Monday, August 22, 2016

Unexplored Terrain

The current presidential race, however, is something special. It takes antiscience to previously unexplored terrain.

- Scientific American "Donald Trump’s Lack of Respect for Science Is Alarming"

This week's featured post is "What's a 21st-Century Equivalent of the Homestead Act?" It's an essay question. I don't have an answer, but I'm hoping you do.

This week everybody was talking about the Olympics

But I don't think you need me to tell you more about Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt.

Personally, I got frustrated watching NBC's Olympic coverage, because they always seemed to have something better to do than show us athletic competition.

The women's 5000 meter finals Friday night summed up my experience: Ethiopia's Almaz Ayana had already won the 10,000 meters in record time, and she moved out to a seemingly insurmountable lead in the 5000. So the announcers got bored and cut away to show us clips from the heartwarming story that happened in one of the qualifying heats, when New Zealand's Nikki Hamblin and America's Abbey D'Agostino, helped and encouraged each other to finish after a collision. Then they showed us close-ups of Hamblin running in the finals (she finished 17th and was never near the front of the pack) and D'Agostino watching from the stands with a torn ACL.

By the time the announcers found their way out of the time passages and back to the race they were supposedly covering, Kenya's Vivian Cheruiyot had erased Ayana's lead and was whizzing past her. We did get to see the finish, with Cheruiyot far ahead on her way to an Olympic record. But imagine how exciting it must have been, when Cheruiyot began to make her move and everyone suddenly realized this race wasn't over yet. I had to imagine it, though, because I didn't see it. Thanks, NBC.

ThinkProgress's Lindsey Gibbs tells the fascinating story of South African runner Caster Semenya, whose right to compete as a woman has been challenged because she has unusually high testosterone levels. This isn't about doping or sex-change surgery or some other artificial method for acquiring an advantage; she was just born that way.

Unlike drug tests, gender tests (or testosterone tests, if you will) are not carried out at random. And Semenya happens to be tall, muscular, flat-chested, and black. This is not a coincidence. According to Katrina Karkazis, a senior research scholar at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, in the past, IAAF specifically singled out female athletes who “display masculine traits” for testosterone tests, while the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has encouraged its national charters to “actively investigate” any “perceived deviation” in gender.

In practice, gender testing is far more about policing women’s bodies than protecting women’s sports. Testosterone tests tend to target women who don’t fit into the ideal Western standards of what a woman should look like — delicate and overtly feminine, white and lithe.

ESPN's Kate Fagen agrees with a tweet she saw:

I know Semenya is a woman because people are trying to control her body.

Semenya is allowed to compete because of a precedent-setting challenge by Indian sprinter Duttee Chand, who said:

I was born a woman, reared up as a woman, I identify as a woman and I believe I should be allowed to compete with other women, many of whom are either taller than me or come from more privileged backgrounds, things that most certainly give them an edge over me.

The idea that sport had a level playing field before women like Chand and Semenya arrived is a myth worth challenging. Gibbs concludes that naturally high testosterone is like a lot of other genetic differences that don't bother us:

Sports are supposed to reward freak-of-nature athletes. ... Every elite athlete has some sort of physical advantage they were born with.

538's Christie Aschwanden writes a more intellectually challenging account of the nebulous relationship between sex and gender, but comes to the same conclusion:

In the end, the real question to ask is: What is the purpose of sport? Is it more important to provide uncomplicated stories that make us feel uplifted, or to celebrate extraordinary human effort and performance? My vote goes to the latter. Participating in sports taught me to feel powerful in my body, and I’m glad that no one put limits on how strong I could be. When Semenya takes to the line on Saturday, I’ll be cheering for her every step of the way.

For me, this comes back to a point I made when the Caitlyn Jenner controversy was at its peak: Everything you thought was a category is actually a continuum. It's simple and in some ways comforting to think in binary terms like male/female, black/white, gay/straight, citizen/foreigner, and so on. But those clean categories are always something we impose on the world, not the way the world is.

Semenya won the gold medal in the 800 meters Saturday night.

As usually happens, women Olympians have had a harder time getting respect from the media than men. Liz Plank compiles the incidents in "The Wide World of Sexism".

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