June 22, 2010

Are Certain Behaviors-- And Jobs-- More Masculine? And Out Of Our Control?

megan fox.jpgwouldn't you know it, all the best derivatives traders are lesbians


There are many reasons to think testosterone affects behavioral outcomes.  Just on semantics, high testosterone would be expected to correlate to virility, aggression, and leads in action movies.

But what is the effect of brief, intra-uterine testosterone?  Do people who were exposed to higher testosterone in the womb become/behave different/ly?

An example: fraternal twins.  Does the girl's stewing in the boy's testosterone make her a better athlete, President or serial killer? 

In an attempt to answer that, there's been considerable research on the effects of intrauterine  testosterone on later life outcomes.

I.  (This is how you construct a lie: don't answer the question that was asked, answer the question you want to answer.)


An example, a somewhat famous study.  Researchers examined a group of financial traders:

(Introduction) We therefore formulated the hypothesis that higher prenatal testosterone exposure would improve a trader's performance.

(Discussion) The finding that a marker of prenatal testosterone levels predicts a trader's long-term profitability...

The success and longevity of traders exposed to high levels of prenatal androgens further suggests that financial markets may select for biological traits rather than rational expectations.
And from Time:

Earlier studies indicated that prenatal exposure to testosterone... increases a person's sensitivity to the effects of the hormone much later in life. The greater the exposure as a fetus, in other words, the higher the levels of confidence, vigilance or risk appetite triggered by testosterone in an adult.
It's not hard to see why financial traders exposed to testosterone might be better at trading.  And now you have to think about society: maybe there are real sex differences in performance in the workplace.  It's perfectly ok to select a lingerie model on the basis of femininity.  Is it-- should it-- okay to pick options traders the other way?  And how can we level the playing field for those with a slight biological disadvantage?


First Principles: what do the authors want to be true?

None of the studies linking biology to behavior are about either the biology or the behavior, they are only about the link.    

The question that they are answering isn't "does environment matter more than genetics?"  It's a more subtle, sneaky, social-policy questionr: "since we now know that genetics isn't as deterministic as we hoped, is there something else that we can focus on which is  equally out of our control?  What about the goings-on in utero?   So that the environment factors matter only at that time, not later?  Then we can safely say that behavior is "innate" and out of our control, while still leaving us the door to intervene in people's lives for their benefit." 

No one in the behavioral sciences discovers something, and then constructs policy recommendations.  "We learned that people are like this, so..." 

It's the other way around.  The policies come first; the money is spent on the research that supports them.

In questions about evolutionary psychology and behavior, the question they want to answer is always of the form, "how is it not the individual's fault, but we can meddle anyway?"


Back to testosterone.  In order to tell if trading is related to that brief in utero burst of testosterone, we need a proxy: the ratio of the index finger to the ring finger.  Bigger ring finger (and smaller 2D:4D ratio) = more testosterone in utero.

There are many such studies, of very different behaviors: aggression, lesbianism, athleticism, success, risk appetite-- and they are all surprisingly robust, there really does appear to be some kind of link.  And it helps that the behaviors all have an intuitive connection to "masculinization"-- (which was the whole point of the testosterone.)
And the associations are just as revealing when they're absent.  A recent study found no association to ADHD: "These findings challenge the hypothesis that fetal testosterone exposure plays a prominent role in the aetiology of ADHD."  So it must be something else...


The problem isn't the data, but the words.

None-- read it again, none-- of the studies found any link between the behavior and fetal testosterone.  All of them found the link between the behavior and finger lengths, which are proxies for fetal testosterone.

But what if finger ratios aren't actually proxies for testosterone?

"Then those studies are crap.  Another example of science overreaching.  All that research money wasted."

Oh, no, Murdock, it's much worse than that.  The studies are valid, the data are solid-- finger ratios do indeed correlate well to these behaviors-- but all of the inferences you've invented about them are wrong.

A recent article discovered that in birds, the correlation was between digit length and estrogen receptors.   If that turned out to be true for humans, what are you going to do with all the stories about "masculine"  traits?  You can't simply say, "oh, it doesn't have to do with testosterone after all."  You must now explain why it does have to do with estrogen.  Are these feminine behaviors?  What?

