Trying to be Smart: on bringing up extremely rare exceptions to prove forests don’t exist, only trees

When my kids don’t want to do their work (typically word problems in math,) they start coming up with all kinds of crazy scenarios to try to evade the question. “What if Susan cloned herself?” “What if Joe is actually the one driving the car, and he only saw the car pass by because he was looking at himself in a mirror?” “What if John used a wormhole to travel backwards in time and so all of the people at the table were actually Joe and so I only need to divide by one?” “What if Susan is actually a boy but her parents accidentally gave him the wrong name?” “What if ALIENS?”

After banging my head on the wall, I started asking, “Which is more likely: Sally and Susan are two different people, or Sally cloned herself, something no human has ever done before in the 300,000 years of homo Sapiens’ existence?” And sometimes they will, grudgingly, admit that their scenarios are slightly less likely than the assumptions the book is making.*

I forgive my kids, because they’re children. When adults do the same thing, I am much less sympathetic.

Folks on all sides of the political spectrum are probably guilty of this, but my inclinations/bubble lead me to encounter certain ones more often. Sex/gender is a huge one (even I have been led astray by sophistry on this subject, for which I apologize.)

Over in biology, sex is simply defined: Females produce large gametes. Males produce small gametes. It doesn’t matter how gametes are produced. It doesn’t matter what determines male or femaleness. All that matters is gamete size. There is no such thing (at least in humans) as a sex “spectrum”: reproduction requires one small gamete and one large gamete. Medium-sized gametes are not part of the process.

About 99.9% of people fit into the biological categories of “male” and “female.” An extremely small minority (<1%) have rare biological issues that interfere with gamete formation–people with Klinefelter’s, for example, are genetically XXY instead of XX or XY. People with Klinefelter’s are also infertile–unlike large gametes and small gametes, XXY isn’t part of a biological reproduction strategy. Like trisomy 21, it’s just an unfortunate accident in cell division.

In a mysterious twist, the vast majority of people have a “gender” identity that matches their biological sex. Even female athletes–women who excel at a stereotypically and highly masculine field–tend to identify as “women,” not men. Even male fashion designers tend to self-identify as men. There are a few people who identify as transgender, but in my personal experience, most of them are actually intersex in some way (eg, a woman who has autism, a condition characterized as “extreme male brain,” may legitimately feel like she thinks more like a guy than a girl.) Again, this is an extremely small percent of the population. For 99% of people you meet, normal gender assumptions apply.

So jumping into a conversation about “men” and “women” with “Well actually, ‘men’ and ‘women’ are just social constructs and gender is actually a spectrum and there are many different valid gender expressions–” is a great big NO.

Jumping into a discussion of women’s issues (like childbirth) with “Actually, men can give birth, too,” or the Women’s March with “Pussyhats are transphobic because some women have penises; vaginas don’t define what it means to be female,” is an even bigger NO, and I’m not even a fan of pussyhats.

Only biological females can give birth. That’s how the species works. When it comes to biology, leave things that you admit aren’t biology at the door. If a transgender man with a uterus gives birth to a child, he is still a biological female and we don’t need to confuse things by implying that someone gestated a fetus in his testicles. Over the millennia that humans have existed, a handful of people with some form of biological chimerism (basically, an internalized conjoined twin who never fully developed but ended up contributing an organ or two) who thought of themselves as male may have nonetheless given birth. These cases are so rare that you will probably never meet someone with them in your entire life.

Having lost a leg due to an accident (or 4 legs, due to being a pair of conjoined twins,) does not make “number of legs in humans” a spectrum ranging from 0-4. Humans have 2 legs; a few people have unfortunate accidents. Saying so doesn’t imply that people with 0 legs are somehow less human. They just had an accident.

In a conversation I read recently, Person A asserted that if two blue-eyed parents had a brown-eyed baby, the mother would be suspected of infidelity. A whole bunch of people immediately jumped on Person A, claiming he was scientifically ignorant and hadn’t paid attention in school–sadly, these overconfident people are actually the ones who don’t understand genetics, because blue eyes are recessive and thus two blue eyed people can’t make a brown-eyed biological child.  A few people, however, asserted that Person A was scientifically illiterate because there is an extremely rare brown-eyed gene that two blue-eyed people can carry, resulting in a brown-eyed child.

But this is not scientific illiteracy. The recessive brown-eyed gene is extremely rare, and both parents would have to have it. Infidelity, by contrast, is much more common. It’s not that common, but it’s more common than two parent both having recessive brown-eyed genes. Insisting that Person A is scientifically illiterate because of an extremely rare exception to the rule is ignoring statistics–statistically, the child is more likely to be not biological than to have an extremely rare variant. Statistically, men and women are far more likely to match in gender and sex than to not.

