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Feminist Coffee Hour Podcast Episode 19: Anastasia Bodnar, GMOs, and Gendered Food Panic

Posted in Editorials, Podcast Episodes on September 21st, 2017

Anastasia Bodnar, GMOs, and Gendered Food Panic

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We interviewed Anastasia Bodnar of Biofortified to talk about the Science March, GMOs and the way food panics target women in general and mothers specifically.

Discussed in this episode:

Anastasia’s blog

Genetically Modified Foods Revisited

North Carolina Hog Farms Spray Manure Around Black Communities; Residents Fight Back

Popular Remington 700 rifle linked to potentially deadly defect

Panic Free GMOs by Nathaniel Johnson – Grist

Genetically Modified Broccoli Shrieks Benefits At Shopper

Farmworker Justice: Pesticide Safety

Millennials want more facts about their food

Science Moms Documentary

Bottled Up

Senate confirms Perdue as agriculture secretary

5 Sketchy Facts About Trump’s Pick for USDA Chief

Sociology of the March for Science


Feminist Coffee Hour is now on Patreon.

This episode was edited by Brianna Carpenter.

Our theme song is composed by Bridget Ellsworth, check out her sound cloud page!

We’ve joined the Apple affiliate program. If you’re going to sign up for Apple Music, please do so by using this link.

Out, Damned Sperm! Why Everyone Is Freaked Out About Fruit Flies.

Posted in Editorials on October 10th, 2014

This week the internet was aflame with the sheer idiocy that happens when you combine an ignorant misunderstanding of science with our culture of vicious misogyny.

Generally respectable websites like Alternet and The Telegraph were off and running with a study that claimed previous mates sperm could influence the future offspring of fruit flies. People got paid real money to write about this study as if it applied to human beings.

Caroline Weinberg at Jezebel did a good job of debunking this nonsense:

The immature eggs of newly hatched fruit flies ultimately develop a hard shell. The thought is that the development of the immature eggs can be influenced by non-genetic factors in semen but, once they have matured, the eggs are no longer susceptible to these changes.

Interesting indeed. But what I’m more interested in is why this study took off the way it did and why so many news outlets jumped to cover it as if it means something for people. Yes, it’s clickbait. But why is it clickbait? Why was this story so sensational?

Weinberg speculates:

Start with a scientific study that can be generalized to something people identify with or fear. Then lead with an eminently clickable headline about motherhood and promiscuity, striking fear in the hearts of the sexually active, raising concerns that the skeevy dude they picked up in a bar last year is actually going to haunt them forever through the face of their future offspring.

But I think it’s more than just fear that our exes can follow us, or somehow influence our future. The media found a way to push people’s buttons with the way they twisted this story, yes they pushed the “disgust” button, and the “eww my ex is gross” button, and even the “fear of cuckolding” button. But part of the reason these buttons exist in the first place is a deeper cultural stigma. There is a deep taboo about the way sex tarnishes women or makes them dirty. It’s tangled up with fear and denial of women’s sexual desires but its a slightly separate idea.

I’ve written before about how the disgust mechanism is a very old instinct. But this is is more than a general aversion to the “ickiness” of sex. The idea that the media was tapping into here was that sex in general and semen in particular makes women dirty in a way it does not make men dirty. In a way that a woman’s natural wetness doesn’t make women or men dirty. It’s odd to think of a substance produced by pleasure that creates human life as a contaminant (STIs aside). But we do.

We use the idea of semen in slurs like “cum dumpster.”

Abstinence only sex education is notorious for invoking the idea of semen defiled women in their rhetoric. A sucked on lollipop, chewed gum, or a cup everyone has spit into have all be used to represent a woman who has had sex. The students actual saliva makes an approximate substitute – but the message is clear, a woman is defiled by semen.

And so it should come as no surprise that at the mere hint that semen has more than a symbolically tarnishing effect on a woman’s body people will spiral into an absolute panic.

Weinberg wrote:

I even received an email from a pregnant friend that read, “Shit. Does this mean my kid is going to look like my ex?”

I wrote back to her, “Not unless you’re a fruit fly.”

