Tag Archives: science

The Easiest Way to Avoid Saying “He” or “She”

2 Nov

Sexism abounds(Image used under CC 2.0 via)

 

A linguist will have a hard time if he tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if he or she tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if he/she tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if s/he tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if they try to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if zhe tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if zie tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

Depending upon your political leanings, you may find one or more of the sentences above ridiculous. Many people find the very idea of gender neutral pronouns preposterous to the point of sending death threats to those who have dared to formally enter them in style guides. In the middle of the last century, Strunk and White dismissed any linguistic adaptations motivated by gender equality because, they argued, the word “he” becomes gender neutral, not androcentric, when referring to everyman, mankind, etc. This argument has failed to hold up since the women’s movement, and most Western periodicals agree that such language is archaic with male chauvinist undertones, hence the plethora of proposed alternatives.

This can get harder in other languages. In German, everyone knows right away if your best friend is a girl or a guy because you have to call a female your “best friendess.” A troll gives away her gender in Russian or French the moment she types, “I’m smart/rich/European.” A Japanese speaker would give it away at the word “I.”

But wherever there are strict rules about gender, there is deep confusion about gender. A “girl” in German (“Mädchen,” from which we get “maiden”) is technically gender neutral because all words ending in –chen are. Thus, German kids grow up on stories like Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood containing lines such as, “The prince took the maiden home to his castle and married it.” English isn’t any more logical when considering that almost all of our modern caricatures of ducks—ducklings, rubber duckies, Donald, Daffy, and Duckula—are automatically associated with boyishness, yet the word “duck” is technically as female as the word “cow.”

Most people on earth speak a language that distinguishes between “he” and “she” because most of the languages of the former colonial powers do. But a study of several hundred of the 6,000+ languages on earth found most do not. Whether you’re speaking Finnish or Farsi, you can talk about your best friend, your teacher, your doctor or your least favorite coworker for hours without letting anyone know anything about the person’s gender identity. No “his” and “hers” bath towels, no needing to find out your baby’s sex for linguistic ease.

So while The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage now urges its writers to avoid gendered pronouns, it appears the best solution would be to avoid English altogether.

 

 

Doctor Tries to Be Hip And Misses

21 Jul

spine(Image by Katie Cowden used under CC license via)

 

Fifty-five year-old Terry Ragland of Tennessee recently sought medical attention for lower back pain at her local orthopedic center. She was introduced to Dr. Timothy Sweo, who ordered x-rays. After analyzing the results, Sweo concluded that the pain was caused by a curve in the spine called lumbar lordosis. He delivered the diagnosis to the patient by saying plainly, “You have ghetto booty.”

Lumbar lordosis is a severe curvature of the lower spine most visible from the side and it can be caused by a variety of a factors. “Ghetto booty” is, according to the most popular Urban dictionary definition, “a term used when you see a girl with a firm, big, tight packed ass. {Most black girls have ghetto booties}.” In other words, it’s slang for simply having a big butt.

For a medical professional to use the term is fantastically patronizing at best. For a white male medical professional to use racially-charged sex slang with a black female patient he has only met once before is jaw-droppingly gauche. His attempted apology to Ragland via letter does not help his case: “I was trying to take a technical conversation regarding your lower back and make it less technical.”

Presuming orthopedic patients are unable to comprehend medical terms like “lumbar lordosis” is ludicrous. After a month into my first limb-lengthening procedure at age 11, I could explain the difference between lordosis and scoliosis, a corticotomy and an osteotomy, and I could name every bone in the human body. I wasn’t exceptional – I just wanted to understand the world I was living in, like every one of my fellow pediatric patients. Priscilla Alderson’s excellent book Children’s Consent to Surgery presents overwhelming evidence that child patients are far more aware than adults tend to give them credit for. And Ragland is not a child.

“It says to me that he doubts what type of intellect I have, how intelligent I am to be able to understand what he conveys to me in a medical term,” Ragland told reporters.

While Sweo’s condescension comprises a particularly stunning mix of nasty prejudices, he is hardly the first doctor to speak disrespectfully to a patient. Medical specialists are renowned for being scientifically brilliant but socially inept. After making you sit in the waiting room, sometimes for several hours, they swoop in, keep their eyes on your body or the floor, bark a few questions at you, rattle off some orders for the nurse to take down, and swoop out again.  The patient is supposed take solace in the fact that it is all a sign of how important the doctor is.

