The natural order of things?

It’s been fascinating, not least from a sociological perspective, to read the comments threads under “The Faith and Fables of Thunderfoot” blog post and video I uploaded recently. (The video was mirrored at a number of other channels, so there are quite a few comments to browse in total. A big thank you to those who mirrored the video: Kristi Winters, Kevin Logan, Angry Basterds, and chrisiousity. And, of course, thanks also to all those who left intelligent, thoughtful comments.  Much obliged.)

The majority of those commenting tend to echo the following sentiment (from a Reddit thread on the video/post):

It’s really quite astounding to me that Thunderf00t didn’t even attempt to provide a shred of empirical evidence to back up his “hypothesis” despite being presented with multiple opportunities.

There is, however, also a subset of comments from those who attempt to defend Mason’s stance on sexual dimorphism. These range from the clueless, willfully uninformed, and severely grammatically challenged [1] to a small number of rather more thoughtful and well-written replies. I deal with the latter in detail below but a few words on the former are also in order because, despite the vacuity of their responses, they provide further illuminating examples of the faith-based stance that was adopted in an attempt to support Mason’s evidence-free claims.

A number of those who have left comments in defence of Mason state specifically that they have not, and will not, read the blog posts that critique his arguments. This not only highlights a worrying aversion to reading — and it’s clear that quite a few of those who commented on the video did not read the detailed arguments in the associated blog posts — but is indicative of an inherently ‘tribal’, i.e. “in group” vs “out group”, attitude that really doesn’t care about evidence or reasoned argument. (We’re seeing similar gut-level responses in the EU referendum debate here.)

It was also amusing to find quite a few posting comments along the lines of “What Phil (Mason) is saying…/What Phil (Mason) means…/What Thunderfoot is pointing out…“, despite the fact that at no point during the exchange with Mason did he provide any type of (counter-)argument. I believe that the term Mason et al. would use under these circumstances is “white knighting“. (In addition, a number of particularly aggrieved commenters defending Mason’s honour claimed, in textbook ad hom style, that my core motivation was to simply get more YouTube views. Errmm, no. Some of us are motivated by factors other than YouTube view counts.)

Moreover, I very deliberately used “faith” in the title of the post and video; some of those commenting helped to strengthen that particular argument for me. This faith-based position was no better demonstrated than in this comment (and follow up). Note the absence of any attempt by “St. Thomas” to provide evidence to support their position. It’s just a gut-level, instinctive claim which is remarkable in its core certainty: Of course there’s lots of evidence for this.

That’s faith in action.

Another intriguing parallel with faith group thinking, and something I find remarkable for those who identify as atheists, is the persistent appeal to what’s best described as the “natural order of things”, i.e. women are just less suited to and/or less disposed to physics because of their (immutable) “nature” . Most of the time this is asserted with nothing more than the type of empty claim put forward by “St Thomas” above, but, on occasion, a more thoughtful analysis is given.

One of those who commented took the time to write a blog post (with the obligatory Sherlock Holmes reference, of course): Being Sherlock is edgy these daysThat post makes the same core points as have been put to me (very) occasionally by the more literate/intelligent supporters of Mason and so is worth dissecting in detail. (I only wish Mason could have responded at this level). Let’s start.

“As I said back when we first clashed it is currently not necessarily easy to tease out what is innate and what is.”

There’s an unfortunate typo here but clearly what’s meant is the following: “It is currently not necessarily easy to tease out what is innate and what isn’t”. Indeed. This has been the core of my argument throughout.  But “not necessarily easy to tease out” is a massive understatement. The balance of nature vs nurture is exceptionally difficult to determine in very many cases, and this is why there have been so many long-standing debates spanning decades. It’s worth reading the exchange in the comments section under this article to see just how bitter those nature-vs-nurture disputes can get, even among professionals in the field.

Arguably the most compelling recent evidence for the strong convolution of nature and nurture — as I outlined in the “When atheists ape creationists…” post — is the comprehensive (to put it mildly) meta-analysis carried out by Polderman et al., published last year: Nature Genetics 47,702–709(2015). (I’ve bypassed the paywall and am making made the .pdf of that paper available free of charge. It will remain available here unless Springer Nature, the publisher, decides to serve up a cease-and-desist order).

That meta-analysis is astounding in its scope. Quoting from the abstract of the paper, “We report a meta-analysis of twin correlations and reported variance components for 17,804 traits from 2,748 publications including 14,558,903 partly dependent twin pairs, virtually all published twin studies of complex traits.”

14.5 million pairs of twins!

Meta-analyses are not common in my research field of condensed matter physics/nanoscience — I struggle to think of a single example. They’ve been used in particle physics, however, for quite some time. Moreover, the concept of a meta-analysis appears to have been first introduced by astronomers and mathematicians in the 18th century. Meta-analyses are now a core part of the research firmament in a number of fields, including, of course, medicine.

When attempting to determine the genetic/biological vs societal underpinnings of particular aptitudes, it is important not to rely on individual, isolated studies. For one thing, and as highlighted by Poldermann and co-workers, the balance of nature vs nurture is generally close to 50:50.This means that the effective ‘signal-to-noise ratio’ for sexual dimorphic effects can be weak and thus the associated statistical analysis of the data needs to be exceptionally robust. Meta-analysis can help to provide this powerful statistical basis.

Back to that blog post…

What we know is that in highly talented samples there is an extreme ability difference. Data comes from several sources. First when it comes to mechanical reasoning, a category highly relevant to physical science, there is a large gap in mean ability, 3/4 of a standard deviation between men and women. Source.

The problem with the (single) cited source here is that the study does not attempt to normalise out environmental/societal influences. Moreover, the suggestion in the blog post (and the cited paper) would appear to be that the differences are “hard-wired” and immutable. (I’ll get back to this). As the  — anonymous, of course — writer of the post stated from the outset, teasing out just what is innate and what isn’t is not easy…

Reading up on some of the papers that cite the study linked to above (i.e. Lemos et al.), we find (i) a meta-analysis that highlights the importance of the relationship between vocational interests and cognitive abilities [this]; (ii) a study that investigates the link between socioeconomic level and cognitive ability (this), finding that, as stated in the abstract, “socioeconomic level had more influence than sex on most of the cognitive tests“;  and (iii) a distinct warning against using comparisons of g scores across gender.

