Skepchick Quickies 1.21

  • Debunking the myth of pheromones – “Consider, for example, the widely held notion that women living in college dormitories synchronize their menstrual cycles…What’s more, the idea of menstrual synchrony makes no sense from an evolutionary point of view and…it is almost certainly a statistical artifact rather than a real scientific finding.” From jes3ica.
  • Make anti-vaccine parents pay higher premiums – “Refusing to vaccinate a child is dangerous not just for that child but for entire communities. It’s precisely this point a colleague of mine was considering when he had the idea that parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids should pay substantially higher health insurance premiums.” From nowoo.
  • New research says birth control pill does not cause weight gain – “”Issues surrounding weight are hard to study in humans, and the research thus far has been insufficient to demonstrate whether or not oral contraceptives cause weight gain or loss. But this is an extremely important question as concern about weight gain is one of the main reasons why women may avoid or discontinue birth control, which in turn places them at greater risk for an unplanned pregnancy.”
  • Ovulating woman seeks better science – And also, Not that time of the month again. Two great responses to Darwin’s Rape Whistle .
  • Cute Animal Friday! InfiniteMonkey can haz Borgcat. Anne found the world’s cuddliest porcupine. And Elyse wants a dog who can walk other dogs.


Amanda works in healthcare, is a loudmouthed feminist, and proud supporter of the Oxford comma.

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  1. Make anti-vax parents pay higher health insurance premiums? Works for me.

    I also think those that refuse to wear seatbelts in cars or helmets while on ATV’s and motorcycles should, as well.

  2. I really disagree with the idea that a person’s health choices should determine their ability to access health care. And premiums mean access. And, as much as I think the vaccine fight is important, I think this would be both counterproductive and inexcusable. It would accomplish nothing but further sequestering these people into the realm of fake medicine.

  3. The book on phermone debunking only debunks a gigantic straw man.

    It does make evolutionary sense for human females living in a group with few males to synchronize their ovulation. If their ovulation is all synchronized, they all can’t get pregnant at once in the same ovulation cycle. That means they would go through childbirth at different times and presumably would be better able to help each other through it.

  4. I always gain weight when I go on birth control. I’ve never considered that correlation to be sufficient to assume causation, however. There’s lots of reasons going on hormonal birth control and gaining weight could be correlated- for example, I tend to go on hormonal birth control when I’m in a relationship. I also tend to go out to dinner more while in a relationship, and if I cook, I tend to cook more impressive and calorie-rich dishes more often, because I’m cooking for two (whereas if I were cooking for one, I may just throw together a salad or nuke some soup or even just grab a quick piece of toast).

  5. I have to admit, I kind of unskeptically accepted the whole menstrual synchronization thing. Mainly because I am apparently the alpha female and managed to drag my entire floor freshman year to my cycle. And friends who spend a lot of time with me, no matter how regular their cycle is normally, get dragged onto my schedule.

  6. @WhatPaleBlueDot:
    I don’t see it as restricting their access to health care; I see it as adding a price tag due to their own stupidity. Why should I pay higher rates to subsidize their lack of common sense and scientific illiteracy?

    If they skip the vaccinations for their kids and (FSM forbid) their kids come down with some horrible but preventable disease, it will cost the insurance company far more to treat it than the cost of the preventative vaccine. That cash comes out of the pockets of all those that did the smart and correct thing.

    I’m not far right by any stretch, by the way.

  7. @captsam: “i don’t see why a group of ovulating women couldn’t get pregnant simultaneously if their all ovulating together..”

    I think the idea is there’s few men around they won’t be able to impregnate a large group of women all at once.

    But I find it hard to picture a situation where a large group of women doesn’t have too many men around.

  8. Clearly the menstrual cycle debunking article is true. The author found an expert. The expert wrote a BOOK! The author of the article repeats over and over again how much sciencing the expert did, too!

    (Telling you how or why the previous studies were in error would be a total waste of time. Trust me. The analysis was totally rigorous and extensive and factual.)

