bipolar with schizophrenic tendencies- had been attached by doctors in the Kaiser Healthcare system.
Alex had previously been prescribed Ritalin, Prozac, Paxil, Maxalt, Immitrex, Depacote, Phenergan, Inderal, Thorazine, Amitriptaline, Buspar, Vicodin, Seroquel, Risperdal, Zyprexa, Clozaril, Norco, and Oxycodone."

The outbursts of aggression that Alex suffered are noteworthy because they appeared after he began taking the different drug combinations. According to his mother,

"They put him on all these medications and not only couldn’t he sleep at night, but he started having rampages, hitting —mainly me. He fought with his brother and his dad, too. He beat up the truck. He couldn’t remember afterwards what he actually did. He seemed like a completely different person. I don’t think that’s because of who he is. I think it was because of the medications he was taking.”"

In a New York Times article, discussing the difficulties and uncertainties inherent in combination drug treatments of adolescent mental disorder (found via Mindhacks) , one of the children seems to suffer from the same bouts of uncontrolled aggression as Alex, and furthermore, these outbursts also appear to be connected with medication.

"Despite the medications, Michael’s behavior has grown increasingly disruptive. He has kicked and punched holes in almost every wall of the Igafo-Te’o home. He wrenched the sink off the wall in the upstairs bathroom and pulled two bedroom doors off their hinges, damaging the frames. The family no longer fixes the damage."

Anecdotal evidence does not a theory make, but these two cases raise the possibility that heavy medication, or perhaps combination therapy, of adolescents could actually precipitate psychotic symptoms and worsen the condition of the children treated. In the case of Alex, one wonders if he would have been diagnosed with schizophrenia had he not been subjected to all the different drugs listed above.

According to the case report, Alex's mood and overall functionality has drastically improved since he was prescribed to smoke approximately an ounce of marijuana daily. He performs well in school and no longer needs the menagerie of medications he was prescribed. All's well that ends well? I'm not really sure.

I'd like to use this case to discuss the neurodevelopmental effects of cannabis use, for which I will need a separate post. But for now, I'll finish with this observation: Is it ethically defensible to experiment with combined medication on children, given what is known about brain plasticity and development? Or rather, not known: there's not a lot of research going on about this.

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Friday, November 10, 2006


Some thoughts on that old intelligence debate

I've been reading this great blog, Alphapsy, that deals with cognitive psychology and behavioral science. A recent post, discussing the social organization of apes, got me thinking, especially this bit at the end:

"The existence of theory of mind in chimps is a topic of vigorous debate; I embrace the conclusions of animal psychologist Michael Tomasello on this issue [snip]; what Tomasello has shown experimentally is that Theory of Mind is sometimes present in chimps, but only in situations where 2 chimps have competing interests, and never when they are in a position to cooperate (an opportunity they don't catch). In other words: you may have Theory of Mind in chimps, provided that there's no cooperation involved."

All too often when discussing intelligence (or consciousness; often the two terms are treated as synonymous) in animals, people speak of it as if it was a binary state. Either the animal has "intelligence", or it lacks it entirely. The idea that "intelligence" could be a summed function of a number of distinct cognitive modules, and that an animal species can possess some but not others, seems to me like a much more viable approach to the problem. Bound to the "all-or-nothing intelligence" paradigm, people have a tendency ascribe actual consciousness (sometimes human consciousness) to animals that demonstrate some elements of it, such as a "theory of mind", the ability to feel pain, or a social hierarchy.

I don't think saying that a chimpanzee, dolphin, or dog "is intelligent" is a meaningful statement. Sure, they all show cognitive abilities that we can find in children (human infants, usually, are the ones being compared to animals in discussions). But their intelligence is different from that of the human, and compared to the human (in a very specie-ist way) it is inferior. To my mind, it is better to think in terms of partial consciousness or intelligence, and it would be interesting work to investigate how the elements of intelligence form a whole.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006


Learned Helplessness, Male Privilege and the Habits of the Lab-Dwelling Grad Student

So, at long last, I've started on the project, which will theoretically involve some high-flying neuroscience, but for now consists of me reading papers and learning the basics of proteomics: running 2d gel electrophoresis. Specifically, this involves me running in circles around the lab, asking everyone where everything is (every lab has its own idiosyncratic rules about chemicals and flasks are kept. They also have totally different rules about safety. What goes in the fume hood, for instance, and when to wear gloves. I'd like to know by how much these differing traditions affect the end result of the experiment. A study idea for the future, perhaps?), and then forgetting where I am in the protocol, weighing in the wrong amount of buffer solute, and starting the process over again. Frustrating, but I assume everyone have been in this position, so this is not a terribly original observation.

What does interest me is the different approach that postdocs and other lab "seniors" take in teaching beginners.

I'm being taught by a postdoc who is very supportive and takes a very active role in demonstrating correct procedures and warn me about potential mistakes, and who is always present in the lab while I'm there. The two other grad students who started on the same time as me, however, get a completely different treatment; their postdoc leaves them in the lab, to figure our everything on their own. If this lab was the first one I'd worked in, I would just have shrugged. Fair enough; people are different, some are more helpful than others. However, based on my previous experiences in other labs, I have another theory.

In the lab where I did my master's thesis work, I was also taught by a postdoc. Just like now, I recieved a lot of help and support when I was getting started. Both postdocs were women; so am I getting extra attention and hep because I'm a guy? Comparing my experience with that of female grad students (like the two I mentioned above) suggests that they do not recieve the same amount of help and are expected to "fend for themselves" more frequently. My girlfriend, also a neuroscience grad student doing a lab-intensive project, never got the assistance I did from her (female) seniors. What's going on here?

To begin with, there may be something about my character that predisposes people to help me out more. Some kind of helplessness perhaps, or a sad puppy-dog look. Perhaps seeing me standing there, lost among reagents and eppendorf tubes, like a big baby, women are compelled to help me by the sheer force of that mythical "mothering instinct". It's an interesting possibility, especially since this helplessness is completely invisible to me. I'm constantly trying to minimize the need for other people to do things for me, since the situation makes me uncomfortable. And surely, the "mothering" tendency would apply to helpless women grad students as well?

Could this whole situation be a case of "male privilege"? Is there a bias in society that results in men recieving more attention and support than women? There are studies that support this. In America, for example, having a daughter as a first child increases the probability of divorce, men spend more time with their children if they have sons, and households with sons spend more on household items. These differences in investment (emotional as well as financial) point to daughters being valued less than sons, across a number of parameters. Does this difference then lead to males having a competitive advantage?

On one level, it can be argued that all the attention and pampering provided to men leads to them being weaker and more dependant on external support than women, who are forced to make do with much less from the start. However, this is an unconvincing argument; men don't only start with this advantage, they go through their whole life cusioned by it. Thus, men do not actually need to compete with women on equal terms; they are shielded from competition by both men and women who perpetuate this pattern of privilege. Most men, of course, aren't even aware of their special status, and thus, become greatly agitated and offended when presented with evidence to that effect in feminist discussions. To my mind, this intrinsic sublimation of privilege is the primary reason why men at large fail to have constructive dialogues with feminists.

It will be easy enough to make sure people stop helping me. But to help them realize how they're maintaining a skewed society is much harder.

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