Given that I’ve used the f-word in the title above, I’m obliged to open with the following…
Trigger warning. If you find that you are unable to respond to criticism of sexism without randomly arranging terms such as SJW, white knight, cuck, kill yourself, bitch, whore, rape, professional victims, PC gone mad, First Amendment, feminazi, and/or fuck (and other assorted expletives) into grammatically dubious and arbitrarily capitalised boilerplate then you may find the following post both intellectually and emotionally challenging. A strong and potentially damaging kneejerk response or, indeed, extreme overreaction may result.
You have been warned.
(I kicked off a previous post with an identical warning and was rather amused by the aggrieved responses I received from some over-sensitive souls.)
This month’s Physics World is a special issue on the challenges for diversity in the physics community. It features a number of timely and compellingly-argued articles that I thoroughly recommend (albeit belatedly. I meant to write this post a couple of weeks ago but the day job, including four days’ worth of 1st year lab report marking and preparation for an upcoming trip to Ethiopia (more of this in future posts), necessarily took priority). Matin Durani writes candidly about the effects of hidden bias, while Margaret Harris’ piece on the role of microagressions in normalising sexism and other biases, A Thousand Tiny Cuts, is one of the best articles on the topic I’ve read. Louise Mayor, Features Editor for Physics World (and an alumna of the Nanoscience Group here in Nottingham), highlights the depressing bigotry faced by the LGBT group at CERN – their posters have been ripped down and defaced (see photos below, taken from the Physics World article).
That Leviticus 20:13 was tacked onto one of the posters (photo in the top right hand corner above) is hardly a big surprise: it’s the traditional, tiresomely predictable ‘riposte’ from those who use religion to bolster their bigotry. But then they’re spoilt for choice when it comes to Leviticus, given that it’s jam-packed to the brim of the most hateful, spiteful, and ludicrous bile. There’s Leviticus 21:16-23, targeted at those with disabilities (“For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed“). Or how about Leviticus 20:9: “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.Because they have cursed their father or mother, their blood will be on their own head“? (The Book of Leviticus puts the most rabid of death penalty enthusiasts to shame — they look positively liberal in their views by comparison). And, of course, there’s the seminal sexism that is Leviticus 20:3 — “set the value of a male between the ages of twenty and sixty at fifty shekels of silver, according to the sanctuary shekel; for a female, set her value at thirty shekels“. (Oh, and tattoos are also verboten).
As I’ve explained at length in a couple of previous posts, I have no time at all for the excuses that are made for the innate immorality of many aspects of religious mythology, of all hues. (Moreover, I make no excuses for using the term innate in this context. As Sam Harris argues, there are many aspects of a humanist moral code that are (or should be) universal. Barbarity is barbarity, regardless of cultural and religious mores). Before I’m accused of picking an easy target with Leviticus (“No real Christian really takes Leviticus seriously — it’s the New Testament that’s important”), let’s note three things: (i) there are many Christians who indeed claim to take all of the Bible literally; (ii) moderate Christians regularly turn a blind eye to the blatant bigotry that is at the core of their faith in the 21st century; and (iii) (I apologise for repeating myself from a previous post but…) religion has too often been responsible for impeding, not accelerating, the development of women’s rights, LGBT rights, and human rights in general.
Claims that Christianity somehow, for example, drove the abolition of slavery ring hollow, as this article forcefully points out: “most churches refused to take part when offered a leading role by abolitionists. As historian John R. McKivigan explains in his book The War Against Proslavery Religion: Abolitionism and the Northern Churches 1830-1865, “All but a few small denominations balked at a commitment to uncompromised abolitionist principles and programs. As a result, civil war and government ended slavery in 1865.”
A more topical (and, for me, rather closer-to-home) example of the Church impeding human rights is provided by this week’s centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin. As highlighted in an article written by Olivia O’Leary in The Guardian on Good Friday, “Why, 100 years after the Easter Rising, are Irish women still fighting?“,
The proclamation declared an end to British rule but it also guaranteed religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all citizens. It made a commitment to universal suffrage, extraordinary for the time, and two years before women in Britain won the vote.
