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PORTSIDE  October 2012, Week 4

PORTSIDE October 2012, Week 4

Subject:

Friday Weird Science: Estrogen for President!

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Date:

Fri, 26 Oct 2012 23:11:15 -0400

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text/plain (264 lines)

Friday Weird Science: Estrogen for President!

Published by scicurious under Friday Weird Science
Oct 26 2012
http://scientopia.org/blogs/scicurious/2012/10/26/friday-weird-science-estrogen-for-president/

Today's Friday Weird Science is a synchro-blogging with
the ever fabulous Kate Clancy at Context and
Variation[1]. Because when you see a paper[2]
this...special...well sometimes it takes two of us.
Make sure you head over and check out her awesome
coverage!

I don't know about you all, but when I do anything, I
do it with my hormones. This results in issues
sometimes, like when my hormones tried to take the SAT
(they never can bring a #2 pencil), but I'm confident
that when it comes to the voting booth in November, my
estrogen will represent my interests.

Or at least, it will depending on what phase of the
menstrual cycle I'm on. Otherwise I might accidentally
vote for Obama or something.

No one will deny that our values and political
affiliations can change over time. The question is both
how and why. Do people always become more conservative
as they grow older? Are changes in political
affiliation due to things like higher economic status,
changes in religiosity, increased education, social
pressure, or other factors? Or, in the case of women,
do we just vote based on how likely we are to get
knocked up? I mean, that last one sounds like biology!
That's got to be the best reason.

The authors of this particular study wanted to look at
the idea that religious feelings and political
orientation were affiliated with "reproductive goals"
in women (aka, how likely your eggo is to be preggo).
They administered two internet surveys, the first to
275 women, and the second to 506 women, none of whom
were on hormonal contraceptives. They asked the date of
the last menstrual period, the expected date of the
next one, and the average length of their menstrual
cycle, and using this data, divided the women up into
high and low fertility groups. They asked if the women
were single or in a committed relationship.

Then they asked a series of questions. The first study
looked specifically at measures of religion, asking
questions like " (1) “How much do you believe in God?”
(Not at All – Very Much); (2) “I see myself as a
religiously oriented person” (Strongly Disagree –
Strongly Agree); and (3) “I believe that God or a
Higher Power is responsible for my existence” (Strongly
Disagree – Strongly Agree)." The authors used these
questions to come up with a score of "religiosity".

What they show is that single women show lower
religiosity when ovulating, while married women show
higher. The authors don't really explain this data, but
in the introduction they hypothesize that ovulation
makes women seek out more reproductive benefits, so I
guess this would mean that when you are married and
ovulating, you want some from your mate
because...religion, and when you are single, you want
some from, well, people, because...less religion?

Anyway, on to the politics.

In the second survey, the authors asked for the same
menstrual cycle data and single vs married data, and
then asked political questions, dividing their
questions into social and economic issues (apparently
no one cares about the views of your menstrual cycle on
foreign affairs).

The questions for economic issues included things like
"taxation policy, corporate regulation, economic
standard of living, and privatization of social
security", while the social issues included things like
"legalizing marijuana, equal rights, and stem cell
research".

The authors found no differences with regard to
economic issues based on high vs low fertility or
committed vs single status (hormones don't need your
dirty money, apparently). But when they came to social
issues, they saw some differences.

Specifically, they saw that single women who were high
fertility were more liberal, while committed women who
were high fertility were less liberal.

They then asked the women in the study, if they were
walking into a voting booth today, who would they vote
for, and then they asked which political party they
would like to receive a $1 donation.

When in the low fertility portion of the cycle,
committed and single women had the same preference. But
when ovulating, single women preferred Obama more,
while committed women preferred Obama less.

From these studies, the authors conclude that "Women’s
voting preferences were mediated by their ovulatory-
induced changes in political orientation."

The problems I have with this paper are many and
varied. And I'm certainly not the only one. Not only
should you check out Kate's post, but you should also
check out the coverage at Retraction watch[3], which
covered the story of the original CNN report of this
study being taken down (sorry, CNN, the internet is
forever). The study as reported by the media was
sketchy enough, but once you have access to the full
paper, the holes really come through.

To begin:

1. Women in committed relationships were more likely to
have children, more likely to be in a higher socio-
economic class, and were older. The authors never
controlled for these incredibly important factors in
their data.

