28 September 2005

American football and violent crime. More fun with Janet Hyde.

Here is something extra I had to comment on but just thematically didn't fit in my last post. Also on Joy Cardin's show her guest Janet Hyde and a caller decided to slam competitive sports. The caller suggested that competitive sports increased aggressive actions, as opposed to acting as a cathartic release of aggressive tensions in the athletes. Specifically they, the caller, and Professor Hyde believed that participation in competitve sports, football specifically, though they included basketbal-men's and women's-in the list of such sports, that could induce higher levels of aggression.
Janet rejects what she called the catharsis hypothesis based on what seemed like a single study that looked at rates of violent crime among football players. College football players I think. Anyway the conclusion, football, and other violent competitve sports encouraged, and increased aggressive crime. I am not sure what group to which these violent athletes were compared.
Lets not try to deny that football is a rough and violent sport. That would be silly. However gentle reader, you may see the same flaw in the study that I do. Its almost as bad as a self-selecting survey. People interested in football or some other violent competitive sport are by their very nature going to tend to be the more competive, more aggressive than other students in general. So essentially the researcher is comparing different populations of people. Competitive, risk taking people, to the rest of the school at large. It isn't a random sample. That is to say, the researchers aren't randomly selecting from a large group and subjecting them to a program and then looking at the results.
The only way to prove the hypothesis, playing football or (any physically competitive sport) increases the violent tendencies, of the males and females who play them is as follows. At several schools you'd have to take a random sampling of students, have them play for four years or at least two, and then compare rates of incidence of violent crime with the non-sport playing groups. That certainly wasn't done. Also it would be nice to compare to these groups (sport playing group, to non-sport playing group) to non-experimental sports groups (by that I mean teams not from your experimentally designed programs. And you if you were looking at any factor other than simple rate of violent crime, say incinidence of aggression say, you'd want the research to be run more or less double blind.
Now I've helped some promising grad student under Professor Hyde design their Ph.D research.

Misguided notions of similarity in men and women.

I was listening to Joy Cardin on Wisconsin Public Radio this morning, and her guest, Janet Hyde, Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was attempting to disabuse listeners of the "Men are from Mars, women are from Venus" notion. There are many wonderful things about this, namely that it knocks a book that uses really silly, condescending analogies (men are Mr. Fixits and women are the home improvoment committee, in Gray's book.) But I think the the guest went too far in thinking the behavioral similarities of men and women out number the differences. This kind of think also goes to far if it suggests the differences are unimportant, and don't go beyond basic plumbing issues. Men and women are different, and these differences aren't a product of parental treatment. The common argument in radical feminism goes something like this, "based on whether a baby has a vagina or a penis, you dress them in blue or pink, and treat them totally differently." A useful analogy in thinking about this argument is that one about 'putting the cart before the horse.' Parents treat kids differently largely because experience tells them boys and girls are different.

Before I go any further I ought to state unequivocally I am a feminist. And a quote or two from Steven Pinker, evolutionary psychologist and linguist at MIT, ought to establish where I stand on such issues as gender differnces and equality. Here is Pinker (2002) on equality:
"There is, in fact, no incompatiblity between the principles of feminism and the possibility that men and women are not psychologically identical. To repeat: equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principal that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group. In the case of gender, the barely defeated Equal Rights act put it succinctly: "Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex." If we recognize this principle, no one has to spin myths about the indistinguishability of the sexes to justify equality. Nor does anyone need to invoke sex differences to justify discriminatory policies, or to hector women into doing what they don't want to do."

And to alleviate still more worries, here is Pinker (2002) on differences between the sexes as they currently stand.

"In anycase, what we do know about the sexes doesn't not call for any action that would penalize or constrain one sex or the other....No sex difference yet discovered applies to every last man compared to every last woman, so generalizations about sex will always be untrue of many individuals. And notions like "proper role" and "natural place" are scientifically meaningless and give no grounds for restricting freedom."

What is categorically the opposite of reality, is the notion found radical feminism that infants are born inherently "bi-sexual," and made blue wearing macho boys, or pink wearing submissive girls by a patriarchal, oppressive culture (Sommers 1994).

