It’s been a while. Meantime, here are some links. (Bullshit jobs, evolution & business, psych studies, atheist family values & evidence-based feminism)

It’s been three weeks, I am told. Time to list a few of my favourite recent reads.

  • By far my favourite read of the last few weeks is David Graeber’s piece about “Bullshit Nonsense Jobs“. Yes, all you generation Xers working in finance, I’m looking at you. Reminds me of a piece I read in the early 1990’s about how the vast majority of the industrialised world would need to be plugged in to entertainment to keep them passive. Cue reality TV and the iPhone. I don’t agree with everything Graeber says, but it’s entertaining, and I leant on it a bit when I wrote a last-minute pre-election piece about research groups and how they resemble small businesses.
  • Jonathan Haidt and David Sloan Wilson launched their Darwin’s Business blog at Forbes with a brief post on multilevel selection, cooperation and business with Sears Ignores the Invisible Band
  • Jamil Zaki makes an important point that most readers of non-fiction, especially popular psychology, evolution & economics stories already get: Psychological Studies are Not About You
  • You’ll know already that I enjoy reading studies in which atheists are compared to fundy’s. This article by Piper Hoffmann explains how Atheists have Better Family Values than Evangelicals. Not sure if that’s really something most atheists want to crow about, but it does bestow a certain schadenfreude.
  • Claire Lehmann, a Facebook and Twitter friend I have never met, posts a well-argued plea for evidence-based feminism.

Watch out! I am (supposed to be) doing some comedy at the Ultimo Science Festival’s Science Stand-Up Comedy night. I’ll be appearing witht he genuinely funny Justine Rogers and Simon Pampena.

Have you got the balls to be a good dad?

Dads are important. Pardon the motherhood statement about … fatherhood. Just sometimes, even self-evident things need to be said. All else being equal, fathers who are involved in their children’s upbringing directly improve those children’s survival, health, social and educational development.

Jay-Z rhapsodises about becoming a dad, in Glory (featuring his daughter, Blue Ivy Carter)

Now for the second self-evident proposition: some dads are better than others. A great many dads lavish as much love and care on their children as those kids’ mothers do. And many dads do more. Fathers make all sorts of deep, selfless, sacrifices to meet their children’s needs.

But fathers vary enormously in how involved they are an in the ways they care. According to Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, the contributions that fathers make to child caring and to the family vary dramatically among and within cultures. Far more dramatically, in fact, than the contributions mothers make.

What makes the difference, then, between a superdad and a low-investing or even absentee dad? What distinguishes a guy who raps lovingly about “the child he had with the child from Destiny’s Child” from the papa who was a rolling stone?

The Temptations – sweet moves and even sweeter suits, in a 1972 performance of Papa Was a Rolling Stone

Paternal trade-offs

Tempted as some might be to vilify low-investing men, evolutionary analysis usually seeks first to understand behaviour rather than to judge it. Evolutionary theory certainly can illuminate why fathers don’t all invest equally. And an intriguing study, published today, supports the idea of a biological continuum between high and low-investing fathers.

The key comes from life-history theory, which concerns itself with the economics of how organisms acquire resources and spend them on growth, reproduction, survival and other vital but costly activities. For example, just as one cannot spend the same dollar on rent and food, so one cannot spend the same kilojoule of energy on making sperm and on fighting off an infection. Different adaptive priorities trade-off with one another, just as different spending priorities trade-off within a household budget.

Most men lack the time, money and energy to be both sexually prolific and high-investing fathers at the same time. For some time, life-history theorists have postulated a trade-off between parental investment and mating effort – the investment a man makes in finding, courting and mating with new partners.

No surprises there. Men who spend all their time, money and effort chasing new women are more likely to neglect or even abandon the children they already have. But how does this trade-off arise? Variation in testosterone among men, seems to be right in the middle of this issue:

On top of all this correlative evidence, experimental manipulation in a bird (the Lapland Longspur) reveals that testosterone supplementation directly increases a male’s investment in courtship singing. This comes at the expense, however, of his effort attending the chicks.