And what then continued to set back the cause of women in Ireland for decades? The Catholic Church. (Moreover, despite plummeting numbers of those who identify as religious in the Republic of Ireland, the Catholic Church still has a stranglehold on education in the country, with over 90% of all state schools being run by the Church.)
All in all, you might say that I’m not a big fan of religion.
And that’s why I find it so deeply dispiriting — some might even say soul-destroying — when atheists who have done a great deal of good in challenging the nonsense of religious mythology, bigotry, and division end up spouting divisive sexist vitriol based on precisely the argumentative fallacies they themselves have criticised. The Physics World articles, particularly the piece on microagressions, brought one of those atheists, a certain Philip E Mason, aka Thunderfoot — oops, sorry, Thunderf00t — to mind. Some of you may well be familiar with Mason’s anti-feminism crusades. For those of you who aren’t, a quick(-ish) precis…
Phil Mason is currently a research scientist at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic in Prague. A brief overview of his academic career to date is here. Mason’s research interests are not a million miles away from mine, in that we’re both interested in intermolecular and interparticle interactions. I’m, however, a scanning probe microscopist and irregular synchrotron user who probes atoms and molecules in real space (with occasional forays to reciprocal space) on solid surfaces, while Mason is more focussed on interactions in aqueous solutions and their analysis via (neutron) scattering techniques. (The latter means that we both would seem to share an appreciation of the power and elegance of Fourier transforms…).
Mason, in his Thunderf00t guise, has a parallel, and very successful, online career via the YouTube videos he makes. His “Why Do People Laugh At Creationists?” series has been extremely popular, with the first video (of 44 to date) having now attracted over 2 million views. The Thunderf00t channel itself has over half a million subscribers. In addition to his derision of creationism, Mason has posted videos on a variety of intriguing science topics including, in particular, a discussion of just why potassium explodes in water. In an admirable “cross-linking” of public engagement with academic research (a topic in which I have quite some interest), Mason’s potassium-in-water video eventually led to a fascinating paper in Nature Chemistry invoking a novel Coulomb explosion mechanism for the phenomenon.
But since 2012, and apparently seeded by a bitter dispute with Freethought Blogs and PZ Myers that year, Mason has devoted a huge amount of time and effort to attacking feminism. Repeatedly. Childishly. Spitefully*. And his vitriol has been underpinned throughout by precisely the type of argumentative fallacies for which he’s criticised creationists in the past.
The second most-viewed video for the Thunderf00t YouTube channel has got the fantastically hyperbolic title of “Why ‘feminism’ poisons everything“. (The Daily Mail — that bastion of rational, scientific, and accurate discourse — would be proud to lead with a title like that…). “Why ‘feminism’ poisons everything” has attracted over 1.5 million views since it was uploaded towards the end of 2013. (I’ll return to this video below because Mason makes some astoundingly weak and remarkably unscientific arguments on the topic of sexual dimorphism, which he has repeated regularly in other fora.)
The RationalWiki page for Thunderf00t puts it, with characteristic bluntness, like this:
Mason epitomizes the “STEMlord” atheist: a self-congratulatory, “right-thinking” individual who is a complete fuckwad in every other department.
I first ‘met’** Mason a number of years ago via something called the Magic Sandwich Show — a podcast/call-in show which involves four or five panel members discussing/debating the finer (and not-so-fine) points of religion and science. The MSS has got a strong following in what, for want of a better term, we’ll call the atheist community. I was a guest on the show back in Nov 2012 — invited by DPR Jones, who started, and hosts, the MSS (and who also has a considerable online presence) — when Mason was a regular MSS panellist. This was an amicable exchange; the topic of (anti-)feminism wasn’t broached.