Since this stereotype has become so pervasive, some medical professionals do make earnest attempts to shatter it, but their success varies. Some try through their body language and demeanor to give you the sense that they are genuinely listening and care about your all-around well-being. Others try by jamming a few blunt jokes into your narrow time slot. It gives you the sense that they’ve just watched Patch Adams and decided that being a clown is the perfect defense against being accused of coldness, so let ’er rip! Your body, your condition and your diseases are hilarious!

Years ago I attended a conference where an orthopedic specialist did a presentation on achondroplasia and said with a smile, “The short bones cause the average-length muscles on achondroplastic people to bunch up so that they look like the Michelin Man!”  He clicked forward to a slide featuring a list of achondroplastic symptoms with “Michelin Man look” featured at the top.  He was obviously very proud of having come up with this description.

I was the only person in the room with achondroplasia, and I had to kick my friend sitting next to me because he couldn’t stop giggling at the surgeon’s cluelessness. The Michelin Man?

Indeed, the most exasperating aspect of the Dr. Sweo case is that he appears to genuinely believe that his comments might have been helpful. Usually it is easier to engage in productive discourse with someone whose intentions are good than with someone who aims to hurt. But in light of his oblivious apology, it seems Ragland has a better chance of getting through to other, more perceptive doctors via the media than to Sweo via complaint.

I have lumbar lordosis.  It’s one of the primary symptoms of achondroplasia and it’s why I had to undergo spinal surgery last year.  I could have crashed this site with a list of all the off-putting doctors and healers I encountered, as well as the sarcastic jokes my closest friends came up with to keep me sane.  As Ragland files a formal complaint with the Tennessee Department of Health, there will inevitably be some backlash about PC culture gone mad and minorities being too sensitive and humorless.  But more power to her for sticking up for herself, and for patients everywhere.

 

 

Does GoldieBlox Break the Box?

9 Jun

 

After its Kickstarter fundraising campaign (see above) proved to be a success, GoldieBlox is here and available for retail.  Designed by an engineer appalled at the 1 to 10 ratio of female to male professionals in her field, the toy is the latest in a series of efforts across the West to combat the gender gap and get girls excited about scientific concepts from the earliest possible age.  Questioning the stereotype of women as “naturally” less competent in math, science and visual-spatial thinking is always admirable.  But does GoldieBlox really amount to anything more than simply painting science pink?    

Parents who want to conscientiously ensure their daughters feel every option is available to them will probably already have bought them Legos and Erector Sets.  But parents and relatives and neighbors who rely more on tradition when picking out presents may be swayed by the color-coding GoldieBlox employs.  As in: “I need a present for a cute girl.  Look, this is pink and cute.  I’ll take it.”  Having worked in early childhood education as well as social justice, I wish every adult responsible for stocking a child’s toy box would be conscientious enough to consider the value and purpose of their every purchase—or at least read the picture book all the way through—before heading to the cash register.  But plenty of adults who want to make kids happy don’t share my interest in kids’ things.  They truly appreciate age recommendations on the boxes, and the pink and blue color-coding.  It is these adults and their beloved little girls who will benefit tremendously from the GoldieBlox expansion of the world of pink into the realm of engineering. 

But why do we need to color code anything to let people know which gender it’s for?  Do we need to rename it GoldieNASA to get more women to work there?  Last year, when Bic introduced pens for women (“Easy glide – feel the smoothness!”), its Amazon page almost crashed under the weight of sarcastic reviews:

 

No Good For Man Hands

 

And then there were the appropriate reactions in November to the Honda She’s, a car marketed to women in Japan with special light and air-conditioning features to prevent wrinkles.  Feminists asked:

 

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Indeed, the most offensive aspect of the pink-is-for-girls mentality is the antiquated belief that women need a softer, daintier, less intimidating variation of the standard, which was built for men by men.  Any woman who stops posing for a portrait and approaches that standard is an accident waiting to happen!  Right?

