Miss USA contestants on evolution

Beauty pageants, along with Hooters restaurants, are on my list of Things I Wish Would Drop Off The Face of the Planet. They desperately attempt to market themselves as something more than a superficial patriarchython by including a talent portion (“Look, I can play the piano mediocrely!) and an interview on a hot button issue. But listen to how the contestants answer “Should evolution be taught in schools” and you’ll see education and intelligence is not how you become a state representative (if you can stomach the whole video):

The thing that kills me is how many people think evolution should be taught just because people need to be exposed to different opinions. No, it should be taught because it is true. Graabbaelaelkeellele!!!

The upside to all of this? One of the few very-pro evolution contestants was the winner, with this response:

I was taught evolution in high school. I do believe in it. I’m a huge science geek. […] I like to believe in the big bang theory and, you know, the evolution of humans throughout time.

Maybe there’s some hope after all. Though I don’t blame these women in particular. The US is woefully uneducated when it comes to evolution – they’re just a product of our culture and terrible science standards.

EDIT: Miss Vermont wins at everything (13:00 in):

“I think evolution should be taught in schools because not everybody necessarily has the same religious background, and it’s important to have scientific facts about the world. And we do know that evolution exists, even on a small scale like with people, and with bacteria that are becoming resistant to drugs and what not. So, might as well learn about it.”


Why is the G-spot still such a mystery?

A couple of weeks ago I called out a woman on Dan Savage’s podcast who asserted that we know exactly what the structure of the G-spot is, that all women have it, and that every woman can ejaculate. I called her out because scientists haven’t reached a consensus on the G-spot. They’re not sure what the heck it is, how variable it is in women, or if it even exists at all.But calling her out made me wonder: Why is the G-spot still such a mystery?

To put it simply? The current research sucks.

And that’s not just my personal opinion. The Journal of Sexual Medicine did a big review of G-spot research at the end of 2010 (1). Their conclusion?

Although a huge amount of data (not always of good quality) have been accumulated in the last 60 years, we still need more research on one of the most challenging aspects of female sexuality.

For those of you who don’t speak science-ese, allow me to translate: A lot of this data is crap, and therefore we don’t know what’s going on.

After even the briefest overview of the literature, you start to understand why we’re so confused. For example, let’s look at two very popular G-spot papers from very different camps.

First, the “It’s all in your head!” camp. This is the less popular view, but there are some researchers who think the G-spot is nothing more than the placebo effect. The main study they have supporting this was done by Andrea Burri in 2010 (2). They did a twin study and claimed to find no genetic correlation for the G-spot – that is, if a woman had a G-spot, her twin was not more likely to also have a G-spot. It spread like wildfire in the media, and was even picked up by xkcd:

Except this study was a piece of crap.

For one, they did absolutely no physiological studies. How did they know if a woman had a G-spot, then? Why, they simply asked them! In the most leading, biased way possible (emphasis mine):

“Do you believe you have a so called G spot, a small areas the size of a 20p coin on the front wall of your vagina that is sensitive to deep pressure?”

If we ignore how poorly worded that question was, it still is not going to test genetic correlation of having a G-spot. Relying on personal opinion for physiological data is frankly ridiculous – would we determine how many lobes a liver has by asking people what they believe to be true? What they’re actually testing is if someone’s personal opinion about G-spots is genetic! Someone could think she doesn’t have a G-spot, but still have the exact same physiological reactions as her sister.

The other huge flaw of the study was that it didn’t take into account sexual practices. What if one twin only has sex in the missionary position, while the other is purposefully trying out stuff to reach her “so-called” G-spot? It’s wrong to assume that all types of sex produce the same time of stimulation. The researchers seemed somewhat aware of this, because they excluded bisexuals and lesbians…because they tend to have more digital sex.

Wait, what? So you have a group of people having the type of sex that, from conventional wisdom, is more likely to stimulate the “G-spot” – and you leave them out? Why not test to see if that conventional wisdom is actually right?