I cite these papers not to suggest that any of them is the definitive last word on the subject. In fact, I cite them precisely because they’re clearly not the definitive last word on the subject. It is exceptionally important not to cherry-pick individual studies and consider their findings in isolation. This is true in the physical sciences, but it is orders of magnitude more true outside the neatly controlled confines of experimental physics where there are so many confounding, and confounded, variables that too often cannot be adequately taken into account.  This is one reason Internet Guy here doesn’t appreciate that the abstracts he’s cited (after a quick search for keywords with Google Scholar) may not be quite as “damning” as he thinks…

Moreover, when a huge percentage of research in a particular field is irreproducible, meta-analyses, rather than single studies, become critically important.

Such a difference in mean has, when assuming a normal distribution (which is not a bad approximation, see here )of ability massive differences at the tail of the distribution. For example if physcists need +3SD of ability to succeed this would mean that the cutoff for the female distribution is 3 +3/8 SD above their mean while for the males it is 3 -3/8 over their mean, leading to a ratio of male to female of 11.6:1.

First, I have no bone to pick with regard to the normality/’Gaussianity’ of intelligence levels (although I have many bones to pick with the concept of the pseudo-quantitative estimation of intelligence that is the IQ level. IQ tests demonstrate one’s ability to…do IQ tests). The central limit theorem tells us that a Gaussian is the natural result of the convolution of different probability distribution functions so, given the complexity of the nature-nurture process as described above, I’m happy to accept normality. 🙂

But where does the metric of “+3 standard deviations to succeed”arise? Where is the evidence for this claim? Or was it chosen simply to fudge the figures so as to get a preferred male:female ratio? I note that the author of the blog post doesn’t provide a citation.

Further we have several pieces of evidence that at the tails (not at the mean) there actually are significant differences in mathematical ability. For one at the higher end of SAT-M scores (700-800) the ratio of boys to girls is 1.6http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/research/TotalGroup-2012.pdf

Yet again, this takes no account of environmental/societal factors. (I’ll reiterate that the author of the post herself/himself pointed out that separating out “innate” and “non-innate” differences is  problematic.) In any case, the question of ‘gendered’ ability in mathematics (where the gender balance is close to 50:50 in the US, and currently stands at ~ 40:60 (F:M) in the UK) has been studied in considerably more detail than for physics. For example, in a well-cited paper (based on the findings of a number of meta-analyses), Hyde and Mertz show that “girls in the US have reached parity with boys in mathematics performance” and that “greater male variability with respect to mathematics is not ubiquitous. Rather, its presence correlates with several measures of gender inequality. Thus, it is largely an artifact of changeable, sociocultural factors, not immutable, innate biological differences”.

The lack of immutability is key because if cognitive differences between males and females really were “hard-wired” and entirely dominated over societal influences, we would not expect to see significant differences in uptake/aptitude for various subjects over short periods of time (i.e. decades). This very important point is made very well by ObjectiveReality a number of times in the comments thread for “Faith and Fables…” .

Indeed, when we look at mathematics, we find that the gender balance in ability is certainly not locked in place (as stated clearly in “When atheists ape creationists…“[2]):

“…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).”

My correspondant should note the “at the highest end of the SAT test” qualifier in the quote above before they make assertions re. means vs tails of distributions. Hyde and Mertz also addressed this distinction (at length) in their paper. Moreover, they cite work by Penner (Am J Sociology 114:S138 – 170) which reaches the following conclusion: “The common assumption that males have greater variance in mathematics achievement is not universally true“.

It’s also worth reading some — or, indeed, time permitting, all (!) — of the papers that cite Hyde and Mertz’s work. These include “Do the maths: An analysis of the gender gap in mathematics in Africa” by Dickerson and co-workers. (I have a particular interest in education in Africa, having visited Ethiopia recently). Once again, the authors conclude that there is a substantial socioeconomic/societal component underpinning performance:

There is a significant difference in maths test scores in favour of boys, similar to that previously observed in developed countries. This difference cannot be explained by gender differences in school quality, home environment, or within-school gender discrimination in access to schooling inputs. However, the gender gap varies widely with characteristics of the regions in which the pupils live, and these regional characteristics are more predictive of the gender gap than parental education and school characteristics, including teacher gender.

I should stress yet again that I am not suggesting that Dickerson et al.’s paper is the last word on gender differences in maths in Africa (or elsewhere in the world). I cite it simply to show that, as one might expect from that pioneering meta-analysis of Poldermann et al discussed above, nature and nurture are inherently convolved. It is entirely unscientific to state that the nature (i.e. genetic/biological) component dominates aptitude/preference for physics when there is no evidence to support that conclusion.

Back to my correspondant’s blog post…

So to summarize my first and most important point: The proximate cause of gender differences in accomplishment in physical and mathematical science is likely differences in the number of highly talented individuals. 

That’s a remarkable claim on the basis of just a handful of cited papers, particularly when the literature has addressed,  and rebutted, those claims at length, as discussed above. (c.f. Internet Guy). Note, in particular, Penner’s paper referred to above (American J. Sociology 114:S138 – S170 [4]), a substantial piece of work, and the section entitled “Do females exist who possess profound mathematical talent” (and references therein) in Hyde and Mertz’s paper.

It’s worth quoting from the introduction to Penner’s paper as he explains the key point of his work,

“Given the inextricable link between the biological and social, I show that one way to proceed is to examine these differences internationally…If gender differences vary across countries (and they do) then social factors are important”.

This “geographical” variation complements the temporal variation discussed previously.

Back to the dissection of the blog post…

Proximate social causes like discrimination in universities are bad candidates as explanation since they a, ignore ability differences, and b do not explain ability differences that are allready present in 12 year olds. Whatever the reason for the difference it starts early.

This point is bizarre. My entire argument (and that of many of the papers I’ve cited above) is that we have to consider both nature and nurture components. But the societal effects obviously don’t just kick in at university — they’re present throughout life, from early stage (primary/elementary school) learning, and before. To argue that the “difference(s) start early” does not provide any type of evidence that we should discount societal/environmental effects in favour of a genetic/biological dominance.

In any case, when it comes to mathematics, the claim that the differences are already present “early” has been contested. For example, it’s been argued that boys and girls in preschool grasp number concepts at the same rate (see Spelke, Amer. Psychology 60, 50 (2005)).

Practice makes perfect?

I’m going to close this lengthy post with a discussion of the flawed concept that aptitudes for STEM subjects — or any subject — are immutable, with a particular focus on the topic of spatial reasoning. This is of keen interest to me because, although I’m now a physicist (and have loved science and physics from an early age), when I did an aptitude test in the early years of secondary school my spatial reasoning scores were rather lower than I would have hoped, and certainly made me (momentarily) question whether I was cut out for physics.

