Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Race, penis size, and pseudoscience

A forthcoming paper's claims about racial differences in penis size are unfounded.

A soon to be published study by Richard Lynn claims to have found scientific evidence that there are substantial differences in the average penis length of men from different races. These claims are in line with vulgar racial stereotypes and are part of a larger research agenda based on a belief in ‘race realism’. Advocates of race realism argue that there are real and pervasive differences between racial groups in personality, intelligence and social behaviour, that these differences have a genetic and evolutionary origin and that they can explain disparities in important social and economic outcomes between races. Lynn’s theories about race rest on shaky foundations and the data sources he uses as evidence for his claims about penis sizes are untrustworthy. For these reasons, his claims should be disregarded as unscientific.
World map of penis sizes - looks impressive, but where did this information come from?

Lynn’s (2012) proposal is based on the theories of the late J. Philippe Rushton. As noted in a previous article, Rushton, a notorious advocate of race realism, proposed that the major races can be sorted into a human hierarchy based on their supposed reproductive strategies. According to Rushton’s r-K life history theory, there are two main reproductive strategies forming ends of a continuum. The r-strategy involves large numbers of offspring with minimal investment, whereas the K-strategy involves fewer offspring and greater investment. According to Rushton, Africans are the most r-selected whereas Asians are the most K-selected, and Europeans are somewhere in between, although closer to Asians than Africans. Rushton claimed that these two reproductive strategies were associated with a whole suite of mental and physical characteristics including brain size, intelligence, criminality, and of course penis length. According to this theory, African men have the smallest brains and the largest penises, whereas Asian men are the opposite. This has been described as a ‘Goldilocks’ theory of race, in which European men are ‘just right’ having a combination of high intelligence and a reasonable genital endowment.

Rushton responded to criticisms of his racist theories by arguing that scientific theories should be judged on the merits of their evidence. Unfortunately for him, it is on scientific grounds that his theories fall apart (Weizmann, Wiener, Wiesenthal, & Ziegler, 1990). Weizmann et al. have argued that Rushton’s assignment of particular traits to either r or K strategies is completely arbitrary. He claims that the K strategy promotes altruism and cooperative behaviour, whereas the r strategy promotes inter-male aggression and criminality. However, according to biological models K strategies appear under conditions of intense competition for limited resources and so there is no reason to associate K with altruism or r with criminality. Additionally, the original theory predicts that unstable fluctuating environments would favour r-strategies, whereas stable, predictable environments would favour K strategies. Hot topical environments have higher levels of stability than colder ones. Therefore, according to this theory Africans, who developed in tropical environment, should be highly K-selected, contrary to Rushton’s theory.

 Rushton’s theory has also been criticised for naïveté about sexual matters (Weizmann, et al., 1990). He assumed that larger genital size means less sexual restraint, more frequent intercourse and therefore more frequent procreation. These assumptions are unjustified as humans regularly engage in non-procreative sexual activity. Furthermore, sexual mores within a society can change within a generation from prudishness to permissiveness and back again. Rushton’s theory assumes that sexual interests are genetically based, yet genes cannot substantially change within a generation. Rushton and Bogaert (1987) argued that blacks are more sexually precocious and less sexually restrained than whites, based on Kinsey’s out-dated and non-representative data. However, they ignore information from the same source that contradicted their theory, such as that blacks were more prudish than whites about nudity, and that blacks were less likely to have a prostitute as a first sexual partner. Kinsey also found that whites engage in more non-coital sexual behaviour, such as oral-genital contact, than Blacks. Rushton interprets this as indicating that Whites are less reproductively oriented (hence more K-selected) even though this contradicts his argument that K-strategies are associated with greater sexual restraint an presumably less sexual activity in general (Weizmann, et al., 1990).

