Biology is always more complicated than you expect

The first sign of a biased dilettante is when they try to reduce biological phenomena to a single parameter that exhibits a straightforward linear effect. It’s true of IQ, and it’s also true of testosterone. This is an excellent video that discusses the complex relationship of testosterone levels to athletic performance.

Why, it’s almost as if there are a thousand parameters, each nudging performance this way or that, and acting in a combinatorial fashion!

In case you’re wondering how Kavanaugh got on the Supreme Court…

It’s because toxic masculinity is so ingrained in the culture that the staid ol’ NY Times can publicly say that “Having a penis thrust in your face at a drunken dorm party may seem like harmless fun”, and think that’s a good lead to a story about new testimony that confirms the accusations made against Kavanaugh.

I’ve never experienced that (I guess I attended the wrong kind of dorm party), but I’m a guy, I’d just find it inappropriate and disgusting. I can see how a woman would find it intimidating and insulting.

Biased sources, motivated reasoning, and blithe assumptions: the TERF story

This is quite possibly one of the more horrifying sentences I’ve read online lately.

Since my recent lunch with my friend Graham Linehan, I have been learning more about the issues of biological sex and socially-constructed gender.

Graham Linehan is, of course, a notorious TERF with an infamous reputation in the trans community. He is precisely the wrong person to give you an introduction to trans issues, and he doesn’t have any particular qualifications in either biology or sociology.

Now to compound the horror: the author if this ominous sentence is Michael Nugent, who proceeds to spew out thousands of words of centrist rubbish that ultimately all comes down on the side the TERFs. There ought to be segregated bathrooms for “biological women”, sports ought to be segregated for “biological women”, the “idea of socially constructed gender…reinforces false and harmful social stereotypes about sex”, etc., and he concludes with flattering words of praise for his personal friend, Graham Linehan, who is most definitely not a bigot.

I am not going to address most of it, because I think the perspective most needed here would be that of actual trans people, not another cis het man. It is intrinsically offensive that a couple of guys would meet for lunch and decide what should be done about the LGBTQs, and another guy chiming in doesn’t help matters. I will say that I, as a biologist, categorically reject his blatherings about “biological sex” and reinforcement of the binary myth.

Here’s the problem: yes, you can identify single parameters that allow one to sort of, roughly, split people into two boxes of your definition, male and female. You can declare that possession of a penis makes one male, and lack of one, female. Fine; we can sweep the rare intersexes under the rug (sorry, intersex individuals, I’m just saying where this approach leads us). Or we can say it’s the possession of a Y chromosome; you either have one or you don’t, therefore, we triumphantly crow, sex is clearly binary! (again, ignoring any complicating genetics). Or it’s testosterone levels. Or it’s thickness of the skull bones. Or it’s muscularity. Or it’s testicles. Or it’s subcutaneous fat distribution. Or it’s laryngeal cartilages. Or digit length. Or it’s…you get the idea. Sexual characters are complicated and diverse, and you can only maintain the illusion of a gender binary if you have tightly focused tunnel vision and demand that your two categories are defined by a single parameter. As you add more, as you recognize intermediate states, it all becomes a continuum, a regular smear where every individual has a different combination of attributes.

You can either recognize that every individual is unique and doesn’t neatly fit into your binary assumptions, or you can go reactionary and insist that your two boxes are real and everyone must go into one or the other, ignoring the fact that you’ve already got a heck of a lot of boxes and insisting that there are only two is delusional.

Here’s a good thread by @transadvocate that discusses the continuum — and the fact that feminists have been saying that this is the reality of sex and gender for a long time (the book mentioned looks very interesting, but they don’t give a specific citation — anyone know it?)

I know what “biological sex” is. If I go into the lab and want experimental animals to produce embryos for my research, I will identify a male with the capacity to produce sperm and a female with the capacity to produce eggs, and put them together and hope they procreate (they don’t always do so, because even animals vary in these primitive functions). This is the only sense in which “biological sex” is meaningful. In our fellow human beings, though, and also in our experimental animals if truth be told, “sex” is far more varied and complicated in its meanings, and insisting that people must fit into one reproductive role or another is crudely reductionist and grossly inappropriate. When you announce that I am a “biological male”, you are defining me by a biological function that I performed only three times in my entire life, and I think maybe I’ve done a few other things in my 62 years. So has everyone. Many people live their entire productive, happy, interesting lives without ever reproducing biologically. I guess if the TERFs have their way, that would mean they are biologically sexless.

Here’s another quote from the TERF conflicts in the 1970s, posted by @transadvocate. I like it.

You are not the box a repressive society wants to put you in. Biology is not destiny. Be free.