  9. @captsam: if they are all ovulating at the same time, they have to all get fertilized at the same time, if there is only one alpha male doing the fertilizing, it is possible but less likely.

    @weatherwax: If there is a large group of women there is a pretty good incentive for the alpha male to kill any other males that might be around.

    My expectation is that the alpha male would stay with the first female that was ovulating until he was sure he had deposited enough sperm to have that ovulation cycle covered, likely until after she was no longer receptive. Since the fertile interval is only a couple of days and ovulation is to some extent cryptic, a male might not appreciate that the other females were ovulating, other than the one he was having sex with.

    Many animals have synchronized ovulation. In herd animals, they all give birth at once, but males of those species have testes such that a single male can produce enough sperm to fertilize an entire herd, and will do so if given the opportunity. Human males don’t have that capacity (even if they think they do).

    @catgirl: My point was simply to point out a counter example to refute the unsupported statement that “the idea of menstrual synchrony makes no sense from an evolutionary point of view”. There could be multiple reasons why it makes evolutionary sense. Humans are unique among mammals in that they pretty much require assistance during birth. I appreciate there is the fad of “free birth”, but there is no evidence that any pre-modern humans (or humans with any sense at all) practiced such a thing.

    It probably isn’t “menstrual synchrony” that occurs, but “ovulation synchrony”. They are somewhat different (but highly correlated), but researchers may not appreciate the difference, which is hard to tell without testing hormone levels which is a lot more expensive than recording period days. Humans are also pretty unique that ovulation is pretty cryptic. Not completely, but human females don’t have tissues that swell up and produce an unambiguous signal the way that many other primates do.

    @James K: Humans are also unique among mammals in that a large fraction of females die during childbirth (in the absence of modern medical care). Humans are also unique in that females are pretty much promiscuous in their attachment to infants not their own. If you die in childbirth (in the wild), the only chance your infant will have is if it can be fostered to a lactating woman who chooses to do so, likely because she is your very good friend/sister. If you help a woman through her childbirth, she would likely be more willing to help you through yours, and foster your infant if you die. That would happen easier if there was at least a month between the two deliveries. Some weather transitions do trigger childbirth (a sudden drop in atmospheric pressure). If weather can trigger childbirth, and there are only a few experienced midwives, a group of females would do best by spreading out their deliveries.

    It is spreading out deliveries that is important, but the best way to do that is by spreading out time of conception. The only way to do that is by spreading out time of ovulation.

    There may be some advantages to having synchronous births. There might be a pull to synchronize and to asynchronize ovulation depending on the circumstances. Which one happens might depend on a lot of things that are not controlled for in any of these experiments.

    I am not saying that there is synchronization of ovulation, just that the idea that there is such a thing has not been “debunked”. The environment we are living in now is very different than the environment that any such physiology evolved to function in. I don’t think that it would be possible to put a large enough group of women in a natural enough environment (which we really don’t know what it is anyway) to unambiguously answer the question.

  10. @Amanda: My understanding is the menstrual synchronization is a myth, and the product of confirmation bias.

    On the other hand, every woman I know (who discusses these kinds of thing with me) claims it is true.

  11. @QuestionAuthority:

    But a price tag is restricting access. How much more are we talking here that would be enough to actually make a difference either in cost defraying or in behavior and yet somehow wouldn’t be enough to threaten access to healthcare? And are we talking about higher premiums for the children or the parents? How few children do you think are covered separately from their parents, especially on SCHIP plans?

    Healthcare is very complicated, and money matters a lot in providing care for kids. And in the end, you’re only punishing the very same children whose parents are putting in danger.

  12. wow, that porcupine was pretty big. no wonder they recommend eating them in survival situations, that’s at least a 2-day meal…

    anyways… the menstruation/ovulation/orgying bit, while interesting to think about, reeks of some of the issues w/ evolutionary psych (no way to test claims, etc…) – which is currently catching a bunch of attention over on pharyngula. Anyways, as far as sexual stuff in humans go, I think the most convincing things I ran across are the bit about how humans effectively hide ovulation (as said above), and the male/female size ratio – supposedly the more polygamous the species, the greater this ratio, and is supposed to be closer to 1 for the more monogamous species. I didn’t read up on this, so no idea how accurate that info is..

