The Long, Unscientific History of His ’n’ Hers Brains

From Slate:

Science has tried for centuries to prove that men’s brains are different from women’s. A new book takes a withering look.

By Laura Miller
Sept 23, 2019

Sarcasm is a rare and underappreciated mode in science writing, which tends toward wonderstruck lyricism or, when the situation demands it, sober concern. But sarcasm is exactly the tone called for when your subject is centuries of flimsy scientific research designed by men to “prove” that you, and 50 percent of the human population, are inferior. Of all the bracing virtues in Gina Rippon’s Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds, Rippon’s sarcasm is surely the most savory. Rippon, a professor emeritus of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University in the U.K., argues that the extent and significance of the biological differences between the brains of men and women have been greatly exaggerated by generations of scientists and, especially, by the popular press. In recent years, developments in her own discipline, particularly fMRI imaging, have been used to bolster pronouncements about the inherent distinctions between the “male” and “female” brain, even when the evidence for such conclusions is rickety. This ticks Rippon off.

Her response is to dissect the shortcomings of these various studies with a withering, pragmatic scorn that reads a bit like a secretly recorded trash-talking session in a lab break room. And Rippon has plenty of grist for her mill. Going all the way back to the 18th century, when science began to replace scripture as the preeminent authority for many Westerners, Rippon describes how researchers began looking to the brain to justify the different social roles assigned to men and women and the behaviors encouraged in each. She calls this approach “an area of entrenched opinion” that “has been the ongoing focus of just about every research discipline from genetics to anthropology, mixed with history, sociology, politics and statistics.” The scientists who produced this work started with an assumption (that women and men have distinct destinies as ordained by nature, rather than God) and set out to find the evidence to prove it. Lo and behold, they discovered just what they were looking so hard for—except when they didn’t and had to hurriedly change the rules.

Brain size was a key focus of this theoretical fancy footwork. Men, on average, have larger brains than women, and this was deemed to be the source of men’s obviously superior mental abilities. However, it turned out that brain size varies with body size, and, as John Stuart Mill pointed out, “a tall and large-boned man must on this showing be wonderfully superior in intelligence to a small man and an elephant and a whale must prodigiously excel mankind.” Attempts to adjust the comparison for variations in body size, as Rippon relates, “didn’t come up with the ‘right’ answer either.” By such calculations, the Chihuahua, whose brain is enormous relative to its body, should be the most intelligent breed of dog. (“This is known in the business as the Chihuahua paradox,” writes Rippon, in just one of many quips that make an endearingly dorky counterpoint to her disdain for poorly conducted research and slanted conclusions.)

Women weren’t the only people targeted by this sort of research. In the late 19th century, a property called “orthognathism,” which could be judged by the angles in a human profile, was seized upon to prove that European males were superior in intelligence to central Africans, who were in turn better than orangutans. Then, disaster struck: “Women, on average, turned out to be more orthognathic than men,” Rippon reports. But “fortunately, help was at hand”: An anatomist figured out that children, too, had exaggerated orthognathism, demonstrating that women were actually just overgrown kids. Crisis averted! In one particularly embarrassing 19th-century incident, a sophisticated volumetric formula was used to calculate the skull capacity of students of both genders, as well as 35 leading members of the Anatomical Society in Dublin. But (oops!) several of the anatomists turned out to have relatively diminutive brain pans. “The discovery that these eminent men’s heads were on the smaller side,” Rippon writes, “magically created a large number of instant converts to the conclusion that linking skull capacity to intelligence was obviously ludicrous.”

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When Kids Are Straight Until Proven Otherwise

From The Atlantic::

Many gay preteens know early on that they are somehow different, but lack the parental and social support that heterosexuals take for granted.

Aug 24, 2019

The 12-year-old drag star Desmond Napoles is one of a growing number of kids who have embraced an LGBTQ identity at an early age. He has already come out as gay. Recent postings on his Instagram feed, which has 181,000 followers, feature him posing in a purple wig with red lips pursed, or in a rainbow dress at Brooklyn Pride. He recently appeared in an ad for Converse’s 2019 Pride collection. “He is spreading the message that it is okay for kids to drag,” his mother, Wendy Napoles, told Gay Star News. And to “explore their identity and express themselves, without shame, without hiding.”