Well, maybe because the lead researcher isanxious to remove feelings of “inadequacy or underachievement” that might affect women who fear they lacked a G-spot.” That’s certainly a noble cause, since women shouldn’t feel inadequate if they lack a G-spot…but it also certainly biases your research if you’re searching for a particular answer to support your world-view. Not to mention just swaps the stigma onto women who are told they’re being delusional based on crappy data.

I’ve been harping on the G-spot deniers, but the research on the other side is just as bad. I looked up the paper by Florian Wimpissinger that’s often cited as showing that female ejaculation is way more similar to semen than urine (3).

Yes, I had a good giggle that his name was Wimpissinger.

Anyway, this study looks very impressive on the surface. They did ultrasounds that found prostate-like structures in women! And urethroscopy that found a duct-like thingy! And biochemical analysis that showed it wasn’t urine! Doesn’t that sound fancy and

Except they did a crappy job at those things.

Their ultrasound was so blurry and inconclusive that the article is immediately followed by a letter from concerned researchers saying “Dude, you totally misread that ultrasound. That’s a smudge, not prostate tissue.” And their response is basically “No, we’re right!” Not the best sign.

Maybe a prostate-like thingy.

But you know what’s a bigger problem then their possibly blurry ultrasound?

They had a sample size of two women who could ejaculate, and no control women.

Sample size of two.

No controls.

So while you can say some women may have a prostate-like structure (assuming their ultrasound doesn’t suck), you can’t say they all do. Because you tested two women out of 3 billion. What do the non-ejaculators look like? What do the women who think they don’t have G-spots look like? Humans are highly variable – height, skin color, breast size – the same could definitely apply to G-spots.

This is especially important in their biochemical study. They took ejaculate and urine samples from both women and compared them to the ejaculate from men using biochemical assays. They didn’t have a urine sample from men or non-ejaculating women to compare it to as a control. And for the second woman, they didn’t even do 5/9 of the tests! So basically they have a couple tests that vaguely show female ejaculate is more ejaculate-like than urine-like. I say vaguely because they didn’t do any sort of statistical analysis to see if this is significant or due to random chance – probably because they have a freaking sample size of two.

So from looking at these two important studies, it’s crystal clear why we don’t know what’s going on yet. The research just isn’t high quality.

But why haven’t scientists figured this out by now? How is it that we can track every individual cell in a developing worm, but we can’t tell if a structure is there or not in women? How is it that we know genetic variation at millions of sites in the genome across human populations, but we don’t know structural or physiological variation of an often discussed phenomena?

For one thing, the G-Spot is probably complicated. If I had to put my money on a hypothesis, I’d guess the G-spot is actually a combination of structures – maybe the Skene’s glands, the internal part of the clitoris, prostate-like tissue, or vaginal thickness. And I’d guess that it’s variable across women – either due to genetics or hormonal context during development. And when something is complicated, it’s a bit harder to figure out.

Part of the problem of getting a really good study is that sexual science is somewhat of an echo chamber. Almost all of the research is published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, and almost all of the reviewers of papers are part of the same little group. They don’t have random molecular biologists reviewing their papers and weeping at their sample size, or screaming “Why didn’t you just do a mass spec run?!” There’s a reason why this stuff isn’t getting published in PNAS, Science, or Nature – maybe partly due to blushing editors, but mainly due to quality.

Another problem is that a good study of something complicated calls for thousands of samples – and it’s not easy to find thousands of women willing to participate in such a study. That’s not just because of puritanical views, though that’s definitely a contributing factor. Women have been historically mistreated under the guise of medicine, especially within the realm of sexual medicine. Treatments for hysteria, forced sterilization – those things may be in the past, but they still linger in people’s memories.

But even if you had the best scientists and a thousand volunteers, a lot of it boils down to the politics of science – especially the politics of the science of sex. In the US, the type of research that’s being done is the type of research that’s being funded – mostly from the government. And when you look at these studies, almost none of them are coming from the US – the two I mentioned were from the UK and Austria. Our puritanical views make it less likely that a massive G-spot study is going to be funded to put this question to rest.