We aren’t fruit flies. We’re people living in a culture that has a lot of fear about sex. Try not to let it ruin your day.

For Further Reading: The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability by Laura Kipnis

Climate Change Denier Admits He Doesn’t Care What The Truth Is

Posted in Editorials on June 3rd, 2014

On Sunday night, against my better judgement, I started an argument with someone on the Cosmos Twitter hashtag. But in doing so I got at something I think environmentalists and climate change activists need to understand. Many people who deny that climate change is occurring do not care what the truth is.

This conversation is edited for space and clarity. See my twitter page for all comments.

I’m oversimplifying here a bit. But it is true. Coal and gasoline have the hidden costs of damage to public health.

I was referring to this article in Think Progress, “Germany Sets New Record, Generating 74 Percent Of Power Needs From Renewable Energy.” Rob was incredulous at first but then he started quoting other sources about how this makes electricity more expensive.

But I didn’t say that renewable energy would be cheap or easy. My point in citing Germany as an example was a refutation of Rob’s assertion that we couldn’t do anything about climate change unless we “all go back to living like 1750.” It’s clearly not 1750 in Germany right now. The Germans are planning for the future, and trying to abate climate change as well. If we keep going the way we are now, we will face catastrophe.

Clearly missing the point here, Rob sees clean energy as some kind of money making scam. I wonder if he sees fire extinguishers and car air bags that way too?

And here’s when I first found out that the person I was talking to has no idea what the evidence for climate change is.

First he called me a Nazi:

Then he went back to “this is a money making scheme:

And finally, to his main point, that being contrary for the sake of being contrary is a good thing:

Claiming that the IPCC is just “a single source” and just some random website on the internet, revealed that Rob actually has no idea what the evidence for climate change actually is.

And he said yes.

But then he had to immediately make a joke about how silly this all is.

So although he has never looked at the evidence for climate change, it seems awfully silly and conformist to go along with, dont ya think? Almost like a religion! Rob clearly has no idea what the scientific method is, or why it works if he equates reading papers filed with data and then basing your views on public policy on that data is the same thing as religious faith. Science changes in response to new information. Religion does not.

And that, right there, is the money quote. For Rob, climate change denialism is not about moneyed interest in fossil fuels, a religious belief that God will protect the Earth, a misunderstanding of the scientific evidence, or even a failure to examine the information available to him. It doesn’t matter what the data is, he won’t believe it, no matter what, because to do so would make him a “sheep.” Nonconformity is more important to Rob than truth.

How to respond to people like this, I have no idea. But at least he told me why he believes what he does.

UPDATE: As I responded in my initial tweet to Rob, BRIC countries will probably decide to limit greenhouse gas emissions on their own. And China looks like they are heading that way right now.

Some Musings on the Psychology of Minecraft

Posted in Editorials on July 11th, 2013

I’ve been playing a lot of Minecraft lately. It’s a fun game and it reminds me of The Legend of Zelda games I loved as a kid. Recently I started playing in multiplayer mode and something happened that made me think about they psychology of video games.

I know that one of the reasons video games are so pleasurable is that they give people rewards at quicker and more predictable rates thank other tasks. I can’t really say this is something that I think about consciously, but I do find myself having built a castle or mined some diamonds feeling like I have “accomplished something” when in reality, I haven’t. I just played a game. Leisure activities are necessary, but they aren’t a productive use of my time.

On Sunday I was exploring a cave in Minecraft and I was knocked into the very mineshaft I was looking for by some zombies. They jumped down and killed me. In Minecraft, if you aren’t playing in hardcore mode, you will “respawn” (restart) the game at a certain point, and all of the items/loot you were carrying with you will remain at the place you died for about five minutes. With literally nothing to lose, I sprinted back to the cave to find two zombies, one of which was wearing my armor! This is an often humorous aspect of the game. Zombies will pick up anything they find and try and use it against you. Previously I fought one off that was wielding a piece of rotting flesh that had been dropped by another zombie I had killed. On this occasion, I defeated them both with one of my shovels that they had not yet gotten to and retrieved my armor.