Rushton assumes that because K-strategies are less reproductively oriented, members of the K-selected races should have fewer children. However, fertility is sensitive to environmental and social conditions (Weizmann, et al., 1990). In colonial times, North America experienced historically high rates of fertility, yet in modern times fertility in North America has declined to the low rates seen in modern European countries. Furthermore, Chinese peoples have historically had very high rates of fertility, in spite of being highly K-selected according to Rushton.      

 Lynn attempts to justify his belief that there are differences between races in penis length on the basis that European and Asian males have lower levels of testosterone than Africans and that the “reduction of  testosterone had the effect of reducing penis length, for which evidence is given by Widodsky and Greene (1940).” Widodsky and Greene (1940) is actually a study of the effects of sex hormones on the penises of rats. This is hardly convincing evidence that there are racial differences in testosterone levels or that a reduction in penis length ever occurred in human history.

Lynn's claims about differences in penis length between races build on earlier claims by Rushton and Bogaert (1987). The Rushton and Boagert paper is striking for its use of non-scholarly sources (Weizmann, Wiener, Wiesenthal, & Ziegler, 1991). These include a book of semi-pornographic “tall tales” by an anonymous nineteenth century French surgeon that makes wildly inconsistent claims about genital sizes in people of different races. Lynn also refers to this book without mentioning any problems with this as a source of information. Another odd data source cited by Rushton and Bogaert is an article authored by a certain “P. Nobile” published in Forum: International Journal of Human Relations. This publication is better known to the public as “The Penthouse Forum”, a popular men’s magazine.

The data sources that Lynn uses in his recent paper are hardly much better. One of them is a book by Donald Templer (another self-professed race realist[1]) called Is Size Important? Templer is not a urologist but a psychologist so why he would claim to be an authority on this subject is unclear.[2] Lynn’s other source is the world penis size website. These are both self-published sources that have not been independently verified. A blogger named Ethnic Muse has carefully examined this site’s references and found that a number of articles listed on the site either do not exist under the name given or do not discuss penis size at all. There are also numerous discrepancies between the values provided by the website and the actual values given by the references.[3] Therefore, the information on this website cannot be trusted and no conclusions should be drawn from it.

Lynn’s paper was an attempt to validate one of the claims of Rushton’s r-K theory that there are predictable differences between races in a range of physical and psychological characteristics, including penis length. However, this theory is unscientific and makes arbitrary claims, many of which have been refuted in considerable detail (Weizmann, et al., 1990, 1991). Furthermore, Lynn did not consult authoritative sources for his paper, such as urologists or urology journals. The data sources he did use for his paper are untrustworthy and therefore his results, like his theory, should not be taken seriously.[4] The very relevance of penis length to understanding whatever racial differences may exist would seem to be highly doubtful.

[1] Among other things, Templer apparently advocates the voluntary sterilisation of welfare recipients on eugenics grounds.
[2] I am grateful to an anonymous blog article for pointing this out.
[3] I can confirm this. One of the references cited is titled “Male penis length average in sub-Saharan Africa, circumcision and relation to AIDS: a review” and supposedly appeared in the journal AIDS and Behavior in 2007. I searched this journal and no article by this name could be found.
[4] A paper by Tatu Westling makes the ludicrous claim that a country’s economic growth is inversely correlated with penis size based on data from this website. 

This article also appears on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else on Psychology Today. 

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.  

Follow me on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter.

Lynn, R. (2012). Rushton’s r–K life history theory of race differences in penis length and circumference examined in 113 populations Personality and Individual Differences DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2012.02.016

Rushton, J., & Bogaert, A. (1987). Race differences in sexual behavior: Testing an evolutionary hypothesis Journal of Research in Personality, 21 (4), 529-551 DOI: 10.1016/0092-6566(87)90038-9

Weizmann, F., Wiener, N. I., Wiesenthal, D. L., & Ziegler, M. (1990). Differential K theory and racial hierarchies. Canadian Psychology, 31(1), 1-13. doi: 10.1037/h0078934

Weizmann, F., Wiener, N., Wiesenthal, D., & Ziegler, M. (1991). Eggs, eggplants and eggheads: A rejoinder to Rushton. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 32 (1), 43-50 DOI: 10.1037/h0078958

