Thought of the day

For those who believe sexism is defined by power asymmetry, let me present two scenarios:

You’re going for a job. You have 10 years relevant experience and the appropriate education and degrees. The field is relatively gender neutral with approximately a 50-50 split between men and women. You are competing against one other candidate; your competition has the same experience and education as you. Would you prefer to be treated as a man or a woman?

I doubt very many people are going to opt to be treated as a woman in this scenario. It is clearly an advantage to be treated as a man, all else being equal. But now let me present the second scenario:

You’ve been accused of a serious crime. You’re innocent but there’s some evidence implicating you. (Maybe you were even dumb enough to actually talk to the police.) Since you refuse a plea deal, you’re going to trial. Would you prefer to be treated as a man or a woman?

This scenario perhaps works even better in family court matters, but it’s overwhelmingly clear in either case which is better: To be treated as a woman in court is a massive advantage. Clearly sexism is a two-way street, even if more traffic flows in one direction than the other.

AsapSCIENCE is great

If you haven’t heard of it yet, AsapSCIENCE is a YouTube channel the delivers little bits of science in a couple of minutes. It’s a fun source that’s entertaining enough, but I think it would be particularly good for anyone looking for educational material for their kids:

Thought of the day

While I’m happy the Patriots won last night, I hate how they did it. The overtime rules for the NFL are awful and illogical. Football is fundamentally a timed game. That’s why timeouts and clock management are so important. Making the game into sudden death (or whatever one wishes to call the convoluted field goal rule) is a disservice to fans. Hockey lends itself to sudden death. Soccer, though terrible, is appropriately sudden death. Football? Not even close. Play the full 15 minutes.


In my JFK documentary binge-watching over the past week, no one besides the President himself has stood out to me more than Jackie Kennedy. She was the very definition of dignity throughout the entire ordeal. I’m not sure there’s ever been an American who impresses me more.

Fun fact of the day

Racism and sexism derive from racist and sexist acts, thoughts, behaviors, and statements made on the basis of race and/or sex. They do not derive from social structures and institutions, though they may be prevalent in those areas.

Thought of the day

Why don’t we allow 16 year olds to vote? We allow them to work and pay taxes, so why don’t they get a say in their representation? Why can’t they cast a vote against a politician who is spending their money yet not working in their interests? Are we so naive as to think the parents/guardians of a 16 is working in his best political interests? Why should we expect a 45 year old parent to cast a vote related to, say, social security spending which is in the 60 year interest of the program as opposed to the 30-40 year interest of the program that is relevant to the parent?

It seems utterly clear to me that if we’re going to allow 16 year olds the right to work – that is, unlike with people 15 years and younger, a 16 year old needs not his school’s or parent’s legal permission to get a job – then we must either refuse to tax them or we must allow them the right to vote. The latter option, though, would only work if we were consistent in it: since 16 year olds are unrepresented in the government and given the right to work, we must exclude them from all forms of taxation, including income taxes, excise taxes, inheritance taxes, every day taxes on purchased items, and any other tax one might imagine. This is hardly workable. Thus, we’re left with only a few solutions: 1) raise the age of legal employment to 18, 2) make employment under 18 contingent upon a parent’s approval, or 3) allow 16 year olds to vote. The third option seems to be the best to me.

A Gish Gallop post on circumcision

I posted my recent post on circumcision to my Facebook wall. It very quickly got a response, one being a number of links. I doubt the person was intentionally doing a Gish Gallop, but that was the effective result. Unfortunately, I felt compelled to respond in an effort to show just how wrong all linked studies and papers were. As I’ve said before, the only legitimate response the anti-circumcision crowd has to the practice of circumcision is one of ethics. Denying the lowered HIV transmission rate or rejecting the effectiveness of using circumcision as yet another tool in the fight against HIV just won’t fly.

Here is the link to all the studies. I responded to 10 out of 21 before I felt I had made my point. Each number matches the order in which the studies appear in the link:

1. This first study doesn’t address actual sexual sensitivity. It works off the hypothesis that there are nerve endings in foreskin. It shows nothing.

2. The second study’s “methods” was to solicit input from online sources using self-selected participants. If there’s anything I’ve learned about the anti-circumcision crowd, it’s that they will do anything to make circumcision look bad.

3. The circumcised men in this study had far more sexual partners than the uncircumcised men. I question how similar the sample groups actually were since there’s no reason one should be more sexually active than another simply due to circumcision.

4. This study also found a link between premature ejaculation and being from India. The results are more than dubious.

5. This isn’t a scientific critique, but rather one of economics. It’s wrong, first of all. Circumcision is very cost effective and lasts for life. Second, the article talks about the “haste” in the studies connecting HIV transmission and circumcision. I can only conclude that the authors aren’t aware that these studies go back at least 25 years.

6. Wow, where do I start with this one? The first point is simply false. Studies show exactly the opposite. The second point is misleading. They may have looked at three specific studies and had issues over how well they reflect real world conditions, but there are dozens upon dozens of studies on this matter, looking at it from the perspective of different ethnic and religious groups, different nations, different regions, etc. The evidence is robust here. The third point simply misunderstands what science is. Science works on a body of evidence, not individual studies. I can find maybe 5-10 studies questioning global warming. That doesn’t mean they’re right or worth mentioning compared to the thousands of others. The fourth point is hugely misleading. The problem of HIV transmission in the U.S. is largely focused on the homosexual community. Circumcision doesn’t offer much protection, if any, for anal intercourse. The point they are drawing is one of the most frustratingly invalid ones I hear. The fifth point 1) makes up a stat and 2) ignores that condoms aren’t always available in remote regions where HIV is the biggest problem. The sixth point is the only argument the anti-circumcision crowd has. The science is in, so they have to stick with ethics.