Let’s look at immigration, another topic near and dear to everyone’s hearts. After Trump’s comments about Haiti came out (and let’s be honest, Haiti’s capital, Port au Prince, is one of the world’s largest cities without a functioning sewer system, so “shithole” is actually true,) people began popping up with statements like “I’d rather a Ugandan immigrant who believes in American values than a socialist Norwegian.”

I, too, would rather a Ugandan with American values than a socialist Norwegian. However, what percentage of Ugandans actually have American values? Just a wild guess, but I suspect most Ugandans have Ugandan values. Most Ugandans probably think Ugandan culture is pretty nice and that Ugandan norms and values are the right ones to have, otherwise they wouldn’t have different values and we’d call those Ugandan values.

Updated values chart!

While we’re at it, I suspect most Chinese people have Chinese values, most Australians have Australian values, most Brazilians hold Brazilian values, and most people from Vatican City have Catholic values.

I don’t support blindly taking people from any country, because some people are violent criminals just trying to escape conviction. But some countries are clearly closer to each other, culturally, than others, and thus have a larger pool of people who hold each other’s values.

(Even when people hold very different values, some values conflict more than others.)

To be clear: I’ve been picking on one side, but I’m sure both sides do this.

What’s the point? None of this is very complicated. Most people can figure out if a person they have just met is male or female instantly and without fail. It takes a very smart person to get confused by a few extremely rare exceptions into thinking that the broad categories don’t functionally exist.

Sometimes this obfuscation is compulsive–the person just wants to show how smart they are, or maybe everyone around them is saying it so they start repeating it–but since most people seem capable of understanding probabilities in everyday life (“Sometimes the stoplight is glitched but usually it isn’t, so I’ll assume the stoplight is functioning properly and obey it,”) if someone suddenly seems incapable of distinguishing between extremely rare and extremely common events in the political realm, then they are doing so on purpose or suffering severe cognitive dissonance.

 

*Oddly, I solved the problem by giving the kids harder problems. It appears that when their brains are actively engaged with trying to solve the problem, they don’t have time/energy left to come up with alternatives. When the material is too easy (or, perhaps, way too hard) they start trying to get creative to make things more interesting.

 

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Distance, Surface, Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies: A Relativistic Critique of Maxwellcentric Conceptions of “Knowing” Bodies

Note: This post, What if Famous Scientists Wrote like Gender Scholars? originally appeared as a guest post on Lawrence Glarus’s blog.

Have you ever wondered what famous math/science works would sound like if they had been written by gender scholars? Then today is your lucky day!

I. Distance, Surface, Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies: A Relativistic Critique of Maxwellcentric Conceptions of “Knowing” Bodies, by A. Einstein

In Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Isaac Newton examines the sensory and cognitive, mathematical processes involved in rendering bodies in motion as remaining in motion and bodies at rest as remaining at rest, using the language of infinitessimal, geometric calculus. Maxwellcentric social norms emphasize differences, rather than similarities, between moving electrodynamic bodies, creating perceptions of asymmetries which do not appear to be inherent in the phenomena. In this paper I focus on a particular subjectivity and a particular spatiality. The subjectivity is that of dominant Western Maxwellcentric electrodynamics. The spatiality is the specific organisation of spacetime through which that subjectivity is constituted and through which it sees the world, a problematic described here as a relativistic space of electrodynamic self/knowledge. Take, for example, the reciprocal, non-patriarchal electrodynamic action of a magnet (“masculine”) and a conductor (“feminine”). By introducing the “infinitessimal” metaphor, Newton enables theoretical development in how cultural norms and sensory perceptions shape the social construction of spacetime curvature around the action of the magnet and conductor. The observable phenomenon here depends only on the relative motion of the conductor and the magnet, whereas the customary, phallocentric, Maxwellian view draws a sharp, “othering” distinction between the two cases in which either the one or the other of these bodies is in motion.  In the process of electrodynamic attribution, cognitive filters guide our attention to certain features of bodies marked as different (e.g., spin, charge, mass), while priming us to ignore other features of bodies (e.g., shape, velocity). The move from a structuralist account in which “electricity” is understood to structure activities between magnets and conductors in relatively homologous way to a view of hegemony in which electrodynamic powers are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of space structure, and marked a shift from a form of Maxwellian theory that takes structural, atomic totalities as theoretical objects (eg, photons, electrons,) to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of unified spacetime structures inaugurate a renewed conception of electrodynamics as bound up with contingent bodies.