There’s a lot of spatial reasoning in physics. This is particularly the case in my area of research — condensed matter physics/surface physics/nanophysics (call it what you will) — where we have to consider crystal structures, symmetry groups and operations, different arrangements of atoms on various low- and high order crystal planes, etc…

What made a huge difference to my ability to consider and analyse structures in both real and reciprocal space was… practice.

And what’s made a huge difference in my ability to do physics of any type? Practice.

That’s one reason I found this particular article so fascinating. Questions just like the “Rotate This” poser in that article formed part of the aptitude test on spatial reasoning I did years ago. 34 years on from doing that aptitude test, it’s second nature to solve that puzzle. As a teenager, however, I clearly must have struggled. My experience mirrors that of Sheryl Sorby, described in the post:

As Sorby took more engineering courses, she got better at spatial cognition tasks, until eventually she found herself teaching engineering graphics, the very course that almost derailed her as an undergrad. “The brain is pretty plastic when it comes to spatial skills,” Sorby says. “I have improved my spatial skills vastly as an adult.”

I recommend you read the entire post but I’m going to quote at length from it in any case because it flags up (for the n-to-the-nth time) how it is nigh-on-impossible to credibly or definitively separate nature from nurture in so many cases.

“We don’t know what’s cause, and what’s effect,” Cashdan says. What is clear is that cultural biases have an effect.Consciously or unconsciously, girls are nudged away from activities that would help them develop spatial skills almost as soon as they’re born. As they grow, parents respond to their kids’ interests, quickly compounding what may start out as very slight biases.

“Parents are very invested in gender differences, and any differences between a son and a daughter tend to be attributed to sex,” says Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at the Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps, and What We Can Do About It.

Over time, “boy” toys reinforce skills that are proven brain boosters. Playing with Legos and blocks, taking a shop class in high school and time spent playing 3-D computer games have all been shown to boost scores on mental rotation tests.

Ultimately, separating nature from nurture may be impossible. But Sorby and others who study gender differences say it may not matter. Nora S. Newcombe, a cognitive and developmental psychologist at Temple University, who has researched gender differences in spatial cognition, bristles at the concept that the dearth of women in science is due to hard-wired deficiencies. “I think there might be a biological mechanism, but it doesn’t seem that important in terms of human potential,” she says. “It seems like an excuse.” An excuse not to do the hard work necessary to improve in places we might be lacking.

Old dogs, different drums

Finally, I’m also interested in the nature vs nurture issue from the perspective of education in general (as distinct from, and in addition to, gender balance issues). Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers introduced the “10,000 hours” concept, i.e. it apparently takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery of a sport, or a game such as chess, or a musical instrument etc… This ‘meme’ has spread across the internet like wildfire since Outliers was published back in 2008. Gladwell’s arguments have been thoroughly critiqued since then with many making the rather obvious point that it’s not just any old practice regime that’s important: it has to be targeted and focused. Gladwell has always stressed, you guessed it, the importance of the nurture component of the nature-nurture question.

The targeted practice idea resonates with me because over the last year or so I’ve been spending an hour a day learning to drum (specifically, double bass drumming) with the wonder of Aerodrums. As discussed in the video below, my practice regime has been very focused. (Not easy for me). I also mention Gary Marcus’ Guitar Zero in the video — a fantastic book which challenges the age-old, and clearly flawed, adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

The brain, even in middle- to late-adulthood, is much more plastic than was previously thought. What’s also intriguing is that strong connections between physical activity and brain plasticity have been found. Erickson and co-workers have reviewed the research literature in this area, concluding that “physical activity is a promising intervention that can influence the endogenous pharmacology of the brain to enhance cognitive and emotional function in late adulthood.“. Drumming, of the Aero or traditional variety, would therefore seem to be an especially powerful method of enhancing cognitive function, combining physicality with learning an instrument.

And it finally gives the lie to all those “stupid drummer” jokes. (You know the ones… “What do you call a drummer with half a brain? Gifted”;”How do you tell if the stage is level? The drummer is drooling from both sides of his mouth.”)


[1] Some who seek to defend Mason claim that my pointing out the deficiencies in his writing is somehow an ad hominem fallacy. This shows a distinct lack of understanding of that particular fallacy. I did not attack Mason’s lack of communication skills in lieu of countering his groundless claims re. sexual dimorphism. Instead, I presented a detailed rebuttal of his claims and, in parallel, highlighted the deficiencies in his written communication. Indeed, in the video I introduced my criticism of Mason’s communication skills by referring to it as a “peripheral point”.

In addition, I found it amusing and illuminating to be chastised for writing “pretty language“. Although I took that chastisement very much as a compliment, it again flags up the increasing inability/unwillingness of many to read and digest even moderately sophisticated arguments. This is something that has concerned me for a while, particularly as I may well be contributing to the problem. See this post (or, for those who prefer not to read, this video).

[2] One of the most frustrating aspects of the inability/unwillingness in some quarters to read anything more complex than a grammatically garbled YouTube slur is that I end up having to repeat myself. Repeatedly.

[3] There is a tendency among Mason et al.’s followers to irrationally dismiss results published by social scientists solely on the basis of the discipline. For the reasons I discuss in “When atheists ape creationists…” this is an appallingly weak position to adopt.

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

35 thoughts on “The natural order of things?”

  1. Thank you for that response. I have a lot of academic responisbilities at the moment and I do not know when I can respond in turn. I have quite a few quibbles with your posts and other things that I agree with, so I will likely write something up at some point. May be next weekend, we will see.

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  2. “although I have many bones to pick with the concept of the pseudo-quantitative estimation of intelligence that is the IQ level. IQ tests demonstrate one’s ability to…do IQ tests”

    Isaac Asimov once quipped that the better one scores on IQ tests, the less one thinks of the concept of IQ being meaningful.

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    1. The classic, of course, is President Eisenhower being astounded when an aide mentioned that half the U.S. population is below average in intelligence!

      Reminds me of those spam messages: We’ve managed to get thousands of sites into the top 10!