There are other studies which similarly find the testosterone/finger story to be suspect or even backwards

So the data aren't wrong-- they're right; they're just about something else.  The social implications of the studies-- the very point of doing the studies-- are wrong.  You can't dismiss the studies because they're still true-- you have to go back and explain how you got it backwards.

Anyone who had taken a moment to look at the whole hypothesis-- masculine--> testosterone--> finger lengths--> behaviors would have said, "there are way too many loose connections to take this seriously."  But no one would have taken you seriously.  "Science" is three dimensional:  "look at the stack of studies that find a relationship between testosterone and behaviors!"  No one questions the intervening proxy (digit span) because to do so is perceived to be unrigorous.  When you say, "I don't believe this testosterone link" they politely say, "look at the stack!" but if you say you don't buy the digit length, they roll their eyes: another amateur who doesn't understand how science is done.  They do this because there's no other argument to make.  "This is how we've been doing it for decades, and it's a quite satisfactory method."  Yeah. That's what they said about missionary, too. 

Because there are so many researchers, and so many in the public willing to run with it, and so much time in between, there's no one to point to as responsible.  You can't blame Cambridge University for the obviously preposterous notion that masculine traits make for better traders any more than you can blame the head of BP for the oil spill.  Both situations are your fault.  You wanted what they were offering, even though it was bad for you.

Either we're going to kill Iraqis, or we're going to kill ducks.  It's the world's one and only truth, the law of equivalent exchange.  For every barrel of oil, you need to replace it with a barrel of blood.


But they are to blame, because when they presented you with their products, they knew exactly what you were going to do with them.


I'm telling you this not because I care about finger lengths, but because you are being corrupted.

The article doesn't even have to spell it out for you: they just have to write "there's a relationship to testosterone " and we'll make the cultural/social value judgments ourselves.   But they leave nothing to chance; thus Time Magazine.

That's not an unfortunate, unexpected by product of science-- it is the very point of it.  In order for you to obtain this knowledge, you have to lose some other knowledge of equivalent value.

Once it's happened, once you've allowed this into your brain, there is no escape, ever, any more than there is an escape from oil.  No matter what else they discover, you will always have the suspicion that trading-- and lesbianism and risk taking and hand eye coordination-- are masculine traits.

Until, of course,  new guys come in with a new story to tell.  "Thanks Dr. Kohut, we'll take it from here."


The science error of our generation is this: If A is strongly associated with B, and B is strongly associated with C, then A is strongly associated to C.

That's not just wrong, it is extremely wrong.  If that seems counterintuitive to you, then you are the problem.  Not in the way Robespierre was the problem, but in the way the French were the problem.   "Sounds about right to me.  And there's a guillotining at 6:94!"

It's not your fault, you weren't trained to understand this, indeed, you were trained specifically not to understand this.   "Let's look closely at the statistics" (not the words.)

Science in the service of social policy is all about giving you everything you need to lie to yourself.


I repeat: I have enough rum to get through what's left of my life, but the rest of you should heed my warning: if you do not rein in your social scientists, your civilization is doomed.




Relevant: <a href="http://w... (Below threshold)

June 22, 2010 1:06 PM | Posted by Charles: | Reply

Relevant: The Non-Transitivity of Pearson's Correlation Coefficient: An Educational Perspective (PDF warning).

Behavioral scientists don't usually write their papers with suggestive eyebrow-wiggles, but they knowingly profit from science journalism where eyebrow-wiggling is mandatory (see also: grant applications).

The educated class enjoys deriding pre-industrial societies (actual or historical) since we're at the end of history and know better now (obviously, of course, definitely), but what proportion of the average or even college-educated person's beliefs are true today vs. true in ancient Athens? Socrates wasn't just being an asshole when he disclaimed having any knowledge.

I'm trying to train myself to stop and re-evaluate whenever I feel certain about any knowledge claim, but I think it's going to take a shock collar.

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Certainty is never actually... (Below threshold)

June 22, 2010 7:34 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Certainty is never actually certain. If focoult was right about anything, it was about how wrong he was.

