Open thread, 10-25-2012

By Razib Khan | October 25, 2012 5:29 pm

Let your voice be heard!

MORE ABOUT: Open Thread
  • Matt

    Anyone have thoughts regarding the sentencing of a group of Italian geologists to 6 years in prison for failing to predict or offer adequate warning of an earthquake which in which over 300 people died?

    Only having fully read one article and being uninformed regarding the current capabilities of earthquake prediction – although the article did claim earthquake prediction is a very inexact science – I’m curious if anyone thinks this sentencing will have long term impact or will be more likely in the future. As the google stories regarding it seemed harshly condemn the ruling, I would guess this is just a outlying sentence. People like to lay the blame somewhere for mass tragedies, and the geologists were the convienient scapegoats. In a sense, one could suggest the sentence says something about soceity (Italian society, but maybe American society too). Natural disasters are no longer acts of God, but under the purview of science all disaster should be able to be prevented or mediated.

  • Walter

    Do you think we will see soon some book about prehistoric migrations according to the newest discoveries in population genetics? It would be cool if it mentioned the contributions made by genome bloggers and companies such as 23andme or FTDNA.

  • Darkseid
  • Ryan

    I would like to know what you think about evolutionary economics as understood by people like Kenneth Boulding. Whenever I try to read, say, the Journal of Bioeconomics, I just get confused and frustrated.

  • ziel

    Following on #1, I’m kind of surprised by the relative lack of outrage – certainly compared to the Pussy Riot case.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    I’m wondering what people think of the claims of the study highlighted in this article.

    I wouldn’t be surprised, given how irrationally many choices are made, if ovulation did cause women to change preferences slightly. For example, going from claiming they are undecided to being decisive in whoever they pick. But I cannot believe that women’s ovulation timing in large part accounts for the difference between how single and married women vote in the U.S. After all, single women are disproportionately likely to be both young, as well as black, both of which would tend effect voting patterns somewhat.

    In addition, the exclusion of women who take hormonal contraception is problematic. It is true that if you’re looking to isolate the effects of ovulation, that makes sense. But given around 80% of never-married women actively use contraception of some sort, and around 40% of all women use hormonal birth control, it’s probably throwing out a huge number (possibly the majority) of single women. I’d hazard a guess that single women who rely on condoms and/or no regular birth control method would tend to be “unlikely voters” and married women not using hormonal birth control would tend to be disproportionately religious, hence more Republican-leaning.

    Regardless, thoughts?

  • pconroy

    @5 karl,

    This is not the first time this kind of study has been done, with the same results – so yes it certainly seems true.

    Interestingly, the article first appeared on CNN, then “mysteriously” was pulled. Then Salon decided to comment on the article, to have a feminist “gender studies” scholar reject it.

    But of course we all know this is true, we see this kind of thing everyday. Only the deluded can’t see it, or the indoctrinated try and deny it.

    For example, why do you think the Obama campaign has released a new ad – featuring Lena Dunham – to appeal to the Single Girl Obama supporter that likens voting for Obama to losing one’s virginity.

  • pconroy

    On the subject of the election, I’m going to predict that Romney’s association with Richard Muordock may be his “Willie Horton” moment…

  • Sandgroper

    1, 4 – Seismic activity is predictable in probabilistic terms.

    In this case, I wouldn’t want to form an opinion without reading the judgement. Or in any similar case, actually. I didn’t pay much attention, to be honest – unless you have a good grasp of the factual information and the evidence, there’s no point trying to get involved., let alone getting enraged about it.

    What I would want to know is whether building engineers were required to give expert testimony about the adequacy of the local building standards and to what extent they had been complied with, if indeed there were any building standards. I mean, if you are in a very seismically active area, and your safety in the event of a big earthquake relies on you running outside, I would say you are in the wrong building.

    The judgement did strike me as bizarre, but I’d need to see the evidence before deciding whether or not I agreed with it.

    In any case, I don’t see that it has any implications for scientists in America, in terms of legal precedent or anything of that sort. It’s certainly not the first time that scientists and engineers have been blamed for bad outcomes, and it won’t be the last.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    6 –

    To be clear, I don’t think it’s strange to think ovulation might have some effect on voting patterns. After all, a much more rigorous study found that the home team winning in sports boosts incumbents by around 1.5% in the polls. Unattached voters at the margins make decisions for all kinds of flippant reasons.