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  3. Thanks for linking me this. Two quick points:
    1) Just to say I mention you in an upcoming video (recorded but not edited), and I wish to confess to making a very fleeting Sherlock Holmes reference. That said, I will point out that whilst I can imagine such jokes may wear somewhat thin from your perspective, from my perspective that does not preclude me getting a cheap laugh 🙂
    2) I note only take your point regarding the inextricable way in which nativism and empiricism intertwine but something I have for some time whined on about is that attempting to set some measure of what percentage is nature and what percentage is nurture is at least as much a measure of the proximate/ultimate causal level of that which we are describing than anything else. By way of example, even if we just limit our enquiry as to how innate the way we eat is, how we do we scale the different levels of description relative to one another? One imagines that a knife and fork is entirely learnt and culturally specific (let us assume it is) but that using the hands to perambulate the food to the mouth rather than mashine one’s face into a static plate is innate (perhaps cognitive in origin or perhaps simply arising inevitably as a result of our physiology….. and again let us just assume that it is innate). My point then, is that any estimation as to how nativistic is the way we eat is at least as dependent on how much weighting we apply to these different levels of behaviour than it is on anything fundamental about the activity.
    I am not so sure these concerns always manifest when we discuss gender differences, and their basis, but I still think we ought to be minded of them.

    (sorry if any typos or odd sentences but posting on my phone into a miniscule text box!)

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    1. Hi.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      ” I can imagine such jokes may wear somewhat thin from your perspective, from my perspective that does not preclude me getting a cheap laugh:-)”

      I’m certainly not averse to playing on the Holmes reference myself! See the first minute or so of this, for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvgomEfQfKc

      Your point about attempting to quantify the unquantifiable is extremely well made. This is also a particular irritation of mine (albeit generally in a different context — https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/not-everything-that-counts-can-be-counted/ )

      It’s worth reading through that Nature Genetics paper, however. I would argue that it’s a compelling statistical analysis. The online tool they developed to sift through the data is also worth a look.

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      1. Tha ks for the response and will check out the links.
        Sorry for the delay btw, the whole referendum business has caught my attantions somewhat the last few days (unsurprisingly)!

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      2. Just realised i mentioned you (and featured a clip of you) in the video and never linked it to you.
        Bad form on my part as I generally chastise others for making videos mentioning people and not informing them.
        Ok here is the link (it is a long and somewhat ill tempered video but if you feel motivated to check out the bit concerning you then there is a table of contents in the footnotes)

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  4. @Noelplum99 My reaction to Brexit is summed up in the quote at the end of this Buzzfeed piece: https://www.buzzfeed.com/tomchivers/this-is-how-scientists-are-reacting-to-brexit

    P.S. Was pleased to see your recommendation of Woit’s “Not Even Wrong”. It’s a great book that highlights the problems not just with some aspects of string theory “culture” but with many other areas of science including, in particular, peer review. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this particular example of just what peer review can miss: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLlA1w4OZWQ ?

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  5. I DID read the arguments, but I’m a layman.

    This has got nothing to do with being a layman. Anyone with any modicum of intelligence can read those arguments and understand them. No background in science is necessary to read that post and to follow it. That you have to even bring up the issue of being a “layman” speaks volumes.

    What you’re in fact saying here is that you don’t understand the arguments I’m making. And yet you have been willing to frequently discount those arguments over the course of our exchange. Do you see what I mean about faith?

    As regards your strawman nonsense, could I make the very simple (and gobsmackingly obvious) point that Mason had all the opportunity in the world to (a) tell me I was attacking a strawman, (b) point out that he didn’t ever make the claim about sexual dimorphism (which he quite demonstrably did), and (c) explain just what he meant.

    He didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he evaded my question time and time again. If you’d taken the time to carefully read the exchange you’d see that I even specifically give Mason the opportunity to tell me that he hadn’t claimed that sexual dimorphism underpinned the gender balance in physics.

    And we both know what his response was.

    “but attack the position that women were incapable of doing well in physics because of sexual dimorphism as oppose to sexual dimorphism being responsible for a decreased inclination to study it in the first place.*

    Wow. Another complete misinterpretation of the post. I spell it out, on a point by point basis, and you still lack the ability to follow the blindingly obvious arguments?

    As I said, I am more than happy to spend a great deal of time and energy devoting myself to explaining science, the scientific method, physics, and maths to those who are genuine, honest, and willing to learn. After all, I’m a university teacher. This is what I do. This is what I love to do.

    But I resent having to spell out, in language which is dumbed-down to the extreme, very simple arguments to someone who has spent their time throughout our exchange dishonestly claiming that they are a proponent of rational/scientific debate.

    Let me attempt to dumb it down even further (but I’ve already reached rock bottom, so I’m going to have to start tunnelling through…)

    — 1. Science proves nothing. (Learn what that means before you attempt to debate science again. It’ll save everyone, including yourself, a great deal of time).

    — 2. Aptitude and/or preference for physics is an exceptionally complicated, multi-parameter, non-linear (possibly chaotic), and intensely convoluted problem/phenomenon.

    Therefore, Mason cannot definitively say that nature dominates over nurture.

    Therefore, I cannot definitively say that nurture dominates over nature in all cases

    However, there is good evidence, due to the temporal and geographical variations described in the post, that the nurture aspects play a very important role.

    (And if you don’t understand some of the terms I’ve used there, could I kindly suggest that you purchase a dictionary? You could also spend a little more time reading good science books, rather than listening to the unsupported, unscientific nonsense of Mason et al when it comes to sexual dimorphism.

    Note that Mason has published some good science, including a really neat paper last year on a Coulomb explosion mechanism for potassium interacting with water. This is why his response to me re. evidence for his claims for sexual dimorphism was so wholly disappointing. He’s clearly a good scientist. And, in my opinion, he knew full well that he didn’t have any evidence for his claims about sexual dimorphism. But instead of doing the decent thing and admitting that, he behaved like a petulant child and “trolled” instead.)

    3. Therefore, it is entirely unscientific to claim that the “nature” component dominates, because the evidence is not there.

    The distinction between “evidence” to support a theory/hypothesis and “proof” is key. You said in a previous comment that “evidence” and “proof” are synonymous. In the context of science, you could not be more wrong.
    If you’d taken the time to read any of the links on inductive vs deductive reasoning I provided, you’d have seen this.

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  6. The central limit theorem tells us that a Gaussian is the natural result of the convolution of different probability distribution functions so, given the complexity of the nature-nurture process as described above, I’m happy to accept normality.:-)

    The value of a normal approximation tends to get worse and worse as you extend out to the tails of the distribution, the rare events. This is particularly true when you have feedback that might push outliers further out or, more relevant here, pull them back. Yet another reason to object to the 11.6:1 figure.

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  7. Thank you Prof. Moriarty for linking this to me.

    When reading the papers and discussions on some youtube videos and blogs posted here, i start to get the feeling that most of the time it is a
    discussion about witch buttons we push and what comes out as a result to that.