Her son may be precocious, but most queer kids remember feeling different very early in their lives. The clichés of this childhood contrariety are well known: Gay boys, sometimes adopting an effeminate gait and an ironic manner, shy away from raucous play with their gender peers; lesbian girls, throwing on baggy clothes and hard hats, are ever ready for a physical fray. These are stereotypes, but queer kids often tip their hand. Years later, a family photo surfaces—of a boy holding a doll, say, as his brothers roughhouse nearby—that, in retrospect, makes the story seem obvious. These unwittingly campy childhood photos also communicate a reality generally overlooked in society: Budding queer identities have nonsexual elements that often form long before puberty, signaling what lies ahead.

Nevertheless, seeing preteens involved in drag shows—an age-old staple of LGBTQ culture, often performed in gay clubs—makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Critics have accused Desmond’s mother of allowing her son’s sexualization and exploitation. After another preteen boy performed drag in Ohio, state Republicans proposed legislation barring these performances, linking them, without evidence, to child trafficking.

Over time, American society has been steadily making peace with gay adults, gay marriages, even gay political candidates. Yet it still broadly pretends that people are straight until, at some point after age 18, they proclaim themselves otherwise. Parents and schools have long recognized the need to accommodate nascent heterosexuality in wholesome ways—for instance, by organizing school dances and providing basic education about how the reproductive system works. Queerness, in contrast, is widely understood to be inherently and only sexual; by this logic, all things LGBTQ should be relegated to adult spaces, preventing children’s premature sexualization. This explains why the backlash to preteen drag performers like Desmond has been so fierce—and why so many queer kids, with their difference manifesting as awkwardness, are forced to tread the rough waters of adolescence with no social support.

When I was 7 or 8 years old, the mother of a classmate visited my Manhattan school, offering to paint the girls’ fingernails. Despite loving the New York Jets and being, in many ways, a traditionally masculine boy, I wanted my nails adorned similarly, not understanding or caring that this adornment was a female-only privilege. And while both the teacher and this parent cautioned me against it, telling me something like “This is for girls,” I was stubborn. Eventually, they agreed to paint my nails, but only with a clear coat––probably to prevent my being mocked. This well-meaning effort failed, and the derision from my fellow students sent the clear message that certain feminine behaviors were to be avoided. Still, my vague gender nonconformity continued through childhood: I certainly tried on somebody’s high heels at some point; I clamored for female family members’ jewelry, wondering how their necklaces and bracelets would look on me; I was absolutely obsessed with my mother’s engagement ring.

“Should I have known you were gay based on that?” she asked me not long ago, half-jokingly. To which science replies: Probably.

Numerous studies have shown that children who eventually come out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual—scientists call them pre-homosexual, or pre-GLB kids—demonstrate more childhood gender nonconformity in their speech, body language, and choice of activity than their pre-straight contemporaries do. These reports have also produced evidence of a “dosage effect”: The more gender nonconformity someone shows in childhood, the more likely they will identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual as an adult.

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Religious right, conservatives pivot homophobic junk science formula to demonize the trans community

From Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters:

Alvin McEwen
Thursday, October 03, 2019

Reposted with permission

Conservatives like Ben Shapiro (top photo) are helping religious right sites like LifeSiteNews (bottom photo) convert their formula of anti-gay junk science to anti-transgender junk science. With the help of amplification.

On Thursday, via Media Matters, we learned that conservatives and the religious right teamed up to spread a lie about health care among trans youth:

Major right-wing and anti-LGBTQ outlets, in particular Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire, posted content based on misconstrued data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to falsely suggest that drugs used to delay puberty are deadly for trans teens. The story — which began with debunked reporting from a U.K. tabloid — received high engagement on social media after right-wing and evangelical media apparatus boosted it.

 . . . Content pushing this anti-trans misinformation have accumulated at least 165,000 interactions in total, and anti-trans group The Kelsey Coalition is leveraging the same misconstrued data to fearmonger about gender-affirming medical care. In its September 27 report, NBC News noted that evangelical and right-wing outlets helped the story go viral, and the outlet debunked several of their claims.

