Wednesday, May 28, 2008


I agree with Petulant (a link dump post, but the blog is good): "I am getting tired of this decades-old promise for robots. Scientist have been saying 'soon' FOREVER. GIVE ME A ROBOT!"

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Reverse racism" and "counter sexism".

My last post actually got some discussion (joy!) and I would like to continue it.

A comment by Coriolis got me thinking about reverse racism. I had read a bit about it on the liberal/feminist blagoweb, and so I Googled it and came upon this The Atlantic Magazine online article which basically sums up my feelings about it, and backs up the argument that "reverse racism" is different in a fundamental way from actual racism fairly well. (Though the comparison to Zionism makes me shiver a little bit.)

Coriolis had originally said:
I guess I mostly agree with Greg in that I would classify any sort of reverse racism as racism. But I don't have a problem with it, basically since minorities that have been oppressed will always have more trouble and some official reverse-racism probably only evens it out, if that. It's a bit more interesting for sexism, since of course women are not a minority, but on the flip side they have been denied their rights much more consistently, so for now at least I don't have much of a problem with counter-sexism.
Now, as written in The Atlantic:
In this country whites once set themselves apart from blacks and claimed privileges for themselves while denying them to others. Now, on the basis of race, blacks are claiming special status and reserving for themselves privileges they deny to others. Isn't one as bad as the other? The answer is no. One can see why by imagining that it is not 1993 but 1955, and that we are in a town in the South with two more or less distinct communities, one white and one black. No doubt each community would have a ready store of dismissive epithets, ridiculing stories, self-serving folk myths, and expressions of plain hatred, all directed at the other community, and all based in racial hostility. Yet to regard their respective racisms--if that is the word--as equivalent would be bizarre, for the hostility of one group stems not from any wrong done to it but from its wish to protect its ability to deprive citizens of their voting rights, to limit access to educational institutions, to prevent entry into the economy except at the lowest and most menial levels, and to force members of the stigmatized group to ride in the back of the bus. The hostility of the other group is the result of these actions, and whereas hostility and racial anger are unhappy facts wherever they are found, a distinction must surely be made between the ideological hostility of the oppressors and the experience-based hostility of those who have been oppressed.
And also:
Here the [reverse racism] argument usually takes the form of saying "It is undemocratic to give one class of citizens advantages at the expense of other citizens; the truly democratic way is to have a level playing field to which everyone has access and where everyone has a fair and equal chance to succeed on the basis of his or her merit." Fine words--but they conceal the facts of the situation as it has been given to us by history: the playing field is already tilted in favor of those by whom and for whom it was constructed in the first place. If mastery of the requirements for entry depends upon immersion in the cultural experiences of the mainstream majority, if the skills that make for success are nurtured by institutions and cultural practices from which the disadvantaged minority has been systematically excluded, if the language and ways of comporting oneself that identify a player as "one of us" are alien to the lives minorities are forced to live, then words like "fair" and "equal" are cruel jokes, for what they promote and celebrate is an institutionalized unfairness and a perpetuated inequality.
I think that Coriolis and The Atlantic are probably trying to express similar things there, and I'd agree with both of them (with of course a leaning towards a less in-your-face wording like "reverse-racism probably only evens it out").

That's just a little aside for brain-stimulation. To quote Coriolis, "What I really find interesting is this whole "truth" commentary." As do I. He continues:
For the sake of argument, think about this - let us say that women are indeed bad in physics, there are both few women who are good at physics and even fewer who want to do physics anyways. And we have shown, not only that they have been underrepresented statistically, but that infact we have somehow biologically determined that is the case. I understand that is almost certainly not possible to do (the biological part, the statistics are obviously widely available), let's just say for the sake of argument.
I would like to point out that the "almost certainly not possible" is a slight exaggeration there. Physics, like the math it is based on, is a learned skill, not a universal inborn human characteristic (like blood type, or lactase persistance). I'm going to propose that 'good at physics' means 'can learn physics easily, and is taught physics well'. Since people are essentially Learning Machines (as well as being Pooping Machines and Fucking Machines) I'd need to see some damn good evidence that 'taught physics well' has happened before I worry about the 'can learn physics easily' part. But I'm taking this for the sake of argument, so to let Coriolis continue...
Now, even if that were somehow the case, would it really be a good idea to talk about it socially? Would it be good to tell girls that physics is probably not for them? You can argue that well, statistically they have a much lower chance to be any good at it so they should stop wasting their life, right (talking as a teacher/parent)? Just to play devil's advocate.

My own view is that even if that were the case, having comments who re-affirm that truth be socially acceptable would be a bad idea (i.e. people saying things along the lines of "well women are just bad at physics, nothing we can do about it"). You are not doing much good to all the ones who are bad at it or disinterested - they weren't about to get into it, or will fail quickly anyways. On the flip side you would be discouraging the few who could infact do physics, and want to do it. Basically you would only do harm to the minority (in this case, women who happen to be good at physics), and doing no good to the majority.