I paused for a moment, feeling kind of weird about re-equiping it. I felt grossed out because a zombie was just wearing it. Then I figured that it was now an extra special trophy of my victory over the zombies.

Then I thought about how this game has tapped into some pretty deep areas of my brain. Firstly I identify enough with my avatar that upon seeing an enemy NPC wearing “my armor” it I was startled, and amusedly indignant. There has been some research about why and how people identify with their video game avatars. It reminds me of the research about how the brain changes to think about a car one is driving. Some theorize that you start to perceive the car as a part of your body and that it changes your proprioception. There is evidence that people with bumper stickers on their car are more aggressive drivers. Similar to having a custom made avatar perhaps?

Second, I am so invested in this game that my innate mechanism for disgust was activated by the idea of my avatar wearing armor that a cartoonish zombie character was just “wearing.” I did have a brief feeling that I was the one putting on dirty clothes. Then I laughed at the idea of getting squicked out over pixels on a screen.

Our brains are more plastic than we may be comfortable admitting. And like Minecraft, almost infinitely moddable. Be careful what you do with yours.

Both Sides Now – Way Off Base On HPV

Posted in Editorials, Podcast Reviews on September 28th, 2011

As I previously posted, I am a fan of the podcast, “Both Sides Now.” I think it’s refreshing to hear a debate between right and left that isn’t about name calling. However, I was shocked to hear such ridiculous rhetoric coming from all three participants about the HPV vaccine while listening to the September 17 episode. I’m really starting to understand Amanda’s obsession.

Mary Matalin and Arianna Huffington insisted that it’s wrong for the government to mandate vaccinations – especially this one because it’s “a personal decision.” Matalin made a point that her daughter is still a virgin and Huffington said “it doesn’t make any sense at all…They’re 12 year olds!” Both seem to miss the point that the vaccine is supposed to be administered before the onset of sexual activity, and so it would be most appropriate for a 12 or 16 year old who has not had sexual activity with a partner yet.

Mark Green, the moderator, chimed in that it’s not a personal decision because the disease is “easily spread.” Matalin retorted “Then vaccinate men!” No one brought up that the vaccine has been approved for men for the past two years! Huffington said that if you don’t have it, you can’t spread it, which is hopelessly naive considering the amount of people who have HPV – the chances of getting it from one sexual encounter (including vaginal intercourse with a condom, oral sex, manual sex or even kissing) are very high. It sounds like she’s promoting abstinence – which unlike the Gardasil – stops working the minute you have sex.

Green inexplicably states that a girl “without a mother as good as Mary or Arianna” could have sex and get HPV – and he sounds astonishingly ignorant, for someone who expresses concern about issues pertaining to women and girls all the time. Just because a person has sex doesn’t mean that they had bad parents. Each one of the people on the panel has has had sex, (evidenced by the existence of their children) and Mark Green’s daughter has had sex (as evidenced by his proud proclamation that he is a grandfather)- was something wrong with the mothers of these pundits or with Mark Green’s parenting skills? Parents who raise healthy children will not, in all likelihood stop them from having sex. Parents who get the HPV vaccine for their children can make sure that when they do have sex, their children will not get vaginal, labial, cervical, penile, anal or throat cancer.

Mark Green then suggests that people opposed to the HPV vaccine are anti science, but then immediately drops the point when Matalin scoffs at him that “it’s not measles, it’s not Contagion and it’s not the Ebola virus, you have to engage in sex irresponsibly – one would hope that you would find out from their partner if they have an STD [before you have sex with them].” Matalin ignores the possibility of one acquiring the virus during from shaking or holding hands, while kissing, during a sexual assault, or from a cheating partner one wrongly believed to be monogamous.

Green states “but science says that it works” before backing off completely. He doesn’t elaborate on the concept of heard immunity which, campaign donations aside, is the practical reason why governments mandate vaccines. I would be interested in a conversation about why Matalin and Huffington think an individual’s right to refuse a vaccine overrides the plain fact that if we are all vaccinated, we protect the health of everyone. How is a mandate for a vaccine different from a mandate for seat-belts (passengers ejected from a car during a crash can hit other cars and cause another accident) smoking bans in restaurants (which Green did bring up but no one addressed) or laws against drunk driving?