I was invited back to the MSS in June last year and decided, after a chat with DPR, that a timely topic for conversation would be the Tim Hunt furore. (Rest easy, I’m not about to re-open that particular debate here. If you’re really interested, browse this blog for a number of posts which include links to many other articles/posts on the Hunt debacle and tens of thousands of words of associated comments). Mason, as Thunderf00t, also appeared on that particular episode of the MSS. I think Dr. Mason would agree that he and I did not exactly see eye to eye on the issue of diversity in science and the extent to which conscious or unconscious environmental biases, and not innate intellectual differences influence the gender balance in disciplines such as physics (and other sciences).
During the MSS discussion, Mason repeated the sexual dimorphism argument from his “Why ‘feminism’ poisons everything” video. There are many aspects of Mason’s anti-feminist tirades I could choose to dissect, including his appalling victim-blaming ‘analysis’ of rape a few years back, but many others have comprehensively rebutted those, particular, um, ‘arguments’. (I’ll note in passing that Mason of course denies that he has ever victim-blamed. However, see this forensic take-down of his “TEACH THEM NOT TO RAPE!” video (capitals not mine). TL;DR — Mason’s denials simply don’t ring true.)
I want to focus on the sexual dimorphism angle, however, because it highlights how Mason — despite being an accomplished scientist — can show a remarkable and complete disregard for scientific evidence (and the scientific method) when it comes to his YouTube appearances. Indeed, I’d go further; his reliance on an argument based on sexual dimorphism has all the hallmarks of an article of faith. In this, he’s behaving precisely like the creationists he so disparages.
Mason’s argument runs like this (and I quote):
“You see, we are part of a sexually dimorphic species, that is, males and females tend to have different physical characteristics. Look, the reason that we divide the Olympics up by sex, is not because we are inherently sexist. It’s because men and women tend to have different traits. On average, in the upper body strength, it’s almost fifty-percent difference. Ugh, come on. Tell me again how this is really a myth.”
On that MSS episode last year, Mason again used the performance of men and women at the Olympics to attempt to explain away the gender imbalance in physics. ( As the Institute of Physics puts it, “For more than 25 years, only around 20% of students progressing on to A-level physics have been girls, despite about equal success between the genders in GCSE physics and science.“).
Let that sink in for a moment… A scientist who has spent a great deal of his life debunking logical fallacies has used the performance of males vs females at the Olympics to justify the gender imbalance in physics at A-level and at universities.
Christ on a bike.
Where’s the evidence to support this ‘hypothesis’? Where are the data which systematically and credibly show that women are either (a) less intellectually equipped for, or (b) less ‘innately’ (there’s that word again) interested in physics than men (or other STEM subjects)? Where are the peer-reviewed and credible analyses that control for the effects of environment (especially conscious and unconscious biases in that environment) and show that there’s a distinct gender-specific aspect associated with ability in STEM subjects?
Without compelling evidence (which, to the very best of my knowledge, he has yet to provide (see below)), Mason’s sexual dimorphism argument, such as it is, is nothing more than an appeal to the fallacy of personal incredulity: “Look, men and women are physically different. I simply cannot believe that this doesn’t also influence their intellectual abilities or their preference for STEM vs non-STEM subjects or their ability to secure positions at the top of a company hierarchy. We’re just wired differently”.
Although you’d never know this from any of Dr. Mason’s contributions to YouTube, debates continue to rage about whether or not the concept of a “male” vs a “female” brain is valid. Two recent studies [1,2] both attracted a great deal of attention but came to polar opposite conclusions. The first of those papers was critiqued at length at PubPeer; for one thing, well-known artefacts related to magnetic resonance scanning were apparently not taken into consideration. The more recent paper  finds no evidence for a “male” vs a “female” brain. One nonetheless still has to question the extent to which environmental factors can ever fully be taken into account in any of these studies.
I’m a physicist. Our research group positions individual atoms on chunks of silicon and other inorganic samples in ultrahigh vacuum (at a pressure comparable to that found on the surface of the moon) and at 5 degrees above absolute zero. We have a huge degree of control over the environment surrounding our samples. And yet we, and other groups in our research field, still struggle immensely with the robust interpretation of data.
