The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

The Secret Lives of Cells

How we live, how we function, how we reproduce and how we age are all explained by the smallest and yet most complex of living structures — the cell.

This week on Skepticality, Swoopy talks with Lewis Wolpert, Professor Emeritus of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College London and author of The Unnatural Nature of Science and Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief about his newest US release, How We Live & Why We Die: The Secret Lives of Cells. This basic primer on cellular biology deftly examines the invisible world of all living things, from our evolutionary past, to stem cells, cloning and the future of regenerative medicine.

Mystery Photo

What famous telescope is this, where is it located, and what famous celestial object was discovered with it? (click to enlarge image)

Last Week’s Mystery Photo is of Shermer with Frank Sulloway, U.C. Berkeley historian of science, Darwin scholar, and Galapagos explorer, retracing Darwin’s footsteps through the Galapagos. The photograph was taken in what Darwin called the “craterized district” of the island of San Cristobal, the first place Darwin explored in the island archipelago starting in September of 1835. Sulloway is also documenting the changes in the island flora and fauna since he first started doing research in the Galapagos in the 1970s, noting how much has already changed, much of it from introduced species (either intentionally or accidentally). The stuffed animals are mostly bears, which were inspired by Frank’s children’s book he has authored about the “Galapagos Bears” who live on the islands, named Darwin Bear, Huxley Bear, Wallace Bear, Lyell Bear, etc. In order to join Frank on an expedition, in addition to carrying about 70 pounds of gear and food and water on your back, you have to bring a bear. That little bear in the front with the red shirt with a “D” on it is “Devin Bear,” named after my daughter Devin, who had the bear in her room when I came in searching for the smallest, lightest bear she had in her stuffed animal collection. I still have Devin Bear attached to my backpack and she travels with me everywhere I go, reminding me both of my experience in the Galapagos islands with Frank and, of course, of my beloved daughter. —Michael Shermer

We will reveal the answer to this week’s Mystery Photo in next week’s eSkeptic.

About this week’s feature article

In this interview with one of the pioneering women in the skeptical movement, Carol Tavris picks up where Stephen Jay Gould left off on his book The Mismeasure of Man with her mythbusting book The Mismeasure of Woman. Tavris uncovers a host of myths about women and shows what science actually tells us about gender difference with respect to cognition. This piece was published in Skeptic magazine vol. 7, no.1 (1999).

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The Measure of a Woman
An interview with social scientist Carol Tavris

by Michael Shermer

Carol Tavris photo

Carol Tavris

To skeptics, humanists, and free thinkers of all stripes, she is known for her unbending stand against pseudoscience and fuzzy-headed thinking. To feminists she is known for her social activism and efforts to show that women are neither the inferior nor the superior sex. To psychologists and social scientists she is known for her pioneering efforts to include women as legitimate subjects of research in the study of human behavior, and to make critical thinking a part of the educational process. And to thousands of introductory psychology students every year she is known as the co-author of their textbook — their first introduction to the world of Carol Tavris: skeptic, feminist, social scientist, and author.

Tavris’s grandparents were Russian Jews who immigrated to Chicago at the turn of the century. Her mother broke the rules of convention by becoming a lawyer at the tender age of 21, having decided that if she would need to take courses to become a court reporter, she might as well go all the way. She then violated another social norm by becoming a mother at the then-unheard of age of nearly 40. The Tavris family moved to Los Angeles during the depression because, Carol recalled with a grin, “they figured if they were going to starve they should at least be warm.” Her mother quit her law practice “because no one was working during the depression, especially women lawyers.” In 1955, when she was just 11 years old, Tavris’s father died, and her mother became the sole breadwinner, continuing to run the insurance agency she and her husband had started. “One of the strongest feminist messages my mother sent me was ‘be sure you are self-sufficient, be sure you can earn your own living.’”

Tavris learned that lesson well, along with an approach toward thinking, skepticism, and social activism unique to the cultural tradition of Judaism. Her parents were nonreligious, and they actively opposed religions that they believed fomented intolerance and the mindless acceptance of doctrine. “They came from the strands of Judaism and socialism that celebrated free thinkers,” she recalled, “a tradition of questioning, dissenting, and arguing with received wisdom.” Judaism, Tavris explained in a wry twist of humor, “is the only religion in which people are always arguing with God.” The Talmud, she continued, “is a set of arguments among Rabbis about Jewish law. Someone says something, and then there are 45 commentaries and arguments about it. It is a religious document, but one that is based on an intellectual attitude of questioning and dissent in a spirit of improving the mind, of better understanding, and of moving forward. That spirit was very much my father’s attitude. If my parents set down a rule, I was always free to argue about it and discuss it. They hated ‘because I say so’ as a reason for making a child obey. They always gave me reasons for their rules — and always listened if I had reasons for questioning them.”

