Some Thoughts for the Ottawa-Carleton Institute of Biology

This year will most likely be the last year that I attend the Ottawa-Carleton Institute of Biology’s yearly symposium. This small-scale conference is advertised internally, and draws its attendees almost exclusively from the two university biology departments that comprise the OCIB. As a graduating Ph.D., I’m unlikely to either get those advertisements or have the open schedule required to be present on subsequent occasions. It has served as a way for biology students at the two departments to meet and get to know one another, for people to become familiar with the research going on elsewhere at the Institute, to practice for higher-stakes presentations at larger conferences, and to attend curated talks from well-credentialed and diverse researchers in various related fields. I have never found attendance at the OCIB Symposium to be wasted, not even the year where they got that weirdo suggesting we start using Aristotelian teleological models to better understand parts of biology.

(For those not in the know, those models also underlie much Christian philosophy and therefore Intelligent Design.)

This year, though, was marred by two instances of tone-deaf, science-illiterate microaggression that only get to keep the “micro-” qualifier because I’m not prepared to accuse these two speakers of deliberately attacking the autistic and transgender communities. Yet.

On the conference’s second day (Friday), one of the last talks was by Paul Lem, co-founder and CEO of Spartan Bioscience. This former science student turned his education in biochemistry into a multi-million-dollar business selling laboratory equipment. His presentation, a capable complement to the pure-science talks that dominated the symposium, provided insights and tips on how other students with marketable ideas could likewise turn those ideas into their livelihoods in a world that has less room for career academics than it once did. Lem did not make the path any easier, in practice, but he did demarcate it well.

During the question and answer period that followed, though, the topic turned to how one could find the capable associates Lem mentioned in his talk, who might bridge the typical scientist’s lack of skill or training at pitching ideas to investors and securing partnerships. Lem included, among his suggestions, that would-be scientist-CEOs administer the Simon Baron-Cohen “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test to their would-be associates, selecting as their negotiators only those who do well on it.

For those who are not familiar with this test, it consists of a series of grayscale images of faces cropped so that only the eyes and their immediate vicinity are visible, offered alongside four nouns or adjectives. One of these words is the “correct” description of the emotion the depicted person is experiencing, determined by being what non-autistic test subjects most commonly selected when Baron-Cohen was testing his test. Baron-Cohen designed this test to distinguish autistic and neurotypical people on the assumed basis that autistic people would read the eyes’ emotional state “incorrectly.”

The fact that this test is conceptually circular is fairly obvious. Answers are not compared to the emotion the depicted person described themselves as feeling or even to some claim about emotions derived from brain-activity readings, but to what a neurotypical reference population usually answered, which was designated the correct answer. Further, modern research indicates that cues in tone of voice, body language, parts of the face other than eyes, and movements that cannot be captured in still (let alone grayscale!) photographs are vital to the reading of emotions. Cutting off so much of how humans read emotions is all by itself enough to render the test into a nonsensical exercise in how well people guess how other people are using very limited information, but it gets worse. The people depicted are actors instructed to demonstrate various emotions. As we all know, actors vary in their skill at realistically portraying various emotional states, particularly in the finer points of facial expression, particularly if it’s their lines and body language carrying that particular weight rather than their faces, and it’s decidedly unlikely that Baron-Cohen solicited the cream of the crop for his eye photos.

So this test, far from being a quick way to verify someone’s “emotional intelligence,” was designed to diagnose autism by a ludicrous hack and actually is little more than a guessing game about how Baron-Cohen’s sample group played the odds. This test has served to deny autistic people emotional depth and ability to empathize. It has been used to deny accommodation and treatment. It has been used to justify abusive protocols that take as a premise that people like me are less than human and cannot be trusted to advocate for ourselves. It has been used to encourage the general public to think of people like me as confused, robotic, straw-Vulcan interlopers rather than as actual people, on the basis of science that does not hold up to any scrutiny whatsoever.