Disentangling/deconvolving environmental influences when it comes to the analysis and interpretation of measurements purporting to show gender differences therefore strikes me as a damn-near-impossible task. How can one ever reliably establish a credible control sample free of all environmental influence?
A series of studies and meta-analyses [see Ref. 3 for a lengthy review] have found that gender differences are minimal across a wide range of attributes. We can quibble about the statistical “power” of the research (and I will admit to being rather surprised, to put it mildly, at the extent to which many studies on gender differences/similarities are statistically underpowered) but the key thing is that sexual dimorphism effects are often at the limits of detection. Moreover, I will reiterate — just how do we robustly differentiate between biological and sociocultural effects? How do we deconvolve these aspects?
If I couch this in the language of the physical scientist, what it means is that the “sexual dimporphism” signal-to-noise ratio is very small and very easily swamped by external interference. In physics, and if I can be excused the rather strained analogy, coupling to the very large number of degrees of freedom of the environment plays an essential role in many systems. The same is true, in spades, for any socio-cultural system. Before Mason wheels out his sexual dimorphism hypothesis yet again, it’d be helpful (and rather more scientific) if he could at least cite the literature which highlights, repeatedly, the key importance of environment. He could start with the Cambridge Handbook of Intelligence. I’ll quote, at length, from p. 267:
“There are intellectual areas in which females, on average, excel and males, on average, excel. Psychological, social, and biological factors explain these differences. However, it does not seem that biology is limiting intelligence in any way because biology alone cannot explain the vast improvement of female performance on certain measures such as the increasing numbers of females scoring at the highest end of the SAT math test (Blackburn, 2004).
Data showing differences between men and women in intelligence do not support the notion of a smarter sex, nor do they imply that the differences are immutable.” [Emphasis mine].
It’s about time I brought this lengthy post to an end. Before I do, I’ve got to stress that I’m of course not the first to point out the vacuity of Mason’s “sexual dimorphism” schtick. As noted on that Rational Wiki page to which I referred above, a few months following the MSS episode on which Mason and I debated, Thunderf00t was again raising the dimorphism flag under a video posted by the social scientist Kristi Winters. Although it’s often a good idea to avoid reading/commenting below the line, it’s worth visiting that video (and reading the RationalWiki commentary) to see the extent to which Mason indulged in a series of argumentative fallacies, and then ducked out of providing the evidence for his claims that Winters requested.
I contacted Mason before I started writing this post to let him know that I was planning to upload a piece which was critical of his views on feminism. To his credit, he responded positively, and sent me a link to this article as a demonstration of what he sees as the adverse effects of feminism on science. For a change, Mason and I agree — that paper is junk. It does a big disservice to both science and feminism. I’ve made similar comments about the work of Karen Barad previously, which attempts to couch quantum mechanics in the context of feminist and queer ‘theory’. There’s a substantial “emperor’s new clothes” character to work of that type, usually written in an impenetrable style to disguise the lack of substance.
But physics and physical chemistry is not immune to having nonsense papers being published. Worse, when it came to the Bogdanov affair (as a particularly telling example), opinion was divided as to whether their papers were a hoax or real science! Similarly, this paper (and its bargain-basement photoshopping of data) was published in Nano Letters, which, as Mason will know, is not at the bottom of the hierarchy of prestige journals…
So we STEM folk shouldn’t get too far up on our high horse; there have been a variety of embarrassing papers published in our field. And just as we don’t damn an entire field of chemistry or physics when fraudulent, or simply sloppy, work is published, we can’t in turn dismiss all of social science on the basis of a few cringeworthy papers. To do so would represent yet another piece of sloppy, fallacious thinking.
In my daughter’s Year 7 classroom the following words are pinned up on the wall:
No, Dr. Mason. Feminism does not poison everything.
* I should stress that, as discussed in this post, I do not agree at all with the attempt that was made to have Mason fired from his research post (on the basis of the anti-feminism tirades he posts online and the associated social media ‘dynamics’). Mason should be debated, not censored.
**I’ve not met Mason in person — I’ve spoken with him online via the MSS and exchanged a couple of e-mails.