2. Let's just be clear here, Romney ain't winning with
women no matter which reproductive phase they vote in.
The authors state that "married women tend to vote
Republican, whereas single women tend to vote
Democrat." and "They also reveal a potential reason for
the female divide in the 2012 presidential election, in
which single women strongly prefer the more liberal
candidate, while married women prefer the more
conservative candidate."

I'm not sure where they get this belief, but it's
certainly not from their data. "Non-ovulating" women
rated about the same in measures of Liberal and voting
no matter what the relationship status, only the
"ovulation" status showed a difference. Even when
support for Obama was at its lowest point, it was still
60% in married women who were ovulating (and over 75%
in non-ovulating). At its highest in single ladies,
it's at over 85% (and around 75% in non-ovulating). The
first is a comfortable win and the second is a
landslide. So it looks like the incumbent need not fear
for the menstrual cycle on election day.

3. The authors never asked how informed any of the
women were about the political views they were rating.

4. The authors rated "high fertility" as cycle days
7-14 and "low fertility" as cycle days 17-25. They cut
out the menstrual period itself, and some days before
and after, as well as days in between "high" and "low"
fertility. They cut out over a third of the menstrual
cycle. Over a third! And this is where it gets sticky
because...

5. Ovulating. You keep using that word. I do not think
it means what you think it means.

The authors start out classifying as "high fertility"
and "low fertility", but then switch on over to
"ovulation". And this is a mischaracterization to say
the least. Most "high fertility" times of the cycle are
not all that fertile, and it certainly does not mean
you are ovulating. For more on this, I recommend you
check out Kate's post.[1]

6. They ask "could the hormones associated with
ovulation account for some of the discrepancy between
single versus married women?"

I'm not sure what that means. First off, they didn't
take any hormone levels. It was an internet survey. No
hormone levels. Secondly...why would the hormones
associated with ovulation account for DIFFERENCES
between married and single women? Wouldn't they, rather
account for some of the similarities? Are they stating
that estrogen and progesterone have entirely different
effects on behavior due to whether or not there's a
committed relationship? They can suggest that and
that's fine, but there's no data to back that up, and
no studies have been done on this (and certainly none
that are cited). And it certainly runs contrary to much
of the behavioral literature on the topic.

6. Let me repeat. The authors here say that political
views differ based on ovulatory phase...but they have
no proof of ovulation. It was an internet survey at a
single time point (what we call a cross-sectional
study). They did not take hormone levels. The
likelihood of ovulation actually occurring...is much
lower than you'd think. This point, and the one I am
about to list below, make me think these data are
mostly artifact.

7. I'll repeat again. The authors here say that
political views differ based on ovulatory phase...but
they do not examine the same women over time. This is a
cross-sectional study, a single time point. They did
not ASK any of these women whether their political
views differed as a function of ovulatory phase because
they did not ask them during different phases of the
cycle.

8. Finally, the social beliefs that they asked
about...well many of them are not exactly things that
you believe in shades of grey. Certainly issues like
stem cells have shades of grey that can be influenced
when rating on a 1-7 scale (as required by the study),
but marriage equality? This is not something you
believe in, but only at, like, a 4. You either believe
that 'marriage is between a man and a woman' (as stated
in the survey), or you don't. And this view is very
likely to have been acquired and adhered to strongly.
You don't just randomly decide to not believe in gay
marriage so much today. Similarly, abortion issues are
something that many women have thought very deeply
about, and which many hold strong issues on. You don't
just suddenly start rating your pro-life beliefs as a 2
rather than a 6.

I could keep going, but I don't think I need to. The
paper bases its hypotheses on assumptions about the
menstrual cycle for which they have no proof and
ignores some major confounds in the data. But, as Kate
Clancy notes...it's not like they're doing science or
anything. And what do we know? We're the ones stuck
voting with our ovaries.

1. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/context-and-variation/2012/10/26/hot-for-obama-ovulation-politics-women/

2. Durante and Arsena. "The Fluctuating Female Vote:
Politics, Religion, and the Ovulatory Cycle" To be
published in Psychological Science, 2012.

3. http://retractionwatch.wordpress.com/2012/10/25/psychological-science-in-the-news-again-cnn-retracts-story-on-hormone-voting-link/

About the Author: Scicurious is a PhD in Physiology,
and is currently a postdoc in biomedical research. She
loves the brain. And so should you. Follow on Twitter
@Scicurious.

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