Archive | October 2012

U. Chicago Researcher Makes Sexist Comments: The Science World Explodes

Dario Maestripieri is a Professor at University of Chicago who studies “neuroendocrine, ecological and evolutionary aspects of social behavior in human and nonhuman primates” and was apparently well respected in his field until recently.

Returning from a scientific meeting for neuroscientists, Maestripieri had the following to say on his personal Facebook page:

“My impression of the Conference of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. There are thousands of people at the conference and an unusually high concentration of unattractive women. The super model types are completely absent. What is going on? Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain? No offense to anyone..”

Granted, it’s a boneheaded thing to say and normally, had it been restricted to the hotel bar, would have gone completely unnoticed. However, a reader took a screenshot, sent it to friends who sent it to other friends and the fires began.

Females scientists of all stripes have taken to the blogs in protest.

Now, there is no doubt that sexism exists in science, though, I would venture, the situation is quickly improving as the number of female scientists quickly increases. My department, for example, is mostly women and this is quickly becoming the case in departments everywhere. In fact, as of 2009, more women are earning PhD’s than men. I can’t speak for the lab sciences, but public health, statistics and math are quickly becoming majority female. I think this is a good thing.

Of course, numbers can be deceiving particularly when the power structure is still held by men. We can more very capable female researchers, but if none of them get positions of power, it’s for nothing.

All that said, the very hostile reaction to Maetripieri is quite interesting. What, on the surface, is merely the thick headed musings of a lone guy, has brought out deeper issues of how women feel they are treated in science, speculation as to what men think of female scientists and the future role of women in the world of research.

Honestly, I don’t find Maestripieri’s comments to be offensive at all but I’ve lived in the world outside academia, where people say things that are far, far worse. This is pretty tame. However, in the context of science, where crass sexism is very real, and the costs of marginalization huge, even small comments like these create huge waves.

What happens to Maestripieri is unknown. People are hurling racial slurs at him (like that’s constructive), calling for his funding to be cut and, worse yet, calling for him to resign his post. Likely this whole thing will blow over, but this is the kind of thing that kills careers in science.

What do you think?

Heroic Congolese Doctor Survives Assassination Attempt

It has been reported that one of my heroes, Denis Mukwege, has survived an assassination attempt today in the DRC. Dr. Mukwege runs a clinic in Kinshasa which specializes in reconstructive surgeries for vaginal trauma in women who have been raped in the ongoing conflict in the DRC.

Mukwege has performed more than 20,000 surgeries on women, but has recently moved on to speaking out against the conflict on the world stage. He often publicly points to the DRC government and the the government of Rwanda as fostering conditions that put Congolese women in danger.

Recently, he spoke before the UN and accused DRC President Joseph Kabila as being complicit. Apparently, someone was listening and sent gunmen out to murder him today. His guard was killed but Mukwege survived the attack.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Mukwege about two years ago. I’m glad to see that he’s alive to fight another day for the women of the DRC.

Make a Song for Taj: A Challenge

Syed Taj, a physician who formerly served on the Canton, MI city council, is running for Congress in Michigan’s 11th District. We made a song for Taj. Now we want YOU to make a song for Syed Taj.

A little background: The Republican incumbent was caught (either knowingly or not) forging signatures to get on the primary allowing Kerry Bentivolio to enter the race. Bentivolio is a disgraced for high school teacher from Fowlerville, MI who was repeatedly reprimanded for screaming at and threatening his students, among other things which I won’t mention here. If he wins, Bentivolio, a self interested and unemployable loser in all other respects, will walk into a cushy $174,000 a year job with health benefits for the rest of his life, all at our expense.

His other challenger is Daniel Johnson, a white supremacist known for gallavanting around the country, jumping onto local elections. Johnson proposes a Constitutional amendment to deport all non-white residents of the United States. Where they will all go, is a mystery, of course. It’s worth noting that Johnson is famous for fundraising for and having the support of Ron Paul at one point. Paul, no stranger to providing aid and comfort to bigots, later withdrew support, presumably because the political costs of supporting Johnson outweighed the potential benefits.