Gone Daddy Gone. The Violent Femmes, who, incidentally, take all their equipment on the bus.

Testicle size

The size of a male’s testes also correlates with investment in mating. Species in which females tend only to mate with one male in a given breeding cycle tend to have smaller testes than those in which sperm has to compete with that from other males for the chance to fertilise the same egg. Big testes equals more sperm equals more tickets in the great sperm lottery.

Within species, some evidence suggests that males with larger testes mate with more females and do so more often than less testicularly spectacular males. Large testes take energy to maintain. They also present a vulnerable liability, favouring compactness. Perhaps men whose bodies are biologically geared to invest in courting and mating with new mates might make the risky investment in larger testes, but those aiming for caring monogamy act to minimise their testicular liability?

In a 1995 book, Mark Bellis claimed that testes size was associated with sexual strategies in men. However, Leigh Simmons and colleagues at UWA found no such evidence in a 2004 paper. With this in mind, Jennifer S. Mascaro, Patrick D. Hackett and James K. Rilling from Emory University set out to test the relationship between testicular size, testosterone and men’s parenting effort.

Kurt Cobain’s father issues get a serious airing on Serve the Servants

The Paternal Brain

Mascaro and her collaborators recruited 70 fathers, each with a child aged 1 or 2, and each of whom were living with the child and the child’s mother. The easy part was measuring male testes and plasma testosterone levels. They also administered comprehensive questionnaires to establish which parenting tasks each father performed, from the routine (bathing baby, attend child during the night) to the less common (taking the child to medical appointments).

Anyone who has parented alongside another knows that people don’t always accurately estimate their contribution to the work of caring. So the researchers asked the mens’ partners about who-did-what in the child-care department. Mums and dads actually agreed reasonably well on the division of labour.

And in a welcome development, the team used Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to explore brain activity in order to refine the picture of male parental investment. They observed how men responded to pictures of their own child, an unknown child and an unknown adult. And they used a variety of images, capturing a neutral expression, a happy or a sad face for each subject.

High testosterone levels and large testes were each, independently, associated with lower paternal caregiving. The authors interpret this as showing that high T and big testes result in lower paternal engagement. Especially since neither the number of hours men worked nor the amount they earned were correlated with testes size or with testosterone. It’s not as if men switched from one form of investment to another.

I’m no neuroscientist, so I won’t judge the quality of the evidence from that part of the study, but the claims are certainly promising. Fathers with small testes displayed more of the brain activity typically associated with nurturing when viewing pictures of their own child. Especially when the picture showed their child with a happy or sad, rather than neutral, expression. These same fathers were also better dads; at least they were more involved in caring for their infants.

Pearl Jam, in their prime, explore the nuances of paternity in Alive

Dads: born and made

Nowhere in Mascaro’s paper, in this column, or in the surrounding discussion I have seen, has anybody suggested the links are deterministic. Testosterone and testicle volume together only explained 21 percent of the variation in paternal caring. If you’ve got big (but healthy) testicles, that doesn’t make you a bad dad. If you’re low-T you may or may not be a good father, super responsive to your child’s emotional state. So, fathers, I shouldn’t have to say this, but don’t take today’s news personally.

The important point is that we’re starting to come to terms with the complex interplay between biology and social behaviour involved in the all-important business of being a good father.

Collectively, these results provide the most direct support to date that the biology of human males reflects a trade-off between mating and parenting effort.

I wouldn’t disagree with this conclusion. I’m amazed at how neatly the results uphold the prediction and the consistency of four lines of evidence: anatomic, hormonal, neuroscientific and social. This paper gives quite a firm idea of the way in which the trade-off works. And it begins to bridge several traditions of study to build a useful model of how biology and social factors interact to shape behaviour.

