Science and ethics shouldn’t be muddled (or, advice for Jesse Bering).

Jesse Bering’s advice column is provoking some strong reactions. Most of these suggest that his use of evolutionary psychology in his answers lacks a certain scientific rigor, or that he’s being irresponsible in providing what looks like scientific cover for adult men who want to have sex with pubescent girls.

My main issue is that the very nature of Jesse Bering’s column seems bound to muddle scientific questions and ethical questions.

In response to this letter:

Dear Jesse,
I am a non-practicing heterosexual hebephile—and I think most men are—and find living in this society particularly difficult given puritanical, feminist, and parental forces against the normal male sex drive. If sex is generally good for both the body and the brain, then how is a teen having sex with an adult (versus another teen) bad for their mind? I feel like the psychological arguments surrounding the present age of consent laws need to be challenged. My focus is on consensual activity being considered always harmful in the first place. Since the legal notions of consent are based on findings from the soft sciences, shouldn’t we be a little more careful about ruining an adult life in these cases?
—Deep-thinking Hebephile

Jesse Bering offers:

  • The claim that “there are few among us who aren’t the direct descendents of those who’d be incarcerated as sex offenders today”.
  • A pointer to research on men’s measurable penile response to sexualized depiction of very young teenagers.
  • A comment that “there’s some reason to believe that a hebephilic orientation would have been biologically adaptive in the ancestral past”.
  • A mention of the worldwide variations in age-of-consent laws as indicative of deep cultural disagreements.
  • A pointer to research that “challenge[s] the popular notion that sex with underage minors is uniformly negative for all adolescents in such relationships” (although it turns out the subjects of this research were adolescent boys; given cultural forces acting on boys and girls, this might make a difference)
  • An anecdote about a 14-year-old boy who got to have sex with a prostitute before being killed by the Nazis in a concentration camp, and about how this made his father happy.
  • A comment that “Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin relocated to French Polynesia to satisfy his hebephilic lust with free-spirited Tahitian girls” in the 19th Century, but that now in the 21st century there’s less sympathy for this behavior.

And this is advice?*

Let’s pick up on just one strand of the scientific information referenced in Jesse Bering’s answer. If there exists scientific research that suggests that your trait is shared by others in the population, or that your trait may have been an adaptive one for your ancestors earlier in our evolutionary journey, what exactly does that mean?

Does it mean that your trait is a good one for you to have now? It does not.

Indeed, we seem to have no shortage of traits that may well have helped us dodge the extinction bullet but now are more likely to get us into trouble given our current environment. (Fondness for sweets is the one that gets me, and I still have cookies to bake.) Just because a trait, or a related behavior, comes with an evolutionary origin story doesn’t make it A-OK.

Otherwise, you could replace ethics and moral philosophy with genetics and evolutionary psychology.

Chris Clarke provides a beautiful illustration of how badly off the rails we might go if we confuse scientific explanation with moral justification — or with actual advice, for that matter.

This actually raises the question of what exactly Jesse Bering intends to accomplish with his “advice column”. Here’s what he says when describing the project:

Perhaps in lieu of offering you advice on how to handle your possibly perverted father-in-law who you suspect is an elderly frotteur, or how to be tactful while delicately informing your co-worker that she smells like a giant sewer rat, I can give you something even better—a peek at what the scientific data have to say about your particular issue. In other words, perhaps I can tell you why you’re going through what you are rather than what to do about it. I may not believe in free will, but I’m a firm believer that knowledge changes perspective, and perspective changes absolutely everything. Once you have that, you don’t need anyone else’s advice.

And good advice is really only good to the extent it aligns with actual research findings, anyway. Nearly two centuries worth of data in the behavioral sciences is available to inform our understanding of our everyday (and not so everyday) problems, yet rarely do we take advantage of this font of empirical wisdom…

That’s not to say that I can’t give you a piece of my subjective mind alongside the objective data. I’m happy to judge you mercilessly before throwing you and your awkward debacle to the wolves in the comments section. Oh, I’m only kidding—kind of. Actually, anyone who has read my stuff in the past knows that I’m a fan of the underdog and unconventional theories and ideas. Intellectual sobriety has never been a part of this blog and never will be, if I can help it, so let’s have a bit of fun.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Officially, Jesse Bering says he’s not offering advice, just information. It may end up being perspective-changing information, which will lead to the advice-asker no longer needing to ask anyone for advice. But it’s not actually advice!