The Democratic candidate is a soft spoken Indian-born medical doctor. Taj is, for all practical purposes, a total long shot. If elected, he will only be the third Muslim to serve in the Congress. he will have been elected as a naturalized citizen in a predominately conservative district. He’s not a powerful public speaker but he listens well and cares deeply about the ideas of people in his community. Taj’s platform is fairly boilerplate Democratic. He supports the solid separation of church and state, supports expanded access to quality health care for all, supports public education, and supports the right of women to determine what happens to their bodies. Taj is a great candidate and would be a great alternative to the toxic set of representatives we currently have. Taj offers real solutions and thoughtfully addresses real issues.

My friend Mark first introduced me to this particular race, which is turning into one of the most interesting so far.

To help Taj, Mark and I decided to write a campaign song to entice voters to choose him in the general election. Originally, we had asked our friend Andy to come on board. He couldn’t do it so we brought our friend Dave Sharp on at the last minute. Below is the fruit of our 10 minute labor.

People have called the song “nice” (presumably so as to not hurt our feelings) and “terrible” (obviously indifferent to the fragile egos of old men). As reception has been mixed, I issue a challenge:


That’s it. Write your own song for Taj, record it, and post it here. If you think our song blows, we want to see you do better. Because you can.

Vote Fixing? Maybe, but it’s hard to tell…

There is absolutely no question that the Republicans have a problem with voting. Despite their rhetoric as being the most “American” of the two major parties in the US, they clearly have little respect for that which is vital to the democratic process. The Republicans have attempted to use the law to effectively disenfranchise sectors of the voting population unfriendly to their goals. Happily, most of these attempts fail, but sadly, the damage is usually done anyway.

Mickey Duniho, a former NSA computer programmer and voting activist, claims that he has found evidence that might indicate that “vote flipping” is occurring on a wide scale, both in his home state of Arizona and nationwide. His methodology comes from an analysis done by Francois Choquette and James Johnson who attempted to show that the Republican primary elections had been artificially swung in favor of Mit Romney.

I downloaded the voting data for the 2008 elections in Michigan and compared the voting shares of Obama and McCain, ordered by precinct size. The graphic is up on the left, you can see that the larger the precinct, the more likely it is to swing toward McCain. Duniho’s claim is that the relationship would be flat if there were no vote flipping.

Of course, this defies intuition, particularly here in Michigan. We would expect that larger precincts would actually swing the other way. Urban areas are far more Democratic than Republican, though anything is possible. The suburbs of Detroit could very well house a lot of Republicans.

To be clear, I’m not sure this demonstrates vote fixing at all. The point here is that large precincts are likely quite different from small precincts, and these differences could be graded by size. Duniho claims that he ran the analyses controlling for things like income, age and gender distribution and that the relationships did not change. How he did this is fairly obscure.

It’s also fairly suspect when Duniho finds that these trends in percentages in small, local elections are flat. In all cases the number of precincts are very small.

Duniho’s aim was to demonstrate potential vote flipping in his home county and he may be able to show this, given the proper tools. Certainly, that the discussion is open should be an indicator. He certainly has the luxury of opening up the ballots and hand counting them. His methodology, though, and how this is supposed to definitively demonstrate vote flipping in the absence of what could be important information, is fairly unclear to me.

I like that he tried though I admit I am not convinced. If there is evidence for electronic vote flipping, then it needs to be exposed. I fear, however, that successfully bringing this to light could be a very hard road.

The graphic below is somewhat more interesting, however:

Retirement Plans as Blood Money

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair

I’m getting older so naturally I’m thinking about how to get by when I’m no longer able to work. Personally, I like what I do and can’t see retiring (assuming someone ever pays me for what I do) but I have to consider that I will one day be senile, incontinent and unable to work for money.

One of my employers recently passed on information on retirement accounts. Similar to a 401(k) plan, I put money into a pool and an intermediary invests that money into a certain set of well performing and diverse stocks. I get a reasonable return on my money and an agreement with the US Government allows a certain percentage of it to be drawn tax free upon retirement.

Looking through the lists of stocks, though, is a nauseating experience. The top performing funds contain equities in fine companies such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Pfizer, Coca-Cola, Philip Morris and a host of defense stocks. Obviously, though, there’s no way to guarantee that one’s investments are not linked to oil, big pharma and guns.

I take having my tax money go to further needless wars as something I can do little about. To actively and willingly profit off human suffering is quite something else entirely.

Americans, of course, are little interested in where their money goes, so long as they are guaranteed a solid rate of return. I implore all those with a conscience to dig through their portfolio and truly consider where the money comes from. You might be very unpleasantly surprised.