Throughout the animal kingdom evolution has fashioned differences in the biology of males and females. Sometimes these differences are dramatic as the details of sexual dimorphism illustrate. Male elephant seals are several times larger than females. Males are hugely aggressive, they fight (these are real fights by the way)for control of large groups of females called, sometimes controversially, harems (Alcock 2001). Both strategies, being small, female, and part of a harem or large, violent and male are both excellent evolutionary strategies for levering one's genes into future generations. Sexual dimorphism is in fact an excellent predictor of the type of mating system, and behavior of sexes. In primates, apes in particular, this seems to hold up rather well. Comparing Gorillas and Chimpanzees are an excellent example of differeing mating strategies and how they illustrate how genetically derived differences affect behavior. Gorillas, adopt a more Elephant Seal approach to mating systems. Male gorillas are large and tend to preside over several females whom they alone mate with. These silverbacks will fight other males for this control. In chimps mating politics are different. Several males live together in tribes with several females. There is some sexual dimorphism, but compared to gorillas it is miniscule. The dimorphism is indicitave of male on male violence but not with males of the same tribe but rather with neighboring males. (An interesting side bar. Alcock (2001)notes, all is not brotherly love in the land of tribe pals among the chimpanzees. Chimps have proportionally the largest testicles among apes. They are competeing with each other but it is sperm competition and it goes on inside the females.)
My point to all this discussing our fellow apes, is that no one claims that these differences in the behavior of males and females is a by-product of the cultures in which they live, but rather biologically derived, i.e. genetically prescribed differences. Sure cultural differences do exist between chimp tribes, and gorilla troops, living in different regions. But what doesn't change are the basic behavioral differences between males and females across these geographic territories. Why the double standard when human sex differences are discussed? No one but the most radical postmodern social scientist, or devoted creation "scientist" slip into paroxysms of rage at the evolutionary analyses of sex differences in non-human animals. Why do so many generally clear thinking people join in the paroxysms when humans are discussed?
What are we to do with human sexual dimorphism between males and females? How are we to asses the fact that human male testicle size is intermediate between gorillas and chimps (Alcock 2001)? That sexual dimorphism speaks to an evolutionary history of male on male violence and a generally more aggressive male attitude. That testicle size speaks to a history, not as as extreme as in chimps, of sperm competition among males. Even with this cursory look at our close relatives among the apes we can begin to see why differences in the ways young boys and girls and socialize. Boys and girls socialize in different ways and it happens almost immediately and with no necessary input from parents, or culture.
Here are some of the differences between boys and girls and men and women from Alcock (2001) and Pinker (2002):
-boys tend to engage in rough and tumble play boys play more at fighting, chasing and manipulating objects; girls play more at parenting, and trying on social roles.
-Men are statistically more likely to compete with each other for status, "using violence or occupational achievement: women are statistically more likely to compete via "derogration, and other forms of verbal aggression."
-"Women experience basic emotions more intensely, except perhaps anger. Women have more intimate social relationships, are more concerned about them, adn feel more empathy towards their friends, though not toward strangers...they maintain more eye contact, and smile and laugh far more often."
-Men seem to be more willing to take serious risks for status and attention.
-Men and women experience differ in their patterns of jealousy, mate preferences, and willingness to engage in casual sex.
These differences aren't likely cultural artifacts, but rooted in an evolved biology (a great number of these sex differences exist across culture, and many of the differences between male and female behavior are what you would predict if you were an evolutionary biologist and knew nothing but their physical differences are just two reasons why you might suspect these are real evolved differences biologically presescribed, or at least predisposed).
Men and women are certainly more similar to each other, than they are to other animals. We each experience the same emotions, care for young, compete with our peers for status, for mates, and resources. As Pinker (2002) points out that "a biologist would say thats its better to have the male adaptations to do deal with male problems, and female adaptations to deal with female problems." We are all human of course, and so it is unlikely that differences between the sexes are so extreme as to justify any kind of discremination in any of our professions. That isn't the same thing as saying that boys and girls and men and women should be forced to socialize in the same way if it isn't their preference.
Differences between male and female minds exist, and pretending that they are perfectly interchangeable is likely to lead to unpleasant consequences. We ignore the truth to our own detriment.

Literature Cited:
Alcock, John. 2001. The Triumph of Sociobiology. Oxford Univeristy Press, Oxford, England.
Hoff-Sommers, Christiana. 1994. Who Stole Feminism? Simon & Schuster, New York, New York.
Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking Press, New York, New York.

20 September 2005

Why the Blind Watchmaker?