Growing up Jewish and socialist also inculcated in Tavris a sense of social activism as a long-term commitment. “My parents understood that the goals of justice and egalitarianism are never achieved once and for all,” she said. “It’s a constant battle against the forces of reaction, superstition, and vested interests. As egalitarians, my parents gave me books to read about successful, interesting women — from Harriet Tubman to Elizabeth Blackwell — which is undoubtedly why my first ambition, as a little girl, was to be the world’s first woman bus driver. I looked around and saw that there were no women bus drivers and said, ‘well, I can be one.’ I never got any messages ever, from either parent, about what a woman’s place was, or what I could or could not do.” This included religion. “They would never say ‘you won’t believe in God’ any more than they would say ‘you will believe in God.’ They would say, ‘Here’s why some people believe in God, here’s some of the many different concepts of God, and here’s why we don’t believe in God.’ I was then free to choose.”

Raised in that spirit of inquiry, Tavris went on to a productive career as a social scientist, feminist scholar, author, and lecturer. She and her long-time collaborator Carole Wade wrote one of the first textbooks in women’s studies, The Longest War: Sex Differences in Perspective (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977 and 1984), which examined the scientific evidence for and against many beliefs about women and women’s lower status historically and cross-culturally. Her popular books Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion (Simon and Schuster, 1989) and The Mismeasure of Woman (Simon and Schuster, 1992) became classic exercises in the application of critical thinking and skeptical inquiry to their hitherto misunderstood and mismeasured subjects. Book reviews and Op-Ed essays that regularly appear in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times are always, regardless of the subject, written from her intelligent and thoughtful perspective — challenging yet sensitive to the complexities of the issue. Her introductory psychology textbook (Psychology, 6th edition, Prentice Hall, 2000), co-authored with Carole Wade, was the first to explicitly and systematically integrate principles of critical and scientific thinking into the introductory course. Revising this successful and influential text, along with their other texts Invitation to Psychology and Psychology in Perspective, keeps Tavris on the cutting edge of new research in her field.

Although Tavris has no academic position, no tenure-secured professorship, lecture invitations from universities and professional organizations come in regularly, along with media calls for radio and television interviews, book review and Op-Ed assignments, and all manner of distractions that she struggles mightily to balance with her drive to stay focused on writing. A home office nestled in the canyons of the Hollywood Hills has built-in book shelves (including one featuring the numerous foreign translations of Tavris’s many books) and exquisite art. She lives with her actor husband, Ronan O’Casey, who doubles as a gourmet cook, and a gregarious Border collie named Sophie. Because her life development cannot be separated from her intellectual ontogeny, the interview picks up with the free spirit of inquiry of her upbringing, starting with religion and moving on toward current aspects of her life and thought.

Skeptic: It seems to me that this attitude of your parents toward religion of free choice is a much healthier approach toward religion than either that of fanatical believers or militant atheists.

Tavris: They took “free” thinking seriously. They respected people who were religious, if they had thought about why they were believers and weren’t hypocritical. My mother’s father used to say to his children, “You may fast on Yom Kippur if you choose to honor this tradition, and you may eat on Yom Kippur if you do not believe in fasting, but you may not say you will fast and then smuggle in a sandwich.”

One of the problems with the skeptical movement is that it attempts to take important beliefs away from people without replacing them. People believe that skeptics and scientists are forever telling them their ideas are wrong, stupid, and naive — “No, you can’t talk to Uncle Henry from beyond the grave; that medium is a fraud” or “No, crushed aardvark bones can’t cure your cancer.” One problem with the critical thinking movement, which came from philosophy, was that it missed the psychological and emotional reasons that people don’t think critically and don’t want to think critically. Until you understand the forces that make people want to believe something, you can’t just expect people to listen rationally to a set of arguments that will skewer their deepest, most cherished ideas.

Skeptic: And religion would certainly count as one of the most cherished of all.

Tavris: Religion provides many important functions in human life, quite apart from its reassurances about the meaning of life and the possibility of salvation. It often provides a close community, warm and emotional holidays, reassuring and familiar rituals and traditions at times of joy and sorrow, harvest and famine. I got all of those things because of parents thought it was important that I celebrated and understood our Jewish heritage — just without the God part. When many people give up the God part, they also give up the rituals and traditions of religion, such as weddings, holidays, and funerals. But rituals are essential in human existence. When there is a death, people need a grieving ceremony in which they get together and celebrate the life of the loved one who is gone. Religious ceremonies are organized around God, of course. But I think what is most comforting for the bereaved is the familiarity of the ritual and its part in a long chain of shared human experience, and the immediate comfort of friends and family. Of course, families can make their own rituals and traditions, too. My mother solved the “what to do about Christmas when you’re Jewish” problem by always giving me a gift from Mrs. Santa Claus, who, she said, “is sure to be doing all the work, shopping and wrapping all those presents, while Mr. Santa Claus gets all the credit.” She and I made our own tradition, with a little feminist lesson tucked into it.

Skeptic: Where does that need for tradition and ritual come from? If it is so wrapped up in family and community, then one suspects there must be an evolutionary component to it.

Tavris: The renowned psychologist Don Campbell once observed that human beings depend on “wise superstitions.” These are the rituals we do without knowing why we do them, any more than the squirrel knows why it gathers acorns for the winter. But if the squirrel doesn’t gather them, it will starve. Campbell said that human beings also do many things that seem irrational, but without them communities would wither and die. We do these things because they have a greater function than they seem to have at the time, and we only see their purpose when they cease to be practiced. Human rituals designed to celebrate God or life or the seasons are part of every culture and they have many functions — they help explain the mysteries that humans have always wanted to understand, and they help create a community cohesion and identity. The specific rituals will vary depending on the geography, ecology, history, and evolution of a culture, but all cultures have them.

