Junk science, again

Over at that bastion of common sense, the UK Daily Mail, they have an article stating that the Pill changes the kinds of men that women are attracted to.

It’s not a bad presupposition, actually. We know the Pill affects a woman’s sense of smell, and that scent is an important part of how couples find one another attractive or unattractive.


They show a bunch of pictures of hot actors through various decades and cometo the conclusion that nowadays, our Pill-laden society is choosing youthful, boyish men as the height of attractiveness.

And that’s horsepuckey.

The deal is this: Americans in general today look younger than we did about a hundred years ago. This has been a gradual process as people begin working indoors, not being exposed to sunlight, getting more sleep, access to better nutrition, access to good sunblock, better understanding of hydration, better skin care, longer childhood, less physical labor, more work for survival.

If you look at pictures of people who came over through Ellis Island, they all look careworn and rugged because, well, they were careworn and rugged.

My Patient Husband is fond of pointing out that his great-grandfather worked in a coal mine. Whenever his own job gets him down, he mentally compares his air-conditioned office with free coffee to a Pennsylvania coal mine. He tells me it’s a remarkable motivator. My own grandmother used to come home from school at age eight to make hats to sell. I can assure you that my eight year old does not make things for the family to sell. Nor did I have to work to supplement my family’s income. The result is a nation of individuals who are remarkably well-preserved.

Therefore, as we begin to look younger and smoother, our actors begin to look younger and smoother too. It’s pretty much a given because nowadays that’s the pool they’re drawing from, and that’s the look we expect.

But here’s the kicker: this same change has happened in anime. You go from rugged males in the early 1970s (look at Condor Joe, with his craggy face) to the current generation of bishonen males who are so androgynous that in some translations the American producers actually turn men into women.

And the Pill wasn’t available at all in Japan during the years this transition was taking place.

So, nice try, Daily Mail, but no cigar. Personally, I do think the Pill has unproven effects on women and on society and on our understanding of marriage, sex and children. But let’s report on the real deal, not on strange made-up phenomena, okay?


  1. Kate

    Apparently Science Daily reported on the same abstract. Here it is, without the Daily Mail sensationalism: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/10/091007124358.htm

    1. Ivy

      “Taken together, an increasing number of studies suggest that the pill is likely to have an impact on human mating decisions and subsequent reproduction.”

      I thought avoiding reproduction was the point of the pill.

  2. Ivy

    This is a fine example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy–it happened after and therefore it is caused by . Finding a corollary is a fine place to start in science, but to end, you need either a mechanism or the ability to control one factor by controlling the other.

    The brain is pretty well mapped. If they can find the aspect of the brain that the pill affects, and then watch for activity in that region of the brain while a woman looks at a group of photos to decide which men she finds sexy and which she does not, then we could say we likely have causality. Find different activity in groups on the pill against those not on the pill and you have proven causality.

    When the speed limit was set to 55, the rate of car accidents declined. That could have been coincidental rather than causal, but when some states pushed the limit higher, the rate of accidents went back up. They brought it back down and the rate of accidents went back down as well. States that banned smoking in bars and restaurants saw a 30% drop in coronary heart failure in non-smokers. For those areas where the ban was lifted the rate of heart failure went back up 30% in 6 months. When the ban was reinstated, heart failure rate went back down 30% in 6 months. That’s the second type of evidence. It would be harder to conduct this kind of study, because it would involve a test group going on and off the pill.

    I feel bad for the scientist in the article. Given how she was hedging, I think the reporter only heard what he wanted to hear and ignored the rest. You might want enjoy http://www.sciencenews.org/ or http://www.nature.com/nature/index.html They do a better job as reporters.

    1. Ivy

      any my typing is horrible. Can you change that to “post hoc ergo proptor hoc”? I missed a word.

  3. cricketB

    At least one study has shown that the type of man a woman is attracted to varies with hormonal state. When ovulating, she goes for strong, active hunters. The rest of the time she looks for someone who will stick around and look after her. My doula said she could tell it was real labour because I was very nervous and wanted to be near other women.

    Then there’s the fact that you can spend time with a guy in the short term and not worry about the long-term, unless you read the fine print about failure rates.

    Also, we can spend a few years with the wrong guy, knowing we have plenty of time to leave him and find a good one to share your kids with. (This assumes you think the Pill works 100%.)

    I would be extremely surprised if it didn’t affect the type of man a woman is attracted to, but that bit about models getting younger just doesn’t cut it.

  4. Lane in PA

    Personally speaking, it seems to me that the actors are all beginning to look alike. I am always getting them mixed up. This doesn’t apply to Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp, or Rose Byrne or Emily Blunt, they’re truly original.

    The days of Clark Gable and Elizabeth Taylor are over. Sigh.

    1. cricketB

      I hear you! I spend half of some movies unsure which person to cheer for. Not as bad with women since there are more hair style options, or maybe there aren’t usually as many of them to confuse in a single movie. (Must drag husband to more chick flicks to get better sample.) I find Brad Pitt is hard to distinguish — too many imitate him. Adam, Jamie, et. al., haven’t been imitated yet. Fillion. Ooops, Stana Katic lost her uniqueness over the summer, guess that shows women aren’t exempt.

      1. philangelus

        When I worked for a certain company famous for its full-length animated features, one of the women in the legal department said of their male heroes, “They all look the G-damned same!”

        She’d just renewed the trademarks on every single one of them, so I just stifled a laugh. But you know, in the years since then, I’ve decided she was right.

  5. Kate

    Lane – I think the reason it seems like all the actors (and especially all the actresses!) look alike is because of the ubiquitous photoshopping in pursuit of some ‘ideal’ – which, of course, ends up making all of the celebrities and models thus ‘shopped look alike. It’s really rather dreary.

    Ivy – the Pill is, of course, all about *not* reproducing…but men and women fall in love and get married whilst on the Pill, then later go of it to have babies, so it definitely affects mate choice and reproduction. I’ve wondered before about the effects on marriages when women go *off* the Pill as well, given the documented effects of the Pill on mate selection….

    1. philangelus

      Or when those same women get a tubal and go off the Pill forever, and then they’re effectively saddled with a man they wouldn’t have chosen. And it may be the first time they’ve been off the Pill long-term in over a decade.

      1. cricketB


        On the other hand, we all change, all the time, Pill or not. I’m certainly not the camp-enjoying, uber-smart, ultra-competent, will-master-the-world person OnebitCPU married. I kept the control-freak, type-A, easily distracted parts. He’s changed, too. Fortunately, we keep falling in love with each new person.

  6. philangelus

    It might also be a valid question to ask how it changes a relationship to initiate it with sexual intercourse and then develop the romance, as opposed to the sexual intercourse arising from the mutual commitment which stems from long-term romance.

    1. cricketB

      And how delaying the kids affects it.

      I suspect a good fraction of “love at first sight” were actually lust, but they were too young to realize it. On the other hand, short courtships often work well. They expect surprises and knew they’d have to adapt, like arranged marriages.

  7. Lane in PA

    After some thought, and reading the new comments, it has occurred to me that maybe everybody is beginning to look alike.

    Hence the popularity, and perhaps necessity, for tattoos.

    Just my working theory to tie in with a growing belief that our planet is being populated with Pod People. 😉

    1. philangelus

      iPod people!

      1. Lane in PA