As someone who teaches strategies in moral decision-making, I will note here that taking other people’s interests into account is absolutely central to being ethical. One way we can get a handle on other people’s interests is by asking others for advice. And, we don’t usually conceive of getting information about others and their interests as a one-shot deal.

On the point that good advice ought to align with “actual research findings,” I imagine Jesse Bering is taking actual research findings as our best current approximation of the facts. It’s important to recognize, though, that there are some published research findings that turn out to have been fabricated or falsified, and others that were the result of honest work but that have serious methodological shortcomings. Some scientific questions are hard. Even our best actual research findings may provide limited insight into how to answer them.

All of which is to say, it seems like what might really help someone looking for scientific information relevant to his personal problem would be a run-down of what the best available research tells us — and of what uncertainties still remain — rather than just finding some quirky handful of studies.

Indeed, Jesse Bering notes that he’s a fan of unconventional theories and ideas. On the one hand, it’s good to put this bias on the table. However, it strikes me that his recognition of this bias puts an extra obligation on him when he offers his services to advice seekers: an obligation to cast a heightened critical eye on the methodology used to conduct the research that supports such theories and ideas.

And maybe this comes back to the question of what the people writing to Jesse Bering for advice are actually looking for. If they want the comfort of knowing what the scientists know about X (for whatever X it is the writer is asking about), they ought to be given an accurate sense of how robust or tenuous that scientific knowledge actually is.

As well, they ought to be reminded that what we know about where X came from is a completely separate issue from whether I ought to let my behavior be directed by X. Scientific facts can inform our ethical decisions, but they don’t make the ethical questions go away.

*Stephanie Zvan offers the best actual response to the the letter-writer’s request for advice, even if it wasn’t the answer the letter-writer wanted to hear.

Science-y books for kids.

There seems to be a profusion of fabulous kids’ books these days, including many engaging books on scientific topics. Indeed, there are so many that I wouldn’t even know how to boil them down to a top ten list.

So, I’m going to just point you towards some of the books my kids have enjoyed, especially in the early grades of elementary school (roughly K-3).

A Drop of Blood by Paul Showers, illustrated by Edward Miller.

The text of this book is straight-ahead science for the grade school set, explaining the key components of blood (red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets) and what they do. There are nice diagrams of how the circulatory system gets involved in transporting nutrients as well as oxygen, pictures of a white blood cell eating a germ, and a step-by-step explanation of how a scab forms.

But this unassuming text is illustrated in classic horror movie style.

All the “people” in the drawings are either vampires or … uh, whatever those greenish hunchbacked creatures who become henchmen are. And this illustration choice is brilliant! Kids who might be squicked out by blood in real life cannot resist the scary/funny/cool cartoonish vamps accompanying the text in this book. The drawing of the Count offering Igor a Band-aid for his boo-boo is heart-warming.

Read an archived conversation with a younger time-slice of my kids about blood.

* * * * *
Octopuses and Squids by Mary Jo Rhodes and David Hall. Photographs by David Hall.

Seahorses and Sea Dragons by Mary Jo Rhodes and David Hall. Photographs by David Hall.

We love books with chapters, lots of photographs, and glossaries. What can I say?

These two books pair with each other nicely, since evaluating the relative merits of syngnathids and cephalopods is kind of like weighing whether you’d rather be able to fly or to become invisible. Is it better to have leafy bits on your body the better to hide in seaweed, or to be able to change color and shape to camouflage? (What if you got distracted and forgot to do it?) To keep your fertilized eggs in a cave, or to have the father incubate them in his brood pouch? To enjoy solitude in your corner of the ocean, or to be social?

Read an archived conversation with a younger time-slice of my kids about these choices.

* * * * *
How a Seed Grows by Helene J. Jordan. Illustrated by Loretta Krupinski.

This is a nifty science book for little kids. Our favorite thing about this book is that it’s all about getting empirical.

After some unassuming storybook text (with lovely illustrations) about different kinds of seeds and the different kinds of plants that grow from them, the book gets down to business and lays out an experiment for the young reader to do: Plant a dozen bean seeds and see what happens to them over time.

