Laurie Toby Edison

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It’s Amazing What a Tiny Parasite Can Do

Laurie and Debbie emerge from the holiday fog to say:

Apparently, there just aren’t any limits to the efforts people will make to justify gendered behaviors. The parasite Toxoplasma gondii is a well-known and extremely common parasite, thought to be present in roughly 40% of the human population. It has long been known to be a danger to embryos and fetuses (and thus a risk for pregnant women), and itreceived a lot of attention in the 1980s, because it is also a danger to immunocompromised people, including HIV+ people.

More recently, the parasite has been associated with some particular and very specific behavior changes in rats and mice. It is implicated in schizophrenia, which could be very good news.

Last month, however, the very respectable Proceedings of the Royal Society published a paper claiming that this parasite not only affects behavior in rats and mice, but in people. Interestingly enough, no reports on this paper, including the abstract itself give any kind of numbers for this metastudy.

Despite the fact that researcher Kevin Lafferty admits up front that “Spurious or non-causal correlations between aggregate personality and aspects of climate and culture … could also drive these patterns,” he nonetheless feels comfortable concluding that it makes sense to implicate the parasite in all kinds of cultural patterns and cultural changes, including a general increase in neurosis. Though it is not in the abstract per se, Lafferty has also made inferences about gender-linked behavior variations based on parasite infection. This is hardly the first time some researcher in a comparatively obscure discipline has decided that his work explains human cultural variation.

And guess what?!? That’s what made it into the popular news, in an oh-so-useful way! According to Australian researcher Nicky Boulter,

“Infected men have lower IQs, achieve a lower level of education and have shorter attention spans. They are also more likely to break rules and take risks, be more independent, more anti-social, suspicious, jealous and morose, and are deemed less attractive to women.

“On the other hand, infected women tend to be more outgoing, friendly, more promiscuous, and are considered more attractive to men compared with non-infected controls.”

Note that there are still no numbers, no study sizes, and no methodologies. Also note that the popular version is a lot less conditional and careful than the scientific version.

But the most important part is the conclusion: *trumpet flourish* The parasite makes women more like stereotypical women and men more like stereotypical men. And what’s more, it makes everybody stupider.

The point that researchers find what they are looking for, and that discoveries reinforce expectations, is no longer subject to argument. The late Steven Jay Gould wrote dozens of articles and one great book on the subject, and he’s far from the only person to make the point.

So when you find a popular article reinforcing sexual stereotyping, based on incomplete and inconclusive research which nonetheless leaps to conclusions, get your bullshit meter out. That way, when you pick up the next article, the one that tells you that mother’s milk makes women more nurturing and men more argumentative, or that Brazilians are different from Swedes because of the direction the water swirls down the sink, you’ll know what kind of science you’ll find underneath the headlines.

Thanks to nadyalec for the link

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2 Responses to “It’s Amazing What a Tiny Parasite Can Do”

  1. D. says:

    One might also turn the conclusions upside down and suggest that stereotypicality makes people stupid, but much more research would need to be done and the study size would be rather unwieldy…

  2. Lynne Murray says:

    Sometimes you don’t need a scientific study to see that cherry picking the “research conclusions” that support popular prejudice is no science at all.

    Could it be that reading dumbed-down, skewed pseudoscience causes disordered thinking processes and health-damaging anxiety? As D says, the affected population is so large and the condition so widespread that it would be very hard to design an experiment, and equally hard to get the funds to measure it.

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