But why do men vary so much? I expect an avalanche of interesting research on this question. We do know that human life-histories vary from “fast” to “slow”. Living fast involves early puberty and becoming a parent relatively young. It can be triggered by poverty, inequality, childhood neglect and, interestingly, father absence. Which can create a self-reinforcing cycle. Breaking that cycle involves lots of parental investment, both in nurturing and providing for material needs.

One obvious place in which to begin involves longitudinal studies to explore how the associations form between parental care, testicle size and testosterone. There are some exciting hints that low T men become better fathers, but do better fathers also experience a bigger drop in T? And how do testes wax and wane when men have kids. We don’t really know much at all about whether and how testes size changes over men’s lifetimes.

These many related areas of science remain quite some way off tying the complex mish-mash of factors that shape life-histories to the mating-parenting trade-off. But I believe research in this area has immense capacity to improve the lives of everybody involved.

I’ve enjoyed assembling videos of songs associated with fatherhood. Of course there are many, many more. Please Tweet me @Brooks_Rob with any good suggestions you want to share. Use #DadSongs.

Here are a few extras.

For Saffers of a certain vintage – Just Jinger, Father & Farther

Little Man, by Tom Waits

Father’s Day, by Weddings, Parties, Anything

And talking about testicles:

Down one end of the continuum in almost every respect, we find AC/DC

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

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The small business of research funding

Like most academics and several other Conversation authors, I imagine, I’m irritated at the Coalition’s recently stated intention to micro-manage ARC Granting outcomes. Irritated, but in no way surprised.

Have The Coalition strategists been reading up on the tactical genius of Sarah Palin?

Grandstanding about slashing “futile”, “wasteful” or “silly” research is a tired old culture-war antic, practiced internationally. So is the shameful tendency to mock individual researchers and their project titles. And the reassurance that the money will be redeployed to more useful research purposes. According to the Daily Telegraph:

The funds released from the projects to be axed will be put into new medical research programs for dementia, diabetes and tropical disease.

By which the public are led to understand that no harm will come to those good-looking people in white lab coats who seem to be endlessly pipetting things out on the nightly news. The ones threatening to make a discovery that might go to clinical trials and then possibly cure cancer by 2027.

No government, but especially no conservative government, wants to be seen cutting funding to cancer, dementia or any of the other diseases we tend to die of in industrialised nations. Hell, I don’t want to die of cancer or descend into Alzheimer’s either. I’m a massive fan of medical research in general, and publicly funded research that serves the public good in particular.

The Coalition has long been strong on medical research funding. But one could reasonably conclude from recent development that the fact that extra money can be channelled to the very worthy medical research areas by slashing the cashflow to other areas, thus stoking haves-and-have-not tensions among left-biased university-based egg-heads is just an added tactical bonus.

This development brought to mind an excellent op-ed by David Graeber in Tuesday’s Sydney Morning Herald. He laments the rise of “bullshit nonsense jobs”, including:

the ballooning not even so much of the ‘’service’‘ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries such as financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors such as corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources and public relations.

That is not, he takes pains to explain, to criticise folks in those kinds of jobs who find meaning therein. But rather to echo the sentiment that many corporate lawyers, health administrators, public relations spin doctors etc themselves express that their jobs are bereft of meaning or purpose. I certainly don’t mean to line up directly behind Graeber on this one, but the passage that reached me most directly was this:

This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it in Britain, when tabloids whip up resentment against transport workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that the workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilising resentment against schoolteachers or car workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or car industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told: “But you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and healthcare?”

I’m not unaware that for many people, many academics fall among the useless elites. But the right-wing populist resentment directed at academics and researchers channels very much the same frustrations as Graeber identified about real people with real real jobs. Puritanism, wrote H.L. Mencken, is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” By this measure, it is not unreasonable to diagnose in the LNP and their backers a chronic case of intellectual puritanism. They are haunted by the fear that somebody, somewhere, might be doing something interesting.

Can’t have that.