    Imagine an engine. You have a few buttons at your controlboard and with them you know that you can influence some parts of the engine but you don’t know all of the parts that you influence.
    But what you know is that the engine can regulate nearly all parts of it and you don’t know how or the way it regulates them.

    So if you take a look at the human body:

    1.) We understand ca. 50% of the neuronal function. Just the way the neurotransmitters work. (this is optimistic)
    2.) We understand maybe 40-60% of the hormonsystem. (optimistic)
    3.) Maybe we know 10% about how SNP’s affect the brain. (very optimistic)
    4.) We know about 1% about how this factors play into the developing of the mind, the personality and the mental health. And we have to keep in mind that the enviroment plays a big part in the forming of the brain etc.

    So at the moment we discuss if there is or is not a sexual dimorphism and how it does influences or does not influence the life choises and the development of humans.

    Form the physiologic point of view there is a sexual dimorphism in humans.
    1.) there is a different sexual chromoson set in males (XY) and females (XX).
    2.) Women have a hormon cycel, men don’t.
    3.) Men have a significant concentration of testosteron in their blood, women don’t.
    These are biological facts. At this point there is so many evidence for these three points that it would be stupid to say that they are not true.

    And we know that testosteron leeds to high levels of agression, muscular groth and the developing of a beard. And it is for sure that there are other effects still uncovert, but we don’t know what these effects are, nor do we know how all these sexualhormons interact with the neurotransmittter-system, the enviromentalfactors or with mutations and SNP’s (singel-nucleotid Polymorphism).

    So the problem i see in the whole discussion is:
    We don’t know the basics.

    If the sexual hormons dictate that males and females will develope some kind of different intrests in life than trying to influence this with some kind of enviromental factors like some kind of special education, it will allways be an up-hill battle.
    But maybe it is not the hormons, maybe it is the neurotransmitter system.

    We know that there is an sexual dimorphism on the level of brain-function, hormon-status and even neurotransmitter-leves but we don’t know how or if this affects the mental status, the life choises or the behavior of males and females. We know that there is a sexual dimorphism on these levels but we don’t know if it has an external effect besides from physical effects. It is likley but unsure, especially when you keep in mind that the enviroment can have a gigantic influence on human behavior, but the biological systems have too.

    So to give a short over view:
    Yes there is a sexual dimorphism in humans.
    And yes it has effects on important parts of the systems that are responsible for the behavior of humans.
    BUT we don’t know what these effects are. And how to influence them.

    And of course all behavior studies done are very unclear in their results because you can change your hormonsystem AND your neurotransmitter system by having a different gender but also by the food your eating, the health you are in (cortisol for an example has higher concentration when you are under stress, and cortisol can lead to euphoria and even to mania), and finally you can influence it by genetic mutations and by epigenetic (yes your DNA can change it self and adapt that way to changings in the enviroment without mutations. Look it up it is really interesting how that works.)

    So all in all to say that there is no sexual dimorphism in the behavior is just not correct form an scientific point of view. But to say that there is a sexual dimorphism in the behavior is also not correct.

    There is scientific data that suggest that there might be a sexual dimorphism and the is a possible explanation in the different concentration of the sexual hormons and neurotransmitters BUT it has not yet been possible to draw a clear connection from the physiologic differences to differences in the behavior. There is the suggestion that there is a connection but it is not yet shown.
    So the whole discussion about who is right, is a bit senseles because that is something scientific research hasn’t yet produced any results that can show a clear action-reaction correlation.
    The only way to solve that problem would be, everyone who wants to know if there is a sexual dimorphism or not should spend a small amount of his or her salary financing neuronal, hormonal, phsycology and behavior researche. By doing that we would not only find out the truth behind if the is a sexual dimorphism or not but certainly ways to treat diseases and understand our body better.

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    1. It sounds like you agree there is no basis for the claim that the 80/20 gender split in physics is due primarily to sexual dimorphism. So then you would also agree that Mason should withdraw that claim?

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    2. The only way to solve that problem would be, everyone who wants to know if there is a sexual dimorphism or not should spend a small amount of his or her salary financing neuronal, hormonal, phsycology and behavior researche.

      I just wanted to point out that if you live in a country where there is government support for science, then you are already devoting a portion of your salary to finance such research.

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      1. I would say that that the 80/20 gender split in physics is most likley not soly based on sexual dimorphism, but it could be. It could also not be.
        I would say that he has the right to say that it is based on sexual dimorphism because ist might play a significant part in the gender split. I wouldn’t call it the final wisdom but there is evidence supporting it, and also evidence supporting the opposit, so in the end both points are valid.
        But sadly i must say that i live in a country in the eu that has decided about 10 years ago it would be a good idea to dry out systematicley scientific research at universitys by stopping to fund it. So no my country does not support this kind of research. It has dryed out stem cell research about 10 years ago becuase of some idiotic political agenda and now they dry out forrest biology and they dry out toxikology.

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        1. (different avatar, same George)

          Sorry to hear about the political situation in your area. I live in the US where government support for science is declining.

          You find some evidence consistent with Mason’s position, and some inconsistent, as do I. Suppose that the situation was near 50/50 in terms of the supporting evidence – in that case, would you agree that belief in either “sexual dimorphism is responsible” or “it isn’t” is unwarranted? The correct conclusion would be, “I don’t know,” right?

          I mean, if tfoot believes that sexual dimorphism is the main cause of the 80/20 split, then he either he is convinced by the evidence, or he is not basing his opinion on the evidence. If he is convinced by the evidence, then he believes that the situation is not 50/50, and he should be able to back that up, right?

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          1. If nothing has been proven than one can claim anything. You could say that there is no sexual dimorphism and use that as a working thesis to do your research and formulate your questions that you have to ask to do the research. Of course you could claim that there is sexual dimorphism and use that as a working thesis.
            The initial thesis is to be abel to ask the first questions to start research. In the process it could lead to the point when you have to reformulate your thesis and so you get step by step closer to the truth.
            Sometimes that means to find out that your initial thesis is completly wrong but you have to start with something.

            So all in all Dr. Mason can claim that there is a sexual dimorphism and someone else can claim that there is no sexual dimorphism. It is just the starting point but we have to be aware that it is just the starting point and every claim we do at the moment could be fundamentally wrong.
            In 10 years maybe we know the answer to the question and maybe the answer is that there is no sexual dimorphism causing the gender split in physics but that the split is caused by a genetic defect that causes people to like physics and that women are able to supress the effects of that defect better than men bacause of reasons (ok that is really unlikely and stupid but till it is not proven to be wrong one could claim that as a working thesis).