    I find the study’s claims more problematic because they are highly reductionist. Looking at only the world of women who are ovulating highly controlled sample. It cuts out those on hormonal birth control, those with cycle abnormalities, and post-menopausal women. Unless you can show the variance caused by ovulating women alone is large enough to account for the measured voting differences of all women, I don’t think you can make a conclusion that this is the primary cause.

    In addition, actual swing voters, as Razib has pointed out in the past, tend to be stupid. They are uniformed on the issues, pick the candidate they “like best,” and are less likely to turn out than partisans on either side. So unless this study actually filtered out those not registered to vote, or even better, applied some likely voter screen, its utility may be limited.

    Another confounding aspect is how spousal ideology changes your own. Studies have suggested in the past that the partisan affiliation of Americans seldom changes past age 30 unless they either have a dramatic change in economic fortune, or marry someone of very different political beliefs. To an extent this makes sense, as if you’re exposed to someone day in and day out with different beliefs, you start unconsciously conforming to a new group norm. I’ve seen it happen in my own extended family – all of my grandmother’s eight siblings were die-hard New Dealers, save for two who married Republicans and slowly drifted to the right. Some of the married/single gap could clearly be explained by such a process, provided that most women marry men to the right of them (which, given men tend to be more conservative, is probably the case).

  • Isabel

    Actually the study just compared how the women changed during ovulation, and assumed the change was based on increased arousal. So the single women became more liberal when they felt sexier, but married women felt guilty and became more conservative to compensate for their desire to cheat on their husbands! Maybe we could look for a comparable change in men after viewing pornography.

    “But of course we all know this is true, we see this kind of thing everyday.”

    How do you know when the women around you are ovulating?

  • pconroy


    You misinterpreted what I said, my point is that women/girls are swayed by “Near” thinking, so are influenced by such things as sob-stories, emotional plays, sexy men and so on, while men tend to be “Far” thinking, and have a preference for results over the long term, not the short term. Also, it’s women/girls who tend to be influenced by dominant men in their lives, not the other way around. In case it’s news to you, men do not have emotional connections with pornography…

    Also, it’s very easy to know when girls are ovulating around me – were you joking here?!

  • Superchkn

    @11 –

    The fact is that _people_ are affected by their environment and while there are gender specific differences, such as the one I just cited, there are plenty of things that affect the way people think in the short term. Everything you cite above for women would affect their thinking over the short term, just as seeing a pretty girl would affect a male’s thinking over the short term. You appear to be implying that somehow that affects their long term strategies and is disingenuous at best.

    Here’s a Ted Talk I listened to the other day on disgust and how that affects voting behavior in people, as opposed to a sex-specific behavior modifier.

  • Mike Steinberg

    Latest Steve Hsu:

    “The Dutch researchers found de novo mutations which led to severe cognitive impairment. It is almost certain that there are many more mutations which lead to smaller impairment. This is evidence that mutational load is at least a partial factor in population variation in cognitive ability. See earlier post: Deleterious variants.”

  • Tom Bri

    William Briggs has some interesting comments on the Italian seismologists.

  • Isabel

    @pconroy: No, I’m not joking. How can you tell?

    I don’t know about men being so rational. Why then do they spill secrets to sexy spies? Or are so easily manipulated by women (from what I’ve heard).

  • Merm

    If anyone was wondering, the hormone study is entitled The Fluctuating Female Vote: Politics, Religion, and the Ovulatory Cycle.


  • ziel

    #12 – I didn’t understand the point of the article. Was it that “the bastards are guilty and deserve to be sent to jail for 6 months” or that they were just unlucky, made a little mistake, and shit happens?

    It seems very simple to me. Either scientists agree that these guys deserve to go to prison, or there has been a terrible miscarriage of justice.

    Could someone explain why these particular guys are so evil they deserve to go to jail for 6 years? Or, conversely, explain why we shouldn’t care that 6 scientists who are not evil should be sentenced to 6 years in jail in a western democracy. I’m mostly confusd because no one seems to give a crap.

  • April Brown


    I’m also fascinated to hear how you can just “tell” that women around you are ovulating. Do go on.


    pconroy: do you know of any hard data about the women-near/men-far thing?

    ziel: if you expect sense from WM Briggs, brace for disappoitment.

  • Sandgroper

    #14 – No, unless I can see at least the written judgement, if not the evidence and court transcripts, I can’t explain it to you, and I’m not willing to try, and neither should anyone else.

    It’s not that I don’t give a crap, it’s just that I don’t know enough of what happened to know what to think. I am not prepared to jump into it on the basis of press reports and some stuff on Youtube.

    As for Briggs, he evidently doesn’t understand probability – like most people everywhere.

  • Riordan


    What do you think of the rigor and utility of racial association studies like this :

    Do they bring anything worthwhile to the table or are they just academic politicking in disguise?

  • Karl Zimmerman

    Merm –

    Thanks for the link. It seems that the journal article doesn’t make as grandiose claims as the article summarizing it suggests. I’m not surprised, given popular journalism usually mucks up the results of papers. The one big mistake I think they made was to lump in the committed and non-married (engaged and cohabiting) in with the actually married. Although there would be reason to assume functionally they would show the same behavior, it may be that the sense of “groupness” of single women cohabiting with partners is different from married women. They should have tested this at least.

    Regardless, note the starting sample from the web-based survey indicated both groups tended to be Obama leaning to a heavy degree. The “single” group was around 80% supportive of Obama, and the “committed” group 70% supportive. There were few racial differences between the samples, and only a 4 year age difference. Basically, the sample already corrected for many of the other aspects which could determine voting preference. So while is certainly some effect, it is comparably small real electoral effect, even assuming that “ovulatory swing” voters actually turn out in accordance with their flexible preferences.

  • Anthony

    Riordan – the article appears based on the Implicit Association Test, which has some issues. Regardless, whether or not it’s politicking by the researchers, the way the results are interpreted by USA Today’s selected “experts” *is* a form of politicking, since nobody came to the conclusion that Obama is responsible for making things (slightly) worse by the way he has addressed racial issues during his presidency.

  • Isabel

    @13: “You appear to be implying that somehow that affects their long term strategies and is disingenuous at best.” I didn’t mean to imply that I agreed with the article, sorry if it appeared that way. Also, I think everyone is referring only to short term effects.

    I just wrote a longer comment about the article and lost it somehow. Briefly, the authors do not appear to have corrected for age and income or whether they had children, differences they call “small”, but that are actually quite large. It seems premature to conclude that single/married status is the cause of the effect.

    Does anyone know of any studies about how hormone levels affect male voting patterns? How do elevated (or depressed) testosterone levels affect men’s political views?

  • Karl Zimmerman


    You bring up a good point regarding some of the corrections they should have made to be particularly rigorous. That said, I think they’re a bit at a loss here, because they need to consider two different things.

    1. If ovulatory cycle does have any effect on women’s preferences, and if so, how?
    2. Is this effect large enough to have a major effect on voting?

    The main issue is the better you construct the model to deal with the first question, the worse it becomes at answering the second, because a totally normalized sample of young, non-pill-taking, fertile women won’t be very representative of the female population at large.

    More generally, here’s another article about the irrationality and “tribal nature” of U.S. voters.

  • Violet

    For the Italian earthquake details, here is the handy collection on the history:'Aquila-Earthquake-News.asp

    I am not exactly sure what the scientists did or did not do, but it is near impossible to predict when an earthquake would have occurred even with densely instrumented areas. USGS in California and Japanese equivalent were trying and failing to do till today. So, on the face of it expecting anyone in the world to give a day and location of earthquake by deterministic methods isn’t evidence-based.

    But Californian Seismologist testimony against these Italian scientists just makes me mad. One can criticize the methodology of prediction of hazard, but actually risk should factor in ‘vulnerability’ too. There are a lot of high hazard areas that do fine with life safety in even larger earthquakes. One just have to look at Chilean subduction earthquake in 2011.

    I think it is a ridiculous argument to put that Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Assessment (PSHA) underestimates hazard compared to the so-called neo-Deterministic Seismic Hazard Assessment while sitting in unreinforced masonry buildings which are known to cause fatalities since forever (at least ‘well-known’ from Turkey earthquake in 1999).

    Even with ‘low’ hazard predictions, there can be high risk due to high vulnerability. But no one exactly wants to put any money on rehabilitation to reduce that part of equation. The deadline for upgrade of California Hospitals ( or British Columbia School Buildings – earthquake yesterday a reminder for hazard in that part of the world), is pushed back many times due to money involved. It is so easy to blame someone after the fact.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer
  • TGGP

    Violent crime increased 18 percent from last year:
    Reportedly, it’s the first year-on-year rise in 20 years. Has Peter Turchin commented on it?