7. This claims a national survey showed that circumcision had no preventative effect. The evidence? First of all, it links to the wrong paper. The paper given from your site directs me to a paper which itself cites the actual paper. Second, the survey simply found similar rates of HIV infection amongst circumcised and uncircumcised men in South Africa. It said nothing of total numbers, of sexual partners, of religious and ethnic background, or any other factors.

8. This study compares the universal use of condoms to the universal use of circumcision then concludes that condoms are more effective. This isn’t news, nor is it a reflection of reality. Yes, condoms are more effective, but no, their use is not universal, nor will it ever be. We can’t even get American teenagers to use them universally. Do we expect to convince dozens of unique cultures to adopt them 100%? Of course not. This is a multi-pronged approach.

9. This study discusses issues I’ve addressed, including looking at real world conditions (again, it limits itself to 3 particular studies) and cost.

10. This study finds conflicting results as to the pleasure and enjoyment of sex/masturbation for circumcised men. Many men had less, some had more. Curiously, they seem happy to attribute the lessened pleasure to circumcision but fail to say anything about the increased pleasure. The better guess? There are cultural factors and stigmas at work here.

Circumcision as a public health policy

At this point it has been established that circumcision reduces female-to-male HIV transmission rates by around 60%. Like it or not, the science is in. Now the question has shifted to being about why it reduces transmission, as well as how we can best introduce circumcision has a public health policy. On the first point, the general answer is that the foreskin is a relatively large surface area subject to tearing and softer (non-keratinized) skin. On the second point, though, I wasn’t aware of any actual policies in place to save the lives of men and women in regions particularly vulnerable to the spread of HIV. As it turns out, multiple sub-Saharan countries have undertaken measures to dramatically increase circumcision rates – though much work is still required:

Zambia is still 75 per cent short of its target of two million circumcisions by 2015. So is Uganda, having completed 1.5 million towards its 4.1 million target. Kenya has achieved its target in numbers – but not among the “right” men.

The donors who are pouring cash into male circumcision following the landmark 2006 study which showed that it reduced the risk of HIV infection by 60 per cent, have neglected a crucial factor – the attitude of women.

A man who gets circumcised is often viewed as a man who is looking to sleep around as much as possible. And, indeed, this has become something of a problem, as HIV rates in some areas have remained steady. This may also be due to men not waiting the necessary 6 week healing period – 40% of newly circumcised men had sex while still healing, actually resulting in an increase in their likelihood of contracting HIV. Furthermore, we may be seeing the problem of moral hazards at play. This is where risk is reduced for one thing or another, so people are less cautious in return. Some examples are playground materials and car safety. In playgrounds, children are often getting hurt as much if not more than in previous years because they’re playing on soft wood chips or rubber, leading them to believe they can fall harder and get hurt less. With cars, safety has greatly increased and deaths have fallen, but accidents remain steady or on the rise. People with seat belts are willing to speed more than those without them.

But the real problem in these sub-Saharan nations is a lack of education and peer support:

Carol Musimami, one of 30 “technical advisers” who counsel the men, said: “You will see the older ones come after dark. They don’t want to be with the youth. We are targeting the 25 to 35-year-olds –they are the ones with the money, they buy the women, they are exposing themselves [to infection]. But they are hard to get. They don’t want others to know,” she says.

Leadership is key. In Kenya, the circumcision programme in Nyanza province in the west – one of the three centres in the landmark 2006 trial that proved its effectiveness – was faltering when Raila Odinga, the Prime Minister and a member of the non-circumcising Luo tribe, responded to protests from tribal elders fearing the loss of their identity by declaring: “We don’t lead with our foreskins, we lead with other faculties. This is a medical issue.”

The speech, in 2008, proved a pivotal moment and more than 500,000 Luos have since been circumcised.

This is a major issue in global health. Science can find all sorts of answers to major problems, but that doesn’t mean it’s all just a matter of policy implementation after that. For instance, Jimmy Carter and WHO launched a campaign to eradicate Guinea worm disease in 20 African nations in the 1980’s. The primary approach to this was to make sure people had clean drinking water. With funding, wells were built and larvacide was added. However, one of the biggest pushes was to get people to drink clean water was to give them simple cloth filters. Unfortunately, this came with two problems. One was simply logistical: the filters clogged. The other was that the cloth material was too aesthetically pleasing, so people would often use them as decorative items. When the Carter Center, Precision Fabrics, and DuPont worked together to distribute plain nylon cloth filters (and education), the problem quickly shrank. There were 3.5 million cases of Guinea worm disease in 1986. As of 2005, the number had dropped to 11,000. This underlines the need for cultural understanding in addition to the simple cold science of the matter. Greater peer interaction and promotion of circumcision may be the key in getting places like Zambia to that 2 million goal.

At any rate, I’m very pleased to hear about these ongoing efforts to spread circumcision in developing nations in order to curb the spread of HIV. This is a triumph of common sense, global health initiatives, science, and basic humanity.

Thought of the day

Here are a few things which would go a long way towards fixing the U.S. legislative process:

  • Standardize House districts to be as close to rectangles in shape as possible
  • Change filibuster rules so that only 55 votes can override one; force Senators to stand and speak when they do invoke a filibuster
  • Lengthen terms for House members to 4 years and have House elections alternate with Presidential elections (President in 2016, House in 2018, President 2020, House 2022…)
  • Enforce term limits at 2 terms a piece for House members and Senators

Age restrictions (25 for House, 30 for Senate, 35 for President) should also be lifted, but that’s more a matter of their inanity than in actually changing much about the legislative process.

November 18, 1993

This happened 20 years ago today: