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Curious Sanguine


I'm scheduled to give blood tomorrow, and I realized tonight that the last time I gave blood was before I started taking medication. I remembered a long list of medical questions you have to answer to give blood, and was worried that my current medication might prevent me from donating. So, rather than risk hauling myself all the way to the donor station on the Upper East Side only to find I was inelligible, I found the criteria for blood donors.

It looks like I'm fine; my medication doesn't show up on the warning list. But I'm curious about some of the other contra-indications. There's a 12 month ban on donations for getting a tattoo? No one who's spent more than 5 years total in Europe can give blood ever (that is, if you add up all the days of your life spent in Europe, and it's greater than 5 years, you can never give blood again)?

What's really disturbing to me is Question 37, the Ban on Gay Blood Donations. If you are a male and have ever had sex with a man, even if it's only once, since 1977, you're permanently banned from blood donation. If you're a woman and have sex with a man who has ever had sex with another man, you're banned for 12 months. Even if you get an HIV screening, your blood is still verboten.

Now, I understand the thinking that went into this, particularly given that it was likely implemented 20 years ago or more; obviously they don't want any AIDS or HIV positive blood in their blood supply, ever, and it's better to turn healthy blood away than to accept unhealthy blood. Still, though, it seems like you ought to be able to get an exemption if you have a recent screening.

What's more worrisome, though, is the exemption for Question 37. You're allowed to give blood if you are a male who was raped by a man, provided the incident was more than 12 months before the donation. This seems odd; one would think the sort of men who go around raping other men are the sort who would be more likely than average to be carrying HIV or AIDS.

I'm disturbed by the line of reasoning that's used to justify this, which I think goes like this: People who are gay are at a higher risk of carrying HIV/AIDS. This risk is high enough that it's worth excluding the entire class of people who are gay. How do we determine who is gay and who is not? Gay men have sex with men, and we want to have a strict criterion. So if you've ever had sex, even once, with a man, you are officially gay and therefore cannot give blood. However, this is imprecise; we want to exclude gay people, in the sense of people who live the promiscuous gay lifestyle which increases the likelihood of carrying HIV/AIDS. But some people, namely rape victims, have had sex with a man but are not adherants of the gay lifestyle. Therefore, we will give an exemption for men who have been raped by other men, because they are not truly gay.

So the criterion is "have you ever willfully had sex with another man?" But what they want to exclude isn't really gay people; it's promiscuous people. Gay is a cipher for promiscuous, but it's not universally applicable. There are many non-promiscuous gay people, just as there are many promiscuous straight people. Under their criteria, if you've had sex with a man, just once, against you're will, you're fine. If you had sex with a man, just once, willfully, you're banned for life. And, of course, there's the fact that they've gone through the trouble of creating a rape exemption but haven't bothered with something practical like a screening exemption.

Of course, this all assumes they're acting in good faith. There could be a heavy element of prejudice and stigmatization involved, which would help explain the rape exemption. Gay people can't give blood because they are, in some sense, bad: They willfully engage in a wrong act, sex with other men, so we don't want their blood. But rape victims really didn't have a choice in the matter. They committed a bad act, but it was against their will. So we excuse them and allow them to give blood after 12 months.

Or maybe I've just been reading too much Criminal Law and am using a crime and punishment lens when it's inappropriate. Still, this question seems like it could use some refinement, if not a complete overhaul or removal.

My Sexless Brain


Sort-of kind-of via Lindsey (insofar as she first pointed me to the man behind this research, though she didn't point out this specific article or anything), The Guardian has a test that ostensibly determines whether you have a male brain or a female brain. Simon Baron-Cohen is a cognitive science researcher in England who has dedicated a large part of his career to trying to prove that there are innate biological differences between the brain of the human male and the brain of the human female. Some of the details of his work can be found here, in an article he wrote for The Guardian.

The crux of his theory is that you can rate people's patterns of thinking along two axes: The propensity for empathizing, and the propensity for systemizing. His theory is that, on average, women tend to be better than men at empathizing, and worse than men at systemizing. He has developed two tests (which you can take at the link above). One determines your Empathizing Quotient on a scale of 8 to 78, the other determines your Systemizing Quotient on a scale of -4 to 60 (I don't quite understand why the scales are the way they are). After extensive testing, he determined that the average EQ score for women was 47 and for men was 42. For the SQ, the female average was 24 and the male average was 30. Based on this evidence, he argues that there are two basic brain types: The female brain (good at empathizing, bad at systemizing) and the male brain (good at systemizing, bad at empathizing). There are also balanced brains (equally good at empathizing and systemizing), extreme male brains (extraordinary systemizers devoid of empathy), and extreme female brains (astoundingly emotional, but completely incapable of systemizing).