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            1. If nothing has been proven than one can claim anything.

              A worldview in which we are justified in believing things not supported by evidence is not a scientific worldview.

              I certainly don’t think it’s acceptable to claim to know something when you understand that the evidence neither supports nor rejects your claim. We should only claim to know things about the world when we have evidence.

              Apportion your belief according to the evidence. Isn’t that the whole point of skepticism????

              You could say that there is no sexual dimorphism and use that as a working thesis to do your research and formulate your questions that you have to ask to do the research. Of course you could claim that there is sexual dimorphism and use that as a working thesis.The initial thesis is to be abel to ask the first questions to start research. In the process it could lead to the point when you have to reformulate your thesis and so you get step by step closer to the truth.
              Sometimes that means to find out that your initial thesis is completly wrong but you have to start with something.

              All of this is true but irrelevant. Mason says he believes that “sexual dimorphism is responsible” — saying you believe a claim is very different from using that claim as a working hypothesis.

              In the process of doing science, one may adopt a stance that a certain proposition may be true and proceed to attempt to falsify that position; this is more or less what it means to “use a working hypothesis.” Mason isn’t anywhere close to being in that position. He’s doing chemistry research, not science studies or psychology. He is not actively seeking evidence to falsify the “sexual dimorphism” claim.

              In 10 years maybe we know the answer to the question…

              According to you, we don’t now know the answer. When Mason claims “sexual dimorphism is responsible”, he’s saying he knows the answer. How can he know the answer if we don’t?

              One possibility is that he’s got information we don’t, in which case, well, citation needed. Another possibility is that he’s looking at the same facts and coming to an unwarranted conclusion. The only other possibility I can see is that he’s being dishonest. If you see a fourth possibility, let me know, cuz I’m really having a hard time with what you’ve written here.

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  8. Dear Professor Moriarty:

    (Sorry, I really wanted to write that. I’ve been reading Sherlock Holmes for [deleted] years.)

    It’s better to separate the researcher Doctor Phil Mason, whose work is within the structures of academic chemistry, and the YouTube personality Thunderf00t, who behaves in a way that isn’t just immature (as you pointed out), but often the opposite of what a scientist or skeptic should do.

    Perhaps it is an effect of the environment of each of these personas, but he does come across as two different people.

    To mention a recent example, avoiding anything social: Thunderf00t made a video about how the Hyperloop would kill you in a variety of ways. This video was picked apart by various engineers, and one big failure was when Thunderf00t says “a deceleration of 30 m/s^2, that is 30g, which kills you.”

    Many people pointed out that 30m/s^2 is around 3g, uncomfortable but not fatal, which TF proceeded to ignore (as it undermines his point). TF then responded to an employee of HyperloopOne who had put together a list of issues with personal attacks and dismissing the 30g as a “minor arithmetic error.”

    This kind of behavior, multiplied across many videos, together with the dog-piling he incites (despite protestations to the contrary, all you have to do is look at his twitter feed) acts as a signal jammer distorting other voices of reason and science.

    (His latest video is called, modestly, “why the Falcon 9 exploded,” saving SpaceX, Nasa, and their many launch and development partners the trouble to collect and analyze data: apparently it was the fault of the free market.)

    Thanks for the posts and the videos on Sixty Symbols,

    JCS

    PS: I’m not a fan of Hyperloop, as I believe we should create more flexibility and robustness in our infrastructure, but I’m weary of those who don the mantle of “science popularizer” and proceed to ignore the basics of rational thinking and technical knowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi JCS

      I think it would be easier to separate the researcher Phil Mason from the online pundit Thunderf00t if he himself didn’t insist on connecting them quite so often. He has referred to his educational and research achievements many times in his videos, and in fact his Patreon introduction video makes explicit the connection. The fact that he makes videos about his research, even to the point of thanking his Youtube audience in the acknowledgments sections of those papers, further blurs the distinction.

      In other words, I think he relies on his professional research to lend undue credibility and authority to claims which are far outside the reach of that research.

      For me this is what distinguishes him (and not in a good way) from other Youtube pundits such as The Amazing Atheist and Sargon of Akkad. Whilst their ideas might be equally absent of information and completely devoid of merit at least they don’t try to prop up those ideas with bogus appeal to credentials.

      Best wishes

      Fred

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  9. Dr. Moriarty,

    Thank you for your illuminating discussion on these crucial issues. If I could only know one thing about a person (either their biological sex or environment) in an effort to predict how much aptitude or interest they would have in physics, I would want to know their environment.

    However, there is a subtle but dangerous conflation being made in a lot of these discussions, including your own.

    This is the conflation between biological factors and immutability (and conversely between environmental influences and mutability) and it occurs in nearly all instances where you mention the word “immutable” in your post and you frequently use immutable as a synonym for biological factors (presumably genetic or early neurodevelopmental factors, since you use words like “hard-wired” or “innate”).

    There are many biological factors that are present at birth and can have devastating effects on a person, but where the effects are easily preventable by simple environmental interventions. For instance, the genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU) involves a deficiency in an enzyme that breaks down the amino acid phenylalanine, which can lead to severe neurodevelopmental disorders. It turns out that this can be almost entirely prevented by eliminating phenylalanine from the diet. So here we have a innate genetic disorder that you are born with, but it is hardly immutable. Today, newborns are screened for genetic variants associated with PKU.

    Conversely, there are many environmental factors that can have profound effects that are not easily changed after the fact. For instance, severe protein deficiency during pregnancy can impair brain development and these effects are not easily reversible later on in life.

    So just because something is heavily influenced by biological factors does not make it an immutable trait, and being caused by environment does not automatically make it mutable.

    Perhaps I am being too harsh here, but I am going to arrogantly assert that it really does not matter if the gender imbalance in, say, physics, is caused by predominantly biological factors, predominantly social factors or some combination thereof. It tells us very little to which degree that imbalance is mutable (because as we saw, whether something is mutable or not depends on what kind of factors are involved, not whether they are biological or environmental as such), and certainly tells us nothing about whether it is desirable to improve gender balance.

    I think it is desirable to improve gender balance and I want to eliminate all obstacles to the participation of women and girls in science and, for me, this does not change depending on whatever explanatory model turns out to be correct (although if I had to commit, I’d wager that environment is more important for a very specific issues such as this one).

    There is a related conflation being made here between heritability, the degree to which a trait is caused by genetics and causes of between-group differences (linking to the heritability study, talking about nature versus nurture and differences between men and women without any clear distinction). Although these three concepts seem the same, they are very different. The heritability for a trait can be very high, but the causes of between-group differences can be almost entirely environmental and vice versa.