Someone asked me the other day the rather sensible question, "Why the blind watchmaker?" I suppose it was a bit daft of me not to explain that in "My Very First Blog." Anyway, here is the reason.
I read a book in 1997 that amazed me. I can't say that it changed my life. The books of Carl Sagan had done that a couple of years earlier, but what it did was make me comfortable with the perspective I was slowly, and somewhat reluctantly coming to accept. That perspective is that we -the we here being earthings, and what ever other life the universe may hold- are all on our own. The book, now a classic of science writing I think, was the "The Blind Watchmaker" by Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins. The subtitle may drive home the take-home message of the book, if the play on Paley's divine watchmaker doesn't. Here it is: Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design. The book isn't necessarily a polemic against religious belief. It is instead a book about evolution, that tends to notice the overlapping magisteria of religion and science. Its conclusion, and the only one you can really make, is that there is no sign of God in the minutia of evolution. And certainly no evidence is revealed of the God found in any of the world's dominant religions.
I suppose it was this book, more than Sagan's books, that allowed me to be a content atheist, which was a direction I was heading anyway. It articulated a phrase from Darwin's "Origin of Species", wherein his closing paragraph, he said "there is grandeur in this view of life.." Darwin's sense of grandeur was evoked by the fact that from one or but a few original forms the great diversity of life could be derived by mutation, the random part, and cummulative, non-random, natural selection. Dawkins expands on this theme of grandeur and, for me anyway, demonstrated how a person might actually live a fulfilled life with this understanding of life, and not be so troubled by the fact that it really doesn't admit much elbow room for interventionist gods, as appealing as these might be.
Once, well before I read Sagan, Dawkins, Wilson, or Pinker or Dennet, I suggested to a friend that it might make people value life, the one we live in now, and not the one for which we are sorely lacking evidence, if we didn't believe in God or heaven or God's intervention. If this is the only go around we get, maybe we might recognize life for the rare and precious thing it is. I retreated rather rapidly from this line of conversation because of the look of...was it horror? Maybe it was. Anyway her shocked look cued me into the her disaggreement. That and the fact that she said, "Uh..I don't agree."
Since then, I have given the matter much more thought, and of course studied evolution in much more detail. I've read tons of books, argued with alot of creationists (they call themselves "creation scientists" now), and talked with many, many more sensible religious believers. So I don't believe in God. Or Allah, or Shiva, though I must confess a fondness for Odin and Thor. And I am more or less comfortable with that. For a description of my uncomfortable moments see my blog "Athiesm and Death." The short version is this. Its hard to say comforting things to friends and loved ones when you are, unlike them, a non-believer.
The blind watchmaker part of my blogname is a little tribute to that Dawkins book that showed me that I could be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
I am now in full agreement with Richard Dawkins, who once said in his book, "Unweaving the Rainbow", "...We as individuals are still hugely blessed. Priviliged, and not just priviliged to enjoy our planet. More, we are granted teh opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do, in the short time before they close for ever."

15 September 2005

Aikido just doesn't work.

I have a book at whose pictures I love to look. They are all simple line drawings of Aikido techniques. The drawings convey so much information, like the rest of the book. It maybe the most thoughtful, scholarly treatment of any martial art ever produced. The book is called Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere by Adele Westbrook and Oscar Ratti. The illustrations are all Ratti's. And their deep love of this martial art is evident on every page.
As I said the text is as brilliant as the drawings. It is exhaustive, covering the foundations of Aikido, which can be translated as "the way of harmony," its theory of the dynamics of physical aggression as well as how such aggression is to be neutralized, and its philosiphical approach to self-defense. In short Aikidoists are to practice a "non-subjective" self-defense that leaves no one hurt. Other martial arts, Westbrook and Ratti claim, practice a "crude" philosophy, but the harmonious aspirations of Aikido's practicianers are a more "sophisticated approach."
"...Aikido says that you should and must defend yourself...but aikido also says that you must be responsible for not inflicting unnecessary damage upon your attacker. He is still operating at a lower level" (Westbrook and Ratti 1970). That is pretty nice stuff.
I don't know if there was a time when Aikido worked as a means of self-defense. I've seen some old pictures of its founder, Sensei Morihei Uyeshiba as a young man. He is grim faced and stoutly muscled, and his aikido at that time seemed something rough and tumble, a dark mix of grappling arts and calculated strikes. He changed as he got older I guess, because the art softened.
Whatever it began as, effective martial art, or nutty wrong turn, it has become something that is so far removed from the reality of combat to be, I think, completely, or nearly so, ineffective as a means of self-defense. It has become something more like dance or moving meditation with a partner. Which is fine by the way. My problem with the art only surfaces when its practicianers claim that they can teach people how to defend themselves from real, violent attacks. Aikido doesn't work because it has, as currently practiced, no clue as to how real attacks occur.
The attacks practiced in Aikido may have had some historical significance, but the attacks, performed with too, too much collusion by uke (any training partners performing attacks) seem more like mindless following until nage (defender or thrower) perform some thing graceful, but far removed from reality.
An example of completely mindless attack in Aikido, is this. Attacker lunges with both hands, to grab both hands of the defender. Defender dances away, keeping hands extended, yet, just out of reach. Attacker follows trying to grab. Follows some more, and some more and then defender does some defending. This is called "Leading Extension" by Aikidoists, I call it magic because it just isnt' real.
Fighting, in self-defense situations, or in a cage or ring, is an affair of swift, brutality. It is dynamic and alive. A boxer would never throw a right cross and then chase his target with his arm outstretched around a ring, no, no. He or she is firing the hook shortly after then the uppercut, and then maybe he or she will step back and appraise the violence done. The attacks are certainly committed, but not foolishly so. No, no. Aikido doesn't work, because its training methodology isn't reflective of reality. And they are clueless about that singular fact.
When you look at martial artists who can pull off their moves in real time, against real opposition from from any style, you can look to their training methods and see why. Boxers, and I use this term to refer to Western Boxers, Thai Boxers, modern kickboxers, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu players, Judo players, and the good Jeet Kune Do practicianers all drill techniques but then they try to apply them against a living breathing opponent, who uses, and this is key, sensible, realistic, attacks in a thoughtful tactical way. When I spar in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, submission grappling, or NHB my opponent is acctually trying to win the day!
Aikido maybe a thoughtful approach to moving meditation, or excersise, but it isn't effective self-defense, at least not as it is practiced in most dojo the world over. And Aikido instructors who tell their students otherwise are giving thier students a false, maybe dangerously so, sense of confidence in their ability to handle physical aggression.
P.S. Anne if you read this, I don't mean any offense!