After planting the seeds, each in its own eggshell or other container, and watering them daily, on day 3 you dig up the first seed and examine it it. Two days later, you dig up the second seed and see what’s happening. Every few days you dig up another seed so you can observe the roots growing and developing root hairs. Once the shoots start pushing out of the soil in the containers with the not-yet excavated seeds, the kids can examine the growth of the plants without digging them up. At this point, if the kids are still interested, they can plant the bean seedlings in the ground.

The charm of this book is not just that it lays out a hands-on experiment for kids to do. It also makes it clear to the kids that there is likely to be some variation in what is observed — not only might your bean seeds grow more quickly or more slowly than the day-by-day development illustrated in the book, but that your 12 beans of the same kind might develop at different rates, even if you do your best to plant them and water them just the same. As well, the idea of sacrificing growing seeds to learn something is presented in a way that kids can handle. (If a book doesn’t give you permission, sometimes kids are a little too precious with the seeds they have planted.)

This is a fun way to get your hands dirty.

* * * * *
The Periodic Table: Elements with Style, written by Adrian Dingle, illustrated by Simon Basher. (Boston: Kingfisher, 2007)

The book introduces several representative elements from the periodic table. For each element, there’s a listing of crucial information like the element’s symbol, atomic number, atomic weight, color, standard state, density, melting point, boiling point, and data of discovery. But the real story is the first person introduction to each element’s character, tendencies, and common uses. Hydrogen says, “I am the simplest and lightest of all the elements, the most abundant in the universe, and the source of everything in it — from matter and energy to life.” Cesium pipes up, “Soft and golden, I’m way more exciting than gold.” Magnesium chirps, “I’m happy to mix in any social gathering of the elements, making friends with anyone.” Iron hollers, “I am at the center of everything.”
Clearly, there are a lot of strong personalities here.

For all the elements that appear in this book (except hydrogen), the introductions to the elements are preceded by a discussion of the group they run with — the alkali metals, the halogens, the carbon elements, and so on. The book offers a description for each of the groups in the periodic table, including the lanthanides and actinides and the transactinides (although given their instability, we don’t get to meet individuals from the latter group). The group descriptions are a little less gripping than the portraits of the elements in each group, but they do a nice job conveying which groups have elements that seems to copy each other closely and which of these periodic table cliques seem to tolerate more individualism.

Each element also has a portrait, a bold graphic that conveys some visual clue to the element’s temperament of common uses.

Of course, the book includes these portraits in periodic table layout, too. And the book includes an index and a glossary.

As a casual read, this is not a book that will leave a kid with exhaustive knowledge about all the chemical elements. However, the “personal information” about these elements comes across as quirky and compelling, and it’s hard for the young reader to resist forming some opinions about which elements he or she would like to hang out with.

Read an archived conversation with a younger time-slice of my kids about this book.

* * * * *
Big Tracks, Little Tracks: Following Animal Prints by Millicent E. Selsam, illustrated by Marlene Hill Donnelly.

This book helps kids to become “nature detectives” by getting them to look at different kinds of animal tracks for clues about the animals that left them. The presentation is pretty Socratic: What do we see in the prints? What do we know about how this animal or that animal moves about?

The approach of inferring what happened from clues is fun. There are some facts that are kind of cool to learn (e.g., seagulls run into the wind to take off, so you can tell by the direction of their footprints what direction the wind was blowing when they launched). But the ick factor for this book is pretty low. (There is a trangressive moment where cats and dogs switch places, but it’s not gross.)

Along the same lines, but harnessing the magnetic power of the gross:

Who Pooped in the Park? Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Steve Kemp, illustrated by Robert Rath.

Like Big Tracks, Little Tracks, this book gets kids interested in the inferences they can draw from their observations. However, it beats out Big Tracks, Little Tracks for the simple reason that poop (as a charter member of the Pantheon of Gross Things) is absolutely hilarious.

In fact, scat is only the bait that attracts kids (like flies, if you will) to learn about the other clues animals leave in the National Park: tracks, nibbled twigs and scraped tree bark, rocks that have been moved. This book doesn’t just talk about the particular animals that inhabit Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but it describes some of the ways they interact with each other in the ecosystem. (For example, the non-native wild hogs eat up the native salamanders.) Scattered through the book are “The Straight Poop” boxes of related facts (e.g., that rabbits eat their own scat to maximize the nutrition they get out of their food by digesting it twice).

My kids loved this book, and it gave them something intelligent to say about animal droppings we came upon in family hikes — at least, once they were done giggling.

