Links that made us think: Penis equality, income inequality, acceptance vs. social engineering, medicating women

From Matt:  Starting this week with something light: How big is the average penis? (David Shultz, Science): A new study published in the British Journal of Urology synthesized the results of 17 previous studies involving over 15,000 men from around the world to ask the age old question: How big is the average penis, and what does the distribution look like? Spoiler alert: The answer is 5.16 inches. The surprising finding (for me anyway) was how dense the distribution was around this average. For example, almost 90% of men have penises between 4 and 6 inches long (erect). What’s more, the study found no evidence for statistical relationships between penis size and height, race, or even shoe size – shattering popular urban myths. Simply put, there is a surprising level of penis equality in the world. Sorry ladies?

Now that we’ve gotten your attention…

What is income inequality? (Stephen Gordon, The National Post): Prof. Gordon (of Université Laval) provides a really nice summary of the different types of income inequality, their trends In Canada, and why the differences between them are important. In short, he argues that the gap between the poorest and the middle has been shrinking; the gap between the middle and the top had been growing since the ’70s, but has plateaued since about the mid-’90s; and the gap between the very richest (top 1%) and everyone else has been growing steadily. He argues that social mobility is pretty healthy in Canada (compared to other countries) at the moment, but continuing increases in inequality could erode this social mobility, based on history in other countries. One thing he argues which I don’t completely agree with is that wealth inequality (wealth = how much you have; income = how much you make) is not worth paying attention to. He argues that the strong relationship between age and wealth makes wealth inequality a misleading measure. But in an age where income inequality is being exacerbated in many places by returns to capital exceeding returns to labor (as demonstrated in Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty (Harvard University Press, 2014)), it seems to me that wealth (capital) inequality is too important to ignore, even if it is difficult to measure meaningfully.

From Ian: Sexuality: Social acceptance vs. social engineering

A recent article in the Washington Post by Sally Kohn entitled, “I’m gay. And I want my kid to be gay too,” reignited the ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate as it applies to sexual orientation and asked whether we can truly say that the LGBT community has achieved equality unless parents let their children know “that being gay is equally desirable to being straight.” As she puts it “The problem is not the idea that homosexuality could be a choice but the idea that heterosexuality should be compulsory.” Barbara Kay, responding in her column in The National Post, points out that Kohn “vaunts in her own behaviour what she would condemn in a heterosexual parent” by encouraging her own daughter to be gay. If sexuality can be influenced by others, even if only within a certain age range, Kay argues that “most heterosexual parents would naturally prefer the choice most conducive to natural procreation” suggesting that LGBT sexualities should be accepted but not encouraged. As she puts it: “It’s no shame to be homosexual, but it’s no great honour either.”

The exchange between the two raises some excellent questions about the fuzzy boundary between social acceptance and social engineering, particularly as it applies to how we interact with young children. This was a central theme of the discussion surrounding Kathleen Wynne’s new sexual education curriculum (which Kay supports some aspects of, but is concerned that some topics, such as gender identity, are introduced to kids at too young an age – before they have even reached puberty).

The current scientific consensus is that sexuality, like most other traits, can have a wide range of influences, both inherited and environmental, and the balance of nature and nurture is likely different for different people (see here, for example). As we continue to get closer to achieving proper societal acceptance for everyone regardless of sexuality, it is natural that the dialogue will evolve beyond acceptance to topics of social engineering. To the extent that we can influence our children’s sexual lives (which include not only orientation, but also traits such as promiscuity, risk-taking vs. risk aversion, self respect, respect for partners, marriage preferences and family structure), what should we use this influence to accomplish? In addressing this question, one that must be faced anytime we want to update our sex-ed curriculum for example, it is important to separate the discussions of values (what should our goals be?) and methods (how do we accomplish these goals?). In order to assess our values and define our goals as a society, public discussions need to offer a seat to everyone, and be respectful to diverse perspectives, cultural backgrounds and viewpoints, including those as socially liberal as Kohn’s and as socially conservative as Kay’s, even though it is unlikely that consensuses perfectly pleasing everyone will be reachable. Once goals have been defined, the methods discussion (i.e. what interventions encourage/discourage what behaviours) needs to be led by evidence.

I cannot think of a better forum than a university campus to launch such a dialogue, assuming of course that our universities are still interested in serving as forums for the free exchange of ideas and open dialogue on the most pressing issues facing society, even those that some may find uncomfortable.

From Niya: Medicating Women (Julie Holland, New York Times): While I appreciate Ms. Holland’s perspective on medicating emotion, I find it troubling that she doesn’t acknowledge the fact that while women are socialized to express their emotions, men are socialized to be far less expressive and the complications that result from that – including self medicating with alcohol and OTC or other substances. Her stance that the “negative” emotions are part of a healthy biology is a refreshing one; I wish it included the entire population instead of a particular segment.

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One thought on “Links that made us think: Penis equality, income inequality, acceptance vs. social engineering, medicating women

  1. One interesting topic related to the NYT piece on medicating women that has received some coverage recently (including the NYT) is the rapid expansion of ADHD diagnoses and the mass medicating of children (mostly boys, but some girls as well) with powerful drugs so that they can sit still (see http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/02/opinion/sunday/a-natural-fix-for-adhd.html and http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/17/us/among-experts-scrutiny-of-attention-disorder-diagnoses-in-2-and-3-year-olds.html). Just as Julie Holland argues that emotionality is a trait exhibited by women (and men) that has evolutionary advantages – and not a disease – so does Richard Friedman that novelty seeking is a trait exhibited by boys (and girls) that has had distinct evolutionary advantages in our past and may still have advantages today. In fact many of the most successful scientists, entrepreneurs and business leaders had trouble in school and might have been diagnosed with ADHD today (http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB110738397416844127).

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