I’m not trying to be overly patriotic, but the US produces some of the highest quality scientific research in the world. And when it’s too scared to finance the investigation of women’s sexuality, it’s no wonder we’re left in the dark.

Yet somehow there’s no shortage of money so men can keep having erections. Funny how that works.

So the next time someone claims to know exactly what a G-spot is – especially when they’re trying to sell you something – think of the science behind it. And remember, it’s okay for science to say “I don’t know – yet.”

1. Jannini, EA et al. (2010) Who’s Afraid of the G-spot? Journal of Sexual Medicine. 7:25-34.
2. Burri, AV et al. (2010) Genetic and Environmental Influences on self-reported G-Spots in Women: A Twin Study. Journal of Sexual Medicine. 7:1842-1852.
3. Wimpissinger, F et al. (2007) The female prostate revisited: perineal ultrasound and biochemical studies of female ejaculate. Journal of Sexual Medicine. 4:1388-1393.

I want to be Neil deGrasse Tyson when I grow up

I have a horrible confession to make.

…I had never heard Neil deGrasse Tyson speak until this Thursday.

I know, I know – I am a horrible skeptic and scientist. I pretty much assumed he was awesome, since everyone I think is awesome thinks he’s awesome. But I hate watching YouTube videos, and I don’t watch TV much. I much prefer to read things, and usually that’s in the form of blogs since I’m so busy. And since he’s not really a blogger…

…Excuses aside, I have a new hero.

Tyson’s talk was absolutely fabulous. There was no set topic – it was basically his musings on everything from black holes, Pluto, how much American science education sucks, the mathematically illiterate, religion – but it was all so extremely interesting. He ended up speaking for about two and a half hours total, but I could have listened to him for five more. It went so quickly.

But he inspired me. If I can be half as good of a speaker as he is when I’m his age, I’ll feel like I accomplished something. He oozed with passion. He interacted with the audience. He joked and laughed and spoke in a way that didn’t put him up on some academic pedestal. He started his talk by slipping off his shoes, and would literally dance around the stage with excitement. He kept asking for more questions during the Q&A, despite a flight he needed to catch and an organizer that was trying to close the show.

He cared about what he was doing, and he made you care too.For one thing, he made me remember why I used to love the universe so much. Astronomy was my first scientific love. I was in our elementary school’s astronomy club, I memorized all of the constellations, and I dreamed about going to Space Camp. When I was older I gobbled up popular science books like the Elegant Universe by Brian Greene. Unfortunately, between horrendous math classes and Purdue’s soul-suckingly bad physics courses, I drifted away from the field, convinced it was all boring number crunching.

After having my mind blown throughout the night, thinking about diverting murderous astroids, multiple universes, dark matter, and our mindbogglingly tiny existence, I remembered why I loved this stuff.

But he also inspired me to be a better speaker. I know I’ve only really been doing “professional” speaking for about a year, so I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. But I’m so motivated to be just as energetic and compelling as him. People like Tyson get people to fall in love with science more than a boring lecturer that churns out homework assignments. And I’ve seen far too many boring lectures, even from some writers and skeptics I admire. Not everyone has the talent, but I feel like I have a little spark within me – I can’t wait to nurture it until I’m an inferno of passion like Tyson.

Before the talk I quipped to my friend that I hoped Tyson wasn’t giving this same talk at TAM. At the end, I turned back to my friend and corrected myself. I would be happy to sit through that exact same talk again – that’s just how good it was.

…The fact that I’m going to be speaking at the event he’s keynoting makes me feel a little unworthy. But I can’t wait to meet him in person.

For those of you who aren’t youtubephobic like I am, feel free to share you favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson clips in the comments. More people need to be initiated into his awesomeness!

…Unless I’m the last person on the planet to do so, in which case, feel free to make fun of me.