Thursday, October 11, 2012

DMT, Aliens, and Reality—Part 2

In Part 1 of this article, I discussed Rick Strassman’s research on DMT. In particular I focused on the phenomenon of DMT users frequently encountering non-human entities of various kinds. These experiences have a striking similarity to alien abduction. Even more strangely, many participants came away convinced that these entities are somehow real. Strassman (2001) has speculated that these entities could be inhabitants of a parallel universe. I will not attempt to explain what such entities might represent, as this is not at all understood. What I will focus on are the psychological factors that influence people’s judgments about what is real and how these might explain why people come to believe in the existence of such beings.

The sheer vividness of the DMT experience is probably a major factor. As noted in Part 1, colours became much more intense than in real life. One participant described the colours as “10 to 100 times more saturated.” The content of the visions was so bizarre and unexpected that volunteers found it difficult to believe they could imagine such things. Additionally, volunteers generally felt that their thinking was clear and unimpaired. Psychedelic drug experiences tend to be associated with a feeling that one is experiencing something extraordinarily profound and this may increase a person’s confidence that they are experiencing something deeply real. 

However, there is considerable psychological research indicating that a person’s confidence in the reality of their experiences is actually a poor guide to the accuracy of what has actually occurred. For example, research on memory has found that even when people have complete confidence they have remembered an event accurately, their recall may be highly distorted. In one study, people who had been asked to describe their recollection of the space shuttle Challenger disaster a day after it happened had substantially inaccurate recall of the event three years later. Very few were correct about every single detail and fully a quarter were incorrect about every single detail. In spite of this, they had very high confidence in the accuracy of their recall and described their recollections as very vivid. The degree of emotion experienced at the time of the incident was unrelated to accuracy of recall. Even with highly salient and frightening events, confidence in memory is not a good guide to their accuracy. Some participants even protested that the original record of their recollections was not how they remembered it (Spanos, 1996). 

Furthermore, people may become convinced of the reality of memories that cannot possibly be real. For example, studies have been done in which participants were hypnotically “regressed” to the time of their birth or even before birth (Spanos, 1996). Those who were told (falsely) that it actually is possible to accurately recall infantile events produced detailed accounts consistent with what they believed might have happened. For example, some people recalled with great emotion having a twin who was aborted and even specified the twin’s sex. However, due to infantile amnesia it is simply not possible for people to accurately recall anything that happened at or before birth. Furthermore, foetuses do not have the ability to know what sex a twin is or understand the concept of abortion. In contrast, control subjects asked to think back to the day after their birth invariably described their experiences as fantasies.

People who believe they have they have been abducted by aliens are quite certain that these events actually happened in the physical world. This is in spite of the fact that abductees often live in crowded cities yet thousands of independent witnesses somehow fail to notice the presence of alien spaceships. Research studies on abductees have concluded that these people are not psychotic or otherwise deluded. On the other hand they frequently have pre-existing beliefs about the existence of aliens who have visited our world and also tend to hold other esoteric beliefs (e.g. in reincarnation) more strongly than other people (Spanos, 1996). Alien abduction experiences more often than not occur while people are falling asleep, dreaming, or waking up (Newman & Baumeister, 1996). Researchers therefore theorise that these experiences are related to hallucinatory experiences that can occur during the transition between sleeping and waking, and may involve sleep paralysis, out-of-body sensations and images of frightening monsters or entities. Furthermore, abductees’ accounts of aliens frequently contain details found in science fiction books and films. DMT entity descriptions could conceivably have been influenced by images from popular culture although this has not been investigated.
Another area that has not been investigated is that of personality differences that might influence the experience of and belief in non-human entities. The volunteers in Strassman’s study were all experienced users of psychedelic drugs. The reason for this was that experienced users were considered to be less likely to panic during the DMT trials and more likely to be able to provide a detailed description of their experiences (Strassman, et al., 1994). Experienced users of psychedelic drugs obviously have tried to experience the world in new ways, and they are no doubt eager for new experiences. Therefore, they may be more open than most people to unconventional views of reality.