I used physics as an example since that's what I do for a living (and at least at my univ, we do have something like 20-1, or 15-1 male/female ratio), but it is a general argument - even if there are real racial/gender difference, there is still no reason to enforce them in society, in my view.
No, it would not be good to tell girls that physics isn't for them, even if we do find out that there's some sort of prevalent X-linked "bad at physics (or abstract reasoning, or relational reasoning, or whatever)" gene. For exactly the reasons you said. Making the leap from "X percentage of women have a gene that causes them to suck at physics" to "the girls in my physics class have no hope of learning physics and thus it isn't worth my time to teach them" is bullshit. Just like the leap from "only 2% of Swedish people are lactose intolerant" to "my patient is Swedish and therefore his digestive problems could not possibly indicate lactose intolerance" is ridiculous.

I also understand with frightening clarity that, if women truly were somehow biologically more prone to be "bad at physics" then this would give misogynistic twats some new excuse to try and marginalize women, both in the classroom and outside of it. But here's the thing -- it wouldn't make the truth less true. It wouldn't change the fact that there is, in this example, some biological basis for a certain percentage of females to be bad at physics. And if it actually explained something about our physiology, then I wouldn't want to learn anything different in, say, my Functional Neuroanatomy class.

However, I'd like to point out that a high male/female ratio in a traditionally male-dominated field is not any kind of evidence for an innate gender preference. Because, as has been noted in many places across the blagoweb, girls are simply not always encouraged like boys. And until it's socially acceptable for girls (whatever their 'innate' skill level - I mean come on, anyone who's been to college has taken a class in a subject they're 'bad at' and passed it) to pursue any education they personally desire, until girls and boys are no longer socialized unequally, male/female ratios don't mean a damn thing. And considering that physics is, I repeat, a learned behavior, it would take a big pile of pretty convincing evidence to show that men and women somehow have different 'innate' preferences in learning it.

In summary, I agree with what Coriolis is saying (discrimination in favor of leveling the playing field is not a bad thing; even if girls are biologically "bad at physics" they shouldn't be discouraged), I just seem to take a more twisty path to get there. Feel free to carry on!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Greg Laden is a pretty cool guy.

That's right, I said it. =P

Greg Laden of Scienceblogs started an interesting discussion on Racism and Sexism in the Democratic Primary, and I don't want to leave an overly long reply in his comments, but I have some stuff to ponder, so... here's what I think. (All blockquotes are Greg's.)

To give some context, he had mentioned that both negative (Irish people are drunks) and positive (Irish people are great writers) stereotypes are both racial statements and, as such, Not A Good Thing. To which we'd all agree. He also says,
In Minnesota, our party rules require that representation be equal by sex. Among the delegates and alternates that go to the state convention, half are women, half are men. I think that may be nation wide for our party. When the democrats convene in Colorado, half of the delegates will be women, half men. One could argue that this is sexist (or racist as the case may be) because we are considering sex or race. And that would be correct.
... with which I disagreed. I basically said that as far as I knew, the systematic racial and gender-based oppression has denied voices to women and persons of color (POC to those in the know) and rectifying this by giving voices to oppressed classes of people solely because they would otherwise not be heard at all is not racist/sexist. I think that Greg's response was to say that it would still be racism/sexism, but of the benevolent sort.

Greg's definition of racism: "Simply (too simply, but remember, this is a comment on a blog) racism is the belief that one can use a "racial" characteristic to identify a person's features aside from that characteristic," of course assuming that one believes in races as categories and that they correlate to some other trait. But races are categories (if only social ones) and they do correlate to some traits (if only by the way certain races have been historically treated). I would add to that simple definition that the association between the racial characteristic and whatever other traits is a prejudicial one (aka not backed up by evidence) and/or considered to be inherent (due to the fact that the person is of a certain race, not because of the racial categorization and subsequent treatment of that group). (As an aside, the Angry Black Woman has some interesting things to say about how ridiculous it is to try to be 'colorblind'. Race does affect people, in real ways.)

He gives two examples of benign racism:
Oh, look at the irish girl. she's probably a good writer. Oh, look at the pregnant Somali woman. As a doctor, I'm glad to know her race because there is this disease common among pregnant Somali that I need to take into account in diagnosing her symptoms."
The first case is clearly benevolent racism. In the second case, I wouldn't consider it racism because being of a particular line of descent (not necessarily of a 'race') is an actual specifically delineated category and it does actually correlate with a specific trait. (Given the example, which I understand is made-up.) Saying that people of African descent are more prone to lactose intolerance than those of Northern European descent is not racist, because, well, it's true. Right?

In addition, I'd think that saying that American blacks have been systematically denied positions of power is not a racist thing to say, even though I'm basing the statement solely on racial generalizations, because it is in fact true due to the societal treatment of those who are categorized as black. I do not feel that 'black' or 'white' is anything but a superficial category imposed by our society (i.e. it's not necessarily a genetic category, seeing as the races are much more genetically similar than they are different). But the fact remains that people who are considered 'white' and people who are considered 'nonwhite' at first glance are treated differently in society as a whole.
Now, let's try the argument that racism is always obviously bad, and therefore anything that is obviously good can't be racism. Furthermore, if we assume that me thinking Muse is a great writer because she's Irish or Obama's election will lead the way towards a more enlightened society because he's "African" then those are good things. But if they are not racial thinking, then what are they?
Those are good examples of what Greg and I both would both consider 'racist' thinking, as benevolent as both examples are. But what about the thought that perhaps having a black man in a powerful position in America would be a good thing simply because it would give a (very powerful) voice to a person of color, who have been traditionally under-represented in our country's history? Is it racist to think that a black President would be a good thing, just because black people and their opinions/experiences should be heard on a more national level?

