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26 February, 2010

Survival of All the News that Fits

It's a cold, snowy day. Relax, if you can, and make yourself a mug of cocoa. Why don't we sit here by the fire, and I'll tell you a story.

Once upon a time, on February 25th, a group of researchers published an article about reproduction in fruit flies. There is a Twitter account ostensibly maintained by a professor, one Pieter Schultz, who's set up the feed to broadcast just about any post imaginable that's related to nonmonogamy. Yesterday, he posted a link to this article about the study. According to the review here, if each female fruit fly mates with only a single male fruit fly, a population can go extinct thanks to a gene that creates all-female broods. Eventually, there aren't enough males to sustain the population. (The original article, at Current Biology, explains that the SR, for "sex ratio", gene on the X chromosome causes the destruction of all Y-carrying sperm, reducing male fly's total sperm count and resulting in a brood of female offspring, all of whom carry the SR gene.) In populations where the flies are allowed the mate normally, many females are inseminated by multiple males. If both SR and normal males mate with a single female, the normal males are likely to fertilize more of the female's eggs simply because the flies without the SR gene produce more sperm overall.

You can't show that on TV.

Great! It sounds like a finding fruit fly researchers will love. If one tracks down the original article, one will also learn that the researchers were motivated by the question of female promiscuity in general. In many species, there's a high cost to polyandry (mating with multiple males), yet females still exhibit the behavior; odds are, there's some adaptive benefit that's directed the species to evolve that behavior. That same Twitter account linked to another article in which one of the researchers is quoted as saying, "We were surprised by how quickly – within nine generations – a population could die out as a result of females only mating with one partner. Polyandry is such a widespread phenomenon in nature but it remains something of an enigma for scientists. This study is the first to suggest that it could actually save a population from extinction." Ok! So now we have serious, hard evidence about why polyandry exists in fruit flies, with consistent evidence from the genome through to behavior. If you're a scientist, then (if you aren't already looking for ways to critique the methodology or theory) you're probably thinking, "This is great! I bet lots of people will be writing about this." And you'd sort of be right.

Wait, did I say "tell you a story"? I meant "subject you to a bitter tirade."

Those of you who clicked through to that second article may have noticed the ambiguous title: "Does promiscuity prevent extinction?" In fruit flies, the answer is apparently a solid, "Yes indeedy." But that title didn't mention fruit flies. I imagine you can see where this is going.

All day, the articles trickled down through Shultz's Twitter feed. Some of the early ones maintained that article's original content, but others casually twisted the language, generalized to laughable degrees, and more or less completely diluted the original findings ... until, just 24 hours after the article's publication, we have today's contender for "Facepalm of the Year Award": "Promiscuous Girls Can Save The Human Race"!

But nothing can save the Times Of India.

Nice work, Times Of India. Although I might agree with their conclusion, I admit that their logic is less than sound, especially given than most human women don't mate with multiple men on the same day (who has time for that?) and neither do they have a massive brood of eggs, all simultaneously viable, some percentage of which can be fertilized by each of the men involved. ...Unless I've just been mistaken about some basic information I took for granted in elementary school, that is, in which case I know a sex ed instructor who's about to get some angry fan mail. As things stand, though, I'm pretty sure the TOI has overgeneralized. To say that promiscuous human women saving our species from extinction is "the conclusion" of the UK study is an insult to journalism.

If you'll allow me a generalization of my own, I think you might find this one more useful: don't believe what you read in the press unless you have reason to trust the media outlet in question. Even science journals sometimes print mistakes (don't forget, if the discipline sets its p values to .05, then at least 5% of the articles out there should be dead wrong), and when the popular press articles are written by journalists who don't have serious training in biology, neuroscience, or whatever discipline is getting picked on today, the possibility for error is unbounded. The errors usually come in the form of overgeneralizations, as when someone decided that what's true for flies must also be true for humans. Then there are the blurry figures, like the contention that "Sex Chemistry 'Lasts Two Years'", a figure contradicted within the article itself. And, as Ben Goldacre is happy to point out over at the Guardian, sometimes journalists get so caught up in making a story out of the subject that they lose the important details; sometimes, as journalists misunderstand the subject themselves, their reporting degenerates into arguments from authority. Then, worst of all, reporters get a story honest-to-god wrong ... perhaps because they wrote the story they wanted to find and know that most of their audience won't have the knowledge and the journal subscriptions to contradict them. (Did I just accidentally make an argument for free, open science? Oops – I do want a paycheck at the end of the day, although I might rather have neighbors who can count to ten.)

My final point isn't just to whine and whinge about kids these days and their rock'n'roll journalism. I like Hunter Thompson as much as the next guy, I just wouldn't let him into my lab. The real point is just to stay educated, especially when the subject is something controversial ... and when one is writing about nonmonogamy, everything is controversial. When I make an argument about how jealousy works, I always hit the books because not only is "jealousy" a terribly ill-defined term but it's also under research right now; it's an open question, and the publication of new articles continues to change the "best guess" about how it works. I'll always remember something my dad told me when I was knee-high to an AT-AT. A scientific claim is just our best guess, today. Some guesses are damn good and haven't changed in a while (see: heliocentrism, evolution, Thorndike's law of effect), but that doesn't change the principle.

What I'm saying is, if you spot an article with the word "science" anywhere in it, don't rely on the reporter to get the story straight. Before you mention it to a friend, track down the original article. If you don't have access to the journal's website, maybe you have a friend on a college campus who can get it for you. I know time is precious, though, so just keep in mind the difference between evidence and proof, the realities of the way that scientists use statistics to decide not whether something is true but whether it's likely, and – most of all – the fact that people are stupid.