It is important to point out that he's not saying that all men have male brains and all women have female brains. His unfortunate decision to label the two brain types "The Female Brain" and "The Male Brain" creates the impression that sex is far more determinative a factor than it seems to be; real people score all over the map, but if you take the average you find a slight difference on average. As an editorial aside, it seems as though he really, really wanted to find a difference between men and women going into the experiment, and when he got results that backed up his hypothesis he rolled out his pre-planned labels, which somewhat oversell the differences he actually discovered. If you take the tests, you will find that the 5-6 point difference is quite small. Amazingly small, in fact, considering the content of the test, which I will get to later.

The first major problem with the tests used here, which Baron-Cohen acknowledges but doesn't really address, is the problem of the poisoned sample. We know that using certain areas of your brain, particularly early in life, causes greater development of synapses in that area. Similarly, when you don't use areas of the brain, that area becomes underdeveloped. So it's very easy to reconcile the statement "The brains of male and female 20 year olds are different," with the statement "There is no inherent biological difference between male and female brains." If society pressures girls to care about emotions, girls will use the emotional parts of their brains more and will become women who are better empathizers. Likewise, if society pressures boys to systemize, boys will use those parts of their brain more and become men who are better systemizers. Baron-Cohen is working with a poisoned sample, so it's hard to take his conclusions too seriously.

The other big problem is that the tests themselves are pretty poorly made. The Empathy test is more a test of shyness. If you don't enjoy talking to people, you get a very low empathy score (I got 28, which, according to Baron-Cohen, is a hair above autistic). The Systemizer test is much worse; it's a test of whether you like Guy Things. I would argue that I'm a pretty systematic thinker. I love board games, I love rules. That's why I'm in law school. I scored a 17, which is very low. The reason is that the test asks a bunch of questions like "Are you good at do-it-yourself projects?" "Do you feel confident that you could fix a problem with your house's electrical system?" "If you were buying a car, would you like to know the precise engine capacity?" "Do you enjoy keeping track of sports statistics?" etc. Well, no to all of them, but that's because 1. I'm not handy, 2. I don't much care about electrical wiring, 3. I don't drive, and don't even know what an engine capacity is, and 4. I don't follow sports. I suppose he's using Liking Traditionally Male Hobbies as a proxy for Systematic Thinking, but that's the very definition of circular. "I think Men like to systemize. Therefore, hobbies men like should be systematic. Therefore, my test will determine how much you like traditionally male hobbies. My test found that men like traditionally male hobbies more than women do. Traditionally male hobbies are systematic, so men are more systematic thinkers than women are. QED."

I feel I should point out that Baron-Cohen has used this Empathizer-Systemizer paradigm as the basis for somewhat more credible research. It's detailed further down in this article. He's done some work with very young babies, 12-month-olds and newborns, who demonstrate differences in their patterns of attention based on their gender. I haven't investigated this research too much, but it seems to present more plausible evidence for his case than the other test.

Baron-Cohen does acknowledge the impact of society on sex roles, but he dismisses these arguments against his work with a hand-wave. He is merely trying to show that some biological differences exist, he argues, and he makes no claim as to how much biology accounts for perceived sex differences. Therefore: He accepts all claims of culture-derived sex differences. He'd be willing to acknowledge that 99.999% of sex differences come from culture. He's merely trying to show that some small amount, perhaps .001%, comes from biology.

I feel he makes this defense in bad faith. He writes popular books aimed at non-expert audiences trying to explain that sex differences are based in biology. He writes articles that start with discussions of all the differences in sex roles today, then segues into why biology accounts for sex differences. To a broad audience he implies that biology is the reason men and women behave differently. Then, when confronted by an expert, he concedes and backs off. "I didn't REALLY say that, you didn't parse my language closely enough. If you look carefully, I never said that biology was the only thing." Then he goes back to writing books for non-experts about the biological roots of sex differences.

Some of you may have noticed that I've been using the word "sex" to describe behavioral differences that are generally referred to by the term "gender." This use was intentional. Baron-Cohen is rather disdainful of the use of the term gender. He feels it's being used in place of the word "sex" when it shouldn't be. The segment of that article on the term gender is illustrative of what's maddening about Baron-Cohen: he treats the concept of malleable gender as worthy of disdain. He mocks it as a uniquely American rags-to-riches I-can-be-whatever-I-want-to-be thing. He thus implies that gender is pre-determined, set in stone at birth (probably by biology). But he never actually says it.

This, I think, is what annoys me about Baron-Cohen. He espouses beliefs he knows to be somewhat controversial in the field. Perhaps they're right, and perhaps not. But he has become an expert at making seemingly-strong claims about his findings in public that are delicately phrased such that, when confronted, he can weasel out of them, then afterwards go back to making further disingenuously strong claims to the public. If you're going to make yourself a public figure based on your controversial views, have the (you'll excuse the gendered term) balls to make your argument and fight for it.

Having said all this, I'd be interested in how my readers come out on Baron-Cohen's exes. I, apparently, have a Balanced Brain, because I am emotionally bankrupt and utterly un-systematic in my thinking. What're all your results?

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