“Health Care Plans of the Candidates”: Burying Our Heads in the Sand

A short op-ed in the NYT yesterday had this to say:

“Mitt Romney’s health care plan offers 15 guiding principles, but appropriately leaves to Congress the resolution of most details. Obamacare’s 2,400 pages were never understood even before passage, push all risk to taxpayers and promise economic disaster.”

This is, of course, either, at best, a demonstration of complete ignorance of the facts, or at worst, another example of conservative revisionism. When the Obama admin came into office, they also presented only some general guidelines. The crafting of the Affordable Care Act was left almost entirely to the Congress. In fact, the Obama admin was repeatedly criticized for not taking a more forceful role in the bill’s creation. This isn’t ancient history. It was in 2009.

On the surface, Romney’s claims of repealing the Affordable Care Act are patently fantastical. It took decades to get comprehensive health care reform in the country. When the political will finally surfaced, it was a fight to the death. Romney must recognize this, carefully choosing his words stating “I will act to repeal Obamacare on my first day.” “Acting to” is very different from “doing.” This nuance, I am afraid, is lost on the electorate. What he plans to do, is another mystery. The discussion is bordering on infantile.

More frustrating for me, is the constant call for “market solutions” to our problems of health care delivery. We have given the market a chance. The market has had free reign to do as it likes for decades. We have seen this market approach to health fail miserably. Why? Simply because health markets don’t work like hardware stores.

People who have insurance really have no clue what the lives of people without insurance are like. Similarly, the wealthy have little concept of the lives of the poor. Clearly, Romney is both.

Paul Ryan and the Power of Misinformation

Paul Ryan champions the poor. So much so, that he wants to cut services for them. If he could save a buck by cutting even school librarians for elementary kids, he would. Eliminating egregious tax subsidies on the rich, on oil companies and big agricultural firms, not so much.

Part of his justification lies in misinformation. Ryan said yesterday: “”When government’s own finances collapse, society’s most vulnerable are the first victims, as we are seeing right now in the troubled welfare states of Europe.”

What he gets wrong is that the most viable states in Europe actually have the heaviest systems of social welfare, namely the Scandinavian countries. Sweden and Denmark spend up to 40% of their GDP on social welfare (including education) compared to Spain, which spends less, only 25%. This figure is actually closer to that of the US, which spends an embarrassing 19% on social welfare INCLUDING education.

Ryan wants us to believe that Spain’s troubles are because of a runaway system of redistribution which inspires sloth in the poor, leaving them unable to feed themselves. What Ryan doesn’t bother to mention, is that Spain’s troubles are actually due to a real estate bubble, not dissimilar to the mess that predicated the crash of 2007/8 and the mess that lead to Japan’s nearly two decades of stagnant growth.

Greece arguably spends more on public welfare (28%). Greece’s problems, however, are as linked to the financial crisis of 2007/8, (the fault of the loosening of regulations by Americans) and the entry into the Euro, as they are to the problem of massive tax evasion, a cottage industry of Paul Ryan’s Republicans. Certainly, Greece (which was the fastest growing economy in the Eurozone from 2000 to 2007 despite social welfare expenditures), mismanaged their debts, but can we blame problems of tax evasion or currency exchanges on feeding poor people? Perhaps in Ryan’s world, we can.

But this might be too much for Ryan, who has plans of his own. As an Ayn Randian, he is, by definition, barred from searching for answers from without as he can most certainly fabricate his own from within. Honestly, I thought the only people that were into Ayn Rand were over caffeinated college students. I guess I’m wrong.

As an Ayn Randian, Ryan wants to eliminate the capital gains tax, presumably so that hard working folks can “enjoy the fruits of their labor.” Does anyone seriously believe that a person who has given a chunk of inherited capital to a firm to be gambled on the stock market actually does any labor at all? Productivity of American workers has gone up by 62% since 1989, but wages are only up 12%. Can anyone seriously claim that the average American worker is fairly enjoying “the fruits of his/her labor”?

But Ryan’s a “serious” guy. So serious, that he dispenses with worrying about facts and pushes his pro-rich agenda even further. No doubt this works well with Americans who have more to do than read about European financial crises (which is fine). As a public servant, however, he has a responsibility to accurately represent the facts. I recognize that statement in itself to be purely wishful thinking on my part.

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