Rats, I missed the Straight Pride parade in Boston

It looks like it was a hoot.

Best reply to that:

The big picture

You want a pithy summary of why so much noise is being made about Jeffrey Epstein? Here’s a good one.

The sprawling connections between Epstein and the nation’s intellectual and scientific elite — the full extent of which may still be ripe for exposure, Buzzfeed suggested — raised questions not just about individual judgment (Harvard biochemist George Church chalked it up to “nerd tunnel vision” in early August), but the enduring exclusivity and chauvinism of power networks writ large. “After the revelations of abuse and rape,” Adam Rogers wrote in Wired magazine this week, “the most frightening thing the Epstein connections show is the impregnable, hermetic way class and power work in America.”

It’s not that we have a particular animus against this one guy, or his coterie of clients, but that it’s a reflection of a deeper problem — the artificial hierarchies that afflict the whole system. Men vs. women, white vs. black, rich vs. poor, the ranking of colleges, the phony misrepresentation of what the wealthy colleges are for (it’s not for a better education, it’s for networking with other rich bozos), it’s all one big ugly structure that impedes the advancement of merit, and gives the privileged the ability to prey on the less well off. Sometimes the system of oppression is laid bare and exposed, and this is such a case.

Here we go again, another predatory professor

Dr D. Eugene Redmond of the Yale Medical School had a research facility on St Kitts — how nice, to have a tropical retreat for your work — where he studied vervet monkeys, and where he brought many students to work with him. There’d been rumblings of problems in 1994, which led to the shutdown of an internship program there, but did not cause any perturbations in Redmond’s employment, or his research practices, and he kept on flying off to St Kitts with students. He had some odd research requirements.

Yale President Peter Salovey ordered the investigation of Redmond on Jan. 28, hiring former U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly, now an attorney with Finn Dixon & Herling in Stamford, to lead it. According to the 54-page report, delivered to Salovey on Aug. 14, Daly’s team found at least 16 instances of sexual abuse or misconduct involving Redmond.

“Based on our investigation, we have concluded that Redmond sexually assaulted five students in St. Kitts while he was a Yale professor. These assaults occurred on five separate occasions, when he initiated and engaged in nonconsensual sexual contact with each student,” the report states. “Each of these incidents occurred in a bedroom that Redmond required each student to share with him and after each of the students had been drinking with Redmond.”

The investigation also found Redmond had conducted three “purported medical exams of students that included inappropriate genital and/or rectal exams” and other acts “involving at least eight other undergraduates or recent graduates and one high school student in St. Kitts, New Haven, and other locations. Two of the assaults and two of the exams occurred in the early 1990s; the remaining three assaults and the third exam occurred between 2010 and 2017. Most of the other misconduct occurred after 2005,” the report states.

He required students to drink with him, and share his bedroom? The alarms are blaring right there. I’m trying to figure out what rationale a guy who studied vervet monkeys used to insist on genital examinations of his students. There was funny stuff going on there.

Not just at St Kitts, either. He seemed to be perving everywhere.

New Haven and Yale police also informed St. Kitts police about Redmond’s alleged misconduct. Inappropriate conduct also took place in Redmond’s home in New Haven, on Yale’s campus and other off-campus locations, according to the report.

The report also slaps Yale on the wrist. Administrators conveniently looked the other way for years.

“More concerning, however, was [Yale Medical School’s] failure to implement any meaningful monitoring mechanisms to ensure ongoing oversight of Redmond and student activity at the St. Kitts facility. Redmond’s false representations … that he had terminated the program created a false sense of confidence that his misconduct had stopped. In fact, at least by 2001, Redmond returned to recruiting students to work with him in St. Kitts, and required some of them to share a bedroom with him.”

The investigation found that 20 students worked with Redmond in St. Kitts between 2001 and 2017, three of whom he assaulted.

“Redmond failed to honor his representations to Yale after the 1994 complaints; breached a policy the St. Kitts facility put in place after the 1994 investigation, which required separate housing for students and faculty; and violated a Settlement Agreement he entered into with a student that required Redmond to eliminate the program, to cease all recruiting and supervision of students in St. Kitts, and to abide by the separate housing policy,” the investigation found.

“We found no evidence that any faculty, staff, or administrators at Yale had actual knowledge of Redmond’s sexual misconduct before it was reported,” the report states. “Nevertheless, it is equally clear that if Yale had implemented a longstanding monitoring program after the 1994 investigation, Redmond’s ongoing misconduct might well have been detected and stopped. In addition, at various points after 1994, several members of the Yale community had concerns about Redmond’s [three] subsequent interactions with certain students, which, if they had pursued, might have prompted Yale to further scrutinize Redmond’s conduct and potentially uncover his misconduct.”