    And the health care thing: my knee-jerk reaction was thinking this was a good idea, until I read the comment about choices affecting premiums – once there is a precedent for this, things will go in all sorts of bad directions, and will end up encroaching on things that aren’t choices at all (for most people). haven’t thought it through thoroughly, but the things that come to mind are gender/sexuality/sexual orientation -catch an STI/get pregnant? “sucks to be you, that stuff isn’t covered since it’s a direct result of your choice” (to engage in sexual activity, to pick a partner that is infected/fertile, not use safe sex practices (and try and prove you did…))
    After all, this is the industry that had considered rape and sexual assault ‘previously existing conditions’ – do you really think they wont take advantage of this?

    I feel the best way to fight this thing is through education, not a quick easy method, but not much chance of infringing on people’s rights, and, well, when isn’t education good?

  13. On the article: Do birth control pills cause weight gain? New research says no.

    This is a press release. It’s worded to gain attention. It is interesting to question the long held notions, but this study alone isn’t sufficient to prove anything either way.

    It’s done in rhesus macaque monkeys, while they are pretty close to humans, they are not humans. Time and time again we’ve seen studies that show promise in animals don’t always translate to humans.

  14. @daedalus2u: “If there is a large group of women there is a pretty good incentive for the alpha male to kill any other males that might be around.”

    If it’s a large group of females, any single male will spend littery all his time fending off other males, until he drops from exhaustion. More likely they’d form a clique of stronger males, but then you’re down to multiple males again. And the females may well get tired of his lack of contribution to food production and drive him off.

    A male having a small harem of two or three females I could see.

    One other problem I see with the synchronization theory is I’ve never heard of women working together synchronizeing. Of course I may simply have not heard about it.

  15. @weatherwax: Male lions don’t just “fend off” other males, they kill them. Once you kill a male you don’t need to fend him off any more.

    In deer, the females all ovulate at once in the fall, and the alpha male does spend all his time fending off other males such that he doesn’t eat and may not survive the winter, but the progeny that he left in the females do survive.

    Maybe synchronization of ovulation evolved so that a single male couldn’t monopolize all the females unless he was really good, like in deer. I doubt that because humans have a much longer time of infancy where they require adult care. The critical survival bottle neck in humans isn’t getting pregnant, it is surviving infancy.

  16. Again, males lions operate in pairs and threes, and they only control a pride for on average 18 months before they get deposed and killed or driven off to die.

    Deer don’t unsually form tight herds in the wild, just small groups, so a male can’t dominate that many. Elk, which do form large herds that a male monoplolizes as long as he can, come into estrous in order of dominance, so the male can fertilize as many as he can.

    So the flip side, in suport of your argument, is that if one male can drive off all the other males, he’s the daddy you want. As long as he’s contributing the food production, which is neccesary in humans.

  17. On the women synchronizing, aren’t there some countries with female submarine crews? Wouldn’t those, with female crews and recycled air, be the ideal place to test such a hypothesis?

  18. Is there any evidence that human males used to be like male lions or sea lions collecting big herds of women and driving off all the other males? In more recent evolutionary history wouldn’t there have been a greater benefit for groups of human males to cooperate for hunting food, protecting from predators and driving smaller groups of competing humans away from desirable resources ,making more males in a group desirable.

  19. Hello, Skepchicks et al. I haven’t been around here much in quite some time. I just had one of my blog posts, where I reprinted a letter from Elyse about anti-vax, resurrected by George. George seems to think he’s going to show up with the once and for all crushing argument against vaccinations.

    This meme seems as if it will never die.

    Thanks for the link to CNN about it.

  20. Are pheromones the only possible means by which females could synchronize their mentrual cycle?

    Also, would it be more interesting to create one giant black hole of PMS once a month rather than at any one time having someone in a bad mood making everyone unhappy?

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