  • Sandgroper

    #27 – 100% agree. Excellent statement.

    I was in Tangshan just after the 20th anniversary of the 1976 earthquake there that destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings, killed a quarter of a million people (possibly a low estimate) and severely injured another 160,000 (I saw a lot of survivors who were missing limbs and/or had brain injuries) – that was out of a total official population of 1 million (I was told by the Mayor of Tangshan that there were also an unknown number of migrants from other parts of China who had gone there to look for work, so the actual population at the time is unknown). The local engineers told me that the high death toll and severity of injuries were due to the combination of a prevalence of unreinforced clay brick structures, and the fact that the earthquake occurred in the early hours of the morning when people were in bed asleep, and a high proportion of the casualties were caused by falling bricks (in other words, exactly the situation you are describing). Our interpreter was a mechanical engineer trained in the UK, a very bright young woman – when it finally dawned on us after knowing her for a few days that she must have been in Tangshan during the earthquake and asked her, she said “Yes. I was 6 years old. I was the only one of my family to survive. People like me are called ‘Tangshan orphans’.” She said that every single person who survived the earthquake lost at least one person from their immediate family.

    The new city library, a 3 storey reinforced concrete structure, was still under construction at the time of the earthquake. Because of that, rescuers were confident that no one was under debris at the site, so it was the only damaged building that was not excavated looking for survivors or the remains of deceased, and it has been preserved exactly as it was, as a monument-reminder. It’s worth looking at, because some of the reinforcement was exposed by the damage, and it was clearly seriously under-reinforced. I think I still have the photos I took of it. Almost the whole city was destroyed. They deliberated for a long time about whether to rebuild the city somewhere else, but finally opted to rebuild it in the same location, but with a stringent building code and a strict technical audit system by city engineers. I couldn’t help but comment on how much people drink there – I have never seen such prodigious drinkers. One woman said “If you lived here, you would drink a lot too”, which was kind of a funny but not funny comment on what it’s like to live with constant high risk. She didn’t smile when she said it.

    Another less ‘spectacular’ example is Newcastle, New South Wales – the earthquake there in 1989 was only M5.6, but it killed 13 people, injured 162, and did a lot of building damage for exactly the same reason – unreinforced brick structures.

    The building codes in both cities were extensively rewritten after the events to forbid unreinforced brick or masonry structures, and the Newcastle event triggered a review of all of the building codes in Australia.

    Money is often the reason for lack of adequate preparation for future events that are probabilistic. The best time to try to get the necessary resources is soon after an event, when everyone is still shocked by it. After 2 years the opportunity is pretty much lost. After 3 years, everyone has basically forgotten about it except those directly affected by it, and the scientists and engineers involved in trying to mitigate risks, and no one is interested in giving you the resources you need to mitigate risk to the level that they feel entitled to. So then, the next time, the blame game tends to focus on guess who – not the people who held the purse strings.

    China has a lot of good seismologists and excellent earthquake records going back more than 2,000 years. The Tangshan earthquake museum has an excellent collection of copies of the ancient instruments the Chinese used to measure the magnitudes and locate the epicentres of earthquakes. I have seen some of the ancient records for Guangdong Province, and they are outstanding – sustained dedication to recording and preservation of records over a very long time scale. Every now and again, some crackpot pops up claiming he can predict the timing and magnitude of big earthquakes, but most Chinese scientists will tell you that they are simply not predictable deterministically. Which is what we know.

    I guess the take-home lesson from this case, making assumptions about what happened, is that the scientists and engineers who understand the risk and the hazards need to communicate transparently and honestly with the public directly, and not rely on middle-men/politicians who don’t have a clue what they are talking about, and who have a vested interest in downplaying risks in order to avoid ‘public panic’. I have had some involvement in risk communication, and I have never seen members of the public actually panic when informed honestly about risk in a way they can understand – what they do tend to do is demand action from politicians and bureaucrats to do something about it.

    But we have to do the communication ourselves – not to do so risks being blamed after the event for not telling people, or for misleading them. It seems possible that is what happened in this case, but I can’t know that without seeing the written judgement.

  • Sandgroper

    Incidentally, Violet – the Tangshan and Newcastle earthquakes are a good illustration of why Mualchin was absolutely wrong in what he was quoted as saying about risk ‘prevention’.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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