Saturday, March 29, 2008

Gender Genie: Fritz your wits about which sex you belong to?

There is an interesting exchange in the combox at "Neuroscience: Vive la (hardwired) difference between boys and girls." Recently, another commenter was annoyed by the fact that I reported on skepticism about whether this difference really shows up in communication patterns.

Science, I was informed, has settled the issue.

Well, I am not sure that the matter is simple enough to be "settled" by science. And, as it happens, the Gender Genie has just popped out of its lamp or castaway bottle or whatever today's genies use, to provide me with a handy tool.

Using an algorithm developed by Moshe Koppel, Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and Shlomo Argamon, Illinois Institute of Technology, you can find out whether the genie thinks you are a man or a woman by submitting a sample of your writing.

Given that the genie works best on texts of more than 500 words, I have decided to submit my five most recent columns for ChristianWeek.

It should be a fair test. The columns are always about 750 words in length. Editing is minimal, but in any event, I am submitting what I sent, not what was published. Let us see what the genie does. I am beginning right now at 9:09 am EST. The only changes I will make are to take out my byline and bioline. (I don't know whether these stereotyped elements prejudice the sample, but they are useless for our purposes.)

1. "Why science without God destroys itself":

Female Score: 560
Male Score: 1030
The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

Well, look up at the (authentic) photo in the box at the top right and see if you agree.

2. "Atheist philosopher follows the evidence wherever it leads ... to God!"
Female Score: 632
Male Score: 1011
The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

You know, even genies have bad days. Let's try again.

3. "Key lessons from the stem cell controversy"

Female Score: 598
Male Score: 944
The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

Well, the male score is falling. Could the genie be having his (its) moments of intuition? On to No. 4.

4. "Transplant ethics: Dr. Murray, meet Dr. Market!"

Female Score: 814
Male Score: 921
The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

Well, the genie is clearly beginning to suspect something. Now for our last test:

5. "When our theories are wrong but don't feel wrong"

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!
Female Score: 716
Male Score: 873
The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

Of course, I am not alone. Pamela O'Connell of the New York Times submitted her arts column to the Genie, who also announced that she was male.

Genie-ologist Moshe Koppel told O'Connell that this happens because "people were entering texts that were too short and ignoring the fact that the algorithm was designed to assess fiction, not blog entries, e-mail or the other sundry nonfiction samples that dominate submissions."

Okay, I don't write fiction, so I can't offer a sample to test. But I know people who do write fiction for a living - and fiction is governed by conventions just like non-fiction.

Which is what set me thinking ... I wasn't born knowing how to write non-fiction. I was taught. Denyse O'Leary thinks that the editors of her work have mostly been: male!

The basic proposition was, write the stuff he wants or go get a job at WalMart.

So, down to one option, I wrote the way he wanted. And that's how I learned.

I will probably never know how I would write if no one had ever taught me any formal writing skills. I do not really want to know either. Those guys were good editors.

Thanks to their coaching, my work won a number of independently judged awards. In a country where most writers reportedly make about $5000 a year from the sales of their work, I am privileged to write for a living, thanks in large part to them.

So, given the complexity of human communications in the real world, I would say, Gender Genie, don't throw away that lamp and then float around waiting for Harvard to call ....

Oh, and by the way, the Gender Genie thinks that the author of this blog entry is ...

Do I really have to tell you? Okay, I will.

Female Score: 977
Male Score: 1091
The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

Note: Please do NOT panic if you try the Genie and it misassigns you as consistently as it has misassigned me. I don't take the Genie seriously and would not advise you to either. I assume that, like a roller coaster, it was meant to be fun. So if it's fun, fine. If you think it won't be, don't get involved, m'kay?

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Reviews: American Psychological Association reviewer likes The Spiritual Brain!

The Spiritual Brain has received a very nice review from David A. Miller in The American Psychological Association's PsycCRITIQUES. He thinks Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I are a bit daring, but he says, nonetheless,
Does the book make its case? For the most part, I think it does. And for psychologists, I believe this is good news. It seems that there is a psyche, after all. And not only that, it looks like psychotherapy actually works—inter alia, it changes brain metabolism—so that mental illnesses cannot simply be reduced to nothing more than “brain diseases.” But the authors have a larger point to make. It is that if we dismiss each and every phenomenon for which there is no current materialist explanation as misleading or bogus, we are at risk for failing to understand the world as it really is. On the other hand, if we are open-minded enough to follow the evidence wherever it leads, we may be surprised at the direction we take. This, surely, is what science has been about since its beginning.