Of course, some rituals eventually lose their original purpose and become meaningless or unnecessary. And some, like female genital mutilation — practiced throughout much of Africa, the Middle East, and Indonesia — are cruel and barbaric, though this awful custom too has a larger purpose, which is to insure a woman’s marriageability and obedience, and hence her survival in her community. Just because a ritual has a historic or economic purpose doesn’t mean we must accept it forever. It does mean, though, that if we want to change the ritual, we usually can’t just do it by fiat: “Poof! We forbid genital mutilation!” That won’t work any more than will forbidding people to worship in their particular religion. Rituals die only when the reasons for them become unnecessary.

Skeptic: Maybe the need for ritual and community is, in part, what is driving many of these New Age movements. People like Deepak Chopra seem to be tapping into something more than alternative medicine; it is more like alternative religion or alternative spiritualism.

Tavris: Yes, I think the rise of spiritual movements today reflects not just a hunger for God, but for the kind of community connection that religion has traditionally provided. And I think it reflects a longing for something that is bigger than our small individual selves. That “something” used to be community, country, politics, social movements. But Americans are becoming increasingly apolitical and apathetic, and turning inward for answers. The God squad is happy to provide them. But my parents and their generation had a lifelong sense of obligation to improve the world rather than themselves.

Skeptic: Without God, what would be the reason to be a moral person, or to try to improve the world?

Tavris: Helping people. Humanity in general. Bettering the world, if not in time for you, then for your kids. Justice. Kindness. Those are pretty good reasons. My parents believed that if you are working only for yourself it is not enough.

Skeptic: Was it always understood you would go to college?

Tavris: Yes, and which college, at that — Brandeis. My mother started working for the National Women’s Committee of Brandeis when I was in high school. As a backup I applied to Stanford, but was rejected for three reasons, which they cheerfully told you in those days: I was a woman, I was Jewish, and I was from California. We all knew about the quotas on women and Jews; that didn’t bother me. But what was wrong with being a Californian? I was outraged. So I went to Brandeis where I studied comparative literature and sociology. Sociology, at Brandeis, meant the study of Marx and Freud. I became a champion Freudian! My senior thesis was a Freudian analysis of Hamlet and Don Quixote (there’s the comparative literature sneaking in).

When it came time for graduate school in 1966 I thought I would combine my majors and study the sociology of literature, which was being done in two places — Berkeley and the University of Michigan. I was accepted at Berkeley, who told me that they admitted twice as many graduate students as they would pass at the end of the first year. What a cheerful first year of study, waiting to know which half of your class would flunk out! At Michigan they told me they only accepted students they knew could do the work; if you have a problem, they said, we figure it’s our fault. Did I make a typically “female” decision to prefer a comfortable and supportive environment to a hostile and aggressive one? Or maybe I’d been spoiled by the supportive environment at Brandeis. In any case, I went to Michigan, where I discovered the first week that nothing I’d learned about sociology at Brandeis had anything to do with what sociologists did. For one thing, they all wrote in some impenetrable prose that made me feel completely stupid. But within a few weeks I discovered the interdisciplinary program in social psychology. It was exactly my cup of tea, so I switched.

In 1968, after taking my preliminary exams, I decided it was time for a break. On a whim, I wrote a letter to Psychology Today, a new magazine that had just started up on the west coast, and asked for a summer job. They said they could only use me if I came for the entire year, and I reluctantly agreed — reluctant because this was just the sort of thing that graduate departments used as an excuse for not admitting women. Women were forever dropping out to work or have a baby or earn a living, or other odd activities. So here I was doing the very thing I swore I would not do — taking a leave.

Skeptic: In all of your present work you place great emphasis on the scientific method as a means of getting at answers to questions, yet in your background you were raised in disputation and debate where there are no final answers. And in your undergraduate training you studied comparative literature, which is also steeped in the tradition of disputation, so somewhere along the line you made the transition from subjective debate that leads to no final conclusions, to objective science in which empirical answers can be derived through experimentation.

Tavris: Brandeis didn’t teach me much about the scientific method — not with all that subjective, qualitative Freudian stuff — but my education there was imbued with the Talmudic tradition, which, like the scientific method, is all about asking questions. It’s not about getting final answers. But I must have been a budding scientist, because one of the reasons I decided on a career in sociology rather than literature was that I liked the idea of testing ideas for their relative validity. In literature, your success as an academic depends on the brilliance and cleverness of your interpretation of a text over someone else’s. I thought, “Well, that’s lots of fun to do and all very nice, but why choose one interpretation over another?” I remember reading a dissertation on the subject of whether Hamlet was or was not fat. The pro-fat evidence is that the Queen says of Hamlet, when he is dueling Laertes, “He is fat, and scant of breath,” and Hamlet himself says in that great soliloquy, “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew….” The author’s anti-fat argument was that the correct text was, “O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt….” Hamlet, in short, was really more concerned about sin and contamination than about chubbiness. I read this paper and thought, “If this is how I’m going to be spending my time as a professor of literature I’m out of here.”