Matalin did say that the vaccine was too new and untested to mandate. However it has been on the market since June 2006, for over five years. At what point would it become acceptably safe for her?

They all do agree that it is a good thing that the vaccine exists though, which, regrettably, is something to be thankful for in the current climate. I was very disappointed with this segment, and while it wasn’t the first time I have disagreed with the hosts, it was the first time I felt like the discussion was just as silly and uninformed as most of the noise on cable news.

Monsanto, Microfungi and Mass Hysteria

Posted in Editorials on March 8th, 2011

I never understood the argument against genetically modified food. I’m not sure how species of crops created with new methods are any different from the bananas and strawberries I love today that were created from less palatable fruits over many generations of careful cultivation. After watching Food Inc., I had a better idea of why Monsanto has a bad reputation. The way they enforce their patent on the most common type of soybean in the United States makes earning a living almost impossible for farmers. But does that take away from all the successes of genetically modified foods? What about golden rice? I remain unconvinced that genetic modification of crops is inherently a bad idea, and I find the rhetoric about “Frankenfood” childishly silly

However, when I heard that the scientists at Monsanto may have unleashed a hellish horror on the world from their labs, I was alarmed. Dr. Don Huber, a retired professor from Purdue University wrote a letter to the USDA about the discovery of a new pathogen found in Monsanto Roundup Ready crops (crops that remain unharmed when sprayed with pesticides). If I am understanding him correctly, this pathogen evolved in response to the use of genetically modified crops, the way that MRSA evolved in response to misuse of antibiotics.

The discussion around Huber’s letter is intense, and it should be. If there really is some new “microfungus” pathogen that can attack plants and animals, and it’s in our food supply, this is very dangerous. I started thinking about mad cow disease and swine flu and SARS and the Ebola virus!! All my friends who had warned me about genetically modified food were right! It should be labeled! How could I have been so naive?

Dear Lord, where is Rene Russo!?

But after a few days of not seeing the story in the mainstream media, I wondered if things were as bad as Huber is presenting them. Now, I know that there are scores of important stories not covered in our media. But in general, they seem to be at least semi-competent at covering food safety and all over anything that can create panic in the masses. (Panic sells more beer and Strawberry Pop Tarts.) Contamination of common staples
like spinach, or the latest gross out of who found what in their fast food are usually top stories. Why not this?

There is some evidence that Huber is misrepresenting what he found, or just plain wrong. I’m hoping for all of our sakes that he is. And I think that before everyone goes wacky, we should at least understand what we are up against.

What is frustrating me the most about this controversy is the way that anti-science forces have muddied the waters in previous scientific debates. If science were not so abused by the likes of climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers and others it would be easier to follow what was going on. But the checkered history of Monsanto and the way some people abuse science to drum up panic makes it difficult to choose a side. I don’t want to be a rube easily led by the megatheocorporatocracy (hat tip) but I’m also hesitant to jump on a band wagon that may be carrying Jenny McCarthy and James Inhofe. I don’t know how many people are alarmed by Huber because what he’s saying really is alarming, and how many people just don’t like the idea of genetically modified food and now they have found their reason to crow. In an age where any two groups of people who disagree on an issue can rarely agree on any facts in common, I hope the dust will clear soon.

Can I have my monogamy and happiness too?

Posted in Book Reviews on January 10th, 2011

Sex at Dawn
The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

I’ve been reading Dan Savage’s love and sex advice column for eleven years, since I was seventeen. At first I was shocked and titillated by the openness of his writing about sex. I had halfway decent sex education at home and in high school. But nothing my teenage classmates put into our Health teacher’s question box was like the letters printed in “Savage Love.” As I got older I came to appreciate Dan Savage on a different level. There are lots of websites with basic information about sex, but there’s something about a personal, yet public response from a knowledgeable person who will occasionally make fun of you that drives thousands of people to ask his advice every week.

