Today’s otter comes via Carl Wainwright on flickr. The photo was taken in Eatonville, Washington state, USA.
Please feel free to use this thread to natter about anything your heart desires. Is there anything great happening in your life? Anything you want to get off your chest? Reading a good book (or a bad one)? Anything in the news that you’d like to discuss? What have you created lately? Commiserations, felicitations, temptations, contemplations, speculations?
I know that there are a large number of science, maths and statistics people here and I have been having somewhat of an argument over the bell curve. I think my objection stemmed from it being presented as something that is ‘observed in nature’. I get funny about that stuff, because it cements it as something Natural and therefore True and to my mind it is less that it’s True and simply Observed in Nature and that it’s more a tool of analysis, and I get concerned that it can frame and shape the observation. A bell curve of ‘male and female’ was used to which I said that was exactly my point that a bell curve of male and female reduces intersexuality to ‘instances of less male’ or ‘instances of less female’, and has the potential to eradicate transgendered individuals self identification (if it simply assigns a transgendered person to ‘male at birth’ etc), which shapes the way we view gender, and the way we treat people and ‘naturalises’ these effects. Anyway: I was not able to adequately articulate my argument and it appeared to be taken that I was ‘resisting science’ in some sort of spiritual ‘science can’t explain my SOUL’ kind of way. Just wondered if any Hoydenizens had an opinion on the bell curve, or any pointers on things to read about this?
FP, I’m heading out the door for the walk in the sunshine, but I know I’ve read some useful things in the not too distant past. I’ll dig something out for you later today.
fuckpoliteness: Going back to basics, sex and gender are kinda the canonical examples of characteristics which have nothing to do with bell curves.
I can’t begin to imagine in my head what ”a bell curve of ‘male and female’” could possibly look like. Both sex and gender would have two peaks on any curve attempting to describe them, whether you take into account intersexuality and transexuality and the other various sexes and genders, or artifically exclude them; and therefore would not end up even vaguely resembling a bell curve. What were the details of the assertion, and the context?
fp, i would answer that the bell curve is a tool which allows us to understand the observed. I’m not sure about the “observed in nature” line. Buckets of stuff fits bell curves, from the amount of sunshine you get, to the changes in songbirds brains through a year. a couple of points about bell curves from my recent reintroduction; large bell curves are generally constructed of big bell curves made of little bell curves and so on; bell curves are not crash hot for answering dichotomy, yes/no, questions; a nice thing about bell curves is the long tails which cover all the things so far from average that the world can look a bit dodgsonian.
“(if it simply assigns a transgendered person to ‘male at birth’ etc),” that is not nature or the bell curve assigning anything, that is the questioner doing the assigning, the curve is just the tool the we use to make sense of the essential untidiness of the human condition. the questioner and the question set the mid point/mean/average.
so if we tried to think of all humanity as being represented as a score under a bell curve, the question we asked would determine everyones position under the curve not nature. as usual our prejudices and blindness’ are the usual culprits. hope this answers your question, please excuse if i got anything wrong, i am just getting into this sort of thing again.
Making a game about polar explorers was a stupid idea.
Because now I’m in a huge argument about situational depression.
And I don’t want to tell anyone that I have depression.
Thanks everyone. Lauredhel, it was just in the context of a random statement that got made. Something came up about bell curves, TBO was explaining them to miniFP and at some point asserted that he had read that the bell curve was this phenomena that you saw again and again in nature. I asked if you ‘saw’ it or if you interpreted things that you saw using the bell curve: my take was that the bell curve wasn’t ‘simple observation’ as it appears to be so flexible you can kind of map things on to it, rather than it being ‘something seen in nature’, that it was an analytical tool which needed to be born in mind or it could ground some things as ‘truth’ that on further study could be a bit more complicated. But I feel out of my depth as that’s pure gut instinct from what I’ve picked up, I’ve no training in stats, I got very little science education and the maths I did was so long ago…
I guess I was just resistant to what I saw as a claim that nature ‘confirmed the rightness’ of the bellcurve, and was trying to get at something I haven’t been able to pinpoint: that everything ‘observed’ is also interpreted, filtered etc, depending on what we’re looking for and what we’re not looking for, what we think we will find etc. I get antsy about ‘nature’ ‘confirming’ anything because ‘you see it in nature’ grounds so many heinous arguments. So I wasn’t being clear and I think he felt I was attacking him for something and not really knowing what, and I was just resisting the idea that ‘you see it in nature’ was an uncomplicated/unproblematic assertion. I think in explaining what he meant he chose male and female out of thin air then got all confused when I seized on that as something that couldn’t fit a bell curve.