When I got to Michigan, I fell in love with the process of science — the systematic investigation of questions. I loved learning about different methods of investigating questions, from field work and experiments to interviews and observations. But I never regarded “science” as a pristine set of answers—rather as a way of helping us assess which answers are better than others, at least for now.

Skeptic: I wonder too if your upbringing in which you were taught to do something for humanity led you to look for something beyond the narrow confines of academia.

Tavris: No, because academia doesn’t have to be narrow or unconcerned with humanity. Brandeis sure wasn’t. Its students and faculty encouraged social activism, on campus and off. My teachers loved intellectual debates but they instilled in students a commitment to the world outside the university. And in graduate school at Michigan in the late 60s, social psychology was a field bursting with social relevance and important issues. Stanley Milgram had recently done his famous study of obedience to authority, trying to determine why good people do harmful things. He and other social psychologists were taking on the grand questions: prejudice, conformity, racism, sexism, war, the authoritarian personality. Feminism was being reborn. Social psychology was where the action was then.

Skeptic: Going to Psychology Today put you in touch with the biggest names in the field, so in a way this was a natural step for you as a social activist to run around the country doing stories about all this great research on social change, then report it to millions of people.

Tavris: Yes, but to most academics, writing for a popular magazine is anathema. Fortunately I had supportive faculty advisors who felt it was important for psychologists to be able to communicate with the public. So I finished my year at Psychology Today, returned to finish my Ph.D., and then had to make a career choice: take an academic position or go back to Psychology Today as a Senior Editor. I went to see an older relative who was my mentor, the great graphic artist Saul Bass. Saul listened to my list of reasons for each job and then asked me a simple question: “Which job would be more fun?” I thought: “fun? fun? You’re allowed to make a job decision based on fun?” Well, you are. So even though I felt guilty about not going into academia, I took the job at Psychology Today.

Skeptic: In hindsight, was this the right decision?

Tavris: Oh boy, it sure was! And I say this in full knowledge of the hindsight bias! I worked with brilliant editors who blew the jargon off my prose, tossed me into deep water and forced me to swim, and reinforced my commitment to communicating research findings to the public. I met my wonderful co-author Carole Wade there. We taught a course on gender differences at San Diego State College, and out of that course we wrote The Longest War. Working at PT and writing that book began my career as an independent scholar and writer.

After two years the magazine was sold and moved to New York, so I went with it. I stayed for about a year then went to work for Human Nature, a wonderful magazine that came out just before the wave of science magazines emerged in the 1980s. Unfortunately it was ahead of its time and didn’t make it. So there I was, unemployed. But by then it was too late to reconsider academia; once you fall off the academic career ladder, it is almost impossible to climb back on. It was okay, though. The truth is that I am a better writer and communicator than I am an academic or an experimenter. I found the right niche.

Skeptic: In recent years you have been writing and lecturing about the gap between scientific researchers in psychology and the many psychotherapists who are virtually untrained in the scientific method, or the findings of psychology, for that matter.

Tavris: Many people don’t realize that this gap exists, or the reasons for it. The pop-psych therapists get the public attention; they write books and advice columns, have radio shows, get on TV. The scientists work in their labs and write for professional journals.

At the heart of this divide between many therapists and scientists is skepticism—their attitude toward received wisdom. Scientists are trained to be skeptical of received wisdom, to question it, to seek other explanations. Many therapists are trained to accept received wisdom uncritically from whatever authority their particular school endorses. That’s why many therapists call themselves Freudians or Jungians or Rogerians or whateverians. Scientists don’t take their identity from the name of some expert—there aren’t any Gouldians or Saganians.

Making explicit the difference between empirical research and clinical intuition in psychology has formed a thread through all the work I have done. In researching my book on anger, I discovered a massive amount of evidence from experimental research, cross-cultural studies, and field work disputing the clinical assumptions about what anger is, where it comes from, what you should do with it, why you should ventilate it, how universal it is, and so on. Why wasn’t this valuable data getting out to the practitioners and the public?

Skeptic: And in your textbooks you have also been at pains to bring critical and scientific thinking to students entering the field of psychology.

Tavris: After Anger was published and I’d been writing for magazines for a few years, Carole Wade inquired if I wanted to do an intro psych book with her. I said, “I thought you liked me! What an insane idea.” She said, “No, really, there is a lot that needs to be done in this area.” She was right. The joke at the time was that psychology was the study of the white, male, sophomore … rat. We had the humble goal of including research that would make the field more inclusive and hence more scientific. First we needed to get women throughout the book, instead of relegating them to a chapter on “gender,” where they formerly had been stuck. And we wanted to bring in the influence of culture on behavior—Inuit culture is not the same as French culture.

Most of all, we wanted to build a book around the principles of critical thinking. We wanted to show students that psychology can teach them how to think better: how to ask questions, how to think about answers and examine the evidence for them, what explanations are possible, what emotional biases we bring to our explanations, and so on. Critical thinking was suited to psychology because psychologists study not only smart and creative thinking, but also irrational and self-defeating thinking. But these were very radical notions in the mid-80s. A book with women in it! And based on critical thinking!

Skeptic: And doing this textbook, which gets updated periodically, has provided a living for you?