I’d noticed that in the past 2 or 3 years Dan had started to question the premise of monogamy. He would often point out to a person grieving their partner’s infidelity, that so many people are bad at staying faithful and ask if a partner has extra marital sex once or twice in their entire life, is that really worth a messy breakup or divorce? In his book “Skipping Towards Gomorrah” Savage presents a picture of American swingers as very happy people with stable relationships. He often writes about this alternative in his column.

As some of you may know, I have recently gotten married, so monogamy has been at the forefront of my mind for most of the recent past. I freely admit to having a happy and healthy newlywed glow. Any criticism I have of “Sex at Dawn,” I have thought seriously about – I don’t want to fall into the trap of letting my current status poison my analysis. But in case I have failed, let the record show that I have admitted my bias freely.

Before deciding to marry I did think seriously about the concept of monogamy; if it were possible and if my partner and I were capable of it. Being young and in love, and at the beginning of a marriage is the wrong place to ask those questions however. It would be like asking all of the runners of a race at the starting line if they will finish. Surely some will sprain ankles or give up. But who would admit the possibility of failure when filled with the adrenaline and optimism of race day? Dan Savage’s advice to his readers gave me hope – he seemed to be saying that some people are just not cut out for monogamy. Just like some people are gay, or straight, or bisexual. If that was true, then I was good to go – monogamy feels as natural to me as my heterosexuality.

Then Dan Savage started raving about “Sex at Dawn.” I rolled my eyes. I have a really bad habit of lurking on MRA/PUA blogs until my mood is absolutely spoiled. Now I’m going to have to hear about how I’m made for hypergamy, incapable of love and should be dehumanized from Dan Savage too?!

I read the Salon review of the book, which piqued my interest.

I listened to the Savage Lovecast where Ryan said “It’s not that women are whores. It’s that they’re sluts.” And that’s when I knew I had to read the book. I had often wondered if there was an argument to be made about why and how so many cultures spend so much effort repressing female sexual desire if it did not exist, but did not know where to look. Sex at Dawn sounded like it would explore this question.

The thesis of the book is that human beings evolved in groups where men and women both had multiple sexual partners. Monogamy only came about when people adapted to agriculture. The evidence is vast, ranging from the behaviors of our chimp and bonobo cousins to specific features of the human reproductive system (Mark Twain said it best when he remarked that women should probably have harems and not men, since men could only satisfy one partner per night). What I found most convincing was the evidence that early hunter-gatherer tribes probably shared food and other resources equitably. There are different groups of people all over the world who most likely still live in the way that our early ancestors did. In those societies, some of whom have never had contact with the others, hoarding food or refusing to share is the greatest taboo. Things started to click in my mind before it was spelled out in the book. If a man must share the meat from his hunt with all of the children in the tribe, how could he possibly favor the ones that are biologically his? What purpose would it make to try and assure paternity if that knowledge could not be used? If our concept of possession and property did not extend to the very food we labored to acquire, how could we have been jealously guarding pair bonds of one man and one woman? The theory that humans were not monogamous for the vast majority of our history was becoming more difficult for me to simply dismiss.

Christopher Ryan has been careful to say that just because people did not evolve to form monogamous pairs doesn’t mean that they should not attempt it. He has famously compared it to being vegan – a worthy goal fraught with difficulty and lots of temptation.

The authors do come dangerously close to committing the fallacy that they so artfully dismantle. There is frequent reference to the “standard narrative” which both resembles the idealized version of 1950’s sexuality and the bleak perspective of those who insist that men and women must always be at war with one another because they have diametrically opposed reproductive strategies. They make the argument that women’s sex drives are powerful and capable of a lot more than any Western societies have been willing to admit. The authors dare to ask the question – if women are so naturally reserved, why are so many restrictions required of women? Would a truly asexual gender need them?

And yet their chapter about modern day marital infidelity only includes one case study of a man cheating on his wife. I will say that they did a very good job of skillfully and sensitively presenting the evidence of why a man with so much to lose would do such a thing, and making it clear that they do not mean to rub salt in the wounds of the wives who are so hurt. But there is no corresponding narrative of why a woman would cheat or why her husband should make an effort to understand her natural drives and hormonal confusion. Simply presenting evidence that men who have more partners have higher testosterone levels, and that low testosterone can lead to all sorts of issues up to an including death is sobering. But it doesn’t fiat away the fact that this does lend strength to the “standard narrative” that they are so opposed to. Instead of falling back on “Sorry honey, my sperm is cheap, her eggs are expensive and my secretary is young and fertile,” will it now become “Sorry honey my Testosterone was getting low so it was pretty much sex or death?”