@ Dylan Agh, that’s kind of what I was getting at regarding the malleability of what you ask/how you map it: what does the bell curve mean in and of itself, and what does it mean to say ‘you see it again and again in nature’…doesn’t it mean it’s a handy tool we use to simplify things for ourselves? And if so don’t we sort of fudge bits/ignore some fiddly bits on the edges that the bell curve can’t quite represent? Isn’t it about making sense and order from the chaos we see, and therefore sort of interpretation and representation rather than simple ‘observation’?
Anyway…sorry to babble!
TAK: I’m sorry, that sucks. I’ve had those arguments before and I feel really quite emotional about them, it sort of feels that people come off as saying that situational depression/anxiety is ‘not real’ or is about people being ‘weak’? I tend to talk here and to a couple of close friends about depression and anxiety stuff but I think I’m still in the ‘Nooooooo, I don’t have depression!’ stage. Hugs if they are welcome.
I think the major problem with the two sides of the argument you were having is a mutual lingustic confusion typical of common use vs technical jargon: a Bell curve is the jargon term that describes the shape of a so-called “normal” distribution. The “normal” there doesn’t mean “natural” – it just means normative. Specifically, by definition, it means a distribution of points along a range where the mean, the mode and the median measurement all coincide. There are many other types of distributions found in nature that are skewed or otherwise variant from the “normal” distribution, and often, particularly in things like sex/gender, what is found is closely overlapping Bell curve distributions when one measures various attributes of a sample population.
I have to go out now to a party (I am wearing fishnets and Docs and pearls (and a few other things) – whee!). One of the geekfeminism bloggers has a great post on the misrepresentation/exaggeration of overlapping male-female Bell curves etc, but I can’t find the link right now.
Hehe, JUST fishnets with docs and pearls could have been…a little chilly tonight? 🙂
Thanks tigtog. I had to frown a bit but I think I get most of what you mean there (with the bell curve stuff).
Enjoy the party.
After a solid week of reading about rhetoric, responsibilisation and the NTER (specifically with regards to Abbott’s astonishing-though-unsurprising-given-it’s-him call for a ‘new intervention’) I think I really just need to NOT tonight. I feel like I’m getting nowhere even though I’m inching it forwards. Mostly done I guesws, just need to make sure the remaining 1000 lets me tie in bit of what I want to say about the way rhetoric functions to disavow state responsibility and make people responsible for their own (mis)fortunes and perpetuates indifference to the suffering of others and wrap it up. *Growls at Abbott*
I’ve had an emotionally tough week, but I feel a little more… resilient for it, maybe? I’m not sure how all the consequences will play out yet, so we’ll see. There were a couple of heavy blows there, but then the universe saw fit to give me a couple of reminders that it’s all okay, really. 🙂
And today I got to fulfill a childhood dream of mine and be in company with some lovely old and new friends, so that was wonderful. However, I didn’t get any work done!! I’m off to do that now, for I’ve a deadline tomorrow, and then, eep, I might have to save the study (one exam left!!) for the morning.
Good luck for the exam and the deadline Chally! Now you’ll just have to fulfil the childhood dreams of having ice-cream for breakfast every day, and learning to fly.
[TW for stereotypes about the mentally ill]
Less “it’s not real” and more “they’re all going insane, right? So they’ll be singing nursery rhymes, trying to kill people in their sleep, hallucinating giraffes and trying to ride huskies like horses, because that’s what insane people do.” with a nice bit of “it’s fiction, so we can define insanity however we want” thrown in. Fun times.
Oh dear TAK. 😦 That isn’t fun at all.
@Chally best of luck with the deadline and exam…
Sorry to hear you’ve had such a tough week. Hope it gets better.
@fp, I wonder if TBO was confusing the bell curve with the fibonacci sequence which is found in nature?
That’s what I was thinking about when we were talking but he seemed pretty clear and I get flippy about it because I remember some pretty effing controversial statements being grounded on the bell curve.
That’s what I was thinking about when we were talking but he seemed pretty clear and I hesitated because I don’t like it when people say to me ‘Maybe you mean…’ if I know what it is I mean. Anyway…we’ll talk about it again when we’ve had more sleep and I can explain what it is I meant and that I hear him saying he’s read that, but that I am dubious of the book’s assertion, not of him.
Argh! Double commenting! My bloody computer is playing siller buggers. Sorry about that!
ooh good point. I hadn’t thought of it from that angle, cause of course when some one says that to you, even if you are wrong about something, it becomes very hard to give up the position you began with. (and harder to be concise when you are right.)
