Monthly Archives: December 2006

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

toxoplasma gondii, science, junk science, gender, stereotypes, feminism, Body Impolitic

Body Impolitic’s Guide to Sane Holidays

Laurie and Debbie say:

If you love the holidays, love your family, and look forward to the next ten days, you don’t need this list.

If you’re still reading:

1) To the extent possible, do as much or as little holiday stuff as you want; it’s a celebration, not an obligation.
2) Wear what you think you look terrific in.
3) Spend time with people you love and who are good to you.
4) If you must spend time with awful people, remind yourself before you walk in the door that they are awful people. Then do something really nice for yourself the minute you can walk out the door.
5) Eat whatever you want.
6) Plan your responses to inevitable comments beforehand. For example, if you know that your mother will overfeed you and then, just as dessert is being cleared off the table, say “You look like you’ve gained weight,” try, “That was really a fabulous meal. Excuse me, I haven’t had a minute to talk with Aunt Catherine.”
7) If the holidays make you sad, or you just hate them, that’s fine. They’ll be over soon.
8) Be effusive about every gift you get; then be rude about the awful ones later to your friends. If they’re really awful, throw them off a bridge in the middle of the night.
9) If you enjoy the kids, they’re a great escape from the adult follies. If they drive you crazy, be as patient with them as you can: they didn’t overstimulate themselves with sugar and toys–they had help.
10) Nothing that makes adults happy is too silly.

If these aren’t your holidays, have a great Chinese meal and enjoy the movie!

holidays, Christmas, family, gifts, food, Body Impolitic