I am very glad that Miller sees so clearly what is at stake here.

Materialist approaches to medicine, to take the obvious example, worked well enough when we wanted to wipe out smallpox. If there is no smallpox virus around, we can't get smallpox - and it doesn't matter at all what we think about it.

However, precisely because diseases like smallpox are declining in importance, many parts of the world now have aging populations. Materialist approaches are of little use in managing the chronic diseases that characterize old age. An approach to health that acknowledges the importance of mental attitudes becomes critical because an elderly person cannot simply solve all his or her problems by taking an ever-growing number of - sometimes antagonistic - drugs.

Note: You need to be a member, so far as I can see, to read the review.

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Neuroscience: Let the machine read your mind! (We offer an installment plan ... )

Stephanie West Allen over at friendly blog Brains on Purpose draws my attention to this example of neurobullshipping (ridiculous claims for neuroscience's ability to "read minds"):
In recent years, the development of new brain-imaging technologies has prompted many physicians and neurologists to forsake the rather dreary study of nerve cells in favor of a far more glamorous arena: feelings, thoughts and political attitudes. Some of them assure us that with the advanced instruments, we will be able to understand what goes through people's head, read dreams as though they were a written text, and decide questions of guilt and innocence in a court of law.

The article quoted, "Of Two Minds" by Ofri Ilani and Yotam Feldman in Haaretz Magazine is an excellent read, which offers the suggestion that at least some of the neurobullshipping is generated by people who sell the machines used in neuroscience:
Prof. Chris Frith, a brain researcher from University College, London, one of the letter's organizers, told Haaretz Magazine in a telephone interview that it later turned out that a number of the researchers who took part in the study have ties to a company that markets brain-imaging machines. He assails the attempt to seek this type of explanation for complex social phenomena, and notes that the public is very attracted to the idea of "reading minds." One sees the images of the brain with the colored regions and thinks one is seeing what happens to people in their thoughts, which is something no one was able to do before, Frith explains. But what people are not told is that these colors are simply numbers, representing levels of blood flow or electrical activity. There is no way to look at these images and know what a person is thinking.

Sometimes the misuse appears to be manipulative:
Political scientists and psychologists have noted that, on average, conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty," the authors write in the abstract to the article. They found that "greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern."

Dascal believes that the value of such studies is very limited. "It is completely unreasonable for something as complex as a political attitude to find expression in a particular place in the brain," he says. "The only way studies like this can be conducted is by radically simplifying the concept of the 'political attitude' they are trying to locate, to a degree that renders the study uninteresting."

Yes, it smells fishy to me too. Many people simply inherit their political affiliation or acquire it on the job. Consider, for example, the relationship between unionized labour and our Canadian socialist party, the New Democratic Party. People may vote for that party because they are union members and are canvassed at meetings. However, I often find that those same people have very conservative attitudes on many questions. And of course it works the same on the other side of the political spectrum.

I would not envy the neuroscientist whose job was to try to make something like this simple, when political loyalties are - by their very nature - not simple at all.

In any event, friends who work in the criminal justice system tell me that a key difficulty with this "mind reading" thing - if applied in the courts - is that many offenders actually don't have clearly defined motives. I told Stephanie, based on my friends' comments,
In fact, that’s 90 percent of the routine offender's problem. He doesn’t THINK. He doesn’t PLAN. He doesn’t have strategies for AVOIDING trouble.

Finding out what’s going on in his head isn’t much use because it isn’t valuable to him. He needs to change it, not study it.

To my mind, a justice system should help people voluntarily learn life skills, not fritz their brains.

I mean skills like: Finish high school, keep your job or find another one, pay your bills, learn anger management, don't make friends with people who lie or cheat, especially avoid people with a criminal record or a drug habit, and always avoid places that get raided by police.

Half the secret is just not being around when the police raid. (Because if he's been in the slam before, police assume he's guilty.)

Stephanie agrees, from her own experience. And I am NOT saying that neuroscience couldn't help. Mario's team, for example, did excellent work helping people get over spider phobia, as we recount in The Spiritual Brain. But I think it's important that any neuroscience work should be be voluntary, with informed consent.

Anyway, the article is a most interesting update on the whole "mind reading" controversy.

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