Yeah, bit sensitive on this stuff atm too: was at a cafe typing away working on my essay on Thursday and the waiter kept asking about my essay and I just gave minimalist answers and stuck to general chat because I don’t care to take a vox pop on opinions on political rhetoric around governmental policies on Indigenous rights and social issues for fear I will start shouting at people if they say something racist. Then the owner came along and just stood there and asked what it was about and I’d been worn down so I explained. And as soon as I did I saw that flicker where he stopped listening and started thinking of All the Things He Knew About Everything that I Didn’t and then began to interrogate me (though with no possibility I knew what I was talking about). When I explained how native title worked and the limitations of ownership if you can’t raise capital on your land (and the government aren’t resourcing the land) he just said ‘Well that’s just not true!’. I was so angry at him for hijacking my time and then arguing AT me and telling me flat out that something I’d said *was. not. true* and thinking he knew things when his understanding of everything he threw at me was so simplistic…I just stared at the computer screen and waited for him to go away, but I was furious and wanted to tell him he knew jackshit and should pull his effing head. So I didn’t really want to be going anywhere near pulling that kind of thing you know? My point with TBO wasn’t ‘That’s not true’ just more that ‘I’m uncomfortable with the way that is expressed as being confirmed by nature’. Or something. But yeah, def. didn’t want to start up that dynamic as we were both getting upset without really knowing why, you know?
A bell curve is a type of shape where a lot of data is clustered in the middle. That is, if a population fits the bell curve, when you take lots of random samples, you’ll find them clustered around the middle.* This is often called normally distributed, which is a technical term as tigtog notes, not to be confused with a “good/bad” assessment.
The picture at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaussian_function might or might not be helpful. Where the line is highest, that’s where a lot of people/animals/samples/datapoints are, and where it is lower, fewer samples match.
To take a simple counter-example, rolling a die is not normally distributed. Over enough rolls. you see just as many 1s and 6s as you do 3s and 4s (this even distribution is called uniform).
There are a lot of phenomena that are reasonably well represented by a bell curve. For example, take human height, particularly within a group with the same assigned sex at birth. If you were to randomly measure people’s height, you will find that (in Australia) you get a lot of numbers around 164cm for female-assigned-at-birth and around 175cm for male-assigned-at-birth. As you get further away from those numbers, you will find fewer and fewer people of that height. (It depends on what numbers you use, but you need to meet somewhere between about 10000 and 100000 female-assigned-at-birth people in order to meet another of my height, 193cm.)
You may then go on to use this to make predictions, for example, I predict that I won’t see a woman taller than me this year. Most years I will be right.
So far, not very controversial I think. Height and weight sampled across many people often look pretty bell-curvey. If your height is near the average, you are nearly the same size as heaps and heaps of people. If your height is way away from the average, it’s also very rare. (Again, compare with throwing a die. 1 and 6 are far from the average/middle, but they’re not rarer for it.)
It’s true that you have to be careful with measurement and reality: reality isn’t measurement, measurement isn’t reality. And the mathematical properties of the bell curve, which are very well-known and lend themselves nicely to statistical analysis, do tempt one to fit things to it without them obviously matching nicely. A well-known problematic use of the bell curve is that test results, as in exams, are often fitted to it, that is, the outcome of the test is changed so that the students come in the same order, but their marks fit a bell curve even when originally half the class were clustered around 75% and the other half around 25%, say. In particular, this is intrinsic to the design and analysis of IQ tests, an area that is very controversial. What is intelligence, is there any such thing in a meaningful, does it actually look bell-curvey?
You may have heard of the 1994 book the Bell Curve which argues that there are intrinsic racial differences in intelligence. It’s not, I gather, using the actual bell curve shape to argue this, the title’s use of the term “bell curve” is intended to evoke a general sciencey, IQ-y, vibe, because a lot of people know that IQ tests fit a bell curve.
Another problem is that the edges can end up being medicalised/pathologised because they’re so unusual, although this could happen even with a uniform distribution (rolling a 6 makes you too fat, or something). That’s not something that can be fixed by applying a different statistical analysis though: some heights and weights remain very rare. The problem is removing the confusion/conflation of “rare” with “diseased”.
* Technical note: not every symmetrical distribution with a hump in the middle is normal/bell curve.
As a side-note: the fibonacci sequence does show up in nature too, but I think it’s unlikely that TBO meant that. General clustering around an average does show up a lot in nature! And that’s much more closely modelled* by a bell curve than it is by the fibonacci sequence.
* Noting the major philosophical problem underlying basically everything, which is, what does it even mean for a model to be “like” reality?
