Friday, 15 August 2008

EP debunking Friday - sniffing out the perfect partner

As people keep moaning about the length of these debunking posts, I'll keep this one short. Browsing Feminist Philosophers I was reminded of this story from a few days ago:

"They say that opposites attract. But it seems the Pill may be preventing women sniffing out men who are opposite enough...But researchers found that the Pill disrupts a woman's power to recognise the aroma of a suitable partner."

This story is based on this study, "MHC-correlated odour preferences in humans and the use of oral contraceptives" an epub in Proc. R. Soc. B. The reasoning behind the study is that the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) of our genome shows great variation and this is thought to be related to immune function, so it would be genetically better to have offspring with individuals with genetically dissimilar MHCs from you.

So what does the study do? It looks at a bunch of women, none of whom were on the pill, but some of whom were thinking about taking it. So they got these women to smell the shredded sweaty shirts of men with either genetically similar or dissimilar MHCs:

"Almost 100 women then sniffed the shirts and gave their opinions on the 'pleasantness' and ' desirability' of the odour twice over a three-month period. Many started taking the Pill during the experiment - and their opinions of the smell of the T-shirts changed...Researcher Craig Roberts said: 'The results showed that the preferences of women who began using the contraceptive Pill shifted towards men with genetically similar odours.'"

So this is supposed to be evidence that:

"Saddled with the wrong man - someone who in scientific terms has similar genes - she may find it hard to become pregnant and any children she does have may have a lower resistance to infection.

What is more, when she stops taking the Pill and her sense of smell returns to normal, she's more likely to fall out of love, the Liverpool and Newcastle universities research suggests."

So is this what the study actually shows? Of course not. Without even getting into the question of whether woman actually choose partners based on the smell of their sweat, in actual fact the study found that women didn't rate the pleasantness, desirability, or intensity of the odour of men with dissimilar MHCs as any higher than men with similar MHCs.

The only significant finding was an interaction on an ANOVA where women on the pill showed a reduction in the amount they favoured MHC dissimilar odours, but there was no statistically significant difference between women on the pill and women not on the pill in the degree to which they favoured genetically dissimilar men. The interesting finding is that women not yet on the pill, but who intended to go on the pill seemed to favour MHC dissimilar men more than other women (presumably this wasn't statistically significant) and this is what is driving the interaction (the preference for dissimilar men normalises back to being like other women after they are taking the pill (see the figure, average odour 'desirability' for MHC dissimilar men minus MHC similar men, white bar represents first rating {before women started the pill} and the grey bar the second rating {with women in the pill group having started the pill}).

So it is pretty unlikely that taking the pill will cause problems becoming pregnant or children with a lower resistance to infection, since women not on the pill don't seem to favour MHC dissimilar odours (and thus men?) anyway, and women taking the pill don't show any difference in their preference for MHC dissimilar men compared to women not on the pill anyway.

The Mail does carry a contrary opinion from Professor Bill Ledger (Sheffield University) who wonders whether the smell of sweat is likely to overide the 'intellectual and emotional feeling' of a relationship but curiously doesn't attack the methodology of the paper. I wonder whether this is another example of embargoed press releases where those commenting on the paper don't actually get to see it and point out the obvious flaws.

Saturday, 9 August 2008


Oh shit, the South Ossetia situation looks bad, but I'm intrigued at some of the reactions (e.g. Crooked Timber here, and on Comment is Free). I've never understood the seeming willingness of people to back western proxies against Russia with some really specious and hypocritical arguments. It harks back to the sort of cold war rhetoric that saw leftists backing dictators against western imperialism, and western democratic governments destabilising democratic socialist regimes and propping up despots.

For my own part I think a 'Neither Washington or Moscow' approach is needed here (more like this article in the Guardian), although I'm fairly unimpressed by legalistic arguments about territorial integrity and sympathetic to calls for regional autonomy where this is backed by the population. I certainly won't be "stand[ing] in solidarity with Georgia" in their attempts to subjugate the population of South Ossetia.

More informed coverage from A Fistful of Euros and Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Monday, 4 August 2008


Being an old fashioned kind of guy, I haven't really followed the withdrawal of funding by JISC from Athens in favour of the 'UK Access Management Federation' and 'Shibboleth' technology. But now that my institution has withdrawn Athens compliance, I can tell you that it is just like Athens only it works about 1/10th as well.

Currently I'm working outside the university network (you'd hope within a university network with relevant IP addresses anyone would be able to figure out how to organise access management) but under the new system instead of being able to sign in to Athens once and then access all journal articles via links in commonly used search engines like pubmed, or via links in journal articles, now I have to search the university database of subscribed journals, then enter the citation, then wait while it chugs along at about one mile per hour to finally serve up the paper. If I'm lucky the journal may have got around to adding the 'UK Access Management Federation' to its long list of alternative logins, and then if I find it, and select the relevant UK university from the long list, I may be able to get it to recognise that I've already signed in (saving me the time to type in my login and password, but little else).

So why change? Apparently 'federated access management' (where they ask your institution if you're signed in there, rather than having you sign in directly) is the bees knees, according to JISC:
"Users will have a single sign-on using an institutional ID and password for a wide range of resources, as well as the assurance that their personal data will not be disclosed to third parties.
Librarians will be free of the burden of user name and password administration, and will have new tools for managing licenses and service subscriptions.
IT managers will have more control of the access management process through enhancements to enterprise directories, although this will require additional institutional effort in the short term.
Institutions will have a single service to meet the requirements of e-learning, e-research and library-managed resources. Simplification of the authentication process has also proven to lead to increased use of subscribed services."
It is good to know that in order to allow a single sign-on username and password and to free up a little bit of time for librarians (the rest of that stuff is pie in the sky techno-wank) access to online journals has regressed ten years in terms of useability, speed of access. Am I missing something or is this another example of management idiots fucking it up again? The potential benefits seem minimal and the implmentation is woeful.