I do love the fact that Sex at Dawn does acknowledge how complicated the human brain is. It has always frustrated me that so little popular Evolutionary Psychology narratives seem to address the higher brain functions performed by the neocortex. Human beings have a lot more grey matter than just our reptile brains. If we could master our environment enough to put a man on the moon couldn’t we also create an equally sophisticated view of gender roles? I had been taught that our large brains evolved because the ability to use language, solve problems systematically and build tools were tremendous advantages. Ryan and Jetha speculate that the neocortex evolved because of the complicated webs of human relationships that a large brain was required.

Another thing I appreciate about Sex at Dawn is the understanding the authors have of the context in which they are writing it. Christopher Ryan’s blog posts appear to acknowledge that many evolutionary psychology studies are used to uphold the status quo, justify sexism or just plain right wing politics (and he is unabashedly liberal.) I don’t think that scientists should self censor for fear of a particular political climate or backlash. But the way they present their work should be informed by an understanding of its consequences.

Dan Savage’s quote on the front cover of the book calls it, “The single most important book on human sexuality since Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior of the Human Male on the American Public in 1948.” Christopher Ryan has balked at this, and his modesty is very becoming. I’m not an expert on human sexuality so I can’t speak to the veracity of the claim, but it did make me more interested in evolutionary psychology than I had previously been.

Ryan and Jetha criticize people who encourage married couples to get divorced simply because of infidelity, citing studies that children are better off when their parents are married and suggesting that many of those couples would be happier trying to work past it or changing their arrangement to allow sex with other people. It has become fashionable to say that people shouldn’t make promises that they cannot keep. It’s usually my response to celebrity infidelity scandals. However there are huge pressures to marry and it’s not wise to ignore those pressures when doling out advice.

If I could ask one question of the authors, it would be this: Is there any research on what characteristics or behaviors of people who are “good at monogamy” have in common? It might seem like wishful thinking. But I have applied social science research to my personal life before. When I was in graduate school, I was living away from my husband. I read this book by a psychologist who interviewed people in long distance relationships and reported on the behaviors and circumstances that the couples who stayed together and were the happiest had in common. The book was a great source of comfort to me and we did apply some of the suggestions to our relationship.

Another acquaintance of mine set her mind on a goal of losing weight – something 95% of the people who do fail. And yet Greta has been successful. She started by researching extensively the habits and methods of people who have done it before.

I know that Ryan and Jetha wanted their book to spark debate and conversations, but ones more along the lines of “knowing what we now know about human sexuality, how should we apply this to our relationships?” I think that’s an important discussion to have as well. I have no objection to polyamory for those who wish to partake in it. But just as they have convincingly rejected the “standard narrative” of human sexuality I’m not as eager to jump on the bandwagon of another. I reject the premise that failure is inevitable. If, as they report in the book, 38% of couples report being happily married – even if half of them are lying – the odds of being happily monogamous are still more than three times better than the odds of successfully losing weight. The message that love is possible without monogamy is a vital one that needs to be repeated. But I admit to wanting both.

Lady Brains and Delusional Minds

Posted in Book Reviews on January 3rd, 2011

Delusions of Gender

How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference

By Cordelia Fine

The Female Brain

By Louann Brizendine

Just-so stories abound in our media about how women “naturally” talk too much, are over-emotional, bad at math, or just plain stupid. How much of it was earnest science badly reported and how much of it was just mean-spirited evolutionary psychology, I never knew. And somewhere, lurking in the darker corners of my brain was the thought that maybe it was all true; and grounded in strong, peer-reviewed science that was easily replicated. But when those doubts loomed, I would always stop myself – the difference between men and women on a genetic level is the difference between XX and XY. How could having a little more genetic material make me a stupid, frivolous, gold-digger compared to all the smart, serious, chivalrous men? It never made sense, but was that because I had a puny lady brain?