Tavris: Yes, and given me the opportunity to write reviews, Op-Ed pieces, and general-interest books like The Mismeasure of Woman.

Skeptic: What was the genesis of The Mismeasure of Woman?

Tavris: This was a summary of all the work on gender that I had been reading about since we wrote The Longest War, and a way to focus my personal and political commitments. It gave me a way, as in Anger, to see whether our assumptions were supported by evidence or not—are men always and everywhere more “promiscuous” than women? (Writing that chapter was fun.) Are women really more “moral” and “peace-loving” than men? Is John Gray right that men and women come from different planets, or just different neighborhoods? The book is also an examination of the biases in much of the research that has been done on women— and men.

Skeptic: It is not a feminist political tract.

Tavris: Thank you. Actually, some conservatives thought it was, and some feminists thought it was anti-feminist. By the time Mismeasure came out, in 1992, there were lots of “feminisms” in America. American feminism has always been split between equality feminists and superiority feminists. Equality feminists believe that the sexes are equal and should have equal opportunity. They were the ones, during the suffrage movement, who argued that women should have the vote because it’s fair and just—women are human beings and deserve the right to vote. Superiority feminists agree with misogynists that men and women are profoundly, essentially, utterly different. But they invert the old male-superiority stereotype: women are the superior species because they are kinder, more moral, more chaste, less lustful, more sweet-natured, etc. In the suffrage era, superiority feminists argued that women should have the vote because they would eliminate war and poverty and eradicate social ills. Yeah, sure.

Skeptic: So you see superiority feminism as being just as scientifically untenable as the old male-superiority beliefs were.

Tavris: Alas, it is. It is understandably appealing to many women, who have been the recipient of misogynistic attitudes and practices for millennia, but in the last analysis it has as many pernicious consequences as the myth of male superiority does. As Carole and I wrote in The Longest War, “whether you are looking down at women or looking up to them, you don’t have to look them in the eye.” I am an equality feminist. It is not as popular a view in some feminist circles, because if women are inherently no worse and no better than men, but just as diverse in their personalities, abilities, and other qualities, then what does that tell us? That women are human too—we can neither enslave them nor look to them for salvation.

Skeptic: This is your mother’s feminism.

Tavris: And my father’s. You let women into the law, say, because it’s fair. Superiority feminists believe you should let women into the law because they will humanize the profession and make it kinder, sweeter, and less adversarial. Hello? Have you noticed any humanizing of the legal profession lately? The reason is that lawyers must do what their law firms require them to do, or they’re toast. If you’re an activist lawyer who wants to work on behalf of the poor, or who simply wants to work regular hours so you can spend time with your family, you won’t do it at a top law firm, no matter what color, religion, or sex you are.

Skeptic: So the problem lies in the social institutions themselves, not in the gender of who is running them.

Tavris: Basically, yes. Economic, institutional, and organizational arrangements have far more to do with how men and women get along with each other than anything intrinsic to our gender.

Skeptic: Do the data support this claim?

Tavris: They do. For example, studies show that when you put one woman in a group of men, one man in a group of women, one black person in a group of white people, or whatever, everyone focuses on the distinctive characteristics of the token person. It is natural; that’s how the human brain works—we are designed to focus on differences. Unfortunately, the result is that anything that token individual does will be attributed to his or her distinctive feature. Nothing the token does will be right. “Trouble with her is that she’s too masculine—trying to be one of the boys.” “Trouble with her is that she’s too girlish and feminine—not enough like us.” That is why it is so hard to be the first woman anything— marine, rabbi, police officer. But as soon as you have four or five women in a group of men, or four or five blacks in a group of whites, others see the diversity among them. Suddenly they are not behaving according to their gender or ethnicity but according to their personality or the requirements of their job. Everyone got exercised over Shannon Faulkner, the first woman at the Virginia Military Institute. Have you heard anything about the 30 women who followed her?

Skeptic: When a field matures with more balance between, say, men and women, which is stronger: the new gender influence or the role requirements of that profession?

Tavris: If you get a big enough critical density the newcomers can overturn the old way of doing things, but it really depends on the profession. The military will be the military, whether it is made up of men, women, gays, straights, Californians, Jews, or giraffes. Medicine is changing rapidly, partly because men are leaving it because it doesn’t offer the freedom and money it once did, but largely because of managed care. Will it become more “humane” and “compassionate” now that more women are in the profession? No, the financial constraints and time you can spend with a patient, imposed by HMOs, affect women doctors too.

Because we are such an individually-oriented culture, though, we keep forgetting the power of social arrangements over our lives and relationships. We keep looking inward, to psychology and biology, for solutions. For example, women who have children still suffer far more than men, in terms of the traditional career trajectory. The reason has nothing to do with some personality flaw “in them,” but because there are so few institutional support structures for the combination of work and family. It is still a national disgrace that our country does not have a widespread reliable system of day care and after-school care for the children of working parents, as virtually all European countries do. So each woman makes this decision privately, worrying that whatever she does she’s a “bad mom.” Fortunately, research assures us that most kids survive all kinds of mothering, all kinds of child-rearing fads, and day care, too.

Skeptic: In the science studies field, researchers speculate how having more women in science will transform it. How would science change if there were more women or more minorities in it?