NBC News said the following:

A recent article published by Catholic news outlet LifeSiteNews alleged that the drugs used to treat gender dysphoria in some transgender children are linked to “thousands” of deaths.

. . . The problem is: the “thousands” of people who die while taking these drugs are likely the terminally ill cancer patients who receive hormone blockers to fight hormone-sensitive cancers, like prostate cancer, according to experts.

Joshua Safer, a professor of medicine and the executive director of the Mt. Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, said Lupron, or leoprolide acetate, is used for treating precocious puberty, infertility and certain types of cancer, particularly prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer is worsened by the presence of certain hormones, so people fighting this disease are sometimes given hormone blockers — puberty blockers — to slow the cancer’s progression.

“I think all they did is went into the FDA database and looked at reports,” Safer said. “There’s no study here, that’s just a big smorgasbord of reports and so the problem with that is you don’t even know that those deaths are connected to the agent they are reported to be connected to.”

This distortion of science by conservatives and the religious right isn’t new. A while back, some of the same parties used this formula to attack gays and lesbian – junk science mixed with cherry-picked science and amplified. I’ve covered this “formula” on several occasions and thus have many examples of it:

1. Distortion – Lesbian and gay relationships are generally violent:

A study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence examined conflict and violence in lesbian relationships. The researchers found that 90 percent of the lesbians surveyed had been recipients of one or more acts of verbal aggression from their intimate partners during the year prior to this study, with 31 percent reporting one or more incidents of physical abuse.” – Comparing the Lifestyles of Homosexual Couples to Married Couples, Family Research Council

There is a higher rate of violence in lesbian and homosexual relationships than in married, heterosexual relationships. A study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence examined conflict and violence in lesbian relationships. The researchers found that 90% of the lesbians surveyed had been recipients of one or more acts of verbal aggression from their intimate partners during the year prior to this study, with 31% reporting one or more incidents of physical abuse. – Same-Sex Parenting is Harmful to Children Says REAL Women of Canada, Lifesite News

Truth – According to the Journal of Interpersonal Violence’s own web page:

The Journal of Interpersonal Violence offers the most up-to-date information on domestic violence, rape, child sexual abuse and other violent crimes . . . Focusing on both victims and perpetrators, the journal examines theoretical links between all types of interpersonal violence, exploring the similarities and differences between these types of crimes.

In other words, the Journal of Interpersonal Violence tracks domestic violence, as well as other violent crimes. Those surveyed in journal articles are the victims of violence, verbal or otherwise, because this is what the journal is designed to track. However, what religious right groups are doing here is the equivalent of taking a study of domestic violence in the African-American community published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence and using it to allege that black relationships are indicative of violent behavior.

2. Distortion – Homosexuals have a lot of sex partners and their relationships do not last:

Studies indicate that the average male homosexual has hundreds of sex partners in his lifetime, a lifestyle that is difficult for even “committed” homosexuals to break free of and which is not conducive to a healthy and wholesome atmosphere for the raising of children. A. P. Bell and M. S. Weinberg, in their classic study of male and female homosexuality, found that 43 percent of white male homosexuals had sex with five hundred or more partners, with 28 percent having 1,000 or more sex partners – Homosexuality, Placing Children at Risk, Family Research Council

Truth – Bell and Weinberg’s study was compiled in the 1970s. They used the study to write the book Homosexualities: A Study of Diversity among Men and Women. In Homosexualities is this statement:

“. . . given the variety of circumstances which discourage homosexuals from participating in research studies, it is unlikely that any investigator will ever be in a position to say that this or that is true of a given percentage of all homosexuals.”