Pink cars and laptops and cell phones and building blocks trigger my gag reflex because they seem to be so obviously marketed as the deviation from the more serious male standard.  But is it fair of me to assume this?  Would GoldieNASA really be so bad?  A friend who works as a software engineer and buys so many Hello Kitty products I suspect he accounts for half of Sanrio’s market share would say no.  He agrees with me that Barbie and the Disney Princesses inappropriately introduce pre-schoolers to sexual self-objectification and viciously narrow beauty standards.  He is both irritated and concerned about those of any gender identity who think they should use their vulnerability to get what they want.  But his kitchen cupboards are brimming with cups emblazoned with pink hearts and daisies and butterflies.  He would love to work at GoldieNASA.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the color pink or with girls and boys, and men and women, being cute.  In fact, trashing the color pink and all things marketed at girlie-girls is often motivated by a powerful misogynistic tradition: the belief that things for girls are dumb and frivolous because girls are dumb and frivolous.  This is usually why boys and girls watch films and read books marketed to boys—like Harry Potter or Star Wars or every Pixar film but Brave—while only girls watch films and read books marketed to girls.  Some misogynists and feminists uphold this disparity by uniting in their belief that twirling around in ball-gowns is silly because it’s not a skill needed by the average adult in modern life.  Indeed, it is not.  But then neither is sword-fighting.    

For this reason, it is imperative to teach kids that the value of a toy or story derives from its content, not its color.  Within this lesson lies the truth that there is more to being a girl than dressing up and being cute, just as there is more to being a boy than being stoic and winning every competition.  Every child should feel every option is available to them because the most innovative minds approach the world with the least reliance on tradition.

GoldieBlox will have succeeded when it is ubiquitous in any child’s room because it will signify that adults are picking their purchases based not on color but on this simple rubric:

 

 

 

Biology and “The Imprecision of Stereotypes”

16 Sep

 

This week the British newspaper The Telegraph asks:

Ever wondered why men can’t seem to tastefully decorate a house?  Or have a tendency for dressing in clothes that clash?  And why, for that matter, can’t women seem to hack it at computer games?  Now scientists claim to have discovered the reason: the sexes see differently.  Women are better able to tell fine differences between colors, but men are better at keeping an eye on rapidly moving objects, they say.

Professor Israel Abramov and colleagues at the City University of New York reached their conclusions after testing the sight of students and staff, all over 16, at two colleges…

The authors wrote: “Across most of the visible spectrum males require a slightly longer wavelength than do females in order to experience the same hue.”  So, a man would perceive a turquoise vase, for instance, as being a little more blue than a woman who was looking at it too.

Abramov, professor of cognition, admitted they currently had “no idea” about how sex influenced color perception.  However, writing in the journal Biology of Sex Differences, he said it seemed “reasonable to postulate” that differences in testosterone levels were responsible…

Men can’t perceive colors as deftly as women can.  That’s why all the great Western painters like Van Gogh and Cézanne and Leonardo and Picasso and Renoir and Monet and Munch and Vermeer and Kandinsky and Matisse are female.  And all the major fashion designers of the last century like Hugo Boss and Karl Lagerfeld and Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren were women.  Oh, wait. 

Maybe the study meant to say testosterone only triggers color ineptitude when male ears register the words “home decorating.”  Or that male color perception improves when money is involved. 

Or maybe The Telegraph author was exaggerating just a bit.  Tacking jazzy headlines onto reports of scientific studies are all the rage these days, no matter how much they distort the findings.  In June, Medical Daily ran an article under the title, “Racism Is Innate.”  Innate means, according to my biologist father, “present at birth,” so this seemed like a call to toss all those No child is born a racist buttons onto the trash heap.  Except that anyone who bothered to read the article would discover that the study simply concluded that brain scans of adults show simultaneous activity in the centers that process fear and emotion and those that differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar faces.  The idea that fear of the Other can be neurologically mapped lends itself to a great deal of speculation and debate, but nowhere did the study claim that racism is present at birth. 

Such truth-stretching borders on mendacity, yet it pervades the science sections of so many newspapers.  Scientific studies are supposed to be free of bias, but the news media is severely biased toward publishing whatever will grab readers’ attention.  As several researchers have pointed out, differences between the sexes are currently considered a much more interesting discovery than no difference, so publishers often remain silent on an issue until they find a study that provides the juicier headline, no matter how numerous the contradicting studies are.  When the market is left to decide, it chooses salability over comprehensiveness.