Heterosexual marriage is like gravity!

In case you weren’t aware of the parallels, here’s a Focus on the Family affiliate to clear things up:

…Because arbitrary, constantly evolving, man-made social customs are exactly the same as physical laws of the universe that have been empirically tested.

……And because gravity works by making things go downward.

………And planes fly by…no, I can’t even keep thinking about it. I need these brain cells for school.

Thank you, FotF, for adding “fucking scientifically illiterate” to your resume. I’m sure it looks nice below “hateful stone-aged thinking bigots.”

This is going in my cubicle

Today’s xkcd:

Unfortunately “doing it so hard” often means “doing it twice as hard as the guys just to prove you deserve to be there and you’re not just filling a quota.” But us lady scientists can do it, and it’s getting better and better.

I just bought my genome!

Well, kinda sorta. 23andMe, one of the more popular personalized genomics companies, is having a DNA Day sale today. Usually the price to get your genome analyzed (more on this in a bit) is $199 for the kit and $9 a month for a year for their update service – where they’ll rerun your data when new research comes out. But today you can get the kit for free!

I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time but was prohibited by the price, but this is a deal I can’t pass up – so my kit is ordered. I’m prepared to muster up a lot of saliva and then still have some left over to drool over the data. Yep, not only do they give you general interpretations, but you can access the raw data – something a geneticist like me can actually have a lot of fun fiddling around with.

But before everyone runs off and buys their own kit…a warning. I honestly don’t think I’d recommend 23andMe (or any other type of personalized genomics) to a non-geneticist. Not yet, at least. There are a couple reasons:

1. The technology in this area is greatly improving. They just upgraded from a 550,000 single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) chip to the 1 million SNP chip. That means they’re looking at a million sites in your genome that are known to be variable across humans. While that may seem like a lot, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Pretty soon you’ll be able to have your whole genome sequenced. You may want to wait to get the biggest bang for your buck.

2. Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) sort of suck, and that’s what a huge chunk of their data, especially the medical stuff, is based off of. GWAS look for SNPs that are associated with a trait, usually disease. The thing is, usually an association can explain a tiny percent of cases of that disease – something like 1%, or even less. And often times that SNP doesn’t always produce a certain trait – for example, having the infamous BRCA gene doesn’t mean you’ll get breast cancer for sure. And almost all studies are done with people of European ancestry, so if you’re not, your results will likely be very inaccurate. So tl;dr, it’s really wishy washy.

3. Because of that, you need to take your results with a grain of salt – which is hard for people without genetic or statistical backgrounds. And that can result in a lot of self-diagnosing that really can’t replace just going and talking to your doctor and giving them a medical history.

People ask if I’m afraid I’ll find out something I don’t want to know – but I’m the type of person who rather know. I’m going to be honest – If I’m predisposed to some horrible disease that will kill me in my 30s, I would not be sitting in a laboratory pipetting or programming. I very much have the view that I want to live life to it’s fullest, and I want to know if I have significantly less years to do so. That and I think learning more about my biology and my ancestry is worth the risk. I’m a scientist and a skeptic – what’s more interesting than the truth?

I obviously won’t share all of my data since much will be very personal, but definitely expect more blog posts about the subject in the future.

You know what else has unique human DNA like a fertilized egg?


Just sayin’.

Science aside of the day:
Well, and T lymphocytes. “T cells” are a type of white blood cell involved in the immune response. They’re special because they undergo something called somatic recombination.

Try to remember back to high school biology. During meiosis (the formation of gametes) there’s a step where Chromosome 1 from Mom and Chromosome 1 from dad can swap chunks of DNA – that’s recombination. It’s the reason why we have so much diversity – because you’re not just getting Grandma or Grandpa’s chromosome, you’re getting a mix of both.