It is thus argued that certain psychoanalytic Newtonian electrodynamic theories—like all psychodynamic mathematics—can offer a critical account of Maxwellcentric kinematics of the rigid body, since the assertions of any such theory have to do with the relationships between rigid bodies (systems of co-ordinates), clocks, and electromagnetic processes, which is also a critical account of the production of visual space-time interactions. Insufficient consideration of this circumstance lies at the root of the difficulties which the electrodynamics of moving bodies at present encounters. …

 

II. The Construction of Shapes as a Quintessentially Masculine Subject: The Elements of Geometric Gender, by Euclid of Alexandria

Definition 1.
A point is that which has no gender, ergo, is invisible to cisheteronormative ways of “seeing.”

Definition 2.
A line is conceptualized by Freudian psychodynamics as a phallus.

Definition 3.
The ends of a line are points, an imposition of patriarchal masculinization upon a formerly a-gendered space.

Definition 4.
A straight line is a line which has internalized cis-hetero-normative expectations of psychodynamic sexual relations between “men” and “women,” producing an arbitrary gender binary that contributes to the erasure and oppression of non-binary performing individuals.

Definition 5.
A surface is that which presents the illusion of impenetrability along its length and breadth, except by the masculine, heteronormative phallus, reinforcing colonialist narratives of the importance of male dominance.

Definition 6.
The edges of a surface are an a-structural post-colonist region of conceptualized “boundaries” between “masculine” and “feminine”.

Definition 7.
A plane surface is an unbounded, limitless potentiality-space which lies evenly with the conception of heteronormaty imposed on itself.

Definition 8.
A plane angle is the homosexual inclination to one another of two lines (constructed masculinities) in a plane which meet one another and hereafter reject heteronormative coupling with non-angles.

Definition 9.
And when the lines containing the angle are viewed through the lens of patriarchal heteronormativity, the angle is called recti-(ie, rectum)-linear (ie, phallus.)

Definition 10.
When a straight line standing on a straight line oppresses the adjacent angles, subverting their equality to one another, each of the equal angles is justified in its demand for self-expression, and the straight line standing on the other is called an oppressor (capitalist, bourgeois,) to that on which it stands (the subject, colonized, feminized “other.”) …

 

III. On the Deconstruction of “Species” as a “Natural” category: a Feminist Approach to re-imagining the Descent of (Hu)”man” Outside the Patriarchal Supremacy Paradigm, by C. Darwin

Chapter 1: Variation Under Domestication

Unquestioned patriarchic thought modes employ explicit categorization of living beings into unchanging, discreet hierarchies, from beast to angel, placing man–qua man–in the topmost, “in the image of god,” (the masculine) position. In this paper, I draw upon the theories of Buffon, Lamarck, Saint-Hilaire, Wells, Herbert, and others to develop a counter-narrative, feminist proposal that nature (“feminine,” but against patriarchal codings, red in tooth and claw, not maternal,) is the source of selective pressures that gradually transform one species into another.

When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as a queer-identified trans-racial feminist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the oppressed, post/colonial indigenous persons of color of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. The constructed masculinities of domination embodied by the colonist sphere struck me as throwing light upon the sharp, hierarchical divisions between beings which lead to my revelation that change, over time, could account for the origins of that which we insist on calling “species.”

When we examine the effects of patriarchal subjugation and domination of plant and animal forms for the satisfaction of human appetites, we are struck forcefully by the great diversity of outcomes: the domesticated, “husbanded” forms differ much more from each other, than do the individuals of any one species or variety in a state of natural, feminine, stewardship. When we reflect on the vast diversity of the plants and animals which have been cultivated, and which have varied during all ages under the most different climates and treatment, I think we are driven to conclude that this greater variability is due to man’s (masculine) drive to divide, differentiate, subdue, and consume. Even our oldest cultivated, “domesticated”–as in domestic, housewife, feminine, dominated by the patriarchal–varieties of plants and animals such as wheat, are still often driven to produce new varieties or “improvements” that exist, of course, only for improving their economy or taste on a human’s palate, not for marked change in the individual being’s experience of life or joy. …

 

I hope you all enjoyed reading those as much as I enjoyed writing them.

With apologies to Albert Einstein’s On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, Euclid’s Elements, Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species by Natural Selection, and Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

With no apologies to: Blind to Sameness: Sexpectations and the Social Construction of Male and Female Bodies, Distance, Surface, Elsewhere: A Feminist Critique of the Space of Phallocentric Self/Knowledge, The Construction of Physics as a Quintessentially Masculine Subject: Young People’s Perceptions of Gender Issues in Access to Physics, Science: A Masculine Disorder? or Judith Butler.

And with special thanks to Lawrence Glarus for hosting me and to Twitter’s NewRealPeerReview for curating the list of atrocious (but real) papers that inspired this post.