I read Louann Brizendine’s “The Female Brain” immediately before “Delusions of Gender.” It had been sitting on my bookshelf since it’s controversial publication. I read it first; knowing that it is one of the works Fine is highly critical of.

Brizendine acknowledges my quandary – if men and women have almost identical genetic makeup’s, how could our brains be so different as a result of biology alone? Her answer: hormones. The way I understood her hypothesis was that she saw men’s and women’s brains as computers with identical hard drive space and RAM. But estrogen and testosterone were like different operating systems – an iPhone and a Droid. This is a seductively simple point of view, and absurdities appear quickly. Brizendine actually suggests that women should schedule job interviews or oral exams on the days of their menstrual cycle when estrogen levels are highest because there is evidence that estrogen can increase verbal skills. When she also recommends not making important decisions while experiencing PMS or menstruation, it’s near impossible to take seriously.

Fine’s work is cut out for her as she proceeds to destroy Brizendine’s book and others like it (John Gray, etc). Her book is divided into three parts, “Half-Changed World, Half-Changed Minds”, “Neurosexism,” and “Recycling Gender.” She makes a convincing case that there is less evidence for hard wired sex based differences in behavior than most people think there is, and that actually there’s a lot of reasons to think men and women are similar in almost of the ways that the brain works.

It is common for parents to state that they know gender differences are real because although they have tried to be egalitarian, their little girl just loves her princess costume, and refuses to wear any color but pink. Fine questions the assumption that the parents are capable of bringing their children up in a world free of information about gender stereotypes. If all of the media they consume tells children how their gender is supposed to act, simply offering both a truck and a doll isn’t going to cut it. She then goes on to talk about how children, especially at preschool age, are trying to learn their place in the world. They don’t understand much about nationality, religion, or cliques. But they can latch on to the very salient gender stereotypes all around them.

The strongest evidence Fine presents for women’s intellectual equality with men are in the studies of what is called stereotype threat. The theory is that if you remind a person that they fit a stereotype of a person who is bad at the task at hand (math, for example) they will spend a lot of mental energy thinking about that fact rather than the actual task. One of the most shocking studies presented in “Delusions of Gender” was on this topic. The participants were enrolled in a calculus class. On average, the men and women had the same grades. In one group, the students were given a very difficult test and told that it was designed to try and find out what makes some people better at math than others. The average score was 19% correct for both genders. In the other group, students were told the same thing, but it was added that “despite testing on thousands of students, no gender difference had ever been found.” The women in this group scored a whopping 30% correct. If this evidence is to be believed, the amount of energy women spend trying to combat internalized sexism is tremendous. When these messages permeate our culture and our brains, they take so much away from our potential abilities. It may in fact be true that women have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good.

Finally, Fine makes the case that much neuroscience reporting is inaccurate, and favors studies that “prove” old tropes about gender to be true rather than communicating what was actually found. For example, women have a larger corpus collosum than men. (To the non-psychology majors reading: it’s the part of the brain in between the right and left hemispheres; what relays information back and forth.) This is said to explain things like why women are better at multi-tasking, and why men can’t talk about their feelings. The problem is that its simply not true; not only have fMRI imaging studies of the brain failed to show that women have more activity between hemispheres than men, but the fact is that if corpus collosum is correlated with anything it’s body size. People with larger bodies require slightly larger brains. “A large brain is simply not a smaller brain scaled up. Larger brains create different sorts of engineering problems and so – to minimize energy demands, wiring costs, communication times – there are physical reasons for different arrangements and different sized brains.” This is quite an important fact and it is routinely ignored.

Some reviewers on Amazon.com have criticized Fine’s sarcastic humor and at times downright flippant tone. I found her delightful. It can be tedious and overwhelming to realize that so much of what you have been taught is wrong. But Fine does it with style and is never tedious. One of my favorite parts was when she skewers those who spout sexist beliefs under the cover of “speaking truth to power.” Fine reigns them in and does the world a great public service.