Such an irresponsible approach to science results in a gravely misinformed public.  I can’t tell you how many people have repeated the claim that our modern Western female beauty standards are “natural” because a round waist resembles pregnancy and triggers the male fear of cuckoldry.  No one seems to remember that several crosscultural studies discredited this idea years ago.  But how can anyone be expected to remember something the media chose not to promote in the first place? 

And forget about waiting until the study is corroborated.  In 2007, The Times ran a headline claiming that women are naturally drawn to the color pink because of our savannah foremothers’ need to gather berries while the men hunted.  The Times published the study without consulting any historians, who eventually pointed out that pink was considered a manly color as recently as 1918 until fashion trends changed.  Oops.

This doesn’t mean that we should, as Mitt Romney has demanded, “keep science out of politics.”  Science is impartiality and corroboration and the best method we have for sorting facts from wishful thinking—for preventing our emotional, egotistical needs from weakening our objectivity.  To me, science is the most humbling force in the universe because it demands we always admit what we do not know.  It prevents hasty conclusions based on flimsy evidence, gut feelings, and political agendas.  It questions crude stereotypes and discovers more complex structures. 

But according to pop science reporters and the researchers they choose to spotlight, nearly every single modern joke about the differences between men and women stems from millennia-old evolutionary adaptations.  (Indeed, the Telegraph article claims that the female proclivity for detecting color helped our foremothers with gathering berries.  Always with the damn berries… )  As stated in the graphic below, such reports all too often suggest that prehistoric society on the African savannah looked just like something Don Draper or Phyllis Schlafly would have designed:

Men hunt, women nest, and every macho social pattern we see today has been passed down to us from our prehistoric ancestors.  Even though historians find that these patterns, like our racial categories, are barely more than two centuries old, if that.  And that the gender binary is far from universal.  Misinterpreting scientific findings is just as dire as ignoring them. 

When it comes to what women and men can and can’t do, neuroscientist Lise Eliot notes, “Expectations are crucial.”  When boys and young men grow up in a culture that mocks their supposed incompetence in all things domestic (“Guys don’t do that!”), it comes as no surprise that only the most self-confident will pursue any interest they have.  Meanwhile, studies show girls perform as well as boys do in math and science until they reach puberty.  Maybe the onset of menstruation paralyzes our visual-spatial intelligence because we’ve got to get picking those berries, or maybe girls pick up on the not-so-subtle message that guys think coquettish beauty is more important than nerdy brains in the dating game.  (For more details on the sexism faced by aspiring female scientists, see Cordelia Fine’s excellent book, Delusions of Gender.)  In her research, Dr. Eliot finds only two indisputable neurological differences between males and females:

1) Male brains are 8% to 11% larger than females’.

2) Female brains reach maturation earlier than male brains. 

All other neurological studies that find major differences between the sexes are studies of adults: i.e., the people most shaped by their culture and society.  Only cross-cultural studies of adults can isolate nurture from nature.  In any case, Eliot is a proponent of neuroplasticity, the idea that the pathways and synapses of the brain change depending upon its environment and the neural processes and behaviors it engages in.  In other words, painting or gaming from an early age or frequently throughout your life will condition your brain to do these tasks and related ones well.  It explains why the gender roles of a given time and place are so powerfulwhy mastering unfamiliar tasks is an uphill climb for men and women but also why countries committed to equality have the narrowest gender gaps. 

“Plasticity is the basis for all learning and the best hope for recovery after injury,” Eliot writes.  “Simply put, your brain is what you do with it.”  For more, see her brilliant parenting book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—and What We Can Do About It.   

But I’ll never believe that a neuroscientist has all the answers.  I live in a country that showed the world the dangers of hastily trying to trace all social patterns back to biology.  As a result, the media here in Germany is usually much more reticent to casually toss around arguments like those in The Telegraph or The Times or Medical Daily.  Natural scientists have made discoveries like neuroplasticity and limb-lengthening that are crucial to progress, but social scientists have discovered that equality and empathy are crucial to any society that values peace and respect over power and greed. 

Or, in other words.