Let's say, hypothetically, that I wasn't too tired to actually write this comment. Is it the lack of ATP floating around in my cells? Is it the exaustion of physical resources? Is it the lack of fluids to appropriately transmit energy across a cell or membrane? Or is it some chemical pathway producing serotonin after a day of doing physical labor that makes me not care about actually writing?

If our social scientists have been providing evidence for us to help us lie to ourselves, we must then ask ourselve, by population adherence, who are our social scientists? Or better yet, who are the directors of social scientists that tell these populations what to do or not to do? If we're going to arrive at the point of anything it's not our biases or even our scientists' biases that should concern us, but the root of all biases and its strikingly communal origin.

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Dude, really? Lindsay Loha... (Below threshold)

June 22, 2010 7:35 PM | Posted by Ator: | Reply

Dude, really? Lindsay Lohan? That's not even fair...

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Yeah thats not Lindsay Loha... (Below threshold)

June 22, 2010 9:14 PM | Posted by Kevin: | Reply

Yeah thats not Lindsay Lohan.

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So if I understand your per... (Below threshold)

June 22, 2010 11:42 PM | Posted by not Lindsay lohan: | Reply

So if I understand your perspective... We're sitting on an enormous body of scientific data that has been deliberately misinterpreted? I'm assuming you don't think it is some kind of conspiracy. It's our own prejudices imprinting on the research. For one group it's masculine traits, maybe later a group says it's feminine, or Anglo, or Chinese...

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You mean all those old wive... (Below threshold)

June 23, 2010 2:21 AM | Posted by Whatever: | Reply

You mean all those old wives tales about shoe size and nose length may be valid after all?


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Of course it's BS. <p... (Below threshold)

June 23, 2010 2:28 AM | Posted by Oh and: | Reply

Of course it's BS.

They say 90% of traders are men and they also say 90% of traders lose. But 90% of us are unlikely to think of it that way. So lets get the rum out and wait for the RESET.

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See, I get your point. I be... (Below threshold)

June 23, 2010 2:34 AM | Posted by Novel Posting Anon Strikes Again: | Reply

See, I get your point. I believe the point you are making is that thoughts, ideas, precede evidence/data a lot of the time - the data doesn't necessarily fit, doesn't actually show what we are saying it does, BUTour preconceived notions about how stuff ought to work/is working means that we interpret this otherwise unconvincing data as solid evidence. Basically, a lot of the times research isn't looking for things we don't know but it is inappropriately the "proof" justifying things we think we already know.

From a purely logical perspective I agree with you. However, I think there is a lot of merit to intuition, common sense, and many of the things we "already know" are in fact true... and so there actually is productive value in using intuition as a springboard to research the actual scientific underpinnings of it (rather than, say, letting scientific observation come first).
For example, using your example: lesbianism. Now, lesbianism must certainly be related to some kind of masculinization process in the brain. The utility of sexual attraction is sexual reproduction, am I right? Therefore, it stands to reason, to good sense, that a female who is only sexually attracted to other women is probably behaviorally manifesting the result of some sort of masculinization in the brain. The drive to reproduce is a basic biological NEED, like thirst, like hunger, so is sexual behavior. It is a drive that our bodies express for the express purpose of survival - not necessarily our physical mortal survival (as is the case of food/drink/shelter/safety) but the survival of our genes, which in turn create our bodies. Any organism exclusively or primarily interested in having sex with the same sex must clearly have been exposed to some sort of hormone abnormality before birth or shortly after birth (and I am basing this assumption on the already pretty much proven fact that what defines a man or a woman, a male or a female, is entirely controlled by the amount and ratio of various sex hormones before and after birth... and yes, you can BE a genetic male, have no androgen receptors, and you will TOTALLY develop as a female... and yes, you can be a genetic female, have some kind of genetic abnormality in converting cortisol precursors into cortisol, and you can TOTALLY develop into a male or at least an extremely virulized female, both in terms of primary (e.g. genital) and secondary sexual characteristics... THEREFORE, any biological male or female who is attracted exclusively to the same sex is clearly manifesting the result of hormones being imbalanced somehow, some way, before or shortly after birth).