They are, presumably, making some policy changes now, but it’s damning that they let this wealthy professor frolic for a quarter century before bringing the hammer down. Also, unsurprisingly, once the investigation turned serious, Redmond neatly retired, escaping any penalty for his actions.

I would like to point out that working with spiders in Minnesota seems to provide few excuses for sexually harassing students, but apparently if an industrious, motivated professor could find a way to turn studying vervet monkeys into an opportunity to get into students’ pants, it could be done. Except that I have no interest in treating students that way. I guess that’s why Redmond was at Yale, while I’m at a small state school — I lack that kind of ambition.

Dismantling a right-wing myth about transgender children

This is an amazing video, well worth an hour of your time. It’s an example of the kind of humane skepticism I wish we saw more of.

To summarize, if you don’t have an hour: there is a news story that is circulating on right wing media of a “liberal mom forcing her son to be transgender” — the parents are divorced, and the child dresses as a girl at mom’s place, and as a boy at dad’s, therefore the story of gender dysphoria is all made up and a ploy to torment the father by a bitter, liberal mom, and gosh, isn’t it evil how the Radical Left uses children as pawns? The video creator digs deep into the story, tracing it back to court transcripts and the actual statements made by the principals in the case, and discovers it’s all taking place in opposite world. The father is the one forcing the child to dress as a boy, motivated by conservative religious beliefs, and it’s the mother who is happy to let the child choose for themself. All the horrors of the story have been conjured into existence by right-wing ideologues.

I guessed how this was going to turn out when I learned that the primary source for the skewed story was Walt Heyer, and that the father was supported by the American College of Pediatricians. Don’t trust that organization! Peak irony was reached when some of the father’s friends in the video urge parents to only go to pediatricians who are members of the ACP, because other organizations are ideologically driven.

Also, the video is beautifully done and the presentation fair and sympathetic. Really worth watching. The ending will make you sad.

The Christian Ott story is fleshed out, to the chagrin of enablers everywhere

Christian Ott was a Caltech astrophysicist who was suspended for a year and ultimately resigned over accusations of sexual harassment. As is usual, the university was close-mouthed about the details — gotta protect the reputation of the institution first and foremost! — but now a former employee of Ott dishes out all the details. Handmer was fired so there might be a hint of disgruntlement here, but since he was fired for the petty detail of keeping his bicycle in his office, I think the circumstances themselves suggest that Ott was a rather nasty tyrant.

He also points out some of the failings of the media reporting on it. One problem was the tendency to report Ott’s unwanted relationships with students as “failed romances”, when they were entirely one-sided, constructed entirely out of Ott’s unrequited harassment. Lesson one: harassment is not at all romantic.

Lesson two is about self-serving myths.

The other failure of secondary reporting was lazy references to the mythical trope of the genius asshole. That is, the stereotype of a professional scientist who is both intellectually brilliant and, in compensation, socially clueless or even mean-spirited. Despite propagation in popular culture such as the Big Bang Theory, there is no evidence that links these two traits in the real world. Nor did the reporting provide any evidence that Ott was particularly brilliant, or have any excuse for social cluelessness. I find these tropes particularly corrosive since their primary application seems to be in inflating the perceived quality of a senior researcher’s work, who themselves compensates for relatively poor performance by taking it out on their powerless underlings. This same trope came into play in reporting on Andy Rubin’s departure from Google.

A lot of the long essay is about the failure of accountability and how university bureaucrats worked hard to bury the stories, which is how Ott managed to get employed and survive a huge number of complaints. What happens when you build an institution, like academia, on policies that shelter assholes? It fills up with assholes.

Potato-nosed old man with no lips and a spray-on tan fears he’ll never get laid again if rape and incest are criminalized

He doesn’t stop to consider the virtues of treating women like people — the only way humanity could have survived is via rape and incest.

Speaking before a conservative group in the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, the Iowa congressman reviewed legislation he has sought that would outlaw abortions without exceptions for rape and incest. King justified the lack of exceptions by questioning how many people would be alive if not for those conceived through rapes and incest.

“What if we went back through all the family trees and just pulled those people out that were products of rape and incest? Would there be any population of the world left if we did that?” King asked, according to video of the event, which was covered by the Des Moines Register. “Considering all the wars and all the rape and pillage that’s taken place … I know I can’t certify that I’m not a part of a product of that.”

Speaking as a fellow homely old white dude, let me just say … being a professional bigoted asshole would be a bigger obstacle than prohibiting rape, and it hasn’t stopped King from reproducing.