Intellectual pulse

On Wednesday night I had the privilege of briefly addressing the Eureka Prize dinner. In my brief moment on stage I got to trot out one of my more well-worn lines:

Support for curiosity-driven fundamental research remains essential if a society is to have any kind of intellectual pulse. But researchers inherit with that support an obligation to share their knowledge and insights with the society that supports their work.

Writing for The Conversation is one of the most important ways in which I share my own knowledge and insights. I had hoped, in thanking the Australian Research Council for supporting my own research, to also note that I hoped a future Coalition government would not go for the cheap nastiness of qualifying their support for curiosity-driven research or meddling in the peer-review process. I need not have bothered.

Yesterday’s news should have dismayed anyone with an interest in making a better society, a more educated society, one with an intellectual pulse. One should not be surprised, given the quality of the campaign, and the inadequate scrutiny that has been applied (with the notable exception, in my opinion, of The Conversation’s Election FactChecks) to the leaders, the parties and their platforms. Living in a society that has any intellectual vibrancy appears not to be a serious concern of the major parties.

Far more important, it seems, to be sure the Big Brother House is kept up to speed by the leaders themselves. People, I might add, unable to count in multiples of seven and realise how long they have been isolated from the rest of the world. Whatevz.

Small businesses

You’ve probably already read a dozen other pieces, more eloquent and reasoned than mine, criticising the philistine intellectual puritanism underpinning these latest threats to target particular grants and researchers. Similarly, the lack of attention to research, knowledge, and higher education from both Liberal and Labour this campaign has featured among the many, many disappointments of the last few weeks.

Rather than re-tread these arguments, I’d like to make a simple point about research funding and how best to allocate that amount of money that the country can afford to spend.

Let me put this in terms even Jaymes Diaz could pretend to understand. I know the pollies fancy themselves as friends of “small business”. Well, research groups are very much like small businesses.

And we all know that small businesses want the government to “cut red tape”. Back in March I wrote about the 550 person years that are wasted every single year on the preparation of research grants that don’t get funded via the ARC’s existing processes. Much of that immense wastage happens because of red tape. Nonsense sections in which researchers bend over backwards to mollify politicians concerned that somebody, somewhere, might be doing something because it is interesting.

Politicians in market-based economies don’t concern themselves with deciding which kinds of small business to favour over others. They recognise that their job is to enable small businesses to flourish. Which, as long as those small businesses meet some basic standards of social and environmental responsibility, initiates all kinds of virtuous economic cycles.

And yet, when it comes to the knowledge economy, politicians cannot resist the temptation to micro-manage and intervene. Creating entire bureaucracies to psuedo-account research impact and excellence wastes millions. Money that could better elevate Australia’s research performance by funding research grants to support the small businesses of the knowledge economy. Picking winners and losers within grant rounds is petty and wasteful. And poring over grants that have been selected after a period of scrutiny 100 times* more acute than an election campaign is the biggest waste of all.

  • Not a real quantitative estimate. But you get the picture. Thanks to @DrBrocktagon for the idea of this comparison.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Blurred double standards

All good books are different but all bad books are exactly the same. All these bad books have one thing in common: they don’t ring true. (Robert Harris: The Ghost)

The same can be said, probably more so, for pop songs.

For months now I’ve been resisting the temptation to write about Robin Thicke’s international nerve-toucher, Blurred Lines. And for the past week, that temptation has doubled, since Miley Cyrus’ bizarre VMA Awards performance alongside Thicke. Yesterday’s accounts that YouTube pulled the plug on a Blurred Lines parody video was the last straw. I can no longer resist the temptation to write about the same damned thing everyone else on the interthewebz is writing about.

I’ll try to keep it brief.

My interest in Blurred Lines springs from a fascination for those songs that tap into the dark and fascinating ambiguities at the heart of sex. My own research concerns the sometimes cooperative, often conflict-ridden tensions that thrum between mates, and between sexes in humans and other animals.

To misquote Robert Harris, bad love songs all have one thing in common: they don’t ring true. Torch songs and saccharine ballads seek to paper over the darker and more delectable aspects of sex. Which is why songs imbued with the sinister or ambiguous make much more fascinating listening.