Tavris: Well, the first few who make it through the door of any profession will try as hard as they can to be like everyone else who has gotten through the door. That’s how they get through the door in the first place. But when you start getting more and more of the formerly excluded group in the room, they want to redecorate it and rearrange the furniture. They say, “We have other questions we would like to ask; we want to know about these things instead of those things, and we’re not sure your way of doing things is getting the best answers.”

The first women to enter psychology pretty much did the kind of work that the guys were doing—they studied the same topics, using the same methods. But in the 1970s there was a huge influx of women into the field and they started asking questions that had never been asked before. They wanted to know why, in studies that compared men and women, women were always considered the deviant, abnormal, pathologically disturbed sex. Why do men have “achievement motivation” but women don’t? Women began to examine the way in which questions and therefore answers had been biased. If women seem to differ from men in achievement motivation, might this finding have to do with what we mean by “achievement”? Yes. Are women’s ambitions affected by their chance of achieving? Yes.

Skeptic: Would you attribute, in part, the disastrous Recovered Memory movement to the gender shift within psychology?

Tavris: So many things fed that movement. First, it stemmed from feminist activism against rape and domestic violence against women, issues that only had come to public attention as social problems in the 1970s. Second, during the 70s and 80s, more and more women became feminist psychotherapists, which they saw as a way of doing social activism at a personal level. But for many of them, the kind of therapy they were learning was increasingly detached from the academic, university-based training that clinical psychologists got in the past. There has been an explosion of “free-standing” schools of therapy that are unconnected to any university departments; today you can become a psychotherapist without learning much about research methods or empirical findings. That’s why many therapists, male and female, still hold totally unsupported notions about memory—that it clicks on at the moment of birth, that it’s as accurate as a tape recorder, that hypnosis helps you accurately retrieve “repressed” memories, and so forth. All completely unvalidated beliefs. Obviously these folks have never taken an introductory psychology course.

Skeptic: Given your commitment to feminism and to science, how did you react to the growing clash between them?

Tavris: In general, I don’t think feminism and science are inherently antagonistic, any more than conservatism and science are. Many feminists regard science as a hopelessly patriarchal institution; I see it simply as a set of tools and attitudes that, like any human creation, can be used intelligently or stupidly. Science has justly deserved the criticisms of feminists, but to throw out the whole institution is like saying, “well, the law and medicine are biased against women, so let’s get rid of all laws and doctors.” For me, science provides information that can be used to further the goals of feminism, and feminism is a way of improving science.

Skeptic: Have they ever clashed?

Tavris: After the McMartin trial in 1986, I wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times about research that had been done on how to interview children in sex abuse cases. Evidence at the time suggested that sometimes you have to ask children leading questions or they will not tell you they have been molested. For example, if you interviewed a child after a genital examination and you asked her just to tell what the doctor did, almost no child would volunteer that the doctor touched her genitals. But if you asked a leading question, such as, “The doctor touched your private parts, didn’t he?” the children would say “yes.” The L.A. Times headlined this article, “Do Children Lie? Not About This.”

Of course that was preposterous. Of course children lie “about this” and lots of other things. But my essay, although based on research at the time, helped support the child advocates who were on a rampage against child molesters, and who were running around saying “children never lie” and selling bumper stickers that said “believe the children.” I didn’t foresee that prosecutors and therapists would use these same studies to coerce the hell out of kids. When I think of my own embarrassment about that little article, and how hard it was to say, “Boy, was I wrong about that research,” I realize how difficult it must be for all those “believe the children” people to acknowledge they were wrong, too. In fact, most of them haven’t. They are more entrenched than ever in their pernicious beliefs.

Skeptic: But since then you have written and spoken out strongly against that movement, such as in your New York Times article, “Beware the Incest-Survivor Machine,” which was one of the first public critiques of the recovered memory movement.

Tavris: That article grew out of the last chapter of The Mismeasure of Woman. It was an exposé of the scientific illiteracy in all the popular incest-survivor books, notably The Courage to Heal. These writers were prattling on about memory and incest and trauma and repression, and they didn’t know the first thing about them. “If you can’t remember the abuse, it probably means you were abused”—there’s clear thinking for you. Of course I was absolutely vilified for that article, accused of being a pedophile and anti-feminist and everything else. And it made me aware of how great the antipathy toward science had become in some feminist therapy circles.

Skeptic: There are other political biases in the interpretation of scientific results. Many people on the right and left, for example, try to dispute or ignore research that questions their favorite social policies. Many feminists and other leftists, for example, oppose biological research on gender and ethnic differences.

Tavris: They are dead right to be suspicious, because biological research has been used for centuries to justify pernicious social policies and elitist beliefs, as Stephen Jay Gould has written about so eloquently. In my view, feminists and egalitarians need not fear good research, even in biology. Information itself is neither sexist nor racist; it is neutral. Biological research liberated mothers from Bruno Bettelheim’s nonsensical belief that cold mothers make their children autistic. In the end it is society’s goals that determine what programs are to be implemented, not the scientific data. If the goal is to reduce violence, for example, we need to know if some kids are at higher risk of behaving aggressively because of brain damage or genetic predispositions. And we also need to be careful not to let that kind of information be used to stigmatize or incarcerate children simply because they “might” become dangerous. Biology may be a factor, but it is rarely the whole answer. Skeptic:We cannot always separate objective scientific research from social policy. If your research shows that having only one black or only one woman in a company causes people to treat them differently, but having six allows them to blend in, then wouldn’t one solution be to legislate something like affirmative action to insure that this happens?