There are versions of this book available for many other National Parks, each of which deals with the particular fauna that inhabits (and poops in) the particular park.

Fun games for science-y kids.

There are two features of games that have always appealed to me. First, the good ones put you in a place where you are explicitly thinking out different ways the future could play out — the possibilities that are more or less likely given what you know (and what you don’t know). Second, many of them let you drag someone else (whether your opponent or your teammate) into thinking through these situations, too.

Any game where you have to make choices about what to do involves some sort of strategy, and formulating or refining strategies is a work-out for your brain. This means that games, in general, tend to be brain-friendly giftables.

It’s worth noting that many of the games which connect to qualities of mind that are useful in scientific problem-solving are fun for kids (and adults) who don’t think of themselves as having any special interest in science. I’m not saying you should use such games to launch stealth operations to get kids interested in science … but I’m not going to stop you, either.

As an added bonus, none of these games are going to shove gendered expectations down a kids’ throat

That said, here are some of the games I like best:

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How do we make room for pink microscopes? (More thoughts on gendered science kits.)

As we’ve been considering the hazards of gendered science kits for kids, some have suggested that it is simplistic to paint pink microscopes as an unalloyed evil.

One response on the potential value of girls’ science kits comes from Meghan Groome at Pathways to Science:

As someone who studies the formation of science identity in middle school students, I see everyday how girls try to navigate acceptable girl identities with those teachers look for to identify science talent.  For many girls, upper elementary and middle school is a time where they are expected to lose both boisterous and intellectually curious elements of their external personalities.  Day in and day out, I observe teachers, boys, and other girls in the class act as “gatekeepers” for smart, vocal girls in science. It’s subtle but once you point it out, it’s unmistakable. …

Teachers look for somewhat specific characteristics to define a kid who is smart or good in science. Those include excelling on exams, participating in class, and showing an interest in the content.  Excelling on exams is a fairly private affair but class participation and curiosity become high-risk behavior for girls lead to them hiding their interest and talent.

All students have to make choices about who they are to the outside world, but for girls, there are fewer ways to be both a girl and someone who is outwardly interested and good at science.

So, when I originally read about girly science kits I balked at what appeared to be a gross exaggeration of girly identity.  I’ve had similar responses when I got to robotics competitions and see the all-girl teams decked out like princesses or cheerleaders.

But upon reflection, I wonder why we adults are so quick to shut down another way that a girl can navigate being a girl and being a scientist? Do I personally want to be a scientist who acts like a Barbie? No, but who am I to shut down someone who chooses Barbie Scientist over Tom Boy scientist?

I think this assessment is onto something — although my experience is that there are fewer acceptable ways to be a girl regardless of whether one is outwardly interested in and good at science. Still, it’s worth asking if the rejection of gendered science kits might function (whether intended to do so or not) as another kind of gender policing, insisting that girls who pursue science must foreswear femininity entirely.

Another response, which I take to be less a defense of gendered science kits and more an examination of the assumption built into negative reactions to them, comes from Lauren at teenskepchick:

I kind of felt like there has been a bit of pink-slagging going on.

Now, I’m not averse to pink. At one stage in my childhood I used to bemoan the colour and anything my parents chose out for me that happened to be pink. I didn’t want to be like those girls. With their pink and their cattiness and their girliness. Internalized misogyny is about valuing “masculinity” and male-ness over “femininity and female-ness, and that is exactly what I did with my dislike of pink. I got over that (for the most part) long ago, and now I’m more than happy to wear pink or stick pink things on my walls or (as my avatar would have you believe) in my hair (and if the blasted colour held well, it might still be in my hair). Which is cool! I like pink. It probably isn’t my favourite colour, but I like it and I see nothing wrong with anybody (of any gender identity) embracing the colour pink.

Except, apparently, when it came to physics. If there was any pink anywhere near my science, it could GTFO as far as I was concerned. I had become used to being incredibly outnumbered in my classes, and getting the reaction “Oh, but that’s a boy subject” when I told people what my majors were. I don’t even understand why people think that is a socially acceptable thing to say, but it happens more often than you’d think. I was tired of second-guessing my wardrobe choices for some classes, and I was tired of coming across stories about T-shirts with messages that implied girls suck at maths.