Bisexuality is probably similar to homosexuality (e.g. influenced by hormonal atypicalities) but probably lends itself heavily to psychological factors, since the drive to reproduce and interest in biologically productive sexual behavior is still there. Sexuality is, after all, very psychological as well as physical, particularly in women, or so I have been lead to believe by pop science.

Okay. This is intuitive logic, this is not hard science. I am making an assumption based on some prior observations that is reasonable.
1) Hormones totally program the state of being male or female
2) Science has shown that people exist who can be partially male, partially female, neither male nor female, e.g. hermaphrodites, people with rare genetic disorders, people who's mothers were exposed to various drugs or chemicals which affect hormone sensitivity or level... whatever.
3) Sex, male and female, only exists because humans reproduce sexually. Sexual reproduction. NO other reason for sex and gender.
4) Sexual interest, craving, desire, and ultimately drive sexual activity, results in reproduction in humans. Sexuality (mental interest in sex) only exists because of sexual reproduction.
5) HOWEVER, some people exist who state they feel no sexual attraction to the opposite sex. They only feel sexual attraction to the same sex. Therefore, all consensual sexual behavior is biologically unproductive and can never be productive.

Adding all of these things up, it is pretty much fucking obvious, with zero other likely explanation, that homosexuality, genuine homosexuality (i.e.not fake lesbians who are pretending to be entirely homosexual which seem to happen often) must therefore be the result of some kind of hormone atypicality related to the major sex steroids in the brain before, or after, birth.

So, it is entirely productive for scientists to do research on hormone levels, markers of hormone levels before birth, of homosexual people. NO, there is no solid logical reason why we would do this. We do not have solid proof that homosexuality has anything to do with hormones. Be we do have our nature given common sense that tells us the likely thing is likely true. If it isnt' true, we find out sooner or later... but, human beings have inuitive logic to prevent precisely this unproductive behavior of considering all possibilities equally possible. A computer cannot understand why we believe the things we believe because to a computer all possibilities are equaly likely... but to a human, we know if x happens and y is similar and we don't know what causes y, were going to look at x and see if there is anything common, meh?

You are saying it is an error to say if A is like B, and B is like C, to assume A is related to C. E.g. if lesbians have a 2d:4d that is low, and if this ratio is related to testosterone level, then lesbianism is related to testosterone level.

From a hard scientific perspective, maybe it is, because you have yet to prove any direct link to testosterone and lesbianism, you've only shown that lesbians have short 2d:4d ratios and that testosterone relates to 2d:4d ratios. Zero link between lesbians and testosterone, yet.

But, interject common sense (i.e. reasoning based on a long history of living and observing) and it becomes pretty obvious that lesbianism, 2d:4d ratio, and testosterone are all clearly related. CLEARLY.

I mean, there are certainly instances where your reasoning stands... when, for example, the reasoning is not intuitive, common, when we have no real solid reason to believe the things we believe, when we only believe them because some other guy with a hypothesis told us to believe it a few years ago, and so now we all believe it, and it was never proven in the first place. ... that's when these leaps of logic totally DO NOT work.

An example of when this shit doesn't work: "If serotonin causes depression, lets find out what is wrong with the serotonin of depressed people..." woops, we never even had solid evidence that serotonin has anything to do with depression in the first place. Trying to find more evidence for a hypothesis that is on shaky ground already is stupid.

If there is no solid ground for your intuitive reasoning, everything that springs from it is very likely wrong. A hypothesis is shaky enough, building stuff on stuff that's not even remotely close to true is destined for abortion.

BUt for this sort of stuff... testosterone and masculine behavior (i.e. finding women sexy) ... it's probably going to be productive to make these leaps, because the leaps will lead to greater understanding, because your guess is likely true (that the 2d:4d of lesbians is indeed related to prenatal testosterone, and lesbianism is related to prenatal testosterone as well, and so all of these are actually related). The reason it works in this situation is because it is so certain that testosterone programs maleness. It is without question. It is proven many times, many ways, over and over. We have numerous diseases in books, numerous patients in hospitals, cases everywhere of sexual and gender atypicalities springing from problems with testosterone, receptor sensitivity, synthesis, so on. The state of being male, is entirely determined by how many / much androgens you were exposed to before you were born. It is NOT determined by genes, genes ONLY determine the likelihood that you will be exposed to testosterone in a great quantity. A normal xy fetus will be exposed to normal / typical physiological levels of androgens and so develop male. This doesn't always work out like that, but that's not the point, the point is that genes don't determine sex or gender, HORMONES DO and hormones can TOTALLY trump genes and do sometimes. e.g. severe CAH, AIS and so on.