Yes. That's the Aesop. Everyone is stupid. So sue me, I'm in kind of a realistic mood today. I think it's possible, though, to learn to live with our own foolishness in such a way that one grows less stupid over time, rather than more. I wish us all the best of luck in this endeavor.

EDIT: Carnal Nation followed up with a terribly embarrassing version of this phenomenon, but the author actually retracted it at my request. Redemption! Unfortunately, it wasn't long before the news hit the actual poly community and someone got it facepalmingly wrong.

15 February, 2010

The Polyamorous Perspective

EDIT: Friends of mine have pointed out that the story of the game is ambiguous such that the ethical situation can imply dark deeds. I assumed that the bargain discussed below was a mutual decision, suggested by the woman involved, while other people reading the same lines assumed that she was coerced by the game's protagonist. If the game itself features the latter, it is unambiguously reprehensible, but the conversation itself still stands as an example of the phenomenon under discussion.

Since I committed to nonmonogamy, my worldview has definitely changed. I just don't see the world around me as I used to, especially when it comes to fiction. Take an example.

Some friends of mine were telling me about the demo for the new video game loosely based on Dante Alighieri's Inferno (and I use the word "loosely" loosely). Apparently the game's Dante, who is a crusader (what?), is on a quest to save the soul of his murdered lover. According to these friends of mine, she was killed because, back in the Crusades, Dante cut a deal with a woman: if she slept with him, he would save the life of her brother. (That's a potentially icky bargain, but for a video game designed to court scandal, it's no surprise.) Except that it wasn't her brother, my friends tell me, but secretly her husband! So he goes north and murders Dante's lover ...

Wait. He does what? At this point, they kept talking, but I was still stuck a line back. Didn't Dante save this man's life? Why the heck would he want revenge on the man who — OH! Dante slept with his wife! I guess that's a bad thing.

But come on, what's not to love about this guy?

It took serious thought (well, as much serious thought as one can do in fifteen seconds) for me to realize that saving someone's life wasn't all that was going on here. This isn't the first time that I've been flummoxed by the mass media, though (drat their mononormative biases!). Nearly every romantic plotline in the shows I watch could be solved if someone had just said, "Wait a tic, why don't we both date you?" No, my apologies; make that simply "nearly every romantic plotline".

You must choose! ... and why isn't that the title of a TV Tropes article?

It's strange, being aware of solutions that never emerge as possibilities because of unspoken assumptions. It definitely makes some of the shows and movies available less interesting; there really isn't a lot of fiction, outside of some SciFi novels, in which the characters have group romances that aren't train wrecks or dishonest affairs. I used to be easily engaged in romantic plotlines, but they're definitely less gripping now than they once were. It's almost as though the fiction has to stand on its own legs rather than relying on a cheap gimmick to provide tension. Fascinating!

The prolific Alan, who publishes at "Polyamory in the News", wrote a post that I admire related to this subject. He mentions a talk at a poly conference by one Cunning Minx (I kind of hope that's not a pseudonym), who claims that it's time to move "from education — explaining polyamory to people who've never heard of it — to culture-building — creating recognizable pop images of the polyfolk-world that represent us well, that we can be proud of, and that will appear in people's minds when they think of us". The basic concept is that, as one can see by checking the archives of a surprising number of advice columns and newspapers, polyamory is here. People have heard of it. Now, we have the chance to step up and do right by the nonmonogamous community by adding more representative characters and plotlines to the simmering muck that is pop culture. I suppose I'll just have to start writing, eh?

09 February, 2010

But Can I Afford It?

Some of you may be familiar with a concept in psychology called "affordance theory". The concept is basically that one can best understand behavior--interactions of agents, like you and me, with each other and the rest of our environments--in terms of what the environment affords the agent in question.1 An affordance is the inherent possibility that exists between an agent and something external to it. So, for me, this laptop affords a number of possibilities for online engagement, communication, pornography, and (in desperate circumstances) a last-ditch weapon to fend off hungry zombies. If I have a Twitter account, the laptop affords me the opportunity to satisfy my terrible addiction check my friends' updates; if you don't have an account, it doesn't have the same affordances when considered in relation to you. Affordances are a weird category because they exist in the world, you can't touch them, but they are integral to our experience of the world. They are a property that emerges only between agents and environments; an environment with no agents affords no-one anything.

So, how am I going to relate this one to polyamory?

Yes, keyboards by Howie Robbins! Of course! It's all coming together. No pun intended?

Sex is complex. We know this. But it's through affordance theory that I'm starting to realize a useful way to discuss that complexity with lovers. Sex affords different things to each of us, and looking at sex through that lens can be a powerful tool for communication. (One of my lovers will be reading this and thinking of an email exchange we just had.) Most people find that sex affords them bodily pleasure (e.g., orgasm), but that's hardly where it ends. For me, sex affords a necessary physical satisfaction; not everyone is as sexually driven as I am, or so my comrades have told me. It's also one of the major tools I use to gauge the health of a relationship, and it's an activity that brings me closer, emotionally, with my partner. Sharing a sexual experience, whether it's intense, silly, brief or long enough to leave us both exhausted, leaves me feeling as though I could just lie back with that person and talk or cuddle forever. It's a special space, emotionally, mentally, that I almost never enter except immediately after having sex.

That's a very specific affordance! It's not universal, either, as far as I can tell. I could get more specific--the way that affordance theory can inform attempts to consider condom use, for instance, or the way that affordance theory accommodates accounts of social meaning--but I think this is a hefty enough topic. What does sex afford you, and what does sex afford your partners? If you conceive of sex in different ways, see it as offering different opportunities or having different meanings, that might be the subject of an especially useful upcoming conversation.


1 From the Oxford English Dictionary, "to afford": "orig. To further, promote; hence achieve, manage to do, manage to give, have the power to give, give what is in one's power, supply, yield."