Baby, You Can Drive My Car

Here's an interesting one:

The present study experimentally manipulated status by seating the same target model (male and female matched for attractiveness) expressing identical facial expressions and posture in either a ‘high status’ (Silver Bentley Continental GT) or a ‘neutral status’ (Red Ford Fiesta ST) motor-car… …Results showed that the male target model was rated as significantly more attractive on a rating scale of 1-10 when presented to female participants in the high compared to the neutral status context. Males were not influenced by status manipulation, as there was no significant difference between attractiveness ratings for the female seated in the high compared to the neutral condition.

On first glance, this doesn't seem all that surprising.  The evolutionary conjecture probably goes something like this:  Traditionally, males of the species are responsible for wooing their female counterparts by way of impressive feats, activities that showcase the male's ability to build a home, hunt prey, or exhibit brute strength; females therefore instinctively pick up on these sorts of success queues from men.  Males, on the other hand, choose their female targets based on the perception of fertility, normally showcased by the female via purely physical traits; males are therefore queued into females' physical characteristics rather than their possessions of status.  So a nice car wouldn't affect a male's perception of attractiveness, whereas it would a female's.1

I can't promise my parsing is correct, mind you.  I'm sure an evolutionary biologist would have a thing or two  to say about it, my assessment of which is based on a non-trivial number of hours spent watching nature documentaries and some fairly light reading on the subject.

Putting 9/11 on the Backburner

Robin Hanson is pulling me in two directions again.

Here's the part of his recent post entitled "Forget 9/11" that I agree with:

Yet, to show solidarity with these three thousand victims, we have pissed away three trillion dollars ($1 billion per victim), and trashed long-standing legal principles...

Here's the part I don't:

...And now we’ll waste a day remembering them, instead of thinking seriously about how to save billions of others. I would rather we just forgot 9/11.

Do I sound insensitive? If so, good — 9/11 deaths were less than one part in a hundred thousand of deaths since then, and don’t deserve to be sensed much more than that fraction. If your feelings say otherwise, that just shows how full fricking far your mind has gone.

(Click the link in that excerpt, as you might not get the gist of that sentence unless you read Hanson's previous post on near vs. far thought modes.)

Hanson's anger regarding the disproportionate weight we put on native deaths is well taken.  That the World Trade Center bombing provided such potent imagery, seared into our brains by nearly constant coverage, does not help us look past all of the impotent memorializing ten years later.  I am still haunted by the image of people throwing themselves from the towers as flames devoured the upper floors, not because these people were Americans but because they were human beings.  Human loss is difficult to swallow, and it's worse to swallow when we see it close to home.  But we do disproportionately realize these sufferings:  Consider the 12 million people threatened by famine and sickness in Africa right now (4 million in Somalia alone), or the ongoing cholera outbreak in Haiti, or any of the other billions of people who live in  relative poverty, faced with the prospect of dying every single day.

What Hanson doesn't seem to appreciate in the context of his post, though I doubt the distinction is entirely lost on him, is the potential for 9/11 to remind us of our responsibilities to remember this greater scope of human suffering.  September 11 ended the naive dream many of us were living (my high-school self included) that saw us safe and secure and indefinitely prosperous, that acknowledged specters of violence like those we saw on the news in places like Lebanon and Israel as mere theoretical risks.  To forget the slide the WTC attacks precipitated, however, would be foolish.  Hanson himself mentions the wasted treasure and degradation of legal principles we witnessed; what makes him think forgetting all of this would somehow benefit us, I don't know.

Why forget and pretend that 9/11 was a blip on the radar?  Why not simply remember it as the complex story of pain, strength, political malfeasance, paranoia, and cultural shift that it is?  I can't imagine that Hanson fathoms death as the only salient metric by which to judge history.

The caveat, of course, is that 9/11 should not be used as an excuse to stagnate; unfortunately, these events, and the dead, have been used as political capital by pretty much everyone in Washington.  So, in that sense, we are not remembering 9/11 correctly or constructively; I'll give Hanson that, wholeheartedly.

Screening for Breast Cancer

The NEJM has an interesting piece on clinical guidelines for breast-cancer screening.  You may remember that the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recently changed the mammography recommendations for women in their forties, supporting a reduction in the number of scans, even while finding that regular scans reduced mortality in this demographic by 15%.

The author of the NEJM piece, Dr. Ellen Warner, has this to say:

How should one approach the question of screening mammography in a patient in her 40s, such as the woman described in the vignette? The decision should be individualized, with the recognition that the probability of a benefit is greater for women at higher risk. This patient has no major risk factors, such as a family history of breast cancer or a history of a premalignant lesion on biopsy, that would put her at even moderately increased risk. Her chance of having invasive breast cancer over the next 8 years is about 1 in 80, and her chance of dying from it is about 1 in 400. Mammographic screening every 2 years will detect two out of three cancers in women her age and will reduce her risk of death from breast cancer by 15%. However, there is about a 40% chance that she will be called back for further imaging tests and a 3% chance that she will undergo biopsy, with a benign finding. Lifestyle modifications (e.g., weight control and avoidance of excessive alcohol consumption) that might lower her risk should also be discussed.

Read the whole article for a discussion on the evidence regarding breast-cancer screening; it's a complex issue, and considering the backlash in response to the new recommendations, it's worth reading about the sorts of observations and evidence that go into producing clinical guidelines.

Oxford Comma Blues

I'm going to tell you this once:  use the Oxford comma.

Why?  Well, imagine we have a list of things which includes:

  • Merle Haggard's ex-wives
  • Kris Kristofferson
  • Robert Duvall

That list is taken from a newspaper article the linked-to Language Log blog cites as having incorrectly, or ambiguously, punctuated the listed items in a picture caption showing Merle Haggard.  In the context of that caption, the sentence can be written one of two ways, depending on which theory of serial commas you prefer:

  • Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
  • Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall.

Which do you think is correct?  If you guessed the second sentence, congratulations!  The first sentence clearly reads as if "Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall" is an appositive renaming "ex-wives", when clearly those two are separate items in the list.  The only way to punctuate this sentence without ambiguity is to include this final serial comma, the Oxford comma.

Some publications traditionally omit the final serial comma, and while most lists don't lend themselves to the sort of ambiguity seen above, there will be instances in which an Oxford comma is necessary to preserve the writer's intended meaning.  But because publishers like to be consistent, and because consistency, to a publisher with low regard for this type of punctuation, will mean including a list with the serial comma omitted, editors will likely ask for a rewrite and end up wasting a bit of time. The simple answer:  just use Oxford commas all the time.  You will never be wrong, and if you ever need to equate the final two items in a series for any reason—omitting the comma also insinuates that the final two items are more closely related  to one another than they are to the other items—you can always leave it out.  Stylistically, you'll have more leeway.

Click through to the Language Log post for another funny and improperly punctuated list.  I'll give you two of three items from that one:  "Nelson Mandela" and "dildo collector".