***I do agree with your message. Much of what we study is just to justify what we already know, want to be true, et cetera.***

Yea, that's true.

BUT... But, yet, it's a good idea to use common sense and intuition, when there is a REAL REASON behind "knowing what you know". People are humans not robots, our brains are useful and these biases we have are actually pretty useful in the long run.

In the end, it always works out. Sure for a while we may study crap that was based on other crap that was never true in the first place, but in the end, false ideas and unproductive research terminates.

In general, intuitive reason is good.
HOwever, better be sure, first, if there is a hard reason to know what you know. If only know what you know because everyone knows it, that's not a good reason at all. Must be some sort of hard evidence (the fact that numerous disorders exist where manipulating testosterone or estrogen can TOTALLY change the sex and/or gender of a person depending on stage of development is a good solid reason to think that testosterone is related to a behavior that is clearly male, as defined above ... sex, being only existent for reproduction, being that men should desire sex with women and vice versa, therefore any deviation from this is clearly related to a hormone atypicality).

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Novel Posting - Ahhh, intui... (Below threshold)

June 23, 2010 8:51 AM | Posted, in reply to Novel Posting Anon Strikes Again's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

Novel Posting - Ahhh, intuition, the lazy person's way of knowing... Seriously, as someone who enjoys using my intuition and finds it useful in certain contexts, I've noticed more and more people trying to argue that their intuition is a reliable source of knowledge when it comes to science or attempting to discern reality without our biases in the way. It's not. The scientific method exists exactly because your, my and our intuition isn't reliable when it comes to the objective world (and very often when it comes to subjective matters as well). Sure intuition can lead to ideas that can be studied, it's a creative tool in that sense. I'm always amazed at how many people think intuition is some kind of magic, not just a feeling generated by an unconscious synthesis of sensory information or inspiration derived from combining signifiers and or information so that new meanings may appear.
The problem is that science is essentially quite boring because it's about process, and it's a process that's specifically created to put aside "intuition" and hopefully expected outcomes so that the unbiased reality can emerge. Or as unbiased as possible considering how the human brain works, and how meaning is constructed and contextualized. In fact, what Alone is writing about is how "intuition" and expected outcomes get in the way of good science because it becomes about trying to prove a pre-existing belief or support a pre-existing bias instead of actually looking for what actually is. It's why "correlation doesn't equal causation" is so often pulled out when these kinds of studies that try to use correlation to prove causation pop up.

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For an example of transitiv... (Below threshold)

June 23, 2010 10:51 AM | Posted by syntaxfree: | Reply

For an example of transitivity over correlative links, look up the Fritsch-Waugh-Lovell theorem. It's more of a "triangular" transitivity than the vertical one you mentioned, but hey, people are talking about Pearson coefficients. Who in heck uses Pearson coefficients?

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Sorry, I always get this wr... (Below threshold)

June 23, 2010 10:52 AM | Posted by syntaxfree: | Reply

Sorry, I always get this wrong. It's "Frisch-Waugh-Lovell theorem", not Fritsch.

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The only real solution I ca... (Below threshold)

June 23, 2010 12:02 PM | Posted by Felan: | Reply

The only real solution I can think of to all of this is to spread the groupthink out across the group. By this I mean instead of a few overly influential persons setting the direction of groupthink, rather average out the biases of all the individual group members. I think I remember one blog Alone did that said even this was fallible, but it seems less fallible.

I think a key part of this working is that members need to know that this process will set direction and that they don't have to be singularly right.

I would also note that historically societies tend to get bogged down in themselves and eventually collapse. Often this collapse is violent but peaceful is possible. These observations of Alone, to me feel like focusing on a singular crack in the wall and saying do we want that crack to get bigger. The greater truth I think is that the natural cycle of society is that its a process of building up, maintaining, and tearing down. I think accepting this process enables for a more peaceful transition from old to new.