Tavris: Social science research doesn’t give us permanent, definitive answers to which programs might achieve society’s goals, such as higher achievement for minorities. But research has two important functions. First, it can tell us what does not work— e.g., abstinence programs do not reduce rates of addiction or drug abuse; fear-mongering programs (“you’ll go blind and die if you have premarital sex!”) do not persuade teenagers to forgo sex, selfesteem classes do not improve children’s schoolwork or keep them out of gangs, and “DARE” doesn’t keep kids off drugs. Of course, many of these programs continue to be funded for political reasons, not because anyone is really persuaded they work.

Second, research can tell us what programs work better than others, at least for the moment. Some programs are effective only for a certain time in history. Efforts to integrate housing and schools were effective after generations of segregation—and of course they were morally and socially necessary. Over time, circumstances change and programs that once worked may stop working; new ideas are needed. For example, it soon became clear that integration alone was not enough to reduce black/white hostility; kids in schools just clustered in their own ethnic groups, fighting with each other. New research has emphasized the importance of cooperative learning in helping to reduce these ethnic clusters and mutual distrust.

Skeptic: Ever since Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions we have been considering how science changes. Is it cumulative and progressive, or do scientific fads and trends just come and go like fashion or art? I spent two years working full time in a behavioral laboratory studying how rats and pigeons learn—was this nothing more than a 1970’s fad of behaviorism which has now gone out of style?

Tavris: Behaviorism is actually a terrific example of the discovery of basic principles governing much of our behavior. Those basic principles haven’t changed since you were a student, though we have learned more about what’s in the “black box” of the mind between the stimulus and the response—cognitive and genetic contributions to behavior. There are many areas of psychology in which our knowledge is similarly progressive—for example, how children acquire language.

But of course it’s also true that there are fads and trends. Sometimes an idea simply reaches a dead end; no one is studying the Machiavellian personality anymore. As a social psychologist, though, I always ask: why this fad, now? Why is everyone on this bandwagon and abandoning that old one? Fads, you will find, are curiously connected to funding. Biological research is popular now because the government and drug companies are pouring lots of money into it. You can get a bundle to study the physiology of “PMS,” in hopes of finding a drug for whatever the hell it’s supposed to be, but try getting a penny to study the psychology of menstruation, let alone men’s moods and hormones. Thousands for the physiology of sexual problems, but not a cent to study the psychology of desire.

Skeptic: Given your interest in the differences in thinking between therapists and scientists, do you agree with Tana Dineen’s angry indictment of the therapy profession (see “Psychotherapy: the Snake Oil of the 90s,” Skeptic, Vol. 6, No.3)?

Tavris: Yes and no. I am as angry as she is about the harm that ignorant, fraudulent, and ill-trained therapists are doing in our society, from promoting recovered memories of abuse to generating multiple personality disorders. Psychobabble and pop-psych advice is silly and often flat-out dangerous. But I think Dineen is wrong to go after the whole industry. Some benefits of therapy are not verifiable by the usual methods of science; when a person is feeling defeated, demoralized, or stuck, not knowing where to turn or what to do, talking to a wise, kind therapist who has experience with normal human dilemmas can be tremendously beneficial. But not all therapy is the same. Research shows that behavioral therapy has consistently been the most effective intervention for the greatest diversity of problems—bed wetting, toilet training, child behavioral problems, phobias, etc. A friend of mine went to a psychoanalyst for weeks to discuss her toddler’s defecation problems; a behaviorist cured that child in two sessions. And research repeatedly shows that cognitive therapy is the therapy of choice for mood and emotional disorders—often more effective than antidepressants.

Skeptic: Tana Dineen has gone so far as to accuse therapists of creating mental disorders in order to get paid to treat them.

Tavris: She’s right that economic concerns are driving the marketplace of disorders and treatments. The invention of multiple personality disorder is a good example. If you can get an insurance company to pay you to treat someone for three years instead of 30 days, if you can get your hospital to set up an entire “dissociative disorders” unit, you are going to make a lot more money. Likewise, the proliferation of disorders in the psychiatrists’ bible— the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders]— was driven by economics. They kept adding normal problems to the manual, so that psychiatrists and psychologists could be compensated for treating everyday matters as well as serious ones (insurance won’t pay unless you can give a patient a DSM category number). What’s “caffeine-induced sleep disorder” doing in there? You don’t need to pay a professional to cure that one!

On the other hand, therapists are not “creating” schizophrenia and other severe mental disorders. They are not “creating” depression, child abuse, or any of the normal miseries that human beings have suffered throughout the centuries—long before therapy or psychology were invented. They may indeed be trying to sell their own particular solution to these ills, but they don’t manufacture them.

Skeptic: I wonder if these therapy movements and their critics represent swings of the pendulum from one extreme to another until they finally settle into a reasonable middle ground. Maybe we need our Thomas Szaszes and Tana Dineens to counterbalance the Recovered Memory and Satanic Ritual Abuse therapists.