And Paul Lem is promoting it to biologists, who are unlikely to be as well-read on psychology in general and the shitshow of autism research in particular, for diagnosing which of their associates has the “emotional intelligence” to make their startup a success.

I confronted Lem about this in the hall just after the talk, informing him that the Baron-Cohen test is nonsense. He responded that, as an empiricist, he’s required to trust it, because it “worked” for him. We parted ways before I could figure out what that even means, for a test whose inputs and outputs are both nonsense.

I’d be surprised at how hostile to autism the sciences can be, given how many of us make our homes there, if I hadn’t danced this particular dance dozens of times already.

The second offense happened at the pub talk. This tradition, taking place on Friday evening after the main symposium events, is a well-conceived cooldown period from the heaviness of traditional science presentations, providing a more lighthearted and often beer-themed presentation to ease us back out of “conference mode.” The atmosphere also encourages socialization between attendees in ways that sitting in a lecture hall does not. This year’s OCIB pub talk featured Jack Cornett, who runs the University of Ottawa’s fancy new accelerator mass spectrometer, a device that combines particle acceleration with mass spectrometry to measure minuscule quantities of radioactive substances. This work enables fine-scale and precise determination of the age and source of materials, which is very important for paleontology, climatology, ecology, and a variety of other fields. His talk was about a related, somewhat lighter topic, radiation risk assessment. Delightfully premised on how human cognitive biases and common misinformation lead us to rate some risks as much, much higher than they are and others as much lower, his talk asked the audience to rate ten radiation sources based on their relative danger to humans, measured as average days of lifespan lost to these hazards. Knowing his audience, he introduced the ten items in point form and then, on a subsequent slide, offered clarifying details. “Sleeping in a basement apartment” became “sleeping in a basement apartment in Chelsea, Québec for ten years” and a lead-in for a discussion of geologic radon as a lung cancer risk; “using a cell phone” became “using a cell phone continuously except when driving,” and so on.

And “being male or female” became “being chromosomally XY or XX.”

Thanks, Dr. Cornett. Thanks for that.

Life expectancy between men and women does indeed show a distinctive and consistent pattern, in which women on average live a handful of years longer than men. There are a lot of reasons for this, mostly related to social and behavioral patterns. Men are socially encouraged and economically coerced into more dangerous professions.  Men receive less social stigma for health-damaging behaviors like excessive drinking and smoking.  Men are less socially restrained against testosterone-fueled explosions of violent or rambunctious behavior that reduce long-term health or reduce average life expectancy by wrapping their cars around trees. These social and behavioral differences lead to differences in disease risk, and hormonal differences add to this equation. These effects explain virtually all of the difference in overall lifespan between men and women, worldwide. Trans and non-binary people, when we’re included in such databases at all, are statistically rare and frequently misidentified, and further, our life expectancies tend to be severely curtailed by our marginalization. This is particularly so for trans women of color, who are murdered so often that our life expectancy is 35.

Notice how none of that depends on chromosomes, even if people with XY chromosomes are more likely to have unfortunate encounters with hemophilia than those with XX. Notice how karyotyping was not part of the demographic data heap used to recognize this relationship in the first place. Notice how hardly anyone actually knows what chromosomes they have, let alone any associated disease risks.

What really gets me about this offense is how unnecessary it was. The other items on the list, from the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko to drinking specific beers, required clarification for a variety of reasons that ended up adding to the interest and information content of the presentation. But this one, for once, was one that required no such addendum. It was already exactly what it needed to be, with no meaning left unspoken by its brevity. At worst, these statistics neglect that, on a world scale, trans women have severely shorter lifespans than cis women, and could have been remedied by specifying that his stats only pull their weight for the cis. But instead, he added a science-sounding caveat that was not just scientifically inaccurate, but also bigoted.

I have no idea if Jack Cornett recognizes me as a woman. We didn’t speak directly to one another. But he thinks describing me as “chromosomally male” is okay, despite not even actually knowing my karyotype, and that makes him not okay for me to be around. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the couple sitting next to me at the table started asking me questions about my gender and medical history a few hours later.