Thinking about my younger years, the music that lasted was definitely not the stuff about being young and wild and free. Yes, for my dear friends, the best days of our lives had a Bryan Adams soundtrack. But for me, R.E.M. (think I Took Your Name), the Violent Femmes’ (Prove My Love), and The Cure (Lullaby) sang about rejection, insecurity and unrequited love in far more fascinating ways.

And I was not an especially melancholy youth.

At its best, and I use the term “best” with some hesitation, Blurred Lines threatens to explore the space between two people orbiting one another. Orbiting with mutual, if not explicit, intention to get it on. In the end, however, it merely prods at the hellz-tricky issue of how a “good girl” can want it too.

The sanitised video of “Blurred Lines”.

What starts out as a rather catchy lament of the ambiguous line between Madonna and whore descends into a rather nasty description of what Robin Thicke is offering to do to the nasty-good girl. I’ll leave you to decipher the lyrics or read them yourself, but one isn’t left wondering why Thicke is considered by some to personify misogyny and “rape culture”.

Listening to his lyrics is a bit like watching a Connery-era Bond film. It’s vaguely enjoyable until the bit where you recognise that you’re witnessing a sexual assault.

The enormous traction of Blurred Lines comes not only from the dubious lyric, but also from the not-safe-for-work version of the video featuring several women, topless and wearing the scantiest flesh-coloured briefs, writhing for Thicke and, we are led to believe, whatever rhymes with Thicke.

But the impression I’m left with is that it’s fine for the good girls to get nasty if they’re under tight masculine control. It’s as sexless as Robert Palmer’s contrived video for Addicted to Love. I’ve never fathomed why some people find that video sexy. I think the lipsticked droid-like automata float some people’s boats because they don’t threaten to talk.

Addicted to love. A joyless, lifeless piece of work.

In my opinion, Blurred Lines ultimately fails because the balance is all wrong. And as a result the song, like Addicted to Love fails to ring true. Thicke man-splains a feminine dilemma with the transparent say-anything cynicism of the desperate would-be seducer. The clean lines of the music and the spotless video serve to make a rather sordid story more clinical. A story ripe for parody.

The Blurred Lines parody video – currently not banned from YouTube.

Apparently this parody by a group of Auckland University law students was blocked by YouTube, but it is up and running today. Nonetheless, accounts of it’s banning certainly created a teachable moment about sexism and double standards. And granted it the kind of notoriety necessary for viral success. First objective achieved, I imagine. If UNSW Law Revues were consistently like this, I might even consider going.

But what about Miley Cyrus?

If you have been living on a remote planet for the last ten days, then you’d better find a way to avoid watching this:

Miley Cyrus’ now-infamous performance at the VMAs. The key bit happens around 4.00.

Yes, it was a bizarre performance. But not bizarre enough to be considered avant-garde. There’s been a lot of talk about the performance. Maybe, maybe too much talk. Mostly in faux-concern for Ms Cyrus, general uproar about sexualising children (Miley, it turns out was once a child), or flat-out misogyny. I won’t add to these lines of considered analysis.

But what I loved was the way in which Miley broke Blurred Lines.

A 20-year-old former child star, who the public is simply unready to see as a sexual being, had a whole lot of fun sending up Thicke and his plodding, misogynist lyrics. She’s the good girl who ain’t too worried about the fallout from getting nasty. She made sex, and the ambiguity of lines that sometimes do blur, very very messy again. She dragged Thicke away from his tightly-controlled video romp with picture-perfect topless models and into a messier world where women talk, and sing, and “twerk”.

Look at his face around four minutes into the video and you know he knows it. Hannah Montana has dragged him, dick first, far off-brand.

What was Miley thinking? I couldn’t tell you. And that’s the interesting bit. I know rather too much about the content of Robin Thicke’s controlled and sterile fantasy. And I’d rather not.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

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