I unfortunately have caught the flu from the workplace where I have been working. Therefore, almost nothing in this entire thread makes sense to me. 🙂
I am having issues with the word “flaunt” at the moment, I’ve noticed magazines are probably the worst offenders. Any women in a swimsuit (confident in her skin) at the beach is immediately “flaunting” herself. I notice that men, even incredibly fit men, do not attract this word, basically ever.
I have read of men occasionally described as flaunting knowledge or flaunting athletic skills, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a man being described as flaunting his body.
Back to the limits of technical statistical jargon in describing the real world – it’s worth remembering that, on average, every human being has one breast and one testicle.
Is it wrong that my immediate reaction to that statement, tigtog, was to think of all the ways it was potentially statistically unsound? (“Well, that presumes an equal ratio of cissexual male/female people and doesn’t account for the numbers of intersex or trans* people or indeed cis people who have undergone surger… wait…”)
Sometimes my brain is just a little too quick to jump into critique.
@Li, that’s exactly the sort of thinking my reductio ab absurdum was meant to provoke!
exactlymeaniehead 🙂 As you say, the point with statistical analysis is making sure that you are applying the appropriate statistical tools to this particular dataset from this particular population. There is no single method that will give meaningful results on every dataset, and there are elebajillion different kinds of confounding variables floating around as well.
Mean! The respective modes are, probably, I think, no breasts and no testicles (people without testicles have a slight majority, and I think no-breasts do too because of prepubescent children and the bulk of testicle owners). Median is actually not, I think, meaningful, because you need an (total? partial?) ordering of people to work it out, and while there’s an obvious ordering by weight and by height, there’s no obvious ordering by breasticality or testicality.
For that matter, the mean of dice rolls tends towards 3.5, which is an impossible value for any individual die roll.
The limitation here is that these are discrete values (that is, you can roll 1, 2 etc, but you can’t roll ?). This is also a real problem for statistical analysis because people are like that too in some ways (an entire person, for example, is either alive or dead, not some intermediate state, in your sample studying risk of death). There are ways of dealing with this, but it’s something you need to account for.
@Mary, I didn’t even think of prepubescent kids.
Though, and this is a giant step away from the original question, the other problem is how you actually meaningfully define something like “breasts” in the first place. It kind of cuts to the way that secondary sex characteristics can be highly gendered, in that technically all humans have breasts, and the question is not one of presence but prominence.
@Li, I was just thinking the exact same thing about breasts re presence/prominence, and how that again illustrates how many unexamined assumptions can be built into statistical analysis of all kinds.
It is sadly not that long ago that USAn pharmaceutical companies only tested their products on young white men of college age, because of course any compound that worked for them would naturally work for everybody else, wouldn’t it? There’s still not enough people who know that the signs of a beginning heart attack tend to be different in women than in men.
Link for differences in female heart attack symptoms, which can begin weeks before the actual cardiovascular event.
re the book The Bell Curve (which as Mary notes has very little to do with actual bell curves) – an old USENet mate of mine (who sometimes comments here at Hoyden under a newer handle) wrote a fairly detailed critique of The Bell Curve many years ago on alt.folklore.urban which is worth a read for those who want to see just how slimy some people who love their “it’s statistically shown!” arguments can be.
Hugs and sympathies to The Amazing Kim.
Yes, hugs and sympathies here too, TAK. Sorry for getting so distracted by stats. I’m often astonished when meeting new folks online and off just how easily words that slur and stereotype the mentally ill etc fall from their lips.
I just dropped a whole lot of really thin spaghetti all over the kitchen floor. It’s hard to see and resists sweeping up.
tigtog – oh dear, psychic resonance. Today I have swept a thin-walled wine glass onto the floor, and dropped a whole lot of mechanical pencil refills.
This is when you need a dog to bring in and let loose. (For the pasta, not the wine glass.)
It’s eerily quiet in Sydney tonight – no planes.
I once dropped an entire packet of cinnamon on the floor. Had to wear a mask to clean it, because cinnamon up the nose is *painful*. Treacle is pretty bad, too.
Thanks for the hugs, everyone. Really means quite a lot. I find as long as I work constantly, never give myself time to think, and only talk about solid objects, I’m ok. This is obviously the best and most sustainable option evah.
…treacle on the floor, not up the nose. The latter would also be painful, but you’d have a great story to tell at parties.
Ah, I was just about to ask. I thought it might have been some kind of ill-fated experiment with making pot brownies using cocaine instead.
Does anyone else feel like the otter picture should be captioned, “I’m afraid you’ve disgruntled me.”
If I take this to Packer or Murdoch, can I get a job at a newspaper writing stories like “Feminists think average Australians have no balls”?
And no breasts. We’re all LIZARD PEOPLE! Feminists come out in support of David Icke!