    Heritability is also a population-level concept that only tells you about what fraction of phenotypic variance that can be explained by the genetic variance in a population in a given environment, not to what degree a certain trait is caused by genes or environment. The classic example is the number of fingers per hand (which is largely under the control of genes), yet the vast number of cases where you have something different than 5 fingers per hand is industrial accidents (although there is a rare genetic condition called polydactyly) and so the heritability would be close to zero, yet have a large genetic influence.

    Crucially, heritability estimates depend on what environment the individuals are in, how old they are and even what their biological sex is. Height, for instance, has a heritability of 0.8 in the west, but closer to 0.65 in China. This does not mean that genes are especially important in the west, merely that the variation in height is influenced more by the variation in other factors in China.

    So I would like to finish by asking two questions:

    1) Do you think the “biological does not mean immutable” and “the value of combating gender imbalance is independent of cause” argument is a productive response (intellectually or practically) to the claim that “gender imbalances are due to sexual dimorphism and therefore unproblematic”?

    2) There are surely plenty of ways to increase participation of girls and women in, say, physics that are explanation-neutral (one key example being the Youtube projects you are involved in). Do you think these and similar efforts would be acceptable to the, for a lack of a better name, “anti-SJW crowd” (I hate this terminology)?

    If yes, this would seem to undermine their entire convoluted talk about sexual dimorphism since there are many ways we can tackle gender imbalance whatever the causes are.

    If no, it would seem to portray these convolutions as irrelevant distractions to obfuscate the situation, almost as if their opposition to increasing the participation of girls and women laid elsewhere.

    What are your thoughts?

    References and further reading:

    Visscher, P. M., Hill, W. G., & Wray, N. R. (2008). Heritability in the genomics era – concepts and misconceptions. Nat Rev Genet, 9(4), 255-266.

    van Spronsen, F. J. (2010). Phenylketonuria: a 21st century perspective. Nat Rev Endocrinol, 6(9), 509-514.

    Jelenkovic, A., Sund, R., Hur, Y.-M., Yokoyama, Y., Hjelmborg, J. v. B., Möller, S., . . . Silventoinen, K. (2016). Genetic and environmental influences on height from infancy to early adulthood: An individual-based pooled analysis of 45 twin cohorts. Scientific Reports, 6, 28496.

    Lai, C-Q. (2014). How much of human height is genetic and how much is due to nutrition? Scientific American: The Sciences. Accessed: 2016-10-04.

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  10. I left this (nearly) exact comment on your YouTube video, but considering you have a blog, I figured it’d be easier to see here

    As for the whole sexual-dimorphism in science argument:

    While there have yet to be enough studies for my taste, the most compelling argument in my opinion (yes, my opinion) is that women are under-represented in STEM fields (with a few exceptions, such as biology, psychology, and medicine) because of the time commitment involved, and the type of personality required.

    In the most basic of terms, the hypothesis is that women on the whole prefer jobs or careers that allow them more free time or which allow more social contact; STEM fields, on the whole, are ones which require an extreme amount of time to even enter, and require just as much to perform in. The personality portion of this hypothesis suggests that men are more likely to have personalities which can handle, or even prefer, near isolation from society.

    The best I can give you (off the top of my head, at least; I’m not a social scientist) is this PEW report on social media usage: http://www.pewinternet.org/files/2014/01/Social_Networking_2013.pdf

    And this data from the United States Department of Labor:
    https://www.dol.gov/wb/factsheets/Qf-ESWM08.htm
    Particularly relevant, I think, are the sections on part time employment (the percentage of women who hold part-time positions from the total of working women is more than twice that of men) and the section on the most prevalent occupations held by women (unfortunately, they don’t seem to record this for men, which makes it a poor tool for easy comparison, but it can be used to suggest a trend in the type of careers that women tend to go into).
    [older data for comparison: http://www.bls.gov/mlr/1997/04/art2full.pdf ]

    While this could also be explained with social expectations of women (get married, have kids, raise kids, care for husband, etc) keeping some from having full-time careers, I think it’s foolish to suppose that it’s the only reason when women who hold full time, highly educated, and time eating careers are going into medicine and psychology more than physics and engineering. Medicine has been just as much of a male dominated profession as engineering or physics, yet more women go into medical fields than engineering or physics.

    For the personality bit, all I have is my anecdotal evidence from my engineering courses; the few women that I had classes with were all respected the same as the men (why I have trouble believing that ‘STEM programs are biased against women’, though my program was just one of many), they were all very intelligent, they were all very dedicated to their coursework (not to say that other women aren’t, but to say that these women got where they were on their own merit, not to fulfill a diversity requirement); none of them had typical ‘girly’ personalities.
    In fact, their personalities lined up very well with everyone else. Though I can’t quite think of a good way to explain that personality, I’m sure you’ve seen the difference in the mental approach to life and school between STEM students and liberal arts students. It’s not that the kind of personality seen in STEM occupants is better than others, but the fact that there seems to be such a difference suggests that certain people are more likely to prefer certain fields based on their personality, and the fact that certain personality traits are associated more with women or men suggests that there is some level of sexual-dimorphism in personality type. (Though it’s difficult to determine how much of one’s personality is biological and how much is learned, so there is still room for argument that these different personalities coincide more with one sex or the other as a result of learned behaviors.)

    I would really, really like to see a real study on this (if anyone reads this far and has one, I’d love to see it). All I have is my own opinion and some statistics at the moment, and we all know how easy it is to make statistics say whatever you want them to.

    Anyway, I’ve seen this hypothesis stated by others in the ‘anti-SJW community’ if you want to call us that, so I figured I’d put it out here. If you’re inclined to read it and entertain the thought for a bit, I think it’d help you to understand at least one of the opposing arguments.

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    1. Thanks for commenting.

      ” All I have is my own opinion and some statistics at the moment, and we all know how easy it is to make statistics say whatever you want them to.”

      And you’re entitled to your opinion! But the point of my spat with Philip Mason was that, as scientists (he’s a chemist, I’m a physicist), we know (or should know) not to make assertions in the absence of evidence. To be fair, you highlight this lack of evidence in your comment. But Mason, who should know much better, instead tried to use a ludicrous comparison with Olympic performance to back up his “expectations” re. the gender balance in physics.

      All the best,

      Philip

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  11. I’ve no interest in defending Thunderf00t; however, I do have an interest in defending ideas. I’ll still likely be dismissed as a fan-boy though as it is common amongst those in professorship to develop an inflated ego.