As noted in a previous article, research on psilocybin found that responsiveness to the psychedelic effects of this drug was strongly correlated with the personality trait absorption. Absorption refers to a readiness to experience deep attentional involvement in which a person experiences a heightened sense of the reality of the object of their attention (Roche & McConkey, 1990). Additionally, information may be processed in “unconventional and idiosyncratic ways.” Absorption tends to be associated with mystical and paranormal beliefs (Lange, Thalbourne, Houran, & Storm, 2000). People high in absorption who take DMT might therefore be expected to have a particularly strong psychedelic response in which they experience a heightened sense of the reality of the phenomena experienced. Due to their general openness to unconventional beliefs and ideas it would not seem surprising that they would be inclined to credit the existence of non-human entities.  

It is unknown whether there were pre-existing differences in personality traits or mystical/paranormal beliefs between volunteers in Strassman's research who either did or did not experience entity contact. Future research could examine whether people who are high in absorption and related traits are more likely to experience contact with entities. Also, among those who do experience entity contact, absorption might be correlated with willingness to believe in their reality. Additionally, people who are inclined to believe that psychedelic drugs can reveal profound truths about the nature of reality might therefore be more inclined to believe they have experienced something real.  

In conclusion, the fact that some people have visions of intelligent non-human entities under the influence of DMT is puzzling and the reasons why this occurs cannot yet be explained. However, from a scientific viewpoint it would be extremely premature to jump to conclusions involving far-fetched theories of alternative realities. Sam Harris has argued that the fact that people can have profound mystical experiences (with or without psychedelic drugs) does not justify making metaphysical claims about the nature of reality or consciousness. He states, and I agree, that the full spectrum of human conscious experience can be studied rationally without engaging in pseudoscience. The fact that DMT volunteers were convinced that the entities they contacted were real does not provide evidence of the objective independent nature of these beings. Sane intelligent people can also be fully convinced of the reality of things that are known not to have happened. Future research on DMT could profit from taking into account psychological factors influencing a person's judgments about reality. 

Follow me on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.  

Cakic, V., Potkonyak, J., & Marshall, A. (2010). Dimethyltryptamine (DMT): Subjective effects and patterns of use among Australian recreational users. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 111(1–2), 30-37. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2010.03.015

Lange R, Thalbourne MA, Houran J, & Storm L (2000). The revised transliminality scale: reliability and validity data from a Rasch top-down purification procedure. Consciousness and cognition, 9 (4), 591-617 PMID: 11150227

Newman, L. S., & Baumeister, R. F. (1996). Toward an explanation of the UFO abduction phenomenon: Hypnotic elaboration, extraterrestrial sadomasochism, and spurious memories. Psychological Inquiry, 7 (2), 99-126 DOI: 10.1207/s15327965pli0702_1

Roche, S. M., & McConkey, K. M. (1990). Absorption: Nature, assessment, and correlates. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(1), 91-101. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.59.1.91

Spanos, N. P. (1996). Multiple identities and false memories: A sociocognitive perspective. Washinton DC: American Psychological Association.

Strassman, R. J. (2001). DMT: The Spirit Molecule. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press.

Strassman RJ, Qualls CR, Uhlenhuth EH, & Kellner R (1994). Dose-response study of N,N-dimethyltryptamine in humans. II. Subjective effects and preliminary results of a new rating scale. Archives of general psychiatry, 51 (2), 98-108 PMID: 8297217

Monday, October 8, 2012

DMT, aliens, and reality, part 1

Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a naturally occurring psychedelic drug found in many plants and animals, and has been claimed to naturally occur in the human brain itself (Strassman, 2001). DMT, less well-known than other psychedelics such as psilocybin or LSD, is striking for the brevity and intensity of its effects. When smoked, for example, hallucinogenic effects begin almost immediately and resolve within 30 minutes. As a result, it is sometimes known facetiously as the “businessman’s lunch trip” (Cakic, Potkonyak, & Marshall, 2010). One of the most remarkable features of the DMT experience is the frequency with which users encounter non-human intelligences, often resembling aliens. Even more remarkably, some users come away from these encounters convinced that these entities are somehow real (Strassman, 2001). The psychological aspects of such experiences have not yet been adequately explored by scientific researchers.