Usually this only happens when making sperm or eggs, but there’s one time it occurs in non-gamete (somatic) cells – in the production of T cells. A protein called a T cell receptor recognizes antigens (foreign particles) from viruses, bacteria, parasites, and even tumor cells. But think of it – if there was just one gene coding for a T cell receptor, we’d only be able to recognize one type of antigen. That’s no good – we need to be able to recognize millions!

Thankfully evolution has the answer. The T cell receptor gene has three main segments: Variable, Diverse, and Joining. There are 65 V, 27 D, and 6 J – but the cell only needs one of each! That’s where somatic recombination comes in – it randomly deletes all but on of each segment, leaving the cell with a unique combination.

“But wait,” cry my more mathematical readers, “that only leaves 10,530 combinations! That’s not very diverse at all!” You’re right! These huge structural differences make up most of the diversity, but these genes are also hypermutable – they gain mutations WAY faster than other genes. So that contributes to the diversity even more!

So, are we ready to start calling every T cell a person because it has a unique human genome? I’m not sure if my psyche can stand all the funeral’s I’d be having every time I get sick.

The most logical abortion laws

We can add Alabama to the growing list of states heaping more and more restrictions on abortion – though their proposal is especially stringent. Three bills (introduced by a Republican, of course) are attempting to “redefine “person” as “any human being from the moment of fertilization or the functional equivalent thereof” — and require that all uses of the word “person” in the state constitution be accompanied by “all humans from the moment of fertilization.”

You know, maybe these people have a point. Maybe being ejected from a womb is an arbitrary cutoff point for where life begins. Maybe we do have to take it back to the zygote – the initial cell formed after fertilization. After all, that zygote has the potential to eventually become a human being!

Just like how every egg has the potential to become a zygote, which is why all girls now must constantly attempt to become pregnant after their first period, and any subsequent period will be tried as murder.

And how every sperm has the potential to become a zygote, which is why now all ejaculation except for procreational purposes will be tried as mass murder (though we can downgrade wet dreams to involuntary manslaughter).

And how every ovary and testis has the potential to produce gametes, which is why now any accidents that damage them will be tried as involuntary manslaughter, but voluntary sterilization will be tried as murder.

And how every stem cell has the potential to become a gonad, which is why now all stem cell research will stop immediately, even that done on lab derived adult stem cells.

And how every nutrient you eat has the potential to become a part stem cells, which is why now eating will be illegal. Look, we solved the national obesity epidemic too!

And how many inorganic molecules have the potential to become a nutrient, which is why now moving will be illegal, lest we disturb the fate of an atom to become incorporated into a particularly delicious carbohydrate (which you can’t eat, sorry).

And how stars have the potential to produce different elements, which is why… well, I’m not sure if we can do anything about supernovas, so we may have to let that slide for practical reasons.

I know pro-zygoters aren’t the best at science, so hopefully this helped them understand their logic a little better. I’m a horrible human being who cares more about adult women than cells and atoms, so I’m going to keep destroying all of these potential humans and looking at photos of supernovas with awe instead of horror.

But good luck to all the pro-zygoters out there in their lifestyle! I know I had a hard time eating less junk food, let alone giving up eating and all mobility. Be sure to let us know how that goes.

It’s the little assumptions

Via Geek Feminism Blog:Advertisement: Can you solve one of our puzzles? Can you explain it to your mom? We’re hiring hackers with people skills.
Post It Note: My mom has a PhD in Math

It’s amazing how often science oriented speakers or advertisements will say stuff like “Explain it so mom/grandma can understand.” One of those things you take for granted until someone points it out to you. Does feminism have more important issues to talk about? Sure. But the little assumptions can add up.

It's the little assumptions

Via Geek Feminism Blog:Advertisement: Can you solve one of our puzzles? Can you explain it to your mom? We’re hiring hackers with people skills.
Post It Note: My mom has a PhD in Math

It’s amazing how often science oriented speakers or advertisements will say stuff like “Explain it so mom/grandma can understand.” One of those things you take for granted until someone points it out to you. Does feminism have more important issues to talk about? Sure. But the little assumptions can add up.