Enter the Science Babe, aka Deborah Berebichez. When I first started coming across some of her work in my journeys across the intertubes, I wasn’t a fan. The opposite. It was physics and it was pink and it was high heels and it was very gossip-y and I hated it. I’ve lately come to realise, though, that that’s okay! If that is what it takes to get more girls interested in physics, then that is awesome. Same deal with the pink science kits. The problem (well, one of them) is with how they are marketed to reinforce set gender roles, that girls need to be girly and boys… boy-y. The problem is not that pink and femininity and all of that are bad.

There are a bunch of related issues intertwined here.

There seems to be a strong societal presumption that science (and math, and related subject matter) are “naturally” of interest to boys (and men), but not to girls (and women).

There seems to be another strong societal presumption that girls are “naturally” inclined toward femininity — where femininity is described in a pretty narrow way connected to pink stuff, pretty clothes, interpersonal relationships, and the like — and boys are “naturally” inclined toward masculinity that is defined in similarly narrow terms.

Then there’s the presumption that science and math are more compatible with those masculine characteristics than with feminine ones.

Finally, there’s at least a tacit assumption that feminine characteristics and pursuits compatible with them are not as valuable as masculine characteristics and pursuits compatible with them — that the things that are linked to femininity are less than. (This is the internalized misogyny Lauren describes in her post.)

And these intertwined assumptions set up what can feel like a minefield for girls trying to negotiate the twin challenges of figuring out what pursuits interest them and of figuring out who they want to be.

On the one hand, a girl may be totally non-plussed by social pressure to be a certain kind of girl, compliant with a stereotypical version of femininity. But if this girl who resists the pressure to be “feminine” also decides she’s into science, maybe this runs the risk of reinforcing the assumption that science is not compatible with femininity — sure, here’s a girl who wants to do science, but she’s not actually a girly girl.

Indeed, if the girls one knows who are into science are uniformly those who depart from society’s picture of femininity, it may seem to the girls just working out whether to explore science that there is a forced choice between being feminine and pursuing science. And, if they’re OK with the bundle of qualities that is part of societally sanctioned femininity, they may conclude that they’re better off opting out of science (a conclusion peer-pressure may support).

Worse, the grown-ups mentoring girls, including the ones teaching them math and science, may believe that there is a forced choice between science and femininity. Among other things, they may pre-emptively decide that girly girls are not part of their target audience.

And, falling in line with society’s judgments, the girls who pursue science may assume that the girls who hew closer to the “feminine” stereotypes are less interested in or able to do science. This attitude may leave the girly girls who actually pursue science feeling rather isolated even from other girls in science.

All of this strikes me as a pretty raw deal.

In a perfect world, a pink microscope would be just as valid a choice as a blue one (assuming both have the same magnifying power). But in the world we currently inhabit, the pressure on girls to fit the stereotype of femininity is enormous, and comes from multiple sources, including (but not limited to) family members, peers, and school.

A well-meaning attempt to suggest to girls that science can be compatible with the stereotype of femininity can end up being yet another reminder that you need to conform to that stereotype. Otherwise, why the heck would every science kit in the girls’ section come in a pink box?

And lest we forget, Krystal D’Costa reminds us that boys face a parallel pressure to avoid anything that might be officially recognized as feminine:

[G]irls have the option not to choose pink, but do boys ever have the option to choose pink? Will the little boy curious about scents be isolated by his siblings and extended family if they learn what science kit he wants? Because it comes in a pink box?

To get to the point where a pink microscope does not act as yet another tool to police gendered expectation on girls (and boys) — and when women who reject pink microscopes are not used to police gendered expectations on scientists (as not girly) either — we need to figure out how to change the societal presumption that femininity and masculinity have anything at all to do with inclination towards, or ability in, science. We need to recognize opting into, or out of, femininity or masculinity as a completely separate issue from opting into, or out of, math and science. And, decisions with respect to math and science need to be seen as counting neither for nor against your opting into or out of a particular package of gendered characteristics.

After all, as far as I can tell, whether one is interested in math and science, or displays an ability for them, is an empirical question. Why not drop the gendered assumptions about who will be “naturally” suited to them and see what happens?

It would also be great if we could let kids find out who they are and how they want to be without locking them into a rigid, binary choice. If there was no pressure to be a particular kind of boy or a particular kind of girl — if the full range of options was open to everyone — I suspect it might be easier not to judge one set of options as inherently less than.

Again, I think it’s an empirical question — so let’s roll up our sleeves and create the conditions where we can actually find out.