I try not to expect scientific conferences to be safe for people like me. Scientists are human, and that means arriving at conferences with a rich assortment of mainstream biases. “Hard” scientists’ bosses often actively discourage “frivolous distraction” and deride human-centered sciences in particular as baseless navel-gazing, and so direct their students away from the knowledge and sensitivity to be gained from such outside reading. I learned long ago that, just as I can’t expect scientific circles to be as overwhelmingly safer for atheists as they ought to be (given that most of us correctly recognize the foolishness of truth claims made by religions), I likewise can’t expect them to be particularly enlightened on race, gender, or disability. I can expect more than I would in the wider world, because of the circles from which the halls of science are usually populated, but not enough to finish letting down my guard, ever. I have been burned.

It’s rarely this blatant, though.

I know the Ottawa-Carleton Institute of Biology Symposium can do better than this. So I hope they’ll take this letter to heart, and add some language and some literacy that might dissuade such issues in the future. I am not the first autistic trans woman to attend these presentations, but if this nonsense continues, I might be the last.

The OCIB 2016 logo, a cladogram connected to a horizontal DNA strand connected to a microscope, framed with the name
Probably not the impact you had in mind.
Some Thoughts for the Ottawa-Carleton Institute of Biology

3 thoughts on “Some Thoughts for the Ottawa-Carleton Institute of Biology

  1. 1

    I am surprised you say the sciences are hostile toward autistics. I don’t see it where I’m at, but I also don’t personally know any (confirmed) autistics in the sciences. Are there particular ways in which that discrimination manifests, or are you thinking of other “micro” aggressions such as the example you give here? I would definitely expect a lot more hostility from the business world, so I’m not surprised at your example.

    Regarding death rates of XX/XY, I think your point is extremely valid. I know the CDC and NCI collect mortality data on men and women, and I guarantee they don’t karyotype every individual who dies.

    Interestingly, though, it appears that for both of the leading causes of death – heart failure and cancer – men are more likely to die at a younger age than women (“men” and “women” not defined here – trans people are invisible to medical science, apparently – but it’s probably whatever is on their medical records). It is worth noting that medical records often probably don’t accurately reflect a person’s actual gender, since insurance agencies have been openly discriminating against trans people for decades. Trans people have had to hide their identities in medical settings to avoid being dropped by their insurance.
    Heart failure:

    And of course women are less likely to die from accidental injury. They make up the difference in strokes, Alzheimer’s, and chronic lower respiratory diseases. Since most of these are not primarily caused by environmental (behavioral) factors, I think one could certainly make the argument that an XY karyotype is a risk factor for an earlier death. But that’s absolutely no reason to shit on trans people, and it’s simply inaccurate to say that the available scientific data always equate sex with karyotype.

    1. 1.1

      Thanks for the link. It’s definitely a huge problem in the sciences that instructions and protocols are horribly truncated, and I can appreciate that it would be particularly bad for autistic people or people with anxiety.

      It hurts everyone, though, and I think it’s a big part of science’s “reproducibility problem,” which I’m sure you’re aware of. There are so many minor steps and habits in any protocol, and they rarely get communicated directly and explicitly. That’s why there’s such a gulf of difference in the productivity of a seasoned technician and a second-year graduate student. Yet we expect those graduate students to produce so many successful experiments if they want to graduate, and especially if they want to stay in the sciences.

      It doesn’t help that so little detail ever shows up in a publication’s Methods section, since reviewers don’t care and authors often have a page limit to fit all their results into. And searching online for help, you’ll find that everyone seems to have their own way of doing things. If you want to learn how to do something right, you pretty much have to learn directly under the watch of an expert, and that certainly doesn’t favor success for autistics.

      I’m still trying to work out for myself how to succeed in this environment. I do hope you can figure it out. I appreciate you sharing your perspective on it.

  2. 2

    Thanks for the advocacy. I’m autistic and my gender identity is fluid. It’s so tiring to have to keep standing up and pointing out the obvious to people who make these kinds of normative assumptions. I’m glad you do.

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