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The price of long term surv... (Below threshold)

June 23, 2010 9:55 PM | Posted by Proud Kuffar: | Reply

The price of long term survival= Eternal vigilance against error.

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Great post.The quote... (Below threshold)

June 25, 2010 7:51 PM | Posted by gal: | Reply

Great post.
The quoted study done with mice that were selectively bred is quite amazing and says it all.

There are too many leaps in these behavioral correlative theories, and not just about the 2D:4D ratio, but there is also a missing link regarding the full effect hormones have on our brains and our behavior- today we just don't know enough about the issue.

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O brave new world! That has... (Below threshold)

June 29, 2010 2:51 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

O brave new world! That has such people in it!

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If lesbians are "masculine"... (Below threshold)

July 10, 2010 7:21 AM | Posted by Scamp: | Reply

If lesbians are "masculine" women, why do so many heterosexual men find lesbians sexy?

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I have just one question: W... (Below threshold)

September 2, 2010 8:29 PM | Posted by Themis: | Reply

I have just one question: What's the motive behind the money holders to "prove" that some jobs are more masculine than others?

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Thank you for this. I have ... (Below threshold)

March 23, 2012 9:05 AM | Posted by Gabe Ruth: | Reply

Thank you for this. I have been guilty of paying too much attention to people who believe in IQ determinism (and all the usual baggage that goes along with this). I have no excuse for this, especially since my conscious response to this line of thought is repulsion. First, I discounted what the authors want to be true. But more perniciously, I didn't consider for a second how this possibility reflected on me, and whether that could affect my willingness to believe it.

It is surprising though, how both sides of this debate have exactly the motivation you describe: how can it not be anyone's fault, but we can still meddle? In fairness, there is a clear victor in the struggle and they have been meddling with gusto, but then the other side taking back control could definitely be worse, in my opinion, because not meddling is difficult when you have power.

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"If A is strongly associate... (Below threshold)

October 16, 2012 9:32 AM | Posted by erkaer: | Reply

"If A is strongly associated with B, and B is strongly associated with C, then A is strongly associated to C"

Anyone cares to point out how exactly is this *terribly wrong*? I admit the idea I might be just stupid, and don't get it. What is "correlation"? Is it one-way term?

I it's two way (if A correlates to B, then B correlates to A), then:
Assuming most of people have 2 legs and having 2 legs correlates to motor skills, and having good motor skills correlates to walking speed, wouldn't it mean if i see someone walking fast it's kind of safe to assume he/she has 2 legs?

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Your example is flawed, but... (Below threshold)

November 27, 2012 4:26 PM | Posted, in reply to erkaer's comment, by suomynonA: | Reply

Your example is flawed, but the original question still stands.

So what if all three of those ARE correlated, political correctness be damned? I realise the goal here is to question the method, but why must that be at the expense of the information? Was the entire post an elaborate example of the very same misdirection?

Simply: if (a=b=c)=d, why disavow a, b, and c, just because d is inconvenient? Wouldnt the intelligent thing be to say "well yeah, they are correlated, but fuck if I know what d really is"?

[q]I. (This is how you construct a lie: don't answer the question that was asked, answer the question you want to answer.)

Which is exactly what this post did: answer for d.

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Nope, your example sucks. F... (Below threshold)

March 9, 2014 5:28 PM | Posted, in reply to erkaer's comment, by Hello there: | Reply

Nope, your example sucks. First of all, the example says "strongly associated" not simply "correlated," so we need an example that has a strong link, i.e., strongly correlated.

Here's a better example:

"If alcohol is strongly correlated with drunk sex, and drunk sex is strongly correlated with unplanned pregnancy, then alcohol is strongly correlated with unplanned pregnancy."

Though that may be technically correct, it's making the wrong link. The correct link is: drunk sex is strongly correlated with unplanned pregnancy. Therefore, this is the variable that requires further study.

So in Alone's example, what we need to study more is not the pre-natal testosterone levels is strongly correlated with masculine behaviours, it's that finger ratios are... so more study should be done on that variable, to find the correct determinant of this variable because no pre-natal testosterone study has shown to be the cause thus far. (hint: it probably isn't.)

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