    If Thunderf00t did indeed say that the difference between male and female participation in physics was entirely due to sexual dimorphism, then I would agree with your criticism. In general though, an accusation of genetic determinism as you seem to be making in far more words is more often than not a red herring. Amongst those who make such claims as Thunderf00t, it is a far more consistent trend that sexual dimorphism is used as a contributing factor; not as the end all and be all.

    That being said, I think you’ll agree that turnabout is fair play; so then my demand is for you to present your evidence that the difference between male and female participation in physics is entirely due to sociological and environmental factors.
    The studies that you’ve presented already contradict this demand of course because of the misrepresentation of your views inherent to it.

    Now on to sexual dimorphism. It is well known that different behavioral patterns are exhibited by the male and female of the same species, and that this difference in behavioral patterns is often exacerbated by the existence of sexual dimorphism. Sexual dimorphism of course being physiological differences between the male and female of the same species. The angler fish is a great example of this in a more extreme form.
    If you are insisting that sexual dimorphism in humans plays absolutely no role whatsoever then I’d like to hear your reasoning for that.

    Finally I started with a criticism of your behavior and I will end with some criticisms of your behavior and reasoning. You’ve consistently used terms of ridicule against the people with whom you disagree, which I have no problem with, but if it is acceptable for you to engage in polemics, which is the equivalent of tolling, then It should be equally acceptable for others to use polemics against you. Also as far as some of your reasoning is concerned: the use of polemics/trolling is not antithetical to being logical or evidence based for you or for your opponents, and finally metadata and meta analysis does not automatically grant a more accurate picture. Combining multiple studies together to get a broad view of the situation can indeed be valuable, but if and only if the studies from which the meta data was constructed where carried out in as controlled and clear a manner as is possible because every error in each study can be magnified in the same way as every accuracy.

    (fair warning: engage in any polemics or intellectually dishonest behavior in response to this post and expect the same polemics to be thrown back at you.)

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    1. Point me to where I suggest, in anything I’ve written, that the gender balance in physics is purely due to sociological factors. A citation, a blog post, a link?

      I am not the person making the claim. I am adopting the only scientific position possible in the absence of evidence: I do not know.

      (fair warning: engage in any polemics or intellectually dishonest behavior in response to this post and expect the same polemics to be thrown back at you.)

      Why, thank you for the warning. What was it you said about inflated egos…?

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    2. Ryan,
      I’m responding to this as I am subscribed to this blog entry and this seemed an interesting comment to respond to.
      So the first thing, a minor quibble, is that your differentiation into behavioural differences and physiological differences with the latter category constituting those differences that class as dimorphisms I thought comes across a bit off. In fact, any behavioural difference which is innately founded would be a dinorphism in itself, not the result of a dimorphism.
      What I really wanted to add is that it seems to me that if, as an alien on another planet, homo sapiens were described to you, then a rational alien with a grasp of evolutionary biology would expect sexual dimorphisms purely on the basis of differentials in roles (gestation and lactation and everything else associated with pregnancy mainly).
      In other words, we approach the usual undisputed physiological differences (height, mass, bodyfat percentage etc etc) somewhat after the fact, because we know these differences exist before we get the chance to consider their likelihood. However, were I the aforementioned alien on another plante, even without knowing of these differences I would expect such differences to exist (not necessarily the nature of the differences but just …… differences). Why? Because the selection pressures on males and females is unavoidably different (due to unavoidable differences in role in the crucial business of reproduction) and where selection pressures are different the statistical nature of natural selection never misses the trick.
      So my suggestion is that we have a situation where the selection pressures on males and females are different and where different behaviours benefit men and women to different degrees as a result. Now I have to say i know of no reason in the biological sphere to preclude those pressures differentially expressing in behaviour in the same way as in crude physical characteristics. So different selection pressures and bags of evolutionary time …… surely it would be quite counterintuitive if there were no behavioural differences – in fact an absence of behavioural differences would require more explaining in an evolutionary context than the opposite.
      Not that this informs us to what those differences are (in terms of either preference or ability); how strong they are or how they vary across each gender but it does make me very suspicious of anyone who claims that our default position or expectation ought to be that men and women are indistinguishable in these areas…….. i just see less than no justification for that suggestion.
      I do agree with what I have heard Philip Moriarty say, however, that trying to tease apart some of these factors and separate the innate and heritable from the cultural is nigh impossible (especially given that the different way parents treat young boys and girls could have innate components) to pick apart. It is something I have thought long and hard about over the years but all of my ideas would very definitely have problems getting past the ethics boards 
      One interesting one I came up with btw. We know that common chimp and bonobo societies are very different and that if we knew how much of their culture is innate and how much of it is passed on through learned behaviours we could infer quite a bit about ourselves and the underpinnings of our own social setups.
      So how interesting would it be if we could swap bonobo and common chimp baby pairs at birth such that they end up bringing up the offspring of each others species. It would be very enlightening to see if the bonobos cultured by chinps adopted, a few generations later, the patriarchal society of common chimps or if they slipped back to typical bonobo social arrangements (and the same for the chimps). As I say, not ethical but an interesting idea.
      (Wrote this on my phone so apologies if it is garbled in places)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Noel

        You seem to appealing to the thing you have appealed to before when you have talked about “biological pre-dispositions”?? When you’ve done this before you’ve used the analogy of how your car as a tendency to steer to left (or was it right?). My question is have you sorted out this problem with your motor vehicle? I’m not looking to shop you to the Humberside police or anything its just that as a keen cyclist, like yourself, I have concerns for dangerous vehicles on the road.

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    3. I’m sure Phil Moriarty will respond to your post himself but I have to say that, since Mason is making the claim that differences in preference/aptitude for physics is, to whatever extent, down to biological factors (dimorphism) then it’s up to him to support that claim. As far as I know Moriarty hasn’t made a counter-claim so has no responsibility to support a contrary position.

      More generally, in relation to expectations about how a particular aptitude or behaviour is distributed across a population, I think there is usually a general assumption that, all things being equal, we would expect that distribution to be 50/50. For example, if we to ask about how many physicists were above or below average height we would probably start with the assumption that roughly equal numbers were in each group, half are probably above average and half below. If that wasn’t the case we would then begin to ask why.

      When it comes to gender differences in physics however this assumption isn’t made. Some people, including Mason apparently, observes the difference (80/20?) and assumes that this reflects a natural difference based in dimorphism rather than starting from assumed equality and then trying to account for differences.

      Regards

      Fred

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