Archive for June, 2010

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how science works… or doesn’t

June 3, 2010

from the Scientific American article...

An interesting little blurb on the Scientific American website about tattoos and evolutionary fitness [click here to check it out]. The notion presented is that only more fit males (this doesn’t seem to apply to females so much) are willing to take on the additional risk induced by poking oneself with needles in order to get inked and pierced. It becomes a signal that the individual is able to handle the pain and injury associated with the process. This idea is put forth to explain the actual data collected by some researchers in Poland – in a sample of 200 men and women, men with body modifications tended to be more symmetrical than those without (as mentioned above, this pattern was not found in females). Symmetry is considered a sign of fitness/health and is desirable according to evolutionary theories (it is often related to attractiveness and perceived competence as well).

Anyhow, I’m not quite ready to accept the conclusion of the study given the small sample size – assuming they had a balanced distribution in the sample, you are basing the conclusion on a comparison of 50 males with body modification to 50 males without – and there is no information about how the sample was collected and what size of effect was found. I was more fascinated by the discussion posts that followed the article. There were people who outright reject the possibility of the finding simply because they don’t believe it (or as one proposes – body modification are a sure sign of mental illness) and some who seem to wholeheartedly accept the idea put forth. The findings of the study fit better with the proposed notion than one alternative that was mentioned (that body modifications are done to hide imperfections), but they could fit with a whole host of other ideas as well. The people commenting seem to want definitive “proof” (one way or the other) of why some people opt for modification – they seem to ignore the more incremental and dynamic nature of the scientific process.