Tavris: We need extremists. They always go too far, of course, but that is their greatest value to society! I’d like to point out, however, that it wasn’t the anti-therapy extremists who drove a stake through the heart of recovered memory therapy, MPD, and the false accusations against day care workers across the country. It was the work of solid scientists—academics such as Elizabeth Loftus, Steve Ceci, and Maggie Bruck, and of scientifically-minded, skeptical clinicians, such as Paul McHugh and Harold Merskey.

Skeptic: Do we skeptics go too far? Sometimes we are observers of culture, but other times we are activists, going on television telling people why this or that idea is wrong, and why people should or should not believe some person or claim.

Tavris: Both roles are important. The reason you are a skeptic is that you are an activist. If everybody’s beliefs were just innocuous things they kept around the house and didn’t act on, then so what? I don’t care if my neighbor thinks that little gremlins are running the world. The reason we care about people’s beliefs is that beliefs have consequences. As a social psychologist, as a feminist, and as a human being, I care about those consequences, and so do you, and that’s why you are out there telling the public that people like James Van Praagh are not just amusing entertainers; people spend their hard-earned money trying to reach their departed loved ones and end up getting their hearts broken. It matters if women believe that their stresses at work are due to their hormones rather than their working conditions or lack of day care. Facilitated Communication is not just a benign and distracting form of therapy for autistic children. It has led to false allegations of parental abuse, separated parents from children, caused parents to invest money and hope in a useless gimmick, and, more important, it prevents autistic children from getting the kind of help that would improve their ability to function in the world—behavioral therapy, by the way.

Science and skepticism, flawed as they are, are our only ways of assessing which ideas are better than others, and of forcing ourselves to let go of ideas that don’t work. Skepticism is fun for the intellectual pleasure of it, but today it is ever more socially and ethically imperative as well. Ideas matter. END

Skeptical perspectives from Carol Tavris at Shop Skeptic…
cover Festschrift 2000 for Stephen Jay Gould: Part II
by Carol Tavris (DVD $23.95)

Evolution Revolution: Skepticism, Education, Environment. Festschrift 2000 for Stephen Jay Gould, Part II by Dr. Carol Tavris, James Randi, Dr. Paul MacCready, Bill Nye, “the science guy.” James “The Amazing” Randi the world’s foremost spokesman against pseudoscience discussed Gould’s role in skepticism. Dr. Carol Tavris delivered one of the most popular lectures, discussing her fascinating and important work in gender studies, showing how pervasive the male bias is in all aspects of research, showing comparisons between Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man with her own book, The Mismeasure of Woman. READ more and order the lecture.

cover Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)
by Carol Tavris (CD $15.95 DVD $23.95)

Why do people dodge responsibility when things fall apart? Why the parade of public figures unable to own up when they screw up? Why the endless marital quarrels over who is right? Why can we see hypocrisy in others but not in ourselves? Are we all liars? Or do we really believe the stories we tell? Renowned social psychologist Dr. Carol Tavris takes a compelling look into how the brain is wired for self-justification. READ more and order the lecture.

Other books by Carol Tavris at
  1. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson)
  2. Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion
  3. View her page on

Bishop Pontoppidan Versus the Tree Geese

In this week’s Skepticblog, Daniel Loxton discusses Erich Pontoppidan’s skeptical investigation of a very odd piece of European folklore: the idea that some waterfowl literally grow out of trees. Was Pontoppidan a spiral-eyed crazy, or a right-thinking skeptic baptized in critical thinking? And, is the world really that simple?
Read on and find out!



Lectures this Sunday

A Special Dual Event
How Old is the Universe? and
The Shape of Inner Space

with Dr. David Weintraub
and Dr. Shing-Tung Yau
Sunday, February 13, 2011 at 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall

How Old is the Universe?

IT’S ALL VERY WELL FOR ASTRONOMERS to say that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, but how do they know? Vanderbilt University astronomer David Weintraub explains it all for astronomy buffs in an enthusiastic way. He starts with how scientists first determined the age of the solar system — about 4.5 billion years — by isotope dating the oldest known rocks: lunar rocks brought back by astronauts, and meteorites that have collided with Earth. He then shows how stellar life cycles indicate an age of about 13 billion years. Refining that number requires measuring things we can’t even see, such as dark energy and dark matter. Weintraub explains various dating approaches and illustrates the work of astronomers to find the answer to one of the most basic questions about our universe. Order the book on which this lecture is based from

The Shape of Inner Space: String Theory and the Geometry of the
Universe’s Hidden Dimensions

String theory describes one of the smallest things you can possibly imagine — six-dimensional geometric spaces that may be more than a trillion times smaller than an electron — that could be one of the defining features of our universe. Dr. Yau tells the story of those spaces, which physicists have dubbed “Calabi-Yau manifolds,” and how Dr. Yau managed to prove the existence, mathematically, of those spaces, despite the fact that he had originally set out to prove that such spaces could not possibly exist. Order the book on which this lecture is based from

Ticket information

Tickets are first come first served at the door. Seating is limited. $8 for Skeptics Society members and the JPL/Caltech community, $10 for nonmembers. Your admission fee is a donation that pays for our lecture expenses.

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