Kaleidoscopic geometric patterns are typical of DMT visions. 

In the 1990s, psychiatrist Rick Strassman conducted pioneering research on the effects of DMT, described in his book DMT: The Spirit MoleculeStrassman (2001) reported that “about half” of the 60 volunteers entered what he described as “freestanding, independent levels of existence” of a highly unusual nature. These places were inhabited by what volunteers described as intelligent “beings”, “entities”, “aliens”, “guides”, and “helpers”. These appeared in a variety of forms, such as “clowns, reptiles, mantises, bees, spiders, cacti, and stick figures.” These beings have been reported by other investigators, including Terrence McKenna, who described them as “self-transforming machine elves,” as well as in more sober case reports from research on people with schizophrenia conducted in the 1950s. Strangely enough, reports of these kinds of beings seem to be unique to DMT, as Strassman was unable to find anything similar in the research literature on other psychedelic drugs.   

There were some consistent themes in experiences of entity contact. Participants frequently reported that the beings seemed to be waiting for them. Volunteers were subjected to an examination by these beings in what appeared to be a technologically advanced setting. Volunteers felt like their mind and body was probed and tested, or even modified in some unexplained way. The beings communicated with the user through gestures, telepathy, or visual imagery. Sometimes the entities seemed loving and caring, other times emotionally detached. Strassman noted the striking parallels between these entity contact experiences and accounts of alien abduction. He considered that “alien abduction” experiences might occur due to the spontaneous release of naturally occurring DMT in the human brain, although this theory has never been tested.  

Intriguingly, many volunteers refused to believe that these experiences were hallucinations or dreams, as they seemed too real. Strassman reported being initially quite baffled by and unprepared for the frequency of these entity experiences among his volunteers. In his book he even entertains the idea that these entities are genuine inhabitants of some sort of normally invisible alternative reality, perhaps of a parallel universe.

From a hard-nosed scientific perspective, such claims are hard to believe, to say the least. The idea that there are invisible realities inhabited by intelligent entities that cannot be detected by any empirical means but can be perceived only by people who are in altered states of brain chemistry is difficult to reconcile with a modern scientific worldview. Strassman expresses a more general belief in what I would call psychedelic mysticism. This is the belief that psychedelic drugs including LSD and psilocybin, as well as DMT, can provide true insights into the deeper nature of reality. For example, after using these drugs, people may become convinced that there are realities beyond the everyday one, that there is life after death, and that there is an objective spiritual presence in the universe.

Why people encounter what appear to be non-human entities while on DMT but not on other drugs is currently unknown. The reasons why some volunteers were convinced these entities are real are also not understood but probably have a great deal to do with psychological factors that influence people’s judgments about what is real. I will discuss these factors in detail in my next post.

Follow me on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.  

Cakic, V., Potkonyak, J., & Marshall, A. (2010). Subjective effects and patterns of use among Australian recreational users. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 111 (1-2), 30-37 DOI: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2010.03.015

Strassman, R. J. (2001). DMT: The Spirit MoleculeRochester, Vermont: Park Street Press.

Strassman RJ, Qualls CR, Uhlenhuth EH, & Kellner R (1994). Dose-response study of N,N-dimethyltryptamine in humans. II. Subjective effects and preliminary results of a new rating scale. Archives of general psychiatry, 51 (2), 98-108 PMID: 8297217

Image credit: "Land of psychedelic illuminations" by Brian Exton of picturerealm.co.uk