3. Distortion – Gays have a short life span

“In a major Canadian centre, life expectancy at age twenty for gay and bisexual men is eight to twenty years less than for all men. If the same pattern of mortality were to continue, we estimate that nearly half of gay and bisexual men currently aged twenty years will not reach their sixty-fifth birthday. Under even the most liberal assumptions, gay and bisexual men in this urban centre are now experiencing a life expectancy similar to that experienced by all men in Canada in the year 1871.” – Getting it Straight, Family Research Council

One epidemiological study found that “gay” men lose 8-20 years off their lifespan. – Several reasons to oppose same sex marriage, Concerned Women for America

According to a study that appeared in the International Journal of Epidemiology, homosexual behavior risks cutting years off the lives of “gay” men. Examining the homosexual community in Vancouver, Canada, the study said: “In a major Canadian centre, life expectancy at age 20 years for gay and bisexual men is 8 to 20 years less than for all men. . .” – Sexual suicide, The American Family Association

Truth – In 2001, the researchers of this study complained about how it was being misused. They explained what they actually meant and how it is not feasible to use their work to claim that gay men have a “short life span.”

It used to be that these lies told about gays and lesbians were simply cited by anti-LGBTQ talking heads in the media and their allies in statewide anti-LGBTQ groups and members of various legislative bodies when they attempted to kill various pro-LGBTQ bills. Things have definitely changed. Not the lies, mind you, but the amplification of the lies. The ability of conservatives and the religious right to amplify these lies via their networks give their reach more power. It also makes it more difficult for us to refute the lies before they do our community major damage.  Media Matters pointed out the trajectory of the fake story about puberty blockers:

Right-wing outlet Daily Mail published misleading information on puberty blockers that earned low Facebook engagement 

Conservative outlet National Catholic Register picked up the story and earned over 8,400 Facebook interactions 

Led by LifeSiteNews, evangelical right-wing outlets boosted the story 

The Daily Wire picked up the story, and its network of right-wing Facebook pages helped it earn more than 165,000 interactions 

Anti-trans group the Kelsey Coalition leveraged the same misconstrued data as part of a new campaign

Clearly, the religious right and their conservative allies can’t rely on the truth to attack the LGBTQ community. So, unfortunately, they are relying on amplification and repetition of lies to beat us down.

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Andrew Sullivan Is Coming for Your Children!

From The Advocate:

Republicans Don’t Believe in Democracy

From The New York Times:

Do Democrats understand what they’re facing?

Paul Krugman
Sept. 16, 2019

Item: Last week Republicans in the North Carolina House used the occasion of 9/11 to call a surprise vote, passing a budget bill with a supermajority to override the Democratic governor’s veto. They were able to do this only because most Democrats were absent, some of them attending commemorative events; the Democratic leader had advised members that they didn’t need to be present because, he says, he was assured there would be no votes that morning.

Item: Also last week, Representative Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, issued a subpoena to the acting director of national intelligence, who has refused to turn over a whistle-blower complaint that the intelligence community’s inspector general found credible and of “urgent concern.” We don’t know what the whistle-blower was warning about, but we do know that the law is clear: Such complaints must be referred to Congress, no exceptions allowed.

On the surface, these stories may seem to be about very different things. The fight in North Carolina is basically about the G.O.P.’s determination to deny health care to low-income Americans; the governor had threatened to veto any budget that didn’t expand Medicaid. The whistle-blower affair probably involves malfeasance by high government officials, quite possibly President Trump, that in some way threatens national security.

What the stories have in common, however, is that they illustrate contempt for democracy and constitutional government. Elections are supposed to have consequences, conveying power to the winners. But when Democrats win an election, the modern G.O.P. does its best to negate the results, flouting norms and, if necessary, the law to carry on as if the voters hadn’t spoken.

Thus, in 2016 the voters of North Carolina chose a Democrat to govern the state; the immediate G.O.P. response was to try to strip away most of the governor’s power. Last year Democrats won a majority of the votes for the state legislature, too, although Republicans retained control thanks to extreme gerrymandering. But they no longer have a veto-proof majority — hence last week’s power grab.

Similarly, last year America’s voters chose to give Democrats control of the House of Representatives. This still leaves Democrats without the ability to pass legislation, since Republicans control the Senate and the White House. But the House, by law, has important additional powers — the right to be informed of what’s going on in the executive branch, such as complaints by whistle-blowers, and the right to issue subpoenas demanding information relevant to governing.