What in the hell was director Peter Hyams thinking? Was he channeling the ghost of Ed Wood?

Last night I went to see what I thought might be a little bit of mindless fun. A sound of thunder starring Sir Ben Kingsley, and Ed Burns, in a bit of thoughtless sci-fi seemed pretty can't miss. Ah....how wrong, terribly, awefully, and completely wrong I was. I still don't know what the hell the title is suppose to mean. I suspect it was a subtle nod to the fact that the sheer number of feet that would be beating a path to the exits during the first reel would make a sound something like thunder.
This may be one of the worst movies to hit the big screen in the past ten years. I know that is a bold statement considering that the past ten years have seen movies like Pearl Harbor, The Ring and Alexander made, but trust me, this movie deserves to be rubbing shoulders with those giants of bad cinema. In fact it would be impossible to overstate how completely awful this movie is.
The movie tells the preposterous tale of a time traveling safari company whose shoddy protocols (and there is no end to the idiocy that are TimeSafari's shoddy protocols.) end up altering the future (they changed something in the past) in a series of ill-concieved "time waves" that leave the world oddly changed, either by altering creatures presently alive, watch out for your rose bushes, or inserting completely new fauna("It looks reptilian with some primate thrown in."), that have evolved in the interim. Our insipid explorers changed something in the past and each successive "time wave" brings the current earth more in line with that tiny change. Make sense to you? Don't worry, it made no sense to me either. Time travel has a plethora of rich literary paradox to explore, this movie however, decided to go a different route. Mainly they adopt the unthinking, clueless, lets do an even dumber version of
timeline approach.
For some strange reason, Ben Kingsley is awesome, which is a nice juxtaposition with the special effects, which are the opposite. I almost left when I saw the "allosaurus." I should have I think. Because then I could be writing about something else, like my black eye, or shoelaces. I digress. Back to the acting. Sir Ben is great. Ed Burns may have some potential as an action hero, but it sure doesn't show in this. And I don't think any of the other actors will ever work again. Except maybe in porn where acting talent isn't so important.
I would love to tell you how bad the science in this movie is. On every level, and in any scene where anything scientific is said, it is almost always 100% wrong.
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is given a really erudite and thoughtful treatment that really furthers the character development and story.
No. I'm sorry. That is bullshit.
I think the author of this screenplay watched Jurassic Park: The Lost World and listened to Jeff Goldbloom rattle off his take on it, and then said author misinterpreted that already spare and inappropriate example, mangled it and voila, it becomes something Ed Wood would be jealous he hadn't written.
Here's the exchange between Ed Burns and another "Actor" after one of their safaris has gone wrong.
Ed Burns: That can't happen again. We must be certain.
Other "Actor": Have you ever heard of the Heisenberg Uncertainty princple?
Ed Burns: Blank stare, seems to convey, how did I get involved in this crap?
Other "Actor": It states that you can't know anything with 100% certainty. Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah...so we can't predict anything."
Ed Burns: We must be certain.
Okay that is paraphrase, but fair.
The moral of this story, is that sci-fi, like supermarket fruit, is a terrible gamble. Heisenbergs Principle aside, I can safely predict I will never watch this movie again.