If so, I suppose I'm more racist than I thought. ;)

Interesting discussions by intelligent people. My favorite thing! Anyway, go read the post and the comments; they are stimulating.

Friday, May 23, 2008

"It should come as little surprise that people who enjoy a more privileged upbringing have a better start in life." No shit.

Class and intelligence is something that every nobody can claim to be an expert about, and one particular nobody takes the freakin' cake:
[Some Twat] said: "The UK Government has spent a great deal of time and effort in asserting that universities, especially Oxford and Cambridge, are unfairly excluding people from low social class backgrounds and privileging those from higher social classes.
"Yet in all this debate a simple and vital fact has been missed: higher social classes have a significantly higher average IQ than lower social classes."
The fact that so few students from poor families get into Oxbridge is not down to "prejudice" but "meritocracy", he said.
And, of course, the low IQs of the working class are due solely to the personal laziness and lack of drive of each individual working class person. And since working class kids have all the same life opportunities, school funding, and social training of middle- and upper-class kids, it's clear that they must just be dumber. Oh well, every society needs its burger-flippers and ditch-diggers, right? Since this is all those stupid working class people are good for.
Say it with me: AAAAAAAAAAAA.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Atheism is risk taking now is it?

Why, would you think, would a higher percentage of women than men follow religion?

It might have something to do with the fact that men worldwide are generally more free to exercise their own agency over their lives, whereas women are not. And even where women are permitted to make their own choices, they're expected by almost all Western societies to make societally appropriate choices whereas 'boys will be boys'. Or perhaps that women are less likely to go into higher education than men. Or perhaps that men are encouraged to discuss and ponder intellectual subjects like religion and philosophy, whereas women are encouraged to stay at home and take care of the kids. (And that's just from reading a couple pages of the comments section on PZ's post.)

Or you could be a blithering idiot and make a giant leap of logic and claim that it's just another one of those risk-taking behaviors that men are obviously more prone to than women.

What? Yeah.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What am I up to?

I've spent all morning fighting the computer program that my lab uses to write protocols, and following around the Dr. like a sad lost puppy barking about my stupid issues.

And then I come home and watch something like this.

Sad, I know, but it actually brings a tear to my eye.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Project leader? Me?

I am now officially an undergraduate researcher!

Of course, right now that just means reading papers and familiarizing myself with computer programs and protocols. But this is just the first step to doing SCIENCE! My Dr. said that I'd basically be managing a small project in his lab involving a specific language recognition protocol, once I got the hang of things.

Is it silly to be excited about having my own little corner of an undergraduate office?


Monday, May 5, 2008

In search of an interesting argument

While I am a firm supporter of evolution, I do very much like to see things like Answers in Genesis' list of arguments that they'd prefer creationists not use. All of them are good advice. And I do note a very open support for the principles of science, the idea that theory != conjecture, and the grudging admission that previously-held arguments can be (and have been) proven wrong. By science.

The sad subtext of this list, though, is that these blatantly fallacious arguments are still in common use by Biblical creationists. And they're so common, and so bad, that a fellow creationist had to step in and say, "Hey man. You're embarassing us."


Thursday, May 1, 2008


Ok, ok, so we have the National Do-Nothing Day and the Make Women's Bodies Public Property movement, Marcotte-gate and blogger departure and new homes for old friends.

I'm not going to talk about any of that, but please check out the links. In honor of being freshly on summer break, I'm going to talk about something fluffy, that makes me happy. Fast food snack wraps.

Let me start by saying I love anything you can buy at a drive-thru with a small fry and drink and pay less than $5. A snack wrap is perfect for a munchies run while on the road. So when three of the bigger fast food chains jumped on the bandwagon, I need to try 'em all. And since I tried 'em all, I wanted to save you the trouble.

McDonald's Snack Wrap, the original:
Choices: 6, Grilled/Crispy, three sauce choices, no spicy option.
Tastiness: Pretty good, 4/5. I love both honey mustard and chipotle BBQ sauces, so I found them both spectacularly tasty.

KFC's Toasted Wrap, the second:
Choices: 1, but it's toasted.
Tastiness: Meh, 2/5. It's "toasted," alright, but the whole package is rather bland and unexceptional. As the Pasadena Star-News says, it could do with some hot sauce or something.

Wendy's Go Wrap, the third:
Choices: 3, Homestyle/Grilled/Spicy, all with ranch.
Tastiness: Acceptable, 3/5. I do not usually dig ranch dressing (I know, heavens!) and I didn't realize it was ranch until I had eaten half of it, thinking all the while, "What on earth is that weird tangy sauce?"

IMHO, the winner is McDonald's. Many more choices with much more taste, unless you really dig the Wendy's spicy thing.

Anyway, back to the blagoweb.