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What My Kippah Means to Me

From The Tablet:

As a butch lesbian, wearing a yarmulke connects me to my people—and to myself

By Olivia Swasey
September 9, 2019

The first kippah I ever bought for myself was blue. It came in the mail with the mezuzah for my new apartment, and I held the skullcap in my hands, turning it over and over. It was silk, with a border of embroidered date palms. The blue was even prettier in person, rich and deep with a hint of green, like a Mediterranean sea. It was perfect. And I was petrified.

I had asked the rabbi at my new Reform synagogue in Akron, Ohio: Do women wear kippot to shul here? How socially acceptable would it be for me to try wearing one? Kindly, he told me that it wasn’t unusual in progressive Judaism for women to wear them, and that if it would bring more meaning to my prayer, then I was welcome to wear one. I tried it out, wearing a black satin kippah from the basket by the door to the sanctuary, overly conscious of it while I davened, my bowing growing hesitant out of fear that it would fall off. I spun a worst-case scenario in my head in which my kippah would fall off during the Aleinu, causing everyone around me to turn and laugh. But it didn’t happen. Even when it did fall off once, no one said anything when I picked it up and put it back on. I started keeping hair clips in my pocket anyway, just in case.

Wearing a kippah from the basket slowly became a little less nerve-wracking, and I began to enjoy incorporating it into my practice. But I spent less time at this synagogue in Akron than I did at the Hillel at my university 20 minutes away, and there, I was still hesitant even to borrow one for a service. I had decided that if I was going to wear a kippah at Hillel among my peers, I wanted it to be my kippah. But to me, owning my own kippah instead of just borrowing one felt like a huge leap—by buying one for myself, I was committing to wear it all the time in services. It was a commitment that I was willing to make, but it was also a decision I didn’t make lightly.

Here, at Hillel, in a room full of my peers whom I saw multiple times every week, I was terrified of what people would think. Most of the men wore kippot, but no women. I would be the only one, and I knew that I would stand out. Even though everyone knew who I was, knew what I looked like, knew that I was gay and liked it that way, I was deeply afraid of being rejected by my community.

I should be clear here: I was not raised Jewish. Neither of my parents was involved in organized religion, so my sister and I were raised completely secular with only partial knowledge of other people’s religious practices. Their point, I have been told, was that they wanted my sister and me to make our own choices, rather than having belief thrust upon us. My mother, a spiritual woman, impressed upon us the importance of respecting the life within all things, and the existence of a higher power. Because I didn’t attend a church, synagogue, or mosque growing up, I didn’t feel the traditional pressures that young gay people like me often feel from their religious communities. But for me, something was missing. I wanted to find a religious community—I was searching, as it is sometimes called. And then I went away to college, and I found a community that clicked. I decided I wanted to convert to Judaism when I was 19, and I completed my conversion a week before my 22nd birthday.

Something big happened that first year I was at college: I had a sudden revelation about my sexuality, owed completely to the inimitable Leslie Feinberg and hir novel Stone Butch Blues. I came to the realization that I was butch—not an incorrect woman, but a different kind of woman, one whose understanding of womanhood was actually a subversion of it. At college, I was finally finding the freedom to be the person I always knew myself to be, able now to dress the way I had never felt comfortable dressing before, and to at last be open to finding love as my true self. As a butch lesbian, I strongly prefer to wear men’s pants, shirts, and ties; to keep my hair in a masculine style; to not wear makeup; and of course, to date women. After I began dressing differently, people treated me differently, too. Everywhere, people were just a little less friendly, a little less talkative. But I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to change for anybody. I was finally me, and no amount of homophobia was going to change that.

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My First High Holy Days

In August I started a course called “Introduction to Judaism”.

This year will mark my first celebration of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I have my highly coveted tickets to services.

Along with the process of converting comes the social anxiety of the cultural.  What to wear, what to cook. Remembering the few words of Hebrew I have learned so far that mark the start of various blessings and prayers..  Hopefully our teachers will be there as well as other class members.

Ahh. At 72 after trying on so many ideas, studying various religions I found a place where I feel comfortable in Reform Judaism…

Shanah Tova

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